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Monthly Archives: January 2019

For those who may be unfamiliar with The Return of the Obra Dinn, it’s a first-person adventure game by Lucas Pope (the developer of Papers, Please – a game which I keep intending to play but putting off, probably at least in part because it seems incredibly bleak). Obra Dinn itself is hardly un-bleak: In it, you play as an insurance assessor sent out to the titular Obra Dinn, a recently recovered wreck of a ghost ship. You are sent to deduce the fate of all those aboard, and deduce appropriate deductions for the insurance company to make. In order to achieve this task, you are given the “Memento Mortem”, a pocket watch which, when presented with the remains of a once-living creature, can take you back to the moment that creature died. Once in these memories, you can find other remains and follow them back further, and move from the moment this person or animal died to the moments leading up to it, following the chain of disaster back to its inception.

The style of the game is eye-catching, and along with the reputation of Papers, Please drove a lot of the initial interest in the title. Everything is rendered in a pixelated black and white style – or a dark color and a light color, the specifics of which can vary, but in each case is styled after a classic computer system. This is an interesting choice, since the style is unusual and the classic computer systems it harkens back to don’t really have anything to do with the plot of the game, but it creates an overall sensation of being unstuck in time. Here you sit, playing the game in the modern day on your modern machine, rendering in a style reminiscent of several decades ago, exploring a ship from hundreds of years ago, exploring memories of sailors who died several decades before. It expresses a chain of time very well, and reminds us that these weird chains of causality, of death to life to death to life, are all around us, and dictate the flow of our lives to this day.

Something that struck me about Obra Dinn was how unusual it was to have a game where death is commonplace, but is still treated with respect. There’s two molds that games usually, broadly, fall into: Either death is avoided strenuously, or it’s so commonplace as to be meaningless. Either you’re a gentle spirit wandering the world and trying to achieve your goals without confrontation, or you’re a murderous monster leaving a trail of hewn body parts behind you. While you do, in Obra Dinn, fit into the gentle spirit mold, the world you are trying to navigate is one of blood, desperation, and violence. It neither avoids death nor glories in it, merely tests its boundaries and affirms, for those of us who might ever forget, that each death is unique, that each death comes from a seed of causality and can be tracked to its roots. No one is unimportant. No one is indispensible.

A naive reading of the design of Obra Dinn might believe that there’s little actual “gameplay” in the game – that is, the majority of the actions the player takes are walking to the next cutscene trigger, activating it, and occasionally marking down one of a few options in the big book of names that you begin the game with. We’re not accustomed to thinking of things like the shape of a character’s face, their accent, who their friends are, what their job description is, as components of gameplay – but each of these becomes important in Obra Dinn. Understanding the relationships underpinning the tragedy of the ship, understanding why characters choose to do the things they do, is necessary to unravel the mystery that brought the Obra Dinn to its current fate. So often the concept of ‘gameplay’ is pitted against concepts of ‘narrative’ and ‘graphics’, as though these are all completely discrete components that have nothing to do with one another, as though pouring more resources into one might steal resources away from another. One might consider this to be most literally true in a game like The Return of the Obra Dinn, made by a lone developer, where time he spends on one aspect is time he cannot possibly spend on another. Perhaps it’s because it was made by a solo developer, though, that these aspects work so closely together – the graphics are exactly what they need to be to support the narrative, the narrative is exactly what it needs to be to support the gameplay. No, even ‘support’ seems incorrect: These facets of the game aren’t separable. What seems most remarkable to me about Obra Dinn is how all of these components we regard as discrete combine together and become one complete work – the graphics are the narrative is the gameplay.

I’ve played games that have had more emotional impact, games that have interested me more intellectually, games that have amazed me more, games that spoke to me more, games I felt were more meaningful – but Obra Dinn is still something special in a different way. It’s finely crafted, like a pocketwatch, and I think though the details of the tragic voyage will fade, the Obra Dinn will stick with me for a long time.

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I am tired of video game protagonists. There’s a specific character that gets created over and over again when a video game designer asks themselves “what kind of person would only ever interact with the world through the barrel of a gun?” and it’s a pretty boring character. The worst part of these characters is the ways they try to soften them, to make them ultimately the good guy in a world of bad guys, to make them tortured and conflicted, to make them sad and sympathetic.

