For the last year, I’ve been quietly producing melessthanthree’s incredible action-adventure game, Lucah: Born of a Dream. Lucah released today on PC and MacOS on the Itch.io and Steam platforms, and its easily one of the best games I have ever worked on.
Shortly after Chambara released in July 2016, I was winded and took a few weeks to visit friends and come out of the isolation of the late project. I visited my friend Colin, who was an advisor on Chambara, to test out a new prototype that he made for a melee combat-centric action game. I gave him feedback and testing data and left to go on my way.
After Chambara’s intentional placidity and pacifism, I wanted my next project to be one that embraced and explored violence more directly. The social conflagrations of that year’s election cycle imbued me with complex feelings about rage, conflict, and confrontation that I avoided confronting about during Chambara’s development. That’s why I secretly wanted to work on Lucah and sought to help Colin out any way I could.
I temporarily moved back to San Francisco in the Spring of 2017. In April, I visited Los Angeles to interview to work on a VR project. While I was there, I met Colin in a Little Tokyo coffee shop where I learned he was planning on launching a Kickstarter to make Lucah his full-time job. Having some experience running crowdfunding campaigns, I offered to help him out.
The Lucah Kickstarter launched on June 9th, 2017. Using the skills I picked up from Chambara‘s launch, I developed press releases, handled communications, and conducted competitive positioning research. The campaign was an intense emotional rollercoaster, and as people would pledge, back out, and return again whenever we got coverage, we felt our hopes and faith in the project rapidly fluctuate. Ultimately, we succeeded and raised $22,017 to fund a year of development on Lucah.
In January 2018, I returned to the team as a producer to keep the game on track to release on time, on a budget, and to the standard of quality we wanted. This was a thrilling project to work on, and I’m incredibly proud of what we have accomplished.
Lucah: Born of a Dream is $20 on Itch.io and Steam. Purchase it now and support courageous, personal, and breathtaking experimental work.
To whom may be reading this, I really don’t write here much anymore. My writing/crit work feels far removed from a lot of the work I’m doing now.
What I’m writing tonight is a bit of an overdue announcement. Chambara has been nominated alongside a bunch of amazing games from students from places like OCAD and NYU for the “Best Student Game” award at this year’s Independent Games Festival! This is an amazing honor and it comes at the start of the next major development phase that we have to do. This is something that I hope that can inspire us to do our very best work and perform at our creative peak as we close this phase of our nascent careers as game designers.
Speaking personally about the IGF, I grew up in San Francisco, and saw GDC happen each year throughout high school. I was never allowed in because liability restrictions prevented minors from going into the conference, so I would catch every talk, awards show, and presser I could through live blogs and streams. It was slightly obsessive.
As a teenager, I watched the IGF awards and would be amazed at how talented and creative these developers could be. The college students that participated in the Student Showcase category seemed to live lives far removed from anything my limited existence could accommodate. My summer camp maze game and twelfth-grade shmup were not comparable at all to what these students made, and I could never see the work that I would make belonging there. Never would I have expected that something I will make five years into the future would be nominated for “Best Student Game”.
Mired in a project, its easy to get into the mindset of just seeing only that which is right in front of you, abandoning the foresight and hindsight to be either reflective or strategic. The Kevin of six years ago would have been overjoyed to hear this news.
But for now, I just feel like leaping into this next, planned, phase of development with the resolve to create the best thing we can for our players and for the world we share with all, and leap we will.
To whom may be reading this, we hope to see you at this year’s IGF Pavilion. We think we’ll have a good build to show you.
I know I’ve been quiet on this site for a while, mostly because I’ve been busy working on multiple games simultaneously, namely, the third season of Reality Ends Here, a 2D platformer inspired by glitch art and data bending, and a series of three analog games developed over a series of three-week sprints. I’ll also be community managing The Maestros’ alpha. Once the semester subsides, I’ll update my portfolio so you can download and play these games.
I’ve been doing games a lot recently. A lot of them are good, some of them are bad. A lot of them are digital console games, others are not.
First up was The Walking Dead, this is a narrative point and click adventure game and one of the most surprisingly amazing things I’ve played in recent memory.
