peter moorhead

peter moorhead

I'm Peter Moorhead. I'm a 20-year-old game developer currently living in London. I guess I've been making games in some limited capacity as a hobby since I was 14 or 15, and I released my first commercial game last year, now, with Curve Digital publishing, which is a game called Stranded that came out on Steam for Mac, Linux, and PC that was a kind of point-and-click exploration thing. It was sort of a reaction to the games that I grew up playing. I'm currently studying games at the University of Arts here in London and continuing with more projects in a similar vein to Stranded with my free time, but also getting into smaller stuff and mixed media and transmedia projects and some kind of secret stuff that I'm not putting my own name on and some stuff that links into the real world a little bit with QR codes and just putting stickers places for people to find stuff and then look it up online. Yeah. That's me. [Laughs.]

I'm someone who has taught in some of these programs. But they didn't exist when I was your age, really. What attracted you to go to school to study this, and were there other things you had considered instead?

Yeah. Well, I've been self-taught up to this point in terms of any kind of design and programming and stuff that I've done. I try to read as much as I can, but a lot of what I know in terms of coding and technical stuff is self-taught. I'm not a fantastic self-teacher, so I thought it'd be more efficient to go to a school kind of environment where it was very structured and regimented and where I knew I wasn't learning any bad habits in terms of coding. And also because the university is more of an arts college rather than a classical university, so it's good to be in a space where there's more mature artforms, as I would view them. There's a lot of graphic design and photography and filmmaking and music production and stuff that's good to draw on. It's great to be in a creative space and feel like you're being creatively enriched. Not least of all because I personally don't feel like I'm getting a whole lot of that from games, so --

How do you mean?

I don't know. I think there's a nuance and a variety, and also more of a degree of individuality and relatability in other artforms that games kind of haven't really caught onto yet that in things like films or music or graphic design you get a better sense of the artist as a person and a lot of it is telling real stories. A lot of the stuff that I've been seeing recently at my university in their galleries and viewing spaces is around conflict situations and stuff around the world, and it's them presenting what are real stories of people in dangerous environments and countries. It just has a weight to it and a feeling of realness that games don't really do yet in my opinion. Even my own stuff, it's something that I want to get better and explore more, the idea of telling real stories in games that are not just "space marine shooting alien" or "guy with magic sword running through fields and fighting dragons." You know, stuff that has a bit more connection to the real world and a bit more weight to it, somehow.

You mentioned "relatability." Relatability between what two parties, as it comes to games?

I guess I'd put the things into two categories of relatability or escapism. That there's some art that exists to remove you from the real world and put you in some fantasy scenario, and that's fine, but it also seems to be more or less the only thing we do in games. Whereas relatability would be more about games like Gone Home, I guess, or people like Zoe Quinn and Christos Reid are trying to make that are about getting you to identify and empathize with somebody else and their experience. I think that's where games have a lot of growing to do, because that's such a new thing. There was such an uproar over Depression Quest, but that wouldn't be a challenging or difficult concept in another medium. It was just because that idea -- real, personal, vulnerable stories is such a new and weird thing to people.

I feel like this is a phrase I've heard a lot from people in the last month and a half, which is: "that's fine, but."

[Laughs.] Yeah. I feel like there's sometimes a bit of throwing of the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with what games are right now. I think there's a lot to be admired in mainstream games in terms of the way they're designed and the presentation and the drama and energy of it. But I also think games should be doing more -- I really think mainstream games exist in film's shadow culturally and artistically to a large extent and I think there's more to be done outside of that that we're not really doing. This whole other area and all of these other concepts that games could be exploring which we're not really that interested in yet for whatever reason.

How do you see games as being in Hollywood's shadow?

I think so much of the drive just seems to be behind games that are "cinematic." It's a word that's thrown around a lot: "a cinematic experience." Or whatever, with the new *Call of Duty *or the new Battlefield or the new Mass Effect or whatever, and I think that's fine, but --

[Laughs.] You just said it again.

I know. But I also think it's a really flawed goal for your art to be a purely homage, or maybe not even that, but just an imitation of a medium that I think is actually more mature. Because the thing that films have had that games haven't really, and why there is so much more variety in film is because they've had a lot longer to grow. And also the fact that film wasn't interconnected in the same way in that with world history, the way a lot of film communities were divided so that these distinct movements, like German Expressionism and Italian  neorealism came out of the fact that creators were separated from each other geographically. The fact that there wasn't the Internet for everything to permeate all at once, that stuff was able to grow in isolation and become its own thing, and so film has grown a lot because of that, because of these other subgenres and subcategories that grew. Games haven't really had that yet because everything's been so interconnected from the start. They're trying to emulate film to a large extent, but without understanding a lot of film's journey, I think. I get the impression that a lot of games designers and creative directors kind of really wish they were just filmmakers but probably wouldn't be great at it.

