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A work of art is both a single object and a collection of individual choices – sentences in a novel, assets in a game, instrumental parts in a piece of music, each of these is added and shaped with intent to achieve the overall goal of the piece. This is pretty self-evident, but often is not explicitly thought about by the creator during the creation. In some ways, it’s better not to think about it – for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

You have the theme or message or whatever of the work: Sometimes you know exactly what this is, sometimes you have to hone in on it carefully in the process of working on the piece. With each new stroke you add to the composition, you can choose to support this theme, to add to its message by echoing it; you can contrast with this theme, to push against it and by so doing ground and emphasize it; or to layer new elements onto the theme, add details that seem completely disconnected but add complexity.

Say you have a picture of a gigantic statue: To support how gigantic this statue is, you could add comparatively tiny human figure to show how it dwarfs the scale of humanity; to contrast, you could add a field of stars behind it or pull the viewpoint back, to show how even the greatest creations of humanity are minuscule in the greater scale of the universe; or you could add something different, a mural or a small scene between characters or some strange creature, to show that the story of this statue and the world it lives in is more complex than we might at first imagine.

Naive artists will, given the choice, always pick the first of these. I have been this kind of naive, and still often discover this kind of naivete in myself. It makes sense: I’m an artist, I know the impression I want to create, I should use everything I have in my toolbox to create the feeling I’m going for. And yet, most of the time, this kind of approach leads to something which feels flat, manipulative, and obvious. All bombast, all sorrow, all silliness, with no leavening by contrasting or diverging emotion, will inevitably feel flat and numbing.

This is why I said it’s probably better that most artists don’t think explicitly about their high-level intent and how to achieve it most of the time: The mindset of trying to achieve a specific emotional impact is difficult to separate from the mindset of how to most effectively bolster that tone in each particular instance. Much better to take freely from the chaos of the mind, to harness opportunities to create threads that flow alongside, flow against, or flow perpendicular to the main thread of the narrative as they occur to us.

However, for those of us who have a hard time not thinking about intent, have a hard time getting out of our heads and have a hard time not hammering the same points home with each individual component of a work, it might be worth it to keep these three thoughts in mind: Support, Contrast, Layer.

A tapestry is not woven out of only threads in parallel.

Freedom of speech has limits. Some people probably will get angry just at reading those words, but they’re also completely self-evident: Ordering the murder of another person is illegal; Spreading harmful rumors is illegal; giving false testimony in court is illegal. However, concurrent with knowing these limits exist, people still feel very comfortable declaring that there aren’t and should never be any limits on what a person can say to another person or group.

Somewhere along the line a belief grew on the ideals of open discourse like a fungus: This belief simultaneously declares that speech can topple emperors and that speech is harmless. The pen is mightier than the sword, yet if you are skewered by one you should be able to ignore it and walk it off, that harassment and criticism are both the same kind of air and can both be breathed as easily as one another. We say that “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” and elide that the sticks and stones are often directly instigated by the words – saying, simultaneously, that all speech is precious and that all violence is abhorrent – you might as well say that you love guns but hate bullets.

The question is, then, not of whether we should limit freedom of speech, but of whether the limits we have in place now effectively prevent harm while allowing a free society with a healthy economy of ideas – and whether those in charge of enforcing those limits are doing so effectively and judiciously. What forms of harm must we prevent people causing with words? What forms will we permit? What kinds of speech are so sacred that they must not be abridged under any circumstances?

Right now we see a lot of people defending the rights of bigots to do public bigotting without interference on grounds of free speech. Most bigoted speech eventually boils down to an incitement to violence with plausible deniability; nowadays even the fig leaf of not actively advocating genocide has started to fall away. Which raises the question: Why, if telling one person to do violence to another person is illegal, is telling a group of people to do violence to another group of people legal?

“Are you offended?” They like to ask. I’ve grown to dislike the word ‘offended’. It means nothing, it reduces every instance of cruel hate speech and harassment to hurt feelings. I’m not ‘offended’ so much as that I understand that every careless slur slightly increases the chances of someone being beaten, someone being raped or murdered, because it contributes to a narrative where their life has less worth, where they are intrinsically stupid or violent or deceptive. Individually, these words dissolve and become nothing, but in aggregate, spoken by millions of citizens, they create an environment of acceptable cruelty and justified victims.

