Archive

Art Design

I’ve been playing Cuphead. If you’ve somehow managed not to hear about this game, Cuphead is a 2D platformer styled after the cartoons of the 1930’s – although I frankly think it manages to realize that aesthetic far better than most of the source material it pulls from. It’s also punishingly difficult. Cuphead is impressive both how good it is and how much worse it would be if it was any less beautiful than it is – I have never seen a game rely on aesthetic quality to this extent, and it is fascinating to me that it does, and that it does so so effectively.

These aspects, beauty and difficulty, lean on each other like a pair of cards, prop each other up to create an incredible experience. This super-hard game would actually just not work if it wasn’t so incredibly beautiful in every respect, visually and aurally – the losses and restarts, the trial and error, cheap shots and bullet hells, would quickly become tedious. Some people would still enjoy it on those merits, but it certainly wouldn’t have found the huge audience it has now. At the same time, if the beauty was all there was, if there wasn’t this sort of punishing difficulty, the game would feel like fluff, would show up and disappear in an instant and would leave no lasting impression – though, of course, this version of the game, too, would find its own following. However, because the game is so brutal, you’re forced to really look at it, really closely look at everything that’s happening on-screen, lest you be caught off-guard – and, because you’re forced to look at something so damn lovely, it’s hard to actually be mad at what happens next – which is usually that you get your ass kicked by a medusa or a bird or something.

I find that idea, that sheer aesthetic beauty can be a core component of a game’s design, very interesting, because that’s not how we tend to think about the audio-visual component of games. There’s a lot of discussion over exactly how and how much the narrative and the design of games are discrete from each other, but it’s largely taken for granted that the aesthetic quality of the experience can be evaluated more-or-less on its own merits.

When we discuss the cross-section of aesthetic and game design, it’s usually about how the art style of the game realizes the core goals of the game’s design – not about how the game’s design enables the core goals of the game’s aesthetic, or in how the sheer quality of that aesthetic presentation can make the design goals click. Despite being a tremendously conservative game in many ways, Cuphead has thus exposed a huge gap in how we talk about the intersection of visual and mechanical design in games – or, at least, a huge gap in the way I’ve seen people talk about them – as, rather than a gaming experience enabled by an aesthetic layer, being an aesthetic experience enabled by a gaming layer. It’s an inversion of the way we usually think about what a game is.

I am curious to see what sort of impact this game has, a few years down the line – on video games in general, but also on the way I think about games. It’s strange to me how a game so straightforward could contain such revelatory implications.

Advertisements

It hasn’t been an especially productive month for the project, but things are grinding forward. I decided I was still dissatisfied with the performance, even after all the improvements I made to the particle system a year or so ago, and so I’m working on getting the project running in OpenFL, an open-source project that emulates Flash/AIR’s API but builds in C++ and tends to be faster. This isn’t really a smooth process, since there are a few Flash features that didn’t get ported and the ways file i/o and multi-threading are approached are very different. The file system stuff is no big deal, and I believe I’ve fixed the issues emerging from that already, though since I’m still working on the other stuff I haven’t been able to build the game to test those fixes yet. The multi-threading thing is more difficult but I think I’ve got a handle on it now, and the challenging part is mostly sequestering my Flash multi-threading code away so that I can write the special cases that change from platform to platform without turning everything into a total spaghetti mess. The features that aren’t supported… might be an issue. The only one I’ve found so far that looks like a big deal is that OpenFL currently has no equivalent of the DisplacementMapFilter, the processing effect which I used to make that water effect I was so proud of and which I also would like to use for a few other special effects. I’m going to have to look into creating a replacement – which sucks, but might end up being a blessing in disguise, since this will be a fairly natural way to explore the wide worlds of shader programming and, indeed, of contributing to open source projects if my solution ends up being of sufficient quality to submit as an OpenFL component.

Aside from this, I mostly worked on building the behaviors for the Feral enemy type which I shared a few sprites for last week. These behaviors are mostly finished now, but haven’t been tested yet since I didn’t have a complete set of sprites to test with – not strictly necessary, but since most of the code is reused from existing enemy types I’m not worried about any major malfunctions. I also realized a substantial obstacle towards completing the first area of the game was that I just wasn’t really sure what the space was supposed to look like. I had some vague ideas, but I didn’t know what the area’s history was supposed to be, what really was going on there now, or what the symbolism of it was. I spent a bit of time writing out some notes on it, and I’m confident that when I get the game working again and return to develop this area I’ll have a lot to work with.

