First of all, I’m still writing new stuff intermittently. A lot has happened in the last few months, especially in regards to Chambara and the BAFTA, and I have a lot of things that I’d like to reflect on in my life here.
This year, I served on a student organization at USC called MEGA, which exists to serve and grow the games community at USC and surrounding areas by hosting a variety of events like game jams, guest speakers, and game nights, as well as facilitating communication between students and administration with townhalls and open forums. Over the course of the year, we held events ranging from the largest Global Game Jam in the United States to a yoga/interpretive dance session set to visuals from Proteus. MEGA exists less as a professional group for developers, but more of as a social community for folks to have fun and enjoy each others company while making bonds that will be meaningful.
MEGA is run a bit like a cabal with no solid roles. If something needs to be done, then someone can do it. Some weeks, I’d be planning whole events, other weeks I’d be retrieving food for guests, and many weeks I’d be handling communications and advertising.
One thing that Brendan LoBuglio started that ended up being a lot of fun for board members to do was create animated digital fliers in Unity that would be posted around all the screens in the games building. These would typically be goofy, tacky, and adorably ostentatious, establishing an identity and brand for the club while significantly boosting awareness of our events. We still did print fliers, but these were unique.
I ended up making a lot of these over the course of the year. They were great fun to make and allowed me a space to be weird with many of Unity’s graphics features. Here are the ones that I made.
This was the first digital flier I made for a weekly series of events where people could bring in their games for play testing. I made it entirely using assets downloaded from the Unity Asset Store.
This was from an anti-Gamergate game jam we held calling for diversity, positivity, inclusivity, and hope. Its one of the simpler ones I made using a Valentine’s Day texture applied to a spinning inverted torus.
I made this for a competitive game night we held when Super Smash Bros. 4 came out on Wii U. The first animated flier using stolen assets ripped from commercial games, the cast of Super Smash Bros. is rolled up into a Katamari and flies into the sun. Very fun to make.
Made this for an end-of-semester exhibition of highlight games from the Intermediate and Immersive Games classes at USC. I emailed each of the folks selected to showcase asking for assets from their games and set them through a turbulent ride through a tunnel of Great Artist images before landing on a sunny shore, which is how Intermediate typically feels like for a lot of people.
In the new year, I started using sound in the fliers. I was super excited for the Global Game Jam and set a spinning Earth on the back of a space whale (an element in my games that started at last year’s Global Game Jam) as shooting stars screech by and the Rainbow Road theme song plays. The result was something super giddy, reflecting how much this event means to me.
The Community Game Jam was for a game jam styled like an Exquisite Corpse. Exquisite Corpse is a surrealist art practice where participants would draw on a piece of paper, fold it partially, and pass it on to the next person, who would continue the chain by adding onto the drawing. The result was a collage of collective subconsciousness. We adopted this structure for this game jam by asking participants to take 30 minute turns at computers making a game in Unity before passing their workstation on. We playtested this format by making that week’s digital flier with four authors over the course of two hours. This mashup of space whales, burning trees, ticker tape, and Sailor Moon music was the result. Exceptionally terrifying when played at night when you’re alone in the halls of the games building. Many of the games from that game jam ended up with this style.
These two digital fliers are the culmination of all our work on MEGA and the ultimate expression of our aesthetic as a group. The first one I made in a few hours using assets stolen from Metal Gear Rising: Revengance and every single goofy edit I could possibly make. I deleted eyebrows, used Great Artist for textures, warped colors, and slowed down music from the Sonic Adventure 2 tribute album. As my term ends this week, this would likely be the last flyer that I would get to make on the board, so this was less themed around the week’s events and more around the identity that the club developed over the course of the last year.
The next one in the video was made by Sean Wejebe, and uses 3D models of current boardmembers in a giant roulette deciding. Whoever gets chosen by the spinner is shot out of cannons to the tune of “Escape from the City”.
Over the last week or so, I’ve been playing Pokemon Omega Ruby in intermittent bursts, a game that I’ve been waiting to play for years. Pokemon Ruby was the most important game of my childhood because it was special to me in a way that could have been only special to me.
