Saturday, July 1, 2017

Atop the Witch's Tower


New game! It's called Atop the Witch's TowerYou can play it for free on my site, either by downloading it or playing it in-browser (thanks to Archive.org).

I put it together intermittently over the last six or so months. It's a love story, like a lot of my games. It started as a quick experiment while I learned my way around the ZZT engine, and then grew into something more intimate and personal. It still shouldn't take more than 15 to 20 minutes to play. I'm very pleased with how it turned out, so I hope you give it a look!

ZZT itself is a 1991 DOS game by Tim Sweeny with an extremely robust world editor. There's a rich history to the game and the community that developed around it, one I'm mostly familiar with through Anna Anthropy's excellent book on the game. I think it's all fascinating, and I'm glad to have made myself a part of that history in a small way.

Some observations moving forward: 1) I like making games with lots of writing in them, 2) I like making games in engines besides Game Maker Studio. Expect to see more work to that effect I think!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Kikai


You can play Kikai now! This one's been a long time coming -- I wrote about the game's lengthy dev cycle five months ago. The final work is more abstract than I thought it'd be when I wrote that piece, which I think suits the story quite nicely.

It's a scary intense shooting game, the kind I haven't released for several years now. There's a trailer on the site if you want a better idea of what it is. 

I'll probably write a more lengthy post-release commentary at some point. In the mean-time I really hope you give it a play! It's definitely my most considered story, and I think the care that went into its creation shines through in the final game. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Her Lullaby


My friend Polly and I released a videogame called Her Lullaby on Valentine's Day, about two weeks ago. It's a horror visual novel where you make choices for the characters and the story reacts to those choices. Our friends Carmichael and Taylor did the art and the music, respectively.

It's the first visual novel Polly and I have ever worked on. It took a little under three months to make. We're both extremely proud of it.

A lot of my creative projects lately have felt a bit labored. I've slowly turned personal creation from something I do into something I stew on and agonize over. In contrast, putting together Her Lullaby's initial draft with Polly felt effortless. There were no creative roadblocks. We wrote to surprise and delight each other, and every new chunk of the story one of us shared energized the other to write the next one.

We had no idea where the story was going when we started. Large parts of it fell into place half-way through, but much of it wasn't planned for at all. And yet the whole thing felt cohesive to us even before we hammered it home with a month of tweaks and editing. I've never written this way before. It feels magical.

Her Lullaby is a raw and personal story, for both of us. It's violent, grating, and a bit melodramatic, because that's what we needed it to be. It mimics many of the stories we love, and it's also something only we could've made. It's the most fun I've ever had making videogames.

You can download Her Lullaby for Windows, Mac, and Linux on my site or on itch.io. You can listen to Taylor's immaculate soundtrack on its own right here.

So. What's next?

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Top 202 Generation Six Games Ever


I contributed to another "best of" list as SMPS! This one covers Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox games, along with PC games released between 2000 to 2005.

You can start the list from the top right here. Polly, Rhete, and I also recorded a podcast giving our thoughts on the top entrants, which you can listen to here.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Solutions without Problems


There's a very good episode of Steven Universe where Steven teaches the alien Peridot about "music." She's bewildered at first; why is he engaging in such a meaningless activity in the face of apocalyptic destruction? You watch the gears turn in her head as Steven echoes Maria von Trapp. She struggles to translate what he's saying into something more logical. "Interest without meaning... solutions without problems..."

She quickly sees the appeal, defining music as "a hypothetical pattern for the satisfaction of bringing it to completion." Steven sings to her about all the things he loves about Earth that make it worth protecting. Peridot joins in, then performs her own song about the pain of being stuck away from home.


I use the word "storytelling" a lot when I talk about games. It's a useful metaphor for me. Instead of looking at games as collections of disparate elements (gameplay! graphics! sound! plot!), I prefer looking at them as holistic, singular creations.

I like looking at games as stories.

