Archive

World Design

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.

Advertisements

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.

Games, as a medium, have been rediscovering the art of the secret, of the hidden. For a while, around the mid ’00s, it was incredibly rare for games to be anything beyond just what they appeared to be – and no more. The major studios didn’t want to pay for work that wouldn’t go directly into selling a game on day 1, and smaller indie games hadn’t really emerged into the market enough to fill the void left behind. Everything was exactly as it looked like. Surprise was dead.

It wasn’t just cowardice that made games so boring and averse to surprise: A substantial problem emerges when you make a game not what it appears to be, which is that, naturally, it no longer appears to be what it is. The problem with hidden depths is that they’re hidden, and many people who would love to explore those depths will never know there is anything to be explored. How can you sell a game like that?

Fortunately times have changed. Now that there’s a scale for game development below the nine digit development cost, we have a lot more leeway to make games that play with expectations. There’s room now for games to be strange and surprising, for them to have big secrets or sudden shifts.

One of the games most well-known for not being what it appears to be is Frog Fractions – and, at this point, if you have any interest in the idea of secrets and discovery in games and haven’t played Frog Fractions, now might be a good time to check it out Frog Fractions is, to first appearances, an educational game – this is, of course, just a facade. Underneath the surface, Frog Fractions becomes a series of strange, divergent mini-games that tell a surreal story about a frog’s adventures through space, with detours for a fanciful description of the invention of boxing and an exploration of the economics of bug pornography. One of the criticisms of Frog Fractions is that it fails to maintain plausibility as an educational game, being obviously absurd and lacking in educational value from the first moment. How, though, could this problem be fixed? This absurdity is necessary in order to signal that there’s something off about the situation, something to be uncovered, something to be found.

So we find we run into the same problem as before: How can you sell a game that is other than it appears to be? Not just in the sense of getting people to pay money, but even just getting people to pay enough attention to actually see the game for what it is. Holding something in reserve is an act of tremendous confidence as an artist, because it necessitates withholding the most special and exciting aspects of your project so that they can emerge later. Yet, still, you must have some way of signaling that something has been withheld, that something is hidden beneath, otherwise your audience continues sailing along the surface, unaware that anything unknown might hide within the depths.

A number of strategies seem to have emerged. Frog Fractions, as mentioned, is just a little bit too absurd, too out there to be quite what it appears to be. Dark Souls has messages from players scattered around, ensuring that those hidden things which a few players stumble across by pure chance can be found by other less observant or lucky players. Games like Axiom Verge, Anodyne, and Problem Attic signal that there’s something off in the world through the symbolism of video game glitches. Other games, such as Candy Box, just ask you to spend enough time with the game that the weirder elements of it will eventually become apparent to you just through exposure. Undertale uses all of these tricks to tell a stranger, scarier, and sadder story than it at first appears to.

Secrets are wonderful, but the only secrets we know are the ones we find – others fade away, merge into the vast sea of things we don’t know and never will.. It doesn’t help anyone if we squirrel around, hoarding nuts for the winter, only to forget where they have been buried and have all our work come to nothing.

EveHeader

I’m doing a terrible job of sticking to the schedule I came up with. I keep getting sidetracked by new tasks, improvements or things I forgot to put on the schedule. This last month, I finally got around to looking up what sorts of multi-threading solutions are available in Haxe/AIR. It turns out that Adobe AIR has supported multi-threading for a while now, with an implementation that is both very straightforward and kind of frustrating. AIR’s version of multi-threading is: Load another AIR program into your running program, and pass values back and forth. Simple enough in concept, but it still has all the traditional concerns of multi-threading with sharing resources and managing access.

So, much of this past month has been taken up with trying to get my particle system, the most demanding discrete subsystem of EverEnding, running in a separate thread. It took a lot of thought and experimentation to figure out a way to restructure a system which had presumed open access to a shared memory pool and make it run remotely with operations mediated by a single point of communication. After a week or two I got it running, but… not especially well. The benefit of the new system is a bump from 45fps to 50fps, which is not as dramatic or life-changing as I’d hoped — plus, for some reason, there are spikes of 30-50ms, which make the overall effect still somewhat disjointed and unpleasant. Still, I think these problems will be fixable, though it may be tricky to figure out exactly how they’re manifesting.

