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Monthly Archives: August 2016

EveHeader

Another month, another set of animations. At this point I’ve got all of the basic movement animations nailed down, so next up is fixing minor issues with them and expanding out into the special movement and attack animations. These animations are generally longer and more complicated, but there aren’t as many of them so hopefully it will be manageable regardless. I feel like I’m really starting to get the hang of converting my prototypes into final animations, too, very quickly using them to build outlines and filling those outlines with something that feels properly expressive. Early on I was trying to pull a lot of shortcuts, using the prototype as a mask for the colors which resulted in a lot of barely visible transparent pixels messing with the frame. I’m glad I saved most of the complicated animations for later, since I think I will be way more able to tackle them now.

The other big thing I’ve done this month was go in and get the lighting system working properly in-game. This actually ended up taking a lot of debugging of weird problems with the parameter editor that only emerged when I created a behavior class that inherited from another behavior class, since it wasn’t set up to deal with that. Now that I can properly use the entity/parameter editor to get lighting entities into the game and assign info to them, I can see that there’s still a lot of improvements to make – but it’s now, at least, very easy to make a dark room, and beginning to be possible to achieve more complex effects. It’s not a realistic lighting system, there’s no directional lighting or anything, but it can still achieve a number of interesting overlay effects that are reminiscent of the representations of light and darkness that were used in older games. In the animation below you can see most of the basic movement animations at play and also see the ‘lighting’ system used to create a foggy environment. It’s still got a ways to go, and there are a number of features I’d like to add, as well as numerous details I want to add to really sell the fog effect, but the visuals are kind of starting to come together now and at least vaguely resemble the game I want this game to be.

adl 2016-08-31 23-24-23-25

Next month will largely be more of the same: Attack/movement animations, more refined and advanced fog/darkness effects, and probably some forays into creating rain/fog details to finalize the look of the fog. I probably won’t get to it over the next month, but the hills also look quite sparse here, and will also eventually be augmented with environmental details that should make things a lot more interesting.

I’ve ended up on an impromptu vacation due to someone else cancelling. This wouldn’t necessarily keep me from writing a post, but no ideas have readily sprung to mind and I haven’t had the motivation to wrack my brains for any. But that’s fine, because it turns out it’s been a long time since I’ve done a music post, which means both that I’ve been good about posting regularly so I can feel okay with missing one and that I’ve got a fair amount of music ready to go here for just such an occasion!

akgandalf

Magic sucks. We’ve fucked it up. We’ve made it boring. We’ve taken something that, conceptually, contains the range of all things unexplainable, extraordinary, and mystical, and compressed it into essentially an invisible sack of hand grenades.

This isn’t just a problem with video games. It might have started with Dungeons & Dragons: D&D was originally created by combining the strategic play of war games with the high fantasy setting of The Lord of the Rings, and this origin still shapes what games are today, as well as what magic is within those games. However, while wizards and magic were an important part of the stories of Middle-Earth, these elements didn’t readily map to war game mechanics. Reading the books, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s magic and what’s just everyday cleverness, what’s mystical knowledge and what’s just regular everyday knowledge. Most of the time, Gandalf is a badass, largely not because he casts spells, but because he is a tall man and he carries a long and very sharp sword – which is, itself, magic, but all that magic seems to do is make it cut through things real good. Though he’s got a few tricks in his pocket, the exact nature of these is never really made clear beyond that they murder the shit out of orcs.

However, this sort of ambiguity is antithetical to the systemic requirements of game design, particularly those of the war games of the time. So, instead, magic is changed to fit into those systems: Mysticism and the unseen become an engine to throw fireballs, magic missiles, lightning bolts, and various other mildly exotic projectiles.

And yet even Dungeons and Dragons had certain mystical components that have largely since been discarded, even in later editions. Rituals, reagents, incantations, everything that makes each spellcasting event significant is taken away in the name of convenience, and the potence of magic is similarly restrained. Sure, a big fireball may seem impressive, resurrecting a person is a true miracle, but both of these are tiny and manageable in scope by their design. The spells of prophecy, the spells that create dreams and nightmares, the spells that truly shape the world rather than just blowing up a small part of it are elided. They’re too complicated and, perhaps, to those with no imagination, too boring.

As they often do, the Discworld books bring this transformation and conflict directly into the fiction. Old wizards – and, since wizarding is a discipline that takes a long time to master, and once it does brings considerable longevity benefits, there are quite a lot of old wizards – they believe in tradition, in the rituals and incantations and the rare and grotesque reagents, your eyes of newt and troll blood and whatnot. Younger wizards believe in the empirical method, rather foolishly considering how rarely the Disc behaves rationally even outside of the magic-soaked Unseen University, and know that most of the ritual isn’t really necessary, and is really just a waste of time. The tension between them is sharp, but ameliorated by the younger set’s apparent disinterest in the traditional wizard games of self-promotion through assassination in favor of apocolyptically unwise magical experimentation.

In games, it’s difficult to create magic that’s about anything less immediate and obvious than a deus ex machina carrying a submachine gun or a panacea. Just as with war games, we’re constrained by the quantifiability of our systems, by the fact that in the end we need to turn everything into a set of instructions and numbers to be interpreted by a machine. The problem with expressing magic through games becomes the same as trying to express emotion through games, trying to find a way to convey something unseen but felt, powerful but immeasurable, through a system that can only be expressed via measurements and perceived through sight. Like the old wizards, we can only look helplessly on as the systems get faster and more efficient, ‘convenient’, and try to explain that something is lost when everything is found.

dotsillusion

Things don’t happen the way we remember them. We smooth out the rough edges, add new elements in where they seem like they should be. After a certain point, memory stops being history and becomes our story, a narrative with an arc, with heroes and villains, and it becomes hard to recall that it was ever any different.

