Archive for March, 2013

Bioshock Infinite and the Great Divide, part 2

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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This essay is part of a series, you can read the previous part here.

Please bear in mind that this is not a review and is criticism based on only having played the first 6 hours of the game. Things may change as I continue though the game, in which case I may write more. But I do feel these are valid points regardless.

Bioshock Infinite is a deeply conflicted game. If you listen, you can hear the reverberations of earthquakes rumbling deep below it’s lush exterior. The different composite parts of Infinite, as we rarely think of them inside the gaming bubble, are rubbing together awkwardly and generating friction like a poorly engineered machine.

Individually, these parts are all quite beautiful and well crafted. The gameplay is unique and groundbreaking for the shooter genre. Skylines are a joy to interact with and feel exhilarating. There is a ton of shit to collect that feels valuable, plenty of skills to discover, and lots of unique ways to engage in combat; more or less effectively. The story is very impressive for the genre, but also for games in general: it actually draws on interests and ideas which stretch outside of the mainstream science fantasy and fantasy fantasy wells that give life to most other games. It delves into issues of racism, and explores “what if” questions that have circled inside my brain for years. The game is a picturesque place, every inch of Columbia is screenshot-perfect. Every scene looks like a postcard painted by Norman fucking Rockwell. It is gorgeous and lush, an undeniable aesthetic experience.

(As an aside, I’m sure the audio is actually good if I have one of those fancy surround sound systems, but it seems increasingly as though developers are just dumping decent stereo mixing by the wayside as “old-fashioned.” That’s probably our industry’s undeniable tech lust speaking.)

But all these beautifully polished parts don’t fit together quite as well as the mainstream games press would have you believe. Or rather, most critics seem happy to ignore how these parts of the game feel completely separate and hot-glued together. They feel like different games.

Bioshock Infinite represents a turning point, definitely for the first-person shooter genre, but possibly for games in the large. It is the first shooter I have played that ACTUALLY has me spending more time walking around than shooting at anything. The reason that you do this is because every time you get into combat it completely undermines the story that Ken Levine wants you to hear. So what are we doing instead of fighting? Looting the shit out of everything. Walking around and staring at people. Hoping Liz has something to say about anything. Anything. Is this much better than shooting?

I’ll would like to leave that as a rhetorical question, but I will say that I personally believe it does much less to damage a story than randomly having action scenes spewed about because “we were afraid that players might get bored,” or for no reason whatsoever. But I am not certain that the actions that we are doing in Infinite are serving an ideal of actually helping tell the story. They seem mostly unrelated.

Bioshock Infinite is the first shooter that I have seen to actually have another character react to your prescribed psychopathy. Elizabeth is just too naive, too innocent to not call you out for the monster you are. “I might as well get used to it, I guess,” the invisible hand of the writer waves away all emotion and empathy from Liz in less than 2 minutes, because “Sorry, you might’ve gotten bored there.” At least Lara Croft fucking cried when she murdered somebody for the first time in the new “gritty” Tomb Raider, even if it is ultimately just as hand wavy about getting on to “the fun stuff.”

Bioshock Infinite is so great in all of it’s disparate parts. Elizabeth is probably as great as she can be in a game that is trying to let you shoot lots of different kinds of things in different kinds of ways with different amounts of auto-aim. The story is about as good as it could be in a game which is arbitrarily having you shoot at people every 15 minutes because, “well, that’s just what games do.” The shooting is about as good as it could be in a game that is trying to tell a story all the time, and that takes away your guns or locks you in a room to convince you to pay attention to the story, or is just generally spending an exorbitant amount of time not giving you things to shoot at. The setting and art about as great as they can be in a game that cannot define interactivity with the world or characters in it unless it nicely ties into the loot grind or “core gameplay” somehow. “Look, but don’t touch the specimen.” “Don’t talk to the specimen.”

