I find most game stories extremely obnoxious. Beyond the irritations with craftsmanship and cliche, beyond being merely bored and annoyed, there are patterns I see over and over again in intros and cutscenes and store pages that are distastefully tedious and tediously distasteful. Here’s the format of a game intro: This is our world, and it’s great – it better be, we paid a bunch of artists to make this shit! But there’s also some sort of encroaching darkness, some kind of ancient evil, some kind of corruption. It’s made bunch of guys show up to start shit, and they look basically human but, trust me, they are huge jerks in an irrevocably genetically ingrained way; or maybe they’re just magical constructs that look like guys; maybe they’re skeletons or something. In any case, it’s completely fine to kill all of them, and is actually a good thing to do.
This is all obviously at its worst in fantasy titles, though it’s a loose enough archetype that it could be easily applied to a lot of games even outside that domain. There’s often some good and kind king who has been dethroned in the process, some kind of sacred order being profaned, some sort of holy war, whatever. This is all obviously, when examined critically for half a second, an absurdly reactionary framing – one could use the (bad) excuse that it’s all a riff on Tolkien, but even his works had more nuance, and he was willing to admit that the definition of certain races and creatures as constitutionally evil was probably not ideal. Yet this is what a lot of games hew back to: Stories of dark external corruption staining a natural brilliant beauty – a bunch of Make Faeryland Great Again bullshit. Another aspect of this that is very frustrating is how often it seems to crop up in games inspired by Dark Souls, since that game in particular avoided these cliches very adroitly. There is an old god-king – but his and other gods’ senseless clinging to power is a big part of why that world is so fucked up in the first place. There is a “darkness”, a “corruption”, but this is more of a powerful primordial force that can change things for better or for worse. Dark Souls takes so many of these cliches and plays with them in such clever ways, it’s rather revolting to see so many supposed successors play every cliché straight in the most boring possible ways. In addition to being pretty gross, these sorts of stories are extremely boring. Why are we on the side of the king? Why is the corruption evil? Why do we have a better claim to the land than that “corruption” does? We just do, that’s why. It’s bad, we’re not, and you can tell because our UI markings are blue and theirs are red.
Every time I notice something like this, I want to tear it to pieces. This is actually proving to be something of an issue for me on my current project: Part of what I want to do with Bound City is to tackle the ideas of nostalgia and retro-fetishism and the reactionary ideas baked into them, but there are so many little stupid cliches like this that I get overwhelmed. The unstoppable crime waves, the good kings who give quests and whose lives are inseparable from the well-being of the land, the oozing corruption, the untamed wilderness, the pure language of violence, the destruction of beast and environment to harvest resources, the weirdly absolutist moral judgments – it’s wild how many of these often contradictory ideas manage to simultaneously permeate the overall narrative space of games, and it doesn’t feel right to not try to skewer them wherever I have an opportunity.
All too often, though, the games that take aim at the cliches of game narrative and design simply do so by restating them in plain language and rely on that absurdity to appear humorous and insightful. Most of the time it’s pretty superficial stuff like isn’t it weird how many games have you kleptomaniacally steal anything that isn’t bolted down? Almost never are the narrative precepts of good kings and halcyon pasts and corrupting darkness questioned, almost never is it posited as not obvious where a just hero would stand on these things. But who are we, the game players? Do we not have more in common with a “corruption”, something alive and desperate and shifting and evolving, than the royalty, something tyrannical and wealthy and stagnant? Why are we enemies of random animals and creatures? Who gets defined as intractably evil and therefore worthy of massacre? Where are we placed in the narrative, and where do we want to be?
These are the sorts of questions I want to ask – not merely to invoke nostalgia, not merely to poke fun at the occasional silly contradictions, but to ask what lusts and justifications are fed by these sorts of narratives, to ask why we crave them – and to ask what, should we choose to reject them, happens next?
After watching through Better Call Saul I apparently decided I still didn’t have enough anxiety in my life and subsequently binged through Barry – a comedy series following a hitman, played by Bill Hader, who stumbles into a Los Angeles acting class while following a target and subsequently decides to become an actor. I’m going to discuss the broad narrative themes and arc of Barry but won’t be going into much detail, so this all should be fine for the spoiler-averse. I was initially put off by the show’s premise, as comedies about violence are a mixed bag: They can serve to trivialize violence or to portray its innate absurdity, serve to apologize for those who enact it or to humanize them – and these descriptions probably sound rather similar on first glance, which itself illustrates the problem. Violence is a powerful and complicated thing, and doing it justice is a sophisticated challenge, one exacerbated by the challenges of creating a good comedy.
Fortunately, the writers seem to be aware of all this, and while it is an absurd and over the top show it is also frequently quite thoughtful regarding these topics. Though the initial episodes toy with the question of whether it’s possible for Barry to give up his career and lifestyle to become a good person, this question almost becomes a running gag due to its sheer absurdity. What does it even mean to be a good person? Does it merely mean living an inoffensive life where you don’t do any obvious harm? If that’s all it is, then isn’t that just an easy life? I mean, who doesn’t want to be that kind of “good person”? Is being good merely living the good life? That is, however, the kind of good person most of us are: The goodness of convenience. The goodness of buying products subsidized by distant blood rather than blood of neighbors, the goodness of exported violence and imported goods rather than local violence with localized harms. This is the kind of good person that only relatively comfortable get to be, a goodness that correlates with wealth. The good person is a story we tell over and over to comfort ourselves, to make sense of things, to assure our anxious brains that all is in order, all is correct, that all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.
What Barry is really about is these stories we tell ourselves. Los Angeles is the ideal setting for this, a city of dreams where reality blends seamlessly into fiction – BoJack Horseman, another complicated story of a bad person who dreams of being better, uses the setting similarly. The people in Barry’s acting class don’t just seek a skill, but seek stories – not stories as sequences of events, but as structures to make sense of sequences of events. The secondary protagonist Sally, a woman who Barry meets in class and enters a relationship with, has her own complicated relationship with violence: As a survivor of domestic abuse she’s still trying to make sense of her own history, constantly approaching and retreating from violence, struggling to articulate her anger without being overwhelmed by it. Gene, the instructor of the class, has lived a life of narcissism mediated by narrative justification, living in a story all about himself – after all, as Fuches, Barry’s erstwhile handler meditates, “Everyone’s the hero of their own story.”
This truism is appropriate enough, but our actual relationship with stories is a bit more complicated, the roles we cast ourselves into more nuanced than purely heroic. We understand the world through narrative structures, through parable and myth and anecdote – and, while most of us do it by habit, art provides an opportunity to take control of the process. Just as we can use art to shape our own narratives, we can share it with others to help them shape theirs – a process that can be generous or malicious, depending how the practice and practitioner. There are industries built around constructing and controlling these narratives: Arts and entertainment, obviously, but somewhat more subtly marketing, politics, education, and even sometimes the sciences. These fields all twine together, are motivated and weaponized by one another. Barry becomes a killer because of the story of patriotic violence, a hitman because of the story of familial and military fidelity, an actor because of simplistic narratives of redemption and forgiveness… a person always taking action but always at the whims of his story, a story in which he has probably not always been the hero. We also learn to regard others in terms of our story. People get typecast as villains, as love interests, as father figures, as confidantes, even when it doesn’t make much sense, even when the role doesn’t line up with the person.
