Archive

Life in the Machine

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.

Advertisements

In art, characters are designed and presented – every aspect of the character’s design was considered at some point along the way, and most have some sort of significance. Even in live-action films and theater, people are cast to embody the traits of their character: Thus, every line, every curve, every bulge, every tone of skin and voice has Significance. Every dimple, every freckle, is a Chekhov’s gun. This causes problems, though: We learn things from art, inevitably, and in most ways people’s bodies have very little to do with who they are – or, at least, have a far more complex relationship with their personality than the simple stereotypes usually mined by character artists and directors.

Much has been written about the impacts this has. The way people with more fat are frequently portrayed as unhealthy and lazy, the way darker people are frequently portrayed as criminal and unambitious, the way more feminine people are portrayed as deceptive or as hapless victims, and so forth. But even though fat people aren’t unhealthy or lazy by constitution, the dismissive inattention of doctors gives them worse health outcomes and saps their energy: Even though darker skins don’t lead to criminality, they do lead to loss of opportunities in a bigoted system, sometimes leaving crime as the only option for those whose ambition refuses to die: Even though femininity isn’t deceptive or weak, those who show it frequently have their feelings dismissed and their vulnerabilities preyed upon, so they eventually have deceit and victimhood thrust upon them. These embodied character traits end up having a cruel backhanded truth to them: The systemic disadvantages people with these bodies encounter in their lives come to become wholly aligned with their fictional representation.

So just ignore all that stuff, right? Color-blind casting, age-blind casting, body-type-blind casting, gender-blind casting, and so forth, just make everyone draw their character names from a hat. And yet, if we do that, we lose the entire visual channel of communication about who a character is, where they’re from, and what they do – because these things do affect our bodies in certain ways. If we do that, we sacrifice the ability to have conversations about how our society treats different bodies and different backgrounds, sacrifice any real discussion of our real world in favor of making every world an aspirational one where there is no background, no history, no context, only the melting pot.

To some this conflict might seem intractable. It’s very simple, though: Your characters do not have to be statistically representative samples of their respective populations. Your characters have the freedom to be from any race, body type, age, preference, and still pursue their ambitions and hobbies, and these things will have an effect on their bodies that will modify their appearance. A blacksmith will probably have strong arms regardless of sex or weight. A bicycle courier will probably have strong legs. Someone who performs a desk job all day might put on a lot of weight – then again, they might not. Someone who hikes over mountains as a hobby might be very slender – then again, they might not. All it takes to make a character design that doesn’t propagate shitty ideas about who can be what and how is to separate the improbable from the impossible. Aren’t improbable characters more interesting, anyway? Most of the things we often tend to think of as improbable really aren’t very unlikely at all, anyway, especially at the level of serendipity fiction tends to operate at.

Even a character who’s a realistic embodiment of a societal ill, though, would be far better than what we get right now: Punchlines and cardboard cutouts, characters whose only role in the story is to be exactly what we expect them to be. If you still want to make one of these archetypal characters, at that point you have a duty to at least pay some attention to the systems that make them what they are. The cruelest villains and most pitiful victims don’t emerge from nothing, but from the societies of their worlds, their oversights and acceptable losses and untouchable elites.

Today I was buying groceries along with my mom – she has a working car and I do not. After leaving her for a bit to find something I missed in the last aisle, I started heading back to where I last saw her when a woman of about the same height, build, and coloration wearing similar clothes turned the corner, and before noticing the difference (I am a bit nearsighted) I said “I found it!”

The woman was confused. I was mildly embarrassed, but just kept on walking like I hadn’t done anything unusual. Maybe she eventually convinced herself I was talking into a bluetooth headset or something. That part’s not important. I started thinking, though, about how our narrative of a situation shapes our perceptions. This woman would ordinarily not have been noteworthy to me, and I don’t think I would usually make the mistake I did – the resemblance was really not that strong – except for it would have made all the sense in the world for it to have been my mom turning that corner. I had no reason to question it. It’s such an echo of childhood, of getting lost in a store and finding the Wrong Mom just because a woman nearby happened to be approximately the correct shape and color.