Although Bioshock Infinite is impressive relative to it’s peers, it’s easy to imagine the possibilies if the design limitations of making what is currently seen as a “commercially viable” game were lifted. Elizabeth could be much more interactive. I could talk with her. We could have meaningful conversations. I could show her all the amazing things she’s been missing by being trapped in a cage. I could maybe hug her after a short firefight instead of having to convince her that it’s okay because she’ll be forced to watch me murder 15 more people in the next room. I could really try to not be a monster. We could be friends. Or whatever. The story could be well paced with great twists and turns, an interactive drama where every step in the story has a dramatic point and is not just a gameplay maguffin. (See Telltale’s The Walking Dead) The skylines could be running all over the city. I could always have interesting things to fight. The loot grind could be just incredible. I could really enjoy a challenging action experience. (Dark Souls) The world could be rich and beautiful but also interactive. I could pick up all the individual items for sale at a vendors stand. I could talk with the people around Colombia and get to know them a little or a lot. I could watch kinetoscopes just for enjoyments sake, without feeling like they are cut short so that too much time won’t be spent on exposition. (See Skyrim, almost.)

That’s the dream right? Well, I’m glad to say that I believe we can have all these things in our medium and more. You don’t have to lose the things that you love about games, but I am certain that we cannot effectively have all of them in the same game.

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Bioshock Infinite and the Great Divide, part 1

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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There is a great division in games, well several actually. There is a division between the press and gamers, between gamers and developers, and between the press and developers. There is a division between how we, as gamers writers and developers, think about games and how we *think* we think about games.

We make and play games and imagine we are evaluating them as objectively as possible. But instead are almost always looking at them with a radically warped perception compared to “more developed mediums.” We celebrate minor differences and upgrades. A touching scene where there previosly was none. We don’t see the forest for the pixels.

Games exist in a bubble culture. An environment in which fans of games often find themselves apologizing for the mediums obvious shortcomings and peculiar stubbornness about growing up and actually having something important to say. We are so keen to praise the things that we know make games good, that it seems like we are often forgetting to actually think about the experience of playing games at all.

Can you really blame us? Games have been training us for the past 15 years to not think. To disconnect the gameplay experience from the story one. “Never the two shall mix.” We very rarely think about how a total stranger to games would view the activity in which we are engaging. We tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter if they don’t see how great games are, because they will keep on being great even if nobody likes them. But that’s just not true, the way that a “non-gamer” experiences a game is the reality of that experience. If you truly care about games and games criticism, then you must stop treating games as some sort of deformed and mentally handicapped younger sibling to the other storytelling mediums that needs you to stick up for it and coddle it and love it despite how ugly and dumb it really is.

The sad thing is that game designers often don’t think of games very differently. And even worse, they share the same coddling and protective attitude towards the players of their games. We, as gamers, are routinely treated as complete idiots. “Oh no,” says the strawman game designer, “you won’t be able to handle this game unless you have some serious hints, or a giant arrow constantly pointing you to your next objective.” Designers are so scared that you will hate their game that they come up with virtual doppelgängers to follow you into your home and nervously watch you play. “Don’t forget to use your Vigors!”, Bioshock Infinite’s doppelgänger reminds you, like an overprotective parent trying to coerce a child to eat more veggies. “It’s good for you!” But is it really? Bioshock Infinite is a game for adults, not for children. If children could make it through the crushingly difficult The Legend of Zelda 25 years ago, and our modern gaming collective recently tackled the similarly difficult and very adult Dark Souls, cursing and loving every minute of it, then surely you can trust the players of your game to figure it out eventually, right?

Oh, wait. I forgot. We’re trying to tell stories here. “Eventually” just isn’t good enough. It’s impossible to pace out a story effectively if we only know that the player will “eventually” make it to this point in the game. This is precisely why both the original Zelda and Dark Souls are so light on their story, having what essentially amounts to a maguffin or two. But now we are telling these grand and epic and dare-I-say “cinematic” stories. We don’t want players to get stuck before they get to “the good part.”