The point-and-click adventure game is hard to understand as a game designer due to its lack of emergence. When I work with games, I try to design systems that allow for players to develop skills within systems of interesting rules that are conducive to meaningful play, in other words, one can be good at a game. It means something to be good at a shooter, and it means something to be good at a platformer or a fighting game. What then does it mean to be good at a point-and-click adventure game? After all, success at this kind of game amounts to little more than rehearsing a predetermined set of actions until players reach the end. Pick up that, give it to him, push that, talk to him. If the point-and-click adventure game allows for such little player choice within its mechanics, why then is The Walking Dead so damn compelling?
Maybe its because narrative is so crucial to the player’s enjoyment of this kind of game. Rules of Play defines something called cognitive interactivity, which is “the psychological, emotional, and intellectual participation between a person and a system”. The framed narrative of the point-and-click adventure game imbues the predetermined set of actions needed to progress with meaning. Every puzzle we solve by combining and using objects in the game world is woven with our emotional investment in the characters of the game.
Which makes The Walking Dead a narrative tour-de-force unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a game. Yes, The Walking Dead features only rudimentary dialogue trees and simplistic puzzles. Why the hell then was I moved to tears at the end?
Its because The Walking Dead is realistic with its narrative situations, while dialogue trees in other games provide only binary decisions with clear-cut notions of good and evil, and tie these decisions into mechanics by rewarding or punishing them accordingly, The Walking Dead does no such thing. All important narrative decisions have clearly negative consequences, and are timed, imbuing each of its five episodes with a dramatic tension unseen in the best of games. Making moral decisions becomes not a question of what’s right and wrong, but rather a question of who doesn’t get hurt.
The Walking Dead has players leading a band of survivors on an adventure to escape a zombie-infested Georgia while tasked with protecting the life of a little girl named Clementine. Moral decisions come down to making choices about what kind of leader one wants to be: will you try to be idealistic and inspirational or calculating with the distribution of the party’s extremely limited resources? Will you be able to put aside emotional prejudices in the name of fairness even when members of your group threaten to subvert the integrity of the entire party? Moral questions change from questions of good and evil to decisions about who doesn’t get hurt. Your choices aren’t accompanied by fanfare. No paragon or renegade points are rewarded, karma isn’t gained or lost, the game simply takes note of your decision, nods stoically, and adjusts the narrative accordingly.
And how invested in the narrative you’ll be. The Walking Dead is a taxing game, not on the player’s cognitive functions (the game’s puzzles are simple), but rather on their emotional capacity. By the end of Lee and Clementine’s adventure, I was exhausted and tired from buffet of difficult narrative decisions and the jagged road of betrayals, confused motivations, and sacrificial redemptions. Even if I was simply enacting a scripted set of actions to get to the end of the game, I was emotionally invested in everything that I did in that game.
So what else did I play? Well for one, Super Hexagon represents probably the purest manifestation of the action game that I’ve seen in a while. Its short play sessions are perfect for casual play, and I find myself repeatedly playing the game over and over again, eschewing much more sophisticated play. I often myself tired after long days and unable to muster the effort to consume a big new AAA experience, Super Hexagon is a natural go-to game when I’m afflicted with this apathy.
I also had to play through Bioshock,The Binding of Isaac, and Frozen Synapse for my introductory game studies class. Unlike how I’d play other games, I focused on “reading” these games using the Nick Montfort model of game analysis. Its a cool, formalized and academic model for understanding video games at a deeper level. Bioshock is one of my favorite games of this generation, and having the opportunity to replay it, and study it at a deeper level, was a pleasant surprise. Returning to the game after having a deeper knowledge of the economic and philosophical ideas going into the game made the game’s social commentary all the more interesting. The Binding of Isaac was a interesting rouge like that incorporated elements of shooters, which would probably be fantastic once I get bored of FTL. Frozen Synapse plays like a Super Hexagon for a strategy game, easy to pick up and play in those moments of apathy.
And there’s The Unfinished Swan. I’ve been making a concentrated effort to play more of IMD’s (or IMGD, or thatgameschool’s) games. The Unfinished Swan was an adorable first-person puzzle game with a brilliantly pronounced visual style, a telling of a cute children’s story, and made interactive. Its video-game comfort food, a game that makes you feel warm and fuzzy and loved inside. Upon discovering more of the unfinished kingdom, or seeing a cool new gameplay mechanic be introduced, I found myself grinning gleefully. Try it out, especially if you enjoyed Journey.
