‘Interactive’ is a convenient buzz-word that we’ve been using to describe games for some time. What separates games from other art, so we say, is that the audience acts upon the game and the game in turn acts upon them, a stable loop where each shapes the experience. This isn’t really unique to games; audiences interact with stage plays and novels all the time, controlling the pace and interpretation of the experience and occasionally making substantial differences in content. There’s a difference between the experience of more traditional narrative forms and the newer forms enabled by personal computing technology, but interactivity isn’t a very useful term to describe that difference.

But still, perhaps, it is a useful term to describe something else. Art is the experience of art, the moment where the audience perceives and interprets  the work the artist has created. The game is the experience of playing the game, the interaction of software and player, the moment of interpretation. This is the game as it is received, the final result, and is different for each player, alchemical. That’s not what we usually mean when we talk about art: We usually just talk about the physical, the painting or text or software product that enables that final experience, since that’s the part of it that we, as artists, can control directly.

Disregarding, for a moment, this final interaction between audience and work, there are other interactions internal to the work itself. Art is not just the sum of its parts, but the way those parts work in concert, the way they act upon each other – ‘interact’. The systems of the game and the narrative content of the game also interact, intersect, and the specifics of how they work together are, together with the player’s mental state, what shape the experience of the player. Any part of a game or other work of art can be viewed as an interaction of more elemental sections; the interaction between the strategic and tactical layers, the interaction between the music and environment, the interaction between two story lines.

Games are, however, an unusual art form in that they have robust systemic content. That is, most forms of media have fairly stodgy and restrained forms of input, and don’t generally have an intentionally designed set of responses to those inputs: Applause, laughter, cheering, gasping, these all may affect the performance, but rarely in ways explicitly set out by the author of the piece. Games usually provide many forms of explicit input, and respond in ways that are often unpredictable to those, mediated by several interlocking deterministic systems. Some designers like to think of the game as being comprised of those systems: It isn’t, any more than it’s comprised of its story. A game is comprised of the primary interaction, experiential interaction of the player and the work, and the secondary interactions between its systems and narrative which enables the primary.

Trying to design as though games are purely systems quickly results in dead ends, at least as far as the realm of single-player games extends. There are only two possible purely systemic challenges we can create: Reflex and puzzle challenges. Most games are one or the other of these, offering strategic decision-making and/or coordinated challenges to achieve a goal. Some might disagree with the characterization of strategy as a puzzle, but it inevitably becomes so once the player gains enough information of and experience in the system to route an optimal grand strategy. You can hold that off by obscuring information or making the system complex, or introducing randomization, but this is just kicking the can down the road. Players will eventually end up mastering the game, reflex and puzzle and all – which is fine, then they can just speedrun it at charity marathons.

Games don’t need to last forever, though. Art is eternal, not because one person can engage with it for eternity, but because the primary interaction is different for each audience, shifts with culture and language, becomes interpreted and reinterpreted and deepened through newer understandings and perspectives. Games are capable of even grander shifts, entire new ways of play within their space is defined, aspects long thought irrelevant become the seed of a whole new perspectives, new games within the game.

Focus on the moment of experience: The system can be solved, so don’t rely on the system: The story is just a story and could be told in any medium, so don’t rely on the story. Rely on the interaction of story and system, using the system to tell the story, using the story to contextualize the system. There are so many possibilities, and we’ve only yet scratched the surface of the manifold ways systemic and narrative elements can interact.

smbpit

I don’t know where the bottomless pit began. Maybe it’s always been there. How can something with no end have a beginning? But I think most of us first encountered the bottomless pit playing Super Mario Brothers, falling off the bottom of the screen, hearing the sad little jingle to notify us of our demise.

I remember now how strange it seemed to me the first time I encountered it. A convention almost as unintuitive as the inability to ever go back – and how curious it is that one of those died with that game while the other is still alive. We still have no end of endless voids awaiting our carelessness, four thousand holes leading nowhere.

But just like any other living language, the language of games shifts over time. Pits stopped being bottomless, and began to lead to new places, the mines that belonged to the mineshafts, the aquifers under the wells. The bottomless pits never went away, still dominating the many run-right platformers that followed in Mario’s footsteps, but along with them came Metroid and other games like it, now rather clumsily dubbed ‘Metroidvanias’.

