Tuesday, August 29, 2017

On the hopeful undead future of VR and "A Short History of the Gaze", by Paolo Pedercini / Molleindustria

I played Paolo Pedercini's first (and maybe last?) virtual reality piece "A Short History of the Gaze" last year at Weird Reality. I think ASHOTG is good for a lot of reasons, but the foremost reason is that few people are making VR art that's critical about VR culture and its politics. The closest we get to is when we twist VR's (faltering?) utopian branding toward our own ends, whether for "empathy machines" or whether for a vision of a "gay VR". But even among artists, it's rare to see VR work that directly critiques what VR is about, in this current moment.

Like a lot of Paolo's other work, it's political and educational, trying to distill critical theory and media studies into a short accessible interactive experience. The player goes on a ~15 minute sequence of different scenes about looking at stuff -- undressing people in an elevator (male gaze), punishing prisoners in a panopticon (incarceral gaze), being trapped by advertising (capitalist gaze), etc. in various situations. I actually found the whole piece to be slightly encouraging, because it positions VR as part of a long tradition of gazes -- and it's also clearly the weakest gaze. If VR is an oppressive force, then that force is currently minuscule or even laughable compared to any other oppressive force in the world.

Which leads us into how VR is doing right now: it doesn't look good for VR.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Road trip sketches; notes on extracting and visualizing Half-Life 2 levels in Maya

So I'm working on (another) article about level design in Half-Life 2. I chose the d2_coast03 map of the Highway 17 chapter, which is the first real "coastline" road trip section of the game, and is probably the most successful. Look at how big and open it is. Would you believe this is a map in a game celebrated as a meticulous roller-coaster? In my mind, it's contemporary with a lot of vehicle-based first-person open world game design trends that started around the same time in 2004, and they even pulled it off in an engine architecture that's still kinda based on Quake 1.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Teaching, Fall 2017

As mentioned before, I'm going full-time with NYU Game Center starting this September. For this upcoming fall semester, I'm going to be teaching three classes and advising an independent study:
  • Intermediate Game Development (2 sections). This is a required class for the BFA Game Design major where we focus on using Unity in a 3D context, refine C# code fluency, learn about using Maya and Substance Painter, and become less scared of using Git.

    This is my fourth year of teaching it. This year, I've changed the final project to focus on studying and cloning a game. In the past, the final project asked students to collaboratively formulate an original game design concept, but I noticed students would get into endless debates about the game design instead of focusing on project architecture or collaboration workflows. Since we already have dedicated game design classes that offer more support for those debates, I now feel comfortable removing some creative freedom from this class -- so we can focus more on building-up "technical freedom."
  • Intro to VR. This is a new VR-focused class we're running for undergraduates and/or people who aren't so familiar with code and 3D. At Game Center we remain cautious about investing too much in something still fundamentally unproven like VR / AR, but we still want to support students who want to explore it. Unlike our graduate-level VR Studio class which assumes technical proficiency in code and Unity, this class will offer more of a scaffold into working in 3D and VR. We'll also dip our toes into talking about VR culture and critical theory as usual, but probably stop short of discussing Baudrillard and phenomenology.
  • Level Design (independent study). Years ago I used to teach a modding class with a level design focus, but one day I noticed students hated using the Source Engine, and we never identified another decent engine / toolset for level design. We also needed a good base game to design more levels for, which is why we can't switch to Source Engine 2 -- DOTA2 isn't exactly relevant for learning generalized level design practices. At least half of our students also use Macbooks, which basically wither and die under Unreal 4, so that's out of our reach too.

    But then a few months ago, some students approached me to advise an independent study on level design. This format is more like a seminar / reading group instead of a full production-oriented studio class, and we will focus more on theory than construction. Hopefully this will work out better than the Source modding class!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

StoryCode August 2017 Forum at Film Society, Lincoln Center, NYC

Next week on August 22nd, I'll be giving a presentation for StoryCode, a local community group focused on immersive media and storytelling technology. As one of the few game designers invited to present in their lecture series, I thought I'd try to explain how video games conceptualize narrative, interaction, and expression, to an audience that maybe doesn't play that many video games -- or at least, they don't play what we consider to be the state-of-the-art narrative games.

I'm also being required to talk about my games and present them as case studies, even though my games don't fit neatly into the "narrative game" genre. I think I'll probably just open my actual project scenes in the Unity editor and mess with my scene setup and code, which usually entertains people well-enough? It'll also be a short primer in foundational ideas like immersive fallacy / procedural rhetoric / platform studies, and the idea that production value and paratext amount to their own kind of "story."

The presentation is free and open to the public, but I believe you're encouraged to sign-up and RSVP via this Meetup page or something.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017 @ 7:00 PM
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center @ Film Society of Lincoln Center
144 West 65th Street, New York, NY (map)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Go West young Slime Rancher, and grow up with the country

This post spoils some mechanics and game systems in Slime Rancher.

One in-game day in Slime Rancher, I found a rare "quantum slime", a creature that pooped out "quantum plorts" that I could sell for a lot of in-game money. To make a huge profit, I intended to raise a few on my ranch in captivity, and then collect their precious poop to sell in the market.

To maximize your slime poop plort yields, you're supposed to feed your slimes as often as possible. Every slime has a certain diet (vegetables, fruits, or meat) and a specific favorite item. Quantum slimes eat only fruit, but prefer a special fruit called a "phase lemon". To get phase lemons, you have to bring back a phase lemon from the wild, plant a phase lemon tree, wait for the fruit to mature, and then shoot a different fruit at it (like a cuberry, or a mint mango) to pop the phase lemon into existence. Compared to other crops, it's unusually labor intensive to cultivate and harvest phase lemons.

This is where Slime Rancher's other big system comes in, a cross-breeding mechanic that allows you to merge two slime types together. If you feed a slime with the poop from another slime, it will become a hybrid "largo" slime that inherits both types' diets and other properties, and it will poop out both types of plorts at once when it eats something. Two poops for the price of one! When you do this on purpose in Slime Rancher, you feel like a genius.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Recent developments in queer game studies, Summer 2017

Here's a few recent updates in the """discourse""" within the exciting world of QUEER GAME STUDIES!!!

First, there's a new call for papers in the long-running Game Studies journal -- this time the focus is on "queerness and video games."  The full CFP is here. If you're a student or academic (or anyone with a perverse tolerance for academic citation styles) then you should consider sending-in some original scholarship and/or maybe trim your thesis into a submission; full articles of 6500-8000 words are due by December 31st, 2017. Good luck!

Next, Miguel Sicart wrote a piece about "Queering the [Game] Controller." Sicart, as far as I know, doesn't identify as queer, so some may argue he thus cannot really "queer" anything -- so please allow me, a certified gay person, to try to unpack some of his ideas here:

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Cleaning out some old Black Mesa archives for PC Gamer

Here are two old level design illustrations I did for a PC Gamer feature on level design in Half-Life 1, quite a few years ago. In the overview map, I focused on the construction of the Black Mesa Inbound chapter as a whole; and in the more focused cross-section, I concentrated my analysis on a single setpiece, the "shark cage" sequence in the Apprehension chapter.

(In the PC Gamer print version, the diagrams are annotated and labelled, but the image files I submitted were blank like these. I forget which issue it appears in. If you're interested in this topic, you can watch my Practice 2013 talk on this stuff to get roughly the same material.)

Anyway, here's a bit about my process and intent with these illustrations: