Monday, December 31, 2012

Convo's current epistemology spec / knowledge model


In Convo, characters do not have fixed names or skill stats, exactly. Instead, they have knowledge that they selectively believe about themselves and represent to others.

One character might have knowledge that they are sometimes Josef, a French civilian with 8 mind points. Someone else could also have knowledge that they are sometimes Josef, an Abwehr officer masquerading as a French civilian with 6 mind points and lockpicking abilities. Both characters can claim to be "the" Josef, and perhaps both characters are the Josef. The "truth" is partly whatever you can get the people who matter to believe -- that might be a commander, a guard, or a farmer, or whomever you need to accomplish your goals at a certain time and place. A "person" is just the sum of their knowledge and what other people believe and perceive about them.

This knowledge model, of separating objects from their qualities, describes personal identities -- but it also describes the entire world and what happened in it. To some extent, the world doesn't exist, just traces of it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The 2013 Queer Feminist Agenda for Games

Identity politics in video games are on the rise: there are more transgender, gay, or queer people in games speaking out about their experiences, and more women are speaking up about harassment and discomfort that pervades game culture. As we approach next year and consolidate / organize / build-up this wonderful "queer feminist game culture" coalition, here are the major issues currently on my mind:

Monday, December 24, 2012

Amnesia Fortnight design notes / analysis: "Autonomous"

I played the Double Fine Amnesia Fortnight prototypes without watching their pitches or videos or reading anything at all about them, so my descriptions / genre framing might be different from the "official" language used. MECHANICS SPOILERS BELOW...

Autonomous is a first person game where you build and "program" robot NPCs to battle hostile NPCs / mine resources for you.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Just around the corner, always out of reach...

UPDATE, 19 June 2014: I have given up on this project, and I'm open-sourcing the project files.

The ballad of the bloodthirsty poet. Still a lot left to do...

Current to-do list:
- redo door textures
- redo hologram textures
- fix the buttons so the level is completable again
- add gubbins and doodads, geo detail pass
- tweak lighting (esp. plants in gravity chamber, boost crystal .rad)
- redo skybox, add space jellyfish (?)
- carve channels into the main chamber floor
- data effect pass: entire complex comes to life
- garg?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Deceptive epistemologies in strategy game interfaces, and a theory of strong vs. weak fallibility.

When you play Command and Conquer or Starcraft, you're supposedly some anonymous commander at a console who can see everything and command everyone via some combination of technology and/or space magic. When you play Warcraft, maybe you're looking into a magic mirror. When you play Company of Heroes, uh, you're... uh... a plane is flying above and radioing battlefield recon back to HQ, and some lovely women in neat khaki caps slide pieces around on a map?...

As far as user interface framing goes, there's very little metaphor outside of fantasy magic and holographic virtual magic. Of course, none of these are "problems" in these games, because everyone knows it's a trick -- that is, we all know it's just some stupid bullshit that doesn't matter, and that's okay. ("Tetris doesn't need a plot!!!")

But the only way to coherently read this kind of fiction is to disembody it, to assume you're more like some abstract "force" -- maybe you're the collective human will to survive or collective unconscious manifestation of nationalism, some system of belief guiding all these people and resources toward some grand purpose that few of them can imagine. (Frozen Synapse imagines that you are literally "Tactics," the player character is the squad's abstract ability to think, perceive, and act.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A confirmed heart

A month ago I wrote about the Heart in Dishonored, and I'm glad my suspicions (it's a dressed-up radar / hint system / audio guide) were correct in this semi-interview at RPS with Arkane devs.

I can't say I share the author's admiration of its narrative results as meaningful narrative -- I found it way too transparent and instrumental in what "they wanted you to feel", which is why the Outsider NPC fails for me -- the designers want to narrate and interpret everything for me, to explain their game. I don't think it's subtle. (Comparatively, the Outsider's dad, the G-man, usually ends up confusing me more than anything. His magic is genuinely mysterious and Gordon Freeman never gets any access to it. In contrast, the Outsider isn't mysterious -- he's just an unexplained writer mouthpiece / deus ex machina / character with no stake at all in what goes on, it's hard to care about a non-presence)

So now I think the way forward for the industry (I believe in a "way forward" because I think novelty is extremely important in art, not in some game industry myth of innovation) to develop its storytelling techniques is, ironically, to listen to that crazy Far Cry 3 writer and think of an entire game as narrative, rather than confining narrative to an isolated series of dioramas with doomed corpses and "poignant" voice over narration. Some of the best indie games do this already: your entire experience is the game narrative, not just some one-off readables or loading screen lore that a writer typed into a spreadsheet.

How do you explain insanity

I remember talking to a game journalist about the difference between interviewing AAA developers and indies. He said a lot of indies and academics never stop talking, but AAA developers get quieter much faster -- maybe they were trained by PR or maybe they're tired? who knows -- but the most recent exception was an interview with a Far Cry 3 dev. This was back in August, so I was thinking, "oh yeah Far Cry 3, they're making that huh," and listened.

He said the Far Cry 3 interview was interesting because apparently the writers did a lot of research on insanity. They wanted to deconstruct insanity. They even featured an insane NPC as the character in the cover art, not the player character / protagonist, which was probably the first sign of them overestimating the importance (or, player interest) in all these details.

"But how do you explain insanity in rational terms?" I asked, "and I saw the trailer, it just looks like -"

The journalist nodded, "yeah, I know."

(Unrelated to insanity: this strange interview with the Far Cry 3 writer.)

