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Monthly Archives: September 2014

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Wow it sucks that this is going to be the 100th update, because this was actually a pretty shit week for productivity. If I’d realized sooner that this was going to be number one-hundred, maybe I could have tried to have something awesome done, but I lacked that degree of awareness. Oh well.

So what happened? Well, I thought this week would be a good time to experiment with a multiphasic sleep schedule. I completely lost track of which day was which, when I’d last gotten work done, what I had left to do each day, etcetera. It didn’t work out well.

Nevertheless, before and after that disaster, I got a few good things done, completing the particle behavior editor and getting one step closer to finishing up the whole detail editor layer. From that point, it’s been kind of scrambling down a bunch of side roads trying to figure out what’s going to work for the next part, the detail facet editor. It shouldn’t be too difficult to make an animation browser similar to the already-created image browser, but before I can do so I need to create some infrastructure for managing animations. This infrastructure is similar enough to other structures I’ve created (such as my BitmapManager) that at first I wanted to just create some kind of reusable generalized resource manager, but after an hour or two of experimentation I found that this would be both more difficult and less useful than I had imagined, so I dropped it. I’m now most of the way to creating a simple animation manager, which mostly involves taking my bitmap manager and ripping out all the parts that are already managed within the animation class and the existing bitmap manager already. Once I get that running, it should be pretty easy to get an animation browser set up, and a browser for the vector graphics effects shouldn’t be difficult either. Once I have all those down, building the facet editor should be easy.

I hope this next week goes smoothly. I’ve been feeling constantly off-balance, what with one thing and another, and I think if I can just get into a good rhythm I can get a ton done. Oh well, let’s see how it goes.

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[extensive spoilers for both Transistor and Bastion]

BastionTransistor

It’s hard to put a name to the relationship between Transistor and Bastion. Is Transistor a successor? A spiritual sequel? A sister game? The relationship between the two is similar to that between two Final Fantasy games, where thematic and aesthetic similarities belie core gameplay systems that are, once you look past the superficial, startlingly different. It’s a style of kinship between two games that seems rare nowadays, when most studios would rather make a series of explicit sequels than toy with any kind of variation on a theme.

Regardless of how one describes it, the games are closely related, and yet strikingly different from each other in a number of crucial ways.

I see the spine of the world
Sparkle and shine light the inside
I see the spine of the world
I know it’s mine, twisted and tied

The same voice speaks to you throughout both games, but, while in Bastion he tells you the protagonist’s story as a third-person narrator, in Transistor he’s a close friend of the character you play, Red, and is directly addressing her with each line. This difference places you, the player, as the main character, instead of as an external force driving her – and yet, in the end, Red seems as much as cipher to us as The Kid of Bastion ever was, and we’re left to only know her through her music, and rare appearances of personality, just as the people of Cloudbank must have known her. By placing us more intimately in relation to the protagonist, the fact that she still feels a stranger to me seems more jarring than it did in Bastion. They say the Camerata stole Red’s voice, but now how can we even tell what she was trying to say?

Though it feels like the game never makes good on the intimacy this relationship promises, it captures something else: The sense of one last wild ride, one last night, as the world is dismantled in place. It feels like a single important event, told in exactly as much detail as required, perhaps not in real-time but with little in the way of editing. Because of this continuity, as compared to the hub-world structure of Bastion, Cloudbank feels much more like a real place – which, I suppose, is appropriate, since Cloudbank is a living world in its death throes, while Caelondia is a dead land being reborn. Cloudbank falls apart, devolving into white noise and nonsense as you pass, whereas nothing at all is left of Caelondia at all until pieces of it are drawn back into place by The Kid’s presence as he passes – a concept which is reprised at the end of Transistor, when Red wins the ability to remake the remains of Cloudbank. But in both cases these piecemeal restorations are insufficient, only capable of restoring fragments of the world for nostalgia’s sake, and more drastic action must be taken. If we are ever to move on, to truly live again, to do anything besides rearrange furniture on the Titanic as she rests at the bottom of the sea, we must leave the world we’ve destroyed behind and begin anew – perhaps only to begin the same cycle again.

