Wednesday, December 28, 2011

About "Territory"

Territory will be up in about a month or two -- it's an upcoming project that will pair critical essays about video games with short browser games that make arguments.

Part of it stems from my longstanding distaste of games criticism / writing that doesn't readily offer a translation from theory into practice, an opinion that probably isn't popular with most writers (the idea that criticism must be "useful" otherwise it's just whining) so I won't dwell on it.

Perhaps the hypothesis here is that words alone aren't the best way to discuss games. Discussing games is maybe a job best left for games: instead of writing 750 or so words on a game, a reviewer should make a short game about the game. Readers' comments would take the form of mods and new levels, mutations of existing rulesets and graphics to make a new point. (Eventually, some enterprising online pharmacy will code a spambot that will make spam levels and spam games.)

But for that glorious future to happen, I guess we need to think more about how we "read" games. As game designers, we're always deeply concerned with how players behave and think. Territory might help with that.

Truly, some pieces of games writing really shine with an additional layer of interactivity, although there's probably a tendency among those who call themselves gamers to disregard these interactions as "gimmicks," as if every digital interaction must require repetition, time, and mastery. Without those elements, these aren't games...

... Because games have mechanics! "Games aren't X!" But every time you say that, it doubles as an open invitation to the entire world to make a game that is exactly X. Maybe even 2X.

(A related tangent: these days, toddlers learn how to swipe, pinch, and click, before they ever learn how to spell or type words. What do we make of that?)

Anyway. If Territory is successful, I'll open it up to wider participation and start playing matchmaker for games writers / game developers. For now, I've talked to a few people and I'm planning on making small games based on their essays. It's a test run. We'll see how it goes. If it ends up failing, well, let this post be a testament to my completely benevolent and well-meaning intentions.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Level With Me, a Portal 2 mod

STARING EYES! It's unofficially Radiator vol. 3, and the only mod I'll have put out in the last two years. Watch this space as release is pretty imminent, and thanks for reading. We'll see if people hate it or love it.

EDIT: It's out now. Try it out. A typical run-through for me is about 30 minutes long, so that means it'll take the average Portal 2 player about 1-2 hours. If you get stuck on the first chapter, then just skip to the second, it's really not a big deal.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Radiator Blog: Two Year Anniversary

Yes, that's right, from all one of us here at Radiator Blog -- happy anniversary, we're two years old now. In keeping with last year's tradition, here's a "best of" compilation from December 2010 - November 2011 and a bit of commentary with the benefit of hindsight. These were generally the articles that got a high volume of page views / attention from Sunday Papers or Critical Distance or whoever, though I also included some ignored ones because I still think they're decent reads. At any rate, thanks for reading.

