Obviously the change of the Patreon from being a “per work” thing to being a monthly thing would be a big change in the relationship between me and the backers so I felt like I would need to think about it a lot. I thought it may also be a good idea as part of this process to share some of my thoughts and reasonings.
It’s always uncomfortable for me to talk about money when it comes to my work. It’s never been a thing that I have done for the money, I just love doing it. So it’s a weird transition to try to start thinking about the work as also something that maybe I could (or god forbid, should?) get money for. However, I have definitely gotten a lot of support and positive feedback on stuff lately from friends and people that I admire. Also people tell me that artist-types (and maybe I am one of those) tend to greatly undervalue their work. I am still super wary of falling into being an entitled douchebag who expects people to pay him, but maybe it is worth something.
When I started the Patreon, I didn’t know how much support I would get. Since I tend to produce things somewhat sporadically, I felt it would only be fair to ask people to pay if I actually put something out. However, I’ve only charged the backers for one thing since I started the account about seven months ago, and many of the backers I have never charged at all.
This could really be a sign of two things. That I haven’t put out any good work over the past seven months at all and therefore the backers shouldn’t have been charged. Or that what I put out I must’ve undervalued greatly.
So, what have I even done in the past seven months?
Well, one obvious thing which I have put out is a monthly mystery box, exclusive to backers. There could be an argument that these are not worth anything, since I never originally had any intent on charging for them. But on the other hand, although I was thinking the mystery boxes would just be me sharing some of my unfinished/unreleased projects, I greatly underestimated how quickly a monthly thing churns through all of your things. (Especially considering I lost about ten years of my stuff due to a hard drive failure, so I only have fairly recent stuff) This means that it’s actually mostly been me making new stuff to put in them, which kind of turns it into a different thing than my original conception. That in and of itself has had me considering putting an end to the mystery boxes, so perhaps a monthly Patreon payment is a way to help me feel more like I have a good reason to keep putting those out. (Plus people like them)
Additionally, I worked for a while on an unnamed project with the lovely Martin Cohen (of Disposable and Hale fame), which although I loved and was super promising both from a gameplay and aesthetic perspective, I have put aside until I feel I am up to carrying the weight of my own ambitions there. I have not yet reached a point where I can have the productivity level needed to complete a large project like that.
So, instead I have returned to a small project which I began a couple years ago. Initially called Dive Dive, it will probably be renamed Ushanka Jones, and it is a roguelike game with heavy design inspiration from Zelda 1. I have been slowly redoing the artwork for that before I move on with adding more gameplay complexity, but I have a lot of fun ideas there.
Time is continually an issue. I have a reasonably long commute (around 45 minutes) to my day job and back. Also, I have been working 6 day weeks for 5 weeks now. So my free time for personal work is actually quite limited and consequently progress on things has been a bit slow.
Even still, I’ve started a new season of the dunceCast, a podcast featuring myself and my brother, doing what we do best, which is basically just goofing off and being morons. Maybe that’s worthless, but I prefer to consider it “priceless.” 😛
Anyway, this has perhaps become a digression, but it answers the question of “what I’ve been up to lately” pretty well. It does perhaps fail to answer the question of if all that stuff should be worth cash monies from all my lovely backers. Unfortunately I guess I can’t answer that one, but I did put a poll out and around half of the current backers feel as though they would not be being ripped off if I switched the Patreon over to monthly.
I suppose that’s really the core of my concerns. I don’t want to rip people off or leave people feeling like I tried to trick them by changing the terms of the Patreon out from underneath them. That’s why I’m making such a concerted effort to draw attention to that I’m even thinking about changing it.
So let’s go into another reason why it would be good to switch over, which is what I like to call the “Strategic Reason.”
As I have said earlier, I have never gotten paid for my work on games or essays before so it’s terribly unfamiliar to me to see it as having anything beyond intrinsic value. Still, for some time now I have seen going full-time indie again as a long term goal. Achieving that really means that I have to start taking some steps in that direction. I’m not a very hasty person, but there needs to be some forward momentum and risk taking in some capacity to make any progress at all. I don’t want to always feel like I am spending the vast majority of my time not doing what I should be doing with my life.
I see the Patreon as a possible path towards financial independence from my day job. Even a relatively small income from backers would be enough for me to be able to spend less time at the day job and more time on games and essay work. And if I somehow miraculously could reach $1000 a month or something, I wouldn’t need the day job at all. (I only make like $15,000/year now)
So, there’s the “Strategic Reason”, and maybe it’s a good reason or maybe I’m just entitled. After all, it’s just one possible path, and (for better or worse) it happens to be one that is within my comfort zone. It doesn’t require me to set aside my timidity and take a big risk by jumping out of my job without a real safety net or plan.
