How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Rhapsodies on games, gaming, and why we play.

Game Dev Log #3: Prototype

by anbrewk

My prototype is almost ready! The main components of the prototype are one main screen and two “rooms.” The main screen acts as a point of reference for the player to return to. It’s meant to represent a hallway in some type of labyrinth with each iteration of the hallway containing two randomly assigned doors from which the player chooses one. I had already made a bunch of pixel-art doors and written up a bunch of text that I am now slotting into the framework I’ve built. The door images are taken in a random order from an array along with their corresponding door descriptions. When the player clicks on a door, they then enter the corresponding room. The player can then return to the labyrinth’s corridor from the that room and then again enter further randomly assigned rooms.

I still have to build the interaction response/prompt system for each room, which I think is going to be difficult. I had originally thought I would make one room template and have all of its text and options populated from arrays but that’s proving to be hard to even get started. So my current plan entails  building every room as a distinct level which I think from an organizational standpoint will be a lot cleaner and easier to edit/change. So it’s probably a win my first idea proved too difficult/not possible.

Before I tackle the response/prompts though, I’m going to make a game over screen and link it to a bool for player health. At the end of each room, the player will either be dead or alive. Alive, go back to the hallway. Dead, go to the end screen and either try again or quit. Then from there, it’s the response/prompts …and an abilities screen with variables tied to choices that will be available conditionally on those abilities being chosen. Which I think after building the response/prompt system should be a relatively straightforward  addition. I think…

Regardless, I’m very excited about the kind of progress I’ve been making given what little experience I have. It’s gratifying how much the final game is coming to look and feel the way I want it.

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!

Game Dev Log #1

by anbrewk

Over September I’m working on a simple text based game with some visual aspects in Unity. My first week and a bit has been spent anticipating design hurtles. I’m building it in an unfamiliar engine and as an almost complete beginner in coding. Given my very little programming experience, any coding whatsoever, like anything at all, is difficult and tiring.

That being said, the actual planning of what/how to implement my ideas in code is kind of exciting — until I have to actually implement them that is… which is what I started to do yesterday. I had ordered another monitor to make my work space more manageable and had been waiting for its arrival before I started. Yesterday it arrived and I began to go through some of the tutorials I had book marked over the last couple weeks.

I had already discounted a few of them prior to anything because as I made a list of features and thought about implementation, it became obvious many of the tutorials were for drastically different things that what I planned to do. Given that, there were only a couple tutorials worth looking at and only because they clarified some of Unity’s features and interface. Entering a new program is somewhat daunting so the hand holding there was actually quite appreciated.

After I felt a bit more comfortable with the interface, it began to become increasingly obvious that Unity can do a lot of things that I do not understand AND a lot of the things I want it to do are not obvious. Given I want to make a text based game in a physics based engine, it shouldn’t surprise me that much of what Unity can do is not what I want it to do.

After giving up on finding a tutorial that would essentially show me how to make my game, I eventually found some success just trying to make a single feature work: a button!

My plan is to essentially make a game menu that leads to other menus using GUI elements because that’s really what the back end of my game consists in: 2D pages with doodads on them that the user can interact with and which, when interacted with, change either the page you’re on or the content of the text on the page. The dialogue part, which I just very poorly described, is actually going to be the most complex, I think, but this morning I did, successfully, create my first button. Which is not a minor thing. It is a major element of my game which I successfully made a very poor version of which actually did a thing I wanted to do. It’s an ugly button and it only does one thing I want it to do (and not to the full extent I want it to do it), but it works. And so I’m pretty happy about that. Day 2 of n00b coding and I have part of one of my games features partially implemented. That, is pretty cool.

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.

The deluge, in brief

by berv

This week has seen me cycle through a whole bunch of games in my Steam library, some sort of attempt to clear my mental gamespace so that I might be more productive in my own work. Ha. We’ll see about that. Regardless, I did pick up a number of experiences I thought were worth sharing (and even if they’re not, they were certainly worth having). So, in brief:

Serious Sam 2: For an FPS predicated on fast, mobile gunplay against hordes of baddies, getting across the game world sure is a trudge. The huge areas with all sorts of unpopulated crannies make secret-finding a chore (unlike in Serious Sam Double D, which I loved to bits).

realMyst: I’ve got lots to say about revisiting Myst after almost 20 years, but for now I just want to comment on this version’s shift to free first-person movement (as opposed to the static pre-rendered scenes of the original). Filling in all the gaps, letting you walk behind and around all the points of interest, and letting the player’s eye fall where it may (rather than artfully directing it) really steals a lot of the magic away from the setting. Suddenly there is nothing beyond the limits of your vision. It’s all there, and because there’s no new content jammed into these nooks, the world is suddenly bounded and less fantastic because of it.

World of Goo, Blocks That Matter: All I wanted was to outthink some clever puzzles. The core of these experiences is understanding the mechanics, which, on their own, are solid. But why do I have to grind through a tedious and repetitive process every time I want to try a new solution?

