It’s been a little while since I posted. Once habits are broken they can be difficult to mend, but since circumstances always eventually substantiate to break them, learning how to reestablish a good habit becomes a necessary skill. Creativity isn’t like an engine that you can just start up again whenever it stops, though: It’s not really repeatable, because with each new created work the process mutates. The reasons why I wanted to write six years ago when I started this blog are not the reasons I want to write now, but as long as habit has stuck me to my course I haven’t had to worry about those reasons.

And now that the habit has been broken, I do have to worry about those reasons.

Why do I want to write? Partially it’s that thoughts once you’ve had them are like produce once you’ve bought it. You can put those thoughts away in the fridge for a while, but eventually if you don’t do anything with them they’ll go bad, take up space, and start stinking up the joint. Once in a while you have to clean those thoughts out. Writing is helpful that way. Partially, as well, it’s that this blog is one of the things I’ve achieved that I can be most uncomplicatedly proud of: I’ve never had a ton of readership, but a few people usually see the things I’ve written every week and if a few people out of those few people find interest or enjoyment from my work then I’m happy. I’ve worked at it for the better part of a decade now, creating work almost every week, and written what amounts to a few novels worth of words on many different topics. As I’ve done so, I’ve noticed certain themes reemerging, a certain shape of an underlying work being silhouetted, and I recognize it as a self-portrait taking shape.

What I think I’m coming to recognize, though, is while each new piece here adds to that portrait, adds new details or expands it at the edges, makes the overall idea more expansive and complete, there’s a limit to working that way. Eventually there’s not going to be anything more to write of whatever this is that I’ve been working on. I hesitate to return to habit with too much enthusiasm because it may be, in the end, that whatever Problem Machine is has actually already been completed, and I’m just overworking the canvas now.

Well, obviously I don’t think that, or I wouldn’t have written the words you’re reading now. How will I know when it has been completed? I probably won’t. I think, eventually, I’m just going to try to take everything I’ve written and boil it down, to distill it – to take this big sloppy self-portrait and refine it, frame it, and hang it. Once I do that, what then? Do I stop writing, or change my style, or do something else? I don’t know, but whatever it is I’ll need some way to flush those stagnant thoughts out of my head, so I’ll probably make something like this again.

Nothing is ever complete. There’s always more to be written.

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Habits are helpful. Habit is a place to nail down the flapping edges of your behavior, to train consistency in yourself. But as with all points of stability, every habit rests on something else, and those things can be shaken loose. A home, a person, a job, any one of these may seem rock-solid only to roll away, and that’s when habits tend to slip. I’ve been letting habits I’m really quite fond of slip mostly from being distracted, by projects, novelties, and significant life changes both good and bad. I haven’t been writing blog posts – I’m going to be trying to do better on that score, since I think it’s good for my brain to get those thoughts out there and these posts are also the most consistent creative work I’ve produced in my life.

But okay, what about last month’s monthly project? By which I mean the month before last’s monthly project, which then expanded to become a 2-month project? It has, I guess, now further expanded to become a ?-month project.

I should probably talk a bit about what the project is before talking about how it went/is going. I decided going in that it was going to be a 2d platformer, and that for the first time I was going to seek out collaborators instead of trying to go it alone. With input from other people interested in the project it shifted into a 2d stealth platformer with some environmental interaction – think of, perhaps, a cross between the N series of games and Spelunky. Many of these elements are still, ah, a little rough around the edges, but I think the idea still has a lot of merit.

It was and is going well, but I got kind of burned out working on it — part of the idea behind these one-month projects in the first place was that they would be projects I could work full-force on and then complete and put down right around the time my enthusiasm might start to wane. This is the first such project I’ve tried to work with other people on, and I wasn’t prepared either for how that would affect this dynamic or for how busy I would be during that time period. Everyone has their own way of working, and on a freeware-type project like this everyone has a dramatically different scope of time they can bring to bear on the work.

So, right now, I don’t see any reason to rush this project to completion. I’ll be taking the next month or two to work on other monthly projects, while picking away at the most urgent tasks on the platformer as they become necessary, and then revisit the project in a couple of months to try to wrap things up.

