A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how finding an audience is tied to finding a community, and generally being more open as a way to access more energy and creativity. Since then, I’ve been trying to be more active in game dev communities, posting about my work, seeing what people are talking about, et cetera. It doesn’t come naturally or easily to me, but I’ve made some progress at least.

Here’s something I learned very quickly: There are reasons I’ve shut myself off. They aren’t all good reasons, but it wasn’t an accident. When I talked about making myself a conduit to allow energy to flow rather than a dam to conserve it, I failed to consider that it’s not always necessarily fun being filled with energy. I didn’t get much sleep the first week. I’ve shut myself off a bit more since then to recover, but I have ambitions to push myself further again so I can probably anticipate more acute anxiety and sleeplessness and productivity and – all of a sudden it makes a lot of sense why so many indie devs get so much done and seem so frazzled all the time. I just opened that door a crack, I can barely imagine living directly in that stream of human idea and energy.

We all find ways to close off a bit, even if some of us are more overt about it than others. Many people who are exposed to the public stop listening because the voices are too numerous and the need too acute. Others shy away from the public completely and publish work from a distance. Some listen at certain times and then lock themselves away to work at others. It’s a negotiation that happens per person, trying to find a way to live close enough to the stream of human consciousness that they can fish in it without drowning in it.

Of course, I’m nowhere near drowning in it, it’s a two-mile hike to get to the stream to get idea water but I used to have drowning nightmares so even a light misting can freak me out and this metaphor has gotten out of hand.

Everyone is exposed, everyone is hungry, everyone wants to be heard and is struggling to listen. Just paying attention to the salivating throb of the creative economy can be difficult because it’s an open question how many of these people will have their needs met, and whether I can be helpful at all in doing so – even before considering whether my own hunger to be heard will ever be fed. There are so many people creating art and music, making games and writing stories, and all of these have value but how many of them will find an audience? How much audience is there, out there, to find?

In a world where success is defined as a financial self-sufficiency that demands thousands of sales, if more than 0.01% of people are creators and each creator has limited time to consume the work of others… when are we so saturated with creation that trying to share an audience becomes impossible?


There’s a narrow line that games have to walk when it comes to story. On one side, we have a story that seems not to acknowledge that it’s kind of stupid that you spend most of the time in it shooting everyone in the face and grabbing anything that’s the slightest bit valuable. On the other, we have a story about how stories don’t matter and you’re just here to shoot things and grab stuff. I find both of these deeply unsatisfying.

“Well,” you might say, “then why don’t we just make games that aren’t just mechanically motivated by shooting and looting?” Which is a real good question but let’s look past that for now because, you know, even if we make a lot of those, the ol’ rooty tooty shoot’n’looty is still an appealing formula and we’re probably going to want to keep on making them. Sometimes I want to shoot something in the head or buy a magic sword. However, I don’t need or want the game to pretend that this makes me the god among men who is the real cool hero no matter what the kids at school say; at the same time, I also don’t want the game to make stupid jokes about all of the EPIC LOOTZ I will find when I go into this HILARIOUSLY contrived situation because games r dum, right? I would like the game to provide a premise wherein I have a reason to want a sweet fucking magic sword, a situation where finding that sword is possible, and let me go. I don’t need to be told I’m the chosen one, I don’t need to save the world, I just need to be able to exist in a situation where I could plausibly want to defeat an opponent or find an interesting item for something beyond its own sake.

Even if my in-game motivation is solely greed, solely my character wanting to have a luxurious retirement in a nice castle somewhere, that still a reasonable and relatable motivation – one that makes a lot more sense than that of most game characters, at that. I would very much like to be rich right now myself. And yet even these flimsy justifications rarely get used, tossed aside either for grand stakes that are completely unrelatable (The end of the world at a minimum – usually the end of the universe) or for nudges and chuckles about how it’s all about the lootz and the sweet 360 no-scopes and jesus fucking christ just kill me already.

