Sunday, October 18, 2015

Radiator 1 notes, memories, and regrets.

NOTE: This post talks about Radiator 1, and spoils much of what happens in it.

I've cleaned up and re-released an old single player Source Engine mod of mine called Radiator. It is free, and anyone with a Steam account (Windows, OSX, or Linux) should be able to play it.

It consists of three standalone chapters -- Polaris, Handle With Care, and Much Madness -- the first two chapters were released in 2009 on-schedule, but the third chapter has lingered unreleased for the past 6 years. Each passing year I've threatened to actually finish it, and today, I've finally made good on my threat.

What suddenly changed now? Well, I actually haven't finished Much Madness exactly... what changed was more my attitude. It proved difficult impossible to "finish" a game that I designed and wrote 6 years ago, from a very different time in my life. I don't have access to those moods or sensibilities anymore! So instead, I'm just going to release it in its pretty rough state, and accept how incomplete and unpolished it feels.

I originally started making Radiator because I was frustrated with how little work I had finished. I had been active in Half-Life modding communities since 2002, but in 2008 I still had nothing publicly released to my name, and many of my peers were working professionally in the game industry, a business where you must ship a game to survive. I decided I had to just make something and put it out there, and to do that, I gave myself tight technical constraints. Inspired by community level design challenges to build maps within certain bounds, I allowed myself only a 512 by 512 unit walkable area in the level editor. In this way, Radiator began as a purely formal experiment that blossomed into something more conceptual -- how do I make a roughly 42x42 foot walkable area interesting?

This led to the first chapter Polaris, a game that basically tells the player to stand in the middle of a small room and stare at the ceiling for 5-10 minutes. (My original liner notes for Polaris are here.) As you stare at the stars, your date talks about how constellations are imaginary, and then disappears without you noticing. Players are then faced with a secret choice, they can either go north using the constellations (using a real-life method that actually works in the northern hemisphere!) or just walk off somewhere else.

In the second chapter Handle With Care, the player must climb around a 42 x 42 x 80 foot room full of warehouse shelving to bring a crate to a specific space in order to "repress" it. To this day, it's probably the most difficult game I've ever made, an art game that requires very high movement fluency and knowledge of physics glitches, a "art game for gamers." At the same time, it also rewards failure if you haven't mastered crouch-jumping, which leads many players to suddenly "embrace" fucking everything up. You progress toward an ending either way, divorce or not-divorce. (In 2008, Prop 8 was passed in California, so gay marriage / divorce was on my mind.)

Then there's the third and newly released chapter, Much Madness, named after an Emily Dickinson poem around the same phrase. There's speculation that, in our own time, Dickinson would've been diagnosed as bipolar -- she was famously reclusive for much of her life, rarely ever leaving her family home, and speaking with visitors through a closed door.

Upon Dickinson's death, her sister discovered 1800 unpublished poems. It's almost as if her words can barely hint at what was really going on. Some of her most famous lines like "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" are super fucking bad-ass, but most people experience her in the wrong context (e.g. a random poem force-fed to them during high school English class) so they never really give her a chance. If you do give her a chance, you'll find that her voice is very versatile, sometimes death growling like Nordic death metal, and sometimes crooning like a pop country super star.

This was the main idea behind Much Madness: I wanted the player to give her their attention. So the initial setup was that Emily Dickinson is pissed off and has a shotgun, and to hide from her the player would have to listen closely as she recites her poetry, and avoid her. In this way, I wanted players to listen to her verse, and perhaps even memorize certain lines over time.

The player was to hide and run from Emily in a metaphorical sinking nuclear submarine. I wanted the narrow hallways and rising flood water to make the player feel trapped; I wanted the sonar echo to mimic a heartbeat. I was also reading Martin Amis' novel Time's Arrow, a book that's basically narrated in reverse. What if you had to rehearse game logic in reverse, to unsink the submarine that your character sunk? That means you could only walk backwards, and that you'd need to seek out Emily Dickinson so she would shoot you and "give" you health, so that you could "drop healthkits" and "lose" health. But this would only make sense if I had also had a more regular "forward time" section at the start, to establish some normalcy?...