I most recently began playing Botanicula, its also adorable and will make you squee with joy. Great use of sound in that game.
Are we reaching the point where graphics can get no better? The visual leap between console generations is far subtler than in previous cycles. Adding polygons for each notch in a character’s skin and every strand of his hair is going to make AAA games more time-consuming to do.
Will the need for more sophisticated visuals in games drive up development costs and increase the size of development teams? This will ultimately reduce the number of AAA games that succeed and lead to studio closures and cancelled projects.
Here’s hoping that Sony continues to do its great work in the alt-indie space by supporting devs like Quantic Dream, Giant Sparrow, and thatgamecompany.
Its hard to get excited about hardware right now when in only a year or two consumer PCs will have similar hardware at a fraction of the price. For me, the main draw to console gaming is the social experience of vegging out on a couch with friends in front of a huge screen.
Smart call removing used games restrictions. Bad call removing backwards compatibility. I don’t want to rebuy my games over PSN.
Cloud gaming is overrated, especially for people in areas with slow internet service. Slow internet will effectively shut out a huge number of people from the next generation.
I sure hope the submission process for PSN Indie Games is simple and that the API for developing games is simple and easy to learn. Microsoft did a huge favor for the world by encouraging indie game development with XNA, Sony should consider doing to same.
Maybe Nintendo was right seven years ago when they said that we’re eventually going to reach a point where increased processing power can no longer account for new gameplay experiences. I mean, many of the best games of last year had minimalistic graphics, The Walking Dead, The Unfinished Swan, Journey.Minecraft has weak technical graphics and its already one of the best games out there. I played a bit of Far Cry 3 and felt that it focused too much on spectacle.
Here’s one for new interfaces like motion, touch, and virtual reality.
I haven’t seen any game at the conference that I can get really excited about. Destiny looks kinda cool from an artistic perspective and I’ve adored Bungie’s visual direction, but I can’t really get into the whole “pervasive transmedia-franchise” thing. Time will tell. What I do wish was there at the conference was The Last Guardian, since that dog-goat-eagle thing is friggin’ adorable. Watch Dogs also looks fantastic.
What about support for 3D visuals or 4K resolution? Jumping from 480p to 1080p was a huge visual jump and meant a lot for how impactful games can be. Staying at 1080p seems like a missed opportunity.
Wondering what gameplay experiences the touchpad on PS4 can create. Touch is an incredibly powerful interface and accounted for the success of the DS and modern mobile gaming. If its used in an interesting and creative way, huge potential for great new experiences can be tapped.
People say that this eighth console cycle might be the last. Given how much movement exists with in the industry, the contracting scale of AAA development, and all the new forms of games that we’ve seen over the past few years, that’s probably going to be true. Don’t be sad over this, an exciting new future is about to be built. Be hopeful.
One thing that has sat on my bucket list for a while is to give a TED Talk. If I were to do one, it would be on video games and how awesome they are and why everyone should at least care about them.
I think that after the casual revolution that came around 2006, video games have infiltrated the public consciousness and stayed there. Add the proliferation of iOS and Facebook games, then everybody’s a gamer. I don’t want to get into the whole “Are Games Art?” argument here, since that argument was already settled decades ago, and any further attempts at justification in this day amounts to nothing more than self-aggrandization Instead, I just want to say that I love games.
Games give us empathy, they allow us to share the experience of another individual by simulating their identities and lives. By actually experiencing the struggles of another person through interactivity, we can comprehend how other people experience the world more intimately than in any other medium. For one, Darfur is Dyingallowed players to understand the crises facing those affected by the Darfur genocide, tasking them with protecting their family from insurgents and managing the limited resources of a refugee camp, risking their own lives to get something as simple as water. Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia shared the experience of being a transgendered person in contemporary society with its players, a kind of life that I, a young, straight, privileged, male, cannot naturally relate to. Yet, through interactivity, this alien experience can become relatable and understandable, and as a result, we can empathize with people whose lives are radically different from our own.