  • CondomCorps. The prototype is pretty unplayable, but I still want to re-visit the idea of peeping into hotel windows to make sure gay orgies take-off without a hitch. The best part was reading a game studies undergraduate's blog post about it, arguing it was unethical to weaponize sex education like this or something.
  • Polonius. An FPS with multiple characters, where you have to eavesdrop on a couple's conversation as they walk around a crowded plaza. I liked the mechanics here and want to come back to this, it just needed some tutorial levels and some more massaging. Based on the film, The Conversation. (collab w/ @eddiecameron)
  • FuhFuhFire. Rescue people from a burning building -- or maybe not. I feel like the mechanics here were pretty sound, I just need to redo the level design here and make it prettier.
  • Apollo 2. I made a very short FPS in zero hours. I'm pretty satisfied with what it is.
  • Super Cult Tycoon 2. Guide your very own cult from a van and a barn to a sprawling complex with Kool-Aid factories and counterfeit wallet exports. Got a ton of coverage on Kotaku, PC Gamer and (collab w/ @eddiecameron)
  • "On the first person military manshooter and the shape of modern warfare" argues that games like Call of Duty are unethical NOT because someone's going to go on a shooting spree, but because they're making us think war is something you can win.
  • First Person Films comes from watching Enter the Void and thinking the first 15 minutes were more interesting than everything else.
  • Me, and I think a lot of other people, were disappointed a little with Portal 2 because it was pretty much just a faster horse. A fantastic horse, of course, but still just a horse.
  • People are freaking out about Portal 2 level editors being used in schools. Hopefully they won't copy the mistakes of Logic Quest 3D, an obscure edutainment FPS with a built-in level editor -- that is, a warning from 15 years ago.
  • Part 4 of the "Dark Past" series on immersive sims ended with an attempt at reviving Randy Smith's "valence theory" (my word for it) as used in Thief games.
  • I apply Chris Crawford's concept of "process intensity" to procedural narrative. The post doesn't really have a point in the end, but it's nice to try to sort out what's happening in the field today, even if we're going to end up failing.
  • Here's Dan Pinchbeck's PhD dissertation, summarized in a blog post. The idea to take away is "ludodiegesis," which basically argues that the world tells a story. I like it because it's a very neat shift away from the crassness of "environmental storytelling" and ties back into film studies.
  • My close-reading of Mass Effect 1's Noveria demonstrates how I go about analyzing level design. Don't say bullshit like "the blue barrels and leading lines guide the player's eye, blah blah blah" -- that's not how players play games. We need to look at how environments afford gameplay, and then see how we can co-opt those same affordances for a narrative effect.
  • Love letter to a bridge is in the same vein. In de_aztec, visuals and mechanics combine into something that's just a really elegant piece of design.
  • "It belongs in a museum" argues that games don't belong in museums. Prompted, in part, by Pippin Barr's excellent game, The Artist is Present.
  • Butte, Montana. 1973 is a board game about open-pit mining disasters -- and in the end, you'll create your own chemical spill that's problematic to clean-up. I think board games are ripe for a revolution in materials and narrative; let's fight the cold proceduralism of German board games with all our strength.
  • Welcome to the Indie FPS is a round-up of 5 people doing cool fun things with first person shooters; I argue they all take their cues from Myst instead of Doom. The most haunting thing is the eerily prescient NYT review of Myst that I unearthed during my brief bit of research.
  • There used to be a Valve-sponsored modding community called the VERC Collective that had peer-reviewed articles about design theory / coding stuff. It was really cool. I wish there were researchers archiving the rise and fall of these internet communities -- you can literally trace lineages of game developers and creators from these places. These were our think-tanks.
  • In April 2011, I declared the Death of the Mod. We used to think total conversions were the "epitome" of craftsmanship, a "world wonder" of the modding community. Now that notion is more or less dead, replaced with the idea that you're squandering your output if you're not going indie and selling your stuff in a standalone.
  • A Closed World was an MIT-Gambit research project to make a game about LGBTQ issues. Me and some other self-identified LGBTQ indie game devs kind of got upset about it

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Portal 2 Modding Minutiae

While working on Level With Me, I've gathered a set of random Portal 2 modding knowledge that might be useful. Please profit from my trial and error:
  • If you want to have your levels selectable from the menu and everything, you have to make your own custom VPK to override some menu scripts, and reskin the "Extras" menu to appear to be the single player menu. Marcus McKay has a comprehensive tutorial here.
  • Currently, custom sounds don't automatically get added to the sound cache, so you'll always get errors that the "file is missing from the repository" or something when you play the sounds in-game. You can either re-build your entire sound cache every time, or use PakRat to pack the sounds into the BSP. It's just another extra step to the map compile pipeline. More details here.
  • Switching videos dynamically, in-game, is kind of problematic. Only the first set of .BIK files get cached, so when you load the rest, there's a slight hitch. Maybe if you make a set of invisible vgui_movie_display entities in some hidden room, the map will pre-cache those files? Also, to switch a movie, the only method I've been able to find (with varying degrees of success) is to send a "TakeOverAsMaster" input to a former vgui_movie_display slave, which seems to "refresh" the entire entity group.
  • The lighting in the elevator rooms will only work if you compile vrad.exe with -staticproppolys or something, otherwise the ceiling rotors always block the light_spot entity. It's a feature.
  • When you buildcubemaps, you have to quit, use mat_reloadallmaterials, then load the map again to get the cubemaps showing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Level with Me, screen test 2

There are still some weird encoding errors (video editing isn't my strong suit) but if you ignore it, you can just watch and enjoy some handsome men profess their deepest beliefs and feelings about video games. Production on the mod is lagging a bit behind, but I think I'll be okay once I crunch on it this weekend.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Critical Information at SVA, 3 December 2011

Next Saturday, I'll be talking about Radiator 1-2 ("Handle with Care") at an art criticism conference called "Critical Information" hosted by School of Visual Arts in New York City. If you happen to be awake and in Manhattan that Saturday morning, around 10 AM, stop by and drink some complimentary coffee; it's free and open to the public.

You might just end up feeling terribly bored because I'm going to have to explain a lot of game studies concepts / theory that you'd already be literate in -- it's a digital, but non-gamer audience there -- but it should make for an exciting live demo (?!) nonetheless.