It’s thoughts like these that make me terrified and suspicious of the power of art. It’s such a tempting place to exist, a warm self-annihilating cocoon where everything in the world becomes hypothetical, every terror an experience, every regret a learning moment. I think it is healthy to spend some time here and impossible never to retreat here; nevertheless, the perspective from inside the cocoon is only helpful when it can sees the world outside clearly. When a story finally emerges from the cocoon, slowly sprouts its wings and flies away, we must take care to see that the stories it reproduces later on do not shape further tragedies, terrors, and regrets. Perhaps, though, a regret or two might not go amiss – maybe that’s the idealistic wish underpinning the show is that somehow, somewhere, there’s a story potent enough and poignant enough to finally instill the wicked with a conscience.
A pen may be mightier than a sword, but it is terribly difficult to aim at the distance at which it is most effective.
This has been, to my chagrin, the least productive month of the project so far. I’ve already talked about most of the things pushing back against my progress, and all of those continue to do so. The arc of progress seems, to me, to be an asymptotic approach towards completion: The further away the goal is, the more rapidly I can approach it. One reason for this seems to be that, when there are many tasks standing between me and completion, I can pick them up as I think of solutions or feel particularly motivated to tackle them and use that momentum to advance rapidly. Conversely, when there’s only a few tasks left, I have to sit and think about solutions and pick at them bit by bit to make painstaking progress. It’s like eating a big bowl of popcorn: When you start it’s easy and fun and light, but when you get to the bottom it’s full of little hard kernels that never properly popped, and if you want to finish the job you have to slowly chew them up, one by one, each buttery desiccated kernel. Nevertheless, they must be eaten – in this metaphor, anyway, I don’t usually eat the actual kernels.
So okay. I went around working on this and that, as I could see ways to advance towards a goal. I made a number of tweaks and fixes to the dialogue system, I polished up a bunch of the character portraits, I added new single-frame animations to the main character for turning and for pushing against walls. Nothing big, but little fixes to things that had been bothering me.
I decided, though, that what’s reallyblocking my progress here is simply that I don’t have confidence in the story and writing of the game. I’m so fucking excited about so many of the ideas that I’m playing with in this project that I’m terrified of messing them up, forgetting bits and pieces, expressing a powerful idea ineffectively, concealing or revealing too much too late. I’m in idea debt to myself, hypnotized by possibility and humbled by impossibility. This state of affairs is probably going to continue until I have a Plan, a structure, something that makes it feel like I can tackle each problem individually without completely losing my place.
Easier said than done. I have a long list of “don‘ts“, which turns out to be much harder to work off of than a short list of do’s. I don’t want to have what so many games have, characters who give quests which you do to get stuff– I really dislike how many games boil down to the idea that you should help people because they might give you their old enchanted hat. I don’t want to have characters that just sit around and say the same few things over and over, I don’t want to have characters with broken lives left around for the player to fix, I don’t want the character stories to just be static events that always happen exactly the same way… so many things to avoid, it seems sometimes to chart a very narrow path indeed. To simplify and reduce some of this pressure, I’ve started trying to note down little bits of character arc – essentially just try to figure out, on a case by case basis, what I think each character’s story is about and where I see it potentially ending up
What sucks is that while I’ve just written several paragraphs about why this is necessary work, I still feel like I haven’t done anything all month. The writing is a little better now, there’s a little more of it, it has a little more direction, but I still have no real confidence in it and don’t exactly know how to address that. It starts to feel like this entire aspect of the project is an albatross around the neck, is just slowing everything down – but perhaps that which adds weight also adds momentum, and as an artist I do want to maximize impact.
After a certain point, anxiously pacing the same ground over and over loses its appeal. One of the things I was planning on doing afterfinishing the demo/vertical slice was completely overhauling the sound system, and in order to avoid needing to figure this shit out I just went ahead and started working on that. I went into some detail on where I’m at on that task in this Cohost post – suffice it to say that at this point I anticipate it being another week or so of work to finish it up.
Okay. What now? This month, I finish and implement the overhauled sound system, go through the writing again and send it out to some test-readers so I can exorcise my anxiety around it, put together the intro illustrations, and playtest/finalize all the in-game scripting. That sentence covers effectively everythingthat needs to be done to wrap up the demo version of the project. It sounds so easy! The hard part is just… accepting that whatever I do is going to have flaws, and that there will never be a perfect realization of these ideas, and just resolving to do what I can here and now.
This struggle will be ongoing, but I think I’m winning. Slowly.
A few days ago I finished watching through Better Call Saul – the mostly-prequel-seguing-to-epilogue of Breaking Bad. It’s a strange and complicated series, and it’s given me a lot to think about. On balance I feel it’s significantly more interesting than Breaking Bad, but they share a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses and I find those similarities, and contrasting differences, fascinating. I’m going to be discussing these stories in very general terms: No specific plot points will be spoiled, but if you want to go into either series completely blind you may wish to do so before reading ahead.
The biggest undermining issue of both these series is that while they are nominally about crime and violence they have a relatively simplistic and childish perception of these topics. This has become a more noticeable issue over the decade and change since the premiere of Breaking Bad: Conversations about the failures and biases of policing, the evils of the decades-long “war on drugs”, and the conveniently slippery definitions of crime and who’s defined as a criminal are more mainstream and commonplace now. Many of these conversations focus on the impact of television shows, which are still overwhelmingly a playground for copaganda and other trite and simplistic cultural narratives – and sadly Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are, while often thoughtful and insightful shows, hardly exceptions to this rule, thoughtlessly following the same tropes, building from the same unexamined axioms. Another acclaimed drama, The Wire, concluded right around the same time Breaking Bad premiered – and while there are still many valid criticisms to be made of the limitations of The Wire’s vision, it featured a much more nuanced understanding of the systemic underpinnings of crime and violence. I suspect the reason why the creators of Breaking Bad weren’t too interested in these specifics was because they wanted the theme of the show, as signified by the title, to be how the descent into evil, into badness, happens – and thus thought introducing discussions of the slipperiness of these concepts would just confuse the matter. Regardless, I think it causes some issues, and it frustrates me: Though I think we inevitably have to choose certain narratives to emphasize and de-emphasize in art, it’s worrying to me when American-made art in particular chooses to gloss over activities we are glibly culpable in such as brutal punitive justice and armed conflict.
Either due to the passage of time and advancements of the conversation or due to the shift of subject matter of the show, Better Call Saul is somewhat better on this front. The main characters of the show are motivated by, among other things, a sense of being the correctives for various sorts of societal injustice – whether it be the injustices of those crushed and entrapped by the criminal legal system, or the elderly cloistered and exploited by hucksters pretending to act in their best interests, these characters are motivated by a drive to stand up to the system that has mistreated them and their loved ones – which creates quite a fraught tension as, being lawyers, they have a sworn duty to uphold that system. Because of this there are many mentions of the system “being broken” or “failing people” – but, most often, the system as it is shown is portrayed as mostly functional, with perhaps a few unfortunate people falling through the cracks here and there – rather than, as in reality, consisting entirely of a giant crack that swallows lives like a gaping maw. Perhaps this is because of the limitations of the vocabulary of television writing; or perhaps because of both series’ conception of what a criminal is. The people who are shown to be victimized by the system are largely innocents or people guilty of small-time crimes being handed oversized sentences. Overwhelmingly, though, the characters portrayed on the shows who break the law, those who break bad, the criminals, are of one of two archetypes: The idiot or the supervillain. Both of these, the inveterate fool who can never be dissuaded and the brilliant mastermind who will always require massive resources to contend with, are effectively themselves arguments for why the current system of brutal carceral justice is not only not broken but is necessary. It is the same formulation as used by more overt copaganda shows, only told from a different perspective.
