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Monthly Archives: October 2016

wolfman

Halloween keeps growing. More and more over time, this act of pretending, and of naked greed for candy, has defined who we are. It’s expanded, taken over the entire month. October is Halloween now. It’s a couple of days before the 31st, and here’s a Halloween-themed blog post. Case in point

It’s strange thinking about the rise of Halloween and what it might mean. I’m beginning to feel as though we may, gradually, be coming to be more comfortable in each others’ skins. We’ve all become actors. We play games where we are something else. We become monsters for candy.

We use pretending to be something else to find ourselves.

We learn to play our first part so young, learning to act as children are expected to act – Not very well, at first, but learning very quickly, until our very ideas of what we can be are circumscribed by the roles described to us. Eventually we get to grow out of the extremely narrow role of ‘child’, but often those available to us aren’t much more desirable: Good student, bad student, nerd, jock, thug, boy, girl, worker, wife – further narrowed by our appearance and background, until often we find ourselves typecast into just one identity. Some people actually come to believe those identities accurately represent themselves, are the whole of what they are. Some people become incredibly angry at the suggestion that there might be something beyond these roles.

Being able to transcend that for a day, or a month, is precious. Being able to break out of the skin and become something else, perhaps even something disgusting and terrifying, is what lets us discover new ways of being.

We put on other skins. In games, creating the textures for in-game objects is called, grotesquely, skinning. It’s like we hunted polygons, small game but so satisfying. We skin ourselves and reskin our selves as we learn to do it better, each layer of our identity painted on over the last, and sometimes a bit gets scraped off and you find a version of you that you forgot ever existed.

It gets easier every time, and we start trying out new identities for fun. Mostly games are the simplest version of this, simple badass power fantasies, but they still allow us to express some inkling of identity through them, to pick a hat or a shirt without any risk of looking like a guy wearing a stupid hat or ugly shirt, to bust a sweet move even when we are not comfortable with our bodies in motion, even if that move has the side effect of kicking a demon’s face off. We became heroes in private, defined ourselves by overcoming impossible challenges that were actually easy, took the mantle of a champion without ever winning a real championship.

But isn’t it strange how Halloween’s huge upswing in popularity coincides with the emergence of a medium that is all about Pretending to Be. Isn’t it interesting, and a bit hopeful, that more people than ever are able and content to pretend to be exactly what they are, without fear of repercussion. This kind of creative being and becoming wasn’t just now invented, but it’s spread so far, taken over this entire month, taken over this entire medium, and this wave is so powerful and exciting, even if, in practice, so much of this pretending amounts to playing with murder and power fantasy. It’s all just Halloween. All just red food coloring and corn starch, a way to pretend at monstrosity to define humanity.

These identities grew around us so gradually, we didn’t notice them rise over our heads and put us in their shadows. We grew up making user names and secret passwords, making masks and playing secret roles, became spies, the identities piled up around us, each a tiny shard of who we were.

simpsons3d

How is a number like a hero? How is an equation like a tragedy?

First: The world as we perceive is not the world as it is. As we perceive the world we live in, through our sense of sight and sound and touch, we break everything down into symbols that our brain can comprehend and work with. Because those symbols are internally consistent, we can still interact with the world as though we are part of it – which, of course, we are. Our minds are always at one level removed: The brain sees the world, converts it into a symbolic understanding, and then operates on those symbols to decide what to do next, sending instructions to the body which thereby affects the world, and so forth.

This symbolic system is unique from person to person, comprised by the specific tissues and issues of each brain. Therefore, we create an other symbol system, language, to translate between these. It’s kind of like the same OS running on different kinds of hardware: The programs are the same, but the metal that interprets them is different, and sometimes this causes problems. Realistically, the languages we use are prone to a lot more error than actual programming languages, relying a lot more on abstractions and inferences. Much gets lost in communication. It remains to be seen whether this aspect of language is feature or bug.

We have another language we created, one that’s not prone to losing information: Mathematics. The only thing that makes mathematics useful and relevant is that it’s possible to convert real world systems to mathematical systems, operate on them as mathematical systems, and then convert back to real-world systems and have the effects translate perfectly.

