How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Rhapsodies on games, gaming, and why we play.

Category: Uncategorized

Unoriginal

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.

 

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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.

 

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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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.

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.

Game Dev Log #2: Progress

by anbrewk

Computer language is relatively simple in terms of language but I’m discovering that there are some similar pitfalls. Just as with natural languages, you learn words before you learn grammar and only once you’ve truly mastered a language are you able to fluidly produce novel sentences completely of your own design and error free. That last part is the difficulty that mastery evades because the first part, creating novel sentences, is actually not too difficult for a novice. In many ways, you’re almost more likely to say absurdly original things. Of course they aren’t at all intelligible and serve to alienate your audience and yourself. Of course, it’s only through rigorous studying and many many mistakes that one overcomes that difficulty and starts to slowly integrate a language’s grammar into the way in which one both uses and understands the words one has at her disposal.

In the last couple days, I’ve tickled myself with coming up with these neat ways of solving the problems presented to me and then, in my attempts at realizing my solutions, have realized I’m just not using my words right. I create this or that and then discover that that’s not how Unity works (not that I then understand how it does work, just that it becomes clear to me that what I did does not work). Its been a source of some frustration, as one comment I made just earlier today to my partner sums up: “the best thing about having a hobby, is how ANGRY it makes you.”

But I’ve come a little ways since being angry and frustrated a number of times over the last few days. I have taken one of my solutions and refigured it so that it actually works as a code in Unity. I have a small array of strings, a random way of accessing them and they’re tied to a game object which displays the strings just as I want them. That, is some progress!

Three years and the summer’s keep coming

by anbrewk

I’d like to still use this. Why not? This can still be a place for writing about games. So I will.

I have returned, the least of us is back.

I’ve been giving feedback on a new development I have alpha access to. It’s an odd experience being on the outside of a design team, whispering nothings into the void and having official responses back. I don’t mind it, it’s encouraging that I get responses and some of my feedback leads to changes and some of the things I’m responding to offer me an opportunity to focus on bigger ideas about design and games in general.

Just today I responded to some new voice acting that has been added to the tutorial of this game in progress. I didn’t like the voice acting, the sound of the actors, their cadence, whatever. But what I really responded to was what having voices meant for the game. It gave these talking heads, these images, this specificity that they had lacked. They became less like how I imagined them and more like how they were.

They had been these vague story elements, this cast of characters that I could add to or ignore. A turn of phrase I didn’t like, I could ignore, but a voice is way too concrete, too definite, to not acknowledge. The more specific the characters are, the less I get to imprint on them and imagine how they might be different. It was kind of a big thing, actually. Even just having the first few sentences of a string of dialogue read out meant that all of the dialogue was in that voice. A weird frog looking alien has a Brooklyn accent. A Brooklyn accent, how am I to ignore that? How am I to integrate that into my imaginings of this world he inhabits? It’s a thing.
I think voice acting has the potential to generate a lot of genuine feeling, to be a meaningful addition to a game. But that’s just it I guess. It’s a meaningful addition to a game by necessity of what it is. It’s unignorable, it’s significant.

Though it’s just voice, it’s an aspect of a character that leaving out means leaving in the audience’s mind for them to imagine. Written dialogue, like any writing, has this wonderful imprecision that allows one to state exactly what is said but without actually saying it so the reader has everything the writer wants to convey but is left with the most important part, the actual interpretation, the actual imagining. It’s powerful.

It’s those kind of thoughts that I really like out of giving this feedback. It’s this opportunity for me to think about games in general through the lens of looking at one particular game that’s the most invigorating about this.

Dirt bikes! Bro hangs!

by anbrewk

Tonight, my cousin and I found a dirt bike, and a tractor and the tractor had been destroyed and there was a dead body beside it. If that isn’t the most terrifying way to start your evening, I don’t know what.

This, of course, all took place in the world of DayZ – a game I had taken a hiatus from about the time I wrote my last article for this blog on how disturbing the player vs. player experience has been for me. I was convinced by my cousin to give it another go. Not a terribly difficult thing to do as I really like DayZ, I’m just hesitant to go head long into the world by myself. He’s so kind-heart and fun oriented that it’s hard not to find pleasure in just surviving even if there is a constant threat of being murdered around every corner.

This last attempt at playing turned out to be a lot of fun. In part, because we were on a server near empty of players. But not empty enough for us to not come across any. Low and behold, as we came to the airfield my cousin spotted a once working tractor that had to have been driven there because drive-able tractors don’t spawn on the airfield. Now the airfield is the highest loot area in the game and a death sentence for new players who are likely to get ambushed by bandits there. Drive-able vehicles are rare, as rare as the kind of loot that maybe just might spawn at the airfield, but when we got there expecting good loot in no way did we expect to find a dirt bike.

