[It's time for another Monthly Musing -- the monthly community blog theme that provides readers with a chance to get their articles and discussions printed on the frontpage. -- CTZ]
It's a sad truth of the gaming world that the our learning about a game tends to end on shipping day. Before then, we are practically drowned in the deluge of previews, screenshots, demos, trailers, quick looks, hands-on and hands-off observations, open and closed betas, cheesy marketing-directed developer diaries, and "exclusive" early reviews.But after "Day One"? Silence. Further coverage is left to the musings, retrospectives, forums, post-mortem features and late "due diligence" (a.k.a. They-Didn't-Give-Us-A-Review-Copy-So-We-Had-To-Go-Buy-One) evaluations. The endlessly shifting focus on the Next Big Thing robs the gaming public of opportunities to learn just a little more about they love to play. Developers in turn lose the chance to help their most receptive, willing audience truly understand these things that took months or years of blood, sweat and toil to materialize.
Do you see now where I'm going with this, developers? The best way to get players to know what you went through is to get them to play what you toiled over while you tell them what you went through to bring them that experience. Doing that, you can point out the tiny details that they'd otherwise ignore, virtually asking them "See what I did there? Innit awesome? For players, they gain a deeper understanding of the games they love and greater awareness of the developers who made them. They see just how much thought, love, and care goes into every decision made, the kinds of technical leaps needed to make a game just right. They get it, finally. They'll know why those sidewalks were so narrow.
As seems to be the case in so many other things, Valve has helped pave the way into this unexplored space. Activating "commentary mode" in Valve's various Orange Box titles (and Left 4 Dead) lets players play a level of the game as always, except with "commentary nodes" littered about the geography. Using nodes plays a short audio clip of a designer explaining a given decision or process in the game. That might not sound like much, but when you think about it, it's pure genius, allowing gamers to see a game the way the developers hoped you'd see it, rather than through a personal lens occasionally blurred by cynicism, prior experience, and occasional fanboyism.
Nodes fill various purposes. Some give you a glimpse of things you'd never be able to find out on your own, such as having the delightful Ellen McLain tell players about how she went about voicing GLaDOS, one of the most compelling, memorable characters ever designed: