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Monthly Archives: March 2013

matrix

“If this is so, then what else is so?”

My brother introduced me to this particular precept of improv acting a few weeks ago. The basic idea is, something comes up about a character or a situation or circumstance: Following that thread, what else can be inferred about that character or situation? A simple example of this would be, say, if one player at one point says “I’m not allowed at the aquarium any more. Not after what happened last time,” another player could then call back to that by saying “Okay let’s go get lunch. Seaf–nnnngMexican?”

My favorite example of this in action is a bit from an episode of The Simpsons:

The part that elevates this bit above pure slapstick is the moment when, just as our brains are beginning to construct the kind of circumstances that could lead to this odd situation, they pull back and show us this hilariously, sadistically improbable arrangement.

There’s a lot of joy to be found in these unexpected inferences. After all, these intuitive leaps, these unexpected connections, is much of what humor is about– an insight which I owe to Mr John Cleese of Monty Python, and one which has transformed my understanding of humor.

Actors play these games, but anyone who wants to construct any kind of narrative has to play it as well– we just have more time to play it in, so we don’t need to infer out as much. We construct our bridges at one end and build them out to the other, rather than establishing a point in the middle and building out from it.

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There’s, uh, probably actually some pretty good reasons to do it that way…

Except, well, we don’t usually. Usually we start with a seed, a phrase, a moment, a trait, and we build out from that to make our stories. I do, anyway. Starting out of the middle of nowhere  and then building out to it– it’s not good engineering, but it takes us places we didn’t expect to go.

Similarly, literary analysis is a game that writers play: They pretend each thing represents some thing or things unrelated, then try to deduce what relationship these would have if they were, in fact, different things. It sounds silly because it is, both silly and is frivolous, as it is with most games. And, as with most games, it can teach you things which would be impossible to learn almost any other way.

We pull at one symbolic thread of the story, and start to pull it apart to see how it’s made– and, to me, the most interesting parts of a story where it can’t pull apart, where something needs to be many things at once to make sense within the story. These little knots are why fiction and metaphor are important instead of just indulgent. These sloppy conflations of ideas are where inspiration comes from.

And someone keeps on knitting, and knitting, and...

And someone keeps on knitting, and knitting, and…

We play these games to train ourselves to be more creative. Seeing these connections and following them is the largest part of crafting a narrative. Both the physical and causal connections, as in an improv game, and the symbolic and emotional connections, as in literary analysis. And, from these, we can craft a story.

Playing games, trying to do well at them, demands care and attention to detail. The stringency of these demands varies from game to game– some games are easy to space out and play on autopilot, some require constant vigilance or the whole thing will fly off the rails– but because understanding of the game is a prerequisite for playing it, we are required to engage with them in a way that is more fundamentally analytical than the way in which we engage with other forms of media.

In other words: You can’t play the game if you don’t know the rules.

And yet, most people engage with games so shallowly!

This is something I frankly don’t understand. We have a form of entertainment where our enjoyment is premised on our understanding of the interactions it offers, and yet so many people are content to blunder through using just the most obvious mechanics. More so than any other medium, games should provide an intrinsic drive towards a deep understanding of how they work– and yet…

There is a natural path that leads through game-playing into game analysis, just as there’s a path that leads through improv games and literary analysis to story and character creation, and yet very few people seem to walk that path.

Why?

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This was a pretty good week. I managed to eventually struggle my way through the first part of chapter 3, The Descent, a task which proved to be far more difficult and greater in scope than I had imagined it to be. I really like the ideas I came up with for it, though, at least conceptually. I must admit that I am a bit worried about actually doing the programming and art to implement the imagery I’ve concocted for it, but that’s a problem for another day.

I’ll figure it out.

I also got some more animation done. I got some turning frames implemented that transition fairly naturally, though not perfectly smoothly, both from a run and from a stop. It’s a bit tricky because I’m having to balance making it look good against making it work from different places in the animation cycle. This is one of those problems that’s unique to interactive projects, since other animation knows its timing ahead of time.