So what do we do? How can we tell effective stories and also be respectful of players and games as a medium which can stand proudly beside the others.

It’s simple. If you want to tell stories in games, just tell stories. Don’t worry about trying to fit into some preconceived notion of what constitutes a “game.” It doesn’t have to have any more shooting than necessary to tell the story effectively. Don’t feel like you have to have “core gameplay” just because “that’s what games do.” Don’t be so afraid of players disliking your game that you compromise your vision to try to please everybody. You don’t have to be conflicted if you just believe in what YOU find interesting about your project and have faith that your players will find that interesting too. If you want to have a scene of dialogue that is relatively non-interactive (or completely non-interactive), feel free to do that. Just don’t try to tell a story with “believable characters”, and when partway through writing it you get scared that some players are not actually interested in paying attention to all that cool stuff you wrote, you panic and take out most of the dialogue and all of the believability. Those players are not worth catering to, they don’t actually care about experiencing what you find meaningful. They are not your real fans, and trying to please them will destroy you and your game.

We need to start thinking about games as cohesive experiences. As designers, what is the experience that we want to give our players? Do we even need to tell a story? Do we even need to have traditional gameplay? How is the gameplay helping or harming the story? How is a pile of rotten fruit on the floor informing the gameplay. Is it?

Both gameplay and story must form a cohesive whole if a game is to remain intact as a creative and meaningful work. To artfully make games and master this medium (and to have our “Citizen Kane” moment which everyone won’t shut up about) we have to start thinking about how all the different parts of the game affect the whole. This means if you want to give the player freedom, you probably can’t tell stories that are not about psychopaths. So the reality is that Saint’s Row is probably a more cohesive work of art than GTA IV. If you want desperately to tell the story of redemption, or love, or anything even slightly specific, you are going to have to limit the player drastically. But we don’t want to do this haphazardly, we want to make intelligent choices about where we allow the player to interact with the story.

I’m not advocating for removing player freedom from games entirely. Interactivity is the only useful component to differentiate games from other mediums. But giving the player freedom has a direct and very negative impact on the ability to tell an effective story.

“What? Gameplay and story don’t mix? Ludonarrative Dissonance? You pretentious asshat!”

Gameplay and story can conflict with one another, but I’m not advocating removing story from games either. I love stories just as much as the next person. Story is important tool we use to understand the world and communicate experiences. I might however suggest exploring a different approach to storytelling than the commonly used three act structure which does not fit well in games that have much longer running times.

People tend to believe these are just difficult and intractable problems in games. Someday we will just magically realize a way to fix them. It’s just gonna be a slow and grueling path uphill towards cultural relevance. Games will find a way to make a good and well paced story that still has plenty of fun RPG loot grinding in it. We just need to stuff enough technology in there and it will happen. Better AI will solve the problem. More polygons. The Playstation 4.

The hard truth is that we will never solve these problems if we keep making the same kinds of games we are making today. It is impossible to integrate a story which values human life with a story where the protagonist shoots 960 dudes in the face. (And that’s just with the shotgun!) Think about what this means. If we can’t value human life effectively, then we cannot even tell good dramatic stories. Drama is practically the holy grail of artistic storytelling, amirite amirite? And even if we try to do comedy, we will be limited to black humor. Jokes about how gross the violence is. How crazy the protagonist is for going on such murderous rampages.

I am not here to ruin the fun. I am not here to kill the stories. But please, if you are going to make or review or criticize a game, stop treating games as a substandard storytelling medium with it’s own arcane rules that are just impossible for us to fully understand yet. Start treating it as though it’s already grown up. It is not condescending to think of how your grandma or your non-gamer friends would react to the way the game presents itself. Stop apologizing for games and start demanding they be coherent.