My work is basically cut out for me now. Get the game building in OpenFL, handle any new bugs, rewrite the display code as necessary to take advantage of the improved performance. It’s always a bit of a drag getting railroaded into one big task that has to be done before I can make more substantial progress, but in this case there’s no way around it – particular as, in the interim, something weird has happened with my development environment to make launching the AIR version seemingly impossible. While I’m sure that will all get ironed out eventually, in the meanwhile it leaves me no avenue to working on the AIR version of the game, so really all I can do is drill in on the OpenFL port. Soon, at least, I’ll be able to take advantage of this tedious chore to tackle a field of programming I’ve been wanting to study for a while: Shaders.

 

Well this is probably going to be a short one, since for 20 of the 30 days since the last DevBlog I’ve been busy with writing and for the other 10 I’ve been trying to catch up with all the other stuff I didn’t get done while I was doing all that writing. The two avenues I’ve made progress on are in developing the Feral enemy type and in improving the camera system.

I posted the concept art for the Feral a little while back, and I’ve since been poking and prodding at getting some sprites done for it to add to the game.

I’m not thrilled with these at this point: The look of them is good, but the animation still feels extremely stiff for the most part. I’m having difficulty with handling the sorts of subtle motions I want this creature to make when it’s not being aggressive, and making them read on a fairly low-res sprite. I ended up tabling that work when I returned to the project since, as I’ve discussed in the past, I tend to find animation frequently turns into a demoralizing slog for me. So, to get myself back into the project and to build up a bit of momentum, I’ve gone back to programming work.

After a few days, I have most of what I think should be a functioning behavior set for the Feral, but I haven’t tested it yet – mostly, honestly, I just wanted to get the code to build so I could work on other parts of the project for a bit. Still, it means I’ll probably be able to get the Feral up and running in fairly short order, and that hopefully will increase my enthusiasm for creating and polishing the necessary animations.

More recently (ie just now) I’ve been working on the camera system. I went back and read a rather interesting Gamasutra article that exhaustively explored the different approaches to 2d camera systems and, while doing so, revised mine. In fact, I revised my camera system several times over, trying out different ways to move the camera or to determine where I was moving the camera to. I’ve mostly settled on a system where it offsets the camera based on the character’s facing enough to see what’s ahead and moves the camera faster based on how far it is from it’s desired position (without modeling acceleration), but there are a few instances where the camera jumps around in a rather unappealing way left to be dealt with.

I’m still getting used to working on the project again, and of course there’s holidays coming up to be a distraction, but spending a little while away from EverEnding has given me enough perspective to know that it’s not force of habit, or some inane belief that just finishing this one thing will make me rich, or certainty that it will somehow change the world, or some other bad reason that keeps me working on this game. I still love the version of it I have built in my mind, and I still want to try as hard as possible to bring that vision to fruition, and especially to see what it slowly shapes itself into along the way.

 

Way back when I started this blog, one of the first essays I did was about conceiving of a game as the combination of three related spaces – physical, mechanical, and narrative – and gameplay as the act of allowing the player to explore these spaces. I think this perspective is still useful, though sorely in need of revision now, five years later (I’ll likely return to it at some point in the future). However, whenever I think about how different games emphasize one or the other of these attributes, whenever I try to draw a hard line between where one space begins or ends, I run into a bit of difficulty making that division. The mechanical and narrative spaces are fairly easy to delineate – one is the actions you can take in an environment and how that environment reacts to those actions, the other is the story that is told about those actions and the context in which they take place. However, the physical space, which one would expect to be the most intuitive of the three, is a bit more difficult to delineate – and I think it has to do with how we create physical space in games.

The problem I keep running into is that the physical space of the games is actually created by means of mechanical and narrative elements. The mechanical aspect of the space is your ability to move around on some parts of it and to have your movement blocked by others, and the narrative aspect is the colors and textures and what they suggest about the world you’re in. Together they create something that feels like a chunk of physical world to explore, but there’s nothing actually physical there. A sense of physical space is created, but it is not separable from the mechanical and narrative elements that contribute to it – not in the same way that the mechanical and narrative elements are separable from each other.

