“This is going to benefit Silicon Knights in ways that are profound and long-lasting.” – Denis Dyack (pictured) speaking earlier this year about funding received for his team’s upcoming project.
Earlier today I tuned in to Episode 40 of the GameCritics podcast – if you haven’t tried it then you haven’t lived. Or at least you’re missing out on a regularly superb games discussion forum.
This particular episode was about deconstructing why two of the GameCritics crew love their respective games, ones which everyone else typically heaps scorn on. It was an unusual concept, one which I applaud heartily. It made for a great mix of insight and humour, but more than that it provided an exceptionally balanced take on games most of us ridicule.
One of these games was Too Human, a game beloved by smooth-talking host Tim Spaeth. It’s Too Human and its respective discussion that I’m concerning myself with here. I found it revealing listening to Tim’s reasons for loving the game, and indeed why the others casters shared a weird fondness for it. The common factor that seemed to come up – and don’t laugh – was Denis Dyack.
Now, I’m not suggesting Tim has some deeply stored feelings for the Silicon Knights president – maybe he does, but that’s for the (happily married) Tim to tell us. What I think Tim’s comments do echo, though, is that the games industry – or at least the games press – has a real fondness for the Too Human story. No, I’m not talking about the cybernordic beefcakes and all that bullshit, but about the story of the game’s protracted, troubled development, all led by one Mr Dyack.
Too Human took nine years to make and in that time it changed a hundred times over. It demo-ed at E3 1999 with technically staggering cut scenes and a whole range of interesting ideas, so it caught attention straight away. But rumours of a cancellation surfaced and the game got delayed while Silicon Knights concentrated on Eternal Darkness and Twin Snakes. In the meantime it switched platforms from the PS1 to the N64 and eventually to the Xbox 360. As the years passed, and as the look and ethos of Too Human seemed to be in constant evolution, hopes for it ever hitting store shelves became drier and drier.
As far as I remember, things really turned sour after the E3 2006 demo. The demo was flatly ridiculed and – somewhat understandably with hindsight – the game was deemed last-gen. Since then, Dyack has been on the defensive/offensive when it comes to the games press – and anyone really. There was the war of words (and lawsuits) with Epic about the power of Unreal Engine 3. There was the NeoGAF saga which saw him banned repeatedly for his vociferous outrage, resulting in him making calls for the forum to be taken down. Then there was the 1UP Yours lecture during which he talked over the heads of listeners – your author included – with complicated theory on online discussion. And, of course, there were the conspiracy theories about members of the press having it in for the game.
Meanwhile, the game itself got seemingly forgotten. It became ridiculed on forums the world over before it had even hit retail. Industry followers began to realize Dyack’s lofty promises of meaningful choices, expansive combat and groundbreaking co-op were dropping one by one like flies. For all his ambition, when Too Human released it flatly failed on nearly every level, and most significant of all on a commercial level. It was not worth the wait.
Back on the show, Tim described this story with an edge of romanticism. He talked about Dyack’s promise of a deep, meaningful choice that players would have to make, one centred on becoming human or cybernetic (as suggested by the game’s title) and how this would shape the game’s story and mechanics. Amusingly, this choice ended up boiling down to a wholly arbitrary one at the beginning of the game. Tim commented in a half-joking way that he had a weird respect for Dyack for having the balls to completely fabricate his ass off about what his game could do.
There is a certain allure to the Too Human development story, for sure. It’s kind of fascinating to see what the game went through, what it came through, what it started as, and what it became. And in Dyack you have someone who is somewhat off the deep end and more than a little self-involved, but is genuinely entertaining and is an endless well of curious and interesting ideas, some of which the industry should actually listen to – you heard it here first.
And, as Brad Gallaway said on the show, for all the people mocking the game to high heaven, the truth is that Too Human is not all that bad. It has a bunch of problems and it does oh so many things wrong, but I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a bad game. It’s OK. Well, maybe a bit less than OK…
The problem, though, is when you strip that story down to the bare facts it’s hard to see it as romantic in any shape or form. Too Human was a failure, a failure that took up nearly a decade of hard-working developers’ lives. Why? Because of bungling that one can only help but feel centred around its enigmatic lead designer, a man so hell-bent on his vision and ideals that things started to become more about him than the game. Clearly, the game suffered for it. Even without presuming – and I’ll admit there’s an element of presumption here – that Dyack neglected the game to feed his own ego, it’s clear how his outbursts affected Internet-based perception of him and through him the game. That the demo was downloaded a record amount was a red herring – people just wanted to try the game out and cast their vulture-like judgements of epic failure.
His staff suffered for it too, around an eighth of the nearly 200-strong Silicon Knights team losing their jobs in the aftermath of the game’s release. I can only wonder what financial and family problems the whole team went through as they strove to create a game successful enough to cover all the time and money spent. As far as I’m concerned, the Too Human story represents one of the sorriest the industry has ever presented, one that ultimately culminated in the release of a below-average video game and a lot of lost jobs.
I’m not arguing that Tim solely batted with a ‘Dyack’ play during the show, in fact he had an assortment of defences for the game, and I think most of them were pretty strong – as were the criticisms from others, mind you. All I wanted to point out, amidst the romanticism that really stood tall towards the end of the discussion, was that as a development project Too Human was a total disaster with dire consequences, and it’s for that reason it will remain unforgettable in my mind.
Four months ago, Silicon Knights received a $4 million influx of federal money to help fund its next game. “In our industry, you have to be very careful never to announce anything until the right time. We can only say it’s a next generation title and a high production value game,” Dyack said, speaking to the Welland Tribune. “That’s all we can say.”
All I can say is that I hope he keeps his promises this time.