The Summer of 2003 was atypically warm. The sun baked the sidewalks and the air was fresh, warm, and crisp that year. My brother and I would leave the windows open at night and let the warm breeze and pink, summer sky as we would watch cartoons in the third floor bedroom. Around this time, I brought home Pokemon Ruby from a Toys ‘R Us that’s no longer standing.
I daydreamed a lot back then, I still kinda do. I would imagine that the heroes of the cartoons and games that I watched and played really existed and that they would go on adventures and fight evil villains in my city. As I played Pokemon, something different and new entered my daydreams and fantasies. I imagined myself as one of those heroes, a Pokemon Trainer on a journey across the region, searching for eight badges and thwarting evil plans on a quest become a Master.
Retrospectively, I think it was all that daydreaming and fantasizing that made Pokemon special to me, as well as the time of my life in which I played it. When I was a child, I saw the world with this sense of rich, exciting novelty that permeated everything, its that same kind of excitement that I feel echoes of when I read something like Yotsuba&!. I think Pokemon hit me at a time when that novelty was at its peak.
I would be in that world when my family visited a new town or city, I’d fantasize about challenging that town’s gym leader. When we went to the park or drove through the mountains on a holiday, I’d dream about the rare pokemon that lived out in the fields. In my mind, I would set out on adventures in the countryside, battle my friends in school, and become the Champion. The forests, coastlines, and cities of Northern California held imaginary adventures. I don’t know if that was a phase only I went through or if other kids did that too, but for a while, my imagination was dominated by daydreams of Pokemon.
And I wouldn’t be alone on these adventures either. Pokemon connected me with friends in elementary school. That was a common interest that I could talk about with my friends, who also played the game. A lot of what makes Pokemon special is the schoolyard folklore that gets built up around these games, and with the third generation games, we told stories of how you could catch Feebas by changing the Trendy Phrase in Dewford Town, how you could go to space when the rocket in Mossdeep was finished, and how you could battle Professor Birch after you completed the Hoenn Pokedex. In elementary school, there were a lot of kids who were also obsessive about Pokemon, and that was an incredibly fun atmosphere to exist in as an eight-year old.
Really, I think the culture that the Pokemon games created when they entered our lives was something truly special. That atmosphere of giddiness and wonder, that constant daydreaming and fantasizing, that was something that couldn’t be replicated with any other game, in any other time of our lives. Its a feeling that I’ve been constantly, subconsciously, chasing for years. That feeling of going into the world new.
And Hoenn was a special setting for me because it filled a void and slaked a thirst I had growing up as a sheltered city boy expected to succeed in school. I needed those adventures, I needed that fantasy. I still went out and played, and we’d go on vacations in the mountains, but the rigid expectations of going to school, getting good grades, and succeeding in that way just wouldn’t do it. Hoenn’s perpetual summer and its perfect wildness appealed to me and provoked my imagination because my reality was so incredibly urban.
A lot of things have happened in those twelve years since I first played Ruby. I’ve slid in and out of phases. I’ve had my first crush, first heartbreak. Family members have died and moved forward. I’ve seen the wars in the Middle East come to their flashpoints and conclusions. My best friend in high school was arrested, and our lives diverged from there. Actually, my path has diverged from a lot of my friends. I got good at running cross country, mostly because I liked hanging out with the people in Varsity. I’ve said dumb, regrettable things. I got into my dream school and got involved with indie games folks. I saw evil in the world and nervously shivered as I did what I thought needed to be done. There was hostility, ignorance, discrimination, many injustices.
And now I’m playing a remake of this game that did a lot for me in the past, when my perspective of the world was different. Everything out there felt new. Back then, there were nooks and crannies in my enchanted world filled with secrets, adventure, and treasure. A euphoric sense of novelty accompanied every new person and place that entered my reality. Playing a remake of this game brings back sparse echoes of how I felt back then, but things have changed. As I play Omega Ruby, I can’t help but feel that I’m reaching out, arm outstretched, for that fading glint of something long past. And brilliant it may be, the past twelve years have showed me that there’s injustice, inequality, unfairness, and apathy in our world, and I can’t but help that feel burdened with the responsibility of doing something about it.