So many games give every impression that they hate games. They would either rather ignore everything game-like about themselves and try to be very important and serious (please ignore how absurd the actions you’re taking are whenever a cutscene isn’t playing), or present everything about themselves as a joke (haha you’re an idiot for caring about this world and therefore spending any time in it), than engage with what they are. I can’t help but feel that a big unspoken reason for the success of the Souls games is that they present what’s going on as significant without pandering to the player’s sense of self-importance. Sure, you’re the ‘chosen one’… but it turns out there’s been plenty of chosen ones before you and most of them just went crazy down in a hole.

Yeah, I know, it’s also annoying that every essay keeps turning into a rant about how Dark Souls gets everything right. Don’t think I’m not also frustrated. I’ve been frustrated for a long time.

I never really recovered from my disappointment with Left 4 Dead 2. Even its protagonists didn’t take it seriously, couldn’t treat the death of everything they’d ever known as anything but a fun zombie-themed vacation. It’s a Video Game Sequel: Everything becomes bigger and more explosive and more ‘awesome’, at the cost of complexity and nuance. Because, yeah, Left 4 Dead was an action-packed shoot-fest, but it also had tiny moments of genuine horror and sorrow. Apparently, judging by the fan reaction, I was one of the only ones to miss those when they were gone.

It’s just easier to make a game a caricature of games, make it all about shooting zombies and blowing things up. Because, hey, if everything is maximum stupidity, then it all fits together, right? So much for ludonarrative dissonance.


I worked on two major things this month. First was the rolling animations, which are the two most complex animations in the main character’s animation set, with the possible exception of the running animations. I’ve gotten better at doing animations so the work moved faster, but these two just have an awful lot of frames and each frame is different enough from the last that there aren’t a lot of shortcuts one can take.

crouching-roll-left crouching-roll-right
You can also see that these are two of the most different animations of the left/right flip versions, so again they defy shortcutting for that reason as well. These animations, with their high rate of contact with the ground, raise an interesting issue: Right now, all of the main character animations have a cyan outline to make sure she pops against dark backgrounds – perhaps unnecessary, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. However, the outline disappears where she contacts the ground, which is usually fine because she only contacts at a relatively narrow point. However, with the roll animation she makes contact all along the ground, especially while her hair drags across it. It looks fine on flat terrain, but on slopes or coming off of a ledge it’s obvious where the outline ends. Of course the animation looks a bit off in other ways at those moments since it kind of assumes a flat ground surface, but that’s by far the most noticeable. I still haven’t decided what to do about that. Maybe I should remove the outline and create a programmatic solution, see if I can bang out some code to make her pop out the way the outline does. Or maybe that’s all unnecessary, maybe the white cloth will make her show even on backgrounds where her darker tones would otherwise fade in. Or maybe I should bump all the animations up a pixel, extend the outline underneath them, and then make it so in-game they all draw one pixel lower. Not sure yet. I guess the smartest thing would be to start experimenting with just removing the outlines and then go from there.

The other part of the game I’ve been working on is a stone tileset. You may recall me working on stone before, and though I decided that weird wet-looking tileset worked fairly well in the cave area, it looks pretty terrible outdoors amidst the grass. It took several days of experimentation to find a stone tileset that looked good outside, and it turned out that restraint was key. Most stone, it turns out, is basically the same color as itself: Adding a lot of details and cracks made it look like ruined bricks or stone blasted apart by some catastrophic event. However, creating blocks with just a bit of patterning, either something kind of rough and scaley for uncut/broken stone or something almost flat but with slight patterning for that more man-made look, really seemed to do the trick. I also took the technique I used before of creating different lighting levels and using them to sort of draw a three-dimensional looking chunk of rock out of sets of simple tiles. There’s still flaws in the result, but I am quite pleased enough with it to table it for now until the rest of the game progresses to the point where its flaws are more noticeable.


