Well, I’m back to working on EverEnding. That side-project ended up being exactly what I didn’t want it to be, an excuse to work on a whole bunch of tools without ever making an actual game to go with them. We’ll call it a learning experience. What did I learn? I learned that I have a habit of avoiding the scary unquantifiable parts of a project in favor of working on parts that feel like safe investments – that I feel, somewhere inside myself, that if I pour my efforts into making tools and systems that that’s a safer gamble to me than pouring them into the actual core of a game. Art is scary! The more time you have to put into making it, the scarier it gets – in the first place, making art is like putting a message in a bottle and letting it out to float on the sea, and it only gets more stressful when you spend more than a year creating that message. The solution is not, I think, to spend another year developing new bottle and paper and ink production facilities to make creating each message that tiny bit less terrifying, but it’s an appealing option to take whenever it presents itself.

Oh, also in addition to those big existential questions I guess I learned a lot about making a scripting system and working with OpenFL. So that’s good too.

Once I decided I’d basically dead-ended, it was clearly time to head back to EverEnding. However, I’d left the project in uh… not a great place. I’d completed about half of the OpenFL port, and lots of systems weren’t running and I’d left lots of bugs in the systems that were running. Eventually, after lots of debugging and deliberation, I ended up rolling back a number of the changes I’d made and reverting back to Adobe AIR… for now. The reason for this is that switching to OpenFL would not only require me completely rewriting all my rendering systems, it would also make a couple of the special effects I’m planning extremely difficult. I really want to be actually working on a game now, so I figure rather than resolving all these issues right away I can defer them for a while. A big thing that enabled that is that OpenFL now supports Adobe AIR as a target platform, so with a few checks in my code to handle cases that are unique to OpenFL (most of which I’d already implemented) I can have something that can run on that version of OpenFL with no changes and, perhaps soon after, build to other OpenFL target platforms. Even if I’m not prepared to implement OpenFL just yet, with my experimentation here and with the side-project I think I have a pretty good idea how I’ll handle it when that time comes.

So, back to working on EverEnding: There were a few big design decisions I’d been deferring, one of which was specifically how to handle the narrative of the game and the other was creating some sort of special moves the player could unlock over the course of the game. I think I figured out a good system for creating a narrative in the style of sort of a story-book, with narration synced to music and text fading in – this is probably something I’ll want to prototype, though, to make sure it actually feels right. The special moves are like 75% figured out, but only the smallest slice of that stuff will be in the first chapter of the game, which is the one I’m focusing on right now, so I can figure out the last of that later. After I got that stuff basically sorted, I created a big task-list for creating chapter 1 of the game. I already had a task-list, but I made one that was bigger and more thorough, and had accompanying time estimates for each task. I tried to overshoot every estimate, but if they’re accurate than I have something in the region of 1300 hours to put into the project before the first chapter is complete. That’s a lot. Then again, I’ve put that much time into TF2, and I didn’t even make that game.

I have my work cut out for me. I’m going to start scheduling myself a bit more strictly again, though I may only get a few days to work to that schedule before I have to leave for a family thing, but with all this down and planned out I feel – well, not exactly optimistic, but determined I guess. I just turned 35, I’m starting to get the tiniest bit of grey in my beard, I got a blood pressure monitor for my birthday. I really do need to actually finish a project.

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I’m uncomfortable with the passage of time. I dislike it, and because time flies when you’re having fun I retain a slight antipathy for having fun as well. I usually try to have fun anyway, but a bit begrudgingly, acutely aware of the cost. I suspect that this awareness makes my fun less fun.

At the end of the day I feel caught between two unpleasant sensations: One, the sensation of having not done enough, of having lived another day without achieving enough of a change in the state of the world to justify losing that day; two, the sensation of having not had any time, of the day ending prematurely before I had any chance to note its passing. The more I fight the first the more I feel the second: Time, of course, does not only fly when you’re having fun, but when you’re fully engrossed in any task. The inverse is also true: If I try to relax a little, take things slowly and enjoy them, I get to the end of the day and wonder how I got so little done.

