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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Toy boat, toy boat, toy boat

There is a satisfaction in getting something done– whether or not it is a thing which is useful. Action is fulfilling. It often feels wrong to stay in one place, it feels like the world is moving too fast for you to stop for even a second, even if the place where you are right now is really the best place for you to be.

There is a sense of security in being static– whether or not it is actually safe to be where you are. Routine is reassuring. The aspect of motion, of action, begins to loom scarier and more imposing as we make inaction our routine.

We get stuck by inertia, and tend to keep going at a constant rate, disregarding whether that speed is too fast for us, grinding away our soft bits on the rough surfaces of life, or too slow for us, letting mold grow in our joints and guts, poisoning us with inactivity.

The way we consume entertainment gets folded into this inertia. It’s easy to try to avoid anything which might threaten to knock us out of gear, to avoid anything challenging enough to force us to slow down, and anything startling enough to force us to speed up, to be attracted to the known because it is known, to seek surprise only constrained within the boundary of acceptable surprise. Sitcoms. Zynga. Trashy novels. MMOs. Youtube. Et cetera.

It’s never sustainable though. We each go at different speeds relative to one another, and it’s inevitable that at some point we will collide and each take on properties of the others’ movement. Preparing for this inevitable trauma is another reason why we consume entertainment. Drama, tragedy, romance, all those little agonies that thrill us so, we train ourselves for the moments when our world will break our hearts or fill us with joy.

Sometimes this training supersedes the activity it trains us for. Sometimes we spend so much time bathing in simulated sorrow and thrills and pain and happiness that we forget to engage with the bases upon which those were created.

Is that a problem, though?

Isn’t it like the Matrix? Does it matter if the steak is real if it still tastes good? Does it matter if our rich emotional life is premised on an attachment to fiction if it still feels fulfilling?

Does it still feel fulfilling? If not, why not?

And… why is it so important to us, as artists, to fulfill this role in people’s lives?

I don’t know. To some degree, the answers to these questions aren’t really important to me. To some degree, I’m happy to simply be in the place of wanting to make things, wanting to make people feel things. It is an imposition of will and ego, it is a manipulation, it is a gift, it is an intimacy.

Stay the course, maybe. When it is time to change direction, you’ll know: You’ll feel the iceberg rip into your side, the signal you should have changed course long ago, and then you can sink deep, and take hundreds of screaming terrified passengers with you when you go.

And in the end, isn’t that what really matters?

EveHeader

This will probably be a short one since I’m strapped for time at the moment. I’m running off of laptop batteries while my other laptop dumps all of my vital files (read: porn) onto an external hdd before it dies. Anyway.

I’ve been pondering the title issue, and after running this idea past friends and family I’m uh like 80% settled on it. The new title of the project is (probably): Epilogue. This gives a nice sense of the themes of the game, while maintaining a nice concise one-word impact, and has a hint of mystery which I think could get people intrigued. Also, after looking around on Wikipedia, as far as I can tell this is basically unused as a title, except for a few random music albums and a television documentary on books (none of which I think will mind if I use this title for my game).

So, that being more or less settled, I can look to getting a daily DevBlog set up for… Epilogue. I’m going to be looking to have it up and running by the start of February, and will of course link to it from here. I may actually continue on with weekly updates here even, but they’ll more likely be just a digest of the daily updates I do on the dedicated DevBlog.

Now, I’m going to be doing daily updates all through February, since I actually have a place to live then. After that… who knows? Hopefully I’ll figure something out. Should be interesting, anyway.

Otherwise, I’ve just been spending my time writing notes for each section of the game, planning out the basic flow of the first of the three major game areas. I have it all generally planned out now, from the Outer Grounds to The Ruins to The Garden. A lot of the ideas I’ve had are really cool but also incredibly demanding, and will make the project undeniably more difficult, but, I dunno… I guess if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing right.

Then again, if I ever think of a way to achieve the same effect with less work, I’ll obviously be all over that.

DAN

The capability that games offer for self-expression is exciting, but can also be onerous. In much the same way as we are made uncomfortable by articles telling us what the way we move or dress or speak says about us, finding out, abruptly, that we are communicating when we had no intention of doing so can be a surprising burden.

We are told a number of things about our capacity for self-expression through play which are not, at times, entirely consistent.  That is, games offer us a choice, or something which they say is a choice, but often refrain from supporting that choice through game mechanics.

This isn’t inherently a problem. It’s entirely possible to support player choice while still maintaining the possibility for the player to make bad choices. Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to do otherwise, and even if it were possible it will still be, in most cases, not even particularly desirable. The foundation of most gameplay in the first place is making choices, having them turn out well or poorly, and then understanding why those choices were good or bad.