Personally I prefer it when pits have a bottom. I like it when, if I fall, I fall into somewhere new. It’s a different way to look at the world: One way sees an obstacle, a fall, a chance to fail, where the other sees two diverging paths, one down and one forward. Even if you didn’t mean to fall in the pit, even if down there is definitely a place you don’t want to be, there’s at least something there – and, sometimes, maybe, something worthwhile. There are many dead ends, but you don’t know what will be what until you get there.

This philosophy permeates this style of game. Not all obstacles are deadly, not all side paths are dead ends, and paths which dead-end now might open up later. Playing a Metroidvania feels more real, more mappable to my general experience of existing in the world, than a simple dexterity challenge. Obstacles are never just obstacles, dead ends are never just dead ends, revisiting problems that stymied us before can yield new ways forward, and things that at first appear to be worthless can, in the end, change everything.

It’s a completely different way of relating to an environment; some games create a space for you to conquer, but Metroidvanias create a space for you to live in, to understand, to become a part of. The world is not your enemy, but a character for you to empathize with and interact with, an ongoing conversation. And, later on, we can play with that familiarity, can change areas based on your actions, can warp the world to create something new. The impact of finding the upside-down castle in Symphony of the Night would not have been nearly as impressive if we hadn’t just spent hours becoming painstakingly familiar with the normally-oriented original version.

This may, ultimately, be why Dark Souls 3 leaves me the least excited of the trilogy. Dark Souls truly lives up to this ideal, creates an intricately networked world that can be navigated in many ways. Dark Souls 2 fails to live up to this promise rather spectacularly, segmenting each area harshly and connecting them haphazardly, but encourages you to spend a lot of time in each area, to return to it for its unique covenants and merchants, encouraging real familiarity with and affection for every aspect of every area. Dark Souls 3, however, just gives you a series of levels to overcome: They are beautiful levels, detailed levels, and many advantages can be gained by being thorough in your approach to them, but in the end once you overcome them there is no reason to return. The NPCs all follow you home, the covenants are there as you need them, and the area sits, conquered, never to be rediscovered until a potential future play-through.

Here is where the meat meets the metal, the gear meets the bone; a video game is both an activity to engage in and a space to exist in. Some games embrace the former and some the latter, and there’s a distinct difference in the philosophical view of each, of what it means to interact with a world, of how problems can and should be approached. And, really, there’s nothing wrong with the obstacle model, the view of the game as primarily an activity, a skill to be polished, a challenge to be conquered.

I’d just rather stay in a hotel than run a gauntlet, myself, personally.

Gabriël_Metsu_008

As time goes on and I write more posts for Problem Machine, I notice certain themes emerging, repeating themselves in slight variation. One of these is the idea that there are no good or bad elements of game design, only ineffective and effective combinations of these elements; that, indeed, the effectiveness of the design can only be gauged by its overall effect on the audience. If that sounds tautological, well, exactly: Just as art cannot be truthfully represented in terms more simple than itself, cannot be easily reduced, its effect on the audience cannot be defined outside the terms of that effect, and furthermore changes from individual to individual within that audience.

People are fairly comfortable with this approach when it comes to arts criticism, but less open to it when applied to weightier matters. This idea, that things can only be judged in terms of their effects, is one that I’m frequently surprised at how negatively people respond to. It would seem that others believe in the ideals of crimes and punishments, of elemental moralities beyond humanity, unregarding of our happiness. Beliefs like these are necessary to support our current financial and judicial institutions, so perhaps that’s why people dislike hearing them challenged. Indeed, so many people take the idea that something has to be good or bad as axiomatic, unquestioned, that they cannot understand logic framed in different terms, and will see apologism or vilification where there is merely the absence of judgment.

I cannot imagine another way to be. It makes everything so much clearer to me. Maybe it’s incompatible with most lifestyles: The lives of most people have a higher priority on fitting into groups and reaching a moral consensus, whereas I am mostly alone with my thoughts and find my ethical drive in sorting out the inherent benefits or detriments of my own behavior. So perhaps an empirical approach to morality merely suits my purposes, and others would find it untenable. I just always find myself wishing that we could more readily see the world in terms of desired results and actions that could achieve those results rather than in terms of good and evil, heroes and villains. I think we might be better off – but perhaps I am just another condescending preacher.

