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Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to get better at art – in the specific sense of visual art, that is – drawing and painting and, most frequently, digital art. I think I’ve succeeded at the goal of getting better, though I still fall short of what I want to be able to achieve. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to understand 3d art – in this case trying to construct an environment that’s visually interesting and feels reasonably natural to exist in. Most of my abortive forays into 3d work haven’t really concerned themselves at all with scale or natural placement or trying to set a scene – at best I’ve learned the basics, and now that I’m learning the basics again I suspect I didn’t actually learn them very well the first time.

It’s a strange sensation, sometimes, trying to extrapolate the things I’ve learned from 2d art into 3d art. When I’m doing a painting, I compose the view and then decide where the light is and, as I flesh the piece out, I try to remain true to those decisions. When I’m working in 3d, I have to position the entrance to the room and position the lighting to create the ‘composition’ the player actually encounters in the world, and the specifics of how that light gets rendered are handled by the 3d program. I’m still far short of where I want to be in this field, as well, but because it’s a newer skill to me I at least feel like I’m quickly improving.

The more I work at it, though, the more I notice there’s something missing. If I were to sit down in a drawing workshop and draw a model, then move my chair and draw them again, and do that several times, those drawings together would comprise something like a 3d interpretation of the model. Even if I did a very good job of those drawings, though, there would be discontinuities – part of the process of drawing would be to make decisions, exaggerations, corrections… there’s no such thing as perfect representation, because the lines we use to draw are largely conceptual, whereas the model is a person with a physical presence. Each drawing goes through its own artistic process, interpreting what I am able to see through my flawed eyes and converting it into a linear and shaded approximation. In 3d art, though, I just create the environment and leave that visual interpretation, what would be my drawing in this analogy, entirely up to the renderer. The gap, the thing that’s missing, is the 2d artist whose place is being taken by the computer – or, to be more precise, in this case the artist’s place is taken by Unity’s default rendering pipeline.

This isn’t to decry 3d art as in some way being less ‘real’ art, but to bring up the idea of the many kinds of art that it could be but currently is not. In our quest for consistency, for realism, we’ve left behind much of the power of 2d art – the ability to exaggerate, to portray the impossible and cartoonish. A good example of this would be the video game adaptations of cartoons like The Simpsons: In these shows, characters rarely face towards the camera because the style of the show usually only holds when they’re in 3/4 profile view. The particular cartoon squiggles that comprise the mouths and eyes only really make sense in that perspective, so whenever the script calls for a character to be seen from a different angle it looks off, weird and confusing and sometimes downright unrecognizable. The 3d game adaptations, however, require the characters to be viewable from every angle – so the style is collapsed into 3d models that makes approximate sense from every angle but also never really look like the cartoon original. Even the most elegant and well-executed cel-shaded outline shader can’t fix the issue that 3d rendering will, at the end of the day, be a faithful and uncreative depiction of the model data.

I know that you could affect the geometry of the model with a shader as well, but I haven’t seen it applied towards this problem – unsurprising since I expect I’m the only person who considers it a problem. Whether because of the constraints of technology or because of our worship of ‘realism’, the idea of making models that don’t appear the same from every angle doesn’t seem to have ever really taken hold. Every game establishes its own language, so in the end objects in a game can look like basically anything and the game continues to work. Just like playing make-believe as a child, a stick can be a sword if we agree it is a sword, a bush can be a dragon, the floor can be lava. If we can push things this far, why don’t we? I mean, we sometimes do, but usually only in the context of relatively low-tech ‘retro’ experiences, either using simple pixel art or low-poly 3d styles. We have yet to unleash most of the power on our disposal on the challenges of surrealism, impressionism, cubism – and, on the rare occasions when we begin to push in these directions, it’s usually only to try to emulate the most well-known 2d visual aspects of that style, rather than making any attempt to interpret how these might translate into a 3d space.