  • WoG: Why do I have to manually grab goo blobs? The fact that they don’t automatically jump to my cursor is irksome. And why, if the same sort of structural building pattern is the foundation of all constructions, do I have to manually make the building blocks one at a time?
  • BTM: Solving two thirds of a level, then making a mistake on the last bit sends you back to the start to repeat the whole thing. This is not an action game, where challenge is increased via setting obstacles in sequence. I solved those puzzles, please don’t make me grind through them again.

Dark Souls: Quite possibly one of my favourite games ever, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to recapture the experience of my first time through. It’s just not the same when you know what you’re up against. Until that point, though, it’s absolutely thrilling.

Darksiders: Boy, I haven’t played a game this console-tailored as this in a long time. It’s strange that that’s a type of game: heavy on action and cinematic elements, low on nuance and depth. There’s so much more that video games have to offer that’s completely overlooked here. This is closer in its content to a bad movie, really.

Red Faction: Armageddon: My second outing with the series made relevant through its core inclusion of destructible terrain. However, the reasons I quit RF: Guerrilla are the same reasons I stopped playing Armageddon. Though it’s satisfying to destroy a building piece by piece, there’s not much reason to do so. Wouldn’t it be cool if this game didn’t have guns at all, instead relying on clever use of structure collapse and environmental manipulation? Yes it would. I did, though, quite like the ability to quickly rebuild cover that had been destroyed. A neat addition to a firefight, but only fun defensively. Hmm. What if players only had environmental manipulation tools and had to try to off each other while avoiding AI gunners?

Cargo Commander: Procedurally-generated platformer roguelike a la Spelunky? Yes please! Minimal variation in level elements and very few ways to interact with the world? No thanks. I liked the setting (blue collar sci-fi; reminded me of the original Alien) and the some of the mechanics (zero-gravity space jumps & drilling panels off of floating cargo containers) but got bored pretty quickly with the gameplay. Also, the always-on DRM got in my way more often than any other game ever has. That is a shame.

The Walking Dead (Episode 5): Though the journey of this game was not without its faults, I felt really jazzed upon finishing this. It’s exhilarating to have a story with so many untidy resolutions. I want to play through it again for the alternate dialogue options, but can’t bring myself to slog through the non-dialogue gameplay a second time. Ah, alright, I did like the panicked zombie combat scenes, but the “puzzles” can take a hike.

Shattered Horizon: It is a great tragedy that multiplayer games live only as long as they have a community to support them. I thought there was interesting potential in the zero-gravity arena combat, and some wonderful vistas of planets far below the floating wreckage of the playfield. But alas, it’s gone derelict now, adrift with a fleet of empty servers.

Planetside 2: I was instantly overwhelmed by the mess that was the battlefield. Where am I supposed to go? Why? Who am I supposed to be shooting at? Why? People like this game? I couldn’t find any satisfaction here.

Analogue: A Hate Story: I was surprisingly drawn in by the sci-fi setting of this interactive fiction game and how it drew heavily upon Korean history. Sure, there weren’t a lot of consequential decisions to make, but the story was well worth reading, and tactfully revealed in tantalizing bits at a time. I do wish, though, that there were an easier way to further flesh things out than having to go through it all the same bits again with a different character.

Endless Space, Space Empires IV: I should like this sort of game (broad scale space empire management), but I just can’t invest as much as they ask of me upfront. Let’s go back to Dark Souls for a second. There’s enormous depth to the combat, character building, and lore, but you can play the game without understanding it all in its entirety. Can this be done in one of these space games? Maybe in having the gameplay complexity scale at the player’s pace? This is a difficult problem.

Auditorium: Lately, I’ve been developing a distaste for physics-based puzzlers. Finickiness seems inherent to them, and I find myself getting frustrated with them more often than not. Again, my ideal puzzle game makes it easy to execute a solution once it has been seen. Here, I got stuck too often trying to find pixel-perfect placement for my puzzle elements.

Legend of Grimrock: Despite the trailers and reviews I looked up, I hadn’t realized this old-school(ish) dungeon crawler played out in real-time. The necessity of stick-and-move combat got tedious fairly quickly, though I don’t know that I would have enjoyed the fighting any more were it turn based. I did, however, like how secrets were hidden, sometimes with easily-overlooked visual cues, sometimes within clever combinations of mechanics.

Looking back over this list, I am more than ever made aware of just how particular my gaming tolerances and intolerances are. I’m picky, for sure, and perhaps I’m a little too short with certain elements and genres, but I really believe that there are enjoyable experiences at the core of each of the above-listed games. With a little je ne sais quoi, those that are more deeply buried might be teased out and make for a better experience.

Did you make one of these games? I would be more than happy to give you my expanded thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. It’s only my opinion, but I like to think that I give these things an appropriate amount of consideration.