For the next month I’ll probably be focusing on a) creating attack animations, b) creating transitional tiles so the stone tiles actually fit into their environment, and c) developing some of the early levels to actually use all the tiles I’ve been making and look decent. I’ll also need to start seriously considering how to go about enacting the ideals espoused in the Problem Machine blog post earlier today, but that’s going to be a long road and I’m not sure what shape it will take yet. Still, lots to look forward to!


I am not an outgoing person. This is a trait that represents a significant obstacle as an artist, and I’m just now beginning to see how much of my time and effort has gone towards denying these problems rather than mitigating them.

As long as I’ve been working, I’ve pursued the hermit model of effort – basically, this is the model where everyone leaves me the fuck alone, I do a good job, and everything works out. This actually worked okay when I was a paid employee, since my effectiveness could be easily measured by whether or not I accomplished the goals that were set out for me, but now that I’m self-employed? Now that I set my own goals, evaluate my own progress? It is no longer feasible.

It’s hard to hear that I’ve been doing things wrong, but every time I take a step back to think things through it’s a conclusion that is difficult to avoid.

Art is performance. It is playing a role and communicating through that role. It’s seeing your audience and touching them and being touched by them, though usually not physically for legal reasons. I have habitually avoided this and all other contact for a very long time. And, because I’ve avoided all performance and direct audience engagement, I’ve been able to convince myself that the technique of creating art is separable from the technique of presenting it to an audience in a way that it is essentially not.

The marketing is the product and the product is the marketing, to put it in the most disgusting way possible. The reason why I put it this way is to demonstrate that even sometimes very important ideas can become overgrown and diseased by the instruments of capitalistic selection, and like a swollen body part begin to seem separate from what they belong to. The moment marketing became a separate word, it became desirable for artists to separate their art from it, even though it’s just a particularly crass aspect of the hunger for an audience that unites all artists.

I’ve been watching indie games for a while, even if I haven’t been participating as much as I should have. I’ve seen who gets to be successful, and it seems most often to be the person who makes a good enough game in the right place at the right time. This isn’t the same thing as saying success is luck. Being part of a community shows you where the places and times are, tells you what time to be there and what wine to bring. Being open about your work, sharing your process and opening up your hopes to your peers and to your audience is the aspect of art that has metastasized to become marketing.

I find myself, now, standing apart from most of the things that I know contribute to success. I work reasonably hard reasonably regularly, but I rarely tell anyone what I’m doing beyond the most cursory of details. I don’t participate in development communities, don’t ask for help or try to help others, don’t collaborate on projects, don’t share my own progress. I’ve built a dam to try to hold everything in because I’m so scared of losing parts of myself, and that means that everything I give is out of my own personal reservoir – I can’t get excited by the excitement of others, I can’t learn from the learning of others, and I have no way of knowing, ever, whether anything I do is interesting or worthwhile to anyone but myself.

Over the last few months I’ve had several basil plants die on me because I was overwatering them, once a day, because that was simplest, that required me to pay the least attention, that was an obvious rule I could follow. I can’t help but feel like there was a lesson for me, there, and I can’t help but feel that everything I’ve done in the name of my own personal project, all the side-work I’ve avoided and all of the aspects of life I’ve avoided due to what I considered dedication have not actually been to the project’s best benefit.

What happens next is not easy or simple. What happens next is a world of possibilities, another reason I’ve been avoiding it. What happens next is I try to find a place to be, people to connect with, peers to teach and learn from. I don’t know where I’ll start and I don’t know how long it will take, but I know it will be its own process and, like any other skill I’ve taught myself, will be a long and painful road, one where I must find and face my own inadequacies over and over to proceed – but, in this case, my failures will be public, rather than private as I have always sought to make them.

This will not easy for me, possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. However, someday it will be the second hardest, then the third, until one day I forget it as I have forgotten my first steps, as I grow and learn. Or so I can hope.