A death wish is a viable choice, insofar as it is a choice, but should not be equally viable to others if survival is the end-goal.

Balance (1990)

It says something about my childhood that this is the kind of animation I get nostalgic over

Balance is something designers often discuss, but that term contains some implicit assumptions which are rarely brought to light. ‘Game Balance’ supposedly refers to setting up the game in such a way that no choice is more viable than another– except that obviously makes no sense, because if that was the case there would be no game– or at least not a very interesting one, just a variant on rock-paper-scissors.

In order for mistakes to be possible, balance cannot be absolute.

Which raises the question: Which choices should be balanced to be generally viable, and which are do-or-die mistakes?

Is the dividing line between the scale of the choices? The big choices should all be supported, and the small ones can either be valid or invalid on the basis of case and context? Sometimes. A good example of this would be in fighting games, where all of the characters are ideally balanced against each other so choosing one over another is never a mistake, but making individual decisions within the battle can be. This seems, anyway, to be what most fighting game players desire. However, in strategy games big decisions are frequently mistakes, such as choosing to invest all of one’s resources into culture while a barbarian horde bears down on your capital city.

Is it how self-expressive that particular option is? Being able to choose your character, your history, your skills, your basic personality, these are all incredibly important to us. It’s quite frustrating to be playing an RPG, find a skill you like, and find out later that it turns out to be completely useless in the late game. Then again, what about trying to play a pacifist, or a monk who fights unarmed? Surely these are expressions of character, and just as surely, in most games which don’t explicitly support these styles, these would be incredibly difficult and suboptimal ways to play. But the players who embrace these styles don’t mind… do they?

DAN (again)

Is it how long choices take to come to fruition? Being punished for a choice which you made long before you knew what effects it would have is surely frustrating. In the strategy example from before, what if there were no invading army, but investing in culture was still, due to the mechanics of the game, a consistently suboptimal choice in the long run? No one would enjoy that… Would they?

It mostly all comes down to communication– but, then again, what doesn’t? If we know we’re making a suboptimal choice, then we don’t resent the game when that choice doesn’t work well for us. Balance discussions rarely happen around something which is explicitly considered to be a joke weapon or character. However, if everything the game tells us leads us to believe that this choice is supposed to be equally viable to its alternatives, then we feel betrayed and angry when that isn’t the case.

N-STRIKE!!!

For instance, this gun communicates foam darts into your face

Of course, that only addresses part of the problem. The thing is, even if you make those choices which are suboptimal explicitly suboptimal, that will raise some questions, or rather one question which contains many: Why? A good example of this would be, in a few games, choosing the sex of one’s character. It’s an unpopular design choice nowadays, for obvious reasons, but in some older games choosing a female character always results in lower strength (and, sometimes, to ‘balance’ this out, higher intelligence or dexterity or whatever). You could trot out whatever statistics you like about the average characteristics of the human body, but the fact is most games deal with decidedly un-average human beings, and often beings which are not human at all, so most arguments on that basis are suspect.

Now, character sex is a particularly touchy example, but the fact is that any time you want to make a choice explicitly inferior in some way, or even just explicitly different in any way, you’re going to have to justify it somehow. This gets a bit tricky for a lot of games, since they regularly and intentionally divorce themselves from reality by having ballerinas out-wrestle 300 pound trucker-assassins, it makes it extremely difficult to make a convincing justification for any particular choice being suboptimal.

River

Hey let’s have this waifish girl mow down a shitload of space zombies! No one would ever see that coming!

It’s up to you to decide which choices within your game are vectors of self-expression, which choices are vital pathways that must be balanced if the game is to be fulfilling– and, conversely, which choices it’s possible to just fuck up.

Not all choices are equal: If they are, they’re not choices.

midoors

So this raises the question: Why games?

Frankly, it didn’t have to be games for me. It could have very easily been literature or film or visual art. These are all forms which I find interesting, each of which I love in my own way. So why, then, do I keep coming back to games? Why is it that when I come up with an idea for a world or character or situation or plot to explore I always think of it as a game idea, at least at first?

The thing which games do that the other forms don’t, the thing which I find exciting in ways I can barely express, is the feel of existing in a space and being able to explore it. Every time I ride the bus down the street and I see all of the houses lined up, and I see the weight of their three dimensional existence and I imagine what it would be like to climb over them and in them, see what it’s like inside each house and under each house and within the cracks of each house. But I don’t, because that would be dangerous, and exhausting, and creepy.

