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This post is a few days late, and there’s several reasons for that. I mean, first, I just forgot for a couple of days, but there’s actually a good reason too. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been participating in the Idle Thumbs Wizard Jam, a 2-week game creation event. For the early days I was just working on my project concurrently with all of the stuff I normally work on, but near the end I was really hammering on the project. Anyway, it’s a small project but I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. You can check it out here. New versions may be forthcoming once I recover from the last few days, but in the meanwhile I need to take a break and catch up on other work.

I may actually start doing these a bit later in the month as actual policy rather than accident. Ends of months tend to be rather congested – I may start just scheduling these updates for the 5th of each month instead of the 1st.

Anyway, I still got plenty of work done before the Jam and during its early days. While I’m not as ahead of schedule as I’d hoped to be, I think I’m still comfortably within the parameters I’ve set, with 34/51 tasks done for this three-month block and 8 preemptively done for the next three-month block. At this point, all of the right-facing animations are complete, and I’m well on my way to finishing the left-facing animations, with just the hit stun, defeat, and harvest animations left to complete. Also, a few new animations were created when I noticed the motion seemed less than fluid, such as an animation for landing from a jump or completing a rising attack. I foresee no difficulties finishing the player character animations this month, though I do expect to have to spend a few days polishing up the animations and fixing minor continuity errors once I have them mostly done. Aside from that animation work, most of what needs to be done to keep on schedule is creating a couple more simple tilesets and building out some of the early levels at finished quality.

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There’s this guy who watches these Dark Souls streams called Problem Machine, and he occasionally gives me shit like: “He’s not going to do it this time,” you know, just like “This is going to be a bad podcast,” “he’s completely gone, look at him, he’s got no mental acuity, this is pointless, he should just go to bed.” And I was like okay this is the run I’m going to prove to this guy that I can do this.

I’ve been watching Nick Breckon of Idle Thumbs stream his playthrough of Dark Souls, and been trying to give advice in chat as to what to do next, where to go, how to approach problems, and so forth. This is a contentious act: Many people, myself among them, believe Dark Souls is an experience best approached as a puzzle to be solved, and that offering guidance undermines that experience. Still, when someone wants information on where to go next, I’m pleased to offer it for basically the reason that I will always love talking about Dark Souls.

And now I’m getting defamed on podcasts. What a betrayal!

To clarify: I said almost none of those, and if I did say any of them they were in a desperate attempt to get someone who was hammering on a boss fight at 1am before recording a podcast the next day to go to sleep. As it turns out he eventually did go to sleep and beat the boss in three tries the next day.

I’m not too big a man to say “I told you so”.

Anyway: It’s something that will always be surprising and interesting to me, how two people can both participate in the same conversation and come away with a completely different understanding of that conversation. I see myself as a helpful guide through the world of Dark Souls, and apparently Nick sees me as some kind of unpleasable Dark Souls chat dad.

But it also makes me think about why I’m so invested in his adventure. And maybe there’s something cathartic, right now, at this point in time, at yelling advice out from the crowd and having it be taken one time out of a hundred – because as frustrating as that is sometimes, it’s still a hell of a lot better a ratio than the one I manage in my day-to-day.

Everyone I know is feeling pretty powerless right now. In the same way that playing video games can be a fun way to play with empowerment, playing Cassandra to a hapless Nick Breckon can be a fun way to play with helplessness, trying to steer a train as it goes off a cliff. I guess, then, that I can’t be entirely blameless for whatever comes of it.

cornucopia

Thanksgiving was a couple of days ago, but I’m still feeling the holiday spirit, such as it is.

Thanksgiving is a good holiday wrapped in a bad holiday. It’s a time for coming together and taking stock of the many good things that we are lucky enough to have, wrapped in a horrific lie about a dinner party with the people we murdered and enslaved. America is weird. Maybe it’s that every country likes to lie about itself but our lies are still fresh enough to be clearly disproven and false, I don’t know. We couldn’t bury the lie, it’s still cracking out of the ground like a telltale heart, and that’s where we are now.