Though honestly, I'm a little nervous, as Radiator has always been more of a "gamer's art game" than something anyone off the street can just pick up and comprehend. (Even worse, only gamers understand what a "gamer's art game" might entail.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Process as pastime

This post will be published (or so I'm told) in new media journal Switch v28 but I'm just cross-posting it here since that might take a while. I was asked about "process." I came up with a rant of sorts, that basically attacks everyone except Glorious Trainwreckers / Pirate Kart people. Please don't be offended; polemic is just too much fun to write:

“Process” is a heavy word in video game design.

It refers to procedurality, the ways in which a computer manipulates or generates data. It also refers to proceduralism, the idea that a video game is a formal system of rules and interactions, not a narrative nor a simple toy. Most often, it refers to the iterative process, the act of prototyping over and over again until the game is least awful. The game industry and nascent game development schools they sponsor would have you believe that best practice involves mastery of all three. They want you to think the act of making video games is some sort of art or science, an arcane magic performed only by hyper-literate and experienced masters.

And they're right. For now.

Friday, November 18, 2011

On the first person military manshooter and the shape of modern warfare.

from "Photographs of the War in Afghanistan"
I alluded to this during my RPS interview with industry veteran Magnar Jenssen -- how I went to "The Shape of War," a small panel hosted by Geoff Manaugh (BLDGBLOG) about "spaces and technologies of conflict" in the 21st century. This post is more of a detailed write-up about it, and how I think it applies to games.

The main message, coming from a war photographer and national security journalist, was a decidedly ethical message: Today, war is invisible and nearly impossible to photograph. And that is a dangerous thing.

So if you ever see a photo of a guy aiming a rifle, remind yourself -- that's not war.

Instead, they argued that war is an agonizingly slow, decade-long game of chess. War is the US spending billions to magically airdrop and sustain a city of 45,000 people in the middle of Nowhere, Afghanistan. War is a guard tower built next to a tennis court. War doesn't take place on a battlefield, but a "Battlespace" that encompasses every facet of modern life. War is an unmanned drone with 96 cameras, sending back footage for 200 intelligence analysts to dissect before going home to eat pancakes. War is a cheap internet router that may or may not have fed data to Chinese intelligence agencies (EDIT, March 2017: finally updated this link to not go to a weird conspiracy blog).

Monday, November 14, 2011

"Water" mod is out.

From the HL2 Short Story team comes "Water," a third person adventure game with some light turn-based combat, clever NPC-based puzzles, and really pretty environments. When I alpha-tested some earlier versions, it was already pretty solid and playable, so I can only imagine it's even nicer now.

You only need Source SDK Base 2007 to play, which comes with any Source-powered game. So you probably have it. Just go and download / play this fitting swan song of a seven year old mod community. It'll last you a good hour or two.

Friday, November 11, 2011

What I'm Working On

Souvenir is a first person VVVVVV-style puzzle game about growing up. It's the design thesis of me and 2 other students. We're in the middle of production right now.

Zobeide is a first person / hypertext hybrid based on Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities." Play an early prototype / follow progress on it here.

As for Level with Me? The next installment is Brendon Chung. Still a lot of transcribing left to do.

As for Radiator? Gah. I'll have time this coming winter break, the last half of December / first half of January. I really want to push it out the door because now it's just more like this lingering regret.

... now why did I install Skyrim?!

Monday, November 7, 2011

It makes you wonder...

... what it would be like to date Adam Foster. First he'd show you his potato connected to an Arduino. Then he'd whisk you off to some decaying factories and take hundreds of photos of doors.

You'll waver at times, but then you'll take a nice long sip from your Cherry Fanta and think, "as long as we don't miss that 8 o'clock showing of Paranormal Activity 3, he can photograph as many cracked concrete slabs as he wants."

No, I'm the only one who wonders that? Okay. Never mind. Ignore me.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

0 Hour Game Jam: "Apollo 2"

Because daylight savings time ended and was rolling back an hour, a bunch of people decided to make a game in "zero hours." The full results are here. As for my entry, I clicked the "get theme" button and got "moon." So I made Apollo 2. Take a few minutes to play it in your browser over here. Missed out on the fun? There's always next year...

UPDATE, 8 May 2017: due to this game's only super-fan's special request, this has been ported to WebGL. You can now play it here on

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Super Friendship Club's "EDITOR" pageant, Nov 1 - Nov 30

Yes, Super Friends... it's that time again.

You now have one month to make a game that includes some sort of level-editing component, along with some mechanism for sharing levels. It's not nearly as hard as you think.

A "level" can be anything. A "game" can be anything. An "editor" can be anything. Just make something.

Check out Mr. Lavelle's advice and some more helpful info here.

Good luck!

Level with Me, Jack Monahan

UPDATE 2: The second installment, with Polycount fixture Jack Monahan, is now up. Read part 2.