That sounds nice, but what does it actually mean? That's tough to put into words, because it means defining what a "story" is to me. Maybe we can build off of Peridot's definition of music: patterns devised for the satisfaction of their resolution. I think this is a lovely interpretation, and that it applies to a lot more than music.

Stories are all patterns. They have characters, arcs, relationships, and interactions that build on each other in an attempt to reach a satisfying resolution. Those characters and relationships can be named entities, or they can be more abstract. A movie will usually introduce human (or anthropomorphized) characters with personalities and goals, and then develop them and their relationships. Songs introduce and develop musical ideas. Games introduce and develop rules.

Luke Skywalker yearns to leave home and be a part of something bigger than himself. Beethoven's 5th Symphony starts with four unforgettable notes that return and develop throughout the piece. The player struggles to erase Tetris blocks, watches their mistakes pile up, and inevitably loses to entropy.

They're all patterns. As audiences, we latch onto threads of continuity in the art we enjoy. We like art with interesting threads that develop in ways we find satisfying.

Art is "satisfying" when it provokes an emotional and intellectual response we feel richer for having experienced. We like art that expands our minds in some small way. The world is big and scary and incomprehensible a lot of the time. Finding patterns and narrative threads, in real life and in art, helps us understand it just a little better.

So, here's my adjusted working definition: a story is a made-up pattern humans use to assert meaning.


We create stories constantly. It's how we make sense of everything around us. Since the world is impossibly complicated, we survive by simplifying information, creating patterns, and building narratives.

Let's say I drive to work. The act of my car moving from one location to another isn't a story. It's just a physical fact, a Thing That Happens. 

But that's not what I'm going to remember. What will stick in my mind are the stories I build out of the drive. Was it a pleasant trip? If so, what defined it as pleasant? Was there some sight or sound or event during the drive that felt significant? Why did it feel significant?

I'm going to tell you a story.

The other day, I was walking to the store. I stubbed my toe. It started raining. I arrived at the store drenched, picked out my items, and at checkout I realized I'd forgotten my wallet at home. The end.

None of those things have anything to do with each other. They're just Things That Happened. But line 'em all up like that, and they become "god, did I tell you about my miserable trip to the store the other day?"

You find patterns in the situation. Those patterns become a story.

Let's change the pattern. Let's say the whole story's the same, except right after realizing I forgot my wallet, I turned behind me and saw one of my favorite authors in line. Surprised, I stammered out something like "I love your work!" They thanked me for the compliment, and took a picture with me. I smiled the whole way home, and later on I framed the picture and hung it on my wall. The end.

The story's different now, it's expanded. It's not just "I was having a miserable time the other day," it's also "but then something really great happened and I felt better." Set-up, pay-off. 

"Something great happened randomly" isn't much of a catharsis though. What if my "something great" happened for a reason, because of some choice I made? Wouldn't that be more memorable?


Let's change the story one more time.

The other day, I was walking to the store. I stared at my phone, nervously considering calling an old friend I hadn't spoken with in a while.

Distracted, I stubbed my toe. I cried out in pain, and put my phone away. It started to rain. I arrived at the store soaking wet. At checkout I realized I'd forgotten my wallet. I walked home empty-handed.

I arrived at home, put my phone down on the kitchen table, and headed to the bathroom. I took a hot shower and dried off, then went back to the kitchen and made some tea. I sat down at the table with my drink and saw my phone. I stared at it for a few seconds.

I picked it up and called my friend. We talked for over an hour. We laughed about my trip to the store. I smiled for a while afterwards. The end.

The story's moved from "I was having a miserable time" to "I was having a miserable time, but then it got better" and finally to "I was having a miserable time, but then I made it better."

Events like these are all ultimately just Things Happening. There's no intrinsic meaning to them. But when we have experiences (in real life, a novel, or a blog post) we arrange them into patterns. Seeing these patterns and their resolutions imparts feelings and lessons. The feeling of rain soaking into our clothes. The disappointment of wasted effort. The lesson of "seek human connection."

"If it isn't anything, then why does it sound so good?"


