I don’t know how anything ever gets created. The moment a single creative decision gets made, everything shifts around it. If you’re writing a story and a character has a little two-paragraph flashback, the information contained therein affects every other scene with that character, changing the context and meaning of their actions. Even if the scene still fits, still makes sense, those two scenes in parallel now have their own sets of implications, rippling out, changing the overall shape and structure of the tale. It’s like this with every change: Each time the pieces shift in relation to one another, form a new picture, and the result may make more or less sense. It’s like solving a system of equations: For each character, only certain decisions will line up with their implicit perspective, with their stated values as conveyed by other scenes. When there’s a contradiction, there’s an infinite number of resolutions, each with an infinite number of ramifications, each of these requiring additional solutions and justifications and so forth.
Many creators don’t seem to be intimidated by this problem, to be frozen in indecision, in the same way I am. While I think my perspective is an accurate one, this isn’t quite the same as it being a useful one. Yes, every character changes with each line and choice, and sometimes introducing a certain decision might completely contradict a past decision, might seem arbitrary and weird. Very well, then; they contradict themselves. The human mind is arbitrary and weird, and most of our rationale for decision-making is absurd post-hoc motivated logic. What even is character plausibility in the context of a world where flesh-and-blood humans behave so erratically?
Of course, the truth is that plausibility of character was never about realism. Characters aren’t people. Characters are, rather, an idealized, isolated, and distilled abstraction of how people see other people – and how they see themselves. As the map is not the territory, the character, the personality, is not the person. Though we may use the term “uncharacteristic” to describe a behavior, there’s no such thing as a real person behaving “uncharacteristically”, as their character can only be defined by observation of their actions, anything “uncharacteristic” is merely a hole in one’s understanding of who that person is – or, perhaps, of what people are. Character is a description, not a prescription, and messy humans are frequently unaccustomed to coloring within those lines. We don’t like to think that way about ourselves, though: We like to think of ourselves as rational, reasonable, measurable, personable. The first character we ever write is our own selves: The role of a lifetime.
The question, then, is not “is this behavior realistic?” but “does this behavior say what I want it to about the character and the world they occupy?” The question is, “what trait of human behavior do I want this scene to exemplify, and what is the worldview that logically descends from that trait, and is its representation undermined by traits the character has previously evinced?” Naturally, there’s seldom a convenient and pithy answer to these questions, but they are worth asking, in one form or another.
Here I have talked myself all the way back around again into anxiously worrying whether each scene lines up properly, whether it all sums up to a coherent whole, to wondering how anyone ever creates anything when there are so many concerns, when there are so many factors. There’s no good answer except to say that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The truth is that there’s no underlying truth that one must be true to: Only the story, the silhouette of a deep and incomprehensible idea, the sensation of profound realization, that we must be accurate to. All else is decoration.
It’s only been a couple of weeks since the last update – I’ve been letting these updates drift later and later behind schedule and into mid-month, and now finally trying to adjust it back to the start of the month where it ought to be – but they’ve been a pretty productive couple of weeks. Much of it has been taken up by expanding on the NPC work I was just starting to delve into as of the previous DevBlog. I created what turned out to be 33(!) NPCs encounterable in the first section, each with a unique portrait, unique text sound effects, and of course unique dialogue. I am, after all that, still somewhat dissatisfied – as so often happens with these things, the more effort one puts into it the more potential one sees in it, and the more potential one sees the more effort one wants to put in. Now I have 33 characters populating this world, and I find most of them genuinely interesting – and I suspect that whatever this game ends up being, it will be about them in some way. However, the systems I have in place don’t entirely support that idea – right now dialogue only supports having characters speak, with no tools in place for responding to what they say or choosing to give them items or information, no way to build a quest or trade system. I would like to have support for more robust interactions, but ideally without complicating the interface any more than it already is. I’m not sure how to approach this yet, but most likely I’ll have reached a decision on this by next update.
Actually, until a week or so there wasn’t even any system in place for giving NPCs any awareness of the world around them, or indeed for any objects in the world changing as the player progresses. This was a significant oversight: Having things like switches and conditions for world changes is pretty fundamental for game design. It didn’t take too long to throw together a system that stores string/int pair values to keep track of world state – what items you’ve found, what enemies you’ve killed, who you’ve talked to, and so forth. This same system will also be used for switches that open doors or turn on lights or whatever, and probably to keep track of which keys the player has used – keys being another whole thread of necessary functionality that the game wasn’t originally structured around. I had, at the start, some high-minded ideal of never giving the player any item that strictly granted more access without also giving additional utility – I relented on this when I realized that finding keys is just fun and mysterious, and finding a locked door or its key always leads one to wish to seek its partner.
Much work still needs to be done on that front, but more immediately I wanted to start solidifying the aesthetic tone of these areas, which meant fixing up some holes in the palette system and then getting to work actually creating palettes for each room – in addition to making it so I could get useful feedback on these palettes in the editor, by updating the palette to match whichever room the user (me) is currently looking at. I had a lot of fun tweaking palettes room-by-room – trying to keep largely subtle in early transitions, then slowly working up to dramatic colorful jumps in the later rooms. Most likely the palette will become muted again for quite a while after this, so this is an early-game intensity peak, a place to set a hook of unease before reeling back out to let the player explore more, with more freedom.
Finally, I spent the last week or so trying to nail down what the earlier parts of the game will sound like. I created several pieces of NES-style music during my initial rush to put the game together during the game jam, and while I still really like most of what I did there I’m uncertain how much of it fits with the game’s current direction. I’ll be figuring that out bit by bit as I go, but in the meanwhile I wanted to start experimenting to figure out exactly what mood and style I want. The first of these I was inspired to make was for a waiting room encountered right before the first boss fight, where a bunch of NPCs gathered, one among them playing a piano. I originally tried to do this with the limitations of the NES and it was rough: One of the chief traits of a piano is its ability to play multiple notes simultaneously, and the NES can only have 4 notes going at the same time, and only two with the same instrument (or more specifically two identical one-channel instruments). The piece wasn’t bad necessarily, but it didn’t feel right. I started to consider going instead with something closer to the Super NES’s low-res soundfont approach – and, after a quick experiment, this began to feel like immediately the correct choice. Situated 10-20% into the game and coming after establishing the NES-style music as standard, the stylistic shift may help make this encounter feel just as surreal and otherworldly as it ought to – as well as simply working better for the piece itself. It took me a little while to polish it up and to see how it fit in place, but right now I’m really happy with this Interlude theme and can’t wait to hear it implemented into the scene.
The second piece I worked on was for conversational moments, and because its first occurrence will be quite early in the game I wanted to hew very closely to the NES style. The inspiration for NPC interactions in the first place were the weird creepy villagers in Castlevania 2 and Zelda 2, so I initially wanted to do something close to the indoors music for Zelda 2, but perhaps a bit darker, a bit off-kilter. Eventually it ended up expanding a fair way outside of that domain, and became a lot more action-packed than originally intended – though you can still hear its Zelda 2 roots if you listen. At this point it will probably become the theme for the whole first section – probably starting out purely as the conversational motif, heard near the start, and then transitioning into the greater exploration piece once you leave the first room and venture out into the world.
Of course, doing conditional music like that will require some extra programming work – I wasn’t expecting much in the way of adaptive music when I structured the music player, and though this may be a simple use case it is, nevertheless, an instance of adaptive music. Hopefully this will be relatively straightforward to implement, and provide the necessary structure for any other advanced music structure I decide I want as I build out other areas.
Unlike the retro game music that served as my inspiration, I have a tendency to get a bit long-winded in my composition work – to me it doesn’t feel like a proper piece of music unless it has sweeping changes, a sort of narrative flow, which tends to result in pieces which have a loop length of a few minutes at least. This is causing me a bit of angst now, as it comes time to implement music into different areas of the game, because a player moving at a decent speed can easily enter and leave an area before the piece has even gone through a complete cycle, much less play the several times it might need to get its hooks in. This isn’t necessarily disastrous, but it definitely feels awkward when I think the later parts of a piece are its most interesting and there’s a realistic chance they’ll never get heard by most players. The best solution I can see at this point is consolidating fragmented zones and expanding small ones to minimize the necessity of music change triggers, so I will likely be working on that soon.
