GamesBeat

Developers team up with scientists to help make ‘smarter’ games (interview)

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Jensen

If you’ve ever magically combined herb plants into pills in Resident Evil 6 or wondered how Max Payne could survive shoving a ton of painkillers down his throat, then you realize that video games aren’t known for their sound representation of science. But for most of them, that’s fine! Like books, movies, and TV shows, they require some suspension of disbelief.

But those that do base their fictions off of real-world research could use some improvement. That’s where the group of scientists working at Thwacke come in. In addition to posting articles that explore topics like nanotechnology in Metal Gear Solid or genetic modification in BioShock, its staff provides consultation for developers looking to incorporate science into their games.

Among its handful of clients is InXile Entertainment, who hired Thwacke to help “shape the science fiction” of Wasteland 2, the sequel to the beloved 1988 post-apocalyptic role-playing game (which later inspired another end-of-the-world RPG, Fallout).

“I find it’s just great to have another set of really smart eyes looking at everything we do,” said Brian Fargo, the chief executive of InXile and one of the co-creators of the original Wasteland, in a phone call with GamesBeat. “So for me, it goes beyond their science background on things … . They’ve really been great [at] throwing out all sorts of ideas. And all of my writers have used pieces of what they’ve thrown out. It really has helped make the product better.”

GamesBeat reached out to Thwacke co-founder Sebastian Alvarado, a Ph.D candidate in pharmacology at the Montreal-based McGill University, to find out just what the firm can contribute to the development process.

Wasteland 2 in-progress screen

GamesBeat: What’s the founding story behind Thwacke? Was it because of something you and your colleagues noticed was lacking in the video game industry?

Sebastian Alvarado: I was midway into graduate studies at McGill and had the opportunity to visit the studio of a developer here in Montreal. As I walked through their studio, I saw a member of their team Wikipedia-ing “DNA.” Having dedicated my career to studying DNA, I realized that the knowledge that we take for granted in academia could be very useful for the entertainment business. To me, that incident emphasized the huge gap between legitimate research and public knowledge.

I decided that something had to be done, and it had to be done by highly qualified and creative scientists who played video games.

GamesBeat: What role can Thwacke’s consulting play in game development? Do you work specifically with writers and designers? Is it better if you’re involved in the process early on?

Alvarado: Although we can provide input at almost any stage of development, we mostly work early on the conception of a project with writers and with designers. We work with writers to craft plausible narrative — world building — and with designers to align a scientific concept with a design mechanic.

We do this with an extensive network of academics covering every discipline. For example, in Wasteland 2 we were asked which animals that would survive a nuclear fallout and why. In this case we found specialists in environmental biology, medicine, and evolutionary biology to craft science into ideas that can be used in game design. This saves researching time for writers and allows them to focus on gameplay. This out-of-the-box approach has been able to spark new directions for narrative and gameplay that wouldn’t have otherwise been explored.

In later stages of development, we usually work on easy-to-implement text-based assets. In Wasteland 2, we will be doing this for a side mission that involves pages in a wastelander’s logbook. This information is optional but adds depth to narrative and immersion for those willing to read it.

Mass Effect 3 Wii U version

GamesBeat: How does Thwacke’s consulting process work?

Alvarado: We offer ideas that add depth to narrative and design. For narrative, it can be anything from speculating the science behind a flight to Mars to the epidemiology behind a zombie apocalypse — we back this up with established facts and scientific literature. For design, we bring in specialists in psychology and neuroscience to present research that may be applicable to the vision and focus of a project.

For example, since moral choices are particularly important for Wasteland 2, we have been introducing the writers to studies that explore how morality is programmed and manipulated in humans. It is ultimately up to the writers and designers to incorporate these ideas into their game.

GamesBeat: What are some “bad” examples or misrepresentation of science in video games? Do you think these examples pose some sort of danger for the audience since they’re not given an accurate portrayal of these scientific concepts?

Alvarado: It’s not so much of a danger as it is a factor that can make the game dull and forgettable. While I don’t explicitly pick on developers who don’t incorporate science into their games, I can say that those who do stand apart from all the rest. This is not just due to the science but also in their execution in delivering a deep experience through their product.

Furthermore, gamers are smart, and they can easily spot plot holes in science fiction. We do our best to pick out oversights in scripts and edit them to create a more cohesive in-game experience. Doing this early in development saves face, time, and money in the long run.

Bioshock: J.S. Steinman

GamesBeat: What are some good examples of well-researched science in games? What’s the benefit of improving this number across the industry? Do you think the gaming audience would even notice?

Alvarado: Deus Ex [Human Revolution] and Mass Effect did their homework. BioShock also gets points for crafting an interesting balance between stem cells and molecular biology. When you polish an aspect like science, you end up polishing the logic behind the narrative and create an authentic experience.

From our blog reposts on [gaming blog] Kotaku, I’d say there is an audience for this approach. I’ve followed my share of conversations that argue whether one alien can beat the other in Mass Effect solely based off of their evolved traits from their fictional planetary history. Not to mention one of the top TV shows out there is about “nerds” — Big Bang Theory.

GamesBeat: How do you strike that balance between realism and fantasy and being scientifically accurate or plausible without inundating the player with minute details?

Alvarado: While some may think we are out to achieve “realism” in gaming fiction, we are actually out to help shape plausibility and logic of a fictional world.

Wasteland 2 - Desert Rangers artAlso, I believe that in order to communicate good science, you don’t need to bother a player with details. Our consultants are expected to be able to communicate their theses to an eight-year-old within five minutes  — should an eight-year-old be interested. In that capacity, they offer insight that helps render a game more logical through science. We talk about the details if asked to elaborate on a concept or if we are specifically being asked to throw in technical jargon for creative effect.

GamesBeat: In your blog post on scientific black boxes, you mention that it benefits both developers and scientists to find a “middle ground” that they can agree on. Could you elaborate on those benefits?

Alvarado: For every cop-out where a developer decides to say, “He’s so special, it’s in the DNA,” there are at least a hundred more interesting ideas out there. I can guarantee you that these ideas are better simply because they are different. Furthermore, if you base them off of trending news and big scientific discoveries, you are not only building on public interest but you may end up teaching gamers a thing or two. Who wouldn’t want to play a game that makes you feel smarter?

GamesBeat: And if you can talk about it at all: Why was Thwacke brought in for the development of Wasteland 2?

Alvarado: We got in touch with Chris Keenan, a producer at inXile, and he suggested our involvement. We were brought in to innovate on the science fiction that surrounds the wasteland. We expect that by doing so, we can set this sequel apart from other iterations of the post-apocalyptic genre.