We love it though. We love to defend the freedom of speech of white supremacists and Nazis. There are two interpretations of this that occur to me: The optimistic view would be that Nazism is viewed as the most extreme and egregious ideology possible, therefore if one is willing to stand up for Nazis then one therefore should logically be willing to stand up for any form of speech. Of course, most of the people who stand up for Nazism generally don’t actually bother to stand up for other forms of political ideology, perhaps more personally inconvenient and likely to actually be targeted by government censors and police rather than civilian censures and shaming.

The pessimistic view is just that white supremacy and Nazism is actually super popular. There is a not-insignificant weight of supporting evidence for this hypothesis at this point.

The limits of what is and isn’t ‘speech’ also get pretty tricky. The courts have deemed fit to decide that giving money is a form of free speech – when you give it to a politician. Funny how that works out. Certainly the choice of what to wear is an aspect of freedom of speech – but is choosing to wear a white robe just speech or is it providing an alibi for your comrades to murder?

I have two points here. One, when someone argues that hate speech shouldn’t be legal, that is not a stance fundamentally opposed to freedom of speech as we understand it, rather just one of many necessary attempts to clarify where the boundaries we’ve already drawn lie. In other words: What forms of speech are so intrinsically harmful that exercising them predictably and willfully reduces your fellow citizens’ freedoms?

Two, given that we understand that speech can do real harm and can transgress boundaries that one would expect to be enforced by law, what are we supposed to do if the law does nothing? Vigilantism is not admirable, but if the law will not help under circumstances of life-threatening danger – if words will summon the sticks and stones to break my bones, I am comfortable with fighting against those words by any means possible. Your rights end where another’s rights begin, and if by exercising your freedom you would deprive them of theirs, it becomes a matter of self-defense.

These boundaries will never be clear – but they may never be clearer than they are right now.

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Right around the time I was writing last week’s post I felt a suspicious itch in my nose that meant I was maybe getting sick. Then I got sick. I was pleased at how accurate my nasal observations had been, but overall I would have been fine with being wrong.

We can skip over the next few days. They were mostly very tedious and tiring. Afterwards, though, there were a couple of days where my sense of smell was recovered and I could think properly, but my sinuses were still packed with residual mucus, so 80% of what I smelled at each moment was the rancid remnants of the cold. Things which were once delicious stopped tasting good: Coffee became flavorless and bitter, and when I ate grilled vegetables I could only taste the grill. This was interesting, because other than that I felt fine. If I hadn’t recently been sick and didn’t understand this to be an effect of that cause, I would just think this was what these things tasted like. If my head just always smelled of disease, everything except for the simplest sweetest foods would seem unappealing.

It’s always so strange when the physical world affects the things we think of as being entirely psychological and intrinsic to our identity. We argue about matters of taste, justify why the things we like are good and the things we dislike are bad, without even considering whether we’re discussing the same thing, without accounting for how the tastes we cherish are shaped by our personal topography.

Games, and particularly computer games, externalize this issue. Every player’s experience of the game is mediated through their own gaming setup, so a transcendental experience for one player can be a framey mess for one who has different video card drivers. Then, another layer down, a fun-filled romp for one player may be a humiliating frustration for a player coping with disability. And now, as I reflect on it, another layer down, a game that tells a story of great import and meaning to one player may just be retelling the same boring demeaning claptrap another player has had to wade through for their entire life. If you go down enough layers, these external factors stop being external, start being part of who we fundamentally are, the shape of our skull, the networks of our neurons, the smell of our snot. It becomes impossible to separate the things which color our experience from the experience itself.

When I see so many people who seem to care nothing for art, who seem to care nothing for anything at all, who seem to exist only to take and accumulate and crave, I have to wonder how they are calibrated. Can they see at all what I see, feel at all what I feel? Maybe what makes them so hungry is they never learned to taste the things that they really needed to survive, so they just consume, like I kept drinking coffee that tasted like ashes, in the hopes that later it might help me to wake up.

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It’s been kind of a strange month for the project. I’ve made next to no progress on the task list I’ve created for the game, but I’m still largely satisfied with the work I’ve done. That is to say, I’ve been putting a lot of time in on things that it hadn’t previously occurred to me I would need, so I can’t really cross anything off a list when I get it done, but nevertheless the tasks I’ve done needed doing.

So, what are these tasks?