That’s it for this update. I’m going to be traveling for the next week, which is going to make it hard to do the sort of work that requires hours of solid focus (not great at those usually anyway, to be honest), but perhaps an opportunity to figure some of these trickier and more nebulous questions out.
I was late to the party on Bloodborne, only getting around to playing it last year, around 5 years after its release. While I largely enjoyed the experience, it didn’t necessarily make a huge impression on me the first time through – and, still, it’s probably one of my less favorite games in the overall lineage of From Software games which includes Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro. There are several reasons for this: In terms of pure mechanics, I find the design of the game frequently clunky and unpleasant, somehow simultaneously overcooked and half-baked, while I find the narrative to be so overly obtuse even by the standards of From Software as to be nearly impossible to interpret and enjoy without the use of supplementary materials. I think Bloodborne is a good game, and not undeserving of the high esteem it is held in, but that makes its failures and idiosyncrasies all the more fascinating.
Part 1: Mechanics
First, I think it will be interesting and edifying to discuss the failures of design present in Bloodborne in-depth, particularly as these are the very aspects which often seem to be idealized by fans of the game. Bloodborne’s most infamously hostile design decision is that of blood vials, the primary source of healing in the game. Unlike in Dark Souls, which provides you with effectively infinite, albeit limited and slow-to-use, healing, Bloodborne forces the player to scavenge for extra healing as they go along. This is a huge step backwards, a throwback to older and clunkier and more distracting methods from Demon’s Souls and other predecessors, and at first may seem an arbitrary choice – why invent the perfect healing system, then get rid of it? The reason for this is provided by the rally system, which lets you recover health if you press the attack soon after taking damage. This system exists to push the player to act more aggressively, to be willing to take a hit in order to deal damage or to quickly counter with aggression after a mistake, but in order to actually make it worthwhile to press instead of retreat and heal they had to make healing precious – so they made it scarce. Each individual step in this process makes sense: It’s designed to create the type of gameplay the designer envisions in the moment. However, in a broader scope, if we look outside merely the moments of aggression it creates in combat, the end result is that a) the player has to occasionally take a break from the actually interesting parts of the game to go back and harvest a bunch of healing and b) the player constantly has this concern in the back of their mind, quietly and subtly making each setback that much more obnoxious. The game constantly, quietly, insidiously threatens you with tedium, loosening the loop of attempt/learn/retry that defines other games in the lineage, quietly making every part of the experience less enjoyable.
Blood vials are frequently described as the main flaw of the game, but if anything I find the “parry” system even more galling – if, perhaps, significantly easier to ignore. In the Souls games, parrying is performed by performing a special block action at the moment an attack would hit you: If it’s successful and the attack is parryable you gain a significant advantage, if it’s successful and the attack isn’t parryable you don’t gain an advantage but you reduce incoming damage as though you’d blocked the attack, and if you mess it up you get hit hard. In the first place, I don’t actually think the Dark Souls parry system is good: It takes combat, with its intricacies of range, positioning, and observation, and largely boils it down to mere good timing, making the whole thing feel flatter and less nuanced. It is at least serviceable, though, and can be fun in practice. Bloodborne takes every part of this and makes it worse, and I think it’s worth talking about how that happened, because I think it’s possible to reverse-engineer this logical process. First: We have this 19th-century-esque setting, we have to have some sort of firearms to accent it and distinguish it from the dark fantasy setting – but this isn’t intended to be a shooter, so how do you make them work within a Souls-style combat system? Well, we can’t really let the player take careful aim, but we also can’t really let them spam down opponents with constant gunfire, so let’s make ammo slightly scarce and make it so rather than precise aim you have to have precise timing. Alright, so precise timing maps pretty closely to the parry system used in Dark Souls, so we just merge the two together and voila! Guns! The issue with this only becomes clear if you take one step away from the process: You now have a parry system where, because you’re not directly deflecting an attack, it’s impossible to tell when it’s supposed to happen – where it’s impossible to know which attacks even are parryable, and where the price of guessing wrong is taking a huge amount of damage because there’s no shield reducing incoming damage even against unparryable attacks, and where you also have limited ammo which further punishes you for guessing wrong. It’s another intricately and carefully thought out system that’s a significantly less interesting and enjoyable version of its predecessor.
Okay I know I said I liked the game and I’ve done nothing but shit on it so far. That’s because I really feel that Bloodborne is a game that largely fails in terms of its systems and largely succeeds in terms of its design – though there’s exceptions to both of these, as I’ll get into. Before that, though, I have to talk about one other system that is less catastrophically misguided but is still incredibly weird: Upgrades. In Dark Souls, the greatest part of player effectiveness (aside, perhaps, from their personal skill) is derived from how much they’ve upgraded their weapon. There are other factors: Stats can provide a significant boost to damage and defense, and certain other abilities and items can also contribute, but the biggest gate on how effective your character is in battle is dependent on what upgrade items you find. This is still sort of true in Bloodborne, but the bonuses to damage, health, and defense gained from increasing stats by leveling are far more significant relative to upgrades, so unlike in the Souls games simply grinding and leveling is a fairly effective tactic for getting past difficult battles. There’s another wrinkle, as well: Blood gems. Blood gems are a secondary upgrade system, allowing you to place a few gems on each weapon to get additional bonuses. While you can find a few of these in consistent locations, the biggest source of blood gems in the game is generally just killing enemies and getting lucky. On a normal run through the game, these can provide bonuses of up to 20% damage – which means that the difference between a very lucky run and a very unlucky run might be somewhere around a 50% damage difference. This is a wild divergence, and means that the game can very quietly brutally punish you for not killing enough enemies (or just getting unlucky). This makes the true difficulty of areas and bosses quite difficult to actually evaluate: One player might find a particular challenge far more difficult simply because they haven’t found good blood gems – or have forgotten to equip them, an oversight which is made quite likely by the first few gems you’re likely to encounter offering measly 0.5% damage bonuses that seem hardly worth bothering with. It’s hard for me to say this upgrade system is clearly worse than its predecessor systems, but it is much weirder, and for no very good reason I can see. I suspect at one point blood gems were the only available upgrades, but that this changed somewhere in development.
Before I move on from systems stuff to talk about narrative, a few things I do like: Bloodborne’s backstab system is a significant improvement on that used in the Dark Souls games. In Dark Souls, if you move behind an opponent and attack you can snap into a special backstab animation that does a ton of damage – this is easy to do by accident, and also easy to get caught in by happenstance. However, in Bloodborne the player has to very intentionally backstab by fully charging a powerful attack from behind, which sets up the opponent for a devastating followup. This is a much more intentional and delineated choice, and is much easier to visually parse. It also makes it possible to integrate the mechanic into boss fights in a way that was simply unfeasible in Dark Souls, where enabling backstabs would have allowed the player to instantly obliterate nearly any boss. The main issue with backstabs in Bloodborne, in fact, is simply that I do not believe the mechanic is explained anywhere in-game. I also feel that integrating arcane(magic) attacks directly into the item system, and have the player use them the same way they would, for instance, throw a molotov, is much more elegant than having to equip items and magic separately and carry separate weapons and catalysts to attack or cast spells. The concept of trick weapons which hide a special function or form that can be selectively deployed by the player is quite interesting, as well – this emerges from the ability to hold weapons with one or two hands in Dark Souls, but iterates on the idea in some creative ways, each weapons transformation carrying unique traits beyond merely range and damage. The biggest drawback of this is simply that the most fascinating of these trick weapons are impossible to acquire for most of the game and can only be enjoyed on a replay.
Part 2: Narrative
As I mentioned before, I had a really tough time engaging with the narrative of Bloodborne. There were a number of things I could perceive that were really interesting and exciting: The repeating motifs of blood, birth, eyes, the moon, water, dreams, and the unknown were fascinating but it was difficult to pick out any actual themes or messages or, indeed, to form any idea of exactly what the fuck was meant to be happening. While I understand the appeal of obscurity, in the end I wish that the game had given me more to work with in understanding it. For a game so much about dream, it doesn’t actually feel very dreamlike: The world is largely constant and predictable, harshly and specifically defined at every moment, with vivid consequences for success and failure. Dreams are intimate, and stem from the dreamer – which makes it difficult to really capture the sensation of dream when we’re playing as a blank slate, a construct with no perspective or personal stake. Of course, it’s not meant to be the player’s dream at all – the player is the interloper on the troubled dreams of others, of Gehrman, Mensis, Mergo’s Wet Nurse, the Moon Presence, and/or the Orphan of Kos. Even so, everything feels so concrete, it hardly feels like a dream, but merely entering a warped world – which is fine I suppose, but I like dreams and works about dream enough that I found it a bit disappointing, and this is probably one reason I found the game less captivating than I’d hoped. The story deals with these all of these intimate topics, with dreams and blood and birth and death, but gives us no perspective on them, merely a doll to play with, and feels inert because of it.
