Chambara Postmortem

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.

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One of our first testable levels

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.

2. Health. 

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.

3. Budget

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.

5. Ethics? 

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.

Chambara's debut at protoplay was very positive and warm.
Chambara’s debut at protoplay was very positive and warm.

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.

FUTURE

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.

STATS

Period: Production: 8 weeks

Staff: 5 full-time, 1 part-time

Software Used: Adobe Photoshop, Unity3D, Visual Studio 2010, Audacity, Autodesk Maya, Blender, Monodevelop, iMovie.

Budget: 200 GBP

chambaragame.com
daretobedigital.com

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Chambara Dev Diary #2 – Let’s talk a little bit about values.

In The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell writes,

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.

Civilization 5

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.

Chambara Developer Diary #1

WEEK 3, DAY 4

Things have been going at a good pace for Chambara right now, I bought us a website recently, which you can find at http://www.chambaragame.com. Our second set of deliverables, marketing materials for programs for the ProtoPlay festival, is due early next week. We have a good prototype done and recently finished up our very first public play test, and are planning on doing a public, internet play test within the next few days. Very soon, you’ll be able to download and play the current version of Chambara on any Windows, Mac, or Linux computer, provided you have a supported USB controller and a friend to play with.

I want to do something like a standard games postmortem for this project, but write it during active development, rather than doing so after the project is done. I believe acknowledging our mistakes and successes will let us learn from our issues faster, allowing us to course-correct better during the process of development.

WHAT’S GOING RIGHT

1. Thunderingly Rapid Prototyping

The first week of development was the most intensive. Having been accustomed to crunch time while juggling classes and development on The Pilgrim, we hit the ground running at a thundering, breakneck speed, arriving earlier and leaving later than most other teams at Dare to be Digital. We had a prototype up and running by the second day, which allowed us to see our ideas in action very quickly and better understand what does and does not work for this kind of game. We revamped movement and created our own custom character controller and a large number of test levels to learn how to design interesting, exciting action.

2. Experimentation

Much of the existing knowledge about level and game design is not applicable to the kind of game we’re making. We can’t guide our players with lighting, paths, and textures, and weapon balance is not a matter of balancing numbers on a spreadsheet. The Counter-Strike “Figure-8” loop is totally inapplicable for what we’re trying to create, rendering a lot of existing design writing and talks in a state of limited usefulness. This leaves us to discover what works and what doesn’t through our own experimentation. Exciting.

3. Fast Development & Testing

The best part about our workflow is that texturing and UV-mapping objects is totally unnecessary, making our asset pipeline extremely fast. By constructing our levels out of primitives, we are able to construct testable levels in hours rather than days. The benefits of this agile workflow are innumerable, and has allowed us to reach a polishing phase in a matter of weeks. The development plan that we established during the Spring has been totally burned through, leaving us tens of hours ahead of schedule. I expect that the game will be in a state where we will be comfortable showing it to the public by late next week, and I’ll move forward on creating a web presence for this game on indie games communities and submitting to festivals like Fantastic Arcade.

 

WHAT’S GOING WRONG

1. Unified Artistic/Ethical/Thematic Vision 

During preproduction, we didn’t see the value in establishing guidelines for the kind of game we were trying to make. We didn’t write any design documentation, we didn’t establish an Art Bible, nor a vision statement. As a result, we’ve spent the last several days in conflict about the thematic direction of the game. There are some who want Chambara to be an edgy-cool game inspired by the best elements of Batman Beyond and Samurai Jack (our original inspiration), while others want to create something cute, goofy, and playful, while others want to create something subversive of the oppressive heteronormativity inherent to the form.

These disagreements have slowed down production, and nailing down a character design was a process that took more than twice as long that I hoped it would. Retrospectively, establishing that vision prior to development and agreeing that the project is a shared effort between all of us would have saved us much time and frustration.

2. The Doldrums

I see the job of producer as an ultimately personal one, assuring that the participation of each team member fulfills their own personal needs and that they’re always working on something interesting to them. A disproportionate distribution of participation in a project is harmful, and being tasked with nothing to do while other team members are heavily involved isn’t fair.

Granted, this issue comes from the fact that some of our time was spent puttering around waiting for certain tasks like character design and controls to be finalized by another team member to be completed, removing blockades on progress. So I expect things with move much more smoothly later on, though I want this to be something that we are very cognizant of.