Anyway.

Things have been strange, and bad, and promising to get stranger and worse. It’s a good time for gratitude. It’s a good time to be happy to be alive and able to live a fairly fulfilling life, and I wish more people could do so, and I get furious thinking about all the ways in which they can’t, and it just keeps on coming up once you see it, the magic eye trick doesn’t go away, the 3d picture comes right out of the page and grabs you by the neck. Every nice thing you see, you can’t stop wondering how much blood went into it, and whose, and when. Everything has become so diffuse – we act not just as people but as part of an economy, and when that economy plunders we are culpable.

The problem with seeing more threads is its so easy to imagine your hands tied. All I want is to make interesting and beautiful, albeit perhaps sometimes disturbing, things. To paint a path to another world, to show the silhouettes of our flaws and aspirations.

I’ve never been one of those people who takes objects apart to see how they work – I’ve always been the sort who wants to make interesting things happen, and only care about the inner workings of objects insofar as that leads into the interesting things those objects do. However, when your artistic medium is one as technical as video games, that means looking at how things work, or fail to work, a lot. And it’s a hard habit to turn off. To design a game is to tie two systems together – one, a mechanical system that is predictable and quantifiable but quite complex, and the other is a system of incentives and desires, a system of which the player is the center piece, which is unquantifiable and much much more complex. If you play enough with a critical eye, you see where systems break down and stop working, where challenges stop being fair, where lazy strategies dominate.

I can’t look anywhere now without seeing broken systems. A world of paintings hung slightly askew. The problem, the big meta-problem, is that there’s no clear way to fix these systems. You could perfectly identify what was going wrong and an optimal solution, create a plan that would definitely and demonstrably work to fix the issue, and end up no closer to actually solving the problem. That’s politics, baby.

There’s a good reason it works that way. Imagine you have absolute power. Whoops, you just divided by 0, the world crashed. Fuckin owned, scrub. We make sure lots of other people have a chance to look at the systems that are created, get their own say, and that the whole thing has to go through a process designed to weed out more bad ideas than produce good ones, just because we don’t want to see another crash.

That’s what it’s designed to do, anyway. Design, like intent, is not magic, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions, which turn out to be exceptionally easy on the soles of bad people. We’ve got a memory leak – the memories of past crashes leak right out of our heads, and things fall apart, the center puts us on hold, and we all join the Cassandra Club.

Still, I’m grateful, really. I’m still around to look at the mess, and I can be one of the billions of hands on the steering wheel, even if it feels too late to swerve. I can still make art. I can still survive. It’s something. For a while it may be everything.

greed

The saying that the love of money is the root of all evil is both very useful and very misleading. It is a specific case of a principle that one can easily generalize: The love of means over the ends they were meant to achieve is, more accurately, the root of most evil. Money is a form of power, and power is meant to achieve goals: meant to fix problems, meant to acquire necessary resources and negotiate necessary transactions. It is reasonable to want power in order to achieve these ends. However, if we crave power for its own sake, the machinery of transaction becomes clogged. We stockpile something that is of no intrinsic value. We enjoy having this power over each other. Thus: One person isn’t given enough to even survive, while another has more than they will ever need, because it is merely having more of a necessary thing than another that they get pleasure from.

We live in a world of conquerors because it is taken as given that taking is better than giving.

It’s odd how many of the seven deadly sins start to look like one sin with many aspects. Greed, the want for money beyond what it can buy – Gluttony, the insatiable hunger past serving the needs of the body – Wrath, the fury that seeks only itself instead of justice. These become sin, in practice, not because money or food or anger are wrong or harmful, but because indulging in them for their own sake quickly becomes a path to depriving fellow humans of that which they need to survive.

