Saturday, April 28, 2012

What makes "good" writing on level design?

Liz Ryerson recently did a great write-up of level 5-5 from Wolfenstein 3D (and makes a good case for the surrealism of 4-3) and it occurred to me that there's a pattern to this type of writing -- it's usually very specific, talks only about a single level (but contextualizes it within the whole game), and makes ample use of screenshots to help the reader understand the layout.

Writing about level design is incredibly important because we often run through levels so fast and understand "the language of games" so intuitively that it can be difficult to verbalize and explain. In playing levels, they exist more as tools to express our intentionality, not as objects to be studied and examined. The reality of it is that it would take a long time, or sometimes it's very difficult, to gain the type of fluency in platformers or Wolf3D that the best levels require.

But this is how we do research -- we make games and play the ones we can. Articles and essays are the best way to learn about levels that you haven't played / can't play.

Here are two authors of "level criticism canon" that, in my mind, show us how to do it...

Friday, April 27, 2012

CFP: Critical Information 2012 @ SVA / watch me talk briefly about Handle with Care.

I know a few grad students (you poor souls) read this blog, so I thought I'd share a CFP for a grad student conference I participated in last year -- Critical Information is pretty small, but the intimacy helps you engage the people with the people actually sitting there.

The rooms were small, which meant every talk was a "packed" house. Unfortunately I had to leave after I presented, so I didn't see any of the other panels, but I'd say SVA is a pretty cool place -- and they're clearly somewhat video game / new media friendly. If you'll be in the NYC area / or can travel there somewhat easily, consider submitting your project or research. (Also, the small size means less competition.)

Some people were asking about a video? Here's a highlights reel they put together of my group's session. (Note to self: next time, shave.) Also, see if you can pinpoint the exact moment in the Q&A when I enraged an entire room full of gender studies scholars... or, uh, hopefully they edited it out?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On "Joiner", detail, and greeble.

Joiner is a command-line pre-compile brush generator by prolific TF2 mapper Timothy "YM" Johnson; you make several brushes to represent the volumes of your rooms, run your VMF through it, then out comes another VMF with all the struts and support beams built and textured for you.

I find Joiner fascinating because it's also (an unintentional?) commentary on TF2 design styles: rooms are still composed mostly of simple rectangular planes that join at 90 degree angles -- that's the actual functional level geometry, but a typical player would recognize that as undetailed and thus as an unfinished / crappy map. What Johnson has made is not a "make level" button, but rather a "make detail" or "stop players from whining" button. The purpose of these struts is to cover the surface in a sort of greeble, so the player won't be distracted in comparing its perceived quality against other maps with "better" detail.

Surface detail is a paradox. It is "necessary" to exist in front of the player, but it exists to be more or less ignored.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Levels to Look Out For, May 2012.

These are some unreleased levels / environment WIPs I've seen posted around the internet, along with some brief commentary.

Island of the Dead, by Mac "macattackk" Hart.
Hart bases this CryEngine3 environment off the Arnold Bocklin's notorious Isle of the Dead paintings. What I really admire here is the masterful control over materials; the normal map on the rocks is really important to ground the unorthodox shape of the rock. It's a really surreal treatment of realism that, I think, is really subtle and difficult to pull off -- a desaturated, muted palette that somehow isn't boring. What I like most about this piece, though, is that Hart is actually fleshing it out into a level. He could've stopped with this one view and one camera angle to produce a diorama / portfolio piece, but now it's actually turning into a legitimate space as he extrapolates the painting's original style.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why game architecture matters, and the reality / unreality of de_dust.

(This architecture criticism post was cross-posted to my department's research blog, Game @ Parsons. In general, I post my architecture criticism stuff there.)

Last July, the German new media artist Aram Bartholl secured funding from Rhizome to begin building de_dust, a popular video game level, as a 1:1 scale model cast out of solid concrete. It would be a crime to paraphrase his concisely argued rationale, so I’ve pasted a large chunk of it here:
“Computer games differ from other mediums such as books, movies or TV, in that spatial cognition is a crucial aspect in computer games. To win a game the player needs to know the 3D game space very very well. Spatial recognition and remembrance is an important part of our human capability and has formed over millions of years by evolution. A place, house or space inscribes itself in our spatial memory. We can talk about the qualities of the same movies we watched or books we have read.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

How the worst part of the game industry uses PAX East to teabag your entire face with its cancerous scrotum.

(I attended PAX East on a scholarship from the IGDA, for which I'm grateful. They also facilitated a lovely lunch with Tom Lin of Demiurge Studios, some neat studio visits, and other things. Thank you IGDA.)

