I’ve ended up on an impromptu vacation due to someone else cancelling. This wouldn’t necessarily keep me from writing a post, but no ideas have readily sprung to mind and I haven’t had the motivation to wrack my brains for any. But that’s fine, because it turns out it’s been a long time since I’ve done a music post, which means both that I’ve been good about posting regularly so I can feel okay with missing one and that I’ve got a fair amount of music ready to go here for just such an occasion!
Magic sucks. We’ve fucked it up. We’ve made it boring. We’ve taken something that, conceptually, contains the range of all things unexplainable, extraordinary, and mystical, and compressed it into essentially an invisible sack of hand grenades.
This isn’t just a problem with video games. It might have started with Dungeons & Dragons: D&D was originally created by combining the strategic play of war games with the high fantasy setting of The Lord of the Rings, and this origin still shapes what games are today, as well as what magic is within those games. However, while wizards and magic were an important part of the stories of Middle-Earth, these elements didn’t readily map to war game mechanics. Reading the books, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s magic and what’s just everyday cleverness, what’s mystical knowledge and what’s just regular everyday knowledge. Most of the time, Gandalf is a badass, largely not because he casts spells, but because he is a tall man and he carries a long and very sharp sword – which is, itself, magic, but all that magic seems to do is make it cut through things real good. Though he’s got a few tricks in his pocket, the exact nature of these is never really made clear beyond that they murder the shit out of orcs.
However, this sort of ambiguity is antithetical to the systemic requirements of game design, particularly those of the war games of the time. So, instead, magic is changed to fit into those systems: Mysticism and the unseen become an engine to throw fireballs, magic missiles, lightning bolts, and various other mildly exotic projectiles.
And yet even Dungeons and Dragons had certain mystical components that have largely since been discarded, even in later editions. Rituals, reagents, incantations, everything that makes each spellcasting event significant is taken away in the name of convenience, and the potence of magic is similarly restrained. Sure, a big fireball may seem impressive, resurrecting a person is a true miracle, but both of these are tiny and manageable in scope by their design. The spells of prophecy, the spells that create dreams and nightmares, the spells that truly shape the world rather than just blowing up a small part of it are elided. They’re too complicated and, perhaps, to those with no imagination, too boring.
As they often do, the Discworld books bring this transformation and conflict directly into the fiction. Old wizards – and, since wizarding is a discipline that takes a long time to master, and once it does brings considerable longevity benefits, there are quite a lot of old wizards – they believe in tradition, in the rituals and incantations and the rare and grotesque reagents, your eyes of newt and troll blood and whatnot. Younger wizards believe in the empirical method, rather foolishly considering how rarely the Disc behaves rationally even outside of the magic-soaked Unseen University, and know that most of the ritual isn’t really necessary, and is really just a waste of time. The tension between them is sharp, but ameliorated by the younger set’s apparent disinterest in the traditional wizard games of self-promotion through assassination in favor of apocolyptically unwise magical experimentation.
In games, it’s difficult to create magic that’s about anything less immediate and obvious than a deus ex machina carrying a submachine gun or a panacea. Just as with war games, we’re constrained by the quantifiability of our systems, by the fact that in the end we need to turn everything into a set of instructions and numbers to be interpreted by a machine. The problem with expressing magic through games becomes the same as trying to express emotion through games, trying to find a way to convey something unseen but felt, powerful but immeasurable, through a system that can only be expressed via measurements and perceived through sight. Like the old wizards, we can only look helplessly on as the systems get faster and more efficient, ‘convenient’, and try to explain that something is lost when everything is found.
Things don’t happen the way we remember them. We smooth out the rough edges, add new elements in where they seem like they should be. After a certain point, memory stops being history and becomes our story, a narrative with an arc, with heroes and villains, and it becomes hard to recall that it was ever any different.
Games don’t happen the way we remember them either. We fill parts in, we build a narrative. To some extent this is necessary: Early games, especially, could not faithfully represent a world, so relied on us to fill the gaps. Newer games still can’t faithfully represent a world – they fake it better, but still ask us to paper over the many and blatant gaps in the simulation. We’ve gotten very good at it. Some of us have gotten so good that we don’t even see the gaps any more, think of this simulated sandbox kind of realism as an actual reality.
