Monthly Archives: April 2014


Everything seems so huge when we’re small, and then shrinks to catch up with us. As our awareness gets bigger, everything we are familiar with begins to seem smaller, more self-contained, better understood. It’s not so much, really, that our world grows smaller, or that it grows simpler, but more than we begin to store our thoughts in shorthand, to ignore the details which seem irrelevant, the details which used to delight and overwhelm and terrify us. We make our world a set for the play we make every day, and once we have thus reduced our circumstances we wish we had something more – we wish we had something with the vividness of the dreams at night where we remember how things used to be, before the lacquers we layered on the surface of our lives rendered them slick, frictionless, small, and simple.

We want something that can be what the things we once craved were, back when we craved them. We want something bigger then what we have, too big to really be comprehended, and we often only want it because it is beyond comprehension. For every fear of the unknown there is an opposing lust: Some choose to follow their fear, seek safety and stability, and some follow their lust, seek excitement and incomprehensibility, and neither will ever be entirely satisfied.

Familiarity breeds contempt, they say. Familiarity, perhaps, is contempt – a blithe certainty that that which you know shall always remain just as you know it, constant, unchanging, preserved in amber or carbonite. What a terrible thing to believe of someone you call friend.

Maybe this is just a fancy way of saying that we are fascinated by novelty. Maybe I could have just said that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Maybe this is just a lot of words to say that we take a lot for granted. I don’t seek to moralize, though. I don’t want to say that one life is better than another, that you should satisfy yourself with what you have now or that what you seek is necessarily better or worse for your seeking it. I just want to express how when we stare at one thing for too long we cease to see it and start to see just our memory of it,  subject to the same degradations as all memory. I just want to tell the story of a prisoner who escapes his cell and revels in his freedom, despite that he has only managed to break into the adjoining cell.  I just want to know why sometimes it feels like the world around me isn’t real any more, is just a place that happened to me a long time ago, and that the future or imaginary worlds I wrap around myself seem so much realer, so much more detailed.

There is no frame of reference. The exotic will shift to the everyday will shift to the nostalgic, out of reach at all points, in an elliptical orbit around the center of yourself, perhaps implying by eccentricity where your heart actually lies.


Sometime within the past 15 years or so, game developers collectively came to the realization that death sucks. They reacted to this by making games easier, by reducing the consequence for failure, by allowing the player to quickly get back into the game as though death never happened. Sometime within the past 5 years or so, developers seem to have realized that it’s not death that sucks, it’s pretending that death doesn’t suck that sucks. It’s pretending that the failures of the past never occurred, constantly overwriting them with hollow hope, constantly saying “No, wait that’s not how it happened, let me start over”, that players have come to detest.

If a game is challenging, the player is going to spend a lot of time failing. Why would you tell them that only their successes matter? Why constrain the results of their endeavors along one axis? Why erase the struggle they went through to reach where they are now?

As always, there are reasons why things are the way they are. Coin-op games give the designers incentive to kill the players and force them to restart, ‘continues’ allow the player to pay to maintain their progress, this model gets transplanted to home consoles where bleeding players for quarters becomes logistically impractical and longer-form experiences become possible – and we end up with arbitrary vestigial ‘life’ systems in our games. I’m not just calling out games where you get a few lives and losing them reverts some minimal degree of progress, though – what’s wrong with those is just a slightly larger, grander version of what’s wrong with most trivial deaths in games, the pattern repeating itself outwards, concentrically.

We want to believe that there’s a reason not to fail, because without that there is no convincing reason to succeed.

So we see this realization assert itself in the recent surge of games with ‘roguelike elements’. In Binding of Isaac, FTL, or Spelunky, if you fail then the game is over. You can start again from the beginning if you like, but the game you were playing cannot be recovered. You have lost, not only in the sense of failure, but in the sense of real loss, loss of opportunity, loss of something that might have been just within your grasp. You feel it – and what is art for, if not to feel something?