I’m glad Pokemon is still popular today. I want kids to have those kinds of imaginative, fantastic journeys, especially kids like myself who grew up in affluent cities and were disconnected from unstructured play in the countryside. Satoshi Tajiri stated that Pokemon was inspired by his childhood, collecting insects in the rural suburb of Machida. With Pokemon, he wanted to resist the massive urbanization and industrialization of late 20th century Japan by providing a digital space where kids can still play outside, explore tall grass, and collect insects, even as tall towers and rigid, compulsory, education systems crept into the countryside and those playful spaces of volition vanished.
That wonder should persist and we should work to preserve it. We should not shelter children from the world and be paranoid about keeping them on the “right track”, but work to create imaginative playgrounds where children can feel that autonomy, imagination, and delight. Pokemon was formative to me because it gave me that imaginative playground as a child, and as a twenty year old man, I want to create those playgrounds of endless fantasy because it matters.
Tracy Fullerton, director of USC Games, recently published this open letter to the community reiterating on the importance of community here, denouncing the violence and harassment of the last few months.
This letter (also published at games.usc.edu) is a statement and a promise to the players, makers, and thinkers of the games community at USC and beyond. We felt it important in these contentious times to put forth a clear statement of our values as a community for all involved in making, playing and study of games. This is for those who currently make and play with us, those who would like to do so, and anyone concerned with the aesthetic form of games and playful interactive media more broadly.
Our goal at USC Games has always been to push games outward from their status quo, with a spirit of adventure inspiring our experiments in the design, development and production of all kinds of games with all kinds of interfaces. We believe that a necessary part of this outward development is to encourage games that encompass new contexts, new audiences, and new creators.
These enthusiastic explorations are only possible in a community that welcomes diversity and thrives on our differences – one that is built on a foundation of humility and profound respect for what our fellow players, our fellow creators, and our varied experiences in the world can teach us. We have such a community here, and it has yielded beautiful results of which we are extremely proud.
However, we cannot ignore the long history of online and real-world harassment of women and minorities who develop, play and/or critique games. The recent intensification of this problem harshly reminds us that an environment of openness and trust is fragile – it requires careful and conscientious nurturing. Accordingly, our community does not accept speech or actions that are hateful, threatening or violent, in any form or forum.
We are adamant in upholding these values and we expect ourselves to have the moral courage to confront destructive behavior when and where it happens, and with an eye to addressing the source of the problem. We believe it is important to apply these principles not only to the academic study and commercial production of games, but to games as a part of our culture and media environment.
We encourage everyone who cares about games – players and makers, amateurs and professionals, aspiring and experienced, academic and informal, casual and hardcore, indie and triple-A – to stand alongside us in maintaining these principles in our words and in our work.
As the hosts of countless game jams, we have found that that these events, with their atmosphere of excitement, collaboration, and fearless experimentation, are a powerful expression of our values. Our student organization, MEGA, wants to offer such a joyful, supportive experience to everyone through its upcoming Love Jam, November 14-15, which will include both in-person and virtual opportunities for collaboration. Please join us in a thanksgiving and celebration of diversity and creativity in games.
The Faculty of USC Games
The best part of USC Games is its community, filled with inspiring, big-hearted, courageous, and heroic people. I came here in 2012 in the wake of Journey, and things were so incredibly energetic, optimistic, and hopeful in this community. The flaring of underlying systemic issues in games culture this year has dampened that optimism, and its easy to feel exhausted and drained.
Coming from a world where not very many people wanted to engage with games in the way I did, joining the Interactive Media and Games Division was a homecoming for me. When we got our new building last year, I knew that I was in an amazing place. We had a home. A beautiful base of operations where we could spend time with each other, being creative, being kind, and doing the right work for the world. Here, good folks could meet each other. Diverse friends tied together by a common destiny. Anyone was invited to be one of those friends.
We should be acutely aware of the nastiness, negativity, and evil that exists in our world. And we should constantly self-critique to make sure we don’t inflict nastiness, negativity, and evil upon the rest of the world. At the same time, we should not fill our lens of the world exclusively with sorrow and pain. The form that we are engaging with is about play, joyous and loving. What I want to see happen with the Love Jam is a reaffirmation of the importance of love, inclusivity, positivity, and hope. It’s easy to feel that the world is bleak and hopeless, and I hope the Love Jam will remind us that people are good, games can bring joy, and we can be kind.
