In animation “tweening” refers to creating the frames that smooth out the action and make it read as a single motion. Traditionally, the frames which define a motion – the “key” frames – would be drawn be the lead animator, with the less important (be)tween frames handed down to junior animators. Nowadays, for many forms of animation the job of tweening is handled by software – particularly in 3d animation, the animator starts by defining the key poses and then instructs the computer on how to interpolate between them, defining an instruction-set on how to generate the finished animation.
I am by no means a great animator, but I find something both deeply appealing and unnerving about the act of animating. The way each moment flows into the next is something that feels special and important to me. As humans, we can notice individual days and years, we can notice landmarks on the timescape that passes us steadily by on this one-way trip, but the actual flow of time escapes us. The keyframes are there, snapshotted in memory and keepsake, but the tweens just fall out of our minds like water through a sieve. For me there is a kind of importance, a near-sacred feeling, to continuity – the past is connected to the future and we are carried on that connection. Animation is an exciting activity because it lets me express this admiration – and also a terrifying one, because the burden of doing it justice can generate unique anxieties.
This idea only started to be articulated for me fairly recently, watching the series Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken, about a trio of girls starting an animation club at their school. I found the characters’ passion for the art extremely compelling – no, not just their passion, but their entire outlook on life that made animation the inevitable outlet of their energies. Though much of the series focuses on the endless series of choices and compromises needed to actually bring a project to fruition, the projects themselves are indelibly shaped by the characters’ personalities – whether the need to realistically create human motion, moment by painstaking moment, or the need to have the contrivances of the world make sense in relation to one another, I felt an echo of my own need to have each moment connect to the next, to have everything aligned, correct, structured, meaningful. It is a strange and powerful thing to see something in yourself you didn’t know was there within a work created by someone else. What was really striking, though, was the moment of realizing how much pressure I’d been putting on myself – each moment, flowing into the next, naturally, smoothly, eternally – and I’d somehow mentally appointed myself as the person who had to mind that, administer it, maintain it! I assumed somewhere along the line that we all felt some obligation to the past and the future, some stewardship over the structure of the world which would flow naturally and inevitably from the moments we created. Of course, this was nonsense when examined for even a moment – few people share this weird perspective on causality, much less the burdens derived from it – but I can see now that that assumption was there, nevertheless.
This emerges into my work, where I feel it must be logical and structured or it’s an insult to the logic and structure I observe in the world around me – where I must take care what I put into the world, lest it be a sin against nature, akin to littering. For a long time I’ve been afraid I might fuck something up, break something. When you catch even a tiny glimpse of the river of causality emerging from the simplest of actions, it can be paralyzing: As with the time traveler terrified of somehow erasing their own existence, what existences might we erase with a careless word or action? Yet we must persist, moment to moment, living up to the obligations of the past and future as best as we can, living in the tween frames, unmarked and unremembered.
At the time of last month’s development update, I’d just managed to finalize the layout of the inventory screen, but was struggling to get it fully implemented. After much strife I managed to figure out enough of Unity’s UI system to avoid having to figure out the rest of it – that is, while I still find it nearly impossible to intuit what most of the values of the RectTransform component used for UI work actually do, I’ve figured out how to translate the salient points from and to world coordinates so that I don’t actually need to spend much time struggling with those particulars and how to set up the existing UI objects so that I need to drive as little with code as possible. Throughout all this frustration, I finally got the inventory screen completely functional, just as I’d imagined it:
Afterwards, I figured that the most important outstanding task was probably the map screen, so I started in on that. This was also a good thing to tackle next since, with the challenges of the inventory screen fresh in my mind, I had a good grasp now of what I did and didn’t want to try to do in Unity’s UI system – and could largely avoid the bits of it I dreaded working with. I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself though: Before I could begin work on the map screen, I needed to figure out how a map screen would even work in this project, and there are a few notable considerations. First, the art style of the game is basically 5 colors: Black, white, gray, red, and yellow – though the specific tones of these change from screen to screen. Of these, the yellow and red tones are used sparingly: Yellow is used exclusively for fire and the light cast by it, while red is used almost exclusively for things dealing with health and damage. Under these circumstances, I had 3 colors to work with, which is not very many at all for displaying two map layers, along with information on save points and doorways, using 16×16 tiles. With a bit of experimentation, though, things started to fall into place. While it was certainly not possible to view the entirety of the map simultaneously, I could make the relationship between layers immediately visible by having the alternate layer visible in gray just behind and offset from the main layer, with doors staying in place to mark the connection between them even as the player changes the view between them.
However, I wasn’t satisfied with simply making it visible where the room was spatially, because in the end these rooms are all just rectangles – and, if you were trying to choose a particular one to warp to using the fast travel item, just seeing where it is on the map might not be very helpful, especially if you were uncertain which layer was which. Thus I also gave every room a name and description. This is one of the changes I’m happiest with: A way to, with very little additional effort on either my part or the player’s part, add huge amounts of story and context to the whole experience while also making it possible for them to instantly situate themselves in space when trying to navigate the world. With all of this in place, I couldn’t be happier with how the map screen shaped up.
The other tricky bit of getting the map screen fully functional was handling the parts of the map that shouldn’t be visible – that is, the areas that either the player hadn’t seen yet or where there was a secret they hadn’t found. The first of these was fairly straightforward: Just keep a running tally of every explored section and if the player hadn’t explored it yet then don’t render it. Figuring out exactly under what parameters a secret passage would be revealed or hidden was a little trickier – and in the end the way I handled this was anything but elegant, just a little object hidden in the world telling the room to treat the area as solid until it was explored or to hide the indicated exit until it was used. As the project progresses I may need to handle some other special exceptions like this, but the most common cases should all be covered now.
There are a few tweaks and improvements I can think to make to both screens: Both of them have occasional UI bugs where the text backgrounds don’t update properly and the text overruns its allotted space, and the map screen could possibly use some sort of system for placing and removing custom markers or an indicator for where the player’s current save point location is, but all of those tweaks are low-priority enough that I’m just noting them down and filing them away for later.