Couldn’t we do that with any internally consistent system? Actually, we have: Geometry is a discipline separate from mathematics, though they are often used together, and itself represents an internally consistent system. Perhaps the different instruction sets of computer hardware could be regarded as such, though they are so mathematically grounded and implemented that it is difficult to separate them from the field of mathematics. It’s scary to think, though, that maybe we missed one. Maybe there’s an internally consistent system of symbols that, if we were to use it, could completely open up a whole new fields of thought. Maybe there are an infinite number of such systems, each one boundless in its applications and implications.

It’s interesting how, viewed through this lens of internally consistent simulations built of symbols, the mathematics we use start to resemble the stories we tell. We craft a reality that operates on its own internally consistent rules (build the world), operate on it (tell the story), and then translate that back to our own world (find the message/moral). Mathematical problem solving is a form of very specific parable for solving very quantifiable problems.

And now we have the video game, which exists with one foot in each world; built on mathematics, scripted by storytellers, a literal world of possibilities waiting to be expanded. What could we discover, as we did with storytelling, as we did by math and geometry, with the parables these worlds could tell us?

froggy

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how finding an audience is tied to finding a community, and generally being more open as a way to access more energy and creativity. Since then, I’ve been trying to be more active in game dev communities, posting about my work, seeing what people are talking about, et cetera. It doesn’t come naturally or easily to me, but I’ve made some progress at least.

Here’s something I learned very quickly: There are reasons I’ve shut myself off. They aren’t all good reasons, but it wasn’t an accident. When I talked about making myself a conduit to allow energy to flow rather than a dam to conserve it, I failed to consider that it’s not always necessarily fun being filled with energy. I didn’t get much sleep the first week. I’ve shut myself off a bit more since then to recover, but I have ambitions to push myself further again so I can probably anticipate more acute anxiety and sleeplessness and productivity and – all of a sudden it makes a lot of sense why so many indie devs get so much done and seem so frazzled all the time. I just opened that door a crack, I can barely imagine living directly in that stream of human idea and energy.

We all find ways to close off a bit, even if some of us are more overt about it than others. Many people who are exposed to the public stop listening because the voices are too numerous and the need too acute. Others shy away from the public completely and publish work from a distance. Some listen at certain times and then lock themselves away to work at others. It’s a negotiation that happens per person, trying to find a way to live close enough to the stream of human consciousness that they can fish in it without drowning in it.

Of course, I’m nowhere near drowning in it, it’s a two-mile hike to get to the stream to get idea water but I used to have drowning nightmares so even a light misting can freak me out and this metaphor has gotten out of hand.

Everyone is exposed, everyone is hungry, everyone wants to be heard and is struggling to listen. Just paying attention to the salivating throb of the creative economy can be difficult because it’s an open question how many of these people will have their needs met, and whether I can be helpful at all in doing so – even before considering whether my own hunger to be heard will ever be fed. There are so many people creating art and music, making games and writing stories, and all of these have value but how many of them will find an audience? How much audience is there, out there, to find?

In a world where success is defined as a financial self-sufficiency that demands thousands of sales, if more than 0.01% of people are creators and each creator has limited time to consume the work of others… when are we so saturated with creation that trying to share an audience becomes impossible?

the_screaming_oak

There’s a narrow line that games have to walk when it comes to story. On one side, we have a story that seems not to acknowledge that it’s kind of stupid that you spend most of the time in it shooting everyone in the face and grabbing anything that’s the slightest bit valuable. On the other, we have a story about how stories don’t matter and you’re just here to shoot things and grab stuff. I find both of these deeply unsatisfying.

“Well,” you might say, “then why don’t we just make games that aren’t just mechanically motivated by shooting and looting?” Which is a real good question but let’s look past that for now because, you know, even if we make a lot of those, the ol’ rooty tooty shoot’n’looty is still an appealing formula and we’re probably going to want to keep on making them. Sometimes I want to shoot something in the head or buy a magic sword. However, I don’t need or want the game to pretend that this makes me the god among men who is the real cool hero no matter what the kids at school say; at the same time, I also don’t want the game to make stupid jokes about all of the EPIC LOOTZ I will find when I go into this HILARIOUSLY contrived situation because games r dum, right? I would like the game to provide a premise wherein I have a reason to want a sweet fucking magic sword, a situation where finding that sword is possible, and let me go. I don’t need to be told I’m the chosen one, I don’t need to save the world, I just need to be able to exist in a situation where I could plausibly want to defeat an opponent or find an interesting item for something beyond its own sake.