What are monsters? Are they scary or just strange? It’s a shifty word that keeps on shifting. Monsterness is in the eye of the beholder – although, with the beholder being, itself, a monster made of eyes, this may be tautological. Sometimes they’re cuddly and sometimes they’re insectile, sometimes they want to be us and sometimes they want to eat us. The endless flexibility of the word is confusing and enthralling, a word that encompasses Sully and Adolf Hitler, Cookie Monster and Charles Manson.

Maybe it means a creature that humanity doesn’t want to see. Something too big or confusing or scary or improbable. Vampires are disconcerting even if they don’t eat people. They defy explanation – plus, like, they could eat a person if they decided to, right? Well, so could a person, if it comes to that. Most of the worst things done to people are done by people, and it’s been that way for all of recorded history. Mostly we don’t even call the people who do the worst things monsters: We call them pioneers, visionaries and missionaries, entrepreneurs.

Is it any wonder so many of us wish we could just be monsters? To belong to horn and tooth and fur, divorce from humanity. What could be more human than wishing you weren’t?

Sometimes I feel like a monster, like I can’t be let into the light, like my existence is too improbable and my wants unspeakable. It seems self-important to say how much I feels out of place, like I’m selling myself as exceptional when I’m merely invisible. It’s so common to feel a kinship with the monsters. So many of us can feel the fur and the fang that don’t exist, can feel our tissue rejected by the body of humanity, feel certain there must be another home for us out there. Isn’t that what we were taught as kids? That the monsters are out there, that we could come live with them if we must, that they always await us if we become too wild to be held by our world?

Alas, the monsters were in us all along. We made them to be what we needed them to be: A friend when we were lonely or an inhuman face to paint over all-too-human crimes. That’s why we make art today, to create a little yard where the monsters can play, where the fur and the fang can slake its thirst without hurting us or without, in the end, showing us anything we weren’t already prepared to see.


Difficulty is a difficult subject. What makes a game harder or easier is intricately tangled in what makes it work as an experience: Just as you can’t take a difficult game and make it easy without losing something, you can’t take an easy game and make it hard without warping the experience and, often, making it unpalatable.

Some people like difficult games, some people like easy games. Some people like both. What is it that we enjoy about each, though? Difficulty is appealing because it conveys a sense of weight to our accomplishments in the game: When we succeed at a difficult challenge there’s a sense of elation, and it’s not really possible to fake that experience through other means (though many have tried). A difficult game can also force us to examine the game’s design more closely, study it deeply for opportunities to gain the advantages we need to succeed. However, it also means we’re probably going to spend a lot of our time with the game doing the same things over and over trying to get them right, feeling inadequate because of our inability to conquer an obstacle: Difficult games force you to learn them the way you’d learn any other skill, and to be comfortable with that you need to be able to face the possibility of being bad at that skill and spending repetitious time practicing to get better.


What the design of a difficult game requires, then, is for the game to be learnable. That is not necessarily to say easy to learn: The solution to a frustrated player is not necessarily a thorough tutorial. However, within the game causes should be closely tied to effects in a way that can be observed by the player. If this isn’t the case, the game will probably feel frustrating and arbitrary, with the player confused as to why they aren’t succeeding when it feels like the things they’re doing should be working. Though the Dark Souls games succeed well on this in terms of the moment-to-moment action, their stat systems are less successful in this regard, with many hidden effects and thresholds to trip up the inexperienced player.

Easy games are easy to like. Flowing through the game’s content effortlessly, the player is invited to feel powerful, to smoothly engage with the constructed content of the game at a planned pace, to experience things more or less directly as the designer intended. Not everyone enjoys that, though: some players might get bored, might feel the game is flattering them or pandering to them for accomplishments they had no hand in, may even feel like the game is lying to them for pretending that what they’re doing is impressive. In the worst case scenario, the player mentally checks out of engaging with the game’s systems at all, solving each problem by rote repetition of suboptimal solutions.


