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Monthly Archives: April 2018

I don’t consider myself exceptionally awkward in social situations, but I don’t think I’m particularly comfortable in them either. Much of the time, particularly in emotionally loaded moments, I have no idea what to say – no idea what an appropriate sentiment is for the occasion, no idea how to express something that isn’t hollow or tone-deaf. My usual tendency when I don’t know what to say is to say nothing, but sometimes nothing is just not an okay thing to say, and that tends to be when I run into issues.

These sorts of ambiguous situations, where anything could be expressed and all expressions seem insufficient, exist everywhere in life. However, when we make games, even when we try to simulate some aspect of life, this ambiguity is flattened. Dialogue is expressed through branching trees of pre-written choices, or in more ambitious attempts through some text parser or abstract sentiment generator – in the long run, no matter how the player expresses the sentiment, it is interpreted by a machine, chopped up into something quantifiable for the game’s systems to react to. There is inevitably a Right Choice, a correct thing to say in that circumstance to progress the game, to get the ‘good’ ending, to see the bonus cutscene.

Dialogue, in a game, is a control mechanism, not communication – or, if it’s communication, it’s the game’s designer speaking to you rather than you speaking to the game. You don’t care if the game understands, you don’t care how the game feels, you just care about how it responds to your input. It really isn’t much like speech at all – which is fine, it doesn’t really need to be, but having it constantly presented as speech, being treated as though the player is genuinely expressing something in the way they would to another person, probably has some strange effects on how we understand speech to actually work.

This, though, is just a specific instance of the process of disambiguation that happens when we try to emulate the vast mess that is reality in our goofy little electronic worlds. To play, as a child, is to imagine scenario after scenario with no logical connection or overriding ruleset – you have been shot, but you are bulletproof, but the bullets are armor-piercing, but you’re actually bulletproof times infinity plus one. To play in a video game, though, even an open-ended one, means that there must be a logical connection from one moment to the next, since the game, being a computer program, has to operate on logic. There’s still lots of room for self-expression in a well-made and open-ended game, but the fidelity of that expression is mediated by the granularity of that simulation. Or, at least, the fidelity of the part of that expression that exists within the game – because there’s also the part of that expression that exists within the minds of the players, and that could be as unbounded as ever. In theory, at least – do kids pretend they’re pirates in games that aren’t about pirates? Ninjas in games about vikings? Wizards in games about soldiers?

Maybe that’s why we like to play games, though. The infinite possibility and ambiguity of life and human interrelation is incredibly overwhelming. How relaxing it is to be provided an environment where only a few choices can be made – and, even if those particular choices end up being wrong, they are wrong for reasons which are explainable and quantifiable, albeit sometimes quite complex. The games industry keeps trying to make games look more and more realistic, though, while maintaining this simplicity of input and response, and it builds a myth – a myth of a world where each action and consequence is mapped directly and predictably, and anyone who’s clever can find the action and the consequence. The ‘Just-world hypothesis‘, the belief that everyone gets what they deserve based on the actions they have taken, is much easier to convince yourself of if you can build it on a belief that every action and reaction are directly mapped, straightforward, and quantifiable.

If the causal relationship between action and reaction is completely predictable, any suboptimal outcome can be blamed 100% on poor decision-making. Every tragedy becomes a justification that bad things happen to bad people, where in this case ‘bad people’ means people who have made any choice that is subsequently followed by a bad outcome. In this way, games as they have traditionally been structured have a radical conservative bias.

Maybe there’s some other way for them to be structured – but without some huge leap forward in technology that creates worlds too complex for predictable causality, or some sort of ongoing responsive content created by another person (as in a tabletop RPG), this is always going to be a sytemic bias of the technology. The only way to push back against that is explicitly through the content of the game, and that’s going to be difficult to do without alienating players, since rewarding ‘optimal play’ is a foundation of game design.

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I’ve been having a rough week or so, in terms of motivation. It’s been difficult for me to get much done. The silver lining to this, as much as there is one, is that it’s an opportunity for introspection: A life, lived day to day, has a mechanical aspect, where each activity leads one to other activities, each pursuit fuels other pursuits. Any time the machine of a life fails to produce the desired results (such as a happy and satisfied body and mind), it provides a glimpse into the machine. Something that’s running perfectly provides no data to diagnose, and thus difficult to improve: Something that runs unreliably, and provides interesting problems when it fails, provides a wealth of data with which to foster its improvement.

This isn’t particularly encouraging, when one is otherwise feeling like crap, but at least provides something to think about.

