Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"Psycho-material geographies" of 3D spaces, and The Beginner's Guide by Davey Wreden et al

This post gives vague conceptual SPOILERS for The Beginner's Guide, and spoils a few specific moments. You really shouldn't worry about it, I mostly just talk about me in this.

I was one of the people who secretly played The Beginner's Guide long before its public release. Why was I given access, and not someone else? Well, that's kind of what the game's about: a "Davey" who is talking through his relationship with another designer named Coda. Who did Coda want to play their games?

In her own excellent post about TBG, Emily Short argues that the game has a very spare "personality-light" kind of style compared to what Short regards as more distinctive contemporary experimental designers like "Stephen Lavelle, Michael Brough, Pippin Barr, [... or] Robert Yang." That shout out (thanks!) is what stirred my memory...

I remember playing this seven months ago (back when it was simply codenamed "The Author") and suddenly thinking... wait, is Coda supposed to be me?

Screenshot from Radiator 1-2. (Not a screenshot from The Beginner's Guide.)

In TBG, Davey goes to great pains to establish the game's timeframe as 2008-2011, with constant reminders in the menus and loading screens -- he wants to firmly situate Coda's work within this time period. My own art mod Radiator was a Source Engine "art mod" contemporary with the original Stanley Parable and Dear Esther in that period of 2008-2011. While me, Dan Pinchbeck, and Davey Wreden were all aware of each others' work circa 2009-2010, I was the odd one out who never found any huge commercial success or anything. Instead, I kind of just kept making small weird mostly unpopular things for no one in particular. (Much like Coda, I even first got into 3D level design by making half-finished Counter-Strike maps that no one played.)

TBG also has a lot of sensibilities that remind me of my own mods from 2009, like rendering humanoid Source Engine characters as smoothed silhouettes, sustained scripted activities in constrained domestic spaces... or even one short section of TBG where the player is only allowed to walk backwards, which reminds me of a Radiator prototype I built in 2010 where you could only walk backwards.

I'm not trying to argue "I did it first" or something, because I didn't. Instead, I'm trying to express the weird "uncanny" feeling I had, that this was stuff I did but also never did. What made it even weirder was that the game narrative was about this exact dynamic, and it was set in the exact time period and creative community where I worked.

That didn't bother me as much as the walls. The walls were talking to me.

If you play Wolfenstein3D enough, you can feel the difference between a John Romero level and a Tom Hall level. Or when I played The Ship, a ceiling girder would remind me of Duncan Blair. In Quake 4, the rhythm of pillars made it feel like an Andrew Weldon hallway to me. Every inch of a virtual space represents countless decisions by its designer(s), and mostly only high-level players and/or fellow designers have sensitized themselves enough to how a space can feel like a person.

The choice of Source Engine 1 -- a very old engine from 2004, now finally sunsetting in 2015 -- feels very intentional here. Source 1 is basically the end of an era of level design when designers still did their own construction, the last generation of 3D design before the near unanimous modularization of everything but Minecraft. TBG knows this, and even devotes a few in-game minutes to discussing the engine and its idiosyncrasies.

But this is also where TBG broke for me, in a "ludonarrative dissonance" equivalent of 3D construction and production value. (Maybe call it "material-narrative dissonance"?) As someone who's seen hundreds of community Source levels through the years, none of this looks like the work of a "lone amateur" who's messing around. All the 3D carpentry here is very clean and trim; there are almost zero construction flaws in the entire game; the whisper of the walls here is extremely confident and experienced.

In particular, "The Tower" chapter wouldn't stop screaming at me. It is basically the work of a Source / Quake veteran showing off, pairing some very well-done slanted forms with gloriously wasteful details, leaving no edge unbeveled, no ledge without a lip. (This work also strongly reminds me of the golden age of 3D level design in the early 2000s, epitomized by the GeoComp2 levels. I don't think that's a mere coincidence, I feel like this level's designer(s) remember that era too.)

This is not the work of an isolated reclusive outsider. Rather, this is the work of someone who's fully plugged into level design communities and what is considered good building practice. (Maybe "Davey" did all this? But then why is he still surprised by some of it?)

But what really got me was The Tower's "combination lock" setpiece, the section where there are 6 huge numbered dials and we're briefly asked to guess the correct combination to progress.

"Davey" asks that we read it as an impossible-to-solve obstacle placed by Coda. He wonders why Coda would do such a thing, but at this point we know he's a fairly unreliable narrator, and Coda has put it here to purposely require hacking and violation of boundaries, to setup a direct confrontation.

A technical reading suggests something very different, though, especially in relation to the Source modding community. These kinds of combination lock setpieces are actually pretty annoying to implement in Source's entity I/O scripting system, which has no very easy way of cycling variables or evaluating equalities. It is a classic kind of show-off gesture from your local neighborhood 14 year old tween modder who's just read a tutorial on how to do it, to prove to everyone else how complex their scripting technique is.