After finishing both screen interfaces, I felt like it was time to finally take care of a number of outstanding tasks I’d been putting off. First, there was the concept of using inventory items on the world: Everything was finally in place in terms of interface, but the world itself didn’t have any interactions set up. I went ahead and set up a bunch of default interactions for whenever you offer an item to a character that they have no interest in – a fun little writing exercise, creating two or three lines for each person not giving a shit about whatever garbage you’re trying to hand off to them. Additionally, I had to create a number of lines for the main character about not knowing what to do when prompted to use an item on a random object or in an empty space with nothing visible to interact with.
With all this done, I set my sights on getting another fundamental game system I’d kept putting off taken care of: The healing ability. I found, after reviewing my code, that I’d gotten everything about half-functional, but that I’d never actually created an animation for healing. Over the course of a day I put together a healing animation, made the necessary UI changes for the different ammo system that ability used, got all the programming fixes in, and added some sound effects for using the ability. The sounds could use some work (which has also lead me to the conclusion that the sound system itself could use some more work), but the core ability is in place.
Finally I got a system set up for reading texts in the game world. I had originally expected this to be an offshoot of the dialogue system, but I found that actually text should be displayed in a simpler and more straightforward way – rather than reading a text linearly, statement by statement, until it’s complete, it feels much more natural to see the whole thing laid out before you and read it however you choose. Because the UI layout was completely independent of the dialogue layouts, the current text display doesn’t use the dialogue systems at all.
I may, however, want to run it through the dialogue system to some degree later, since that also provides a number of localization and markup tools which may eventually turn out to be useful.
The last couple weeks in particular have resulted in some very rapid progress which I am surprised and delighted by. The boss design I set aside a month ago still needs to be completed, there’s a lot of dialogue to write, the title screen needs to be handled, a couple of scripted sequences need to be done – a lot of little odds and ends are still outstanding, but most of the major tasks which stood in my way are now complete. The end of the beginning is in sight.
Solving a problem is one of the most satisfying sensations in the world. Often this satisfaction is preceded by hours, days, months, or years of tedium and frustration as we struggle to understand the problem, collect the tools and skills to approach it, and endeavor to enact a solution. That’s just how life is, frustrating and complex – but hopefully someday rewarding. What if we wanted to try to make something a bit nicer, a bit more convenient? What if we wanted to maximize satisfaction, to make the reward a little easier to find, to create the most enjoyable problem possible? How would we go about that?
Three things tend to stand in the way of solving problems: Effort, Capability, and Comprehension. When a problem isn’t solved solely because of lack of effort, it’s simple but boring. A problem like this is usually called an errand or chore: Its parameters are clearly understood, there’s no doubt that we have the capabilities to solve it, but it demands a certain amount of effort. When a problem isn’t solved solely due to lack of capability – whether because of missing skill or missing funds or any other missing resource – it can seem insurmountable, but in fact has simply become a different problem, that of how to acquire the necessary capabilities. The real problems, though, the ones that fuck you up, the ones that infuriate and mislead and waste precious hours, are those for which we lack comprehension. When we don’t know what we don’t know, it can be almost impossible to find a way to even approach solving the problem, of knowing what capabilities and efforts will even be necessary to proceed – or if it’s even possible to find a solution.
The challenge of comprehension can be impossible to tackle for found problems – but we needn’t restrict ourselves to those if our main intention at the moment is to distill the satisfaction of problem-solving. The good news is that we’ve actually gotten pretty good at constructing satisfying problems: Constructing such problems is the essence of what we call “game design”. Games are generally designed in such a way as to maximize the player’s comprehension, to be as open and clear as possible and ensure the player largely or completely understand the challenges before them, while still requiring significant effort and capability to succeed.
Stating that games tend to minimize the player’s need to comprehend their problems may naturally lead to questions: What about puzzle and adventure games, founded on the uncertainty of how to proceed? What about the success of From Software’s oeuvre, which shy away from explaining much about anything? These games may seem incomprehensible to a new player, and are indeed quite mysterious relative to many other popular games, but are still very much designed to be comprehended. For instance, a point-and-click adventure has only the mouse, Dark Souls has only the controller – it is implicitly guaranteed that anything the game might ask you to do can be accomplished using only these simple and straightforward inputs provided. Often they end up quickly being reduced to something even simpler than that: For all the detail put into these games, it can become quickly apparent which details are meaningful and which are not, and a player whose spent some time with these games can quickly learn to dismiss extraneous information in pursuit of their end-goals. Thus, while these games can be challenges of comprehension, the bounds of these challenges are always sharply delineated and constrained. While it might be tricky to figure out where the key to the door is hidden or where the safe place to stand during the artillery strike might be, it is certain that there is a way past the door and a way past the artillery, and that those both exist somewhere within the communicated constructs of the game.
That’s what makes a video game interesting: Sharply constrained boundaries of problem-solving, with measured quantities of requisite skill and effort. But what about real-life? In general I’m not a fan of the trend of “Gamification,” of formulating necessary or beneficial tasks into Skinner boxes with scheduled rewards, but that isn’t to say that the skills of game design have no application to helping us approach large and complex problems. If the skill of game design is that of taking huge abstract problems – “I want the player to go on a quest where they fight a dragon” – and breaking that down into smaller more specific problems – “To fight a dragon they must first find the unmelting shield and the unyielding sword, then lure the dragon into an enclosed space where it can’t take flight” – then this applies to any situation where we need to break a huge abstract problem down into a set of small, discrete, and approachable tasks (with, of course, the vital caveat that while we may have the latitude to decide the dragon might be more interesting if it were a griffon in a game, that’s not a choice we get to make if we happen to be under dragon attack in reality).