When teaching about the Holocaust, most schools go to Elie Wiesel’s Night or Anne Frank’s diary to allow students to observe the dehumanizing effects of oppression. If we were to take students out of the role of a passive observer of someone else’s story, and instead place them in the shoes of a Holocaust survivor in a simulated reality, imagine how much closer to home the messages of these stories would hit. Games have aspired to become more emotionally involving in recent years by asking players to make increasingly difficult ethical decisions in their virtual worlds. Perhaps asking players to sympathize with the victims of unimaginable oppression would be a step in a bold new direction for such a movement. If anything, such a game, if done artfully and tastefully, could instill understanding and sympathy within its players.
Games become even more interesting when we consider them as an interactive storytelling medium. By letting our own identities bleed into those of our in-game avatars, as in Mass Effect and Skyrim, we become more intimately attached to the stories that we can create through our participation in a game’s world. Already, games such as Half Life and Bioshock have exploited the perks of an interactive, explorable, medium by using virtual environments to tell immersive stories with rich, imaginative, universes. Things get even more interesting when you approach more experimental games, Spec Ops: The Line self-reflexively questions our enjoyment of violent video games through its subversion of gaming tropes. Journey abstractly touches hearts using a subtle, unspoken language transcendent of cultural boundaries. As a narrative and artistic medium, gaming becomes increasingly hard to ignore.
Looking beyond the potential of games to let us empathize with others, games most importantly serve as a social framework through which relationship can be made. Over a decade ago, Pokemon served as a social framework that united us all, and despite our diverse backgrounds and peripheral interests, most kids in my third grade class had a common interest in Pokemon. We would discuss the teams that we had assembled during recess, surreptitiously sneak our Game Boys to school to make trades, and be envious of the one kid who had that Shiny Zigzagoon. Ask any gamer you may meet, and s/he will recall fond memories of elementary school and the friends that they made playing it. Games unite disparate people, their play serves as a common language through which we bond with each other. Chess leagues, FPS clans, DnD groups, ARG communities, nerdy fandoms, MMO guilds, athletic teams, political parties, games have done an immense social good by allowing us to form authentic relationships with each other and become part of a larger community. If to belong to something greater than oneself is a fundamental human need, then games serve this purpose admirably.
Which is why the reignited controversy over violent video games perturbs me. While I welcome an impartial study on the effects of violent games, the inflammatory accusationsthat I see from pundits are disturbing. I owe myself to games: they were my childhood and their play served as a fundamental building block to my character. In the brief time that I have spent on the side of the developer, my affinity for the medium has only grown. Being part of the USC Interactive Media Division, I stand at the very edge of a rapidly expanding universe, and the future for the medium that I see being constructed by my friends, mentors, and colleagues thrills and inspires me.
I see that future in Reality Ends Here, a pervasive alternate-reality game that has facilitated collaboration and creativity in the students at the School of Cinematic Arts. I see that future in Project Holodeck, a experimental, motion-controlled, virtual-reality interface for playing games. I saw a lot of that future at IndieCade, a festival to celebrate the creativity of independent games. We stand at the dawn of an incredible new age for games, and a vast uncharted future stands in front of us, to step towards a broader, richer, world of games is both thrilling and terrifying, to step back out of unfounded fear of the unknown would be a disservice to the world.
I want to try out something new with this post. I have never posted highly personal stuff about my life on any of my sites. While I started with a professional vision for this blog, I spontaneously felt the need to break from intended purpose and write about my first semester at the USC Interactive Media Division. This post may or may not be successful in achieving its goal, make what you want of it.
It was around 3 PM on March 29th, 2012.
I was in my Honors Physics class working on a crappy egg-drop contraption. Will Campbell, student body president, who was supposed to be in the library for his free period, comes in uninvited and says “Kevin, you should probably check your Facebook”.
I assumed that it was probably some embarrassing status or picture that I was mistakenly tagged in, no big deal and certainly not worth dragging my laptop out of its case to check. Against better reason, I did. It was a wall-write from my brother, “you got accepted to USC game program! congrats! its like getting into the hunger games!”
What… the… hell… happened…
I knew that I wanted to go to USC’s Interactive Media Division more than anything else in the world, I would be satisfied going to no other school.
