Renowned video game creator Sam Barlow shares his transformative journey from major AAA franchises like Ghost Rider and Silent Hill to emotionally engaging FMV games like Her Story, Immortality, and Telling Lies.
Renowned video game creator Sam Barlow shares his transformative journey from major AAA franchises like Ghost Rider and Silent Hill to emotionally engaging FMV games like Her Story, Immortality, and Telling Lies. Explore the challenges of game development, the art of interactive storytelling, and his perspective on AI's potential impact on the gaming industry. Unveil the secrets behind his unique approach to character-driven narratives and his mission to blend traditional gaming with cinematic experiences in his upcoming projects.
So today you are primarily known for games like Her Story, Immortality and Telling Lies but in the past you also worked on major franchises like Ghost Rider, Silent Hill and even Serious Sam. What is the biggest difference in game development between well-known franchises like you worked on before and titles like Her Story?
I guess ideally it shouldn't be that different. The biggest difference for me was procedure really. Like when I went indie to make Her Story I had come off three years working on Legacy of Kain which is a very big project that was cancelled and it was like a very painful project as a lot of those bigger games were at the time. Very inefficient in that we were still coming up with the story at the same time people were building combat and animations and someone else was doing levels and then they're coming up with puzzle mechanics and you have to try and as you're making it up like have it all come together.
And with Her Story, well there was one exception which was Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Because there was some contractual thing it took longer to start that project and so there was a period I had I think six months that was really just me designing the game on paper. So I had an amount of time to actually like carefully think it through, oh these mechanics will work, this is how the story is going to work, which even though it was six months, you know, that's quite a luxury compared to a lot of these bigger games.
So when I did Her Story, because I was in charge and it was just me, I was like I'm going to make sure we have that thinking time and I kept that with all the games. So like Immortality I showed in my talk, it was like a year and a half of thinking time, then six months of production, and six months of back end. I was always jealous of well at least the ideal version of like filmmaking where the writer or writers can have this freedom when it's not that expensive to really get the idea on paper right and a screenplay is essentially not just the words, it's the design for the whole movie and they have to think it through. They're not just coming up with cool ideas, they're like, well how, is this scene going to play out. They're being practical, is this going to be expensive to have this location?
So it's a very carefully thought out design for this very expensive thing and we don't really have that in games and so what I've tried to do, and obviously the fact that these things are live action makes it a bit easier, but try to have this thing of like spending the time to carefully think things through, make it make sense on paper. We build prototypes that are very cheap really, where we'll play text versions of the game with everything in it. So I was playing a text version of Her Story or a text version of Immortality that was the plan for the whole game to get a sense for is this going to work, and usually those are tests that you can't necessarily show other people. You can't just get gamers and be like „Is this any good?“, so you have to kind of look forward.
For me really, the big difference has been able to spend the time on the ideas, because if you have a big publisher, they want to see something pretty, and they want to keep seeing cool stuff. And the last thing you can say to them is I want to spend a year thinking about the story. And they're like what will we see on Milestone 1, 2 and 3, and you're like well I will be thinking, and maybe I'll write a document for you or something. So that's the biggest thing I think.
And then just indie versus AAA, there is obviously the risk and how that plays out. When you're pitching a AAA game that maybe takes 3 or 5 years to make, the publisher can only have confidence if there's something else that's already been successful that looks something like this thing. So you'll say „I'm making a game that's like Uncharted“ – „Well okay, we've seen Uncharted, we get that that's successful. So you can build something that's like Uncharted, but you have to have a little bit of difference.“ So there will be some tweak to it, and then it takes you 3 or 5 years to make this game.
So things change very slowly, because if it's taking years and you're looking backwards every time, and you're also dealing with technology, it's very risk averse. I always joked after Her Story, publishers were coming in saying „Oh, can we publish your next thing?“ And I was like there's no way you would have signed Her Story if I pitched you that idea.
And why did you embark on the indie path?