If we regard the difficulty of the game as being intrinsic to its design, then that means that changing the difficulty means changing that design. In that regard, having multiple difficulty modes is like having a set of similar but distinct games, kind of like alternate realities. Some of these games will work better than others: Players will get stuck more on the harder settings and not explore everything the game has to offer on the easier settings, but with any luck one setting will hit the sweet spot – but not necessarily the same one for every player. Some players will never end up playing the difficulty that provides the optimum experience because they believe, for one reason or another, that that difficulty doesn’t suit them.

Even though this optimum may shift from player to player, there tends to be a point where the challenge of the game is well tuned: Where the attentive and engaged player can succeed, where the structure of the designer can maintain, where actions feel consequential and consequences feel earned. This is the point of optimum difficulty. There’s another point of interest on the difficulty curve, and that’s the point of maximum difficulty. After a certain point, tuning a system to be harder will result in the breakdown of that system. Actually, it doesn’t break down all at once, but in pieces. For instance, say you took a normal FPS and made every enemy attack a one-hit kill: Much of the game would still function as intended, but the entire health kit and armor dynamic would be completely broken. If you also doubled the number of enemies, certain weapons that weren’t capable of the kind of crowd control that was now necessary would start dropping out. As you dial up the systems of the game to place a greater demand on the player, tools that the player used to cope with lesser versions of those threats start to lose viability. Eventually, all these tools fall away, and that’s the point where the game breaks. It isn’t necessarily literally impossible, but victory becomes a matter of luck or tedious grinding rather than the player’s clever usage of their resources.

One might ask: Why no point of minimum difficulty? To which I would say that reduction of difficulty is the act of disengaging the player from game systems. The point of minimum difficulty is therefore always the point at which you require no input from the player at all, which is the point where it stops being a game. I’m not calling games that don’t set out to challenge the player non-games, but I am saying that if you continue down that road to its logical conclusion you eventually end up at a place that’s not a game. Even the minimal asks of a game like Dear Esther, find out which way you’re going and walk there, is a challenge (of sorts) which requires the player to engage directly with the world.

Of course, difficulty isn’t everything. It isn’t even most of anything. But it’s worth keeping in mind that you can’t change how difficult your game is without touching the fundamental core of the experience, and that’s a step that you have to take mindfully. You can’t regard difficulty as merely a set of multipliers: At each level of the game, the difficulty is the design.


I’ve been taking the opportunity of finally getting kind of burned out on Dark Souls to go back through my massive Steam backlog and try out some of those games acquired over the last decade but never actually installed or played. Currently I’m exploring Sunless Sea, a spinoff of the browser-game Fallen London, in which London for no apparent reason sank underground and is now part of a hellish surreal underworld (more so). In Sunless Sea, you play a captain exploring the underground ocean London now rests in, finding your way from island to island and scraping together the resources to keep your voyage going by doing favors for the powers that be.

In practice, it’s largely a simple naval combat game strapped to an anthology of choose-your-own-adventure short stories. Perhaps a reductive description, but it gives an idea as to the experience. I could dig into a critique here, but I’m not going to because I’d like to talk about something more specific.

I’d like to talk about Pigmote Isle.

Sometimes you find something that just doesn’t seem to fit. Most games nowadays are group efforts, and Sunless Sea employs many illustrators and writers who seem to have been largely left to their own devices, given the smattering of diverse art and prose styles. However, Pigmote Isle’s story just didn’t seem to be on the same page as the rest of the game. To start with, the prose style shifted so abruptly, into a past-tense chronicle style with chapter headings and everything, that for a while I believed I was supposed to be reading someone elses journal rather than experiencing the events for myself. I encountered two envoys, one of a group of talking guinea pigs and the other a group of talking rats, on the eve of a war they were about to have. They each gave me some back story about why the conflict was happening, and then demanded I pick sides. I sided with the rats since they seemed rather downtrodden, and with my help they won the war, though I convinced them to show mercy to their fallen foe.