Preconceptions shape everything we see before we ever see it – not only how we interpret the things we see, but whether we actually notice certain things at all. Those things which fit our expectations we never question until the point where they no longer line up – that is, either our understanding changes or they change to no longer fit our expectations. The mystery woman is deputized mom until further notice, usually approximately the time she turns around to notice a strange child clinging to her.

This whole thing reminded me, as really far too many things do, of the experience of playing Spy in Team Fortress 2. As the spy, if the enemy team ever suspects what you are they can usually kill you quite easily. Much of success as the spy, then, is in never being suspected. It requires knowing what people expect to see at any given moment, and being that for just long enough to achieve whatever mischief you can. I like to say that if they even have the chance to wonder if you might be a spy, you’ve already failed. It’s not a matter of blending in to your surroundings, it’s a matter of blending into your opponent’s ongoing narrative about their surroundings. Or, anyway, that’s what it is ideally, under optimal circumstances. Pragmatically it’s just as often about waltzing in when there’s too much bullshit going on for anyone to pay attention.

We have two blind spots. One, we cannot see anything that fails to fit into our world-view. Two, we can never question anything that fits too perfectly into our world-view. Both of these are indescribable anomalies to us until we make adjustments in our understanding to accommodate them. There are things we don’t see because they’re not what we expect: There are things we never question because they’re exactly what we expect.

So you have to wonder: How much of the big picture am I not seeing? How much of the world around me is invisible because it exceeds my expectation, cannot be heard because it’s outside of the audible spectrum? How much of it is unquestioned just because we’re used to it, sunk into our lungs like oxygen? This question seems more and more relevant, as the injustices that founded our history accrue interest.

To us artists, it presents a conundrum. All of our art, to the audience, is seen in the context of all the art they’ve seen before. If we depart too much from the vocabulary of that art, our creation starts to seem like gibberish: No matter what clarity of thought we put into it, they simply do not have the tools to interpret it – no, not even the tools necessary to want to interpret it. At the same time, if we hew too closely to that vocabulary, we lose the words to say anything for ourselves, anything different than what has already been said. We doom ourselves to become propagandists.

It’s a tricky needle to thread. The better part of art is learning how to be seen – and, as someone so habitually drawn to invisibility, someone who always preferred to play Spy in Team Fortress 2, that doesn’t necessarily come easily to me.

I always hate doing these updates where there’s not a lot of progress to report. The last couple of weeks in particular have been devoid of any progress on the project, or even any work on it – at first because of a shoulder injury, which was making it particularly difficult to focus on any of the complex problems I needed to solve to work on the code part of the project, and then on a short family vacation. Before that, I was working regularly on the project – well, except for the week or so where the new meds I was trying out were making me too groggy to think straight – but, still, not making a lot of progress.

Part of the problem with working on a project the size of a game is that sometimes even the components of the project, the discrete chunks you’ve written down as tasks on a task list, come to substantial undertakings in their own right. Especially when one’s focus is split between several of these, it can be entirely possible to spend a lot of time working on them, not running into any particular roadblocks and making what feels like good progress in the moment, and look back and not see anything new actually finished. This is basically how things have been for the last month – In particular, the storytelling system has taken much much longer than I’d expected it to, leading me to do a bunch of rewriting of the music system. The reason why the music system had to be rewritten was so that I could readily sync the storytelling lines with the music when I wanted to, in a way which I didn’t have to custom code for every story and every music track. I now have a system where any music track playback can intelligently jump around – that is, once I put in a number of valid points it can jump to in a track, say if a certain section can end in three different ways, I can give it a destination range in the music and it will find the shortest path to get there. I didn’t expect to have to read up on pathfinding algorithms for my music code, but here we are.

