Showing posts with label literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label literature. Show all posts

Monday, March 6, 2017

The melancholy of screen space in "Universal History of Light" by Stephen Lavelle

WARNING: This post somewhat "spoils" the 2014 game Universal History of Light.

Stephen "increpare" Lavelle's "Universal History of Light" is a highly symbolic "adventure" game released back in February 2014. Reviews at the time hinged on describing it as an "insane dog simulator" game, which doesn't really capture what the game does, so this is me trying to offer a more robust interpretation and understanding.

Universal History of Light begins with a short lecture about the dangers of using laser pointers with dogs. Because a small red laser dot is incorporeal and intangible, a dog can never actually "catch" it -- and they will never understand their inability to catch their "prey", which will supposedly haunt them and cause psychological damage for the rest of their lives.

You then play as the lecturer at the front of the lecture hall, and you point your laser pointer at a student's assistance dog / seeing-eye dog, thus inflicting catastrophic hallucinations upon the dog. The dog now enters the brilliant burst pictured above; what awaits the dog in a new dimension of pure light and knowledge?

Turns out, it is a world of monochrome trauma. In the distance, we see countless planes, searchlights, and anti-aircraft flak illuminate the night sky. As the dog, we are basically wandering the outskirts of London during the Blitz.

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)

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.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

On focalization, and against convenient understandings of immersion / flow.

This post is significantly changed from a talk I gave at Different Games. It was prompted by Jon Stokes approaching me and helpfully telling me that my talk made no sense, so hopefully this post will be more clear. SPOILER WARNING: I spoil Brendon Chung's excellent Thirty Flights of Loving.

As a self-proclaimed developer of "personal games", one thing that puzzles me about these games and empathy is that no one really knows how emotional transfer between players and games works -- like, what's really happening when you control a character in a game? Do you sympathize directly with the narrative situation, or are you role-playing, or do you think more in strategic terms, or what's going on? These words -- flow, immersion, empathy, role-playing -- how much do they really explain or predict how we, as humans, experience video games?

There's very little actual research on this because, I think, the game industry isn't interested in funding it and finding out. About the only researcher I've heard of is Jonas Linderoth and he argues for severe skepticism, or that games don't actually teach you anything outside of games -- and that isn't something the game industry would want people to hear.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Game narrative as improvisational theater / negotiation.

The current narrative systems prototype Shakespeare has been somewhat disappointing so far: the director switches, seemingly erratically, between 5-6 different plot threads, and nothing seems coherent. I need a way of (a) allowing the player to influence story pacing / scope, and (b) a way for the system to push back, to try to force some story pacing / scope.

For this, I'm looking at how improvisational comedy generates and upholds structure. You might've heard that improv is about "always saying yes," but there's a lot more to it, apparently.

Specifically, longform improv comedy involves actors cooperating to "find the game" -- to find the core of a joke. Each actor makes "offers" to expand upon a premise and move action forward, hopefully toward a funny destination, and usually, actors err on always accepting offers ("saying yes") and building upon it since "blocking" offers frustrates your scene partners. However, it's very possible to "say yes" to a premise while still "blocking" the "game."

Here's an explanation from an NYC improv comedy personality, Will Hines:

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Narrative systems workflow; using Fourier analysis and level design metaphors to systemize stories.

This assumes familiarity with Shakespeare, a procedurally-branching narrative system that I'm designing. For an overview / introduction, read "More talk, more rock."

I started by arguing that interactive fiction's narrative systems expose too much complexity and detail to its authors and players, or at least more than most people need or want. With Shakespeare, I hope to achieve just a fraction of that functionality, and I think that fraction is enough to be very compelling while facilitating a writer's work.

In engineering Shakespeare, I think of the system in four parts:
a) The real-time system that runs algorithms, interfaces with the game as the player plays.
b) The data / format of narrative itself, how it's structured.
c) The Unity editor interface for generating, editing, or creating the narrative data.
d) The suggested workflow / instructions for using that interface.

