Wednesday, December 28, 2011

About "Territory"

Territory will be up in about a month or two -- it's an upcoming project that will pair critical essays about video games with short browser games that make arguments.

Part of it stems from my longstanding distaste of games criticism / writing that doesn't readily offer a translation from theory into practice, an opinion that probably isn't popular with most writers (the idea that criticism must be "useful" otherwise it's just whining) so I won't dwell on it.

Perhaps the hypothesis here is that words alone aren't the best way to discuss games. Discussing games is maybe a job best left for games: instead of writing 750 or so words on a game, a reviewer should make a short game about the game. Readers' comments would take the form of mods and new levels, mutations of existing rulesets and graphics to make a new point. (Eventually, some enterprising online pharmacy will code a spambot that will make spam levels and spam games.)

But for that glorious future to happen, I guess we need to think more about how we "read" games. As game designers, we're always deeply concerned with how players behave and think. Territory might help with that.

Truly, some pieces of games writing really shine with an additional layer of interactivity, although there's probably a tendency among those who call themselves gamers to disregard these interactions as "gimmicks," as if every digital interaction must require repetition, time, and mastery. Without those elements, these aren't games...

... Because games have mechanics! "Games aren't X!" But every time you say that, it doubles as an open invitation to the entire world to make a game that is exactly X. Maybe even 2X.

(A related tangent: these days, toddlers learn how to swipe, pinch, and click, before they ever learn how to spell or type words. What do we make of that?)

Anyway. If Territory is successful, I'll open it up to wider participation and start playing matchmaker for games writers / game developers. For now, I've talked to a few people and I'm planning on making small games based on their essays. It's a test run. We'll see how it goes. If it ends up failing, well, let this post be a testament to my completely benevolent and well-meaning intentions.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Level With Me, a Portal 2 mod

STARING EYES! It's unofficially Radiator vol. 3, and the only mod I'll have put out in the last two years. Watch this space as release is pretty imminent, and thanks for reading. We'll see if people hate it or love it.

EDIT: It's out now. Try it out. A typical run-through for me is about 30 minutes long, so that means it'll take the average Portal 2 player about 1-2 hours. If you get stuck on the first chapter, then just skip to the second, it's really not a big deal.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Radiator Blog: Two Year Anniversary

Yes, that's right, from all one of us here at Radiator Blog -- happy anniversary, we're two years old now. In keeping with last year's tradition, here's a "best of" compilation from December 2010 - November 2011 and a bit of commentary with the benefit of hindsight. These were generally the articles that got a high volume of page views / attention from Sunday Papers or Critical Distance or whoever, though I also included some ignored ones because I still think they're decent reads. At any rate, thanks for reading.

