Monday, August 14, 2023

A Dark Place

A few weeks ago I released a tiny visual novel called A Dark Place. I submitted it as part of the Only One of Any Asset 2023 Visual Novel Jam. The rules for the jam were very clever and inspiring: make a VN using at most one background, one character illustration, and no more than one thousand words. This actually matches A Cold Place, and without meaning to I wound up making something in a pretty similar vein (hence the title). 

It's less a joke and more straight up horror than A Cold Place. It was also one of the few times I've made a whole complete game and still wasn't sure if I was happy with it looking at the finished draft. Most of the time I get excited about my projects very early. But since this only took a few hours to draft, I actually got to the end still unsure about the story.

I wound up taking it home and sitting on it for a weekend. I watched my partner play it, gauged her reactions and noted her suggestions, and made a few changes. I made a few more tweaks the next day after a shower epiphany. Suddenly I was really pleased with it! Very short fiction is an interesting form because even tiny changes in the wording or presentation can have a big impact. I hope to experiment even more with it moving forward.

Take a look at the other O2A2 submissions as well! The jam rule-set is so clever and it's inspired a ton of interesting work.

Friday, June 16, 2023

A Decade of John Games! Part 2: 2018-2022

This is the second and final part of my decade-of-gamedev retrospective! You can read the first part here.
Alright, let's start off with a bang!


After my success with Puzzlescript, Ren’Py, and ZZT, I felt empowered, and was eyeballing other engines besides Game Maker. I’ve been messing with RPGMaker 2003 since I was a kid, and I’ve played and enjoyed a lot of games made with it over the years. So, I booted up my old fan-translated copy, and set out to make some fun RPG bosses. This was in part out of frustration that a lot of popular RPGMaker games have gorgeous art and stories, but easy and uninteresting combat. I wanted to see if I could make fights in RPGMaker that were more exciting to me.
After some work, I successfully made some fights I liked — mostly by making them hit hard and fast. RM2k3 fighting is pretty slow by default, but by ramping up the bosses' Agility stats I could make fights that felt quick and thrilling. Once I had those bosses, I wanted to make a game about them. Minimalism is my natural impulse with these things, out of personal taste and also laziness, so I wanted to make the game with as few moving parts as possible.

RPGs tend to have a lot of moving parts. How do you make a game about fun RPG bosses without an RPG’s worth of moving parts?

Here’s what I arrived at. There’s only one dungeon, of course. It’s not very big, by dungeon crawler standards. There’s three playable characters, each of whom have four skills. You don’t learn any new skills, get any new equipment, or find any other playable characters. There’s no shop. The only resources you find exploring are healing items and a few damage-dealing items. There’s no way to heal outside of the limited healing items you find. There are no random encounters, just ten unique bosses. All the art, music, and sound effects are default assets that came with RPGMaker. The overarching story is communicated across a handful of cutscenes, totaling maybe 3,000 words.
I really like this language! The downside of taking out character progression in RPGs is that it can make random encounters unrewarding. The downside of taking out random encounters is that it can remove the resource stress of exploring a dungeon. But having limited enemy encounters and limited healing and no character progression basically turns the whole game into one big math puzzle. 
How do you get through these fights efficiently? How do you save the most resources for whatever is still to come? Because you know exactly how many bosses are left, there’s still a nice feeling of progression after each fight. And because of the limited resources, there’s a wonderful survival horror tension that permeates the whole game, and there’s a lot of weight and stakes to the last fights.

That there are cutscenes and writing at all is why I don’t know if “minimalism” is exactly the right label for this approach. sraëka’s Ocean OI tells a complete story about hard dramatic RPG fights without any map exploring or explicit narrative. It also uses RPGMaker 2000, which is turn-based and dodges a lot of the readability issues and ATB muddiness endemic to RPGMaker 2003’s engine. sraëka’s games are incredible, and I think they function more as true minimalist explorations of RPG language. 

Ultimately, I’m still not quite a formalist, even though a lot of my work flirts with that paradigm. My favorite RPG bosses are a synthesis of strong formal stakes with big character writing catharsis moments. To me, making fun RPG bosses meant also telling a fun character story.

That desire to imbue the boss fights with characterization is what led to the dream dive premise. I wanted to make every boss and map a different “facet” of one character, to use RPG language as a metaphor for a character study. This isn’t a new idea at all — like a lot of queer nerds I played Persona 4 in high school. This was just my spin on it.

Making the story a tragedy was a natural evolution of this premise. If the player is fighting and killing bosses, and the bosses represent the character you’re supposed to care most about, it follows that the game is probably going to be pretty sad.

After figuring out all that... the rest of the game came together pretty easily. It was really fun. I got the maps done early, and I already had about half the bosses from prototyping. Most of the story flowed naturally out of an intro cutscene I whipped up early on. There are three narrative sequences late in the game that still knock the wind out of me on replays. Watching them come together on the screen during development felt like a miracle. I came up with the “Barrier” boss mechanic late in the process (borrowing equal parts from Dragon Quarter and Mega Man Battle Network), and it single-handedly snapped together the final boss sequence. It’s still one of my favorite game rules I’ve ever put together.

I just... I really love Facets, y’all. I felt more insecure about it than I’ve ever felt about a game during development. Because it’s weird and hard, and because it’s a story about conversion therapy and slowly murdering a queer girl, and I was worried that wasn’t a story I had the “right” to tell. I didn’t get a ton of feedback immediately after release either — I’m still not used to the slower response you get releasing a big 2+ hour game versus short 5-20 minute pieces.

But the game found its audience over time. A lot of players have said very kind things about it. It has more views and downloads than any of my other games on itch. Somehow I even got to talk about it in a PCGamer piece, which is still insanely wild and cool.

The thing that makes me feel most warm though is that friends have made more games inspired by Facets than I count on two hands. Multiple times I’ve played a rad game by a friend and afterward they told me they started work on it after playing Facets. I can’t overstate how good that makes me feel. The way Facets tells its story resonated with other creators, and it made them want to tell their own stories. I can’t think of any warmer flattery for an artist.