Now that I have enough of a base implemented, I'm starting to think more about that last part, the operations design. Roughly, I think the tool could work like this:

Monday, November 26, 2012

Radiator Blog: Three Year Anniversary

Wow, I've been blogging here for about 3 years now. This blog is now approaching the end of its toddler years. Much like last year, and the year before, here's a "greatest hits" compilation of this past year's posts:

(Oh, and feel free to have some cake. Forks and plates are over there, on the table.)


  • Level With Me, a post-mortem. A Portal 2 mod I did for Rock Paper Shotgun. The level design is some of my better work, and I like the idea of game journalism in the form of games, but it seemed somewhat cooly received. I have to conclude that it must simply be not as good as I think it is... or that Portal 2 players are super lame.
  • The Future of the FPS, written for PC Gamer UK in issue 240. A short essay and list of really cool indie FPS games and how they're changing the genre, kind of the basis for my later RPS series. Thanks Graham!
  • A People's History of the FPS. A three-part essay series for Rock Paper Shotgun that argues mods are transcending their video game bodies, becoming genuine culture that is increasingly independent of the products that they're meant to be "modding" and adding value to.

  • The myth of psychological realism in narrative. Argues that thinking of fictional characters as "people" is meaningless for a writer. It is much more useful to write by thinking of a character as a vehicle for plot, and let the player fill-in character for themselves.
  • Dishonored fails as an immersive sim in its first minute. The simulation should be "immersive" -- meaning, the scope of it should be consistent and everywhere. Scripting special cases goes against this genre dogma.
  • Dishonored uses the Heart to lie to you. You'd expect the Heart to be an unreliable narrator of some sort, but it doesn't lie to you with narrative -- it lies to you through gameplay and psychological framing.
  • "Stair K": architecture criticism, Thief, and a coffee maker. Situates Thief as dialog on social class and urban architecture. (e.g. stairs are invisible to rich people who take taxis, not subways, and frequent buildings with abundances of elevators) It argues that in Thief, stealing is framed as an ethical act because the rich deny the truth and infrastructure of cities.
  • Thief 1's "Assassins" and its environmental storytelling. I really hate the type of analysis that just thinks of game narrative as a static text that you read -- game narrative is also a game design tool, a way to make the game better to play. Games tell stories, yes, but those stories tell games too.
  • What do simulations simulate? Argues that a simulation gap is important for framing a narrative.
  • The structure of Sleep No More (part 1, no spoilers) and (part 2, detailed and spoilery). You paid a lot to see this damn show everyone's raving about and now you're inside, on a timer. Are you going to spend your valuable time (a) reading faint scribbles on random pieces of paper under a dim flickering light-bulb or (b) follow the crazy naked people who have an interpretive dance orgy in a blood-smeared disco?

    I still think a lot of "game critics on Sleep No More" like the idea of it more than how people actually consume it -- unfortunately, reading is boring and performance is captivating. So I argue the readables function as set dressing to assure you of the production's expense, not to serve as barely coherent narrative in a familiar plot that's hundreds of years old. Of course, the dancing's fantastic, but I guess it's hard to argue for the value of dance to gamer culture.
  • Rule Databases for Contextual Narrative. On modding Valve's dynamic self-branching conversation system and using it to author dynamic self-branching narrative, and how Emily Short's already doing something like that, naturally. I think it's one of the more promising directions toward a holy grail of procedural narrative.
  • Balls and conversation: let's narrativize the sports genre. I really love baseball movies, but I'm really bored by the focus on statistics, which is probably why Moneyball sucked. There's a rich tradition of sports narratives in film and literature, but in video games it's conspicuously absent. Let's change that.
  • "Do you think shooters take themselves too seriously?" We watch blockbusters in a special way, I think, but the gulf between action films and action games is this: the films are structured to be human and sympathetic, but games are sociopathic and mean. This is a game narrative writing problem.

