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Monthly Archives: December 2016

sistine

One of the hardest lessons for me when it comes to art is that it’s not always possible to take a piece that is unsatisfactory and work on it for long enough to make it good. This is counter-intuitive, especially when it comes to digital work: After all, it’s just a collection of pixels, infinitely malleable, so surely if I just work long enough the pixels will come aligned in just the right way, come together to form the incredible work of art that I know could be there. So they may, given enough time and effort, but it’s just as likely, or more so, that all that work merely serves to blur the outline that first gave it energy and potential.

At first I was hesitant to work in physical media for this reason. It terrified me to think that each stroke, each movement of the brush and each fleck of pigment, was an irrevocable decision that shaped the piece, with no undo button available. Well, I’m still not entirely comfortable with that, but it’s become more apparent to me over time that pixels aren’t so different. In theory, they are completely controllable: In practice, that is not how artwork is made, and each stroke, each randomly generated fleck, becomes part of the history of a piece, shapes its final form in subtle ways.

Though I’m speaking here in terms of visual art, the principle holds true in all forms. The words we choose matter, even if they are edited out later; the code we write matters, even when it gets refactored; the melodies that go unused, the frames that are redundant, the level that gets cut for time, these all still make their mark on the finished work. Every step we take in creating changes the creation, even those we take pains to erase – perhaps especially those we take pains to erase.

However, no stroke matters more than the first. The first motion of brush or pen, the first sentence, the first object you orient in your program, these form the shape of all that is to come. This is why there’s such a focus on doing quick works, in gesture drawing and game jams; it’s all about practicing that initial motion, so that when the time comes for polish we find ourselves polishing gems rather than turds.

Thus artists have a complex and tense relationship with ideas. The idea is the spirit of that first stroke, and placed properly it can form the basis of a masterpiece. Or, perhaps, rather than being the first stroke it might be the accent, the perfect twist that adds the character that distinguishes a work. However, ideas are in all cases worthless without the effort and mastery to put them into practice.

Additionally, the difference between an idea and the idea is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning*. Bereft of context, there’s no such thing as a good idea: It is the context within which an idea is made manifest that makes it a fumble or a master stroke. An idea is simultaneously invaluable and valueless, priceless and worthless; we write them down and hoard them because we never know which idea we will need, but also know that no idea is valuable unless it can actually be realized.

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thomaswasalone

The mechanics of a game shape our perception of its characters. Samus, of the Metroid series, was perceived as stoic and resourceful, largely because the design of Metroid demanded resourcefulness of its players and had no real way to express personality or character. When Other M came out, an entry in the series that focused more on plot and less on scavenging in a hostile world, many people felt that Samus was out of character – particularly outside of Japan, where supplemental materials like comics had built additional characterization that made the adjustment less jarring.

It’s an inversion of role-playing, where the role gets built around play rather than the play built around the role. The way the character moves, accelerates, jumps – or the way the character interacts with NPCs, rescues or threatens or kills – or the way the character solves puzzles, pushes blocks or finds secret passages – these come to define the character, much the same as the ways the character chooses to dress or speak. Because these mechanics themselves emerge from the personality of the designers, the level designers and gameplay programmers and artists and musicians, the thumbprint is unique and difficult to replicate. Each game has a unique personality, and to a substantial degree the personality of the protagonist is just the personality of the game, anthropomorphized, in a way that no amount of supplemental storytelling materials or promotional tie-ins can mitigate.

It raises an interesting question: How do we express character within games, and is it possible to change the way a game plays while leaving the personality of its protagonist intact? The difficulty this hints at, the intimate tie between the a way a game can be experienced and the protagonist who is expressed, may hint at why so many adapted properties, games-of-movies and games-of-tv-shows and games-of-comics, feel so unsatisfying. And perhaps, as well, this is why it feels so strange when the sequel to a game doesn’t adhere closely to the design of its predecessor: A feeling, when playing, that not only is this game not quite the game you played before, but neither is this character the character that you thought you knew.

It’s not necessarily a problem. With the current trend of rebooting old series, the characterization brought in by new mechanics can be exciting and invigorating in its own right. In the original Prince of Persia games, there’s very little explicit characterization – however, because of the realistic action and animation and the extremely lethal gameplay, the protagonist ends up mostly coming off as a hapless victim to be guided to safety by the player. Conversely, in the ‘Sands of Time’ reboot, the newfound focus on beautiful acrobatic maneuvers and on negating the lethality of mistakes through more forgiving game design dovetailed into the character of a relaxed, affable, and confident prince. However, when the sequel to that game decided to focus more on combat, the prince became less affable and more angry – in each case, the characterization was clearly led by game design decisions, but came to manifest as a character the player could relate to, as the obstacles and achievements of the player were manifested through those the protagonist faced within the story.

Your character is a character long before she begins to look like one – before design, before graphics, before sound or writing, when she’s just a cube or capsule sliding around in a testing environment, even then she begins to take form as a personality, just by the little numeric changes you make to define her motion.

paintedworldbridge

The scariest thing about art to me now is not the tyranny of the blank page, but the certainty when I begin that I have no real idea where I’m going.