Stories are important. They're totally made-up, and one of the realest things in the world. They're how we process literally everything that happens to us, and how we relate and empathize with other people.

Every game tells a story. Maybe it's a sweeping epic with a huge cast and triumphant catharses. Maybe it's totally abstract, and the story of it is the arc of emotions it evokes in you, the player. Maybe it's razor-sharp and sticks in your brain for years afterwards. Maybe it's muddled and unfocused, and you forget it quickly.

Find the story in games you can't stand, and you'll have a better idea of what repulses you about them. Find the story in games you love, and you'll have a closer relationship with them as a result.

Because there is a story, in every single game you'll ever play, and in all of our actions and relationships and thoughts and feelings. They're how we create meaning in a meaningless world. They're how we take things that are true and make them feel true.

The most important things in the world are concepts we made up to describe subjective patterns. The most important things in the world are our stories.

"Life and death and love and birth and peace and war on the planet Earth. Is there anything that's worth more than peace and love on the planet Earth?"


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Memories and The Machine Game


About four years ago, I put together a short prototype for a scrolling shooter game. You controlled a little astronaut avatar, flying them around the screen with the arrow keys. You could shoot in both horizontal directions: Z to shoot left, X to shoot right. I swiped the controls and graphics from Daniel Remar's Hero Core, a game I'd played and loved that year. For music I nabbed one of my favorite Donkey Kong Country tracks.

What made the game different from other shmups was the camera's irregular scrolling. Instead of just moving right or up, the camera moved in all eight cardinal directions. The scrolling would change direction without warning, and getting caught between the edge of the screen and a wall would crush you. Essentially, the scrolling was the primary threat. It was, naturally, a complete knock-off of the climactic level of Ecco the Dolphin, which I'd also played and loved that year. 

But it just wasn't coming together at all. The technical and creative labor that goes into making something like Welcome to the Machine was much more difficult than I anticipated. Making just thirty seconds of level was tremendously labor intensive; Ecco's climax is almost six minutes long, plus a boss fight. And even if I made six minutes of level, I'd want it to play well, look pretty, and tell some sort of story. At this point I couldn't even figure out how to make the scrolling crush you. Making this game was totally beyond me. 

So I put the project down, seemingly indefinitely. I went back to stewing on more interesting ideas, like a reverse Metroid game where you lose powerups as the game progresses instead of gaining new ones.



I've been making small games in every engine I could get my hands on for a long time. Almost fifteen years ago I made a short text adventure in QBasic. It presented you a choice between four options, all of which would kill your avatar. Shortly afterwards I discovered Game Maker. I poured over all the tutorials, learned the engine as best as I could, and made a number of simple shooting games. 

In middle school I made a short platformer called Polygon Valley, about a triangle named Polly the Polygon bouncing through a short level and defeating a wicked octohedron. In high school I made a platformer called Ahriman for a school project. All the while I was starting and abandoning numerous other projects.

I also spent these years devouring countless short free games and mountains of thoughtful game criticism. I fell in and out of love with caustic critics like Ben Croshaw. I read Insert Credit and Action Button religiously. 

I discovered Anna Anthropy's work. I stopped thinking about games as collections of mechanics that exist in-and-of themselves. I started thinking about games as a storytelling medium, where rules are one tool designers have to communicate ideas. I started thinking about games holistically.

I played a bunch of games about queerness. I studied queerness outside the context of games. I found out that many of my friends online and in school were queer. I listened. I stewed. I reflected.

I started writing for SMPS. I joined the forum. I wrote a glowing review of Metroid: Other M. I joined Let's Play competitions. I wrote about Princess Tutu, Iji, and Silent Hill. I formed lasting friendships.



In 2013, I made my first concerted stab at designing games as an adult. I started a game about using cannons to defend a castle from encroaching enemy infantry. I used RPGMaker resources in Game Maker Studio. It wasn't fun at all. I gave up. 

