LAST LIFE stuck in limbo

As can be seen from last month’s retro console and age experiment, it’s fair to say I like a bit of data so let’s start this post with a few statistics. Since first using Kickstarter in 2013:

  • I’ve backed 31 campaigns in total, all but one in the video game category
  • Five were unsuccessful in reaching their fundraising target and two were cancelled
  • One was suspended by the platform for strange high-value pledges and OUYA fund-matching
  • I’ve received 11 games so far (not all of them good) from 23 successful campaigns
  • The longest I’ve been waiting on is from a campaign over four years old

  • I picked up on that last point above while updating my profile on the platform recently and checking out the list of projects I’ve pledged to over the past five years. I’ll admit that I don’t always read the Kickstarter updates sent by developers and was therefore out of the loop on the title’s progress so some catching up was necessary. A few internet searches later however left me feeling disappointed, and as though I may have given my money to a title we could never get to see.

    The history of LAST LIFE

    LAST LIFE by Sam Farmer was a project which caught my eye immediately. The sci-fi noir adventure was inspired by modern point-and-clicks such as Kentucky Route Zero and would take place over three episodes. It featured a recently-murdered Private Investigator who had been 3D-printed back into existence to reopen his last case and uncover what he originally missed: a hunt which would reveal AI corruption, corporate espionage and the conspiracy which may have led to the Earth’s doom.

    It was launched on 10 April 2014 and veteran Tim Schafer appeared in a video for the campaign page to announce that Double Fine Productions had selected it to be their second Double Fine Presents game. Kickstarter themselves also jumped on board and declared LAST LIFE as their ‘Project of the Day’ on 26 April 2016. Two days later on 28 April 2018, the original fundraising target of $75,000 was met with still over a week to go until the deadline.

    The end of the campaign on 09 May 2014 saw a total of $103,058 pledged by 4,822 backers (over 137% of the original target). The first stretch goal had also been achieved and voiceovers for all speaking characters and interactive flashbacks would now be incorporated into the game. After a successful crowdfunder, Farmer appeared in interviews with several news outlets during the next few months stating an intended release window of ‘next year’ in 2015.

    So why are we backers still waiting to get their hands on the first episode of LAST LIFE over four years later?

    Sewing the seeds of doubt

    There have only been 12 updates from Farmer via Kickstarter since the end of the campaign. The length of time between these ranges from a month to over a year and seven have been for backers’ eyes only; and while this may have been acceptable if we could be certain work was progressing smoothly, not all have contained useful information. The latest update was published ten months ago and those who pledged towards the project have been left in the dark since.

    Tim Schaefer, video games, office, LAST LIFE, video

    The thing a lot of us had been holding onto was the fact that Double Fine were supporting LAST LIFE’s development and would be releasing the finished title. Even now Schafer’s video is displayed on the Kickstarter page, Double Fine Presents is mentioned on Farmer’s personal website, and the game’s press kit states that it is being published by the company. With a big name like that behind it, surely it means there’s still hope for the game and that we might get to play it one day?

    Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like it. The last Kickstarter update on 06 August 2017 was a long message from Farmer containing the following news:

    As you probably know, we launched our Kickstarter campaign with the help of Double Fine. However, they shifted priorities and we parted ways at the end of 2015. We are on good terms, and I wish them every success. I’ve since been looking for another partner to help with publishing and also to provide financing to finish the game.

    Backers should have been provided with this information two years earlier to keep them informed about what was happening. In addition, the sites mentioned above should have been updated immediately to remove Double Fine as the publisher and make it clear where the future of LAST LIFE was now heading. Instead, the official website is continuing to accept pre-orders and will ‘definitely take your money’ according to research by Cliquist in February.

    Where is Farmer?

    The full update can be seen in this video if you’re interested but to sum up: although the Kickstarter campaign raised enough funds to create a single episode of a three-part series, the decision to ‘expand the single episode into a feature length film’ was taken so players wouldn’t be left unfulfilled. However, the money had now run out and Farmer was trying to ‘secure the financing needed in order to cross the finish line’ and ‘searching for the right partner’. He wrote:

    Unfortunately, whilst we were really happy with the expanded scale of the game and everything that meant for the project, we’ve been unable to find a way to produce it at the quality we wanted, within the budget we set for ourselves. We stretched our single year of funding into three years, until we were relying on my own personal finances to continue the project, but that well has now run dry too.