For all these failures to contend with the specific systemic cruelties of the law, though, Better Call Saul is very interested in the abstract concept of the limitations of the law – to the extent that one character in particular, Chuck McGill, brother of Jimmy McGill (aka Saul Goodman) is effectively a living avatar of the law and embodies its failings. Chuck believes in the law in a very fundamental way – it’s not that he doesn’t know of its limitations, but that he believes the points of failure are where the law touches humanity, that the law itself is, at its core, perfect, pristine. He’s correct insofar as that anything can be perfect and pristine when it exists purely in the conceptual realm: When you try to apply any such thing to human reality it will reveal gaps, problems, messiness. Chuck can normally overlook such trifling contradictions – but with Jimmy there, heightening every contradiction, revealing every hole, demonstrating the failures of his absolutism? The structure cannot stand. Chuck knows he is out of his element and feels it in a very fundamental way, manifesting in strange anxiety disorders and fits of righteous anger. Jimmy, for his part, knows he can never be perfect – if not because of his present actions, than because of the past, eternally written in stone by the steel trap mind of Chuck.
The show doesn’t really believe in Chuck’s logic, but it still sometimes reifies it in strange ways. As the show progresses, every moral inaction and immoral action rolls over into progressively worse and more dangerous consequences – partially for the simple reason that at some point the story of Better Call Saul must become the story of Breaking Bad, which operates on this logic, of doing evil bringing evil into your life. It feels conflicted, though: So much of the series seems like a meditation on the impossibility of telling the difference between what a good or bad action is, on how something that seems like one can shift into the other, it seems artificial to transition into this moralizing stance, to suddenly create a world of moral immediacy where every immoral action is punished by a causal Rube Goldberg machine. Perhaps that is the message: In our life we do so many small good and small bad things, and most of those basically wash out, and we’ll probably never know which are which – but we can also exploit this ambiguity to excuse ourselves doing something really, genuinely, obviously bad when it comes along, and it can be hard to tell that that’s what we’re doing.
Breaking Bad, for all its acclaim, has what is really quite a simple moral message: Pride will destroy you from the inside out. Pride will lead you to deny your weaknesses, to reject help, to try to incompetently solve every problem yourself, to keep on doing stupid things for stubborn reasons, to pick fights with people who threaten your ego. Walter White is a very straightforward character – somewhat sympathetic simply in that we’ve all found ourselves doing something foolish out of pride, but fundamentally kind of a stupid genius who just ruins everything for everyone. Jimmy, aka Saul, aka Gene, aka Jimmy, has his own struggle with pride – he feels shame at lacking the perfection of his brothers outlook, for feeling emotions, for feeling hurt and confused, and reflexively lashes out to protect himself. Given time this was probably something he could have worked through, one way or another – but, and I think this is where Better Call Saul really distinguishes itself as more thoughtful on the logic of moral transgression, evil doesn’t really come from a person, it comes from a relationship. Without Jimmy Chuck would have probably gone on being a very boring lawyer; without Chuck Jimmy would have gone to prison and/or been a small-time crook who was good to his friends and annoying to his enemies; without Kim Jimmy would have stayed in the mail room, content in being a lovable goofball, and without Jimmy Kim would have probably also been a boring lawyer who never does anything very good or bad. So it goes on, the Salamanca’s creating Gustavo’s cruel cold yearning for revenge, Mike refining it into something nearly perfect with a sure hand of experience and personnel management, Ignacio thanklessly laying the foundation, all eventually creating the powderkeg to meet Walter White’s arrogant spark.
At the same time, these experiences, these intersections of neuroses and compulsions, these relationships, are what it’s all about. Connecting with people, understanding and being understood, these are what we need, these are what we build. It’s not like we can phase them out – but we can, perhaps, be vigilant of where these paths may be leading us, whether we must turn about – or, perhaps, just fork off onto another road altogether.
There’s a lot of talk right now around AI art, and I’ve mostly just patiently listened to it. However, more and more I feel the need to yammer at length about it, because several aspects of how this gets discussed are frustrating to me.
“AI” stands for Artificial Intelligence, and is used with all of the exacting precision we’ve come to expect from how the terms “artificial” and “intelligence” are themselves deployed. AI gets used to mean a lot of things – from a carefully programmed set of instructions to control the behavior of entities in games, to science-fiction computer super-intelligences, to algorithms for mashing a bunch of randomized inputs together until they match an expected output. The last example here are referred to as Machine Learning algorithms (the acronym “ML” gets pretty confusing if you spend a lot of time around left-leaning programmers). There’s three parts to this process: First, getting the list of stuff to mash together, second, doing all the mashing, and third, developing a way to assess how close this mishmash is to what you want. Any one of these three steps can introduce unforeseen biases – and, due to the black-box nature of these meta-algorithms, none of these biases are easily identified once they’re introduced.
Regardless, this technique can be, in certain circumstances, kind of cool. The process of masticating a bunch of input and regurgitating it is not necessarily a creative one, but it can be a generative one: I think most artists have probably played with processes for gleaning inspiration from random occurrences, from looking at passing clouds or from Rorscach tests or from pulling words from a hat, and these processes can be satisfying and elucidating in their own right. ML is a particularly powerful version of such processes, since it has the vast iterative power offered by modern processing, but is still fundamentally pretty similar to a set of dice with words printed on them. Artists also have a number of processes where the specific result doesn’t matter so much as that it creates the correct impression; creating the texture of tree bark or of flowing water, it’s seldom necessary to get any particular line or highlight correct, but vital to create the right texture, convey the correct impression, and uncontrolled processes like throwing gobs or specks of paint or scraping the canvas might work to generate this substance – here, too, such ML algorithms could be useful in digital art, generating the right kind of noisy detail fills.
What ML is not useful for, what it will never be useful for so long as it uses this methodology, is generating art. The reasons for this get down to the core of what art is: Art is a method of communication, an intentionally engineered solution to the problem of how to convey a complex and abstract idea. ML can never make art because it is a conversation with no one: What it generates could be interesting, but it’s just random noise filtered in a particular way. Whoever interprets meaning from that could find something interesting, could be inspired or moved – but the same is true of sitting in a forest and listening to a river. The process may be beautiful, but without intent it fails the one and only test of art, building a connection between two or more human beings. In other words, art is art because it has an artist.
Perhaps the thing I find most insulting and frustrating about this is I actually love the idea of artificial intelligence art. Imagine a whole other class of sapient being who lives with us, who was born of our effort! What would such a being have to say? What would their perspective be? What concepts would they try to convey to us through art, and how would we receive them? But of course, that isn’t what this is. Nor is this a tool created by an artist to express an idea, some abstracted set of rules for generating meaning, some meta-medium that can generate many artistic experiences by building off a set of authored rules (though, tangentially, it could be argued that this is what a video game is). It is, in practice, simply a system for chewing up and spitting out existing work. I’m not one to be prescriptivist when it comes to art. I think anything a person cares to make and to call art can be art – but they do have to make it, curate it, place it, assign meaning to it. I know the objection that’s springing to every defender’s virtual lips now: “I wrote the prompt, I chose the result, therefore I’m the artist. I provided the intent, the machine just filled in the details – how is this different from an artist using a textured brush or other tool?”