  • Created a system to modify hue/saturation/brightness of animations, and implemented controls for this into existing particle systems and associated editors, as well as creating a similar system for modifying tileset colors
  • Fixed up the detail editor to make it more flexible and easy to use, including the ability to modify multiple details at once
  • Created a seeded random number generator so particle systems that use random numbers will generate consistently from one play to the next
  • Created a simple collision system for particles, which can be used to make them only spawn on top of tiles or perform special behaviors when they collide with tiles
  • Added the ability to have particle behaviors that only trigger once on spawn rather than updating continuously
  • Collision improvements and implementation of water tiles and combination platform/slope tiles
  • Fixed the way perspective is calculated on details to center the vanishing point rather than have it locked to the upper left
  • Stripped out a non-functional zoom in/out system in favor of a much simpler one that actually works
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With all these color controls I have a lot more ability to customize areas without creating all-new assets

On top of that I’ve been building levels out, which is on the list but also takes a long time to make progress on. It’s really difficult to say much about the process of building levels, because 90% of it is just spent on making sure tile boundaries line up and making tiny aesthetic tweaks. In that way it’s a lot like working on the animations after I created prototype animations: All of the concept is mostly there, I just need to elevate it to finished quality.

I’m getting close to the end of my ad-hoc list of unexpected and unscheduled problems/improvements, so I ought to be getting back to the game schedule soon. Worst case scenario is I’m a month behind of where I wanted to be: Best case scenario is that I end up making up the time I lost by leveraging some of the improvements I’ve made. We’ll see. In any case, I’m probably going to be spending the coming month or two getting early-game enemies fully animated and operational. The first couple of enemies will be the most difficult by far, I believe – after those are complete I should be able to copy and paste from them for almost everything I’ll ever need an enemy to do.

 

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I’ve been watching old videos of the original The Binding of Isaac, and it’s strange looking back. As many huge improvements as Rebirth, the remake that came out a couple of years after, made to the base game, still it feels like something was lost in translation. Several things, actually…

Maybe it would be best to start with talking about all the reasons people generally regard Rebirth as categorically superior to the original. The first game had notorious framerate issues, many items didn’t work properly with each other, and it was built using technology that made it impossible to expand – many people say it reached the limits of Flash, Adobe’s multimedia tool, but Isaac was actually not just built in Flash, but built using Actionscript 2, the version of Flash’s scripting language that was deprecated in 2007. Since I’m building my own game in Flash (technically AIR, the standalone equivalent), this is a narrative that I feel compelled to correct whenever it comes up. Rebirth could have easily been built in Flash. But I digress: The point being, Rebirth fixes all these issues, so when viewed entirely within the scope of the shortcomings of the original it definitely seems like a superior game.

Looking back though, something seems off with what we have now – and it’s interesting to examine why that is. There are aspects of the design, art, and music that just fail to click in quite the same way.

The least contentious of these is the music. Nearly everyone preferred the music from the original game, composed by Danny Baranowsky, to that in Rebirth, composed by Ridiculon (Matthias Bossi and Jon Evans). The new soundtrack actually does some cool stuff, with music layers that fade in and out based on what’s currently happening in the gameplay – but this actually undermines part of what made Danny B’s score so amazing. With parts fading in and out, it becomes necessary to create a consistent base track for these to play on top of, which makes it impossible to construct an overall narrative flow to the music. Consequentially, Ridiculon’s music is background music in the truest sense, just providing accompaniment to the experience of the game, whereas Danny B’s score actually defines the tone of the game and creates its own narrative high and low points which interplay with the gameplay highs and lows to create a more complex experience. Combined with a generally more melancholy and creepy tone, it makes the overall musical experience of playing Rebirth rather lacking comparatively.

Aesthetically, I have a bone to pick with the game similar to that regarding the defamation of Flash. When they announced that Rebirth was going to have a “16-bit” art style, I thought that was a peculiar choice, but was willing to see what they came up with. What they came up with was, unfortunately, kind of a pathetic excuse – which seems harsh, but I promise I have a reason for saying that.

First, let’s talk about the art in the original. Isaac used vector art, a specialty of Flash: Vector art is a style of rendering that stores images and a set of drawing instructions, a list of lines and colors. This is a powerful tool because these instructions can be easily rotated, scaled, color-shifted, and so forth with no loss of quality, but it pays for this in making detailed art very processor intensive. Rebirth, conversely, uses raster images for its assets: Raster images are what we’re generally used to working with in photoshop and other editors, just a grid of colors which can look realistic at its native resolution but looks notably blocky at lower resolutions. 16-bit games used raster images at a set low resolution to create a crunchy but vibrant look that is still beloved today. However, the entire design of Isaac was based around arbitrarily scaling and coloring assets which, as mentioned, works a lot better with vector images than raster images. However, for whatever reason the Rebirth team didn’t want to work with vector images, so to conceal the shortcomings of scaled, rotated, or otherwise processed raster images they used super low-resolution raster images and called the resulting look “16-bit”.

