On Inception, Part 1: Emil Pagliarulo

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Video games have certainly inspired plenty of movies, but mainly in the area of bullet-time acrobatics and CG-laden effects sequences; it’s rare to find a film that specifically reflects the artistic creation of a game. So it was surprising when Inception not only brought the submachineguns, but also the subtext.

Plenty of Bethesda developers dug the film, so we sat down with a few to extract some of their thoughts. First up is a chat with Emil Pagliarulo, point man/lead designer on Fallout 3. Warning: some slight Inception spoilers follow.

I’ve heard people call Inception the first movie about game design. Going into it, were you conscious of any analogy to games?

No, I wasn’t conscious of any of that — it actually surprised me. And then with the Ariadne character [played by Ellen Page], they actually talk about the dreams being “levels.”

Right, “level creator,” or however they termed it.

Right, and then it was like, oh, whoa, okay. And it totally took on this other weird meaning. Up until that point, I had been thinking about the movie solely as a dream. But once they brought up the term “level,” then you can’t help but think about losing your consciousness when playing a game, and what that means. Sort of the same type of stuff that James Cameron did with Avatar, making the fantasy your reality, and where does one stop and the other begins.

One of the rules in the film is that if you dream something completely outlandish, you essentially break the immersion and the dream collapses. That has some symmetry with games.

Well the fact that it had rules at all, because you don’t think that there are rules in dreams. And when you think about it that way, it’s much more the structure of a game than a dream you might have. Because a virtual world has defenses, and [in the film] there are these AI defenses that are actually much more like computer AI than dream constructs, which is really interesting. And how could you not make the Call of Duty comparison at the end.

I thought of a few other games as well. Oddly enough, during the hallway fight sequence I was thinking, “I’ve turned on low gravity in Counter-Strike.”

Oh yeah, good point.

Even the dream “extras” act like NPCs, in the way that they’re very reactionary.

You know, I think it’s funny: there’s still this childish sort of notion, and this immaturity that gets associated – sometimes fairly, many times unfairly – with video games. So you have this movie that’s about dreams, that you could easily say is about video games. Take a similar movie that actually is about video games, and the concept isn’t nearly as strong. It’s so much more believable when, A) you have an alien director like Chris Nolan that’s not from this planet; and B) when you say it’s about dreams. Because really it’s not about dreams, it’s about consciousness.

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Speaking of which, you were talking about the film’s concept of being lost in one reality — we’re already seeing that to some small degree with games. The famous example is the guy that collapses in a cyber café after playing for 48 hours. It’s a moral question, in a sense.

Yeah, totally.

Do you think that will come to a head eventually?

There is certainly a level of involvement that people get with games that I have experienced, but then there’s this whole other level where people… I think it’s easy to blame games, but honestly what you have are people that don’t have the best grasp of reality. And when they encounter something like a virtual world, it becomes their means to escape from reality.

Which you could argue is more or less Cobb’s problem in the film. I also thought it was interesting that Cobb recruited Ariadne, a student that had no experience with dream design.

And by the way, that whole thing is weird in itself. Is she an architect? You would assume that she is, or is it some weird math class?

Right, it’s not explained. She has no experience with this, but she’s essentially creating levels after a short tutorial, simply because she has the mental capacity for it. I couldn’t help but think of modding tools, or games like LittleBigPlanet and Garry’s Mod. In the future, do you think it’ll become that much easier for people to participate in game design?

Funny you say that. I look at my kids, and they’ve played LittleBigPlanet to death, right? And when you look at the user generated content for something like LittleBigPlanet, it’s just astronomically huge. My kids right now are playing this game called Roblox. It’s a web game where you make this little robot character, and it’s sort of like an MMO. The graphics are very blocky and chunky – this thing could run on a calculator. Millions of kids play this thing, my kids are totally addicted to it.

And the beauty of the game is that the game’s free to play; the subscription model gives you more control over the levels you make. You name a movie or a game, and someone’s made it in this thing, because it’s all user-generated content, and people are actually paying to do it. It’s kind of brilliant – don’t charge me to play the game, charge me to make the game. And even look at the mod tools that we have, and all the crazy stuff that people have created with those.

Have you ever gotten an idea from a dream?

Yes, actually. This is actually really bizarre, but true. When I’m awake during the course of my day, the biggest punishment you could inflict on someone is to put them inside of my head. [laughs] The inside of my head is a jumbled, frightening, chaotic mess. I swear to god I’m borderline schizophrenic. The reverse of that is, my dreams are usually – I don’t have wacky dreams anymore. My dreams are usually so coherent that I’d say seven out of ten times, they’re very normal and I can wake up and remember everything that happened. I have designed scenarios in my sleep and –

Wait, really?

Yeah. It’s started happening in the last few years. Some of my best ideas have come to me when I’ve been dreaming, and they’re fleshed out enough that I can wake up and start writing them down.

Do you keep a notepad near your bed just in case, or an iPhone?

Yeah, you know what, I take notes on my iPhone. [laughs] It’s so weird. Sometimes I’m at work and I’m struggling to come up with stuff and put the pieces together, and the next morning I’ll be like, oh okay, it all sorta fits. But then I have dreams where [Bethesda developer] Tim Lamb shows up in the back of my car and puts me in a chokehold, and then I wake up and I’m like, what the hell does that mean?

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He’s no Ellen Page, but stay tuned for the next part in our series as we talk with Fallout 3 lead level designer Joel Burgess.

Reader Comments

  1. LOL at Tim Lamb thing. Maybe it’s your subconscious telling you he’s stressing you out or something!

    I did actually wonder, watching Inception, whether my lack of confusion was due to my enjoyment of games; perhaps others feel the same?

    Oh, and my Cheydinhal House for Sale mod for Oblivion is recreated from my memory of a dream I had of looking around (that) house with a view to buying it.

  2. Interesting interview! With an interesting take, enjoyed the read Emil! I’ve come up with quite a few ideas just as I awake or even while I sleep… but they are easy to forget… I’ve got to see this movie before one more person can tell me to.

  3. Always nice to hear from Emil and to see inside stuff about game design. Sort of breaks the barrier from having to be an extraordinary mind to just acting on those extraordinary moment you get; in this case, your dreams.

    Also, please no Tim Lamb DLC, ever.