Saturday, December 27, 2014

Notes on sex, consent, and intimacy in games and tech

This is adapted from the talk I gave at NYU Poly about my free spanking game Hurt Me Plenty. It kind of "spoils" it a little, if you care about that sort of thing, so I recommend you play it before reading this post... Or watch Pewdiepie play it, I guess.

You can imagine Hurt Me Plenty with its realistic representational graphics as a critique of the sex in contemporary Western video games with similar graphics, such as in Bioware RPG games (Mass Effects, Dragon Ages) which regularly feature "romance" storylines that climax in a cutscene of two virtual dolls glaring at each other for a few seconds, with cold unfeeling eyes devoid of human warmth, before tastefully fading to black. (My game hides your partner's face as much as possible.)

These kinds of representations are dangerous more for their structural properties: players understand these romances as puzzles to be solved where sex is the reward -- and the idea that sex is a puzzle reward feeds directly into a pick-up artist (PUA) culture built on manipulation and perceived entitlement to bodies. This is essentially the "kindness coins" critique, that the logic of training players to expect sex, based on a series of so-called strategic actions, is super gross and perpetuates damaging ways of thinking about relationships.

Instead, sex must be more than a node, it should be simulated as a complex system in itself. Sex must not be some sort of reward or foregone conclusion. What if we represented sex in games as an on-going process? What if we actually did sex?

Several games have explored this already:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Inspired a bit by Ian Bogost's glossary, here's one entry of my own:

"games journalism"
making sure the screenshots from the press releases in your inbox, or from, were properly uploaded and linked; rarely involves reporting or fact-checking; see also "writing news"

"games criticism"
what games journalism ideally should've been

Friday, December 5, 2014

Radiator Blog: Fifth Year Anniversary

In keeping with tradition, I do a roundup of this blog's "notable posts" from this past year -- because this blog is now about five (5) years old, it is enrolling in kindergarten and learning how to write. Oh my, the time does fly! (All of the past years' roundups are available here.)

This year, I've posted about 50% less than last year. This is due to a few things: I've been busy teaching more often, I've been trying to work harder on my projects and de-emphasize my writing, and also I realize I've been "saving my material" to deliver at talks instead of "giving it away" on my blog. I don't like that I'm doing this, I've always thought I would be the type to discuss and share freely -- so next year, I'm going to try to post more reliably again... but still, it wasn't such a bad year:
  • I finished and released three games: Chandelier, Intimate Infinite, and Hurt Me Plenty.
  • My post as "A first-time IGF judge with IGF submission advice" in February got quite a few referrals from game development communities... and judging by this year's new batch of entries, a lot of people still need to look at this advice! I'll probably write another list of tips for next year, but this time closer to the submissions deadline so maybe a few more people will heed it.
  • "An alternate history of Flappy Bird" was me weighing in on the event that was Flappy Bird, back in February. I felt like (and I still do feel that) there was a strong racial current to the weird backlash and faux outrage. After all that speculation, I believe Dong Nguyen said in interviews that he withdrew Flappy Bird because he felt that distributing such an addictive game was unethical... which was an angle that occurred to approximately zero Western thinkpiece writers. I think my personal favorite Straight White Male angle was Charles Pratt's piece for Polygon, a formal analysis on how well Flappy Bird is tuned.
  • I took a few more stabs at procedural dialog / conversational NPC systems for Nostrum. Then I actually showed it at GaymerX2, and I had to disable the system at the last minute because it was still too abstract -- once again, I made the mistake of focusing on a system instead of a game experience. People seemed to like flying under rock arches though... which convinced me that I needed to re-think my approach to the game, and so Nostrum is currently on hold.
  • I am now one of (several hundred? maybe a thousand?) architecture critics with my words printed in a book, an expensive mega box-set organized by Rem Koolhaas. Of course, I haven't actually seen or touched these books in real-life, so they're still mostly imaginary to me, but I've totally seen the page proofs and they looked nice enough.
  • My snarky game engine review roundup fooled Jonathan Blow into following me on Twitter for a day or two, almost as if I were an authority on this stuff?...
  • Noserudake 2 is one of my favorite Japanese Unity web player games, and I riffed off that to write about the role of language in game dev, specifically how game development / our identities as game developers ("self-learning self-taught polymath nerd gods") is mediated by English being the "default language" of code and development, vs. other cultures and language users developing their own ways of game making.
  • Modding is still alive, it's just taking a different shape... I wrote about how Ryan Trawick's "Keys" plays with conventions of the "alt walking simulator" genre, and it's kind of amazing that there are established conventions and motifs now? It prompted me to look into Source SDK 2013 and revive the old Radiator... which, um, I still need to finish making. Shit.
  • I reviewed Anna's book on ZZT and Darius' book on Jagged Alliance 2. Both are excellent books, you should read them. I think I'm going to assign them in my classes.
  • I got more into tool development... here's me making a simple 3D scribble-modeling tool called "Mural", and here's me working on a Twine-like plugin for Unity called "Bramble"... which reminds me, I still need to finish those, huh? Shit.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

new game: "Hurt Me Plenty"

"Hurt Me Plenty" is a short game made for Leap Motion Jam 2014 where you spank the heck out of a dude and learn about how BDSM communities attempt to formalize consent / caring. I was really interested in how we can make games about intimacy without a "kindness coins = sex cutscene" trope, and how we can use expressive gestures to roleplay / think about pain and intimacy. (For the record, I don't think my game gets it right, and it has a lot of flaws... this stuff is hard to design!)