3. Unclear Milestones

Because we burned through our development plan, we find ourselves far ahead of schedule. Our core feature list is more or less complete and the prototype has been proven to be fun and accessible. So the path onwards is unclear. Features are envisioned and implemented on the spot as we wander around, trying to figure out what we can do to take this game further. We’ve been considering new maps and game modes, but we can only go so far before that extends the list of needed sound assets far beyond what can be created and implemented in time. I’ve worked with metrics and outreach to communities like reddit indiegaming, but I feel that such measures are unwelcome by my teammates. I am interested in working with cheat codes, game modifiers, or easter eggs, but will need finalized decisions about UI and design before I take that on.

 

tl;dr, Scotland is beautiful.
tl;dr, Scotland is beautiful.

Recent Shenanigans

It’s been forever since I last updated this blog. I’ve had plans to do some in-depth articles, specifically an in-depth analysis of the Metal Gear Solid series and a personal essay about my story and how I ended up doing games, but life has the tendency of getting in the way of unrewarded stuff that I really want to do. Topics worthy of discussion spring up and evaporate like springtime flowers, and stuff like Flappy Bird, Twitch Plays Pokemon, GDC 2014, and this weekend’s GAME_JAM controversy. But alas, I’ve found myself working pretty much every waking hour for the past two months on a number of projects.

Videogame Bookclubs

Bookclub?
Bookclub?

I’m giving talks and leading discussions now. Working with MEGA, the game developer’s club at USC, I’m running a monthly series of salons where people can come in and discuss contemporary games from thematic, design, narrative, and aesthetic standpoints, the format of which I’m basing off the similar Playthink art/game salon. I’ve run three thus far, respectively covering The Stanley Parable, Twitch Plays Pokemon, and Papers, Please, and each of them greatly exceeded expected attendance, making for very lively, often packed discussions. I’m planning on running for MEGA’s staff elections at the end of this week, so come out to SCI on Friday and let’s plan fun stuff for the next year.

The Observatory

I’m running playtests for a Master’s thesis project at USC, working in a dedicated observation lab, I record feedback and player behavior in hopes of improving Logan Ver Hoef’s thesis: The Observatory. I’ve run playtests before for intermediate projects, but this one is particularly interesting because it deals with game feel and environmental narrative, two things I’m very interested in learning about and deploying in my own games.

The Maestros

Maestros
Maestros

I’m handling website content for The Maestrosa competitive online RTS-deathmatch game being run this year as an Advanced Games project. The game is currently in public alpha, and you can easily download a build of the game, create an account, and begin playing immediately. The game’s core narrative is a bit uncomfortable for me, exploring themes about violence, imperialism, and its ideological ramifications through its mechanics, and maintaining websites and reaching out to the press isn’t what I’m interested in doing with my career, but I’m glad that it has been immensely successful, right now, its one of the most polished games to have ever come out of USC.

The Pilgrim

The Pilgrim comes from an original design document I wrote late last December. It was a very personal game dealing with religious belief and the life-compromises that observing those beliefs predicate, something that I’ve considered in my own life for years. This narrative would be delivered through an inverted-Metroidvania narrative, with the player surrendering powers and abilities to fulfill her purpose and complete the journey through an abandoned mine underneath a Temple. Teaming up with my good friend Catherine Fox, I decided to make the game my project for Peter Brinson and Richard Lemarchand’s Intermediate Game Design class.

Screenshot 2014-02-23 22.56.51
The Pilgrim

I learned more from this ongoing project than from any project I’ve done before, except for perhaps Dark Deceptiona RPG system and campaign I ideated back in high school. Working on the project as part of a two-person team, while coordinating external testing and audio, I dealt with more scripting than I’ve ever had before. We also dealt a lot with scoping, and The Pilgrim shrunk from a short Metroidvania-styled adventure to a short-form platformer/adventure game more resembling the mountain scene from Journey, with the avatar becoming increasingly feeble and hard to control as she progressed towards her goal.

I hit a few major hitches while working on the game. I became very sick one week in early March, causing me to lose an entire week from our production cycle, forcing me to crunch later on. I also spent two weeks prototyping myriad versions of a single feature that was ultimately cut due to performance issues. Communication with the rest of the team has also been a challenge, and making sure that everyone was on the same page and understood our vision and codebase has been something I’m not personally satisfied with, having blocked off progress from other team members by not communicating well. A rough project, but one that I’m glad to have undertaken.