Games don’t happen the way we remember them either. We fill parts in, we build a narrative. To some extent this is necessary: Early games, especially, could not faithfully represent a world, so relied on us to fill the gaps. Newer games still can’t faithfully represent a world – they fake it better, but still ask us to paper over the many and blatant gaps in the simulation. We’ve gotten very good at it. Some of us have gotten so good that we don’t even see the gaps any more, think of this simulated sandbox kind of realism as an actual reality.

It’s not. Not even close.

Most of the game exists in our head, not in the software. The way we move in games is not the way we remember moving. The way we fight in games is not the way we remember fighting. That dramatic jump across the gap was just a collision cylinder popping upwards and having enough horizontal velocity to touch the level geometry before touching the kill volume, but it becomes part of a story about a daring escape. Taking a series of steps forward in a turn-based game transforms in memory and imagination into a desperate rush, the collision error becomes a cunning dodge.

I’m not speaking of the disconnect between the game’s aesthetic and narrative and the systems that drive it, but the disconnect between the entirety of the game’s presentation and how the player experiences it. We may know the systems as player, know that we’re just a box in a world of boxes, but we write a story about the boxes. The way the red box slides along the ground becomes footsteps, a sense of human motion, a run even as running is unsupported by its appearance as a box. This is why games like Thomas Was Alone, a game where the characters really are just boxes, works. We fill it all in.

What we make when we make a game isn’t even creating an engine that creates the player’s experience, but an engine that creates frameworks for the player to hang their experiences on. This is why we can’t clutch too tight. This is why we must be careful about trying to answer all the questions, about trying to fill all the space, about trying to control the player’s experience – because the player’s actual experience isn’t about the world we make, or the characters we fill it with, or the systems we give them to interact with those characters, but what’s in between, what is unique to each player, something closer and more meaningful to them than anything we can intentionally create.

These are the games we are nostalgic for, the ones we remember playing but never seem quite the same going back and playing again. That game you played no longer exists because the person who played it, the person you were, no longer exists. All you can do as a player is find another wall on which to hang your tapestry, and all you can do as designer is to build a wall that might make a good home.

Estus Flask 1

In all the excitement over Dark Souls’ intricately detailed world, subtle storytelling, and tough-but-fair challenge, I think the simple extraordinary elegance of the estus flask is often overlooked.

For those of you who are not familiar with the systems of Dark Souls, the estus flasks are essentially reusable healing potions. You get a set number of them, usually five to start with, and can use one at any time to restore your health – however, this carries a risk, since using a flask leaves you immobile and defenseless for about a second, which is plenty of time for things to go catastrophically wrong. You can do things to increase the number of estus you can carry or increase the health restored with each use as well, but the basic system doesn’t change – and, in Dark Souls, these flasks are the main way to restore health, though it can also be done by using spells,which are limited in the exact same way as estus, or by a few other items which range from fairly uncommon to extremely rare.

To appreciate just how elegant estus flasks are, you have to compare them to the other popular systems for healing in games. Many games have healing items that you can use once, but this usually means that either they are rare and precious or they player has a functionally infinite supply. On the one side, the player is scared to use healing items because they don’t know when they’ll get more, and in the other the player can basically always be healed to full between encounters – not a bad thing inherently, but raises the question of, then, why not just refill the player’s health automatically between encounters, something which is indeed done in many later RPGs. Another popular system in use now is regenerating health, restoring the player to full whenever they manage to avoid damage for a while. This creates a flow between hiding and attacking which, um, I guess some people like, but results in a character who can absorb an essentially infinite amount of punishment for no apparent reason as long as they pace themselves when eating bullets.

Estus flasks combine these two systems. When in danger, you need to search for an opening, either by finding cover or exploiting a pause in your opponent’s attack pattern, just like with regenerating health. And, as with more traditional healing items, you have to be concerned with being efficient and effective in combat so that you don’t run out, without having to worry about conserving them for a hypothetical future where they might be more precious.

This may all seem like a fine detail, but the beloved balance of the game rests on the humble estus flask. Enemies can perform extremely high damage attacks that kill the player in just a few hits because the player always has a chance to recover to full: Thus, instead of the battle being one of attrition, where the player tries to keep the enemy from eroding their health, it becomes a tug-of-war, the player trying to keep their health above zero by creating opportunities to heal while evading the enemy attacks and still finding openings to attack their opponent and reduce their health to zero. The tension of the battles is every bit as much a product of the elegant design of the healing items as it is the design of the battles themselves.

Are estus flasks an unprecedented innovation? Well, not quite. In fact, I can think of one precedent, and it’s an interesting point of comparison: Far Cry 2. The healing syrettes in the secret best Far Cry function similarly to estus flasks and are limited to four at a time (upgradeable over the course of the game). They can, as well, be restocked at set points, though unlike in Dark Souls these are frequently in hostile territory, so the player has to put themselves at risk to do so. This results in much the same flow, though, where the player’s health can vanish to almost nothing in an instant, only to be recovered in a tense moment hiding from gunfire behind a tree, a lethal tug-of-war, replicated between two vastly dissimilar games.