tboiab

I’ve been watching old videos of the original The Binding of Isaac, and it’s strange looking back. As many huge improvements as Rebirth, the remake that came out a couple of years after, made to the base game, still it feels like something was lost in translation. Several things, actually…

Maybe it would be best to start with talking about all the reasons people generally regard Rebirth as categorically superior to the original. The first game had notorious framerate issues, many items didn’t work properly with each other, and it was built using technology that made it impossible to expand – many people say it reached the limits of Flash, Adobe’s multimedia tool, but Isaac was actually not just built in Flash, but built using Actionscript 2, the version of Flash’s scripting language that was deprecated in 2007. Since I’m building my own game in Flash (technically AIR, the standalone equivalent), this is a narrative that I feel compelled to correct whenever it comes up. Rebirth could have easily been built in Flash. But I digress: The point being, Rebirth fixes all these issues, so when viewed entirely within the scope of the shortcomings of the original it definitely seems like a superior game.

Looking back though, something seems off with what we have now – and it’s interesting to examine why that is. There are aspects of the design, art, and music that just fail to click in quite the same way.

The least contentious of these is the music. Nearly everyone preferred the music from the original game, composed by Danny Baranowsky, to that in Rebirth, composed by Ridiculon (Matthias Bossi and Jon Evans). The new soundtrack actually does some cool stuff, with music layers that fade in and out based on what’s currently happening in the gameplay – but this actually undermines part of what made Danny B’s score so amazing. With parts fading in and out, it becomes necessary to create a consistent base track for these to play on top of, which makes it impossible to construct an overall narrative flow to the music. Consequentially, Ridiculon’s music is background music in the truest sense, just providing accompaniment to the experience of the game, whereas Danny B’s score actually defines the tone of the game and creates its own narrative high and low points which interplay with the gameplay highs and lows to create a more complex experience. Combined with a generally more melancholy and creepy tone, it makes the overall musical experience of playing Rebirth rather lacking comparatively.

Aesthetically, I have a bone to pick with the game similar to that regarding the defamation of Flash. When they announced that Rebirth was going to have a “16-bit” art style, I thought that was a peculiar choice, but was willing to see what they came up with. What they came up with was, unfortunately, kind of a pathetic excuse – which seems harsh, but I promise I have a reason for saying that.

First, let’s talk about the art in the original. Isaac used vector art, a specialty of Flash: Vector art is a style of rendering that stores images and a set of drawing instructions, a list of lines and colors. This is a powerful tool because these instructions can be easily rotated, scaled, color-shifted, and so forth with no loss of quality, but it pays for this in making detailed art very processor intensive. Rebirth, conversely, uses raster images for its assets: Raster images are what we’re generally used to working with in photoshop and other editors, just a grid of colors which can look realistic at its native resolution but looks notably blocky at lower resolutions. 16-bit games used raster images at a set low resolution to create a crunchy but vibrant look that is still beloved today. However, the entire design of Isaac was based around arbitrarily scaling and coloring assets which, as mentioned, works a lot better with vector images than raster images. However, for whatever reason the Rebirth team didn’t want to work with vector images, so to conceal the shortcomings of scaled, rotated, or otherwise processed raster images they used super low-resolution raster images and called the resulting look “16-bit”.

This is kind of insulting. There’s no coherence to the resolution – even when the pixels align along the grid the objects that own the pixels move with subpixel accuracy, creating a smoothness that’s impossible in a true 16-bit environment, and as game objects scale up or down in accordance with the mechanics they turn into grotesque pixellated bullshit. Also, because they use such low-res assets, there’s no room for detail in any of the enemies: The original enemy designs, though crude, have an expressiveness to their lines that makes them creepier and more compelling. While pixel art has a great deal of expressiveness in its own right, within the context of Rebirth that expressiveness is curtailed by being constantly squashed and stretched, one of the ugliest things you can do to pixel art.

globin-comparison

The design issues with the game snuck up on me. In general, the gameplay choices made in Rebirth are very smart, limiting boring and overpowered tactics in favor of more interesting and aggressive ones, expanding the possibility space for encounters by adding lots of new items and enemies and rooms, and generally spicing thing up by adding new interactions. However, something weird started to happen as more and more items were added. I first noticed it with the item “Gimpy”, which is… exactly what it sounds like.