There are the old chestnuts people dust off against moral utilitarianism. What if a forsaken child were to be subjected to indescribable suffering to power our utopia? Well, currently lots of children are being subjected to indescribable suffering to power our dystopia, so forgive me if I don’t find arguments like these especially convincing. And no, I’m not saying the ends always justify the means; I’m just saying that whether they do or not depends an awful lot on the particular ends and means, and there’s actually a shitload of means available so, you know, maybe we should try some different ones if the balance seems to be unfavorable.

If this all seems either too crazy or too obvious, try it. Try to hold the idea that someone could either be telling the truth or lying comfortably in your head, without deciding which is which. Believe that abusers can be victimized and victims can be abusive without letting it detract even a tiny bit from your empathy for the abused. Believe that someone can be a great artist, can be a loving parent, can be a force for good in some ways, while being a monster, murderer, rapist, or whatever in others. Nothing is simple, nothing is good or bad, but is instead part of a vast system of hurt and love, fear and desire, loneliness and misunderstanding. The path to a better world cannot lie through finding the bad people and rooting them out, through creating heroic idols who will inevitably disappoint when they turn out to be merely human, of finding the punishments to fit the crimes we create. To navigate in this way is to navigate the sea by the clouds.

There are an infinite number of ways we can live in this world and structure our society. Let us create a system that treats us with love, and allows us to do the same for each other, rather than trying to flag each other as flawed, rejected, as less than the rest, hoping for our enemies to be one day discarded.

Undead_Settlement

I liked playing through Dark Souls 3, but something seemed off about the experience to me. Immediately after starting the game, in the menu, the silence of the Dark Souls menu and the spooky music of the menu in Dark Souls 2 is replaced by a GRAND ORCHESTRAL SCORE – of the sort that these games have typically reserved for boss battles. Indeed, in-game the music is as infrequent and reserved as ever but, still… there’s been a shift in attitude, a change in approach.

This change brings to mind the optional downloadable area in the first Dark Souls: I like to describe the contrast between this section, the lost kingdom of Oolacile, and the rest of the game as being that between a tragedy being enacted and one being retold. The world of Dark Souls shows signs of decay and disease, but most of these have already, for the most part, run their course; the dead are everywhere and hollows, those who are dead but don’t realize it yet, empty bodies that keep fighting out of habit, are all that is left. However, when we visit Oolacile, traveling back in time to the moment of its fall, something is very wrong in a way we can feel right away; hissing and screaming echoes through the streets we walk above, and the darkness of the abyss is oozing up through cracks in the ground.

Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 are stories of long ago, of resolving a crack in the world that keeps spreading, of being the last flickering light of life within a dying world. However, the third game isn’t really about that – or, at least, it doesn’t feel that way. Dark Souls 3’s world is full of inquisitors and monstrous deities, jailers and soldiers pursuing their duties. It is a world that belongs to humans, or human-like creatures with human-like hungers, and that which you fight against is human in nature. It feels different not only in being a tragedy in action rather than one unearthed, but also a petty tragedy of greed and hunger rather than the grand tragedy of time and death. Dark Souls 3 is the murder to Dark Souls 1 and 2’s cold cases, the blood still warm, the motivations still burning.

So often we hear a game’s world described as feeling alive, a living world that breathes and moves without you, and we think about that as a good thing: It’s more like the world we live in, after all. But the fact is, we’ll never be able to create a world that truly lives, that truly carries on apart from its players; and, even if we could, would we want to be part of another such world? Dark Souls 1 and 2 embraced the limitations of games; games excel at emptiness, at hollow and meaningless violence, at walking through the uncanny valleys of death, and Dark Souls took these sad, withered lemons and it made sad, withered lemonade.

When I fight in Dark Souls 3, I feel that I am fighting against humans, humans grown too big and strong to be entirely of this world any more but still motivated by the same pathetic lusts that animate us. I feel anger, maliciousness, greed, rather than regret and nostalgia.