It's been pretty quiet around here... that's because I've been spending all my time recording interviews, transcribing them, editing them to make people sound smart, etc. Why did no one ever tell me this "game journalist" racket was so much work?

The first installment of "Level with Me," this time with the naturally smart-sounding Dan Pinchbeck, is now up at Rock Paper Shotgun for your perusal. Read part 1.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cross-post: Dinner Secrets

Over at the "Altercation" blog, I've written a post about me and Eddie Cameron's attempt at a Kinect game for a game jam. It's Happy Days themed and the game is rather silly. I also muse about the state of Unity3D-Kinect technology and some user interface concepts we learned while making it.

Picking at the patinas of dead levels

Sylvain "channie" Douce has done some excellent analysis of CoD:MW2's "Favela" -- read part 1 to understand the structure, then read part 2 for his excavation, where he wonders why certain rooms are there and even posits the former existence of a ladder based on how sloppy that part of the level feels.

It functions in the same way that a ring road might denote the former existence of a city wall, building cities on top of cities on top of cities. Levels function the same way, existing as iterations layered over each other -- a virtual patina that exists only in context to the rest of the level.

Western societies value this patina. We preserve buildings, we have a "National Register of Historic Places." Something old is something inherently valuable... Meanwhile, you get the Chinese government bulldozing hutongs and re-painting the Forbidden City. I'm a proponent of the former approach in real-life, so it's interesting that I don't nostalgize virtual environments in the same way at all. Why wouldn't you fix problems and smooth the cracks? That low-detail room and seam in Favela is a bug. And here, we squash bugs. No one lives in my levels, and there are no stakeholders or community councils to notify about the impending demolition.

But consider this. Someday, you will have a 9 year old child. You will point out the neighborhood you grew up in, and the streets where you used to play. She'll laugh; CS 1.6 is a 32-bit cold program, it's barely compatible with today's average quantum biological wetware. And de_dust... why, she can see the pixels in the textures! It's all laughable, really. It's great though, that you took the time to show her how video games used to be so old and obsolete.

You'll stay silent and mime a chuckle. That's when she'll realize she's hurt your feelings, and that's how she'll learn the weight of the dead is always shouldered by the living.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is currently in private beta testing.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The 2012 IGF Pirate Kart

I've submitted my Ludum Dare games, CondomCorps and FuhFuhFire, to the 2012 IGF Pirate Kart. Also, me and Eddie threw Super Cult Tycoon 2: Deluxe Edition into the mix too. That's 300+ incredibly creative games, all in one package, all full of love. So go play it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

It's Altercation Time.

Me and Eddie Cameron are now formally releasing our Unity3D stuff as a dynamic duo: "Altercation." The plan, I think, is to go back through our other stuff and polish those up to spec too? Maybe?

Our first official game is a more polished build of our most recent game, "Super Cult Tycoon 2: Deluxe Edition," now updated to version 1.0 -- with better difficulty ramping, some more graphical fanciness, and exponentially more playability.

+1 branding.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Frontiers, and why I'm afraid of working with multiplayer.

Frontiers is a multiplayer Half-Life 2 mod where one team is border guards and the other team is refugees, with environments and visuals based on real-life diaspora. The concept is very compelling... but I'll never get to play it, since it's real-time multiplayer and relies on a live, sustained player base that it'll never have.

This is why "serious games" and messaged-based games, in my mind, should never require more than a handful of players (or ideally, 1 or 2) to deliver its rhetoric -- or they should use asynchronous multiplayer -- because this is how a game dies. In contrast, single player games live forever.

I don't want to say, "don't make real-time multiplayer games," because that sounds awful. But I guess I'm saying it. I don't see any way around it.

Attention! Oct 21-23 = upcoming epic weekend of game jams!

For some reason, Sagittarius is aligning with Capricorn in the zenith of Jupiter and three (3) different game jams are happening on the weekend of October 21 - 23. If you live in or near a major economic center in the United States, you're in for a treat. Hopefully we can get some kind of simultaneous live camera feed going on between the sites.

hosted by Babycastles / Parsons, the New School for Design / New School Game Club
Friday, Oct 21 @ 7 PM - Sunday, Oct 23 @ 7 PM. (NOTE: building is NOT open 24/7.)
6 East 16th Street, (12th flr lab), New York, NY. (Take the L / N Q R / 4 5 6 to Union Square.)
> Free. Sign-up on the Facebook page, or just show-up. (+ Free pizza on mystery night!)

hosted by IGDA Chicago and Friends / Toy Studio
Friday, Oct 21 @ 6 PM - Sunday, Oct 23 @ 10 AM.
1550 N Damen, Suite 201. Chicago, IL.
> Free (?) Sign-up here.

hosted by TIGSource / Hacker Dojo
Thursday, Oct 20 @ 10 AM - Sunday, Oct 23 @ 8 PM.
140A South Whisman Rd., Mountain View, CA.
> Registration required ($50) for t-shirt, snacks, dinner and more.

