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Monthly Archives: February 2020

When we first wish to become artists, it’s usually because we are inspired by the art of others. We see, play, read, and a spark is ignited, and we want more – not just more of the world they have provided us, but more of the process that created that world, to touch the infinite manifold of alternate universes that they passed over to arrive at the one they created, curated, presented. We want to be the one to ignite that spark for someone else, to be links in the chain that hold up the worlds of imagination.

In this regard, envy is a helpful tool for beginning the artistic journey, but becomes increasingly less so for continuing it. The further we progress under our own power, the more we come to understand our own strengths and weaknesses, the less benefit we can derive from wishing we had the strengths of others – after all, if it was just that easy for us we’d probably already be there. If, after years of thought and practice, you’re still very far from a certain style of creation, it’s probably not that you’re incompetent or that they’re years beyond you in skill, but just that this style of creation is not one that comes nearly as easily to you. This is going to be the case for a lot of things, sadly: Sometimes the kind of art we find most interesting is not the kind that we create most readily.

This wall is not unclimbable. If it’s important to you, really important to you, you can figure out a way to create in another person’s style – or at least a near enough approximation to provide some degree of creative satisfaction. Learning this whole new approach, though, takes time and energy – time and energy you could be spending on something else, on developing your own style further, on finding art that’s closer to your own expressive style to build off of, or in just working faster and without worry on your own projects.

I wonder why I keep finding myself in this position of wanting to make others work my own. I wonder why I’m not enough for me, and must keep hungering for more outside. It’s wise to understand that there’s more that can be done than you are doing, but this need to take, to conquer, to consume, is disrespectful both to myself and to those whom I envy – to myself because it diminishes the validity of my own aesthetic and sense of art, to others because it imagines their capacity for creation to be separable from their being in a way that it is not. That which we make is inseparable from that which we are.

I don’t know if every artist feels this way. Is it more common among men, those who are taught that their calling is to take and to conquer? Is it more common within colonial nations, those who are taught that resources in the hands of others are by definition being misused and must be appropriated? Or is the grass just always greener for everyone, no matter how green it gets or how seasoned we become? This perspective may be harmful in other ways – to seek conquest and control when instead I can be passive, seeing and perceiving without need for complete understanding. I can, rather than seeking to acquire some essence, regard everything I observe of other peoples creations as an expansion of the possibility space – not an edict, not something which must be done, but a suggestion, an idea, something that could be done if the need arises. A new component, a new word in my vocabulary, a new possibility…

My frustration is perhaps exacerbated because I’m actually terrible at intentionally copying the style of others. I can integrate small elements, bits of ideas and aesthetic here and there, but the end result is completely different. This is actually a relief in many ways, since it means even if I shamelessly steal the end result is usually unrecognizable – but it also means that, if my goal is emulation, it will remain forever out of my reach. It may be time to embrace that. It may be wise to make a home on the mountain rather than try to climb it forever, to seek to do what I do best to the greatest extent of my ability – rather than to aspire to somehow attach what other people do to what I do and combine them into something bigger, something bolder, something more important, something more forever.

The problem is the belief that more and more correct is achievable and desirable – the belief that, if I can take someone else’s approach and unify it with my own, I will have achieved something greater than either. I’m not actually sure that it can work that way. There’s always a line being walked: The line between wishing you were making and wishing to have made, wishing you were doing and wishing to have done, the line between wishing you could see and wishing to be seen. The process of creation lies upon that line, held taut in place between conflicting yearning. I want to be free to create, free from the tyranny of standards and judgment I inflict upon myself. I want to be free to aspire, unbound by the limits of my capability, of what I know I can do. These wants hold me upright, pull me, push me, hurt me, and let me work. The uncertainty and discomfort is where the artists live, the impossible and unbreathable vacuum between what is and what might yet be.

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I’ve talked before about how there’s no such thing as true randomness – that is, the term ‘random’ is just a shorthand for events with causality too complex to be determined by a human observer. However, because all events are connected by causality, because we live in a world of things affecting other things affecting other things, of butterfly effects, the term ‘random’ could be fairly used to describe nearly anything. For the same reason as there’s no such thing as random, then, there’s also no such thing as certain. You can never know with absolute certainty that a given event will happen, that a known effect will follow a cause, because there are a pseudo-infinite number of factors outside of our direct observation that may change the outcome.

