Monthly Archives: August 2018

There’s a way of talking about games that’s begun to bother me – most games, when we describe and discuss them, particularly in comparison to one another, tend to get boiled down to one or two focal points, a gimmick or two, that become the only things they are known for. Whatever the game’s most distinctive trait is comes to stand in for the totality of the work, obscuring all other aspects of the experience it offers.

This may, perhaps, be a reflection of the medium of discourse: Twitter especially tends to lend itself to this memetic distillation of art. However, regardless of its source, this understanding of what a game is extends outwards. And, to be fair, this isn’t always a problem: Even great works of art tend to be discussed in terms of the novelty they brought to the medium, and it is always necessary to make a case for what a work has to offer before it can help to ever earn an audience. There’s something wrong, though, when the elevator pitch remains the dominant mode of discourse long after we’ve gotten off of the elevator – that is to say, when we still boil games down to gimmicks long after we’ve played them and gained the opportunity to understand them in more detail. Dark Souls becomes that really hard game, even though the difficulty is one of the least interesting aspects of it. UNDERTALE becomes that cute pacifist game, even though only half the content is pacifistic and much of it is decidedly un-cute. Braid becomes that game where you can go back in time, even though it was not the first game you could do that in and the actual puzzles involve much more sophisticated manipulation of time than just reversal.

Of course, if you look at these examples, you’ll note that this issue is in no way an impediment to success: Each of these games were, in their own right, huge hits, and having some handy descriptor of what they brought to the table was probably part of that success. And yet, if that becomes the way people understand the games even after they have found success, it’s that much harder to actually discuss these games in comparison to others – and harder for other games to riff on their ideas without being dismissed as copycats.

While this happens to some degree with all forms of art, games seem to be especially susceptible. There are a couple of reasons I think this happens: First, with more strictly narrative forms, there’s usually an effort to keep from exhaustively discussing the narrative before someone has had a chance to experience it for themselves – so, since any novelty these forms bring to bear is usually rooted in the narrative, they are protected by the specter of the spoiler warning. Games are not afforded the same protection, however, because the mechanical aspects of the game are conceptually separate to the narrative – and, even if a game pulls narrative tricks, we often tend to regard these as still being somewhat in the domain of ‘game mechanics’, of smoke and mirrors. Second, because of the way we tend to describe games, we’re used to evaluating them as a consumer product first and an art form second, assigning numerical scores based on how well they perform – so, for games, any element is regarded as a feature for the front of the box just as much as it is regarded as a technique used in the creation of art.

A lot goes into every game that is created: Not only the broad strokes of groundbreaking ideas, but the narrow strokes of detail, the music and character design and animation, traditional bits of craft and smaller elements of game design that make a game function and make it speak to people. Without these, the gimmicks mean nothing, and it does a disservice to the game to only describe it using its most obvious elements. What really makes the game work or not work isn’t the big ideas or the small details, it’s how well the small details are fitted to the big ideas. UNDERTALE’s pacifistic ideals wouldn’t mean anything without a lovable cast of characters and systems and assets that express those characters, Dark Souls’ difficulty would seem merely cruel outside of its sad and stately world, Braid’s time reversal would be just a toy without the intricate puzzle-craft that provides the meat of the experience.

How much a game suffers from this tendency depends on how much it breaks from the established norms. In an industry that focused for so long on empowering players at all costs, the mere unforgivingness and weight of Dark Souls was exceptional. In an industry so focused on violence, merely making a game where violence was a choice instead of mandatory was exceptional. In an industry where powerups were rare and limited, giving players the ability to instantly reverse any mistake was exceptional. These ideas were sticky! And, similarly, in an industry where every game had to be fair, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds gave players a 1 vs 99 fight, and they loved it.

But: PUBG isn’t the 1 vs 99 game any more. It was for about 6 months, and then other games with the same premise started coming out. All of a sudden, it was a genre: The Battle Royale. Now people talk about PUBG differently. Well, most of them talk about it as “Fortnite, but worse” I guess, but it’s still distinguished from its competition by the details, the movement and gun behavior and vehicles. Probably worse for the game, but probably better for the discourse.

Maybe every time a game gets boiled down to this one narrow idea of what it is, what we are witnessing are the birth pangs of a new potential genre. I suppose in many cases, rather than becoming genres these ideas just filter out bit by bit into other games, slowly becoming unexceptional. Either way, I suppose eventually, case by case, the problem goes away on its own.