One brain malfunction, which I think everyone has some degree of familiarity with, is not doing things which you know will make you feel better, and which you even will probably enjoy while doing them. The longer you put them off the worse you feel about not doing them, until every positive association shifts towards a negative association. The importance of habit and routine is the ability to keep this destructive feedback loop from forming in the first place. Habit and routine, though, will always eventually be interrupted by circumstances. By themselves, they can only carry you so far.

The problem is, any positive association, any joy you take from an activity, can become inverted incredibly easily. For a long while I was walking a couple of miles a day just to keep from becoming too inert and to give my mind some space to work. I enjoyed these walks – and yet, once the habit was broken, I didn’t pick it back up. Examining it now, I think that it was partially the enjoyment that made it a difficult habit to keep – because how can I do something I enjoy, that takes a significant amount of time and effort, when there’s so much else around that I need to do and that seems so important?

And yet, without the momentum of pursuing enjoyable activities, what do I actually do with my time? Mostly sit around and do even less active things while picking away, bit by bit, at the tasks I actually need to do. The enjoyment of the task, which should have made it easier to perform, has been turned around against me, made it something that is in between a guilty pleasure and and empty chore, at times taking on properties of either.

Aside from the feedback loop that can sour my relationship with activities I enjoy, there’s the feedback loop that can sour my relationship with myself. Say there’s an activity which I still enjoy, without any weird guilty overtones or counterproductive reward mechanism. When I start feeling really shitty, it’s hard for me to reconcile the image of an enjoyable task with the image I have of myself. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that that I feel I don’t deserve to do things I like – more that the version of me who feels this way doesn’t have much in common with the version of me who would be doing those things. This disconnect seems wider and wider the longer it goes on, and again can feed upon itself, pushing me further and further from doing the things I think would make me feel better.

As each of these mechanisms progresses to make me feel more isolated and unmotivated, I start feeling worse and worse about not getting things done, and about the rapid pace I’m not achieving. I start thinking about how much great work other people have gotten done at this point in their life or about how much better at some particular skill someone else is and I get utterly frustrated with being so imperfect. This, too, is an impulse which, when properly controlled, can be very beneficial – I think I’ve learned a great deal from the mindset that I can always improve, and to always be able to respect and learn from the accomplishments of others – but when it gets out of control, nothing I can ever do will ever be good enough to satisfy me. This is probably exacerbated by the lack of recognition I generally get from elsewhere, but I think even if I were some sort of famous and respected genius I would still feel the same way… Sometimes, at least.

There may be other mechanisms at play as well, which I haven’t noticed enough to comment on. I feel better already, actually – perhaps writing this helped, or perhaps having the clarity to write this is merely a symptom of the natural ebb and flow of emotion finally going my way. Either way is fine. Hopefully the insight I’ve gleaned into my own inner workings by the trip will be helpful – sometime in the future, maybe, maybe for you, maybe for me.

I want to be good at things. Obviously I would like to be good at art and music and such in order to make good art and to make money to support myself – and, yes, there’s the darker aspect to it, that I described before, where sometimes we improve ourselves just so we can consider ourselves better than other people – but I also just have a need to be good, or to keep becoming better until I find out what good actually is. I want to be an expert. I want to be a pro. I think expertise might be a carrot that’s dangling from a stick that’s tied to the back of our heads, that keeps step with us no matter how fast we move forward – and yet, once you have it in your sights, it’s hard to back down.

I’m not sure where this need actually comes from. Perhaps it’s part of how we’re wired, a need to feel useful, a need to feel that we are contributing to something. Perhaps it’s part of our capitalistic culture, demanding that at any moment we prove our value, prove our worth as an asset. Or, I guess, maybe we just feel a need for a purpose, some sort of guiding premise to our lives, some sort of narrative thread, and being an expert in something seems like the most approachable way to manage that. I don’t know. Whatever.

So, for a certain period of time, a decade or so ago, video games were constructed as primarily a way to feed this need for expertise and mastery with empty calories. For a certain period of time, we decided that all games had to be fun, and that ‘fun’ meant that they made you feel like you were amazing. The standard format of the video game was a simple, easily learned and mastered challenge, presented with a layer of fiction that portrayed it as some amazing and rare skill. Most games are still like this to one degree or another – even a difficult game like Dark Souls is still much easier to complete than it would actually be, presumably, to go on a quest to beat the shit out of an aging deity.

I am very glad that video games aren’t made to this specification any more. If they were I probably wouldn’t be playing them, and possibly wouldn’t be making them. If I was still writing about them, my already-notably-grouchy writing would be far grouchier.

