How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Rhapsodies on games, gaming, and why we play.


by anbrewk

I took some time to digest another criticism of my IFComp entry, one I was aware of well before I actually entered the IFComp and one I am hesitant to give too much credit to. That is, the criticism of unoriginality. As a fantasy game (story?), my project does include giants, doppelgangers, sirens (mermaids?), magic (sorcerers? warlocks?), witches, faeries, demons, elves, imps, dwarves, many of these not by name (imps, magic users, and witches are not named, neither are siren/mermaids). So, my project is squarely in the realm of “high fantasy.” So I admit I do not have the strange, absolutely original content of, say, China Mieville, who I think is a fantastic writer/creator and who has unbelievably imaginative worlds (City in the City is the most amazing example for me), yet I find the criticism of unoriginality in fantasy to be kind of a cop out. Is”unoriginality” really the issue?

Maybe a player/reader doesn’t like the world, the characters, the plot, the pacing, the prose? As a text-driven game with limited mechanical underpinnings, Labyrinth of Loci is essentially a vehicle for lore, much of which is inspired by folklore and popular culture (including D&D), but, really… not unoriginal. It borrows from and depends on other traditions, it is not totally original, but it’s not stolen. To say it is unoriginal is just to point out that it isn’t completely original, which seems like such an unnecessary condition. It’s really just a cheap shot against a piece of work one doesn’t already like for more substantive reasons. Unoriginality just isn’t that substantive unless it is completely iterative of someone else’s work.

I know many of the players in the IFComp community are writers/editors and they approach IF as stories, not games, which means my project absolutely fails because it isn’t a very good story (it’s a series of weird vignettes with story elements) and they are not designed to be complete, nor completely dependent on the quality of their prose (which is not very strong). They’re weird little capsules of experiences which, perhaps to my detriment as a creator, I expect the player to fill in. What I want, and I absolutely admit that I may have failed in this, is for the player to fill in the experience with doubt and apprehension and wonder and amusement. I don’t include those, I just… I hoped, that the player would find meaning and substance in their interaction with the work. But, of course, many won’t. Which is what brings me to my next project.

I want to improve on the player experience with work I create. I want people to feel attached and engaged with the world and the (potentially unoriginal-seeming) lore. I think, perhaps, the solution is in the human story. The human drama, the human connection, between story elements and game elements.

I think, perhaps, creating a stronger story (not in the sense of a singular narrative, but in the sense of stronger characters > individual people that a player may grow to care about through the power of prose) will make what is a whatever game experience into something the player cares about. If I have multiple endings, I want the player to care how those endings pan out for the characters involved. For those characters whom I want the player to care about. That, then, creates the problem of making the player care about any single character. How does one do that, I wonder? I hope, by continuing to work on projects, I’ll be able to figure that out.


I fixed it, but it’s still broken!

by anbrewk

I fixed my game, I thought, but it’s still proving buggy to some. A disappointment that it is being judged for gross technical failure and not all its other many failings. Labyrinth of Loci is not a winner! Yet, I am finding some solace in playing other games entered into the IFComp — not, as one might assume, because they are so much worse, but because I am honestly enjoying so many others. And some of those which I am so enjoying are also being panned for things that I rather liked.

Of course there are also some games which I found to be simple nothing experiences that are gaining praise.Which, I guess, is just part of the judging experience — shitting and loving, the biogenesis of a critic! (I was justly criticized for using overly formal words incorrectly. But, I like the idea that shit and love are living excretions from the activity of “being a critic.” (at least right now as I am emotionally recovering from the stings and bruises of having my creation critiqued)).

It is still most disappointing that my game is proving to be technically flawed in some way that I do not understand. Ah, well. To be shit on.


This might not be the place

by anbrewk

This year, I participated in the IFComp, a place for interactive fiction to convene and be judged. Though the competition is very real and the judging taken very seriously, I take it that at least in some way the competition is simply an excuse for IF writers and enthusiasts to create and share things.

What I’m discovering in my first foray into this community as one to be judged (or, whose work is to be judged) is that the kind of work that is expected and highlighted and adored is maybe not what I’m into… My work, Labyrinth of Loci, is not off to a great reception and not for no good reason. The one review I’ve read is quite damning and the other feedback I’ve received give me the stark impression that I did not judge my audience very well. While the review I read (which can be found here) brought up critical bugs I was unaware of (a damning indictment of any game (and a real bummer that I didn’t find them despite my efforts…)), some of the other criticisms were about the effectiveness of binary choices and the game’s failure to evoke a sense of ownership of the character. Criticisms which I took to be well thought out and not untrue. Given these were my two main goals, I’m distressed to have failed.