But then there it was, not far away from the tractor and not far away from the dead body beside the tractor. My cousin was so into the idea of this dirt bike running that he didn’t worry at all about how that dead body got to be there or what happened to that totally ruined tractor. Maybe the driver got overwhelmed by zombies, drawn to the noise of the engine, but maybe he got killed by someone. Well, when I say ‘someone’ I really mean ‘Jake’ because Jake was the only other player on the server at the time. But who knows? I’m paranoid enough to think that in 225km2 I am likely to die to the other one player I am not related to.

As my cousin got closer to the dirt bike he happily reported to me (I was 100 meters away with my binoculars, not daring to get anywhere near Jake’s clever ambush) that the dirt bike was bright red with flames. A fact I soon confirmed as he assured me it could seat two. And oh boy was it ever nifty looking. As soon as I maneuvered my way past the zombies into that hanger, I found my cousin sitting in the drivers seat with room for just one more. Soon, I was hopping on the back and flying away from all the terribleness in the world.

It was amazing. After running around on foot for so long, riding in a vehicle felt like flying. Everything became so close. Now if only we had any more gas… it’s almost out so we hid it where it’s now waiting for us to bring it more of the sweet nectar it needs. Soon, soon we will ride it again but until then it waits in a secret spot atop a hill no one knows about. Soon we will ride it again.

Journey into despair: DayZ!

by anbrewk

I’m trying to run the gambit of experiences with DayZ without committing murder. Before I bought the game, I knew that player killing was a part of it and that some people actively hunted other players. They were described to me as bandits looking for loot – it’s easier to loot a player who just looted a city than to loot the city was their motivation.  Though bandits may exist, I have encountered a lot more psychos than bandits. The players I would call psychos are the ones who actively hunt other players. If these players could wear human hands on their belts like trophies, I am sure many would. Just today I got chased around by someone carrying an axe while his friend shot at me with what sounded like an AK. Somehow I survived just long enough to shoot the axe wielding psycho with my pistol before making it to a church to bleed to death, alone. I had wanted to survive but I don’t know what for. That scenario I just described got my heart pumping so hard that I honestly don’t think I’ve had that much adrenaline in my blood before. I was so stressed  out over dieing when I had only been alive for 5 minutes. I had just found that gun and didn’t owe anything to not be killed. I just really didn’t want to die. Why didn’t I want to die?

Computer zombies create danger and a threatening atmosphere but it’s the psycho human players that will kill you.  They’re the ones who are going to set up ambushes and snipe you from 500m away. While zombies are dangerous, it’s the human players that I’m scared of. It’s kind of perfect while being totally horrible. It is exactly what I would tout as the zombie experience: zombies are just scene dressing while human interaction is the real story.

Never in a computer game had I ever felt wronged like in DayZ. Today, after leaving a campsite with a friend I was playing with, we were ambushed by 2 or maybe 3 human players. I don’t know how many because I hit the ground in shock with broken bones and bled to death before I could get a good look. I didn’t fire a shot, not before and not after they opened fire. I had wanted to but it happened too fast for me to react. I was dead without having done anything – without even having tried to defend myself. I said to my friend, “They just murdered us. That was just murder.” I know concerned overly suspicious parents might accuse video games of being murder simulators but never have I taken that accusation so seriously until now.

DayZ is a mod for a game that was designed to be realistic. Before being chased by the axe murderer, I was shot at through a window. I heard breaking glass and hit the floor – not by choice but because I had fallen unconscious and was bleeding to death.  I had been shot at through a window with no way of dealing with it but to lay there and hope to come to.  The sound of the gunshot and breaking glass and the terrifying and helpless outcome were all very real. I was scared and felt betrayed. I didn’t do anything to deserve this but there I was dieing anyway.

Despite all the negativity in this game – murder, death, panic, fear, betrayal – it is definitely a lot of feedback.  After just purchasing a new computer with all my favorite games, I am drawn to play the one that is the most reprehensible because it is the most exciting and intriguing. The other day I had fun throwing flares in part because I knew other people could see them and were wondering about them. I thought they might be trying to kill me and the flares might have thrown off their nightvision goggles or maybe it drew their attention away from my position as they thought I would walk in the light of the flares. At least, I thought, it might be scary to see the city lit up like that. Wondering about the other players disposition and motivation is fascinating, even if it seems that most players motivation may be simplified to human killing. I wonder if they feel bad for killing ever. You can directly communicate with other players so someone can say something as they die. I wonder what people say. I’ve been too panicked and stressed out to say anything. I still flush when I talk with someone because I don’t feel safe and I don’t know why I’m talking.

I don’t know how I feel about this game but I’m interested enough to keep playing. I’m still not willing to delve into the depth of murdering other players though. It might be a game where you can murder other players, but it’s still a choice whether you do; I am reminded of East of Eden, which I just finished reading and John Steinbeck’s declaration that ‘Thou shalt” is a mistranslation of the bible and that “Thou mayest’ is the proper one – the one that gives human beings a choice to be good or evil. In DayZ, I think what might be so intriguing, what gives this game so much depth, is exactly that kind of choice found in the words ‘thou mayest.’