Look, I understand the fear and conservatism that comes with making investments that fly high of the 100 million dollar mark, and I also realize there isn’t a lot of hard data showing that players are happy with games that try to maintain artistic integrity at the expense of challenge or storytelling. But I don’t think the combined critical and commercial success of Dark Souls or Telltale’s The Walking Dead are completely accidental. And I hope they become part of a trend towards diversification in the types of games available, rather than an anomaly on the bumpy road towards complete cultural abandonment.

The large commercial “Triple-A” games space is a difficult place to be creative in. But it is just ridiculous to think that games need to stay exactly the way they have been since 2001 to keep being popular. They need to change, or else they will fade into obscurity.

This essay is part of a series, you can read the next part here.

DiveDive is Alive!

Posted in Computers, DiveDive, Games, Released Games with tags , , , , , on March 19, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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This picture shows some of the new artwork that I have been working on. I wanted to do typical Zelda perspective walls earlier but I knew it would take a lot of time to get right. Now I have that time.

So, I’ve decided I’m going to keep working on DiveDive for the time being. I was surprised at how much I accomplished within the limitations of the 7 day challenge, but I still think the game needs a lot of work. There were a lot of bugs in that first release, and some serious balance issues. I have tried to fix the major problems so that I can start moving forward with adding more variety to the base game. The thing with rogue-likes as a genre, is that they are designed to be as replayable as possible. Sadly DiveDive is pretty limited in this regard so far, feeling much more like a linear and finite experience.

Anyway, before I get too verbose. I will just post a new build which improves several aspects of the play experience and fixes some bugs:

Click here to download the new build.

Pencils Down. DiveDive, my #7DRL is complete! (redux)

Posted in DiveDive, Games, Released Games with tags , , , on March 16, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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This has been a great week, but also a rough week. I stayed up 22 hours yesterday, and only slept 3. It’s been exhilarating, but also extremely challenging. It’s been a powerful and emotional moment in my life. I feel like I’ve leveled up as a designer, and I want to keep this momentum going. This week has reinvigorated my understanding and faith that THIS is what I was born to do. Unlike probably some of the 7DRL participants, I work a day job 40 hours a week. Being too conscious of this has always held me back from engaging with most of these similar challenges in the past, but something changed this time.

The challenge coincided nicely with my reading of Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, which helped solidify some of the thoughts which were brewing in my mind from being unable to work on Duet effectively. The book finally convinced me that the only road to me being a more productive designer is to start focusing on finishing very small scope things, and making that a priority above trying to polish them to perfection. Don’t think about it, just make a game!

I think you only get good at things by doing them, and I’ve gotten awfully good at languishing in the middle of a gigantic multi-year project with no clear path to completing the game. It is so demotivating to work on a project for 3 years and still not have something you are really proud to show to people. But DiveDive is that, and I only spent a week on it!

I have a tendency to be too detail-oriented when working on a project. I tweak the tiniest details before I finish the broad strokes of the game. It is SO much better to make a complete experience as early as possible and then polish afterwards. I have heard an analogy with sketching from Derek Yu: The best way to get better at sketching is to put a time limit on it. Try to capture the subject in as few strokes as possible. Limit yourself to 10 seconds, then tyr moving up to 30 seconds, then a minute. And finally, remove the time limit all together. It’s so important to not start your creative works with the details. Those don’t matter at all if you never finish the big things. My brother played an earlier version of Dive Dive this week and what did he point out? There’s no boss at the end. He didn’t even notice there were only two enemies, or that the slimes didn’t behave the way I wanted them to, or that the sprites vary wildly in color palette and rendering style. As a creator, you are the most intimately familiar person with your creation. All you will see is the flaws, but don’t get caught up on polishing the slash animation for a whole day. Try to do as little as possible to get all of your points across. The audience won’t notice that that one pixel doesn’t have the perfect color, but they will notice an experience which didn’t even have an ending!