Why not?

I think it because it is so derivative. I just don't see a lot of - I see games borrowing from Hollywood to a very large extent, but I never really see anything that feels fresh or new come out of that space. Whenever you play a Call of Duty or a Battlefield or whatever, there's nothing really wrong with that -- it's a little bit hard to describe, but you always kinda get the sense that, if you're quite familiar with those films, that you can almost see what the film was that the guy who designed that game watched before he wrote the story.

In the early- to mid-noughties Hollywood made a shift from these kind of romantic, dark, historic war films to stuff like The Hurt Locker and *Lions for Lambs *and -- yeah, and games like *Call of Duty *made a shift into the *Modern Warfare *type stuff at exactly the same time. I'm trying to think of recent action films. There was the one with the guy from The Bourne Supremacy. Matt Damon. Green Zone. Yeah. Going back, I think Modern Warfare 1 had a section that was pretty much lifted from The Rock? I don't know. There’s this sort of desire to imitate action films that are themselves pretty derivative stylistically. I think there's kind of an immaturity to it. It’s also weird and bad, in both games and films I mean -- it normalizes this awful military culture that actually we should be appalled by and not kind of weirdly enthralled by.

I think also, if you look historically at -- I don't know. How many videogames have been turned into movies? Four? Five? We can include those Final Fantasy CGI things --

Yeah. There have been quite a few smaller animated spin offs and stuff, but in terms of bigger budget stuff it's probably like five or six movies. Yeah.

There's the Mario Brothers one. Wasn't there a Postal --

Yeah. Mortal Kombat.

Blood Rayne. Yeah! Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter --

Lara Croft.

Doom. That's right. There was a Tomb Raider movie.

Yeah. The Silent Hill ones are actually -- they don't totally suck.

[Laughs.] That's high praise.

Just mostly. [Laughs.] Yeah.

Okay, so maybe we got to like seven or eight, not counting sequels. And there was a second Mortal Kombat, too. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.

And there's been a fucking million Resident Evil films that are all horrible as well. Increasingly so. [Laughs.]

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I'm just curious if this points to either -- it's probably both. It's probably a combination of the fact that games aren't really telling stories, which is a pet theory of mine, but also the fact what you said. History is littered with people from Hollywood trying to work with or in games. Like, do you remember LMNO, for example?

Um...

It may be a little bit before your time, but it never came out. It was canceled. It was Steven Spielberg working with EA. There are plenty of examples of people from Hollywood trying to come and make games. It just hasn't really worked out. Do you think that's because games don't really tell stories or is it that the games industry is just immature and difficult to work with as you said? Talking about why movies about games are typically so shitty or why they never really work out.

I think fundamentally it's like a real misunderstanding of what games are and what makes games work and what is most special about games.

By who? By Hollywood?

By Hollywood. By a lot of game designers and creators. By quite a lot of gamers and people who consume games. I think it's weird that whenever we have a medium that fundamentally seems to be founded on interactive storytelling as a concept, it's odd that so much about mainstream games seem to be about wrestling control from the player and making them as uninvolved in the story as possible. That the game is trying very hard to be a film but has a token amount of player agency or involvement. You feel like a very minor character in the story.

[Laughs.] That you're supposed to be the center of?

Yeah. Because you have a certain amount of agency in any given instance: Shoot six guys to progress to the next bit of story. But really the story isn't yours. You're kind of just ticking boxes to just progress it.

It feels very much like those -- if you remember the, I don't know if they still exist, but it's been a long since I've looked at the special features on a DVD or a Blu-Ray. But those terrible semi-interactive DVD mini games you would get with, like, Disney films where it would play a clip of the film and then say, "Use your DVD remote to pick the correct option as quickly as possible." And then you'd see a little bit more of the film. I guess it was a game but you really didn't -- I mean, you weren't involved to a large extent in any of the decision-making or the direction of where it was going. I feel a lot of the time a lot of mainstream games are an elaborate version of that. There is a lot of noise and fuss going on, but really you as the player are just kind of sitting and watching. I think that does come out of a misplaced desire from a lot of game creators that they really wish they were making films on some level, and so what they have is this awkward middle ground that is like a film that you are given a fairly minor involvement in the progression of. I guess that's what I think.