Aside from that I’ve mostly been working on building out the last section of the first area, the caves. I think I’m finally starting to nail down a paradigm of tile design for this game, based around the idea of areas which are lit, areas which are dark, and areas which are somewhere in between. Lit areas are mostly on the upper right and dark areas mostly on the lower left, with various transitional tiles to make them flow smoothly from one to the next. The cave tileset is starting to come together, though certain tiles still need some work. The background could use some improvement as well.

caves00

Also, looking back through my daily devblog notes, apparently I worked on collision in February as well. Strange, it feels like much more than a ago now. Well, most of the collision improvements are in place and working, but in the process some things broke, so those will need to be re-fixed. It’s basically guaranteed that any time I work on collision code I’ll end up frustrated.

So what’s next? I’ll probably focus on developing the level architecture and tilesets until I’m completely done with the caves, then go back and focus on populating this first area with enemies and details. Along the way somewhere I’ll spend a few days fixing all the things I broke getting the new particle system implemented and see if I can fix weird glitches there, as well as maybe a bit more collision work (sigh).

EveHeader

It’s been kind of a strange month for the project. I’ve made next to no progress on the task list I’ve created for the game, but I’m still largely satisfied with the work I’ve done. That is to say, I’ve been putting a lot of time in on things that it hadn’t previously occurred to me I would need, so I can’t really cross anything off a list when I get it done, but nevertheless the tasks I’ve done needed doing.

So, what are these tasks?

  • Created a system to modify hue/saturation/brightness of animations, and implemented controls for this into existing particle systems and associated editors, as well as creating a similar system for modifying tileset colors
  • Fixed up the detail editor to make it more flexible and easy to use, including the ability to modify multiple details at once
  • Created a seeded random number generator so particle systems that use random numbers will generate consistently from one play to the next
  • Created a simple collision system for particles, which can be used to make them only spawn on top of tiles or perform special behaviors when they collide with tiles
  • Added the ability to have particle behaviors that only trigger once on spawn rather than updating continuously
  • Collision improvements and implementation of water tiles and combination platform/slope tiles
  • Fixed the way perspective is calculated on details to center the vanishing point rather than have it locked to the upper left
  • Stripped out a non-functional zoom in/out system in favor of a much simpler one that actually works
colorchange

With all these color controls I have a lot more ability to customize areas without creating all-new assets

On top of that I’ve been building levels out, which is on the list but also takes a long time to make progress on. It’s really difficult to say much about the process of building levels, because 90% of it is just spent on making sure tile boundaries line up and making tiny aesthetic tweaks. In that way it’s a lot like working on the animations after I created prototype animations: All of the concept is mostly there, I just need to elevate it to finished quality.

I’m getting close to the end of my ad-hoc list of unexpected and unscheduled problems/improvements, so I ought to be getting back to the game schedule soon. Worst case scenario is I’m a month behind of where I wanted to be: Best case scenario is that I end up making up the time I lost by leveraging some of the improvements I’ve made. We’ll see. In any case, I’m probably going to be spending the coming month or two getting early-game enemies fully animated and operational. The first couple of enemies will be the most difficult by far, I believe – after those are complete I should be able to copy and paste from them for almost everything I’ll ever need an enemy to do.

 

EveHeader

It’s been a bit of a slow month for work on the EverEnding project for reasons which are largely obvious. About 10 days of the last 30 were taken up with a big holiday trip, under which circumstances I wasn’t really able to find the time and energy to work on the project – and, what’s more, left me tired and inert enough that I didn’t get much done for a while after either. That being said, progress is starting to be made, and certain foundational parts of the game are coming together.

So, to start with: The main character animations for chapter 1 are pretty much all done. I say ‘pretty much’ because I’m confident that as time passes I will notice improvements that need to be made, possibly even new animations that need to be created. However, for the time being that all-important part of the project is complete.

Once I achieved that, I turned my attention towards various outstanding programming tasks that have been on my to-do list for some time. I finally found and fixed a very annoying bug that was causing entities to self-replicate when I saved a level I was editing, which was causing massive slowdown since the entire lighting system was getting duplicated several times over. I found and fixed another bug which was causing the background layer of levels to not match the size of the foreground layer, and also created a player profile system, which should be able to handle saving and loading all the necessary information for game progression alongside all of the player’s controller/keyboard binding information. Somewhere in the midst of all this, I built a bunch of assets for the early areas of the game – mostly pretty simple ones, which makes them excellent test cases for the kinds of improvements I’ll need to make to the details system to get levels looking the way I want them to.

