9 Hot E3 2017 Observations

 

  1. Though apparent at the time, it is now clear that the “indie” movement was co-opted by large companies such as Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft in an attempt to beat each other out in the recent console war. Few indie games were shown in press conferences – surprisingly, Microsoft did the best job (Ashen, Tacoma, Cuphead, The Last Night). I think Sony has given up on indies at E3 entirely. A handful of indie games were shown in the PC Gaming show, only to quickly cut to a minutes-long discussion of the latest gritty robot military hell shooter.
  2. However, the indie games shown often have a lot of work put into art style or are in being created by studios of 4-6+. Though showing these games is nice, it still sends a message that there is absolutely no place (in a big company’s marketing bandwidth) for games with extreme experimentalism or art styles that buck trends.
  3. Most AAA games are lost in a downward spiral of pursuing higher and higher fidelity graphics. Indie games, too… ! Endless multiplayer shooters with ‘photorealistic’ graphics, without any questioning from developers as to why this is a worthwhile at all goal. Likewise, games have difficulty keeping up with the huge art budgets, so it’s rare to find interesting art styles. There is a disturbing uniformity amongst the AAA announcements. This manifests itself in Japan as games with your generic Anime style or Shounen Manga JRPG Plot, or in US/Canada/Europe as Another Gray Shooter/Fucking Zombie Game.
  4. The VR evangelism is still strong from Sony and other companies, but outside of practical uses such as medicine and research, on the level of popular culture there are not many signs VR is amounting to much other than a toy for the well-off to play largely the same games, or a platform for art world artists to impress their art world critics and friends through their first steps into digital space.
    1. For the near future, I think VR will mostly be relegated to VR theaters or gallery spaces, or lower-end experiences such as Gear VR. I think this is fine as the means for the general public to engage with VR games/films/art/etc, but there should be lower financial/visual quality bars for artists/developers to meet to show their work. Forcing a creator to implicitly need to meet a sales bar will only hurt the quality of future work, or leave future VR work to those with the resources to create something popular/marketable.
  5. There is little interesting design or art direction experimentation in AAA. There are and always be interesting little touches, designs and polish to any AAA game worth ‘mining’ and using as influence, and many recent AAA games are fun and good, but overall things are more or less the same, with some progress here and there. Occasionally something *really* interesting pops up: the climbing in Breath of the Wild (in an otherwise average game), commanding your dog in The Last Guardian. Yes, Nintendo showed a lot of fun-looking stuff, but when you really look at it, there isn’t much fundamentally different in say, Kirby, Yoshi, or Mario, etc. Perhaps you change the way you collect the Green Goblets of Good or whatever, or you’re in Cookie Town instead of Castle Town, but things kind of feel the same.
    1. Perhaps the most depressing example of lack of design/art direction innovation are the constant HD remasters, such as the newly announced Shadow of the Colossus Remake, Mario Superstar Saga remakes, Metroid 2 remakes. While some games could desperately use design revamps and remasters, largely these feel like cash-ins that also operate under the false assumption that upgrading textures and graphics automatically improves a game. What would really be interesting would be to see remakes that don’t ‘upgrade’ the art stylebut still fix design problems. I think it is a fact that some older art styles, such as on the SNES or PSX, can create artistic themes other than nostalgia that are *impossible to create* through the pursuit of “HD”.
  6. It’s interesting to think about how as AAA companies move away from creating sequels or games in the style of what fans want (Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, top-down SNES RPGs, Metroidvanias), we see indies coming in and creating these games that fans demand.  Games that satisfy these criteria can become immensely popular: Undertale for Earthbound, Stardew Valley for Harvest Moon, Ooblets for Pokemon/Animal Crossing, Tunic for 2D zelda, Hyper Light Drifter for SNES 2D action RPGs, Owlboy and many more for metroidvanias, etc. Often you will find a popular indie game satisfying a niche that AAA no longer creates for.
  7. Looking at all these E3 trailers, I still feel the pressure of games needing to look “Good” or “Polished”, and a focus on a game needing to be designed to create good ‘marketing fuel’ – being able to show well in short clips or what not, to have their premises easily and quickly digestible. This kind of competition and how fans engage and relate to the games creates an environment where it’s really hard for an experimental work to ‘make it’ – or even be seen, as it is drowned out by more popular-appeal games.
  8. This pressure to create a ‘marketing fuel’ game also inherently reduces the amount of risk-taking in the design process. You see the effects of this most prominently in AAA, but it’s pretty common in indie as well – most games you see might innovate in a few tiny ways, but are largely beholden to its predecessors it looks to improve on. I think it would help for new games to try and take larger ‘leaps’ from predecessors, rather than make a few improvements/innovations – to create something that cannot be easily defined as a mix of “X, Y, Z” – to create the anti-elevator pitch.
  9. The same goes with art styles – we have computers and can create literally any image on earth, but the range of art styles I see tend to feel frustratingly stuck in a small range of choices. I think it might help to view the art direction/style more as an Artistic Tool rather than a Marketing Tool.
Advertisements

Walk Geometry and Perfect

Even the Ocean took a Long Time to make. Preliminary development was from March to July 2013, really kicking in around August of that year, not ending until November 2016. A lot happened in between, and I wanted to talk about a few art projects that popped up for me.