FROM WITHIN

From Within
From Within

I ran into my CTIN-488 TA, Jesse Vigil, late last week, who was impressed with my team’s final project and suggested that we submit it to Indiecade. I don’t think any of the digital games in my portfolio is festival-quality, but FROM WITHIN was an interesting and exciting project that I really enjoyed working on. It’s a party game for nine players meant to be played in eerily-lit basements around snack-laden tables. The mechanics are rather simplistic and exist to create intense dramatic tension and catharsis, contextualizing the rich social play of scaring and deceiving other players. I’m excited to get my team back together to revise the game for submission come this May. If anything I’ve done is festival-quality, its definitely that game.

Secret Scotland Project

This is a project that I’m excite to work on. I’m working with a small team of some of my best, most talented friends to pitch a game for Dare to be Digitalan international game design competition in Scotland. If we get accepted, it would be the single greatest game design challenge that I’ve ever faced in my life, but also the most exciting. We’re super-eager to work on this game, and the prospects of traveling to the UK to compete on the world stage for a BAFTA is thrilling.

IndieCade: Celebrating the Love of Games

IndieCade, “the Sundance of video games”, is the largest festival of alternative, independent, and fringe games in the world, and exists as a celebration of the medium’s creativity and innovation. I attended all four days of the festival, including the closed-doors award’s ceremony at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

There’s something to be said about this year in video games, that it’ll be looked back upon as something special. 2012 brought Kickstarter games like FTL to the limelight and was headlined by Journey’s high honors at practically every possible awards show that it was eligible to partake in, giving us a taste of the paradigm shift that was about to come this following year.

USC Interactive at IndieCade!
USC Interactive at IndieCade!

In 2013, a tiny game jam game went viral and became one of the year’s most unexpected phenoms. A higher form of games criticism, spearheaded by queer writers, emerged from the underground. An Experimental Gameplay Workshop in San Francisco filled an entire auditorium. An unknown poverty simulator by a videogame zinester won grand prize at the IGF, before its recognition was passed onto a surrealistic text adventure by a transgender interactive-fiction writer. Story-driven AAA games from Irrational and Naughty Dog ventured into new thematic areas such as the illusion of autonomy in game narratives and the social ramifications of Christianity’s central narrative. A new genre rooted in the mid-2000s mod-scene matured to create an American eSports scene comparable to Korea’s. Major console manufacturers aggressively reach out to new studios. New devices provide entirely new methods of play and open up entirely new worlds of design, and middleware like Unity has lowered the entry-bar to development and powered wonderful games like Kentucky Route Zero and Gone Home. There is much to celebrate about games this year, and IndieCade was the place for that to happen. This year’s GDC was filled with an ecstatic energy of anticipation, of people waiting to write the story of a nascent Renaissance. IndieCade however, was a thunderous roar, echoing into the mountains and shaking the earth with love and energy.

The magical realist adventure game Kentucky Route Zero won the award for visuals and narrative, completely deserved too, its paper cut aesthetic evokes a nostalgic sense of Americana without once ever becoming kistchy. Gone Home brought home honors for sound, its creaky, creepy hallways channel the dreadful feeling of walking through one’s basement at night. Brendon Cheung’s hacking adventure Quadrilateral Cowboy won the Grand Jury Award. Tracy Fullerton, the head of the USC Interactive Media Division, received the trailblazer award for her pedagogical work in game design education, her textbook Game Design Workshop respected and studied industry-wide and her pedagogy building the foundation for the teams behind games such as Journey and The Unfinished Swan. Which makes me feel incredibly honored to study games within the division.

Killer Queen
Killer Queen

Numerous visionaries scurried around the festival, and IndieCade’s celebratory, casual tone made them much more approachable than they were a few months earlier at GDC. I was able to talk to and attend talks by people like Mattie Bryce and Ian Bogost, as well as chat about game development and self publishing with each of the award winning game designers.