If you've never been to a game jam before, don't be scared. Anyone can start making games. These days, you don't even have to learn much computer programming if you don't want to. For info and advice on starting out, see this thread at Super Friendship Club or visit!

And if you're unfamiliar with the game jam format, it roughly resembles this:
  1. First, you show-up and sign-in and stuff.
  2. The secret theme is announced. You listen to a silly but inspiring keynote.
  3. People form teams and talk about ideas.
  4. People start making games. People eat. Good times are had.
  5. People go home and sleep, or the building closes.
  6. People start panicking that they won't finish. Cut some features. Go home and sleep.
  7. Cut more features. The timer starts ticking down.
  8. Pencils up! Everyone presents their broken games and everyone is loved.
See? Nothing to be scared of. So see you at one of the jams! Come make games!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A level to look out for: l4d_yama

An epic Left 4 Dead project, made of so much custom content, deserves all the hype it can get. Unlike so many Japanese-themed FPS maps, this actually kinda looks authentically like Japan -- the author, Mark Edwards, clearly did his research -- and it's all pretty haunting if you think about the freakish chain of cataclysmic disaster that has swept Japan this year. Every empire is paranoid of its sunset, but the familiar real-life narrative of a shrinking population grants the setting some additional power. It's a rare digital survey of Japanese civilization: from city to countryside to castle.

Watch out for l4d_yama, people. The beta's hitting soon.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

LGBTQ game design knife fight!

Okay, I exaggerate. But I'm of the mind that conflict is often productive.

I wrote about "A Closed World" more than a month ago, but only now is it garnering coverage from the larger gay establishment like The Advocate. Recently, Anna Anthropy more or less openly denounced the game with a scathing game parody of it, and Christine Love wrote about her own thoughts here. The general consensus seems to be, "yes, at worst, this is a diluted and facile expression of what being queer is like" and "mumble mumble, design by committee is slow and awful," but with some disagreement on what that all means. (And I took a bit of offense with the grumbling against games academia, but whatever.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Super Cult Tycoon 2: Deluxe Edition (alpha v0.9)

An RTS collab with Eddie Cameron (@eddiecameron) in your web browser, made for Super Friendship Club's "Mysticism" pageant.

Control your very own cult in Colorado; brew Kool Aid, sew wallets, build PR agencies, summon amorphous capture spheres, construct monoliths and ward off those pesky FBI agents -- then run off with the money. We were kind of aiming for a tycoon / tower defense / DOTA kind of game, and it doesn't really work as it should yet.

It's still pretty crash-prone, but pretty playable for the most part. Give it a few minutes.

Unity3d web player required, 3.5 mb. Textures from, sounds from

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Logic Quest 3D, the lost history of the edutainment FPS and a nostalgia you never had.

In 1997, before Half-Life and before Thief, someone made a mass market medieval-themed puzzle FPS with full voice acting, commandable NPCs and an integrated level editor -- "for ages 8 and up."

You're forgiven if you've never heard of Logic Quest 3D (even MobyGames hasn't) because it's actually a pretty awful game despite its incredibly forward-thinking educational intentions, even by the "you mean we get to play computer games during school?" metric.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

On process intensity and procedural narrative: either don't try, gameify, fill a plot, be bushy, tell a world or pass the buck?

For my master's thesis (no, not Pilsner, though I still like the idea and I'm going to re-work it more as a single player puzzle game) me and my design partners are trying to tackle a Holy Grail of video game design: procedural narrative. We're crazy stupid for trying.

How can a computer generate, whether in-part or in-whole, a meaningful narrative?

Back in 1987, Chris Crawford coined the term "process intensity", or "the degree to which a program emphasizes processes instead of data." Greg Costikyan used this idea to analyze what he argued was the low-hanging fruit, the data-heavy applications the game industry was and still is pursuing, such as more polygons, more shaders and more uncompressed rendered cinematics, etc. He proposed Spore as a new hallmark in procedural generation... then two years later, we all actually played Spore and wanted to forget a lot of it.

I still think the idea is important though, and I want to use it as a lens to analyze approaches to procedural narrative.

"The Trail," by Noyb

If you've ever played Tale of Tales' "The Path" then I can heartily recommend playing "The Trail" by Noyb. It's a Glorious Trainwreck / demake. That is all.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"Ruins", by Jake Elliott

Branching dialogues and conversations are very set in their ways. When we do occasionally innovate with them, it's usually to change how to choose an option.