Now that I’ve got that component of the storytelling system figured out, there’s still one major roadblock to finishing it: Text rendering. This is something that should be easy in Flash/AIR, but just due to how I have entity rendering set up is a bit tricky. At this point, I have two options: Either I modify the entity rendering system, which would be a nuisance but not too difficult, or I find a way to convert the text into graphics rendering commands that I can send to the entity draw command queue. I’ve found a library that does this, but it hasn’t been updated for 8 years, so it might not be an ideal choice. If it doesn’t work out and I don’t find an alternative, though, then I’ll just have to rewrite the entity draw command system, because writing a whole text renderer to handle this problem would be an obscene waste of time, albeit presumably an educational one. At some point, as well, I’ll have to create a typeface for the game to use, possibly several. I think that will be fun.

The other two major things I was working on last time were the health bar and the awakening animation. The awakening animation has turned out to be a bit of a quagmire as well – I had the motion of standing and grabbing the weapon looking pretty good when I realized that I hadn’t really planned out how it was actually going to fit into the level where it was supposed to happen. This was something I can only describe as an extremely foolish oversight on my part. I’ve begun reworking the animation and I think I figured out a way to do so without completely starting over (again), but it required me to redraw the tree which was the main prop in that area. Honestly, I’m glad I was forced to do so, because the previous tree looked pixelated in a way which I had thought looked okay – but, I can see now, really did not. It looks much better now.

Of course, now I have to be concerned that making this tree look better will make the rest of the game look worse in comparison, and lead to an endless cycle of revisions. For now I’ll just have to enjoy the journey I guess, because I can’t say when things will start looking ‘good enough’ to me.

As for the health bar, progress is being made on it, but the storytelling code took priority and I didn’t want to split my attention between two programming tasks. I’ve also been working here and there on music for the next area, but though I have a number of promising ideas down, most of which will probably find their way into the finished version somewhere, none of them really feel like the right place for the song to start. For now, there, too, I keep experimenting, waiting to be visited by the spirit of satisfaction.

So, for this next month, I intend to finish the storytelling system, finish the awakening animation, finish the health bar. From there I’ll probably start in on other necessary animations – though I also think it quite likely that I’ll look at the tilesets I have to bring their level of quality up to this tree asset. It’s gotta be about the pleasure of the journey, because at this point I have frankly no idea when this project is going to go anywhere. I wish I knew how to work on it faster, but at this point it seems like it’s work slowly or not at all, and hope one day to accidentally, habitually, fall into a more rapid pace.

Since 2014, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the ethics of art, the responsibilities of putting work out into the world. This may be jumping the gun, since very little of my work garners much attention, but, well, on the off chance that that ever changes I would like to have my principles figured out beforehand.

What art is ethical to create? Many will immediately respond that any and all art is, but that’s more of a kneejerk than a considered response. If we accept the premise that art has power to do good, we also implicitly accept the premise that it has the power to do harm. Knowingly doing more harm than good is pretty much unethical by definition, so that’s at least a stable reference point: Don’t make art that you know will do more harm than good.

Unfortunately that describes next to nothing. Art is, in general, something that is extraordinarily tricky to know the consequences of. A motivated mind can readily misinterpret the most overt of allegories to support their own worldview, so the effect a piece has on the world tends to have as much to do with the particular circumstances of the audience it finds as it does with the content of the work itself. Again many will take this as carte blanche to create whatever work they want without worrying at all about the consequences, and again that’s not a considered response. Just because you cannot know what the consequences of an act are doesn’t absolve you of the responsibilities of trying to account for them.

But what does this ethical responsibility look like? In some ways it looks a lot like what we expect of craftsmanship in general. It looks like avoiding simple and misleading answers to important questions, it looks like flawed heroes and sympathetic villains, it looks like a world that operates in a way that makes sense based on the forces at work within that world. This might not sound like it has anything to do with ethics, but there is an obligation to present a version of the world that doesn’t mislead the audience about how the world works. It doesn’t mean there can’t be fantastical elements, but those elements have to exist within a system that accounts for their presence. It doesn’t mean that good can’t triumph, but it does mean that that victory has to be achieved through some heroic process, not emerge by default, inevitably, just because we have to have a happy ending.