It may be extremely obvious that the physical reality of the game world doesn’t exist, but it’s suggestive that we create the illusion of a physical reality through recreating the parts of reality which interest us most as humans. That is, when we encounter an object, our concerns are a) what can I do with this? And b) what does it mean that this is here? This, of course, has very little to do with the actual material world, where objects are made of many different bits and pieces, covered with bits and pieces of everything else, subjected to forces we have an incomplete understanding of. What’s noteworthy is not that we are simulating a reality, but that we are simulating outwards in, out from the superficial aspects we find ourselves most interested in, down into the more fundamental aspects such as mass and warmth only as we find those necessary to power the superficial simulation.

Tangentially, I am now quite certain that if we had any way to simulate texture and taste in games we would have done so long ago, as these are also superficial aspects of great interest to human perception.

It’s fascinating that we so many of us consider what we’re doing to be realistic. What we do with games is render exclusively that which can be seen: every 3d object is an empty shell, every character who is modeled is simply their exterior with nothing inside, and interior parts only created as they become necessary to render when they are ripped apart from the exterior (a common scenario in games). We see what a human, or a house, or a rock, looks like, and reproduce what we see, when that is inherently only the most superficial possible version of that thing.

Something from physical reality is translated into signals for our brain, is stored as a symbol representing that object; then our brain conducts our body to create an object that can reproduce those signals in another brain. That is what we call art – or, at least, representational art.

So, with games, we started from the simplest version of the most superficial reality, and from there we’ve managed to make more detailed and convincing forms of that representation. Perhaps we could simulate a reality based more on what we know to be there than what we see to be there? Even a primitive simulation of a more complete reality could lead to new and interesting artistic pursuits. Or, perhaps, since we are unmoored from the physical basis of reality, we could create a simulated world far wilder and stranger than we can while paying lip service to material reality.

Mostly, though, I just find it amusing how much we like to act like we’ve come anywhere near a reality simulation when our approach is in essence purely superficial. How very human of us.

I thought of a piece to write but I realized I didn’t have much to say about it. I was going to discuss the texture of canvas and brush and how they work to create texture in a painting, how that becomes part of the painted scene, standing in for the pebbling of goosebumps or the rough surface of a stone – I was going to compare that to the texture created by pixels and polygons and how these can work to sell interesting visual illusions. Maybe someday I’ll have something to say about it, but in order for it to be any good I’d need lots of visual examples. I definitely didn’t feel up to that tonight.

I thought about another piece about how difficult I find it to ask for anything, how my usual strategy is just to do my thing quietly in a corner and hope that things work out. I didn’t want to write this piece because I feel that it’s a rather self-pitying topic and one that I’ve touched on already a few times recently. Yes, everyone knows that men are terrible about asking for directions, and no it’s not really that interesting that this toxic stoicism has a tendency to derail other parts of one’s life when taken too far. This is probably a helpful topic for me to remind myself of every so often, but not so much an interesting topic to write about more often than perhaps once every six months or so.

I thought about another piece about the habits of skepticism and what a pain in the ass they make me to be around. Most people don’t like being questioned all the time: Maybe this is part of the reason I’m enjoying watching Columbo so much. I sometimes feel like I’m a pain in the ass in very similar ways to those in which he is a pain in the ass – though, unfortunately, I don’t get to arrest so many rich people. I do value questions I think more than I value answers – I trust questions more than I trust answers, since they’re more rarely lies. Maybe not much more rarely, as it’s actually easy for a question to be a lie, or at least extremely misleading – but a bit less easy than it is for an answer.

Then I started writing down all of my aborted ideas for a piece, and maybe they became something new. Sitting under a grating where bits of jigsaw puzzle fall through every once in a while by happenstance, trying to assemble a picture that makes sense out of pieces that were never meant to go together. The second two fit together okay – asking and questions are thematically similar. But the first… I guess the message is that the thing we make isn’t a product of the choices we make, but also the context they’re made in. Sometimes, a bunch of disparate ideas can be thrown together and create something worthwhile. And, sometimes, they can’t.