On an additional note, I also have backed a few people on Patreon over those months, so having set up the account has actually been a net financial loss. That’s my choice to back other people, so it’s not really the responsibility of my backers to foot the bill for that. But it’s worth mentioning since I’ve been thinking about that as well.
Anyway, this post has all been a bit rambly but I wanted to share some of my thoughts and reasons for considering making this change. I hope you will understand, and be sure to answer the survey if you haven’t already.
Sometimes when I’m talking to people about games, I describe myself as someone who likes puzzle games. What I tend to fail to communicate without much further effort is that I dislike almost every puzzle game that I have played. I straight-up loath some of them. If I’m talking to someone who says that they don’t like puzzle games, I almost always have the same misgivings about them that they do. There are very few puzzle games that I think are very good, and most puzzles in general are terrible and uninteresting. So what I really mean when I say I like puzzle games, is that I like a very specific kind of puzzle game with a very specific kind of puzzle.
There are two major categories of design from which puzzles can arise. The first category, which tends to be the most common category, is that of the puzzle as obstacle. This type of puzzle is intended to halt the player’s progress until they can solve the puzzle, at which point they will be rewarded with more of the story or perhaps a tasty nugget. The typical adventure game puzzle is of this type. Solutions to these puzzles can often feel arbitrary, even ludicrously so. (As in the cat-hair mustache puzzle) Almost the entire difficulty of the puzzle is due to how illogical they appear from the player’s perspective. The player approaches from the point of needing to unlock a door, but the designer approaches from the other end, coming up with an elaborate obstacle to prevent the player from getting into the castle gardens. Working backwards from there, the designer layers on complexity:
“Okay, the player needs to get a key to unlock the door, but just finding a key is boring, so what if instead the player finds a mold of a key? And of course, all good keys are made of gold, so the player needs to get some gold! But where will the player find the gold? Well, the player still has the golden Magician’s Chastity Belt from the joke at the end of Act 3, so we’ll just have them melt that down! Aha!”
(And so on…)
I do not like this type of puzzle in general.
The second category is the puzzle as illustration of the natural consequences of a system. In this approach, the designer defines the rules of a system and explores the space created by and surrounding those rules. Puzzles are created in order to express the interesting discoveries found by the designer. These types of puzzles are almost guaranteed to be better than puzzles designed using the first method, because a deep system gives you back more than you put into it, whereas a puzzle that comes from the head is only as clever as its designer.
This is a complete shift in approach. Here the puzzle is not an obstacle to the player’s progress, but is the fulcrum of their entire experience. In the previous method, the designer works against the game, hoping to disguise the truth of a series of locked doors and keys. But when a puzzle comes out of the subtleties of a system, it already contains something deeply valuable embedded within it, and the goal of the designer is to work with the game to express that value as well as possible.
These are my favorite type of puzzle, and there is a broad spectrum even within this approach, with better and worse puzzles. But the best puzzles are those that express something fundamentally true. Something that resonates with you. The unmistakable joy of discovering fundamental truth is what separates the great puzzles from the average ones. Without that Richness, a puzzle is just a puzzle. It fails to be memorable and fades into the background radiation of mediocrity.
I would not have played The Talos Principle if it wasn’t for Jonathan Blow streaming the game on Twitch. Even when I first watched him playing it, it still seemed uninteresting, but as happens sometimes when you hear a lot of people talking about a game: you start to feel left out of the conversation. There are also similarities between The Talos Principle and Jonathan Blow’s upcoming game The Witness, and since that is the game that I am presently most excited for, I took some time to sit down and play Talos.
I was pleasantly surprised at first. The early puzzles, although straightforward and not particularly difficult, had some cute aspects to them that hinted at a deeper thought process and approach towards design than is evident in most puzzle games. But as I continued on through the game, I started to find the game lacking. I hesitate to use the word boring because I think that is a personal value judgment which fails to contribute to the discussion, but the game did begin to feel flat and repetitive.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of “that’s now how I would design it.” However, since several other people have had similar misgivings with the game, it leads me to believe that I am not entirely up my own ass.
As my father would say, “You either like it or you don’t”, and in that sense I do like The Talos Principle, but there is a certain disappointment that looms over my experience of the game. The Talos Principle is an average puzzle game with a few great puzzles. That is more than enough for most people, but I felt as though the game fell just short of greatness.
One of the biggest design failings of the game is that the puzzles tend to approach difficulty by becoming more elaborate while still remaining relatively straightforward to solve. These “harder” puzzles are simply collections of concepts borrowed from earlier in the game, and they rarely give rise to any unique insight that was not found in their predecessors.
One puzzle in particular is exemplary of this issue.
