Looking for Canada in Games

Montreal, Video Games

SWERY at the Owl's Nest bar in Osaka

“Originally, Deadly Premonition was supposed to take place in Canada. However, when I brought the idea to game producers, they told me the story should take place in America, as it is the country that generates the most sales.” – Hidetaka Suehiro (aka SWERY)

Today marks 150 years since several British colonies in North America united to form a new dominion under the British Crown. Confederation may be fascinating1 to Canadian history nerds like myself, but it’s not exactly summertime blockbuster material. Our separation from the mother country was a lot like Canada itself: peaceful and amiable, but perhaps lacking panache.

Four years ago, Canada’s video game industry surpassed the UK to became the third largest in the world. Some of the best-selling and most acclaimed games are made out of studios in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Edmonton. However, this fact would be easy to miss; video games are rarely permitted to be distinctly Canadian. Canada is where media is made, but hardly ever where it’s set (see “Vancouver Never Plays Itself”).

To that end, I thought I’d take this sesquicentennial opportunity to celebrate the handful of games that are proudly and unambiguously set in Canada. This list is definitely cursory and incomplete2, so if you spot any conspicuous omissions let me know in the comments below.

Bare Minimum

Wikipedia’s list of “video games set in Canada” is dominated by sports games. For instance, there are apparently twenty-seven Formula One games that feature the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. NHL, NBA, MLB, PGA, and FIFA games painstakingly render Canadian players, teams, and arenas.

With no disrespect to sports games, I subjectively consider these titles a bare minimum in terms of portraying Canada; that’s just where the teams happen to be. If the sport moved elsewhere, so would the game franchise.

Honourable Mentions

These games are mostly set outside of Canada, but merit an honourable mention for having some level or segment that is distinctly Canadian.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution splits its focus between Detroit and Shanghai, but the developers at Eidos Montreal snuck in one brief section in their home city. The mission features a great skyline flyover with an oversized Olympic Stadium.

Similarly, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is principally set in the 18th century Caribbean, but the present-day metafiction takes place at the headquarters of “Abstergo Entertainment” in Montreal (inspired by Ubisoft’s own office!)

Mass Effect 3 doesn’t spend much time on Earth, but it opens with an escape from Vancouver as the Reapers begin their invasion. Art director Derek Watts notes that they specifically chose a Canadian city (over Hong Kong or Rio) to acknowledge Bioware’s Canadian roots.

Sly 2: Band of Thieves has a heist set in Canada. Players take part in the Lumberjack Games run by Jean Bison (literally a bison), and seek to collect energy from the Northern Lights.

Like the show, South Park: The Stick of Truth portrays Canada in its idiosyncratic flappy-headed style. The game has the Prince of Canada send players on a cross-country quest to meet the Earl of Winnipeg, the Minister of Montreal, and the Bishop of Banff.

Finally, while it takes place entirely in Europe, Valiant Hearts: The Great War depicts a significant event in Canadian history. The Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917) marks the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participated in a combined offensive.

Set in Canada

This category highlights games that are nominally set in Canada, but otherwise aren’t particularly Canadian. For instance, the Dreamcast survival horror game D2 takes place in “the Canadian wilderness”, but that mostly serves the purpose of being an archetypal winter environment. In fact, the setting was allegedly inspired by director Kenji Eno’s visit to snowy New Zealand.

Vancouver hosted the Olympic Winter Games in 2010, which resulted in two officially licensed games by Sega: Vancouver 2010 and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games. I imagine they have a lot in common with the licensed Olympic games set in other countries.

While rather divergent in terms of theme, the games Until Dawn and Nancy Drew: The White Wolf of Icicle Creek are both set in winter lodges in the mountains of Alberta. The former also features the wendigo, which is a monster from Algonquian folklore.

Distinctly Canadian

The Yukon Trail is a 1994 educational game set during the Klondike Gold Rush. While it’s told from an American perspective (the player starts out in Seattle), the game portrays an important era in northern Canada’s history. On their journey, the player will even encounter Sam Steele, the legendary officer of the North-West Mounted Police.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game is a beat ’em up based on the bestselling comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Like the comic, the game is distinctively set in Toronto, with levels featuring landmarks such as the CN Tower, Casa Loma, and TTC Streetcars.