I find myself applying this skill frequently now, applying it towards several nested structures of my life. Most obviously, I am literally designing a game, as well as writing various essays critiquing and analyzing game design, so I have to be constantly examining how to maximize clarity and comprehension and break down each discrete demand I’m making of the player or reader. At the same time, in the process of making the game I’m also trying to break down each individual task for myself, to separate the act of comprehending the task’s place in the greater structure from the act of understanding and executing it – and in so doing create a process of game development for myself that is itself playful and satisfying. One tier above, I am trying to understand each discrete task and component of my life itself in isolation, trying to break down where I feel challenged and lost, and eventually build these into strategies for dealing with those problems. In a sense, I am trying to design my life the same way I would design a game. This is a somewhat quixotic ambition, but at least gives me a method for creating order and direction where I was often overwhelmed with aimless confusion.
Something that I’ve noticed in the process of breaking these tasks down into bite-sized pieces is that this is doing approximately what a manager is supposed to do for workers in a more structured job setting: Find what needs to be done and assign it to a worker to tackle over a certain amount of time with an eye on what resources will be necessary to complete the task. Ideally this will take the burden of figuring out all the external concerns, the vast overwhelming unknown space surrounding the task, away from the worker, and give them a clear and unambiguous purpose to work towards – quite often, though, unfortunately, the manager simply shifts the burden of comprehension downstream, telling the worker what they must do without any clear explanation of what the real parameters of the task are.
Well, if we can describe bad management as a failure of task design – which is in many ways quite similar to a failure of game design – what about good management? What about management that completely removes the cognitive burden of understanding what comes before and after a task, where it’s going, what it means in the greater structure? This is certainly a much nicer situation to labor under, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to see a darker side: If we’re assigned straightforward tasks with no broader comprehension, even if it makes those tasks more enjoyable it also obscures the moral dimension of those tasks. Indeed, this is the situation most of us – arguably all of us – find ourselves in today: Simple tasks are handed down to us from above, we perform them, and the world is impacted by our labor and consumption in a way that is invisible to us and which we are asked not to think about.
The unfortunate truth is that any means of creating emotion or meaning, of making something fun or joyful, is an inherently manipulative pursuit. As enamored as we artists are with our little frivolities, they are at times like playing with loaded firearms: If you can make a task “fun”, you can make it invisible and odorless, performed quickly and snappily with a smile. If you can do that with any task, you can get people to paint as many white picket fences as you can find, regardless of what they fence out or fence in. It’s worthwhile sometimes to be suspicious of those who try to make everything fun and easy – even as it keeps getting harder to maintain those defenses when the world outside is so tedious and difficult.
I miss Silent Hill. The games are still around, of course, and perhaps I ought to replay them – but you can’t really go back, and any replay is going to be more recollection than discovery. What I want, of course, is something which is capable of evoking the same sensations, the uncertainty and discomfort and doubt, the painful ugly beauty, but which doesn’t feel like a relic of a bygone age – and that is, for various reasons, an awful lot to ask.
What is it, specifically, that I dream of? Each of the three games of the original Silent Hill trilogy, while being broadly similar to one another, offer something different. The first game came out for the original Playstation, and has aged quite harshly – though some argue that the abstract confusion of its ancient polygons create more effective horror by forcing the player’s imagination to do more work. Coming out in 1999, Silent Hill was strongly inspired by Twin Peaks, and shares some of the same themes, such as a small nostalgic American town concealing deep and disturbing darkness and alternate worlds with warped doppelgangers. While you do find out more about what is causing the strange twisted monsters and shattered edges of the world to manifest over the course of the game, no hard answers are offered: Nonsensical things happen, many surreal explanations emerge, but while some are more convincing than others none become completely dominant or definitive.
Perhaps Silent Hill was never well-suited to having sequels: It’s difficult, after all, to follow up a plot when that plot is so abstract and left so full of questions. Somehow, despite this, Silent Hill 2 was developed and is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the series. One might ask, how did it so successfully resolve the abstract conflicting ideas of the first game’s plot? The answer, of course, is that it didn’t try to whatsoever – no, rather than continuing the plot of the first game, Silent Hill 2 assumes that Silent Hill has seemingly become a warped spot in the universe, a place anyone can stumble into, a place for penitence and reflection and suffering. Where the monsters of Silent Hill 1 were eventually revealed to be the warped and agonized imaginings of the child Harry was trying to rescue, the monsters of Silent Hill 2 are the warped and agonized imaginings of the hapless guilt-ridden people who found their way into this hellish purgatory. Though the series is broadly considered “psychological horror,” Silent Hill 2 is the entry where the horror is most closely tied to the psychology of the particular characters, the world around James taking shape to echo his guilt back towards him in extremely specific ways. Though it’s still horrifying, the tenor of the horror is notably different: An overwhelming sensation of sorrow and loss, of decay, of regret, rather than of acute pain and immediate violent threat.
While Silent Hill 2 dodged the question of what exactly was going on with Silent Hill 1, Silent Hill 3 removed any and all ambiguity and described exactly what was happening and why. This was a regrettable choice in my opinion, but these narrative weaknesses were counterbalanced by incredibly strong visual design and set-pieces. The moment-to-moment violence and uncertainty of Silent Hill 1 came back, but augmented with the new rendering capabilities offered by the Playstation 2: Fleshy walls bulged out from their moldings, threads of fluid pulsed, creating an uncomfortably organic and hostile space through which the player had to guide Heather, the smallest and most vulnerable protagonist of the series.