This year’s Indiecade was great. The sense of community, love, and playfulness there was exactly what the world needed in a time where its easy to fall into bleak cynicism. The festival is truly a model for what a games-related event could and should be. Not for networking, not for business, not for consumers, but for folks who love sharing joy with each other through play. I didn’t have my digital camera at the time, so I got my 35mm SLR to take these pictures. It was more expensive than I would like, but I think it looks better than what my phone’s camera can do.
I also would like to share Jeff Watson’s talk “Homily for a Game Jam”, which was written for MEGA’s Fall Kickoff jam which I was part of organizing. The game jam underwent some rapid last minute changes after much of the club’s board members participated in a Playthink Salon about our recent crisis in game culture. I also gave a talk with Team OK about the depiction of violence in Chambara and how we wanted to challenge those kinds of resolutions to conflict on a representational level with our game. This is the talk, and you should totally read it. It’ll motivate you if you need it.
I’ve been busy working on a capstone-ish project in the Advanced Games class here. Its not the project that I expected to be working on here, but as a lead, I was able to see the game pivot into a direction that I am now pretty interested working on. If that goes well, more on that later.
This last week has been awful for games. The violence and abuse directed towards game developers and critics, many of whom I know personally, who do not sacrifice their voice or identity is appalling.
To me, the notion that years of work and hundreds of little and big sacrifices in pursuit of a dream will be met with only violence and confrontation is hurtful.
To those who may be participating in this abuse, know well that greater critical thinking about games and welcoming different kinds of people to join this table won’t erase your seat at it. The future you’re trying to create is something you don’t want. I guarantee it. So knock it off.
To other developers, we must continue to support each other at times like these and work hard to better the world around us. At the same time, know well the behavior that your projects can create and consider deeply how your games are affected by and affect the larger culture and world. We cannot sink into a shell of fear and apathy, shirking our responsibilities as cultural influencers.
To the victims of abuse, especially Phil Fish, Zoe Quinn, and Anita Sarkeesian. Know that we love you and the world needs you. You are heroes.
The world is changing. I can see it in the new freshmen class at the Interactive Media and Games Division, the first class to ever be more than 50% women. I see it how packed the new critical game studies class I TA’d today was, 70 students ready to think hard about games. Soon, nobody will loose.
Over the last eight weeks, I’ve been in Scotland competing in the 2014 Dare to be Digital competition, an international game jam where college teams from all over the world strive to construct a game in a two-month span. The three winning teams of this competition go on to be nominated for that year’s Ones to Watch award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
My team, Overly Kinetic, was nominated for our game Chambara, a binary-colored split-screen stealth game inspired by a Samurai Jack episode. Creating Chambara at Dare was one of the most challenging and exciting times of my life, and definitely a highlight of my career. At our booth at the Protoplay Festival, I saw for the first time, people laugh and smile with each other as they played our game. To think that something I made gave such a positive, loving, experience to people, that’s amazing.
Here are my personal thoughts on the project and how it went.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
1. Preproduction paid off.
Chambara underwent an extensive preproduction period that extended for multiple months. Conceptualization and team-building began as early as January, and preparation for the pitch extended all through early May. The team met for three hours every Tuesday to plan for the pitch, prepare documentation, assemble project plans, consider funding solutions for our flights to Scotland, and conduct physical and digital prototyping. Our Tuesday meeting was often followed up by a weekend meeting where we would conduct research by watching chanbara movies or current anime, as well as playing games like Metal Gear Rising and Timesplitters. Over the course of those months, we discarded as many as three scripts for our pitch video and two project plans.
The result of our extensive preproduction period was an exceptional pitch video and high morale throughout the first week of Dare. Knowing every task we had to do to complete this game down to the hour, we worked game-jam-like hours through the first week and completed a playable prototype within three days.
2. Polished core mechanic.
The intentionality of my previous game, The Pilgrim, was to explore what game feel and character controls could communicate emotionally to the player. The “feel” of a jump can communicate anything from empowerment and joy, to disempowerment and frustration.
To this extent, much of the success of a character-action game comes down to the kinesthetics of movement through a space, which is why it was of utmost important that the “feel” of moving about in Chambara was empowering and playful.