Set in a rural 19th century village, the action-strategy game Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves features monsters from French-Canadian mythology. Studio founder Yan Pepin wanted to “create a game inspired by the old Quebec folktales he had grown up with”.

Fort McMoney is a NFB documentary and strategy game about the Athabasca oil sands. The episodic web game allows players to virtually tour Fort McMurray, interview real residents, and make decisions about how their virtual city should develop.

Assassin’s Creed Rogue’s protagonist fights with the British Americans (i.e. the Templars) against New France (i.e. the Assassins) during the Seven Years’ War3. Players can sail the open world of the North Atlantic, visiting settlements in Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland.

The Long Dark is a survival game set in the Canadian wilderness. Players are confronted with the real-life dangers of hunger and exposure, and must explore and scavenge to survive. Creative director Raphael van Lierop says that he was inspired by the natural surroundings of his home on Vancouver Island, and that he seeks “to make games that have a Canadian angle to them”.

Kona is an interactive murder-mystery set in northern Canada in the 1970’s. It’s an unapologetically Québécois game; while the audio and subtitles are localized, the in-game text textures are all in French. It also features an original soundtrack by Quebec folk band CuréLabel.

Happy birthday to my former home and native land. My sincere wish is that, for your bicentennial, the number of games set in Canada will be so large that it will impossible to list them all in a single short essay. 🇨🇦

1. While not directly about Confederation, I recommend Pierre Berton’s “The National Dream”.
2. The lack of games by and for indigenous peoples is a particularly glaring omission on my part.
3. Americans call it the “French and Indian War” but that’s a silly name.

Header image of the Owl’s Nest bar in Osaka excerpted from toco toco ep.24

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Montreal International Game Summit 2016

Montreal, Video Games

Uncharted 4 AI Debug

On November 15th, I’ll be speaking about combat design and AI in Uncharted 4 at the Montreal International Game Summit. My talk explores how we navigated the extremes of combat design philosophy (tightly authored vs fully systems-driven) throughout Uncharted 4‘s development, and how we found our best results with a hybrid approach.

Ahead of my talk, I did a short interview with Brendan Sinclair at GamesIndustry. We discussed a number of topics related to AI design, including why our early attempt at a simple point-to-point search behaviour failed:

“In another instance, they used some pathfinding AI from The Last of Us to get enemies from point A to point B. Gallant said it was soon clear that the AI worked especially well in The Last of Us because the game’s tight, complex environments ensured that the enemies would traverse environments in mostly human ways, using aisles and doorways, walking around desks and other obstacles in the layout. But in Uncharted 4‘s larger, more open layouts, moving from point A to point B usually meant travelling in a perfectly straight line, which wasn’t terribly interesting.”

“The solution was to run paths throughout the layout that AI would move along, trails that would have them reasonably making their way throughout the level, perhaps clearing out corners or other places the player could be hiding on the way to their destination.”

Attending MIGS this year is also a nice homecoming for me. Not only was I born and raised in Montreal, I was actually a student volunteer at MIGS way back in 2009. It’s a real honour to be able to come back as a speaker seven years later.

You can catch my talk at 3:45 PM in room 519A on Tuesday November 15th. If you’re attending MIGS, I hope you’ll swing by to say hello!

Disclosure: As a speaker, MIGS is covering my flight & accommodation during the conference.

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Montreal International Game Summit 2009

Montreal, Video Games

Montreal International Game Summit / Sommet international du jeu de Montréal

This week I attended the Montreal International Game Summit, a professional conference for game developers. Since that is not my profession (yet), I managed to get a free pass as a student volunteer. This was a compelling arrangement, even if it meant I didn’t always have my choice of presentations (I particularly regret missing Brenda Brathwaite.) Fortunately, the talks I did attend were also terrific, so I thought I might share some of what I learned.

Jason Graves – The Music of Dead Space

Did you notice the music in Dead Space? Neither did I, yet it’s an absolutely fundamental element of the horror genre. Composer Jason Graves explained the unique challenges involved in creating “the scariest game ever”. He explained how a soundtrack with consistent themes and progressions makes the player feel safe and strong, so an effective horror soundtrack has to be dissonant and arrhythmic. His compositions were partly inspired by the surreal techniques of Modernist composers, including odd directives that are difficult to express using standard music notation (ex: play this scale as quickly as you can.)