I’m rarely the sort of audience who needs things to be spelled out for them, but even by the Lynchian standards I’m used to Bloodborne provided very little for me to go on. I’d thought after my first time through that I must have just been distracted or inattentive, as I was streaming that playthrough, but even on a replay I was really only able to pick up tiny fragments of narrative. Eventually, as I started getting near the end of my replay, I realized that there wasn’t going to be a moment where this just clicked into place, and I looked for answers elsewhere. The elsewhere I discovered, in this case, was The Palebood Hunt, a novel-length exploration of what could be read and could be inferred about the world, characters, and goings-on of Bloodborne. I don’t agree with all of its inferences, but most of them are well-reasoned and I would definitely recommend it if you, like me, were left wondering what exactly the fuck you just played. Most importantly, it gave me the grounding to actually start to analyze, not just what happened in Bloodborne, but what Bloodborne was about.
Before I get into themes, though, perhaps I should pull back for a second and describe the broad strokes of the narrative – as I understand it, anyway. You may feel some bits are missing or incorrect here: in some cases here I disagree with the more common interpretations, and in some I’m probably just forgetting or overlooking important information because there’s honestly a lot. So: Humanity, by way of the Byrgenwerth Scholars, encounters mighty alien creatures which they call Great Ones: Kos in the ocean, Ebrietas in the labyrinth, Oeden as a voice from nowhere, and Amygdala seemingly everywhere. The scholars who find these creatures are seized by envy of their otherworldly wisdom and power, and seek to elevate themselves to the same level – creating a schism between the Byrgenwerth Scholars, who study the methods of thought of the Great Ones for insight, and the Healing Church, who inject themselves and others with the blood of the Great Ones, the “Old Blood,” to gain longevity and power and cure disease. All of this is, actually, completely fine with the Great Ones: While they don’t normally have any way to produce living offspring, by slipping through the bounds of reality, during the “Paleblood Moon”, they can impregnate some human women – those already treated with the Old Blood. The resulting child never lives long, though – of course not, because the Great Ones are by their very nature creatures of unreality, and trying to tether that existence to a frame of bone and flesh is untenable. Even after death, though, the child’s cries reverberate and create nightmares. Meanwhile the people who have been treated with the blood of the Great Ones and its derivatives shift into werewolf-like beasts, particularly as the Paleblood Moon sets in, and hunters set out to slay them. Only defeating the child, or whatever forces keep it tethered to existence, ends the nightmare and, granting closure, completes the game.
Let’s jump back to the motifs I noted before: Blood, birth, eyes, the moon, water, dreams, and the unknown. These are all loosely related by themes in fascinating and shifting ways. Blood relates to birth and the moon by way of menstrual blood, referred to by the Nightmare of Mensis. The eye and the moon are reflecting orbs, the moon influences the tides of the water which also reflects, the eye reflecting upon water reflecting the moon’s light even as the moon’s light itself is reflected sunlight – a connection to something vast and a protective barrier from it, two states of being. Two states of being also relates back to birth (before and after coming into existence), death (before and after leaving existence), the moon (dark and light sides), dreaming and waking, known and unknown, and the ever-shifting boundary between these. Even the player’s weapon represents this idea of boundaries and thresholds, flicking between two states on command just as the player navigates the boundaries of dreams. It might be possible to graph out the symbolism present in Bloodborne, but the dense web of symbolic connections is difficult to capture in words.
And, speaking of webs, there’s also one other motif that it took me some time to notice: Spiders. While my initial interpretation of their presence was that they were just included as standard horror game creepy-crawlies, they’re notably prominent and deployed in much more specific ways than the aggressive birds and dogs that pepper the world – and, in particular, noting the appearance of Mergo’s Wet Nurse as a giant spider-like creature, along with Rom the Vacuous Spider, seems particularly significant. The eight eyes of the spider are likely one reason they’re recurring (the more eyes the better, as far as the Byrgenwerth Scholars are concerned), but more than that spiders are weavers – of webs, of fate, of dreams. Rom weaves a web to keep the worlds of dream and reality from touching, while Mergo’s Wet Nurse weaves a web to maintain the dream that is all that remains of Mergo.
The Great Ones seem to fill the roles of being Gods of the Gaps. Kos (or some say Kosm) was the first of the great ones encountered by humanity – dead, washed ashore. The setting of Bloodborne, while not directly modeled on a real-world era, corresponds roughly with the age of sail, when the vast unknown of the ocean became familiar and well-traveled. Perhaps the other Great Ones represent similar gaps in our knowledge who might one day perish by our enterprising exploration: Amygdala the hidden secrets of the human mind, the Moon Presence and Mergo’s Wet Nurse the threshold of dreams, Ebriatas and the Cosmic Emissary the vastness of the cosmos – and shapeless Oeden, the unknowable unknown, who will never perish.
Alongside the theme of transformation and boundary I mentioned earlier, there is a theme of what it means to seek power. This is definitely a place where this game is thematically at its most similar to the Dark Souls games – a group of scholars, who seemingly already occupy a place of high status in society, are consumed with the idea of achieving more intelligence and more power. What do these things even mean? What does intelligence mean to a rotting brain, unable to move or speak? What does power mean in isolation, with no task to be applied towards? What does evolution mean, when it’s attempting to evolve towards a being incapable of reproduction, the most basic of evolutionary tasks? Yet this is what the Bloodborne characters largely strive for. The decision is made, explicitly, over and over again, to destroy everything a human might hold dear for the purposes of accumulating more, more, more. It’s distressingly familiar, how this idiotic avarice is cloaked in aspirational language of “elevating” humanity. The Paleblood Hunt says that none, or few, of the characters are truly villainous – and here I must disagree, because at every step they’ve chosen to sacrifice the future of humanity, humanity as it actually is and exists, for some nebulous idea of something unidentifiably better. Why should the Great Ones be aspirational figures? Because they’re big? Because they’re unknowable? As they rely solely on other creatures to reproduce, the Great Ones are surely best understood as glorious parasites. There’s nothing innately sinister in a parasite, but it’s hardly an existence to aspire to. The things we aspire towards are so often the tides that carry us back where we’re trying to escape from. They who try to ascend become beasts, hungry for violence, or mindless sponges, with their knowledge leaking out and, unused, decomposing into madness.
But what is Paleblood, and the Paleblood moon? I suspect that, because the series comes from a Japanese developer, the audience is weirdly unprepared to accept the possibility of intentional English wordplay in these games: I’ve seen more than a few people complain about the punctuation of the title “Demon’s Souls” without stopping to consider who, in a game where you collect souls, that demon may be – and Bloodborne, as well, is a title with several interpretations, yet few seem to look towards double-meanings in interpreting its narrative. Pale is the color of a corpse, pale is the dimness of the light, but pale is also a fence, a boundary, as in the phrase “beyond the pale”. The pale is the threshold, the moon, the water, which is penetrated through, allowing the hunter to traverse the dream. However, there is another threshold being quietly traversed, another Unknowable Creature interloping into the world of Bloodborne: The player.
What is a Paleblood, and why does seemingly only the blood minister during the intro scene seem to have ever heard of it? Well, who even says that the clinic where The Hunter wakes up is necessarily the same place where the blood minister appeared before us, the players,? We couldn’t see our body: Were we even The Hunter at that point, or just a player? Would this hunter, this “foreigner”, even exist in the world of Bloodborne if there weren’t a player transcending this barrier, from beyond the pale, to inhabit them like some sort of parasite, play with them like some sort of doll?
