When I was a child it was popular to tell kids they could grow up to be anything. I think it was, anyway, I vaguely recall that being a thing that was said, but I might be thinking of something I saw on television. Regardless, I hope it’s gone out of vogue by now – it’s really a cruel thing to tell a child, even if it’s technically true. You can become anything, in the same way an unknown seed could grow to be anything, but what that thing will be has likely already become set by circumstance and inclination. Or, perhaps, more in the way that rolled die could show any face, but choosing which is outside of anyone’s control – except for inveterate cheaters, who I think would represent inherited wealth in this metaphor.

Regardless of how prominent this message was, I don’t think I ever wanted to be anything. I think I always wanted to be everything. Failing that, the next best option as I saw it was to be some sort of artist, someone who makes worlds – if not to actually be everything, then to contain some version of everything, to control it, portray it, master it. Even that wasn’t enough everything, apparently, because of all the forms of artist to be I decided I wanted to make games, since they require me to do a little bit of everything (a lot of everything, actually). And then I wanted to make them alone, because I wasn’t willing to give up even a tiny bit of everything.

I’m coming to gradually recognize the greed that has shaped me. I am never content. I am never enough for myself because I am never everything, but I also rarely want to give any of myself up. People don’t notice this greed usually, I think, because it doesn’t look like what we think greed looks like. I don’t want many things beyond the things I need to work towards my goals, which mostly boil down food, shelter, and a functional computer with a few specialized peripherals. I don’t mind being mostly broke, except when it means I get distracted by things outside of my control, such as needing to scrape together for food, shelter, or a functional computer with a few specialized peripherals. I’ve learned how to mostly do the things I need to do to take care of myself, but I don’t reach out beyond myself often. I am my own planet in my own solar system. Family, a few friends, no other social contact – greedy like gravity, I hold this much in my orbit forever, steady in the trajectory set by my past.

In trying to be everything I frequently lose track of who I am. I’m not sure what my personality is outside of the things I create. When I’m not making things or distracting myself I have a poor sense of what my personality is. I don’t know if this is abnormal. Many people feel unmoored from themselves when they’re away from their work, I suppose. At least I don’t have to rely on anyone else in order to feel like myself, at least I can’t get fired from being an artist – though I can certainly not get paid for it. I’ve definitely proven myself capable of that.

What am I? A shape that leaves an imprint, a tiny fingerprint on the mind of each person I meet. I hope that by making things I can spread around more imprints, make more of a mark, but that mark I am making is only a tiny part of me. Some people exist so intimately in each others’ lives that their imprints go deep and numerous, that even when they are absent each other they can still feel their shapes in the marks they left behind. I can’t leave any marks like that. I hold too much of myself back. All pictures of me are incomplete, and the true shape remains unknown. It could be anything.

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I recently played through Alpha Protocol, which is an experience I don’t know whether or not to recommend. It is not a good stealth game, but it is a hilarious stealth game: Once you actually level up your character the gameplay largely consists of turning invisible and jogging around punching guys in the throat while they stand next to you yelling “where did he go!?”

Anyway.

Alpha Protocol’s most notable features aside from that are its branching narrative and timed dialogue system, both of which went on to inspire Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and thereby basically every game made by Telltale since, as they’ve adopted that model as just the way they make games now. There’s one huge difference between the two dialogue systems, though: In The Walking Dead, the default dialogue option is always to just remain silent and let the conversation go on without you, and in Alpha Protocol the default option is always to say… something. I’m not sure how much of this is an intended effect, but combined with the way the main character of Alpha Protocol is written – an obnoxious jerk – the end effect is that Alpha Protocol’s weird dialogue system ends up really effectively conveying the experience of being an impulsive idiot. It is incredibly easy to end up saying something crass and ignorant or accidentally hitting on someone or just going ahead and making out with a coworker just because the timer for dialogue is so short and some of the choices are labeled extremely ambiguously – and, with a bit of distance from the momentary frustration caused by accidentally doing the wrong thing, I can appreciate the characterization created by these systems.