Love of money – or its generalized case, love of power – is, in this way, intrinsically cruel. Why are we are so willing to strip each other of the resources we need to survive just so we can look down on each other as inferiors? To those who never had to struggle, the smug superiority of social predation is perhaps the only way they can feel relevant or engaged with the world.

Those who love power and seek it endlessly tend to be those who find more and more of it: This is the shape of our unfolding disaster. We select for terribleness when we elect leaders. The only way we avoid catastrophe, most of the time, is that the shallower and rawer the lust for power is, the more overtly incompetent and grotesque the person seeking it evinces themselves to be. To desire power above what it can achieve is a symptom of a lazy and ineffective mind, and lazy and ineffective minds rarely do well within the directly competitive atmosphere of politics.

Rarely.

Nevertheless, sometimes these people find themselves at the right time and place to actually seize power.

It is not pretty; it can keep getting less pretty. As corrupt as most governments become, they usually at least buy into a fiction of serving the populace underneath them, or serving God, or serving some greater purpose. Rarely do governments actually regard themselves solely as a consolidation of power for the sake of consolidating power. Never do they do so without publicly pretending towards a greater purpose, such as winning an endless war or eliminating impurities or… whatever.

If a government ceases to believe its own stated rationale for power, if the rulers determine that their rule is solely about accumulation of power, then we have essentially the scenario presented in George Orwell’s 1984. The war never ends and can never be won, the proles all live marginal existences just scraping by, and the elites ensure that any attempts at revolution dead-end into one of a million false leads (the FBI is already fond of operations like these). The elites actually lead pretty terrible lives as well, in this scenario: It just doesn’t feel that way because everyone else has it worse.

That’s the end that the love of power leads to: We all lose, and the happiness you cling to is that you’ve managed to lose a little bit less than everyone else – but, still, we’re all losers in the end.

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President Trump.

President Donald fucking Trump.

The last few days have been strange. There was a kind of trick we played on each other as kids, where we’d hold one fist on the other person’s head, hit it lightly with the other hand, and trickle our fingers down across their hair, telling them we just broke an egg on their head. If you had the right touch, it could be an effective illusion. And that’s kind of what it felt like – a shock, too light to hurt exactly but unignorable, followed by a creeping feeling as the egg that wasn’t there slid down the scalp, the neck, slimy.

That slimy creepy feeling is still there, placed in honor of a slimy creep. Every day when I wake up I have to remind myself of the way my country has chosen to self-mutilate. President-elect Donald; Donny P; King Trumplefuckle, first of his name. That feeling has mostly subsided now, the numbness as mostly faded.

What’s left is rage.

Anger’s not that interesting to talk about, but god damn I feel it. It twists my guts up. And I’m trying now to figure out how to let it stray far enough away that I can think straight while still keeping it on a leash to make sure I never lose it. We’re going to need anger and outrage. Anger at injustice is the lattice that holds hope together, that affects change, that can protect and sustain us through what is likely to be one of the most dangerous eras in American history.

There’s a part of me that wants blood and violence, that wants to scour the country with fire until the cancer of white supremacy is burned to ash. I won’t say that violence is categorically unjustifiable, especially in a confrontation against those who believe that lynchings are an acceptable tactic. However, these are the minority of the opposition. We won’t defeat them by crushing them. We will defeat them by discrediting them. This work was begun but never finished: We must make the concept of white supremacy as disgusting nation-wide as it always should have been. We must make the very idea of race entitling you to a better life, making you mentally or physically superior, as a sick fantasy, masturbated to in dim light briefly before the curtain of shame falls.

So, yeah, normally I like to talk about video games here. I will, again, soon. The world carries on, and art is still important – terrifyingly so. Our culture has gotten away from us, has founded itself in lazy reinforcements of stereotypes rather than new stories that teach new ways of being and seeing. We’ve chewed up and regurgitated tropes that have lasted for far too long, colonialism and racism and sexism dressed in new clothes so we could pretend that’s not what they were any more, so that we could do things the easy way, so we could just hide behind paying tribute to the classics, so that we could make art that just reinforced the same ancient and lazy thoughts that have motivated the worst violence of the past centuries.