It’s not. Not even close.
Most of the game exists in our head, not in the software. The way we move in games is not the way we remember moving. The way we fight in games is not the way we remember fighting. That dramatic jump across the gap was just a collision cylinder popping upwards and having enough horizontal velocity to touch the level geometry before touching the kill volume, but it becomes part of a story about a daring escape. Taking a series of steps forward in a turn-based game transforms in memory and imagination into a desperate rush, the collision error becomes a cunning dodge.
I’m not speaking of the disconnect between the game’s aesthetic and narrative and the systems that drive it, but the disconnect between the entirety of the game’s presentation and how the player experiences it. We may know the systems as player, know that we’re just a box in a world of boxes, but we write a story about the boxes. The way the red box slides along the ground becomes footsteps, a sense of human motion, a run even as running is unsupported by its appearance as a box. This is why games like Thomas Was Alone, a game where the characters really are just boxes, works. We fill it all in.
What we make when we make a game isn’t even creating an engine that creates the player’s experience, but an engine that creates frameworks for the player to hang their experiences on. This is why we can’t clutch too tight. This is why we must be careful about trying to answer all the questions, about trying to fill all the space, about trying to control the player’s experience – because the player’s actual experience isn’t about the world we make, or the characters we fill it with, or the systems we give them to interact with those characters, but what’s in between, what is unique to each player, something closer and more meaningful to them than anything we can intentionally create.
These are the games we are nostalgic for, the ones we remember playing but never seem quite the same going back and playing again. That game you played no longer exists because the person who played it, the person you were, no longer exists. All you can do as a player is find another wall on which to hang your tapestry, and all you can do as designer is to build a wall that might make a good home.
In all the excitement over Dark Souls’ intricately detailed world, subtle storytelling, and tough-but-fair challenge, I think the simple extraordinary elegance of the estus flask is often overlooked.
For those of you who are not familiar with the systems of Dark Souls, the estus flasks are essentially reusable healing potions. You get a set number of them, usually five to start with, and can use one at any time to restore your health – however, this carries a risk, since using a flask leaves you immobile and defenseless for about a second, which is plenty of time for things to go catastrophically wrong. You can do things to increase the number of estus you can carry or increase the health restored with each use as well, but the basic system doesn’t change – and, in Dark Souls, these flasks are the main way to restore health, though it can also be done by using spells,which are limited in the exact same way as estus, or by a few other items which range from fairly uncommon to extremely rare.
To appreciate just how elegant estus flasks are, you have to compare them to the other popular systems for healing in games. Many games have healing items that you can use once, but this usually means that either they are rare and precious or they player has a functionally infinite supply. On the one side, the player is scared to use healing items because they don’t know when they’ll get more, and in the other the player can basically always be healed to full between encounters – not a bad thing inherently, but raises the question of, then, why not just refill the player’s health automatically between encounters, something which is indeed done in many later RPGs. Another popular system in use now is regenerating health, restoring the player to full whenever they manage to avoid damage for a while. This creates a flow between hiding and attacking which, um, I guess some people like, but results in a character who can absorb an essentially infinite amount of punishment for no apparent reason as long as they pace themselves when eating bullets.
Estus flasks combine these two systems. When in danger, you need to search for an opening, either by finding cover or exploiting a pause in your opponent’s attack pattern, just like with regenerating health. And, as with more traditional healing items, you have to be concerned with being efficient and effective in combat so that you don’t run out, without having to worry about conserving them for a hypothetical future where they might be more precious.
This may all seem like a fine detail, but the beloved balance of the game rests on the humble estus flask. Enemies can perform extremely high damage attacks that kill the player in just a few hits because the player always has a chance to recover to full: Thus, instead of the battle being one of attrition, where the player tries to keep the enemy from eroding their health, it becomes a tug-of-war, the player trying to keep their health above zero by creating opportunities to heal while evading the enemy attacks and still finding openings to attack their opponent and reduce their health to zero. The tension of the battles is every bit as much a product of the elegant design of the healing items as it is the design of the battles themselves.