I can’t say how much of this was intentional on the part of the designers, but it’s intriguing how different the Alpha Protocol and The Walking Dead dialogue systems end up feeling, all while being essentially identical. A relaxed timer, letting a natural amount of time elapse between dialogue beats before prompting response, simulates the pressure to keep up a discussion, while the faster timer suggests a pressure to say something ANYTHING the very moment the person you’re talking to stops talking for even one moment. The addition of the option of saying nothing, along with generally more generous timers, sell the idea of Lee, the protagonist of The Walking Dead, as a calm and thoughtful person being overtaken by events outside of his control – while Alpha Protocol’s Mike Thorton inevitably ends up coming across as a walking HR complaint waiting to happen.

This raises the question of how else dialogue systems can express the personality of the speaking character – that is, how character is expressed by the way we choose what to say, as distinct from what is actually said. The timing and defaults of The Walking Dead express someone pensive and reserved while systems of Alpha Protocol express someone reckless and boorish, so what do other dialogue systems suggest? Most adventure game dialogue systems, such as that used in the Monkey Island series, suggest alternately either a clever character backed by a team of writers, selecting the choicest rejoinders, or an inspector with some sort of predetermined checklist to get through. RPGs like Fallout are similar, except the choiceness of those rejoinders and number of inspection points tend to vary based on your character’s stats.

Though these dialogue systems became a bit rote after a while, you occasionally get flashes of how they could be used much more expressively – even if these expressions usually come in the form of one-off gags in the Monkey Island games. In the first game, when one of your mutinous crew asks if the word ‘keelhaul’ means anything to you, you have the dialogue choice of either saying “I see your point” or of reciting the dictionary definition: Whichever one you choose, the main character says “I see your point” and the conversation ends. In the second game, in one scene you have a choice between four dialogue options, pictured below:

Differing from each other only in emphasis in a moment of impotent anger. And, in the third game, you have a clearly unwise dialogue choice in a conversation with a reformed cannibal, and if you hover your mouse over it a secondary dialogue pops up next to it saying “not that one, it will be the death of you!” and other similar warnings – only for it to be essentially ignored by the character you’re talking to if you actually say it, since they’re off on their own tangent by then.

All of those are amusing and expressive moments, but they all involve making you unable to do something – unable to say what you want or be heard when you say something stupid. This is kind of the opposite of the problem that Mike Thorton has, of saying stupid bullshit given a moment’s opportunity, and well-expresses the more nebbish personality of Guybrush Threepwood. A similar approach is used to much less humorous effect in the game Depression Quest, where the deeper you fall into depression the more productive and healthy choices are locked off to you. Even at the beginning of the game, where you’re still feeling mostly okay, the most sociable and lively choices are unavailable – which is certainly something I can appreciate as someone constitutionally unsuitable towards being the life of a party. Not only is Depression Quest’s approach to conveying depression similar to the techniques Monkey Island uses for jokes, but those specific jokes could easily be repurposed towards more such dramatic ends. Having whatever you try to say come out differently than intended; only being able to express yourself with emphasis while being stuck saying essentially the same rote thing; being unable to stop intrusive second thoughts when thinking of something to say, and then being ignored when you finally do speak – all of these are things that real people experience all the time, frequently to a painful degree.

There are other ways we might tweak existing dialogue systems to express character, or even do so dynamically. The Alpha Protocol system could be leveraged in a game like The Walking Dead, where as a conversation gets more heated the timer begins to shorten and more neutral options start to disappear – perhaps Telltale has explored this already, I haven’t kept up on their games. Or maybe dialogue options could change over time, so the player is pushed to balance between a rushed and imperfect line or a more thought-out line that is perhaps said too late. It may seem absurd, but perhaps dialogue could even be a mini-game, a frantic scrabble to, in an emotional moment, dig the right words out of a pit of brusque idiocy and callous vapidity.

For now, we mostly just go through the check list – and, though this expresses a character, maybe it’s not the character we’re actually trying to create.

Why don’t I make more games?

Of course, I’ve been working on EverEnding, but that’s a long term project and hardly precludes the idea of pursuing side projects. I’ve even tried to take a break of a week or a month to work on such side projects, and they haven’t gone anywhere, as I get bogged down in minutiae and lose momentum before heading back to work on the main project. This is supposed to be my medium, though: Games are supposed to be one of the ways I’m most comfortable in expressing myself, and this idea is core to my identity. Most of the independent solo developers I admire make at least a couple of projects a year, and I feel that this is within my capabilities and would probably make me feel more fulfilled than whittling incessantly away at the same project – and wouldn’t even necessarily take that much time and effort away from that project, depending on how I approached them.

