[This was written for the 10 year aniversary of Gamer. Spent a long time chasing down an interview with Church. He's someone I've wanted to speak to for as long as I've been writing for Magazines. Interview was done down an enormously crackly line, and the tape wasn't quite its best. This was all I could salvage, but it's still pretty fucking good. Church is one of the people who should have a much larger profile in the minds of the Gaming public. In short, a fair chunk of the things which Spector gets credit for, originate with Church (And, to be fair to Warren, he goes entirely out of the way to tell people this). Posted due to the urging of Rossignol.]
Before Gamer even existed, you were there at the start of the whole first person thing. Ironically, it wasn’t a simple shooter — Ultima Underworlds was a huge and sophisticated thing. At all surprised that most first-person games took a different approach?.
“The thing about the FPS is that its core experience — the 30 seconds adrenaline rush — you can trap it into little chunks that you don’t have to give very much of yourself into. ”
Any particular thoughts on Underworld now?
“Although [the action] was at 2% fidelity, and the rendering at 1% fidelity, the characters and conversation were at 0.001% fidelity. The conversations are just horrible. They’re not about the player — they’re not player centric. They don’t really have any choice. Character interaction is where you most feel games are artificial at the moment. We’re shooting a guy with a gun in a FPS — there’s a limit to what he can say. We should be giving the player more control and more sense of investment and reality in the rest of the game in trying to do those other things. It’s frustrating.”
Of course, Shock avoided that entirely.
“Decision number 1: Delete our conversation system. We don’t like the fact our conversation system was less interactive and player driven, so we figured we’d guess rid of them. That’s the difference between Underworld and Shock. At the end, it was clear that Underworld was three separate games. It was a statistic game. It was an isolation exploration game. And it was a conversation-choice branching menu game. And the exploration game was by far the finest of those three — moving around in first person was the interesting part. We got rid of all the stats, and replaced them with the augmentations and the upgrades, which were all very discrete, as opposed to “Oh — my strength has gone up to seven”.
It also worked well increased the idea that the ship was a context which you were free to lose yourself and explore.
“If you look to Underworld to Shock to Thief, I think you can see a progression of taking out everything that kept you from diving into the world. That’s the reason why the CD version of Shock was so much better than the floppy disk version. We desperately tried to stop them releasing the floppy disk version, as – well — the whole reason we overlaid the automap, the whole full screen, the augmentations was because we wanted you to play it full screen, not to stop and read but be in the world all the time. With Thief it went even further. We really tried to narrow down the player’s ability, but within that narrow scope to give them complete control. I can see the progression that way. In a lot of ways, with Deus Ex and the stuff Warren’s doing, is the reverse of that. Okay — you guys took all that lot out. We’re going to go back to the Kitchen Sink approach and go for broad but shallow game as opposed to a deep and narrow game. Obviously, some day we hope to both make a both Broad but deep game.”
Shock is a game whose reputation has grown over the years. It gets referenced a lot more than many games from that period. Were you aware that it would have a degree of posterity?
“We kind of had the advantage of being in our own little space. We thought it was really cool. but I don’t think we realised it might have been referenced. The thing is, there weren’t many other people doing that style of game. I think we aware that it was cross-genre. We were so used to people talking about that, with lots of reviews saying that. It was kind of interesting: “I’m a role-playing person, and it had too much action”. “I’m an action person and it had too much role-playing”. We knew we were splitting genres but we didn’t really think it was going to catch on or anything.”
It really was the very beginning of 3D with little preconceptions. Was that a bonus?
“Totally. Absolutely. It was a pain in the ass in a lot of ways, but there’s something nice about not knowing what you’re doing. It’s frustrating and scary, but it’s easier to feel that way with a budget of a couple of hundred thousand dollars rather than the amount a lot more than that today. The industry then was a little less risk adverse, because things were a lot cheaper.” Paul Neurath was experienced, having done a couple of games, but the most of the rest of us were essentially a bunch of college kids who hadn’t been playing games since high-school. These days, you probably wouldn’t do that. Personally, when looking for projects, I’m looking for places where I can feel as if you’re on a frontier.”
Moving onto Thief, it didn’t actually start as the stealth game that was finally released. Care to talk about its original incarnation as Dark Camelot?
“Actually, it started as a communist zombie game, but that didn’t get very far past Marketing. Then it became Dark Camelot, which was our reverse Arthurian fiction where King Arthur was a bad guy, and Merlin was this time traveller from the future and you were Mordredd the black Knight trying to save the setting. And Guineverre was a cool butch dyke. But our Marketing department. well, not buying any of it. We wanted to do that storyline as we wanted to do something that was more high concept and arch and arty and all that — but I can understand why our Marketing department didn’t buy that. We wanted to make a story-driven game, but action-orientated — but the more we worked on it, the more the other ideas weren’t quite working out. It was a more organic approach than Underworld and Shock.”
Do you think that the games are actually influential?
“Well. on a straight forward level, it’s given as a point of reference more often than you’d expect given how long ago it actually was. But in terms of concrete connections, there’s more straight-up first-person shooter models — though Shooter FPS is a bit redundant — we’re still happily merrily running along. Which is totally understandable. Looking at games and talking to other developers, they’re still struggling with issues we were struggling with then. We don’t as an industry seem to move very far. It’s so weird. I hear words about the influence occasionally, but I don’t see a real drive towards doing that sort of thing. That’s reasonable, but it makes it harder to feel there’s a real influence.”
It’s something that tends to be namechecked rather than actually be a concrete influence, I think.
“It’s easier to say “Hey — that’s cool”. It’s harder to say “And here’s how . people, get going!”"
And where are games going next?
“Warren and I have this debate all the time. Whether it’s better to take the Deus Ex approach to very shallowly include a lot of possibilities, and hope that as years go by you’ll learn to increase those experience’s fidelity. Whereas I believe it’s better to start with a complete system, and then branching out adding more systems with more interactions. Our job should be less to give them a a little piece of the plot, and a lot more about whether the player has a lot more expression to control and whether they’ll remember what /they/ did rather than remembering what /we/ did.”
I still love the idea of communist zombies and a butch dyke Guennivere. Call me weak.