There was just one problem: this was all really difficult to play. Even as the game's developer, I had to resort to a lot of cheats to dodge a shotgun-wielding Emily AI or avoid drowning, and tuning these values was really just a band-aid for how much I was conceptually loading onto the player. With great regret, I "killed my darling" and deleted the huge complicated submarine portion.

But I kept the house.

Originally, the house was to be a sort of "heaven" separate from the submarine, which you could only access through certain flashbacks. But without the whole sinking submarine thing, the house now became the main space of the game. I wanted it to feel surreal, so I planted it in a huge field of buttercups (at her request, Emily Dickinson's coffin was carried through fields of buttercups) that evoke the garish terrible Windows XP wallpaper imagery in Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Lovely Bones (2009). I'm sure Dickinson would've agreed that heaven is its own kind of hell.

The house exterior is based on the actual Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, USA. I took quite a few liberties with the scale and proportions, and totally changed the interior floor plan, but kept it fairly similar to a sort of half-researched New England Colonial arrangement. There are public parlors downstairs and more private bedrooms upstairs, as well as a main stairwell in the front and a servants' stairwell in the back. I also only had time to populate one room with props (modeled off actual furniture and decor from the Dickinson home), so the fiction is that the house is in the middle of a "trash-out" for foreclosure. (Again, this design is contemporary with US current events in 2008 / 2009 like the subprime mortgage crisis)

I tweaked Emily's behavior for the house. I tried giving her a lead pipe instead of shotgun, but she was still way too dangerous, so I ended up making her fear the player and run away instead, which seemed more in line with her personality. Emily's behavior also has small other touches: she usually avoids servant areas (Dickinson was quite privileged), she will try not to leave the actual house, and she also patrols the key rooms the player needs to visit.

To "complete" Much Madness, the player must visit three rooms to retrieve three keys to unlock Emily's bedroom door. I use various techniques to draw the player towards this door: it is right at the top of the stairwell, it is isolated alone from all the other rooms, it is set unusually in shadow. I also scripted a constant erratic knocking sound coming from it, audible throughout the entire level, inspired by the knocking in Thief 3's Shalebridge Cradle level.

Originally I had planned a "re-decorate" mechanic, where the player must un-foreclose the house by bringing items and furniture back to their proper rooms (based on an archival photo) and arrange them correctly. The logic scripting for this proved unfeasible in Source though, so I ultimately scrapped all that and just let players experience the results of their actions directly: a mysterious opening to another dimension that defies the geometry of the house. This dimension is memory.

In one room, a ladder leads up through the ceiling to the forest from ch. 1 Polaris. In another room, a wall disintegrates to the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant. A different scene uses architecture from an unreleased noir mass-murder mod ("Flatlander Woman") that I showed only at one event, set at a nonexistent Brooklyn-area museum set on the East River. All the imagery is specific, but I kept the significance vague. The idea is that these three vignettes are memories of pivotal moments in the main characters' relationship.

Oh, yeah, the characters. If Polaris and Handle With Care are from James' perspective, then Much Madness switches over to Dylan's perspective. Much Madness begins with you (Dylan) stuck in a hospital bed, dying from kidney failure. (The scrapped submarine was like your sick body, and it was to have kidney-shaped ballast tanks.) You're stuck in the hospital room with the guy in your life who has treated you particularly poorly; it's kind of a shitty way to go, but when your body is that weak, you can't really call the shots anymore. As in most hospitals, you feel mostly bored and forgotten here.

(Brief note on the script and dialogue: 6 years later, I feel like the writing in Much Madness is pretty goddamn terrible, and I cringe at a lot of the lines now... I can't believe I made people say some of these things? But these are the narrative assets I've got, so I just sort of crammed them in and hoped for the best.)

As with the two other chapters, you can technically exit the game at any time. I don't want to waste anyone's time or stand in the way of speedrunners. In Polaris, you can wander off. In Handle With Care and Much Madness, there are literal exit doors that you can access at anytime.

But once you unlock Emily's bedroom, the level finally prompts you to leave. You wake up out in the field for the last time. You pass Emily, you pass your ex-husband James, you pass countless figures from your life, standing in the field outside. (I really like the end of the film 8 1/2, by the way.) The original plan was to have endless streams of all these people walking through the fields and to the exit door, but as I've said before, this is an unfinished game -- so instead they're all standing there, looking, waiting.

They're waiting for you to leave.