War of the Words The Evolution of Too Human

War of the Words The Evolution of <i>Too Human</i>
Too Human, the opening salvo in the (very) long-awaited cyber-Norse trilogy from cult Canadian development house Silicon Knights, is not all mech-Grendel slaying. Baldur, a Viking God trying to stop a militant race of machines, must also choose between cybernetically enhancing his powers or remaining "too human.” In other words, this epic game is really about the dangers of incorporating too much technology into your life. Sure, this sounds ironic coming from a hyper-complex collection of 1s and 0s that runs on the Xbox 360’s triple-core CPU — but if anyone knows technology’s dark side, its SK’s controversial president Denis Dyack.

"One of the ideas behind Too Human is we want people to start thinking about technology. Generally technology is misunderstood and always presented as this positive force,” he says, pontificating at the game’s launch party in Toronto’s exclusive members-only Spoke Club. "It can be very positive but it can also be very negative.” One of the places this negativity often emerges is online forums, where posters sometimes turn into trolls, launching speculative slams against not-yet-released projects like Too Human, which has long been the target of some seriously geeky hateration.

"I think that’s something that naturally gravitates to online and we obviously throw them some bones to latch on to,” says Henry Sterchi, SK’s director of design. "The online community fixates on something and they piranha feed on it.” Message-board culture has insinuated itself into many mediums, but perhaps none more so than videogames, where the hardcore contingent is not a vocal minority but a driving force. This makes them a double-edged Level 8 Greatsword of Slashing.

Game companies have long used online hordes to help spread the word by doling out spoilers, screenshots and gameplay footage for their fan sites, blogs and forum posts. This builds excitement without denting marketing budgets. But since these fans are not on a payroll, their enthusiasm can and will sour at the first misstep — turning priceless positive publicity into costly bad buzz. Of course, controversy also breeds curiosity — Too Human’s Xbox Live demo broke records with over a million downloads. But let’s start this story at level one. Back in 1999, Silicon Knights announced at E3 they were working on a four-disc, 80-hour epic called Too Human for the original Playstation. But by the following year, SK signed an exclusivity agreement with Nintendo, who steered them toward their critically acclaimed Lovecraftian horror game Eternal Darkness. Too Human remained in the ideas jar until the company switched allegiances to Microsoft and re-announced the game in 2005.

"God,” Dyack sighs, dismissing its lengthy gestation as overblown. "We’ve been working on Too Human in earnest, in full production, since we finished Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes [in 2004]. Anything before that, you might as well not think about it. I don’t know how we can communicate that any clearer. It’s not this big epic thing people make it out to be. It’s more dramatic — so people like to see it that way — but it’s not reality. I wish people would focus more on the final product than the actual process.” It was hard not to focus on process after SK brought a buggy, unfinished demo to E3 2006, only to see it savaged by the gaming press and on message boards. Dyack went radio silent for a year to work on the game, before eventually taking to the hardcore-heavy forums at NeoGAF to defend the delays and attack the shit-talkers.

"I was trying to point out the futility of… judging interactive media from non-interactive sources like screenshots or video,” says Dyack of his calling out pre-emptive critics. But he had much bigger fish to fry. In July 2007, Silicon Knights sued Epic Games, makers of "Unreal Engine 3” which they had been using to build Too Human. This as-yet-unresolved lawsuit blames Epic’s engine on their poor E3 showing and the game’s Duke Nukem-esque delays, claiming Epic sabotaged them with substandard code, missed deadlines and piss-poor tech-support (while saving their good stuff for Epic’s own game Gears of War). Epic promptly countersued.

Suddenly Silicon Knights had to develop its own proprietary game engine, adding further unexpected work. "That was really unfortunate but we couldn’t get away from it,” Dyack explains. "We were left with choices we couldn’t choose.” Earlier this summer, Dyack returned to NeoGAF to challenge haters to put up or shut up. If Too Human is well received, they will have to add "owned by Too Human” to their tags and if the opposite is true, Dyack will add "owned by the GAF.”

Is this preposterously silly? Yes, yes it is — but it may also have been a brilliant pre-emptive PR move since it spread through gaming-news sites within hours and inspired many forum folks to come out in favour. Sterchi dismisses the brouhaha — "Denis likes to stay interactive with the community and this is one of the ups and downs that go along with it” — but it nevertheless distracts from the game itself. Too Human is an ambitious hybrid of action game and RPG, mixing deep, combo-filled fighting, obsessive-compulsive item collecting and choose-your-own-powers "skill trees.” This is paired with a grim storyline about cyborg Gods who can die, man-eating machines and a hero struggling to maintain his humanity.

"At the end of the day, the whole idea of Too Human is to try and get people to think, so from that perspective, [my forum posting] does tie in,” says Dyack, who hoped to spark ideas and conversations about online culture, not simply bait trolls. "If we’re going to understand technology and its effect on society, we’re better start talking about it now or we’re going to be lost.”