I was working on this Legacy of Kain game that got cancelled, and it was at a point in time where mobile gaming was blowing up so all the publishers were losing their shit, because they were like Candy Crush is making billions of dollars and it's this little game, why would we spend 50 million dollars to make a single-player story game that maybe will double its money. Suddenly it was such a weird moment because like with my career when I made Shattered Memories, it was around the time Bioshock had come out, and it felt like everyone was like „Oh yeah, let's see more of these, not serious, but grown up narratives, prestige games, single player rich narrative games.“ It was like yeah, that's what I want to keep making.
And then very quickly, the fact that they were getting so expensive, the fact that mobile was happening, that was the same time I think PS4 was about to come out, and the publishers were really scared that no one was going to buy the new consoles, they were very expensive. So suddenly the publishers became very scared of making these single player narrative games. So I kind of looked around and I was like „Oh shit, either I'm working at Naughty Dog, or maybe with David Cage, like there's going to be five of these games a year that actually gets to take anything seriously. And at the same time I was seeing some really cool stuff in the indie space, and the challenge for me was can I still make something cool if I don't have millions of dollars of mocap and all these things?
But I remember playing Simago's Year Walk, it was like this really cool game, and I felt like that was the best version of that game. Two guys made it, and it didn't feel like „Oh, if only they'd had ten million dollars this would be better.“ And because with narrative for me it's all about characters, and often that means performance. So you had games like Gone Home, and I think Chinese Room were doing Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. These were all games that started with the premise: If we can't afford characters, how do we tell a story? So then it was like, well, there's an empty house, where is everybody? There's an empty village, where is everybody? And it was like there's only so many times you can tell that story.
But yeah, it was like okay, I really want to do something interesting, I'll give myself a year to try, I was very excited. The mobile thing was bad for us in terms of the free to play, but in terms of the size of that market, the fact that the interface was touch screen changed a lot. It expanded kinds of genres people were used to play. So that felt like a really interesting opportunity to make something slightly unconventional.
What inspired you to create a game based on video footage?
So that definitely wasn't the plan. The only plan I had initially was I had pitched publishers police games, detective games a lot of times. And I would always said look, if you look at movies, TV, books, these things are always huge. There's always a cop show, a detective show, thriller. And publishers would always be like yeah but games are different, it doesn't work in games. And you know there was L.A. Noire, Phoenix Wright is probably the best version. So I was like, okay well, if I'm going to do something indie, I will do the thing I can't do for the publishers, so I'll go prove that I'm right, that people will like this kind of game.
And when I started thinking about it, very quickly I became obsessed with the idea of the interview, the interrogation. Because in all my favorite shows, movies, that was the coolest bit. There was a TV show in America called Homicide: Life on the Street, my favorite show growing up. And the best bit of that show would be when the detective gets in the room and that's when all the interesting psychological stuff happens. So I was like why don't I make a game that's about police interviews. I'm limiting the scope, so that's good for indie. There are no car chases, none of that. And it's about human interaction, which is a thing games still struggle with, so that's interesting. And then I gave myself the freedom to just immerse myself.
So I did so much research, like I got access to all the training manuals for homicide detectives, read all the academic texts I discovered, and this was before true crime had this big explosion with things like Serial or Making a Murderer. I got transcripts of real interviews from cases, but then I started to discover all this video footage of real police interrogations, whether it had been released for trials or what have you. So I was watching all this footage, and then I was also watching movies that were about police interrogations or interesting stuff. One of those movies was Basic Instinct, which has the very famous interrogation scene. And on the DVD it had the casting tapes where Paul Verhoeven was trying to convince the producers that Sharon Stone should star, and they were like she's not famous.