01-05-2017-standing-stones

I’m noticing something strange now that I’ve finished the main character animations: Even though I frequently found the work tedious, having something straightforward, relatively brain-dead, and indisputably important to the core of the game to work on was actually incredibly useful. When I was feeling tired or dull or confused it was still totally feasible to get good work done just by focusing on creating animations. That is not to say that animating is easy or stupid work, but I’d already planned out all the animations such that easy and stupid work was mostly the only kind left to do on them to complete them. Now that I don’t have these animation tasks to rely upon, I feel a bit cast adrift on the gigantic task list that is this project.

Oh well, I’m sure I’ll hit a new rhythm soon enough. I think building out the levels may be similarly straightforward and rewarding, though the level editing tools may need a bit of improvement before I can dedicate myself fully to that work. Perhaps those improvements should be my first priority, then, after I get the core game systems I’m currently focused on up and running.

mario3bg

As games have become larger and more complicated, development teams have grown bigger – and, as development teams have grown bigger, we break down the work that needs to be performed on a game into smaller and more specific categories so that each person on this now-gigantic team knows precisely what they’re supposed to be doing. Pragmatically, this is a very effective way to make sure a game actually gets made. Unfortunately, it also creates a flawed mindset about what a game is and is made of. When we experience a game, we don’t experience it as its game design plus its art plus its music, we experience it as the totality of these things filtered through the particular lens of our input. That is to say, regarding the game’s design, its story, its art, as separate aspects is extremely limiting. All of these, even if they are manifested very differently, affect each other.

Yeah okay maybe this sounds like 101 baby bullshit, but it can be surprising how often this discrete-field attitude manifests. It used to be that even review scores were broken down in this nonsense way, scoring audio and graphics and ‘fun factor’ separately. It’s a prevalent attitude because it makes it easier to think about the game when you can think about little bits of it at a time. You can’t really separate the design from the art from the story from the audio, though. They all affect each other – often in surprising ways.

For instance, I have spent way too much time playing Team Fortress 2, and much of that playing Spy. As the spy, you need to be able to infiltrate the enemy team and get close to them without being noticed in order to do most of your work, whether that’s destroying equipment or assassinating vital team members. In order to infiltrate, you must rely on distractions and otherwise concealing your motion. Under these circumstances, a lot of the game’s art and audio design become incredibly important to you: How noisy a weapon is determines how easily you can sneak up on an enemy using that weapon, how long a gun is determines whether you can hide behind a corner while holding it, and if you happen to disguise yourself as the man wearing an elaborate hat that shoots sparks and cost him a hundred bucks he’ll probably notice you running by wearing it.

In other games, a particularly common example of aesthetics affecting gameplay arises as visual obfuscation. Tall grass and foliage often act as soft cover in action games, allowing players to conceal certain moves from each other, and the particular lighting of a room has separate concurrent effects on the gameplay, the narrative, and the aesthetic of the room. Trying to adapt the soundtrack to the current action has the interesting side-effect of informing the player of what the game believes the current action to be – that is, if there’s a combat music that plays when one or more living enemies are around, the player might know that an area that looks cleared out still harbors enemies, since the combat music hasn’t stopped yet.

The interplay of aesthetic and design becomes particularly relevant when regarding issues of accessibility. If a particular aesthetic aspect of the game becomes core to the design, and certain players of the game are unable to partake of that aspect due to disability, the design may just quietly break, leaving the game subtly unplayable. The most common example of this is probably the puzzle game with vital audio cues being played to an unhearing player – these cues, unaccompanied by any visual change, are not only possible to miss but are possible to miss without having any clue you missed them. This affects players not only on the basis of physical capability, but on the particular hardware they’re playing on as well – as a child, I got stuck on a particular dungeon in Final Fantasy 6 for months because, as it turned out, the television I was playing on was so dark that the switches I needed to press to progress were invisible to me.

The core design of the game is something which can only be expressed through the aesthetic choices that form the representative layer of the game. These cannot truly be separated, even if approaching them as separate disciplines makes it easier to develop the project.

Perhaps this is yet another reason that Dark Souls has resonated so much with people. In a world full of games where code and design drive the combat with animations and effects merely added afterwards to describe the action, the Souls approach of having each weapon’s animation directly influence its attack pattern, of having each swing be, not just a nice animation applied to a hit volume, but having the most important property of every attack be the motion which it attacks with, is refreshingly consistent. And it’s worth wondering, now, whether that kind of cohesion is possible when you have a designer and an artist and a musician each doing their own work, in separate rooms, in separate cities, hoping that in the end one and one and one will, after all, turn out to be four.