This, probably, is part of the reason I persist in what I generously refer to as ‘self-employment’, which means that I don’t have a job but I still pay rent. A job would make things a lot easier, but the last time I had one time passed so quickly, and at the end of the year I felt like I could remember very little of it – and, as well, that everything I had achieved within it was for someone else’s benefit. Thus, I decided to pursue my own projects and work to my own schedule, and now I maybe don’t get as much done but all of what I get done belongs to me. I keep trying to push myself to be more productive and effective, but whenever I make strides forward I feel like time starts passing faster and I pull back. I frequently remind myself of the character Dunbar in Catch-22, who is constantly doing things he hates because it makes time go slower, since the more time passes the more missions he has to fly, since the more missions he has to fly the more likely he is to die.

There’s no real resolution to this conflict. The conflict is simply that a limited amount of things can happen in a given amount of time: I can try to do more of those things, but that doesn’t make more time, it just makes me busier, and the busier I get the less I’ll be able to perceive time that passes, the less I’ll feel like I can keep up. It’s perverse, the parts of my brain which keep me from working point to the longer days made by less work and say “see, isn’t this nicer? So much more time to work on important things”, and hide from me the fact that I only created that time by not doing those things.

What can I do? Do I go slow and enjoy the illusion of creating time? Do I push myself to work more and feel like the world is passing me by while I’m not paying attention? Am I capable of even making a decision here and sticking to it, or am I incapable of seeing past my subjective sense of more or less time, more or less productivity, to actually negotiate a path through the day that doesn’t make me feel like I’m living half of a life?

Games are, generally, engines for responding to player input. Whether the game feels good is largely a matter of how robust the response is – robust both in how closely it interacts with the player’s input and in how well-constructed it is. A systems-driven game would be primarily the former, capable of reacting to a wide range of different situations in ways which are individually rather shallow but, in interaction with each other, can be rich and complex. Linear narrative games, on the other hand, focus on the latter, only responding to a narrow range of inputs but responding with content that has had a great deal of thought put into it.

Let’s disregard linear narrative games for the moment, because what I’m interested in right now is that idea of responsiveness. Every time you, the player, takes an action within the game and the game responds to it, that just inherently feels pleasurable, the pleasure of a toddler dialing a fake phone or ringing the bell on a bike. Doing something, and something happening in response, is an intrinsically pleasing act.

Now, games try to be ambitious in all sorts of interesting ways, and one of the most popular is having some sort of morality system: Do Good things and good things happen, do Bad things and bad things happen. There are a whole lot of conceptual problems with this, some of which I’ve gotten into before, but a huge fundamental flaw with these systems as a form of messaging is that there’s no way bad things can happen in a game – that is to say, there’s no way that a game’s reaction to your decisions can really be ‘bad’ because the mere fact that it is responding to your decision is pleasing to the mind on a fundamental level. When you’re playing Deus Ex, you don’t get flustered or upset because JC Denton got in trouble with his boss for poking around in the women’s restroom, you’re just pleased the game noticed something you did. You can’t even really punish the player by making things more difficult to them, because at that point you’ve given them a challenge run – this is fairly directly critiqued in the genocide story path in UNDERTALE (I’ll avoid getting into specifics here for spoiler reasons, but you can read my thoughts on it, among other aspects of the story, here).

It seems that the best way to discourage a player from taking an action is merely to fail to respond to it at all, rather than punish them or shame them for it: After all, many people find punishment and shame quite enjoyable under safe circumstances. Perhaps this tendency, rather than actual narrative success, is what has preserved the morality system in games – but I digress. In Far Cry 2, there are various animals wandering the deserts and forests you’re exploring and fighting through. The developers didn’t want the players to hurt or abuse animals for fun, so they just made them so they dropped dead if anything happened to them. This lead to some amusing scenarios where a deer would occasionally get bumped with an open car door and immediately be stricken dead, but at least served the purpose of keeping the animals from being cheap physics toys for the players to amuse themselves with.