In a fascinating intersection of music and programming, each track in Dead Space has four dynamic layers of intensity. The chosen layers depend partly on the player’s distance from objects in the environment labelled as “fear emitters”. These objects are usually monsters, but can also include hallways, corners, bodies, etc. The music slowly crescendos as the player approaches these objects, a subtle and interactive method of inducing dread.

Nathan Vella – Indie in 2D

Capybara Games is an independent game studio that assembled from members of the Toronto IGDA. Their premier game is Critter Crunch for the PS3 and iPhone, an awesome throwback to the era of “hardcore puzzle games” (think Yoshi’s Cookie) with gorgeous art and animations.

Co-founder Nathan Vella talked about finding the right people for a video game startup; real partners who share your creative vision. He explained how nearly everyone Capybara hired had been introduced through friends and acquaintances. The hiring process for a small company should be casual and instinctual: hang out, have a conversation, look for shared passions.

He also emphasized the importance of a shared aesthetic goal. He revealed the piece of concept art that served as the vision for Critter Crunch, and showed how little the final game diverged from it. Every team member kept that concept piece on their desk, ensuring that everyone pulled in the same direction.

Randy Smith – How To Make Games That Aren’t Fun

Randy Smith is a game industry veteran. Formerly a game designer at Looking Glass studios, he recently co-founded the indie studio Tiger Style Games and released the excellent arachnid simulator Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor for the iPhone.

In his presentation, he explored the question: do games need to be fun? This is ostensibly the metric by which video games are judged. However, in other media there is plenty of room for work that is engaging and worthwhile without being “fun” (ex: the film Schindler’s List).

Randy noted that many games have dark themes (death, murder, loss, anger) but treat them in a very light manner. They neglect to explore the consequences and ramifications of actions and events. As Penny Arcade recently demonstrated, Nathan Drake kills hundreds of minions without concern or guilt. While such games are entertaining, the scarcity of games that address the human condition in a serious way is emblematic of the immaturity of our medium.

While he didn’t have an easy answer for how to address these issues, he proposed a thought experiment “not fun” game called Hospital Director. He suggested giving the player choices with no right answer: should a busy hospital send an overworked doctor home or risk her making a mistake? He also put forward some ideas about creating emotional connections and leveraging interactivity.

Marc LeBlanc – Mechanics, Dynamics & Aesthetics

I’ve written about my own take on the MDA framework, but at MIGS I had an opportunity to meet one of its co-creators. At the end of his presentation, I took the chance to ask him two burning questions I had since reading his paper:

Do you feel MDA is compatible with Scott McCloud’s six layers of art? If so, how do they intersect?

Prefacing his response with the fact that he had read Understanding Comics a long time ago, he replied that to him the six layers of art purely described games at the Aesthetics level. In that sense, he asserted that McCloud’s layers are actually orthogonal to MDA. He was also sceptical of McCloud’s system where artists “accumulate experience and level up” to gain access to the esoteric aspects of art.

According to MDA, the Aesthetic level only includes emotional responses in the player that were intended by the designer. Why make that distinction?

Marc replied that MDA is intended as more of a design tool than a criticism paradigm. Thus, an unintended unpleasant aesthetic response should really be considered a flaw and therefore be fixed in the design phase. He conceded that there was room for emergent aesthetic responses, and that designers should pay close attention to such player behaviour.

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Gamma 3D

Montreal, Video Games

Gamma 3D

This Wednesday I attended Gamma 3D, a game design event being thrown by Kokoromi and connected to the Montreal International Game Summit. There is serious indie talent at these events; last year’s Gamma 256 featured the much-discussed Passage among others. The theme of this year’s competition was 3D stereoscopy, explained thusly by the organizers:

“It’s very typical of games right now to toss [3D stereoscopy] in as some back-of-the-box bullet point,” says Kokoromi co-founder Heather Kelley. “We wanted to throw it out there as an actual design challenge, and not treat it as some buzzword.”

Adds co-founder Phil Fish, “Right now, Ubisoft is working on a 3D stereoscopic game, and we’re seeing it more in TV and film. So we asked the question: is it worthwhile? Is there anything you can really do with it?”

