Friday, December 21, 2018

Radiator Blog: Ninth (9th) Anniversary Roundup

Wow, it's been nine years. I didn't write as much as last year, partly because I took on so many small projects and did so much traveling this year. (There was one month where I was basically in a different country every week!) But overall I think this blogging pace has been sustainable, and for the future I'm going to aim for this kind of rhythm of posting: roughly once a week.

In the tradition of past anniversaries, I use this annual post to try to collect and curate all the blogging I did over the past year, and maybe even do a little bit of reflecting.

First: as usual, I cover some individual games...
  • NSFware is one of the best sex games I've played, and I think my favorite thing about it is that it's so much about timing and feel -- yet it was made in Adventure Game Studio, an engine not known for its timing and feel (to be charitable). The process of rotoscoping from PornHub videos also lends it an uncanny quality, despite the abstract neon color palette. Basically a masterpiece.
  • The Forgotten City was a popular Skyrim mod that felt very "dense" to me, with lots of possible options and connections between its various NPCs and quests. Like other "dense quests" in Bethesda-style open world RPGs, it also doubles as a commentary on the game systems and simulation, exposing assumptions and limitations and engaging with that friction.
  • Subnautica brilliantly solves 3D 6DOF open world design in a novel way. Most open world games are about traveling laterally to the edges, but here Unknown Worlds provides a fresher approach to progression with its focus on (literal) depth to the bottom of the ocean. It's especially ambitious to do this in a first person format, a genre where players rarely look up or down.
  • Fortune 499 is a innovative deckbuilding puzzle RPG with a fresh story that meaningfully engages with the accounting inherent in CCG-style mechanics. It also has some very compelling encounter design, resulting in an RPG with no grind and no "filler puzzles." It's a huge shame that more people didn't play this game, it basically does what everyone claims to want, and it's smart about it too.
  • Un Pueblo De Nada is a short game mirroring an experimental short film within the Kentucky Route Zero universe. There's an attention to detail and craft here that is basically unmatched anywhere else in games; I've also become so paranoid that I think this game has secret messages intended just for me, hidden deep inside it??? Anyway GOTY 2018

I also did more level design projects this year...
  • I'm continuing my Level With Me project, where I live stream let's plays of games and improvise level design commentary. This year, I finished BioShock 1, The Beginner's Guide, and Thief 1, and I featured a few other smaller shorter games like Jalopy, Return Of The Obra Dinn, and The Light Keeps Us Safe.
  • PC Gamer UK commissioned another Half-Life level design analysis from me. The result was "Coast Guide" detailing one of the road trip sections from Half-Life 2, which I argue is one of the better and more memorable sequences of the entire game. It's also particularly elegant in how Valve wants you to stay with your jeep, and the antlion spawn system basically forces you to stay with your jeep.
  • At GDC 2018 I gave a talk intended to introduce people to lighting design for levels, along with some basic beginner theory about three-point lighting, and how to light spaces for encounters / player navigation. In 2020 I might do an intermediate lighting design talk that covers more complicated approaches and design patterns, but part of the problem is the very heterogeneous audience for these kinds of talks -- there are environment artists who just want technical knowledge and don't understand player experience, and then there's level designers who need to filter everything through a player experience framing.
  • My history / rant against "cover boxes" in level design went mildly viral, maybe because everyone recognizes how common and boring this design object has become. How many waist-height box-shaped things do we need in video games? Why is that the dominant shape of level design these days? There's a larger industry shift I don't cover in the post: making a big open world landscape with a bunch of shit in the middle is now much easier than building a complex interior.