Level design was blocked for a week because we could not reasonably create levels until we understood how players would feel moving through them. Once Alec designed an excellent, fully-featured character controller with some advanced movement features like gliding, walljumping, and blocking, we began to construct levels around those features. Subsequent iterations of that controller would add features such as variable walk speed, remapped controls, and a “squawk button”. Ultimately, the game owes a lot of its success to game feel and the tactical depth afforded by our movement system.
3. Rapid iteration and playtesting.
A mantra of game design is “fail fast, fail often”, which upholds that it is extremely important to have some testable proof-of-concept as early as possible and iron out the flaws from there. The reasoning behind this mantra is that the earlier that flaws with a design are discovered, the earlier those flaws can be corrected, making the process of creating a game an inward spiral of course-correction and continuous refinement. To this extent, we were successful. We implemented, tested, and discarded several of our ideas from preproduction on the very first day.
We ran extensive testing outside of the one public session that Dare to be Digital arranged for us. We treated every industry mentor that came in as another playtester, and studied their play-behavior very closely, down to tracking notes on how they moved their thumbs around the gamepad. Their reactions and feedback would form the basis of what we wanted to build and implement the very next week. Each of us would send builds back to our friends and family to get their feedback, and a comprehensive metrics backend provided us with ample data that we weren’t entirely sure how to interpret.
4. Simple assets.
Building a Chambara map is easy: simply drag and drop cubes, deform them, and throw one of two materials on each block. For a while, many of our environments were constructed entirely out of 3D primitives, which led to some delightful moments when I threw rigidbodies onto everything. For a short time, we had “leveloution”.
Around the sixth week, we determined that we needed to art up the levels to give them more grounding and readability, as well as solve the problem of players not being able to determine where the boundaries of a level were. So we began to construct art assets to replace the primitive cubes and planes that used to build up the levels.
Constructing these 3D assets was shockingly easy, especially given that our dichromatic aesthetic nullifies the need for UV maps and textures. Every asset I constructed was a simple cube with faces cut into it, each of the faces would receive its own material. This pipeline allowed us to create and implement 3D assets in only a fraction of the time it would have taken if we had used any other art style.
5. Multiplayer is exciting to design for.
While I was involved with The Maestros back at USC, I was only working on that project as a community manager. Chambara was my first multiplayer digital game, the rest of my projects being either single-player digital or multiplayer analogue. Working and designing a digital multiplayer game was a refreshing change of pace from the kind of work I’ve done in the past, and making this a project I was really invested in.
WHAT WENT WRONG.
1. Bad timing hurt some components.
Despite all the preproduction and planning we did, something would inevitably go wrong and throw the project off schedule, which is why we designed our game to allow for features to be cut or suffer without hurting the core game too much.
We worked on an asymmetrical schedule with our composer Austin, who was operating from four timezones away. Since we were working on this game full-time and he was working part-time, we inevitably moved the pace of the project disproportionately fast. We would build levels and features and put in requests for sound assets and music faster than he could reasonably create them. There were multiple times where we would request a sound effect for a feature that we would have to cut days later, thereby making him do unnecessary work.
We also planned for a comprehensive UI revamp later in production that we were ultimately unable to do. The main menu seen in the festival build is filled with a lot of issues, making it very inconvenient to set up games and match players to teams. Ultimately, we had to create temporary solutions by revamping the existing menu system and creating UI assets that were not as rigorously tested or refined as they could or should have been.
One of our team members got very sick later in production and was unable to come to the studio every day to work on the game. While we crunched much less than we would typically do during the school year, we still made sacrifices to our health in terms of diet and exercise. Affordable food options in Dundee are limited, and much of our diet came down to refrigerated tortellini and sandwich meat from Tesco, or processed meals from a frozen-food retailer called Iceland.
All Dare teams are allotted 200 GBP to use to spend on production of their game. We were confused as to how to use this money, because you don’t really need much money to make videogames. So early in production, we decided to save that money up for our Protoplay booth, which we wanted to be a welcoming, homey environment where people could come in and play our game and receive a prize for playing.
The American dollar isn’t very strong against the British pound, and expenses in our own currency were far greater for us. A 20 GBP expense was equivalent to a 35 USD one, making us reticent to spend.