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Yes, the title was a dumb pun. Anyway, if anyone knows of a good article or text on how to approach this subject in the realm of 2d animation, please let me know.

As I progress, I still have the second half or so of chapter 3 to plan out, which is going to be my main task for this weekend. Writing the stories for the game is done, which is awesome but also sad because they were really fun to write. That said, I’m probably going to have to do a fair bit of reworking for them, and I will be writing a bunch of other incidental lines a bit further down the line when the levels are a bit more fleshed out. I’m also going to be continuing this animation work, and developing crouching and standing animations. In the realm of less fun work, both to do and to talk about, I need to get all of these notes transcribed and then add everything done since the middle of chapter 2 to the big task list.

Thanks for reading!

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The night was lonely, for her children had died long ago, drowned in the endless poisonous haze of war, and had left her all alone. What few of her friends still survived had become so familiar to her that there was no companionship, they were just lonely together. Whenever the sun would leave, she enveloped the world in her wings and watched as the people beneath her waged their endless wars, had their love affairs and their hate affairs, and wrote their stories into the sand.

So many of them were lonely, too.

She had been following the sun for an eternity, and the things she saw made her sick with anger and sorrow. Why would one create children just to be orphans? Why would you comfort them with warmth just to take it away again?

The night began to adopt these orphans, bringing one after another with her to become her faerie children. They played with each other all throughout the night, every night, and lit up the sky– but they could never stay in one place for long before the sun came and chased them away.

She wished she had the strength to fight off the sun, the power to make this world her home, or the power to create a new and better world–

New worlds do not come easily, and even with all those she rescued she was not nearly strong enough to fight the sun. She sent her new children out to find more, to find siblings, but there were simply not enough orphans. Even in this lonely place, people still connected themselves to each other, somehow, a chain of buoys in a heaving ocean.

What was she to do?

She did not tell them to do it. Her faerie-children, they began to kidnap newborns and raise them as brothers and sisters. She did not tell them to do it, but she didn’t stop them either. The new parents were distraught with grief, orphaned by their own children, and soon were taken in as well to play in the night.

The night orphanage began to consume the world. She hoped to create of herself a sunless paradise of night without end, without sleep, where all creatures cast their own light and their own warmth and all were as family to one another.

Was it her fault that those who remained, who saw their fellow inmates disappear without a trace, came to fear the hungry night? Was it her fault that they lit the great bonfire and created, of themselves, a sun? She did not foresee such foolishness, but was caught up in it, along with everyone else, and with them banished to the afterlands.

Her children– many did not make the trip. These were trapped in the interstice between the heartlands and the afterlands, where they grew feral and vicious. Thus it was that Pandemonium, the night orphanage, established herself at the outer borders of the afterlands, to protect her children and to protect from them, to rehabilitate them, that they might once more someday join her in the quest for a second paradise.

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QWOP

I often end up choosing which games to play on the basis of which I am best at– familiarity begets skill begets more familiarity. It’s very fulfilling to do something you’re good at, even if it’s pointless. This kind of reassurance is never the only reason I play something, but I do think that it tends to nail me down to one or two games and genres more so than if I didn’t have that skill investment.

Which is why it feels really shitty when I don’t do well. The more practiced I am in a particular game, the more my past performance has lead me to believe I’m pretty good at it, the more pissed off I get when I perform poorly. This is true of pretty much everything I’ve come to believe myself competent at, of course, but it feels sillier for games since they’re ostensibly a recreational activity. Then again, I’ve never bought completely into that binary divide between recreation and work. They’re both a matter of serving needs, the question is just what needs need serving. We often end up working very hard indeed for our fun, don’t we?

One way or another.