gimpy_plain

…And this comes to a fairly fine point about what Isaac is and is not. The Binding of Isaac has a lot of kind of gross and shocking content, but all of it is contextualized by the understanding that this is a child’s conception of the world, and all the weird gross things in it are exactly the sorts of weird gross things that kids tend to develop obsessions with – bodily functions, deformities, and so forth. Up until Rebirth, Isaac items tended to fit one of three themes: Everyday objects granted extraordinary significance, religious symbols, or video game references. These make total sense from the perspective of a weird shut-in kid who only knows his toys, the random things he finds, and the creepy religious stories his family tells him. But once you add S&M gear to the mix, it no longer becomes about expressing Isaac’s character, about life in the mind of an isolated and possibly abused child, but just about being weird and gross for the sake of weird and gross. By itself Gimpy is just one item, but it indicates an overall trend away from being expressive and meaningful and towards adding stuff to the game just for the sake of having it there.

In the end, Rebirth’s flaws are covered up by the simple expedient of repetition. Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t care that the music lacks narrative flare, you don’t even hear it any more. Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t notice that everything is in a different resolution – the game just looks the way the game looks, why would it look any different? Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t see a gimp mask, you see a way to restore health in difficult situations. You see the frame rate stable at 60 frames per second, you see the hundreds of weird and interesting item interactions. It may have made total sense to prioritize the things they did in developing the game: In so doing they’ve made a game that people who love Isaac can play for thousands of hours and still enjoy.

However, they’ve also made it so the chill I felt when I first played the game, the genuine sense of visceral discomfort and confusion and striving understanding, are now obscured behind a layer of generic video game.

pyrovision

There’s been a great deal of discussion about violence in video games over the last couple of decades, but the conversation usually doesn’t go anywhere interesting because the participants don’t really understand what violence is. What makes a violence isn’t blood or the guts, breaking bones or excruciatingly detailed mutilations – these things, or the artistic depictions thereof, mean nothing by themselves. The essence of violence is the framework that justifies the bloodshed, the story of just war or of vengeance. Violence isn’t the pull of the trigger or the splatter that happens afterwards, it’s the brain justifying the decision, it’s the story we tell ourselves about why it is okay to hurt and kill. At that moment, before it ever happens in reality, a human being is reduced to an object, an enemy, a corpse.

In this way the concern over violence in media like games is revealed as not quite as misguided as we would like to think, though the specific critiques and accusations are often nonsensical and ignorant. The concerning aspect of artistic violence is always, always, who do we decide it is okay to kill – and why? Because a process very much like that is used every day out in the world, and the same calculus that creates a first person shooter may one day create a school shooter.

We have designated villains, ranging from zombies, who are already dead but haven’t noticed it, to criminals, who we have to take the game’s word for that are definitely bad enough dudes that they need to die. Usually the questions that would naturally emerge about why we should kill these guys are short-circuited by the pragmatics of self-defense: It’s not important how we got here, but now that we’re here these guys are trying to kill you and the best (only) solution you have to that problem is to kill them first. As we flesh out games more and more narratively, it gets weirder and weirder that we’re pigeonholed into killing – but, still, the original assumptions made in the structure of the game take primacy, and we go along with it, because we really don’t have a choice. That’s the way the game is played: Kill or be killed.*

But it says something, doesn’t it, that we care more about the blood and guts in our art than the policies and assumptions that bleed and gut our world? It may be that we fight against violence in media, not because it contributes to violence, but because it reminds of of violence. Or it may be that we like fighting against fictional violence because it’s such a smaller and more understandable problem than actual violence. Actual violence doesn’t go away once you clean up the blood – it remains, its damage done, forever.

I am reminded of a Roald Dahl story about a man who invents a powerful listening device, and when he listens through it he can hear the agonized screaming of each rose as his neighbor trims them in her garden.

Empathy is difficult and exhausting.

I guess I understand why we avoid it so much of the time.

*Even though this structure is at its most common in multiplayer competitive games, this environment also lends itself well to hilarious subversion of these assumptions

pong

Pong and other early arcade games feel so primitive to us now in 2017. It seems intuitive to credit technological advances for the massive difference in complexity between the light arcade games of 35 years ago and the many more complex forms of video game we play today, but how much does technology really have to do with that shift? Complexity of input and gameplay systems increased over time, but not nearly in proportion with technological advances. No, the biggest difference between games then and games today is that today’s games are made to be played by ‘gamers’, people who have played other games before and been shaped by the experience.