We also see it assert itself in games that wrap failure into their narrative: I believe that one reason that Dark Souls and its companion games are so popular is because they acknowledge the player in their failures every bit as much as in their triumphs. When the player dies, even though they are functionally immortal, there’s still that setback, still the knowledge that, though they may eventually succeed, it was not without loss, not without struggle. When the hero’s story is written, if the hero’s story is written, it won’t be written, glory on glory, shining words on white paper, unreadable for lack of contrast, but full of gains and losses, delicate operations and desperate battles that sometimes lead to victory and sometimes… don’t.

The Souls games are built around this idea, from the ground up. Does that mean that games can either be conflicted and shallow in failure, be punishingly consequential, or be themed around undeath and purgatory? Not necessarily. There are more paths than those to integrating player death into a narrative. Super Meat Boy does so, rather cheekily pushing against the fourth wall, by making your zombified corpses into enemies later on in the game. Starbound handles death minimalistically but effectively by playing a little animation of your character being reconstructed by your ship’s cloning facilities. Rogue Legacy straddles approaches by intimating both the end of the game and a continuous narrative of life and death without fully embracing either.

If defeat has no teeth, the victory snatched from its jaws is without significance. Death may or may not be the end, but we tend to remember it when it happens. Failure may or may not destroy us, but even when it doesn’t it becomes a part of who we are. Paint the entire picture, or what you create will represent nothing at all.


Phew, this has been a busy week – but, at the end of it, a ton of progress has been made!

First, the image browser is now perfectly functional. Here’s what it looks like:


By typing into the filter box at the top I can quickly find the particular image I’m looking for: For example, if I want the standing frames for Eve I can search for ‘eve standing’ and only images with both of those terms somewhere in their local file path show up on the list. The little previews load in and unload as necessary to avoid taking up too much memory, and all-in-all I think it’s a pretty nice little bit of engineering. You can also see up in the upper left that I’ve set the image to the entity, which will make that image show up in the overview when editing entities or, if a flag is set, have the entity display using that image in-game.

… which, come to think of it, neither of those are currently implemented, so I guess I’ll do those next.

After completing the image browser, I went back and fixed all of the little interface glitches in the entity editor, and then I went in and added a prerequisite system to all of the behaviors. This is something I’d had in kind of a rough form before, but I made this a much more firmly established part of the system so that I could, for example, check before swapping behaviors around to ensure they wouldn’t be placed in an erroneous order, or check before deleting a behavior that it wasn’t a prerequisite for another existing behavior. Finally, I added a couple of buttons to the control panels for deleting a behavior and closing the control panel, and made it possible to edit prototypes as well as entities. You can see the final result here:


The entity editor is, at this point, basically done. There are the couple of little fixes I noted above, and also I’d like to revise the animation and sound control panels to be less ugly and easier to use (possibly using the image browser… and maybe a new sound browser based off of it?) I think it’ll take a day or two to completely wrap this segment up and go back to the detail editor, which remains semi-finished… but which should be finished much more quickly now that I have all of the tools I developed to create the entity editor.

I wrote a bunch of words about items and inventory systems but I suspect those words might be shitty so I’m discarding them. I’ll write something good later, sometime. Yeah.

Feels like I’m cancelling/preempting a lot of these Wednesday posts. I think I need to rethink my approach a little bit.


Each job carries its own kind of stress. Some jobs are physically taxing, exhausting to bone and muscle, while leaving the mind relatively free. Some jobs are intellectually demanding, forcing a state of deep thought, deep focus, which carries its own physical toll. Some are emotionally overwhelming, demanding empathy, demanding an open heart and mind, even when the heart is bruised and the mind is bleeding.

Creativity, as much as it is thought of as a desirable trait in a job, carries its own burdens – primarily emotional, but depending upon your medium and process it can be physically and intellectually taxing as well. Creativity means putting yourself into your work – not just in the sense of pursuing it wholeheartedly and with all of your skill enthusiasm, but additionally investing it with aspects of who you are as a person. What I’m trying to say is, creativity makes you vulnerable, because any judgment on what you produce becomes, very directly, a judgment on you, on who you are as a person.