(Also, a warning: this gets pretty dramatic, but I hope it comes off as honest.)

First, understand that PAX East is actually made of two conventions. Literally, a gigantic wall divides the analog (card and board games) from digital (the video game industry).

In game design, it's popular to say that analog and digital games are the same at their cores, because they both depict systems -- and PAX East is the place where all that rhetoric utterly falls apart. One side of the convention floor is a quiet and personal pastime, the other is a deafening business. If you're a games academic or optimistic indie, this dissonance will test your faith, because here the game industry teabags your entire face with its cancerous scrotum.

For sure, there are good parts of the game industry. But here, it is clear that the bad parts still completely control the entire body, erecting giant temples to its glory. Me and many indies felt alienated, and relatively alone in our alienation. This is the weekend when you're painfully reminded that Anna Anthropy's idealism remains mostly just idealism. (... for now.)

Friday, April 13, 2012

"Real Life Goldeneye 64"

The most compelling part of Real Life Goldeneye 64, to me, isn't how they mimicked the pathfinding / enemy animations. To me, it's the way they used Let's Play culture ("I'm using save states") to justify the editing choices, and more impressively, how they kind of mimic the "feel" of moving and aiming in Goldeneye 64.

The game had a strange kind of floatiness to it, mainly caused by the control scheme -- the N64 controller only had one analog stick (unlike the dual-stick standard now mandatory for all consoles) which meant one control had to handle both moving AND looking. To freely look around, you'd have to hold "R" (one of the shoulder bumper buttons) to aim, which also meant you had to stand in-place while your arm wildly flails around the screen. And as this video reveals, people are actually kind of nostalgic for it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Come see CondomCorps and others @ Spring Fair

If you're going to be in the New York City area on Sunday, April 15th, come check out my department's first ever "Spring Fair" -- basically, we're all just going to show the random stuff and side projects we've been working on for the past semester. I'm planning on debuting the newest version of CondomCorps (now with romantic subplots!) and I know my classmates have plenty up their own sleeves; there'll be plenty of games, robots, interactive installations, and just plain cool shit.

Come pop in for an hour or stay and hang out / mingle with Manhattan's technorati!

We'll be at 6 East 16th Street, 12th floor, right off the Union Square stop. Sunday, 1-6 PM. (map)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Book Club, level design edition

Here are some books I've been reading, most of them about halfway through. I haven't bought any of these; they're all from my university library. (Pro-Tip: If you're a student, take full advantage of your library.) I'll probably give them more detailed write-ups later...

Myst and Riven, by Mark J. Wolf. (2011). I only picked this up because I saw it on the shelf next to Ian Bogost's "How To Do Things With Videogames." I'm not going to say it's bad -- if you've never played Myst or Riven, this'll give you a decent idea of what that's like, and the various idiosyncrasies involved -- but from my perspective, Wolf seems like a huge fanboy who overestimates the series' significance and place in history. I argue against his account in an upcoming feature on FPS games in May's PC Gamer UK; Myst sold a lot and seemed poised to start a revolution, then it didn't. Instead, Myst (along with Second Life) is "significant" more in the minds of humanities professors. Where are the scholarly monographs on Doom and Quake? (Actually, I think Dan Pinchbeck's in the middle of writing it?)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Against Puzzles?

(I was going to do a "Radiator 1-3 is done" post for April Fools, but it hurt too much...)

We had a public playtest of me and my teammates' VVVVVV-FPS thesis project, "Souvenir," with a bunch of New York City junior high / high school students -- and I don't know if you've ever been to a New York City public school, but these kids generally speak their mind (to put it mildly) and they're ideal playtesters. I also had a few interesting conversations with them. One of them asked what the goal of the game was, so I started trolling / engaging them:

Well, when you go out for a walk, do you have a goal? No, you just walk because you like walking.

"Yeah," she said, "but if all you do is walk around, it gets boring after a while. I'll stop playing." Well, that's fine, then stop playing.

"Plus," her friend says, "I'd just play it once. And then it would gather dust on my hard drive." That's fine. Play it once and delete the game then.

"But like, if I wanted to walk around, I'd just go outside." That's fine. Then go outside!

They're so young, and already they're perpetuating the same messaging from massive industry interests: that the "realism of games" competes with the realism of reality, addictive games are better games, clear goal structures are best -- and retention, retention, retention. That's just one way of thinking about games, and they've already locked themselves in that mindset. They've been indoctrinated.