Are you anybody at all making a game? This is an open offer. If you provide me with a way to do so, I will play your game at least once and give you constructive feedback. You can dismiss it outright if you’d like, but I promise it will be lovingly considered.

bluelit

by berv

Last night, I came across an interesting call to action:

If you haven’t played any of the Grow games, I highly recommend you check them out. They and the rest of EYEZMAZE’s games claimed many of my adolescent hours. The premise is fairly simple: choosing from an array of eight objects, apply them one at a time so that they transform the playspace, building on each other progressively to reach the optimal outcome. Didn’t work out? Try a different order!

Fortunately for me, today worked out just beautifully to take a shot at Arnott’s proposal. Twine is an absolute breeze to use, so if you’re at all interested in writing interactive fiction, you ought to have a look. I’d also like to highlight Anna Anthropy’s introduction to Twine, which helped me get up and running.

Taking Arnott’s Tweet as written, I began to map out eight verbs in the workspace. After a short amount of work, I realized the colossal number of possibilities that that worked out to. Beginning with eight choices, the number of unique chapters adds up to over 40,000! Certainly more than I’d be able to get done in an afternoon. So, after some further math, I decided to go with a much more manageable four verbs (65 chapters).

Here is my story, “bluelit.”

 

It was an interesting project to undertake and I rather surprised myself with the setting of the story. Initially, when I was still looking at eight verbs, I was thinking of beginning in the void and then progressively building a world by taking broad, general actions like “love,” “doubt,” “run,” “remember,” and so on. I still think there’s some interesting potential there; perhaps I’ll revisit the idea. Or perhaps you will? If you’d like to use my four-option framework, you can download the Twine file here. Simply use “Replace Across Entire Story” to swap out my numbers for your chosen verbs.

Anyways, I ended up with romantic relationships as a theme, and was surprised to find some of the corners I ended up in. Having to write narratives in such a way that every single one of them contains every possible verb was an interesting thematic challenge. Though I think I did an alright job of tying things together, I feel like a bunch of the stories are kind of samey in their arc (especially when it comes to endings). Perhaps some greater advance planning would avoid this, or perhaps the setting was just too narrow.

Another issue I found with creating a story like this is the vagueness of player (reader?) choices. I tried to account for this as best I could, but there’s really no assurance that choosing “cry,” for example, will lead to the sort of crying or what-have-you that the player has in mind. This has often been a frustration of mine in choosing from among dialogue options in other games: “No, I didn’t mean it that way!” These might be unavoidable limitations of the format, though I would be curious about the possible applications of adverbs in these situations. Or dynamic AI, but that’s way beyond the scope of a Twine game.

Either way, it was fun to run around in this space for a little while and I must thank Leon Arnott for the impetus. Let me know what you think!

Lasers

by berv

I had been having a particularly difficult time keeping my troops alive for more than a mission or two, and by mid-April I still didn’t have a sergeant. Things were looking especially bleak when the first terror mission hit and I had only rookies to field. Fortunately for me, the eggheads in the lab had just finished developing lasers and, with the help of the grey market, I had just enough cash to equip each of the rookies with a laser rifle and a scope. Here’s hoping.

With one of two chrysalids being killed the moment it entered the map by four-way reaction fire and the other being handily dispatched on the following turn, my rookie squad leisurely made their way across the map, knocking out floaters and thin men as quickly as they could arrive. 14/18 civilians saved, promotions all around, and not a scratch on them. Mission complete.

Again, I say: lasers.

Today’s Lesson in XCOM:

by berv

Never fail.

By early April, I had 5 satellites in the air, covering the whole of Africa for the +30% income bonus. My estimated end-of-month income was over $500 and I had just finished outfitting my troops with the latest in laser rifles and carapace armour. A very strong start.

Then that first terror mission hit. It was only rated “difficult,” and set in Nigeria, where panic was only at 2 out of 5, so I had high hopes going in. Still, one can never be too careful, so I sent in my lieutenant sniper, lieutenant heavy, a corporal support, and a squaddie support. My sniper couldn’t get the high ground he was looking for, but still provided good covering fire from across the map as my supports sussed out the enemy positions. My heavy was midway up, laying down the hurt with two shots per turn and the option of double reaction fire. This is when I learned of the hidden dangers of two-storey buildings. My heavy was just gearing up to launch some rockets on a cluster of three when a chrysalid, unseen because of the height, dropped down and eviscerated him. Then a zombie (also unseen) flopped down from the second floor terrace and mauled the better of my two supports.  This was the turning of the tide. In the absence of an extraction point, my sniper and squaddie support ran and ran until they were grossly outnumbered by the growing wave of enemies and overwhelmed.

As a consequence, Nigeria withdrew from the project, costing me not only their income and the satellite I had deployed there, but the 30% Africa bonus. Forever.

Never fail.

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.’