In the meanwhile, for this month’s project I’m going to work on creating a vector drawing tool for Unity. This is something I came up against while I was building the lighting system for the 2d platformer project: Unity has very few tools for vector drawing, and those that exist are either no longer supported or aren’t very good yet. I’d like to take this opportunity to try to create a tool for creating vector graphics based off of the Flash graphics class. I’m not sure how far I want to take that approach, how full-featured it will be or what other capabilities it will encompass, but I at least have Flash (and OpenFL, the open source Flash-inspired game dev tool) to refer to for ideas and inspiration. Next month I’ll probably return to EverEnding… sort of! I’m going to try to basically port all the work I’ve done on the project into Unity and see if I can effectively use that to streamline and improve the quality of the work. It’s mostly a feasibility study/experiment. Either way, hopefully having this vector tool available will help in that process as well!

We’re at the end of another month. For February, I have made… an album!

I honestly didn’t think I was going to have something ready by end of month that I could call an album. The first couple weeks were not very productive for several reasons, ranging from inefficient work methods to fatigue after completing January’s project to the release of Apex Legends, but after that I was able to fairly quickly produce four tracks which I ended up really liking (Cut Adrift, A Letter to the Living, The Forgetter, and Outside of Reason). I also wrote most of another track, but ended up deciding not to finish or include it because it wasn’t quite as strong as the rest.

I combined these four tracks with four more I wrote several years ago (Every Scratch in the Wood, The Incandescence of Your Filaments, They Only Remember Silhouettes, and Amidst her Glorious Device), then pulled in a couple more tracks which were mostly done and just needed a bit of remastering/arranging (My Heat Cuts the Ice, You’d Be Surprised What You Can Accomplish), and all of a sudden I had ten tracks and 50 minutes of music!

I think it all hangs together pretty well, though I’m a bit hesitant about my choice to have My Heat Cuts the Ice as the first track – the slow start of it is well-suited to the position, but it’s definitely not the strongest track on the album, so perhaps I should have cut it in order to put my best foot forward. I suppose if I change my mind someday I can always recut it and include it as a bonus track. In the meanwhile, I just have it so Outside of Reason is the featured track even if it’s not the first, since I think it’s generally more appealing and expect the album as a whole will make a better impression if that’s the first track people hear.

With this project behind me, next month is going to be focusing on creating a relatively small and simple 2d platformer in Unity. My goals for the next project are twofold, and perhaps threefold depending on how things work out: First, to create a game that feels more complete and polished than the quick prototypes or ambitious experiments of previous months. Second, to understand how Unity handles 2d development and what’s possible within that context, with the idea of possibly porting EverEnding to it in mind. Third, I’m going to be asking around to see if other people want to work with me on this project, so this may be an opportunity to learn how to work better with a team.

Playing games is largely a process of exploration. Often this is in a very literal sense, where you’re given a simulated physical space and part of the challenge is learning the ins and outs of it, but just as often the heart of the game lies in exploring the the edges of the game’s design or of its story. What actually is exploration though? What separates exploring a world from merely experiencing it? How can we support exploration, make it fun and interesting? Or, perhaps more saliently, how can we avoid undermining exploration without meaning to?

There’s two parts to exploring: Methodology and results. Methodology is what separates the process from pure random trial and error – even if you feel that you are wandering aimlessly and finding things as you go, you’re still building up an understanding of the environment in your head and applying that towards your movements. At the very least, you avoid exploring areas you’ve already been through in favor of finding new areas. Results are whatever you get using your method of approach. So, when we’re designing for explorability, we must have both a world that is consistent and predictable, so there can be method to measuring it, and a world that contains interesting things worth discovering. There is also a prerequisite to exploration: In order for something to be revealed, in must first be concealed. In order for it to be discovered, it must first be covered, so the world must also have parts of it which are not immediately obvious.

If you lack consistency of world, then surprises come randomly and without justification, and the player tends to meander interminably before finding anything of interest. If you lack anything worth discovering, that’s obviously even worse, and if everything is already obvious then there’s nothing to find. As an example, if you create a world that’s continuously being randomly generated, it might be an interesting experience but there’s no way to effectively explore it: methodology is useless, the discoveries pointless, and you could never expect to have any more knowledge of the world than one had first coming to it, meaning a world completely uniform in its inscrutability, an open book containing nothing but nonsense. This conflict between randomness and exploration is one reason why games attempting fusion of the randomized worlds of roguelikes with the exploration-heavy worlds of metroidvania tend to succeed far more as roguelikes than they do as metroidvanias.