But First, a Trip Down Memory Lane…
After I had designed a portion of the puzzles in Duet, I started to feel a bit insecure about the games difficulty. Part of what I enjoyed so much about Braid was that the puzzles could be quite hard at times, but here I was with a puzzle-solving game in which almost all the puzzles were easy to solve. Some were so trivial that it was hard to call them puzzles really. I had explored the consequences of the mechanics and assembled some interesting puzzles that I felt good about, but I wondered if people would find the game unsatisfying simply because it wasn’t that difficult.
So I sat down and built a few puzzles which layered concepts from earlier puzzles to form more elaborate sequences. These puzzles certainly took more time to complete, but I found them unsatisfying. Sure, they had a few interesting structural aspects to them, but they felt like a slog and were the worst puzzles in the game. Although I continued to struggle with the feeling that the game was missing something (and that maybe it was that level of difficulty), I ultimately cut the puzzles, feeling that they just didn’t live up to the standard I wanted.
I never really knew what to call those puzzles. They had a certain feeling to them, but I could never put my finger on a word. “Tinker Toy-box,” I thought. But it just didn’t really communicate much.
Then I played the puzzle in The Talos Principle called “The Labyrinth” and I knew what the word should be.
A Labyrinth is a puzzle with nothing new to say. It is, like its namesake, a long and arduous road with no branches. As a player, you simply must proceed from the beginning to the end. It is a puzzle whose difficulty lies entirely in execution. It is a thoughtless puzzle. Is it even a puzzle?
Unfortunately, this puzzle is not an outlier but is indicative of a core design problem. The game wears out and obscures the beauty of its concepts through repetition. Although the design of the game follows the design method of a great puzzle game, it is as though the designers didn’t see the truth revealed through the puzzles to be something to admire in and of itself, but rather as a building block for some sort of higher level “puzzle gameplay.” How many times did I have to remember that I could pull a fan off its gears and use it to depress a button? Four times? Five times? I can’t remember. It was brilliant the first time. It stumped me for at least half an hour. But the second time it felt like a cheap prank, and the third time it felt like a betrayal.
I don’t think there was a single puzzle concept in The Talos Principle that didn’t get reused at least once.
A Smart Puzzle
Jon Blow has stated that a good puzzle “knows what it’s about.” Without asking him to elaborate on what he meant by that statement, I can only offer my rough interpretation: I believe that a puzzle meeting this standard must exhibit deliberate intent on the part of the designer to avoid extraneous elements and clearly highlight what makes the puzzle interesting and unique. A puzzle that knows what it is about feels elegant and to-the-point, where one that doesn’t feels overwrought and confusing even after you solve it.
If you are a designer, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of understanding why your puzzles are worthwhile. On the receiving end, the player will be able to tell if you had a clear idea of what the puzzles in your game were about or not. The player is putting trust in you as the designer of the game, and expects that trust to be repaid. They want an interesting and beautiful experience, and since they are already sitting down to play the game, they believe that it is likely that you are going to give that to them. So your job as a designer is not to let them change their mind. This is similar to the suspension-of-disbelief concept in films. Engagement from players must be earned, and not just up front but continually across the entirety of the game.
So what is The Talos Principle about after all? I think the common approach to game understanding would say that the game is about robots attempting to prove their humanity and an omniscient God AI in the sky. I think it’s safe to say that the puzzles have equal presence in the game as the story and thematic elements, so what I’m really talking about is, “what are the mechanics about?” This is a strange way to think about mechanics in games, but I think it applies particularly to this type of puzzle game. I will cover the story in a bit, but since two rarely overlap—A design failing in my personal opinion—it is probably fine to treat the puzzles as their own independent entity. After all, as Thomas Grip said in a conversation on Twitter, “A horror game where an evil man forces you to solve sliding puzzles all day is still a game about solving sliding puzzles.”
There are a lot of mechanics in The Talos Principle, and to cover them all in-depth would probably be the subject of a thesis. I think it will suffice for my present purposes to highlight just one set of mechanics: the laser redirection puzzles.
Laser redirection puzzles are nothing particularly new, and maybe even their implementation in Talos is not out of the ordinary, but I found it to have some very interesting things to say.
I have been thinking about occlusion in my day-to-day life a lot after having played The Talos Principle, and in large part due to the laser redirection puzzles. The puzzles require the player to have line of sight in order to connect the redirection prisms from one point to another, and since the lasers cannot pass through solid objects, the prism must be placed at a position with a clear view of all its connections. This set of mechanics cause you to think about the environment in a different way, to pay attention to how things go from being hidden to being revealed as you move around. So in some sense the puzzles say fundamental things about what it means to observe from a fixed point of perspective inside a three-dimensional world.
Part of building a great puzzle means that you take that understanding, that core revelation, and you design the puzzle as an artful presentation of it. You architect the experience of discovery, and you can be sure that what is discovered is interesting because you had the same experience of discovery yourself. The puzzle is just an artifice which points in the direction of the truth. It beckons the player to pursue and reveal it. I would say that Talos does not do as good of a job at this as it could. There are a few puzzles that really hit on something deep, but the aimless feel of the rest of the game makes the poignancy feel like it was just luck on the part of the designers.