Should we stare at the NPC animations and guess whether they're nervous? Maybe there's a timer, and if we don't choose, the game chooses for us? Perhaps we type a keyword instead of choosing an option. Oooh a dialogue wheel!

Jake Elliott's "Ruins" reaches deep and re-contextualizes branching dialogues more fundamentally: what does a dialogue choice mean? When you choose it, does it mean you're saying the text, verbatim, out loud? Who are you even talking to? In this way, words can summon being. Talk about disappointment, and now the story is about disappointment. Keep mentioning hope, and now the story is about hope. In contrast, BioWare games often treat conversation as a means to explore an exhaustive pre-existing arc and world -- "Garrus, tell me more about Sjao'w'jnga'e!" -- but here, Elliott uses conversation to create the arc itself.

After all, how can Aeris exist if you never talked to her or used her in battle? How can the game narrative possibly hinge on Aeris when she was barely even in it?

Elliott's thoughtful (but never too sentimental) writing suggests giving such games the benefit of the doubt; a ruin could just as easily be the starting shell of a building, he insists, waiting to be filled... Sometimes I fear for people so much kinder than I am.

(Disclosure: I beta-tested this game before release.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

"The Artist is Present," by Pippin Barr

"The Artist is Present" makes you wonder why we're bothering to have a museum of video games when it's clear that museums suck for (most) video games.

Games don't kick you out at closing time. Games can withstand flash photography and direct sunlight. Games don't need to pay people minimum wage to stand there and protect their integrity. Games want to be touched. Games can be copied so that no one has to wait and everyone can play.

In fact, it seems more like museums have video game envy. They try so desperately to have participatory exhibits with their small ideas of interaction design. Engagement must be something elusive in a building that encourages you to stroll through and then promptly leave so someone else can go in and do the same thing. The whole thing makes gamers laugh because a Powerpoint presentation is a sad excuse for an interactive system, but that's what's on display in half of these "interactive kiosks" in museums. They might use the verb "explore" but really they have no idea what it means.

If games aren't art, it's only because they're already better than art.

I'm also super-jazzed that someone's made a game that talks about the stuff I've ranted about before, but better, and in game-form. So play it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What I've been up to...

For my thesis, a group project with two fellow students, we're making a first person game. I'm pushing for some sort of first person VVVVVV game, which doesn't seem to have been done yet for some baffling reason (other than that fake video of VVVVVVX floating around!)

Or if it has been a real game, please tell me so I can steal level design ideas!... Doing a simple Mirrors Edge aesthetic for now because we're still in prototyping stages, but we'll probably border on some kind of realism because flat solids are too disorienting right now.

A game with Eddie Cameron for the Super Friendship Club's Mysticism pageant, a top-down-ish tycoon game where you manage a cult in the great American Midwest. Just don't let the FBI catch you!

Modeling stuff for Radiator 1-3. This is Emily Dickinson's lamp, based on a photo from some Harvard online archives. Basically the idea is that all of Emily Dickinson's in-game possessions will be based on her actual stuff. My hope is that eventually an Emily Dickinson scholar plays it and freaks out a little.

Scrapping previous plan for PlanetPhillip's GravityGunVille compo (an Ico-inspired / Chirico / Barragan romp in some ruins) when I realized I had a map with no combat mechanics, and a non-map with combat mechanics, so why not combine the two? Resurrecting an old favorite of mine here. We'll see if I make the deadline.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Is it possible to make a thoughtful video game about 9/11 without fearing for your life?

I had never seen The Falling Man before today, a photo so iconic of 9/11 and representative of human tragedy, because it was censored so completely. (Both Esquire pieces also persuasively argue against the "think of the children / we don't know who that is but it's someone" argument for banning it.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Detail trees," a terrain hack for forests in fixed-perspective games in Unity3D

Me n' Eddie Cameron are working on a game for this month's Super Friendship Club game pageant on "mysticism" -- a tycoon game where you control a cult. Because you're a cult operating in the remote Midwest, we need a lush forest solution that will look okay on the web player.

Friday, September 2, 2011

"A Closed World" and thoughts on gay video games.

This is part of a series that will review the MIT-Gambit Summer 2011 game prototypes, whether I thought they worked and why, etc.

SPOILER ALERT! First, take all of 10 minutes to play "A Closed World," if you wish. Review and analysis is after the jump...

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Super Friendship Club's "Mysticism" pageant, Sept. 1st - 30th

Make a game about "mysticism" by September 30th.