So he filmed Sharon Stone, and it was this footage that was just a camcorder on a tripod, no lighting or anything, it was just Sharon Stone sitting there. Paul Verhoeven was reading the police lines off camera in his kind of broken English, with strong Dutch accent. And I watched these casting tapes and I was like „Wow, this is so much sexier and more intense!“ And around that time when I was growing up, if something happened you would have a reporter with a proper film camera would go and film it. And now if something happens, the first thing you see is cell phone video. So watching that Basic Instinct stuff I was like wow, the fact that this is raw real video is so much more intense and intimate.
So that kind of sunk in, and so there was a moment where I went for a walk or something and suddenly my brain was like, why don't I just make a game where the content is all video of the police interrogation. And then I was like well hang on a minute, I still get to work with actors, I don't need a film crew, this footage doesn't need a film crew to get this aesthetic, it's pretty different.
At that time discoverability was all about what does your App Store icon look like, what does your Steam thumbnail or whatever look like, and I had this inkling that, it was like the cliche that App Store icons, it was always an angry man's face. It was like a cartoon, angry man, and everyone copied that. And I was like „Oh, if my thumbnail or aesthetic is a real person, that's going to cut through“. Because normally it's like pixel art or it's some CGI thing, or it's typography. If I just have a real person, that's going to at least, when people are scrolling through all these stores, make them stop. And that proved to be the case.
But yeah, so it came from that and very quickly, I was like yeah, this is a recall idea, I like this idea. And it was only just before I released Her Story, I showed it at one show in England, and a journalist came up to me and said „Why have you made an FMV game?“ And I was like oh, fuck yeah, I hadn't thought of that. So then I had to run away and research and remind myself of that whole history of FMV games.
What kind of challenges did you face designing Her Story and your other FMV games?
I remember on Her Story specifically, when I was trying to figure out what the idea was early on, and I had the rough idea, and immediately I thought well I'm going to need a big flow chart to figure out how people discover things, design it all right, which was traditionally how you would design a narrative on a video game. But then I did a prototype where I used a real life series of interviews, plugged it into my computer and was trying to play it. And I realized that having it be unscripted, having it be completely free, was really exciting as a player. And it felt like I'd never seen that before, that kind of freedom. And it felt fresh and interesting. So I was like fuck, I should try and do this. But that was a very unconventional way to design a game. No scripting, no planning, I'm just going to figure that out and commit to that, that definitely felt like oh okay, this is the big risk I'm taking here.
And then over the three games, I've kind of played with and figured out like how do you balance that. And then the challenge is always, so far it's worked, knowing that I'm going to go and shoot all this footage and I'm never going to have the budget to reshoot it. And you can't usually test the game until you've got the footage because it's very hard for people to see it without the footage. Like figuring out ways to make sure it's going to work as a game, that it's balanced, that the mysteries will unravel or what have you, before I go and spend all the money on the shoot. And you know, that's the technique I've been evolving or figuring out like algorithmic tests that will see how connected things are, playing these text prototypes as a way of guarding against that. You know, that's the fun stuff.
Her Story and Immortality received praise for their powerful and emotionally engaging storytelling. So how did you approach creating this kind of compelling narrative that resonated with players?
Well, I think for me it's this deep spending time on the research. I always say to other writers like, and it's really hard now as well because we have the internet and it feels like, oh, I can sit and Google something and I've researched it. But spending the time to just read books, through Immortality, we interviewed people who were working in film at the time, I would read their stories, I would read multiple biographies of individuals. And when you do that much research, you find these little details that are very authentic and you find stuff that is very truthful and it allows you to build up things that have sort of an authenticity to them.
But I kind of always have the north star of a project - what's the theme? Everything should address that theme. But also there's usually a very specific emotion that guides everything. Like what do I want people to feel? And it's not a broad emotion like I want you to feel scared or sad or happy. It's like in the case of Telling Lies, it was how does it feel to be in a relationship that has gone sour but you're remembering the happy times. That's a weird aspect of being human because you have these happy memories that you were happy when that happened. You now realize that wasn't the person you thought they were or whatever. That's a very complicated emotion. It's like okay, let's try and hone in on touching that.