This week I played through Doki Doki Literature Club, which is a game I’d been vaguely aware of as a harrowing anime experience but, honestly, that describes several games, so it wasn’t really distinct in my mind. I’d like to talk about some of the ideas it brought up to me – not having participated in any of the discourse around the game, it’s entirely possible I’ll say something ignorant here, but I’d like to just go off of my read based on a single complete playthrough of the game here.

There’s gonna be spoilers! In fact, I’m going to spoil the entire thing, give a play-by-play of my entire playthrough, since most of what I want to talk about doesn’t make a ton of sense without that context. If you’re interested in playing a meta horror-game with fourth-wall-breaking elements framed into a visual novel dating-sim format, you should probably play this game before you read the rest of this post. The game has content warnings for mental illness and suicide, so I guess you could consider this post to have the same, though I won’t be going into much grisly detail.

The setup is this: You play as a faceless (but explicitly male) high school student: You can name this character and make a few decisions here and there, but for the most part his personality, such as it is, is out of your control. He is made to be generic and uninspiring, with few interests aside from sitting around his house playing games and reading comics. You’re talked by your childhood friend, Sayori, (who is, of course, a cute girl) into joining her after-school club, the titular literature club. This literature club is also comprised entirely of cute girls: Along with Sayori there’s Natsuki, Yuri, and Monika, the president of the club. As members of the club, you all decide to bring a poem each day: “Writing a poem,” in this case, takes the form of picking 20 words you like out of a list to represent the approximate sort of thing you wrote. Depending on which words you choose, one or other of the girls will probably like your writing more – and therefore, in the logic of the game, like you more. For whatever reason, you can’t write to appeal to Monika, just the other three girls – there’s no narrative justification for this, just The Way Things Are. You get some feedback as to who likes what, and how the scenes afterwards play out depends on who you appeal to – I don’t know how much changes since I only played through once. You also get to read their poems, which I really enjoyed: The poems all show their characters well, and are frequently charming in their own right, as well as having clues to where the story might be going later.

I wanted to be friendly with everyone but the game was really not set up for that: You have to choose someone. Generally when I had to choose an option I’d side with Sayori, primarily out of a sense of loyalty since I’d narratively known her longest and she’d invited me in the first place. As the game progressed and I got closer to her, she started behaving erratically, needing to leave early or not showing up. I talked to Monika about it and she talked to Sayori, came back, and told me not to worry about it – but, after she talked to Sayori, Sayori seemed even more upset, and left. A while after this it was revealed that Sayori was struggling with severe depression and that it was getting worse. A while after that she confessed to being in love with my character.

Here’s where I feel I made a mistake. I was of the opinion that Sayori needed a friend more than she needed a boyfriend, and that it was more important that I be supportive than I be romantic, so instead of picking the “I love you” option, which I felt would read as manipulative, I picked the “I will always be your best friend” option – which, contrary to the literal reading, is framed as romantic rejection here. I feel some nuance was lost, but that may be intentional. At this point the plot progressed on its own without any of my input, because my character just let her run off on her own, ignored when she didn’t show up the next day, and of course by the next time I saw her she’d killed herself, since that was obviously what was being set up.

What was less obvious was what came next: The screen turned glitchy, the game restarted, but this time Sayori was nowhere to be found. The intro was rewritten without her, it was Monika instead of Sayori who recruited me to the club. The plot progressed much the same way it did before, except any time Sayori would be there it got glitchier and glitchier, with Monika reading most of her lines. Eventually history repeated itself with another of the girls, except she started behaving much stranger much faster, and after she stabbed herself she lay on the floor dead or dying while page after page of gibberish text went by, and several days passed by in the game.

Monika returned and confessed that she’d been editing the game files to try to drive me away from all the other girls, exaggerating their mental problems and negative traits, since without her changing the game itself there was no way for me to ever choose her. She deletes the other characters and traps me in a world with just me and her. Of course, like all good super-villains she describes the means of her own downfall, so I delete her. Though she’s deleted, she still exists a little bit somehow (perhaps still present in RAM), and feels remorseful for everything she’s done, so she restores the other characters. The game starts over again, everyone’s back except Monika, Sayori is the president of the club now, except now she too is self-aware and malicious: So Monika’s ghost, or whatever it is, just deletes the entire game. Roll credits, complete with Monika playing a nice ending theme for me.

