In the genre known colloquially as Diablo Clones, Titan Quest holds a special place for me, although oddly not so much for the game that was released, but more for what happened behind the scenes. Something that suggests we're trying to be God. So, since it's Sunday, why don't we see if we can find a berserk route to a teleological interpretation of videogames, via remembering a visit to Iron Lore during the game's development?
This is not to say I haven't enjoyed spending every spare second of the last week hacking and slashing my way through ancient history, collecting ludicrous amounts of loot, slaughtering thousands of creatures whose only crime was being on my path.
What a developer needs to get right in this seemingly simple style of game is subtle, and for the most part Titan Quest understands the nuance. It's about the comforting routine of repetition, an endless sense of progression without barriers. You hack through the field to the cave to the bridge to the next town. Sell your loot, exchange completed quests for fresh, and repeat.
In fact, if anything the format gets more simplified with each generation. Titan Quest, at four years old, has no easy way for getting rid of a full inventory mid-quest. Last year's Torchlight lets your pet go do that. In Titan Quest you have to go to all the effort of laying down a portal stone and teleporting back to the previous town. What am I? Their slave?
The process is so simple that it's soothing. I alternate between my left and right click attacks, occasionally firing off another special skill from the number keys, and I ceaselessly win. I level up, I find a better helmet or club, I gather gold and potions, I defeat armies. Should I die it's likely because I ran out of health drinks mid-battle rather than because the odds were insurmountable. It's so calm, so soothing, that I find I'm able to multitask around it. Put a TV programme on the other monitor and both can be enjoyed simultaneously.
Five years ago, a year before Titan Quest was released, I went to Boston to visit developers Iron Lore. The game was still very much in little pieces, scattered around the office, being meticulously stitched together by a fantastic team. Boss Brian Sullivan had created his studio by handpicking developers and designers he found interesting, a combination of old hands and - interestingly - a selection of young former Nintendo game developers.
Amongst the veterans was artist and animator Rich Sullivan (no relation), formerly of Looking Glass, who had a corner of the office unlike any other I've seen, combining technologies covering tens of thousands of years of techniques from state-of-the-art tablets to the crude tools of sculpture. Having spent some time working in animation he told me that he'd been forced to learn the more modern methods, but would always insist on beginning his character design in clay. Extraordinary sculptures surrounded him, from pristine Roman helmets to grotesque, distorted, monstrous faces.
I commented on the small, stop-motion-style figurines stood about his monitor, and asked if Ray Harryhausen was a big influence. He looked at me with both tired joy and relief, opining that these young people he was working with had never even heard of Harryhausen, let alone seen his films. He would, during lunch breaks, force them to sit and watch Jason And The Argonauts or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Educate them.
There was passion in this team.
One of those passions was to be developing a community. And central to this was the level editor.
I'm not a modder, and I don't have any significant experience with level editors, so forgive my ignorance on the matter. But watching a Titan Quest level be created was something of a revelation. The editor was built so that you could paint levels into existence, which enormously appealed to me. Frightening wireframe boxes have never let me get past a corridor in most editors, but here the guy was waving his wand on the tablet and it was appearing before him.
He began with a black void, into which appeared a mass of rock, soon covered by his painting in the sea. Once it was covered in water, he then picked out a tool to allow the formation of land, which was risen from the waters, shaped and crafted into an island. Then he dressed that island in grass textures, trees, rocks. This was then brought more to life with animals on the ground and fish creatures in the water. Finally he added a player character. And it was good.
It was Creation. The order of this level coming into existence matched that of many creation myths from many religions, not least the Genesis account of the creation of the world in seven periods. For years we've used the expression "God Game" to describe a genre of management sims, but this was the true God Game. It was being a creator god to a land in which you would then play.
Ontological ludology fnarr
André Bazin, the father of film theory, argued in his 1945 essay - The Ontology of the Photographic Image - that with the advent of the camera painting took on two distinct roles: "the expression of spiritual reality wherein the symbol transcended its model," and "the duplication of the world outside." In going on to argue that the camera is a more pure means of capturing the surface of the world - a desire he attributes to our innate human need to capture the creation of a God in whose image we are made - he states that, as Peter Matthews of the BFI puts it, "the act of photographing the world testifies to the miracle of God's creation."
It's my contention that videogame level editors are at once a forward and backward step in this same process.
The camera, Bazin argues, freed painting from its previous obsessive need for realism and allowed it to become more abstract, more interpretive. With film we get that much closer to documenting reality, and with each evolution of film that Bazin lived to see - colour film, sound, 3D - we took a step nearer.
Surely videogames are on the same journey, that constant desperation to improve graphics, to increase fidelity, such that we can think we're watching live football with a casual glance at the latest FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer. They are yet another human attempt to capture the world. But, I hesitantly suggest, perhaps they're more. Perhaps they're our desire to create our own worlds, to emulate the role of a creator.
Of course games obfuscate Bazin's theories. They attempt to capture reality, while simultaneously attempting to be paintings. But my bare knowledge of film theory and ontology means I'm already so far out my depth my hat is floating loose on the surface of this subject. All I know for sure is: I saw this Titan Quest developer creating with the level editor, and wondered if he rested on the seventh day.
Taking a fall
I've had a go with the level editor that comes bundled with the game (although hidden away in the sub directories), and I'm rubbish at it. I'm clearly a far better player than creator. But there's one more tenuously teleological nature of such things I want to throw out there.
Pressing play is the Fall. When you create a level in a level editor, it's perfect. It's pristine, untouched. It's a bountiful land filled with potential. And sure, I may have packed it with satyr soldiers and archer skellingtons, but right now their murderous intents have not come into being. They merely rock on their feet, a looping animation routine, as peaceful as the swaying tree or circling gull.
Were I to load the level up at this point they'd remain equally placid. It's not until I put a player character into the scene and press play that the perfection descends into murder and violence.
And of course until I add a player and press play, it's intensely boring and completely meaningless. Its existence is only meaningful when it's interpreted by a conscious mind. I'm just saying.
So, that's my retrospective of Titan Quest. I mean, I probably should have written about how excellent it is that the spell animations scale up as you level up, meaning there's a really rewarding aesthetic feedback as you progress, that takes away from the fact that since the enemies level up as quickly as you do, that progression is essentially non-existent. And said about how funny it is to walk off while someone's talking to you, and hear their sentence fade out as if they've just noticed they're talking to themselves.
I'll also add that if you're going to play it - and I strongly suggest you do, as it's fab - get the Immortal Throne expansion with it, since it improves the original game dramatically with many useful additions and extra collectables.
But for me, it will always be about that odd moment in that studio, watching the level creation, and thinking: blimey, he's playing God.