Even if I decide I might not really like the kind of IF that is praised by the community, I still respect the IF judges devotion to substantive criticism, regardless of whether I subscribe to their conclusions or even premises.

Given that choice was the main goal of my game, what I am most interested in, rather than my placing in the IFComp (especially since that is looking to be very poor), is the efficacy of my use of choice in the design and implementation of my project. The review quoted above thought the binary choices at the beginning of the game epitomized the problem of player ownership as the player must, at the outset, choose between two things they have no reason to care about. Yet, in those uninformed choices the player is given who their character is and what their character can and cant accomplish (in terms of paths and unlocks or what have you). Not unfair criticisms and not untrue.

My intention (not in my defense) was to provide the player with some context for the character they would then create by playing the game. I can see how that might just be a misunderstanding of a well known genre-conceit (it’s called character creation for a reason) and not at all a realistic expectation on the player.  Yet, I wonder now how I might have changed my approach to actually accomplish what I set out to do. My vision was for a ADOM-light character creation through narrative, where in-lieu of assigning points, you make narrative decisions which then assign points (of a sort).

Or NEO Scavenger where the character is a blank slate minus some simple characteristics (up until you discover who you truly are, though, that is optional and not all that definitive either).

Yet, I just said I didn’t really want it to be character creation at all, at least not in the sense that you are taking a fully formed individual and putting them in the world. I wanted it to be the creation of character context for the player to then make more substantive choices in a world they themselves were discovering. I can see how my implementation of that idea may have been misguided.

I wanted to avoid a linear narrative, to avoid given the character any sense of self whatsoever. Even the character choices at the beginning are, for better or worse, intentionally lacking in character. They’re just blank slates.

I wanted to create a little place where a player could experience a narrative arc of their own experience (yet of my design). I expected the player to make choices because they wanted to avoid, or experience, certain things. I thought that the more absent the character was, the more the player would fill that in. Yet, it may just be a (not so well-made) standard high-fantasy dungeon crawl. Oh well, not for trying.


by anbrewk

I forgot how humiliating it is to create things with inexpertise. I’ve started on another project after finishing my last one for the IFComp and just as I’m getting to tough and frustrating problems with coding and scripting, I go back to my just-finished project and find that the last touches and the final edits are all missing. I literally, just yesterday, emptied my trash, two weeks after finishing the project, and now find that maybe there would have been an archive in there that saved my final work. The version I currently have, the latest archive, the current file on my computer, and the file I submitted, are all old.

The final touches and edits are relatively minor. The few typos and whatever simple changes are lost in all the other imperfections so it isn’t damning, just disappointing.  Having made changes, having improved the work, having spent  hours of time on it and then for it to not be there, it’s sad. It feels wasted. Yet, I think of old DnD campaigns and books I’ve read and stories I’ve written, and it doesn’t matter to me if I can’t remember them or if I’ll never interact with them again. They still existed, they still counted.

Though may just be it Perhaps it doesn’t feel like it counted because it wasn’t part of the final form. Maybe that’s a fair thing to mourn. Although, like everything, as time passes, it will be forgotten. I can relive them or move on and avoid the future mistake of unsaved progress and unshared effort.

New work begins (I didn’t tell you I had finished)

by anbrewk

I finished my game, awhile ago. I had people play it and I made changes and added music and worked it till I felt I was done and now I am and it is. Now the IFComp has started and there it is, my game, only a few days in, awaiting judgment.

I’ve been nervous about it in the way that the things you do are representations of your choices. Your accomplishments (whether good or bad) are blameworthy. You are responsible for what you’ve done and that responsibility has weight and significance to it.

Though I am also excited. I am appreciative of what I’ve seen in criticism of other works. I appreciate that ratings from 1-10 are expected to be given and that those who judge have high expectations for content and completion and design and that they are willing to criticize and blame and judge. In that context, praise is more honest and criticisms, I think, more fair.

Back to work: FO4 is over (for now)

by anbrewk

So I stopped making my game! The Sadness overwhelms me and then is replaced by the memories of the winter wasteland holidays. Parties and friends and family so soon replaced with horrid arid radioactive wastes. My partner, Maia, naively convinced me to buy Fallout 4 just as the holidays were ending and I’ve spent the last three weeks playing it and doing very little else. Now that I’ve sunk my first one hundred hours and change into it, I feel it is time to take a break and get back to work. But before I do, I wanted to share some of my experience with the game and thoughts on its design, of which I have more than a few favorable comments to make.
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Time happens and we play games

by anbrewk

Or actually I don’t know what time does, only that it’s not what it used to be. And it’s not the playing of games that I wanted to talk about, though I have been doing a lot of that, but the writing of a game proposal.