There are two reasons why I still don’t buy this argument. First: The direction these tools are being developed in, towards ever finer detail and rendering, and the way the people supposedly advocating towards the future of them present the results, build towards a shallow aesthetic beauty, something which looks nice on first glance, rather than towards results which are surprising and expressive – that is, the way ML art is currently rhetorically deployed is the furthest possible thing from the aesthetic goals that define an artist’s approach. The ML tools making the rounds a few years ago, the tools that spat out grotesque nonsense, where you could see the connections the machine was trying to make and failing to articulate, were often fascinating prompts for the imagination, a weird dream slurry of related ideas, but as these tools “improve” they only drift further from the realm of the interesting and expressive. Second: While ML tools may spit up solutions to problems, they are in fact regurgitating existing solutions to problems – an aspect which, as well, is exacerbated by their current rhetorical deployment in “real art” arguments made by people with a rotted view of what real art is supposed to look like. The output that manifests this way is doomed towards genericism (in the case of harvesting too many inputs) or plagiarism (in the case of harvesting too few) as an innate property of the methodology of the tool.
Of course, these mistakes aren’t limited to machines. Countless human artists, many who should know better, make the mistake of imitating the form of something they liked rather than attempting to understand its construction and apply the lessons that can be inferred from it. So much of art, especially popular art, consists of these endless repetitions of contextless form, because we have come to identify certain shallow traits as the correct way to do things. Waves of movies with the same visual and production style, echoes of the same style of dialogue writing, signaling at fun or importance without bothering to construct anything fun or important; eras of game design with pointless leveling or crafting systems or unnecessary turret sections; novels which mistake maudlin sentiment for profoundness, television shows which mistake meanness for genius, and so forth.
Perhaps what really frustrates me so acutely in this advocacy of a future of machine art is what it reveals under the surface: So much of what people see in art is the immediate presentation, the basic aesthetic, and so little the craftsmanship, the meaning, the message. Bad enough were it limited to art, but the pattern repeats elsewhere: Sham experts citing sham science to convict real people; sham coordinators making sham foam pits for people to shatter their real spines in; sham politicians stoking sham outrages to get their real enemies murdered. It may have always been this way, but it’s moving faster and the stakes are higher, and I will never stop being angry about it. The awareness of impostor syndrome has been inverted into a belief that everyone is an impostor, that doing things well doesn’t matter, that simply mimicking the appearance of competence is identical to competence, and it’s getting people killed and it’s going to get more people killed. All of this is only possible in a world that holds deep contempt for both the concept of education, that which makes one expert, and labor, that which gives one experience – we hold capital to be the sole arbiters of correctness, to decide what’s real and what’s fake, what’s expertise and what’s bias, what’s art and what’s trash.
One of the ideas I am constantly fascinated with is the twin concepts of boundary and continuity. Where do we draw separations between two things? Two ideas? Two objects? Two numbers? Dividing lines which seem perfectly straightforward can, on closer examination, be surprisingly porous. Where, exactly, does a country begin and end? Sure, you can point to the border on the map – but for each of the countless grains of soil that lie under that line drawn in ink, which country does it belong to? Where does a person begin and end? At the furthest edges of their skin? Does the dead skin husk around them count? Is food they’ve eaten part of them? When blood and sweat spills, is it a projection of their body or a subtraction from it?
And so on.
The answer, of course, is that these divisions lie wherever is useful to us. Boundaries, divisions between me and you, here and there, these are all just language, just concepts we’ve developed to describe the world around us and to make it easier to manipulate. They are extremely useful concepts to be sure, necessary to our (approximate, functional) understanding of the world around us – but these divisions are, nevertheless, imaginary.
Visual art, particularly line art, is a fascinating crystallization of this process. When we draw shapes with lines, what are we drawing? Say we’re drawing a vase: Where are the lines on the vase? Nowhere, of course: The lines are a representation of the boundary we perceive between vase and not-vase – and, as the old vase-or-face visual illusion demonstrates, these lines are mere suggestions, and what is being silhouetted against what is open to interpretation. It is actually quite odd and interesting that we can mentally translate a visual representation of boundaries into an object. I don’t know if other animals are capable of recognizing line art as a visual representation of something else: It seems to me that this skill is quite different from recognizing a photo or a photo-realistic painting, something which closely replicates the values as the eye perceives them, and I’d be curious if any other creatures have the knack. Perhaps that question is no different than the question of whether an animal can understand any other human language – probably not well, certainly not without training.
This raises further questions. If animals do not readily recognize lines, divisions, boundaries, then what is their understanding of their own individuality? Is there any conception of the “self” in there, of the counterpart “other”? Are these conceptions naturally occurring, or something we’ve invented? It is possible to act in the world and affect change, it is possible to have desire and preference and act upon them, with no conception of a unique and differentiated being, a self, to house these sensations. Where did this story of the “self” begin?
The role of the artist is, generally speaking, to draw divisions and connections. We decide how to frame the picture, what boundaries are necessary to contain it, what elements to include, what their relationship is. When we write stories, we find the beginning and end, we find the character, the motivation, the meaning and method. These ideas could go on indefinitely, improvised further and further out, finding connections – because our brains are very good with lines, both lines that divide and lines that connect. Part of generating meaning with a story is finding many meaningful connections – and this is why many of us love stories, because they allow us to do this, to build meaning through lines and then present what we find. However, to actually finish a story one must be willing to cut lines off, to draw a box around the story, trim its edges away and frame it.
The core of the artist’s work, then, is figuring out where we wish these divisions to lie, and what we wish these divisions to communicate. It’s a strange sort of challenge: So much of what is exciting and powerful in art is in eroding these boundaries and divisions, revealing unexpected connections, unveiling new meaning from everyday occurrence – but boundary must be drawn or the work be inexorably pulled into schizophrenic conflagration, undivided and undifferentiated, a noise of complicated meaning from which nothing can be learned because all is equally important.
When I was taking a mediocre English class, one of the things that I was taught, one of the things I subsequently rejected, was that a story must have a message. Some while afterwards, I changed my mind: I decided I was wrong to have rejected this idea, that a story ought to have a message but that this message needn’t be simple or obvious, could be a complex and open-ended question.
This, too, was wrong.
A story must have a message. This is not a normative injunction, this is not a command, not a formalistic constraint: A story must have a message simply because it is not possible to write a story without one. Each word is a message with a meaning, each pairs up with another to create a more complex meaning, a sequence, a narrative. What could result from this if not a message?
Okay, sure. Very pedantic, you may say, obviously words have meaning, but that doesn’t imply that the story as a whole must have a message. So we come to the core of it: What is a message? I mean, the story itself is a message, so what component of this message, what message within a message are we addressing when we discuss the “message” of the story? Something like the moral of Aesop’s fables, a single-line takeaway which neatly sums up the story? What’s the point of the story, if such a message is adequate and available? Mere rhetorical force?
Every narrative is a mess of messages though. Each character’s action and each result of that action implies a worldview, argues for an underlying system of beliefs and consequences. If, say, each character in your story meets an immediate and grisly demise after having premarital sex, then this implies a world view, a persuasive argument, a model of reality or desired reality, that exists in between the characters themselves, a product of the author. That example is pretty obvious, but authors create structures like this all the time, scaffolds of crime and punishment, action and consequence, sex and violence and hurt and forgiveness, networks of meaning. The way I now interpret that classroom instruction, “a story must have a message”, is simply this: Your story will have a message, and your job is to do your damnedest to understand what that message is and to ensure it’s one you are comfortable putting out into the world.