Even if my in-game motivation is solely greed, solely my character wanting to have a luxurious retirement in a nice castle somewhere, that still a reasonable and relatable motivation – one that makes a lot more sense than that of most game characters, at that. I would very much like to be rich right now myself. And yet even these flimsy justifications rarely get used, tossed aside either for grand stakes that are completely unrelatable (The end of the world at a minimum – usually the end of the universe) or for nudges and chuckles about how it’s all about the lootz and the sweet 360 no-scopes and jesus fucking christ just kill me already.

So many games give every impression that they hate games. They would either rather ignore everything game-like about themselves and try to be very important and serious (please ignore how absurd the actions you’re taking are whenever a cutscene isn’t playing), or present everything about themselves as a joke (haha you’re an idiot for caring about this world and therefore spending any time in it), than engage with what they are. I can’t help but feel that a big unspoken reason for the success of the Souls games is that they present what’s going on as significant without pandering to the player’s sense of self-importance. Sure, you’re the ‘chosen one’… but it turns out there’s been plenty of chosen ones before you and most of them just went crazy down in a hole.

Yeah, I know, it’s also annoying that every essay keeps turning into a rant about how Dark Souls gets everything right. Don’t think I’m not also frustrated. I’ve been frustrated for a long time.

I never really recovered from my disappointment with Left 4 Dead 2. Even its protagonists didn’t take it seriously, couldn’t treat the death of everything they’d ever known as anything but a fun zombie-themed vacation. It’s a Video Game Sequel: Everything becomes bigger and more explosive and more ‘awesome’, at the cost of complexity and nuance. Because, yeah, Left 4 Dead was an action-packed shoot-fest, but it also had tiny moments of genuine horror and sorrow. Apparently, judging by the fan reaction, I was one of the only ones to miss those when they were gone.

It’s just easier to make a game a caricature of games, make it all about shooting zombies and blowing things up. Because, hey, if everything is maximum stupidity, then it all fits together, right? So much for ludonarrative dissonance.

EveHeader

I worked on two major things this month. First was the rolling animations, which are the two most complex animations in the main character’s animation set, with the possible exception of the running animations. I’ve gotten better at doing animations so the work moved faster, but these two just have an awful lot of frames and each frame is different enough from the last that there aren’t a lot of shortcuts one can take.

crouching-roll-left crouching-roll-right
You can also see that these are two of the most different animations of the left/right flip versions, so again they defy shortcutting for that reason as well. These animations, with their high rate of contact with the ground, raise an interesting issue: Right now, all of the main character animations have a cyan outline to make sure she pops against dark backgrounds – perhaps unnecessary, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. However, the outline disappears where she contacts the ground, which is usually fine because she only contacts at a relatively narrow point. However, with the roll animation she makes contact all along the ground, especially while her hair drags across it. It looks fine on flat terrain, but on slopes or coming off of a ledge it’s obvious where the outline ends. Of course the animation looks a bit off in other ways at those moments since it kind of assumes a flat ground surface, but that’s by far the most noticeable. I still haven’t decided what to do about that. Maybe I should remove the outline and create a programmatic solution, see if I can bang out some code to make her pop out the way the outline does. Or maybe that’s all unnecessary, maybe the white cloth will make her show even on backgrounds where her darker tones would otherwise fade in. Or maybe I should bump all the animations up a pixel, extend the outline underneath them, and then make it so in-game they all draw one pixel lower. Not sure yet. I guess the smartest thing would be to start experimenting with just removing the outlines and then go from there.