Once you know what empty calories taste like, in terms of expertise, it’s hard to be satisfied with them. You want to become actually good at something, which is much harder than just buying a machine to tell you you’re good at something. Perhaps the most difficult part is that, in order to improve at a skill, you have to accept that you have room for improvement. In order to learn, you must accept that you are not all-knowing. In other words, in order to obtain expertise, you must abandon the idea that you’re an expert.

This remains the case even if you are, in fact, an expert. This part of the process doesn’t change. As Socrates suggested, you must be wise enough to admit that you know nothing – at least, nothing relative to what there is to learn, which is an awful lot.

So we say humility is a virtue. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of what you’ve accomplished – actually, it’s also an important part of the process, because pride is what drives you to define a ‘better’ to strive towards – but being humble enough to know that you are imperfect and can still improve is necessary as well. Know that you can do things others cannot. Know that others can do that which you cannot.

If you refuse to do that, you are trapped, and will never find a place beyond the one you’re at right now.

The new project is underway. I frequently miss working on EverEnding, and so far I haven’t gotten to do the sorts of things I really came to this project for, but I’m also getting really excited about some of the ideas I have for the future while I lay the necessary groundwork to proceed.

So, what have I been working on? There’s a lot, really. I got the basic collision system up and running, though that part is still glitchy as hell. I’ve created a simple but potentially very flexible scripting system which I’m going to use for all entity behavior in the game, which is going to make modifying entities in the editor largely a matter of literally copying and pasting the behaviors I want between entities and should make saving and loading pretty straightforward. However, the bulk of my time so far has been taking up on developing tiles, tools and editors for using them, and an understanding of how they’re going to be implemented in the game.

This is the tileset I’m testing with right now. It’s pretty ugly and rough around the edges, but right now I’m just trying to figure out a way to make all the tiles that I need for the game world fit into the minimum possible amount of space in a format that makes some degree of visual sense. If you do any art yourself, you may have noticed that the perspective here is, to put it mildly, kind of messed up. I’m working off the model established in the tilesets of the early Legend of Zelda games, particularly Link to the Past. The angles don’t really fit together or make sense, but it still creates a cohesive space for the player to navigate without obscuring anything the player needs to see. In the long run, the Escher-esque nightmare presented by this kind of world design may work in my favor, since I want the world to seem kind of surreal – but more on that later.

The big issue I’m facing at the moment is creating a tool to automatically fit these tiles together. There’s a small immediate and a big future reason I want to do this: The small reason is that figuring this out will allow me to build tools into the level editor that let me really quickly make rooms and connect them in a way that looks natural without having to individually place a bunch of tiles. The big future reason is that eventually I want to be able to generate rooms entirely using code using the same algorithm, and create procedural environments for the player to navigate.

That segues nicely into what my plans are for the project. Actually, none of these are plans yet, these are just ideas for now – plans will mostly wait until I have a playable chunk of game and can begin making hard decisions about what works and what doesn’t, what’s feasible and what isn’t. The setup I want to explore, here, is being trapped in a big creepy house – there are other people here, and it’s a bit up in the air how long they’ve been here. Some of them talk like they’ve been here a few days, some of them seem like they might have been here for centuries. Everything is blocked off in different ways though, bricked and boarded up, papered over, hidden behind secret passageways, and in order to begin to find your way out you need to explore and find tools both to open up passageways and to fight off the creatures that have taken over parts of the house.

That’s the basic idea. Let’s call that tier 1, where I just make a little Zelda clone and call it a day.

Here’s a more interesting version of that idea that I’ve been playing with. There aren’t monsters in the house, but in order to actually make progress you find different beds to rest in. Each bed you rest in puts you into a dream where you play as whoever the bed belonged to, and in reliving their story you can perhaps change it, and by so doing change the state of the house. Or maybe you just find the tool you need in the dream and bring it back directly, or perhaps you are able to recruit an NPC by telling them something they’d forgotten a long time ago. The dreams, of course, are infested with weird nightmare monsters, and you need to be able to defend yourself in the dream, so procuring equipment is still necessary.

That’s tier 2. This would be a much more substantial project, but I think there’s room to do some interesting things here.

I have an even bigger idea, though, and this is one that could get really out of hand. Take tier 2, but each dream world contains other beds, and you can keep pursuing nested dreams deeper. Past one or two levels, dreams begin to be procedurally generated, but the resources you get in each dream can be brought out of them and used to progress through the next. The game becomes an adventure game containing a roguelite, where progressing through the roguelite sub-game allows you to progress naturally through the world of the main game. Eventually, perhaps, getting lost in these many nested dreams could become a genuine danger.

Tier 3 is fun to think about, but for now I have to focus on tier 1 – or, really, tier 0, which is building the toolset that will allow me to build tier 1. That’s where I’m at right now, but if progress continues at this rate I should be able to have my toolset done by the time of the next devblog and can really start building out the most basic version of the game.