That’s what I have to say to the artists. Do good, and do better, and try to ease pain and light a way to a better place. Also endeavor to spread diversity both through the work you do and the work you boost. It makes everything more varied and vital and interesting, and maybe if people will be a bit less cavalier with voting for xenophobia if their favorite musician or artist or whatever will be hurt by it. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

However. Good art isn’t enough to fix this, which is a huge disappointment since that’s the field I tend to be most interested in.

First and foremost, we need to talk about harm reduction. Protect and take care of yourself. Survival is protest. Once you’ve made yourself as safe and comfortable as you feel you need to, protect and care for your friends and family. And so forth, it echoes outwards, together creating the most safety we can for each other, to our friends, to their friends, to strangers on the street and on the bus. Solidarity. We must come closer together. We all have our differences, and someday will probably need to negotiate those, but now we have a lot more in common and a much bigger problem that needs solving. These communities may be needed if the police fail to function, which is quite possible when they’re compromised at the state level – especially since, even before that became a concern, they often failed to actually serve the communities they were assigned to.

I won’t say things are going to be okay, but we have the power to make things more okay than they would otherwise be.

After that, we need to do everything we can to keep the ground we have gained over the past century. Obstruct, obstruct, obstruct: Fortunately we’ve had a good example set for us over the past 8 years by the GOP. Don’t let them do a fucking thing. Bury them in yellow tape, make sure not a single change goes by uncontested for four years. Our lawmakers have to be told that this is what we want. It’s fine: Democrats have a proven track record of getting nothing done, so they should be up to the job.

If things are going to get anywhere near as bad as I think they will, there are going to be deaths. Actually, there already have been: Several suicides on the night of the election and day after. But the full damage remains to be seen. When it manifests, we must do everything we can to tell the story. We must draw the line from the human suffering effect to its root cause in policy and rhetoric. Avoid accusation, but make the conclusion obvious and unescapable: The voice of guilt must come from within.

America has made many mistakes, and Americans know it, even if they don’t like to say so. Much of what went wrong with this election was a lack of a narrative, but this provides us with a powerful narrative for the next election: Redemption. “Everything has gone wrong, everything is fucked up, but it’s not too late: Together we can fix this”. It’s a powerful message, but for it to be effective we need to have a wide consensus that things are fucked. Obviously, with Trump in charge they will be, but that’s not the same as getting everyone to agree that they are – if we’re not careful, the Trump Empire will become the new normal. That’s why the story of the human suffering created must be told, told again, retold, until it becomes widely understood that things are broken.

Of course, selling the brokenness is only half the battle. We will also need a plan to put things back together. We’ve needed such a plan for a very long time. The lack of such a plan lost this election. Perhaps something like basic income will be the only effective strategy to combat the extinction of manufacturing and mining jobs: I don’t know. In two years we must be ready with a plan and candidates who are behind that plan.

Perhaps most vitally, we must stop letting our opposite define the terms of the conflict. We let them define our defense of our human dignity as ‘political correctness’, and let them make it a virtue to flout that common decency. We let them pretend that the imaginary transgressions of our candidate were comparable to the many monstrous grotesqueries of their candidate. We let them call themselves patriots while they worked to undermine the constitution and everything this country has ever stood for. Maybe we’re getting smarter about these things, slowly, but we have let far too much slide. So I will say this: If we are ‘Social Justice Warriors’, then let this be the Social Justice War. I, for one, intend to win it.

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As games have become larger and more complicated, development teams have grown bigger – and, as development teams have grown bigger, we break down the work that needs to be performed on a game into smaller and more specific categories so that each person on this now-gigantic team knows precisely what they’re supposed to be doing. Pragmatically, this is a very effective way to make sure a game actually gets made. Unfortunately, it also creates a flawed mindset about what a game is and is made of. When we experience a game, we don’t experience it as its game design plus its art plus its music, we experience it as the totality of these things filtered through the particular lens of our input. That is to say, regarding the game’s design, its story, its art, as separate aspects is extremely limiting. All of these, even if they are manifested very differently, affect each other.