Corporate sponsors were there showing off their new indie outreach efforts, most notably, Nintendo and Sony, as well as Ouya and Oculus. Nintendo demoed the Wii U dev kit’s integration with Unity and the Nintendo Web Framework and gave away free information packets about self-publishing on the eShop as developers showed off their Wii U work at nearby booths. Indie devs are the most interesting and friendly group of people around, and I chatted for nearly an hour with Tulio Adriano Gonçalves, who created a sixty-hour homebrew RPG for the Sega Genesis in 2010 and Kickstarted a remake for the Wii U just last year about the design and aesthetic influences of Chrono Trigger on traditional RPG design. At the Sony tent, I played a few PS4 games like the ridiculous and deep Divekick and the beautiful, particle-laden ResoGun, the console’s controller is fantastic, making numerous changes to the pad’s fundamental design to make it ultimately more ergonomic to the touch. 

I call it the "IndieCage"
I call it the “IndieCage”

Night Games, the festival’s slot for installation games, was particularly memorable. A 10-player arcade cabinet RTS-platformer hybrid called Killer Queen was particularly addictive, causing raucous arguing and laughter within the group I played with. Edgar Rice Soiree, an installation game much like Twister, created a jungle of hundreds of hanging PS Move controllers and had players swing through them in a graceful, calming dance. SoundDodger was another physical game that had its players dance, as players dodged incoming bullets from the ground while clapping to slow time. Another installation game was the Hearst Collection, which I was unable to play, a game that tasked players with navigating a maze of lasers to steal a painting. One VR installation that I was unable to try I dubbed the “IndieCage”, a spherical cage in which players would walk about in while wearing an Oculus Rift, allowing for players to walk about virtual game spaces. Very cool stuff.

My time at the festival concluded at the Audience Awards Ceremony, where my friends and I started an impromptu dance party as Richard Lemarchand DJed.

IndieCade is more than a professional conference, or gaming convention, or networking event. IndieCade is not precisely the place to exchange business cards or make professional contacts. IndieCade is a celebration. A celebration of the love that we have towards this craft and each other. IndieCade isn’t about working towards becoming a better games professional, but rather about partaking in that elusive verb that we’re called upon to invoke: play. IndieCade is the place to laugh and love, to gather around a common passion and that which is meaningful to us. Given that so many of gaming’s major events are professional or business-facing, IndieCade’s joyous playfulness is exactly what we need to remind us of our place in the world.

Thoughts on E3: Day 2 – Creators of Childhood Memories

All the press conferences have wrapped up and all that’s left for now is for each of the companies to exhibit their upcoming games. Nothing quite as eventful or dramatically over-the-top as yesterday, just some really impressive games, especially from Nintendo.

Super Mario 3D Land

Let it be known that I love Nintendo. My first console was a N64, and if it wasn’t for that gateway to the medium, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Nintendo is this industry’s most valuable asset because they’re the last big company out there that specializes in the creation of childhood memories. Consider the offerings from the other AAA publishers, violent action games targeted at young adults, no wonder why the mainstream media has such a negative perception of this medium. As wonderful and impressive as they are, Metal Gear Solid V and Watch Dogs aren’t going to be any kid’s childhood memories as they simply don’t exist to serve that young audience. Heck, consider the beloved Naughty Dogand their constant shift to appeal to a grittier, more adult audience with their progression from Crash Bandicoot and Jak to Uncharted and The Last of Us. Consider iOS games, will their simplified design, ample micro-transactions, and lack of a defining brand identity create the kind of treasured childhood memories for upcoming generations of gamers? Nintendo brought us out of the Great Crash of 1983 and were responsible for the Casual Revolution of 2006, an essential step that took us where we are now as an industry. To see Nintendo continue to flounder as they did this past year would be devastating to our medium.

And that said, Nintendo’s upcoming lineup is the strongest it has been in ages. Pokemon X and Y transition to fully rendered 3D worlds, a first for this beloved series. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is a sequel to A Link to the Past, which happens to be the very first Zelda game that I completed alone, making it a seminal and important game in my life. Super Mario 3D World is the series’ prettiest looking game in years, and the possibilities of a portable Smash Bros. that fits into our busy daily lives sounds incredible beyond words. Five year olds of the world, get excited, you’re about to join this great medium via the same treasured and beloved series that were part of our lives as youth. And in all our bitter cynicism towards the future of AAA, our ire towards the puerile and misogynistic members of our community, and all our giddiness over the possibilities that the indie shift can create for our medium, just take comfort in that there will remain a space for that innocent childhood wonderment.

Oh yeah, and this I guess…

I Like Games

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.

Darfur is Dying

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 Dying allowed 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 OpsThe 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.

Pokemon

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 accusations that 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.

Indiecade

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.