Walk Geometry / 散歩幾何学 (February 2015 to August 2015, roughly)

More info

Walk Geometry was a project inspired by how much I enjoyed walking and progressing through Dark Souls 1. It consisted of a series of vlog-style videos recorded with my phone from a first-person perspective, narrated by me and sometimes other people I was with. It is structurally similar to the one-take vlog – the videos record my entire progression and activities within a space, sometimes pausing for inappropriate social contexts to record in. However, the narration of the video focuses on how the spaces made me feel, sort of like as if I was ‘playing’ these spaces like the popular  walk-and-look-primacy games (also known as ‘walking simulators’). This style of walking is a little different from just being observant, as you feel a pressure to think of ‘interesting things’ to say about what you are experiencing, sort of like creating a Let’s Play (a video where you record playing a video game and talk about it.)

Though I still enjoy recording live video in this format from time to time, the bulk of it happened from feb to aug of 2015. For example, shopping at a trader joes, walking down an apartment staircase, going to my apartment’s roof, driving to and shopping at a super target(!), etc. There have been other videos, like “standing on a street corner” and so on.

It’s not a particularly ‘brave’ sort of video making (though it might have looked weird at certain moments…), but looking back at this playlist (and the other videos on my YouTube which fall under the category), it’s interesting how easily we can categorize these pretty menial things – walking to a store, walking to the train station, taking a bus, and how we usually consider them as being under the general umbrella of ‘mediocre experiences’, yet really are something unique each time, evidenced by the title.

Back to the Dark Souls reference, what I really liked Dark Souls is how the levels were just small enough, and you moved just slow enough and with repetition (due to difficulty being killed by enemies) that you intimately learned the ‘geometry’, or shape and layout, of the levels, such as castles, woods, swamps, caves. The combat required you to be extra-aware of the ground and obstacles, too.

Anyways, I encourage anyone interested to try out this style of video-making, if possible! Clearly there are dimensions of one’s appearance and language and context that come into play, possibly eliminating one’s ability to safely video-make. If you can’t do it in real life, doing it in the context of your favorite game may reveal aspects about the game’s design you hadn’t seen before, as I did with the short-lived Walk Souls series.

Walk Souls (Feb-Apr 2015)

Around the same time as the above project I did a project called “Walk Souls”, which as you might imagine, was a Let’s Play series of Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne (Both unfinished) which focused more on observing how the experience of being in the game’s spaces changes over time.

So a normal video would consist of : first clearing away all the enemies beforehand, then recording walking around and discussing the area. In retrospect, enemies are an important part of the Dark Souls landscape, so it’s debatable whether or not I should have eliminated them before recording. Observations usually consisted of how environmental objects or shapes changed how tense or open or familiar a place felt, how an area’s location in juxtaposition to other areas can change one’s perception of the place.

These two projects had some value in helping with the 2nd half of Joni Kittaka and I’s Nov-2016 game Even the Ocean‘s development – at that point, mostly thinking about how to lay out levels and construct Power Plants. However, I didn’t really get the chance to synthesize these ideas into new games until 2016.

Aside: Photography

These things about Dark Souls and Walking did get me interested in photography, and I wrote a few essays about photography and games at the end of 2015/start of 2016, as well as reading about photographers and making a bigger effort on phone-photography. It’s a latent interest that has made playing games and walking and generally observing feel more valuable. Anyways, these ideas led into Perfect.

Perfect (Feb-July 2016)

Inspired by a short story of the same name (and similar themes), Perfect was a HaxeFlixel “Software/Game” I worked on in between Even the Ocean and other stuff in the first half of 2016. It’s an adventure game about the reaction of a community to the aftermath of a disaster in an future Taiwanese immigrant community in the US, set in a sci-fi setting (a gigantic supermarket where people now inhabit). Some of the themes were about the future of labor automation (such as how it may not lead us to leisure, but lots of people basically feeding machine learning algorithms – or manually filtering bad content from Youtube/Facebook.)

The intention was to use a lot of these ideas about spaces and games, photography – and create a “Music Album Game” which consisted of a bunch of screens with wireframe art, connected by ‘links’ (underlined in blue). More details. The method of exploration was inspired by early point and click adventures and how they always give a single fixed camera angle of a space, with no camera panning. By using this and lots of abstract shapes to construct the spaces, I could try and conjure a ‘decaying remembrance’ aesthetic for the game, as Perfect was a story of someone in 2100 or so, ‘experiencing’ the recorded memory of a journalist from ~2070, as the journalist went around interviewing people.

