Thursday, February 14, 2019

Thick skin: complexion, realism, and labor in games

In Dublin, I visited the Lucian Freud Project at IMMA.

If you're not familiar with painters (who is these days?) Lucian Freud is often held up as one of the greatest realist painters in the 20th century. And like many other artist men of the 20th century, his work also has a lot of racist and sexist baggage to deal with.

The IMMA curators figured out a pretty clever solution here -- they basically surrounded his stuff with women artists and intersectional feminist political theory. Instead of pretending to be a "neutral" celebration of a Great Male Painter, the curators did their job, and made an argument for real interpretation and criticism in the 21st century. It felt responsible and complicated.

The main basement gallery has two monitors in the middle of the room, running constant loops of John Berger's iconic feminist media studies primer Ways of Seeing. Specifically, it's Ways of Seeing episode 2, the one about the difference between nudity and nakedness, especially within the long history of European oil paintings depicting nude/naked women.

The second half of the episode is famous: the male narrator and host (Berger) shuts up and just listens to a panel of women critique patriarchy and art through their own experience. At first it seems like they're talking about the art shown in the film 30 years ago, but in the style of the Frankfurt School, they might as well be critiquing Freud's many paintings hanging on the walls today.

If you want to read more about the various artists and works, this Quietus post by Cathy Wade is a through walkthrough of it all. In this post, I'm just going to talk about one of the paintings and how I relate its form and politics to games:

For some reason, I gravitated towards a small painting hanging in the corner, a portrait simply called "Kai".

Monday, February 11, 2019

Black and white and re(a)d all over: on SOD (1999), Half-Quake (2001), Jeux d'ombres (2007), and NaissanceE (2014)

Last week I finished playing through the entirety of NaissanceE (2014), an avant-garde walking sim / platformer game inspired by brutalist megastructure manga and filled with subtle callbacks to new media art. NaissanceE has a bit of a cult classic reputation among level designers and modders, due to its heavily reliance on abstraction, lack of concrete narrative, and punishing platformer sections.

To this day, the game still defies easy categorization and demographics. Who is this for?

The walking sim aficionado of that time (the Dear Esther remaster was in 2012, Proteus and The Stanley Parable remaster were in 2013) would've hated the platformer sections with instant-death traps, while the action jock might've been tempted to rage-quit with every coy architectural riddle and impossible-to-navigate dark room. Back in 2014, only a few critics dared to defend this design clash.

I think the work still holds up pretty well in 2019, and to understand why, we should take a brief trip back to 1999.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Spring 2019 teaching memo

For the Spring 2019 semester at NYU Game Center, I'll be teaching three courses:


This is a required core class for all first year graduate students in our MFA program. It's basically just about spending more time making games in groups. Hopefully these practice projects prepare them better for the thesis process in their second year!

I usually teach more undergraduate students than graduate students, so it'll be fun to adapt my teaching style to this older demographic. It's also a huge class, with more than 30 students; we usually cap most Game Center classes to 16 students because we have such a hands-on, one-on-one teaching approach, but here it's important for the whole cohort to get to know each other.

It's going to be a big challenge to scale my attention to a class that's basically double the average size, and I think I'm going to have to tweak a lot of my methods. We'll see what happens.


This will be the second time I teach the level design class, and the main lessons will be conducted in Unreal Engine 4 again. (Most of our other classes are usually taught in Unity, but it's important to mix learning contexts and avoid monocultures.)

This year I'm planning three big changes:

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

DELETE GDC 2019: March 20th, 8PM - 1AM at Venue 550 in San Francisco

This year during GDC, I'm happy to be participating in DELETE GDC, a big party where you can play a bunch of new never-before-seen games... that will be deleted by the end of the night.

At past DELETE events, that ephemeral quality has meant a lot of unique performance-type experimental games, like a drinking game where the designer/performer gets blackout drunk for the first time in his life, thus "deleting" his memory / life... or a game about offering your secrets to an altar before ritually burning them.

This is the first DELETE being held outside of Australia, and I'm excited to be working with Louie Roots and the rest of the artist lineup: Natalie Lawhead, Ramsey Nasser, Leura Smith, Zachariah Chandler, and Kaho Abe.

As for my contribution, my first thought was a game about literally deleting GDC from existence -- erasing every trace of UBM and Moscone Center from the universe -- but then it felt too depressing to see that deletion get deleted and undone at the end of the night. Also I felt it was important to go with the golden rule of game jams: never go with your first idea. So now I'm aiming for something different and more communal: a fairly involved installation piece about game development and labor, a sort of "human game engine" thing. Hopefully I'll figure it out over the next two months.