To elaborate: A story is only as good as the best parts the audience remembers. The more extraneous crap is added on top, the less enjoyable that experience might be. Past a certain threshold, new details convey less information rather than more. Thus it is often the case that the most interesting iteration of a concept is the slenderest, the most stripped to its essentials. Unfortunately, broadly speaking, game design seems to be moving in the exact opposite direction. Unlocks, cosmetics, tiny statistical bonuses, secondary and tertiary currencies, experience points, crafting systems, battle passes, weekly balance and content updates – whatever a particular game design starts out as, by the end it has so much garbage appended to it that it might be difficult to recognize.
An example of this dynamic that recently frustrated me was the beta for Turtle Rock’s Back 4 Blood, the long-anticipated spiritual successor to the Left 4 Dead series developed by the same studio (though in Left 4 Dead’s case the studio was integrated into Valve). Left 4 Dead is one of my favorite games, a careful gem of design where each element has its place and plays precisely against the others. That being said, it surely left room for innovation and improvement, and much interesting that could be done by iterating on and extrapolating from its design. Unfortunately, rather than doing any of that, Back 4 Blood just plasters the game with a bunch of random stuff – randomly drawn cards which give little fiddly statistical bonuses, hidden piles of currency used to buy guns and healing, supply points used to unlock more cards with more bonuses, and so forth. What’s worse, what were core design tenets of Left 4 Dead – such as special units being fragile but powerful, with their attacks instantly rendering one player helpless and necessitating rescue to enforce team work – have been completely discarded, possibly just to make these new systems more appealing. Sure, to some degree it’s just a matter of taste… but so many games now just seem to me like hollowed-out versions of themselves with a rote RPG grafted on top. Many would credit or blame this design trend to the emergence of micro-transaction business models – and, while I think the prevalence of these approaches to profit certainly drives a lot of how these meta-games manifest, I’ve seen aspects which extend beyond that model, both in where the ideas originated and how they are deployed. Rogue-lites are another genre that is frequently guilty of this style of design, and for reasons largely divorced from the profit model that manifests it in big-budget free-to-play games.
Okay though – now that we’ve established that I’m the grouchiest old man in gaming, let’s talk about how to do maximalist design in a way that’s fun and interesting. While a game like Nioh might make my eyes cross with its multiple intersecting skill and item systems (I liked Nioh, I just wish about half of the game wasn’t there), I still believe it’s possible to achieve interesting and elegant complexity as well.
First, make every system matter: If I can ignore a system in a game I will usually try to do so. Many games let you ignore a system until the one part of the game where they fuck you over for doing so: Don’t do this. If you do, you’ll end up with a bunch of frustrated players who have completely forgotten the hitherto pointless system even existed. If you can completely remove a system from a game and have the game still be almost entirely the same experience, you should probably just go ahead and remove that system.
Second, every system introduced should stem from and connect back to the core mechanics of the game. A classic RPG leveling system, no matter how it’s dressed, is a way to play the main game loop in order to get better at playing the main game loop. The further away and more abstract and complex this becomes, the less satisfying it is. If you’re doing side-quests to get currency to buy clothes to get a set bonus that lets you get more currency (& etc.) then it’s hard not to feel like you’re being misled about the nature of this entertainment transaction.
Third, try to clutter the interface as little as possible, both in terms of gamepad/keyboard buttons and in in-game menus. If I need to open an extra menu to cast a spell I probably won’t bother. If I need to use a skill from a menu to prepare an item which I select from a list of items to use in combat, I definitely won’t bother.
In brief, I believe that you ought to excise everything from your game that is extraneous and unimportant to the core experience of the game you are trying to impart. Whether you wish to do that by removing systems and killing darlings or by reconstructing them to make them more central to the design and control schema, I don’t know or care. Just stop wasting your audience’s time with a bunch of hastily cobbled together systems that add up to nothing in particular.
This update is coming rather late. I’ve been recently trying to not count DevBlog’s as weekly posts, since it feels a little bit like cheating my way out of the work of finding a topic and writing an essay. This is probably just another case of me overthinking things and making everything harder for myself: While I think these DevBlogs are probably not the most interesting reads for a lot of folks, I’m sure this content is of interest to many who pursue game development, and may become far more interesting in the future, in particular once the game is released (fingers crossed), people have played it (fingers crossed on my other hand), and are interested in how it came to be made (toes crossed, how am I typing, this is starting to hurt). The most immediate side-effect of trying to decouple this from the weekly posts is that I immediately fell behind a week, and have been trying ever since to catch back up – funny how that works. The other side-effect, which I’m only realizing now, is that it’s become a lot easier, now that there’s no clear deadline for these posts, to keep letting them slide until we reach this point, where the DevBlog for a month is coming out near the midpoint of the month after. I’ll probably go back to just counting these as weekly posts just for the sake of simplicity and time management.
Around this time last month I was working on a way to draw reflections into the game world, and was stymied by the quirks of Unity’s Tilemap system. It turned out that many of the troubles I encountered were genuine bugs in Unity’s implementation, and once I was able to establish that to Unity staff they were able to give me a workaround that worked. To anyone struggling with getting color changes to tiles in a Tilemap to stick, you may want to look at the tile asset itself in the inspector and manually un-set the “lock color” flag – as I have discovered the hard way, when this flag is set through code, the value often gets erroneously reverted. With that figured out, obviously tile reflections immediately worked perfectly! Haha, just kidding, I had to spend a couple of days rewriting the shader to handle reflection scaling better, and the effect still only really works at a scale of 1 or -1, which means I can’t do some of the effects I’d imagined with emulating angled reflections. This is probably fine for now, and I have a decent idea what the problem is – most likely an issue with how a pixel’s distance from the reflection pivot changes when being scaled. In the short term it’s not a big deal – if the reflections in the background sometimes look a bit fractured, it only gives a sense of a bunch of slightly misaligned reflective panels, which is pretty much how a lot of modern building windows look anyway.
Though most of the environment of this planned section was built out last update, it keeps turning out that there’s more to do. Little side areas need to be created, background detail needs to be added, zones need to be tested for consistency and navigability, and lighting needs to be added and tweaked to ensure that important elements are visible and communicated. On testing I realized that many background elements are confusing, seeming to offer platforms to walk on when they’re just aesthetic details – I had thought that there was a hard divide between background elements (unshaded) and foreground elements (shaded), one being the space the player interacts with directly and the other mostly just for decoration, but it quickly turned out on testing that this wasn’t how my eye was interpreting the space. In practice, even if the different lighting style makes clear which elements are expected to be interactive and which aren’t, I’m still looking to the clearly non-interactive elements for clues to the interactive ones. For instance, if I see pillars and supports, I expect a platform, even if I’m too far away to actually see it yet – and as the designer I’m responsible for shaping and managing these expectations. With this in mind, I’ll have to be more careful to ensure consistency in this language, which will probably be a work in progress as the game develops. In the short term, at least, only minor changes are needed – primarily in removing flat lines along tile boundaries, since those give a visual impression of platforms that can be walked on.
A significant amount of time, though, was consumed by a truly bizarre tangent, and one emblematic of the reasons why I have a hard time completing projects. For the city tileset, I decided one good thing to include would be some neon signs that could be climbed on: I made a few of these and will likely make some more when I get to later sections of the city. One of them was a sign that said “Fortune” and had an eye on it. I placed this while I was building out the city areas and didn’t think much more about it at the moment – but a few days later, looking at it, I realized that this meant that the building underneath it now had to be a fortune teller’s room, and therefore it had to have a fortune teller in it.
So now I have this concept for a fortune teller NPC. I figured this would play a similar role to the fortune teller in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, who provided cryptic hints on where to go next, but perhaps a bit spookier version based on the tone of the game. This was a fun idea, so I spent a while playing around with writing cryptic-sounding dialogue about the plot as I understand it so far. However, as I wrote, these lines started becoming poetic and rhythmic, until it seemed maybe I wasn’t just writing dialogue but lyrics. Okay, then, maybe the fortune teller has some sort of song that they sing? Probably not every time, but maybe as some sort of easter egg – and as I developed this idea and character, it occurred to me: what if not just the fortune teller, but every major character has a song? A week later I had five sets of lyrics and five accompanying melodies, but still had now idea how or if this idea would fit into the game, or honestly even any real idea of how to go about producing a song with lyrics. I also knew there were a few more characters who I didn’t have a strong enough sense of to write lyrics for yet, and that I was going to need to go back and forth between these lyrics/melodies and the in-game music to make them to work together, and then I got stressed out and decided it would be a good idea to work on other stuff for a while, so I did. The lyrics, well – I’ll be getting back to them, probably. I just need to understand a little bit better what the rest of the game is, and whether these fit into that somehow or could perhaps become some sort of supplementary material like a secondary album.