Most of us have some degree of media literacy. We’re able to identify such puritanical ham-handed scriptural strictures and structures as the above and to feel insulted and condescended to by them. Of course, some people have a very limited critical vocabulary – many a viral thread now is premised on understanding the message of a story entirely in terms of what the protagonist does, of interpreting every action this protagonist takes as being morally endorsed regardless of outcome and surrounding commentary. This is an impoverished but sadly popular method of engagement, which raises another point: No matter how well you know your own message, how clear you think it is and how nuanced and incisive its expression, someone will always read the dumbest and most obvious possible version of it and judge you for it. To worry about this too much is to constrain oneself to only saccharine nothingness as artistic outcome. Some audiences are best left ignored.
My frustration with most art I encounter these days, though, is simply that it seems to have no understanding of or commitment to its own message. Most storytelling I encounter seems to either do its damnedest to engender no viewpoint whatsoever – to have no throughline, to reject its own themes and try to make its message as empty and insipid as possible to avoid any possible critical reading – or to instead to be so crammed full of reactionary messaging as to be unpleasant to engage with in any way. One could easily read this choice, between the obviously, aggressively, cruelly reactionary and insipidly positive with no actual ethos, as representing some other such social dilemmas, perhaps encountered at a voting booth – I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. Of course, any such resemblances are no coincidence, but emerge as properties from the environment this art is created in and for: When you create for a wide audience, when you modulate your message to their perception rather than to your own model of meaning, you pour your ideas into the mold of their worldview.
I have my own standards, though. I detest art which struggles against its own meaning, which seeks to walk without rhythm. The metric of good music is not merely avoiding dissonance, the metric of a good painting is not merely the maintenance of perspective and anatomy, and anyone who evaluates these in such a way does so out of cowardice, of fear of deeper meaning, of contradiction. To say anything worth saying is to say things that will be received as stupid or off-putting, will create dissonance, instill doubt, generate conflict. This is not an endorsement of crass cynicism – to the contrary, the message of the cynic is all too often a way of avoiding meaningful messaging, of avoiding conflict, by devaluing and demeaning everything so much that all conflict becomes trivialized and pointless. My demand is much more difficult: To care, and then to continue caring, and to create an entire narrative that is, start to finish, tied to a passion for the same idea, the same thread, the same – for lack of any better term – message.
This was another weird month, in part due to a sort of mental backlash against the whole deadline thing from last month. While I didn’t quite reach said deadline, the whole perspective of this as a thing that could be some version of finished in the near future kind of freaked me out. I have a complicated relationship with actually finishing things – most of the work which I call finished is small enough in scope that I can feel reasonably comfortable that I’ve examined it from enough angles to have confidence in its quality, as well as knowing that even if something turns out to be unsatisfactory about it I probably won’t be too upset because it’s a relatively little investment of self. This gets much more difficult with a huge project like this, and the closer I get to some sort of completion the more I have to face that. In that regard, this vertical slice completion is quite useful as a sort of practice run: Perhaps by dealing with this anxiety now I can be more prepared to handle the bigger, meaner, final boss version of it that’s going to happen when it’s time to actually release the game.
Anyway. For this reason, and reasons of general fatigue and malaise, the beginning half of this month was spent almost entirely on music composition – a task I frequently gravitate towards when I’m feeling stressed or confused about more immediate and concrete tasks with more stringent requirements. These two tracks ended up being some of the more complex composition work I’ve done on the project so far, in terms of number of instruments and chord structure, and in both cases I had to spend approximately a whole week listening to them over and over and over, seeking out tiny discords and fixing little mistakes and stripping out sections that weren’t working, before I was finally some version of satisfied with them. Well, none of this is written in stone, and I may yet decide that these tracks need more work, but I at least was able to get to where I was able to call them finished without immediately crumbling into anxiety and self-doubt.
This is the track for the cathedral area, a place at the base of the tower where masses of people have merged together to become one great conflated entity, hurt and confused, always wanting more and less. I kept a motif I liked from Do No Harm – that originated when I thought that that was going to be the music for the cathedral zone – and I expanded on it, creating a dense counterpoint that kept threatening to spin out of control. I think one of my flaws as a composer is that I tend towards complexity, often unsatisfied with one or two simple tones playing against each other, and this track really fed into that tendency. The result is, I believe, a track that is rewarding to listen to attentively and repeatedly, but may feel confusing or off-putting on a first hearing. I suppose I’m fine with this in general – game music has to be able to handle being listened to over and over on a loop, naturally – but I can’t completely silence the specter in my mind of someone hearing a few notes they don’t like and then simply muting the sound in the game. Oh well!
Afterwards I was still not feeling up to returning to the rigors of programming, game design, and art, so I started working on the music for the University area. As one of the later sections, I wanted to start breaking the aesthetic of NES music a little more intently, so I started bringing in more SNES instruments – something I’ve been doing here and there, such as in the last section of The Agony of Touch, but in this case omnipresent throughout the whole piece. This is also the first piece written so far for this project that has stereo sound – which, while it has the same symbolic reasoning as adding SNES instruments, was also simply because I was having a hard time not oversaturating the mix. I put a lot of time into this track and I think I’m quite pleased with where it ended up – I can hear a lot of inspiration from Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and perhaps even Secret of Mana, without feeling like it ever pulls too directly from any of those inspirations. I wanted to create a feeling of hauntedness, like this was a place that was hopeful once and empty now – I don’t know if I hit that target directly, but I think some of that comes through.
Though in my memory this was all a two-week block of solid music composition, I can see looking back over my daily dev journal that I actually worked on a number of other noteworthy tasks during this period. First, I added a set of tutorial messages at the start of the game: These are very simple and minimalistic, just a text bubble that appears and teaches a basic control, then disappears permanently once you do the thing it teaches you.
I also wrote and placed a significant number of newspapers and books in the world to serve for both storytelling and flavor.
Around the time I wrapped up the second piece of music, I also started implementing this mid-game scripted sequence I keep alluding to in vague terms. To work on this, I had to create a character design that I’ve been butting up against for a while.
An earlier version of this design popped up a few months ago, and it’s changed in several ways since. The biggest change is I felt that the giant skull was simply too goofy, and I tried to pull the elements that were interesting from that into a mask-like visage to fit onto a more humanoid design. So I had this design, a couple of other necessary character designs, I had the room for the scene to happen in – but something was gnawing at me. I was feeling the sense that I needed to start testing and scripting events, get in and make sure everything was functioning properly – I have, in fact, barely run the project at all over the last month. Testing is vitally important, and I know that – but I wasn’t doing it! How was I ever going to implement these complex scripted sequences if I wasn’t willing to go in and test? What did it mean that I kept avoiding doing so?
Sometimes I catch myself avoiding things. Sometimes I find that the mere thought of doing something that should be fun and rewarding fills me with dread, that I’ll do anything aside from that, making infinite excuses, focus indefinitely on preparatory side-tasks. It’s one of the traps I’ve learned to be very cautious of. At such times, I try to do my best to identify the problem and address it head-on: What’s causing me such dread? How can I work around it or alleviate it? One reason, I determined, was a fear of things going invisibly wrong – of something incorrect in the system going undetected and lying in wait like a landmine. This becomes particularly insidious at the intersection of the dialogue and gameplay systems: Both systems are able to get and set global variables to communicate with one another, but the actual communication is very difficult for me as the designer to perceive. A character dialogue might set a flag that places an object in the world, the object might set a flag to tell the character that you have found the object, but neither of these interactions are clear without looking at both the object and the dialogue file. A typo in either might mean the wrong flag is being written or read, and errors like that could cascade to some indefinite unknowable depth. That sense, of not being sure until testing whether any sequence will work properly, makes the prospect of testing far more stressful – since each test might reveal not just one issue but a huge set of cascading issues which make my life hellish for weeks on end.