What makes the idea of certainty so loaded is that so many hypotheticals are premised on certainty. This is part of the problem I was describing in my essay on strategy games last week: The outcomes for all your choices are known and quantifiable beforehand, making the choice of outcomes largely one of preference rather than guesswork and damage control. We can describe a trolley problem, where you choose to sacrifice one life to save five, but the real-world outcomes of our choices are impossible to conclusively determine beforehand, and all such moral and mortal calculus becomes suspect. When we believe that the ends justify the means, there’s an implied and unstated leap of faith that the ends are certain – which they never are.

One one level we know this. We comprehend that nothing is ever certain, that we cannot wholly rely on the outcome of our actions being what we predict – but it’s difficult to navigate day-to-day life keeping this in mind, so we just assume everything will basically function as intended until it fails to, and we’ll handle that on a case-by-case basis. This is fine. It’s fine! However, a great deal of discretion and self-interest go into when we take that leap of faith: If it’s more convenient to us to believe that something will definitely always work, we are certain. If we’d rather not take the plunge required by being certain of an outcome, even if it’s an extremely likely one, we will frame it by its uncertainty in our mind. Because nothing can be completely certain, anything we perceive to be certain or to be uncertain is perceived that way as much to motivate ourselves towards particular behaviors as by seriously evaluating its likely outcome. We quietly nudge ourselves one way or the other by reframing and restating the expected outcome: If you don’t want to tackle a task, you emphasize the undeniable risk of failure, and if you do you think only of what you will do after success. Or, frequently, the likelihood of a predicted outcome is not evaluated at all, but treated as axiomatic: Punish the child to prevent the misbehavior, lock up the criminal to prevent the crime, wage the war to end the injustice. Regardless of whether we have any information about whether these work, we definitely feel that they ought to work, that they are narratively if not statistically sound.

Since I mentioned hypotheticals, let’s bust out one of those hoary old questions. Say you’re given a box with a button: Every time you press the button, you get $10 and somewhere a random person dies. Well, that’s what you’re told anyway: All you can directly observe is that when you press the button you get $10. It’s obviously wrong to kill a person for $10, but it would be very easy to convince yourself that no one actually died when you pressed the button. I mean how would that even make any sense? Printing money is way more plausible than instant randomized death at range. Even if you did take it at its word, and were morally upstanding, would the next person who inherited the button be so? Or the next?

Eventually someone will convince themselves that it’s probably fine. It’s fine! Besides, they need the money. They press that button every second for a full 8 hour work day, 2,000 hours a year. At the end of the year, they’ve made $72 million dollars and killed 7.2 million people. $72 million dollars is approximately 0.4% of what Jeff Bezos makes in a year. 7.2 million deaths is approximately a 13% increase in the average number of deaths per year, so it would probably raise some eyebrows, but still I don’t know maybe it’s Coronavirus or something. Most folks would stop. Not everyone would. Certainly not everyone would if the box was less lethal – say if it was a lever that gave $100 but could only be pulled every ten seconds, or a $600 wheel that took a full minute to rotate. I don’t know if people would really notice an increased death rate of 0.2% per year. Maybe.

I suppose if there were perhaps 100 of these boxes, even if eventually the rate of death climbed towards that extra 13% it would be easy to assume it could be anything causing the extra deaths. Still, I imagine many box owners would stop using them once they understood what was going on, settle for their billions of dollars. Not all of them though. Over time, all 100 boxes would filter into the hands of one person, the guy who Does Not Give A Shit. This person has a lot of money, so he can afford to have other people use his money-death-wheel boxes for him. So now we have 100 boxes that kill one person every minute, in use 24/7. This would kill 52 million people a year, slightly less than doubling the annual death rate of humanity – but still not higher than the birth rate, so this probably wouldn’t kill the species. This would also earn $31.5 billion dollars a year. This is approximately half again what Jeff Bezos earns per year.