GDC veterans will note that this event falls on the same night as, traditionally, That.Party... but don't worry, you're allowed to attend more than one party in one night. In fact, it's probably best practice.

Delete GDC runs 8 PM - 1 AM on Wednesday, March 20th, 2019 at Venue 550 in San Francisco. Tickets are $30 USD.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Resolutions, 2019

Some resolutions for the year 2019:
  • Finish and release my cam stripper sim game MachoCam. In contrast to 2018, I want to try focusing on a bigger release in 2019, instead of playing with many smaller projects. This bigger release might also be my first serious IGF submission for 2020. I'm sure I'll go back to smaller works after I get this out of my system.
  • Get the dialogue editor tool Merino into a more usable state. I will hopefully have more news on Merino / Yarn Spinner to share soon, but rest assured that Some Stuff is in the works. Lately I've been more and more interested in narrative design stuff...
  • Make 1 visual novel. The visual novel has become the video game equivalent of the romantic comedy, and I've decided I want a piece of the action. Writing a dialogue-heavy work will also help me "dogfood" my own narrative tools. I might pair it with my old gay Go AI prototype, which makes sense in my head for some reason.
  • Drink a bit less beer. Over the past few years, I've developed what has been affectionately called a "beer belly"... dad bod was a 2018 thing, and now dad bod is totally over. Here's to taking slightly better care of ourselves in 2019! (chugs beer)

Friday, December 21, 2018

Radiator Blog: Ninth (9th) Anniversary Roundup

Wow, it's been nine years. I didn't write as much as last year, partly because I took on so many small projects and did so much traveling this year. (There was one month where I was basically in a different country every week!) But overall I think this blogging pace has been sustainable, and for the future I'm going to aim for this kind of rhythm of posting: roughly once a week.

In the tradition of past anniversaries, I use this annual post to try to collect and curate all the blogging I did over the past year, and maybe even do a little bit of reflecting.

First: as usual, I cover some individual games...
  • NSFware is one of the best sex games I've played, and I think my favorite thing about it is that it's so much about timing and feel -- yet it was made in Adventure Game Studio, an engine not known for its timing and feel (to be charitable). The process of rotoscoping from PornHub videos also lends it an uncanny quality, despite the abstract neon color palette. Basically a masterpiece.
  • The Forgotten City was a popular Skyrim mod that felt very "dense" to me, with lots of possible options and connections between its various NPCs and quests. Like other "dense quests" in Bethesda-style open world RPGs, it also doubles as a commentary on the game systems and simulation, exposing assumptions and limitations and engaging with that friction.
  • Subnautica brilliantly solves 3D 6DOF open world design in a novel way. Most open world games are about traveling laterally to the edges, but here Unknown Worlds provides a fresher approach to progression with its focus on (literal) depth to the bottom of the ocean. It's especially ambitious to do this in a first person format, a genre where players rarely look up or down.
  • Fortune 499 is a innovative deckbuilding puzzle RPG with a fresh story that meaningfully engages with the accounting inherent in CCG-style mechanics. It also has some very compelling encounter design, resulting in an RPG with no grind and no "filler puzzles." It's a huge shame that more people didn't play this game, it basically does what everyone claims to want, and it's smart about it too.
  • Un Pueblo De Nada is a short game mirroring an experimental short film within the Kentucky Route Zero universe. There's an attention to detail and craft here that is basically unmatched anywhere else in games; I've also become so paranoid that I think this game has secret messages intended just for me, hidden deep inside it??? Anyway GOTY 2018

I also did more level design projects this year...

Thursday, December 13, 2018

"Unforeseen Consequences: A Half-Life Documentary" by Danny O'Dwyer

A month ago I got to be one of the many people interviewed for Unforeseen Consequences, A Half-Life Documentary by Danny O'Dwyer (NoClip). Here are some notes, thoughts, and reactions:

I think me, Laura Michet, and the Project Borealis folks, are all there to present some continuity and young(er) blood to the story, versus the middle-aged white guys who dominate the first hour.

But it's also a very telling way to present Half-Life's legacy: the game is 20 years old, which is like a million video game years. At NYU Game Center, the vast majority of our incoming game design students have never played Half-Life because it is older than them, it is a quaint curiosity that we force them to play. It's video game broccoli.