Game rage is nothing new, but I’m surprised by how few people seem to share my particular brand. You see, I don’t get angry when I lose, I get angry when I fuck up. I’m actually often surprised when I find people getting angry at a game– don’t you guys know a learning opportunity when you see it? Anger at the game for performing as expected, or at the enemy players for being competent, seems rather misguided to me.

I suppose this is partially the product of playing team games where I know I can’t be the ultimate determinant of victory on my own– I’m resigned to the fact that even if I do my part, even if I’m the best player in the game, we may still lose. This can be frustrating if it happens over and over, but not enraging. However, when I notice myself doing things which I know are stupid, when I notice myself missing easy shots, when I notice myself playing much worse than I know I can…

It doesn’t help that I tend to play worse when I feel down, which makes me feel worse, which makes me play worse, and so forth. I’ve mostly learned to recognize these cycles when they start and try to either do something else or, at very least, take a few deep breaths…

We all want to be good at something, right? Games are often very good at faking this sensation, giving the player a sense of mastery, one which is entirely unearned, by way of experience systems, loot, rubber-banding, cutscene powers… These faked progressions tend to become less and less potent at fulfilling our needs for mastery as we become more experienced with games, as we learn to see under the curtain, as we grow as people.

Well, usually anyway.

Eventually, we’re lead to more and more unforgiving games, and at the end of this road we find out what most people learned earlier and easier: You can only get good at something if you can be bad at it– and, usually, the better it’s possible to be, the worse you suck when you start out.

You can’t pour water into a slab of ceramic. It has to be shaped like a cup.

 

Or a bowl or something, I guess.

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It is difficult for games to create truly memorable characters. Because the characters who populate our worlds can behave in many different ways, based on the design of the game and the role they play within it, it’s an awkward challenge to establish that character as strongly as if their actions were set in stone, or in text, or in pigment, for eternity– immortal.

I suppose this might not be true of all games, but bear with me here.

Part of this issue is because, as I’ve noted elsewhere, we rarely actually pursue the expressive power of artificial intelligence. This is becoming a bit less the case as time goes on and as games like Dwarf Fortress begin to emerge and really play with our ideas of how deep a simulation can go, but for the overwhelming majority of game AIs are usually simple problem solving engines rather than expressive entities. That said, even if we really get into the simulation aspect, even if we establish a set of desires and of fears, a tendency towards anger or depression, a social calendar, a sleep cycle, a hunger index, however we establish the basic parameters of the personality and behavior, there’s still a pretty big gap between that and a character.

It’s the little habits that make a character come alive. The nervous tics, the customary facial expressions, the characteristic gait– these are not easy to generate systematically, and as far as I know no one has really tried. The thing is, making these quirks feel real and not affected in fictional characters is difficult even for seasoned writers, and even more so for the actors who portray the characters– I do not expect this to be a problem that machines can solve any time soon.

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Though it really depends on the scope of the context the character has to be convincing in, doesn’t it?

And yet, we can surmise a contact point between these two aspects, the system of wants and needs and fears and tendencies that could be used to determine larger behavior alongside the array of habits and quirks that color a person’s behavior and make them identifiably themselves. Could we use the latter to skin the former, and by so doing create a cast of ‘actors’ which could behave in a wide range of scenarios?

An interesting if fairly primitive test case might be found in the Left 4 Dead games. The behavior of the characters is controlled by either a player or an AI, and can be fairly arbitrary. However, on top of this is laid a bunch of pre-recorded voice lines which establish the characters, their general behavior and outlook on life, and how they regard each other. These play based on the action that’s going on at the moment– and, while it’s certainly easy to break the illusion and make the characters behave ridiculously, within the confines of normal gameplay the lines the characters say usually fit in fairly well, and the overall experience is made far more memorable than if it was a party of mute badasses.