This was a helpful realization, but it didn’t immediately suggest an action. It took me some time to decide upon a solution – and significantly more afterwards to figure out how to implement it. What I ended up creating was a Unity editor extension that draws all the information I need to understand approximately how these entities are interacting to the scene view.
This looks pretty simple, and for the most part it is, but getting this all working was a week or so of work – not least because Yarn Spinner, the dialogue system I’m using for the project, does not make most of this variable getting/setting information readily available. Because of this I had to create my own helper class which parses the dialogue files and pulls out all of the information. This was, frankly, a very frustrating thing to have to do: If I’m putting this much work into parsing dialogue files, the benefits of using a pre-made dialogue system really start to diminish. Would it have taken so much more effort to simply roll my own at this point? Perhaps not, but here we are, and the benefits of Yarn Spinner (most notably the easy localization options) probably will outweigh the drawbacks for the foreseeable future. Perhaps I will submit this helper extension as a suggestion for how they might improve the versatility of their tool in the future. Aside from those challenges, it took a bit of work learning the ins and outs of scene view GUI to actually get this to nicely visualize. Clicking a button selects the object which is controlling the flag, lines represent other objects setting the flag this object gets or getting the flag this object sets, and clicking the connection to a line moves to look at the object the line connects to.
Finally, I added an extension to the NPC dialogue inspector that displays what dialogues can be activated by speaking to the NPC, then marks up those dialogues by highlighting where it reads or writes variables, where it jumps to another node, and most importantly where it detects a given line might be too long to fit into the in-game UI.
All of this took a couple of weeks, and for the whole time I was fighting the paranoia that this was just another instance of finding something to work on so I could avoid tackling the hard stuff, just digging up another way to dodge the dread. Looking at this work now, though, I feel so much less stress that I have to believe this was the right choice. There are still probably a few issues left to iron out: Some of this information could probably be displayed more nicely, and there may be things I haven’t thought of yet that need to be added, and right now all these buttons make it a bit tougher to use the standard Unity editor gizmos – but this feels like a huge step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, I’ve been putting together a task list of everything left to do for this vertical slice. It’s not much – just as it wasn’t much at the beginning of the month – and now I’m in a much better position in terms of mental and material preparation to tackle it. I’ll be burning through this list as quickly as I can – but, at the same time, I’m feeling so restless, so impatient to start building the game out and adding all of the cool stuff that’s been waiting just behind the barrier of finishing this first segment! I keep hitting ideas for little bits of polish and improvement, tweaks to make things nicer and smoother, narrative points I want to touch upon… Perhaps, between checking things off this list, I will start putting together a second list, a list of when and how to proceed to build out the game, a step by step to figuring out how to capture the game which eludes me.
It is a strange compromise I find myself making between getting excited about finishing this early vertical slice and moving towards where I eventually want the project to go, and I keep getting lost straddled between these two guiding lights. Still, it’s not as though they’re leading in such different directions – as long as I keep making my way forward, I will be making some kind of progress towards some kind of completion.
I played through Cult of the Lamb a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been meaning to write about for a little while but got derailed by a general failure to write anything. Cult of the Lamb is a roguelite with town-building elements, or perhaps a town-builder with roguelite elements. You control The Lamb, unnamed, the only such lamb left alive after a purge by a group of demigods in order to prevent a prophecy, etc etc, video games. Your task, given to you by some sort of satan, is to build your own cult to acquire power to face the bishops, those aforementioned demigods. The flow is simple: You go into a dungeon that belongs to one of the bishops, kick as much ass as you can manage, bring back a bunch of stuff and maybe rescue a hapless villager or two and return to your cult village to develop it by adding farms, shrines, mines, and so forth. When you’re done managing all that, you go into another harder dungeon and do it again.
As a basic game flow, this works very well. The actual combat of the roguelike segment is unremarkable but acceptable. Enemy patterns tend to be very predictable, but so much visual chaos accrues that it’s easy to end up taking damage anyway, and for reasons I discussed in my earlier piece on the dodge roll as it is implemented in 2d games, the actual engagements tend to be very flat, largely alternating between spamming attack and timing dodge rolls. The overall effect is unfortunately one of a dime-store Hades – unremarkable and unsatisfying, but not actually unpleasant. What makes the experience compelling and enjoyable, however, is the sensation of bringing whatever bounty you find back to your village of cultists and investing in upgrades making everything a little bit better, a little bit nicer, a little more robust.
This loop reminded me of, appropriately enough, Loop Hero – another roguelite with light town-building elements, though significantly more minimalistic in that case. First in playing Loop Hero and again in Cult of the Lamb, I noticed an innate human joy in working to build and enrich your community, one that I think many games, particularly roguelites, would be well-served by theming themselves around. This sensation of communal contribution persists through the first half-to-two-thirds of the game, but begins to sharply diminish as it progresses. In the early game you are personally responsible for all of the core functionality of your little cult – scavenging and cooking food, assembling buildings, finding grass and lumber and stone to work with, and so forth. As you develop your village it begins to become by degrees more self-sufficient, growing its own food supplies and accruing materials to build bigger nicer structures. You can build and upgrade farms to let the villagers harvest their own food, you can create mines and lumberyards to keep indefinite supplies of wood and stone and workshops to allow these to be processed and upgraded. Though you are, in terms of power, effectively a dictator, you can at least try to work towards some sort of communal good that benefits all involved. The dream of making a perfect little town, one that doesn’t need you any more, one that can stand under its own strength, stands just out of reach for so much of the game.
Eventually, it becomes clear that this dream is impossible. Even the most advanced mines and lumberyards collapse and must be manually rebuilt, crops don’t return enough seeds to sustain themselves – and, most painfully and confusingly, though your cultists can grow and harvest crops, they can never cook them. All meals must be prepared manually by The Lamb. This becomes particularly strange and onerous in the late game: On the difficulty I was playing on I could hardly leave on a dungeon mission without my villagers starting to starve and turn resentful by the time I got back a day later.
The reasons why this all works this way are obvious. The developers didn’t want set-and-forget solutions, didn’t want the player to make a self-sustaining cult which they could then ignore if they wished – that would be avoiding engaging with half the game, after all. Many builder games avoid this outcome by having disasters that require special attention to deal with: Earthquakes, plagues, floods, and so forth. However, the simple systems of the cult town simulation don’t really allow for any very robust version of these, so instead it’s simply… impossible for your villagers to cook.
This is one of many places where the game as it was conceived seems to conflict with the game as it actually came to be. The seeming intent of the developers, going by the marketing material, is for the player to be a ruthless tyrant using hapless cultists to further their own goals. Yet we’re never really given any goals to want to further beyond doing whatever our satan tells us to, so the real goal ends up being building the nicest village possible, and part of making a nice village is not being needlessly cruel to the people who live in it. Now, of course, sometimes a sacrifice has to be made or a rebel has to be imprisoned, but these are all in service of The Greater Good… maybe. But, anyway, you don’t seem to have much of a choice to not do those things, so… I guess you might as well do them as nicely as possible. Many of these forced decisions though, the mandated tutorial sacrifices and brainwashings, seem like holdovers of an older game design, one more pointlessly edgy and cynical, one that is inherently at odds with the actual finished game’s motive structure of really just trying to build a nice town.