It is a smaller battle. And maybe that’s the tragedy that Dark Souls 3 is trying to convey; as the world is passed from the divine to the merely human, the grand struggles of darkness and fire, humanity and divinity, get segmented into petty struggles, wars for grudges, games of thrones. Maybe the story is of how each time history repeats itself, it grows smaller, emptier, pettier, further and further from the heart, divorced by degrees from that which is worth fighting for.

EveHeader

This is happening exactly the way I worried it might.

I’m coming to think I have some sort of attention disorder. I have a very difficult time focusing on almost any tasks for more than an hour at a time, and even that much becomes extremely difficult if it’s a tricky task or one I’m unenthusiastic about. And now, before me, I have weeks and weeks of animation work that need doing.

Don’t get me wrong. I think animation is interesting. However, in trying to sketch all these animations out as prototypes, I’ve robbed myself of much of the fun of animating and left myself a big serving of tedious pie. All the interesting stuff, figuring out the motion, expressing it, giving it weight;  I did all that in the prototype phase. All that’s left is drawing it in pixels, making sure the frames are consistent with each other, making sure each individual strand and strap lines up properly, that things don’t float into place but move naturally, that each distinguishing mark stays consistent; I’ve separated much of the artistry out, done it months ago, and left myself only a very dry kind of craftsmanship.

And my enthusiasm suffers.

And my productivity suffers with it.

And I wonder, what am I doing? Where am I going? Maybe these are good questions to ask, but the dissatisfaction that is pushing me to ask them is indicative of a more immediate problem. At this rate, the game will not be finished. At this rate, I’ll drift away and find something else.

I prefer to make decisions like that rather than have them made for me by circumstance.

Well: What’s the good news? The good news is that I have the running animations done and the turning animations done and the stopping animations mostly done except I need to polish them up a bit to maintain consistency. What’s the bad news? The bad news is that I keep noticing that at the end of the day when I’ve done as many of the tasks I’ve set out for myself as I could manage, right before I go to sleep, this game is almost always the one that is left over. I listen to podcasts while I work and I don’t often manage to get to the end of the podcast before I get tired of the work and decide to stop. If I don’t feel like listening to a podcast, I don’t work.

What happens now? I need to take a step back. The animations are of vital importance, yes, but they’re one part of a project that still has many many parts that need doing. If my productivity suffers when I try to do too much animation work, I need to do less animation work, simple as that. Perhaps one day or two days a week will be satisfactory, allow continuous forwards progress, while the other days I’m working on EverEnding can be dedicated to other parts of the project. Parts such as:

Special effects work: The game still needs some water effects and other level-specific effects that need to be programmed. Each of these could be a confounding programming problem; satisfying if I can solve or study my way through it, but potentially just as much of a dragging point as the animations, so I’m wary of over-committing just yet. Still, I should be keeping these on the table so I can research/ponder them as opportunity permits.

Enemy design: I’ve concepted most enemies in terms of behavior and appearance, but only in the sense of creating descriptions; most of the work of visually designing and programming these creatures remains to be done. This would probably be a good thing to work on concurrently with animations, since the two fields are somewhat dependent on each other.

Bosses: These are a combination of the above two, each boss requiring special level effects and animations and behaviors all wrapped up together. These are still pretty intimidating, but I should at least be planning out how to try handling them in the future.

Levels/Tilesets: I was doing this before animation work and felt like I was achieving a lot more satisfaction and success then. Along with enemies, this would be a really good thing for me to be working on

Attention management is so difficult, and I’m only now realizing how carefully I’ve curated my fields of view to make it easier and how hamstrung I’ve been by the necessity of doing so. I’m going to be pushing at this from a few angles: First, seeing what I can do to treat my attention issues. Second, expanding the section of the project I’m working on to avoid exhausting myself on tedious work like I’ve been doing. Third, trying to get a bit more going on in my life, non-work stuff, so that I don’t feel so down and out when the project isn’t going well. I don’t expect any of these to be easy – in fact, I expect them all to be quite challenging in their own ways – but I think they’re all vital to the continued help of myself and the project.

I’m having a bit of mixed feelings about this shift to monthly updating. Though it is nice not to have to write these each week, and I felt like they became rote and obnoxious to the people reading for more analytical content, they were also a useful mechanism for me to assess where I was at in the project and how I felt about it, a functionality I failed to appreciate until now that it’s missing. I don’t really want to go back to weekly updates, but it may be worth considering another process for capturing the internal insights that found their way into the devblogs previously.