The graphics were very simple, done by rendering wireframe meshes using scaled 1×1 pixel sprites. You could easily do something similar in Unity! The “mountain” effects were done by using hidden shapes to determine ‘forces’ on the sprites.

Of interest to me was the website-like interface. Rather than moving in real time, you only get ‘photographs’ of an area, and move from shot to shot. At times you were supposed to find ‘interviews’ of people, and listen to the game’s music while reading the interviews. Music-wise, it was an experimental way to try to foreground a game’s music and writing rather than its ‘gameplay’, and I thought of this project as a ‘software’ more than a game. But it looks like a game to me, now!

Instead of a game driving the music… I was trying to get the music to define spaces within a game world, and help define what narratives would appear. Example, a song called ‘club’ would take place in a ‘club’ and you would interview a club-goer about what he thought about the disaster. But that sort of just feels like an (interesting) game to me. Either way I was interested in different was to approach music-making for games, in terms of the planning stages influencing what the music would be.

I had split the game into three sets of themes (kind of like how we divided Even the Ocean) – Physical, Digital and Algorithm. As you progressed through the game you would reach more Digital and then Algorithm areas. Physical were things like: Balcony, Exterior, Desert, Club, Lake. Digital, like Shopping Carts, Desktop. Algorithm – Random, Vector, ACK, Governance, etc.

In practice, the themes and structure of the game were too nebulous for me to really grasp in a consistent way, and I found it hard to find time to work in between Even the Ocean and travel, so I abandoned the project around July last year. Moreover I was iffy about structuring a game around a terrorist event for a country (Taiwan) which historically has been very well off in the USA due to immigration policies for its country.

In retrospect, I should have laid off the race themes and focused on the labor automation ideas, rather than trying to difficultly address race ideas in a future setting, which is prone to Many Problems. However there is much sci-fi and research being done on automation already, so I’m not sure how much I could have contributed.

However, I did get a lot of neat music out of working on the project! And the wireframe style is still a neat idea I now have as a ‘tool’ in creating game spaces.

Either way, a lot of teaching happened (I teach at SAIC now), and releasing Even the Ocean happened. I’m quite excited to have found enough free time in the past months to really start working on a game project I (naively?) believe I will be able to finish.

Next time(s)…

  • A discussion of my current (codename) game ‘Project Shiho’ and its relation to the projects mentioned in this essay
  • A discussion of “over the clover” by Hiroshi Yoshimura and my remix of it
  • Something about SMT Nocturne?
  • Thinking about live music, or game music..
  • Something else?

Towers and Navigation in Breath of the Wild

The towers and navigation in Zelda: Breath of the Wild (hereon BotW) have problems.

Towers, revealing the landscape

Viewing and pinning landmarks from the top of the tower tied into the theme of using landmarks as navigation. To understand the landscape as an environment to remember, rather than an obstacle blocking the way between a fast travel point and the goal.

The best moments of this navigation were creating pins on landmarks – a strange looking rock out cropping. Oddly shaped trees. A meadow I haven’t seen. The worst – pinning shrines. Adding a chore to my list, a destination which, once I arrive, would often be a passable puzzle box or easy fight.

BotW could have taken a page from Shadow of the Colossus – create a vague map, one without precise roads or area names shown all at once. Never let it fill in with detail, but let the player fill it with their own markings. Forget reaching the top of a tower and revealing 200 place names. I want to see the name only when I walk into the space, and I want to reach these spaces through the use of the tower.

Smaller size for better exploration

BotW’s tutorial plateau is the best part of the game in terms of learning about a landscape through surveying and exploring. In the plateau, we gain this ability to survey the land and decide where to go, to see a forest, a small mountain, and go and check it out – yet, because we are confined to the plateau, there is not as much distraction of the infinite other places to see.

The plateau is how all of the areas in BotW should have been designed. A contained, small geography, which is easy enough to keep in one’s mind while exploring, small enough to become as familiar as one’s morning commute.

Still an open world, but where you rarely need to fast travel.

As in other open world games, fast travel in BotW parallels the creation of public transit hub – neighborhoods centered around train stations, leading us to forget about what lies along the paths in between. Convenient in real life, but flattening with respect to a game’s landscape. BotW’s world feels more like a series of tiny islands we barely think about, warping from one to the next. It’s fun to uncover new places, but rarely did I establish a relationship with one environment, because of how I was constantly in transit.

To be sure, exploration between shrines in BotW is engaging, but it becomes watered down when the game hangs quest, shrine, and Korok seed collection over our heads. It’s hard to focus on that joy BotW does so well, when we’re also looking out for shrines, a certain item, or odd markings that lead to Korok seeds.