The resulting experience is odd, and ultimately somewhat disappointing – though Cult of the Lamb is very fun to play for the first 10 hours or so, the resolution ended up feeling hollow. I’m going to spoil the ending, so SPOILER WARNING: You defeat the bishops, naturally end up quarreling with your satan and fighting him too, and then you win and… everything continues on basically exactly the way it was. Your cult continues needing your input for every decision, your help to cook every meal. You exist in perpetuity, the new bishop, the new tyrant. Nothing is changed, nothing is gained – nothing is even really lost.
Listen. I get it. People don’t play for the plot. It’s just set dressing. The lore is just present enough to excuse the action, the characters just distinctive enough to have flavor without adding any distracting motivation or action. It is, I suppose, intended to be disposable. Still, I can’t help but find it frustrating. It feels like it’s almost about something, but never really decides what that is. You can marry your villagers but it makes no real difference, sacrifice them but it makes no real difference, rule by fear or by love or by brainwashing, makes no difference. Everything is flat.
Here’s the ending I want. I want to renounce my crown and live in the village as just another villager. Or I want to leave with the crown and find other gods to slay and villages to create. I want to teach just one of these motherfuckers to cook a bowl of cauliflower. Unfortunately, that is not their role in the story: Their role is to be stupid pain-in-the-ass resources to be used and discarded and resurrected and used and discarded again. This is the only allowed engagement with your village. It is a sadly cynical resolution – a gameplay argument that the populace is suited only to be used. Of course, I’m not saying the developers are intentionally arguing this or believe this – but as with most games, the mechanics tend to convey certain very unpleasant ideas about how the world works, and the lack of awareness of these implications makes the whole experience feel just a little gross.
I found it hard not to come to the conclusion, halfway through Cult of the Lamb, that this was a world that would be better off without me, without The Lamb, in it. Perhaps I could be of service by slaying the greater and more dangerous monsters who surrounded my little village – but, that done, what could I offer the world except to leave it behind? I suppose I did leave it behind, anyway, when I stopped playing and uninstalled it.
True ending unlocked. At least I married satan before I left.
First thing’s first: I didn’t hit the deadline. I didn’t honestly expect to, but it was worth a shot, and I think just considering the project in terms of a deadline helped guide my efforts in the right direction – even if at times I ignored that guide completely. Though the deadline itself wasn’t reached, I think this was probably one of the most productive months I’ve had on the project since I started it.
First on the task list, I needed to make sure every room in the game had a decent background layer. I don’t know if I’ve talked much about background layers, but these are the static elements such as the moon and sea which don’t move with the camera, giving an impression of significant distance. These backgrounds use the same tile system as the tiles within the levels, but each room has the same size and shape background – which, combined with the background naturally being behind all the other layers, made it very difficult to get a sense for how the background would fit into each area and where each background started and ended. I solved this problem by creating a dynamic tilemap which detects which room I’m looking at in the editor, copies its background, frames it with a solid border so I can see its edges, then reflects any changes I make back to that background. Using this lets me very rapidly fly around the map, look at each room, compare backgrounds, copy elements from one to another, and see how they look in place. It took me a day or two to figure all this out and a day or two more to finish building all of the level backgrounds – most assuredly faster than painstakingly placing and testing them would have been, and certain to save more time in the future as well.
Another pressing issue was that I hadn’t actually made any sounds for most of the menu interactions yet. A problem that’s come up a number of times is sounds being cut off when a creature dies, a menu gets deactivated, etc, because the sound player is no longer active. The solution I used for creatures in the game is to simply reattach the sound player to the creature’s corpse when it dies, but obviously this doesn’t apply to menus. For these, I created a single shared sound player, so menus can actually sound good transitioning between one another and I can have big nice dramatic booming sounds for the start of the game without them getting immediately cut off by the menu disabling itself so the game can start.
There are a number of remaining issues with the sound system that I’m going to be addressing in the near future, but were definitely beyond the scope of this deadline. While I am proud of the concept and style of synthesizing all of the sounds in-engine, and I think the ability to subtly change sounds is really interesting, the current implementation of this idea is pretty slapdash, roughly repurposed from an out of date open-source project. The system is inefficient enough that these sounds have to be cached, which means that for the first 30 seconds or so of game-time a lot of the sounds don’t work at all. Furthermore, some of the dynamic sound mutations can accidentally cross a threshold where they become way too loud or last way too long (or just sound weird), and I need more tools to control these outcomes. For these reasons, my next major sub-project is going to be completely rewriting the sound system with a new compute-shader-based synthesis engine and an interface allowing finer control of how sounds can dynamically mutate. This will probably take a while, perhaps a month or two, but I hope to be able to sell the result on the Unity asset store – as well as potentially elsewhere in the future, since a flexible real-time SFX synth built for games might be interesting to a number of developers. Because this is such a major undertaking I’ll probably continue working on other parts of the project as I build it out.
One of the biggest uncertainties hanging over my head was that of the intro sequence. Because this relies on a few illustrations, the composition and quality of these illustrations was a major source of stress in trying to envision what completion would look like. I resolved this problem by realizing this simply wasn’t a very important thing to have done by the deadline! This was especially the case once I added the game’s prologue. Now, “intro” and “prologue” are kind of interchangeable terms, but in this case the intro is a 2 minute scripted sequence that plays in the title screen and the prologue is a 30-second unskippable sequence that plays at the start of the game. The prologue is very vague and surreal and is just as much about setting tone as it is about telling the story directly, but it does set the player up with some (vague, confusing) direction and understanding. With this in place, the absence of the intro is a bit less jarring. Still, I may decide to withhold calling this vertical slice “done” until I can complete the intro as well.
There are some issues present in this version of the prologue that I’d like to address. Unfortunately neither the post-processing effects I’m using or Unity’s tilemap system are set up to work properly when time is frozen, as it is in this scene’s case to keep in-game elements from prematurely activating. It may be that I can simply modify this scene to work with a normal time scale by changing a few things around, but until then the background tiles and glitch effects won’t animate. These post-processing effects being frozen I think really negatively impacts the text legibility, so I’d definitely prefer to get this fixed before calling the prologue done.
A significant amount of time was also spent on writing dialogue for all of the many NPC encounters. I have a very difficult time telling how much time and effort I’m actually expending on this sort of work sometimes: Writing often feels effortless while I’m doing it, but agonizing before and exhausting afterwards. I have a hard time tackling this work because it feels very intimate compared to the relatively mechanical endeavors of a lot of the rest of game development – I feel like I can mess up the character writing in a way that is subtler and more difficult to fix than any of the other mistakes I could make. I have now written dialogue for all of the characters (so far), but before I’m willing to put this project out into the world in any capacity, even as a preview with a limited audience, I’m going to need to read, reread, rereread, and edit all of this talking to make sure that it’s fit for purpose… and that I don’t find it embarrassing.
A big problem that came up in the initial drafts is that I have the characters all basically complaining about how much things suck, reminiscing about how things always kind of sucked, waxing philosophical about the meaning of things sucking, and so forth. This is all fine, but it can’t be all every character talks about! Thus, a lot of the work I’m doing now, going back through what I’ve written, is adding more questions for the player to ask, more insights about what’s immediately important to know to make progress in the game, more concrete and immediate desires and concerns than just vague grousing about the surreal apocalypse of Bound City.