Maybe you’re looking for someone to blame
Fightin’ for air while you circle the drain
Never be sorry for your little time
It’s not when you get there, it’s always the climb

What strikes me as strange is that even though the framing of Transistor is so much more character-based and intimate, the impact of Bastion’s characters is much more personal and the characters themselves better defined. Though The Kid is so generic he’s never even given a name, Rucks, Zia, and Zulf are compelling characters, even if you seldom directly interact with them. Rucks’ guilt for the calamity he caused, combined with the naive optimism that believes he can solve it in much the same way he caused it, is a disturbing reflection of contemporary techno-utopian ideals. Zia’s innocence, and slowly growing realization of the lies underpinning the world she grew up in should, I would think, be easy to identify with for anyone who’s seen the hypocrisy of those in power and the nationalistic rhetoric they declare to be sacrosanct. Zulf’s anger is all of our anger – at the countless betrayals of society, turned inevitably, as anger always will be, into a monster that strikes indiscriminately, always seeking blood. No one in Transistor feels nearly so real – there are no signs of human habitation in Cloudbank at all. Though we all should be able to sympathize with the Camerata’s desire to preserve their legacy, and their guilt at causing unspeakable destruction in the name of that preservation, they always feel cold and distant – and, though we sympathize with Red’s attempts to salvage what’s left on principle, it’s not clear what even remains to salvage. Even Caelondia has the ashen remains of its inhabitants, but Cloudbank, at least after a couple of traces of life early on, has nothing but the buildings created to serve the people who are no longer there. What world are we supposed to be saving? It feels like walking through a museum the day before it’s scheduled to be demolished.

Throughout both games there are common themes. A world destroyed and reborn, possibly just one step in a chain of eternally predestined rebirth – predestination, as distinct from fate, being dictated not by some external deity but by the terribly predictable clockwork of human nature. If the calamity is reversed, there will be another calamity. Even if a new society is built withIn the Transistor, there will probably be a new Camerata to struggle against the currents of change within it – and, in both cases, who even knows how many times it’s happened before? How many times have the people of Cloudbank been digitized, one level further down? Do these people have physical bodies somewhere, in some distant and forgotten Earth, left far behind for an infinite-deep dive into simulated realities? Or is it turtles all the way down? In Bastion we’re given the choice to continue or to break these cycles. We’re given the choice to forgive Zulf or abandon him, we’re given the choice to move on and look for a new home or fight against our pasts and deny our future. In Transistor, though, we’re locked into our predestined paths, a destiny in between regression and progression, a rebirth couched in and defined by the circumstances of death – death and rebirth, stagnation through unceasing change, forever.

Step out beyond the edge and start the motion
Look out below, I know there’s no decision
Just collision
It’s all arranged

Both games, in the end, are creation myths. There’s an underlying theme of how societies communicate with and are comprised by art, how the act of creating a piece of the real world and a piece of art converge, whether we want it to or not. While this message is more explicit in Transistor, it’s presented more persuasively in Bastion: Though we are told that Red is an influential artist, we’re never led to understand her influence; it was never clear, to me at least, how her music reflected or was reflected by her society. In Bastion, we are introduced to Zia a short way into the game, and she and her music’s relationship to the world tell us a great deal about how her personal history and the history of Caelondia and Ura are intertwined.

First we find her sitting alone in a ruined land singing a song – and, at the moment, we don’t listen too closely. It’s just a song. Yet, as the plot progresses, as we come to learn of the great war between the Ura and the Caelondians, the history of the song becomes clear: It is an explicit threat, from one nation to another, that their protections won’t be enough, that they will lose everything. Zia isn’t thinking about that when she sings. She just sings the words, words she probably learned before she even knew what they meant, without realizing that those words were written from the same hatred that caused the ruin within which she sits. But Zulf knows: He grew up with this hatred, and spent most of his life fighting against it, only to succumb to it at the very end. This is poignantly accurate to the way art and culture intersect: Children learn old songs, songs so old that often their parents and grandparents don’t know where they came from. Yankee Doodle was a song made to mock American soldiers before and during the American revolution, which was then appropriated by the American soldiers and used to mock the British; It was not always a Tiger that was caught and released in Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe; and Ring Around The Rosey, though it is probably not, in fact, a song about the plague, could just as easily have been.

It doesn’t take ages for meaning to be lost, either, for strange and unsettling messages to be repeated uncritically, coded hatred pretending to irrelevance, eluding the understanding of those who repeat the words. Sometimes, as soon as the words are said, some weight of meaning is already hidden. Though overtly racist and sexist rhetoric have fallen out of vogue, it is common and easy to code the same sentiment behind words that are less obviously dehumanizing. Art is a beautiful expression of the culture it emerges from, but by the same token every toxic component of that culture is brought to its surface. Even as Zulf sought to build peace, even as Zia grew up in Caelondia innocent of the hatred of her ancestors, that hatred was borne forwards, through the songs she learned, and others like them, that were taught to Caelondian children. It shaped their world, just as similar sentiments shape ours.