Maybe it would be easier to just be a burglar.

But isn’t it a bit odd that we interface with the world in such a superficial way so much of the time? We see each building as just an exterior, and we can extrapolate certain ideas about the internal structure by what we see of that exterior and what we see through the windows, but we can’t really know what’s going on inside. Isn’t it interesting how precisely the way we interact with each other’s houses mirrors the way we interact with each other?

Of course, it’s not just houses. Rocks, rivers, mountains, caves, each a space explorable, occupy-able, geographical genitalia waiting to be fucked. And compared to that extravagance, that scale and variety contained in this relatively puny planet, our games’ worlds are specks. Honestly, most game worlds are, compared to the complexity of any room in any house, the bits of sentiment attached to the objects, the way those objects are stored on and in and around each other, completely surpassed and superseded.

But: We made that game space, in a sense which even exceeds the way we make our homes, our buildings. The buildings are more, really, just a rearrangement of matter to form a kind of housing. The fake buildings we create in games, though, are a purer expression of artifice, an idea crafted from other ideas and recorded into a machine.

Whenever I dream I wake up nostalgic for something that never happened. I sometimes feel like I got kicked out of my real home back in slumber and just moved here to reality because rent’s cheaper.

With games, though, at least I can see back through a window, see what furniture the strange folk who moved in have put in my dream house, which I used to live in, which I can no longer afford.

EveHeaderSince I’ve decided that February is going to be a work retreat of sorts for me, I’ve been trying to get all of my ducks in a row so that I have a clear idea of what work to do once I get there. I’ve been spending my time collecting my thoughts, writing them down, figuring out what idea goes in what part of the game.

It’s kind of frustrating because, at the same time as this is genuinely difficult, it also doesn’t feel much like real work.

It makes me curious what the daily work-flow is like for people who actually have the ‘game designer’ title. I know that as a programmer I had my share of downtime, but it mostly came in chunks of an hour or two while I read articles and mulled over how to approach problems in the back of my head. It’s hard for me to imagine being in the position of coming up with project outlines of this sort professionally, because so much of the actual work seems like it’s being done entirely in my head.

On the other hand, at the same time as it’s somewhat frustrating it’s also very encouraging. It’s easy to get lost in the scope of a project, to get intimidated by the scale of the ideas you’re trying to invoke, drown under the multitude of things you’re trying to fit in. However, when forced to actually write down what needs to happen for the project to exist, when you actually list out all of the programming and art and music and whatnot that you need to do to complete a project, it’s incredibly reassuring to see that, as numerous as these things may be, they are still finite.

So, after a week of pondering and several hours with a legal pad, I have the intro sequence and the first area outlined. The maps themselves aren’t made yet, but I have a very strong idea of what they’ll look like, what will be in them, and what it will feel like to play through them– strong enough that getting started this February and getting most or all of this first area done is actually somewhat feasible. I’m not sure if that’s my target goal here, but it could be is what I’m saying.

Which actually raises the question: What is my target goal? I suppose that’s what next week’s DevBlog will be about, since that should be right about the time I’m getting settled in and preparing to get to work on, uh, more concrete aspects of the project.

EveLogo2

Our world has gotten stuck
Our gates have rusted shut
And the people are waiting
And the people are stymied
They need our help
But I cannot reach them
That place is too small for me
That place is too real for me
And our covenant forbids my intervention
You must go
You must find them
They have been apart too long to remember what it is to be together
Bring them together
Bring them to me
Though they will not believe they want to go
They do want to go
So make them realize
So make them return
We will be together once more
We will be whole again
Forever
EveLogo1

qq

Games are a strange and delicate string of analogies. A button with an X on it is a jump, a button with a Y on it is a punch to a stranger’s face, and within the context of the game these actions have weight and affect the game world. This sense of equivalency is built up between input and action, but it never stops feeling slightly strange and uncomfortable in some obscure way.

Games have started leveraging this tension in ways which I find surprising.

In Cart Life, in order to do tasks, process orders, and proceed in the game the player types in short phrases. For instance, in order to serve a cup of coffee the player might need to type “be careful, it’s hot” before the order will complete.

It’s a kind of forced role-playing. It’s a kind of brainwashing, really.

In The Walking Dead, I’m shoveling dirt over a corpse. Each time, I need to click on the pile of dirt, and empty it over the still body, and I have a moment to reflect before we have to do it again.

This is not a choice. This is what I must do if we are to proceed.

