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...

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Games I Loved in 2015

I’ve written a Game of the Year list for SMPS every year since 2011. It’s something I've always looked forward to, and in the past I've put a lot of work into getting them just right.

However, in 2015 those lists were fully replaced for the first time by the GOTY Sockscast, and no written lists were posted on the site. Some part of me still wanted to assemble one though, if only on my blog. Like always I got a little too ambitious, and without a deadline I never got around to finishing it.

Until now that is. Here's a list of some magical games I deeply enjoyed playing in 2015. Even though it’s a bit late, I’d still like to share them with you.

Shin Megami Tensei (1992)

Shin Megami Tensei exudes class. It co-opts the vocabulary of Wizardry's first-person dungeon-crawling ilk and uses it to explore complex moral questions and psychological spaces. It knows graph paper mazes are fun but not deeply fulfilling in and of themselves. So it contextualizes them with weighty themes and sparse but effective storytelling.

I deeply admire Shin Megami Tensei as a series. Playing its progenitor has only strengthened my respect for its execution and ideas.

Defenders of Oasis (1992)

You can neatly divide most JRPGs into two categories: the ones that get Dragon Quest and the ones that don't. Rieko Kodama's RPGs, including Phantasy Star, Skies of Arcadia, and Defenders of Oasis, fit firmly into the first camp.

Defenders of Oasis is staggeringly elegant. There're only four party members, each with meaningfully distinct abilities and motivations. There're only a handful of dungeons and towns, all used and reused to great effect. There's no world map. Bosses all have narrative context, and some are even recurring villains with actual motivations.

It honestly reminds me of Mother 3 more than anything else. It lacks Itoi's poetics and surrealism, but I really do think it matches that game's restraint and precision. In a quiet way, it's sort of perfect.

Dragon Quest IX (2009)

The Dragon Quest games are the world's most sensibly designed RPGs. This one is no different.

Seiklus (2003)

"In Seiklus, you can practically smell the sunshine," as a friend said. The game brims with human warmth. It was a tiny revolution, put together in just six months in Game Maker and released in 2003, when these kinds of personal, stripped-down videogames weren't as common. There's no death and no violence. All it asks is for you develop a relationship with its world.

Builder (2011)

Builder is an oppressive and achingly human waking nightmare. Since it predates Problem Attic and Fjords by two years, and Game Title and Corrypt by one, it's chronologically the first truly incisive puzzle game built around glitch logic I can think of. It's uncomfortable, lonely, and moving.

Fjords (2013)

Fjords is the most interesting puzzle I've enjoyed this year. It's an exploratory platforming game, but unlike most in the genre (and like the others on this list) it gives you all of the tools you'll need up front. Hence, the puzzle of Fjords is to untangle your complex relationship with its world. It's a bit of a cold game -- ultimately I prefer the pathos of Seiklus and Builder -- but it's a gorgeous one too.

Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden (2008)

Barkley is a period piece about a specific subset of internet culture, one centered around RPGMaker and Japanese media. I know because I was part of it. A few now-defunct RPGMaker forums were the first online communities I really considered myself a part of. Barkley nails the dynamics of those groups, between its ripped art, esoteric pop culture references, and sincere respect for the JRPG form.

Jill of the Jungle (1992)

It's so easy to be a boring platformer. Jill of the Jungle isn't. Movement is crunchy and nuanced. Each level is a well-paced story. It has perfect singular moments of catharsis. And the music is great. That's really all it takes.

Gradius: Interstellar Assault (1991)

I've always only ever admired the Gradius series from arm's length. They're fun but somewhat cold games. They don't feel as rich and considered to me as games like R-Type.

Interstellar Assault is an exception. It's stuffed with human touches: the seamless flow between levels; the prison escape set-piece; the tense chase at the game's start and its cathartic resolution; the exhilarating climax. It goes the extra mile in a way few other shmups manage.

For the Frog the Bell Tolls (1992)

Adorable, inventive, uproariously funny. The Japan-only predecessor to Link’s Awakening is maybe the most charming game ever rendered in four shades of green.

Polly Clicker (2015)

It's a peculiar feeling to be exposed to a group of friends' inside joke and not get it. I wouldn't say it's a bad feeling in some contexts. Generally, someone making those kinds of jokes around me is a sign that they're comfortable with me being there, that I'm getting a glimpse into their truer self.

Polly Clicker is a light RPG-combat game that’s stupidly fun to play and stuffed full of references to my social circle’s favorite pop culture ephemera. In a way it’s a big collection of Things We Like and inside gags. I can't say for sure what a stranger's reaction to Polly Clicker would be as I'm in on the joke, so to speak. But I like to think a person could play it and get a slightly better sense of who we are as people.

RayForce (1994)

What game makes as immediate and striking an impression as RayForce? Just the visuals are enough to endear me to it forever. I don’t know if I ever seen sprite-scaling and parallax scrolling used to such a positive effect. It makes a joke out of Mode-7, and it rivals Sega's finest arcade efforts. I can’t think of a more lovely-looking game in the genre.