None of this is an argument to disinclude consequence or morality from your game: After all, we include these ideas in other narrative forms all the time, just with no expectation of the audience to feel personal shame or chagrin for the actions undertaken. I would relinquish any idea of making the player ever regret taking an action in a video game on the basis of that action’s consequences: There can be no such thing as punishing a player with the consequences for their actions when consequences are just so delightful, regardless of their intent.

They say there’s no story without conflict. I don’t really understand why this is said so often and with such confidence, but that seems to be how we teach fiction-writing around these parts because I’ve heard it a lot. I dislike broad structural declarations like this, since inevitably stories are warped to fit the lens rather than the lens being applied to better understand the story: If there’s no interpersonal conflict, then the conflict must be between a person and their environment or their own mind… this covers a pretty broad range. Yes, you can describe a plot this way: Nearly any sequence of thoughts or events could be vaguely described as a conflict, in the same way nearly any arrangement of objects could be turned into a physics diagram, but only occasionally would these be useful intermediary steps towards solving a particular problem. Likewise, only occasionally is the conflict-centered view of storytelling the most useful and interesting approach.

There are lots of stories! Stories of love and loss, of the unreliability of memory and the temptations of imagination and of hurt and exploration. It’s impoverished to regard these as a conflict between Man and Time or Man and Death. What sort of conflict is that? We are not in conflict with gravity or with the ground, we are suspended between them. Even if we fall, our death is not conflict with the ground. Things happen that don’t fit this conflict model, and they frequently make interesting stories anyway. It’s a bit terrifying that we’ve been able to tell the line that stories are based in conflict as a generally uncontested bit of storytelling advice for so long – that, itself, tells a story: It’s like science fiction, a culture that can only understand the world through fights.

Similarly, a popular description of gameplay, coined by Sid Meier, is as a ‘series of interesting choices’. This is broader and, in general, I have less direct criticism of it – my issue is more with what we regard to be ‘interesting’ and what we regard to be ‘choices’. Even in completely passive entertainment along the lines of movies we make choices – we choose which characters we like, we choose what to focus our attention on and choose from different possible interpretations of what’s going on and why. Even in a passive medium we are active audience members, parsing and digesting and translating. This process is much the same as it is in games, except games then ask us to take that interpretation one step further, to translate it into an action that then affects the state of the game.

Since we have culturally interpreted all fiction as being based in conflict, it’s then a short jump to interpret all ‘interesting choices’ as being based in conflict. And, when you frame a choice with conflict, it tends to be crunched down into whether it allows you, as a participant in this conflict, to come out on top. Every interpretation, every decision, becomes a way to navigate a way to victory.

To most people, this is what a video game is.

However, none of this is intrinsic to the medium. Stories don’t have to be about conflict, and choice isn’t just a way to win battles, and interest isn’t just the currency of problem-solving. Games structured this way are fine, and it’s great that they’ll continue to exist because I like shooting digital people with digital guns as much as anyone, but when you take a step back from any of these assumptions it becomes obvious how incredibly tiny this conception of what a game is compared to the massive possibility of what games can be. I mean, we’ve already cut off a huge amount of possibility space to explore in fiction by centering our conception on conflict, and we’ve further constrained games to be a subsection of that.

There’s so much resistance to seeing games as anything but engines for presenting choices that navigate supremacy in conflict, but they could be more. They could be anything.

This might not be the best time to write a DevBlog, but it’s also way overdue and having not done it is stressing me out, so I may as well get it out there. After a short vacation followed by a short cold, I finally managed to get the scripting system more or less up and running. However, whether it’s left over from the cold or because of my mood, finishing the scripting system didn’t leave me with a sense of relief or of completion, but just a sense of having reached a dead end. Now I have a potentially powerful and interesting tool at my disposal, but in order to actually use it I need to restructure my project to accommodate it, and I still don’t really know what that project is or is going to be.