When Pong succeeded, it did so because it was a game that could be played by anyone. Though many think of Pong as being the first arcade game, many players today would likely prefer to play the actual first arcade game, Computer Space, a game of careful movement and twitch reflex which was released more than five years before Pong – however, it was not especially commercially successful – not the way Pong was – likely because it was too complicated and unintuitive for the mass audience, who were by-and-large not technically inclined and were also slightly inebriated.

With no prior exposure to video games, members of the general population had not built up the dexterity and coordination required to successfully play a multi-button interactive game. “People learned how to play video games as a group over time,” says Bushnell. “I think they could have handled it much better two or three years later.

45 years after Pong, as much as game technology has progressed, game literacy has progressed much further. Most people with any interest in the medium have built up huge specialized skillsets that allow us to appreciate nuanced designs that would be universally mystifying 45 years ago. We have progressed beyond the two-directional wheel, to the four-directional joystick with one button, to controllers with a directional pad and 4 buttons, to controllers with a directional pad, two joysticks, and 10-buttons-plus-you-can-click-the-joysticks-down-like-buttons-too. In the meanwhile, games were developed for PC which had the keyboard as standard equipment, a controller with 50 buttons and nothing else. For a while games tried to use as many keys as possible, but developers eventually realized this was ridiculous and tried to mostly restrict themselves to the left side of the keyboard – particularly as the mouse gained popularity as a standard input mechanism.

Video game complexity increased hand-in-hand with video game literacy until the early 2000s, at which point popular games were intricate or finicky enough that only people who had been playing games for much of their lives understood them. A kind of equilibrium was reached, for a while, where the really complex games mostly went to PC for a smaller but more dedicated audience and gaming consoles got most of the lighter more arcadey fare. However, game companies tried to unify these audiences, and managed in so doing to create games that were still intimidatingly complex to people who had never played games, but at the same time insultingly condescending and easy to people who had been playing games all their lives, thus satisfying exactly no one with the precision only the way the invisible hand of the market can achieve.

Now we’re at an interesting point: Because games can be readily developed at many different team sizes and price points, we have something of a reemergence of the console/PC paradigm but with a softer barrier: Very simple games like Super Hexagon mostly find their way to mobile platforms as primary targets, and very complex games like XCOM mostly find their way to PC and, to a lesser degree, consoles as primary targets, but both also find themselves frequently ported to each other’s dominant platform. We’re finally beginning to establish, however haphazardly, a curriculum of game design, by which new players can discover how to engage with a vast and expanding medium

It’s strange now to look back and realize that no game experience is really self-contained. Each game teaches us to play itself and, as game developers learn by playing games, the many clashing ideas of what a game is or can be propagates through them memetically. Every game you have played before contributes to the experience of the game you are playing now, for good or ill, by shaping the vocabulary you use to explore it. And like that we build a bridge into the future, trying to construct a path to the experience we imagine a game can one day make manifest.

Man once they finish those sleeves they're going to get really bored. Until the devil starts playing with them I guess.

The first lesson I was taught about drawing was: Don’t draw what you know to be there, draw what you see. We know the hand has four fingers and a thumb, but sometimes fingers hide behind each other, sometimes the thumb clutches into a fist. And, sometimes, that which you know to be there is not: Some hands have fewer than four fingers.

Some hands have more.

I find this to be an approach with many applications. It’s kind of like critical thought: Never assume that something has to be a certain way just because that’s the way things are. Never let yourself see what isn’t there.

Each week I try to write something new, here, for Problem Machine. Ideally I’d like it to be interesting and insightful, and nearly every time I end up with something where I’m unsure whether what I write about is just painfully obvious and trite or is actually incisive and insightful. I’m starting to think that this may, in fact, be a good sign: Insight is often is a matter of saying the obvious, of not seeing that which isn’t there, and sometimes seeing what is. The things we never see are just as often those under our eyes as those over the horizon.

And this, too, seems at once obvious and insightful. The emperor still has no clothes.

There are a few ways this manifests strangely. One of them is that we tend to regard with contempt those truths which are repeated too frequently. We became sick and tired of love and peace. If everyone knows that kindness and gentleness are beneficial, then those who deny kindness and gentleness feel that they have access to a new knowledge of the world, that they are wolves among sheeple.

Trading knowledge for ignorance can feel a lot like learning. It can be hard to tell the difference between forbidden fruit and rotten fruit.