I think what we're talking about in general is the attempted injection of narrative into -- we're not just talking about first-person shooters or action games here, right?

No, no.

People will point to some games, like the Bioshock games as this amazing step forward for storytelling in games. And I don't know whether the bar is just low that someone will be excited that someone is just trying, or if people legitimately think, "That's a great story."

Yeah, it's a thing I think about as well. You really get the impression that a lot of games that are given insane praise for the quality of writing and story actually would get very little praise at all if they had been books or films instead with the same story. Weirdly I actually think a lot of game stories that actually have a lot more depth and nuance to them are kind of overlooked. Like I think The Chinese Room, for example, do an amazing job of writing in everything they produce. Especially in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, that was a game that was very unfairly criticized given that it --

Oh, I heard good things about that.

I did too. It also got a lot of hate as well for not -- I guess that's a whole other subject. There are a lot of people who expected it to be Amnesia 1.1, and that's fine, but that's sort of a stupid thing to ask for. If you wanted to play Amnesia, the first game is already out. You're welcome to replay it. If you wanted the same exact same game, then I don't really understand that. It did a lot of new things and I was more excited about that. And it has an amazing story, like an incredibly kind of -- Kentucky Route Zero. It has a -- like, you can tell that the creators have read a lot of books, which is not an impression you get from a lot of game stories. A lot of the time you feel as though the creators of the game probably have only watched a lot of films and haven't done a lot of reading. Yeah. Yeah.

There's room for everything. But I think what most people can agree upon is that their favorite parts of videogames were never the cutscenes. And yet there's this attempt to elevate that part where you're not playing and they will jab their elbow into your ribs and say, "It's just like a movie!"

[Laughs.] Yeah.

It's like, I can just watch a movie. You know what's just like a movie? A movie is just like a movie. So why are we being told that is something we want?

I, yeah. I guess that is my question as well. I think it produces a very strange, unhealthy culture in games that we value a lot of things that I think are very odd things to value. And it creates a culture where you get games like Ride to Hell: Retribution and, like, I forgot about it until a couple of days ago, but that awful-looking game Hatred that -- there's just nothing good to say about it really. [Laughs.]

I never watched the trailer for that. But I definitely heard about it.

It's worth checking out. It shocked me less than I expected it to just because I'm quite desensitized to games being very violent and for shock value. It kind of reminds me -- it's the equivalent of some very-young 13, 14-year-old teenager trying to grow a pathetic attempt at a mustache to try to seem mature. That's how I see it in my head.

That's how I describe Grand Theft Auto.

Whenever a game is, like, incredibly violent and visceral just to get attention. But really it falls kind of flat. But it's worth looking at -- I mean, there's really nothing good to say about it.  At best it's a very, very derivative top-down shooter, of which we have had any number of top-down shooters that played incredibly similarly to one another. Mechanically. They can basically be the same game with a different set of sprites or graphics on top. At best it's that. At worst it's actually quite a scary piece because it's conforming to all of the worst stereotypes about games and about the Fox News bullshit about what games are and "if your husband or daughter plays this game, they will go out and murder for real." That's not true, but if somebody whose only experience with games was the trailer for that game, they could be forgiven for coming to those sorts of insane conclusions.

What are really simple things you feel like aren't being explored in games in any entry of the spectrum?

At all or just to a very low degree?

I would say both because if it's very low it's probably not getting noticed.

It's kind of an increasing thing, but games that are -- like I said, quite relatable and quite personal. So things like Gone Home I actually thought was a good example. I thought it was -- I guess it's not the best written love story I've ever seen. That's fine. That really goes without saying, but I think it was admirable in that it really tried to explore something quite pedestrian, which is weird for games. Something very day-to-day and you would think not massively noteworthy in that it was literally someone's teenage love story. But I think it felt fresh and enjoyable because it was something real and something almost everyone can relate to. I think there needs to be more of that in games. Just exploring day-to-day pedestrian-type stories.

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Cara Ellison shared a game Cooking, for Lovers a little while ago that I thought was kind of a really interesting direct interpretation of that in games. It was a game about your character making pot noodle in his apartment and that was the whole game. You boiled a kettle and you pour it into the little pot noodle thing and let the noodles cook and then you eat it. It was just this weird little thing, but I thought it was great because it was something I never expected to see as a game at all. But I'm really glad it exists.