Over the last three weeks, thanks to Berv’s suggestion, I’ve been working on a game design for N Square’s Game Challenge: design a game that “[inspires] creative solutions and novel approaches that foster greater understanding of nuclear proliferation and its related safety and security challenges”(NSquare).

Its been difficult not actually designing the game but rather making the broadest (most exciting!) pitch for NSquare to then, hopefully, be enthused about. It needed to be concise (800 words) but also capture whatever it was that made the game. It’s strange trying to describe ideas without actually refining them. It seems to me, and I think Berv has said this too, that so much of designing comes down to rethinking, reevaluating and redesigning as part of the process of making.

Even if you have some consistent idea in mind, an unchanging focus throughout the process which you might say was your “design,” that could be so broad as to be near undefinable. Or at least not accurately representative of what you actually end up making, despite having a strong family relation.

It makes me respect clear execution of vision. When someone follows a thought to an end which matches their original intention, that’s actually impressive.

But the most satisfying and exciting part of this process, and what I really wanted to talk about, has been the  successful collaboration with Berv. Separately we came up with some fledgling ideas, then shared what we’d come up with and gave feedback on what we’d done. Then splitting up again we worked on our ideas some more and reconvened again to share better ideas made better by having worked on them with each other.

And now we have two distinct proposals each with added insight and consideration from another trusted perspective. It’s awesome.

Collaborating with a partner in design is much more invigorating and exciting than working alone. Even while meeting to talk about this project, we talked about future projects and working together like this again. It’s exciting to think we could design and maybe build things together.

I hope that as time passes, we get better at this: working together and making things. Working together better and making better things. All the good.


Game Dev Log #5: Time awaits no one

by anbrewk

There’s was a point in this project (it happened to be a few days ago) where it becomes particularly clear that I am not making the ideal version of this game. Whereas I was at first designing around my inability, I am now building up to a ceiling to this project which is only partly limited by my inability. My vision is now further compromised by the time I am willing to devote to this and my own motivation to see my vision through.

The biggest limitation is following through with just what I actually set out to accomplish. The question is, “how much I am willing to invest to complete it?”

The latest example of this came after I received some good advice in regards to how my buttons are currently built. I was told that player options need to be apparent, even if they aren’t accessible at that moment. I had had made these buttons loop to empty options, such as the player picking “Strong” and that looping through text which simply stated “You are not strong,” before going back to the available options (‘Strong’ still being among them). It was suggested to me that I make these options greyed out and non-interactive rather than loops.

I agreed. I think it sets up the player interface to provide the same information to the player (this path exists but is not available) but faster and with less fuss. They don’t have to actually pursue the path to get it. They get it just by looking at the paths available.

The issue then wasn’t that this interfered with my previous vision, or even that it wasn’t something I couldn’t figure out how to do. It was just that in trying to implement greyed out buttons (something I’m sure would be nothing for someone competent in programming), proved to be pretty difficult given the system I’ve built. It turned out it would require me to redesign a couple core elements that I don’t have the patience or inclination to tackle. It’s not something I’m motivated to do.

This means I’ve essentially accepted an inferior game, in part because of my inability to tackle a problem but more so because of my lack of motivation to devote time to the problem. I dun wanna. In the beginning, as I began designing the game I had my own limitations in mind and made compromises then to design something possible. In the beginning I was designing the ideal game given my limitations. Now I am further restricting that vision beyond the limit I had previously set. I am compromising my vision for less justifiable reasons (though, I’m sure a sympathetic reader would agree, still justifiable—just not so much as before). It feels different now.

What I am at least happy about is that I have a working prototype that does what I want it to do. It sets out the game play elements I initially envisioned and establishes the thematic elements I had hoped to accomplish.

And it is at least somewhat encouraging that I acknowledge and understand the improvements to be made to my initial design, regardless of whether I am in a position to act on making those improvements.

What I’m most excited about now is completing the project. Moving beyond the prototype and completing the full set of rooms and stories I set out to do. It’s that which I really intended on doing. It’s that which I want to sink my motivation into.