A few very distinctive gameplay characteristics were constants across all three of the games:
First, the radio: Very early on, the player finds a radio playing static and picks it up. It quickly becomes evident that the static gets louder when living enemies are nearby and goes silent when they aren’t. I don’t think any explicit reason for the creatures creating radio static is ever brought up, but it has quite an interesting impact: Having this perfect information on when danger is nearby makes jump scares all but impossible, but makes the tension of imminent danger inescapable. The effect of this static is particularly interesting in a game where so much of the score is abstract industrial sounds stacking rhythmically against one another – the static and the music are similar enough in tone that each area’s music is extremely effectively tension-building. All the more because of…
Second, the darkness. Many games, particularly horror games, have some form of “darkness,” of visual obfuscation: Silent Hill has several. In the first world, the only somewhat terrifying one which still bears some resemblance to reality, the darkness is a pervasive fog that makes it impossible to see far ahead, and in the second it’s pitch blackness, a complete absence of light. Many people noticed at the time that this was effective both as a means of improving performance, by reducing the amount of geometry that had to be drawn at any moment, and as a means of building tension – and this limitation of information had a particularly interesting effect in contrast with the radio’s provision of free information. However, there’s a third form of “darkness” that is less frequently noted: That of the game’s set perspective points, locking the camera to certain locations situationally, usually resulting in downwards angles that prevent long sight-lines. Such camera angles were actually the norm in Silent Hill’s predecessors, Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, since these games relied on pre-rendered backgrounds – it is notable that even after obviating the need for these by making a wholly rendered (albeit crudely so) 3D world, Silent Hill still kept these angles for many situations.
Third, terrible controls. These were also standard for the genre at the time: Alone in the Dark established the norm which Resident Evil and Silent Hill followed, and in all cases it had much to do with the locked camera perspectives. Because the player didn’t have control of the camera, it was difficult to have controls relative to the camera’s angle, controls which would unexpectedly flop in different directions, so these games all embraced what are now called “tank controls”, where you could just turn left or right and move forward or back, driving the character like a tank. Now, I’m not going to make the contrarian argument that these controls were good, actually – only that they did serve a purpose. It was impossible to react quickly and fluently to threats, making those threats fundamentally more threatening through an enforced clumsiness.
One reason, perhaps, why there hasn’t been another Silent Hill in some time is at least two of these would be considered terrible game design in the context of most modern games. Almost no games are interested in obscuring visual information any more: “Darkness” is seldom truly dark in modern games, visual information is usually easy to parse out at any distance regardless of how dark a room is presented as being. This might be defended as an accessibility consideration, except dimly lit environments full of clutter are still quite present – thus we find the worst of both worlds, a dim and difficult to interpret space that nevertheless conceals nothing and leaves nothing to the imagination. Moreover, there’s simply no room for locked camera angles in 3d games any more – unless we want to countenance a return to tank controls it’s difficult to imagine a way around that one. Of course, finally, when nothing is truly obscured, what’s the point of a radio telling you danger is nearby? Rather than ratcheting the tension, most of the time it will simply lead you to turn around and see the danger.
Perhaps a greater obstacle than the tenets of “good game design”, though, are those of “good graphics”. While the latter two Silent Hill games looked remarkably good for the time, and still hold up reasonably well, the “trick” of creating more impressive and impactful environments on a limited processing budget by restricting draw distance has been obsoleted. Now processing power is nearly unlimited and we have whatever we need to draw as much garbage as we want on-screen. With this leeway, making a big budget horror game, trying to square the circle of concealing information while making everything look impressive, has approached impossibility. It’s as though, hearing the anecdote about how the animatronic shark used in Jaws looked so terrible that they tried to put it on-screen as little as possible, someone decided “well obviously we need to remake Jaws with a perfect 3D-rendered shark and put it on-screen as much as possible!”
Not only would many consider the Silent Hill games to have Bad Game Design and Bad Graphics, many might also describe them now as having Bad Writing. Most of the major plot points happen off-screen long before the games start, most of the information you find about what’s happening is fragmented and contradictory, character motivations seem muddy and confused and there are seldom any definitive answers. What’s left is something intrinsically unsatisfying to anyone who wants a defined plotline with an absence of “plot holes”; something dream-like, confusing, and open to interpretation.
One of the reasons I first fell in love with Dark Souls was because it reminded me so much of the Silent Hill games. Sure, the setting and mechanics are substantially different, but they have so much in common: Bad Game Design, Bad Graphics, and Bad Writing, some might say. Like Silent Hill Dark Souls has clumsy movement, truly stiflingly dark areas, and so much abstract and contradictory background information that it is in the end always a matter of interpretation what any of it means – so much so that people have launched careers off of these interpretations. The real similarities emerge, though, when one considers the specific style of horror that Dark Souls embraces: The quiet pathetic horror of those who have seen too much, who have given up, who slowly sink deeper into the decay of their rotting world. The poor lost souls wandering through Silent Hill are, in the end, very much like those who wander through Lordran.
As I work on building out my own game, I keep noticing bits and pieces of Silent Hill bubbling up in the world design, in the characters, in the way interactions work, in the darkness and the feedback mechanisms and style. Some games, once they get their hooks in you, don’t come out cleanly. I think Silent Hill is one place which, one way or another, I’ll just keep returning to, whether I want to or not.
I’ve been falling pretty far behind on these little nominally-weekly essays again. These delays probably started with Elden Ring, but the reasons why I haven’t gotten caught back up are a bit more nuanced and interesting – though some of them may actually loop back around to Elden Ring, since as yet I’ve yet to finish a piece about it, and not for lack of trying. I’ve still been putting in the hours and writing regularly, but most of the pieces I’ve started are simply not fit to publish yet. There are a few different versions of “not fit to publish” that I tend to experience, and my recent efforts have allowed me to review them all in detail. Some of these are:
Pieces which I start and get a few hundred words into before realizing I don’t know where to go next, how to develop the idea to a conclusion. I leave them around in the hopes that I might know what to do with them in a week or two. I don’t encounter this problem as often as I used to – I think I’ve gotten better at either figuring out where a piece is going or deciding it’s not going anywhere from its inception. Nevertheless, it still happens.