I like to imagine a BotW which keeps its towers but removes their Google-Maps-ifying of the landscapes I travelled to reach it. I wonder about how a game might be influenced by Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, to use its ideas of dense, layered levels with exteriors and interiors – and transfer that thinking to creating an enhanced BotW tutorial plateau.

jseoifjseioj.PNG

It is no surprise that the second strongest area of BotW is Eventide Island, a tiny, but multifaceted island where you must complete challenging tasks, stripped of most of your items and weapons, only using what you can find. BotW shines when you must actually Think about the items and things you encounter in the landscape, as the game progresses more and more situations become setpieces to steamroll through.

Interiority 

As Tevis Thompson mentioned , there is no underworld in BotW. A few moments do achieve a sense of this – Tevis’ examples: the final castle mimicking traditional 3D action games, Divine Beasts where the traditional ceilings become activated parts of the dungeon space, the introduction. And a few more I like: a cave hidden in a deep hole, where you must go through a small river. A giant skeleton inside of a hidden cave in a remote mountain.  A temple filled with Guardians at the end of a quiet canyon. A shrine at the end of a hidden, underground, snaking and icy river. The hidden passages of the tedious labyrinth areas. The approach towards the clan hideout.

Shrines though technically interiors – do not count, with their uniform aesthetics leaving me with a sense of confusion of place in the same way visiting a Starbucks in Chicago and then in Tokyo does. Their spaces are totally disconnected from the entrances in a nonphysical way.

BotW has made a great argument for open world designs, but as one might expect, BotW falls to the issues of scale that plague many other open world games. At least one solution lies in scaling down these worlds.

I look forward to what game designers come up with in response to BotW.

Next time – a few words about the musical spaces of BotW’s shrines, as well as thoughts on the design of how players find shrines in BotW.

 


Deios II : Deidia (Game Music Review)

My gamedev/musician college BARCHboi recently finished his game, Deidia. It had one of the better soundtracks of any 2D game to come out in 2016 (or ever, really), and so I wanted to jot down a few notes about why I found that to be the case. BARCHboi is part of an interesting (small) trend of solo game designers who also have a large background music production, and thus, their solo musical work and musical work for games often overlaps.

You can watch some footage below:

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

The Intro

The game starts with a shareware-like intro, reminiscent of the 90s, even featuring what sounds like general MIDI instruments (or synths and samples close to or complementing that aesthetic). Intros are an important thing within games – not necessarily from a narrative standpoint, but they do preview and and help prepare the player for playing the game, sort of like dimming the lights in a theatre before the movie – asking you to focus on the game.

In Part 1, around 1:30 the game fakes a loading screen, adding a lovely pad sound before the game action starts, reminding me a bit of short melodic line at the beginning of this character creation song from PSO 1/2.

The sound effect is important – it mimics the process of logging into early web services like AOL or even login noises for desktop computers, giving us some hints as to how to interpret the game ahead. In that vein, so far the sounds of Deidia have given a similar feel to ‘viewing the future’ from the perspective of the booming internet in the 1990s, though I would like to distinguish this from the sounds of vaporwave or 80s pop and the like.

And then… silence!

In the game

Mostly silence, at least. Silence can be as effective as music in games. It draws your attention to what you’re doing rather than as a background to what you’re doing. Eventually, though, you can forget about it (or it can be very awkward depending on the situation). Wind, a buzzing noise sound, water drops in a cave, the human grunt of the character jumping, and soon, the clicking of your deitycoin miners.

Deidia has what is called ‘dynamic game music’ – its music shifts and changes at a finer grain than that of normal games that only use single loops. Around 3:35 of Part 2, as I approach the cave, a pad synth fades in, as well as louder rain noises. Later around 4:45, up to three layers of rain (each with progressively more low end content) fades in, to simulate walking into a rainstorm. These techniques can emphasize the contrasts between different areas within games by changing their sounds. This idea, emphasizing contrasts, is fundamental to making game music, and traditional single-loop music can do it too (like if the interior and exterior of a building have different sounds). However when making a game with dynamic music it can be easier to do this on a finer-grained level.

Sound of deitycoin

The deitycoin miners – things I can buy through an in-game menu in order to gain more money – are an interesting design choice. Deitycoins are essentially useless outside of opening a few doors in the game, in that sense they seem like an underdeveloped game system. But their signature clicking, which fades in whenever you open the game menu, I would argue serves as reminding us that this game is intended as some sort of strange post-apocalypse – a game taking place in the decaying remains of some sort of online space. That is the sound effect signals back to the player that there’s some kind of strange programmed, internet architecture at play in the game’s world. The user interface of the game does this, as well – allowing you to glitch things – resizing the player, moving around collidable objects, changing colors.