Immediately, I started a new project where you solve a puzzle by paying attention to flickering light bulbs. I added some grating static audio, and a polarity mechanic ripped from Ikaruga and Bullet Maze. I made several hard levels, then an ending, then a title screen. I called it Quarantine and put it online. Paul Hack covered it on IndieGames.com. My friends liked it.

Then I made my reverse Metroid game. It took five months. I called it Fugitive. Paul Hack covered it on IndieGames.com. Lots of other folks covered it too. I wrote about it for ZEAL. I revisit it pretty frequently. It's a game I hold close to my heart.

In December I made another shooting game, a short shmup called Into the Vortex. It was heavily inspired by the early GameBoy game SolarStriker. It took less than a week to make. No one covered it as far as I know. A month ago, someone told me out of the blue they were having fun trying to beat it without taking a single hit. I smiled about that for a while afterwards.



In 2014, I made four more games. I love all of them. I moved away from dreary, hard games and towards soft, gentle stories. I worked collaboratively for the first time, first with my partner Anna, then with my long-time friend Polly. I worked on a collage game about two people in love, a block-pushing puzzle game also about two people in love, a game about kissing lots of cute boys, and a short absurd platformer about a frog.

In January 2015, I opened a blank Game Maker Studio file, and started work on a new machine game. This time, instead of ripping sprites from Hero Core, I made Game Boy-style sprites with the same palette I used for Fugitive. Unlike Fugitive, I made the pixel resolution the same as the original Game Boy's, so the screen was more claustrophobic. 

I put some walls into the level editor. I made the camera move around irregularly. I figured out how to make the camera crush you against walls. I made a long snake-like enemy based on Centipede, which split into two parts if you shot it in the middle. I named the test project Kikai, the Japanese word for machine.

None of it felt right. I put the project down.

Months passed, and I picked it up again. I raised the room speed to sixty frames per second and doubled the scrolling speed. Immediately it was way more exciting. I realized doubling the camera speed meant twice as much level design if I wanted my 6-7 minute game. I accepted this, and got to work. 

At home I'd work on the level design and coding the enemy behaviors. During my classes I'd stew on the game, and where I wanted the story to go. I sketched out ideas for the intro and ending. I doodled concepts for a recurring enemy you'd fight throughout the game, a climactic final boss, a violent and frightening twist ending. I thought about how I wanted to handle checkpoints -- a question I'm still mulling over now.

Over the next month, I made about a minute and a half of level. I grew discouraged. The game played okay, but it had no atmosphere. There was no music yet. I wanted the entire game to fit the Game Boy palette and resolution, and unlike Fugitive, I wanted authentic Game Boy music to match the visuals. I couldn't find any that fit the action on-screen. I had no sense of the game's story or its identity. I posted some footage online, and then put the project back down.



Months passed. It was the end of of my summer semester. I'd finished one small game in the last eight months. My parents had just split up. I was cut up about it. I had to finish a trying project for an iOS development class. I didn't have a mac, so I had to go to campus every day and work in an empty computer lab. I did little work, opting instead to play The Castlevania Adventure obsessively. 

While procrastinating and trying hard not to think about my parents, I had several long twitter conversations about videogames and music with Michelle Ball, aka meauxdal. I mentioned off-hand I was having trouble figuring out the music for my current project. I talked about what I was going for, why it was giving me so much trouble, and why I couldn't find anything that worked.

A month later, she told me she'd composed some tunes with what I'd said in mind. She said I was welcome to use them, or some of her other music.

I listened to the tracks she made. They were really lovely. They were exactly what I said I wanted. They weren't right at all.

Then I listened to some of her other music. I realized a few of the tracks were absolutely perfect for my game -- except that they weren't GameBoy-style. I considered remaking her songs in a tracker, or asking a more musical friend to do so. The amount of work seemed daunting, and even then I wasn't sure it would work. I'd hit a wall. I could perceive no way forward under my self-imposed restrictions. 