In and of itself, that’s not a problem. I didn’t know what the project was before, and I have one more tool for tackling the project than I did before, so no problem, right? At worst I have a month or so of wasted time, which isn’t great but it’s hardly worse than some of the other setbacks I’ve dealt with – and, as wasted time goes, creating a parser for a scripting language is far more educational than most time wastes. The issue is more that, at the moment, I have no real drive to pursue the project, or really to pursue any project.

This happens sometimes, and maybe I just need to wait it out. Or maybe I need to do something different, or maybe I just need to figure out a new approach. I don’t know. I’ve just been very tired, and not knowing where I’m going or how I’m getting there is making me more so. The world seems exceedingly broken at the moment, and putting long-term work into a project when I can’t feel confident that anything about the world I’d be making it for is will still be the same when it is complete just feels like a waste of time. Games are generally what I’ve been passionate about, but at the moment games feel like a bit of a dead end.

In all likelihood, I’ll feel better soon enough. I’ll feel more alert, some aspect of the project will catch my interest again, and I’ll build an idea and purpose around that. In the meanwhile, I think I need to take a moment and look around. Maybe something else will catch my interest, maybe something a bit more solid. Maybe I’ll get back to work on EverEnding. I don’t know. I’m just waiting right now, and trying to rest, and trying to figure out a direction to go in. I don’t think that we really need any sort of grand calling in life, but we do need something to pursue, and right now I’m not sure what that is for me.

Oh well, this one was kind of a downer. Hopefully I’ll figure something out and next month’s DevBlog, if that’s even an appropriate title any more, will be less bleak.

The relationship between power, success, and ethics is a tricky one. We’re all expected to try to achieve success in our chosen fields and, though to some degree we define it differently from field to field, in large part ‘success’ always boils down to earning money and/or the respect of one’s peers. Both money and respect, though, come with power and influence, frequently influence which we cannot choose not to wield – at least not without also yielding our hold on success, and who knows if we can ever get that back? So, then, to become successful is to take on a moral burden, that when we exercise this power – which we cannot help but do – that we be mindful of the help and harm we might deal.

It is strange, to me, that we expect everyone to attempt ‘success’ when it has so much potential for harm, that we think less of those who do not. I’m personally not wild about this dangerous potential that fame and fortune harbor, but I’m not thrilled about the rewards of obscurity and poverty either.

We don’t talk much about the responsibilities that come with the power of achievement, which is probably why so many seem to fail to notice those responsibilities exist. There are many out there now trying to become ‘influencers’ without considering what they might do with this influence. This myopia is beneficial to those who would utilize these influencers, for advertisements or propaganda of one stripe or another, and detrimental for everyone else, since an influencer who fails to in any way account for the content of his or her influence tends to vent a lot of humanity’s worst brain garbage on those they influence. And, of course, those they influence tend to be those most vulnerable to outside influence, which boils down basically to those people who already inclined to agree with what they’re saying and children – who mostly agree with anything that they hear early and persistently enough.

If there was a college curriculum for this sort of career path it would be high time to integrate ethics classes into it, the same way ethical engineering classes became a priority after the invention of the nuclear bomb. More traditional creative educational programs would probably also benefit, except that the arts and humanities tend to already contain various morals and parables. You cannot learn about fiction or history without learning about action and consequence, without learning about butterfly effects and wars lost for want of a nail.

This is not an especially fixable problem at the moment. The problem rests in how we’ve defined success as influence, and then made each individual’s survival and prosperity contingent on realizing that form of success. This isn’t even entirely a problem with capitalism, although the close ties between artistic success and financial survival aggravate the situation: As long as we have an economy of attention and respect that only recognizes artists with wide reach as successful, we’ve created a scenario where everyone who is successful will have wide reach, whether they wanted that reach or not, whether they can use it responsibly or not.