Now. None of this is happening. There are no magic death money wheel boxes. However, the same dynamics are at play: Power accumulates in the hands of those willing to accumulate it most ruthlessly, with the most disregard for the well-being of others. Part of the reason this is true is that it is so easy to believe in your own plausible deniability, to create uncertainty or certainty as it best suits you, to create the uncertainty that these deaths are really caused by you, to create certainty that it’s fine (it’s fine!), that you earned this money, that really the problem with the world is the surplus population anyway, to create certainty that you’re just doing what anyone would do. And yet the wheels turn, once a minute, and fall slowly but surely into the hands of those who care least about the future of humanity.

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The conceit of strategy games is an interesting one. Most strategy games place you as the general of an army, or some other authority figure, and tasks you with managing an army or other complex system and directing it towards victory. This makes sense as a sort of high level abstraction, but also makes it so abstract that aren’t playing so much as a leader but as a living embodiment of the army (or town, or empire) that you are meant to be managing. Giving orders is not a matter of communication with your officers or of drawing up plans, but of pressing buttons and relocating objects directly – and these orders have a narrow scope of what they can be (usually constrained to moving somewhere, building something, or attacking something), and are instantaneous, and are never misinterpreted or disobeyed.

This is a conception of what leadership looks like that is particularly interesting because it is highly erroneous. Of course, armies aren’t controlled by individuals, they are controlled by a chain of command, which has decisions made at every level, with each decision interpreted with varying levels of creativity, and communication channels that are not always reliable. Games are seldom interested in these sorts of leadership challenges, though, preferring to present players with the unsullied challenge of acquiring and allocating resources. However, this tendency extends beyond games: We seldom think of leadership in general this way, of a distant and easily-misinterpreted voice yelling from a rooftop – we instead tend to think of the leader as being in some way the heart of the system they are meant to command, to being the source of all its successes and its failures, and this is the understanding of leadership we’ve crystallized into our strategy games.

The outcome of a complex system seldom comes down to the actions of one individual. While leadership is a real skill with real consequences, the success of a system comes down to how well that system functions as a whole, not down to how well it’s managed at the top. Some more recent strategy games have a degree of awareness of this: You might have to manage individual leaders with individual personality traits, or balance a relationship with your labor force – but these are only treated as volatile resources for you, the leader, to manipulate into position, rather than actors in the system with their own approach and agenda.

These implicit assumptions about how things must work end up skewing the worlds depicted. There’s always a tendency in games to reify the idea of meritocracy, to attempt construction of a world where the most ‘worthy’ players, who understand and can execute on the systems, are rewarded with the most success. This assumption lands very differently, though, in games which portray one-time incidents with protagonists in unique situations, as in adventure or action games, than it does in games which span large number of people, such as city planning or military strategy.

We have a set of axioms that we call good game design: The player must be in ultimate control of their fate, the outcome of an action must be predictable before the action is undertaken, and there should be no options that are always the best or always useless. However, all of these are toxic as an implied model of functional reality: Individuals are seldom in ultimate control of their destiny, the outcome of our actions is never easy to predict, and there are many options that are clearly useless or obviously optimal. The reason why I say toxic, rather than merely inaccurate, is because this does start to hew rather closely to the right-wing conception of the world – where all negative consequences are due to individual failing, where if anything bad happens after someone’s actions they clearly deserved it because they ought to have known better, and where the ends can justify the most atrocious of means – after all, if you add the tactical decisions of ‘enhanced interrogation’, execution of dissidents, or even genocide to your game for historical or simulational reasons, you are then obliged to make them viable decisions for reasons of ‘game balance’.

This is one of the reasons why the idea of ’empathy games’, games designed to engender empathy for those who are systemically disadvantaged by putting you into their shoes, has never succeeded – because, in order to turn these challenges into a game, you must make them quantifiable and surmountable, which then leads the player to an even less empathetic, more right-wing mindset. To even create a simulation in the first place, you are required to systematize, in concrete terms, decisions and entities which have debatable actual effects in the world – that is, whatever our real opinions on militarized police and the carceral state, in a video game about city management adding a police station will reduce crime and reduced crime will make people happier – and it’s as simple as that. Nuance and complexity are lost because these are inimical to the fairness and clarity required by good game design as we understand it.