It is very important to maintain the clarity of your puzzles as the game goes through an art treatment, because art can have subtle impacts on how the puzzle is perceived by the player. One way in which Talos’s laser redirection puzzles fail at this is in maintaining a rigid correlation between what is visible and where a laser can be directed. Since the puzzle rooms can often be maze-like, there are some windows in the walls to allow players to find their bearings. But because lasers could be redirected through those windows, in order to construct proper challenges it is required to have some sort of window through which the player can see but lasers cannot be redirected.
This perhaps could have been accomplished with some sort of force-field, or even a glass that absorbs lasers. (Which would have allowed for glass which lets one color laser pass and not another, opening up more puzzle possibilities) Instead, the designers of The Talos Principle chose to have these walls be iron bar fences, which somehow do not allow lasers to be passed through the spaces in the bars. According to the mechanics of the game, a laser should be able to be directed towards any spot which is visible, but there is a direct clash between the art and the mechanisms of the game. The art says there is open space between the bars of the fence, but the mechanics say that the fence is completely solid and lasers cannot pass through it at all. In a sense, the art is lying to the player. It is confounding why such a poor decision was made in the art treatment.
It is not my ambition to shit all over the game or it’s designers, so I’d like to highlight one other aspect of the laser puzzles that I found insightful. There are puzzles in Talos where you sort of bootstrap something into working that otherwise would not have worked at all, by providing a laser that is only temporarily required. The power is applied and then it can be safely removed. It’s another fundamental concept, and I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s similar to jump starting a car, or the way in which static friction takes more force to overcome than kinetic friction. It takes more force to get an object moving than to it does to keep it there. Whatever it is called, it is another beautiful and sublime puzzle concept. It resonates because it illustrates something that is fundamentally true, not just within the confines of the game world, but also in the real world.
A lot of what I’ve said here could be interpreted as a suggestion that there is a recipe to greatness in puzzle game design, but I don’t believe that’s true. Although systemic behavior is a necessary ingredient, sometimes decisions must be made on just gut instinct. This dichotomy between logic and intuition can be difficult to reconcile.
In Talos, the laser redirection puzzles were extended by allowing for a second laser type of a different color. This means that a decision had to be made as to what the rules of interaction between the two lasers would be. There is no real right answer here. Although the decision was made that the lasers would not be allowed to overlap, they could have just as easily passed through each other. There are other gameplay possibilities which could have been possible under these rules that are not possible under the chosen rule-set. For instance, there easily could have been more colors of laser. Perhaps multiple colors could be shined through the same redirection prism, producing a composite color laser. However, the decision was made by the designers that there would only be two colors, and that they would not be able to cross each other, and out of this decision comes a certain set of gameplay.
We can look at all the decisions that must made as part of the design process as branches on a great tree of possibilities. At the far ends of all the branches are a certain number of leaves, which are the life of the puzzles. If we were to start at the base of the tree and trace our way up, we must make decisions along the way about which branch we choose to follow. Some branches may seem large at first, but perhaps they are broken off at some point and there are not many leaves on them to be found. Perhaps an unassuming branch is just full of leaves that we wouldn’t have expected to find. It is the nature of puzzle game design that you can never truly know all of the possibilities that you have missed out on based on a decision you made earlier in the design process. There is art to all good game design, but there is also an element of luck that should not be discounted.
On To the Story
Similar to the design of the puzzles themselves, I think there are two basic approaches to narrative design in puzzle games. The first type of design is to come up with a story independently and attempt to marry it with the mechanics of the game. This can be successful perhaps in rare cases, but I tend to think that the only real benefit that this type of design can guarantee is that, if your story is good, it can be a welcome break and rest for your mind between the hard work of puzzle-solving.
The second type of narrative arises from and is therefore integrated with the mechanics of the game. I would call this Illustrative Narrative. Comparable to illustrations in a book, this method sees narrative not as an alternative to puzzle solving, but as a layer of interpretation on top of it. It is story used as a different avenue of expression to enhance the players overall understanding. It stands outside of but lacks meaning without the text, which in this case is the gameplay.
A great example of this type of storytelling is found in The Swapper. The mechanics of the game involve the player using a device to make clones of themselves. This creates a ton of interesting gameplay, which would be totally fine without any sort of narrative framework. However the game creates effective storytelling by also exploring the moral and psychological consequences of such a device.
This type of story makes the game better because it offers a different perspective on the mechanics of the game. It encourages the player to step outside the abstract mode of puzzle solving and think about the puzzles in a more literal way.