Monday, December 1, 2014

"Cheeky Designs: How to Make a Video Game About Spanking The Heck Out of a Dude" at NYU Poly Game Innovation Lab, December 11

I'm giving a short tech talk about making my hunk-spanking game on December 11th at the NYU Poly School of Engineering's "Game Innovation Lab" in Downtown Brooklyn. Here's a description:

This talk will discuss the design development of "On Your Knees" "Hurt Me Plenty", one of the very few video games ever made about spanking men. How do you adapt concepts from BDSM culture into a game? How do you translate the politics of consent and power exchange into game code, 3D animation, and motion interfaces? What if video games imagined sex as an interactive process instead of a cutscene "reward" dispensed by a talking vending machine?

I'll talk how each part of the game works / why I made it the way I made it / interesting questions this kind of work brings up. Hope to see you there if you're in the New York City area!

December 11, 2014 at 7:00 PM
5 Metrotech Center
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I've never made anything viral before

At this time of writing, this Vine now has 540,000+ loops and 19,000+ notes on tumblr... and my life is pretty much exactly the same. It's so exciting -- the numbers are so big! On the other hand, they're just numbers.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Postcards from: "Discipline and Punish"

Here are some work in progress images / footage for "Discipline and Punish", a BDSM spanking game using the Leap Motion. It'll also go into questions of consent, and it'll be mildly educational for those who know nothing about BDSM culture. Character model by Kris Hammes, character shader by James O'Hare.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

On branching dialog editors and narrative design tools

I was prototyping a game concept with branching dialogs for conversations and/or CYOA story events, so I started looking at various solutions on the Unity Asset Store. Dialoguer looked the most decent, but generally all of them just made too many assumptions or enforced bad workflows, and seemed to ignore what made Twine so accessible.

So I've decided to make "Bramble", my own editor plug-in and system for Unity! Here are some factors in its design:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Notes on working with Source SDK 2013 Singleplayer Base

I've been working with Source SDK 2013 base for the past few months, and I thought I'd share some notes on workflow for any future modders who google to this post:
  • If you are making a simple mod that uses default Half-Life 2 features, then you do NOT have to compile your own binaries. You can just tell Steam to use the ones that come pre-compiled by Valve from the already included "sourcetest" mod instead. Steam automatically downloads the correct binaries for the client's platform when they download the Source SDK 2013 Base -- which means you presumably get free and painless Windows / OSX / Linux support, as well as any new changes Valve merges into the codebase... As far as I can tell, most of the basic Half-Life 2 entities work in sourcetest, though env_screeneffect seem to be broken due to some missing shaders.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Indiecade East 2015, February 13-15 at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York City

Indiecade East is back for another year in beautiful snow-filled New York City, and they are looking for talk proposals from new (as well as old, I imagine) voices in the community! You have until November 10th (that's about 3 weeks) to get your submission in:
If you have something new to say about / for / from independent game making, and you can encapsulate it in a 20-minute talk, we want to hear from you! Everyone is welcome, regardless of experience, visibility, etc.

We are particularly interested in these topics:
- Diversity in Audience, Diversity in Creators: Playing and making games is not the exclusive domain of a privileged few -- games are for everyone, and anyone should be able to make them.
- Indie Games’ Second Wave: Indie games have been around long enough that there are old-timers and newcomers. Who are the new generation of creators trying to break through in a different landscape?
- The Other Indies: There are many people making interactive art not traditionally thought of as indie games, from modders to interactive fiction writers. How do they enrich the world of indie games?
- Storytelling in Indie Games: Independent games are one of the spaces where narratives experiment with new forms and topics. What exciting new work or unappreciated old work is being done in this area?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Quality product": on Jagged Alliance 2 by Darius Kazemi

Much like Anna Anthropy's study of ZZT, Darius Kazemi's study of Jagged Alliance 2 for Boss Fight Books is a quick read but feels very comprehensive, analyzing the game in a holistic interdisciplinary cross-section across history, anthropology, politics, and computer science.

Unlike Anna, Darius adopts a much more academic tone, and rarely inserts himself into his own narrative. And while the result is a convincing, well-written, and well-researched book, it ends up falling prey to certain weaknesses that were irrelevant to Anna's book... which fascinates me, because I want to write my own book on Half-Life 1 that somehow blends both of their sensibilities.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

QGCon 2014, October 25-26 in Berkeley, California

Hey, the excellent Queerness and Games Conference ("QGCon") is running again this year, and you should go! I had a pretty good time in 2013, where I presented "Queering Game Development," a critical code study of "FeministWhore" and the politics of code (I'm still working on the final essay / paper, oops) -- and I probably would've gone this year if I weren't consciously trying to lay low and try to finish stuff instead of jetting-off to conferences all the time...

... But that doesn't mean you shouldn't go! If you are going to be in the Bay Area on October 25 and/or 26, you should definitely check out QGCon at UC Berkeley. There's a bunch of really great speakers this year. So sign-up, it's free to attend! Have enough fun for the both of us.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Introducing: Mural (v0.2) a simple 3D scribbling tool

EDIT: v0.21 adds .OBJ export from the webplayer; you can now actually use this to make models and import it into whatever you want. (If you want to use this in Unity, you will need to apply a material / shader that uses vertex colors and doesn't cull backfaces, so pretty much any of the "Particle" shaders)

There are 2 common modes in 3D polygonal modeling: vertex manipulation and sculpting. But for many of these workflows, a 3D mass exists mostly as a surface to be unwrapped and painted. If all we need is a 3D canvas to paint upon, why can't we just go straight to the painting part?

"Mural" is an experimental freehand 3D modeling tool similar to SketchUp's "Freehand" tool or the impressive Tilt Brush, except SketchUp imagines it more as a tracing aid and Tilt Brush relies on VR hardware and doesn't readily export geometry.

I want to make Mural as an accessible 3D tool that borrows game UI metaphors (specifically, first person mouselook) and directly exports the resulting 3D models for use in games, or anything, really. Many of the models made in Mural will not look like "traditionally" modelled 3D objects, and intentionally embrace glitchy non-representational aesthetics, twisted normals, vertex colors, and z-sorting artifacts. If it hasn't already occurred, I imagine the "politics of 3D" will shift to embrace these phenomena as artistic features rather than aesthetic flaws.