In general, the aesthetics of games fall into two R’s: Realistic and Retro. Recently there’s been a bit of leeway around ‘realism’, but it’s still the broad category AAA games fall into. While games like Dishonored and Breath of the Wild may not be attempting to appear real, they still try to emulate a version of reality, a world that is consistent in its rules and its appearance, a world where even if the particular appearance of a thing is stylized it still has the essential properties expected of a real object. Retro games, conversely, are willing to be weird, to be inconsistent, to be arbitrary and unreal – if they emulate the exact forms of inconsistency and arbitrary unreality that were the hallmarks of the nostalgic history of video games.

Any one of those quirks that are typical of retro games, though, could be harnessed now, and recontextualized into a modern space. The tendency for sprites to receive erroneous memory addresses and replace parts of an important game character with text or another character was caused by the specific implementation of pixel graphics used in old games, and has been used narratively in interesting ways by games like Undertale, but there’s no reason that must be married to a retro style – we could just as easily have a scene where parts of a 3d model flicker and are replaced with parts of another 3d model. It wouldn’t have the same contextual meaning as it does with sprites, where it comes to stand in for the concepts of corruption and elemental chaos – but that wouldn’t keep it from being visually interesting! Or, another artifact of retro games is pixelation – pixelation is still called back to in 3d contexts, sometimes, but only by creating low-resolution textures or occasionally creating 3d equivalents, voxels. However, that’s an interpretation rooted in a visual rather than a systemic understanding of what pixels were – what about an art style where all vertices of a 3d object snapped to a grid? What about an art style where models are rendered to a texture and then crunched down into a sprite and projected back into the world?

I bring up retro art, though, just because it’s the most understandable entry point into non-representation (or at least less-representation). Retro is the only area in game design where looking anything besides beautiful, anything besides representational, gets much allowance from potential players. We are prepared to accept retro because we know what it’s trying to be. We must be prepared to accept more, to accept the weird and ugly and inexplicable.

I understand why it has been necessary to attempt ‘realism’ for so long. Picasso drew a lot of normal very pretty paintings before he started painting blue shit and weird cube people. Eventually, we need to accept that we’ve got this reality thing down pretty well, and be willing to push outwards. We have the power to make worlds – why do we keep trying to just make this one, over and over and over again, with just slight thematic variations?

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An ugly trait of our society is that we tend to see people’s value primarily in terms of the goods they might produce. We even tend to see ourselves this way, to want to maximize our productivity, to be able to demonstrate ourselves as worthy. As I’ve come to notice this ugliness more and more, though, this has raised a dilemma for me: I know that this worldview is shitty and exploitative and dehumanizing, but I also deeply value art and believe that it’s worth spending time to make it.

Everything that human society has produced it has done at the cost of some portion of a person’s life. People trade pieces of their lives with each other to make each other’s lives more enjoyable, whether directly by means of friendships and other relationships or by spending time on producing goods and services which they trade with each other. Money hypothetically facilitates this exchange, provides a layer of abstraction which makes it easier for large groups of people to exchange pieces of their life in ways which are valuable to each other. In the abstract that’s wonderful, but in practice this leads to Problems: It leads to stockpiling – people hoarding away money and goods, keeping away chips that each represent seconds and minutes and hours of another person’s life, and offering no benefit to anyone. It leads to exploitation, someone with relatively more resources taking labor from a person with relatively few in exchange for the abstracted, liquefied version. It becomes an end in and of itself, a method of power and class rather than of helping people exchange their time in beneficial ways.

A person’s time can be used to create things that are beneficial for others, and that’s beautiful. Unfortunately, rather than us giving ourselves, we are being taken. Rather than nursing, we are being milked. The entire apparatus of creativity becomes implicated in a monstrous crime.

There’s a temptation when faced with this evil to discard its fruits entirely. This is probably the proper approach on a greater structural level, but less so when it comes to specific objects – that is, yes, the exploitation needs to be stopped, but the goods themselves still represent slivers of a person’s life, and that should be treated with respect. The things we make are important. The things we make are still part of us, even if the method of their making is contemptible.