Another weird side-path that I spent significantly less time on was that of art – that is, art which is regarded in the game world as art, like pictures in frames. I had tiles which acted as frames for paintings, and a few of these had images included with them – but I didn’t really like this approach because it felt kind of bad having a bunch of single-use tiles, because you can only have the same painting show up a few times before it starts feeling weird. At the same time, I was thinking a lot about what different kinds of art should exist here: If a space is strongly identified with a character, what does the art there say about that character? I was also thinking about the sensation of moving through dark areas and only seeing the paintings once you got close enough to light them, which seemed interesting. Thus, I ended up redoing the art so it was on a lit foreground layer while the frames were on another background layer, so the contents popped out and could be surprising. Most of the art ended up being super low-res recreations of famous pieces – I thought it was more interesting this way than just having each piece be whatever image I managed to dredge up from my brain.
Finally, I started getting NPCs working. I hadn’t originally planned on there being much talking in this world, but I think it’s much more interesting having an apocalypse if there are people around to react to it in different ways. I only have a few of these in so far, and there’s a lot of missing assets, but already they make the world feel so much more alive. I imagine that the density of these encounters will go down as the game progresses and areas become more hostile, but I’ll probably be doing my best to have a few people in every area, being their weird and stressed-out selves and being a lens through which the player can view the world.
I imagine the next week or two is going to be mostly adding NPCs and enemies to the areas I’ve made and doing frequent playtests to make sure the whole thing is navigable. Eventually, I’ll need to make the first boss – which is a bit intimidating as a task. I’ve never made a boss before, and I suspect my standards for boss fights, particularly boss fights for characters I think are really fun and interesting, may be exacting. In the meanwhile, there’s so much other stuff to get done – music and writing, character abilities and controls, additional enemies – that I imagine I’ll be able to adjust this big challenge in bits and pieces, figuring out the details as I go. Hoping to have significant progress on that front to show next month – or I guess in a few weeks, since this update is coming out so late in the month.
This essay is almost entirely about spoilers for the game Everhood. If this is a game you intend to play, I would recommend doing so before reading this. It’s a pretty neat game, and I would cautiously recommend it, although I find some of its messaging around death and dying, and arguably suicide, confusing at best – and potentially even dangerous.
First, a bit about the game: Everhood is a sort of rhythm adventure game, where you play a living doll named Red trying to recover its stolen arm, meeting a cast of colorful characters (literally: Most of them are named after colors), and eventually confronting the thieving Gold Pig to recover your arm. Along the way, you get in “fights”, which are mostly at first a matter of dodging your opponents attacks, which come out to the beat of the music along a Guitar Hero-esque five-wide lane, until they run out of steam – usually after whatever backing music has run its course. Some of these fights introduce new mechanics, like the story-within-a-story RPG campaign where you reflect certain attacks back with a magic sword, but the core gameplay stays mostly the same. For the first few hours, the experience is quite linear, just funneling you from location to location on your quest to retrieve your arm.
Here’s where significant spoilers start. After your confrontation with Gold Pig, when you recover your arm, a frog NPC (who you first met during the intro where he gave you a tutorial), tells you that everyone in the titular Everhood is immortal, living in an eternal stasis, a sort of prolonged soul death, and that that’s no way to live. He gives another tutorial, this one telling you how to attack and kill opponents, and entrusts you with the task of killing every living thing in Everhood so this torment of immortality can end.
Right away, I’m not on board with this. More NPCs show up to tell me it’s fine, it’s good, I should kill everyone. Whenever I talk to anyone now I have a choice of whether to interact normally or kill them. Most of them are oblivious, saying whatever lines of dialogue they had when I “beat the game” before. A few of them are scared and lock doors, set up traps, and/or run away to keep me from finding them, since they know the basic plot. One character says, essentially, “murdering me is good and you should do it” so in that case I went ahead and murdered them, along with one other character who didn’t seem very cogent but did seem to be in acute suffering and requesting some sort of release. I reasoned that, while it seemed pretty inexcusable to go on a murder spree based on the request of a few strangers, it was reasonable to help out anyone who felt trapped by immortality. I left, and was confronted by a ghost who said my seemingly random meting out of death made no sense.
This was upsetting. I’m told by a few NPCs that, even thought they don’t know it, everyone in this world is suffering, and that it’s my duty to kill them regardless of whether they recognize that suffering or not. How is suffering that isn’t recognized by the being who nominally suffers as suffering still meaningfully suffering? Why is that a justification for disregarding their rights of bodily autonomy and self-determination? Who am I, and also who are these other mysterious figures, to declare that they know better than these people what is good for them? My decision that I would only kill those who come willingly was, it quickly became clear, not allowed for in the game’s design. I looked up the endings: There is a pacifist ending, which I locked myself out of after killing the first NPC who requested death, and a normal ending where you murder everyone, along with a handful of hidden bonus endings. There is no in-between, no option to take those who choose to go before peacefully vacating yourself, no distinction between murder by decree and euthanasia by consent. Some characters agree that their killing is for the best, but only after you’ve made the decision to murder them, so that’s hardly any sort of consent as far as the player is concerned. Of course, many never consent, and die furious, resentful, and confused – the same as most of us, I suppose.
I asked this rhetorically before, but: Literally who am I, what role do I occupy in this story? Some dialogue treats Red as a distinct character within the world, some treats them as an empty vessel for the player to occupy: Which is it? Is it me, the player, who is supposed to be doing the killing? Is it Red? Eventually there’s a very strange plot twist where Red is in fact the vessel for Pink, another spirit who is the one who actually decided to kill every character in the world, whose ambition you worked to carry out. Except Pink is never shown to actually do anything or show any will of their own, so it’s unclear what role they’re actually meant to play in the story. The role is seemingly only to become an avatar of the player at the very end, a vessel (like Red) through which to experience the fear of death, living only to die and to be witnessed in death.
There is clear influence on Everhood’s design from Undertale, which similarly provides the player with a (significantly less explicit) choice of killing or sparing the characters the player encounters, and similarly has ideas of the protagonist harboring a rogue spirit of sorts. It seems that Everhood included some of these elements without carefully considering their implications. Undertale definitively has the main character as an avatar of the player, framing their decisions explicitly as decisions made about how to engage with a complicated world: The possessing spirit only steps in in the most violent case, becoming a dark mirror of the player’s own actions, a malevolent force unleashed by their own malevolence. Undertale also breaks the fourth wall in many other clever ways with sharp intent, and in comparison Everhood’s attempt to play with these ideas seems half-baked, wanting the impact without putting in any of the conceptual groundwork. Purely from the perspective of how violence is handled, Undertale is very responsive to the specifics of the player’s life-and-death decisions, there are many shades in between these extremes of total violence and pure pacifism. Most players, in their first playthrough, will likely end up sparing most NPCs who have significant roles in the story while killing, as a matter of course, most characters fought in random encounters – this is, after all, how we’ve been taught to think about random encounters, as being not real characters. The entire game is structured from the ground up to give these decisions, even the decisions we don’t realize we’re making, meaning and depth – but Everhood isn’t about violence or morality, it’s about letting go and finding something new, and the game would have been much better served by designing around these themes instead of confusedly integrating elements of another design.
This is trying to do so many things at once and doesn’t seem to have a lot of clarity about what each individual design and narrative choice means. It’s not really a story about moral choice, but still has pretenses of offering the player a choice of morality. It’s not really about breaking down the fourth wall and blurring the lines between the fiction and the player’s experience, but still integrates elements which work to do this. In all, it feels that the experience would have been much less frustrating and more cohesive if my character had a strong will and opinion which I worked to carry out, if they were the one who decided to end the world, if my role in this moral conundrum was to merely evaluate how I felt about it rather than be assigned to carry out a morally questionable task with limited perspective or latitude to do anything else and then being blamed by the characters for the structure of the game – even if this blame is temporary and soon forgiven. The question of who’s making these moral choices is quite a relevant one: Pink is a peer of the other characters, and experiences many of the same things, and at least has some grounds for making a decision for the group based on their understanding of the world – but they’re not the one who says it’s okay to take it into your own hands. The ones who tell you murder is okay are weird ethereal ghosts and seemingly inanimate objects, things which are not living, at least in the same sense as the other characters, things which seemingly have nothing to lose.