(I am also indebted to Rich Edwards' early research with "3d concepts" using semi-transparent planes.)

  • decoupled canvas movement from painting (thanks for suggestion @Dewb) so you can now move the painting surface WHILE painting
  • added simple .OBJ export for webplayer; press F12 to save a .OBJ to your computer
  • fixed stroke shader, colors now render properly
  • added a color picker hue / saturation circle, adapted from code in UnityPaint
  • replaced line renderers with generated meshes from Vectorosity
  • added .OBJ export
  • added very basic undo support (press [Z] to delete most recent stroke(s) )

FUTURE DIRECTIONS FOR MURAL: make it into a complete 3D world maker / game maker; add cooperative modelling / network multiplayer session support; better painting tools and interface; add file-writing and OBJ export in webplayer via JS hooks

Monday, September 15, 2014

Porting simple Half-Life 2-based singleplayer mods to Source SDK Base 2013 in 3 steps

If you have a lot of custom code, there are probably some compelling reasons NOT to try to upgrade your existing code to Source 2013 unless you have a lot of free time to hand-merge everything... but if you just have a mod consisting of maps running on Half-Life 2 or the episodes, the relatively easy update to Source SDK Base 2013 gives you better performance (the Steampipe VPK-based loading is much faster than the old GCF system), integrated VR support, and maybe most importantly, it is a freely available "standalone" release to anyone with a Steam account.

The process is basically 2 steps, but I added a 3rd pretty crucial "step" that came up in my own mod...

Friday, September 12, 2014

Liner notes: Intimate, Infinite (part 2), on protagonists / race / gardening / chess.

These are some notes about my process / intent in making my game Intimate, Infinite. Spoiler warning is in effect for this game as well as the 1941 Borges short story that inspired it. Part 1 is on my general reading / plotting / interest in the frame narrative.

Borges' protagonist Tsun, or my Wang Peng (a name taken from a fictional college student in a Mandarin language textbook) has mixed motives for killing the sinologist.

He's a Chinese man more or less assimilated into Western ways, with a healthy dose of self-loathing for his own heritage. That makes this story one of the few "Western literary canon" texts that directly engages with how Asian people might react to Westerners being fascinated with Asian stuff (side note: in this vein, Irma Vep is one of my favorite movies / I really want to make an Irma Vep game someday)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Much Madness is Divinest Sense.

A couple things got me thinking:
  • Source SDK Base 2013 does not require any purchases whatsoever, and is freely available to all Steam users.
  • DOTA2 is using Source Engine 2, or at least some substantial derivative of it.
To me, that means Source 1 is definitely nearing the end of its life, and Source 2013 will stand as (perhaps) the last definitive engine fork for Source 1. There's a good chance I won't have to fix up my release ever again because of Valve updating Episode Two and breaking all mod compatiblity: furthermore, anyone will be able to download Source 2013 and play my mod.

Preliminary tests look promising: both chapters of Radiator 1 worked in Source 2013 with just a little massaging. So, contrary to all expectations (I'm as surprised as anyone), I'm dusting off the rest of Radiator 1 and the whole thing might actually get completed now, several years later. I'm cutting a lot of the stuff I planned before (mostly boring puzzle gameplay stuff that I was trying to hack-together using map scripting) and the end is already in sight, it's just going to be a lot of narrative scripting and re-learning the rhythms of working in Hammer.

... And hopefully this'll be the last time I have to edit and update this thing.

(Oh, and I've also updated my portfolio with all the latest trends. HTML5! Bootstrap-whatever! Responsive-whatsits!)

Monday, September 1, 2014

September pageant at "MAGIC IS REAL"

Merritt Kopas is the pageant runner for September, and she has come up with a doozy:
"We're all born a Witch. We're all born into magic. It's taken from us as we grow up." - Madeline L'Engle

magic has been incorporated into games for decades. but it's most often in a way that borrows from the tabletop games like dungeons & dragons -- as just another means of inflicting damage. magic in videogames is both spectacular and mundane. fireballs are boring.

magic is the power to change our circumstances, to invoke the world we want to inhabit. magic is a little evening ritual, the charms we carry to protect us, the spaces and times we invest with meaning. magic is a response to the destructive, crushing weight of oppression. magic is spectacular and mundane, but not in the way it's depicted in games.

make a game about magic that veers away from the usual treatments of magic in games.
The full pageant brief is here. I'm looking forward to seeing all the new games people will be making!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Liner Notes: Intimate, Infinite (part 1)

These are some notes about my process / intent in making my game Intimate, Infinite. Spoiler warning is in effect for this game as well as the 1941 Borges short story that inspired it. This post assumes you've read the story already.

The first time I read the Garden of Forking Paths, it was in a freshman college seminar about literature and games. It was presented as a revolutionary text that predicted early 1990s hypertext literature and branching narratives... but by the time I read it in the late 2000s, the revolution was over, the internet was domesticated, and clicking on a link was one of the most mundane things ever.

Turns out, a lot of theorists agreed. As early or late as 1999, hypertext was declared dead -- long live "cybertext"! Nick Montfort distinguishes between the two types mainly as a matter of computation: a hypertext is a "finite automaton" capable of simple searches, while a cybertext is more like a recursive Turing machine that can compute anything computable. It's the difference between a calculator vs. a laptop. (This isn't to say hypertexts are bad; Twine has revived hypertext in a new age of Javascript and web design, making hypertext more relevant than ever. But it is relevant because of new authorship and new contexts, and not because it is a frontier of computing.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

new game: Intimate, Infinite

I've finished a 3+ month project called "Intimate, Infinite." It is available at a Pay What You Want price with a $0 minimum -- if you got something out of playing it / want to support future work, please consider buying me a beer or something.