Another odd manifestation is that it becomes extremely easy to sound insightful just by echoing the consensus, whether it’s true or not, whether it’s overlooked or not. Many people become very wealthy on the lecture circuit telling people exactly what they want to hear. It can be hard to tell the difference, then, between what we want to hear and what is true, between what is insightful and what is vapid.

I don’t have an answer to the challenges this poses.

All you can do is keep looking, and try to see what is actually there for yourself.

ex-machina

It feels, now, so naive to believe that higher resolutions, faster framerates, and more polygons could ever lead to something which appears truly real. Every step we take toward making things look realer becomes a step into the uncanny valley: The more realistic the texture and motion, the faker the seams start to seem, unraveled at the edges. When we film in high resolution, it can’t fail to become more obvious that we’re building sets and canning dialogue instead of recording a reality – when we render at 60 frames a second, the visual gaps between our animations and the motion of muscle and bone become stark.

In the long run, I don’t believe that we can approximate reality by means of picture quality or polygon pushing – or, even, by means of technique and artistry.

This relates to what I wrote about last week. The first stroke of creation still matters deeply, and determines the final form of the piece in an inescapable manner. The more we try to hew to reality through artificial means, the more the gaps between reality and our representation of reality will begin to show.

As we seek reality, if we continue long enough, our methodology will begin to drift away from mimicry and towards emulation – that is to say, it will no longer be sufficient to create a model, texture, and animation that looks like a creature in motion, but will become necessary to create a simulated creature operating under the rules of reality. Follow the thread long enough and realism becomes simulation, inevitably. There’s no bridge across the uncanny valley, just art on one side and reality on the other – one, a representation of something external to itself; the other a system no longer beholden to aesthetics.

If your standards for realism come high enough, the only way to fulfill them is to create reality. So, the question is, what is it we actually want when we say we want things to look better, to look realer? Do we really want Turing machines running virtual flesh bodies, ensuring each motion is motivated by an actor with real wants and needs, each muscle jiggling and snapping as limbs flex? Or is what we want, not reality, but the same old fake worlds with more pores, with higher thread counts, where everything is just a little bit shinier and we can pretend that reality is what we make of it?

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.

sistine

One of the hardest lessons for me when it comes to art is that it’s not always possible to take a piece that is unsatisfactory and work on it for long enough to make it good. This is counter-intuitive, especially when it comes to digital work: After all, it’s just a collection of pixels, infinitely malleable, so surely if I just work long enough the pixels will come aligned in just the right way, come together to form the incredible work of art that I know could be there. So they may, given enough time and effort, but it’s just as likely, or more so, that all that work merely serves to blur the outline that first gave it energy and potential.

At first I was hesitant to work in physical media for this reason. It terrified me to think that each stroke, each movement of the brush and each fleck of pigment, was an irrevocable decision that shaped the piece, with no undo button available. Well, I’m still not entirely comfortable with that, but it’s become more apparent to me over time that pixels aren’t so different. In theory, they are completely controllable: In practice, that is not how artwork is made, and each stroke, each randomly generated fleck, becomes part of the history of a piece, shapes its final form in subtle ways.

Though I’m speaking here in terms of visual art, the principle holds true in all forms. The words we choose matter, even if they are edited out later; the code we write matters, even when it gets refactored; the melodies that go unused, the frames that are redundant, the level that gets cut for time, these all still make their mark on the finished work. Every step we take in creating changes the creation, even those we take pains to erase – perhaps especially those we take pains to erase.

However, no stroke matters more than the first. The first motion of brush or pen, the first sentence, the first object you orient in your program, these form the shape of all that is to come. This is why there’s such a focus on doing quick works, in gesture drawing and game jams; it’s all about practicing that initial motion, so that when the time comes for polish we find ourselves polishing gems rather than turds.

Thus artists have a complex and tense relationship with ideas. The idea is the spirit of that first stroke, and placed properly it can form the basis of a masterpiece. Or, perhaps, rather than being the first stroke it might be the accent, the perfect twist that adds the character that distinguishes a work. However, ideas are in all cases worthless without the effort and mastery to put them into practice.

Additionally, the difference between an idea and the idea is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning*. Bereft of context, there’s no such thing as a good idea: It is the context within which an idea is made manifest that makes it a fumble or a master stroke. An idea is simultaneously invaluable and valueless, priceless and worthless; we write them down and hoard them because we never know which idea we will need, but also know that no idea is valuable unless it can actually be realized.