What might be a better model of leadership, then? It is frankly difficult to imagine one in the context of a single-player game. If we expand out to multiplayer, though, we can imagine one that is simultaneously co-operative and competitive – as so many real-life situations tend to be. One where the players are working towards the same goal, but have vastly different priorities as to how that goal is achieved. For instance, we could have a game where the players jointly control a factory: One, the CEO, tries to maximize the corporation’s monetary output at all costs, while the other, the worker, attempts to gain enough pay to survive on while expending the minimum possible cost to their time and well-being. Neither one is particularly interested in the well-being of the other, but both are interested in keeping the factory running smoothly. We could add other players, such as a spouse who has to manage the worker’s resources, a customer who tries to purchase goods as cheap as possible, or a manager who has to be the intermediary between the CEO and the worker, to create a fuller and more interesting simulation Of course, one could ask why the worker needs the CEO at all. Regardless, another version of this might be the general and the soldier, where the general needs to take a tactical objective at any cost, but the soldier’s goal is to stay alive. One might wonder why taking that objective is worth the soldier dying for. Nevertheless.

The problem, really, is that fairness is treated as an axiom of game design, but as exasperated mothers everywhere like to say the world isn’t fair. This rock and this hard place keep butting up against each other, and slowly the tenets of game design start to give way – and we become more willing to explore the territory of unfairness, through the random territory of roguelikes to the volatile war zone of battles royale.

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As mentioned in the previous post, I spent the last month working on a side project. For most of this time, this project was really the only thing on my plate: Every day, I had one thing to do, and that was to work on my game jam game. This, it turns out, sucks: For some reasons I knew but forgot about, and for some reasons which I only discovered over the course of the month.

I have a lot of work habits I’ve acquired over the years, mostly to enforce some degree of work-life balance in a life that doesn’t have a lot of hard time or space boundaries. I don’t have an office to go to, I don’t have many obligations, I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything at any particular time – so, in that context, it’s very easy to be constantly stressed out about what I ought to be doing. All existence becomes subservient to the work I could be doing, and whenever I’m not actively working I feel like I’m fucking up – and all this stress leaves me too tired to actually put in work, creating a feedback loop. And so on, and so forth, which is why I try now to dedicate blocks of my day to different things, and to set some hard barriers about when I’m allowed to work, so that I’m not constantly ashamed of everything I’m not doing instead of excited about what I am doing.

That’s why, though I am satisfied with the result, I think my approach to this game jam sucked. But enough about that.

The roughest part was the week leading up to and out of the game jam deadline, when I still couldn’t really abandon the project but it also didn’t really feel complete, and I had no real feedback for how it was being received. Time spent on minor tweaks, on fixing pressing issues, on debugging and testing – this is always a huge part of game development, but it’s tremendously demoralizing. Not only is the work itself stressful and often tedious, but there’s a huge difference between the experience of producing something which could turn out to be anything and the process of improving something by increasingly narrow degrees when you already know exactly what it is. There is no more discovery, only maintenance. There is no more creation, only refinement. The process itself isn’t terrible except for there is an accompanying sense of loss, a sense of potential removed and never to be rediscovered – a sense that everything you’ve made is egregiously outweighed by everything you haven’t, a sense of a backlash as the infinite possibilities of an idea collapse into the singular reality of whatever you’ve made of it, no matter what it happens to be.

I’m over it. I’m feeling good now. It was a pretty lousy week, though, and I have to think about what it’s going to be like when I finish a bigger project. What’s it going to be like when I finish EverEnding? What’s it going to be like to part ways with something I’ve spent so much time with, with something that’s defined my life? Will it not feel a bit like murder as much as birth to reduce the manifold potential in my imagination down to a singular product, a piece which can be experienced, a game which can be bought and sold?

I wonder for how many artists this has become a trap. I wonder how many set themselves projects that can never be completed simply to avoid the post-partum pains of crystallizing infinite potential into finite creation. I wonder if this might not be part of why my game jam project was a meditation on being caught between the future and the past, of the person you were yesterday and the person you might be tomorrow. I can see a future where I’m caught up in a ceaseless present, groundhog day over and over, pushing a stone up a hill so it can roll down, and I think I must make plans to avoid it.