Since tomorrow’s the day I put together the schedule for the week, it will be an excellent opportunity to assess what I should be working on when. Here’s hoping next month’s update is more substantial and encouraging.

 

I keep on circling around thoughts about how not to be manipulative, how to respect your audience, and I end up not writing them down because, well – obviously, right? It seems obvious to say you should respect your audience, but in practice it’s often quite difficult – not because we’re inherently driven to be contemptuous of those who enjoy our work (though this is a problem for some creators), but because respecting an audience as an equal means striving beyond yourself, creating something beyond what you now know.

Now: I should clarify that I don’t mean that all creations made from the perspective of superior knowledge are contemptuous, or even without artistic merit. Sometimes we need to teach others skills and perspectives that they don’t have, and they come to us specifically because we are more learned or experienced in a particular topic. This is the foundation of all education. And, in the course of passing on this knowledge, it’s only natural to try to embrace the craft and aesthetic of art. Nevertheless, didacticism itself has little place within arts and entertainment, and art that sets out to be both fun and educational more often than not fails to be either; however, art that sets out to build entertainment on the basis of knowledge is often extraordinarily successful, whether it be the programming games of Zachtronics or the lurid history-inspired fantasy of George RR Martin.

In respecting your audience, you regard them as equal to yourselves; and, to provide someone who is equal to yourself with an experience that seems novel, you must exceed yourself, exceed the creativity that is familiar, and open yourself up to experiencing your art as your own audience, your first test audience of one. The tricky part about respect is that it’s not a coat of paint you can apply to a complete work, not a lacquer or a finish, but something that shapes from the ground up. If you want to respect the people who consume your work, you will have to respect yourself, to believe that you have hidden depths to be plumbed, because otherwise everything will be self-evident, obvious, cliche.

The art of creation is that of drawing out. We cannot, with pure intent, create the whole work; what comes feels trivial and contrived. We can create the first string, hooked into place, and then pull on that string gently and persistently until the tapestry emerges. This metaphor is useful, but is also limited because that makes it sound like what we then create isn’t really our creation, is actually some kind of divine inspiration. Really, our intent permeates, each aspect of the creation a decision made. We are neither quite an architect nor quite a prophet: We draw out, but we build; we plan, yet we intuit; we surprise, we are surprised; we are the artist, we are the audience. We must be both. It is craven for the artist to hold their self apart, to try to create something enumerable. We should be trying to create something that can never quite be described except as itself.

If we do our jobs right, we make the rock that’s too heavy for even us to lift.

Say something true.

Now say something else true.

Keep doing it. An hour or a day, or whatever pace you feel comfortable with; any pace will eventually take you to the same place. Don’t repeat yourself. Say something new, say something true, every day, every week, every month.

It gets harder, the opposite of practice. The easy truths dry up quickly, though occasionally you find one you missed, a rare delight. Soon, though, it becomes a full time job, simply thinking of what to say next, something true, something new. And you’re constantly afraid you’ll run out. And you’re constantly afraid that tomorrow you’ll just sit there all day long and wrack your brain and nothing will come out, that there’s nothing left, nothing to say. You’ve said it all.

The world keeps moving, though. There’s always new truth being made, old truth invalidated. What was true yesterday is not true today. Some things are true when told one way but a lie when told another. Do you contradict yourself? You can’t not. Words have their limits, and where they divide the world there are crumbs left over.

You can never say it all, but it feels like you already have. It’s impossible and humdrum at the same time. Maybe there are only a few truths within reach at any moment, and trying to catch them is like fishing. Maybe there really is such a thing as divine inspiration, bolts from heaven that strike us right in the brain to give us the right idea at the right time, and all we can do is wait in place and try to make ourselves look like lightning rods.

What can I say, past that it’s difficult except when it isn’t? All you can do is wait until you think of something. All you can do is keep talking until you stumble upon something, even if you have to sift through mountains of lie and cliche. But someone, maybe, is waiting to hear what you have to say. The world needs truth, and heretofore you’ve taken pride in finding it, prospecting it, providing stepping stones for other people. Who knows why? You just do.

But sometimes it’s hard – to say something true.

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