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Monthly Archives: November 2012

Going to be honest here: I am having a difficult week. The idea of trying to write code right now is absurd. There are things i can do right now but they probably aren’t that. Either I’ll recover soon or I’ll move on to another part of the project while I wait for that part of my brain to start working again. This is not a disaster but will require some evaluation.

This is actually a good opportunity to see where we’re at with this whole project though. I wanted to go over this last week, since the 10th DevBlog update makes such a good milestone, but I was physically exhausted at the time rather than just, as now, simply weighed down by accumulated and customary brain crust.

So a break down of where i estimate we are on each front:

Programming: 45%

Art: 1%

Music: 15%

Level Design: 0%

Ugh, not as good as I’d hoped. Granted, I’m taking classes and all that jazz now, but i’m really going to have to pick this shit up if I’m going to finish this by 2013. Anyway, obviously and as expected, most of the gains are in the programming elements. Most of the tools necessary to complete the game are pretty far along, in the range of 80-90% complete, and I’ve begun digging into rendering optimization.

Also notable is that I actually rolled the music completion back from 25% to 15%. After listening to what I have so far some more, I’ve decided that individually several of the pieces could use some improvement, and generally speaking I want to achieve a more unified sound for the project. Basically, I’m going to start from the point of the couple of tracks I’m sure I’m keeping in a form more or less like what they sound like now, build an instrument list and a few composing principles around them, expand these components for each area to make each part of the game distinct, and then either compose new pieces or rewrite suitable older ones into the new paradigms. Kind of a lot of work, but hopefully it will pay dividends when it comes to creating a compelling experience.

So: What’s next?

Well, again, it depends on whether I can get my brain back in such a place that programming is feasible. If so, there’s still plenty to be done on that front including harnessing AIR’s 3d rendering pipeline and creating a detail editor as well as putting the finishing touches on the map and level editors. There’s enough code down at this point that I could also start either concepting the levels out or work on the art assets. I’m not really set up for music yet, though, so that one’s out until I get enough space to get that worked out.

Taking those circumstances into account, here’s the plan(s):

Plan A: Get my programming brains back in order, get detail editor started and learn the 3d pipeline on the side since it’s low priority

Plan B: Put coding on the backburner and create art assets, starting with a concept design of Lucifer and test idle and run animations for Eve

Plan C: Create a mockup screen of the first area to establish art design

Whichever one I choose, I’ll try to have that done by next DevBlog update. DevBlog 20 is fast approaching, and I want to have something good to show for the next milestone check. After all, once I get to 52 I’m going to start getting pretty damn antsy if Eve isn’t getting close to completion…

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I distrust certainty. I don’t trust people who are certain what they want, because it seems to me that they haven’t asked enough questions, and how can you trust people who simply accept what they’re told or, worse, maybe, always go with their instincts?

You can’t.

What I’m trying to achieve, now, is moving closer to something, and I’m not quite sure what it is. If I could be sure what it was then it might stop being worthwhile to pursue. I feel that I have exhausted the easy and readily available options that most people take for fulfillment and all that’s left for me is whatever is in the mystery box.

What’s in the booooooox!?

I could have pursued money, tried for the high score like everyone else. I could have pursued contentment, not to be confused with happiness, happiness a mirage that evaporates as soon as we acclimate. I could have pursued fame, and I suppose that to some extent I am doing so, insofar as it is important to me here that I be heard and that I produce something with the eventual purpose of giving it to an audience. Perhaps it is just a matter of degree, but I don’t think so. There is a difference between wanting to be listened to and wanting to be worth listening to.

I can’t. I just can’t. Not when there’s something bigger lodged somewhere in my chest. I gotta get this out there, whatever it is, even if it’s in little pieces.

I think that there’s something creepy about people who know what they want though— that is, in the general sense. It’s fine to say that right now you want a cheeseburger, but it seems strange to me to declare that level of certainty about how you want the rest of your life to play out.

What sheer arrogance, to be certain about anything!

How can you believe you’ll want the same thing tomorrow that you want today? I know that my wants are mercurial by the standards of most, but even if your deepest desires don’t diverge daily as mine do you will still change over time.

You will change over time. When I meet someone who I haven’t seen a while it’s strange, because bits of who they are have rotted away and regenerated like skin cells in my absence. Big life events hasten this process but it is ongoing. Constantly. Sometimes I stand in the bedroom of a person who I know well and I remember the person who they used to be and who I knew well, back then, before they changed.