I also made My Wish For You in 2018! It’s a Flickgame shitpost I made in a single evening. The joke is that for six months, for reasons that are hard to recall, everyone in my social circle kept telling this one friend “Happy Wednesday!” every week. I made the game as a climax to the bit. It was the first time I made a game in less than a day — it’s something I want to do more of! I like the idea of being more loose and improvised as an artist.

This was even harder than last year, but ultimately only one game can win GOTY 🙁

Game of the Year: Facets


Mid-2017, several months after releasing Her Lullaby with Polly, she approached me about doing a follow-up game. Her Lullaby’s story was dark, violent, and loud. Most of the game took place in one room, under harrowing circumstances. We’d both built up a lot of love for these characters, but within the actual game there wasn’t a lot of quiet time to explore them (especially Tocco). Her Lullaby’s ending is also ultimately pretty happy, and Polly saw some room to complicate that clean catharsis. An “epilogue” would give us room to explore these negative spaces in the original game’s story.

I was immediately on board with the vision Polly laid out for Afterward. It felt like a challenge. After making Her Lullaby with everyone, I’d wanted to write something different, something quiet and grounded, to prove to myself that I could. I was excited at the prospect of stretching our creative muscles. After making Facets, another oppressively dark and loud game about Big Feelings, I was even more ready to work on on something all new.

So we got to work! And... it was really hard! It took us over a year just to get a story draft together! The entirety of Her Lullaby came together in just three months, and Afterward was a shorter game! Arghh!!
It was generous of Polly not to murder me during this game’s development. At one point she passed me the project to write my next chunk, and I took six full months to get anything back to her. And when I did... it was really bad! I’d bungled my part in a couple key ways, and I’d also been way too aggressive about editing Polly’s existing chunks to match what I’d written. It went further than trying to edit Polly’s prose style closer to mine, which I was already obnoxious about. I actually changed the story function of stuff she’d written, and for the worse at that.

We had a big sit down and she laid out her response. It all made sense to me pretty much immediately. We made a handful of changes together, and suddenly we were both happy with the draft again. Crisis averted, but goddam, writing quiet character exploration stories is hard. Her Lullaby’s climax is three armed characters fighting for their lives. Afterward’s climax is two people sitting in a café talking about their feelings. We knew the story we wanted to tell could be good, but getting it on the page was really tricky. 

Ultimately, we made it happen. Afterward kicks ass. I’m grateful to have worked with such cool brilliant people. Carmy and Garden both knocked their contributions out of the park. Polly’s chapters are great, and her direction and vision helped keep me from capsizing when I was lost at sea in my sections. We worked in some VN direction moments we’re really proud of, moments that help Afterward stand alongside Her Lullaby and its big formal twists at the end.

In some ways I like it more than the first game. I think it’s the most “literary” long-form prose project I’ve contributed to. There’s no magic, no action scenes, and no tidy romantic catharsis at the end. It’s just two characters coming to complicated realizations about themselves and their relationship, after going through an awful traumatic experience together. Even without all the genre fiction signifiers I’m used to relying on, it still feels gripping and immediate to me to read. Thanks to Afterward, I feel empowered to tell a wider variety of stories.

Some writing wisdom I subscribe to: the ease with which a writer’s words flow onto the page does not correlate with the merit of the finished story. Sometimes drafting is hard, and sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes stories snap together quickly, and other times they feel completely broken until some change in the edit ties everything together. Work on the story until it’s done. Whether it was easy or hard for you, the reader won’t know the difference.

The summer after releasing Afterward, I loaded up Game Maker and started work on a little arcade shmup. I’ve never had an easier time prototyping an action game than I did with Expanse. Within a couple hours of loading up a blank project, I had something on the screen that I liked. The full game was finished and released a few months later.

“Make something happen on the screen that I like” is my guiding light for prototyping games now. I think Expanse was when I first put the idea into words. When you outline, imagine, dream about the game you want to make, it’s easy to get lost. You over-scope, you lose track of what you actually have the capacity to create. But “something on the screen that you like” can’t lie to you, at least not the way dreams can. Instead of marrying yourself to grand ideas before you’ve even started, build your vision on the foundation of what you already have. This has worked for me with games, music, writing, every art discipline I’ve taken a stab at.

Expanse is, for me, the most fun game I’ve ever made. I revisit it every few months to make another stab at a No Miss Clear. It’s my only fully arcade-style game, with lives and a score and a hard game over. Like I talked about last time, my older games were inspired by classic freeware like Seven Minutes and Don’t Look Back. The action in these games was often more about helping to set a mood, rather than crafting fun challenges for their own sake. I think that influence is obvious in Fugitive and Kikai — mood and storytelling are important to me. Expanse was my first game where the arcade action was fore-fronted, with awesome high energy videogame-ass Dying Eyes NES tunes to sell it. It still has its own atmosphere and arc, but it was definitely a new approach for me.

It’s hard to put into words what Expanse means to me. It feels special and magical, a success I’m worried I won’t be able to replicate. That’s obviously funny to say considering how humble and lofi the game looks. But it’s just how I feel every time I play it. I want to make more videogame-ass videogames. I want to make stuff that reminds me of 80’s Sega arcade games and 90’s DOS platformers.

I think you can feel those goals in my recent Love2D work. Something I really want to do this or next year is an arcade-style shmup in Love2D with colorful tiled background art and original Bosca Ceoil music. I get a ton of joy from my work in interactive fiction, but there’s something primordial about arcade design that resonates with me. In its own humble way, Expanse feels like the closest I’ve gotten to the romance, the bliss of wind sweeping through your hair as you chase the horizon in OutRun or Space Harrier.

Stuck is my other Flickgame besides My Wish for You. It’s great and I love it. It's very funny that this was my last release for a year and a half. I made it in a hotel room when I was stuck in Toronto after a flight got canceled. It copies the same theming from Spider’s Hollow, just in a new format. That’s something I haven’t done before or since — maybe I should! I like that my work feels really varied and fresh, but there’s no reason not to return to ideas that resonate with me as an easier way to explore a new tool. 
This was the other really hard year to choose besides 2017. I think because I picked Her Lullaby over Atop the Witch’s Tower, I need to pick Expanse this time, even though I love Afterward to bits. Collabs and solo projects fill different needs in my soul, and I want to give both their due in these lists.
Game of the Year: Expanse


Weirdly, I didn’t make a single game in 2020! This was the only year in the last decade I didn’t put anything out at all. I must’ve just been feeling lazy or something, no clue what sapped my motivation.