So, I decided to give up on the "authentic" angle all-together. Instead of making the music fit the visuals, I'd make the visuals fit the music. I kept the GameBoy-style terrain, enemy, and player sprites. But I exchanged the two-toned gray background for a high-res machinery texture I found on Google Image Search. I took the same transparent smoke image I'd used in Into the Vortex and Frog Adventure and layered it on top of the screen. I plugged her music in. It all fit perfectly.

I was more motivated than ever. Over the next several months, I made about five minutes of level. 



2016. The game played well. The aesthetic worked. I had a ton of level design done. I'd shared some more footage online. But I'd hit a new wall. 

How was I going to end this thing?

The climax is an important part of many games, even short free ones. About half of my games have some sort of culminating moment of tension, especially the earlier, scarier, harder ones. And while those beats aren't necessary in something like Dance Party or Ants, they definitely are in a story like my machine game.

But what form should that climax take? The nature of the machine game makes it hard to escalate tension. While something like Fugitive has a slow build-up to its climactic levels, the machine game is scary from the word go. After all, the whole game is one big rip-off of the climax of a terrifying game, Ecco the Dolphin. How do you give shape to something that's already that intense to begin with?

"Big tough boss fight" is the natural answer to this kind of problem, but that wasn't working. Every single attempt I made at designing one failed miserably. It just didn't fit the game's language. I'd already finished the toughest chunk of "regular" level I was planning on making, but that didn't feel like a satisfying end-point either.

Then I had an idea. I loaded up a blank room, added some walls and enemies, changed the music to another of Michelle's pieces... and cut the camera speed in half. It felt good. Even though I didn't like the slower speed when I started, it made for a compelling climactic beat. It shifted focus from the scrolling to the enemies, who stay on the screen longer, shoot more bullets at you, and are generally way more threatening. It worked.

I put together the climax. It was simpler to make than the rest of the game, because the slower scrolling meant less terrain to put down. I took some time and designed the two minutes of "introductory" level, the easiest part of the game. I played through all of it. I think it clocked in at around eight or nine minutes. There are only two kinds of terrain (solid, destructible), and three kinds of enemies (turret, centipede, homing).



I put the project down. Late into fall I picked it back up again. I'd forgotten that I'd already finished the introductory chunk of level. I'd forgotten that I'd essentially finished all the level design for the entire game. All I needed was to link it all together, add a death animation, checkpoints, a pause menu, a title screen, an intro, an ending, joystick support, make the tiles prettier, send it to testers, pick and choose what feedback to incorporate, and then... release the game.

I played it a whole bunch. I played it more than I actually worked on it. I changed the music again, giving the game a much harsher atmosphere. I recorded some footage and shot it around, and got some compliments from my friends. I added the death animation.

I got Anna to play the introductory section. It was the first time I'd ever let someone else play it. About one minute in she said "this is the worst feeling movement I've ever experienced in a game." She explained why she felt this way. I changed two lines of code, recompiled it, and handed it to her. "That is SO much better." 

I passed it off to a few friends. They liked it a lot. I listened carefully to their feedback, and incorporated some of it into the game. Then I put the project down again.

And... that's where we're at.



It's gonna be a good game I think. I've been looking forward to playing it for almost four years. I'm pretty excited. I know some of my friends are excited too. I hope they have a good time with it.

This isn't my only project in the works; there's a lot of other stuff I'm excited to share. Those other projects are my future. They're the games I'm making to establish my new self. 

It's been a long time since I started Kikai. The me that wanted desperately to make it isn't the me I am now. In a sense it's a game that belongs to my past, and I might never make another game like it. I'm okay with that. It doesn't invalidate the vision that's propelled me through the game's development. Past-John's passions are just as beautiful and important as mine.

It's still gonna be a bit longer, which is okay. Lots of art withers and dies when you overthink it, but I think this project's benefited from its slow-burn development. I've still got the intro and ending to hammer out, and I'm sure they'll bring their own challenges. But the end is in sight, more-so than it's ever been.

This gift to my past self is special to me. I hope it'll be special for you too.