The old promise of automation was that it would save us by reducing how much of a person’s life they had to spend making each individual object. The bulk of the time could be offloaded to the machines, leaving the person to manage the work using a fraction of the time. In practice, of course, this resulted in people simply being let go, and made even more vulnerable to exploitation, driving the trade value of human time, of human life, down. Not down far enough, though: Companies started building factories where human time and life were even cheaper, and then automating those factories so each individual put into them could produce even more. The low price of these goods directly reflects the contempt in which we hold the people who actually produce them, though that contempt is negotiated through the corporations themselves so that we seldom have to acknowledge it directly. We are incentivized to create poverty and suffering so that human life is worth less in some places and we can make affordable trinkets. The old twist about a machine being powered by lost souls has come true, but it’s every machine, brought into existence by sacrificing a small but significant piece of another human being’s life.


Yesterday, at the time of this writing, was Thanksgiving, a holiday about gratitude – a sentiment I can largely get behind, at least in the abstract. When I was taught about Thanksgiving in schools, we learned the story of how the kind native Americans taught the Pilgrims to survive, and so this day became a day of feasting and gratitude. This was, again, an abstract gratitude, and in no way impeded the progress of the subsequent genocide. We mostly eat turkey on this holiday so have a tradition now of the president pardoning a turkey, which is a funny joke about not killing a bird except – was the turkey supposed to have committed a crime? Why are we pardoning a creature to excuse the crimes we intended to commit against it? Surely we should be begging the turkey’s pardon. It’s funny the way crimes and punishments tend to fuse together and cipher for one another.

Today, at the time of this writing, we have another holiday called Black Friday: A holiday about buying things, consuming those fragments of human life that have been shaved off into technological marvels. Mostly, when we talk about being thankful during Thanksgiving, the American version of gratitude is being thankful to be an American, thankful to be here and not in one of those countries where human life isn’t worth so much, and where they make the electronics we buy on Black Friday. Thus we can more efficiently reap the benefits of making other countries worse.

They’re an interesting pair of holidays: Having what you need, and then desperately wanting more.


As an artist, how can I produce in this context, without feeling that I am exploiting or being exploited? The first and, perhaps, most difficult lesson is learning what my creative resources actually are. What can I put into my art? Not just in terms of skill and talent, but in terms of how much time and energy I can capably invest into my work. We’ve been trained to think that eight hours of work makes a complete day of work, but that’s quite a lot. You might be able to put that much in, but maybe you can get more done by putting in 3 and then putting 3 into something else that needs to get done; or maybe by putting in an hour or two here and there; or by going on creative binges that last a few days but leave you exhausted once a month. I’m still trying to discover what my personal alchemy is. The goal is to find what I can produce readily and calibrate my work to that. Once I’ve done this, I can at least and at last know when I am working and when I am not working – I constantly felt like I was always half-working, not really putting my all in but not really able to relax. If you try to put more of yourself than you have to give into something, you start burning yourself, like burning books to stay warm or burning muscle to keep from starving, you’re consuming parts of yourself that weren’t meant to be used this way, and that will have consequences, sooner or later.

Finding a way forward is a matter of balance – of putting the time and energy I have in the places where they do the most good, of finding the art where it’s lying most ready to be found instead of wasting resources trying to hunt it down.

Allocating time that isn’t time for work and then not just spending it sitting around doing nothing is still hard, though, because I have no idea what I want to do with myself beyond make things. I feel isolated in a way that sometimes bothers me, feel a need to make new connections with people, but also simultaneously have a loathing of all the baggage of unfamiliar social situations and potential conflict that comes with meeting people. Even more than working on art, it can be difficult to cut off from spending extra time and energy on a social contact once you’ve already reached your capacity for putting in that sort of effort – and, unlike art, the damage caused by doing so clumsily can have deep ramifications.

Left to my own devices, I might spend forever happily tinkering with my own projects, existing in stasis – but the world keeps moving. Sooner or later, something I rely on is going to break, there’s going to be some sort of disaster that throws me off balance, and if I don’t expand outwards to discover a world beyond myself before that point it’s just going to be that much worse. I feel myself becoming isolated by degrees, and I’m reminded of Edmund McMillen’s game Aether. Aether is a short game where you play a child flying around space on an octopus-like monster. As you visit different planets, there are creatures there with simple problems which you can solve, and as you do the planet blooms. However, each time you do, when you come back to Earth it’s slightly smaller. The game ends after you solve every planet’s problems and come back, and the Earth is smaller than you are, and crumbles when you touch it. It’s a metaphor for getting lost in creativity that I keep coming back to, because I do feel like my connection to the world is very tenuous in some ways, anchored by just a few people and places.