Who would trust the perspective of the unliving on death? At the end of the game, we are assured that death is not the end, that there are further frontiers, and this is all very reassuring, justifying in retrospect all decisions made up to this point. And once again, I am asked to trust the narrative assurance: It’s fine. Death is not the end – in this fictional universe specifically constructed such that death is defined to not be the end. But the game didn’t ask a character who lived in that universe to make that judgment: It asked me, a human. To me, death is very much the end, as far as I have any reason to believe, and every time I think about it I hear the Modest Mouse lyric: “Well maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll both live again, well I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know don’t think so.” There are, as well, a number of troubling implications stemming from these incidental decisions: All of the save points talk to you, and you can kill them, but they seemingly don’t have souls, with the same being true of several other entities you kill – so presumably they’re just dead forever, or non-existent forever. Also, one of the spirits, met in the afterlife after the player kills them, regrets being too weak to take matters into their own hands… Which seems to me like a pretty irresponsible idea to put out into the world.
I may be especially sensitive to this narrative because it is, in many ways, extremely similar to that of my long-term-but-currently-on-hiatus project EverEnding (even having a similar title). The premise of my game is specifically that the afterlife has ceased to function: That there was a cycle of reincarnation that is now stalled and broken because all human life perished on Earth so there are no bodies to be reincarnated into. Thus, all the lost souls wandering the increasingly incoherent afterlife must be collected so that they can be reunited and whole – although what happens after that, whether this is an apocalypse or a rebirth, is ambiguous. There is no choice offered between killing and not killing: In EverEnding, this is the only function the character can serve within the space she exists in, and due to her history she is the only suitable person for the task. This character is an incarnation of death – and, potentially, of rebirth. Those she takes with her don’t so much die as change state – in many cases they’ve already had their state changed by the afterlife, lost their mortal shape, become amalgamations of like-minded spirit, mere echoes of whoever they once were. I don’t know whether the moral space presented to the player in my game would be more palatable, or if there are implications of my concept that are even more unpleasant, or symbolism even more confusing – I don’t know whether my sensitivity is just because I’m sad that my game stalled out and this one came to be fully realized. Maybe a bit of all of these.
Perhaps right now I’m simply not very interested in stories about giving up on a world on the assumption that a better one lays nebulously ahead. As far as I know this is what we’ve got, and I’d rather fight for life than death, given a choice.
Horror and comedy can be particularly tricky genres to create in. Both rely to some degree on shocking and surprising audiences, and seeking to create shock and surprise tends to lead towards uncomfortable and loaded topics. This can be difficult to handle responsibly, and many creators never try, preferring instead to merely revel in unpleasantness, declaring that anyone who doesn’t enjoy their work just doesn’t “get it”. This kind of attention to detail and implication can be challenging and scary, and it’s entirely understandable that one would want to opt out of this challenge – but doing so is just a show of lazy and careless thought, an abdication of artistic responsibility. An artist is largely defined by their ability to see from the eyes of differing prospective audiences, and if their imagination in this regard can’t extend to victims of trauma, systemic violence, and so forth that doesn’t speak well of that imagination. We choose what audience we care about: If that audience is solely people who have no vulnerabilities we could carelessly abrade, people who can embrace “offensive” content because they have no skin in the game, we have selected only the most insulated among us and are working to build something to further insulate them, make something devoid of thought and empathy, the hollowest sort of art. It is galling that some people choose to wear this as a badge of honor.
Other artists, who care more about the specifics of their content and what it conveys, strive to ensure these troubling topics are grounded in context and treated with respect. Centering the narrative on the powerless over the powerful, ensuring that the characters have personality and motive, writing stories where acts of cruelty and kindness have consequences rather than merely being signposts for how you’re meant to regard a character – the rules for treating complex and painful topics responsibly are much the same as the rules for writing responsibly in any case. The burden is of accuracy and thoroughness and empathy, and anyone who is creating any art for any audience should be prepared to take these on.
Happily, along with these expectation towards boundary-pushing and shock value, horror and comedy also have other traits that make these expectations easier to work with. Absurdity, surrealism, fantastical elements and nonsensical contrivances can work to distance these uncomfortable topics and make them less immediately threatening. Scenarios can become so over-the-top and implausible, so distanced from the more prosaic cruelties that they reference, that they become relatively cartoonish and non-threatening – threats of capitalistic callousness and sexual violence get extracted and distanced into space stations and vicious aliens, minority integration into high society heightened into absurd farce, liberal racist neo-colonialism into weird brain-snatching conspiracies, and so forth. These genres serve as wrappers to express common anxieties, then to either heighten or defuse them, different tensions distilled and diffused, abstracted and made concrete, made real and unreal. In so doing, they give the audience space to understand themselves in relation to these anxieties, to consider meaning and implications.
Most comedy and horror focus on some sort of outsider character or group – in comedy most often this is the protagonist, some bumbling fish out of water or slick troublemaker whose antics are generally harmless and who we can root for. In horror, this outsider is most often the antagonist, a violent spirit, dedicated killer or superhuman beast, whose behaviors are far from harmless. As an outsider, these forces work to interrupt a status quo – but often also are causally related to that status quo. After all, one cannot have an outsider without defining an inside which excludes them. Ghosts are the latent consequences of old atrocities, the kooky loner’s loneliness is imposed upon him by a world that treats him with contempt, the monster is only a threat because the structures meant to protect and contain it have failed, and so forth. Depending on emphasis, these basic genre elements can be used to create and reify fear of a system that has failed us or to create and reify fear of the outsider – can be used to justify malignant xenophobia or interrogations of the structure of power.
Occasionally, this structure is inverted: In Get Out, the protagonist the outsider, stumbling into a sedate but secretly sinister world, whereas in What About Bob the protagonist is a relatively mundane therapist endlessly irritated by the oddball Bob. Movies with this inversion sometimes nudge up against the boundaries of genre classification – some describe Get Out as a comedic horror film, and many find What About Bob somewhat unsettling as a comedy.
When we create comedy or horror, we create a narrative about who may be mocked and who must be feared. These genres exist at the fringes of societal consciousness, the places where we’re still not sure how we feel about ideas and concepts, people and places, and seek to grapple with that tension. The funniest comedy has a tinge of fear while the scariest horror as a tinge of absurdity, and whether tension swings towards relief or shock can rest on a knife’s edge – and, as we learn time and time again, things that we used think were funny come to seem horrifying in retrospect.
In a traditional narrative medium, moral choice often enters in when a character discovers they can do something that goes against their beliefs to gain some sort of an advantage or object of desire. The audience may perceive the character has other options which would benefit them as much or more without compromising their principles, but much of the time this irony just creates a narratively justifiable moral myopia for that character, furthering their characterization.
What happens when we try to apply the same formula to a game story? Since the player nominally control the character’s actions, this moral myopia begins to feel absurd and repressive rather than expressive. This is as much an opportunity as it is a problem: Character actions being constrained by their personality is a viable and interesting design space, but must be expressed carefully. As clumsy as the old Dungeons & Dragons alignment system is, it gets at something important: A character believes certain things and that constrains their actions – not necessarily by preventing them from making a choice but by constraining what things they even see as choices to be made. That is to say, for a ‘good’ aligned character it’s not that, when they have the choice to take the money and run or stay and do the job, they always make the correct choice: Often they don’t even perceive a choice to be made there at all.
While the player may control the character, this is not quite the same as them being the character: The inputs they provide are interpreted by the game before being used to control the character, and the information the character perceives is not necessarily complete or reliable. This layer of control and information abstraction between player and character is where the designer can intentionally express the character even as the player controls them. Through subtly limiting or reinterpreting player actions into character actions, or shaping the space to align with the character’s perceptions, the designer can make it so the option of breaking character is simply not present. Many games, for instance, have a separate set of actions for non-combat and combat zones, so rather than even worrying about what happens if you attack an NPC they just turn the attack button into the talk button whenever there’s someone around to talk to. By carefully constraining the environment and available player actions within it, the designer creates a space within which that character can be expressed, a set of lines for the player to color inside.