What it doesn’t look like is most of the popular art we make. It doesn’t look like worlds where the only solution to the problems presented is violence, and that violence is always presumed justified. It doesn’t look like cartoons where the good guys always win because they’re the good guys, and it doesn’t look like novels where women have to suffer to be strong, and it doesn’t look like games where you shoot a thousand people in the face and are still considered a hero. These are all conventions we’ve gotten used to because they’re convenient and make creating the rest of the story easier, but we’re starting to see the sort of world that this art creates. It’s hard to be okay with that.

Art is mysterious, though. The way it affects us is unpredictable, and by that token the idea of a work capable of doing great good or great harm is compelling. Someday, will someone find the right words to stop poverty, war, and homelessness? Someday, will someone create the perfect propaganda to guide us all into unending cruelty and fascism?

I think it’s wise that we consider the impact of our work, before we create something we cannot uncreate.

Another month has gone by, and though a short vacation, a nasty little cold, and a number of other minor distractions got in my way, I still managed to make a little bit of progress.

First, and most importantly, I put quite a few hours into writing the music for the first boss of the game. I may have gone a little bit overboard on this one: The concept I wanted to pursue was a track with multiple phases that mapped to different parts of the boss encounter, bouncing back and forth between them until finally reaching a conclusion. I’m not sure if I can possibly create a boss encounter that stays interesting long enough to accompany this track, coming in at almost 9 minutes long, but it will be fun to try once the rest of the chapter is complete.

The phases of the track are:

0:00-1:47 Intro
1:47-4:13 The Chest
4:13-6:16 The Mask
6:16-7:49 The Heart
7:49-8:40 Conclusion

This one honestly ended up getting quite a bit out of hand, and I spent quite a bit more time than I’d originally expected to on it, but I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. I also just enjoyed doing music work again! I’m going to carry on with composing the soundtrack even though I’ve effectively completed all the tracks for the first chapter of the game now, which is the part of the game I’m focused on finishing. The reasons why I’m going to continue doing music work, despite otherwise attempting to contain my efforts to this first chapter, are several-fold: first because, as mentioned, I like making music and I want to do more of it, second because if I can’t make this game in a timely fashion I can damn sure make its soundtrack, which is a discrete sub-creation that I can be proud of in its own right, and third because I find music so compelling that I think just having the soundtrack to the game will motivate me more to finish the rest of it. There’s also a fourth, more pragmatic reason: Inspired by UNDERTALE’s soundtrack, I’m really trying to integrate motifs from different characters and locations into tracks with a narrative connection to those characters and locations. It’s going to be really hard to do that until I know what those motifs, for later parts of the game, actually are! I’m not really going to be able to consider chapter 1’s soundtrack complete until I’ve written the rest of the soundtrack and know better what my overall thematic tools and goals are.

Anyway! Aside from music, I’ve been working on a few things. I’ve been feeling my way around programming the main narrative component of the game, the storyteller. This is going to be something pretty similar to what Supergiant does in their games with an ongoing narration element, except I would like to integrate these narrator lines a little bit more closely with the music, syncing the lines up with particular parts of the track and so forth. Additionally, I want to have text appear in the world synced with the audio, so it’s a bit like playing a storybook. Figuring out how I’m going to pragmatically handle the synchronization of these elements and making them play nice with a player who may or may not be interested in the narrative taking place is going to be a challenge, but I’m getting close to having a simple version ready to test so that I can iterate on it.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about what the interface of the game is going to look like. There are really only two elements that need to be displayed under normal circumstances: The player’s current health, and how many sparks you’ve collected, which also maps to your max health. I could just have a red bar along one side of the screen, but that felt inelegant. A sphere that fills and empties like the health meter in Diablo might have been a bit more thematic, since there’s some sun/moon symbolism I’m playing with in the game, but it felt like a circle would take up a lot of screen real estate for how much info it would impart and probably wouldn’t look very good. What I’ve come up with instead is an idea that’s… actually a little bit difficult to express here. It’s basically a life bar along the left side of the screen, except it looks like an engraved stone tablet. Only a small part of the tablet is visible early on, but as you gain more power the tablet expands and you can see more of it, and the engravings on it. I can actually directly tie the health meter into the narrative of the game in what I think is a pretty interesting way. However, because you don’t gain power at a constant rate, but instead end up collecting more and more as you defeat more powerful opponents, I’m going to have to figure out a curve that reveals the tablet at a rate that’s satisfying over the course of the game. I have a logarithmic function in mind that may work well, but it will have to be tested. I’ll also need to figure out how to have the tablet build up in such a way that it feels satisfying, and ensure that no matter what its interim shape is it still gives satisfactory feedback as a health meter. This will all take a bit of experimentation, but it’s an idea I’m excited about.