I’m reaching out and trying to touch these two ideas at the same time, of creating things of worth and beauty and of building connections to new people and places. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m at least getting better at making things without completely losing myself to that process. Perhaps once I get really good at that it will make it easier for me to expand outwards. The challenge then will be learning to want to.


We’re all burning our resources and trying to do it the best way we can, to make the best life we can for however long it lasts. If we must burn up, let us at least warm each other in the process. It’s up to you to find out the way you burn brightest, and longest, and kindest.

I always love hearing about the points in game development where a big decision was made not to do something. Every game has moments like that – cut features, changes in design focus, unused assets – and they’re always fascinating, because they show a vision of what the game could have been, what it almost was. Sometimes whatever it is sounds more appealing than what we got – and, just as often, it sounds like it would have been a disaster, and a bullet was dodged.

It’s not just games that undergo this process, this cycle of growth and pruning, though it tends to be far more visible in games because it takes so long to make a game and the process leaves more behind in the form of demo footage and unused content. Every creation is the sum of countless decisions, decisions so small and subtle that in the moment of creation we don’t even notice we’ve made them. Every choice folds in on itself, and builds outwards, in such a way that a single slightly different choice made early on might butterfly effect out and completely change the whole project.

Then again, it might not. Because a decision made early on has so many later decisions stacked up after it, it is in some ways less important than a decision made later on in the creative process. For example, so many artists set out to create something new, to break their creative habits, and set out a sketch in a bold new style – only to find that, as they fill it out and polish it, it begins to look more and more like their previous work, the many intervening tiny choices of detail acting together to overwhelm the few big bold choices they meant to define the piece.

With all this in mind, it becomes increasingly difficult to see whether a given decision in the process is a good or a bad one, because what determines whether an artistic choice work or not work is entirely whether the future choices built on top of it make it work. So, what I’m saying is that every choice you make early on in building a work of art is simultaneously incredibly important and defines everything about what it will be – and also completely irrelevant because it will be outweighed by every future choice you make.

Okay. How does that make any sense?

Because art, and the decisions that go into it, are context. Every creative action you can take is only within your vocabulary because of the context of the life you live and have lived, and every choice you put into a work of art only has meaning in the context of its relationship to the preceding and succeeding choices. The specific analogy that comes to mind is, once again, playing a game of XCOM – because I’ve been playing so much XCOM and watching so much more that these analogies are coming to me very readily right now. When you move your units around the map, the early moves don’t directly bring you victory or disaster, but they do affect how likely your later moves are to be useful. The beginning of the combat is both incredibly important, because it sets the stage for all your other moves, but also largely irrelevant, since under most circumstances you have ample opportunity to course correct. Every decision matters, but even in a difficult encounter there are usually many potential paths to victory: As long as the moves you take still are contained somewhere within that victory possibility-space, you’re doing okay. This is actually all pretty much true of any tactical game, so if it makes more sense to you then feel free to substitute Chess or Go in the preceding analogy.

The point of all this is that there’s no benefit or reason to stressing over early decisions. The point of all this is that if you’re waiting to figure out where to start before you begin a project, you’re wasting your time. Begin anywhere. You can get anywhere from anywhere. Yes, I’ve made a blog post arguing pretty much the exact opposite of this as well, and yes I actually still agree with that blog post too. The first choice you make will define everything about your project, but so will all the other choices. Everything matters, but nothing matters so much, in art, that it’s worth being scared about. Just keep making choices. Just don’t run away. Eventually, somehow, you’ll have something worth being proud of.

ripxcom2.jpg

This week my first attempt at a legendary difficulty campaign of the XCOM 2 expansion, War of the Chosen, went down in flames. Also this week, I started my first real and persistent attempts at learning Unity and building a game in its toolset. It’s been a week of exploration, unfamiliarity, and uncertainty.