But it’s this idea of a post-apocalypse that is interesting: Deidia’s post-apocalypse is not after the end of our physical Earth, but an abstraction of what would remain after the end of some kind of common internet social space, perhaps what an MMORPG looks and sounds like when everything has crashed and become corrupted, or a social network when everyone’s left. Endless, rainy, cloudy mountains, vast seas and networks of caves, little direction and forlorn music. While playing Deidia, we’re treated to what this may sound like.

Traditional Music

Deidia does contain “normal” music. 6:20 features signature sounds of BARCHboi – some synth from the 80s (which I always ask about and forget the name of), using a brassy swelling pad. To me these often sound like music “leftover” in the world of Deidia – coincidentally appearing at places. As if, the coding scripts gluing together the world have been falling apart slowly.

There’s even a strange musical moment at 6:40 when I’m warped into some cloudy ambience zone – inexplicable movements through space which further reinforce the game’s aesthetic.

Another sound I like  -appearing around 7:20 – is the fake animal noise. These synth squeals simulate some kind of lifeform, but we only ever see birds in the game and it’s not clear the birds are making the noise. It gives the sense that the world of Deidia is slowly repopulating with animals, alien life.

The sequence around 9:20 is one of the more brilliant points of the game, utilizing interesting camera work, sound design, visual aesthetics of a crashing shore, and the assumption of players to just run to the right in platforming games.

The drama of Deidia jumps all over the place. Music will cut out at random times, fade in suddenly. For minutes at a stretch you might be stuck hearing bird and rain noises, to be treated to a traditionally composed track by BARCHboi. I like this aspect of personality and depth to Deidia, and it’s been inspiring to me for learning to compose dynamic game music, much like some of the work of David Kanaga (like on Oikospiel – highly recommended).

Regular looping music has its place – and so does dynamic – and so why not explore both as a composer? Perhaps game composers can bring these ideas into the world of standalone music. Experimental and game composers have a lot of common ground to learn from each other, in writing for the spaces of clubs, homes, commutes, writing about systems of power and oppression, writing for the digital spaces of games, websites, videos, and so on.


Buy here: https://barch.itch.io/deiosiideidia

 

 

 

 

 

 


Detention’s Resolution of Taiwanese Martial Law

返校 [Detention] (RedCandleGames, 2017)

Last year, I was thrilled when I heard about a Taiwanese team of developers creating a game set in Taiwan’s martial law period (1940s-1980s). It has sold well, reaching wide English and Chinese-speaking audiences. Though not one of the bigger countries in a USA/Europe context, Taiwan has always had a presence within gaming history, from early RPGs  to more recent titles also addressing Taiwan’s political history.

The gameplay is standard point and click horror with the occasional puzzle. The main character, a female student named Ray, has both a reality and a horror/dream-state world. The player guides her through both. The horror world has motifs of prison, otherworldly monsters drawing from Taoist and Buddhist culture. These motifs, as well as textual documents in the game, contribute towards a sense of unease and repression, partly intended to portray the martial law period. During this period, people were unable to create art freely (literature and film were often repressed in this period), unable to study freely, and people who broke with the status quo could find themselves imprisoned (or worse).

The game’s story is a little cryptic, but it turns out that Ray committed suicide during the martial law period, due to mental stress from a dysfunctional family, and pressure/jealousy from a failed relationship with her high school guidance counselor. Before her suicide, she ratted out an illegal reading group in her school, leading to the imprisonment of a classmate, the guidance counselor and a female teacher.

Since the main action of the game is controlling Ray, keeping her safe, and exploring her alternate reality, the game succeeds primarily as a horror game, and secondarily as historical exposition/exploration. The game shows events related to the martial law such as school propaganda, Ray ratting out a reading group, teachers being taken away by the police. Though these events make sense to use as background for a horror narrative, I would be more interested to see the issues explored in a more nuanced fashion – perhaps looking at why people went with the status quo (as either oppressor or oppressed), or went against it (and faced consequences) – rather than a sort of blanket horror atmosphere.

At the end of the game, it skips into the future, after martial law, where you briefly play as the newly-freed classmate of Ray, who was originally imprisoned due to Ray’s snitching. At this time, the weather is sunny and cheery, the environment, calm. There are no obstacles or monsters in the school.  This historical transition comes off as a simplification of the end of martial law.

I don’t think the developers personally view it this way – they had done lots of research, grown up in Taiwan, etc. – but the ending conveys the sense that of Taiwan being in one of two states: martial law or no martial law – skipping over the intervening periods of transition – creating a gap. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it is worth noting as an effect of jumps in time within narratives.

(See http://www.taiwandc.org/twcom/tc31-int.pdf for a news brief from around the time of the martial law lifting).