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So, if we were then to take this a step further and use these motion captured 3d models and pre-recorded voice lines to skin an AI with overarching desires, fears, etcetera, I think we might be surprised at the kinds of compelling stories which emerge– even if they don’t quite match up, perhaps especially when they don’t quite match up. If a character is established as a bold devil-may-care risk taker through her voice lines, would it not be an interesting bit of tension if she actually tended towards cowardice in a fight? Or perhaps she’d be fine in a fight, but fire freaks her out and she always runs from it? In a more traditional narrative it would be imperative to justify this behavior somehow, but if the game doesn’t have any allowance for that kind of in-depth exploration of character then it’s likely that players will begin to craft their own hypotheses for these characters’ behavior…

Which is fine. Mysteries are more powerful than the facts behind them, aren’t they? There may have to be some adjustment as people learn to stop expecting answers to every mystery (a lesson I’d imagine that, after the implosion of countless ad-hoc scripted television dramas, people should be receptive to), but with the end result that we’d be approaching compelling, and potentially ‘immortal’, characters which still behave with free agency within a game space.

But we still wouldn’t be there.

You see, each character in a story has a purpose. A story is an idea, often a very complex idea, and each character within it is some facet of this idea. This role for the character provides an iron backbone, a point of reference, and it is between these points and braces that the heart of the story is suspended.

I suppose this might not be true of all stories, but bear with me here.

This is the part that is difficult to synthesize by any methodology. When your characters form the bones of your story, you can’t just place them arbitrarily, or let them move as they will. The more a character continues to exist and act, the less strongly they can exist as an icon, the less strongly they can serve as the back bone of a story. This is why, if they last for too long, television series tend to end up missing their own point: A character’s role within a story can only be riffed upon for so long before she begins to stray, and when you dislocate a character from her role your message might become twisted, and the idea which drove you to create the piece in the first place might come out as something malformed and monstrous.

EA Presents: Dante's Inferno

This bothers some people more than others

It’s no single one of these three things that makes a character live forever in our minds, but all three together; their wants, fears, and ambitions string parallel to our own and give us a touch of their yearning; their tics, quirks, and tastes make them seem real, give them weight in a world made of words; their destiny, their tragedy, make them part of something greater than themselves, and gives them an aspect of the divine.

What makes these characters immortal is that they do not change. What makes these characters immortal is that they are frozen in stone. What makes these characters immortal is that they are dead and memorialized–

–something which our game characters can never completely be, for as long as someone is able to start our games anew and observe this character once more, making new choices for new reasons.

Perhaps we should aim for ‘eternally mortal’ instead?

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I’m noticing that I tend to start a lot of these updates off by talking about what a weird week it was, which seems like a bad habit.

That said, it was still kind of a weird week. I may just have a lot of weird weeks these days. Hardly beyond the realm of plausibility under the circumstances.

One of the weirdest things about this week in particular was how much of it was spent in transit. I started driving on Friday afternoon and stopped on Sunday night and in-between I ended up having to spend a good 16 hours on the road. That was a few days ago now, obviously, but between that, adjusting to a climate 30 degrees colder than the one I left, trying to adjust to a different level of caffeine intake, and the same depression and anxiety issues that always make productivity a pain in the butt, it’s been a pretty lousy week in terms of getting stuff done.

I’ve still been making progress though. I got the beginning of chapter 3 planned out, and I honestly think that if I can nail the production of the ideas I’ve come up with here it will be pretty goddamn amazing visually– I got a bit more animation work done, though I also ran into some planning hiccups with the frames I was working on– and I got another story written, though this one has ran rather far adrift of what I originally wanted to cover with it so it may be difficult to use.

One of the things that I’ve been having to study pretty actively here are the ways in which I emotionally sabotage myself when I work. You always hear things about artists who have depression who convince themselves that everything they do is terrible even when their friends and family and audience seemingly have nothing but nice things to say– I certainly won’t claim to achieve anything like that degree of adulation, but most of the people who are exposed to my writing seem to like what I do okay. But, yeah, one always wonders how they manage to convince themselves of their own mediocrity with so much evidence to the contrary…

I suppose part of it is that if they trusted other people’s opinion that much they might not have been driven to create in the first place.