I’ve learned something about challenge, this week. I learned that you can either give yourself a difficult task or an unfamiliar task, and either of those might go poorly, but if you give yourself a task that is both difficult and unfamiliar you are really asking for trouble. When I started the War of the Chosen campaign, I assumed it was mostly the same as XCOM 2 with a few additions. It turned out that almost every mission type was completely different than before. It turned out that many of the things I’d learned about how to play the game from playing before the expansion either were no longer relevant or came with new caveats I wasn’t aware of. It turned out I shouldn’t position a soldier on a fire escape attached to a building that was slowly caving in on itself. It was very educational.

Not only does War of the Chosen introduce a lot of new mechanics to the game, the mechanics it introduces are comparatively opaque, driven more by narrative than mostly systems-determined missions of XCOM 2. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is a thing that will completely destroy an unprepared player who has reduced their margin for error to close to nil by playing on the hardest difficulty.

But what about Unity? Fortunately, in that case I was smart enough to not try to overlap two kinds of difficulty, and I set myself an easy task to do in an unfamiliar environment: Make some sort of game or game-like experience by the end of the month. Of course, my approach to doing that still makes things characteristically difficult for myself, such as by getting deep into the specifics of the physics system to get a jump animation to work just the way I want it to or to make a cursor in 3d space lock onto the closest available surface, but I’m getting somewhere and I’m learning a lot.

It’s important sometimes to be able to embrace ignorance. Having an appreciation of learning is only possible when you have an understanding of just how much you don’t know – the reason why so many people resent education and expertise is not resentment at the knowledge and skill people accumulate, but resentment at the implication, by having knowledge and skill, that those who do not have it are ignorant and unskilled. Learning becomes an insult, training becomes a prank. Everyone has this seed in them, a part of them that hates their limitations so much that they can’t stand to see anyone excel. Only by accepting our ignorance can we learn to move past it. It’s not like Socrates’ knowing enough to know that he knew nothing: It’s knowing that you know nothing so that you are able to replace the nothing with something.

Sometimes it helps to take a dive into the unfamiliar. Not only is it a necessary prerequisite to making the unfamiliar familiar, old assumptions and habits start to be cast into a new light and questioned anew. Scraping away superficial layers of knowledge sometimes helps one to attain a more complete, clarified knowledge.

Or, at least, these are pleasant things to tell oneself while one is being reborn, unaccustomedly ignorant, weakened, and infantilized.

I didn’t put up a devblog last month, and I’m not sure if anyone noticed. I’ve noticed a cyclical trend over the last couple of years: I work on EverEnding, hit a point where it’s difficult or tedious to progress, decide I need to take a break from EverEnding, I start working on another project, something goes wrong with that project or I get anxious about not making progress, and I come back to EverEnding. Throughout it all, progress gets made, and I learn. Slowly.

That’s what’s killing me now. What good is slow progress? How long is the rapidly deteriorating world going to sit and let me ‘perfect my art’? Can I sit down and write another blog post about how “it may take me five more years to finish this but so be it I’m in for the long haul!” when I know so little about what the world will look like in five years? Will there be a world in five years? Even if that weren’t the situation, though, I think I’d be coming to be less comfortable with this idea of finishing art ‘eventually’, ‘someday’. It’s tenable to put art out there which you’re not sure if anyone is going to care about, and it’s tenable to spend many years making art, but combining these, spending years creating something you have no idea if anyone is going to care about…

I’m increasingly tempted to focus more on things that aren’t making games, on trying to make art and music or trying to do more writing. They might not have any more of an audience, but at least they can be done to a reasonable level of quality within a few days – or a few weeks or months, depending on the scope. At the same time, I have a hard time seeing myself ever completely focusing on any one of these pursuits – one of the reasons I’ve always been enamored with the concept of game development is the promise of being able to explore all these different media through a unifying meta-medium. Now, though, I just feel scattered – it would be bad enough to spend my days carrying water to fill a well that might not have a bottom and that I’m unsure if anyone will drink from, but I find myself pouring into several such wells. What can this achieve?