Yeah okay maybe this sounds like 101 baby bullshit, but it can be surprising how often this discrete-field attitude manifests. It used to be that even review scores were broken down in this nonsense way, scoring audio and graphics and ‘fun factor’ separately. It’s a prevalent attitude because it makes it easier to think about the game when you can think about little bits of it at a time. You can’t really separate the design from the art from the story from the audio, though. They all affect each other – often in surprising ways.

For instance, I have spent way too much time playing Team Fortress 2, and much of that playing Spy. As the spy, you need to be able to infiltrate the enemy team and get close to them without being noticed in order to do most of your work, whether that’s destroying equipment or assassinating vital team members. In order to infiltrate, you must rely on distractions and otherwise concealing your motion. Under these circumstances, a lot of the game’s art and audio design become incredibly important to you: How noisy a weapon is determines how easily you can sneak up on an enemy using that weapon, how long a gun is determines whether you can hide behind a corner while holding it, and if you happen to disguise yourself as the man wearing an elaborate hat that shoots sparks and cost him a hundred bucks he’ll probably notice you running by wearing it.

In other games, a particularly common example of aesthetics affecting gameplay arises as visual obfuscation. Tall grass and foliage often act as soft cover in action games, allowing players to conceal certain moves from each other, and the particular lighting of a room has separate concurrent effects on the gameplay, the narrative, and the aesthetic of the room. Trying to adapt the soundtrack to the current action has the interesting side-effect of informing the player of what the game believes the current action to be – that is, if there’s a combat music that plays when one or more living enemies are around, the player might know that an area that looks cleared out still harbors enemies, since the combat music hasn’t stopped yet.

The interplay of aesthetic and design becomes particularly relevant when regarding issues of accessibility. If a particular aesthetic aspect of the game becomes core to the design, and certain players of the game are unable to partake of that aspect due to disability, the design may just quietly break, leaving the game subtly unplayable. The most common example of this is probably the puzzle game with vital audio cues being played to an unhearing player – these cues, unaccompanied by any visual change, are not only possible to miss but are possible to miss without having any clue you missed them. This affects players not only on the basis of physical capability, but on the particular hardware they’re playing on as well – as a child, I got stuck on a particular dungeon in Final Fantasy 6 for months because, as it turned out, the television I was playing on was so dark that the switches I needed to press to progress were invisible to me.

The core design of the game is something which can only be expressed through the aesthetic choices that form the representative layer of the game. These cannot truly be separated, even if approaching them as separate disciplines makes it easier to develop the project.

Perhaps this is yet another reason that Dark Souls has resonated so much with people. In a world full of games where code and design drive the combat with animations and effects merely added afterwards to describe the action, the Souls approach of having each weapon’s animation directly influence its attack pattern, of having each swing be, not just a nice animation applied to a hit volume, but having the most important property of every attack be the motion which it attacks with, is refreshingly consistent. And it’s worth wondering, now, whether that kind of cohesion is possible when you have a designer and an artist and a musician each doing their own work, in separate rooms, in separate cities, hoping that in the end one and one and one will, after all, turn out to be four.

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This was an eventful month! Following my devblog post last month, I started sharing the project on a couple of game dev forums, and through a logical process which eludes me now 30 days later determined that a) I wanted to have the first chapter of the game complete by the end of 2017 and b) that in order to do this I should create a complete task-list and schedule for the project up to that point. This ended up taking me a few days, but I really feel like it was worth it. I now have, printed across 12 pages, a fairly comprehensive list of work that needs to be done in order to complete the first chapter of the game. There’s going to be four chapters total, so a lot of work will remain to complete the game even after all this, but the scope of the work will be determined and I’ll know how much time and effort it takes to create finished content for the game. All major gameplay bugs should get eliminated through this process, and all fundamental design code will be firmly in place.

