Saturday, August 31, 2013

Further notes on developing games for virtual reality.

I'm pretty sure no one remembers that I promised to release Radiator: Polaris at the end of August 2013 (shhh), but here's what happened -- I was asked to join the Oculus VR Jam, so instead I've spent the last 3 weeks working mainly on Nostrum, a Porco Rosso inspired arcade flight sim / narrative-y roguelike. I think I'm going to work on it for another week or so before going back to Polaris.

A lot of my interest stems from VR requiring developers to re-consider a lot of basic ways of doing things in video games.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

On "Shelter" and the power of ambiguity.

WARNING: This post spoils Shelter and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

It makes sense that Thomas Grip likes Shelter -- functionally, Shelter is basically like Amnesia, except you're a badger mother in a colorfully illustrated forest instead of an amnesiac scientist in a haunted castle. Same thing.

In Shelter, there's a constant fear of starvation and eagles. The only thing you can do is keep going to forage and replenish your food. In Amnesia, you're told to keep moving and solving puzzles to replenish your sanity. So, both games rely on transforming the idea of "single player video game progression" into a symbolic struggle.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Press Select" is officially announced / update on the Half-Life book.

So the cute-gay-dad couple that is Daniel Golding and Brendan Keogh (oh gosh this is how rumors start) have officially launched a swanky website and stuff for "Press Select," their publishing venture for long-form video game criticism. Each author will follow Keogh's example in dedicating one whole book to one game. (It's not announced or anything, but I already called shotgun on Half-Life 1.)

My peers (announced so far) in this thing are:
  • Patricia Hernandez, of Kotaku and Nightmare Mode fame
  • Michael Abbott, the man behind The Brainy Gamer
  • Maddy Myers, freelance critic for various outlets including Paste and formerly The Boston Phoenix.
  • Chris Dahlen, critic, co-founder and former editor of Kill Screen, and writer on Klei’s Mark of the Ninja.
  • Tim Rogers, game critic for and founder and director of Action Button Entertainment.
  • Jason Killingsworth, features editor of Edge Magazine.
  • Jenn Frank, game critic, formerly of EGM and 1UP, Editorial Director at Unwinnable, and voice of Super Hexagon
I'm a little intimidated because books are really long and complicated things, but I'm also excited and confident that my lovely editors will keep me on track.

Right now I'm just working on a rough outline and scribbling a bunch of notes. If you want a sneak preview of the material, you can attend one of three upcoming conferences. Each one will be pretty different and talk about different things and aspects of Half-Life 1 and other games, but they'll all be emblematic of a similar argument: that Half-Life 1's legacy of pioneering "in-game scripted narrative" has resulted in the crappiness of military FPS shooters today, and it overshadows what's actually a very finely tuned arcade-ish shooter -- and as with anything, there are politics and tensions embedded within an arcade shooter.

The conferences I'm speaking at are:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What should you learn in Games 101?

I'm teaching an undergraduate "Games 101" class at Parsons this Fall semester, and putting together the syllabus has been... not easy.

It's supposed to introduce students to a body of game history / game theory, while also letting them dip their toes into non-digital and digital game design. This is like 4 different classes being merged into one, so it's going to be hard to cover all the bases while accommodating everyone's varying experience and fluency in game design.

Many of the students will already be familiar with video games and board games -- but just as many will be taking this class because their advisor said it was good for learning interaction design, or maybe they wanted what sounds like an easy elective -- or maybe they played Temple Run once (a month ago) and they haven't touched any video games since then, but they sure like playing beer pong and basketball and tag, and those are games, right? (In some respects, the "gamers" might have the most to learn.)

Some pillars of my approach to Games 101:

Friday, August 16, 2013

"Gone Home" and the mansion genre.

This post does not spoil any specifics of the "plot" in Gone Home, but it might sensitize you to its delivery mechanisms and some details.

A mansion means: old, rich, and scary. The most quintessential "mansion games" that emphasize these qualities might be Maniac Mansion, Thief, and Resident Evil -- these games would not work without the mansion tropes that figure prominently in their game design. Most importantly, mansions are big.