    I had a look at all the comments left on the Kickstarter page and the last I could find from Farmer himself was from February 2017. His latest tweet was in April 2018 and was nothing to do with LAST LIFE; in fact, last time he tweeted about his project was in March 2017 when he said that he had ‘made good progress’. Backers have now received no update in almost a year and the campaign page is filling up with many confused and angry comments.

    Former Cliquist Executive Editor Josh Griffiths tried to track down Farmer on several occasions but as of February this year, still hadn’t been able to get in touch. The email address listed on the official website no longer exists and responses to messages sent to other addresses, as well as to Double Fine, haven’t been responded to. It seems as if both the developer and LAST LIFE have disappeared along with $103,058 of Kickstarter funds from thousands of backers.

    Kickstarter is a gamble

    All we really have to show for that amount of money is an unlisted video of an eight-minute demo published at the end of July 2017, shortly before the last Kickstarter update mentioned above. Despite Farmer announcing he was ‘rapidly approaching beta’ in June 2016 and requesting for volunteers to help QA test the game and provide feedback, it doesn’t seem as though any interested backer actually received an invitation. LAST LIFE therefore appears to be stuck in limbo and there’s a chance we may not ever get to see it.

    As written by Griffiths in a Cliquist article: “It’s ironic Kickstarter doesn’t allow campaigns featuring gambling, because that’s exactly what crowdfunding is – a gamble.” The platform isn’t a store and backers aren’t placing a pre-order; instead it’s a way for creators to raise independent funding for their projects and work with their audience to make something special. That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to receive the product you’re putting your money towards however and should therefore never part with cash you can’t afford to lose.

    That’s why the pledge I’ve lost here doesn’t bother me and I’m fully aware of what becoming a backer for a project means. But what frustrates me is insufficient communication since the campaign completion in May 2014 and the gaping holes and contradictions in the updates we have received. While I can appreciate that game design is a long a difficult process, and inexperienced developers may come across unexpected problems that take time to resolve, such a lack of transparency is almost unforgiveable.

    Perhaps Farmer will resurface one day and LAST LIFE will eventually be made. Perhaps not. While this incident won’t stop me from making Kickstarter pledges in the future, it certainly leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

    Rezzed 2018: the Schafer experiment

    Anybody who visits the blog regularly will know how attached I am to the Monkey Island series. The original was the first game I played on my Amiga 500 as a kid in the early 1990s and this was the title that sealed my fate as an adventure fan and wannabe-pirate lover.

    It was therefore with some excitement that I learned Tim Schafer, one of the designers of the franchise, would be giving a developer session at 2018’s Rezzed event. I knew my blogging partner-in-crime Ben would be hyped about this too; when we first met in person around five years ago, he launched into an enthusiastic in-depth discussion on why Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle are some of the finest games ever made.

    We made our way over to the room in the Tobacco Dock an hour before Schafer was due to appear on stage and eagerly took our place at the front of the queue. We had the pleasure of bumping into Luke from Hundstrasse while we were waiting and sneakily edged him into the queue with us, before quickly heading down to the first row of the hall once the doors were opened (thank you to the lovely EGX staff who made this happen for us!).

    As Eurogamer editor Oli Welsh asked questions about his career, it became obvious that Schafer was the sort of guy who had plenty of experience along with great sense of humour: you’d love to take him to your local pub for a chat about his favourite video games over a pint or two. He gave some good advice for aspiring developers on how to handle crunch and avoid the mistakes usually made by people trying to break into the industry.

    When discussing his design process, Schafer picked up on the concept of ‘free writing’: “I use a pen and a notebook, and you just have to write for a certain amount of time – it can be two minutes or an hour – and you just can’t stop writing. That’s the only rule. So even if you’re just writing one word over and over, you have to keep writing. It’s a strange thing where putting your mind in that position makes ideas come out.”

    He continued: “I think it’s a similar thing to when you’re creatively stuck and then you go to lunch with somebody, and you’re telling them how you’re stuck. As you’re talking, you start to solve the problem out loud; they never say another word but you’re like ‘Thanks, I fixed it, that’s great!’. Sometimes it’s just the act of going verbal with your thoughts, it opens doors and it’s a weird phenomenon but it’s helpful.”

    Schafer then went on to explain where this process came from: “I learned it in seventh-grade English class. It was just like, we had to write for two minutes and I just did it. At first you’re like ‘This is dumb, why am I writing, I’m hungry, I really have to go to the bathroom’ – then all of a sudden, poof! Some weird idea comes out, then you get excited and you start writing, and you’re turning the pages because you just designed an entire game.”