How do you work with an eye towards completion? How can you take joy in the process but still steer towards a goal, and not trip over it when you get there? Perhaps the loss of completion is something you just have to get used to, in the way you get used to your other little tragedies and lost loves, through pain.

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For the past month, I’ve been working on my entry to the Idle Thumbs community game jam, Wizard Jam X. This is the final Wizard Jam, due to the Idle Thumbs podcast going into a long-term hiatus from which it may never awake. I really wanted to make something special for this one. I think I achieved about half of what I’d hoped to do, but I am reasonably satisfied with the result.

Without further context or explanation, I present Eight Seconds: Manipulated Through Time.

The concept of Wizard Jam is to take the title of one of the Idle Thumbs podcasts – or one of their several associated podcasts – and to make a game with the same title, which may or may not have anything whatsoever to do with its source material. Later Wizard Jams have diverged from this formula somewhat in order to keep things fresh, but I’ve always been a fan of this approach so I stuck with it. In this case, I chose the title “Manipulated Through Time”. I always find it interesting imagining to what degree we might be capable of representing time travel in video games – We have tremendous control of allowing the player to revisit everything prior to the current moment in the game, since we can freely record and play back those previous game states – but can we make it possible for them to interact with the future in a meaningful way?

Well, that’s still an interesting idea, but I wasn’t really able to robustly pursue it here because it turns out my hands were quite full with allowing the player to interact with the past – though the idea of these two interactions being equivalent is also presented. It was important to me to make it so the player interacted with that past in a meaningful way – not just as a static recording, but as something more tangible – and, in so doing, that also means that you are directly affecting your future self with the actions you’re taking now.

This is always true, just revealed a bit more explicitly here.

My original concept of the game was that every minute, time would be reversed. For each minute, you would interact with your shadow self, which was doing everything you just did but in reverse, and by so doing you would navigate puzzles and so forth. While thinking about this, I realized that in that first minute, before there was any shadow to interact with, the player would have no idea what was going on – and that even once the idea of the time reflection began to make sense, controlling your inputs precisely, with reversal in mind, for an entire minute would still be nearly impossible. The obvious solution was to shorten this feedback loop to a shorter period of time so it was more feasible to observe the results of your actions. I waffled for a while considering different time values and eventually settled on eight seconds as an appropriate length for the time loop. I also eventually ended up making variants on this time reflection idea – you’d have reflections that reversed the flow of time, or echoes that moved the same temporal direction as you but with an eight-second delay, or reflections that had an echo of their own, and so forth. This undermined the original idea of a time loop where you were interacting with yourself directly, but by the time I got to this point I’d forgotten that was the original idea – and only remembered just now, when describing it here. I included the duration into the title to make it a little bit clearer what was happening (the tutorial for a game can begin with the title!) and also had some slight visual changes with each tick and each “reversal” to add to that clarity.

Because the concept was so innately difficult to wrap one’s brain around, I tried to make the game’s other elements as simple as possible. I had some idea of physics puzzles, of raising platforms with your reflection in order to traverse them, of tossing items to yourself – and, while these aspects are not entirely absent, they’re all done within the incredible simple framework of doors, switches that open doors, and boxes that can go on switches. However, because the player can be duplicated, and because whatever the player is holding when they’re duplicated can also be duplicated, even the simplest of these can become remarkably complex in practice.

What I came to realize over the course of the project is that there’s two somewhat contradictory sets of goals at play: That which builds interesting and thought-provoking puzzles using the mechanics, and that which builds an interesting moment-to-moment experience using the mechanics. These aren’t entirely contradictory of course: The idea of a fraught cooperation with your past selves implies challenges to be surmounted, so developing the theme requires challenge and developing challenge requires use of the theme, but there are points where these impulses push me in opposite directions. For instance, a huge amount of clarity could have been added to the puzzle solving if I locked the camera into a top-down perspective and made the movement turn-based – but this would also reduce the sense of the self being reflected, and reduce your interaction to a player and a pawn rather than a player with an avatar representing that player. In this case, I made the decision to present the game in first-person early on in production before realizing these ramifications – so, in the end, it becomes more of an experience than a proper puzzle game, with most puzzles being solved by fiddling with the scenario until an answer emerges rather than actually being thought through.

