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Monthly Archives: October 2015

sandvich

Over time I’ve started moderating my consumption of media the same way one might moderate their consumption of food or of drugs – by closely monitoring how I feel and react afterwards, what the short and long term effects are, what I get out of it and how it fits into my life, not just while I’m actively consuming it, but before and after. It’s a kind of nutritional plan for art: I try to strip out things that seem like junk food, and then I quickly end up reinstating them when I find out that I need that junk somewhere because otherwise I go crazy. Very much like a diet. A short one.

To an extent we always consume media in ways that were more or less therapeutic, but the largely narrative forms that dominated before games tend to notably degrade upon repeat consumption: No matter what personal needs a novel or film serves on a first viewing, it rarely can provide for them on the tenth or twentieth. While it still may have some residual effect, the overwhelming effect of a repeatedly experienced narrative piece is usually one of familiarity, comfort – which, of course, has its own appeal, but may not be what originally drew the audience to the piece in question. Conversely, many of the challenges that a game can offer stay fresh, if not indefinitely then for much longer than purely narrative forms, which rely on their narrative content to create their tone, and must be constantly fed with new such content if they wish to maintain it.

Quitting TF2 has really put a focus on the role that media plays in shaping my daily life. With it gone, I started noticing needs I had that weren’t really being met any more: The need to think quickly and sharply about an immediate problem, the need to feel like I was good at something, and, pathetically enough, a need for the social contact made through the game. As time passes and I get more used to not playing the same game every day, I get to see more which of those were things I actually need day-to-day and which were needs manufactured by habitually playing a game that feeds them.

It’s strange, though, that such a big part of what we consume media for, its immediate and lasting emotional effect, is something that generally goes entirely un-commented-upon. Playing Super Hexagon leaves me highly reflective and slightly depressed, as the spatial part of my brain is overloaded leaving the rest in sort of an existential void. Playing Dark Souls leaves me tired but keen, a kind of athletic fatigue of the mind. Playing Prison Architect leaves me dull, exhausted by minute detail and causal flow, I have no energy left then but wake up the next day with a wave of new ideas to try implementing.

It’s not just games though, this is just an extension of the awareness of how every activity makes us feel. The afternoon walk that makes us feel more physically tired but gives ideas a chance to gestate and raises our future energy, the decadent meal that leaves us sleepy and mildly disgusted with ourselves in the moment but which we still anticipate eagerly and somehow fail to regret afterwards, the deep breath which lets us release our anger and frustration, the quick nap which rebounds from exhaustion into a kind of momentum to do more and better… games and other art take their place amongst all the other Things We Can Do, each with a unique impact on our short term and long term emotional state, not always predictable but generally traceable.

It’s useful to think about, sometimes. What is it that I get from this thing that I do that makes me keep doing it? What is my emotional flow, moment to moment, that leads me from waking to consuming art, from consuming art to making decisions, and from each decision to either regret or satisfaction? If I watch a video every day while I drink my coffee, are the video and coffee together part of what allows me to function the way I do? Do I want to continue to function that way, and if not what’s the best thing to change up to try to operate differently? Almost like playing a whole different game, a game of my life, a game of expression and self-recognition rather than victory or loss.

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EveHeader

The stone throwing version of the entity is like 90% done now. The only remaining stuff to do is to add a couple of animations, which are really just some of the knife animations with the knife layer turned off for when it’s just standing there waiting around. I’ll also probably need to tweak the AI a bit, since right now it randomly turns around like the patrolling entity does, which is pretty impractical when you want to just post a guy up against a wall and have him throw rocks.

MaskThrow2

After I got to this point I got a bit confused as to what to work on next. The obvious thing to do next was the spear version of the enemy, but I got discouraged that I seemed to be making so many versions of the same animation with just the weapons switched out. I spent a little while thinking about whether I should be doing this different, IE creating a single animation for each movement and then overlaying the weapon animations in with code, but on reflection I realized it was really only a few different versions, and in order to make many of those animations look good I’d want to change them substantially anyway, so it was really something I’ll just have to work through. I’ll still need to do the software stuff I was thinking of in order to give them different masks and have those masks react separately to the main body, but that’s not super urgent (though will have to be done before I can call these guys really finished).

Anyway, one of the advantages to working solo on a project, and one which I haven’t been taking advantage of nearly enough, is that when one aspect of the project gets stressful or onerous or boring I can always work on something else for a bit. I think I should be looking for opportunities like this to switch up and keep my brain fresh, because I’m coming to realize that not only do I need to manage my time and energy on this project, I also need to manage my interest: Anything that keeps things fun, fresh, and interesting is going to be valuable to the long term health of the project, as well as, incidentally, my happiness and satisfaction.

So all that is just a long and rambling way of saying that I took a bit of a break from that horseshit today to try to figure out a character design.