Pieces which I write almost all of before deciding that they’re vapid and pointless, that the thing I’m writing about is simply a construct of words with no bearing on anything real. This happens fairly rarely, but I’m always worried about it anyway. More often I realize that this is one of those–
Pieces where the point I find myself making isn’t the point I originally set out to make. I must therefore delete about half of what I wrote, rearrange everything, and create a new framework around this new understanding. This is always a process that is both frustrating and exhilarating: The outcome is always a huge improvement, but I always hate to completely toss away viable work, even when it’s misguided or not very good.
Pieces which are mostly done but are too raw and emotional, unrefined by deeper thought. Raw and emotional may sound like good things, but these are invariably improved by taking a week or two to step back, reread the piece a few times, and figure out which parts of the whole glisten because they’re gems and which parts glisten because they’re soggy.
Pieces that I start writing and are turning out well, but in that process I realize that they’re bigger pieces than I thought, thousands instead of hundreds of words, if I want to fully develop the idea that started unfolding. These have been by far the most common kind to show up over the past few weeks, which is why I find myself here, now, uncomfortably delayed and mildly ashamed.
Sometimes I think I worry about this sort of thing too much, that I’d be better off just getting something done and published, that I can worry later about potentially refining its ideas in future pieces. Indeed, I was only able to start and maintain this project by embracing that idea – by accepting that everything I put up will have imperfections and someday need to be discarded or refined, but hoping that some nebulous audience may find interesting or useful regardless. I have learned to accept imperfection, but I still struggle with accepting incompletion – so, inevitably, I have pieces that burgeon like waves out of control, and must accept that these will create delays.
A fortunate coincidence, then, that in a project that is an ongoing discussion of the process of art, understanding these delays is, itself, one part of that discussion.
One of the most valuable skills I’ve been developing, mostly without realizing I was developing it, is an understanding of what my limitations are and of accepting those limitations. This is not an understanding I readily relinquished myself to: My naive desire was to be unlimited, to be able to do anything anyone else did as well or better than they could do it. I won’t say that I don’t desire that any more; but it has now been tempered by an understanding that doing things is difficult and I have a limited amount of time and energy to put towards each work I decide to undertake. When the limited resources of time and energy enter the equation, it becomes apparent that one has to sometimes work with ones limitations rather than ceaselessly push against them in hope of eroding them.
It becomes easier to accept my weaknesses as I come to recognize that they tend to be rooted in the same place as my strengths. For instance: I have a tendency to get overwhelmed by problems that have a large number of factors – which sounds like something that would be true of anybody, but the key difference is which things come to be considered a problem like that. A few things that I find profoundly stressful because of this: Being in a crowded place; solo play in a battle royale game; drawing a full scene in perspective; creating animations for a game; creating code for a system with more than a few components; planning for my future in any way. Each of these raises questions that can only be satisfactorily answered by answering other questions, each of which can only be answered by other questions – and so on, expanding out, becoming exponentially complex, until I get frantic trying to hold onto the threads, maintain a complete picture. Most of this processing is at a sub-verbal level – I can’t even explain all of the things I’m trying to figure out and why all of a sudden I’m incredibly tense and irritable. After all, if I could put it into words that would mean it was something simple enough to be held by words: Such a problem probably wouldn’t be enough to frustrate me in the first place. However, as acutely stressful as these situations can be, the tendency they feed off of, my tendency to try to see how each question connects to other questions and creates an overall structure of mutually affecting factors, is also one of my greatest creative and technical strengths.
Even understanding this, it can be a tough cookie to chew. Some of these tasks still simply need to be done – and, in many cases, once I can navigate past the stressful and indecisive beginnings, they can be enjoyable tasks I feel quite competent at. Attempting to push against my limitations, to get this work done even against my natural resistance, results in days where I end up tired and frustrated while getting very little actual quantifiable work done – not because the things I’m actually doing are necessarily very difficult, but because approaching the state of understanding and wherewithal to actually do those things is long and arduous. It’s hard not to feel like I’m lazy or incompetent when I struggle with these things – but it’s possible to understand what’s going wrong and to plan for it, and that capability will only be available to me if I admit that I have these limitations.
The core of this strategy, for me, usually boils down to writing things down – which is most likely one reason I’ve kept this little writing corner going for so long. Describing one part of a problem, noting it down, making it so it won’t fly away if I get distracted, lets me stop thinking about it for a while so I can move on to the next one; then, describing the second one, nailing it down, describing the connection between problems A and B, lets me see them side-by-side, trace the threads, see if the structure makes sense. This is something that can be very difficult to do all in one’s head, particularly as problems C, D, and E make their entrance and each need to be connected. Writing it all down is the only way to navigate it, a trail of thread through the labyrinth – if it’s not pinned down it will tangle, and all that’s left in my mind will be a messy ball of string.
The challenge, all too often, rests in understanding that if I don’t put in this work when it seems unnecessary, if I don’t start charting out the connections when I understand them well, then it will only be once I’m already stretched thin, when I’m struggling to hold my perspective together, that I realize I need them. At the very worst, I will have spent a little time noting down my thoughts, which will allow me to understand later what I was thinking and why I thought it.
March is over, marking the one-year mark since I started working on this project – a project which was originally meant to last one month. I’m not sure how to feel! Obviously I didn’t expect this game to take this long, and obviously I wanted to be further along by the time I got here – but I also feel like the way things are shaping up far exceed the scope and quality I’d originally envisioned. I’m grimly amused, going back and reading the DevBlogs from a year ago, how optimistic I was about completing a vertical slice in a month or two. Partially this optimism stemmed from a much more modest vision of what the game was going to be – and, therefore, what a representative vertical slice would look like – and partially it stemmed from a desire to set aggressive deadlines to keep my pace up. Either way, it feels like a relic of a bygone era now.