I did get some work done on three big mega-projects — I wrote about my progress with them once in October 2020 and again in April 2021. Two of projects would come out in 2021. I’m still pecking very intermittently at the RPGMaker explore-y game. It’s basically been what Kikai was for me in 2014-2017 — a stupidly grand scope, lots and lots of mapping, a story I’m still trying to pull together.

I’ll get it out sometime, but these days it’s harder for me to get excited about solo mega-projects. Smaller solo work is just more rewarding on a freeware scale. A freeware itch game that takes a year plus to make generally doesn’t get much more feedback than something I whip up in a month. And collab games can scratch that “make an epic game that’s 2+ hours long” itch with way less work on my end. 
But it’s almost done, and I like it. I know it’ll get done eventually.

Game of the Year: N/A 


I wrote mostly about my game design journey making Facets earlier, but the characters and story are just as important to me. Alyssa is the phylactery I funneled several years’ worth of real life suffering and angst into. While my life drama wasn’t the same as Alyssa’s, it did inform the feelings I explored in the story. The other characters with important to me too, although with how Facets is structured none of them get to be as defined as Alyssa. 
Her girlfriend Lacy in particular seemed to call out for her own story. It’s weird that my previous ideas for follow-ups were all about either further exploring Alyssa (who has a pretty complete story in Facets), or about the fucking dream dive team. Ellis, Claire, and Rory don’t need spinoffs or tragic backstories — they’re interchangeable instruments of institutional violence. Lacy was the obvious choice for further fleshing out. Reading about Shion escaping St. Lucia’s Academy in late 2020 lit up some synapses, and suddenly I had an idea for what Lacy’s story could be. I spent about nine months tying that story together.
Totaling around 36k words, Wayward is the biggest prose story I’ve worked on. It’s a cool little book! I cried a lot writing it. This is what I wrote about it in 2021:

I'd come up with several ideas for stories in Facets' world since the game's release, but this was the one that felt right. I think it's because Wayward's story is sweet, cathartic, uplifting all the other follow-ups I'd considered were even bleaker than Facets, somehow. I think I had to grow a bit as a person to write the successor Facets called for. Facets was about the feeling of being slowly killed inside your heart; Wayward is about what a way out of that feeling might look like. I needed some distance from my own drama to really understand what that way out could be. I think that makes it an interesting and worthy follow-up to my most personal game.

That all still feels right to me.

Wayward made very little splash online even among my friends, which I get. While both of the stories are really important to me, Facets has all the cool game design and the immeasurable aesthetic appeal of default RM2k3 assets to prop it up. Wayward is just an amateur writer’s first stab at a short fantasy YA dystopia. It makes sense to me that folks aren’t as interested in the latter. (All the folks that did read it, you have my endless thanks ❤️)

It’s still really important to me at least. I took a break writing this post to reread a few of the later sections and quickly started crying about my OCs for the hundredth time in five years. I know I’ve still got a lot of room to grow as a writer. But I learned a lot writing this story, and I’m excited to put those lessons into practice. I’m excited to someday tell more stories I love as much as Facets and Wayward.

If you haven’t played any of Toby Alden’s games, go rectify that here! Their work is wonderful (I particularly love Rena Game and Family Mansion), and when they reached out about doing a collab with me, I jumped at the chance. 
The initial prototype they sent me for Nymph’s Tower, which used placeholder art and only had the first tower, already felt really good and complete to me on its own. Toby’s platformers have a level of care to the feel and mood I don’t see in hobbyist spaces often. It’s nice to see someone that absolutely adores Knytt draw all the right lessons from Nifflas’s work. They asked me if I wanted to do a second tower with my own level design, and I was immediately excited to make cool Metroid-y maps using the play language Toby built.

Unfortunately, like with Afterward, this is one where I feel guilty about my performance as a collaborator. I dragged my feet for a year straight working on my parts of the tower. I’m aghast it took me so long, and apologized several times over to Toby at the time. I didn’t even finish the whole second tower; at a certain point I realized I was just spent and asked Toby to finish the last few areas.

But! I still think the maps I did do for this game are really dope, and Toby polished off the second tower beautifully. I haven’t done proper Metroid-y level design since Operation K.A.T.B., and it was fun to stretch those muscles again. The finished game is gorgeous too; the art from Reshma, John, and Sam is all amazing, and Muxer’s music rules. This is my only game where I was a firmly secondary collaborator, working with a friend to help realize their vision instead of helping spearhead the vision itself. It’s something I’d enjoy doing more often, assuming I can be a functioning person and actually finish my contributions promptly next time.

Game of the Year: Wayward


We’re just about caught up! I’m going to write a little less about these since they’re all fresh in my brain. You can look through the last year of posts for more detailed thoughts on them.
I’d spent two straight years completely swamped in mega-projects. My big RPGMaker explore-y game was slowly (slowly) coming together, but this was simply too much time spent on big games. I don’t like only working on (relatively) large projects. I like putting out lots of small games, because I love the rush of finishing and releasing a story. Plus I get more players and nice feedback, because again, a big game is no more likely to blow up than a little one. Even the biggest studios with massive marketing budgets can't guarantee something will become popular; ultimately, it’s all pulls on the slot machine.

In February 2023, my friend Drew posted an extremely good drawing of a seal orb on Discord. Less than 24 hours later, I released A Cold Place. It’s a five minute shitpost VN; I laughed a LOT putting it together. It’s inspired by the Ren’Py shitposts my friend Narf has released over the years. It’s a small and silly thing, and it delighted a lot of my friends.

A lot of the creators whose work I love are loose and improvisational — they release tons of tiny games, many of which they put together in a few hours or less. It’s a mode of expression in games I admire, and it’s something I want to get closer to, especially after getting bogged down in huge projects over and over. A Cold Place is short and silly, and it got my creative juices flowing for my most productive year of game development ever.

