Meta Catch ‘Em All

Visiting my parents in Czechia always feels like a trip back to my childhood. The house where I grew up changed only a little, and my room in particular is preserved in almost the exact state I left it. Lord of the Rings movie posters still cover the walls, if a little faded out now. My desk is littered with cheat sheets for the final high school exam. And in the top drawer, in pristine condition, sits a great treasure – my deck of Pokémon cards.

I was obsessed with Pokémon at the turn of the century, when the global phenomenon just hit our country. Every Saturday morning, my friends and I eagerly watched a new episode of the animated TV show. It followed the adventures of Ash Ketchum, aspiring Pokémon master and the protagonist of the video game for Nintendo Game Boy. But none of us actually owned the console. Instead, to feel like Pokémon masters ourselves, we played the trading card game (TCG). Not just played – we role-played.

Each of us pretended to be one of the gym leaders from the show, powerful trainers who others challenge to fight. One friend liked Misty and, like her, specialized on water Z2 Pokémon. Another claimed Lt. Surge and fought with lightning ZL Pokémon, including the signature Pikachu. I boldly assumed the role of Giovanni, the story’s mysterious villain, and built an unbeatable card deck. One by one, I would crush my friends in battle and earn their badges. It’s this deck that now occupies the top drawer, unchanged, enclosed in a glass case. Curious to see how powerful it really was, I recently investigated how well it would fare against top tournament players back then. Turns out it wouldn’t stand a chance. Not only was my deck weak, it didn’t even fit into the meta of that time. Of course there was a meta!

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Commuter Camaraderie

In Czechia, Bohemia Interactive has three game development offices – in Prague, Brno, and Mníšek pod Brdy. While the first two locations are major population centers, there’s a chance you have never heard of the last one. Situated thirty kilometres southwest of Prague, it’s a small historic town surrounded by forests and farmlands. Far removed from urban bustle, Mníšek office is unlike any other.

A cottage made of dark wood sits behind evergreen trees, its two stories covered by a red roof so long it almost touches the grass beneath. Originally built as a recreation center, the building is encompassed by vast grounds that include a garden, a pond, and, most recently, a T-72 tank. This is the headquarters where all Arma games were directed from. Place so iconic that modders recreated it in-game. It’s also where, fifteen years ago, I first stepped into the professional game industry. I worked there for almost a decade, and I loved it as much as I hated it.

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How do you tell a story in an authentic military game like Arma?

There are many narrative devices. The most obvious of these comes from the personal experiences of principle characters. It’s a perfect way to show unique points of view but does pose certain limitations when it comes to exploring a bigger picture. Despite featuring many interesting protagonists, from David Armstrong in the original Operation Flashpoint to Nathan McDade in Arma 3 Laws of War, the game has never really been about them. Arma is not a game about individuals, but rather of armies, factions, nations, and their conflicts.

Exposition of such complex themes can be challenging, and over the years we have tried many different methods: simple titles on a black background, pictures with a voiceover, conversations between team-mates, officers giving briefings in front of a screen. They all work, but in the end, they are not really how we engage with real wars, at least for the majority of us who have not actively participated in any such conflict. Our perception of combat comes only from secondary sources: books, films, games, documentaries and, most importantly, from news coverage.

Scenes of a night battle, with tracers lighting up the sky, the distorted voice of a war correspondent describing the events, BREAKING NEWS flashing up on the TV, with a news ticker running along the bottom of the screen; we are all familiar with these images, as we’ve seen them so many times. It is through the lens of the media then, that the viewer has been able to observe most modern conflicts. But this does not necessarily reflect how events look from the perspective of the people on the ground.

News is a universal narrative device. Within one minute, you can introduce different locations, factions and time frames. Throw in some maps and quotes and add intentional misinformation and bias as a cherry on the top. It can feel impersonal and detached, but for Arma, a game which seeks to portray war without too much bravado and heroism, it fits perfectly.

More than a decade ago, we created AAN World News, a fictional media organization which helped us to tell stories across multiple projects. It started modestly, but eventually went on to become a major part of the interconnected Armaverse, producing news articles, video reports, press conferences and interviews, both in the games and outside of them. Now I’d like to tell its story.

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DLC vs. Core Game Development

When you start Arma 3 today, five years after its release, you’ll find several singleplayer campaigns in the list. There’s the vanilla one, East Wind, and the Apex Protocol introduced in the expansion. There are also several mini-campaigns added in recent DLCs, all of them released in the past several months. If you play all of them, you may notice that production value of the DLC scenarios somewhat improved over the content from the major releases. If you were to do the same with Arma 2, you could spot the same trend, with the DLCs offering more solid experience than the vanilla content (although none of them would get even close to Arma 3 standards).

This may sound like a natural progression, caused by devs learning new skills and processes getting fine-tuned over time. And while it’s an important part of the picture, it can’t be the sole explanation. After all, they’re not always the same people, and it’s often the exact same processes. Despite the recent introduction of 3D editor, designing scenarios haven’t changed much over the years. There are objects to place, waypoints to plan, scripts to write; doesn’t matter whether you’re creating the flagship campaign or a simple community scenario. No, there’s more to it, and it’s not limited only to playable content.

The reason why post-release additions can achieve higher quality is because they are developed on a stable, mature platform. Core development, meanwhile, is about building that platform, in far less hospitable conditions.

This may seem self-evident, but it’s easy to forget about it, especially when the game spent far more time in its post-release growth than in the initial development phase (which, in fact, is the game development in the traditional sense). Let’s take a look at it in greater detail.

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Annihilation Valley

Annihilation is not an easy film. Not consumable enough for general audience, but much larger than indie movies. The characters are complicated, but hard to relate to. Approach realistic, but overly simplified. Too fantastic for a sci-fi, too scientific to be a fantasy.

The film struggles to fit into well understood boxes, perhaps one of the reasons why it flopped so much that its European cinema release got cancelled. Yet, despite all of this, I found it to be an excellent film. Or rather, exactly because of this.

Annihilation masterfully exploits the uncanny valley. The term is used when something that’s not a human expresses certain human features, for example appearance or movement, but goes too far in pursuit of realism and ends up no longer stylized, yet not fully life-like. Unpleasant. Uncomfortable. Uncanny.

[Warning: The rest of the article contains spoilers for Annihilation.]

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