I didn’t get everything into DiveDive that I hoped to, but I got way more done than I expected. I think this proves to me something I already thought I knew, that you really can build a functional prototype of any idea in a week. But, before I thought that meant it was “kinda working” within a week, but it actually means that by the end of the week you can have something that is really working because it either shows the potential of the idea or doesn’t. DiveDive has heaps of potential, I could work on it for years if I want, just adding more and more features and secrets, tweaking and polishing the art, writing my own music rather than using licensed tracks…but I have reached a point within a week where it is polished enough to not embarrass me and I believe it has some great ideas in it already, while certainly firing the imagination about how much more could be done.

It’s just impossible for me to overstate how satisfying it is to actually have something that feels like a complete experience so quickly, so that I can show it and feel confident if I choose not to ever work on it again. The funny thing about games (and art in general), is that you really can work on a project for as long as you like. But there eventually comes a time when you need to put the pencil down, and the sooner you can feel safe about doing that, the better.

So, here it is, DiveDive. A hopefully surprising “Roguelike ” Zelda-style game. I like it, so maybe you will to. 🙂

A MINOR ADDENDUM: So, the game was completely finished yesterday and I uploaded it only to find out from the first player that it was totally bugged. In the game, you start with no money, but I had put in a hack to give you $500 so I could test things. I unfortunately, in my sleepprogramming state had forgotten to remove the hack before I released. Let the lesson be this: ALWAYS BE SURE TO TAKE OUT YOUR HACKS.

Click here to download DiveDive. You will need 7-zip to unarchive the game, which you can get here

Uses music by Kevin MacLeod, and a sound effect by “RA The Sun God.” Both are used under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Sorry everybody, MASSIVE BUG.

Posted in Uncategorized on March 15, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

DiveDive will have to be late for 7DRL, I accidentally left a testing hack in there last night in my coding delirium. It’s literally one line of code. Proper build will have to wait till tomorrow though…

Final Hours of DiveDive

Posted in DiveDive, Games, Released Games with tags , , , on March 14, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

So, no new build tonight because I want it to be “complete” before anyone sees the ending. Trust me though, it is amazing. I have never been as productive in my life as I have been this week. I slept 5 hours last night because I couldn’t for the excitement to work. Just wanted everybody to know I’m pretty proud of this little game, and I want you to see it in the best state I can get it over the next 24 hours.

Peace.

New DiveDive Early Access Build

Posted in Computers, DiveDive, Games, Released Games with tags , , , , , , , on March 12, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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I may or may not keep posting these updated builds daily, but here is a new one for today. Njoy!

Click here to download. (It’s 7zipped this time, so you will need 7zip to unzip it, but if you don’t have that. What are you doing?)

A whole roguelike in only seven days!

Posted in DiveDive, Games, Released Games with tags , , on March 11, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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So, theres this thing called Seven Day Rogue-like. (or 7DRL for short) It’s a friendly challenge held once a year to produce a game in the genre. I won’t go too much into what a roguelike is, as that can easily be satisfied with a Google search, but I will say that I am working on an entry called “Super Legend of DiveDive” (Dumb name, thats what you get when you name something before you start working on it.) Its basically a roguelike modeled after the dungeons from Zelda 1. “But wait,” you say, “Isn’t Binding of Isaac already a game?” Why yes, you irritatingly attentive little boy or girl. But this game is EXACTLY LIKE ZELDA! Just look at this screenshot up there!

So, please excuse the work in progress, but I would love to allow you an “early access beta” to try out DiveDive. (everybody’s doing it these days!) And if you buy in now, you can get it for the low low price of $0! (That’s €0 for you Youropean types)

DOWNLOAD THIS SHIT MAN! (It’s like 8.8MB of pure mindboggling beta software, all wrapped up in an easy to unzip package, haha I said package)

Features music by Kevin MacLeod, used under Creative Commons license.