Are estus flasks an unprecedented innovation? Well, not quite. In fact, I can think of one precedent, and it’s an interesting point of comparison: Far Cry 2. The healing syrettes in the secret best Far Cry function similarly to estus flasks and are limited to four at a time (upgradeable over the course of the game). They can, as well, be restocked at set points, though unlike in Dark Souls these are frequently in hostile territory, so the player has to put themselves at risk to do so. This results in much the same flow, though, where the player’s health can vanish to almost nothing in an instant, only to be recovered in a tense moment hiding from gunfire behind a tree, a lethal tug-of-war, replicated between two vastly dissimilar games.
It’s going better now. Rather than hammering my head constantly against the glacial mass of animation work that needs to be completed, I’m approaching the project from many angles now, largely with a view towards completing a vertical slice of the first few areas. I roughed out all of the basic layout for the first chapter of the game (there will be four such chapters in the completed project.
Player sprite animation work continues slowly but surely, with the crouching animations now in place – once the standing and crouching turn animations are complete, all of the basic ground movement will be covered. From there I’ll probably move on to the jumping animations, which are actually mostly fairly easy since they tend to be short loops. This next month might be a big one for the look of the game, then. Actually, come to that, this past month also was kind of important regarding the game’s look as well, since I created the first backdrop image and spent a lot of time figuring out how it would look alongside the tilesets.
Reactions to the appearance of the game have been largely positive thus far, but I have some concerns (it’s my job to be a worrywart about these things). The original attempts at background art were way too bright and high contrast and pushed themselves really far forward into the image, and to be honest the background still has that problem to some degree. It may be that I need to brighten the foreground tileset, but I think it’s more likely that the background needs to be even more muted and maybe shifted to have a bit more color contrast against the tileset. I also think I made a fundamental mistake here in that the background image has several separate layers which, logically, would scroll with a bit of a parallax effect. In fact, the game supports effects like that, but this background image wasn’t constructed to use them. It’s not a big deal, most players won’t notice, and I can ameliorate the problem by adding some closer pillars on top of the background. This actually makes it even more important to mute the palette for the background, though, since there needs to be room for the pillars to fit into the color scheme.
Anyway, lots of decision making like that. I’m satisfied with the appearance of the game thus far, and this is still missing a lot of the extra detail a scene like this would have, such as lighting effects and additional dynamic details.
So: I’m pleased with this progress, except in that progress has been progressing very slowly. The Summer heat certainly hasn’t been helping in that regard, but I need to be thinking about how I can put in time more consistently and productively on the project. Now that I’m in a place where a lot of raw content needs to be created to manifest the vision of the game, putting in an hour a day seems grossly insufficient. Regardless, I definitely feel like I have something to build on here.
There’s a moment in art which drives me. It’s hard to name – you might call it a twist, except that means something else already, similar but just different enough to be insufficient. It’s the moment of friction between the familiar and unfamiliar. The moment where the melody is played, same as it ever was, but the chords underneath are different and the meaning shifts. The moment where the writing on the walls suddenly becomes legible, when we understand not only what was written there but why, by whom, when. It’s the moment when the rabbit is a woman, the faces a vase, when you see how the dress could be four colors at once.
It’s difficult to describe, but it’s one of the most powerful sensations I know. It’s what drives me to make art.
Maybe someone’s already given it a name. Probably. I may just be ignorant here. It’s too important not to have a name. Let’s call it, for now, the moment of recognition. In this moment, we see all the things we already knew come together and form a new meaning. Everything becomes different, even as it’s the same.
I want to cite examples here but every possible example is a spoiler for obvious reasons. The early work of M. Night Shyamalan are good examples – not, again, because there was a ‘twist’, but because that twist emerged from framework established by the rest of the movie – emerged, not from nowhere, but naturally from the heart of the piece. These are twists, but not just twists – this moment doesn’t need to a surprise to be powerful. Often these moments of recognition aren’t surprising at all, just things quietly sliding into place, like fate, like tiles in a mosaic, pixels forming a picture.