Where this usually goes extremely wrong is where it collides with the other set of player actions provided by the game – what one might consider the gameplay itself. The real difficulty in expressing any idea with moral weight in a video game is that most video games, and especially games with morality systems, tend to have the player play as a mass murderer and looter. This is a conflict most games have made a concerted decision to not give a shit about – which, I suppose, is a solution of sorts. Many such games aspire to Important and Consequential narrative, though, while being ultraviolent cartoons every moment that they’re not playing a melodramatic scripted film scene at you. In this context, good and evil decisions have to be so absurdly over the top to register over the background noise of mayhem that they seldom seem grounded in any meaningful way.
This is not to say that scripted scenes and moral choices can’t be emotionally affecting, but just that they’re almost a completely discrete piece of art from the game you’re playing the rest of the time, with very little actual relationship between them. There are effectively two ways to solve this issue: The first is to shift the narrative towards the gameplay, so your game that’s 90% mass murdering has a story about mass murder. This was part of why I found Hotline Miami exciting at the time, because this is at least a cogent solution – if perhaps one that gets quickly wearing on repetition. The other solution is to move the gameplay towards the narrative, which is trickier since that raises a lot of questions about what sorts of gameplay can fit the narrative, and these solutions can change dramatically on a case by case basis. Undertale does a very elegant job of sticking mostly to established schools of game design while also using those systems to express different characters and aspects of its story.
As things stand, it’s usually somewhat grotesque and absurd when games expect us to take their moral ponderings seriously. What is the moral weight of the player’s everyday actions? Do the game’s big choices or big reveals make any sense within that framework? Is this one game, or two games with a tenuous relationship, or a game with a film that you watch in bits and pieces between playing? I suppose there’s nothing wrong with any of these things – but, myself, I find it most interesting when all the pieces of the game seem to exist in the same world and speak the same language.
One of the trickiest parts of art – with the understanding that art is entirely made of tricky parts – is the comprehension of proportion and perspective. There is, in one sense, a lot of wiggle room here – we can see a drawing of a person with oversized hands or head and still parse and appreciate it, though perhaps as something more abstract or cartoonish than originally intended. This is a way in which art gets more difficult the more you improve: As a beginner, all you want to do is convey a basic visual impression, so if it looks basically like a Dracula, a Barbie, or a Spiderman it’s satisfactory. The beginner may have higher aspirations in terms of wanting it to look realistic or stylized in a particular manner, but seldom has a strong idea of what that means as applied to actual art and what sort of work it will entail: To the beginner, a piece might appear realistic just because it’s highly detailed, regardless of whether that detail is accurate.
As we develop as artists, we become more focused on creating a specific outcome, a complex emotion or slice of imagined or preserved or interpreted experience, and all of a sudden close enough isn’t close enough. The scale of a character’s parts comes to be an expressive channel, conveying traits and attitudes, and the scale of characters in relation to one another expresses their relationship and perspective. It’s not, of course, only relative size that can express in this manner. Distance, contrast, line weight and so forth can all work together to create a sense of perspective – both in the literal sense, by mimicking the behaviors of the ocular apparatus, and in the metaphorical, by creating an impressionistic view of the world shaped by the character’s relationship to it.
All of this is relatively basic, a core tenet of artistic expression and criticism: Artistic perspective can be warped and stylized for the purposes of character and narrative, not everything depicted is meant to represent a real or idealized world. Real Art 101 level stuff, and yet it seems that many audiences now have no sense of scale or perspective, abstraction or proportion, and this can have surprisingly severe ramifications.
Let’s start with the obvious: There seems to suddenly be a prevailing belief that any depiction of something unpleasant or gross is equivalent to endorsement of same. This is understandable as a sort of pendulum swing against art which was criticized, in most cases justly, as including racism and sexual violence and so forth for a transgressive thrill and then failing to couch that content in any coherent critical narrative or perspective. By not meaningfully challenging the implicit perspective these inclusions provided, these instances did create a generalized tacit endorsement – not of the transgressive acts themselves, but of the worldview of these as immutable, ever-present and ideologically neutral threats. Not long ago this was an omnipresent variety of bad and lazy art, and it is still quite common today. I absolutely understand why learning enough about art criticism to understand why this style is harmful, without learning enough to understand that not all art tackling the same topics is equivalent, could lead one to this misguided anger – but, nevertheless, misguided it is.
Unfortunately the problem is worse than just a few clueless but well-meaning amateur critics – though I suppose I occupy quite a glass house to be throwing that particular stone from. The lack of sense of scale, proportion, and perspective extends beyond art criticism. Depiction of sin becomes equivalent to endorsement of sin, endorsement equivalent to commission, and all sins lumped together into one evil mass such that whoever commits the least is deemed guilty of the worst. This is the direct intersection of largely reasonable media criticism, evangelical moral absolutism, and deranged “tough on crime” political discourse. Once we ascertain something to be “wrong” it must therefore be evil – and once evil it must be struck down by any means necessary. No context, proportion, scale, distance, or perspective are needed or desired.
Even very large things seem small at a distance, and even the smallest threats loom large up close. It’s so easy to give the huge entities whose roots strangle us a pass while we tear each other apart for trying to express the horrific perspective from the feet of these loathsome giants, and so the smallest most vulnerable artists tend to bear the brunt of the assault of this righteousness. Dedicated internet abusers see a free-for-all and gleefully join in the fun, and thus the ritual is complete and, by attempting to battle against callousness and cruelty, that same callousness and cruelty has been manifested into being. Afterwards, the clear viciousness of the engagement does nothing but undermine their well-meaning criticism, and brutalize the target of that criticism. Only the trolls, there for the violence in the first place, walking away laughing.
This will repeat over and over as long as we treat every transgression against taste and morality as equivalent. Not all sins are equal in harm; not all sinners are equal in power; not all battles, once won, will bring you closer to victory.
This one-month project persists in being a not-one-month project, and I’m surprisingly fine with that. What drove me crazy with EverEnding, and which frankly still hangs over my head to some degree, is not knowing when or if it will be done, or really knowing how much progress I’m making in the overall scheme of things. That specter persists in this project, but since the implicit demand of the art style is so much simpler compared to the high-detail art I was making for EverEnding I feel much freer to pursue ideas without being terrified of getting completely derailed.
Additionally, I’ve been doing a lot of work on understanding how I – well, how I do work. I’ve gained a much greater understanding — over the last decade, but especially over the last 6 months — of what my strengths and weaknesses are, what my limitations are and when I can aspire to exceed them, and how to best cooperate with myself to achieve my goals. The most recent part of this process is a system I’ve devised this month which is somewhere between a form of time management, a form of accountability, and a form of gamification. Maybe I’ll create a snappy name for it at some point, but right now I just think of it as the token system. I bought a bunch of little glass blobs in various colors from a craft store — similar to those I and my friends used to use as counters playing Magic: The Gathering — and a few nice-looking containers of different colors. Whenever I work on something for a half-hour I add a token to a container, with the color of the token and container representing different pursuits in different areas of my life. So, for instance, when I’m working on the game I add a green token to the clear glass for each half-hour I work on tech/code and a pink token for every half-hour I work on art/level development.
This serves several purposes. First, it helps me keep track of how long I’ve actually spent on something, rather than just how long it feels like I’ve worked on it — which of course can vary based on my mood and how well I think things went. Second, a frequent tripping point for me is forgetting some particular job or task I need to do or being unsure what to do next and spending a lot of time and energy fretting about it before coming to a decision — but, since all of these tokens conceptually represent either a pending or complete task, I can just set tokens representing whatever I expect to accomplish the next day on my desk as a reminder to actually do it. Third, the tokens, and the act of putting them into the containers, serve as a concrete representation of what I’ve done, helping solidify it in my mind as something real and which happened – which is sometimes easy to forget when all of the work I do, being largely digital, can feel so ethereal.
While this is all very helpful, it has also reinforced and reified the understanding that game development is hard and it takes a long damn time to get anything done. I am pleased by my progress so far on this project because every time I look at the game it seems to be significantly further along, but I’ve still got a long way to go! Realizing this, it’s clear now that the way I was working on EverEnding, where so often it felt only marginally further along after another month of work, it was never going to get finished. While I still intend to go back to it, when I do it’s going to have to be with a plan on how to make the project feasible.