There are ways to do it safely, to constrain your creativity to specific tasks, certain areas where you can be confident of success and confident, moreover, that someone will appreciate you doing your job well. This is the kind of creativity that’s found in most office settings. It’s fulfilling, to a certain degree, and it’s safe, and whether you’re doing a good job or not, whether your creative product as a person is seen as valuable or not, depends on one or two people. It’s enough for some people, but…

There’s an ocean out there. Some people are happy working at the docks, if they can find work there – others, either because they can’t find the work they seek or because they can’t stand the work they get, set out to sea, on rafts if they have to. When you’re out there all alone, it becomes clear how insignificant you are. When you’re out there, doing the best work that you can, pouring yourself into your creative work, and no one seems to notice, it hurts at first. But the ocean is vast, and maybe you just haven’t found where the fish are yet.

The thing about being adrift is that, beyond somehow scraping up enough freshwater to survive, you don’t have to care. In the ocean, it is okay to be insignificant, because we all are. In the ocean, it’s okay to pour your heart into messages in bottles, because no one can break them, no one can say that you did it wrong. You can create without caring. At first it hurts that no one is there to care, but then it feels refreshing.

You may be adrift, alone, anonymous – but there’s freedom there as well. And, when it’s time to go back to land, no one will have seen the things you have seen. Maybe they’ll care or maybe they won’t, but you’ll always have the ocean in you, telling you that it’s okay to just flow where the tides will.


Lots of ups and downs this week. As I got closer and closer to finishing my album (AVAILABLE NOW!) the stress of having such a relatively substantial project mostly complete and yet not quite out there started to really eat at me. For a few days this week, the album was basically the onlything I could think about, and it started to affect my mood. Fortunately, I got it out there a couple of days later! Even though it’s not really doing well financially (at all), I’m still glad it’s out there, still glad I did it, and, in particular, am extremely glad it’s over with.

Anyway! Though I was feeling down for a bit, I tried to keep my hand in by making minor bug fixes, hooking up simple buttons, etcetera, so progress was still made. All of the buttons either work properly or work, uh, not-quite-properly: Which, as a measure of progress, is actually a lot further along than a button that just does nothing at all when clicked. There’s still some general usability stuff to be done, but because that stuff was boring and, frankly, difficult to suss out in its particulars, I decided instead to tackle the big remaining task, the image browser. Well, it’s still got quite a ways to go, but I’ve got something up on screen, and a lot of the architecture for what’s going to need to go there is set up. Here’s what it looks like now:


Basically the way this thing is gonna work is it’s going to display a list of all known resources: The filter box at the top lets you search by name, and the currently selected image will be displayed on the right. Once I get it working all of the boxes there will display little preview images, though that may take a bit of memory management to handle well. Basically that, a couple of buttons to confirm and cancel selection, and a few minor interface elements and I should have something pretty usable. It’s not fancy, but it doesn’t have to be.

So that’s where we stand for now. Over the next week I’ll hopefully be able to wrap up this image browser, then head back to make whatever improvements still need to be made to the entity/behavior editors. And, hopefully, now that the album is wrapped up, I’ll be less distracted and can get even more done. Hopefully!


I have made an album. It is entirely instrumental electronic music, largely inspired by video games but not beholden to the formatting constraints I’d worry about if I were actually composing for a game soundtrack. Right now I’m still too close to it, still too confused and agitated and worried to say anything particularly clever or cogent about it, so I won’t. If you’d like to listen to it, click on this text.

I’ll be honest: I’m a little scared. This has been a substantial amount of my life for the last few months, and I’m scared to let go of it, scared to show it to anyone. But I have to. Art loses its value when it is hoarded. Hopefully this won’t be the last time I feel this fear: Hopefully, as I progress, I will be forced to part with greater and more ambitious projects, and I’ll come to value this mental distress as a sign that I am, in fact, doing something right. I will learn to descend through this worry and reveal the fruits of my labors.

I’m still learning. For now, it’s just really hard. But I’m doing it.


If you love art it becomes easy to see in it a panacea. Art is many things, but it is not everything. Art can remind you of better times, but can’t bring them back. Art can make you fall in love, but it can’t love you. Art can inspire you, but it can’t create for you.