So why don’t I?

I’ve heard it said that finishing games is a distinct skill in and of itself, and if that’s the case then it’s one that I clearly and sorely lack. The last time I remember perceiving this kind of lack in myself was before I learned to draw, but desperately wanted to – when I was hugely intimidated by the gap between what I could imagine and what I could achieve on the page. What it came down to was that the only way I could get past this was by letting go of the idea of creating something great and grabbing hold of the idea of creating the best thing I could – a nobler ambition at any rate, I’ve come to believe. Eventually I got comfortable with just making marks on the paper that looked very approximately like what I wanted – as time has passed, they’ve gotten closer to what I imagine. More importantly, as time has passed, I’ve refined that imagined ideal of what I want those marks to be, what they can represent and how. At this point I’d say I’m a pretty good artist: Could be better, could be worse. I guess that’s the same for everyone: It’s a place we tend to stay at for most of our artistic lives, so it’s a place we have to learn to feel okay with being in.

However, as a game developer I think I’m still Nowhere. Undefined. Maybe I’m great! Who knows? Maybe it’s the fear of finding out that I’m not that’s holding me back – that’s certainly one of the things that used to hold me back from the visual arts. Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt, as they say.

It’s really not, though. Better to just be okay with being thought to be a fool. It has many advantages. It’s very freeing.

I’ve gotten mostly okay at sometimes being bad at art and music and writing. I just kind of assume that some ratio of the work I produce will suck big stinky butt, and hope that as I practice and develop as a creator that ratio will get smaller. It’s hard for me to get there with games, though. Even a small game takes a lot of work to make, so it’s hard to feel okay about that work going into something that’s not great. I’ve made a few games, here and there – for game jams, mostly, 3 or 4 spread across the last decade or so. These games were mostly pretty abrupt and incomplete, but, still – they were games.

I think another big obstacle has been that I tend to start game projects from a place of intellectual interest. I usually start with a theme and/or a game mechanic, and try to build out from there. This isn’t actually a bad way to design, but it’s a bad way to make a project I give a shit about. This sort of intellectual interest has a shelf-life. Eventually, if I keep thinking about the project I will end up exploring the design fairly completely in my mind, and obviate any pressing need to create the project itself. Games take long enough to make, at least for me, that this usually happens before the project is complete. Thus the reason why I’ve maintained interest in EverEnding for five years but I have trouble maintaining interest in most game jam projects for more than five days: Some games are just more fun to design than they are to create. These are not the sort I should be making. I need to start from a tone, a feeling, something unnameable to seek rather than something unnamed to build. And, since these are games, the mechanics and theme will follow, as they must, a series of intellectual challenges, puzzles to solve to figure out what this mysterious place I’ve found for myself will be.

Once I can teach myself to start and to finish smaller games, maybe I’ll be ready to start to finish EverEnding.

Well this is probably going to be a short one, since for 20 of the 30 days since the last DevBlog I’ve been busy with writing and for the other 10 I’ve been trying to catch up with all the other stuff I didn’t get done while I was doing all that writing. The two avenues I’ve made progress on are in developing the Feral enemy type and in improving the camera system.

I posted the concept art for the Feral a little while back, and I’ve since been poking and prodding at getting some sprites done for it to add to the game.

I’m not thrilled with these at this point: The look of them is good, but the animation still feels extremely stiff for the most part. I’m having difficulty with handling the sorts of subtle motions I want this creature to make when it’s not being aggressive, and making them read on a fairly low-res sprite. I ended up tabling that work when I returned to the project since, as I’ve discussed in the past, I tend to find animation frequently turns into a demoralizing slog for me. So, to get myself back into the project and to build up a bit of momentum, I’ve gone back to programming work.

After a few days, I have most of what I think should be a functioning behavior set for the Feral, but I haven’t tested it yet – mostly, honestly, I just wanted to get the code to build so I could work on other parts of the project for a bit. Still, it means I’ll probably be able to get the Feral up and running in fairly short order, and that hopefully will increase my enthusiasm for creating and polishing the necessary animations.