The problem isn’t that they try to humanize a character who does violence, it’s the attempt to somehow square the demands of a sympathetic character with the sheer scope of violence that these characters enact over the course of a game. A video game protagonist frequently kills hundreds of people, along with devastating their surroundings in many other ways. This obligatory massacre gets monotonous sooner rather than later, but the attempts to convince us that the concerns of a person who is living this life would have anything in common with the concerns of any actual existing human being are downright insulting.

I don’t mind the violence, but I detest the way it’s justified. Violence can be interesting and fun to explore in art, and it frequently is, but if we’re going to be mowing down swathes of people then let’s at least admit that that’s a choice, that we are reveling in something wicked. If we’re going to be monstrous, then make us monsters. This is one reason why I found Hotline Miami such a breath of fresh air – there is no justification for the kind of violence that the game wallows in, and it at least has the decency to acknowledge that. There’s no grand anti-violence message in the game, as much as people have tried to project that aspect onto it, there’s just the violence itself, unadorned, and how we feel when confronted with that.

The worlds portrayed, in an effort to make violent gameplay seem natural, take on an aspect of propaganda. It is a popular political and sales strategy to make people scared so they are more pliable, to terrify them with outside threats so they’ll open their hearts and their wallets. The ways games portray their worlds as full of militant threats just waiting for an opportunity to strike is eerily similar to the way politicians like to portray borders. Even games that try to have progressive messages often fall into the trap of portraying the world as fundamentally cruel and predatory just so the player is justified in fighting back against it. Of course, bad things happen in the world – but there’s a big difference between portraying the world as a place where cruelty and evil happens versus portraying cruelty and evil as a natural law which dictates everything that must happen.

Games that offer “non-lethal” solutions are often even worse, though. Playing through a game like Dishonored without killing means leaving behind a swathe of injured and very angry people who have already demonstrated themselves to be brutally violent when frustrated or bored, so not only are you still beating the shit out of them, you’re leaving them to continue whatever cruel and oppressive practices they were in the middle of when you non-lethally choked them, non-lethally threw them through a shop window, or non-lethally bashed their faces into the pavement. What’s even worse is that these “non-lethal” approaches are presented as peaceful, as leading to a less chaotic world with less violence at the end.

But non-lethal is not non-violent, and this conflation tells us a great deal about the views of the developers. You have only to look at how the so-called “less-than-lethal” measures made available to law enforcement are frequently used – to intimidate, to torture, or sometimes even just as a joke – to see how creepy and shallow the myths of non-lethality we make use of in games really are. If we introduced, today, the “sweet dreams cannon”, a weapon capable of instantly and comfortably putting someone to sleep and having them wake up refreshed and happy, it would shortly thereafter be used to silence legitimate protests, evict inconvenient tenants, and abduct people going about their business who look suspicious – as well as, of course, many extralegal applications that may be even worse. There is no such thing as a completely benign ability to disable a human being, and the more we try to disguise such inventions as benevolent the more cavalierly they will be deployed. The only situations where non-lethal disabling force is warranted are those situations where lethal disabling force was already warranted, and the role of “less-than-lethal” weapons should primarily be to reduce casualty rates when these situations arise – not to serve as warning shots.

The question raised by any game that presents violence as the solution to a problem, though, is what comes next? Do we use our power to kill and subdue to restore the previous society, even if the systemic issues of that society will inevitably give rise to the same problems? Or do we work to preserve whatever the most amenable power structure exists in the new world? Or do we seek to tear down all unjust systems so that something new might rise in their place? Or do we merely revel in the chaos we can sow, unbounded by society? Most games barely acknowledge these as decisions: In Dishonored, we seek to become re-honored, and that implies rebuilding the collapsing society. In most modern Fallouts, we just pick whatever faction seems least objectionable and back them, whereas in Fallout 76 I guess we just throw around nukes because we can. One of the few games that addresses what comes after the violence in an interesting way is Fallout: New Vegas. While you’re still picking the most amenable of several factions, each fairly closely aligns with one of these options: You can go back to the old world that the NCR represents, back Mr House’s vision of an independent Vegas, join up with Caesar’s Legion if you’re an asshole, or strike out on your own with your new personal army to see if you can make something better.

I just am so tired, not of violence in art, but of the incredible regressive tedium of the narrative violence proffered by most big-budget games. There are so many interesting and powerful questions these games could ask – but it seems they would prefer that we just don’t ask any questions at all.