Finally, I’ve been working on the game’s first animation. I mean, I’ve already built several animations, but this is the first one that will play in the game: The player character awakening, standing up, and taking her weapon at the very beginning of the game. I started creating this animation, and then had to start over after working on it for a few hours because my first take on it sucked. I think my second take on it has potential, though it’s still very rough the motion feels good to me.

The actual removing-sword part of the animation still needs to happen, and of course all of the detail and the tween frames need to be added, but I think I’m on the right track this time.

So, the plan for August is to finish working on these things, write the music for the first area of chapter 2 (I’ve already started), create more main-character animations, and maybe get some basic sound design in. Of course something else may capture my fancy and I’ll end up working on that, but as long as I stick to my big task list I think I can maintain forward progress.

It can be difficult these days to create art. Art is an abstracted way of speaking to the world at large, over the boundaries of time and distance, and it’s very difficult to remain motivated to articulate ideas into concrete form when the future is so uncertain and everything nearby is so harsh and ugly, collapsing daily into cruelty and idiocy. Sending out these signals requires a certain degree of faith that somewhere, someday, out there in the world those signals will be received and valued. These days that faith feels harder to come by.

On the one hand, this feels like a sign that I should be doing Something to Fix It: I don’t know what that is, but something. I could probably be doing more than I am to effect positive change in the world, but any attempt to confront that idea inevitably just dunks me in hot anxiety sauce and ends up just leaving me less inclined to do anything whatsoever. So, rather than that, I’m inclined to just keep making things anyway, whether or not they’re good or desired, and thereby place a vote of confidence. There will be a future. There will be a world for my work to exist in.

Somewhere along the way, though, I’ve picked up the sense that it’s intrinsically less noble to create for an audience than it is to create to indulge some sort fundamental creative urge. It is kind of an absurd belief when examined – after all, what is art without an audience? Just a box of echoes. The underlying logic for this belief goes something like this: Creating art just for the money is what sellouts do, right? But money is a commodification of attention and appreciation, and therefore if you create art for attention and appreciation you’re still a sellout. Of course, you can’t communicate anything or influence anyone at all without their attention and appreciation, so by that logic all successful artists are sellouts. This is complete horseshit at basically every step along the way, but it sounds extremely reasonable if you have the sort of brain predisposed to accept such ideas (I do), and provides a handy outlet for sabotaging your own creative output. In case you were looking for such a thing.

I have this weird shame over wanting to be seen, over wanting my work to be appreciated, which is intensely at odds with everything I actually value in the world. I value art because of the impact it’s had on me, the way it’s affected my outlook and expanded my sense of what’s possible, the sense of unattainable and ethereal beauty it’s led me to seek and which the crass outer world seems so hostile towards. It is absolutely absurd to feel ashamed for wanting to have that same impact, to participate in the same tradition – and, even if I may disagree with the tenets of capitalism, that means accepting money for art and paying money for art, because that’s how we’re able to show that we care about things now. (Yes, that means that in this model rich people have about a million times the capacity for caring as poor people do. It’s a terrible model, but it’s the one we’re operating in). In the end, it’s not necessarily so important that my voice in particular be heard, but it is vital to me that my voice join with others, that my creation joins this tradition, and connect the past to the present to the future – a future which will definitely, definitely, probably still be waiting when I get there.