Thursday, June 16, 2016

Radiator 2 as loud and quiet

Radiator 2 is an "HD remastered" (whatever that means) bundle consisting of previously released sex games Hurt Me Plenty, Succulent, and Stick Shift, available on Itch.IO and Steam.

(If you're interested in knowing more about the process and intent behind the individual games, see the Hurt Me Plenty talk I gave at NYU Poly, or the write-up I did about Succulent or the write-up I did on Stick Shift.)

Originally, the plan was to package them together to avoid going through Steam Greenlight three whole separate times, but now I feel like they all function similarly and share code / assets, so why not put them together?

I'm also concerned with accessibility and preservation. I want this game to function on a wide variety of systems, now and for a long time -- and Unity 5.4 finally fixed an OpenGL crash a lot of players have been reporting to me, so that's a big reason I've had to wait until June. The engine upgrade also brings better lighting and physically-based rendering, and I also added some language localization and gamepad support while I was at it. I'm now pretty comfortable with this being a "definitive version" that I don't have to worry about or maintain too much.

There's also a lot more to this release, other than these boring technical details...

It's on Steam. There is still a silly faux-legitimacy of "being on Steam", which means that Valve technically approved of you. You can see this value system at work in the comments of many Steam users who get upset when certain games are allowed on Steam, and I have no doubt that some of them are going to show up on my store page as well... It just goes to show how much work we still have to do as a community.

(Note: this definitely isn't the only gay game on Steam -- Christine Love makes important space opera lesbian dramas like Analogue: A Hate Story, Luke Miller made the very cute and campy My Ex-Boyfriend the Space Tyrant, and don't forget the very tragic emotional explore-em-up Fragments of Him -- but we are definitely a very small minority on the platform.)

I've said before that I don't really care whether people play these games or not (especially when I don't make any money from it) and what's more important to me is simply that they exist. This is one of the primary tenets of the modern gay rights movement: that we must be visible and present, or else we will be erased. It's important that there's a gay sex game available on Steam, of all places, and that gesture is now part of the artistic meaning of this work.

That isn't to say I'm abandoning Itch.IO though... Itch has been a wonderful service and platform for the past year or two, with their extremely inclusive content moderation policies and accessible tools. I remember when I first released Radiator 1 in 2008 -- Adam Foster mirrored the mod files on his ingenious proto-cloud system, and Brendon Chung graciously hosted my message board. I'm grateful that I don't have to leech off my friends with servers anymore. (And I'm sure they're grateful too.)

Throughout this period, Itch has been a very stable storefront that helped me reliably reach a huge (and extremely thirsty) audience that I never knew existed. I'm hesitant to label any of this as a "success" because it hasn't really led to financial independence or artistic sustainability, and I wouldn't recommend anyone copy my methods ("step 2: give away your games, don't get paid") unless they have a day job and partner with a day job. Also, I imagine some more successful game designers might scoff at these lifetime stats, but with all those caveats in mind -- personally I'm humbled and thankful for the response I've managed to get:
  • Hurt Me Plenty: 288,431 views; 51,958 downloads.
  • Succulent: 253,340 views; 34,954 downloads.
  • Stick Shift: 251,813 views; 48,175 downloads.
That said, they're just numbers. If you've ever made anything that went "viral" then you know that it never really changes your life! You'll just wake up the next day and the internet will be moderately bored of you, and the only way you'll know is that some numbers are smaller. Easy come easy go.

So instead, I often wonder whether I'm doing the "right thing" and whether I'm satisfied with my work. My games try very hard to co-opt popular AAA art styles and production values, but I've found that the winking often gets lost in play. For instance, one respected UK theater critic argued my games exemplified the worst tendencies of the commercial game industry. If my games can't speak to her, then who can they speak to? Maybe the trouble with sarcasm is that other people decide whether you're being sarcastic.

However, I'm also afraid of over-correction, of explaining myself too much. Radiator 1 started as "art games for gamers", games that assume a lot of familiarity with games culture, and try to build on that as an artistic context.

I've always been careful to keep my artist statements separate from the actual game experiences, because nothing kills a joke like explaining it. (The annoying part: some YouTubers basically re-telling the joke in your game, and then they basically take credit for it. The absolute worst part: when they ruin the delivery or they don't even understand the joke! AHHH!!!)

So the one gesture I've allowed myself is the Radiator 2 menu screen. I needed some striking new imagery to act as the central "visual identity" for this release (sorry, I went to design school) so I built a new scene using leftover motel assets from an old prototype and then splayed my 3D hunk star on the bed. (The condoms in the lower-right mark an invisible button to play a 4 year-old unreleased game called CondomCorps.)

The idea was that the hunk is exhausted from starring in my games, so during his downtime he's just relaxing in the shitty motel room that my minuscule development budget is able to afford for him, sipping a beer and watching bad TV. I wanted the flickering glow of the TV to highlight his crotch as well as the phallic placement of the beer bottle, but the camera angle also suggests we're watching the TV with him. We're ogling him but we're embodying him at the same time, and that weird concurrent-subject-object relationship is how video games often work.

I hope the sustained mood and quiet tone of this scene (thanks to Liz Ryerson for the excellent menu music by the way) contrast with the loud flashiness of Hurt Me Plenty, Succulent, and Stick Shift, and suggest that there's something more to these works than my critically-acclaimed cheek physics technology, as great as they are.

These games are loud in order to protect the times when they are quiet... because that's sometimes what people do too, right?