The Talos Principle uses the first method, and is left with a story that, although enjoyable, fails to connect to the puzzles in any meaningful way. The mechanics are mostly talking about movement through and partitioning of space, while the story is about consciousness and what it means to be human. The gulf between the mechanics and the narrative is a huge missed opportunity, but I don’t have any great suggestions for alternative stories. The mechanics of a game of any complexity will always be the primary focus of the player’s attention, and good game storytelling involves embracing this rather than fighting against it. Although the game does well by providing multiple levels of engagement with the story, it is sometimes preferable to forgo story if the alternative is to create something incoherent when taken as a whole work.
Designing to Reveal The Nature of the Universe—An IndieCade talk by Jonathan Blow and Marc Ten Bosch:
A Talos Principle Review:
For some interesting musings on alternative approaches to game storytelling:
Facebook, you probably have one, you may even use it every day. You probably kinda hate it too. Don’t feel too bad, you’re just like everyone else on Facebook. Remember when we were excited about social media? Now it has become a basic utility we use to keep in touch with each other. Nobody is excited about Facebook, just like nobody is excited about the power company.
What is it that keeps us using it then? Thumbing through our news feeds with glazed eyes and a sort of blasé attitude? Is it the dopamine release you get from seeing a new post? Is it that little squirt inside your brain’s reward center when you check a notification, only to find out that it was so-and-so’s birthday for 12 hours today and actually you just don’t care? Why are you Friends with him anyway? Randomized schedule, randomized rewards. It’s the definition of a Skinner box.
Or maybe we really do just like staying connected to people. Even if in a strange and ethereal way, maybe it’s totally good natured friendliness. If it is, you have to admit that rummaging through dozens of personal pictures of all your friends would’ve sounded pretty creepy about a decade ago. Now it’s an afternoon’s leisure activity. They posted those pictures expecting you to look at them. It’s a strange mixture of desperation and honesty.
On top of all this mostly harmless but potentially creepy windowing into our personal lives and thoughts, Facebook is building an empire. They are logging all those status updates, geotagging your pictures, and using facial recognition to find you in others. They are mining through your “private” messages to friends to find keywords that might, just might, suggest that you’d be the type of person who likes to “Eat Fresh.” You may know this, you may have come to accept it, but I guarantee that you have friends, real life people you care about, that are oblivious that they are being spied on by Facebook. Or that anyone, anywhere, can read their posts if they know their name, including the government.
“So how did it get this way?” An outside observer might ask. “Who would ever choose this dystopian nightmare?”
We were never really given that choice exactly. It happened through a long process of accretion, like water wearing away a boulder. The argument was never “Do I want a Facebook that spies on me and sells my identity or no Facebook at all,” it instead became “well, Facebook with ads is better than paying for Facebook, I guess,” and, “well, Facebook with targeted ads is better than Facebook with more ads, I guess.” If you make the damage smaller and dose it out over time, it becomes easier to accept. Frog in the pot with the heat slowly turned up. You stick around instead of running because there’s no shock.
So why does this matter? Why care? I mean, it’s just Facebook. Don’t use it if you don’t like it. (Full disclosure: I do have a Facebook, bear with me) Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Facebook has a profile for you, even if you aren’t a member. They are gathering data on you from wherever they can get it. Shadow profiles. Once you come, you can never leave, they keep your profile information indefinitely on their servers.
So all this seems pretty creepy, not exactly a “Friend” you’d want to hang around with, you know, virtually. Related or not to the creepy factor, they have been bleeding users in the past several years, particularly young ones. They’re moving on to Twitter or whatever the Next Big Thing is. So this puts Facebook, a company in the business of owning your online identity, in a bit of a bind.
The natural thing for a large company to do at this point is to start “diversifying their portfolio.” Or buying up smaller companies in order to broaden their income base. Thus far, Facebook has primarily been buying up other social media platforms. More or less trying to just own the Next Big Thing before it becomes even bigger than Facebook. It’s like MySpace buying Facebook while it still required a .edu email address.
So far that seems to have worked out fairly well for them. After two years, you still wouldn’t know Instagram was a part of Facebook unless someone told you. (I didn’t) And the strategy of not micromanaging has allowed it to continue to grow slowly. But the management style may change with time. In fact, they announced recently that they will be replacing foursquare integration in Instagram with Facebook Places, their in-house solution. So perhaps it has already changed.
All this has somehow lead up to a $2bn acquisition of Oculus. That’s right, Facebook, a company which makes a product which your Mom probably uses every day, is acquiring a hardware company. Not only that, but one that is currently targeting hardcore gamers who want to feel completely immersed in a video game. Don’t see the pattern here? Most people don’t, and Facebook’s stock dipped accordingly.