Thursday, December 22, 2016

Makin' Music in Bosca Ceoil


Lots of folks feel in their heart of hearts that making art is a magical and innate talent. They feel that there's some spectral force inhabiting an elite few, blessing them with the capacity to make true art.

This is total nonsense. Making any particular kind of art is just a skill, one with concrete rules and logic that can be taught and studied. It's a variety of crafts you learn through repetition, listening, and a whole lot of effort. Pretending that it's purely intuitive just makes it seem more intimidating than it actually is. 

This is something I say a lot with regards to game design, 'cause I hate seeing brilliant creative people say "there's no way I could ever do that." Of course you can! Just try. Experiment. Fumble. Create. Didn't y'all see Ratatouille? Go download Twine, load up Puzzlescript or Scratch or Game Maker Studio, cut some board game pieces out of construction paper. You can do it! I believe in you! 

But I'm a hypocrite. You see, this is how I've always felt about composing music. I've always looked at it as a magical talent I can't ever hope to claim for myself.


It's not like I don't have the formal knowledge. I've had more explicit instruction in the craft behind music than I've ever had with game design. I played bassoon in school bands and local orchestras for seven years. I aced several college classes in music theory, listening to multi-part harmonic pieces and notating them by ear. But somehow, the idea of actually buckling down and making music felt impossible.

Part of this is that none of the classes I took asked students to compose original music. Which feels like a major oversight to me! But really it's that I never actually tried. I'd load up FL Studio, get intimidated by the interface, and I'd give up before putting down a single note.

That's how it's always gone for me -- until earlier this year that is. I finally got over that block and made some damn music. And I have Terry Cavanagh to thank (not for the first time), because it was his excellent composition program Bosca Ceoil that helped me get started.

(Important note: CTRL+left-click the bottom of an arrangement column to delete it, SHIFT+left-click to add a blank column. Knowing that would've saved me a lot of time.)

Bosca Ceoil is a stripped-down zero-bullshit music tracker designed for maximum possible accessibility. It gave me what I needed: an easy tool that offered as few barriers to creation as possible. Among electronic music programs, Bosca Ceoil is the closest thing I've found to a palette and a blank canvas. It lets you put notes down, fiddle with them until they sound good, then add more notes, and so on. Because that's what making music is. You try, experiment, fumble, create. 

I do have a bit of a head-start thanks to my extensive formal knowledge! And that helped tremendously. But if you want a free crash course in that stuff just check out the incredible 12tone series of music theory and compositional instruction videos. I've been watching them religiously; follow the exercises and you'll learn the same things I paid hundreds of tuition dollars to study.

Anyway, here's what I've put together so far:

Cute Short Loop - Bouncy and sweet. I like how the two melodies converge in the end. Someone told me it reminded them of Phantasy Star, which still makes me glow. The bassline trichords feel a little muddy to me, I moved away from them as time went on.

Short Gentle Loop - Experimenting with different textures. Discovered how much I like harmonizing to repeated arpeggios. Drums feel a little busy, and this is the other one with the muddy trichords.

Short Eerie Loop - Trying out some creepier textures, also using a minor key for the first time. More arpeggios. This one's all about the rhthym nonsense in the back half, which is the part that really makes me smile. 

Winsome Loop - Back to bouncy and sweet! I like this one, but it feels like it's missing some kind of culmination in the back half. More rhythm nonsense, albeit not as overt (or successful).

Spooky Loop - Menace in minor! This is the first piece with accidentals, meaning the "melody" steps out of its home key briefly. Don't know if it's obvious that the second melody is just the first one sped way up. This is the one I can most see sticking in a game at some point.


That's what I've got so far! Excited to make more music, and maybe incorporate it into my other work. I've got lots of avenues forward; finding more musical tools to experiment with is as easy as looking down a list of 12tone videos. I definitely want to try some more experimental harmonies and mid-piece key changes. What's modulation again? Let me rewatch the video, maybe that's something I should try...