The Juice: Megaman X’s Sub Tanks

by frangibility

Megaman X (1993) is great! It’s a superb example of Capcom at the peak of their 8- and 16-bit design powers, combining energetic music, expressive and whimsical sprites, creative bosses, and tough but fair level design. But rather than penning another paean to the game in general, I’d like to focus on one particular design decision that I think helped give the game a little something extra… the juice, if you will.


Previous entries in the series included special power-up items called Energy Tanks (or ‘E tanks’), which were typically hidden throughout the game world in locations that required some combination of precision platforming, keen deduction and/or unlocked Robot Master weapons to discover. Their function was simple: provide the player the option to refill their life-bar during the course of a particularly challenging boss battle or platforming section, which would potentially allow them to avoid the demoralizing appearance of a Game Over screen. In their earliest incarnation, using them was a serious strategic consideration, as they were single use items: once you expended an E-tank, it would never respawn or replenish, meaning that if you *still* failed to defeat the boss after expending one (a very real possibility if one was facing the Yellow Devil or any of the series’ other malevolently difficult robot foes), the only way to get it back was to restart the game (or re-enter a previous level select password).

In Megaman X, however, the developers tinkered with this formula with the invention of the Sub Tank. Though initially indistinguishable from an E-tank (given that they too are hidden throughout the game world’s various levels), upon finding their first one, the player quickly realizes that they are a somewhat different beast. Upon initial discovery, the item enters the player’s inventory (without any explanatory text) and sits there inert and unusable. With further play, however, the player will inevitably – at some point- run into a health power-up while their health-bar is already full, at which point they are treated to a previously unused sound effect, alerting them to the fact that *something* has happened. A quick glance at the inventory screen explains it: the previously empty bar in the center of the Sub Tank has begun to fill up. Once topped up, the player hears another new sound, signifying that the tank is now available for use.


Though a seemingly small change from the E-Tanks in previous franchise iterations, I noticed that it had two pronounced effects upon my engagement with the game: first, it provided a fun sub-challenge – namely, trying to get through the game’s levels without being injured, so as to fill up my sub-tanks as quickly as possible. In the process, it took a minor gaming annoyance (unusable power-ups) and turned them into an asset. Second, it also broke down a psychological barrier to using the tanks. As the type of player that typically makes it to the end of a game without ever making use of my best weapons or items (read: hoarder), the fact that these tanks could be refilled easily via good play not only lowered the stakes of using them, but also implicitly suggested that doing so was the intended way to play. Rather than being a crutch, they became another weapon in the arsenal. As far as I can tell, the only downside to sub-tank is that, when squaring off against a particularly challenging boss and failing repeatedly, one can be forced to visit prior levels in order to farm health power-ups, though in the right areas, this can be accomplished in less than a minute. Regardless, it is still much more forgiving than the evanescent, “one-and-done” E-tanks of yesteryear.


The gameification of power-up drops (through the creation of an additional “victory” condition), as well as the elegant, non-verbal manner through which this new game mechanic was explained to the player, were clever, thoughtful design choices. Though Mega Man X would certainly have remained an excellent game without this innovation, its inclusion took an already polished reinterpretation of the Mega Man formula and gave it a little extra juice.

Game Dev Log #4: Almost! So close!

by anbrewk

After my last post I had a very excited session of trying to script dialogue trees followed by a spiral of failure. I was and still am very happy with the minimal dialogue tree I was able to get working. The only issue was how minimal it was and how I was forced to rebuild it every time I made the slightest change. And because of my inexperience, I had a hard time efficiently reusing responses and prompts which meant I had these really messy if/else blocks that very quickly got out of hand. It was a mess.

Luckily for me, I had already reconciled myself to looking into dialogue assets to import from the asset store. The one I was eyeing up beforehand even happen to be on sale the day I looked into buying it. Then its been, surprisingly, only the last three days of me figuring out how to implement this new dialogue system in my existing game. Given my game is made up of very little, it’s easy for me to break it down and rebuild it. So I’ve mostly been using prefabs and example projects and then frankensteining them into what I wanted. Then they would inevitably break because of my mad scientist play, forcing me to figure out how to rebuild them. Just today I finally really started figuring out how the parts work and how to use those parts to further implement features I want.

Right now I have an almost complete prototype of ALL of the systems I want to implement in my game. And with the functionality of this dialogue system asset I imported, there are even more systems I could think about introducing.

Though nearing completion of the build reminds me that I still have a lot of content to produce, including the end game condition, I’m just excited to be making progress in an endeavor which is wholly unfamiliar to me. I’m really looking forward to the end of this in the most optimistic way.