Before I played the game, when I was talking to people about it, I heard some criticism of the game’s treatment of mental illness – and, in one sense, I think that that criticism is entirely justified. The characters’ problems are somewhat cartoonish, broadly drawn for the purposes of dramatic traumatic reveals, and in the sense that anyone looking to the game for a realistic portrayal of mental illness will be let down this portrayal is, indeed, a problem. However, within the meta-narrative of the game, I think it’s important that these characters be unrealistic: The original versions of them are crafted to be endearing, to be just damaged enough that the player character can save them, so that he can dramatically be there in their moment of need. And, once Monika sabotages them, this ‘cute’ mental illness is exaggerated, made grotesque. The portrayal is unrealistic and shocking, and in this way serves as a satire of many other saccharine depictions which are also unrealistic, but in ways we don’t notice – that we have become primed to accept, but nevertheless may do harm.

Even before the game became explicitly horrific, I found aspects of the setup disturbing. The emotional manipulation of the other characters paired with the lack of control I had over my own character’s behavior were difficult for me to cope with: At every moment, I felt like I was making a bad decision, particularly once the life-or-death stakes of the game were made clear. When everything went wrong, and I had no control, no ability to say anything to fix it, it felt simultaneously unrealistic and realistic, alienating and familiar. Not being able to say the right thing is a very common experience, even if the limitations to me doing so are not generally physical. Every dialogue tree with actual consequences in a video game makes it a sort of horror game, a simulation of the terrible inadequacy of the spoken word to convey what must be conveyed, and the brain to find the words that must be spoken.

Monika breaks these hard barriers, though, and in so doing becomes a dark reflection of the player: She is aware of a world outside of the game, but she’s entirely trapped within it, with just these ‘friends’ who seem like paper cutouts to her now for company. Like the player, she has romantic ambitions within this world, and like the player she seeks to achieve these romantic ambitions by emotionally manipulating the characters around her. However, unlike the player, the world she’s in is not set up to allow her to easily do so: All of the tools, all of the language of the game, is designed for the player to manipulate the emotions of these three fictional girls. She can only do it from the wrong side, using clumsy and destructive methods. I don’t know that it justifies the monstrosity of her methods, but it does seem that the methods she uses are the only ones available to her. The ethics of this situation are interesting: From her perspective, all of the characters in the game, aside from herself, are automatons with no real feelings. What would make her actions evil when we so readily accept authors tormenting and killing their characters in the name of truth and beauty? She’s just writing an unhappy ending, the same as the game’s creator did.

Monika’s transgression is, then, not a transgression against ethics, but a transgression of the natural order of the world. Only the author is allowed to kill off characters, only the player is allowed to manipulate them towards their own ends. And, because this power imbalance is formulated into a genre where the main character is positioned as the sole male with exclusive power over a domain of women, she takes on an aspect of the witch – the woman who does that which must not be done, claims the power which is for the exclusive use of men. The violence she enacts against the other characters doesn’t originate in her: The violence is inherent to the structure of the game, and she just brings it to the surface, makes it explicit. This makes her the villain apparent of the work…

And yet, it reminds me of something. It reminds me of how much violence is enacted by the systems we live in, silently, without consequence, and yet when windows are broken by people attempting to struggle against that violence they become the villains. It reminds me of the peace of oppression, of how people who speak up on behalf of those who suffer may one day in the distant future be regarded as heroes, but in the meanwhile are just regarded as troublemakers. While I know this is silly, and may seem trivializing, and I’m not actually suggesting Monika is some sort of fictional character freedom fighter, it does seem strange to me that when she does the same thing the author does, the same thing the player does, when she does nothing but reveal and exaggerate the structural violence that already exists, she becomes the villain.

Since 2014, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the ethics of art, the responsibilities of putting work out into the world. This may be jumping the gun, since very little of my work garners much attention, but, well, on the off chance that that ever changes I would like to have my principles figured out beforehand.

What art is ethical to create? Many will immediately respond that any and all art is, but that’s more of a kneejerk than a considered response. If we accept the premise that art has power to do good, we also implicitly accept the premise that it has the power to do harm. Knowingly doing more harm than good is pretty much unethical by definition, so that’s at least a stable reference point: Don’t make art that you know will do more harm than good.

Unfortunately that describes next to nothing. Art is, in general, something that is extraordinarily tricky to know the consequences of. A motivated mind can readily misinterpret the most overt of allegories to support their own worldview, so the effect a piece has on the world tends to have as much to do with the particular circumstances of the audience it finds as it does with the content of the work itself. Again many will take this as carte blanche to create whatever work they want without worrying at all about the consequences, and again that’s not a considered response. Just because you cannot know what the consequences of an act are doesn’t absolve you of the responsibilities of trying to account for them.