Breathless started out as a short story with a very different, much hornier tone. It’s an idea I’ve had in my head for years. I started work on it shortly after Wayward. I finished the short story draft and... it didn’t work at all! I didn’t like it!

I basically rewrote it from scratch for the Twine version. It took months to come together. The final game’s word count is around 3000 words. I probably wrote and threw out 10,000+ words getting there. The big epiphany I had was making the linear beginning/ending bits shorter and expanding the nonlinear middle part. I wanted to try making it less of a short story and more actual interactive fiction.

I really love how it turned out! I’ve been playing Twine games for a decade, and I’d tried several times to whip up my own over the years. It felt really nice to finally finish and release one.

Gorgons’ Gaze was a prototype I’d had sitting around for over a year. The high of releasing A Cold Place energized me to go back into Twine and finish Breathless — finishing Breathless got me to go back and finish this prototype! Releasing games feels amazing, and when you build up momentum it gets so much easier to make and share stories.

Spider’s Hollow was more about the story than the puzzles — of the ten screens, more than half are devoted to light tutorializing or just setting the mood and telling the story. The epiphany with Gorgons’ Gaze was making it more of an actual puzzle game. Not only are there more puzzles, but they get pretty hard! 
I play-tested it with friends diligently to make sure all the levels worked how I wanted. I was pretty astounded that many of them took almost an hour to finish it. That would horrify me with some of my projects, but with puzzle games I think having some teeth can be what makes them memorable and special. I decided to release it without toning down the puzzles at all, especially since the play-testers all seemed to have a good time.

All told the little prototype I made a few years back became a finished story in less than two weeks. It also wound up being my biggest release of the year by a wide margin, hilariously. There’s a bunch of folks online that love puzzle games and sokobans! I’m glad folks liked this game so much, and I want to do more straight-up puzzle games in the future.

Licorice Recoil started out as a literal shitpost, then wound up being my most high-effort production of the year outside maybe Breathless. I knew almost immediately after posting that thread I wanted to expand it into a little visual novel. But even that was going to be a ton of work just to get character art and backgrounds together (visual novels are hard!). I was literally in the shower when I thought about doing it as a Web 1.0 MIDI-backed story, like the ones I’d read in the early 2000’s on Geocities. That made it into something both exciting and doable, and I got to work. It took about a month to come together. 
I really like this one, because it's cute and sweet, and because I've got a meta-attachment to the theming. I’ve made a lot of pretty dark, edgy stories. Sometimes folks say offhand that my games are all grim and sad. I feel defensive about that, because a lot of my games are cute and nice! I feel the same way about difficulty. I don’t like being pigeon-holed as someone that only makes hard games; many of my games, like this one, are gentle and straightforward. 
I like all sorts of different flavors of games — I don’t think there’s one ultimate standard all stories can be judged by, one set of rules and virtues to uphold. All I try to do with each of my games is make them the best versions of themselves. Sometimes that results in bitter black licorice, sometimes sweet red licorice. Both are valid, and both speak for different parts of myself.

God I made so many games last year... Beach Balls was my first experiment with Love2D, a Lua framework for making your own videogame engines. It’s my first game where I coded the engine myself in a text editor. It’s also my first game where I made the music myself (using Bosca Ceoil). I didn’t borrow any assets to make this one. It may be a tiny one screen score attack game, but it’s my first game that's, in a way, entirely mine. That feels really cool, and it’s a direction I've had a lot of fun exploring this year.

Gardens of Vextro is the last game I contributed to in 2022, my 25th release, my final project of the decade. It’s only been seven months since we put it out — it feels hugely momentous still. It’s a chain game anthology by me and seven members of the Vextro community of game developers. I made the first game, then the other games were made sequentially, each responding to the previous games.
I’ve been writing these blurbs for a while and I’m very tired. I’m just going to copy-paste my commentary from Extras folder since it lays out most of what I want to say:

This whole thing started when we were talking about doing an Experiment 12-style chain game in the Vextro chat. I remarked that this was a discussion we seemingly had annually for like seven years, without ever actually making one. I asked the chat, if I made a starter game, would other folks want to participate and make their own game. I got several enthused responses, so I resolved to make one. Then I called my shot, and said that when I got home from work, I'd make the entire starter game that night.

So, Buried Flower was an exercise in me trying to slam out a complete game from start to finish in one sitting. This is not a natural mode of creation for me. Even my Flickgames simmered longer than one night. But I basically got there
I did some polishing the next morning, but it was pretty minimal, and I got it shared with the chat by noon the next day. The whole thing took about five hours of work.

It's basically a 1500 word short story, of course. It bloomed in my head pretty quick after I told the chat I’d make a starter game, and no real branching meant it was linear and quick to write the full story. I wanted to create a lot of narrative weight and hooks for friends to elaborate on in their games, and I think words are the most efficient means to communicate a lot of story very quickly in a gamedev context. The final anthology is fully half kinetic VN-style text games with no story-branching choices, which I think is really neat. It's very different from the original Experiment 12's approach, and it's one of the things that makes Gardens of Vextro feel like something only our crew could have made.

I used the formatting from my Twine game Breathless, so after slamming out the story itself in 2-3 hours, getting it into Twine wasn't hard. I think it still gains something from being in Twine; the added resonance of the everpresent "Leave" option obviously resonated with the other devs, since it recurs several times in the later games. The story itself is pretty well-trodden ground for me thematically, I joked after finishing it "oh great, another John game about doing a murder and feeling bad about it". But I still really dig how it turned out, and I think it's elevated by its inclusion with all my friends' amazing games.

Starting a chain game like this was extremely satisfying for me creatively. I get a ton out of joy out of inspiring friends to make things. All of ‘em had shared work before that I loved, but several hadn't released any games in a couple years, and one hadn't released a finished game at all. It made me really happy to help inspire artists I respect tremendously to make new amazing work. The whole project was a delight for me, and I’d love to participate in something similar again someday.