  • CondomCorps. The prototype is pretty unplayable, but I still want to re-visit the idea of peeping into hotel windows to make sure gay orgies take-off without a hitch. The best part was reading a game studies undergraduate's blog post about it, arguing it was unethical to weaponize sex education like this or something.
  • Polonius. An FPS with multiple characters, where you have to eavesdrop on a couple's conversation as they walk around a crowded plaza. I liked the mechanics here and want to come back to this, it just needed some tutorial levels and some more massaging. Based on the film, The Conversation. (collab w/ @eddiecameron)
  • FuhFuhFire. Rescue people from a burning building -- or maybe not. I feel like the mechanics here were pretty sound, I just need to redo the level design here and make it prettier.
  • Apollo 2. I made a very short FPS in zero hours. I'm pretty satisfied with what it is.
  • Super Cult Tycoon 2. Guide your very own cult from a van and a barn to a sprawling complex with Kool-Aid factories and counterfeit wallet exports. Got a ton of coverage on Kotaku, PC Gamer and (collab w/ @eddiecameron)
  • "On the first person military manshooter and the shape of modern warfare" argues that games like Call of Duty are unethical NOT because someone's going to go on a shooting spree, but because they're making us think war is something you can win.
  • First Person Films comes from watching Enter the Void and thinking the first 15 minutes were more interesting than everything else.
  • Me, and I think a lot of other people, were disappointed a little with Portal 2 because it was pretty much just a faster horse. A fantastic horse, of course, but still just a horse.
  • People are freaking out about Portal 2 level editors being used in schools. Hopefully they won't copy the mistakes of Logic Quest 3D, an obscure edutainment FPS with a built-in level editor -- that is, a warning from 15 years ago.
  • Part 4 of the "Dark Past" series on immersive sims ended with an attempt at reviving Randy Smith's "valence theory" (my word for it) as used in Thief games.
  • I apply Chris Crawford's concept of "process intensity" to procedural narrative. The post doesn't really have a point in the end, but it's nice to try to sort out what's happening in the field today, even if we're going to end up failing.
  • Here's Dan Pinchbeck's PhD dissertation, summarized in a blog post. The idea to take away is "ludodiegesis," which basically argues that the world tells a story. I like it because it's a very neat shift away from the crassness of "environmental storytelling" and ties back into film studies.
  • My close-reading of Mass Effect 1's Noveria demonstrates how I go about analyzing level design. Don't say bullshit like "the blue barrels and leading lines guide the player's eye, blah blah blah" -- that's not how players play games. We need to look at how environments afford gameplay, and then see how we can co-opt those same affordances for a narrative effect.
  • Love letter to a bridge is in the same vein. In de_aztec, visuals and mechanics combine into something that's just a really elegant piece of design.
  • "It belongs in a museum" argues that games don't belong in museums. Prompted, in part, by Pippin Barr's excellent game, The Artist is Present.
  • Butte, Montana. 1973 is a board game about open-pit mining disasters -- and in the end, you'll create your own chemical spill that's problematic to clean-up. I think board games are ripe for a revolution in materials and narrative; let's fight the cold proceduralism of German board games with all our strength.
  • Welcome to the Indie FPS is a round-up of 5 people doing cool fun things with first person shooters; I argue they all take their cues from Myst instead of Doom. The most haunting thing is the eerily prescient NYT review of Myst that I unearthed during my brief bit of research.
  • There used to be a Valve-sponsored modding community called the VERC Collective that had peer-reviewed articles about design theory / coding stuff. It was really cool. I wish there were researchers archiving the rise and fall of these internet communities -- you can literally trace lineages of game developers and creators from these places. These were our think-tanks.
  • In April 2011, I declared the Death of the Mod. We used to think total conversions were the "epitome" of craftsmanship, a "world wonder" of the modding community. Now that notion is more or less dead, replaced with the idea that you're squandering your output if you're not going indie and selling your stuff in a standalone.
  • A Closed World was an MIT-Gambit research project to make a game about LGBTQ issues. Me and some other self-identified LGBTQ indie game devs kind of got upset about it

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Portal 2 Modding Minutiae

While working on Level With Me, I've gathered a set of random Portal 2 modding knowledge that might be useful. Please profit from my trial and error:
  • If you want to have your levels selectable from the menu and everything, you have to make your own custom VPK to override some menu scripts, and reskin the "Extras" menu to appear to be the single player menu. Marcus McKay has a comprehensive tutorial here.
  • Currently, custom sounds don't automatically get added to the sound cache, so you'll always get errors that the "file is missing from the repository" or something when you play the sounds in-game. You can either re-build your entire sound cache every time, or use PakRat to pack the sounds into the BSP. It's just another extra step to the map compile pipeline. More details here.
  • Switching videos dynamically, in-game, is kind of problematic. Only the first set of .BIK files get cached, so when you load the rest, there's a slight hitch. Maybe if you make a set of invisible vgui_movie_display entities in some hidden room, the map will pre-cache those files? Also, to switch a movie, the only method I've been able to find (with varying degrees of success) is to send a "TakeOverAsMaster" input to a former vgui_movie_display slave, which seems to "refresh" the entire entity group.
  • The lighting in the elevator rooms will only work if you compile vrad.exe with -staticproppolys or something, otherwise the ceiling rotors always block the light_spot entity. It's a feature.
  • When you buildcubemaps, you have to quit, use mat_reloadallmaterials, then load the map again to get the cubemaps showing.