I had a chance to check out this year’s exhibit with a badass pair of 3D goggles in hand, and was thoroughly impressed and the quality and creativity of the games being exhibited. Here are some of my personal favourites:

Note: these games are all available for free download at the Gamma 3D site.

super HYPERCUBE

super HYPERCUBE – Kokoromi/Polytron

Super Hypercube was programmed by my friend Renaud (who writes the excellent blog The Instruction Limit.) The game is an exercise in 3rd grade geometry, challenging you to rotate a randomly generated cube cluster so that it fits through a hole in the wall. I thought the game was a great twist on Tetris block rotation, and it evoked a similar skillset. While Renaud himself was quick to admit that the game could be played without 3D goggles*, the addition of stereoscopy certainly helped by improving the perception of depth. I was also very impressed at the level of visual polish. You can’t tell from the screenshot, but the multiplier indicator is projected from the object you’re manipulating (an idea I’m told was inspired by the holographic menus in Dead Space.) You can read more about the game over at Renaud’s blog.

*In other words: the goggles do nothing!

Paper Moon

Paper Moon – Infinite Ammo & Adam Saltsman

Paper Moon is a gorgeous platformer that will doubtlessly (and perhaps unfairly) draw comparisons to Braid. Objects in the foreground and background can be toggled by the player to create platforms, open doors and defeat enemies. The stereoscopy isn’t tacked on; it’s impossible to tell the depth of objects in the game without 3D goggles. While I didn’t notice any particularly interesting puzzles using this mechanic, I think the concept has a lot of potential and I hope the Infinite Ammo gang continue to explore it. It was also casually mentioned to me that the character artwork was created using cardboard cutouts, a process I’d certainly like to hear more about.

The Depths To Which I Sink

The Depths To Which I Sink – Jim McGinley

I’ll admit: at first I couldn’t tell if this was a game or a screensaver. On closer inspection, I would describe the game as fl0w set in a world of polygons. I didn’t actually get my hands on the game so I’m fuzzy on the exact mechanics, but the gist is this: the player-controlled worm can move in the third dimension and can only break the square panes at the same depth. If you’re not convinced you’ll have to see the game in action, it’s much prettier with a pair of 3D goggles.

Many thanks to Kokoromi for putting on such a terrific event, they’re doing more work than most to promote “games as art.” I look forward to next year’s competition and, if I get my act together, I may even try to submit something myself.

I’ve put up my photos from the event on Flickr, and be sure to check out my friend brilli.am’s write up of the event as well.

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Montreal Girl Geek Dinners

Montreal, Programming

This evening I was graciously invited by a friend to attend the 3rd Montreal Girl Geek Dinner. Boy geeks such as myself were welcome as the guest of a girl geek. The goal of the event is described as follows:

Girl Geek DinnersMontreal Girl Geek Dinners are an offshoot of the London Girl Geek Dinners, started by Sarah Blow. The goal of these get-togethers is to make technology accessible and interesting to all age groups and all people, particularly women.

These monthly events are aimed at providing a welcoming atmosphere and a platform for learning in an informal environment. They are always held in pubs, bars or restos and there is usually a speaker (or several) who talk for a short while on a chosen subject for the evening.

The event lasted 3-4 hours, a large part of which was spent eating and networking. I had a chance to speak with the organizer Tanya McGinnity as well as Peter Yang, a designer at Ubisoft Montreal. The attendees came from many different backgrounds; some were programmers and web designers, others were just self-described geeks. In the spirit of making these events accessible, the speakers avoid getting too technical.

This evening’s talk by Aleece Germano was about self-employment. Ms. Germano encouraged us to adopt the mindset that everyone, even nine-to-fivers, are really self-employed. She spoke of her own experience as a consultant, how to develop professional relationships with clients, and how to protect yourself legally and financially in these situations.

Though I have no personal interest in being self-employed, a lot of what she said was just good general career advice. The other Girl Geek Dinner topics chosen so far sounded great too. Last month Angela Byron did a talk on Open Source development, and Heather Kelley of Kokoromi spoke in December.

These dinners are a fantastic initiative, and if one is being hosted in your area I strongly urge you to check it out. Kudos to the organizers, great job.

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