It cannot fix you. It cannot fulfill you. It cannot free you. Art can only help you see the ways in which you might be broken, might be wanting, might be trapped.

It should be obvious, but when you’re hungry and you’re hurting it isn’t. When all you remember is the good old days and how much fun the games were back then, you reach for the games you remember even though the spirit of that time has fled them. When all you feel is alone, you reach out for whatever company you can get, however fictional, however distant, and even if you’re a stranger to them they’re a friend to you, even if they’re a ghost story you tell yourself at night to believe that there’s something out there, they’re real to you.

It’s so easy to believe in this placebo.

If it’s all you have, it might help. You might find some shadow of the comfort you want. But, like with all placebos, there’s a danger it might supplant the real medicine, cause you to never find a doctor to look at the rot in you, expose it to light, lance it.

This isn’t all there is. There’s more.

I can’t tell you what to look for, though. There’s an unlimited spectrum of lives to lead, ambitions to hunger for, realizations to face, and each of them belongs to someone else. My life won’t fit you. Your life won’t fit me. We can’t trade. We can only custom fit ourselves as best as we can, blind tailors with numb fingers, trying to remember, from long ago, just what shape we were born to take.


It’s been a good week. The prototype panel is functional and the updated behavior editor works well, allowing re-ordering of behaviors and creation of new behaviors as well as easy access to all behavior control panels. Some buttons still need to be hooked up, some functionality needs to be added, a few error checks need to be factored into the process, but overall it’s getting really close to done.

Here’s what it looks like now:


All of the behaviors are lined up along the top there, with numbers to show where they are in the ordering. Click any one of them to open its control panel, drag left and right to re-order. On the left side is the main information panel for the active entity, allowing manual changes to coordinates and name, as well as hosting the all-important (and not yet implemented) save and delete buttons.

So here’s what’s left to be done to complete the behavior editor:

  • Hook up all of the buttons on the main information panel
    • The save buttons should be easy but will take some UI work
    • The delete button should be even easier, but will require some minor checks to ensure that a behavior that is prerequisite to another isn’t deleted
    • The set image button will be quite difficult and time consuming, but the created image browser will also be used in the detail editor so that’s fine
  • House control panels in a scrollable window (some large ones go off-screen)
  • Make sure scroll window shows selected behavior at all times (for selecting/opening behaviors from the list on the right)

That’s all I can think of so far. Some of that stuff may take a while, but I should be able to put a pretty substantial dent in it over the coming week if nothing else comes up – and, as mentioned, the image browser component is one that will be re-used for the detail editor as well, so it’s a perfect way to segue into that, the next part of the project.

The end is in sight! Well, the end of the behavior editor anyway. Obviously the project itself still has a long ways to go, but I’ll be that much closer to working on content,sweet content.

One thing’s for damn sure: I’m never making another game engine again. I’ll tweak this one to suit my purposes, improve it here and there, maybe make new modules, possibly port it to other platforms, but never a-fucking-gain am I going to spend 1-2 solid years of my life on an engineering project tangentially related to the creative field I want to pursue. In the meanwhile, well… at least it’s a good learning experience, and I really do love the degree of control it affords, but man. Man. Never again.


A couple of years ago, I was driving across the Bay Bridge when I realized it wasn’t over. That makes it sound like I was in a way darker place than I really was, but there was a part of my mind that had started to categorize my future entirely within the terms of my past failures – that, whenever I thought of my once dearly held ambitions, filed them under memories of things past rather than ongoing projects. There was a part of me that, even as I worked on these projects, never thought they would ever go anywhere. And, as I drove across the bridge, I found that traitorous sliver of fear within myself and exposed it, and burned it, and buried it.

I don’t know why. I don’t remember a train of thought that led me through that tunnel. I don’t remember a particularly inspiring day leading up to that nighttime drive. I just remembered that moment of realization, that everything was still new, everything could still change, I could still work towards something rather than allow myself to be blown along.