It was originally made for the "Series" pageant at, but I ended up being a couple months late. Better late than never? Anyway, it is heavily inspired by Jorge Luis Borges' short story "Garden of Forking Paths" and it is somewhat experimental in nature, so I'd advise players to be, um... patient.

Friday, August 8, 2014

"I'm young and I love to be young": on ZZT, by Anna Anthropy

Anna Anthropy's book "ZZT" is impressive. In only 129 pages, she gives a robust and accessible technical overview of the game ZZT, a nearly 23 year old text-only DOS game with a built-in game editor. She then explores how that engine design -- combined with nascent internet technologies like dial-up BBS boards, AOL archives, and IRC channels -- afforded several generations of a vibrant creator community. Her analysis effortlessly straddles computer science, design, art history, anthropology, and gender theory, all wrapped in a personal story of her childhood. It is a very easy, enjoyable, and insightful read.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On video game corridors in "Elements of Architecture"

I wrote about video game corridors for the huge expensive hardcover 1000+ page Rem Koolhaas book-set "Elements of Architecture" -- it's part of an entire book about corridors, alongside books about doors, walls, etc.

The bit that I've read has a pretty contemporary approach to things, talking about film geography and nationalism in the same breath as my lonely page that touches on the technical / level design aspects of corridors.

Look mom, I'm a published architecture critic now!!!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

new game: "Chandelier" for

I was eating fried chicken and "Chandelier" came on in the restaurant and it was a pretty catchy tune so when I went home I made a game about it in about 2 hours. Head on over to to play it / check out the rest of the pageant entries, also based on songs.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Nostrum design problems and world as interface

I am currently trying to prototype some sort of social simulation in Nostrum, and I am currently facing three main design problems:

formal definitions (within my system) for emotional responses to information
While showing the game at GaymerX, I had to disconnect the social sim portion because, internally, the NPCs kept getting upset at each other for talking about each other to someone else -- and they would be so upset that they would just go inert. What is the difference between discussing someone else vs. talking behind their back, and does my system have the context to make that distinction? Information currently does not have a "positive" or "negative" valence, it is just information that might be true or false. Should I remove this from the system entirely if I can't make it intelligible? At the very least, I want a system that will collapse in an interesting way.

Monday, July 14, 2014

If you see something, say something

I was telling my sister about Cards Against Humanity and the rape allegations against Max Temkin.

I told her I now felt strange about accepting a free flight / hotel from them to attend GaymerX and show my half-baked game in their sponsored room. Before, I had thought of it as part of their attempt to make things right, after they finally removed the totally unacceptable "date rape" and "passable transvestite" cards from the game -- and if they were going to commit substantial time, energy, and resources into this community, then maybe that would allow for some healing? After all, I had only had fantastic interactions with the extremely helpful CAH production staff at the expo. (I am still extremely grateful for everything Trin and her team did for me and the other developers.) However, it's safe to say that their intended redemption narrative has now been somewhat derailed...

My sister said it reminded her of American Apparel ousting Dov Charney, where the institution had to rescue itself from toxic thinking and behavior, and that was the only way to do it. I disagreed with that comparison. Charney was totally unrepentant, while Temkin at least made some attempt to internalize feminism, even though he ended up getting it horribly wrong. Doesn't learning involve making mistakes, even horrific mistakes?

Yes, my sister said, but none of that should shield him from criticism... and she's right. Here's some good criticism.

The more cynical will say he consciously wore feminist language as armor to deny responsibility -- and the vast majority largely want to stay silent, whether because of CAH's clout / influence or because "there's no proof" or "there's enough drama already" and so on... but saying nothing already means you're speaking in favor of how things currently are.

So, uh, I wanted to say something. But I'm not really sure what to say, because it's not clear what reconciliation might look like? Like, okay -- I agree that he screwed up in a really big way. I don't think anyone wants to destroy Temkin. Not even the person he hurt wants that. Now what?

Should he write another post where he apologizes for his non-apology, and is that enough now? Should CAH try to sponsor anymore games events focusing on diversity and inclusivity, or would their involvement now compromise the safe space of that event? What does it mean to create a safe space in games? Can we separate Temkin's words from CAH, and if we can, then what does CAH as an institution think about this? Why was Temkin's statement wrong, and what can we educate people about it? How do the women who work for CAH feel about this? What is the current thinking about how best to practice consent? How do we read all this, next to the ongoing dialogue that happened in and around GaymerX?

Here's my bold idea: some game journalists could do some reporting on this because there might be a story here? And then journalism can serve its vital function to inform a community and promote civic discourse!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"Keys" by Ryan Trawick, and the emerging shape of post-mod culture and walking simulators

Keys is a newly released single player Source mod, made mostly by Ryan Trawick, that is freely available to anyone with a Steam account.

... Which is made possible by Valve's generous licensing of their Source SDK 2013 Base. This is kind of a big shift in policy for Valve. Historically, mods have been locked to their parent platforms so that they could drive-up sales of triple-A retail (e.g. people buying Arma to play the original Day Z, or Warcraft 3 to play the original DOTA), but something here has changed. Perhaps Valve has decided they have enough money, or perhaps they realized Steam is already a powerful platform to lock-in people anyway. So now, Source 1 is kind of transitioning into more of a middleware platform like Unity or Unreal, though most people outside of the TF2 / CS:GO communities have generally moved on already.

What are Source mods in a "post-mod" age, where they're not even modding a retail game anymore, and they're freely distributed and shared? Can we even still call these things "mods", or have they transcended that type of framing?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Game engine review roundup

Unreal Engine 4. Very good high-end support, integrated vertex-painter, great for making 3D shooty games in huge landscapes. But it's very heavy and assumes you're making a 3D shooty game in a huge landscape, and it feels very bloated if you're not. 7/10.