At this point, though, I can say from experience that it’s extremely hard to remember positive reactions I have gotten when it’s time to keep on creating, and hard to believe that I can do it again, hard to believe that I haven’t used up all the ideas that people will like and and I’m going to be digging into my B material and people will start getting bored. When it’s easy, I think I’m a hack going for obvious solutions instead of digging at a deeper truth, and when it’s hard I just believe I’m incompetent and have forgotten any knack for creation I may have once had.

It’s a shitty head to be in a lot of the time. I wish I could vacation in someone else’s.

I guess that’s what art’s about for a lot of people, isn’t it?

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They say the sun had nine daughters, and that he loved them each with all the furious heat of the heavens, but also that he had two favorites, the twins Terra and Luna.

These two were inseparable, and whenever the sun-daughters would go to play amongst the stars these two would always go adventuring off together. Terra was bold and daring, and rushed from one place to the next, always eager to see more, dragging her sister along– Luna, however, was meditative and insightful, and often held her sister back so she could show her some new and delightful facet of the things they discovered together.

One night, they encountered a strange old star as he traveled across the night sky. They met travelers infrequently, and Luna was shy around them, so Terra came forward to speak to him. She asked why he wandered so, and why he had come to her father’s kingdom: He, with a grave and peculiar courtesy, told her he was a wishing star– tasked to travel from sky to sky, he said, hearing wishes in penitence for a crime long forgotten.

He seemed kind, but his words struck an unknown chord of dismay in Luna’s heart. She bid the star a good night, and moved to depart, but Terra would not budge: She refused to leave without first begging a wish from the traveler.

“It is not for me to refuse,” he said, “I hear all wishes.”

Terra told him excitedly of their great father, how he had created this majestic kingdom in which they all lived, and wished that she might one day be able to create as he had.

The star said: “It will be so.”

Terra felt a strange sensation, the tingling momentary edge of a helpless kind of power. The star continued on its lonely way. As they returned home, Terra seemed strangely subdued, and though when Luna asked she said she felt fine she seemed, somehow, distant.

In her head, the faeries spoke to Terra for the first time. “Power, yes, you may have that dear, the power to create and the power to destroy– and time, yes, we will take ours dear, and yours as well as whatever we may find.”

The next day, she showed her father the first wonder she created with the faeries help, a strange and pretty metal trinket she wore, and he was proud of her but also, down deep, concerned, for he more than anyone knew the terrible price that creation sometimes bore.

Terra continued to make grander and stranger things with the help of the faeries, beautiful creations of spun glass and woven steel, magics coded into wire and blood, arts incomprehensible and compelling…

Luna grew jealous, both because she envied Terra her ability to create and because she missed being able to spend time with her sister. She would beg Terra to come out and play, or at least to take a short break from her labors, but would be met only with distant-eyed dismissal, and she her own clumsy efforts at creation fell far short of what Terra could achieve.

As she became more and more frustrated, Luna became determined to see how her sister worked her little miracles of creation. She snuck into Terra’s workshop, one night, to see what she could see…

Her sister was there, sitting asleep at a work table, and for the first time Luna saw the faeries at work, flitting to and fro creating tiny and amazing wonders that took Luna’s breath away to look upon. After a moment, though, she noticed that every once in in a while a faery would fly over and pluck a hair from Terra’s head, or pull a glittering thread from her dress, or prick a drop of blood from her fingertip– and then she looked more closely at her sister.

Once, the twins had been identical, but now Terra’s hair had thinned so her scalp showed through. Her dress was tattered, and the flesh which showed through was pale and unhealthy. Her face was deeply lined, and she looked troubled in her sleep, and even when Luna cried out in dismay she did not awaken.