2018 saw some big historical shifts in thinking about games...
  • Future of labor. There is now growing momentum towards unionization in games, something I probably wouldn't have predicted at the start of the year. For me, the big turning point was GDC 2018, where I attended the IGDA Unionization roundtable and felt all the energy coming from the community. And now in the same year, Game Workers Unite UK has just announced they have obtained official trade union status -- it's all moving surprisingly fast.
  • Museums and games. I visited the V&A Videogames exhibition in London that opened this year, and (spoiler) it's probably the best video game exhibition I've seen in any major museum. It also makes good use of its stature and resources, negotiating access to rare design materials like Splatoon playtest footage or a Journey production spreadsheet that would otherwise be difficult for anyone else to acquire.
  • The death of the FPS. I argue that the FPS genre is in decline. 2018 marked the year when the most popular shooters weren't first person, and the most interesting first person games don't care about shooting at all. (Today you could argue third person shooters are the same as first person shooters, but the Valve of 1998 or 2004 would've started screaming.) I've since gotten into many arguments with upset gamers -- what about Destiny 2 or Overwatch, they insist, as they wave their hardearned gun skins at me -- but no one is cloning Destiny or Overwatch, those games are basically the last of their kind, in the same way that World Of Warcraft was basically the last MMORPG.

Thoughts on game academia and criticism...
  • "Where is all the game criticism" is a common refrain on Twitter every year... well, among those who don't actually care about the answer. What if we all agree to stop giving a shit about the gamers and industry people who will never care about criticism, and seek out new alliances and audiences? Games critics have more in common with music critics or architecture critics than gamers, and video game exceptionalism is just a national myth that keeps us desperate for perpetually withheld approval.
  • "Why aren't there any good game schools that prepare every student to be properly exploited/utilized by the game industry" is also a common refrain on Twitter every year, usually among well-meaning developers who've recently talked to an anxious student. As someone who actually does this shit for a living, I've written this briefing about the state of game schools and universities teaching game design. My post boils down to (1) don't confuse predatory diploma mills with actual accredited universities that invest in teaching, which still charge exorbitant tuition but for slightly more ethical unavoidable reasons, (2) the commercial industry is not academia's boss or sole priority, (3) besides, academia and the student loan complex are even more complicated and fucked-up than you think!
  • On a slightly more positive and productive note -- I attended a lovely "Games as Research" symposium at Concordia University, which assembled a bunch of people to think about "how to do research with games" and how to define what we mean by "research" anyway. Here's my write-up of the various presenters and sessions.

And lastly, some indie games theory...
  • Neorealism. I am one of the relatively few weirdo experimental artsy game designers who works heavily in realism, and I'm always fighting against the indie rejection of photorealism. A theory of neorealism in games is my answer to why realism can be a force for good instead of evil: realism is one (powerful) way of being political and supporting marginalized people, and you can use it to gesture toward the long tradition of social realism in art. There's also a deluded denial with some anti-realism arguments; pixel art / painterly game aesthetics have their own spiritual bankruptcy, they're not necessarily more authentic than photorealism.
  • Feel. I've wanted to give a "queering game feel" for a while and so I finally did at Queerness and Games Conference 2018. To me, game feel has a lot of explanatory power about what makes games compelling, while also keeping it in the realm of concrete patterns to analyze. Instead of waving our hands around and whispering "interactivity", we can talk about the specific ways that games are interactive -- the way the game feels.
  • Wikipedia. I complained about Michael Brough's Wikipedia page, and basically wrote 2/3 of it myself. I argue it's important to maintain archives like Wikipedia, because for a new young generation of indie developers, Wikipedia is usually the first step for finding out who the heck Michael Brough is, or (your-favorite-indie). It's important to survive, but it's also important to remember each other and to educate, which is just another aspect of survival.
  • Grinding. I was particularly inspired by the grinding metagame in Arc The Lad, which made me think of Gertrude Stein's ideas about repetition. It made me theorize how more experimental indie games could make more artistic use of grinding and repetition, rather than sleepwalking into the typical industrial approach to grinding, like padding out game length to appease consumer-kings. What if grinding was conceptually difficult and challenging? The savegame file is one possible praxis for this, as Arc The Lad demonstrates.

Wow, what a year, huh? See everyone in 2019.

(RELATED: see anniversary roundups from past years here, under the "anniversary" tag.)