Monday, December 17, 2012

new game: "Barback" for Ludum Dare #25

"Barback" is a 1-2 player cooperative / competitive Tapper-ish variant about 2 brothers and a bar. It should take you about 15-20 minutes to play through. It's a Ludum Dare "jam" game, which means I spent 72 hours instead of 48, and used remixed assets from outside sources. The extra day was worth it though.

Theme-wise, perhaps it doesn't really fit with the "You are the villain" theme, now that I'm done with it and looking back. I didn't want to make a game with obvious villains, but I think about my mental concept of a "villain" and by definition it seems to involve blatant villainy and a twirlable moustache. In this narrative, the villains are mundane: your own crushing feeling of failure, or people who care about you but are very pushy, etc.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

some more words on the AAA manshooter / text games

I have a knack for sending too much material to journalists when really they just want a quote or two. I promise to stop doing that. In the meantime, John Brindle's posted up the rest of my response from a piece he did about text / introspection / war games. It's cross-posted here, with some marked edits.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Triple Jam Pile-up this weekend!

This weekend is the classic monolith of game jams, Ludum Dare #25! Theme is still pending for a few more hours...

Also, this weekend in New York City is a special game jam hosted at Parsons called "Game On", co-sponsored by Github and Mozilla. The main requirement is to make an HTML5 game. Prizes include a trip to GDC 2013 (wow!) and I think there's free food to jam with, at least. (And as long as you're here this weekend, also check out Spacewar! at the Museum of the Moving Image, charting the long lineage of shooters from ur-game "Spacewar!" on a PDP-1 replica through Metroid II and ending with Halo 4.)

ALSO, this month in Chicago, there's the Six Pack Jam. Jake Elliott and friends are putting an arcade cabinet in some bar in Wicker Park and they want cool games to put on the cabinet! Here, the implied constraints are 2 player compatible modes with short arcade-scope play sessions, but maybe that's just my interpretation.

You could, potentially, make a 2 player HTML5 game with [LD theme] and submit everywhere. Whoaa.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Tiny Soccer Manager Stories, by Pierre Corbinais

My very strong favorite of the TIGSource "Sports" compo is Pierre Corbinais' "Tiny Soccer Manager Stories." It's a 20 minute-ish puzzle game made in Adventure Game Studio that tasks you as a substitute junior high soccer coach, and your job is to balance the two teams to make sure everyone plays, even the kids who suck.

(INSTALLATION NOTE: To get this to run on my Win7x64 system, I had to change the settings to "Direct3D 9" windowed mode. Try that if it doesn't work for you.)
(HINT: If a particular puzzle gives you a lot of trouble, use the "Skip Puzzle" option in the menu. The game doesn't penalize you or limit you at all.)

I've whined before about how we should narrativize the sports genre, and I think TSMS does some really great things with game narrative using this roster mechanic -- it isn't the first sports mechanic that comes to mind, which just makes this all the more refreshing and novel. Here's why this game is awesome: (SPOILER ALERT)

CFP: "Different Games" at NYU Poly, due Feb 1

Different Games is a new game conference in NYC that focuses on race / gender / sexuality / disability / politics in games. If you have something to say or make (game / installation / workshop / talk) then you might want to submit something by Feb 1st. More info at

(Also, NYC is at its best in April...)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Recent happenings at New Statesman

Liz Ryerson recently linked here in her "recommended game criticism reading list" at the New Statesman, and John Brindle recently wrote a piece for them about text-based games commenting on war better than AAA counterparts with a few quotes from me on the topic. Check it out.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Specially Level with Me, at Rock Paper Shotgun (updated)

Part 2 is up now. We talk about Portal 2 puzzle design, inspirations behind the underground chapters, and certainly nothing about HL3.

I talk more in this part than the other part because I'm trying to figure out why Adam Foster's work is so good -- is it because his floorplans are so 3D and holistic? Is it his bold use of symmetry in places? Someplace Else has a structure you don't see in-game: the alien complex has a spine, ribcage, and even some kind of pelvis with vestigial legs. I thought Half-Life 1's r_speeds were keeping him from linking all the areas and making this structure more apparent, but after the interview, I think it's more that he likes keeping some secrets to himself.

And to "justAModsLover": I totally forgot about the Someplace Else port, and I'm going to make that my winter project.

Part 1 of my interview with Adam Foster, fancy modding celebrity genius / Portal 2 level designer / one of Valve's ARG masterminds, is now up. (And, okay, I ask him about HL3 in part 2...)

I hope people notice my image curation cleverness re: putting a screenshot of his older HL1 mod Parallax with a giant funicular cargo lift next to a more recent screenshot from Nightwatch with a giant funicular cargo lift. Gotta love the hazard stripe trims. In both levels, these were pretty big epic setpieces and more or less define how the rest of the level is structured. The best part is that they all contradict the original funicular setpiece from HL1, the slow headcraby-descent in the middle of Unforeseen Consequences -- there are no monsters suddenly spawning in either of Foster's versions (if I remember correctly in Parallax?) so you just enjoy the ride and scenery, though you're probably on edge the entire time.

If you're an Adam Foster fan, I do encourage you to check-out Parallax. It's so old and a bit buggy, but the structure still feels pretty modern.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Teaching game development community.

In Spring 2013, I'll be teaching an undergrad / grad Unity course at Parsons called "Currents: Building Worlds."

The course has a few learning goals -- (a) to gain a broad conceptual understanding of how Unity works across art assets and code, (b) to learn some useful software engineering patterns for games, (c) to develop self-sufficiency for solving Unity problems / "learn how to learn", and lastly (d) to recognize membership in a global game development community.

That last one's probably the most ambitious.