Sunday, February 18, 2018

Mapping the sea floors of Subnautica


This post spoils the core gameplay and player progression in Subnautica, but not the specific story nor scripted plot events.

Subnautica is a long open world survival game set in a vast deep ocean. In it, you have to forage for food, manage your oxygen when diving into caves and deep sea trenches, and collect resources to build your own underwater base(s) and submarine(s) to find out What Really Happened Here.

Much like the other first person indie survival game The Long Dark, Subnautica features no combat, no world map, and essentially no NPCs or quests to complete for anyone. The few lethal weapons are either cumbersome and annoying to maintain (poison gas torpedoes must be crafted and loaded) or practical but anti-juicy (your knife)... but most importantly, unlike The Long Dark's focus on hunting, killing creatures in Subnautica *never* yields any reward or drops -- even when the game confusingly asks you to collect shark teeth but killing sharks never yields any shark teeth.

(Why? Well, there's a few story threads about how use of force cannot get you what you want, as well as a faint anti-capitalist / anti-colonialist message. But the smoking gun of authorial intent is in the credits: a dedication to the families of Newtown, Connecticut. The design lead has also talked about their no-gun philosophy.)

PC Gamer already did a nice roundtable about Subnautica's early climactic story moment, so instead I want to focus on Subnautica's most interesting systemic feature: its depth-based 3D level design, and implications on the rest of the game.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Submit your impossible demands to #ManifestoJam by February 13

Just a brief note that a bunch of folks are doing a "Manifesto Jam" (which is maybe possibly inspired by my survey of manifestos in games blog post from last year) and there's about 1-2 days left to participate.

I even participated myself, writing a short screed called "KILL UNITY; WE ARE ENGINES." It was fun to try to figure out a specific aspect of games that I cared about, and to try to distill that into entertaining hyperbole. Remember: no nuance, no relativity, just pure belief! Go ahead and let your flag fly, and perch it on the swollen corpse of the old world order!

Here's the inspiring blurb, copy and pasted from the itch.io page:
THIS JAM IS FOR COLLECTIVELY UNCORKING OUR UTOPIAN ENERGY IN 2018

In times of crisis, uncertainty, conservatism and even just standard personal disappointment people overwhelmingly retreat to saying “be practical!” This doesn’t necessarily imply a way that is meaningfully better than any other but instead coerces you to chirpily go along with the way others are already comfortable doing it, or comfortable with you doing it, and keep and alternatives or resentments on priv.

Manifestos are important precisely because they are impractical. Whether positive or negative, whether embracing potential worlds or outright rejecting the one you’re in. They are visionary, they demand, they refuse. Manifestoes can be of any scale, defining your personal aesthetic or how to fix the entire world, but they cannot be satisfied.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Postcards from Unreal, pt 3: on spaghetti monsters

Unreal Engine 4
We're now a few weeks into the Unreal level design class, and things seem to be going OK. Our students have enough familiarity with Unity that they're able to digest a lot of the 3D workflow without too many problems. People are happily grayboxing here and there, and we recently did an intro to Blueprint scripting.

In the past, I've been pretty skeptical of teaching visual programming methods to students. Teaching a specific visual scripting tool always felt like we were locking students to that toolkit, versus learning how to code in C# or Lua or JS, which is a generalized language useful across multiple engines and multiple industries. Visual programming was considered a relatively niche practice, where you might mock-up an art installation in MaxMSP but not much else, and even Unreal used to confine visual programming to its Kismet level scripting system. (The precursor to Blueprint.)

However, that criticism of visual programming is gradually losing its power as this type of practice becomes more common in the game industry. Many Unreal Engine 4 devs (as well as Epic themselves) make heavy use of Blueprint for making games, a lot of Unity devs rely on the third-party Playmaker plug-in, and even upstart engines like Godot support a visual programming workflow. AAA texture generating darling Substance Designer also has a heavy node-based workflow. It's everywhere!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Video killed the video star: on "Un Pueblo De Nada" by Cardboard Computer

This post spoils Un Pueblo De Nada as well as a few parts of Kentucky Route Zero.

The newest Kentucky Route Zero interlude Un Pueblo De Nada is a "transmedia" narrative consisting of a 30 minute live action movie styled like a public access TV broadcast, a functioning real-life phone hotline to call, and a short tie-in narrative video game. I think it works as a transmedia narrative because it's so deeply concerned with this technology, especially the old deprecated media technologies like broken radios, rusty switchboards, forgotten overhead projectors, and dusty VHS cassette tapes.

A lot of transmedia narratives tend to focus on modern computing or the internet... but here, we're asked to imagine a vast archeaology of decaying technology. The iconic KRZ flat vector style evokes an era of older VGA games like Another World, the live action WEVP-TV broadcasts are styled as low resolution transfers from analog tapes, and I believe even the real functioning phone hotline seems to have extra static layered onto the voice recordings. Which is absurd, landlines used to be a vital communication technology... but to a filthy millennial like me, now it's just a salvaged material for making art. (As I dialed the phone number, I thought to myself, "how fun and quaint to dial a phone number on my phone!")