Ultimately, we ended up going over budget and had to pay some of the expenses, like branded t-shirts and crafting gear with our own money.
4. Inconsistent theming.
While we spent much of our research phase in preproduction looking at samurai cinema and anime, very little of that influence made it into the final game. Visual tests of our levels over the first two weeks revealed that people associated our imagery with German Expressionist film, with its harsh angles, angsty edges, and dreary colors, which was a connotation that we didn’t find fun or appealing to us. Others said that the visuals reminded them of Frank Miller’s Sin City, which brings up a load of sociopolitical issues that we aren’t prepared to address.
We started art-ing up the levels around the sixth week and giving them life and thematic grounding. Nonetheless, the look and feel of the game remains inconsistent across the game’s five levels. “Glorious Mansion”, our two-player level, brings up European connotations with its red and white color scheme and its ornamental accents and assets. “Neo Tokyo” is a strange mashup of Akira’s late-80s cyberpunk style and utopian metabolist architecture. “Flour Mill” sticks out with its industrial gears, mechanical ticking, and wooden slats. “Mono-Ha Garden” is the only stage that uses cylindrical shapes as its base asset and is inspired by the Mono-Ha art movement of the 70s. “Reservoir” was actually a map that we didn’t have time to finish, and remains constructed entirely out of primitives. A number of silly easter eggs in the hills are its only theming.
We knew that the primary audience at the Protoplay Festival would be children, roughly 7 to 14 years old, moving into the competition, and felt that there were many ways that we could do something very harmful to them, as well as create a problematically racist appropriation. People change through experiences, and since videogames offer experiences, we knew that we could have a very negative effect on the values of our players. I discussed this problem in depth in my previous blog post about the subject.
While we made extensive measures to neuter the violence of the game and spin the mechanical interactions into something positive, I don’t think we did enough. When a mother at Protoplay dismissed our game as “another killing game”, I was deeply hurt. If anyone reacts that way, I don’t think we did enough. The formal systems of games necessitates conflict between players or systems, and to struggle against the structural foundation of the medium is a vast challenge that I doubt that we can pull off. While the magic circle indictates a separation between the world of a game and reality, games and the behaviors that they create through their systems are inherently political expressions. If the values expressed through our content are dissonant with what we believe, then I think that we would be doing something we would regret in the future.
Civilization is a great game because its systems encourage competition between players, creating brilliant emergent narratives. But when those systems in context are metaphor for violence, imperialism, and ultranationalism, I can’t really say that Civilization is a comfortable game once I leave its magic circle.
Which is why a single person calling Chambara “another killing game” is so perturbing to me. If our systems of conflict are construed to be about violence, anger, and confrontation by some people, then what does our game communicate to our players? Do our players leave the experience better or worse?
I think we mostly succeeded, I saw nothing but positive behavior from people who played our game. Kids and adults laughed, smiled, and bonded with each other as they played our game, often shaking hands after they were done. We witnessed no toxicity and had a greater diversity of players than we expected, entertaining young girls and older parents, people underserved by existing games. A father with an autistic child thanked us giving his son something to smile about, which really made our day, and overall, I think we created a lot of love in that festival tent. Yet, I can’t forget what that mother said, “oh, another killing game”.
Nonetheless, if Chambara ended up being the blood-drenched mess of violence and negativity that it could have been, presenting itself as yet another “killing game”, then I don’t think I could accept a BAFTA nomination in good conscience.
We intend to retrieve the rights to Chambara from Abertay University, who manages each team’s IP for the duration of the competition. What exactly we’re going to do with those rights remains to be decided. If we choose to develop the game further, we might self-publish on Steam Greenlight or Playstation Network, or pitch and sign on with a publisher. We will probably solicit our professors for advice on what to do from here.
We would like to submit to indie festivals like Fantastic Arcade, The Wild Rumpus, and Indiecade. It would be fun to travel to games events like EVO and essentially go on “tour” like what Nidhogg or Killer Queen has done.
If we can’t decide, we’ll probably open-source the game’s project files and make the game free to download, essentially donating the game’s source code to the public domain so people can poke through the code and assets and learn how the game was constructed. Open source is a great thing for education, and given Unity’s omnipresence in amateur games, I think we can do a lot of good for the world if we surrender our code.
