Grounding video games in good science

by Erik Leijon

Thwacke! could be considered the sound of science and video games colliding.

In reality, it’s the name of a consulting group founded at McGill by alumni Sebastian Alvarado, PhD'13, and Maral Tajerian, MSc'08, PhD'13. They’re scientists first, and gamers second, but with Thwacke, the husband and wife duo are bridging their academic work with their hobby.

Along with dozens of consultants around the world – all working scientists encompassing nearly every discipline imaginable – Alvarado and Tajerian work together with video game developers to make their projects more realistic.

Since forming in 2012, they have fielded a wide variety of strange scientific hypotheticals, but Alvarado, equipped with a doctoral degree in pharmacology, says Thwacke! came about from trying to answer a very simple one.

“I was working as a play tester,” recalls Alvarado, now a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford. “One day I was walking past one of the studio’s lead writers, and I saw that he was looking up DNA on Wikipedia. I thought to myself, ‘I’m a molecular biologist, that’s my thing.’”

Other McGill alumni who consult for Thwacke! include Carl Chiniara, MDCM'10, Eric Lis, MDCM'10, Alexis Goulet Hanssens (a doctoral student in chemistry) and Kevin Neibert, BSc'08 (a doctoral student in pharmacology). The firm’s first project was science fiction role-playing game Wasteland II, developed by California-based inXile Entertainment. The game is currently available in beta form and will be widely released later this year.

For Wasteland II, Thwacke! consultants were on call for every question inXile might have about plausible post-apocalyptic scenarios.

“We created documents covering evolution and radiation sickness, how to handle an amputation [and] ways of creating weapons using the bare minimum of supplies,” Alvarado says.

The first game to hit the market featuring consultation from Thwacke! was Outlast, developed by independent Montreal studio Red Barrels. Released last fall, Outlast is a tense horror thriller set in a mental institution.

“When we first talked with Red Barrels, they had just released their first trailer. People were saying Outlast looked like a zombie game, which they did not want at all,” Alvarado says.

Thwacke! and Red Barrels both felt the AI-controlled characters needed more depth. In order to accurately depict the population of a mental asylum, Tajerian, a PhD in neurology and neurosurgery, proposed creating a wider range of inmates by developing character profiles with the help of psychiatrists.

“Not all patients in an asylum are necessarily violent, so that was something we suggested that was implemented,” says Tajerian, also a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford. “In a sense, it makes the game more frightening," since players are never certain about whether the characters they encounter are dangerous or not. "It’s more real that way.”

With better science, Alvarado and Tajerian are hoping to make gaming a richer experience without taking away the fun. They are, after all, gamers themselves.

“We’re all working scientists,” says Alvarado. “We pride ourselves on bringing new ideas and technology to the public through video games.”