But what does this ethical responsibility look like? In some ways it looks a lot like what we expect of craftsmanship in general. It looks like avoiding simple and misleading answers to important questions, it looks like flawed heroes and sympathetic villains, it looks like a world that operates in a way that makes sense based on the forces at work within that world. This might not sound like it has anything to do with ethics, but there is an obligation to present a version of the world that doesn’t mislead the audience about how the world works. It doesn’t mean there can’t be fantastical elements, but those elements have to exist within a system that accounts for their presence. It doesn’t mean that good can’t triumph, but it does mean that that victory has to be achieved through some heroic process, not emerge by default, inevitably, just because we have to have a happy ending.

What it doesn’t look like is most of the popular art we make. It doesn’t look like worlds where the only solution to the problems presented is violence, and that violence is always presumed justified. It doesn’t look like cartoons where the good guys always win because they’re the good guys, and it doesn’t look like novels where women have to suffer to be strong, and it doesn’t look like games where you shoot a thousand people in the face and are still considered a hero. These are all conventions we’ve gotten used to because they’re convenient and make creating the rest of the story easier, but we’re starting to see the sort of world that this art creates. It’s hard to be okay with that.

Art is mysterious, though. The way it affects us is unpredictable, and by that token the idea of a work capable of doing great good or great harm is compelling. Someday, will someone find the right words to stop poverty, war, and homelessness? Someday, will someone create the perfect propaganda to guide us all into unending cruelty and fascism?

I think it’s wise that we consider the impact of our work, before we create something we cannot uncreate.

Another month has gone by, and though a short vacation, a nasty little cold, and a number of other minor distractions got in my way, I still managed to make a little bit of progress.

First, and most importantly, I put quite a few hours into writing the music for the first boss of the game. I may have gone a little bit overboard on this one: The concept I wanted to pursue was a track with multiple phases that mapped to different parts of the boss encounter, bouncing back and forth between them until finally reaching a conclusion. I’m not sure if I can possibly create a boss encounter that stays interesting long enough to accompany this track, coming in at almost 9 minutes long, but it will be fun to try once the rest of the chapter is complete.

The phases of the track are:

0:00-1:47 Intro
1:47-4:13 The Chest
4:13-6:16 The Mask
6:16-7:49 The Heart
7:49-8:40 Conclusion

This one honestly ended up getting quite a bit out of hand, and I spent quite a bit more time than I’d originally expected to on it, but I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. I also just enjoyed doing music work again! I’m going to carry on with composing the soundtrack even though I’ve effectively completed all the tracks for the first chapter of the game now, which is the part of the game I’m focused on finishing. The reasons why I’m going to continue doing music work, despite otherwise attempting to contain my efforts to this first chapter, are several-fold: first because, as mentioned, I like making music and I want to do more of it, second because if I can’t make this game in a timely fashion I can damn sure make its soundtrack, which is a discrete sub-creation that I can be proud of in its own right, and third because I find music so compelling that I think just having the soundtrack to the game will motivate me more to finish the rest of it. There’s also a fourth, more pragmatic reason: Inspired by UNDERTALE’s soundtrack, I’m really trying to integrate motifs from different characters and locations into tracks with a narrative connection to those characters and locations. It’s going to be really hard to do that until I know what those motifs, for later parts of the game, actually are! I’m not really going to be able to consider chapter 1’s soundtrack complete until I’ve written the rest of the soundtrack and know better what my overall thematic tools and goals are.