This is kind of insulting. There’s no coherence to the resolution – even when the pixels align along the grid the objects that own the pixels move with subpixel accuracy, creating a smoothness that’s impossible in a true 16-bit environment, and as game objects scale up or down in accordance with the mechanics they turn into grotesque pixellated bullshit. Also, because they use such low-res assets, there’s no room for detail in any of the enemies: The original enemy designs, though crude, have an expressiveness to their lines that makes them creepier and more compelling. While pixel art has a great deal of expressiveness in its own right, within the context of Rebirth that expressiveness is curtailed by being constantly squashed and stretched, one of the ugliest things you can do to pixel art.

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The design issues with the game snuck up on me. In general, the gameplay choices made in Rebirth are very smart, limiting boring and overpowered tactics in favor of more interesting and aggressive ones, expanding the possibility space for encounters by adding lots of new items and enemies and rooms, and generally spicing thing up by adding new interactions. However, something weird started to happen as more and more items were added. I first noticed it with the item “Gimpy”, which is… exactly what it sounds like.

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…And this comes to a fairly fine point about what Isaac is and is not. The Binding of Isaac has a lot of kind of gross and shocking content, but all of it is contextualized by the understanding that this is a child’s conception of the world, and all the weird gross things in it are exactly the sorts of weird gross things that kids tend to develop obsessions with – bodily functions, deformities, and so forth. Up until Rebirth, Isaac items tended to fit one of three themes: Everyday objects granted extraordinary significance, religious symbols, or video game references. These make total sense from the perspective of a weird shut-in kid who only knows his toys, the random things he finds, and the creepy religious stories his family tells him. But once you add S&M gear to the mix, it no longer becomes about expressing Isaac’s character, about life in the mind of an isolated and possibly abused child, but just about being weird and gross for the sake of weird and gross. By itself Gimpy is just one item, but it indicates an overall trend away from being expressive and meaningful and towards adding stuff to the game just for the sake of having it there.

In the end, Rebirth’s flaws are covered up by the simple expedient of repetition. Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t care that the music lacks narrative flare, you don’t even hear it any more. Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t notice that everything is in a different resolution – the game just looks the way the game looks, why would it look any different? Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t see a gimp mask, you see a way to restore health in difficult situations. You see the frame rate stable at 60 frames per second, you see the hundreds of weird and interesting item interactions. It may have made total sense to prioritize the things they did in developing the game: In so doing they’ve made a game that people who love Isaac can play for thousands of hours and still enjoy.

However, they’ve also made it so the chill I felt when I first played the game, the genuine sense of visceral discomfort and confusion and striving understanding, are now obscured behind a layer of generic video game.

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There’s been a great deal of discussion about violence in video games over the last couple of decades, but the conversation usually doesn’t go anywhere interesting because the participants don’t really understand what violence is. What makes a violence isn’t blood or the guts, breaking bones or excruciatingly detailed mutilations – these things, or the artistic depictions thereof, mean nothing by themselves. The essence of violence is the framework that justifies the bloodshed, the story of just war or of vengeance. Violence isn’t the pull of the trigger or the splatter that happens afterwards, it’s the brain justifying the decision, it’s the story we tell ourselves about why it is okay to hurt and kill. At that moment, before it ever happens in reality, a human being is reduced to an object, an enemy, a corpse.

In this way the concern over violence in media like games is revealed as not quite as misguided as we would like to think, though the specific critiques and accusations are often nonsensical and ignorant. The concerning aspect of artistic violence is always, always, who do we decide it is okay to kill – and why? Because a process very much like that is used every day out in the world, and the same calculus that creates a first person shooter may one day create a school shooter.