When it came to the appearance of the game, I wanted something highly detailed but not necessarily realistic. I was imagining the hyper-detailed surreal scenes of Twin Peaks or the minimalist stop motion of the 1989 Oscar-winning animated short Balance, something that felt very physical and real but without any grounding in the physical limitations of reality. I ended up leaning heavily on a free (deprecated) 3d tileset called Simple Corridors – because it was free and had PBR (Physically Based Rendering) materials, which is a fancy name for including a standard set of rendering textures that approximate the appearance of real materials. I originally planned on having a few separate environments, but since I didn’t have the time or skillset to make this type of asset on my own and didn’t want to break the bank buying professional assets I ended up making every area of the game a variant on the first tutorial zone I created – which, honestly, was probably all for the better, since it added to the thematic idea of being suspended in time.

For the music, I wanted to integrate both reversed and unreversed instruments, and have it be at times unclear which was which – it was also, since timing was such a huge part of the game, an opportunity to convey the eight seconds conceit through another information channel. I could have, and perhaps should have, executed this as a static music track, but instead I created a simple adaptive music system using several separate music stems for each instrument, each being 8 or 16 seconds long and each with an assigned intensity value. Trigger volumes set the music intensity as the player progresses through the level, which randomly plays a random sample of the appropriate intensity at timed intervals – many of which are reversed versions of other samples. The basic idea of this worked really well, creating something that sounded more or less intentional and built over time – but, because Unity’s support for playing arbitrary sound samples is much less robust than it is for creating a dedicated sound emitter, I had a number of issues with controlling these sounds, from slight desyncs caused by frame timing to large variations created by the game being paused for the settings menu. Also, as I built the musical components out more the administrative overhead of managing even this relatively simple song structure became significant. It was a worthwhile experience, but I’ll likely try to integrate one of the existing middlewares for adaptive music next time I want to do something like this, just to have a proper editor at my disposal. All in all, I’m pleased but not entirely satisfied with how the musical component turned out – it sounds interesting some of the time, and seldom degrades into true cacophony, but it does sound like a slipshod implementation of the idea it represents – which it is. I decided that sound effects would just detract from the surreal experience, though, and didn’t bother with them.

Other technical difficulties emerged through the time reversal system itself, which should be a surprise to no one. Recording and playing back a character’s history is fairly trivial, but recording and playing back a history in a way that still acts on the world, and that can be acted on, is a more significant challenge. All values must be relative instead of absolute – and movement values must be relative both to the world and to the facing of the character. Partway through the project I decided to vary the levels by mirroring them and scaling them, and I hadn’t considered earlier on what effects this might have on game entities which existed within these worlds. The reflection of the player was modified by the transformation of the world it was placed in, which is thematically interesting but absolutely not my desired result. Suddenly whenever they were supposed to turn right they’d turn left, entirely because right and left had traded places in the world they were now put in. Other issues came in when I added the ability for the player and the reflections to grab and throw each other, which then created rotational feedback loops where, when the rotation of the character was recorded for the next playback, it would record both the player and the reflection’s rotation summed together. Some of these issues may still exist, though I tried to stomp out as many as I could – but even aside from the technical challenge of implementing a solution, figuring out what a solution even ought to look like was frequently a non-trivial design challenge. What does it mean to pick up or drop an item in reverse, and what effect should these actions have on the world? What degree of physical interaction between the player and their reflection enabled interesting outcomes, and what was unfeasible to implement? What was likely to break the game? I had to answer each of these, and though I ended up approaching most of these conservatively it was still an unpredictable game and prone to weird breaks which I had to take a few extra days to debug.

I’m happy with how the project turned out, but I don’t think my methodology was very good. I dropped everything to work on this, and I think the end result of that was unhealthier work habits and hours, a lack of focus, and a bunch of extra stress I probably didn’t need to deal with. Though this is the last Wizard Jam (for now?), I will likely participate in some other game jams in the future – and these tough lessons are ones I think I’d better keep in mind when I do.

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