Below is a screenshot of the actual combination lock setup from the level editor; each yellowed icon is roughly like one "function" in the logic scripting system, so you can see the swarm of cubes / icons implies the sheer technical complexity of building this thing. It is not trivial to make.

The joke here is that only an inexperienced level designer would ever want to make something gratuitous like this, especially with 6 different digits... yet the setup here is also actually quite elegant, with each combo wheel section neatly segmented in its own VMF instance. Technically, this is well-done in a clean way that's better than any modder's tutorial, but conceptually this is more or less "beneath" The Tower's designer(s) at the same time.

It's kind of like fancy expensive junk food, gleefully stooping to conceptual "trash" but at least exceptionally well-crafted trash. It's a Dorito dusted with truffled caviar, accompanied by a very self-aware shit-eating grin, and I couldn't help but count all the teeth. It's clever.

(Boring nerd story: To get this editor screenshot above, I actually had to edit all of TBG's map source files to work in my version of the Hammer editor -- specifically, all the VMF's I/O CSV delimiters had been replaced with U+001B "ESC" characters instead of commas, which would crash my editor. At best, this means the offer of TBG's map source files is ultimately useless and inaccessible to most end users; at worst, the map files have been purposely obfuscated to deter the curious... But then why bother including them at all? Why modify the file format like this? A third possibility: the developers had to do some sort of batch processing or generation of entity I/O in a different tool, and preferred U+001B as a delimiter for ease of parsing, so then they modified their version of Hammer to use it this alternate file format? But if you need so much systemic logic, why not just use Source's "Squirrel" Lua bindings, and just code the scripting logic? It's a very minor, very unimportant mystery that I don't care too much about, but I still found it charming.)

The only possible construction flaw I saw in TBG. It's a weird twisty angular inclined ramp, which is hard to do. That crack is most likely a floating point error from CSG-BSP conversion that no doubt infuriated the builder.

All this thinking about how levels talk, and the limits of that talk, reminded me of the ways I built my own levels back then. Why do we build things the way we do? In 2008-2011, I kept my reasons secret, and never really told anyone.

Well, OK: there was a guy.

I was getting over someone who I could never be with. It was a doomed romance, but my first doomed romance, and I didn't really know what to do, so some of my Young Adult Feelings bled into my level design. For my mod Radiator, I built a rather dingy apartment with a man sitting alone on the floor, among a dozen cardboard moving boxes bathed in toxic orange sunlight. The man is either moving-in or moving-out, but it's more the idea of this huge transition in his life that's making him anxious... or is he relieved?...

... Yeah, some of it was some really melodramatic overt symbolism like that, but those obvious symbols were there to hide the real symbols, the symbols I didn't want anyone else to perceive.

I would place a couch against a wall in a way that reminded me of his couch, or I would build the apartment to have the same exact floorplan as his real-life apartment. I liked the idea of "hiding" so much personal significance out there in plain sight, in the tiny details or in the entire structure, in a way that was invisible to everyone except for maybe one other person in the entire world.

Of course I never told him I did all this -- I didn't want him to know that he had this power over me. But privately, I had found the process pretty therapeutic, how I could put pieces of him into the game to make him less real. (And if he was less real, then I could get on with my life?)

Yet, I also kept this sad faint impossible hope that he would someday play my level, and that he would recognize all these invisible whispers in the walls.

So much of it was for him, but at the same time, I wanted him to never ever know that.

By the time I finished playing The Beginner's Guide, I decided I wasn't Coda and that I was mostly imagining all this, and didn't really comment on it in the (mostly unhelpful) feedback I sent back.

Why awkwardly ask about such a self-indulgent notion? I could never do that. Assuming my supposed "evidence" was actually evidence, it was all fairly circumstantial and coincidental at best.

So instead, I mostly sent back some boring feedback about broken cubemaps or collision errors (at one point in "The Author" I fell inside an invisible glass tube and was trapped forever) and I ended with some nitpicks about production values or building style.

... I mean, why would Coda be based on me, even just a little bit? Impossible.

The ending dedication in TBG, "For R"? There's more than one R in Davey's life, assuming I'm even an R in his life. I'm probably the #79th most important R in his life, which seems pretty high-ranking, but that's also quite a few Rs to know, I don't think I even know that many Rs myself! (What's the over/under on this?...)

I don't even know Davey very well, I can't even remember the last time I saw him. GDC 2013? I mean, it's definitely not true. I'm not Coda. If I were Coda, then where's all the bright orange light in TBG? This is a silly outlandish theory, I have an overactive imagination, I'm overstimulated, I'm not feeling myself. (But wait: "BEgiNner's Guide... H-A-Z-I..." oh my god...)

I mean, how breathtakingly arrogant would you have to be, to imagine something like this?

... to even imagine that someone would make a game that's secretly about you, and never ever tell you about it? Who would ever do that?

(DISCLOSURE: I didn't pay for my copy of the game.)

PS: don't interpret any of this as Davey's intent, this is all me bringing my shit to the table

PPS: no, really, I'm not Coda, I just wanted a rhetorical device that would let me write about the game in a specific way

PPPS: no, really --