I do know that it had to be in a car. I do know that it had to be on a bridge. Symbolism is important to us, no matter how often we try to banish it to the realm of critics and textbooks. The concept of a life freely lived and ambitions daily struggled towards had been filed away in my brain, and that first drive by myself after I got my driver’s license and felt free came back, and that first long drive home, with my father in the hospital, not too long afterwards, came back, and something too big for me to notice its absence came back to me with them, and I was free of something that I hadn’t known bound me.

They’re subtle, the structures we build around our lives, the shells we become. They fuse with our bones and we forget how to live outside of them. We become people we detest just because we can’t figure out the component pieces of a personality that would suit us better. We are consumed by our noise and by the noise of others, by their expectations and suppositions of who we are and who they want us to be for our own good, who they want us to be for their own good, and who they want us to be so we might be understandable, might be measurable.

I can think of fragments of art that explore this idea of becoming our own prisons, but it’s so hard to explain until you’ve been there for yourself and set yourself free, until you’ve found the shape of your key that fits the shape of your cage. As I think about that drive, I remember bits of art that were, perhaps, pieces of the key for their artists, or perhaps their attempts to guide others to the shape of their own cells.


The Happy Scorched-Earth Incident

a Twine game by Lana Polansky

–seemed to me at first to be about anxiety, being in a room full of people who can’t reach you in any way because your mind is churning far too quickly, grinding up irrelevant concepts and worries and perceptions just to avoid having to engage with the world, spinning too fast and out of gear. On a second reading/playing, it seemed instead or as well to be about searching for meaning and divinity in a hot noisy crowded world, trying to come to terms with life being noisy and active and overwhelming from the perspective of a personality that prefers quiet and reflection, wondering why the patterns of existence ran so much against one’s personal grain. I have no idea if any of these meanings were intended. I may only be seeing myself in a mirror, in the reflective surface of my own anxieties and fears and gaping atheistic cracks.


Merrily We Roll Along

a filmed version of the stage musical

– following the life of a tremendously successful film producer backwards, year by year, and showing how he sloughed off his friends and his ideals to become the successful, creatively hollow, emotionally destroyed man he was. We see those who crafted his poisoned idea of success, and before that those who crafted their poisoned idea of success, and how each in turn was unmade by passing that atavistic ideal forward, a cycle of intellectual abuse. We see how many opportunities he had to become a different person, to resist the forces that pushed him into a life distant from his own heart – but, in the end, how much easier it is to pursue the person you are told you wish to become than to inhabit the person you are. Perhaps it all might have turned out differently if his friends, who tried to win him back to his old life of music, idealism, and creative fulfillment, had believed wholeheartedly in him themselves – but it seemed to me that their pleas always had an edge of the same greed, the same simple-minded ideals of success, that won him away from them in the first place. They were doomed from the start. The prison he is in now has bars only as thick as his ribs, his heart could still burst through, he could still be the man he wants to be – if only he could remember who that man is.

I left my grade school to attend another school shortly after throwing a chair at a teacher. My relocation wasn’t punitive, just reflective of the realization that I might not be fitting in so well at my current school. For all the bad press it gets, directionless rage does sometimes get results.

My new school believed that, left to themselves, children would eventually craft their own educations – not only their education, but their own management and administration as well. The students convened regularly, to vote on decisions affecting their own school-lives – meetings which, as an unshakeable rule, could only occur after one day’s notice. There were also more regular small committees to hear grievances and complaints that students would levy against one other. The ‘defendant’ would plead guilty or not guilty, and if they pled guilty then appropriate sentences would be devised and agreed upon by all present. If they pled not guilty, evidence would be piled up against their arguments, and they would generally either make a case for themselves or be forced into confessing their crime. If they they refused to confess, or refused to accept any suggested sentence, then special sentencing would be decided at the next school meeting.