Games are, as a medium, so defined by choice and by interactivity that granting the player input but no agency holds a strong message of its own. Maybe we don’t always have a choice.

For a long time, quick time events, or QTEs, were just a way to show a pre-scripted cinematic while still maintaining a modicum of engagement with the player. Historically, they’ve been a lazy solution, a method of both eating and having the full-motion-video cake. Intense Hollywood action sequences, but you can press the buttons and be a part of the action, like a kid at an arcade playing a machine with no quarters in it.

INSERT CREDIT

There are no shitty tools, though, just shitty carpenters. Designers are beginning to get a sense of what can be done with QTEs, and also a sense of what should be done with them. There are two things which have been tedious and frustrating about QTEs: First, they rob the player of choice, and second, there’s no meaningful connection between the inputs and the actions they represent.

One of these issues might be fine. Together they’re pretty terrible.

But we’re beginning to break these down. Instead of investing all of our money and energy into making a pretty cutscene and then overlaying some tangentially related inputs on top, we make cheaper cutscenes with more potential inputs and make them matter beyond simple failure/success states.

The point I’m driving at here, though, is that input matters. It’s more than just a control mechanism– though really, every control mechanism is more than just a control mechanism. The same way that the words we say begin to shape who we are, the input we give to our games shapes our emotional state. When we have to type phrases, when we have to shovel piles of dirt, we are made to be accomplices.

This input-awareness is happening in parallel with another trend, where games are becoming more and more self-aware in terms of commentating on their own mechanics and stories. Hotline Miami and Spec-Ops: The Line make the player think about what they’re being asked to do very consciously, and then to wonder what those actions mean about them. Little Inferno challenges us to think about how much of our lives we spend subsuming ourselves in our tiny subdivisions of tiny divisions of the world we live in.

I don’t know if there’s a connection between these trends. I want to say there is, but I have nothing besides intuition to base that off of. I guess maybe the connection is that they’re two ways of handling tensions which are omnipresent in the space of video games, one being the tension between input and action and the other the tension between story and mechanics.

We’re trying to define the boundaries of our medium now. We are feeling our way around the edges of what is possible, of what our decisions and our actions, both as designers and as players, really mean.

It’s a good time to be playing games if you’re interested in making them. There’s a whole lot out there to learn.

In Super Hexagon, the moment you cannot decide between two choices, the moment you hesitate, is nearly always immediately followed by the moment you die. This correlation is made abundantly clear by the paucity of choice within the game: You have two options– I suppose three, if you include staying motionless. In most circumstances, the correct choice is obvious, but it’s often very difficult indeed to realize which choice that is before time passes you by and–

Life isn’t much like that. Life doesn’t move so fast, and we often have more time to make our decisions than we know what to do with. Sometimes the excess of time makes the weight of the decision all the greater. Usually, really. Life also doesn’t give us just two or three choices. Life gives us a near-infinite number of possible approaches at any given moment.

It would take a depressingly naive mind to believe that this makes things any easier.

It’s painful sometimes how much video games addict us to making the right choice, to discovering the correct path to victory out of a small set of choices. How terribly misleading. It’s a cruel thing that we do to ourselves. We are doomed to agoraphobia in a field of decisions.

The Walking Dead got one thing right for sure: There are no correct decisions in that game, just… decisions.

So we do what we can to collapse this world of limitless possibility into something we might be able to comprehend. I wonder how much of my and others’ tendency to self-sabotage come from a desire for such simplicity, for a world where our reduced means have compressed our available choices down to a manageable level.

What I need is a new story about who I am… What I need to do is fuck up so bad I can’t save myself.

Right now I’ve got a lot of decisions to make and they exist in an endless spectrum of possibility. Fortunately, there are other methods than self-destruction to reduce the field of choice. Love, loyalty, greed, hatred, dedication, fame: We sacrifice our lives at these altars and pray to them for guidance, define our personalities by them and live by their code and their decree.

Hey, director, tell me: What is my motivation?

I just want to make things. I just want to put things out into the world that people will see and hear and read and play and maybe change their lives very, very slightly. I want to find a way to dedicate myself to this, completely, forever. I want to find a way to achieve this without existing in perpetual loneliness or poverty.

Selfish? Perhaps. I am okay with that. I will fight for what I need to survive and to live the life I want to live. Of course, saying that means nothing. Everyone says they’ll fight for something. The tricky part is finding out where the battle is happening before it’s all over.

Yeah, there’s still a whole lot left to decide, so much, so much. But at least I can define my victory conditions before I start playing the game.

Not easy, maybe, but at least comprehensible.