DawnSketch00

So this is a first 1-2 hour pass at designing the character of Dawn. This has a number of elements that I’m pretty much decided on and a number more that I’m a bit iffy on still. I intentionally fucked with her proportions to make her seem more inhuman, but that’s a tricky path to walk – go too far and it just looks like you’re a bad artist who doesn’t know proportions, though that’s something that could probably be fixed with time and effort. I have a similar problem with her face: It’s important that she has eyes and a mouth to speak, but I honestly don’t know why she’d have a nose. The only reason I ended up drawing her one is because any face without one ended up looking kind of stupid, like a jack-o-lantern – seasonally appropriate I suppose, but not what’s called for. I was going for a red clay kind of skin tone, and I think I undershot that a bit here. I’m finding myself subtly but noticeably influenced by the design of Rose Quartz from Steven Universe, which is appropriate to the character at least – strong, gentle, and absent at the beginning of the story.

Oh well, not perfect but like I said it’s a first pass. Hopefully by next update I’ll have a design I’m happy with.

I tried to write something about why I’m not going to write something, but even that turned out to be too much writing. So instead I wrote this.

Here’s some music instead of words.

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This was a programming kind of week. Very quickly into trying to implement the throwing animation I created last week, I realized that my current system for creating animation commands wasn’t going to cut it. The system, as it existed then, was that each animation was associated with a list of status flags, the entity behaviors would set and unset those flags, and it would select what animation to play from the list by choosing the highest priority one with valid flags. This required me to do a lot of weird workarounds, like breaking the name of the currently playing animation up into a bunch of tags which were set to status flags so I could properly transition animations, and setting each animation frame as a special status so that I could sync sound effects to a specific frame. It worked, but it was becoming clear that the more different options an entity could choose the more of a clusterfuck all these extra status flags were going to become – and, when it comes time to create a boss enemy who has 5-10 attacks available as well as all the other special animations, it just didn’t seem like a feasible system long term.

So, I created a new system. This system still looks at the entity’s status, but instead of just looking for true/false comparisons it can do a number of basic comparisons with the status value against any arbitrary comparand. Now, rather than breaking the file path into string statuses that I check individually, I can just check if the current animation path value contains or doesn’t contain a string. Instead of setting each frame as a status I can just check if the frame I’m on is equal to 6 or 15 or whatever. Rather than setting a ‘running’ status when my entity’s movement speed exceeds a certain threshold, I can compare against its x velocity directly. It’s pretty handy!

Also, in the process of building this new conditional system I ended up generalizing some of my save/load code, pulling out everything I’d written for my entity template class to convert raw data into xml values. This is also likely to be something which helps a great deal in the long run, since this sort of thing comes up often: Any time now that I don’t know the specific type of data I’m about to save to xml, I have this tool to help. So that’s also a side benefit. Heck, I’ll just throw it up on Pastebin now in case anyone could use something like that.

The throw animation I created last time looks good but I think I need to add new frames to it, so that means I’m probably going to have to import it back into Photoshop so I can recreate it – having, as I mentioned last week, accidentally failed to save this current revision. I’ve also noticed a bunch of funky problems with the entity AI, which were subtle enough to evade my notice for a while but which I’m noticing more and more as I test. Once I address both of these, this version of the enemy should be pretty much up and running. The next version should be trivial, since it’s a fairly natural extension of the first two versions… but, you know, I’m sure there’s something I’m forgetting now which will make it a pain in the ass, because that’s how these things go.

Grumpy_Snail

Something I’ve learned anew with each new medium I tackle is that, as much as the breadth and reach of human imagination is amazing, imagination is terrible at the details. Starting out, when one has an idea for a piece to create, it’s nice to imagine that it’s all planned out, set out and mapped in the mind, immaculate and ready to manifest. It’s a nice illusion, isn’t it? The truth is, whatever is constructed in our mind is a summation of symbols and shorthand, a patchwork cardboard cutout version of an actual artistic creation. When you try to draw that out, to sketch an image of it on a pad or to turn its tones into notes and instruments or to codify its behavior into a set of rules, you quickly spot the holes in what you believed you had imagined to completion.

The trick is, when we look at something in our mind it’s constantly changing shape. If you notice a part of it isn’t detailed enough, the very act of noticing makes that detail take shape, while still adding nothing to the completion of the image overall.

This is why everyone says ‘idea men’ are useless. Everyone has ideas, and most of them are skeletal and, in many cases, self-contradictory. It’s the job of artists and engineers to fill in that skeleton. Okay: This may seem obvious. But my point is that, contrary to the conception of the idea as being the model of the piece with all the work going into realizing that model, the idea is more like a note scribbled on a napkin – even if it’s your own idea – even if you think you’ve thought of everything – it’s an illusionary completion, and the more work you put into it the more holes you’ll find in the surface that once seemed perfect, smooth, pristine.

Our imaginations are so robust that they imagine themselves to be more complete than they are.