As with Instagram, Facebook has made the bargain with fans of Oculus that “they won’t change a thing.” And that’s great for VR, but probably not so great for Oculus. Because although I believe them, it’s only to a point. They won’t change anything as long as they believe that they can’t improve their profits by doing so.
Oculus is going to be huge. VR is going to be huge. There’s no avoiding it. It’s a revolution in the way that we consume media, and it has the potential to change the way we think of “reality.” And Facebook is ready to ride this wave to the top. They will be building their version of the Metaverse, the virtual world inside the real one, where we keep in touch with our old friends and loved ones.
But even though VR will stick around forever, Oculus will not continue growing forever. They will slow down. It is the nature of business to grow until the market is filled. But Facebook is a publicly traded company which answers to many disinterested investors. These people want a return on their investment, they want year-over-year growth. If the percentage growth goes down from last year, they want to know why.
Of course this is preposterous, as maintaining a solid percentage growth every year is an exponential curve, and nothing can grow exponentially forever. This is why markets bust and bubbles form. People are terrible at estimating complex non-linear equations. It’s just not something we’ve had to be good at, evolutionarily speaking. So they make bets on the future of businesses expecting the trend of the moment to continue longer than it will.
So once Oculus plateaus, or begins to plateau, or looks like it might possibly maybe be thinking about plateauing, the squeeze is on from the investors. This is the point at which Facebook gets involved in Oculus. This is when we get blue Facebook branded headsets with the “thumbs up” on it. This is when you have to implicitly sign an invasive EULA just to open the box.
This seems to be the major concern of many of Oculus’s fans, that Facebook is going to ruin Oculus. That they will need a Facebook account in order log into Oculus Share. That games will require advertisements overlaid on top of them.
This is not my concern however. That will all be happening a while after VR is officially “a thing.” So if you’re worried about that, please stop.
My concern is for my own self. My own moral integrity. It shows a lot about who you are as a person or a company by who you choose to partner with. And Facebook, regardless of how they are “planning on ruining Oculus” or not, is a company that has shown a willingness to be deceitful towards it’s users if it’s in Facebook’s best interest. They are not, in my opinion, a company that has shown moral fiber. And now Oculus is associated with them.
So what does that look like? A company with moral fiber? Sadly, there aren’t a whole lot of big ones. It seems that when companies reach a certain size, they are seduced by the Dark Side, so to speak. But a few that come to mind from the gaming space are RAD Game Tools, Mojang, and until now, Oculus.
So what has changed at Oculus when they insist so deeply that “nothing has changed?” They have chosen to associate themselves with what I would consider an immoral company. And not just in a superficial way, they are literally part of that company now. Facebook and Oculus will forever be synonymous. So if I don’t trust Facebook, I don’t trust Oculus.
So why do I care? Why do I feel betrayed? Because I believed in Oculus. I thought of it like a group of friends, not just another company, even though that’s really all it was. I should’ve known better really. After they accepted Venture Capitalist money, the writing was really already on the wall. VCs are always looking for a quick buck, a ROI, a buyout.
I ordered a Developer Kit with big plans on making content and helping Oculus “change the world.” Now, I don’t want to help Facebook change anything, certainly not the world. I’d rather they just rot into the dust and go away than reshape the world in their image.
The thought of a company with shaky morals putting it’s weight behind the most significant technological and social revolution since the internet kinda turns my stomach. So it’s scary.
It was nice rooting for the little guy for a while. It was nice feeling able to trust a company like Oculus who was changing the world. Now they are part of something bigger, something scarier, and I don’t trust it one bit.
So the question is, what am I supposed to do about it? I still have my DK2 on order, but I am not sure why. I don’t know that I feel comfortable actually developing anything with it. That makes me just a consumer buying a product, and as Palmer and Nate so earnestly pleaded, “Consumers shouldn’t buy DK2, we don’t want consumers to buy DK2.”
When I wrote my original thoughts about Bioshock Infinite, I was worried that I would be the only dissenting opinion among a sea of praise. A couple of weeks later, turns out my fears were pretty unfounded, and many others have joined in creating a real dialogue about the game. I’m glad to see this happening, with lots of diverse opinions and thoughts being shared. This has honestly been the best thing about Bioshock Infinite’s release; it seems to have been very thought-provoking to a lot of people.
Unfortunately, a lot of the discussion seems to have be boiled down to a question of if the game is too violent. Although the level of violence in the game is certainly a cause for concern, and arguably limits the audience of potential players. I feel as though there is a certain amount of nuance that has been lost. The game is a hodgepodge of things that just don’t fit well together, namely ultraviolent power fantasy and a strong but naive heroine with whom we empathize. There is nothing wrong with the violence, but because it is nothing new for a game to be ultra violent, and it is very new for a game to have anyone with whom we empathize, the empathy element is what most gamers will find most striking. Still, for the sake of engaging the current discussion, I will try to address the violence argument.