2022 wound up being my most productive year ever in terms of number of finished releases. It concluded with Gardens of Vextro, one of the coolest and best projects I’ve ever been a part of. It’s very rad that I’m ten years into this and I feel better about making and sharing art than I ever have. I’m writing more blog posts lately because I finally have some confidence that I know what I’m doing. I wouldn't be where I am without my communities and friendships. I plan to keep making art in some form or another for the rest of my life, and I love being surrounded by other creative people who support that goal.

Solo Game of the Year: Licorice Recoil
Game of the Year: Gardens of Vextro
As much as I’d love to have another prolific year, my itch is probably going to be quiet for a bit. I have one short finished game ready to go; that’ll come out later this year as part of a larger collab anthology. I’m finishing up a pretty ambitious RPGMaker MZ thing that’ll hopefully be the start of a big collab with some cool friends. If everything goes smoothly, you probably won’t see that one for a couple years. I have a few Love2D solo things in the works, but they’re still a ways from being done. 
I’m also working on an R18 Twine thing, something I’ve wanted to do for years. I’ve been playing and adoring tons of retro PC ero-RPGs and VN’s, and I’d love to channel more of that energy into my own work. If that comes together, I’ll probably open another itch profile just for R18 stuff. Everything here is under my real name, and I’d like smut to be nicely segmented off whenever I’m job-hunting in the future. 
And of course, I still want to finish my RM2k3 huge map explore-y game... Gyahahaha, oh no, it sounds like I’m getting bogged down in mega-projects again. 
Whatever. I know I’ll bounce back eventually. I’ve been doing this for a while, after all.

Thanks for reading. I’m having a lot of fun on this journey, and I'm happy other people are enjoying the ride too. I’m turning 30 this year — it’s wild just how much exploring I’ve done since I started this blog a decade ago. It makes me excited that I still have so much exploring left to do.

I had fun writing these pieces, patting myself on the back and reminiscing about all the work I’ve put out. I hope all this was useful to you, especially if you’re struggling to make art, to express yourself, to live creatively. Making art doesn’t have to be hard. It can just be putting one foot in front of the other, month after month, year after year. It can just be chasing little feelings of inspiration that delight you and making cool things happen on a screen.

Of course, a lot of my friends don’t need pep talks. So many of you are already galactic brained super-geniuses making amazing work. I’ve gotten untold joy from playing my friends' games this past decade, as much joy as I’ve gotten from my own work. Thank you for making things. Working alone in a vacuum wouldn't be any fun at all; it’s infinitely more satisfying making art in conversation with peers I respect.

Maybe I’ll do this again in 2033. See you then!

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

A Decade of John Games! Part 1: 2013-2017

I released Quarantine on May 16th, 2013. That means I've been making and releasing games as an adult for 10 years! I’ve been making little games and prototypes much longer of course, but I've lost all my Game Maker or RPGMaker 2003 work from elementary and middle school. So this still feels like a pretty big milestone for me!

I want to do a rundown of each year, what games I made, and some thoughts on what each game means to me. This post covers 2013-2017 — I'll do 2018-2022 sometime soon. This is going to be an extremely self-indulgent post. I'm mostly writing this because I think it'll be fun to refer back to ten or twenty years from now, and see how 2023 John felt about his work. I hope you enjoy the commentary nonetheless!


I remember having an “enough is enough” moment this year. I’d been playing freeware games for ages, and I wanted to be a creator myself, to make and share games with my friends. I’d been part of the SMPS forum for 2 or 3 years at that point, and it was the most stable and supportive web community I’d ever been a part of. I knew I could share creative work there and folks would play it and be nice. And yet every single project I'd started for ages seemed to fizzle out before it even got off the ground.

"Enough is enough" turned into “let’s just make something really small”. I tried to make a simple score attack game where you shoot down waves of enemies attacking a castle wall. I used RPGMaker 2003 assets in Game Maker. I got frustrated quickly — I couldn’t make it feel quite right. 

I forget the exact impetus for this, but I started Quarantine right after dropping the score attack game. I think I came up with the Lost Woods puzzle that starts the game first. Then I thought of the Ikaruga polarity platforms and quickly implemented them. I spent about a week making the basic game and most of the levels. I got stumped trying to make a climax, though.

I waited a week, then got back to it. I came up with the static for the last level after trying a few more ambitious things and getting frustrated. I added the same static and NIN music sample to the title screen, and very suddenly I had a finished cool thing. I shared it online in a hurry, feeling immensely pleased with myself.

My SMPS buds played it and were naturally sweet and supportive. A couple weeks later I started seeing it mentioned on other sites. One forum post listing new freeware game recommendations put Quarantine right next to thecatamites’s Lake of Roaches; I felt extremely starstruck seeing my work listed next to catamites'.

What really blew my mind was seeing Quarantine featured on the front page of, a website I’d been frequenting for years. I was very excited — I remember literally running out of my house and dashing around the driveway hooting and hollering. It was a level of immediate recognition I wasn’t expecting, and it knocked me on my ass in a great way. It seems insane in retrospect. I was 19 and had maybe fifty Twitter followers at the time, and I have no idea how my first little game wound up getting that kind of reach.

I started Fugitive shortly after that, still high on all the recognition Quarantine had gotten. I scoped way bigger for Fugitive, which easily could’ve bitten me in the ass. I wanted to make my “reverse metroidvania”, a game where you start off strong and then lose abilities as the game progresses. It was an idea I’d chewed on for years. (It’s an idea a lot of devs chew on for years.)

Mercifully, I decided to make it a linear Mega Man-y platformer instead of an actual metroidvania. I used lightly edited ripped art for the player character and most of the tiles, and Newgrounds Audio Portal music for the soundtrack. After thinking up the basic shape of the story (including the final encounter with the “fugitive”), I was able to get a first level up and running pretty quick.

Fugitive took about five months to make. It’s a full-length retro style platformer with multiple levels and bosses. You can beat it in 15-20 minutes if you know what you’re doing — it’s one of the biggest games I’ve ever made. The final boss is still the most elaborate action setpiece I’ve designed. Even with all the aesthetic shortcuts I took, there’s no way to make that much bespoke hand-designed platformer level and have it not be a lot of work.