How can we create this sensation? Well, there are a few ingredients I think. First: Familiarity. The audience to spend time with the piece, establish some sort of regularity, some understanding of what the world and characters are and mean. Second: Depth. As a creator, you have to know more about your work than your audience ever will. Many people liken it to an iceberg, where only 10% of it is visible above the surface. You need that kind of richness and depth at your disposal, so that when for a moment you reveal a flash of just how far down the ice goes your audience may be chilled. Third: Focus. You need to create a point in the piece where these threads come together, where by their tension against each other they may reveal each other. A fight, a death, a breakdown, something to pull it all together for just a moment.
Well, these are just guesses. I haven’t really struck this gold except in small and perhaps illusive ways. It seems right to me, though. I’ll just keep trying.
‘Interactive’ is a convenient buzz-word that we’ve been using to describe games for some time. What separates games from other art, so we say, is that the audience acts upon the game and the game in turn acts upon them, a stable loop where each shapes the experience. This isn’t really unique to games; audiences interact with stage plays and novels all the time, controlling the pace and interpretation of the experience and occasionally making substantial differences in content. There’s a difference between the experience of more traditional narrative forms and the newer forms enabled by personal computing technology, but interactivity isn’t a very useful term to describe that difference.
But still, perhaps, it is a useful term to describe something else. Art is the experience of art, the moment where the audience perceives and interprets the work the artist has created. The game is the experience of playing the game, the interaction of software and player, the moment of interpretation. This is the game as it is received, the final result, and is different for each player, alchemical. That’s not what we usually mean when we talk about art: We usually just talk about the physical, the painting or text or software product that enables that final experience, since that’s the part of it that we, as artists, can control directly.
Disregarding, for a moment, this final interaction between audience and work, there are other interactions internal to the work itself. Art is not just the sum of its parts, but the way those parts work in concert, the way they act upon each other – ‘interact’. The systems of the game and the narrative content of the game also interact, intersect, and the specifics of how they work together are, together with the player’s mental state, what shape the experience of the player. Any part of a game or other work of art can be viewed as an interaction of more elemental sections; the interaction between the strategic and tactical layers, the interaction between the music and environment, the interaction between two story lines.
Games are, however, an unusual art form in that they have robust systemic content. That is, most forms of media have fairly stodgy and restrained forms of input, and don’t generally have an intentionally designed set of responses to those inputs: Applause, laughter, cheering, gasping, these all may affect the performance, but rarely in ways explicitly set out by the author of the piece. Games usually provide many forms of explicit input, and respond in ways that are often unpredictable to those, mediated by several interlocking deterministic systems. Some designers like to think of the game as being comprised of those systems: It isn’t, any more than it’s comprised of its story. A game is comprised of the primary interaction, experiential interaction of the player and the work, and the secondary interactions between its systems and narrative which enables the primary.
Trying to design as though games are purely systems quickly results in dead ends, at least as far as the realm of single-player games extends. There are only two possible purely systemic challenges we can create: Reflex and puzzle challenges. Most games are one or the other of these, offering strategic decision-making and/or coordinated challenges to achieve a goal. Some might disagree with the characterization of strategy as a puzzle, but it inevitably becomes so once the player gains enough information of and experience in the system to route an optimal grand strategy. You can hold that off by obscuring information or making the system complex, or introducing randomization, but this is just kicking the can down the road. Players will eventually end up mastering the game, reflex and puzzle and all – which is fine, then they can just speedrun it at charity marathons.
Games don’t need to last forever, though. Art is eternal, not because one person can engage with it for eternity, but because the primary interaction is different for each audience, shifts with culture and language, becomes interpreted and reinterpreted and deepened through newer understandings and perspectives. Games are capable of even grander shifts, entire new ways of play within their space is defined, aspects long thought irrelevant become the seed of a whole new perspectives, new games within the game.
Focus on the moment of experience: The system can be solved, so don’t rely on the system: The story is just a story and could be told in any medium, so don’t rely on the story. Rely on the interaction of story and system, using the system to tell the story, using the story to contextualize the system. There are so many possibilities, and we’ve only yet scratched the surface of the manifold ways systemic and narrative elements can interact.