We have designated villains, ranging from zombies, who are already dead but haven’t noticed it, to criminals, who we have to take the game’s word for that are definitely bad enough dudes that they need to die. Usually the questions that would naturally emerge about why we should kill these guys are short-circuited by the pragmatics of self-defense: It’s not important how we got here, but now that we’re here these guys are trying to kill you and the best (only) solution you have to that problem is to kill them first. As we flesh out games more and more narratively, it gets weirder and weirder that we’re pigeonholed into killing – but, still, the original assumptions made in the structure of the game take primacy, and we go along with it, because we really don’t have a choice. That’s the way the game is played: Kill or be killed.*

But it says something, doesn’t it, that we care more about the blood and guts in our art than the policies and assumptions that bleed and gut our world? It may be that we fight against violence in media, not because it contributes to violence, but because it reminds of of violence. Or it may be that we like fighting against fictional violence because it’s such a smaller and more understandable problem than actual violence. Actual violence doesn’t go away once you clean up the blood – it remains, its damage done, forever.

I am reminded of a Roald Dahl story about a man who invents a powerful listening device, and when he listens through it he can hear the agonized screaming of each rose as his neighbor trims them in her garden.

Empathy is difficult and exhausting.

I guess I understand why we avoid it so much of the time.

*Even though this structure is at its most common in multiplayer competitive games, this environment also lends itself well to hilarious subversion of these assumptions

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Pong and other early arcade games feel so primitive to us now in 2017. It seems intuitive to credit technological advances for the massive difference in complexity between the light arcade games of 35 years ago and the many more complex forms of video game we play today, but how much does technology really have to do with that shift? Complexity of input and gameplay systems increased over time, but not nearly in proportion with technological advances. No, the biggest difference between games then and games today is that today’s games are made to be played by ‘gamers’, people who have played other games before and been shaped by the experience.

When Pong succeeded, it did so because it was a game that could be played by anyone. Though many think of Pong as being the first arcade game, many players today would likely prefer to play the actual first arcade game, Computer Space, a game of careful movement and twitch reflex which was released more than five years before Pong – however, it was not especially commercially successful – not the way Pong was – likely because it was too complicated and unintuitive for the mass audience, who were by-and-large not technically inclined and were also slightly inebriated.

With no prior exposure to video games, members of the general population had not built up the dexterity and coordination required to successfully play a multi-button interactive game. “People learned how to play video games as a group over time,” says Bushnell. “I think they could have handled it much better two or three years later.

45 years after Pong, as much as game technology has progressed, game literacy has progressed much further. Most people with any interest in the medium have built up huge specialized skillsets that allow us to appreciate nuanced designs that would be universally mystifying 45 years ago. We have progressed beyond the two-directional wheel, to the four-directional joystick with one button, to controllers with a directional pad and 4 buttons, to controllers with a directional pad, two joysticks, and 10-buttons-plus-you-can-click-the-joysticks-down-like-buttons-too. In the meanwhile, games were developed for PC which had the keyboard as standard equipment, a controller with 50 buttons and nothing else. For a while games tried to use as many keys as possible, but developers eventually realized this was ridiculous and tried to mostly restrict themselves to the left side of the keyboard – particularly as the mouse gained popularity as a standard input mechanism.

Video game complexity increased hand-in-hand with video game literacy until the early 2000s, at which point popular games were intricate or finicky enough that only people who had been playing games for much of their lives understood them. A kind of equilibrium was reached, for a while, where the really complex games mostly went to PC for a smaller but more dedicated audience and gaming consoles got most of the lighter more arcadey fare. However, game companies tried to unify these audiences, and managed in so doing to create games that were still intimidatingly complex to people who had never played games, but at the same time insultingly condescending and easy to people who had been playing games all their lives, thus satisfying exactly no one with the precision only the way the invisible hand of the market can achieve.

Now we’re at an interesting point: Because games can be readily developed at many different team sizes and price points, we have something of a reemergence of the console/PC paradigm but with a softer barrier: Very simple games like Super Hexagon mostly find their way to mobile platforms as primary targets, and very complex games like XCOM mostly find their way to PC and, to a lesser degree, consoles as primary targets, but both also find themselves frequently ported to each other’s dominant platform. We’re finally beginning to establish, however haphazardly, a curriculum of game design, by which new players can discover how to engage with a vast and expanding medium

It’s strange now to look back and realize that no game experience is really self-contained. Each game teaches us to play itself and, as game developers learn by playing games, the many clashing ideas of what a game is or can be propagates through them memetically. Every game you have played before contributes to the experience of the game you are playing now, for good or ill, by shaping the vocabulary you use to explore it. And like that we build a bridge into the future, trying to construct a path to the experience we imagine a game can one day make manifest.