In creating a simulated physical space to explore, using these concepts of methodology, result, and concealment is a pretty straightforward task to grasp. First, make it so your world has some logical spatial relationship – most games are like this by default, since they’re built on modeling a 3d space, though some like text adventures struggle a bit and map transitions can always throw a wrench in the works. Note that this is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t have weird and impossible architecture, just to note that the more confusing and counterintuitive it becomes the harder it becomes to effectively explore the space, which may or may not be something you want. Second, make the world also have things worth discovering: In purely spatial terms, this would just be an interesting location such as a cave or grove, but more practically this is where the ‘physical’ space of the game starts to overlap into the design and narrative spaces, since most actual interesting locations in games are interesting either because they contain gameplay advantages such as powerups or tactical positioning or because they contain narrative content such as historical information or new characters to meet. Third, make it so it isn’t immediately evident where these points of interest are – this is why having things like minimaps, fast travel, and x-ray vision can work against the sensation of exploration, since providing this information directly often works directly against concealment. Too much information is provided for free, so there’s no real room for method to beget discovery.

So, carrying these concepts over from the spatial realm to the game’s design, if we want to have an explorable design space it must be, first, consistent: This, like spatial consistency, tends to come for free in a highly systemic game but become scarcer the more separate systems or special exceptions exist. If every game element exists within a consistent system, people can devise and improvise interactions, can plan out experiments and log their results. They have a territory to map. Second, the game’s design must have things worth discovering – understanding the bounds of the design is usually a core part of what it means to become better at a game, so this is covered as long as the game’s challenge isn’t trivial. This is part of what difficulty offers us, is a system worth exploring. Third, the system must not be obvious, must conceal parts of itself: This is one that a lot of modern games struggle with. There’s a tendency to clip off surprising and unexpected parts of a game’s design, to ensure that the experience always feels ‘fair’, to set the boundaries of the design strictly at those of the developer’s imagination. It seldom works completely, but to the extent which it works it impoverishes the game.

Narratively, the tenets of explorability tend to resemble a great deal of existing storytelling advice. Avoid plot holes and give characters motivations to create a consistent narrative reality, include drama, jokes, and surprises to generate interest, and don’t lean on cliche and trope so much the entire arc is obvious from the first moment.

As mentioned earlier, these spaces all overlap. The surprises you discover in the spatial layer may have implications for the design, the techniques you discover in the design layer may have implications in the narrative, the story you uncover in the narrative may lead you to new places in the spatial. These aspects are all woven together, and the ability to uncover them collectively is one of the greatest things games can offer as a medium.

It’s very frustrating, sometimes, being an artist who is both terrible at and temperamentally disinclined from all forms of self-promotion. There’s a yearning to make people look and listen paired with an absolute aversion to the actions that could actually make that happen. However, as much as that bothers me sometimes, I’ve been thinking more and more about what success would look like to me, and what would come with it, and I have to admit that some of the things that might accompany it are worrying to me – and perhaps not the sort of things one might expect.

I think the part that scares me, and this probably explains a lot about why I’m so bad at self-promotion, is that if people are actually listening to you then you need to be extremely careful about what you say. I don’t mean this in a “oh boy you can’t say anything without offending anybody these days” way. I mean it in the sense that, when people are listening to your words your words become, effectively, actions. If you have an audience of millions any little thing you say might, potentially, have life and death consequences. The fact is, I don’t think I could continue to write the way I write now and feel ethically okay with it: When maybe 20 people read my blog a day, I can throw my thoughts at the wall and see what sticks. I’m sure that if I went back through my archives now I’d find many of my old posts naive or ignorant or completely idiotic – and, for me, that’s okay, because what I’m primarily interested in here on Problem Machine is just posing questions that interest me at the moment in a hopefully thought-provoking way. But if thousands of people were hanging on my word? Tens of thousands? Millions? I wouldn’t be able to do it. Any random thought could justify any unconnected action. I’d be pouring something into the ideological makeup of the world without having any idea of what effect it might have, dumping mysterious glowing goo into the water supply just to see what happens.

The point of which is to say that the ethics of art creation don’t necessarily scale. You can create a lot of art as a small creator with a small audience that you really can’t if and when that audience grows, and this constantly trips up small creators. In many ways, staying small is in your best interest if you care at all about creating ethically – just as the spider men say, with great power comes great responsibility, and thus if you feel unprepared to shoulder that responsibility without causing harm your best bet is to avoid great power.

And yet, we have so many incentives to become bigger. Not only are we told that success for an artist looks like having a big audience, it’s also, for most of us, a prerequisite for being able to survive while creating. If you can’t find a patron (or spouse) to support you while you work, you have to build a fan base large enough that you can float off of their contributions or page views – if you want to work full-time as an artist, anyway. This is why we keep seeing the pattern repeat itself of some small-time entertainer becoming hugely popular through Youtube or whatever and then saying something stupid and reckless which makes everyone mad at them: The kind of personality it takes to rise by force of personality from a small-time celebrity to a big-time celebrity is largely incompatible with the awareness it takes to actually be responsible with the power that reach confers.