If you haven't made games before, and aren't sure where to start on the technical side of things, just ask: there're plenty of people here who can give guidance.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Try it once.

The real art of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the fact that non-lethal players always inevitably start another playthrough as a bloodthirsty maniac. The weaknesses quickly become apparent in a combat AI optimized for stealth gameplay instead of your sociopathic gorelust. Cops and punks patrolling the city hubs suddenly become puzzles you must solve -- and there's never enough ammo. For bonus points: hack only when necessary, never use vents and play in a foreign language.

Just be careful: the civilians' "hide from murderer" AI is very sneaky.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

DX:HR photo safari.

Here are some out-of-order, non-spoilery screenshots of details that I liked in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I'm no Dead End Thrills, so these are all un-antialiased, not gamma-corrected in Photoshop, and they're all low-res crops of in-game screenshots. Enjoy.

God, her hair piece is just so fucking awesome, you know? So... so crispy.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ludum Dare #21: FuhFuhFire!

For Ludum Dare #21 ("Escape"), I made "FuhFuhFire," a short Unity-powered web FPS where you set fire to a building and then rescue people from it. Do you try to rescue everyone but leave others behind?... or do you just escape alone? Dynamic fire propagation / level destruction, physics thingies and 8 different endings. Wow!

WASD to walk, SPACE to jump, MOUSE to look, LEFT-CLICK to do stuff.

C'mon, just give it five (5!) minutes of your time and play it in your browser here. Project source in all its hacky glory is here too.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"It belongs in a museum!"

It was all tucked-away in a half-hidden nook on the lobby level of the Museum of the Moving Image: games.

Several kiosks running Space Channel 5, Katamari Damacy and other critical darlings that represented an uncharacteristically decent sample from commercial canon. Aha, perhaps the curator was a fellow gamer! And far, in the very back of the exhibit was a dim chamber housing a lone pedestal, a keyboard, a mouse and a projection of Half-Life 2 on the wall.

The game was still stuck in the train station, the part where the guy mutters, "Don't drink the water," as if you could. So at least one person (probably more) tried playing the beginning of this era-defining computer game and stopped after the first few minutes.

I was angry. This was art and no one was appreciating it!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I've killed my darling.

It's taken me two years to accept it -- that I'd have to kill my darling.

My darling was a 3000 brush submarine with a non-linear, multi-floor layout and a dynamic life support system, done in a non-photorealistic art style. I kept thinking Design could save it and so I plugged away for months on a bloated concept. Always just one better tutorial, one better puzzle, one better detail prop away from being good. Add more scripting! More complexity, more depth! Always more... Then one month became two and two became twenty-four.

The level was so difficult I couldn't complete it without resorting to cheats -- and I designed the damn thing. So I started stripping things away, digging through the debris and the cancer to rescue the concept. Delete mechanics, close-off rooms, simplify. Get to the bottom in time, quickly.

But it was already dead.

 I've never thrown away so much work before. I'm sure it'd feel even worse to work in an industry that regularly de-funds entire studios and projects, or to spend a decade of your life on a space probe that plows straight into the Martian surface from a minor conversion error.

Still, this is the first time (in a long while) that I've made some real progress. This is what Radiator 1-3 looks like right now:

I hope it's better for it.

And to my darling: I'm sorry. I'm so so sorry.

Monday, August 8, 2011

So close, and yet...

Even after given a generous extra week, we weren't able to finish our game in-time for the Super Friendship Club's "Justice" pageant -- we hit a showstopping, completely bewildering bug in Unity3D that corrupts texture memory or something, but only when we build out to a web player or standalone deployment. It's very frustrating. Hopefully we'll get this sorted out and released within the next two weeks.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Stanley Parable, by Davey Wreden

I'm a bit late on the trolley here, but here's the latest postmodernist / poststructuralist artsy Source mod to hit the scene -- it's Davey Wreden's "The Stanley Parable." Relatively spoiler-free critique follows:
  • Tree of life. There are lot of branching points in this game. Do they matter or not? You'll see. I will say, though, that critiquing the Branch as a ludonarrative structure is becoming increasingly misplaced these days because no one is defending it. Take the Landsmeet in Dragon Age 1, or Deirdra Kiai's "Chivalry is not Dead" -- there are so many branches and interactions, they're more "bushy" than "branchy," to the point that you can just barely distinguish between branches -- and if it's in both an AAA console action game and an indie PC-only notgame, it's safe to say that bushiness is a growing design practice.
  • Them thematics. The level design says a lot. Some of it has been said before (and maybe with more subtlety) and some of it is novel and predicts your reactions uncannily. I hate to call it a "trick," but the level design has a lot of tricks, much like Ian Snyder's "Feign" or Alexander Bruce's "Hazard: The Journey of Life" "Antichamber" or even the stuff I do in Radiator. These devices work once and only once... Which is okay. Tricks aren't bad.
  • Sotto voce. There's a lot of voice acting involved here, and (at least to American ears) the British tone is incredibly resonant and charming. To be fair, some of the credit should go to Wreden for writing a decent script too. It's all very well-done and probably the stand-out feature of this mod, though it's important to NEVER press "Escape" to go to the menu or it'll desync a lot of the dialogue.
  • Theme songs. I didn't like his choice or use of music. It was a missed opportunity to do more with the sound in general. I suspect Wreden was still learning the toolset (more on that later) because this type of thing is ripe for soundscapes and fun setpieces that might've interacted with the voice acting.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Nostalgic for the Collective