Everything in a game is there for a reason – whether that reason is because it’s necessary for the player to progress, because of aesthetic appeal, or because of an oversight on the part of the developers, there’s some history behind every bump and nook and crevice of the world. Much of the time, this history is merely of idle curiosity – the sort of stuff that’s interesting in developer commentaries but doesn’t really get talked about elsewhere.

Frequent players of games, though, tend to notice the patterns of this history. If two objects have a particular spatial relationship to each other – say, they’re just close enough to jump from one to the other – then we start to infer the intent behind the placement. This is particularly noticeable when solving puzzles in games. When the developer has created the environment to be navigated in one specific way, everything about the structure and layout of that environment becomes significant. It’s like a cryptogram: there’s a meaning behind this arrangement of elements which is directly being communicated to us, but the meaning hides behind a layer of obfuscation. And, like a cryptogram, solving the puzzle is mostly just a process of sorting all the information available to us properly: Once you know what every element’s role is, the solution becomes obvious. This is, more often than not, why people see twists coming in a story as well – not because the thing that happens next is likely, but because all of the pieces of the story moving to set up the twist lack subtlety and too clearly show the aims of the author. As with games, every part of a book was written for a reason, and if you’re good at seeing what that reason is then the shape of the story will start to take form long before it is read. Writers who are invested in creating a sense of surprise and discovery often need to find newer and more subtle ways to create surprise as we get better and better at reading their intent. We could view this as a sort of game itself: The artist’s attempt to create a surprise vs the reader’s ability to decode their intent prematurely.

Real spaces, too, have a history that is shaped by cause and effect. Places where people walk become trails and trails become roads – spaces not made to create puzzles, but merely to be traversed and lived in. The ability to infer the history of a space, whether virtual or real, can be a useful skill. It is not, however, a generalized problem-solving skill. That is to say, if you’re very good at solving puzzles, that doesn’t necessarily make you very good at solving problems. The problems we encounter in the world aren’t very much like the problems that games propose to us. They are not bounded or discrete, their elements are not carefully placed to be used. They are inconvenient and messy, and it’s not always clear when one has found a solution – or what other new problems that solution may pose. Problems may not even be solvable at all. The obstacles that games present may be useful for keeping your mind sharp, but the amount of transferable skill between the tiny constrained problems offered by a game and the huge incomprehensible problems proffered by day-to-day life is minimal.

While the skills games teach may, at times, have utility, that utility is rarely anything like the way those skills are represented in-game – that is to say, while the manual dexterity and tactical thinking needed to become a martial arts master in Street Fighter may have other applications, it won’t help you win many actual street fights. It’s sometimes difficult to accept that the skills don’t transfer, though, because to accept this is, some feel, to denigrate their validity as skills. Beating Dark Souls doesn’t mean you can fight a horse, but it does mean you’re capable of a certain degree of patience and care and precision. Doing something that’s difficult doesn’t necessarily mean you can do anything else that’s difficult, but it does mean you have the capability to face and overcome a difficult problem, if perhaps a very constrained one.

It may be obvious that playing video games isn’t generally good training for real life problems, but it’s worth restating because we tend to believe in the idea of generalized mental capability, in a sort of hierarchy of intelligence, to believe that if you can do one difficult thing that smart people do you can probably do other difficult smart-people things. What lets people do difficult things, though, isn’t some sort of abstract intelligence, some numerical value that makes them better at brain stuff than other people. It’s skill and it’s practice. We have a very easy time with this idea when it comes to athletic pursuits, to the idea that the abilities that make a person great at one sport probably don’t lend themselves to making them great at another sport, but have a harder time with it when it comes to mental skills.

Movies and television like to use a visual shorthand to show that a person is smart, so that we know to respect whatever they’re about to say. They show them playing smart-person games like chess or playing smart-person instruments like violins, have them wear smart-person glasses and speak in smart-person voices. And, of course, we know that wearing glasses or playing chess don’t necessarily make you smart – but we still believe there must be such a thing as smart, and that there must be a certain set of pursuits and attributes that belong to this class of smart people.

Pursuing skill in any endeavor is admirable in its own right, but it won’t somehow train up your intelligence score. You can’t grind your stats. All you can do is get better at doing a thing, and sometimes that will also be helpful for doing other things. Even then, there’s many ways to get better at a thing – for instance, if you want to play the piano, you could improve at sight-reading music or at improvisation, you could improve at jazz or classical music, you could improve your ability to play quick phrases or to make big jumps across octaves on the keyboard. These are all related but distinct skills, and together they can make you “good at the piano” – but what does “good” mean to you, then?