Policies changed quickly after the martial law lifted – art collectors were eventually able to investigate Taiwan’s history of objects and propaganda. Scholars could study and research events of the war and the previous ruling system. Taiwan became a stable democracy, though favor for the Kuomintang (KMT) party is still relatively high. The KMT ruled during the martial law period, and falls in and out of power with each government election. The remnants of martial law still float amongst Taiwanese society and diaspora.

Despite my criticism I don’t mean to paint the game as ineffective in shedding light on the martial law period. I bring up the criticism as a point of inquiry into how such a setting could be used in other effective ways. According to the many Steam reviews and tweets about the game, non-Taiwanese players learned about a part of history for the first time, and some Taiwanese reflected on the progress of their society. It’s nice for non-Taiwanese to learn about the country, as Taiwan usually only comes up in the news when being talked about relative to US-China tensions, or its odd name in the Olympics. And according to developer interviews, it was their goal to help non-Taiwanese learn about Taiwanese culture in the same ways games from other countries have helped them do the same.

Incorporating ancestors’ experiences into games

In bringing up the issues with martial law as a backdrop, I want to think about how a historical event can be represented in a game by ancestors of those who lived through the event.

How should a person represent an aspect of their ancestor’s history in a game, what should be left in or out? How prominent within the game should the period be? Should it be a direct representation, abstracted, etc?

I think it’s important when doing a reading of a work, or creating your own, that you recognize the limitations of analysis/creation. From analsysis and criticism’s standpoint, a game cannot possibly represent every aspect and view of the causes, events and repercussions of something like martial law – or perhaps any event. As a creator, when trying to make work about a period of time, at some point you just have to focus in some way, rather than trying to cover all your bases.

My feeling of the time period being mostly a background for atmosphere in Detention seems mostly correct based on interviews with the developers, who picked it as it fit a preconceived narrative theme. I personally would have liked a little bit more investigation, characters, etc., but at the same time knowing the challenges inherent in making a game, I can’t fault the developers’ intentions, especially in light of their success at reaching players outside of Taiwan.

And there is a benefit to the ‘time gap’ I brought up earlier – though the game may sharply jump from the time period of martial law to the aftermath, that alone still conveys to a player, “How did Taiwan get from point A to point B?” Even though Detention does not investigate that point, it brings up the point for discussion. And so it makes me think that, we may leave gaps in history or analysis in the works we make,  but if framed carefully, those gaps can become launchpads for players’ further research or interest. The gaps may simplify the process of social change, but gaps are better than no gaps, and I think Detention’s team knew this well. A gap in time does not necessarily imply that the historical transition was “easy”. The choice to end the game this way, I think, is much better than to just end it during martial law. Doing otherwise may have seemed more exploitative of the “Martial Law” aesthetic – purely used to make a horror game and mesh with the main character, Ray. Or, possibly unrepresentative of Taiwan, which was definitely not a goal of the development team.

Loose Ends

Who has free reign over making work of a particular period? That is a sticky question whose answer can’t be easily generalized. I would like to say I welcome investigations by any person of something like the Taiwan martial law. I believe it is much more up to the skill of the game designer, than their ethnic background, to determine whether or not they will do an effective job in investigating the various vectors of history pointing to and from the period.


Related links…

Review – http://www.thestar.com.my/tech/tech-news/2017/02/22/taiwan-white-terror-brought-back-to-life-for-gamers/

Interview – https://newbloommag.net/2017/02/22/interview-detention-game/

Guide to the game’s plot/endings: http://www.oneangrygamer.net/2017/01/detention-game-endings-explained/22848/

Buy Detention here.

 

 


4 Good Songs of 2016

This is a pretty incomplete list… I will keep better track in 2017. Anyways. Here are four songs I really liked. These songs all do great jobs of evoking interesting digital spaces.

Bryant Canelo – all this water you cannot drink

BUY BRYANT’S MUSIC

The song develops in the way you might peel back the world surrounding us to uncover, slowly, more about it. I would call it ‘realistic’ in the sense it sort of jumps out at you and asks you to recontextualize your surroundings.

The skittering trill throughout the whole song always has an unsteady feeling, both from the mechanical nature of trills in general, as well as its pitch changing (or a filter envelope moving around, not sure). Further contributing to this are occasional one-off percussion giving the impression of ‘did I hear that or not?, ‘dissonant’ midi-guitar-like plucks, and further percussive and choral layers.

 

 

ella guro / Liz Ryerson – (untitled sitting in the rain track)

BUY LIZ’S MUSIC

I heard this song without knowing it also was in Robert Yang’s game, No Stars, Only Constellations. I’m particularly fond of the gently delayed, overlapping guitar sounds, especially around 1:19 when a single sequence of notes is played in different rhythms. I enjoy the layering of vinyl-ish static sounds in the song as well to give an impression of ‘recollecting’ a memory.