How does the current game-in-progress compare to the version of the game I imagined being a 3-month project, or a 6-month project, or a year-long project, so long ago? To start with, the world feels far more fleshed out than I’d originally envisioned: The unnamed city, which formerly existed primarily to be a prelude to the tower that would provide the bulk of the game, gave way to become Bound City. NPCs, originally intended to be cryptic strangers in hidey-holes, became fleshed-out characters with names, portraits, and history. On the gameplay side, the few weapons and armors with minor statistical differences have become a varied arsenal, movement abilities have been refined and expanded, and sub-weapon upgrades have become a varied form of equipment themselves with complex tradeoffs rather than simple passive benefits. The quality and range of music has expanded, enemies have developed more sophisticated behaviors, and pathways through the map have opened up, become complex and twisted, with blocked exits and hidden items.
I find all of this very exciting, but it has to be admitted that it’s set me back in my goal of, you know, actually getting something done. As I shift towards a place in my life where I need to actually think about income, and therefore also think about things like portfolios and salable works, it’s clear that, while my creative habits have developed for some good reasons, none of those reasons have been angled towards making money or establishing myself, and that’s probably going to become a problem. This is, of course, not the first time I’ve had this realization – but, since this is in effect a problem for future me, I keep on eventually distracting myself from it and getting back into a position of comfortable complacence. Being able to do this is what has let me keep pushing back the vertical slice, making it a bit more horizontal every time, making the project more ambitious in subtle ways that make it that much harder to fully realize. Looking back, I can clearly see myself making progress even relative to these shifting boundaries – but is it enough?
These are answers I’ll need to figure over the next month or two, as I try to angle the project towards this eternally shifting first milestone. In the meanwhile, though, I have the work in front of me of finishing these early sections as I conceive of them now – putting in the work to control how those conceptions shift over time is going to be a longer-term project. When I left off last month I was just settling down to create the first big boss fight of the game – coming in, now, to supplant what I had previously believed to be the first big boss fight of the game, which is now the second. This, unfortunately, is still somewhere between a one-third and half done: I was hoping that, after the process of developing the first boss, in which I got super stressed out and struggled a lot, the second would come more easily. Unfortunately as I worked on it I found myself, again, getting super stressed out, struggling a lot. Eventually, somewhere along the way, Elden Ring came out, and between its allure and the dread of working on this challenging aspect of the game I effectively gave up on getting anything done for a week or two. I think I’ve at least completed the most blank-canvas-frustrating parts of the challenge, but optimism is still premature.
I could tell I wasn’t getting anywhere particularly quickly hammering against this creative blockade, so I moved on to some other things I needed to work on which seemed more appealing. First and foremost, there was a major character who I needed to create a portrait and music for, Florence:
I’m still figuring out the exact extent of her role in the story, but at this point I’m quite certain that she’s going to be more important than most of the other NPCs. For this track, I wanted to capture something both sweet and dark; I think this character is probably a very kind and empathetic person who comes from a pretty unpleasant background and has seen a lot of suffering. The composition process for this one was very intuitive, and is one of those tracks where I’m not really sure what I was doing in terms of music theory, but I like how it turned out, each measure drawing out a lot of tension while still being overall quite melodic. I was running into trouble with the intro being so minimalistic it was hard to tell it was even a piece of music, but adding any sort of percussion felt inappropriate – instead, I attempted to use the noise channel to create something approximating the sound of a spinning record, creating a sort of old-fashioned sensibility that I thought also suited the character. To reinforce the sense of an old, warped record, I also experimented with pitch-bending all the instruments concurrently – this effect isn’t exactly realistic, but I think the intent is conveyed and that it’s compelling.
I moved on from that to some other relatively light and playful work, trying to keep my momentum going. An idea that I’ve been thinking about for a while is using CRT-style post-processing effects. These are somewhat common nowadays as an optional filter to add a little extra retro charm to modern throwback games, but what I started wondering is – what could one do with an effect like this wired into the design of the game itself? That is, rather than just being a special effect to create a more retro feel, what if I use these post-processing settings to subtly feed information to the player? I spent a couple of days downloading and experimenting with a couple of these effects packages, eventually settling on the [Retro Look Pro] asset, and a bit longer wiring them into my existing feedback systems. With all this in place, near-death situations start creating glitchy distortions on the screen, as though losing signal, which seems a poignant metaphor for pending death. Additionally, moving near an active save point pulls away the view and warps the screen, both emphasizing the ability to save for gameplay purposes and the distance from reality implied by such a save for narrative purposes.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, one of the biggest remaining obstacles is overhauling the inventory system, which I’ve made significant inroads into over the last few days. This process involved a lot of trial and error, creating new layouts, comparing them, imagining different ways of expanding and scrolling through icons, making sure that the grid lined up so it was clear what an input would do and that no elements were overlapping one another. Yesterday, I was pretty sure I’d figured out the final layout I wanted – today, I figured out another layout which I like better, and now it’s the one I want. Hopefully this process doesn’t repeat, because these changes are making it really difficult to actually code the inventory interface.
I also added little instructions to the top of the screen to inform the player which buttons do what. These ought to change based on the particulars of how each input is bound, but because I don’t have the input binding system set up or a controller plugged into my dev computer I’m not completely sure if it’s there yet. Part of this process was in figuring out what a set of button prompts in black and white 16×16 pixel art with no reference to specific controllers would look like: I enjoyed this little puzzle, and I’m quite happy with the icons I came up with.
You may have noticed that the inventory also has an “inspect” button, which is not something I’d mentioned in any previous DevBlogs. Each item in the game has two descriptions: The first is the functional text, describing exactly what the item is and how to use it (one reason I had to add these dynamic input binding icons), and the second describes the appearance of the item and something of its nature. There wasn’t room to show both of these in the inventory screen, so I thought at first I might simply have them both pop up when you initially found the item.
However, I thought players might want to read the flavor text later – particularly if I had any clues to the story or something in there – so I also made the exact same information popup available in the inventory screen any time the player chooses.