The other part of the game I’ve been working on is a stone tileset. You may recall me working on stone before, and though I decided that weird wet-looking tileset worked fairly well in the cave area, it looks pretty terrible outdoors amidst the grass. It took several days of experimentation to find a stone tileset that looked good outside, and it turned out that restraint was key. Most stone, it turns out, is basically the same color as itself: Adding a lot of details and cracks made it look like ruined bricks or stone blasted apart by some catastrophic event. However, creating blocks with just a bit of patterning, either something kind of rough and scaley for uncut/broken stone or something almost flat but with slight patterning for that more man-made look, really seemed to do the trick. I also took the technique I used before of creating different lighting levels and using them to sort of draw a three-dimensional looking chunk of rock out of sets of simple tiles. There’s still flaws in the result, but I am quite pleased enough with it to table it for now until the rest of the game progresses to the point where its flaws are more noticeable.

stonetiles005

For the next month I’ll probably be focusing on a) creating attack animations, b) creating transitional tiles so the stone tiles actually fit into their environment, and c) developing some of the early levels to actually use all the tiles I’ve been making and look decent. I’ll also need to start seriously considering how to go about enacting the ideals espoused in the Problem Machine blog post earlier today, but that’s going to be a long road and I’m not sure what shape it will take yet. Still, lots to look forward to!

wilson

I am not an outgoing person. This is a trait that represents a significant obstacle as an artist, and I’m just now beginning to see how much of my time and effort has gone towards denying these problems rather than mitigating them.

As long as I’ve been working, I’ve pursued the hermit model of effort – basically, this is the model where everyone leaves me the fuck alone, I do a good job, and everything works out. This actually worked okay when I was a paid employee, since my effectiveness could be easily measured by whether or not I accomplished the goals that were set out for me, but now that I’m self-employed? Now that I set my own goals, evaluate my own progress? It is no longer feasible.

It’s hard to hear that I’ve been doing things wrong, but every time I take a step back to think things through it’s a conclusion that is difficult to avoid.

Art is performance. It is playing a role and communicating through that role. It’s seeing your audience and touching them and being touched by them, though usually not physically for legal reasons. I have habitually avoided this and all other contact for a very long time. And, because I’ve avoided all performance and direct audience engagement, I’ve been able to convince myself that the technique of creating art is separable from the technique of presenting it to an audience in a way that it is essentially not.

The marketing is the product and the product is the marketing, to put it in the most disgusting way possible. The reason why I put it this way is to demonstrate that even sometimes very important ideas can become overgrown and diseased by the instruments of capitalistic selection, and like a swollen body part begin to seem separate from what they belong to. The moment marketing became a separate word, it became desirable for artists to separate their art from it, even though it’s just a particularly crass aspect of the hunger for an audience that unites all artists.

I’ve been watching indie games for a while, even if I haven’t been participating as much as I should have. I’ve seen who gets to be successful, and it seems most often to be the person who makes a good enough game in the right place at the right time. This isn’t the same thing as saying success is luck. Being part of a community shows you where the places and times are, tells you what time to be there and what wine to bring. Being open about your work, sharing your process and opening up your hopes to your peers and to your audience is the aspect of art that has metastasized to become marketing.

I find myself, now, standing apart from most of the things that I know contribute to success. I work reasonably hard reasonably regularly, but I rarely tell anyone what I’m doing beyond the most cursory of details. I don’t participate in development communities, don’t ask for help or try to help others, don’t collaborate on projects, don’t share my own progress. I’ve built a dam to try to hold everything in because I’m so scared of losing parts of myself, and that means that everything I give is out of my own personal reservoir – I can’t get excited by the excitement of others, I can’t learn from the learning of others, and I have no way of knowing, ever, whether anything I do is interesting or worthwhile to anyone but myself.

Over the last few months I’ve had several basil plants die on me because I was overwatering them, once a day, because that was simplest, that required me to pay the least attention, that was an obvious rule I could follow. I can’t help but feel like there was a lesson for me, there, and I can’t help but feel that everything I’ve done in the name of my own personal project, all the side-work I’ve avoided and all of the aspects of life I’ve avoided due to what I considered dedication have not actually been to the project’s best benefit.

What happens next is not easy or simple. What happens next is a world of possibilities, another reason I’ve been avoiding it. What happens next is I try to find a place to be, people to connect with, peers to teach and learn from. I don’t know where I’ll start and I don’t know how long it will take, but I know it will be its own process and, like any other skill I’ve taught myself, will be a long and painful road, one where I must find and face my own inadequacies over and over to proceed – but, in this case, my failures will be public, rather than private as I have always sought to make them.

This will not easy for me, possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. However, someday it will be the second hardest, then the third, until one day I forget it as I have forgotten my first steps, as I grow and learn. Or so I can hope.