It’s like being in the room of a dead person. I can talk to them, obviously, they’re still alive, but the person they were before is gone forever. The personalities we have die on a daily basis, a tiny trickle of unacknowledged tragedy that weighs us down without us even realizing.

Games aren’t this. Games are static. Most games, anyway. Some online games, they get patched once a week, and the world slowly changes until it’s become unrecognizable.

You can’t go back to Durotar again.

Ugh they bought out the blacksmithing trainer to put in a Quizno’s

Most games, though, are turkey carcasses we pick for meat, and pick for the same meat over and over again if we feel so inclined, rebooting the carcasses so we can repast upon them once more. Maybe this is one reason why we value our favorite books and games and etcetera: These artifacts are friends which are guaranteed to not change over time, and in this they can be the only reliable measure of how we ourselves are changed.

Trying to measure changes in ourselves against each other is making marks in the sand during a hurricane.

If so, then what does it mean to create one of these metrics? Am I trying to encode bits of my heart into a time capsule for myself to find later? Am I trying to communicate with the outside world in the only way my misanthropic and antisocial brain can handle? Or am I just trying to let off steam?

This is what I’m reaching toward, and as I feel the edges of it in my dark sleepy room it begins to take shape. I don’t think I’ll ever know what it is entirely I’ve taken hold of, my touch can perceive its shape and texture and size and density but I’ll never know its color or what it contains. Never entirely.

If I could give it a name that described it fully, what fool would I be to go to such artistic effort to express it?

If you know where you’re going, there’s nothing left to explore. And, if there’s nothing left to explore, what’s the point any more anyway?

A common problem in games, and one which is rarely solved well, is how to get a player who has left the game for a month or more caught back up on whatever’s going on at any given moment. I would say it’s a problem inexcusable in this sort of long-form media, that it would be incumbent on our medium to solve this problem immediately, except for the fact that every other sort of long form media seems to have the same damn problem. Television shows will sometimes recap an episode or two at the beginning of a new part, but it’s rarely enough to catch anyone who’s been gone any substantial amount of time back up.

So it’s the holiday season now, things are getting pleasantly crisp and cold and I’m jetting/driving up and down the coast visiting family. It’s very strange, sometimes, visiting a place you used to live, because it feels like the life you left there is still going somehow, a ghost life, and that you begin to fall back into it. We struggle to achieve escape velocity but when we return home the gravity of our previous lives is difficult to shake. I’ve never really lived in the house I’m in now, though I flirted with it briefly in a prolonged and impoverished stay some time ago, but, nevertheless, just being here I feel the pull of old habits long dead.

It is not always pleasant. Nostalgia is a sad kind of happy.

And as soon as I acclimate at all I’m back home, and I need to remember the person who I have declared myself to be and to slip back into that skin once more. How do I remember where to resume? I am in danger of losing the plot.

Yeah okay I probably could have figured that much out on my own though

I can’t tell whether it’s something universal, or incidental to my nature, or somewhere in between, but I find it very easy to slip out of my skin. Sometimes when I see others I see myself through them and I forget who is who. It is a bit jarring, a form of acute and externalized self-awareness it is easy to get lost in. I wonder if this, too, is a symptom of my history of gaming, my history of perceiving myself as being outside myself in order to participate in a narrative. Do we end up perceiving ourselves externally by habit?

It’s probably just me.

Most of the gamers I meet don’t seem very self-aware.

The point is, I guess, that it’s easy for me to get stuck in one place and let that place define me even as I shape that place to myself. The point is, I guess, that we build lives and personae in tandem and it’s easy to forget which goes with which or to get forced into one by proximity to the other. The point is, I guess, that no one has solved the problem of forgetfulness, of being away from somewhere for long enough that you have a hard time pretending you know what that place is any more or what’s going on there.

Even when the world stands still, our minds march on and lose sight of the past by distance.

Okay there’s a lot to go over here. First, the screenshot:

Right here I’m experimenting with adding some simple but processor-intensive screen post-processing effects and I’ve finally gone ahead and added support for a static background image to be used for each level. The blur-trail effect looks really heavy-handed in this example, but that’s actually a side-effect of the low frame rate it incurs. I’m looking into using 3d acceleration to drastically improve draw times, which should make the resulting effect a lot more subtle.

It turns out that adding a blur filter to a 1920×1080 image is a tad processor intensive. Who knew?

I’ve been studying using 3d in Flash/AIR and I’m honestly surprised at how bare-bones the implementation seems to be. I had expected something more like the display list but bumped up a dimension, at least as initial entry point, with lower-level ways of handling things for when efficiency is a priority (ala direct BitmapData and ByteArray access). It turns out that just in order to get the thing rendering in the first place you need to get some basic vertex and fragment shaders up and running, which isn’t something I’ve done before. Learning experience!