I was fascinated by the segment where Randy Pitchford (co-founder and CEO of Gearbox Software) talks about their company's history with Valve. They basically rescued Gearbox with a speedy deal to make Half-Life Opposing Force -- but according to Pitchford, Valve was also a difficult collaborator, providing very little input on Opposing Force and sabotaging the mediocre Counter-Strike: Condition Zero by demanding an ill-advised scripted single player campaign. It's roughly in-line with the company culture that most Steam indies know: they're eager to setup a deal, but rarely remember to follow-up or maintain communication.

I was most struck by how the various AAA dudes recall witnessing Half-Life: huddled around a coworker's computer, deeply anxious about how their own product would technologically stack-up. Half-Life is defined partly by its world and narrative approach, but also by the smart ways it leveraged targeted uses of game technology. Half-Life 1 was an early pioneer in skeletal animation and AI systems; Half-Life 2 popularized physics-based gameplay and detailed facial animation; neither engine was "top of the line", but cleverly hyped and promoted the tech advances they had. In contrast, Source 2 has basically zero hype at this point, and even diehard Valve fanboy modders Project Borealis decided to use Unreal Engine 4 instead of holding out for a new engine. The game industry has fundamentally changed since 1998 or 2004.

The documentary concludes with one big argument: Half-Life 3 probably isn't coming for a variety of reasons, and we need to find comfort elsewhere. There's a lot of rumors of a Half-Life VR project, but would a story-driven single player FPS still be relevant in an age of multiplayer open-world third person games? Could any possible Half-Life 3 feel like a proper Half-Life 3?

Or instead we could look to the countless modders and designers who still fondly remember it and interpret it in the Epistle 3 jam organized by Laura Michet, or feel its deep influence on perfectly competent games like Respawn's Titanfall 2 or Campo Santo / Valve's upcoming In The Valley Of Gods.

That's ultimately the argument I made when O'Dwyer interviewed me: if you actually love the Half-Life series, you should value the time you had together, but ultimately you have to let it go. Such is life...

Monday, December 10, 2018

The end of Tumblr (and Cobra Club?)

(UPDATE AS OF DECEMBER 21, 2018: the game server has been patched to post to a Twitter account instead of a Tumblr. Feel free to follow @CobraClubPics for all your fake player-generated dick pic needs.)

If you haven't heard the news, Tumblr plans to ban all adult content on their platform starting on December 17th. As many point out, this will have disproportionally adverse effects on marginalized people, especially trans and queer creators, who have relied on Tumblr to build and maintain communities to explore their sexuality and identity. Now it's not really a surprise that this is all happening, but it's certainly cruel and harmful to the communities that can't easily pick up and move elsewhere.

I have some strange skin in this situation: my dick pic photo studio game Cobra Club involves a networked component that links with Tumblr. This had resulted in amassing what is technically the biggest gay porn blog across all of Tumblr, with over 100,000 user-generated CG dick pics uploaded from the game. (The nearest competing gay porn blog I could find had only 30,000 posts.)

However, this whole ordeal has made me much more reluctant to build any social network integrations into my games for the foreseeable future. What's the point, if these platforms are just going to devour everything in a few years?

I now see this is a difficult technical problem with making art on the internet: our current internet is heavily privatized and incorporated, and so to comment on the internet, we have to invoke these other platforms and brands in order to say anything at all -- and as many libertarian web programmers will love to remind you, these private platforms can do whatever they want without any accountability or compassion to anyone. Building art with their APIs is like building a house on quicksand.

Back in 2015, I had chosen Tumblr because it seemed like it was queer-positive and sex-positive, with a large enough infrastructure and community. But then in early 2018, Tumblr instituted a mandatory "safe mode" block on all adult content blogs, which basically broke my game already. And yes, Tumblr does have very real problems with abusive porn bots and revenge porn, but it seems they've given up on actually targeting these problems, and instead they've decided to raze their user base instead. So much for tech solutionism's bid to save the world, huh?

As for what will happen to Cobra Club, I'm evaluating whether I should try to patch the game to integrate with another social network, to preserve the game's functionality and meaning. Some have suggested that I hook it into Twitter, but honestly, how much longer do you think Twitter will tolerate adult content and queer community?

(To continue mourning what once was, check out Lydia Morrish's "How Tumblr became a sanctuary for outsiders"... I also spoke to Vice, twice.)