I think I’m improving, but improving at what? I’m improving at working on making a game, but not at actually making games – after all, in all this time, how many games have I actually made? I’m getting better at being comfortable in a cycle of development that never ends, miniscule gains that never pay off. I don’t know that this is the correct skill to learn. I need to learn how to actually make things, not how to be ceaselessly in the process of making them.

So that’s the skill I’m going to try to practice. I’m going to spend some time studying the tools that are available, most notably Unity, and techniques that I’ve neglected. I’m going to set out blocks of time which I can use to make projects, and then complete them as best as I can within those time blocks – small games, primarily, but maybe I’ll also try to make an album or two or spend a month entirely on creating characters or environments. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it’s something with a beginning and an end, instead of being ceaselessly borne on a current.

I’ll write about this more later, but you can expect posts around the beginning of every month detailing these projects and, hopefully, sharing some finished work. How do I know this time is going to be different? That this isn’t just another part of the cycle? I don’t, really – but these questions have begun to weigh on me more and more, and I don’t think they’re going to stop until I do something about it.

It’s time to finish something. Maybe I’ll know what it is once it’s finished.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I’m bound to go
Where there ain’t no snow
Where the rain don’t fall
The wind don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

The perspective I usually like to take on art is that we enjoy it because it serves some sort of emotional need for us. We all like a certain amount of joy and sorrow, a certain amount of anger and laughter, and when life can’t provide those sometimes we seek out art to fulfill those needs – or, alternately, sometimes we are overwhelmed with sorrow or anger, or some other strong and unpleasant emotion, and seek out art about and evocative of these sensations to help us make sense of what we’re feeling. This is a helpful perspective to see from, because if a work is extremely popular even though I personally dislike it I can still examine it and gain benefit from it by trying to determine what needs it serves and how it serves them. Inversely, if I like something I can also use this as a lens to examine why, and what part of me is hungry for this kind of art.

This is not to say that all art is equal and that judgment is impossible. Some ways of serving needs are irresponsible or malicious – for instance, it’s quite common to salve the wounds of an inequitable system by blaming all the world’s ills on minorities. Some ways of serving needs are also predatory, selling snake oil or risky gambles. Many things you might consume to serve an emotional need are like drinking sea water when you’re thirsty, seeming to ease the pain for mere moments before they make it come back worse than it was before. In this way, the lens of served need can be turned to also show the many harms that can be done by art, as well as its benefits.

As someone interested in games, then, I start to ask: What needs are served by most games? What needs are served by the most popular games, and what less predominant needs are served by games with smaller followings, and what needs of mine have made the games I love my particular favorites? Most games feed the need for learning and self-improvement: Whether directly, by giving the player a challenge that they can learn to tackle over time, or indirectly with some sort of simulation that recreates the sensation of self-improvement, like an experience system. Others feed a need to feel like we can change the world by making a world malleable, allowing the creation of grand projects, cathedrals and magic machines, in relatively short order. Many games also feed the need to feel that we are gathering things, accumulating wealth or other material to make ourselves feel safer. Some games feel rewarding just because they acknowledge when we do well in a way that the rest of the world does not. Sometimes games are enjoyable just because the tasks that they offer have clear-cut parameters with definite boundaries, so you know whether a task is solved or not in a way you frequently cannot in your daily life.

There’s another step, beyond noticing what needs are fed by games, and that’s then interrogating the systems that give rise to these needs. The lives people lead, and the lacks that they perceive, are going to lead them to seek out different gaming experiences that offer different things. The world we live in, and the governments and systems that organize those worlds, are going to create the needs that create the cravings that create the games. In each instance, once we identify a need that people feel a game serves, comes the next question: Is this an inherent need that is being unsatisfied by the system, or is this a need created by the system in order to sustain itself? That question might not make intuitive sense, so let’s look at the list I mentioned in the previous paragraph, one by one.