The aesthetic doesn't just stand on its own. It lends weight to a beautiful, terrifying story. It's a game about descent and discovering horrible truths. It's about gradually understanding a twisted system, wondering how things got so bad, wondering what on Earth we can do to fix things. RayForce doesn't really have an answer, but it’s enough that it articulates the question.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (2003)

This year I made a concerted stab at enjoying the IGA-model Castlevania games, to mixed results. Symphony of the Night is pretty and has nice architecture. Circle of the Moon has a satisfying whip and very little else. Harmony of Dissonance is full of rich psychology and frustrating, confused design. In that sense it’s likely the series's only real successor to Simon's Quest.

Then there's Aria of Sorrow, which is just a damn good videogame. The soul system is sensible and coherent. The castle is interesting. And unlike any of the others it has a genuinely affecting story.

Aria isn't the only IGAvania with a pulse -- Symphony and Harmony really are lovely games in their own right. It has something more than that though: a heart of fire.

We Know the Devil (2015)

A videogame contains a set of rules that present a viewpoint about how the world works. They can do so accidentally, or with surgical precision.

We Know the Devil is among the latter. It's a short, dense visual novel with four endings. Three are oppressive, real, inevitable. The fourth is sublime catharsis. We Know the Devil is the world as it is, and the world as it can be, if we’re willing to reach out for it.

The King of Fighters Series (1994-Present)

I love King of Fighters because it engages as a series of single-player action games. Its sense of style is impeccable, with excellent music and gorgeous 2D pixel art (both peaking on the NeoGeo with King of Fighters ’99). They feel fantastic to play thanks to artful use of screen shake, split-second pauses during moments of impact, and rock-solid sound design. The fighting is intensely strategic, and only gets more-so the more you learn how the games work.

Most captivating are its characters. For ten straight years new King of Fighters games came out annually, each contributing to a tangled web of relationships and plot threads. Characters are introduced in one game and die in another several real-life years later. Nuanced relationships are hinted at through customized character intros and voiced but untranslated dialogue. King of Fighters XIII even has individually-written conversations between every possible set of two characters.

There is no fighting game series I've connected more immediately and deeply with than King of Fighters. I like Leona, Clark, and Ralf best.

Demon's Souls (2009) and Dark Souls (2011)

Both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls end with a choice between perpetuating or breaking an ancient cycle. There’s a clear difference in psychology between the two games that’s evident in how these choices play out.

Demon’s Souls is about power, and those who seize it at the expense of those around them. It’s reflective – this is a game about absorbing thousands of enemy souls and using them to grow stronger. The logical conclusion of your path through the game is to mimic King Allant and strike down the Maiden in Black. The game clearly wants you to take the other path however, allowing the Maiden to perform her ritual and reseal the Old One, beginning the endless cycle anew.

Dark Souls is about recognizing that there’s no such thing an endless cycle. All flames eventually burn themselves out – this is as true of a match as it is of a sun. You can follow in the path of Gwyn and make the fire last a little bit longer at the expense of your life. Or you can refuse, and let the world as it is fade away in exchange for something new.

The Souls games are the jewel of an entire generation of console videogames. They are singular achievements, and they will last.

Undertale (2015)

Here's a nifty thing about Undertale: it has no generic NPCs. Every character you come across has a unique design and personality. Even the random encounters, themselves full of charm, represent a finite number of characters that live in a given area.

Mother 3, another game that loves to play with RPG conventions, also doesn't have generic NPCs. The game takes place over the course of several years, and it's stuffed full of seemingly inconsequential characters. You see most of them in almost every chapter. You see how they grow and change as the story progresses. This tactic is a large part of why Mother 3 feels so intimate and momentous.

Undertale takes place over just a few days. Unlike Mother 3, these days can progress along several different paths depending on our actions as players. We see a different side of every character depending on what path we're on. (We also see a different side of them based on what paths we've been on. That's one of the game's cleverer tricks.)

The characters are the most important part of Undertale. No facet of the game can be divorced from them, not its music, not its mechanics, not its world. Our relationship with the characters is Undertale.

Our relationship with a doting mother aching to fill an unfillable void. With an overeager goofball and his pun-loving, all-knowing, impossibly sad brother. With a headstrong hero. With an infatuated scientist burdened by secret failure. With a semi-murderous narcissist. With a beloved and wicked king pining after his lost family.

Our relationship with our worst nightmare. With six lost children. With our best friend.

Our relationship with a star-struck kid, with amalgamates of departed souls, with a smoochable ghost. With a sisyphean janitor, with two best friends in an alley, with a stoic bartender. With an inscrutable hidden village, with a lonely river creature, with a helpful ferry guide. With an extortioner looking after her family, with an annoyed fast-food worker, with an impressively tenacious snail.

Our relationship with our reflection. With our EXP, our LOVE, our name.

Our relationship with our little lost cypher who projects all of our hopes and dreams, only to leave us forever in the end. And we let them, because we want them to be happy. Or we don't, because we have to see more, we have to spend more time with all of these characters, we have to see everything there is to know about them even if it hurts them.

Undertale is life-changing. It's the most generous game I've ever played. It's been months and I'm still trying to make sense of how a game this good showed up in my life out of nowhere. Witnessing its popularity and success fills me with immense joy.

Thanks for reading -- this is probably the last one of these lists I’m gonna write for a while. Gonna try to write more frequent smaller essays throughout the coming year instead. Or maybe I’ll just make a bunch of cool games, who knows. Feel free to listen to our 2016 GOTY podcast right here. I hope you have a happy new year.