While big-budget developers spend millions of dollars and employ hundreds of designers, writers and testers to perfect a single game, more and more gamers are taking it upon themselves to create games on a shoestring budget.
Multimedia: 5 Days a Stranger
ESRB rating: n/a
Developer: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
As a kid, I'd always imagined game design to be a romantic profession. Of course, I also thought pro wrestling was real. Kids, as I've now learned, don't know anything.
The first hint that making video games might not be such an idyllic lifestyle came to me through the Sierra adventure game Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon. In this installment in the classic series, lowly janitor turned interplanetary hero Roger Wilco must search for two computer game designers who have been kidnapped by space pirates and forced to develop crappy software for the geeky capitalist villains at ScumSoft, Inc. I still haven't forgotten the scene of Roger sneaking through the ScumSoft offices on Pestulon: a labyrinth of cubicles where dozens of generic workers slave over computer screens while being whipped and berated by their overweight and bespectacled corporate masters.
It was a hilarious moment in the game, but even as a kid I understood that satire was only funny if it was rooted in something true. Maybe being a video game designer wasn't so incredibly cool after all?
With the expanding size and scope of modern games requiring greater worker specialization, this kind of factory-line approach to game development might be closer to reality than many prospective game industry employees imagine. According to Cyan's website, their adventure game Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, the latest installment in the immensely popular Myst series, took over 200 individuals to program, design, write, and market. And this number does not include the staggering amount of beta testers, a list consisting of at least 500 people, that helped ensure the game's readiness for distribution. That's over 700 individuals to produce one game!
By startling contrast, the creation of 5 Days a Stranger took only one person. The game is entirely the product of the mind of Ben Croshaw, who has been developing a series of his own games with the Adventure Game Studio (AGS) program written by Chris Jones. Through an interface that requires very little programming knowledge, AGS allows practically anyone to develop games in the style of the early Sierra or LucasArts graphic adventures such as Space Quest or The Secret of Monkey Island.
AGS, and other programs like it (such as the Myst-style Adventure Maker) have helped spawn an underground of game design do-it-yourselfers that stands in distinct contrast to the ballooning budgets and consequent massive revenue requirements that mark the world of mainstream games. The point-and-click type of adventure games, known for requiring refined puzzle-solving skills and an acceptance of one's inner kleptomaniac, have been especially popular for the do-it-yourself-crowd. While the Myst series is an exception, game studios have largely abandoned the adventure genre for more profitable pastures, leading die-hard fans (of which there are many) to start their own communities of self-produced games to fill their needs.
5 Days a Stranger is one such game. And while trying to choose a game that embodies all of the characteristics of these independent adventures is like trying to decide which kind of fruit has the fruitiest taste, it's a good place to start (though if pressed on the fruit thing, I would have to go with oranges).
Croshaw's game tells the story of Trilby, a self-described "gentleman thief," who breaks into a manor that has recently hosted an apparent murder-suicide. Upon discovering that the family safe is empty, Trilby then finds he cannot leave the house. No outside windows or doors will open. As he explores and talks to other people he encounters in the building, it seems as though some supernatural force has trapped him and the others inside.
And then the maniac in the welding mask turns up.
5 Days a Stranger plays like a mix between The Amityville Horror and Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, where the supernatural terrors reflect the distrust and detachment that the characters feel towards each other. The catch is that Trilby, who is a criminal after all, could very well be the killer. You guide Trilby as he delves into the house's mysterious past and tries to navigate through the suspicions of his fellow detainees.
While it's been nominated by The Crow's Nest website for best graphics and sound in a freeware adventure (as well as for best overall game), 5 Days a Stranger pales in comparison to most mainstream games in these departments. This is not surprising when you remember that one person is responsible for everything in the game. The strong writing more than makes up for its lack of bells and whistles, however. The characters and dialogue are very engaging and the mystery will keep you scouring each room for clues just to find out what is really going on. Playing 5 Days a Stranger is like reading a good short story from one of those heartbreakingly neglected literary magazine: no gimmicks, just appealing in the very simple, honest manner of something done because someone loves doing it.
And, of course, it's free. You can't beat that.
For this reason and others, it's not worth comparing an independent freeware game like 5 Days a Stranger to a big budget behemoth like Uru. They're too different. And there's always room for both, although I know which one I'd rather have worked on. No job is ever as romantic as one hopes (not even, um, writing video game reviews) because of the unexpected amount of hard work that's involved. However, I'd bet that Croshaw and the other AGS game-builders feel a much fuller sense of accomplishment than their cog-in-the-system comrades working for the various modern incarnations of ScumSoft. These independent video game artists create things that they can call their own, and these days, that's something very rare.