Think I’ll go where it suits me
Movin’ out to the Country
With everyone, oh everyone
Before we all become one

I had hoped that Transistor would play with these ideas more, especially since the protagonist is herself a singer, performed by the same artist as Zia, and is presented as one who is influential within Cloudbank, but I never felt that this aspect was fully realized. Maybe it’s just that Cloudbank’s immediate past is one of peace and prosperity, and less likely to produce the kind of scars that bleed into music, or maybe the sentiment is more abstracted than the explicit threat of “Build That Wall”, but I never understood quite what Red’s music was meant to say about her society.

Reading over what I’ve written here, everything I’ve said seems to compare Transistor unfavorably to Bastion – and yet, that’s not how I feel at all. I like them both equally. However, what I love about Transistor is the confidence and skill of its aesthetic and execution, while what I love about Bastion is the universality and poignancy of its ideas. Together, though, these games are more than the sum of their parts, riffing on similar ideas in slightly different iterations. I can only hope that whatever comes next from SuperGiant games is able to marry Bastion’s empathy and insight with Transistor’s confident execution of aesthetic and gameplay details. Wherever they choose to go with their next project, I look forward to seeing it.

I see your star
You left it burning for me
Mother, I’m here

 

I’ve barely touched Brothers, but I have a big ol’ followup to my Transistor piece in the works now. I will finish it SOMETIME. I think this might be a bit more in line with traditional criticism than my previous approach of “these are some feelings this game made me feel”, but I don’t actually know. I’m not paid to be a critic. I’m not paid.

Bleh.

Okay. I’m done working on Turncoat for now. It was going okay, but I just have zero passion for the project at the moment.  I think it might be worth picking back up at some point, but right now I have no enthusiasm for it and, alongside time, enthusiasm is my most valuable resource. I’m going back to working on EverEnding for a while. I just had a nice little work session where I got a bit more progress done on the detail behavior editor, and I don’t think it should take me too long to get back into the swing of things.

It’s hard. Sometimes I feel like I’ll never finish anything, and by a standard of personal worth measured by the impact I can make on the world with my art that’s a fucking disaster. What that reveals, though, more than anything, is I need sources of positivity in my life that aren’t directly dependent upon my ability to complete projects. As long as my self-worth is vested entirely in my value as a worker (because, for anything else an artist might be, they are still a worker), I’ll always be emotionally out at sea on a life-raft. Right now this is the only way I know how to be, but I need to figure out a better way.

Making things is super important to me, and there’s a reason I’ve constructed my life around it, but it’s simply an emotionally dangerous way to attempt to sustain oneself. I need to find a new balance. And, once I do, once I no longer need to wrap my emotional state in flavorless fluff to insulate it against reckless boom and bust of project completion and project failure, I think I’ll find myself with more time, rather than less, to work.

The first step is the hard one.

[slight spoilers for Transistor and Bastion]

Transistor

Change is the status quo.

Some people fight against that change, and some people embrace it. One side calls themselves a revolution and the other calls themselves tradition, but when we have a tradition of revolution traced back through millenia the difference becomes less clear. We each have our frame of reference, and it’s a matter of opinion as to whether I am staying still while you move around me or whether I move while you stand like statues.

The world is spinning so fast, but we call it solid ground.

Cloudbank, the city which Transistor takes place in, takes this current of change and literalizes it, makes it tangible. In Cloudbank, the buildings change shape every day, the sky changes color and the weather rains or shines based on the whims of the population. It’s permanently impermanent, and though this makes most of the population happy, some are discontent.

“What if we got everything right, one day, and then had to change it afterwards?”

“What if our best days are behind us, discarded for grass that seemed greener?”

“Why must I work so hard to create something, only for it to be forgotten?”

A quest for a world where things stay the same is a quest for immortality. And, like all such Faustian bargains, Something Goes Wrong. Any process that can create can also destroy. Bereft of a shape of things to create, a mad process will create things with no shape. Just like life, destruction is merely the rearrangement of components – whether a personality gets disintegrated into a sea of random data or a body gets disintegrated into a pile of charred bones, everything is still there – just in a format useless to us, beyond our understanding.

This is why change is terrifying. Each rearrangement is the death of the world we thought we understood. Even new information about that world, with no new change associated with it, is threatening in the same way, since it invalidates our understanding and causes the death of our worldview.

It’s not clear what the nature of Cloudbank is. Is it all just a simulated world, populated by artificial intelligences? Do the personalities within the Transistor live inside a simulated world within a simulated world? Does this story, like Bastion’s, hint at an endlessly recursive chain of causality?