  1. The need for self-improvement and learning. This may be an innate need, but it’s also deeply tied into our society’s conception of a human being as a commodity that has worth. By getting better at something, even if it’s trivial, you are demonstrating a capacity to learn and improve, and thus your worth to the system. Do you want to improve for your own sake, or to be a better cog in the machine? It can be hard to tell.
  2. The need to have an effect on the world. This one is, interestingly, relegated almost entirely to indie games – and likely reflects as much of the needs of the creators as it does the needs of its consumers. It’s probably not a coincidence that these building games have achieved their most massive success among children, largely prevented from manifesting any substantial effect on the real world
  3. The need to accumulate material wealth. This has obvious parallels in the capitalistic systems, but it’s also rooted enough in the hunting/gathering survival instinct that one can hardly lay the blame entirely at the feet of capitalism, as much as one would like to. However, the specific model of accumulation favored by games, where everyone has the same capacity to do it and every action has a predictable result, probably serves to prop up the concept of meritocracy, which is a vapid lie.
  4. The need to have one’s accomplishments acknowledged. I think this is an innate need to be seen, but is also exacerbated by a system where excellence is supposedly recognized by financial reward, but where that reward is increasingly withheld to line the pockets of the already extremely wealthy.
  5. The need to have a distinct task. This is probably a relatively recent one. Not too long ago, everyone expected to have basically the same job for life, and could wake up each day with a certain amount of confidence about what to expect next. Though many deride repetitive and simple games as seeming like work, the kind of work they supposedly seem like is becoming rarer and rarer, and some people do miss it.

When making a game, it’s important to think a bit about who wants to play it and why. Are you making something that feeds needs created by an unjust system, something that will only serve to act as propaganda for that system? Or are you creating something to serve a need that the system has failed to serve, something that will serve as an escape? Are you justifying evil, or positing good? These lines can become very blurry.

Difficulty has come back into fashion for video games. Many games now specifically go out of their way to cultivate a reputation as especially difficult, whereas not too long ago it was common for designers to regard any failure of the player as a failure of the game’s design. While I’m glad that we’re no longer assuming difficulty is bad or undesirable, I’m not really in favor of considering it inherently good or desirable either – and, in fact, I’m not entirely comfortable with using the word ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ as a descriptor, except in the most abstract approach to a game.

There’s a lot of different things that difficult could mean when describing a game, and a great number of them have little to nothing to do with each other. Most obviously, there’s a huge difference between games that challenge your reflexes, games that challenge your strategic ability, games that challenge your ability to solve puzzles, and games that challenge your knowledge. Though most games have more than one of these elements, they frequently only offer meaningful challenge in one of them. The difference between these starts to seem extremely relevant when you remember that, depending on the challenge proffered and who’s playing, the game may not even be possible to complete!

In addition to these different skills and abilities that can be challenged, there are different ways of challenging them: The obstacles themselves can become more difficult to navigate or the resources you have for navigating them can become scarcer such that you have less room for error, the obstacles can become more complex and numerous or failures can be punished more harshly. Even if the main skill being challenged by the game remains the same, changing how this challenge manifests can make for radically different experiences.

But that’s not all! In addition to the actual challenge of the game, there’s also the way the game presents its challenges. Part of why people responded well to the at-times punishing difficulty of Dark Souls is because the world is overtly harsh and intimidating. It’s easier to swallow getting your ass kicked when, rather than being some sort of god or legendary knight, you’re just another hapless undead. Now, you may end up becoming an undead who beats the shit out of legendary knights and gods, but that’s as much of a surprise to you as it is to anyone. The XCOM games script their tutorial missions to create the expectation that shit will go wrong and your soldiers will die, so that you know going in what the stakes and challenges are. The greatest part of making a challenging design that works is in conveying what the challenges of the game consist of – and what it means to fail at them. This is what we mean by fairness: The game establishes the parameters of its challenges and conveys those to the player effectively, and those parameters do not change.

Just using the word ‘difficult’ to describe these varied concepts creates a number of issues: When used to describe the ambitions of a nascent project, it can easily lead you astray, because there’s a lot of types of ‘difficult’ that won’t work with the rest of your concept. When selling the game, it tells the potential player nothing about what sort of challenge is being offered or how that challenge is presented. And, as a catch-all term, it obscures important components such as they conveyance of the challenge’s parameters. It’s a difficult challenging tricky term to get away from, though! In order to be more precise and avoid pitfalls of design, we may need to build an entire new vocabulary of difficulty.

It may be quite a challenge.