I broke the schedule up into a total of five three-month blocks, one for the rest of this year and four others for next year. Currently, for this year’s block, I have 24/53 tasks completed or otherwise resolved. I also have a few tasks which I had to add to the list which aren’t accounted for there, as well as a few that are partially complete, but it’s still good progress and I’m proud of how quickly I’m getting the work done. Now, I expect some future tasks to be quite a bit trickier, and I also expect many unforeseen tasks to crop up, but that’s why I’m trying to get ahead of schedule now – as well as acknowledging that December is likely to be so busy with other stuff that I’ll probably only be able to work for half of it.

The biggest task accomplished over this month is the attack animations. All right-facing attack animations are complete – well, except for the occasional mistake or two still to be fixed, a few of which I’m noticing as I watch the attack montage play below. About half of the left-facing attacks are complete as well, and they should progress more quickly on average now that I have the right-facing attacks to use as template and I’ve got so much sprite creation practice. There were a few big sticking points: I realized after mostly completing them that the original standing attack animation was a) boring and b) functionally redundant with the running attack animation. I’ve since replaced the former with the latter, but fortunately not all was lost: I was able to use the standing attack frames to resolve another issue that had cropped up. When I changed the crouching position of the right arm some time ago, I invalidated the entire swing arc of the primary crouching attack animation prototype. However, the new arm position made perfect sense for the motion of the unused standing attack animation, so I just pulled the torso from those frames into the crouch animation. I still had to redo the leg positions from scratch, but it was a nice shortcut into creating a good expressive attack.

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I’ve also been working on the music for the game. The first few areas largely have completed music tracks already, since I created music concurrent with them to figure out the tone I was going for, but as I made that music like five years ago there’s a lot of rough edges in those old tracks and they’re not necessarily well set up to work with the systems I want to have in place for the game. That is to say, I’m not planning on just creating a loop for each area, but having some degree of adaptive music based on where specifically the player is in an area and what the game state of that area is. Thus, I’ve been remastering the old tracks, making small composition tweaks, and rearranging the parts to make jumping between them work better. Fortunately, I found that by setting timers and jump points, I could very elegantly skip between segments of an adaptive track to switch playback to a new section. Less fortunately, I discovered that a track with tempo changes and heavy use of delay effects is probably the least optimal type of track to feed into such a system. Still, it’s functional for now, even if some of the track transitions sound a bit odd. I’ve at least proven out the basic concept and built the architecture: If I need to change things up a bit later to resolve these issues, it should be quite feasible.

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I’ve also been working on tilesets and backgrounds here and there. I made this background very desaturated to create a clear delineation between background areas and gameplay areas, and also to reinforce the misty feel I was going for, but I worry a bit about how well it will work with the extremely vivid and saturated caves background I made before. I really love playing with color in unexpected ways, like I did with making the distance in the caves background a dark vivid red, but consistency is important as well. In the end, that’s something I can only figure out by getting the assets into the game and playing around with them and seeing what works. Really, though, changing palettes is incredibly easy compared to creating new assets, so it probably won’t be a big deal at any rate.

In addition to the backgrounds, I’ve created a number of the transitional tilesets necessary to blend different tilesets together. Now I can have grass tiles next to stone tiles next to dirt tiles without them looking like artificial grid-based garbage. There’s still some gaps in there, tiles that I’ll need to create that I haven’t noticed I’ll need to create, but I can build out most of the environments I want to now, at least at a degree of rough detail.

Over November I plan to finish out all of the character animations and start creating detail assets for the first section of the first chapter – Mostly just different kinds of grass and stone to start with but, again, in many of these cases I won’t know what I’ve forgotten until I get there and find I don’t have it. Still, finishing this game, as distant a goal as it remains, feels more concrete and feasible now than it has in a long time.