I knew that it was the most competitive game design program in the world and, having heard that only fifteen students were admitted a year, I was doubtful of my chances. While I invested the most work into my USC application, years of middling grades and a passion for nothing else but games and cross country made me believe that the application was nothing but a throwaway, a one-in-a-million chance thing I was doing just for fun. But somehow, through some alignment of fate, I found myself at the doorstep of a dream that I had sought for the last two years.
I went to a small school, and rumors and stories spread like wildfire. That week, I think I was congratulated by practically everyone at my high school. “Shit man, you’re on your way to great things.” one guy said, giving me a strong pat on my back. “Dude, that’s beyond words.” said another, “Congrats!”, “Congratulations Kevin!” shouted a throng of girls as they passed me by.
For a good while, I sat on cloud nine. It took some time for me to finally believe that what I was feeling was real. When reality hit me, it hit forcefully.
I got good financial aid from my other schools. Rochester Institute of Technology offered me a $12000 a year scholarship, Drexel, $15000, Renasselaer Polytechnic, $15600. I received nothing from USC. To go to USC would be to turn down up to $64000 in awards and aid. I questioned myself strongly, was joining IMD worth it? Would I be doing my family a huge disservice by placing upon them a great financial burden? An unprecedented opportunity sat before me, but to take it, I would have had to make a sacrifice.
Going against what reason told me, I took the plunge. I registered, submitted my deposit and let fate take its course.
My metaphysical and religious beliefs are complicated to the point that even I don’t understand them. I’m not entirely sure if I believe or don’t believe in there being anything “out there”. But since I took this path, I have detected some subtle change in how I perceive the world around me. Its hard to qualify exactly, but I am somehow more optimistic, more grateful of those around me and what they’ve brought to my life, more attentive to the subtle impacts that my choices have on the world around me. Maybe there’s some force out there that has placed good things and bad things in my life that have led me to where I am now. Maybe I was destined for this. Whatever it is, its beyond my comprehension.
SHAKING OFF STAGNATION
Fast forward several months, Subtle Stone, a game studio I founded, dissolves, Dark Deception fails, my (awesome) codeveloper Bard returns to Norway to become a priest, I suffer through a lazy summer and watch my creativity atrophy.
August 23rd arrives, I’ve been waiting for this day for a while and have been eager to meet the people of the division, hosting a movie night to watch Indie Game in my apartment. I was introduced to the Reality Ends Here alternate reality game and had a good
time creating small interactive and visual projects, including one screenplay, two nondigital games, and two short films.
Yet, I was despondent. I needed to be working on something big. Dark Deception gave me something to live for in the last months of high school, it gave me purpose. I believed it was the very foundation of my soul and identity in high-school, I was “the guy behind Dark Deception”, I dedicated everything I had to the project and named it in my head as “my life’s purpose”. The inevitable failure of the project shook me to my core, and for a while, I felt my time at USC was purposeless. I needed Subtle Stone. I was frustrated and spent copious amounts of time dreaming of the day that the old team would be reunited and Dark Deception reborn. For the first seven or so weeks I was afflicted with this dispassion.
I like books, I have a bunch of them stacked high on my dorm room table. Among them was my high-school yearbook. One day, I picked it up for a read, having not done so before. People had left many warm messages of gratitude and affection in it, and knowing these people, I knew that those messages were sincere. Then I noticed something, while there were messages commending me for courage, creativity, and drive, not one mentioned Subtle Stone or Dark Deception. The love that I received from my family and friends was not centered around what I did, but who I was. My narrow-sighted preoccupation over Dark Deception had somehow warped my perception of the world around me.
It was a realization that hit with gravity and sank in deep: Subtle Stone was not my fate. I would probably never make Dark Deception, and it wasn’t worth sacrificing my humanity to create. Maybe letting go of a dream that has consumed you whole isn’t such a bad thing. I was not destined to be Subtle Stone, I was destined to live as a member of IMD.
Maybe judging the success of my existence in this world on basis of the success of Dark Deception was misguided from the start. Gatsby paid a harsh price for living for a single dream, maybe I averted the same fate.