In San Francisco, there is a children’s science museum named the “Exploratorium” in the Palace of Fine Arts. Within, there is an attraction named the “Tactile Dome”, which is an indoor maze left completely unlit. Visitors must rely on their sense of touch to move about the maze to the end. This game was heavily inspired by this attraction, featuring three levels of dark, tactile goodness.
~ August 2nd, 2010
I originally thought I would be a journalist, but when I ended up spending a summer at the COSMOS Summer Camp at UC Santa Cruz studying a games course, taught by then Ph.D candidates Anne Sullivan and Gillian Smith, things changed. I worked with Davis Huang and Daniel Xu to make a Processing-game called “Tactile Cave”. So I decided to take the videogame thing and go as far as I possibly could with it.
Later that year, I wrote an open-letter to Leland Yee and the Supreme Court defending videogames during the Brown v. EMA case, which got his office’s attention. Soon after, I tried multiple times to make a dream game I had come true, enlisting the help of Bard Sodal and calling ourselves “Subtle Stone”, which was a pun on Bard’s name. I moved down to Los Angeles that fall to study at USC Interactive and met some incredible people, and now I’m in Dundee, competing in Dare to be Digital for a BAFTA.
I don’t like to think in capitalistic narratives of “progression” and don’t think they’re right for most creative folk, but I see this game as a bit of a turning point in my life. A catalyst that led me to where I am now.
Tactile Cave started as a rougelike, and it isn’t very good in retrospect. Your choices are very limited, and success is mostly a matter of trial-and-error. It doesn’t work on most machines without an annoying Java plugin, and the art is ugly, and the music, stolen. I couldn’t program at the time, so I was then responsible for handling art duties and designing levels using graph paper.
To be honest, I don’t really feel too different now from how I felt four years ago. I’m a much better designer than I was back then, programming comes to me much easier. Maya can be great fun when it cooperates. I know Unity well now, and I’m teaching myself Unreal 4 for Advanced Games.
But I don’t think mastery ever comes, there’s still much to learn and so many things you aren’t ready for. Emergent mistakes that you learn from but aren’t prepared to make. Project-to-project, you never are really certain what you’re doing. Its never easy, and as you’re moved up and up and up, never really sure what people see in you and how you could possibly be qualified for anything, more and more weight is packed onto your decisions. You don’t quite “master”, but “discover”, as you tread down and down and down this microcosmic rabbithole. You grow to love that uncertainty, live with it, make it part of your identity and come to embrace that precariousness with a new name: “excitement”.
The decisions that my team and I make over the next week will determine what happens to Chambara and, if our decisions are good, what happens to us.
We’re closing out on Week 7, and I’m somewhat comfortable calling what we have here as “Alpha”. Next week will be the last week we have to finish the game, then its on to exhibition at the Protoplay Festival. The result of our presentation there will determine whether or not we will be nominated for the BAFTA’s Ones to Watch Award or any of the other prizes.
We ran a playtest on our game late last week on a number of kids from a local summer program. We learned a lot about our game’s new player experience and how learning navigation of first-person space works for young people. A lot of that probably comes how a lot of these kids grew up playing games like Minecraft and how they attained their initial literacy in games through it. We’ve made a number of changes to our game because of it. I hope we’ll have time to complete all of the changes we need to make in the next week and a half.
We ended up being featured in VICE Magazine’s The Creators Project, and that interview got us quite a bit of buzz over the last week. I just finished up an interview with Develop Online which should go up in the next few days. Hopefully, we can sustain that momentum to Protoplay, as the judges seem to factor our behavior and outside interest into account when interacting with our games.
This week, the team has been mostly focusing on gearing the game towards a festival context. We have removed stages inappropriate for new players and gave players a pre-game sandbox to run around in and get accustomed to controls and space. Alec has been working on a new UI system that would be more usable than what we currently have now. The number of stages, which used to stand at around nine, has shrunk down to five, allowing us to focus on adding representational elements to levels to give them a sense of context, place, and fun. I’ve been implementing sound effects as they arrive and cutting together a trailer for the game, focusing on communicating the mechanical and aesthetic uniqueness of our game. I’ll post that once we’re happy with it.