Valve operates 2 main mod community presences: the Valve Developer wiki (with occasional transfusions from the private licensee wiki) and the Steam forums for the Source SDK; a quiet library and a McDonald's. It didn't always used to be like this.

Back in the rose-colored days of Half-Life 1 modding, among those wondrous whisper-filled parties in East Hampton manors with the incorrigible antics of Gilda Gray, Valve staffed a dedicated liaison named Chris "Autolycus" Bokitch who actively maintained the Valve Editing Resource Center. The Valve-ERC brought together a loose confederation of websites and tools across the entire modding food chain:
  • The Spirit of Half-Life, a sort of open source Valve-sanctioned "skunkworks" mod intended to boost other mods, with stuff like a particle system and entity parenting.
  • Map reviewers (Pixel Maps for TFC, Ten-Four for HL1)
  • Small single player map contests on the main VERC site 
  • Anomalous Materials, a forum for discussing experimental design projects
  • Entity references and tutorials, then partly outsourced to Handy Vandal's Almanac and TFMapped
  • Remote Compile System; upload your map, let some servers bake it, then get an e-mail when it's done
The last few years, it also hosted the first Source SDK reference docs and what I consider to be the crowning achievement, the "VERC Collective."

Monday, August 1, 2011


Phillip Marlowe, bless his heart, is always running these cool mapping competitions that unfortunately don't get many entries nor exposure -- but this time he's lined up some pretty cool judges, a cash prize and a pretty workable theme, so maybe we should support him with our levels, yeah? (I'm thinking I'm going to make something for it too.)

The goal of "GravityGunVille" is to make a short Half-Life 2: Episode Two single player map with heavy use of the gravity gun by 19 September 2011. There's a $100 prize, or maybe they'll split it or something.

Let's dance.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

"Hide" by Andrew Shouldice

I'm posting this early because he's declared it "done" already: I think "Hide" might be the first (or at least one of the first) games completed for the Super Friendship Club's first game pageant, "Justice."

It's yet another Unity FPS, sure, but it twists the formula rather well -- the clever way he's done the sprint controls, the smart downsampling effect that makes Unity not look like Unity at all but allows him to stylize some otherwise roughly constructed props, and the really chilling sound design -- among many other things I admire. (I'm totally going to steal the sprint idea / the downsampling technique for my own games, by the way.)

... And that's all I'm going to tell you. It might've been too much already.
PC build is here and the Mac build is here.

(PS: Mr. Andrew, optimize the file size a bit and release a web build!)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Justice, still.

Had to throw away a lot of level design because the layout was simply no-good. Going for a more methodical approach this time instead of the aimless free-form improv of before. Also shocked at how much more thought I had to put into constructing my assets and props; I've never had to build expansive interiors in Unity before. Even in this scene, I've scaled all the architecture way too big and now I have to compensate in weird ways.

It's going to be a photo finish for the end of August...

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Magnar has finally released his newest Half-Life 2: Episode Two single player masterpiece, "Whoopservatory." It uses a pretty clever mechanic with an equally clever implementation, but I suggest you just go into it without knowing anything more. You'll like it but wish the end was more "meaty." (Disclosure: I beta-tested this.)


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Source Shader Editor v0.1

Whoa. If Valve had job titles, they should hire this "BiohazardPro" guy as a tools programmer or something. It also comes a little too late for the now kinda-comatose mod community, but still, Rob Briscoe could get some good use out of it, though it probably doesn't fit very neatly into the Portal 2 codebase they're using for Dear Esther.

Maybe if it dovetails with that ambiguous "we'll make the SDK free" thing, it could be just the defibrillator we need for the mod scene?

For technical details and implementation, check out the surprisingly substantial docs on the wiki.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


2 weeks left to finish a crazy overambitious collab with Eddie Cameron. Stay tuned.