And I think the benefit of these games is there is a huge part of the experience that is on the shoulders of the player. A theory in Her Story was if I take things out, so give more of the narrative to your imagination, that should make it more involving. So there's so much, even with something like Immortality where there's a lot of content, so much of the story is not on screen and you're putting the pieces together. So when people make the story in their own heads, their attachment to it is so much greater. It becomes that much more intimate and real to them. So I think that's always been kind of key.
And the next game we're doing is going to be very different and will be like a third-person character game, but we're still bringing that lesson of when I was working in more AAA stuff, the assumption was always the thing that's unique about video games is you can see everything. You can turn the camera around. If I'm in GTA, I can walk across the entire city. So this thing in movies where you're cutting and you're only seeing certain angles, we're going to show everything. And if the player's controlling the character, we want them to understand everything about this character that they're playing. And my idea in Her Story was actually that's bad for storytelling.
So if I take things away and I show you less, but I still give you all this freedom and control, then you'll have a much more intimate portrait of the character. So I think that is giving a lot of responsibility for the storytelling to the player. It helps.
The performance of actresses and actors in your games was widely acclaimed. How did you collaborate with the actors to bring the story to life and what qualities were you looking for when you were casting your characters?
The cool thing is, because these games are so complicated, by the time you bring the actors in, we've spent a lot of time thinking about stuff. Usually you have to have all the backstories and all the motivations and all the complexity to the characters, which for actors is very exciting. And they come in, and so usually I will pick actors that have that level of thought about their characters. Actors that want to really research their roles, think about it, talk to me at length about the character and what's going on. Those kinds of actors I usually get along well with.
So then we'll bring them on board, I'll share all this huge amount of information with them, and they'll be like, this is great, I can only get this, right? And then once they are as involved as I am, usually I then try and give them as much freedom as possible. And the stuff we're doing, usually there are very big constraints. In Telling Lies, you have to say the words on the page. You can't ad-lib because that's the gameplay. In Immortality, we have to shoot these shots from these moments, and we can't really change that. Within the shot, we'll spend a lot of time blocking a scene out, letting the actors figure out how they want to approach it, so that they can bring all those layers.
And it's so integral to these games where, like I say, key plot events in all of my games are not happening on screen. They're happening between scenes, or they're being revealed, and so much of that is communicated through just like in Immortality. They'll be cut, and then you'll just see a change in the eyes of the character, and you'll realize there's something else going on, or you'll see them look off-camera, or just the way they're dealing with another actor. So you need to give the actors that freedom to give that depth to the character. But yeah, I've been lucky. It kind of self-selects in that these things are usually such hard work, and because they're games, they're not as sexy to the agents, I should say, as a big movie or a big HBO or Netflix show or whatever.
Immortality premiered at Tribeca Festival. Do you believe that thanks to events like this and festivals like this, games will receive more significant recognition, even from the audience that's not identified as gamers?
Yeah, I mean, it's interesting because I guess it's a generational thing. So obviously my kids' generation, the majority of them play games. Not necessarily games like Immortality. So it'll take a while for that to spread to all the media, but especially Tribeca, Jane Rosenthal, who runs Tribeca with De Niro, is very invested in games and the creativity behind games. I love shows where they include the games alongside the other stuff.
So it's saying, yeah, you could watch a movie, watch a TV show, or go play a game. There's no hierarchy there. That's definitely useful. I mean, yeah, the challenge we always had, especially with actors, was if an actor goes and does a play, does some theater, they aren't expecting to make lots of money from it, but it makes them look good as an actor. People acknowledge that there's something very elevated about doing theater. If they go and do a game, that doesn't count, right? So the agent's always like, well, is it going to make them money?