Fugitive rules! I still like it a lot. A lot of other people liked it! It got featured once again on (thanks Paul Hack!), plus several other sites like the late great It’s by far my most viral success in ten years of game dev. It's a little demoralizing for your second game to be your most successful when you’ve put out like two dozen. But I’ve come up with other metrics of success since then, and I can’t resent Fugitive for being the breakout game when it’s as good as it is. 

I put out Into the Vortex a month after Fugitive. I started making it for Ludum Dare (the theme was “You Only Get One”), but went over time and spent a week working on it. It’s a short one-boss shmup inspired by the GameBoy game SolarStriker. It’s a little euroshmup-y playing it these days — when I realized it was very hard to dodge all the attacks, I gave the player a 25 hit health bar. That’s a lot for a three minute game. I wouldn’t do that these days; I’d rather make the action gentler but give you fewer hits. I can dodge almost all the patterns consistently, so I generally don’t think it’s bullshit. And I love the mood it’s got going on. (I’d go on to reuse that smoke texture in several more games.)

I’d built up a pretty consistent style across Quarantine, Fugitive, and Into the Vortex. All three games relied on wordless storytelling, they're mostly grey-scale, they’re all pretty hard, and they tend towards uneasy ambiguous conclusions. These games neatly represent “John that really loved Don’t Look Back and Seven Minutes and games like them”, plus a number of retro console game influences. A lot of my work still draws on these aesthetics and styles.

Game of the Year: Fugitive


I think I decided things were feeling samey, because my 2014 output was dramatically different from my 2013 output. I'm glad I stretched my muscles instead of settling into a single defined style — I'd shake things up this way a lot over the coming years, and that variety is something I really value about my output.

The next two games are tricky to talk about, since one was a collab with my ex-wife and the other was influenced strongly by our relationship. I do not feel warmly about her these days, so that complicates my relationship with the games. But my general philosophy is that "it's not the games' fault things broke so bad", so I don't feel crummy seeing them on my itch page. They still represent a step on my journey as an artist and as a person, and I value them for that.

Dance Party is a collage game where every key on the keyboard makes something different happen on the screen. It’s a funny premise, and the collage aesthetic is pretty delightful. It’s very stupid, very colorful, and abandons any pretense of having traditional “gameplay” or “goals”. It’s completely different from the subdued hard action games I’d made up to that point. Even though I obviously feel weird about a game celebrating a relationship that ultimately turned toxic, it helped me stretch and expand my creative voice dramatically. I’ve made a lot of happy bouncy games since 2014, and I know I have Dance Party in part to thank for that. 

Ants: A Love Story is the only game I’ve actually finished within the three day Ludum Dare jam window. It’s a block pushing game; calling it a “puzzle” game would be a stretch though. Once you figure out the basic goal, executing on it isn’t hard. I mostly still like this one for the very cute intro cutscene and ending and a couple small details throughout that make me laugh.

Next is one I feel unreservedly good about: my first collaboration with long-time friend Polly, Operation K.A.T.B.! I really like this one still. The flow of the world design is great, and the little details like the kiss sound effects, the counter, and the teleport animations all make me laugh. It’s directly combative about not being a “normal” metroidvania. You have a health bar and score meter that never change, because there are no enemies or damaging obstacles. K.A.T.B. (short for Kiss All The Boys) was made for a two week jam themed specifically as a middle finger to gamergate chuds, so we made it as queer and un-videogame as possible to lean into that theming. 

My next game Frog Adventure took a few months of on-and-off work. It’s great! The comic timing was inspired by the opening stages of Rhete’s excellent The Adventures of MikeMan 2, and I think it’s one of my funniest games. I love the feel of the platforming and tongue grapple, and popping chains of bubbles is satisfying. While I love the ending cutscene, the actual execution of stage 5 feels weak to me. I don’t know how I’d do it differently though, so I'm not that cut up about it.

Lots of folks liked this one! It got featured on Warp Door. I can’t confirm this because Warp Door zapped their old comments threads, but I think Terry Cavanagh played and wrote a nice comment for it, which I was extremely star-struck over. thecatamites also wrote a lovely blurb about it on FROG WORLDQuarantine may have been listed next to a catamites game on a freeware recc list, but now catamites was actually playing and writing about a game I made.

Years after release, Babycastles reached out to me about including Frog Adventure as part of an in-person exhibition in NYC. I was happy to say yes. They built a special cabinet for it, and it was part of the swamp-themed exhibition for months. I was very delighted when I saw the photos.

The last big thing about Frog Adventure is that it’s my first solo game with a text storytelling component. There’s only two cutscenes, one at the beginning and one at the end, but it still felt like a big shift from Quarantine, Fugitive, Into the Vortex, and Ants storytelling. As a teenager, I idolized the wordless storytelling of games like Super Metroid or Another World. But these days writing is an important tool for me, and my favorite stories I’ve told all involve writing.

I built up some good momentum in 2013 and 2014. I successfully slammed out 3 or 4 games a year for two years after going ages without finishing anything. My work also got a ton of positive reinforcement, both from friends and from larger institutions. This is anecdotal, but it felt like larger sites and the community at large cared more about small freeware games around 2008-2013 than they do now, and I snuck in at the end of that era.

I also did a lot to ingratiate myself in alternative games criticism spaces on Twitter, mostly by bloviating about game development even though I was still a baby with little real experience. I don’t feel warmly about these spaces or my rhetoric in retrospect. I was a pretentious 20yo who’d read too much Insert Credit and thought he knew everything, and a lot of the voices I paid attention to weren't much better. I’m still pretty arrogant, but I like to think I’ve mellowed out a lot since then.

Game of the Year: Frog Adventure


I got married at the end of 2014, which does a lot to explain the coming drought of games, energy, and general happiness in my life in the next few years.

I released exactly one game in 2015, and it’s the only game on my itch that I don’t like. Hummingbird Lovers Psychic Supernova (what an overkill title, just Hummingbird Lovers would’ve been fine) was a tiny jam-scoped collab game with my ex-wife. I wasn't happy with it even at the time — the movement is cute, but it doesn’t have any real arc. You just flutter around the map until the song finishes (which takes way too long), and the game ends unceremoniously. She pressured me to upload it anyway, and I caved in.