More recently (ie just now) I’ve been working on the camera system. I went back and read a rather interesting Gamasutra article that exhaustively explored the different approaches to 2d camera systems and, while doing so, revised mine. In fact, I revised my camera system several times over, trying out different ways to move the camera or to determine where I was moving the camera to. I’ve mostly settled on a system where it offsets the camera based on the character’s facing enough to see what’s ahead and moves the camera faster based on how far it is from it’s desired position (without modeling acceleration), but there are a few instances where the camera jumps around in a rather unappealing way left to be dealt with.

I’m still getting used to working on the project again, and of course there’s holidays coming up to be a distraction, but spending a little while away from EverEnding has given me enough perspective to know that it’s not force of habit, or some inane belief that just finishing this one thing will make me rich, or certainty that it will somehow change the world, or some other bad reason that keeps me working on this game. I still love the version of it I have built in my mind, and I still want to try as hard as possible to bring that vision to fruition, and especially to see what it slowly shapes itself into along the way.

 

It’s easy to stop seeing things. Playing Super Hexagon, it’s easy to get lulled into believing you know what the pattern is even when you haven’t been looking closely, to dodge what you believed the obstacle was only to run smack into what the obstacle actually is. Drawing from life, as well, it’s easy to begin drawing the things you don’t actually see, the fingers that aren’t visible and the shape that you know a nose to be rather than the shape needed to convey the image of a nose at that angle. Over and over this pattern repeats – the pattern that there is no pattern so consistent that following it is an adequate replacement for paying some goddamn attention.

It’s impossible, though, to always be vigilant. Sooner or later, everyone slips up. It turns out something that we never noticed was a huge problem waiting to manifest, and the fire catches. We were not made to be panopticons, but to be a series of watchtowers, each covering one another. To make modern life manageable, we’ve designated some people to be attention-payers so that we don’t have to be constantly vigilant: Reporters, emergency workers, various supervisors and surveyors, researchers and teachers.

It’s not a coincidence that these are the people who are being most actively sabotaged or corrupted by the reigning government right now. The obvious effect of controlling the groups who manage this flow of information is that it makes it more possible to misinform and propagandize. The less obvious effect is that the veracity of this information is now poisoned. If we accept this information is compromised, then the burden of vigilance, without benefit of expertise and experience, falls back on our shoulders. Those in power have a vested stake in making us too tired to be vigilant. In making sure we can’t trust the news, or the schools, or the research.

After a certain point, vigilance metastasizes into hypervigilance. After a certain point being woke turns into sleep deprivation. Vigilance and action both take energy, and it’s so difficult to manage both, especially when there’s so much to see and so much to act against both at the same time.

The worst part is that, now that we’re paying attention, it means knocking away even more of that support structure. Now that we look, those who we thought we could trust turn out to no longer be trustworthy, and must be replaced – and there, again, the load of vigilance increases. People we knew we couldn’t trust are fired and replaced, and we must again be vigilant to be sure this replacement is suitable.

Is the idea of every person voting realistic when the burden of being informed about the issues and those who represent them becomes this heavy? We are in a situation where we demand people make important decisions without equipping them with any tools to make those decisions well. They turn to ask whoever they think they can trust most, and in turn that person asks whoever they think they can trust most, and eventually they probably reach someone who isn’t trustworthy. Because the demands of awareness are unappeasable, democracy becomes a merit-test for the most convincing and efficacious liar. Because there isn’t enough time and energy to survive and to do the research needed to be informed, we’re all operating on partial information, fake information – so the one who can sow the most doubt wins.

We have few ways of dodging this burden too heavy to bear. Everyone puts their trust in someone, and many of us put it in the wrong someone, or in someone who puts it in the wrong someone. Once you make that decision, it’s really hard to change. No matter how terrible that decision was, it’s hard to go back on it because it means accepting, first, that the person you thought you could trust you cannot – and, second, that the burden of eternal vigilance now, again, rests on your shoulders.