She burst out of hiding and cried out to the faeries to leave her sister alone, but they gazed upon her with tiny burning eyes and refused. “Her wish is our command even if it means her end, she wants to be a maker so, if her wants unmake her so, then that is destined, we weren’t made to question the ends of our creation.”

They continued to work, incessantly, and she saw her sister grow older by the moment. She grabbed one of the faeries and demanded that, if they must harvest materials to make their wonders, that they should take them from her and leave her sister alone.

The workshop went silent. The faeries gazed at her and she did not like what she saw in them, for within burned the fires of creation, the spark of a terrible and insatiable hunger.

The faeries looked upon Terra, exhausted and ragged, and then upon Luna, with their greedy burning eyes, and saw everything they might need to pursue their grand works.

She stood still as they swarmed towards her, as they crawled over her and sought to claim her, and it wasn’t long before the first fight broke out, a spark which singed her dress… and it wasn’t long after that that a second fight broke out, and a third, and more, until the faery fire flickered over every inch of her.

When Terra awoke, all of the faeries were gone, burnt to dust, and her sister lay dead, pale and seared bare. Terra mourned her sister for a thousand years of ice and, as the anniversary nears each year, she is reminded and mourns once again. She holds her sister close, and hopes that one day she may reawaken and they might be together once more.

But, in the end– did she learn her lesson? Ice melts, and faeries always seem to find their way into even the most level heads…

 

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“For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn”

Ernest Hemingway (maybe)

how am i driving

I’d guess maybe fifteen years ago we were driving along on some sort of road trip or camping trip, my dad and my brother and me. I was riding in the back as we climbed up some winding mountain road– the kind where it’s difficult sometimes not to think about what happens if the driver makes a mistake and nudges out over the asphalt into the void– When I saw a mass of ivy leaves along the side of the road, which itself wouldn’t be unusual except I could swear I could just see the back end of a car poking out from it. I wondered if I should say something about it, but…

Much more recently, maybe five years ago, I was driving through a thick fog, an incredibly thick Silent-Hill-brand-pea-soup fog. I was going a pretty reasonable speed under the circumstances, meaning. I slowed the fuck down like a sane person, and was driving along in the left lane when I saw, half buried in the bush which divided the two halves of the freeway, a crashed car. I swerved out of the way and continued on. I suppose I should have called the police, but…

And it was like they’d never happened, either of them. Maybe they didn’t. All too often I lose track of which are the dreams and which are the memories. I hope this uncertainty won’t lead me to be publicly harangued by Oprah someday if I write my memoirs. I will say that I’m not lying, at least, since one must intend to deceive if one lies, and if I deceive it’s entirely by accident.

I’m more certain about hitting a deer a few years ago. I suppose it could have not been a deer, I didn’t look closely, but it was a something which appeared in front of my car and then disappeared with a dramatic thump and left my grill smeared in– blood? Oh I wish. No, apparently when you compress a deer’s midsection with a hunk of hurtling metal and plastic it causes it to shit all over the place. I was drinking a Rockstar, and due to the aroma there’s a permanent scar in my psyche now that tastes like Rockstar and deer shit. There’s evidence that that one definitely happened, though, since I now drive a completely different car, which is a real shame because I liked that car a lot.

I guess collisions are, by their nature, much better recorded than near misses and mysterious wrecks.

That first wreck on the mountainside… it looked old.

I wonder if someone slammed into naked rock and the ivy grew over their car with time. I wonder if they were okay, if they called for help, if the authorities saw the car and just decided it was too much trouble to remove and just left it there for the leaves to grow over.

I wonder, too, if they weren’t okay, if the authorities never found the car, if the leaves embraced the wreck without enough force to cushion the blow, if the passenger disappeared, if someone waited for them, if someone waits for them still.

The things I’ve seen, the things we have all seen– it may not seem like much, but we’ve each got a million seeds for a million stories in us. But all of them, if they are never planted, will just end with our own story.

It’s not a tragedy, but it’s sad nevertheless.