Liz’s music is important, especially in the context of games, where it is actively contributing and help push existing boundaries on what music for games (and music in general) can be.

emamouse – STP

BUY EMAMOUSE’S MUSIC

See this song in a different context, with emamouse’s visual work: (6:20) http://psalm.us/mousewasher.html

emamouse puts out a lot of music, I was glad to be able to meet her at a show in Tokyo last August. A lot of emamouse’s songs have a lot of motion going on a lot – I think everywhere in this song, some synth, somewhere, maybe more subdued at times, is always doing some sort of scale-like run up and down. It’s something I’d like to do more of but is pretty hard to pull off! It’s interesting to zoom in on parts of the song and uncover new layers. Passively listening sort of gives you this kind of murky and dark flavor for the song, but like exploring an area in a game, you understand more of it and see new things over time.

That, and the hook at the start is really catchy, using a vocal sample which is characteristic to some of her other work.

Gazelle Twin – Outer Body

Buy gazelle twin’s music here

I heard this some point last year – and it’s really catchy. It’s has this repeating percussive bit reminiscient of times in AAA games where you’re approaching or waiting for action to happen. To that end it would be neat to see Gazelle’s music within the context of a game!

The vocal samples partway through the song add another interesting layer to the mix. The “ambient” aspects of music are fun when the artist drops in different parts, creating a panorama of sorts of a musical space. In this song, bass clips pop in, reversed percussion samples, processed vocals, etc. Looking forward to more music by Gazelle Twin.

 


SAIC’s Experimental Game Lab, Fall 2016

This past fall,  I taught undergrads and a grad student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) as the lecturer for the Experimental Game Lab class. There was a lot of luck in being able to get this opportunity (thanks William Chyr). I am teaching there for the near future and am in talks for developing a game music composition and critique class for the fall.

The Class

It was a studio-style class, meeting at nights twice a week for three hours. I could see this being nice during the summer, but teaching 6-9 PM is kind of drab once day light savings time kicks in.

I decided to make the first half a discussion/lecture, then the second half ‘studio’ time, or time for students to work on their projects/troubleshoot.

The class structure and content were up to me to design.  I decided it would be a mix of introductory game design with Twine/Unity and critique and critical play of games (to try and increase the variety of games students were exposed to.)

One issue with the class was that it took place on Tuesdays and Thursdays – so I had to figure out what games I wanted to assign by Thursday to have them ready for the next week. In practice I was really busy with releasing Even the Ocean (please buy it) till November so I ended up having to assign 3-4 games over the weekend and a few games on Monday/Tuesday. As you might expect most students had trouble playing the games assigned on Monday/Tuesday for the Thursday class.

Part of why this was the case was that students seemed overworked – most taking 4-5 classes a semester, requiring many hours per week in-class and with projects to work on. I wasn’t really able to assign as much work as I’d like to, but perhaps this was also to blame on assigning too many game projects (more on that later.)

Luckily for next semester it’s a once-a-week 6 hour class, so it’ll be easier to structure – just assign once a week and discuss all of them for half of the next class.

Overall I managed to assign around 50 games, which was about my goal. Including student critiques that brought the total number of games discussed to around 100.

Assignments

For each game I assigned, I gave some readings (often reviews or other criticisms), and then I wrote up some questions, which were usually short essay questions but I only required a few sentences. I tried to focus on questions requiring students to deconstruct how a game worked, or how effective a design decision was, or occasionally asking to think about the game’s presence (or lack of) sociopolitical themes.

Some students consistently gave good responses, others half-assed them. If anything I need to be clearer on the expectation and then enforce that in grading.

Question examples…

Yume Nikki: Did the presence of the ‘effects’ change how you perceived and made your way through the game’s world? How would the game have changed if there were no effects to find?

Lacuna III (An visually ‘spooky’ game): The NPC dialogue in Lacuna III is an interesting choice – although some NPCs may speak cryptically, a few speak in friendly, almost cute ways. What’s the effect of this on the player’s experience and perception of the game?

LSD Dream Emulator: In the dream-like games we’ve played so far, you transition from one place to another through doors, waking up, dying, or portals. LSD Dream Emulator adds a new way to the mix. What is the overall effect of colliding with any object functioning as a trigger to the next dream-world?

Now that I’ve generated around 50 games and written questions for them, that should buy me some extra time this semester to polish up questions, readings, and find new games to replace my weaker choices. I would like to include more short writings of my own on the games – I managed to do this for a few games, but for most I only had time to write summaries. I think it’s important to introduce why I’m picking a particular work. The past few weeks I’ve played ~80 or so games so I’ve found a handful I think are worth assigning.

I’d like to more strongly theme the games together. E.g. “newsgames”, “political”, “architecture”, “dreamscape 2d”, etc. I did attempt to do this for some weeks, but other weeks I had to do some ‘easy’ weeks like assigning some 3D games that weren’t Great but that I thought would be easy for students to emulate in their work, or even assigning my own games (which I’m still feeling okay about doing – though it does feel a little weird at times.)