Just gotta keep jamming those suckers together to see how they look.

Not too long ago, and for a lot of the history of video games, the visual quality of a game has been decided entirely on how ‘realistic’ the graphics are. Using photo textures, true-to-life lighting models, and increasingly sophisticated shading systems, we tried to – and, indeed, continue to try to – create rendered images that are completely indistinguishable from a photograph. On the one hand this makes a lot of sense – I mean, photorealism is often regarded, rightly or wrongly, as the height of technical mastery for a painter, so shouldn’t game graphics aspire to the same thing? On the other hand, what a tedious aspiration this is, for a medium that could do literally anything, portray any kind of weird and wild reality.

Fortunately this is no longer the aspiration for most games. This may have as much to do with the problems inherent in trying to produce to this quality of fidelity on a budget as with any shift in aesthetic priority, but the end effect is that realism is no longer the universal standard of quality – in most games, that is.

It’s interesting and a bit dismaying to look at the games where ‘realism’ is still prized. War games, mostly, and particular first-person shooters. These games are mechanically some of the most distant from their source material – wars full of permanent death, permanent destruction, permanent loss, portrayed in a manner where everything can be redone, remade, regained, with a quick checkpoint reload in single-player or starting the next round in multi-player. Sure, the same can be said of most games, which usually have dramatic stakes and some sort of loading/reloading system, but rarely does real and tragic loss sit quite so closely to quick and easy consequence-free gameplay. There’s something exceptional and grotesque about using real wars, some quite recent, as set-dressing for your shooty game, and selling that illusion with state-of-the-art graphics.

The reason why realistic graphics have become less popular, aside from budgetary reasons, is that we’ve realized that graphical style can communicate something about the nature of the game and the world it takes place in. The reason why it’s odd that realism is still the art style of choice for military-themed shoot-em-ups is that what this art style conveys is: “this is reality, this is what war is like, it’s gritty and bloody – and also painless and fun and inconsequential!”

Perhaps they’re pressured to adopt this realistic style by market forces – it is, after all, easy to appreciate realism because we know what reality looks like. It also makes them appear faithful and respectful to the realities of war in a certain way, since they study real war to make sure they can replicate its aesthetic, and perhaps the desire to use a realistic style is in some way a response to the massive narrative and mechanical disconnect noted earlier. They keep pushing this aesthetic harder, and though they still shy short of presenting the screams of agony, the begging for mercy, the child casualties, how long before they wear this, too, as aesthetic? How long before the fans defend these choices, as well, as being ‘realistic’ to the war portrayed, when realism is the furthest thing from the mechanics of the game experience?

Maybe this all seems very alarmist, but the reason why this bothers me is how often people who advocate real actual war position themselves as being realists, as just being pragmatic, when they talk about the necessity of armed conflict. The way we frame discussions of war as being willing to do what’s necessary, willing to see a hard thing through, it seems similar to the way we smear dirt and blood over things to make them seem real and true, wearing the aesthetic of sacrifice instead of trying to understand what is lost. And, to be clear – this isn’t just games. We wear blood and suffering as a costume, while quietly shuffling past all the actual blood and suffering, in all sorts of media.

So perhaps it’s just market forces that make it so every game that’s about being a person, about real and painful loss, looks like a cartoon – while every game about getting to be a cartoon, about being Itchy and Scratchy killing each other over and over again, looks like footage from a war zone. Perhaps I’m just worried about where the market is forcing us, and what will happen when we get there.

I’ve been playing a lot of Dishonored over the past couple of weeks, and I’ve been, for the most part, loving my time with it. Of course, the more I enjoy a game, the more frustrated I get with the few things that stand out to me as issues. I went over this a bit a few days ago, about how difficulty changes which are usually used to push a player to explore a possibility space can, when used without care, constrict that possibility space. Modifying the difficulty of a stealth game can be tricky: After all, there are a lot of easy handles to grab to modify the challenge of a traditional action game, numbers such as damage, health, speed, powerup effectiveness… It gets trickier in a game that’s not based on overpowering force, but on sight-lines and motion, suspicion and awareness. In stealth games, what is difficult or not is often based on intricacies of positioning and movement, rather than whether one number is bigger than another.