Someone was saying the other day at the New York Times, which is obviously like old media, so it's probably mostly read by older people, but the New York Times has more pages dedicated to opera than it does games. And if you think about actually how many people are watching opera right now versus how many people are playing games, there is still that kind of snobbishness around gaming culture. But, yeah, definitely, Tribeca does a really good job. I love the thing they do. They'll get a filmmaker and a game maker on stage to talk. So they had like Sam Lake with Doug Liman. And that was really fun because you immediately see the synergy, and you see that everyone's kind of doing a similar thing, but from a different angle.
What kind of storytelling experience do you hope to explore in your future projects?
So, without revealing too much, with the next project we are returning to a third-person character-based game. Her Story, Telling Lies and Immortality are essentially archival games. You have this huge freedom as a player, interesting expressivity in terms of it's very personal how you approach the game, what you see and think of it. Trying to take that and apply it to a game in which you're controlling a character moving them around, that’s the big challenge we're setting for. It's gonna be interesting to essentially merge some of the stuff I was doing in Silent Hill with the stuff I was doing in Immortality. I'm gonna miss live action, hair's free, you can change costumes easily, you have all these advantages.
How do you expect the AI technology will influence your work in the future?
I mean I would love for it to just be very boring. I think when you hear people say oh the AI is gonna write the game or anything that sounds like the holodeck, I think it is slightly bullshit. If you think of the holodeck, it's not actually an exciting experience if you're just creating some narrative that is building itself around you and it's so free. For me, there isn’t a narrative experience, there isn't somebody else communicating to me in the same way. It's just kind of a toy. So that it doesn't sound that exciting to me. I always want whether it's a movie, a book, a game, I want to feel like I'm seeing somebody's communicating with me.
But I would love all the boring stuff that AI can do, like making the motion capture cheaper, making cleanup and face solving cheaper, helping texture artists create tileable rock like. Just all the little things where actually machine learning will help us very quickly do things more efficiently, I'm down for all that. Anything where it's replacing a human artist or a human writer or a programmer, it just doesn't seem that useful to me because I know that humans are actually relatively cheap, like there are enough books in the world right now, there are too many books, there's too many people writing so we don't need computers to start writing bad books for us. There are enough amazing artists creating art, the issue is selling that art right. There's so many interesting indie games out there, and not all of them reach an audience.
So we already have too much stuff, so we don't need AI creating more stuff. But if the AI can help us make our stuff quicker and cheaper then I'm all for that. I have friends that have been doing procedural storytelling for decades, doing interesting things with artificial characters that have knowledge so they can be more interestingly reactive or can generate text and dialogue through some sort of system that still has that control and authorship. And it's weird that all that work has kind of overnight been wiped out almost because now it was like this deep learning text stuff can create things that sound human but it doesn't have the knowledge model. Like this idea that you would have NPCs controlled by ChatGPT. ChatGPT doesn't know anything. It doesn't track world state, it can't plug into game mechanics. So it's it's just kind of noise.
There's a game I recommend to everyone by Inkle, who did 80 days. They did a game called Heaven's Vault which is intensely procedural and authored. I think when people played it they didn't realize how clever it was being. They were too subtle. But that game builds the story around your actions, is very reactive, you go here and the story will change and in a really beautiful way, like it feels very expressive and empowering as a player to have all this freedom. But the story that results is this interestingly authored story that makes sense, and it feels like those systems are very powerful and I really hope that the distraction of the language learning models doesn't take us away from those those practical solutions. Because I think the story content always has to tie in to the game mechanics and the world model and know about what it's talking about. Like the Nvidia NPC they showed. it's very boring thing that they showed. That's just a normal quest NPC, right?
But if you were talking to that NPC and you're like „Oh my mission is I need to break into the bank“, and you could start talking to that guy and then spitballing bullshit, he'd be like „Well, I know the bank managers wife.“ Like if you seduce the bank manager’s wife, she could get you the the keys to the bank. But the game doesn't have a wife, and the game doesn't have the ability to seduce someone. Instantly you get away from mechanics, so that I find some of that stuff quite unconvincing. But yeah, that's my take.