  • Frog Fractions should really win something at the IGF.
  • On appreciating the UV texture flat as fine art. Here, I propose three aesthetic modes for enjoying texture flats on their own merits and glorifying them as authentic game art, rather than the silly concept art we parade as game art. I later re-wrote this piece for Game Developer magazine, as "Loving the Bones."
  • Desperate Gods and rules-forcing in games. Pretty recent, but I think it's a good summary of current thought on the issue -- if you can play a game of Starcraft in your head, and Starcraft exists fundamentally more as a mental construct than a product, then why can't we just argue the rules of Starcraft in the same way we interpret and amend the laws of board games.
  • On grad school for games / what studying at Parsons was like. Imagine a cohort of game developers from all around the world, and 50% are women, and 10% aren't straight people. Parsons is like the rainforest: diverse, beautiful, and vital to the global ecosystem -- but it's also humid, with lots of insects everywhere, and it's constantly in danger of deforestation. It's not for some people, while others will really grow to love it.

  • Why Indiecade is the best games conference / festival I've ever been to. It might sound like hyperbole but it really isn't.
  • I spoke at Games for Change this past year, on LGBTQ attitudes and developers in games. It went great. I began with "I'm Robert Yang, and I'm a practicing homosexual" -- and the entire auditorium erupted in applause and cheering. It was an amazing feeling.
  • Notes on the Games for Change industry. Fun fact: I got into an argument with a G4C speaker in the comments. His stance -- yeah the games suck, but people want to put a lot of money into this, so just accept it. My stance -- art should be a free or reasonably available public good, not a product.
  • How the worst part of the game industry uses PAX East to teabag your entire face with its cancerous scrotum. I encourage everyone to go to at least one big mass market game convention, because that's when you will know what "indie" really means and you'll realize how small, puny, and insignificant we "video game intelligentsia" really are. The sheer amount of money being thrown around in this industry is insane -- the money spent on a 20-foot tall Blops booth-complex, blaring out noise at a regular interval, is a huge contrast to the humility and humanity of indie game culture.
  • What were the main trends of GDC 2012? A look-back on what happened and what stuck out as significant.

    • Shader-based worldspace UVs ("triplanar") in Unity. The worst thing about BioShock's environments is the cookie-cutter feel of the game architecture, the result of modular building in game engines today. The scale and proportions don't feel human or plausible. To me, one answer is to embrace old school BSP construction techniques with procedural UVs so that you can scale your primitives to arbitrary sizes without texture stretching.
    • How to integrate Unity and Twine. Notes on Unity's web player JS hooks, and how that can feed into Twine's JS, or any webpage's JS, really.
    • How to dig holes in Unity terrains. How to use depth mask meshes to selectively mask geometry, then disable the terrain collider temporarily.
    • The best Unity tutorial writer in the world. He really is. I'd pay him to write a book, in fact, but unfortunately I'm poor.

    Tuesday, June 12, 2012

    7dfps, halftime report

    Hey! I've been chugging away on my 7 Day FPS entry, "The Leaden Circles," a single player squad FPS based on Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway. I was planning on cross-posting all my updates here, but I decided it would've been too much, so read all my daily dev posts over there.

    I also want to draw your attention to some other entries I've been watching:

    "Table For One" tasks you with being an utter glutton, re-imagining Dinner Date as a physics puzzle with a playful Natural Selection-ish skulk cam perspective (best. view model. ever.) because hey, don't we see with our mouths sometimes? The current build is absurdly difficult, at least to me, so I hope he makes it easier!

    "Europa Concept" looks like some sort of high fidelity sci-fi survival thing about crash-landing on one of Jupiter's moons (Europa is one of Jupiter's moons, right?) and managing your inventory and crafting and shooting, or something. The developer's quite a Unity veteran, so I'm sure this'll be pretty slick in the end.

    Thursday, June 7, 2012

    7dfps: The Leaden Circles, prep

    (I'm making an FPS in 7 days, as are many other designers. This is cross-posted.)

    "One feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air."

    Mrs. Dalloway is a novel by Virginia Woolf about a rich white lady in 1920s London throwing a party for a bunch of random acquaintances she doesn't really care about. She does it because she likes the attention and it's good for her husband's career.