Jim Sterling wrote an excellent rebuttal of the desire of a player to “turn off” the combat or have alternate methods for getting through confrontations. He is absolutely right about this not really being what should be reasonably expected from a sequel to the previous Bioshocks. He is also very right about the game being “about violence,” which is a fact that anyone who is unapologetic about game storytelling can plainly see. It is impossible to tell a story about anything but violence when 90% of the story consists of blowing people’s heads off.
However, I feel like his assessment suggests that the game actually has anything interesting to say about the violence. Which, apart from some scripted violent cutscenes, it doesn’t. Nearly all of the violence in the game has absolutely nothing to do with storytelling, and is simply feedback for the mechanics. The combat sequences aren’t “about” anything. They are simply there to give the player something to do.
Is Bioshock Infinite a game in a series of shooters? Yes, it is. Did I suddenly expect that Infinite would stop being excessively violent to the detriment of effective pacing or character development? Not really.
But I hoped.
For me, the promise of the Bioshock series has absolutely nothing to do with Carbines or Vigors or Motorized Patriots. The thing that reached me about the first Bioshock was the setting and the themes. Rapture was just a great place to be in, it felt like there was so much atmosphere to soak up. It was very compelling, in a Dear Esther sort of way, to just explore that world. Using my Plasmids on Splicers only occasionally fit into this experience, but was mostly a diversion from my grand archaeology dig through failed utopia.
I think a lot of people who played Bioshock feel pretty similar about it. The little sister choice, the drama of failed dreams, and the beautiful disaster of Rapture were what was interesting, not shocking and wrenching splicers until the genetically-modified cows come home.
It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly it is about Infinite that makes it more egregious than both the prior games in the series. My first guess is that it’s the presence of Elizabeth. The team at Irrational actually succeeded at making a companion that “you care about.” So when she reacts so negatively to the violent outbursts that the game forces you into, it is a really uncomfortable place for the player to be seated. Most gamers, believe it or not, are not sociopaths, and would much rather not kill people if they are being called “a monster,” for doing so. This immediately puts the player at odds with the game design, which is obviously built around a power fantasy of zapping dudes with force lightning and then blasting them with a shotgun until their heads explode.
Half of the game wants me to feel like a monster, and the other wants me to feel powerful and awesome while mowing down waves of nameless people. The thing is, the half that wants me to feel like a monster is Elizabeth, a character who is purposely designed to be easy to empathize with. She is cartoonishly adorable, which has led many people to call her “a Disney princess.” However, no matter how hurt I am that this princess is cowering from me, I have no choice but to tell her to suck it up because “what did you think was going to happen, it’s a shooter!”
I have to kill hundreds of people in order to finish the game. I want to enjoy killing those people, or else this is going to be really tedious. But Elizabeth wants me to stop killing. Even if the story is somehow about the inevitability of violence in this situation, that still doesn’t explain why the violence is so excessive. I don’t just shoot one guy in the face when Elizabeth first calls me a monster. (Though that would be quite enough for most people to see me that way.) Instead, I mercilessly clear a whole room full of people.
If this were an isolated incident of mass murder, it might not be a problem. But it is not only repeated many times throughout the game; the encounters actually increase in the number of enemies and decrease in their narrative reason to exist.
A good example of a completely unnecessary combat sequence is in the boardwalk area, right before you get to the entrance to the Hall of Heroes. Booker and Elizabeth are walking towards the entrance and the story is moving at a slow but deliberate pace. Tension is being built because we can only imagine what will happen in this new location. However, the tension is broken prematurely by a fight with a dozen or so people who come out of nowhere and start shooting at Booker. Booker dispatches them with some gusto, while Elizabeth cowers behind a statue. Once the last skull has been exploded, Booker and Liz walk in silence into the Hall of Heroes.
If you don’t see how this is pointless in regards to storytelling, and simply tedious as a gameplay segment, then you must be blind. Who were those people Booker killed? As far as I can tell, the game never explains who the people you are fighting are. Maybe they are militant citizens, maybe police of some kind. Either way, the violence at this moment served no storytelling purpose whatsoever. If the goal was to remind us that we are not safe just standing around the boardwalk, why did we just have a sequence in which the player can do just that? It’s not only a useless moment, but in context it actually undermines the pacing of the story.
As the game goes on, the combat sequences increase in frequency, and the length of time you can wander without running into trouble from nameless people with weapons consequently decreases. Although this shift in pacing actually helps the game to feel less tedious, because a player can start to feel comfortable with the incessant onslaught of murder. It is actually a move in a direction that is, I believe, less interesting. The emotional core of the game resides with Elizabeth. The player wants to get to know her better and relishes quiet moments where some real character development happens, like the infamous musical scene in the basement of a bar.