Hummingbird Lovers is an incomplete sketch. It has a few cute ideas, but it doesn’t meaningfully come together. Some developers are comfortable sharing games like this, and I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my favorite devs are hilariously prolific, releasing dozens or hundreds of games, many of which are just light sketches of simple ideas. That kind of fire-hose expression is a valid and radical way of working. It’s the exact opposite of “I mortgaged my house to make a metroidvania” indie dev, and creators have a lot to learn from this model of making art.

But it’s not my style! I like making games that I like! It’s been eight years and this dopey game I helped make in two days is still stuck in my craw. I hid it from my itch page at one point, but that felt wrong. I hate it when devs I like remove work they’re not pleased with anymore from their pages; often those same games are stories I quite enjoyed. I don’t think Hummingbird Lovers has any fans, but it still feels “dishonest” in a weird way to hide it. I might change my mind later, but that’s where I’m at right now.

Game of the Year: No Award


This was the year I graduated college, got a job, and was generally very unhappy. Like in 2015, I only made one game. Luckily, I love this one.

Spider’s Hollow is made in Puzzlescript, a great tool by Increpare for making block-pushing puzzle games. I’d been using Game Maker for nearly everything I’d made since 2002 (outside some RPGMaker experiments), so this was a big shift. It turns out I deeply enjoy the novelty of learning new tools and making things with them! I didn’t know at the time, but I’d move away from Game Maker almost entirely moving forward. I’ve only put out two Game Maker games in the seven years since making Spider’s Hollow.

It’s also my second game to contain a meaningful amount of my writing, and moreso than Frog Adventure this is where I really started to develop my own voice. Spider’s Hollow is ominous, dryly funny, and lightly horny. My 2013 games were silent eerie greyscale action games inspired by freeware I loved as a kid. My 2014 and 2015 games were colorful and “wholesome” games that moved far in the opposite direction. Spider’s Hollow feels like the start of a more mature era of creation for me. It was also the prelude to maybe my best and most productive year of game dev ever.

Game of the Year: Spider’s Hollow


For a variety of personal reasons, 2017 was the darkest and most stressful year of my life. I don’t believe in the suffering artist myth at all, that a painful life leads to more interesting art. But in spite of everything, I put out three hugely ambitious games this year, all of which I absolutely adore. 

Her Lullaby is horror visual novel that takes a couple hours to play. It’s a collab project between me and Polly. It’s the darkest (arguably) and the bloodiest (definitely) game either of us have worked on. We both love it a whole lot.

The development cycle was about three months, and completely improvised. Polly sent me a 10 minute demo of a “Ren’Py” project. It started with two women waking up in a mysterious basement, and ended with the two of them stabbing each other to death. It used a placeholder background (which we never replaced) and had no music or character art. She basically went “hey would you wanna do anything with this with me?” The demo lit my imagination on fire and I jumped at the collab.

I quickly figured out the basics of Ren’Py (it’s straightforward as long as you’re not trying to do anything too clever tech-wise) and drafted around 10-15 minutes of follow-up to the scene Polly sent me. I sent it back to her with a knot in my gut. It was by far the most violent written prose I’d ever shared with friends. I felt like I’d done something wrong or evil by writing it. It’s kind of cute how embarrassed I was in retrospect. It feels quaint now that many of my friends are making straight up smut games (I’ll join y’all someday).

The whole process of writing the draft with Polly was pure joy. We passed the project back in forth writing new scenes and trying to surprise and delight each other. About halfway through we talked things through and developed a rough outline. Even then, we still managed to surprise each other a lot with the remaining scenes. At some point we pulled in Taylor to do the music and Carmichael to do the character art. Both of them nailed their contributions, and adding their work into the game made it feel suddenly real in a really cool way.

Her Lullaby felt momentous to me. It was the longest work of prose fiction I’d ever helped write, and the first time a game I’d worked on ended with a big explosive emotional character catharsis. It felt magical, like the floodgates were blown open and now I could make all new kinds of games.

Writing is a really important part of my creative voice now. Last year I made six games — four of them were interactive fiction or kinetic visual novels. The year before last I self-published a short novel. At this point I'm as much a writer as I am a game developer. Her Lullaby is where it all started in earnest. 

Kikai is one of my few years-spanning dream-projects. I’d worked on it on and off since making Frog Adventure, so it took about two and a half years to come together. I wrote about making the game at length in 2016, about half a year before finishing it.

It’s a sort of shmup where the camera moves around in different directions irregularly. It’s a riff on Daniel Remar’s Hero Core and the last level of Ecco the Dolphin. It feels like such a simple thing in retrospect, but it took a hilarious amount of work to get together. I’ve found the most labor intensive games to make are the ones where I have to make a lot of handcrafted maps, and Kikai has a lot of maps.

It’s good! It forms a neat trilogy with Fugitive and another game we’re talking about in the next post, hard minimalist 10-15 minute action games with neat little stories. It’s kinda funny how this felt like the dream game to end all the dream games, my mic drop as a designer, and now it’s not even my favorite game I put out in 2017. It’s also never really popped off among friends the way some of my games have. I’ve put out many games that took way less work to put together than Kikai, but found way more of an audience.

How important a game feels to you when you’re making it doesn’t correlate with how important it will be to you later, or how much audiences will like it. This is part of why I value being prolific over pouring hundreds of hours of work into individual “masterpieces”. If how much a finished piece speaks to me and my friends is ultimately kind of random and arbitrary, I’d rather get as many pulls on the slot machine as I can. That way there’s less pressure for any one individual game to blow up. I still love Kikai, I think it's a really cool and fun action game, but I’m glad it helped me internalize that lesson.

Last up we have Atop the Witch’s Tower, our final game of this post and my first five years of adult game dev. It’s one of my favorite games I’ve ever done. It’s a cute nice love story told in around twenty minutes — one of my favorite IF form factors. The idea started as a Twine game, but like all my Twine ideas for years it fizzled out. Then, when I wanted to make a ZZT game after reading all about its history, I pulled the idea back out and repurposed it.