Okay! What’s left to do? I still need to finish this boss and to finish this inventory system – they’re both kind of unknown factors, but I’ve at least established some solid handholds. Once those are done, I’ll have to tackle the map screen and the title screen/intro, neither of which will be trivial. More importantly, perhaps, I need to figure out exactly where I’m trying to get to with this chunk of game and make a concerted effort to get there – drifting about, tackling things as they pop up, slowly congealing a bunch of ideas into a game, this is all exciting and rewarding, but after a certain point it’s important to get an understanding of what “finished” will look like and how to get there. Granted, this is a pretty slender version of finished – maybe 20% of the game as I have it planned in my mind – but it’s the 20% that will define the remaining 80%, which at least lets me hope that I don’t have another 4 years to go before I can hope to ever call anything truly finished.
I don’t deal well with scheduling. Any time I try to schedule myself, to block out what I’m going to be doing and when, days or weeks ahead of time, I get frustrated. I can’t help but rattle against the bars of the little time-prison I’ve made for myself, and each task getting squashed and cut apart to fit into neatly spaced blocks fills me with a deep sense of anxiety, each moment filled with dread of the next moment and the self-imposed obligations it must bring. I try to plan without scheduling now, to keep myself accountable to some task-list that I can tackle in whatever arbitrary order I care to, but this creates other problems, everything sliding around haphazardly, evicting space reserved for sleep and meals or sliding off of the list completely, falling between the cracks to be forgotten.
I know this particular problem is one many people aren’t lucky enough to have. Being able to construct a life in a blank schedule, largely unalloyed by obligations, is a tremendous privilege, and one I jealously and instinctively guard. A blank schedule is, in logistical terms, an incredibly powerful thing – but in emotional and logical terms it is every bit as unwieldy and intimidating as a blank canvas, demanding blindly, eagerly, and relentlessly to be defined. Jobs, appointments, errands, interpersonal obligations, these all create a framework which obstructs and consumes time, but also gives it structure, landmarks: Without them, it’s all too easy to drift aimlessly in an undifferentiated temporal sea.
Most of us create our lives, inasmuch as we’re able to, on canvases stained with everything that has transpired around us. When we seek to clear everything off our schedule, to start from blank canvas, to open ourselves up to be who we are as much as possible, a unique challenge is created. Maybe some of you out there could, given a huge empty block of time, figure out exactly how to put it to use in a way which feels satisfying and fulfilling to you. Me, either I spend my time doing a bunch of random little tasks – which I end up resenting afterwards for their consumption of time that seemingly could be used for more important and interesting things – or the big tasks I actually want to do end up blobbing up haphazardly like oily paint in water and running all over the place, leaking over into spaces meant for each other, mixing carelessly, staining the walls and tile. The choice is between being busy, harried, and having no time – or of living in a void where time has little meaning.
One of the things I’m hoping to do, and something which has been thoroughly derailed by the pandemic, is expanding my life beyond the scope of one room. Right now, almost every hour is spent in the same four walls, each wall packed close to the other, where I eat and sleep, work and play. Time is undifferentiated because space is undifferentiated, a unifying space for all activities, no hard boundaries separating them. There is an important ritual to the restaurant, the theater, the school, and so forth: Though the function of these spaces could be performed anywhere, could be done in any undifferentiated space, these spaces are designated as separate, designated as dedicated to a particular function or pastime.
This specificity causes a magical transformation. Food becomes A Meal, acting becomes A Show, reading becomes Studying– and each is elevated and isolated by the understanding that this is the place for what is happening right now, a promise that you needn’t worry about anything outside of the moment because this at least is correct: What is happening now is entirely what is supposed to be happening, the final realization of the architect’s ambition. Your schedule is dictated by your presence, and for a few moments in time at least you know exactly where you are.
As a rule, I usually avoid writing about “fun.” I don’t feel “Fun” is a very useful term for analyzing game design – it’s poorly defined, it’s subjective, it’s regarded as a self-evidently good thing to have. In short, “fun” isn’t very fun – to write about, anyway. That said, I think there is a kind of fun that merits discussion: The kind that has been intentionally removed from a game. This might be a confusing statement! “Surely,” you may say, “developers try to add as much fun as possible, for whatever value of ‘fun’ they may personally hold – or, if they don’t, it must be for some grand artistic purpose, some emotional experience that supersedes mere fun.” This is not the case: It may never have been the case, but it is particularly not so now. Game developers remove fun all the time, in the same way that one might remove caffeine to make decaf coffee – then use it later as an additive.
This didn’t happen all at once. First, let’s talk about the Metroidvania genre. Primarily defined by Metroid in 1987, in these games you explore a large open map which hides various upgrades, each of which allow you to explore more of the map. The main thing distinguishing Metroidvanias from any other exploration adventure is that most upgrades have both everyday utilitarian use and exploration use. A good example is the freeze ray in Metroid: This weapon freezes enemies in place, which makes them easier to dispatch, makes certain enemies uniquely vulnerable, and allows one to reach higher areas by using frozen enemies as platforms. Because of this structure, the gameplay you start with in this genre is usually just a shadow of the gameplay you eventually get: At its best, this can feel like a gradual unfolding, a world that keeps expanding the more you explore it. At it’s worst, it can feel like forcing yourself to push through a bad game in the hopes of finding a better one at the other end of it.
Around the same time as Metroidvanias were being formalized and popularized by Metroid, JRPGs were getting being formalized and popularized by Dragon Quest (1986) and Final Fantasy (1987). In these, the player gets more powerful over time gradually as a side-effect of winning battles. This effectively also grants access to more of the map, simply by making the player able to win the progressively more difficult battles that populate those sections of map. Just as in Metroid, they have more tactical options at their disposal over time – and, just as in Metroid, this can leave the early parts of the game feeling quite bland relative to the later parts. In the best case, this leads to the novelty of a new world and adventure slowly giving way to investment in story and strategy – but, as well, sometimes this simply leads to players who find it not worthwhile putting in the early rote repetitive work of progressing through repeated trivial victories.