The strip of available space to work in is narrow: The art you’re capable of making, the art you want to make, that art which is ethical to make, the art you are comfortable making, each of these shape the space of the art you can actually make – and the context of your place in the world changes the range of each of these. I don’t think it’s rare at all for this narrow strip of fertile ground to completely disappear as peoples lives change, as they run out of time or emotional space to express themselves. The time and context we have available to us to freely create is, over the course of our lives, potentially extremely limited.

No matter how much you might wish to, you will never know for sure your work is harmless. If it makes you feel any better, you’ll also never know that anything else you do is harmless. It’s all guesswork, of hope and leaps of faith that maybe we won’t do too much harm without meaning to. So, what, are we to sit in place and molder? Are we to always be paralyzed by a sea of choices with consequences with consequences with consequences?

But we do not essay forth into a void. There are already people creating, and many of them creating irresponsibly. Even having some awareness that you might have great power and, if so, it ought come with great responsibility puts you ahead of the game.

It’s better to go into it with eyes open. It’s better to worry about whether you’re relevant than to be loudly irrelevant, to worry about being unethical rather than being violently unethical. Even if it makes it harder to create, narrows the range of what we can create, it also opens up new possibilities and helps us better evaluate the real quality of our work. When you observe the world, you see a few people who are brilliant and many people who spout bullshit with unearned senses of self confidence. It’s easy to cast yourself as one or the other in your imagination, and to never end up saying anything out of fear of being unable to live up to the ideal of brilliance, or fear of unintentionally becoming another bullshit peddler. However, even as the world is full of vapid braying, the world is also full of people who never say anything because they’re not sure if what they have to offer is valuable, and the world is also full of people who try to be heard and cannot because the level of noise is too high, and all of them have so much more of value to offer than those buffoons who usually hog the spotlight, who are certain beyond question that it’s worth everyone’s while to listen to what they have to say.

The question is not whether you can be brilliant or a buffoon, but whether you can speak out at all. As long as you approach your words with care and thoughtfulness, they will always be worthwhile in a world where so many words are produced without thought, without care.

Well, it’s been a busy month. That’s putting it somewhat mildly – the last week or so has been possibly the hardest I’ve ever worked on a project, putting in anywhere from 8-12 hours every day and culminating in one last completely brutal 14 hour day on the first of February to wrap the project up. It’s still not perfect, I could definitely find plenty to do if I wanted to spend a week or so on polish and fixes, but for now I really just need to let this one go, because I’m exhausted and I want to move on to something else.

For January, I participated in Wizard Jam, the Idle Thumbs community game jam. The premise of the jam is to create a game based on the title of an Idle Thumbs network podcast, and since many of those titles tend to be weird and imaginative to start with there’s plenty to work with. I picked The Convergence Compulsion, and then later when I found out that someone else was interested in using the same title, appended the subtitle “The Satisfaction of a Job Well Done”, another podcast title. My very early conception of a game to go with this title was a fast-paced 2d puzzle game in the vein of a match-3 or Tetris where you tried to get different laser beams to line up, but the idea that eventually captured my imagination was a game where you build machines out of elements that emit power, manipulate it, and then turn it into some sort of work. Along the way, it shifted away from the idea of building complex machines and towards figuring out a solution to a puzzle made out of a few components and a number of simple humanoids, kind of like the games The Incredible Machine and Lemmings. At the end it came out pretty close to that, except most of the humanoid behavior had to be cut/simplified.

The concept of Convergence Compulsion is that you work for The Convergence Corporation installing hardware in different locations. The hardware usually consists of at least one power orb, which emits power particles, and at least one converger, which attracts them, and then using these and some other devices which focus, reflect, or split these particles you need to power different machinery. This ended up being kind of a finicky concept – Sometimes machinery ends up getting accidentally powered on just due to random chance, sometimes it takes a while to get the equipment specifically where it needs to be to focus particles, sometimes solutions I didn’t anticipate work and sometimes solutions that should work fail to because I didn’t script the levels to account for them. For the most part, though, I think I’ve managed to achieve the game I had in mind.