Unity 4. Good medium-weight engine, with very few game genre assumptions. But that flexibility turns into tedium when you have to re-implement NPC AI / basic movement / damage systems / camera controls / etc. for the hundredth time. Very bad stock controller and GUI support. 7/10.

CryEngine 3. Very good high-end support that assumes you're making a 3D shooty drivey game in a huge landscape surrounded by water. Fantastic foliage and rock placement tools that are useless when that's not what your game's about. 7/10.

Source 1. The 2000-era engine that has aged the best, with its smart bets on image-based rendering and lightmapping. Physics feel tuned so well that Titanfall used the engine pretty much for that. However, has a horribly bad 3D asset pipeline that forces artists to learn an obscure "Quake C" syntax from the early 90s in order to import art -- which, in a 3D engine, is totally inexcusable. 7/10.

Twine. Best-in-class text support, exports seamlessly to all platforms, very little technical friction and learning curve. Very diverse and helpful user community. But text markup scheme feels patched-together and inconsistent, requires users to learn Javascript (?!) for more advanced features. No built-in 3D or multiplayer support. 7/10.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Nostrum and "strategic retreat" into conversation analysis

So I was reading some of the Versu design papers and suddenly it hit me: they're doing a lot of the procedural narrative stuff that I want to do, and yet, their magnitude of systems complexity and authoring was still way too much for what I needed (or could feasibly engineer) for Nostrum.

I am now issuing a "strategic retreat" to all departments and agencies here at Radiator: we're going to leave "strong" procedural narrative alone, and pursue a different model for NPC simulation.

For this new approach, I'm digging up another old idea I had: to think of conversation as the exchange of information. For this, I'm leaning heavily on "conversation analysis" theory from linguistics...

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Someplace Else source files (for Black Mesa Source) + "Majestical" env texture set

A year and a half ago, I was working on a Source re-mastering of Adam Foster's classic "Someplace Else" to plug into Black Mesa Source. The appeal of modding a mod to remake a mod was intoxicating. Unfortunately I haven't really touched Hammer since then though, so I think I'm now forced to admit that I probably won't get around to finishing it.

I am open-sourcing the map file and textures I made for it in hopes that maybe someone more motivated can pick it up. If you're interested in finishing what I started, here are some design notes:

Monday, June 9, 2014

Noserudake 2 and the language of development

Noserudake 2 is a fantastic Unity browser game where you balance things on a platform. It is also the sequel to Noserudake 1, and the Japanese developer's changes between installments are telling.

They gave the player direct control over rotating the dais, they enabled real-time shadows and textured the dais to give more depth cues, and the physics objects have been well-tuned to be more forgiving and have more weight and heft. Also, the slapstick shift between level 4 and level 5 is pretty brilliant, a joke through level design that transcends language barriers. But one of the most glaring new changes in Noserudake 2 is that the developer has added English translations alongside all the in-game Japanese text. The developer is clearly conscious that they also have a Western anglophone audience following their work. But why are they accommodating us?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

I'm nicer in person, honest

There's a profile of Harry Lee / Lost Levels in Polygon, and I'm quoted heavily, but kinda as more of the crass anti-corporate provocateur foil to Harry's deeper philosophical positions.

(Which is obviously just a writerly device because hey, I work for NYU, considered by some to be one of the most destructive forces against public education and local communities ever imagined. I'm a fucking sellout! Though I guess I was asking to be cast that way, especially when I gave that soundbite that the Ken Levine talk was boring. But it's okay if it was boring, because the purpose of booking Ken Levine was to sell tickets and introduce people to basic questions in procedural narrative. Does that make it a good talk? Roger Ebert would've said yes, because it did what it was trying to do; I would say no, because we should always make higher demands of discourse.)

(Anyway.) I think I'm okay with playing that role in the article, because it gets the point across that there's more than one agenda and Lost Levels isn't one particular thing. I just wish more agendas got more represented in the article: like Harry tweeted, Mattie Brice, Toni Pizza, and Ian Snyder, are Lost Levels co-facilitators who deserve credit for their valuable work, and it's as much their stories (and everyone who came to the event!) as ours.

Also, I think much of my criticism on GDC in the piece (e.g. it's expensive and the expensive talks are rarely good) orbited around one main point that got only paraphrased briefly in it:

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Spring 2014 quarterly progress report

A progress report on "small" projects:

"Intimate, Infinite" is 80% done, and it's for the Series pageant at It will be done soon. I've kinda surprised myself with how much I'm putting into it, so I think I'll sell it for pay-what-you-want.

"Vaquero" is about 50% done, and it's for the Space Cowboy Game Jam. It will probably be done soon.

"Peon" is about 50% done, and it'll be a larger project for most of June, alongside prepping Nostrum for exhibition at GaymerX2.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Notes on discontinuity and interiors in open world games

To enter a different level in Thief 4, you frequently have to mash [E] to pry open glowing windows (or lift fallen wood beams) as the game "seamlessly" loads the next level in the background. You will see this screen a lot.
An "open world" is a marketing tool / level design structure where the game world is gradually loaded or "streamed" as you explore it, so that it seems like one large long continuous level. In many respects, this continuity is an illusion; the game developers built the world in chunks and the game engine thinks of the world as chunks, but players experience the chunks as they're stitched together. It's an immersionist fantasy -- of no loading screens or progress bars, of seamless transitions between worlds.

But as I mindlessly mashed the [E] button on my keyboard for the 30th time to enter a different level in Thief 4, I realized that (a) this is a really bad attempt at hiding load screens, and (b) I tolerated the (brief but just as frequent) loading screens in Skyrim much better because those are honest about what they're doing. A loading screen unambiguously signals discontinuity to the player, a break between parts of the world. An open world overworld can only exist if there's an underworld beneath it, and I argue that it's okay (or better) if you clearly mark the borders because it's okay if we stop interacting with a game for a second.