I guess that's really just it. I just think there's this variety that we're not exploring in terms of games that try to do subtler things and try to tell smaller stories. Rather than your game story or message being "one man defeats all of the evil aliens in the entire universe, the end, and all of this unbelievably tedious shit happens in the middle," your game story could actually be something like somebody dealing with the loss of a loved one or somebody remembering something about their childhood or just little, subtler, more nuanced stories that are more relatable and more interesting because we haven't been exploring them. I think that's really the main thing that I want to see and that I increasingly want to explore in my own work because it's something that I've not been doing and I think that's a failing on my part, also, to try to tell these overly dramatic, overly cinematic stories. I'm trying to move away from that in my stuff as well because I think it's a flawed goal.

What role do you feel the games media plays in encouraging or discouraging this type of tinkering you're talking about?

Well, I think unfortunately the very prominent games media doesn't play any role at all. They mostly exist to serve as marketing for whatever is produced, either by their own admission or kind of accidentally. But there is kind of a growing, yes, counterculture as we were talking about in games that actually do offer more of a commentary on stuff. I think there's some of that. I'm seeing some of that kind of stuff with -- I think Cara Ellison's Embed With articles are fantastic just in terms of talking about individual creators and how their experiences relate to what they make. I think Kill Screen actually does an interesting job on that sometimes. I think they cover a little bit more slightly underground or often overlooked stuff and talk about it in greater detail. I think the games media is doing some things to encourage that but probably could be doing more. But I guess it's, to a large extent, dictated by where the money is. But they have to get ad revenue as well and not every reader is going to want to hear about -- as I was describing before, a game about making instant noodles versus reading about Bloodborne or *Dragon Age: Inquisition *or whatever. Not everybody's gonna want to read those articles. So I guess some of it is cultural and some of it is born out of necessity. But I think more could be done, yeah.

Well, but this is sort of something else you wanted to talk about: Why does the mainstream want what it wants? Not that you can answer that, but you had talked about Ride to Hell in your email and said it was an incredibly bad game -- I don't want to put words in your mouth here.

[Laughs.] I doubt there are many people who would challenge me on that.

[Laughs.] But you said there were "too many people who were too quick to overlook the fact that it seemingly ticked all the boxes. It was a game consisting entirely of convention and nothing else." Which I feel like I haven't heard people articulate about games, in general.

Yeah. I think it's very easy for the games press -- as everybody did -- to poke that game for being as aggressively bad as it was. But we are all, to some extent, complicit in creating a games culture wherein a bunch of probably quite talented people sat down and wrote up a design document for Ride to Hell: Retribution and said, "Yes. This is what people want." Because you can forgive them to coming to that conclusion, because it does -- I actually think had that been better presented and less buggy and more polished, I actually think it would've been moderately successful because it does a lot of things that are kind of back-of-the-box features that we seem to really value for some reason. That it had a quicktime combat system, and it had combat on vehicles, and it had a semi-open world, and I think it had some kind of an upgrade system, and I think it had a story with a semi-bearded, gruff, white protagonist who is kind of quite misogynistic and overly aggressive and doesn't have much personality beyond that. Those are quite prominent features of games that do incredibly well, both critically and financially, so I think it's too often overlooked that *Ride to Hell: Retribution *is a weird, kind of scary reflection of the direction that AAA games are going. That we seem to value all of those things very highly.

I don't know if we value them. I think we are seen to value them, and that is why it is being offered to us.

Yeah. It sounds really patronizing to say, but I guess there is a sense that gamers don't really know what they want because they have been being served similar things since the inception of games commercially. That's the thing that bugs me whenever we're being sold -- and I hate to pick on first-person shooters, but it is the thing, I guess, that that genre's most guilty of. The trailer-speak of "innovative new first-person shooter with unbelievable features and gameplay" and then you play it and actually you realize that in every aspect other than graphical fidelity, it probably could have existed 15 years ago. That mechanically it's not doing anything new or experimenting very much or taking advantage of the new technology for anything other than visuals.

It's why I don't really play action games much anymore because I'm sick to death of feeling like I'm playing the same action game I played 10 years ago in a different skin. But I think you're right, yeah, that there is a miscommunication. People are  being told that this is what they want, and the developers are being told this is what people want, but I actually think there's not much dialog going on in that sense. I think if we really asked people, there would be a greater variety of stuff.