Games are, in terms of the abilities offered to the player, usually designed from the top down. The designer has some core idea of what the player will be able to do, and adds all of these capabilities to the game first to ensure that they work and feel good together. However, if your game design relies on the player character getting more powerful over time – or even if you simply want to avoid overwhelming the player with options right away – these abilities will probably be mostly stripped away at the start of the game and drip-fed back to the player across its duration. The version of the game that was fully designed and tested is gated behind tens of hours of potentially sub-optimal gameplay, the version the player encounters designed to be intentionally worse-feeling, clumsier, more off-putting: Bad on purpose. How much gets left behind, how punishing the impact on overall enjoyment is, varies a lot based on the specifics of how these abilities get stripped away – however, the alternative can be even worse, when the player finds an “upgrade” only to find it makes the game clunkier and less enjoyable.
Modern games, particularly AAA games, tend to treat established game mechanics from different genres as a kind of buffet to select from. You’ve got your crafting systems, your experience systems, your movement upgrades, your different weapons, each of these often included just as much to be an exclamation mark on a box (or store page) as for actual gameplay reasons. Often, because of this approach, you see a weird fusion of the RPG experience system approach and the Metroidvania upgrading approach: As the player plays, they accumulate experience points (or some other similar upgrade currency) which, rather than giving the player stat upgrades to tackle otherwise too difficult encounters, instead unlock one of the abilities the game was designed with. At first this might seem like a similar system to those it draws from, but its impact is insidiously different: Because the worlds are seldom designed with multiple modes of exploration in mind, the outcome is wholly subtractive, with none of the joy of being able to explore new parts of the world by unlocking them through choice and insight, merely a grind to reach a threshold where another narrow slice of the real game is released to the player.
This has also, unfortunately, become endemic to the “Roguelite” genre. With Rogue Legacy, the design trend started shifting towards each run contributing to a set of meta unlocks that make the player more powerful, allowing them to access new areas and work towards completing the game – very similar to the JRPG system, but in a genre that purports to be about systemic discovery, challenge, and consequence. Discovery, understanding, exploration, and systemic richness are stripped away… to make a game where you grind to unlock stuff and to more efficiently explore more or less the same areas you have already explored.
While I think this often creates shallow and unpleasant games, many of these ideas have ensconced themselves in the hallowed halls of “best practices.” You see, while the games may not be as enjoyable, they are more addictive: As humans, we tend to crave the sensation of accumulation, of improvement, because this translates fairly directly to sensations of safety and mastery. These feedback mechanisms short-circuit the logical part of the brain, make us feel like we are fundamentally doing something right and good, incontrovertibly beneficial. If this is your game’s main value proposition, though, it’s essentially just a job for the player that they don’t get paid for – investing untold hours in the promise that one day it will all be worth it. I dislike this trend: If you are making a work of art, it should be a worthwhile experience from its first to its last moments, and crafting this worthwhile experience should always be the focus. To dilute that experience, pad it out for hours, pump it full of empty calories, seems cruel and wasteful to me. Surely, the medium can offer better than a treadmill to walk indefinitely, hour after hour, until our legs give out.
There is much to be said in favor of creative systems-oriented thinking. Many problems can be solved by breaking them down into sets of mutually influential factors, many occurrences can be understood by tracing the thread of causality from one point to the next, many insights can be gained by inferring systemic behavior based on motive and impulse. For every one of these benefits, though, there is a worrying shadow as well: Just because something can be interpreted into a systemic model doesn’t mean that that model is correct.
This is something I think about a lot every time I see some luminary in the space of technology or game development start buying into debunked conspiracy theories or weird paranoia. The games and technology space is one that tends to attract a lot of Libertarian sorts who reflexively and categorically distrust any government authority in the first place – often while being absurdly credulous to non-government authority. Even aside from these cultural factors, though, I fear it has something to do with the work itself: In any profession that involves creating an internally consistent model of thought, the people who have trained that ability and try to apply it outwards are made uniquely vulnerable to delusion. Just because a model of thought is internally consistent doesn’t mean it actually means anything – but, if you’re used to working from unshifting artificially-constructed axioms, baked into hardware, and are not prepared to question your antecedents when they’re flawed, you can quickly find yourself taking some pretty absurd rhetorical positions. For any given problem, one can imagine an infinite number of plausible causalities: That doesn’t make any of them true.
At the same time, I understand why this happens. A dispassionate mention of many well-documented historical events will often be decried as though it were recitation of conspiracy theory; any discussion of whether corporate sponsors might distort reported facts to benefit themselves is called conspiracy theory; any suggestion that state actors well known for destabilizing other countries may be destabilizing other countries is called conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, it’s suggested that Cuba may have a directed energy weapon which they use exclusively to slightly inconvenience government employees. Living in the context of this sort of high-grade idiocy makes reliable axioms suitable for building logic off of hard to come by – so it’s no surprise when many of us become unmoored and drift away, accountable to no truths except those we have constructed for ourselves.
I don’t know if this is uniquely a problem with the most successful luminaries at the intersection of tech and art or if it’s simply that much more visible in those cases – I’m still not sure whether being successful makes many people incapable of scrutinizing their ideas or it’s simply a more interesting story when someone noteworthy says something ridiculous and horrible; probably some of each. The influence of success on a human mind, reinforcing every choice with so much positive affirmation, must surely wither and atrophy ones ability to question ones own assumptions. Fortunately, I needn’t worry about being sabotaged by my own success for the time being.
Nevertheless, I worry about losing my grounding sometimes. There is simply too much to know to be able to construct an air-tight theory of history and the world around us – at least, I suppose, without making it one’s full-time job, and there probably aren’t many people capable of doing that either in terms of skills or of free time. I try as best as I can to understand, and accept that sometimes I’m going to get it wrong – and always I try to reject the most obvious and comfortable answers, because those are usually superficial and self-serving. Go where the pain is to find the truth – perhaps not a reliable method, but a necessary one to counterbalance the force of the tides going the other way.