What It Takes to Make a Kinder, Gentler Video Game

  Reading time 3 minutes

In 2003, Ken Hall was art director for Realtime Words, the large video game developer that made APB, which later became APB Reloaded, a highly popular free-to-play video game. At the time, free-to-play games, where players get most of the game for free but must pay to unlock the rest of the game or improve their performance, were still in their infancy. The strategy was aimed at hooking the casual gamer, but Hall had a rude awakening, perhaps like Dr. Frankenstein might have felt when his company received data showing gamers in South Korea were playing as much as 35 hours a week, and that was on top of their day jobs. He thought, what kind of monster have we created?

“We were inadvertently creating compulsive gameplay loops,” Hall says. “This was long before people were worried about the addictiveness and the compulsiveness of video games. But I really wasn’t happy with the consequences of what we were creating.”

Hall decided to step back from the video game industry. He began creating large-scale public artworks, like a massive “Pin Art” installation that lit up at night and that people could push pins into and out of to create their own art. To raise awareness about the environment, he created a life-sized orca skeleton inspired by a real whale that had washed ashore in Canada and had what was at that time the highest toxicity of any marine mammal ever recorded.

Hall liked passion projects. Earlier in his gaming career, he worked on a game called B-17 Flying Fortress, a flight simulator involving World War II-era B-17 bombers as they flew across wartime Europe. For the project, he interviewed aviators who flew those planes to make sure the game portrayed their experiences accurately. He was so enamored with the experience that he went on to record interviews with soldiers who were in Sherman tanks during the war. During his hiatus from the industry, he created an audio book of their experiences. Most were about 80 years old when Hall interviewed them, but they still felt the darkness of the war in their psyches. One said he had woken a few times in the middle of the night and started choking his wife because he thought she was a German soldier. Another said he would wake up on his bedroom floor, trying to get out of a burning tank. Another was driving through Swindon with his mother 35 years after the war when a crack of thunder went off and he threw the car into reverse at full speed. His mother had to keep yanking on his arm to bring him back and get him to stop.

“What it really brought home to me was that not only did these people suffer from their trauma, but that suffering has lasted for the rest of their lifetimes,” Hall says.

When he reentered the video game field in 2017, he wanted to create a game that conveyed not just the battles of war but the lasting consequences. The result is Destiny’s Sword, which is available now on Steam in early access.

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