It takes a whole other skill, a whole other kind of dedication, to be able to face a problem of unknown size and indefinite scope, and slowly pick away at it bit by bit, unable to know when or how it might be solved. That’s one I think we’re all still trying to get the hang of.

Eh well the December project didn’t really go anywhere. I can at least put some screenshots of how far I got before I decided I’d kind of messed up:

I spent a week or two planning this building layout, figuring out Pro Builder (a tool for constructing 3d objects within Unity), and picking up the basics of other tools, such as Unity’s terrain system. In the end, I was… dissatisfied. I felt like I had just the very edges of what could be an interesting environment, but Pro Builder was becoming increasingly unfriendly the more I worked on it, and small issues with the geometry got harder and harder to fix – leaving me unable to make important changes, such as adding more windows.

I then decided that I needed to be able to work on this in a more full-featured 3d environment. I don’t know whether this was a good or a bad decision, but it was definitely the beginning of the end for this project. Originally, I’d hoped to just export the model from Pro Builder into Blender, a free and very full-featured 3d editing software. Unfortunately, all of the work I’d done in texturing and detailing the environment in Pro Builder came to work against me, with every separately textured subsurface of the object exporting as a separate element. I’d hoped to just drop my old work into Blender and immediately start work again, but this proved to be unfeasible. Over the next few days I studied the basics of Blender, and I began to reconstruct the building – but it is, after all, very difficult to be enthusiastic about doing the same work twice, and my capacity for enthusiasm is inconsistent at the best of times.

At this point we were pretty close to Christmas anyway, and my attention went away from getting game work done and towards all of the preparations that came with that. After Christmas I was mostly focused on cleaning and thinking about what the next year is going to look like. I’m still thinking a lot about those things, but it’s time to start a new project…

Well, close to it anyway! I’m actually not quite done with holiday stuff, and will be traveling for the next several days. Once that’s past I’ll have all month free, and hopefully by the time I get back home I’ll have a solid idea of what I want to work on. I do have a general plan of approach, though, for what I want the next several projects to be, based on the skills I want to pick up and practice:

January: Wizard Jam. The Idle Thumbs community runs a semiannual game jam where people spend a couple of weeks making a game, usually based on the title of one of the podcasts. This community has been a great source of support for me over the last couple of years, and though I’ve participated in the Jam a couple of times I’d like to put some work into something I can really be proud of this time. I’d also like to collaborate with at least one other person.

February: 2d Platformer. I would like to spend a month putting together a simple but complete 2d platformer. The purpose of this is twofold: First, to create a game simple enough that I can focus on creating content for it, and second to gain an understanding of how 2d works in Unity. The latter is important because it’s going to determine if, when I return to work on EverEnding, I continue that project in Flash or reimplement it in Unity. Probably the former, but I want to be open to the latter.

March: Album. I miss writing music, and though these other projects will probably provide opportunity to do so I’d really like to make it the focus of my efforts for a while. There’s a slight chance I might swap this one to February, since I’d prefer to dedicate fewer days to it and more to the 2d game, all else being equal.

April: EverEnding, Chapter 1, Part 1. I think if I really focus for a month, I can create the introductory areas of EverEnding to a degree that is, if not finished quality, at least close enough that I can finish most of the rest of the game before I take another quality pass. If I hit this milestone, I’ll start regularly setting up work months like this. I really don’t want to abandon this project! But I don’t want to be okay with it taking forever either.

All in all, it’s hard to be upset with how this month went. I’m disappointed that the project didn’t turn into anything, but I’m hoping I can keep up the momentum I started in learning these 3d tools, which have generally been a weakness of mine for a long time. I learned a bit more about the danger of trying to do things the ‘right way’ as well – this has been a vulnerability of mine for a long time, of feeling bound to execute whatever I feel to be the ‘proper’ way of doing something. The proper approach, though, is the one that creates a game, and so far that seems to elude me.

Hopefully, in a month, this space will describe my new Wizard Jam game – or games? Until then, hopefully I can also manage to keep up on Problem Machine blog posts a little bit better than I’ve been managing the last couple of weeks.