I have meticulously planned out every moment of my game, and right now the version of it in my head is good but I don’t think it’s great. This is scary to me, because this is a huge chunk of my life to spend on something if I’m not going to be satisfied with the result – I suppose that’s true for a lot of game development, but since I’m not sharing the development with a team all that weight falls squarely on my head. However, what I know about art and what I know about game development is that the magic isn’t in the plan, it’s in the moment of creation, in the poignant details and pivotal moments.

Nevertheless, as Eisenhower said, plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable. Every decision I make now is still going to be important, just not important in the ways I expect. There’s a butterfly’s lifetime worth of hurricanes between here and there, and my control over how this plays out is simultaneously absolute and negligible.

Right now, I have the blueprints for a bridge, but I don’t know where I’m going to be building it or what I’m going to be building it out of. With what I have now, I know that – depending on what comes next – it could either collapse or it could create a pathway to someplace no one has ever been before, and which of those happens depends partially on me, my expertise and artistic instinct, but just as much on chance and happenstance.

And I have to build it. This is how the job is done. This is how art is made.

We walk by falling forwards into each new step, over and over again*. To expect to be ready for the fall, to be certain of the recovery, is too much to ask, so each step we take forward is a tiny leap of faith. We keep doing it because to do otherwise is to stand in place, and any room can be purgatory if you stand there long enough, and with each moment you wait to take a step your legs will just get heavier.

So what I’m saying is that this is scary, and I think my game could be bad, but it’s also necessary, and I think my game could be great – and that I expect to always feel this way, forever, even after EverEnding, and that if I ever lose this feeling then something has gone wrong, and I will find that all of a sudden I am standing in place – and, even if the scenery looks like it’s moving, it’s just the flickering of a screen that someone forgot to turn off. Then it’s time to walk, or fall, again.

*Thanks Laurie Anderson

EveHeader

This post is a few days late, and there’s several reasons for that. I mean, first, I just forgot for a couple of days, but there’s actually a good reason too. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been participating in the Idle Thumbs Wizard Jam, a 2-week game creation event. For the early days I was just working on my project concurrently with all of the stuff I normally work on, but near the end I was really hammering on the project. Anyway, it’s a small project but I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. You can check it out here. New versions may be forthcoming once I recover from the last few days, but in the meanwhile I need to take a break and catch up on other work.

I may actually start doing these a bit later in the month as actual policy rather than accident. Ends of months tend to be rather congested – I may start just scheduling these updates for the 5th of each month instead of the 1st.

Anyway, I still got plenty of work done before the Jam and during its early days. While I’m not as ahead of schedule as I’d hoped to be, I think I’m still comfortably within the parameters I’ve set, with 34/51 tasks done for this three-month block and 8 preemptively done for the next three-month block. At this point, all of the right-facing animations are complete, and I’m well on my way to finishing the left-facing animations, with just the hit stun, defeat, and harvest animations left to complete. Also, a few new animations were created when I noticed the motion seemed less than fluid, such as an animation for landing from a jump or completing a rising attack. I foresee no difficulties finishing the player character animations this month, though I do expect to have to spend a few days polishing up the animations and fixing minor continuity errors once I have them mostly done. Aside from that animation work, most of what needs to be done to keep on schedule is creating a couple more simple tilesets and building out some of the early levels at finished quality.

standing-harvest-loop-right

nick-and-ornstein-and-smough

There’s this guy who watches these Dark Souls streams called Problem Machine, and he occasionally gives me shit like: “He’s not going to do it this time,” you know, just like “This is going to be a bad podcast,” “he’s completely gone, look at him, he’s got no mental acuity, this is pointless, he should just go to bed.” And I was like okay this is the run I’m going to prove to this guy that I can do this.

I’ve been watching Nick Breckon of Idle Thumbs stream his playthrough of Dark Souls, and been trying to give advice in chat as to what to do next, where to go, how to approach problems, and so forth. This is a contentious act: Many people, myself among them, believe Dark Souls is an experience best approached as a puzzle to be solved, and that offering guidance undermines that experience. Still, when someone wants information on where to go next, I’m pleased to offer it for basically the reason that I will always love talking about Dark Souls.

And now I’m getting defamed on podcasts. What a betrayal!

To clarify: I said almost none of those, and if I did say any of them they were in a desperate attempt to get someone who was hammering on a boss fight at 1am before recording a podcast the next day to go to sleep. As it turns out he eventually did go to sleep and beat the boss in three tries the next day.

I’m not too big a man to say “I told you so”.

Anyway: It’s something that will always be surprising and interesting to me, how two people can both participate in the same conversation and come away with a completely different understanding of that conversation. I see myself as a helpful guide through the world of Dark Souls, and apparently Nick sees me as some kind of unpleasable Dark Souls chat dad.

But it also makes me think about why I’m so invested in his adventure. And maybe there’s something cathartic, right now, at this point in time, at yelling advice out from the crowd and having it be taken one time out of a hundred – because as frustrating as that is sometimes, it’s still a hell of a lot better a ratio than the one I manage in my day-to-day.

Everyone I know is feeling pretty powerless right now. In the same way that playing video games can be a fun way to play with empowerment, playing Cassandra to a hapless Nick Breckon can be a fun way to play with helplessness, trying to steer a train as it goes off a cliff. I guess, then, that I can’t be entirely blameless for whatever comes of it.