Bringing a report of this back to the admiralty, the reaction seemed to be that I was bringing them some outlandish nonsense. This would make sense if this game wasn’t set in an insane dreamscape where the existence of talking rats was already well-established, amongst many other far stranger creatures. Why they should pick this particular strange event to balk at, when I was regularly transporting crates of souls and sentient clay men across an underground ocean full of malicious icebergs, I couldn’t say.

From this point on, I was in the position of making crucial choices about the future of this colony. Here’s where it lost me. Every story we tell holds a belief system about cause-and-effect: That this situation would cause a character with this background to act in such-and-such way, would lead to this chain of events, would create this story. Each story contains a world-view, and though this aspect isn’t very important or noticeable when you’re dealing with a tale of a few individuals, when you expand it out to an entire society, posit that this event would create this outcome, the burden of plausibility becomes greater. When you slot that into a choose-your-own-adventure scenario, and make the map between cause and outcome so clear and close to the surface, you really have to show your work – if you don’t, it becomes a tale of how you believe the ideal society should be run rather than that of a struggling colony making hard choices.

I got a chance to make two choices before the colony was destroyed.

In the first, there were rumors of a monster in the forest preying upon the rats, rumors which had them hiding in their homes instead of doing productive work. I had the choice to either burn the forest or conduct a hunt. The hunt had a chance of failure: If the hunt failed, I envisioned severe morale issues – and there was no guarantee the creature even existed. I chose to burn down the forest, on the premise that it would DEFINITELY solve the problem, the existence of the creature would be proven or disproven, and we could move on.

There’s a few odd parts to this scenario. One, again, monsters are extremely commonplace in this world. Am I supposed to interpret this as superstition when the most likely explanation for the rumors of a monster in the forest are, in fact, a monster in the forest? Especially when, two, these are rats, so how monstrous does a monster have to actually be here? A cougar? A wolf? A fair number of forests are full of animals that could gobble up a rat without a trace just by default, even in a world without ‘monsters’.

Anyway. The result of burning down the forest was that the rats became stronger militarily but became less civilized – in fact, rather uncivilized. I’m not sure whether that was because of the ecological setback or because we gave credence to ‘wild rumors’.

My second and last decision: A rat was caught stealing bread, which he claimed was to feed his family. A classic. I had three choices: Advocate mercy, execute him, or brutally and spectacularly execute him. I advocated mercy. This apparently meant letting him off completely scot free, not doing anything about the underlying problem, and continuing to allow other rats to steal without getting punished indefinitely, leading to the collapse of civilization on Pigmote Isle.

Reading the wiki now, I see that having him publicly drawn and quartered would have increased the civilization of Pigmote Isle. Perhaps the issue is that the game and I are operating on very different definitions of civilization – though, I must admit, their definition seems to enjoy a great deal of popularity, historically.

So, now. The game is forwarding a hypothesis about what allows the world to work, about how society functions and the role of justice within that society. If I disagree with the game, civilization collapses. The future of Pigmote Isle depends on my ability to interpret the cultural values of the game’s writer, and to moreover submit myself to agreeing with them.

But I don’t agree. I don’t agree that punishing those trying to survive by giving them death is necessary for society. I don’t agree that mercy erodes order. If this was a game premised on these kinds of societal decisions, I would expect to have to buy into assumptions like these, but instead it’s been put inside of a very different kind of game.

It’s not so much a matter of suspension of disbelief as it is of suspension of disagreement. Every game has things that we feel to be incorrect, either for reasons of abstraction or of fun or just of different viewpoints – the way stat systems work doesn’t often map very well to real-life aptitudes, for instance, or the economic systems are grossly oversimplified. We go in expecting to make certain allowances for things that seem wrong to us – however, an abrupt genre switch takes us outside of those boundaries, into a territory where maybe we’re not so on-board with those premises.

The worst part for me, though, is that the thing I did buy into with Sunless Sea was that I would be emotionally open to this world and its characters. Even if I disagree with nearly everything about its creation, I still feel protective of Pigmote Isle.

And I still think my way should have worked.