Gone Home is very aware of its place in the mansion genre, a genre that emphasizes the primacy of inventories, objects, and possessions. Here, the lightweight puzzle gating and densely hot-spotted environments evoke adventure; the first person object handling and concrete readables evoke the immersive sim; the loneliness and the shadows evoke horror. In a sense, this is a video game that was made for gamers aware of all the genre convention going on -- in particular, one moment in the library will either make you smile or wince -- but in another sense, this is also a video game made for humans. Gone Home carefully negates or omits core "gameisms" of the very genres it comes from.

The characters in Gone Home are tolerable (or even great) because they do not hesitate in doorways and stare blankly at you. It's the same trick that Dear Esther pulled: fictional characters in games develop full-bodied, nuanced personalities precisely when they're *not* constrained by fully simulated virtual bodies present in the world. (Maybe Dear Esther is actually a mansion game?)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ludonarrative dissonance doesn't exist because it isn't dissonant and no one cares anyway.

"I'm a living breathing person... but I'm just going to stand frozen in this spot forever. Also, I'm a tortoise."
I complained about Bioshock Infinite before. Here, I complain some more, because I really can't get over how bad this game is. Hopefully this'll be the last complaint post. I'm sorry.

Clint Hocking famously coined "ludonarrative dissonance" to describe moments when what's happening in a single player action game doesn't fit with what the game is telling you is happening -- maybe it's just plain wrong, maybe the tone doesn't match, or maybe the game thinks this thing is more interesting than it is -- either way, it doesn't quite work.

It's when you realize your sympathetic handsome male player character is a sociopathic mass murderer, or maybe when a character in an RPG "dies" despite having already died and revived dozens of times before, or maybe the brief instance when an elite soldier NPC glitches in the middle of a doorway despite all the boring game lore dumped on you. Sometimes it's intrinsic to making a game about killing people, sometimes you hope fridge logic kicks in, and sometimes it's a technical quirk you forgive.

But I feel like that theory doesn't explain what actually happens out in the field: if Bioshock Infinite was forged entirely, purposefully, from solid ingots of 100% pure ludonarrative dissonance, why didn't this annoy the shit out of everyone? Isn't ludonarrative dissonance supposed to be jarring and horrible? Why was the unusually unified critical response to Binfinite something like, "wow this game is colossally stupid," but the mainstream response was, "this is amazing"?

So I have a new theory -- most players do not find dissonance to be dissonant, and therefore ludonarrative dissonance doesn't really exist.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

7HFPS: "Harriet"

For 7 Hour FPS, I imagined some sort of Tribe-ish Mechwarrior game where you're a Harriet pilot ("Harrier + Jet") and you fly around shooting homing cluster missiles at things, deforming the terrain to make new skiing slopes / carve new lines. But in my early control tests, I decided the "piloting a death robot" fiction wasn't really helping / wasn't terribly interesting, so now I'm ditching it. I'm not sure what to do with this, now, but I think I'm leaning toward a game about the undesirability of godhood / immortality, and maybe I'll polish it up for 7 Day FPS in that direction.

Similar first person games about movement / hopping / surfing / skiing: Perfect Stride, Purity, the endless CS / TF2 surf maps, the notorious Tribes series... typical first person movement just seems so terribly boring in comparison.

In other games, surfing / skiing is a byproduct of messing with the engine's friction implementation and using strafing / jumps to build-up momentum. It's kind of fascinating, to realize that these player communities have invented a new way of walking, a sort of expressive movement without strategic or instrumental purpose -- a type of dancing, maybe?

Play prototype #5 here (< 1 MB, Unity web player):

In Unity, my implementation is really simple but it works: just a standard terrain collider and a rigidbody-powered player capsule with a low-friction physic material. To help prevent a tunneling / falling-through-the-world effect, I also set the rigidbody to "Continuous Dynamic." Everything from there was a lot of testing and tweaking.

The biggest technical problem, though, is something I have very little control over: uploading data to the Terrain object causes framerate hitches. Generally, it seems like modifying the texture blend splats is very cheap and performant -- next, editing the TreeInstance array starts getting expensive after you have a lot of trees (~10000+ trees), and editing the structs unfortunately does not refresh the tree renderer, so you're stuck with having to insert a whole new array every time -- but by far the most expensive thing is modifying the terrain and deforming the heightmap / geometry. I think the possible workaround here is to use some sort of "cell approach" -- make one big mega-terrain from dozens of smaller stitched-together terrains. If I pursue this prototype further, that'd probably be the first thing I look at. The alternative is to make my own terrain system, which sounds like something that's not worth it.