Yes, But Also, Never, Part 3Complications Ensue
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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Mikko Rautalahti

Alex:
I was just wondering, have video games always been this international? And why are they international, when film and television are really not? Is it just that video game narrative was only on-screen text for so long, and text is easily localized?

Mikko: I guess one part of it is that if you made a movie, it was really closely tied to whatever culture you made it in. Especially early on when the games were really simple, like going back to Space Invaders, language didn't really matter. And I think once you had a certain baseline established, that made it easier for people just accept the idea that these things can come from wherever.

Alex: Apparently film was completely international until sound came in. German movies did very well in the United States, because you could always change the title cards, nobody knew what the actors were saying anyway. Except lip readers, who were sometimes horrified.

Mikko: There is a degree of, I guess, cultural imperialism here as well, because if you look at it from a very American perspective, you have American movies, then you have “foreign” movies. But in other countries, you tend to have a lot more movies that come from all sorts of countries. “Foreign” film isn’t a thing like that, you just assume that a lot of the films you see come from somewhere else. Like over here [Finland] you read subtitles, because nobody's making anything for our language. We have five and a half million people who speak our language. So you just have to accept that you have things coming from all over the world. Nobody makes video games for the Finnish audience, either, not even in this country.

Alex: I was just thinking about Malmö. Why is Malmö a big deal in video games? I wouldn't have guessed that was going to become a key place.

Mikko: Well, I think they kind of hit that critical mass and you have a certain degree of infrastructure built around that. But it's also a couple of other things. Like in Nordic countries, you can get by with English really easily.

In a lot of Eastern European countries there are a lot of advantages. Everything is just so much cheaper to do. But it's a pretty big deal for somebody to move over there. There is a serious language and a cultural barrier, whereas you come here or Malmö, you can walk into almost any store and you're really going to be OK. You don't have to cry about how you want a loaf of bread and they don't know what you mean. I have been involved in onboarding a lot of people from other countries. And it’s interesting a lot of weird cultural stuff that can trip them up. Just, like… do you tip? Is it too awkward for you not to? For some people it's almost like physical pain for them to not to.

Alex: In Japan, it's insulting, you must not tip.

Mikko: There are so many differences, and people have these assumptions and expectations that affect their behavior in ways that can be hard to see. You can't be fired in Finland, or at least, you can't be fired just because your boss goes like, I'm done with you. That has a big impact on the way people behave at work. And if somebody then comes in with different assumptions, but nobody’s actually aware that there’s this conflict of expectations… it can get complicated.

Alex: Our studio head at Compulsion Games told me that he was living in France when he decided to make his own company. But you can't fire anyone in France. You can send them off to the rubber room but you have to keep paying them. So he made it in Montreal. Lucky for me. Thank you, France.

So far, I'm just hearing reasons why it's good to move to Helsinki, not why it’s hard to. I thought you were going to say oh, the darkness in winter, you know?

Mikko: I mean, the dark can be a thing, but it's not that much different from living in certain parts of Canada, for example, where you get long winters and a lot of darkness. But some people can't deal with that. Like there are people who come here during the summer when it's warm and nice and the days are super long and there's plenty of sunshine. “Yeah, this great, this is fantastic.” And then the winter comes and we get five hours of sunlight a day. And all of that when I'm at work. So it's dark when I come to work and it's dark when I leave work.

Alex: I’m already really far North in Montreal [45°N], but, wow, you are super far North in Helsinki [60°N].

Mikko: And that can definitely mess people up. But for most people, I guess it comes down to how we were feeling as an individual about it; some people adjust very easily, and others just can't deal with it. For most people, it might take one winter to get used to it, but then you are fine, I think. Or you leave, I’ve seen that happen, too.

Alex: Have you bopped around much yourself? Have you lived in a whole bunch of different countries?

Mikko: I’ve spent a lot of time in different countries, but I think the longest time I've stayed somewhere else has been a month. So I’ve never had to adjust my life in any meaningful way. When it’s a working trip, you just feel like a visitor. And the weeks go by pretty quickly.

Alex: At one point Ubisoft Singapore called me up and I'm like, wow, what would it be like to move my entire life to Singapore? Warmer, I guess. Better street food.

Mikko: It’s a huge change if you have a family to think about. Are they going to have friends? And it's not like grandma can come in and look at the kids for a couple hours.

Alex: Yeah, I moved to Montreal and I brought Lisa up here to Montreal.

And our families are in New York and Texas. We can go down and visit them, but they’re not available for last-minute dog-walking.

Mikko: At least you are still in the same time zone. Right now it's, what is it, a little past six o'clock here and you’re just kind of getting your day started. It’s not even noon for you yet. I'm doing a contract with a Montreal studio right now. A lot of times, somebody sees my name in a Teams chat somewhere. And then they set a meeting. And then I have to go back and go, yeah, that's 10:00 p.m. for me. As much as I might want to discuss the finer points of this animation thing, well, I'm not going to be that useful at that hour.

Alex: How much time do you spend playing other games? How much time playing games for research? How much for fun. And are the kinds of games that you play for fun, the same as the games that you make?

Mikko: I don't play a lot of games purely for research. That's not entirely true. Sometimes there is a specific project where I go OK, I need to play a bunch of this kind of game in order to know what we're doing. But that’s the exception. Usually I play something I’m interested in.

I have worked on games that I haven't felt strongly about, or have actively not really wanted to work on. And that's not a good place to be. I did a year or two in free-to-play mobile that was like that. And it's a shame because I worked with people that I really liked, and I think that we made some pretty interesting, good games, but it just wasn't the kind of work I was super interested in. And it was very clear that on the management level, nobody gave a shit about what I was trying to do. They hired me to do a job that they didn't care about. “We need to have some story stuff here.” But only if it had no impact on anything else.

Alex: Okay, but what kind of games do you play? And like how do they relate to the kind of work that you like to do?

Mikko: Well, the games that I play do tend to have a strong story element. Interesting characters in interesting situations, or interesting narrative techniques. So that could just be an action adventure game or something, like The Last of Us 2 would be a good example. Obviously, a lot of ambition there in terms of storytelling. And the quality of storytelling is super high. But I also played a stupid amount of Minecraft before it had any real narrative design. And I still play Tetris. That's a great example of a game where there is absolutely no story. You can kind of project stuff on that if you are so inclined. But that's just you kind of having fun with yourself.

There's a lot of indie stuff that I've been very impressed by. Something like Kentucky Route Zero took an ostensibly very standard and traditional approach to adventure gaming and then it turned it into a unique and interesting thing where they did these constant tiny things all the time, just like the things where you're talking to a character and you get to make dialog choices. And then you also get to make dialog choice for the person who is responding to you.

Alex: What I found interesting about Kentucky Route Zero is that you make dialog choices, not to branch the story, but just to express yourself. Obviously that’s hugely less work for the developers, but it allows player expression, which hopefully drives engagement.

Mikko: Another strong theme for me is whether or not the game has atmosphere. It almost doesn't matter what the atmosphere is, as long as you can tell that a lot of effort and interest went into designing it. Even if it’s minimalist, but steps have been taken.

But I mean, at the same time I have also been known to just play pretty much mindless online shooters. I do that, too.

Alex: Sometimes you just want to kill a dude.

Mikko: Or sometimes you just want to get killed by a 12-year-old who is outperforming you on every possible level.

Alex: Because they've been doing nothing else for the past thirty hours.

Mikko: And they still have functional reflexes, and my flabby ass is just, like… no.

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