ZZT is wonderful, both the software and its modern community. I wasn’t plugged into that community at all while making ATWT, but they were so celebratory and supportive of my work I’ve been paying attention ever since. There's been a huge pop off of new work in the space in the last five years. In 2017, there were a grand total of three new ZZT games released. In the years since, it’s always hit at least the double digits.

This excerpt from Dr. Dos’s decade write-up makes me swell with pride:

Atop The Witch's Tower represents what I see as ZZT's healthiest possible future, one in which ZZT isn't a tool for ZZTers to play ZZT games, but as an accepted medium for independent game creators to create their ideas into something playable. ZZT not as a novelty in which a 30 year engine gets a quirky release, but something that can hold its own with other highly approachable tools for game development such as Twine or Bitsy.”

ZZT is delightful to use, and thanks to Asie’s work with the lightweight Zeta web player and the Reconstruction of ZZT, it’s more accessible than ever. I’d love to see friends make games with it, and I want to return to it myself someday. 

This one was close, but I still have to give the award to Her Lullaby over ATWT. The payoffs in Her Lullaby still gut me, and the experience of making it with my friends is some of the most fun I’ve had making art.

Game of the Year: Her Lullaby 

Thanks for reading this extremely self-aggrandizing post! I love my games, and I love the communities I've become a part of while making games. This kind of reflection brings me a lot of joy. I hope to draft the 2018-2022 piece in the next month or two. See ya then!

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

How to Make Good Small Games: Further Reading

Here's a little follow-up to my big manifesto blog post! I wanted to link some pieces I really like on similar topics.

escaping the walled garden of games
toby alden

Corporations have a vested interest in limiting your imagination, in making you think the only games out there are the ones they spend millions of dollars to shove in your face. The only way to combat this is to break out of their walled gardens. Download games off alternative sites; is one of the big ones. Figure out how to run them even when your OS tells you "meep, I don't recognize this publisher, I'm scared..." Steal and emulate old games you can't buy anymore. Steal new ones too if you want -- I won't tell. If you cultivate broader tastes in games by sampling a wider variety of work, you'll be much more prepared to make games of your own.

I also loved Toby’s gamedev manifesto blog post – points 4 and 6 especially gave me pause and got me thinking about my own work and style.
On Long Game Dev

Really useful thoughts on "long game dev" from Narf. Our main cultural benchmarks for indie successes are massive mega-projects like Iconoclasts or Axiom Verge, games that took over their creators' lives for half a decade or more. This isn't great! There are lots of other ways to makes games that are healthier and happier. If you want to spend a decade on a mega-project, no one's stopping you. But it's worth understanding the cost, and that there are different ways of doing things.

making your own engine: a survey of the landscape
prophet goddess

This piece really challenged me when I first read it. I adore high-level game making tools like Bitsy, Twine, RPGMaker, Puzzlescript. This piece doesn't even see these kinds of tools as worth mentioning. It's a completely different world from mine, and my first reaction was to get kinda pissy.

But I think this piece exists on a similar axis to the others I’m linking here -- it's ultimately about seizing control of your own creativity from corporations. Unity, YoYoGames, Epic Games all want you to think you need their big bloated expensive tools to tell your stories. But you don't. If high-level tools like Bitsy, etc. don't speak to you, if you need precise control over your engine, it's worth looking into lightweight frameworks as an alternative to the bigger corporate tools. I've gotten a lot of joy this past year out of building my own game engines in Love2D. It was this piece that made me think frameworks like this could work for me.

I still think high-level tools are great, and that most beginner devs would be better served trying one of those than trying to program their own engine. Finishing a game is its own skill, and trying to pick up a bunch of programming stuff on top of that is gonna make the process of learning much scarier. But if you already feel comfortable in an IDE, and the idea of making your own engine excites you, this piece gives you a lot of good places to start.

Divest from the Video Games Industry!
Marina Kittaka

This piece from Marina Kittaka has been bouncing around my head since she posted it years ago. The games industry as it exists now is rotten; it's stuffed full of abusive power structures and it's poisoning the earth. Abuse, exploitation, bigotry, and e-waste are endemic at every level of games, from massive AAA studios to indie publishers to hobbyist communities.

Marina talks about alternative ways of making games that help avoid feeding these machines. It's all resonant and pointed. I particularly connected with the "Divest from celebrity/authority" paragraph. I've never been part of the "games industry" proper. But I have hero-worshipped hobbyist game dev "celebrities" and invested myself in the communities they fostered around themselves. A lot of these people turned out to be creeps, assholes, predators. I don't want to be part of an art community that orbits around a central heroic leader on a pedestal. It takes a certain kind of unsavory personality to cultivate that kind of dynamic, and it breaks bad more often than not.

I'm not interested in being part of the games industry, in "changing things from the inside". But it's important to be politically aware, to understand the ways the industry sucks ass. That way we can strive to avoid replicating its problems in our own communities.

Unprofessional Game Criticism
Easy Game Development

LeeRoy Lewin

Like Marina, LeeRoy is really good at communicating the underlying politics of game dev. Every resource out there on making games (or writing about games) is informed by the author's relationship with games industry capital. If someone's main goals in games are to Make Money and Get Famous, that's going to inform everything they say about making games. Any attempt to divest ourselves from the problems of the games industry is going to be inherently leftist, because the problems of the games industry are really the problems of capitalism. LeeRoy is much more well-read and better at talking about this stuff than I am, so give these essays a read!

Indie Game Dev: Death Loops
Derek Yu

Yu comes from the perspective of a commercial dev, so his advice isn’t always useful to me. But I’ve come back to this piece over and over. I think it perfectly articulates a lot of traps devs fall into, and is mandatory reading for anyone who’s felt stuck starting and restarting huge dream projects.

good writers are perverts

As Toby put it, “embrace your freak energy.” I like small games in part because I feel way closer to their authors than I do playing big studio games. Hobbyist games are full of weird personal idiosyncrasies and it brings me an endless amount of joy. I learned a lot about queerness for the first time from hobbyist games; they helped me find my identity when I was younger.

Please be yourself as much as possible while making art. Especially when that means being weird, horny, queer, a pervert, a freak. I guarantee there are folks who’ll connect with your perspective.