Because of this, it’s entirely understandable that Dishonored’s attempts to increase in difficulty over the course of the game, and across difficulty settings, largely boil down to the game becoming more punishing of mistakes. That is, rather than asking you to succeed against a greater challenge, it mostly asks you to succeed against the same challenge but with a smaller margin for error. This is not completely ineffective, since it does add some tension – but since the actual consequences, in a game with quickload, are so negligible, it doesn’t really change the experience of playing the game except to make it more finicky. Heightening the consequences of mistakes just removes any chance to recover from them, any chance to retreat, to improvise, and replaces these with just reloading your last save. Does this incentivize more careful planning? Not especially effectively, when the worst that happens is a quick load screen and then another attempt at navigating the same challenge.

I suppose some might say that this is an issue with the player being able to freely save and load, and I think this is not an invalid perspective, but I prefer to look at it differently. I think the issue is more that the designers approached the creation of more difficult enemies as a way to push people away from the using the exact same tactics that were discouraged by every other enemy, but more punishingly and aggressively. Ideally, each new enemy would add some new factor the player had to contend with, a new and different challenge that forced the player to approach it in a new and different way. The tallboy enemy type, essentially a set of armored stilts, does this quite effectively: This enemy type cannot be choked or easily stealth killed, and also can see into areas other enemies cannot because of its height. However, other enemy types, such as the Music Box Overseers, and even the late-game basic enemy types with improved attack abilities, mostly just serve to make it less feasible to recover from a mistake while still being vulnerable to the exact same tactics.

I thought it would be an interesting design exercise to consider how I would try to improve the game – at least what I would consider to be an improvement, I know tastes vary. What follows are my notes for a fantasy patch for Dishonored, one which would push the player to vary their approach to the game’s obstacles while still allowing for different generalized styles of play. Having not played Dishonored 2, it’s entirely possible that I’ll say something that appears foolish in light of the changes made in that game. Oh well.

Fantasy patch notes:

Cannot knock out opponents using the choke-hold on very hard difficulty. On all other difficulties choking works on any opponent from behind, regardless of alert status

More objects are throwable, including all vases and dishes as well as swords and armor dropped by enemies.

Throwing enemy bodies, dead or alive, at an enemy causes a long stagger.

Damaging alarm stations in any way now sets off the alarm.

Enemies are now staggered by attacks that hit them during their attack, but only after their attack is complete.

Enemies sometimes do desperate attacks while staggered, which increase their stagger time but can be dangerous when careless.

Tallboy models revised with heavier armor, drop attack no longer possible, have a blind spot directly under them beneath their sight-line.

Music Box Overseers are visibly armored front and back, though there are enough gaps to make choking and stealth kills possible. They’ve selected elite troops to carry the music boxes, so they’re all visibly taller and the armor has red highlights. Music boxes now, rather than disabling all magic use, rapidly drain mana – once mana is drained, they continue to quickly drain health. This effect is weaker the further away the player is from the music box, and up close the drain is enough to kill the player in about 3 seconds. This drain rate is percentage-based, so the same regardless of current mana/health, and the lost health and mana will regenerate if the music box is removed. Some Music Box Overseers are set to constantly play, and will only stop if knocked out or killed. A new effect has been added to make the range of the music box more clearly visible. Being behind a wall will offer some protection from the box, but it continues to affect the player. Music box no longer slows down player movement.

Armored Butchers no longer have a ranged attack and deal damage that results in near-instant death at melee range. They now always explode on death or knockout, alerting everyone nearby and dealing slight damage. This makes knockouts impossible on non-lethal and ghost playthroughs. However, the player can also pickpocket the oil tanks powering the armor, leaving them immobile, though they can still cry for help. While immobile they can be picked up and moved like any other body.

The intent with these changes to create a game that’s a bit more dynamic. Meticulous planning is still the strongest route to success, especially with the new types of obstacles and complications you have to plan for, but you also have more room to improvise a recovery, both in lethal and non-lethal play. I tried to make the aspects I dislike less obnoxious without actually nerfing them – that is, I feel that these versions of the Music Box Overseer and Armored Butchers are actually much more challenging and dangerous than the extant versions, but also more interesting to play against.