We’re in charge of handling a budget of 200p at Dare to be Digital, roughly $350. We’ve allocated almost all of that money towards our booth for Protoplay. I’ve been to Indiecade and Glitch City parties before, and there’s a unique social context in that kind of event/festival setting that I really want to leverage. Killer Queen does this really well, as does Sportsfriends, and Spin the Bottle. Only at a festival can you play with complete strangers and bond with them over games in a social atmosphere that’s both celebratory and community-building.
So we want to construct an inviting booth that meshes well with the dichromatic aesthetic of the game. A “living-room-in-a-expo-hall” where people can drop by, have a great time, make some friends, and chill out in a social context that many find exhausting. I saw a lot of that come out of the Mild Rumpus at GDC, and with our limited budget, I hope we can achieve something unique there.
We aren’t [only] designing games, we are designing experiences, and experiences are the only things that can change people, sometimes in unexpected ways. (451)
If you aren’t willing to take responsibility for the games you make, you shouldn’t be making them. (455)
is it possible you could find a way for
your game to do good? To somehow make people’s li ves better? If you know this is possible, and you choose not to do
it, isn’t that,in a way, just as bad as making a game that harms people? (456)
Chambara has begun to grow legs and get attention outside of the tiny circle of people following our journey in Scotland. After an imgur album of gifs hit the top page of reddit’s indiegaming board, AlphaBetaGamer got a hold of the images and shared them on their site. Soon afterward, a tumblr post featuring those images hit 250 notes, and I received a message from Vice asking if they could do a story on the game. Soon, we will have to be accountable as to what our game represents to the outside world.
I look at the above lenses that Jesse proposes about the game designer’s responsibility to the world and wonder if our game can really offer a sound response to those questions.
I’ve been playing a lot of Civilization recently, a game that I immensely enjoy and find to be an immaculately designed story machine, spewing out amazing emergent narratives. Yet, I am uncomfortable about how much I enjoy it. Civilization‘s winstates and mechanical progression prioritizes disagreeable values about imperialism, cultural hegemony, and state-centric nationalism. Yet, it is these uncomfortable values that create an incredible game.
Our game is a fighting game, where the conflict is violent and resolved by the elimination of the other. Thus, we start off with some uncomfortable themes such as the resolution of interpersonal conflict through fighting, redemptive violence, and the need to “right” the world by killing the human beings which make it “wrong”.
I don’t think those values are representative of what I believe.
I found one of the recent projects I was involved with disagreeable because the mechanics and metaphor came together to create something indicative of imperialism and the subjugation of native people for resources. It was an RTS where competing players farmed resources to fight each other by attacking a peaceful, NPC faction at the center of the map, with the overarching goal of using these resources to wipe out the other players. While the game was incredibly polished and impressive, I wasn’t sure if being involved with that project was right for me and my purpose in the world. Even if I admired the design aspects of the game, I wasn’t certain the values it communicated were what I wanted to give to the world.
Even then, our game does not have to be that game. We can rise beyond redemptive violence, binary judgement, and the dehumanization of the opponent. There are a large number of positive values that can be communicated through games about oppositional conflict. Elements like sportsmanship, respect for the opponent, self-improvement, and graceful defeat. In being a split-screen game, where positioning in space is important to victory, players can literally understand their opponents by viewing the world through their eyes. By drawing close and comprehending their opponent’s differing perspective, players can succeed.
Yet, that does not resolve all of the game’s issues, how players treat and understand the act of lunging forward to stab an enemy is the crux of the matter, even if spatial understanding is a matter of empathy.
When the end result of that empathy is the defeat and subjugation of your opponent, those semantics get compromised. Granted, the contextualization and semantics behind the kill don’t have to be grounded in destruction and violence, if represented in the right way, the act of attacking your opponent can be imbued with positive values.
Maybe I’m getting worked up about nothing. After all, the theory of the magic circle and its associated metacommunication dictates that in entering the mental space of a game, players perceive things differently, and confrontational actions are understood to be playful. Yet, I can’t help but feel that my involvement with games criticism and writing obligates me to be cognizant of what the elements of my game mean and how they influence/are influenced by the world they exist in.