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.

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