Here it is:

Convergence Compulsion: The Satisfaction of a Job Well Done

 

In addition to this, Wizard Jam 8 participants created a number of other great games, many of which I commend to your attention. A few standouts among those I’ve played or seen played thus far:

I’m exhausted but generally pleased with what I accomplished during January, which brings us to February. Now, I had originally planned on making another game this month, a 2d platformer project so I could better understand the capabilities and methodologies of Unity 2d development, but right now I’m really ready to just not work in Unity for a while. Thus, the 2d platformer project is getting pushed back one month to March, and for February I’m going to be focused on writing music, ideally with the end-goal of making another album. I have a few tracks floating around already, so it will really only take maybe 5 or so more to have enough for an album, but we’ll see where I end up. Even if I don’t end up having enough it’s fine, I just want to spend this month making as much music as I can and definitely not programming.

For those who may be unfamiliar with The Return of the Obra Dinn, it’s a first-person adventure game by Lucas Pope (the developer of Papers, Please – a game which I keep intending to play but putting off, probably at least in part because it seems incredibly bleak). Obra Dinn itself is hardly un-bleak: In it, you play as an insurance assessor sent out to the titular Obra Dinn, a recently recovered wreck of a ghost ship. You are sent to deduce the fate of all those aboard, and deduce appropriate deductions for the insurance company to make. In order to achieve this task, you are given the “Memento Mortem”, a pocket watch which, when presented with the remains of a once-living creature, can take you back to the moment that creature died. Once in these memories, you can find other remains and follow them back further, and move from the moment this person or animal died to the moments leading up to it, following the chain of disaster back to its inception.

The style of the game is eye-catching, and along with the reputation of Papers, Please drove a lot of the initial interest in the title. Everything is rendered in a pixelated black and white style – or a dark color and a light color, the specifics of which can vary, but in each case is styled after a classic computer system. This is an interesting choice, since the style is unusual and the classic computer systems it harkens back to don’t really have anything to do with the plot of the game, but it creates an overall sensation of being unstuck in time. Here you sit, playing the game in the modern day on your modern machine, rendering in a style reminiscent of several decades ago, exploring a ship from hundreds of years ago, exploring memories of sailors who died several decades before. It expresses a chain of time very well, and reminds us that these weird chains of causality, of death to life to death to life, are all around us, and dictate the flow of our lives to this day.

Something that struck me about Obra Dinn was how unusual it was to have a game where death is commonplace, but is still treated with respect. There’s two molds that games usually, broadly, fall into: Either death is avoided strenuously, or it’s so commonplace as to be meaningless. Either you’re a gentle spirit wandering the world and trying to achieve your goals without confrontation, or you’re a murderous monster leaving a trail of hewn body parts behind you. While you do, in Obra Dinn, fit into the gentle spirit mold, the world you are trying to navigate is one of blood, desperation, and violence. It neither avoids death nor glories in it, merely tests its boundaries and affirms, for those of us who might ever forget, that each death is unique, that each death comes from a seed of causality and can be tracked to its roots. No one is unimportant. No one is indispensible.

A naive reading of the design of Obra Dinn might believe that there’s little actual “gameplay” in the game – that is, the majority of the actions the player takes are walking to the next cutscene trigger, activating it, and occasionally marking down one of a few options in the big book of names that you begin the game with. We’re not accustomed to thinking of things like the shape of a character’s face, their accent, who their friends are, what their job description is, as components of gameplay – but each of these becomes important in Obra Dinn. Understanding the relationships underpinning the tragedy of the ship, understanding why characters choose to do the things they do, is necessary to unravel the mystery that brought the Obra Dinn to its current fate. So often the concept of ‘gameplay’ is pitted against concepts of ‘narrative’ and ‘graphics’, as though these are all completely discrete components that have nothing to do with one another, as though pouring more resources into one might steal resources away from another. One might consider this to be most literally true in a game like The Return of the Obra Dinn, made by a lone developer, where time he spends on one aspect is time he cannot possibly spend on another. Perhaps it’s because it was made by a solo developer, though, that these aspects work so closely together – the graphics are exactly what they need to be to support the narrative, the narrative is exactly what it needs to be to support the gameplay. No, even ‘support’ seems incorrect: These facets of the game aren’t separable. What seems most remarkable to me about Obra Dinn is how all of these components we regard as discrete combine together and become one complete work – the graphics are the narrative is the gameplay.

I’ve played games that have had more emotional impact, games that have interested me more intellectually, games that have amazed me more, games that spoke to me more, games I felt were more meaningful – but Obra Dinn is still something special in a different way. It’s finely crafted, like a pocketwatch, and I think though the details of the tragic voyage will fade, the Obra Dinn will stick with me for a long time.