    It's also about a smart-ass white dude coming back from India who judges everyone.

    It's also about a depressed World War I veteran who's going insane, hearing trees sing in ancient Greek. It's also about.... well, 20 other people.

    It's not an easy read on the first try. Virginia Woolf wrote it in a "stream of consciousness" style, meaning you go back and forth between different characters' heads, often without warning -- sometimes several times in a paragraph. Sometimes you're reading what he thinks she thinks he thinks, as filtered by her (?!) but trust me, it's rewarding. Part of the idea behind making this is that hopefully it'll make the logic and systems governing the book (novels and narratives are systems!) more apparent.

    Now, most of the different book covers feature a portrait of some random lady on the front... which totally misses the point. My favorite version is the one above, Wassily Kandinsky's Akzent in Rosa (1926). Sure, the book is about a Mrs. Dalloway, but it's also about consciousness, some kind of unseen universe on the edges of human comprehension.

    My plan is to adapt Mrs. Dalloway as "The Leaden Circles," a single player squad shooter with a stream of consciousness mechanic, kind of in a Space Hulk format. You'll ping pong between the different characters, chaining together thoughts, memories, and feelings -- and to win, you have to get this rich petty vapid white lady to feel something deeply profound at the end of the day.

    I'll be using Unity, C#, Maya, Audacity, Photoshop, and source material from Virginia Woolf, CGTextures,

    Let's do this, and good luck to everyone!

    Friday, March 16, 2012

    What games can learn from Sleep No More (part 1): the death of environmental storytelling.

    Part 1 contains VAGUE SPOILERS, as if your friend had gone to Sleep No More and told you about it, or as if you had read a news article about it.

    Although there have been many past theater productions that have done generally what it does, Sleep No More is what's going to be most prominent in history. It's basically a 5 floor tall, 100 room haunted house with dancers wordlessly performing a loose adaptation of Macbeth throughout the maze -- and you and everyone else are wearing masks, staring and shuffling silently through the halls. It transforms contemporary theater and dance into something relevant for people who'd otherwise see little value in it.

    I value it mostly for its interaction model and the ways it uses architecture in specific ways; it is what happens when outsiders use level design concepts better than video games ever have. First I'd like to debunk what I consider to be the "conventional reading" of it and its relevance to video games, as argued by game critics.

    Thursday, February 23, 2012

    Dear Esther

    From the Wikipedia article on "cut-up technique," emphasis mine:

    A precedent of the technique occurred during a Dadaist rally in the 1920s in which Tristan Tzara offered to create a poem on the spot by pulling words at random from a hat. [...] Gysin introduced Burroughs to the technique at the Beat Hotel. The pair later applied the technique to printed media and audio recordings in an effort to decode the material's implicit content, hypothesizing that such a technique could be used to discover the true meaning of a given text. Burroughs also suggested cut-ups may be effective as a form of divination saying, "When you cut into the present the future leaks out."

    See also "unreliable narrator," "lyrical poetry," and "ludodiegesis." Though some people would rather argue that poetry is supposed to be straightforward and accessible and worth $10 of some arbitrary unit of entertainment?

    I imagine it'd be fairly easy to rig Hammer to make custom Dear Esther levels. Coming soon: "Dearer Esther."

    Monday, December 14, 2009

    How to Close Read Video Games

    Novels, poems, plays, short stories -- they all communicate meaning through the ways they use language and how the reader perceives the work as a whole. Even though they are fixed, static texts, vastly different readings and experiences are possible.

    Is Hamlet sane, or is he secretly crazy even though he thinks he's sane? (After all, crazy people rarely think they're crazy.) Both sides (among others) have been argued, yet it's all focused on the same text. The difference is that you, personally, will find one reading more convincing than the other.

    Games, meanwhile, communicate meaning through the ways they use gameplay mechanics and how the player perceives the work as a whole. Even though many of them are fixed, static spaces with only so many choices / branches, vastly different playthroughs and experiences are possible.