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Art Design

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.

 

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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.

Worked on the game very little over October since I’ve been busy with other stuff – character designs, learning 3d modeling/sculpting, picking Reason back up and trying to get the ball rolling again on music composition, and streaming more. I’ve poked here and there at getting sprites and behaviors set up for the Feral enemy type which I posted character art for last month, but made no substantial progress there. And, with pushing myself to make daily blog posts this month and keeping up on the streaming, I probably won’t have a ton of energy left over to work on the game, but I’ll be trying to schedule bits and pieces here and there so I can keep my momentum rolling a bit, ready for when I’m prepared to work on the game with a bit more focus. In the meanwhile, I’m still slowly picking away at the huge concept painting I mentioned last month, which I’ve decided to regard as a work in its own right, since it’s going to take me an absurd amount of time to finish. Still, I think it could look kind of amazing when it’s done, so I’m sticking with it.

The one major bit of EverEnding related work I’ve finished is a character design I’ve been tossing around in my head. This character doesn’t even appear in the first act, but is very important in the second. I’m pleased to have taken some time to figure out the design, since some of the ideas I was playing around with originally absolutely did not work when I actually drew the character. I think I’m pretty pleased with how this design turned out, though future revisions are still likely.

Next month will probably be more minor updates and changes. I’ll probably have the game a bit more backburnered for the near future, as I try to set up alternate revenue streams to support myself, but still fully intend on finishing this project – after all’s said and done, I still really like this idea, and want to see it come to fruition.

 

Another weird month! They’re all weird months, now. I suppose that makes them normal, in a way. In an actual for real way, though, they remain weird.

Last month I mentioned that I was going to be working less on the game and more on building a portfolio – and so I am, but it turns out these goals aren’t quite as much in conflict as I was thinking they would be last month. EverEnding still requires a ton of design work, concept work for enemies and areas that have yet to be added to the game. Now, if I was solely focused on the game I’d probably just design all of these as I built the actual assets for the game, and I’ll probably still be doing that a fair bit, but this will allow me to iron out some of the trickier areas in my head while also making art that will be useful both for promoting myself and the game.

So let’s start with the EverEnding stuff and then I’ll move on to some of the other stuff I’ve been working on. The big thing I’ve been trying to do is develop a concept painting of one of the late game areas, but I’ve hit a snag – or maybe a lot of snags. I’m not used to environmental art so I’m having to figure out a lot of things as I go along, and I’m not really sure what the scope or precision of one of these paintings should be. As things stand, I’ve started a HUGE painting which is taking me a long time to finish, and which I’m unsure of the quality of since I’m having to learn so much as I go. The good news is that if I can execute I think this could be really something, and perhaps even be a cover painting or other very front-facing promotional material. It’s a bit discouraging having to spend this much time on something, but I hope to have this painting done for the next monthly update.

In terms of stuff that’s actually finished, I did a concept drawing of one of the early game enemies, the Feral:

I’ve started in on the sprite work as well, but haven’t gotten very far yet (this is something else that will probably be ready for next month’s update). I was going for something a bit in between a rat and a chimpanzee with some human-like aspects, and I think I hit that mark pretty well.

I came up with another enemy design for the game, but it turned out to be rather boring so I’m not going to bother to include it – it’s just a gray silhouette of a man, which isn’t interesting to look at but drawing out the design helped me figure out some specifics of pose and outline which will probably make the character a lot more interesting when i add it to the game. Additionally, there’s a character design for an important character in the second chapter, but I think that design as well is a couple of revisions away from being ready to show. I’ve also finished some minor sprite work for the project, making all of the mask enemies in the first two parts of chapter 1 pretty much animation-complete.

Aside from EverEnding stuff I’m working on learning Unity and building a prototype in there. I won’t go too much into that until I have something I have confidence in, but I came up with this ‘character’ design today for use in the project:

So I guess if the prototype turns out well I’ll have to actually model that, which will be an interesting challenge as well.

I’ve also been practicing 3d sculpting a bit, and… I don’t know, miscellaneous other things. My main goal is to try to take this wide reach of things that I’m trying to do all at once and try to bake some discipline into my approach, because I’m getting a bit overwhelmed just trying now to remember all the things I’m working on. I’ll probably try to work out a somewhat more regimented schedule than I’m generally used to tonight so that I can more effectively avoid driving myself insane over the coming weeks.