Well, to play devil's advocate. It isn't just people who play games. I would honestly say that all audiences don't know what they want. What they actually want is to be surprised and to be given something they didn't know they wanted.

Yeah. That's very true.

It's not just games. But I do think the damage that is done by so many people saying "that's fine, but" so much is we are complacent in allowing so much narrowness to exist. There's a lot of tolerance for what's out there but what you don't see as much of is the tolerance for the things that are not out there.

Yeah. I think that's very true. I think Gamergate, to at least some extent, was a reflection of that. Of people being afraid or angry about new stuff.

[Laughs.] But here's the thing, which is the game at the center of it wasn't that revolutionary or anything super-new. I think that gets lost in the mix. And it's not a diss to her and that game or what happened to it, but, you know. That game has been out for a while.

I think it was a bit of a straw man, but yeah. I think there -- I actually quite like that game and I think there are some interesting things about it and it's quite a brave game because it's admirably blunt in what it's saying.

I think it's a good, strong simulator.

Yeah. It is exactly what it is and it kind of doesn't dress it up and I think that's good. But, yeah. I think a lot of gamers got angry about the idea that they really felt that they knew what games are and the idea that anybody who was challenging that -- they took it as a direct attack on their characters. They liked to think that games were really their thing and the idea that anybody else was going to take them off in a different direction was scary or threatening to them. I don't participate enough in other artistic cultures like music or film or literature to know if that's something unique to games, but I guess something we should work to try to improve is celebrating new and experimental and risky stuff because that's where so much of where our learning and games getting better comes from. As you were pointing out, [there is] a disproportionate amount of innovation expected to come from these smaller teams, and then these are features that are then later picked up by bigger developers.

So, for example, you could think of the fact that Minecraft took off as -- nobody expected it to be as incredibly popular as it was because it seemed like a fairly simple concept in writing, I guess. But it just turned out to be incredibly successful because that concept works well. Now you have Epic Games making -- I forget the name of the thing that is quite Minecraft-esque, although presented very differently. Fortnite I think it's called?

But that these independent games are supposed to be more experimental, or just different type of stuff. A lot of creators you see creating stuff because they want to make it, not because they know whether or not it will actually sell well. Then those features get picked up by bigger studios. Yeah, I think there needs to be more celebration of that risk-taking and people challenging and putting their own spin on what games could be or should be rather than so much negativity around it. Which I guess is your own feeling, partly, based on --

Yeah. I want to ask you two more questions to try to end on an uppish note here. This is another theory that a friend articulated to me, and I think he's absolutely right: I think everyone in games is afraid of the audience.

Yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah. That's very aptly put.

I think it's super-true and also super-bad.

I think I'm definitely in agreement there.

What makes you more hopeful for games? You're someone who's getting your degree in it, and you have some beliefs about them, and I'm sure you plan to put them into practice. what makes you hopeful for them as a medium?

I think against the odds we are pushing in a more positive direction. I think there has been more innovation and more risk-taking. Not everywhere but within certain circles and some celebration of that over the last couple of years. I think there are games that have been made that have received -- well, not necessarily about how much recognition or success they've received. There are games that've been made in the last couple of years that I cannot imagine having been made at any other time in games history just because of -- I guess it's something Anna Anthropy  and people talk about, as well, the way tools have become more accessible and the way games are created has been devolved and it's easier for individuals to just pick it up as a hobby. I mean, that's something that is continuing to have a real positive effect and I think that will only continue. I think there are enough people doing really good work at the minute that games will kind of gradually heal themselves and turn into a more mature, healthy kind of industry. Although I don't know how long that will take. I guess we will just see.

Probably longer than we'd like.

Yeah. I think that's fair to say.

This will make me sound really old, but what will help everyone is if they get interested in other things. Read a book. Watch some movies.

It's another problem that we haven't really touched on at all, which is games creators and consumers of games in the mainstream really not consuming any other media. It's why "gamer" is such a weird term. We don't want it to mean someone who is game-obsessed, but that is more or less what it means. It isn't really a term that is used so much to mean someone who plays half an hour to two hours of games a week. It is generally a term that is for the people who are kinda really, really into games and play four-plus hours a day or own an insane number of games or whatever. I guess that's something that'll change as gaming becomes more and more acceptable as a hobby. That it's something you can do alongside being really passionate about film or about literature or about music. But the onus is on creators themselves to make sure they are being artistically enriched and that they are experiencing and learning stuff and the right stuff to make them better creators.

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