When do open worlds choose to be discontinuous with a menu, loading screen, or lobby? When does one wait to "enter" an interior, to voluntarily break the flow of play?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

DECK (Doom Engine Creator's Kit) needs artists and sound designers.

JP LeBreton has recently announced the "DECK" (Doom Engine Creator's Kit) project, an open-source public-domain all-in-one bundle of Doom technology: a game engine + editor + game assets + tutorials, all integrated together and easily accessible. It's intended to empower people to easily make cool lo-fi 3D first person games and it sounds really cool...

... but it needs help. It needs some Doom-style character sprites, some Doom-style environment textures / decoration sprites, and a lot of audio design. Pitch in and help build free indie game tools!

Here's my contribution so far, some painterly-ish pseudo-photo "medieval manor" textures:

It was kind of fun to work at low resolution without having to worry about shaders or 3D meshes or UVs or whatever. I recommend it.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

"SERIES" is the first pageant theme!

"We make game, do you make game? MakeGame is a place for you to show some similar-minded folk what you're working on. Get feedback, discuss design problems, share inspirations. Every couple months we host a pageant. A month-long 'slow-jam' where we all make games to explore a chosen theme. Welcome!" is a new game development forum from the ashes of the former Super Friendship Club. A lot of the original guiding principles remain: to learn from each other and help each other make great work. To help motivate each other, there are monthly "game pageants" -- a game jam-like that de-emphasizes winning or losing. Ian Snyder's organizing the first one, focusing on the idea of a "series"...
"Instructions: Make a two or more small games all revolving around one central theme or idea that when taken together form one cohesive whole. Make the games good. For examples of this in other media, you might look to Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji36 or Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird30 or [if you have other examples or items of inspiration, reply below!]

Starts on May 1st, finishes on May 31st. You're welcome to enter any media you prefer, games or not. Disobey any instructions, or follow them rigorously. 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."
Full briefing is here. Looking forward to seeing you all over at!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Get Better Soon, dev diary #4: conceptualizing input in virtual reality.

This is a development diary series for "Get Better Soon", an NEA-funded gay club VR simulator game I'm making for Different Games. You can check out previous dev diaries here.

Virtual reality is weird and terrible for a lot of reasons: "simulator sickness" is the frequent sensation of nausea that attacks many players, simply from trying to exist inside virtual reality. (There are lot of complex reasons why that happens.) There's something fascinating about that -- a reality where existence makes you want to throw-up. A lot of that bizarre beauty is going to get smoothed-over and destroyed as the technology improves, which is unfortunate.

One of the more upsetting developments in VR progress is the specific user flow and use-cases that the two biggest VR influencers (Valve and Oculus) are prescribing for VR games. They imagine every VR user is going to be seated in front of their computer, with a positional tracking camera on a desk in front of them. The idea is to seat the player so they always know which way is "forward" by their dead reckoning, which simplifies how head tracking will combine with controller or mouse input. That way, it matters less whether you're blindfolded with a screen strapped to your face.

I think this is kind of a conceptually lazy way of solving the "input" problem.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Some dogmas I perpetuate

  • When the player does a thing, there should be some possible reason why or situation when they would NOT do that thing. Unless you specifically want it to not matter because ____.
  • When the player does a sequence of things, there should be a reason why they did it in that sequence vs. a different sequence. Unless you specifically want it to not matter because ____.
  • Things should feel embodied / have "feel" and feedback to them, according to how important they are to understanding what's happening. Unless you specifically want players to not notice it sometimes because ____.
  • Your game should occasionally be a little boring, or occasionally be a little exciting. This is called pacing.
  • Make the smallest possible game you can make. You can always make it bigger later. Each prototype / iteration is a different game.
  • Don't implement most suggestions that people give you. Think more about why they made those suggestions. Also, don't be upset when a dev ignores your suggestion, you're not the one making their game.
  • Don't plan too far in advance. Your plan is going to change anyway.
  • When tuning, double a value or halve it or increase / decrease by magnitude of 10 or randomize it.
  • How you talk about your game affects what your game actually is.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"Get Better Soon" dev diary #3, skin and light iterations

This is a development diary series for "Get Better Soon", a commissioned game I'm making for Different Games 2014. If you want to see it and play it, then come hangout at Different Games next weekend in NYC!

Kris Hammes is finishing up the character. The 3D model geometry is basically "done" so now I'm just waiting for the last texture tweaks like chest hair. In the meantime, I've rigged the model with a standard "HumanIK" skeleton in Maya (so that I can easily re-target animations in Mecanim) and I've configured the shader so I can start figuring out how to implement these characters into the game.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Second time's the charm; procedural NPC dialogue in Nostrum

Last time I tried some type of "procedural narrative" thing, my hubris got the better of me -- naming the system after one of the most famous and influential writers of all-time was, perhaps, just a little arrogant.

Despite my attempt to scope it properly, that system suffered greatly from trying to do too much stuff... It was so much stuff that it was difficult for me to write anything with it. So with the procedurally generated NPCs in Nostrum, I'm developing a much simpler system which will hopefully work better, to solve a smaller problem...

The basis is still the same: Elan Ruskin's GDC 2012 presentation on AI-driven dynamic dialogue in Left 4 Dead 2.

Monday, March 24, 2014

This is what I'm working on, March 2014

What are you working on? This is what I'm working on:

"Get Better Soon" is a VR-powered gay clubbing simulator haiku. Imagine a universe where EA invests heavily in sexualizing men using the latest in DirectX technologies... throbbing, pounding, pulsing bodies -- a perpetual shower. Nothing in the voice of the cicada intimates how soon it will die. A commission for Different Games, made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

"Charity" is a procedurally-aided Thief-like set in Ciudad, a vast 13th century Moorish boomtown slowly sinking into the ground. You're a "placer", a freelance thug, an alchemist -- you beat people up and turn blood into money. Will you side with the environmentalist royals, the all-consuming corporation, or the industrial workers of the world? Underground we fought the earth together. Inspired heavily by the high-profile failure of Thief 4.