Right now, sitting in a chair in our ‘real’ world, it feels like everything is changing, because everything is. It feels like the world’s ending, because it is, one way or another, the world of today each day giving way to the world of tomorrow, replaced by an imposter, an unfamiliar and weird world that doesn’t fit quite as well as the one we remembered. And we remember so many worlds! Our nostalgia crafts for us so many impossible utopias, instants from our past polished perfect by time’s waters. So many of us get trapped into searching for these past perfect utopias without ever realizing they’re mirages. So many people seek to recreate a memory, without realizing that those memories are flat, 2d images unable to accommodate a 3d person, or 3d models unable to capture the element of time, leaving the heart frozen, the next beat eternally delayed.

It feels like the end times. It’s always the end times.

We are pulled into the future; we are pulled into the past. No matter which current you fight against, you will achieve little. The world will change, and we cannot keep that from happening, but only do our best to steer it towards a change we can live with. Or past will constrain and haunt us, and we will never escape that, but we might yet be able to learn from it.

The one constant, the thing that doesn’t change, whether in Cloudbank or in our world or in other worlds to come, is that the world is shaped by the people who live in it. Whether they do it intentionally or not, humans create an environment for humans, and we live as much inside each others’ personalities, manifested into buildings and words and tv shows and music, as we do in our own bodies. That’s why everything will always change. It needs to. Maybe we could make a utopia, but I don’t think such worlds are made one-size-fits all, and sooner or later we’d outgrow it, or come to realize, as we have so many times, that our utopia was built on the distopian nightmares of others.

All we can do is live in the change, and change ourselves as needed to fit into it: Receptors, transmitters, resistors and transistors, the lovers, the dreamers, and me.

 

[next week: Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons]

I completely forgot to write a devblog yesterday. Changing up my schedule a bit is completely throwing off my sense of what to do when.

So what have I been up to?

I got all of the game’s menus except for a possible main menu roughed in, at which point I realized that it would be kind of tricky to get everything in place unless I started adding some graphics. So I went ahead and I spent a few days rendering out all of the chess pieces for the game:

PiecesDisplay

I roughed in some (bad) shadows there and I’d really like to get something similar in the game itself — I don’t know if there’s a way to achieve that without just brute-forcing them in by making them separate graphical assets. Reflections would be easier, since all I’d have to do is flip the piece over and render it underneath, so I’ll play around with that and see if it works at some point.

Having done that, I set it up so the pieces should render properly, and also made it so the paths pieces take in movement should also be rendered on the board. There’s a few bits of code that aren’t fully functional yet so I haven’t been able to test any of this, but that’s where it’s at.

Next: Finishing up the menus and adding any special menu graphics that are needed

variety

I’ve been having a hard time thinking of things to write about. This is probably largely because my heart just isn’t in it as much any more. For a couple of years this blog was the anchor of my week, and now it’s a thing I do on Wednesdays. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

So it’s time to try some different things. Maybe my lazy hesitations are just a funk, one I’ll get past as certain chaotic elements come resolved and as the weather changes and as I find new ways to cope with the stupidities of existence. Maybe I’ve just used up the ideas I had ready to go on writing about games, and then used up my enthusiasm for coming up with new ideas, and now I’m just staring at a monitor.

Hey, it’s just part of the creative process, okay?

For a few weeks, I experimented with an idea where I pulled a piece of paper at random out of a jar with the name of a game or book or tv show to try out from a jar, then wrote about it at the end of the week. I think that was actually a pretty good idea – even if I ended up getting too busy and stressed to stick with it. While the jar was a fun accessory, though, I think it was actually quite extraneous. I’ve decided to revive the idea, sans jar: Instead, I’m just going to pick a thing at the beginning of each week to play through, or read through, or watch through, and then next week I’ll try to write some interesting words about it.

Here’s the thing: I need to care. No matter what the content of this blog is going to be, I need to be able to get to a place where I care about what I’m writing, which is sometimes a non-trivial challenge. Once I care enough to do it, the writing frequently takes care of itself – I mean, I still have to write it and it’s still difficult and it still hurts, but it’s a lot easier to not mind that it hurts when you are actually invested in the result. I don’t know exactly why I’ve been having so much trouble caring, but it’s been happening for a while. Hopefully, this little bit of structure will help me move past the apathy, and begin to occupy my writing again. There’s still so many interesting things to discuss, to understand, to explore, if I can only get to a place where I find them interesting again.

Yeah, it’s an excuse to spend all my time playing video games. I actually kind of need the excuse, because otherwise I’ll spend all my time doing even less productive things, watching silly internet videos and playing the same couple well-worn multiplayer games day after day.. Experiencing new art, collecting inspirations, is an investment in my creative future. I guess a lot of people would recommend actual experiences instead of just second-hand regurgitations, but it’s hot and expensive out there so eh, fuck it. Life will have to fit in around the cracks.

This should be fun. Then again, I think I said that last time, and it got real stressful real fast. Hopefully this time it will be just stressful enough.

First up: Transistor.