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. Games

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?)

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.)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Notes on "Sparkling Dialogue", a great narrative design / game writing talk by Jon Ingold at AdventureX 2018

My colleague Clara Fernandez-Vara pointed me towards this great game writing talk by Jon Ingold this year at AdventureX, an excellent narrative design conference in London. Unfortunately the Twitch video of the talk is hard to follow and the YouTube version of this talk is still forthcoming, so I thought I'd summarize the talk here because I found it very useful. As of December 1st, the YouTube version is now online!

(NOTE: This post isn't a transcript of Ingold's talk. It's a summary with my interpretations, and I might be wrong or misunderstanding.)

Ingold begins with something that should be obvious and uncontroversial to everyone: generally, most video game dialogue is poorly written. This isn't to say video games are bad, or that they we shouldn't try to do any dialogue at all. There are also many reasons why game writers are forced to write poorly, whether it's because of lack of resources, or last minute changes in the design, or other production constraints, etc.

The point is not to blame writers. The point is to highlight a problem in the craft and to define a better ideal. So, how can we write more competent game dialogue that is slightly less embarrassing?

To demonstrate the problem of typical video game writing, Ingold shows us this conversation from the first hour of Assassins Creed Odyssey in the starting mission "So It Begins":

Monday, November 19, 2018

Rinse and Repeat HD remastered, and three years of reflections and thwarted plans

I've just uploaded an updated version of Rinse and Repeat: it is now known as Rinse and Repeat HD, which is basically the same version currently playable at the Victoria and Albert's Videogames exhibition.*

In addition to fancier graphics, I've also: added gamepad / rumble support, re-programmed the entire scheduling algorithm to be more stable, and tweaked much of the balance and feel.

If you're not familiar with the game, you should probably read my artist statement "Rinse and Repeat as cup runneth over" so that you know how the game works.

The rest of this post will assume you mostly know what it's about already!...

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The medium is not the magazine; the medium is not the criticism

This post is about how we talk about video games, but it takes me a little while to get there...

This year, I was interviewed for two artsy print magazines: PIN-UP is "the only biannual magazine for architectural entertainment", while Phile is an "international journal of desire and curiosity" with lots of fingers in the art world.

Both writers Drew Zeiba ("INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT YANG, DESIGNER OF 3D FANTASY SEX SPACES") and Zach Kotzer ("ON GAY SEX AND GAMING") did lovely jobs with presenting my work to a non-gamer audience. And both publications kindly mailed me a print copy, and as I flipped through their glossy layouts and playfully experimental type treatments, I was shocked by how I'm such a fucking nerd and how these people are so much cooler than me.

When I'm flipping through PIN-UP #24, I'm mentioned in the same pages as Amanda Levete or Frida Escobedo, real architects making real art with their real professions and real expertise. In fact just a few months ago I was visiting London for the V&A Videogames opening, and I walked through Levete's V&A addition as well as Escobedo's 2018 Serpentine Pavilion. As their art and stature literally enveloped me, I had to wonder, why did I deserve to be featured alongside these much more important people?

Or in Phile #3, directly after my interview, there's an interview with Peaches (Peaches!!!) and she is just so much more amazing and brilliant than me, and it's absurd that my segment is right before her segment, or that a reader might accidentally reflexively compare the two of us together while flipping the page. Not to mention all the other pages in this issue, detailing this whole complex community of writers and artists working with sexuality and eroticism, where I'm not just some sort of weird curiosity -- in fact I'm probably the most boring artist in the entire issue.

Anyway this isn't about me airing-out my impostor syndrome or whatever.

On the contrary, I definitely fit OK into these discourses. In PIN-UP #24, Arakawa and Gins talk about "eternal gradients" and constant reassembling, which makes me think of constantly remastering and re-releasing my own games. Or in Phile #3, I learned how my problems with Twitch's hypocritical morality policing mirror Peaches' problems with YouTube's morality police, and I also feel a lot of parallels between my treatment of tile in 3D showers and featured artist Prem Sahib's sculpture of gay bathhouses.

Instead, what I'm emphasizing here is how these critical publications readily dissolve the barriers between mediums while maintaining high production values and curating a unique identity. And then these non-game publications still end-up performing game criticism anyway!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The first person shooter is a dad in mid-life crisis

OK I know Heavy Rain isn't an FPS but I like this screenshot so I don't care
Every semester for our introductory Games 101 historical survey class, a different NYU Game Center faculty member presents a survey of a game genre. Matt Parker lectures on sports, Clara Fernandez-Vara talks about adventure games, Mitu Khandaker talks about simulations, and so on.

My personal lecture happens to be on the first person shooter (FPS) genre. In my lecture, I trace five main currents through the FPS genre:

Friday, October 26, 2018

Level With Me, Thief 1 complete!

This week I finished streaming through all 15 official missions of Thief 1 (Gold edition) as part of my "Level With Me" project, where I play through games and talk about the level design and environment art in them. In my runs, I usually try to imagine how a first-time player approaches the level, while occasionally demonstrating more "advanced" tactics --and then frequently messing up and alerting a dozen guards.

You can catch the whole Thief 1 playlist archive on YouTube, but here's some commentary and design themes that kept coming up:

Friday, October 19, 2018

7DFPS x PROCJAM, 20-28 October 2018 (make a first person game in 7 days) + (make a proc gen thing in 7 days)

For the first time since 2014, the #7dfps challenge is starting tomorrow. If you're not familiar, it's a week-long jam to make a first person game that tries to do something new.

Past alumni of 7DFPS include high-concept gun games like the original Superhot prototype as well as Receiver, but of course you don't have to do any shooting or violence for your first person game. Make a first person whatever-you-want.

If you need help getting started with making a first person game, even if you've never made an FPS or even a video game before, then here's a great free step-by-step tutorial with video examples on KO-OP Mode's "Make Weird Stuff in Unity" workshop page.

For a bit of historical perspective on this, also check out the 7DFPS video keynote from 2012, where a baby-faced JW and other game industry folks beg you to do something new with the first person format:

This year, 7DFPS also falls on the same week as PROCJAM, a community jam to make something that makes something (procedural generation)... they have their own list of talks, tutorials, and resources to help you make a proc gen thing.

Maybe this is a good time to make that procedurally generated first person game you've been dreaming about it? It seems the gods will it so.