An experimental “game”

Posted in Computers, Games, Released Games with tags , , on March 5, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

As you may know if you follow me on twitter, I am currently working on a side project. It is still very early on, so I won’t really say much about it yet other than it is a sci-fi game coming out of a love for the pacing of Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the characters of Firefly, and the sense of freedom and exploration in Super Metroid.

I have started working on this new project for a few reasons, most of which I wasn’t conscious of when I began. The biggest reason is that I am straight-up burned out when it comes to working on Duet. I have been working on it for somewhere close to three years now, and it is still far from finished. I am not very technically skilled when it comes to game development, primarily from a lack of experience. This makes it difficult to implement even relatively simple features in a appropriately simple way. Although Duet is a small game, with only six worlds and somewhere around an hour and a half of playtime, it is still extremely ambitious because of the level of polish required for a beautiful HD hand-painted world that feels alive.

I have learned a lot of things over the past 3-4 years. One of the best lessons I have learned is how unbelievably hard it is to finish building a game, even what you think is a small one. Duet is not finished. It is not even remotely close to being finished. Looking at the state of the game in comparison to the length of time it has dominated my thoughts makes me feel like a failure. I don’t know how to see the good things in it anymore, all I see is an incomplete game which I am taking way too long to complete. I still believe in the idea of how great the game could and should be, but I find it increasingly hard to see a clear path from here to there. That makes even thinking about opening up the code for Duet a pretty draining thing.

A good piece of advice I have heard for beginning game designers is “think of the simplest possible form of your idea, then make it simpler.” I would add, “and then make it even simpler than that.” This is much easier said than done, of course, since it can feel to a young designer such as myself that simplifying an idea necessitates compromising the vision. However, the past few years have made something clear to me: lack of experience is the number one thing that will kill your game. The reality is that you only get better at things by doing them, and that includes completing games. Since I have spent most of my game development history with a level of ambition far beyond my ability to achieve, I have gotten quite good at being stuck in the middle of development on a game, and have next to no skill at finishing them.

i have been making games for 14 years, so why have I never released anything? Because I haven’t been trying. Oh, I’ve worked pretty hard on a lot of projects, but I am never considering how I’m going to be able to complete them as part of my grand visions. This is a pretty big oversight on my part, because games can balloon very quickly into being much bigger and more complex things. It’s easy to keep dreaming up new features, new locations, and new characters without even contemplating or understanding how much work you are adding in order to reach a state of “completion.”

As an aside, but giving more context to my predicament with finishing projects. I usually exist in one of two modes: I either tie my self-worth to my productivity and feel terrible about myself all the time because I’m mostly unproductive apart from the rare moments when my self-loathing actually inspires me to get a little bit of work done, or I don’t care whether or not I do anything creative or useful or career-building, and so I don’t. It is very difficult to find a middle ground.

So, what was the point of all this?

Duet is on hold until two criteria have been met: First being that I feel like I can actually finish the project without having to compromise the vision. And second that Erik is not working full time on a different project which actually pays for his living expenses.

In the mean time, I want to make more games, and start getting better at finishing things. This new project is already ballooning like crazy in my mind, but I’m cutting it down as much as I can. Realistically, I can only really excel at one thing per project with my current level of skill. That naturally limits the scope or appeal of a project, but I would be much happier with a small but complete game that I can show everyone than I am with a much more ambitious game that is so half-baked that I’m embarrassed to even show screenshots of for fear of letting on how incomplete it is.

As part of this goal to finish more games more frequently, I’d like to make more games under limited development timeframes. Consequently, I actually did make a full game in around 4 hours this past week, so I’d like to post it for you to play and maybe even give some feedback. It’s super experimental, and you probably wouldnt even call it a game. But it is at least, a complete experience:

Experiment Number 89

Click here to download. (.ZIP 8.9MB)

Created with: Game Maker 8.1 Lite (apologies for the watermark, as I haven’t paid for the software)

Uses great spooky music by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License.