A friend of mine got into an altercation of sorts with another student on the day before the last day of school. He lied, obviously and repeatedly, to the court, denying his obvious, flagrant, and unanimously confirmed guilt – because he knew there was literally no mechanism in place to punish him for this transgression. The judicial committee meeting couldn’t hand out a sentence without his consent, and calling a school administration meeting would require at least one day’s notice, at which point it would be the last day of school anyway and no relevant sentence could be passed. In the end, the school broke its own rules just to hand out a meaningless half-a-day worth of suspension – and ended up demonstrating, even more acutely than before, the fragility of their own pretenses.

It was basically a prank, and it was basically without consequence, but it’s hard to overstate the importance, to me, to my understanding of the world, of realizing then how flimsy the structures built to control our lives really are. When we rebel we may look like assholes who seek only to destroy, but if we don’t know what can be demolished and what cannot, if we don’t know which structures hold us up and which hold us down, we can never be free. Many people have lived their lives without ever realizing that all they have to do to break the machine which grinds them down is to refuse to be a part of it. This possibility is hidden from us, and many are scared of us seeing it, but without it freedom will always be unattainable and stagnation be inevitable.


Problem Attic

a game by ella guro

– game characters never do quite what you want them to do. The crouch is always a moment too late, the double jump doesn’t happen, the rhythm of shooting the little pixelated gun is a bit off, the platform is too slippery, and it’s never really your fault. It’s just that this person you occupy is wrong, it isn’t doing what you’re telling it to, it’s, goddammit who programmed this fucking game, who constructed this world, why am I shaped this way, why can’t I do this, why are my hands shaking – is there something else? Is there a deeper truth behind why this world fits us so poorly, so loose and itchy? Will there be, if I fight through this noise, these voices telling me what I am and what I’m not, these voices telling me what I want and what I don’t, a moment of silence? A moment of reflection? Will I be able to hear my own voice?

This world is fake, this world is paper, this person in this place in this time is a lie. The only thing I can do is tear a hole – through myself or through it, we won’t know until the blood starts flowing.


Horse Master

a Twine game by Tom McHenry

I want to be the very best, like no one ever was. I have to sacrifice everything to do it, but that’s okay because nothing I have is worth anything. I will probably fail, but that’s okay because it’s just a dive down into the whirlpool we’re already being sucked into. Imagine the glory. Imagine the money. Imagine the fame. Imagine anything but where you are right now, as what little life you kept for yourself begins to rot away.

Your glorious future waits for you, and always will.


Horse Master Class Anxiety Dream Game Review

a review of the preceding Twine game by John Campbell

– why are you set on this path? They say the unexamined life isn’t worth living, but when you peer too closely at your own experience all of those almost-experiences that were never quite yours fade away. What about all the lives you have never lived, the branches of possibility sheared off by the wind? When you forget them you make, of the tree of your life, a ladder – perhaps easier to climb, but leading nowhere. Up to the sky, alone at the peak, looking down, exposed to the wind. A single-minded mastery, shared with no one, begins to drain of color and meaning.

There are so many possibilities lying just beyond consideration. It’s absurd sometimes to think about how trapped we feel, pushed into the narrow channel leading from now to the future, thinking that our only option is to live tomorrow the same way we lived today. We could do so many different things, attack our dissatisfaction from so many different directions, if we could only forget the assumption that today leads through a single path, or perhaps a handful of similar paths, to tomorrow. Why do we move in two dimensions when we exist in three? Why do we think in three when we age in a fourth? Why do we dream of a fourth when there may be dreams an order of magnitude greater, more beautiful, and more complex?

Eventually, sometimes, you notice. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you realize how many of the things that are holding you back are completely made up. Your job. Your history. Your gender. Your friends. Your personality. Your family. Your sexuality. Your tastes. Your pride. When you find your sledgehammer, it’s hard to know what to smash. It’s hard to know whether this aspect of yourself is dispensable or not. It’s hard to know what parts of yourself to hang onto.

And it’s never over.

Destroy everything if you want. Make yourself a new life, make yourself a new person. It might make you happy.

Over time, though, your shape will change again. You will outgrow the form you’ve given yourself, and find the self you’ve made now a prison every bit as constricting as the prison you left behind. Our skin ossifies and cages us, over and over again. And, over and over again, we must break free, until our final body embraces us, and carries us down into our last prison.