In the meanwhile, this is the DevBlog for a completely different project! All of this month’s work centered on building levels — some of it very directly, creating tile art and placing those tiles in the environment, and some of it a bit less directly, developing new tiles and styles of rendering them. One of the most foundational developments was creating exits for traveling between map layers — that is, when there’s a door or path visible in the background, it’s now possible to enter that door and go into another room that occupies the same space as the room you’re in but exists on a different layer of the map. It’s a bit of a pain to set these doors up right now, requiring manually creating a matching room and placing a paired door on the other side while the Unity Editor spits null reference errors, but it’s good enough to work with for now — and, frankly, given how much time is necessary for simply placing rooms compared to all the time it takes to add detail to them, it might not be worth the effort to make that work quickly or more intuitively (a thought process which I should perhaps have applied when developing the cursed map editor). The inverse problem, appropriately enough, seems to have emerged with a special effect I’ve been developing: Reflection tiles.
I really wanted to have some sort of reflections for both thematic and aesthetic reasons, but a lot goes into a reflection — and, while in many ways the process of reflecting is simpler in a 2D game, it also tends to be more abstract and less generalizable: Since the actual path of travel of light only exists in the artist’s mind, rather than having a direct analogue in the game’s rendering engine, there’s no way to create a generalized solution for all reflections. Because of this, I’ve created a shader which reads a texture containing all the screen-space objects getting reflected and transforms it somehow, based on the coordinates and color of the tile, and renders out that pixel. Most of this isn’t that complicated — I can just use the red and green color channels to offset the reflection by x and y pixels, respectively, which works fine for background reflections — but when it comes to a reflective wall, like a mirror or glass building, or reflective floors like shiny tiles or water, things get tricky because in order to reflect plausibly on these we have to flip the x or y coordinates around the reflective edge. Furthermore, if I want to simulate perspective at all I need some way to squash and stretch the reflection. I ended up packing all of this information into the blue channel of the tile color: 1 bit for x flip, 1 bit for y flip, 3 bits for x scale and 3 for y scale. This is programmatically functional, but the problem I ran into was generating actual tiles for use by the shader. It’s very difficult to visually parse the differences in color and what they mean even between the red and green channels, and completely impossible for the blue channel, and it was also difficult to get any sort of real-time feedback on what the tiles were doing, what they were reflecting and how, in the editor.
I eventually came up with a solution of of sorts: I overlaid a coordinate grid on each room, so you could see where each tile was on the grid and see, in reflections, what part of the grid was being reflected. This was an improvement, but actually placing the reflections was still a trial-and-error pain in the ass, plus the huge number of tiles I had to create to represent each different kind of reflection has started to slow opening the project significantly. The next step, I’ve determined, is to largely phase out special reflection tiles completely (except in the case of animated reflections, such as water) and create a custom tilemap brush, allowing the user (me) to manually set reflection parameters and then automatically pack that into a color for the shader to interpret. This probably won’t be too difficult, but I’ve learned to avoid making assumptions about that when it comes to Unity’s godforsaken Tilemap system.
The above paragraph was written at the start of the week, on Monday. It is now Friday and I regret to say that my reservations were validated. The entire function of a reflection brush rested on the ability to set tile colors: This is a capability that is nominally present in Unity’s Tilemap system, but seems to be implemented very sloppily and inconsistently internally. While I have indeed created a brush that places a tile, packs the reflection information into a color and uses it to color that tile, two huge issues persist: One, the preview for any changes made is completely non-functional, making it much less useful for exactly the kind of fast feedback about what changes I was making that it was intended to achieve. Any time a brush preview is used, it sets the color of underlying tiles to white permanently, seemingly a fairly severe bug which I’ve now made the Unity team aware of. Secondly, whenever an undo is performed on a Tilemap it seemingly reverts every single tile back to white, regardless of whether it was even touched by the undo, an even more severe bug than the previous and one which, regrettably, probably makes it not worthwhile to pursue this reflection brush component further until it is fixed. The good news is that after languishing for quite a while, Unity seems to be taking steps to fix issues with the Tilemap system, so perhaps there’s hope for this getting resolved.
The bulk of the work accomplished over the last month has been in creating and placing tiles. There have been a few other stopping points of the sort I mentioned last month, where I had to spend a while thinking about how it could actually make sense to represent a plausible space using tiles. The logic of a 2D space presented this way can get very odd at times: If you think about how a player would move in most 2D games, expanded out to a 3D space, it would involve a lot of weird sideways jumps around corners, through surfaces, choosing unnecessarily tricky parkour routes rather than taking simple detours around things, and so forth. It’s an abstraction that is both absurd and fascinating, as elegantly compelling as pretending the floor is made of lava, but it can make the job of artistic representation quite tricky. Most such games take place in large open rooms, warehouses full of crates, which make it relatively straightforward to map a grid-based 2D world onto a reasonably plausible environment. The hotel section, the first major challenge section of the game, is fairly close to this ideal scenario: there are a lot of boxy rooms with a number of plausibly blocky things placed in them.
However, while they seem like they’d operate on similar principles I realized that the apartment areas I developed early on were using way too many tiles and being way too inconsistent with their representation of the space to be satisfactory in the long run. In setting out to revise these, I realized that my approach to tiles was inconsistent: Some tiles only represented one edge, others represented a whole block, and there wasn’t a lot of logic to which was which. I kept working on it until what I eventually realized was that in 2d platformers there are broadly two different types of collision tiles: bounding tiles and obstacle tiles. Bounding tiles represent the edges of the game space: Walls, floor tiles, soil, cliff faces and such. Obstacle tiles represent objects encountered within that space that need to be navigated around: Girders, boulders, cars, crates, etc. This maps to how we interact with objects in 3D space: We can’t see what’s past the walls around us, though we might be able to make an educated guess, but something like a table we can walk around and see all sides of — even if it blocks our path, we understand the shape of the object in its entirety. Thus, bounding tiles only show the edge of the object, as with the various rock and wall tiles visible in these screenshots, while obstacle tiles show the entirety of the object, as with tiles like the vents, counters, pillars and so forth. There are several exceptions even in this relatively small sample size of tiles, but it’s a helpful principle to keep in mind.
This knowledge was invaluable to me, and though it seems like common sense that many game artists must know I had somehow missed learning it anywhere before, or at least hadn’t retained it. Soon, though, I ran into a whole other artistic challenge: Sure, it’s not that difficult to represent human-made spaces using a tile grid, we tend to build along grid-like lines anyway, but what about representing nature? Well, in fact this space wasn’t so much nature as a city park, an interstitial zone between the starting apartments area and the hotel area, but I still had to figure out how to make trees that the player could plausibly interact with and grass that felt realistic and aesthetically interesting without cluttering the area. I had to redesign the tree branches and grass tiles several times, but in the end came up with a style I really like.
Finally, lumped in with all this other stuff I created a number of animated tiles — mostly for water, but also for fiery light sources and smoke. I ended up doing most of these animations at very low frame rate, a frame or two a second, especially for pure background elements like water. The animated tile provided by Unity is bafflingly useless for anything past the most straightforward usage, providing a way to randomize the speed of the animation (which, to be frank, looks like pure garbage at anything but the highest frame rates) but no way to randomize the starting frame. Fortunately, they did make this animated tile class very easy to understand and modify, so I took a day to create a version of it with a randomizable starting frame, along with the option to randomize its orientation in variable ways — so, for instance, I could paint an area with water tiles that all started on different frames and were randomly horizontally flipped. This all may have been overkill, but the main thing I wanted to avoid was the player walking into a room where all of the torches were perfectly synced frame-by-frame, where the ocean moved like a marching band — though these may be interestingly uncanny effects to play with in certain situations.
The next month will, I expect, proceed largely as this one did: Areas will continue to get built out, though I’m running out of room to build in this segment of the game I’ve designated as the starting area (probably about 1/4 to 1/3rd of the main map, as I have it planned now). I should probably start adding actual interaction to these environments soon: Enemies, NPCs, pickups, and so forth. Better to have a sense of how they play and revise that towards where I want it to be than to try to engineer everything up front and have to discard a bunch of work that doesn’t end up fitting. I hope that by then I will be at least close to the vertical slice I keep talking about.