You’re writing a story. You know what happens next – what has to happen next in order to complete the narrative arc you’ve been planning out. You’ve got a Big Picture you’re trying to paint, here. The only problem is, your canvas is a video game, and players are so uncooperative: the surface you’re trying to paint on keeps moving under your brush. The question becomes, how do we make it stay still long enough to get the details right?

In a medium defined by the choices we proffer, one of the trickiest bits of designing a game comes when you need to force the player to do something. It sounds kind of ugly presented that way, but it usually needs to happen at some point in order for the game to progress – and normally these forces happen quietly, without being commented on. In Super Mario Brothers you have to run right, in Metroid you need to get the missiles – the player is channeled by means of the structure of the game itself to make the choice the designer wants them to make. The system works. Hooray.

It works less well the more ambitious the narrative gets. Say the story only works if you Kill The Guy – but maybe the player doesn’t want to Kill The Guy. Maybe they really like The Guy. Maybe they really hate The Guy, but he seems generally fairly harmless, and they don’t want his death on their conscience. Either way, the next scene takes place at The Guy’s funeral, so you better fucking figure it out.

You have a number of options.

One: Just make them kill the guy. Play a cutscene where the main character stabs him a hundred times and pushes him down an elevator shaft and then says some kind of snarky one-liner. This one doesn’t ever really fail but it never really succeeds either. It moves the plot to the next scene, and all the characters do the thing they’re supposed to do, but the player wasn’t really involved in any of it and no longer feels like they’re controlling the character – since they aren’t.

Two: Make the guy try to kill them, or otherwise make the desired action necessary in order for the player to survive. This is usually the go-to for most games, but it makes The Guy seem like a brave idiot with a death wish, which may be entirely contradictory to the character you’re trying to establish. Also, if you want to make them Feel Bad for Killing The Guy, having it be an admissible-in-court clear-cut case of self-defense probably ameliorates that instinct.

Three: Control the number of ways the player can act. This starts getting into a bit more interesting territory, but can easily go awry – this is the “when all you have is a hammer” of game design. If you’re in a room with The Guy and all you have is a gun and he has the keys, odds are that The Guy is going to get shot. Take care, though, that there is a logical obstacle to progression, like that key you need – without that, you’re forcing the player to do something they might not want to do, for reasons you’ve never bothered to explain.

Four: Control the number of things in the environment the player can productively act upon. This one is a lot like the last one, except you can still do all the stuff you’d expect to be able to do, it’s just that none of them get you anywhere. You’re in a room with The Guy and also there’s a pool table and some pinball machines. You can play pool with him, and you can try to rack up a high score at pinball, but eventually if you want to leave you’re going to have to get that key from him somehow, and all you have is a murder pistol and a pool cue – and it turns out The Guy has a fatal allergy to the exact wood that pool cue is made from. He normally plays with gloves. This one is, if anything, even worse if the logical connection to progressing the plot isn’t clear, because it’s impossible to guess which of five arbitrary actions you should be trying to do to move to the next room. Maybe if you get a high enough score he’ll be so impressed he just gives you the key? Who knows!

Five: Control the number of ways the environment can productively react. If the player presses the button to talk to The Guy, and instead of striking up a conversation the character immediately shoots him in the face, it definitely sends a message: Boy, this character was apparently Really Mad at The Guy! Next to doing everything in a cutscene this one takes the most agency away from the player, but it also conveys a lot more about the character and their internal state – this character is not just angry enough to kill, but is so angry they cannot stop themselves from killing. The main issue with this is just outright confusion, the player perhaps thinking they pressed the wrong button or that they missed a choice. That’s a pretty crude example, though. A more subtle version of this might just have talking to The Guy lead to a scene where the main character accidentally touches him after playing with the deadly pool cue, leading to anaphylactic shock, for which they are later guilt-stricken over his unnecessary death – either way he’s dead and they’re responsible, but the path taken to get there was very different. This is akin to the Magician’s Force, a staple of stage magic wherein you proffer a vague choice to the volunteer but the outcome of both choices is eventually the same.

In the end, whether any of these work is mostly a product of how logical the connections you’ve built up prior to the scene are. If your character is uncontrollably angry, you need to be able to convince the player of that. If The Guy absolutely must be killed in order for vital goals to be achieved, that needs to be communicated. If the guy fights like a cornered rat, that has to make sense for his character. Plan ahead: If you need to force the player to do something, try to make it make some goddamn sense.

The game mechanics compel Mario to run to the right, but Mario runs to the right because that’s where the castle is.