Projects

We had four crits over the semester. I think this was too many. The first three required entire classes (of which I only had 28 classes in total), the last final crit took the last two days of class.

The idea was: Twine game, 2D Unity game, 3D unity game, Final project. It was an easy way for me to get a decent syllabus done, but it’s clear in retrospect that expecting four finished projects with the expectation of a crit was too much.

Instead what I’m shifting to for the spring semester will be a few shorter assignments focused on literacy with tools and design exercises, and then just a midterm and final project critique.

In the future I’d like to incorporate more interesting design exercises – perhaps when I get more confident with teaching. Robert Yang, Jake Elliott and Paolo Pedercini’s teaching work have been good reference points in this regard.

Critiques

I was initially nervous about these at first, but then I realized it was basically a feedback session and it got a lot easier. It helped I had taken a few art classes in undergrad. One problem is that it got a little awkward when it was unstatedly obvious the student wasn’t satisfied with their work or, maybe, knew they turned in something of poor quality. But I never really brought this up and insisted on investigating the work anyways, and that seemed to have been fine and perhaps contribute to class goodwill.

I made sure to take notes for each student… which helped the discussion get going when the student had trouble talking about their work.

Because we are dealing with games and not traditional artworks, students must play the games ahead of time. Which is fine but this ends up having to shave a few days off of each student’s development time for a given project. This should be less of an issue since next semester will only have two crits.

General lessons on teaching

I didn’t anticipate how much of a distraction electronics would be. It feels a bit absurd to do this, but I’m planning on banning all electronics during class discussions, unless a student specifically requests to use something for note taking. Which I would then grant permission for (under the threat of a grade reduction if they take advantage of the policy). I’m not really the most confident when it comes to punishments but it seems like a necessary thing for discussions to be productive. Some students were producing music, chatting, etc.

Additionally, I’m implementing a no late work policy. I had a few students who couldn’t keep up with the work and ended up missing many assignments. I think this will help to prevent work from piling up for those students. In terms of projects the no late work thing sure sounds stricter – but I think it is also necessary. I had students turning in things a few days late or even on crit day and it really fucked up the crits sometimes since only I and a few others would have anything to say about the work.

If anything I want to emphasize that it’s okay to turn in unfinished work/WIPs. But it’s hard, and I assume it’s something students don’t feel as proud of doing.

As for discussions in class, I only did this a few times but taking notes during the discussion is really helpful over a 90-180 minute discussion, in order to reference back things people said. Should have done this more often. Might have been anecdotal, but I felt like discussions were livelier when I sat at the same big table as students, rather than project the game onto the screen during discussion. I’m still for live play, but it seems better to have another student play the game – I think students may see it as easier/more ok to be distracted if I’m up at the front of the class.

Unity (3D)

For 3D, Vanilla Unity is a hard thing to teach to non-coding students. It’s an extremely powerful tool and as  you might expect if you’re not used to coding it can be hard to track down problems.

From the students, I mostly ended up with little/no-interaction first-person games. I tried to teach coding for a few days but this was pretty much a failure. I think teaching coding would be too difficult alongside the other goals of the course – I’d probably have to axe game assignments – so I’m focusing on looking into scripting tools this semester.

This semester, I’m requiring (non-programming background) students to use Playmaker if they want to use Unity 3D, hopefully that will result in better games as it (I hope) helps abstract away some of the coding and get them more into design, rather than worrying about randomly downloaded libraries not having namespace collisions or figuring out C# syntax.

2D Unity

Unity 2D wasn’t much better. For getting student to just make a simple game, there are so many caveats that make this a nightmare… objects disappearing because their Z coordinates change for whatever reason, it’s hard to get pixel-perfect set-up, the sprite animation system in Unity can quickly become tedious.

So I’m using Stencyl instead. Game Maker feels a lot more ideal and documented, but I’ve managed to figure out enough with Stencyl that I feel comfortable teaching it. It also has drag and drop coding, which, while tedious, is less error prone.

And, it works natively on Macs, which is necessary  because my students are only guaranteed to have Macs.

Reception

Despite shortcomings with the course the students seemed to all be satisfied. On a few accounts I heard that it was one of their more well-organized classes. Evaluations will come out soon so I can see some more feedback, hopefully. Using different tools should help – I would rather leave the students in a place where they can go further with the tools rather than being stuck at a coding roadblock.

In general…

Teaching is pretty fun, especially when getting a good discussion going or when a student produces interesting work. It’s nice to stay up to date on aspects of youth culture.

I was pretty lenient with grading this time around – not sure how much I should change that.  I think for the most part, students did put in good effort and their projects will be improved by structuring the class slightly differently, and changing up what tools we use.