So that’s where I’m at now progress-wise.

Mentally, though, it’s hard to keep my head in this game right now. Travel has curious properties. It’s extremely useful as a catalyst for breaking one out of staid and stagnant thought patterns, but it can break good habits as easily as bad. On the rare and short-lived occasions when I start to take fitness seriously, it’s usually visiting someone out-of-town that breaks whatever routines I’ve fostered.

Basically, what I’m saying is that this season is kind of a dangerous one when it comes to projects like this, both game and blog, and I’m going to need to be cautious that I don’t let myself slack.

Which leads nicely into my next point: Things have been a bit strange on the blog for the past couple weeks. First, I wrote a couple of big 3000-word pieces that took a ton of time and effort to complete and left me pretty exhausted, then the following Monday-Tuesday I completely spaced on a scheduled Life in the Machine update until it was too late to write.

Missing an update like that is a big problem in a couple of ways. First, simple precedent makes it me much more likely to miss future updates. Second, particularly with bi-weekly articles like that, it confuses my schedule: Do I reschedule it for next week? Or do it the next day? Or just do the next one when it comes up?

So I’m going to be doing a new schedule for a while. In fact, this one is probably going to look pretty familiar since it’s basically the one I fell back on last time things got stressful: Doing two short (300-800) word essays a week, uploaded Saturday and Tuesday mornings at 10am.

So yeah. I’d go into more detail here but I’m pretty tired out by jet travel at this point, so hopefully I can follow up some of these thoughts on Saturday’s update. Thanks for reading!

Video games are, at their most fundamental level, a collection of numbers. Anyone who’s done any programming has seen this in action, of course, and had a direct hand in what those numbers are and what they represent. There are numbers to store data values and there are numbers to tell those other numbers to do things and somehow it all comes together to make a simulation of reality, which is a real “holy shit we’re in the future” moment for someone who has any kind of perspective.

So: We use these huge sets of numbers to build elaborate fictional worlds, as painter uses pigments or a writer characters. At some point, by putting enough of them together and feeding them into a system that causes them to interact with each other, we create meaning.

It’s difficult to really comprehend this process in its totality. I have the same problem thinking about visual art: One pencil stroke, then another, and another, and forms begin to emerge. It cleaves closer and closer to its eventual shape. But it will never BE the thing it represents.

Nevertheless, no one questions the ability of a simulated bowl of cereal to make us actually hungry

(This is, incidentally, one of several reasons why I have serious problems with lawmakers making possession or creation of any given kind of art a criminal act, since the boundaries of where something becomes a representation are by their nature so blurry.)

It’s worthwhile, I think, to question the nature of this representation and how far it extends. How has the history of representationality in games progressed? Many of the earliest games relied on graphics which were highly or totally abstract and used text, either in-game or external, to explain to the player what they were meant to represent.

An extremely interesting and more recent example is Rod Humble’s The Marriage. The Marriage uses completely abstract graphics (almost), squares and circles of different colors, alongside gameplay mechanics as a medium of expression. It’s a game that gets mentioned a lot by game designers because it’s an example of how one can express something of emotional significance purely through mechanics.

But is it? The fact is, on closer observation it doesn’t express itself purely through mechanics.

If “The Marriage” had been titled “The Bar Fight” player interpretations would have been very different indeed.

Yeah, you better run!

You see, the title provides the context that makes the mechanics meaningful. Without that title, many players might still have imagined a marriage as a metaphor for the gameplay elements, but many others would likely have referred to some other life experience. The ratio of the latter would almost certainly go up if one then chose to recolor the squares so that they used less stereotypically masculine and feminine colors. Don’t get me wrong here, The Marriage is an excellent example of the evocative power of game mechanics, but it isn’t nearly as pure an example as many like to present it to be. Context is established via extra-gameplay means, but that context is minimal very much in the style of older games when more representational graphics were less feasible.

So there’s two things I’d like to say about this.

First, I think it really says a lot about the potential of abstraction, when it comes to emotional evocation, that The Marriage is able to express facets of a relationship that would be otherwise difficult to put into words. Abstraction has the advantages of allowing interactions and relationships which would be difficult to represent with a pure representational approach to graphics, while also forcing the player to interface with the game at a more intimate level of consciousness in order to parse those graphics.

What caption do you think would be appropriate here?