"Nostrum" is a VR-ish roguelikelikelike life simulator about just war theory. You're a freelance pilot based in the Mediterranean Sea circa 1936... well, you would be, if the Fascists would just quit killing your business with all these silly airspace regulations. Over several years you will befriend several islands' worth of alligators, corgis, giraffes, zebras, and more -- and then watch their homes burn. It's Animal Crossing meets Animal Farm, and you're just the small business owner caught in the middle? The first video game ever made about World War II.

"Radiator" is... I don't even know anymore.

Friday, March 14, 2014

GDC 2014 Dance Card

Are you in San Francisco next week? Here's some stuff you could do:
  • Critical Proximity, a free mini-conference where game critics mingle and grouse... productively? There's a pretty diverse lineup of speakers here -- non-critics, critical bloggers, academics, developer-critics -- and, uh, Ian Bogost?
  • Unwinnable Party, a bunch of games people invade High Tide, a (very) divey bar in the Tenderloin. As far as dive bars go, it's a pretty good dive bar, though.
  • Agency Launch, basically an excuse to hangout with people (or play Netrunner?) while sipping somewhat pricey drinks in the "Death Star bar" (you'll understand) overlooking downtown San Francisco.
  • The gay game industry group is hosting a night at The Stud bar, which is probably one of the more inclusive gay bars in the city. The first 100 drinks are on them.
  • The annual Wild Rumpus party at Public Works, one of the few times when people actually dance. Good game curation too, and within a few blocks of burrito mecca down Mission St. (or hipster mecca on Valencia St.)
  • Lost Levels is a free picnic unconference where anyone can give a talk or run a session. Bring a lunch and hangout!
  • TIGSource regulars usually invade the local Denny's (on Thursday or Friday night?) for a mini art / work jam. I strongly recommend a "Moons Over My Hammy" sandwich or an Oreo milkshake.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Course catalog at Radiator University, Fall 2014

If I had a university, these are some of the courses I'd run:

PE822 -- CS:GO SPORTIFICATION INTENSIVE (2 units, Detroit campus)
In 1999, Counter-Strike changed the face of multiplayer shooters -- sci-fi gothic fantasy died and "realistic" squad maneuvers became the dominant discourse. The series then languished until 2012, when Counter-Strike: Global Offensive triggered a renaissance in player and level design theory. In this studio intensive course, we will critique this development history and "sportification" of the series while iterating on small levels designed for public and competitive play. (PREREQUISITES: Sculpture I, War Crimes seminar, Basketball II or higher.)

KL72 -- MAKER MAKER (3 units)
Tools like FPS Creator or RPGMaker bring new blood into development communities while manifesting structural critiques of game genres. If something is difficult to do in RPGMaker, can it be said that RPGs should generally not implement that feature? How do the workflows and "grains" of our tools affect our abilities to make things? This course argues that making a new generation of "maker" tools, grounded firmly in new genres, is imperative for articulating a new praxis of game development. (PREREQUISITES: at least 1 linguistic determinism seminar.)

R20A -- COLLAB WORKSHOP, "PERVASIVE ARGS" (2 units, Montana campus)
The "magic circle" refers to the idea that many games clearly demarcate the boundaries between players and those not playing -- e.g. you must be playing a game in order to score a goal, otherwise you're just some person kicking a ball on a grass field. Taking cues from David Fincher's thriller "The Game" (1997), we will act as "puppetmasters" to construct elaborate "alternate reality games" that surround / swallow our players' lives, blurring the line between playing and living. (PREREQUISITES: Metalworking II, Improv Studio 201, and/or equivalent professional experience)

E100 -- ENGLISH 1
Writing expository, analytical, and argumentative essays; developing critical reading and research skills. Review of sentence structure and grammar.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"Get Better Soon", dev diary 2: character art and production value.

This is a development diary series for "Get Better Soon", a commissioned game I'm making for Different Games 2014. If you want to see it and play it, then sign-up to attend Different Games in April in NYC (for free!)

Bodies, much like video games, are routinely commodified -- there are "cheap"-looking and "expensive"-looking bodies. Society devalues and discriminates against certain body types, while affording privileges to other body types. We read video games in much the same way, based on the shape of the game's body... the packaging and production values, and/or "paratext", of a game. Production values are a relatively quantifiable way to impress people and convince them to pay $60 USD for a set of mechanics that have remained virtually unchanged for decades.

What if "queer games" weren't popularly characterized by the do-it-yourself gumption of personal stories, expressed predominantly through webpage text, by artists with few resources? What if Electronic Arts directed their next-gen AAAAA commando-developer divisions to build big budget romantic comedies about time-travelling transgender witches who critique Foucault?...

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sophie Houlden teaches you what 3D normals / "normal maps" are... with lots of pictures!

The indie developer Sophie Houlden has posted a great visual explanation of what "normals" are, within a 3D video game art context. Full explanation is after the jump:

Monday, February 24, 2014

#lostlevels 2014

Me and my fellow co-organizers have announced another incarnation of Lost Levels this year, happening on March 20th in San Francisco. Lost Levels is a casual community-led "unconference"-style picnic that we put together because we think large conferences are good at some things but bad at other things -- maybe Lost Levels could help with those other things? We believe in "radical inclusion", which we try to implement by being completely free with an open submission process.

This year, we are anticipating more people, so we've gone to the effort of acquiring an event permit. (Our venue requires us to get a permit for gatherings larger than 25 people.) We're getting the permit to protect everyone and minimize possible conflict. However, the permit is expensive; combined with the event insurance costs, we are spending more than $3000 on fees alone. If you can afford it, please consider donating.

None of us have much money, so any assistance is appreciated. However, I want to be clear -- we will run Lost Levels no matter how much we raise because we run Lost Levels for you, not for us.