Anyway! Aside from music, I’ve been working on a few things. I’ve been feeling my way around programming the main narrative component of the game, the storyteller. This is going to be something pretty similar to what Supergiant does in their games with an ongoing narration element, except I would like to integrate these narrator lines a little bit more closely with the music, syncing the lines up with particular parts of the track and so forth. Additionally, I want to have text appear in the world synced with the audio, so it’s a bit like playing a storybook. Figuring out how I’m going to pragmatically handle the synchronization of these elements and making them play nice with a player who may or may not be interested in the narrative taking place is going to be a challenge, but I’m getting close to having a simple version ready to test so that I can iterate on it.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about what the interface of the game is going to look like. There are really only two elements that need to be displayed under normal circumstances: The player’s current health, and how many sparks you’ve collected, which also maps to your max health. I could just have a red bar along one side of the screen, but that felt inelegant. A sphere that fills and empties like the health meter in Diablo might have been a bit more thematic, since there’s some sun/moon symbolism I’m playing with in the game, but it felt like a circle would take up a lot of screen real estate for how much info it would impart and probably wouldn’t look very good. What I’ve come up with instead is an idea that’s… actually a little bit difficult to express here. It’s basically a life bar along the left side of the screen, except it looks like an engraved stone tablet. Only a small part of the tablet is visible early on, but as you gain more power the tablet expands and you can see more of it, and the engravings on it. I can actually directly tie the health meter into the narrative of the game in what I think is a pretty interesting way. However, because you don’t gain power at a constant rate, but instead end up collecting more and more as you defeat more powerful opponents, I’m going to have to figure out a curve that reveals the tablet at a rate that’s satisfying over the course of the game. I have a logarithmic function in mind that may work well, but it will have to be tested. I’ll also need to figure out how to have the tablet build up in such a way that it feels satisfying, and ensure that no matter what its interim shape is it still gives satisfactory feedback as a health meter. This will all take a bit of experimentation, but it’s an idea I’m excited about.

Finally, I’ve been working on the game’s first animation. I mean, I’ve already built several animations, but this is the first one that will play in the game: The player character awakening, standing up, and taking her weapon at the very beginning of the game. I started creating this animation, and then had to start over after working on it for a few hours because my first take on it sucked. I think my second take on it has potential, though it’s still very rough the motion feels good to me.

The actual removing-sword part of the animation still needs to happen, and of course all of the detail and the tween frames need to be added, but I think I’m on the right track this time.

So, the plan for August is to finish working on these things, write the music for the first area of chapter 2 (I’ve already started), create more main-character animations, and maybe get some basic sound design in. Of course something else may capture my fancy and I’ll end up working on that, but as long as I stick to my big task list I think I can maintain forward progress.

It can be difficult these days to create art. Art is an abstracted way of speaking to the world at large, over the boundaries of time and distance, and it’s very difficult to remain motivated to articulate ideas into concrete form when the future is so uncertain and everything nearby is so harsh and ugly, collapsing daily into cruelty and idiocy. Sending out these signals requires a certain degree of faith that somewhere, someday, out there in the world those signals will be received and valued. These days that faith feels harder to come by.

On the one hand, this feels like a sign that I should be doing Something to Fix It: I don’t know what that is, but something. I could probably be doing more than I am to effect positive change in the world, but any attempt to confront that idea inevitably just dunks me in hot anxiety sauce and ends up just leaving me less inclined to do anything whatsoever. So, rather than that, I’m inclined to just keep making things anyway, whether or not they’re good or desired, and thereby place a vote of confidence. There will be a future. There will be a world for my work to exist in.

Somewhere along the way, though, I’ve picked up the sense that it’s intrinsically less noble to create for an audience than it is to create to indulge some sort fundamental creative urge. It is kind of an absurd belief when examined – after all, what is art without an audience? Just a box of echoes. The underlying logic for this belief goes something like this: Creating art just for the money is what sellouts do, right? But money is a commodification of attention and appreciation, and therefore if you create art for attention and appreciation you’re still a sellout. Of course, you can’t communicate anything or influence anyone at all without their attention and appreciation, so by that logic all successful artists are sellouts. This is complete horseshit at basically every step along the way, but it sounds extremely reasonable if you have the sort of brain predisposed to accept such ideas (I do), and provides a handy outlet for sabotaging your own creative output. In case you were looking for such a thing.

I have this weird shame over wanting to be seen, over wanting my work to be appreciated, which is intensely at odds with everything I actually value in the world. I value art because of the impact it’s had on me, the way it’s affected my outlook and expanded my sense of what’s possible, the sense of unattainable and ethereal beauty it’s led me to seek and which the crass outer world seems so hostile towards. It is absolutely absurd to feel ashamed for wanting to have that same impact, to participate in the same tradition – and, even if I may disagree with the tenets of capitalism, that means accepting money for art and paying money for art, because that’s how we’re able to show that we care about things now. (Yes, that means that in this model rich people have about a million times the capacity for caring as poor people do. It’s a terrible model, but it’s the one we’re operating in). In the end, it’s not necessarily so important that my voice in particular be heard, but it is vital to me that my voice join with others, that my creation joins this tradition, and connect the past to the present to the future – a future which will definitely, definitely, probably still be waiting when I get there.