Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Postmortem: The Void Hero Blues, Constraint, and Violence

The Void Hero Blues was a strange game to make. While I've been making games for nearly 10 years now, it was not only my first university student project, but also my first game to feature post-1998 quality 3D graphics. The context within which I made the game determined not only the development process, but shaped the concept itself. If I didn't have to make a game under the conditions I did, I would not have had any desire to make The Void Hero Blues. Unlike the rest of my work, this did not start out as a passion project.

I feel a very strong ambivalence about the game. On one had, it is probably one of the most technically impressive, visually interesting, and mechanically solid games I've ever made. On the other, the game's treatment of violence simply makes me uncomfortable. Let me explain.


If you aren't familiar with the game, The Void Hero Blues is a short first person shooter in a cyberpunk setting. The player character, Void Girl, is stranded in a  pseudo-virtual environment, and must fight enemy security forces and survive for nine minutes. The catch is that every time she kills an enemy, a message will appear where they were slain that shares personal information about them. As her enemies are de-objectified, Void Girl's mood deteriorates. By the end of the game, she puts down her gun and stops fighting altogether.

The game was made over a semester and a half as an undergraduate student project at Ohio University. Most of the projects created in my class were made by teams of five or more people. Most of the members of these teams had never worked on a game before. Because I had a bit more experience than my classmates, I was pretty quickly bored with the team project I was initially assigned to, and figured that I could probably accomplish more on my own. Much to my surprise, my professor was kind enough to let me work on a solo project.

With most of my recent game projects, I strive to make something that is personal, experimental, subversive, or soulful. However, with this student project, I didn't have the free reign to do whatever I wanted as I usually did. I had to make a game using Unity 3D (which I had never done before), and I had to make it within a semester and a half. For the first time in a long time, I had to make a game using tools I was mostly unfamiliar with.

Most importantly, however, I felt a need to prove myself to my professor, and to the class. I felt that I needed to justify the privilege to work alone that was given to me. At the time, I felt that I couldn't get away with whatever nonviolent interactive art I wanted to do. Instead, I felt that I had to demonstrate that I could make a traditional game, with traditional mechanics, and do it well. I felt as though something that wasn't a "real" game wasn't going to cut it.

In short:

1) Because I had never made a 3D game in Unity before, I had to design a game that was easy to make.

2) Because I thought I had to prove that I was capable of design good, traditional game mechanics, I decided to focus on making a "fun" action or strategy game rather than an interactive story or "art game".

3) Because I have more experience making shooters than any games of any other genre, I could most realistically make a complete shooter game in a semester and a half. Making a shooter would also satisfy the requirement that the game is "fun" in a traditional sense.

4) HOWEVER, I also wanted the game to be subversive in some way. I wanted to be critical of the way in which violence was portrayed in games.

This is how I came up with the concept for the Void Hero Blues. It was one of the few concepts I could conceive that met the criteria for ease of development, fun, and subversion. However, it is the compromise between  fun and subversion that causes my discomfort about the project.


I think about violence in games a lot. I grew up playing shooter games and RPGs, and such games have probably been the largest influences on me as a designer. Even when I make a game about monsters that poop on the ground, I still rely on violence as the fallback mechanic. As a game designer, it's a habit that's been strongly ingrained in me, and I resent it.

Having violence as the primary way through which a player interacts with a game world severely limits the type of story you can tell through a game. For most people, the infliction of violence by them isn't a prominent aspect of the human experience. Halo, Quake, and Jedi Outcast are lots of fun, but at the end of the day, fun is all they are. Lately, I've been finding that narrative games in which violence is tangential to or absent from the experience, such as The Walking Dead, Sword and Sworcery EP, and Kentucky Route Zero, are far more compelling and meaningful. If I find a game primarily concerned with combat to be at all compelling, nowadays it is in spite of the violence, and not because of it.

In sprite of my criticism of game violence, every game I've worked on over the past two years besides Waker has been, in some form or another, a shooter. In three of those four cases - Empty Chambers, Toilets Meat & Drugs, and The Void Hero Blues - I attempt to provide critical commentary on violence in games through my game's mechanics. In these attempts, the violence in Empty Chambers and The Void Hero Blues both have left me uncomfortable, and the only reason it hasn't in Toilets Meat & Drugs is that the violence that does occur is between non-human cartoon characters.

In the case of The Void Hero Blues, I think that the cause of discomfort is the dissonance between the game play and the narrative content. The game's protagonist is a reluctant fighter who grows self disgusted with each life she effortlessly takes, but actual player has a different experience from her. Dodging lasers, finding health packs, and killing enemies are all fun things for the player to do. The visual and audio feedback the player receives upon sinking their blade into an enemy's flesh is satisfying. If you remove all of the narrative and subversive elements from the game, you're (arguably) left with a satisfying minimalist shooter. It is the game's biggest problem. I tried to make something that was both compelling and fun, and in this case, these two goals were at odds with each other.

Because of the game's dissonance between its game play and its narrative, I think that the game's message - that every stranger we meet is a human and not an object - was lost on a lot of the players. Some people I've met online were impressed by the game's subversive elements, but most of the people I've watched play the game only talked about the mechanics, graphics, and features of the game, not its meaning. Many players, as they played the game, actively expressed a lack of sympathy for the characters they killed, sometimes mocking them as they shot them, or remarking that they deserved it. In the case of these players, the game had failed to accomplish what I had hoped it would accomplish - feelings of sympathy and remorse.

In spite of my ambivalence about the game, I am proud of it, and if you haven't played it yet, I hope you do, but I still feel really odd about the finished project. Once I complete work on Toilets, Meat, and Drugs, I'm going to take a break from violent games for a long time. After much experimentation, I think I've realized that violent mechanics aren't going to help me achieve what I want to achieve as a game developer. I want to tell stories that are relevant to people's lives, and I know now that attempting that through action games will likely be a waste of time.

If you have played the game, how did you respond to it? Did you find it enjoyable, meaningful, or compelling in any way, and if so, why? In regards to my more general discussion of games and violence, am I actually full of shit? Please let me know.

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