    So on his advice (that everybody should try it because ‘it’s really cheap’) I’d like to propose a short experiment for anybody reading this who’s willing to give it a go. All you need is a timer, your keyboard and an active imagination. Simply set your stopwatch for two minutes, click into the comments box at the end of this post, write whatever comes into your head and don’t stop typing until the time is up.

    Will the WordPress community be able to come up with a groundbreaking idea for an awesome new video game that we can pitch to Schafer and Double Fine Productions? I’m looking forward to seeing what everybody’s free writing experiment produces. Even if it ends up being only thoughts on hunger or needing to go to the loo – hey, existing games have been developed on lesser concepts than that.

    Let’s end this post on a high point with a bit of inspiration for the rest of the day. In the words of the great man himself: “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.”

    Day of the Tentacle Remastered: feeling my age

    We’re almost at the end of January and so far my New Year’s resolution to play more games is going to plan. I’ve completed The Last Guardian, I’m almost through Year Walk and I’ve watched my stepson play so much Minecraft on the weekends that I now can’t bear to look at another block.

    It’s unusual for both Pete and I to arrive home at the same time during the week and our evenings usually consist of one of us getting the chores done while the other has to work late. So when we do, it’s kind of a big deal: we giggle excitedly like children at Christmas as we walk through the door because it means we might be able to fit in a couple of hours of gaming together. Monday was one such night and after pondering over what to play, we decided that something old-school was in order and started Day of the Tentacle Remastered (sorry Firewatch and Oxenfree, you’ll have to wait).

    I’ve written before that I’m a big fan of the adventure genre but I have to admit that this was one LucasArts’ title that passed me by in the 1990s – I was too busy swooning over Guybrush and fighting off zombie-ghost-pirates. I played Maniac Mansion briefly in my younger years but it wasn’t a game that held my attention so I never finished it or made it to the sequel. But, with Day on the Tentacle appearing on so many you-must-play lists (and the fact it was one of the PlayStation Plus freebies this month), it seemed like something I should finally get around to.

    We watched the introduction and opening credits, with me filling in bits of the backstory for Pete who hadn’t played either of the titles at all. We witnessed Purple Tentacle drinking the toxic sludge behind Dr Fred’s lab and vowing to take over the world. We saw Bernard, Laverne and Hoagie attempt to travel back in time to stop the event from ever happening but becoming displaced in different years after a nasty Chron-O-John accident. And we guided Hoagie through the Inn occupied by the Founding Fathers as they struggled to write the Constitution 200 years in the past, rifling through drawers and cupboards as we went.

    “Isn’t it funny,” I mused, “how you can go through someone’s belongings in an adventure game and they won’t even try to stop you?”

    We all have our little quirks when it comes to playing video games and this is mine: I’ll always examine every item in the environment before talking to the character right in the middle of it. It’s obvious that that’s the action needed to progress the story but I want to get a feel for the surroundings and situation first so I’m more prepared for whatever comes next. It doesn’t work every time and you can sometimes find yourself thrown into the middle of a conversation without an introduction to get your bearings; but it’s now a habit I can’t seem to shake, so I’ll take the risk.

    Red Edison, scientist and Dr Fred’s ancestor, may have stopped us when we tried to take the laboratory coat because Hoagie wasn’t one of his employees. But other than that he let us get on with rummaging through his belongings uninterrupted, even allowing us take the left-handed hammer without even questioning who we were or what we were doing in his room. To be fair, he didn’t even flinch when we finally got around to talking to him and explaining we were from the future – so I guess the hammer is a minor point.

    Day of the Tentacle Remastered, video game, Hoagie, bedroom, mirror, bed, kite plans

    Looking back on adventures from the nineties today often brings about a feeling of ‘strangeness’ in me. Back at the time of their release, I never stopped to question any aspect of their storyline or mechanics; and now here I am wondering why Red hasn’t called the police. I’m aware that in part this is due to me getting older but nobody likes to acknowledge their age so I’ll instead put it down to my tastes changing over time. And that’s the great thing about the adventure genre and video games in general: whether you’re looking for a fantasy experience or a more realistic one, there’s a title out there to suit everybody.

    Anyway, I was playing a game involving an evil Purple Tentacle trying to take over the world and a solution of time-travel… so maybe Red’s reaction to Hoagie’s appearance wasn’t so strange after all. And besides, Day of the Tentacle Remastered did give me the chance to finally investigate Ben’s bed.

    I hope his wife doesn’t mind too much.