Second, I don’t think that expressing meaning through gameplay, or at least emotional meaning, is really feasible in a realm of complete abstraction. The meanings of gameplay elements are interpreted by the player on the basis of the context embracing them. Pointing and clicking on things to make them disappear could potentially be wrapped in a number of contextual meanings, but in most games it’s shooting dudes.

The point is, it’s a long and difficult to distinguish trail between abstraction and representation, and neither far end of the scale is necessarily feasible nor desirable. At the end of pure abstraction, we live in a land where cause follows effect but there’s no understanding of what effects are good or bad or why to do or not do a given thing. At the end of pure representation, you’re, uh, basically sitting in your chair reading a blog post. A blog post about how you’re sitting in a chair reading a blog post, and so forth. Pure representation is covered pretty well by reality.

Now, while it’s all well and good to have preferences, it’s naive to believe that a more literal simulation is somehow inherently more meaningful than an abstract one– or to believe the reverse. Nevertheless, we see people arguing for both of those sides in game design discourse. It’s kind of a strange thing to debate in the first place: should a work of art not be judged on the results it achieves rather than the methodology it uses to achieve those results?

Which is why I am now unveiling my newest invention, the peripheral that will finally allow us to invent video games which make the audience cry… the Pube Yanker 3000!

To clarify the above, I don’t intend to demean the value of non-conventional approaches, merely to state that the value of non-conventional approaches is in their ability to achieve non-conventional results, to drive non-conventional evocations and ideas. While intentionally avoiding convention is often the first step to creating something really special, there is no inherent value to non-conventionality.

The question is, the question remains, the question has always been: What are you trying to achieve with your game, and what degree of contextual literalism or abstraction achieves that most effectively?

It hardly bears mentioning at this point that things are crazy, chaotic, and depressing, so let’s just bypass that phase of the update and move on to the good stuff this week shall we?

I’ve got the interface for the special map nodes roughed in which should make it totally feasible to get those up and operational next week, which is swell. However, what is much sweller is that after a few good hours of work I got a basic version of the Detail class I’m going to be using up and running. BEHOLD!

So if nothing else I now have the option of, if the rest of the game doesn’t pan out, busting out a quick platformer wherein geometric shapes jump around in a confetti/disco ball factory made out of cardboard boxes. GOTY 2013.

Gotta say, it’s nice to finally have something that makes a half-decent screenshot, even if it’s total programmer art.

Anyway, plans for next week involve coming up with an interface for placing these detail elements and implementing the special nodes for the map editor, though who knows how much other responsibilities will interfere this time.

So, let’s see. There’s something I thought might be interesting to discuss here. Let me start off by quoting a line I wrote in my Critical Analysis of Hotline Miami:

…in order to make a unified game, one must either implement non-violent gameplay, and create a narrative context suitable to that gameplay, or address the violence somehow.

Which then raises the question, how do I handle violence in Eve?

This is actually pretty interesting I think, all the more because I didn’t consciously solve this problem but more or less stumbled into a solution, perhaps subliminally. Eve uses a lot of tried and true action-platformer tropes (my biggest influence here is probably Castlevania: Symphony of the Night). Over the course of the game you’re going to be cutting up a lot of enemies, which sure sounds pretty violent. However, due to the surreal setting of the game and the symbolic role of the main character, this violence is recontextualized.

The most appropriate symbol I can think of for the character Eve is the Death tarot card. She scours the afterlife for souls and cuts them free, because without her that world has gone stagnant and worse-than-dead, stuck in an eternal stasis. Many struggle against her, but this is because they don’t recognize her: In the end, all are glad to accompany her. So, like the death card, she represents not so much an ending as a transition.

It’s an approach which I haven’t really seen used before, as best as I can recall. Just another reason why I find this project so exciting to work on!

Doing reviews and analyses of specific games is kind of out of form for Problem Machine, but I seem to be doing it a lot nowadays regardless. The thing is, I’ve been playing these games and they’re just too damn exciting, they set my brain on fire with new ideas for things to talk about it and the most logical way to talk about all of these disparate ideas is to talk about the games themselves. So: Why fight it? I believe that Hotline Miami is an Important game, and I think it will become highly influential over the next decade of game design.

The first segment here is going to be spoiler-free, discussing Hotline Miami’s general design approach, before moving on to the specific details of the plot and how it interacts with the gameplay to create a truly unique and integrated experience. I really would like anyone who has any interest in experiencing games to play through the game before reading the second segment of the essay: A game is the experience of playing the game, and if you undermine that experience by knowing more going into it than you should then you risk tainting that experience.

It’s kind of a Heisenberg sort of thing.

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