However, quiet moments with Elizabeth are few and far between, and become increasingly more so as the game goes on. We get separated from Elizabeth, so that we can find our way back again. The designers know that the desire to see Elizabeth is the best motivator for the player, so they use her as the carrot on the stick multiple times. She is part character, part damsel-in-distress. Part a real breathing human with wants and desires, part an object which exists as a maguffin for gameplay.
There is clearly a lot going on Infinite, and I feel like many of my criticisms are less about this game, and more about games in general. Is Bioshock Infinite unusually violent for a videogame? No. Does it have a well-paced story with good character development compared to most contemporary videogames? Yes. Is it pretty intellectual and heady with its themes when most games struggle with even having themes? Certainly. The problem is that Infinite is surrounded with a sea of games which are too dumb and too violent for any normal (read: non-gamer) person to have an inkling of interest in playing them. It only stands out because it is surrounded by dog-food.
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.
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.
As an independent developer, I tend to pride myself on my ability to remain open about the development of my projects, but sometimes it is hard to admit the truth. Either because I blame myself and feel lazy, or because I just don’t want to disappoint anyone. The realities of game development can be a lot less clear cut and pretty as some of the final results. There is honestly no medium that is harder to produce a complete work in.
I submitted Duet to the Independent Games Festival late last year. I was unfortunately not named among the excellent finalists. However, it did bring me some surprising attention, including an article on IndieGames.com. All this excitement from the outside has made it painfully apparent how slow my progress is. I haven’t even touched the code for the game in probably 3 months or so. So I feel that I should be honest with everyone about what I have been doing with the project: Nothing, at the moment.
Am I giving up on Duet? Definitely not. I believe that it is the most important game that I have worked on in my life. However, there are some difficulties which have arisen in the development which have made working on the project tiresome. Tiffany, Duet’s artist, was my fiancé at the time of her entry into the team. Now we are separated, and that makes collaboration difficult to impossible, due to the emotions involved. It is probably never advisable to build a work relationship atop a personal one.
I am doing a ground-up reimplementation of the gameplay from the original Game Maker prototype to my custom C++ and OpenGL engine. The port was envisioned as a way to achieve a more complex and modern art direction than what is possible in Game Maker. Therefore, I find it hard to be motivated when I do not have an artist working with me. I have been putting the project on hold until I could work things out with Tiffany. Now it seems clear that that is not going to happen, so I need to find another artist who is right for the job.
As you all know, life is expensive and game development is equally so. Games take a long time to develop, and progress can be slow enough when you work on it full time. Part-time progress may be enough to get Duet done, but even still, I lack the funds to pay an artist a competitive salary. So really the best I can offer anyone is a share of the final profits, after all the bills are paid of course.
Anyway, all of these factors have conspired to put Duet in a very tenuous position in it’s development. Progress is not happening, but I will inform you all as soon as I have anything new to show.
If you think you are what I’m looking for and are interested in helping make Duet look more like it plays, then you can drop me a line here, @mvandevander on twitter or on the Facebook page for the game. Please have examples of your work.
Those who know me, know that I often deride the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series as a exploitation of veterans. The game seems to offer an unrealisticly positive representation of modern warzones, twisting something terrible into something fun. The game appears as Halo, only skinned to look like real war. Replace the SMG with an AK-47, the Warthog with a Humvee, Space Marine with a real Marine. Also, if you know me, you know that I, until this writing, have never played the Modern Warfare series. Continue reading “Absolutely Nothing”→
Dark Souls is a unique game. Simultaneously planting one foot in the checkered video game past, and the other so far in the future that you will find yourself lost as you try to keep up. There is something truly special at work here. Even if you don’t enjoy the experience, it is impossible to deny admiration for the boldness of its conviction. It is truly a work inspired by a unbending philosophy and a belief that games can and should offer different experiences. Continue reading “Prepare to Live ( Dark Souls Diary, Part 3 )”→
Bear with me, because this is a bit of a long rant, but it’s hopefully worth the read…
Alright, so lets talk about morality and moral choices in games. There’s obviously a lot of games out there that provide moral choices as a core game concept: the Fable series, Bioshock, almost allofBioware’sgames… So all of these games are supposed to be centered around this idea of moral choices between good and evil.
And the basic way in which these games implement morality is with what basically accounts to a slider with good on one end and evil on the other. So in order to become an evil character you have to have a lot of evil points, or if you’re wanting to play a good character you’ve got to have a lot of those points. But the problem is that in order for this to work, and for the game be able to determine where you are on this slider, every decision in the game has be reduced into a simple black and white decision; one choice will yield good points and the other choice yields evil points. Unfortunately, this also makes the most of the game’s choices uninteresting and defeats the initial draw the whole moral choice idea had in the first place, because all of the choices are so easy to make. Continue reading “Grey, The new Black and White.”→