If you'll be around San Francisco, we'd love to see you there -- and we'd love it even more if you gave a short talk or ran a short discussion group or did a small performance. Please sign-up to attend or submit session proposals! (We are especially fond of the weird, the unusual, and the silly.)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A first-time IGF judge with IGF submission advice... and why the IGF doesn't matter?

This was my first year being an Independent Game Festival judge. As an IGF entrant in the past, I found myself confused and frustrated with the judging process. I've realized that a lot of the frustration came from not knowing how the process worked.

(If you're still frustrated with the IGF, though, that's fine. Say so! That's how it gets better.)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Game Educators Rant" at GDC 2014

At this year's GDC in San Francisco, I'm going to be delivering a rant as part of the "Game Educators Rant" session.

I'm still working out the script and details, but it's generally going to expand on what I've said before -- that game development has a sociopolitical dimension, and developers should actively recognize it and work in this dimension.

It should be an interesting session overall, considering that my esteemed colleague Sarah Schoemann will be delivering a rant opposite mine, arguing against the essentialism of learning code and technical development. Bring it on!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

An alternate history of Flappy Bird: "we must cultivate our garden."

As a pseudo-academic in games, I worry a lot about what will "make it" into "the history" of video games and what will be deemed culturally significant enough to study.

The latest spectacle with the game "Flappy Bird" will either be (a) universally forgotten by next week, or (b) it will be the peculiar subject of some student's thesis paper, or (c) it will live as a game culture touchstone that gets invoked frequently for the next few years. Even though it's least likely, I'm writing this post for case B: it may be a somewhat obscure thing that gamers discuss once a year, or that games academia instructors will mention casually to their students, and maybe the students will dutifully google it and wonder what happened Back Then...

Now, because I can't tolerate the idea of Kotaku's misleading titling or Eurogamer's barely-researched and contentless coverage (among many others) of Flappy Bird, marching unopposed into the chronicle of internet history -- I hope this blog post gets indexed and listed on the 3rd or 4th page of "flappy bird game history" search results or something. If you're writing a game studies paper on this, maybe put this paragraph under a patronizing header like, "Other Perspectives?", or at least give me a footnote and imply you read this. Thanks.

If you're reading this in 2015 and no one remembers what Flappy Bird was, then I want to emphasize one thing:

In February 2014, there was not much controversy for many game developers, especially indie game developers -- the internet was harassing Dong Nguyen for making a game, which is unacceptable. Many people do not support how Nguyen has been treated, and have said so. It is always important to remember resistance to a mob.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

re: "Possibilities and Pitfalls of the Video Game Exhibition"

In "The Possibilities and Pitfalls of the Video Game Exhibition," Nicholas O'Brien talks about his experience in attending game exhibitions at Museum of the Moving Image and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and finding their curation and installations lacking -- specifically, they don't afford visitors interacting "properly" with longform single player games, because the self-awareness and performance of a museum context means you will never really engage with the game.

A couple years ago, I was of the same opinion and I even complained about the same institution, and now I'm surprised that I've changed my mind and I find this opinion kind of short-sighted...

Saturday, February 1, 2014

"Get Better" dev diary 1, idea and notes

I just got news about an arts grant that I was part of -- and it turns out we now have some funding! Hurray! I'll talk more about those details when the exhibition organizers announce it, but for now, I want to start documenting my process in making this game -- which I am tentatively calling "Get Better" as a direct challenge to the rhetoric of the mainstream gay-industrial complex.

(Well, originally it was called "Ludonarrative Disco-dance." But that makes it sound too much like a game about games, and this game isn't primarily about games.)

In terms of actual prototyping and production, I'll probably be building on top of my existing first person framework, but I haven't actually done anything yet. Mostly, I've been sending e-mails to possible collaborators and contractors. (The small chunk of arts grant money is making the asset contracting possible. Yay for having a budget and paying people for their work!)

Instead, I'm trying to sketch out the structure of the game first. So here are my actual game notes, along with some remarks on my notes...

Monday, January 27, 2014

The land of milk and honey

Some brief moments from New Zealand. We now return to our scheduled programming...

Thursday, January 9, 2014

"Black Mesa Source: Makeover Xtreme" at Indiecade East 2014

Indiecade East in New York City is happening in... about a month... and I'm giving a talk there. (A talk that I should start writing. Shit.) I should also note that the entire speaker lineup is very exciting and diverse and Indiecade is a lovely games event with a very good signal-to-noise ratio.

My talk continues the "technical politics" theme of my other talks these past few months:

"Makeovers are serious business. That's why dozens of modders volunteered to makeover Half-Life 1 (one of the most influential games ever made) in a new game engine with new graphics, architecture, animations, voice acting, choreography, sound effects, etc. So much work goes into the video games we play, but what exactly does that work involve? Get ready for excruciating detail about the blood and sweat that goes into just one room of one level of one game -- and why us modders w-w-work it for years to give it away for free. See? Makeovers are serious business."

My relationship with Black Mesa Source is strange -- I did a lot of work for them for a few years, then left because I couldn't commit time to it anymore -- so I recognize a lot of the content, but at the same time it feels somewhat alien to me because someone else finished it.

There's something interesting to dissect about the identity of work, here, especially given the intangible status of mods.

Are mods "games"? In terms of distribution / ownership / sales, no. In terms of artistry / concept / craft, yes. Is this Black Mesa Source level mine? Yes and no. When you get a makeover, are you still you, or someone else? What are the politics of makeovers? etc.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New year's resolutions, 2014

I am going to finish Nostrum and sell it.

I am going to finish Radiator and release it for free.

I am going to finish my Someplace Else port for Black Mesa Source.

I am going to finish a substantial draft of my Half-Life book.

I am going to write more about individual indie games instead of complaining about Bioshock Infinite.

I am going to be better about work / life balance.