Here’s the upshot. If you haven’t actually done the work of being an artist, if you haven’t tried to take your idea and turn it into something substantial, you, to be blunt, basically don’t know shit about your own idea. If there was a machine that could reach directly into your mind and translate what you’re thinking into a real solid object, to record your thoughts directly to a film reel, it would be an incomprehensible mess. That’s what thoughts are! That’s what all of us start with! And, if you had this miracle machine, if you practiced with it day after day, maybe you could make the stuff that comes out of your brain start to take the shape you want, the shape you thought you were imagining. Maybe, eventually, you’d have something you could share with everyone else. And in the process of creating this, the way you see the world would start to change – you’d notice more, analyze more, interpret more…

That’s art. That’s 80% of the work right there, filling in those gaps, figuring out the little details, making everything solid, consistent. The rest is just mechanical, all in the wrists and the ankles, a list of facts and formulas, a bunch of friends and connections, and/or a budget. Depending on your medium.

If you haven’t tried actually creating something, instead of just thinking about how amazing the thing you could make would be if you made it, I recommend it. It will change you. It will make you realize, in a way you simply cannot if you don’t try yourself, both the incredible patchy shallowness of imagination and its indescribable reach and flexibility.

Whether you end up actually creating anything, in the end, is incidental.

EveHeader

Well, I made an improved version of the throwing animation prototype. This is normally the place where I would embed a gif of the animation, but like a true creative genius I completely failed to save the finished version of the file and lost it right after exporting the frames. The good news, I suppose, is that since these are just prototype animations once it comes time to build the finished frames I can just import those frames into the sprite program and build the final animation from there. The corresponding bad news is that I’m going to have to redo a bunch of the work if I want to make this entity’s animations genuinely two-sided rather than just flipping the frames.

All in all, it’s a mistake I’d rather I hadn’t made.

Well, whatever. It hasn’t been a very productive week, since most of it has just been about improving things I did last week. There were problems in the trajectory calculations which I spent an embarrassing amount of time hammering my head against, and those have been fixed. There were problems with the throwing animation which I think I’ve addressed, though not without creating additional problems which I’ve just mentioned.  I’ve been feeling suboptimal about my own creative abilities and stressed out and anxious, so the last couple of days I’ve been mostly taking as vacation as far as EverEnding is concerned.

I don’t know. I guess progress is getting made.

Anyway, this alternate enemy version is at least getting close to done. I need to tweak the AI a bit so it chases the player when provoked, but only a short distance before returning to its origin position: The current pursuit code will pursue as long as it can, rather than breaking off pursuit based on an overall strategy, so that’s an obvious place to improve this type of ranged enemy. The animations for throwing are basically ready to go now, but the supporting animation-playing code isn’t quite where it needs to be yet, since there isn’t an easy way to tell the difference between which attack animation is supposed to be played at run-time, so that’s something I’m going to have to address in the way the enemy is set up. All in all it’s a bunch of easy tasks which, added together, become rather stressful and overwhelming — but, well, that’s game dev for ya.

There’s two ways to make art. One way is to believe that you have something unique and special to contribute to the world, that something that you can create is worthwhile in some grander sense: The other is to not care about that at all, to purely enjoy the process of creation without paying any attention to what reception, if any, your creation might have.

I’m jealous of anyone who can consistently maintain either of these states. Frankly, I’m a bit skeptical whether any such person exists. For me, these towers of art rise up on either side, and I’m in the middle trying to build a platform that I can suspend between them, something that makes sense as a place to stay. I can’t consistently feel joy in my work, but I can make it habitual, routine, a part of my life that doesn’t need to be questioned or planned, simply done. I can’t consistently believe that my creations are exceptional, or interesting, or valuable to anyone but myself, but I can, on occasion, manage to believe that there’s some quirk, some angle, some honest soulful weirdness that will draw people in, even if neither they nor I know why.

It’s a kind of faith, I guess. It’s a certainty that going anywhere, even slowly, haltingly, is better than sitting in place. It’s a knowledge that even if no one else really likes anything I make, I’ll still be happier at being the creator of art no one likes than the creator of nothing at all.

This isn’t a problem I get to solve once. This is a problem I get to solve over and over, as I grow and shift, as the camera through which I see the world raises and lowers, twists and zooms. The way my skin is slowly replaced with a new skin, I need to slowly replace the scaffolding of assumptions and habits that I work from to create art. The person who began writing this is not quite the same person who will finish writing it, both due to this natural and ongoing wilt and bloom and also due to the tiny transformations created by the act of creation itself.

As soon as I succeed by my personal standards, I revise those standards to make success something I still have to strive for, a distant goal, always past grasp, so I never get too comfortable: Thus, by my own standards, I am always a failure. Also, because I’m not independently wealthy, I am a failure by the standards of capitalism. It’s not that this doesn’t hurt: The trick is not to mind that it hurts. Success and failure are just distractions to the process of being a creator. Standards are useful primarily, not as something to reach or fail to reach, but as guidelines to calibrate one’s approach.

These down days, sad days, days when I don’t know what I’m doing or why: these are calibration. Soon, probably, the red light will turn green. Maybe it already has. Maybe I’m color blind. Calibrating, calibrating: analyzing: modeling an environment, building a routine, this work is never done, but bit by bit it becomes part of me and goes on in the background, slid against the back of my ribs like a heartbeat.