We’ve decoupled the desire to become a leader from the skills and responsibilities of leading. Perhaps all we can do for now is convince as many as possible to stop following – or, as it were, unfollow.

Games are about progress – I can state this with some confidence since it’s a natural outgrowth of games both as narrative works and games as systems which generate results from input. Even games that are technically endless are built on this idea of time passing and things changing and of dealing with whatever emerges afterwards. However, let’s disregard narrative progress for the moment – after all, moving the plot forward is in no way a concern unique to games, and most of the techniques used to do so were established elsewhere. Let’s also disregard the progression of player skill, since all the game designer can do to affect player skill progression is to give that player an interesting space in which to develop those skills, and tools to understand the necessary steps in doing so.

With those two safely out of mind for the moment, let’s talk about Power Progression: Leveling up, finding sweet loot, going to a skill trainer, whatever. There’s a lot of it in games now, much more so than there used to be: Early arcade games were mostly about player skill progression, though they did have a few levels and some nominal narrative which also were progressed. Still, the future that the player imagined when they played those games was not that of a thrilling conclusion or a cool super ability, but becoming better at the skill of playing the game. Power progression really started taking off, though, when it became possible to save a game in progress. Buying items and leveling up became a lot more appealing when those items and levels didn’t disappear whenever you took a break or had a power outage. Players loved it, because it gave them an extra reason to come back, a sense of having invested something into the game which they could recoup later. Designers loved it because it gave them a long-term design space to work with, where the way the system interacted evolved over time.

The Problem emerged when the suits started to love it. Capitalists love power progression because it makes games addictive, incentivizes players to drop extra money in, and incidentally serves to reinforce the propaganda of capitalism: Stick with the system, work hard for the system, and eventually you will be rewarded. It turns out that, like adding a nauseating amount of salt, almost any game can be cheaply made more compelling just by adding some sort of long-term progression on top of whatever game is already there. A sense of progress is an easy emotion to exploit, because it makes even activities that are soulless and unappealing feel worthwhile: Most of the tech sector is founded on selling a sense of progress, even though the objects that are supposedly emblematic of this progress are trinkets of questionable utility at best and Looney-Tunes-esque smart house paranoia fuel at worst.

So we add upgrades and levels and purchasable boosts to upgrades and levels and we add prestige and unlockable skins and so on and so forth, just to make the player feel that their time-wasters aren’t wasting their time. That this time is an investment.

With this all in mind, the sort of power progression you want to put in your game becomes quite a pressing question, one that interrogates both what experience you want to impart to the player and what is an ethically sound way of offering that experience. Even if not quite as dystopian as some of the free-to-play scenarios we’ve already seen play out, the tendency of RPGs to sub in progression of the player character for any meaningful player skill progression and, in the case of MMORPGs, any meaningful plot progression as well, also raises questions of how many of these empty calories can we feel okay about feeding to players.

This sort of player progression faked through creating a more powerful player avatar could be taken so much further, to an extent that’s creepy to think about. Like an inversion of the adaptive difficulty systems that were trendy in games a while back, you could design a game that quietly became easier and easier the more it was played be the same person, perfectly faking the experience of them improving. With thumbprint and facial recognition and constant internet connections, you could even make it so the game matches difficulty with its player across devices – you could make it profile the player’s play style to sense discrepancies in case you tried to spoof it. Imagine a version of Super Hexagon that slowly went slower and slower the more you played it, like Mrs. Twit in the Roald Dahl book The Twits, who is fooled by her husband into believing she is shrinking when he gradually elongates her cane and the legs of her chair with little slivers of wood. Once there’s one such game, there will be many such games, making the sense of progression we feel from experience points feel negligible in comparison. We’d be fooled into thinking we were giants. Everyone would be an expert, regardless of expertise.

The scariest thing about this future is in some capacity I feel it has already come to pass.