That was the important stuff, the stuff that the deadline really pushed me to confront. I also spent a lot of time doing work that was either lower-priority or completely secondary to the deadline. One of the big ones was a mini-boss encounter I’ve been planning for a while. I won’t go into any of the specifics yet because it’s kind of a surprise boss, but these specifics are less relevant than the changes I made to the basic enemy systems to streamline the process. As I make more enemies and more bosses, I get more opportunities to see the same patterns repeat and to create solutions for recreating common patterns quickly.
One pattern which emerged frequently was that of movement during actions: Most actions either made a creature stand still, move forward at its movement speed, or leap in a particular direction. I abstracted these out into a set of instructions that could be applied to any enemy action, so rather than creating a custom action for turning around and running away I can just use a standard enemy action with a backwards movement instruction. The other pattern which emerged frequently was needing to turn on attack animation/collisions during specific enemy actions – that is, when an enemy attacks they need to create or activate a corresponding attack object to actually deal damage. To achieve this I completely refactored the way enemy actions work to make it so each action actually activates and deactivates as it’s used by an enemy. This is important because it means that I can then set attacks and other secondary effects as children of that action, and then have them perform whatever behaviors are needed on activation. These changes will, I suspect, pay big dividends when it comes to rapidly developing and iterating later enemies – though, of course, I’m going to probably continue to need to create custom actions into the future, since there will always be some specific enemy behaviors that stubbornly refuse to fit into these molds.
The biggest takeaway from this last month though, the real power of the deadline, turned out to be the power of procrastination. Having tasks bearing down on you that you have to get done, tasks that seem intimidating and/or tedious, provides tremendous motivating power to avoid those tasks and work on other parts of the project that are less pressing and more rewarding. Often my go-to task for such situations is music composition – and, surprise, this last month has been a great one for composing music for the game.
The first track came together out of experiments towards trying to make something that sounded similar to a saxophone using NES waveforms. I got something that felt kind of close eventually, and started playing around with it and a piece started to come together – however, over the course of actually composing the piece I ended up stripping away most of that instrument’s unique qualities because I didn’t feel like they were adding much. Luckily, the standard square wave of the NES-chip is pretty easy to get trumpet-like sounds out of, so it still ended up with some of the same brassy quality. From here, I built out the music for the main city center area – an area which I’ve been really struggling to find a sound for, with a lot of abandoned experiments along the way. The long slow sustained backing bass notes are a pretty unusual sound in the NES style since they don’t play so nicely with the other miscellaneous sound effects the sound chip often has to play, but that isn’t a concern with this project so it was fun to dig into that type of sound more.
One of the really fun parts of music composition, particularly as it relates to this project, is that the more tracks I add the more I can add little references to other tracks in each track, making the whole thing feel unified and hinting at connections between areas and story elements (an aspect of the UNDERTALE soundtrack I enjoyed and admired). This track has sections which reference the residential area theme Around the Block and the death theme Standing on the Threshold: Once I added these changes, they also just started implying other tweaks and additions I could integrate to make the whole piece feel more coherent. I’m really happy with how it turned out, though I’m not yet completely sure if the vibe is correct for the area it’s going to be used in.
Not long afterwards, I started expanding a sketch I’d thrown together some time ago that I thought had promise for a more overtly threatening and horrific area/encounter. The horror nature of this project is still important to me, but this sort of constantly-playing retro music doesn’t fit easily into that theme, so I spent an afternoon a while back developing ideas on how one could create discomfort with 8-bit chiptunes. Of course, the tricky part isn’t just discomfort: It’s not difficult to simply put together sounds that are unpleasant to listen to. The tricky part is making it simultaneously uncomfortable/threatening and still musical, still overall aesthetically enjoyable. With all that in mind, I’m quite happy with where this track ended up.
The sliding bass notes create tension, and each segment feels a little off balance, starting and ending just a bit earlier or later than the ear expects. Nothing is strictly discordant, but everything feels just a bit off – though it also bears some resemblance Final Fantasy boss battle music with the chromatic shifting arpeggiated chord, particularly in later sections. I think it works well. This is also the only one of these new tracks that’s actually going to be in the vertical slice, so I had a great excuse to work on it.
Finally, on the last week when I was completely burned out on trying to finish this deadline, I wrote another completely unnecessary piece for a later section of the game. Originally this was intended to be for the cathedral zone, and you can still hear bits of that in the chamber-music-style arpeggiation, but the way it was coming together made me decide it would actually work better for the hospital area – particularly the high droning triangle-wave beep, implying something like a heart monitor. This also shows an expansion of the long slow bass approach used in Bound Together, where I built entire chords and sustained them – something extremely atypical of retro game music since they couldn’t generally sustain that many sound channels. Technically I think this track would still be possible with the expanded sound-chips that later NES games used, but it creates a much more modern electronic music sound, and starts to chip away at that chiptune aesthetic facade.
As with Bound Together, this has references to the death theme Standing on the Threshold. Though this track is no longer intended for the cathedral area, I’ll probably pull a lot of its themes back into that area’s music to tie them more closely conceptually together. One of the reasons I turn back to music composition when I get burned out on working on other parts of the project is because I find establishing the tone and style of later areas really exciting. I can’t wait, now, to start building the city and hospital sections to actually work with these themes, try to expand on the mood to create a cohesive experience. Crafting the music gives me a little insight into what the future shape of the project will be, gives me a bit more concrete of a dream to strive for – and, incidentally, gives me something to listen to while I work on it, which is also nice.
So that was August. Where, then, does the project stand in terms of reaching the deadline I set last month? Of the supposedly required tasks mentioned in the last update, all except for the intro are now done – sort of. Many of the polish and scripting fixes are in place but are untested: It will probably take several days of play-testing before I can call them done. Similarly, while all characters have lines written now, I’m going to need a few days of rewrites and edits and of testing them in place to make sure they fit properly in the dialogue boxes before I’m comfortable calling the dialogue final.
Of the nice-to-haves mentioned afterwards, the big success stories are the mini-boss and additional music. The death illustrations are probably something I’ll push later to experiment with in the future, the giant flea is probably not much work but isn’t immediately necessary to make the project feel robust, and the polish/improvement stuff is ongoing and will probably happen alongside the aforementioned dialogue and scripting play-tests. I would like to add something in terms of in-game documents (newspapers, signs, books, and so forth) and something for the special scripted sequence I keep hinting at, but neither of these need to be robust yet.
So, what’s left?
Extensive playtesting for quality and fixes
Special scripted sequence
Maybe the intro sequence
With the possible exception of playtesting/fixes and the intro sequence which can wait, I don’t think any of these will take more than a few days to do, so completion of part 1 may be achievable within a week or two. At the same time, this is dependent on both my ability to maintain focus and not finding anything new that feels urgent to immediately complete, neither of which are necessarily reliable. Rather than moving the deadline to two-weeks from now or something, I’m going to shift my focus from getting it done to getting comfortable with the idea of done-ness – that is, I need to accept that whatever version of this chapter 1 ends up being, it’s inevitably not going to live up to my highest aspirations for what the project can be. In some cases, that’s stuff that I can tweak and polish as the project as a whole gets developed – and in some cases it’s simply that the finished work can never complete with the dream of what the work could have been, the impossibly expressive imagined form of a completely unified idea.