So we make excuses. It was probably a lie, it probably wasn’t that big a deal, it’s probably not what it looks like. What we are seeing now is a really terrifying glitch in democracy: The more horrendous the worldview of a political organization, the heavier the burden that falls on those who had heretofore followed that organization. In order to break with the organization, they need to not only accept that they’d propped up people who had done great evil, but to believe that they could be vigilant enough to keep from doing so again in the future.

Faced with this terror, most will just vote along party lines.

This is the last of a month of daily Problem Machine blog posts. It’s been a tiring month. I’m looking forward to never writing another word for the rest of my life, or at least a few days. I guess this is the time to reflect back over what I’ve learned.

  1. Ideas are not rare

I worry sometimes that I’ve already thought of every topic that I’m going to think of, that the barrel is dry and I’m just scraping out splinters. I don’t consider that a reasonable worry but also I don’t consider it an escapable one. What’s been driven home over the last month is that not coming up with any ideas has more to do with where I’m at on that day – that when I can’t think of anything it’s not a permanent affliction, but just one day where my brain is interested in doing different things that aren’t coming up with ideas for something to write.

Unfortunately, when I’ve committed myself to doing daily essays I can’t really allow my mind the extra time it wants to come up with something, so I end up having to push myself to write after several hours of thinking and false starts. This is the most exhausting part: The actual writing is usually (not always) fairly effortless, comparatively.

  1. Ideas do, nevertheless, become scarcer

The first 10 days or so were fairly forthcoming and exhilarating, though it still took a certain amount of pushing to get myself to come up with concepts, and a while to build up momentum. The next 10 days were probably the easiest, where I had my habits built up and still had a creative reservoir, but I started feeling the strain.

The last 10 started really taking a toll. It might also be the weather changing for Winter I suppose, but I’ve been very tired. Nearly every post now takes a few hours of sitting and thinking and reworking before I can turn it into anything, and this isn’t leaving me a ton of time and energy for other work. Fortunately, for today’s post I had the incredibly convenient pre-made topic of this being the last daily post to write about!

  1. Super Hexagon is a good video game

I’ve written in the past about how I like to use Super Hexagon as a creative tool, almost a form of meditation, since it requires such acute spatial concentration it really leaves the verbal/abstract parts of my brain free to think about this and that. Thus for the last month, as I try to write every day, I have been playing approximately one shitload of Super Hexagon – enough to actually get good at the game again and beat most of the best times on my friends list.

It’s a relief, when I’m drilling myself on the abstract ideals of improvement at art and what that means in this world, at the unsolvable dilemmas of game design and how to do better, to spend time in bits and pieces in something that I can definitely and quantifiably improve at. Many games promise this idea of visible improvement, but few single-player games in particular can satisfyingly offer it – frequently offering upgrades to equipment and characters instead of instilling a direct change in the player’s skill. The aspirational goal being measured in mere seconds is pleasing in both its straightforwardness its limitedness: Even an amazing time, for me, would be at most a few minutes, which is something I can definitely fit in my schedule. Even though I described the last month as having contained one shitload of Super Hexagon, in fact I think I’ve spent less than 10 hours actually playing it over the last 30 days – it just feels so dense and active that it felt like many more.

What’s next? I think I’m going to be going back to weekly posts for the immediate future, though I’ll probably be skipping this Saturday for obvious reasons and will probably be a bit spotty through December for other obvious reasons. At one point I was considering going twice-weekly and starting a Patreon to support my writing, but though the readership seems to have increased a bit – around 30 views a day, which is encouraging but not astounding – I don’t think I have much of a readership base sufficient to really offer significant support. Feel free to pipe up in the comments if you feel differently.

That said, I do generally feel more confident in both the quality and consistency of my writing ability now, so I’ll probably be working on collating a bunch of past Problem Machine posts into some sort of structure and begin the process of converting that into a book. At a rough estimate, I think I probably have about 5 years of weekly 500 word blog posts, and between overlap and unsuitability I figure I’ll probably be able to use maybe half of these, so this book will start with around 60,000-70,000 words, which I can then revise and add supplementary material to to round it to probably around 100,000-150,000 – pretty substantial. We’ll see when I get there, but I think it could be something I can be really proud of when it’s done, and encompass a lot of the philosophy I’ve put into this blog.