A few days later, my opportunity to do something exciting came. We have this secret
Facebook group for IMD students called “The Settlers of CTIN” (CTIN being the course prefix for Interactive Media classes), and one day, in the middle of 400, a group message sparks within the group. I’m not the only itching to create something it turned out, the other people in the program were thirsting to create a game. We decided to meet together and we assembled a great team. We ended up trying to assemble a cooperative first-person stealth game built in Unity. While our meetings have been somewhat disjointed due to other commitments by team members, I have set my personal goal for this project to create a team that sticks together for years and lasts beyond college.
There’s a certain, palpable giddiness about the people of IMD that bleeds forth into everything they do. These people love what they do. They know their purpose in life and live their dreams with pride.
There’s Esteban Fajardo, whose giddy excitement about games inspires us all. There’s Catherine Fox, whose courageous honesty exhibits a quiet strength. And Chloe Lister, whose snarky and abrasive sense of humor has never failed to make me laugh. Trevor Dietz is practically a fountainhead of awesome ideas. There are still many others in this great group of people that I wish to connect more with, and I am truly honored to work amongst them. Everyone I’ve met here has friggin’ amazing taste in games and pop culture, and in the short time I’ve spent here, I’ve been introduced to awesome things such as Firefly, Cards Against Humanity, Dungeons & Dragons, Jak & Daxter, Frog Fractions, alternate reality games, Super Hexagon, the list goes on.
One thing that practically everyone I’ve met from IMD has in common is a veneration of Journey. Maybe its because thatgamecompany is comprised mostly out of IMD alumni, but for one reason or another, this game has touched each of us spiritually and has united us around a common emotional experience. For us, it provided an example of what we could potentially do with our work in games: each of us had the potential to create games that could have remarkable positive impact on our players.
And then there was Indiecade, oh wow, a lot happened there. There, I met such inspirational people like John Romero, Brenda Braithwaithe, and the entire cast of Indie Game: The Movie, as well as Davey Wredren and some old friends from UC Santa Cruz. I’m just gonna share a highlight.
So I went to Indiecade as a volunteer, and I was assigned to the Sony tent to work as a bouncer, sending people who didn’t have passes off on their merry way. All was going well and I did not need to bounce very many people. Then a young, Asian man in a sky-blue jacket came up to the tent.
“Excuse me sir, do you have a pass for this event?”
“um, I’m just here to sign books.” he said,
Then an electrifying realization surged through my body.
“Oh…” I said, “um, by any chance are you Jenova Chen?”
“Uh, yeah,” he said, “I actually have to move my car right now…”
and with that, he left. I’ve been a fan of Jenova’s work for years now and have been itching to meet him for a long time. I’ve never read an interview of his that I didn’t like and was inspired by his studio’s dream, so much that I wrote about his work in my application essay. Most of the people in the film school dreamed of meeting inspirational figures like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, or Robert Zemeckis. I had met my inspirational figure, and I bounced him.
I use Gmail’s Priority Inbox, and sometimes miss out on important emails when they get forwarded into the wrong folder. Before he left, I sent my old codeveloper Bard an email containing copy of the Humble Indie Bundle 5 and a kind message thanking him for his work and what a honor it was to work with him. He responded to my message, but it got forwarded to the wrong inbox, and as a result, I was not able to read it until a few weeks ago when I was doing a periodic cleanup.
Thank you so incredibly much for having me on your team this year! It has been an honor working with a pioneer like yourself, and I have learned so much that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise… I truly believe that you will find amazing contacts your next four years that you can work with to increase your knowledge and drive for video games. I will always be proud of the fact that I have worked by your side. It has been an incredible adventure. If you ever lose your belief in yourself, you should know that I won’t: you are exactly what this world needs!
God bless you!
Bard Magnus Soedal
I’m probably never going to work with Subtle Stone again and Dark Deception might never come to fruition, but I’m totally okay with that. Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching that “Those who rush ahead don’t get very far. Those why try to outshine others dim their own light. Those who call themselves righteous can’t know how wrong they are. Those who boast of their accomplishments achieve nothing.” I guess that’s one thing that I’ve learned the full value of through my experience this semester.
My first semester with IMD had ended just a few hours ago when I started writing this post, and life is hopeful. The “One Street Corner” project that I did for the Reality Ends Here ARG with Caroline, a good friend of mine from Production, had just won the award for “Most Inspirational”. My time has come, these will be the best years of my life, and with a killer group of friends tied together by a common destiny, I find myself on the first steps of another great journey.