Part of the reason, as well, that I think I’d like to put a book together is pursuant to one of the ideas I’ve been talking about recently: The idea that to be a good artist is to be a good promoter of your art. It’s not an approach that comes easily to me, but I think as a naturally cautious person I have a much easier time promoting the idea that this thing I have made is good than the idea that this thing I will make will be good – I am generally very chary of making promises about what will happen in the future. Having one discrete thing that I can promote as my work sounds very appealing. If people then take that work as evidence that I can produce work of similar quality in the future, that’s on them – even if I, too, hope and believe that they are correct in that presumption.

I will probably also do another month of daily work in the near future, even if this one made me want to die a little bit. December’s no good, and I will need to stabilize my money situation a bit – this writing-binge was enabled by a small windfall I received a few months ago, which I’ve tried to be careful with but which half of has already eroded. Probably next up will be a daily music project: I’ll post the results here probably in weekly digests. This is all up in the air, but I thought y’all might be interested in hearing where I’m going with this.

So, to close out this month, here’s some of my other stuff you can check out:

As I just mentioned, I write music. Here’s where most of it is:

http://problemmachine.bandcamp.com

I also stream on Twitch! My current schedule is Tuesday, Thursday, Friday at 8pm Pacific time, Sunday at 6pm Pacific time:

http://www.twitch.tv/problemmachine/

I’m also working on a game! I’ve been having to dial back my efforts on this recently due to increased focus on the blog, but I post about my progress on that project here as well.

https://problemmachine.wordpress.com/category/devblog/

Thanks for checking out my work. Every view and every like means a lot to me, since it’s so easy to feel isolated and powerless in the world today. I hope I’ve brightened your day or broadened your perspective a bit, as well, through the work I’ve put in over the last month, and the last five years.

It’s a tough banana to split, knowing how much better you could be while trying to convince yourself you’re good enough. The more one improves the more capable one becomes of seeing room for improvement. Now, the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that at the highest level of skill one becomes able to confidently assess one’s ability as being extremely high. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone at this level of skill. I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect ever reaching that point, at least not in the near future. The experience of art that I have now is probably close to the experience that I can expect for the next decade: Being better than many, but also just good enough to see how much worse I am than I could be.

The good news is that this is one of the exact traits – along with enthusiasm, patience, and, I dunno, talent if that’s a real thing – that I will need to improve. The bad news is that it’s real fucking annoying.

Skill isn’t everything. I mean, when it comes to art it’s hard to even quantify what skill means. The idea that being a skilled painter equated to perfect photo-realism went out of style when cameras came in and did that job better. Who the hell even knows what being a good writer means? We just know it when we read it. Except we usually don’t, considering the career of Dan Brown, who I’ve never read but also I don’t want to because I’ve heard he sucks and I believe it. We have the production of near-identical ‘good’ movies down to such a science that people hunger for less competently made films in the hope that they at least provide something new and interesting. Good art and bad art are mostly just signifiers of what we value, nothing intrinsic to the work. Skill is the ability to produce the thing that’s closest to what you think of as good art.

It’s a real pain in the ass if what you think of as good doesn’t line up with what other people think of as good. When that happens, the better you get, the less you rely on cliche, the further away you drift from what people want. Poor Van Gogh, making the best paintings he could in a style only he could achieve, and no one wanted them. Only later did the definition of good art shift enough to make room for his work.

That’s the third rail in this banana split: Even if one were to somehow achieve perfection, to perfectly realize the dream art floating in your brain, to really pour yourself onto paper or canvas or celluloid, whether that’s ‘good’ or not depends more on the world than it does on you. Which is why most of the job, the actual work of being an artist, if you want an audience, if you want money, is to convince people that whatever it is you’re doing is ‘good’ – to bring their idea of good art into alignment with your own by any means available.

It’s bad news for those of us who have just been locking ourselves away and practicing. We got to the late game and realized we leveled up the wrong skills. Of course, if food and medicine and shelter weren’t issues, we could roll with it, hope that maybe someday the world’s tastes would coincidentally come along and align with our own, just like they did too late for Van Gogh. Unfortunately, we don’t have that sort of leeway.

Maybe not by nature, but by necessity, making art is a sales position.