Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Monsterpunk Development Update

Back in September, I wrote that I lost the ability to export games to Mac for stupid reasons. Thankfully, within a week of writing about the problem, Game Maker Studio became available for a ridiculously low price via Humble Bundle. I bought a new license and have regained the ability to port games to your Macs. It'll be some time before I'll be able to actually do that, again, for stupid reasons, but it is possible and it will happen!

Monsterpunk is slowly nearing completion. For the first time ever, the game is fully playable from start to finish without requiring my supervision. Because of this, I'm preparing the game for semi-public playtesting, but because of that, I've become increasingly aware of the ways in which the game isn't always user friendly. Most of my development efforts lately have been dedicating to making communication from the game to the player as clear as possible. It's the most mechanically complicated game I've ever made - making sure the player has a full understanding of what's happening to them and how everything works is a challenge!

For example, I finally added little bars to the eat and poop notifications. It's pretty important that the player knows how long they can last without shitting on the ground - I can't believe I didn't add the feature sooner!


I also want to make sure that the game's mechanics are as finalized as possible for what will be the game's last playtest, so I've added a few final features that I've been putting off for a while. Namely, angry monsters that you get in fights with now use special attacks. Now, they blow things up. Sometimes, the thing that gets blown up is you, as demonstrated below.





The object-headed dinosaur isn't actually supposed to fly forward - that's a bug - but it looks cool enough that I might turn it into a feature.

I intend to write more music for the game, but I've finally written enough songs, at least, to score the game from start to finish. I've written two songs since the last update: the first is "Birdskinner," the game's only analog track! It even has my voice in it. I needed an awful song about birds for the bird-watching minigame, so I took the lyrics and chords from "The Cuckoo Bird," and butchered them into something barely recognizable. It's post-hardcore folk sludge. Since the minigame is visually distinct from the rest of the game, I wanted to make its accompanying music track distinct as well - hence, my voice and a real instrument.

Point is, it is not necessarily easy to listen to, and it is only recommended listening for the most hardcore Monsterpunk fans.

The second track is titled "Sulfuric Indulgence." It's the game's boss encounter music and my most ambitious attempt at composition yet. It's a tad bit melodramatic, but I am otherwise pretty proud of it.

Finally, as I've previously indicated, I'll be needing playtesters soon, most likely within the next week. If you are a friend or follower on social media (@alchiggins), keep an eye out for the announcement!

Because I've been GIF happy lately, here's some more footage from the game: the first is a series of successful and failed flirting attempts by the player, and the second is a drug-induced hallucination in the pause screen.






Friday, October 16, 2015

Review: Undertale

Sometimes, I think video games are really goddamn stupid.

My feelings about most video games are similar to my feelings about bacon cheeseburgers. Yeah, I like them a ton, but I don't feel virtuous about eating them, and unless a person's expressed a similar passion for them, I'm not going to recommend burgers to them. Sure, I had a ton of fun with the Star Wars: Battlefront beta the past weekend, but if someone who doesn't play games asks me why I care so much about the medium, Battlefront is not the game I would point them to. Honestly, I am a little embarrassed that games like Battlefront, Call of Duty, Pac Man, and Mario are the public face of our medium. But my general angst about games can be saved for a separate essay.

The point is, because of the piles of adolescent masculine power fantasies I'm expected to pre-order for sixty bucks every damn year, I sometimes forget why I give a shit about video games. But, once every year or so, I play something that reminds me that games, occasionally, can be truly worthwhile.

This year, that worthwhile game was Undertale.

source: undertale.com
Undertale is a role-playing game for PC and Mac that was almost entirely made by one person, Toby Fox. You play as a human child who's fallen down a hole into the underground world of monsters. What begins as a simple journey to return home, predictably, evolves into something more dire.  

Don't let the game's crude graphics fool you: the game's electronic soundtrack is amazing, the writing is superb, the humor is on-point, and the design is smart as hell. Player behavior shapes the story in a natural, immediate, and significant manner.

source: undertale.com
There are two things about Undertale, on a general level, that clearly differentiate it from other games of the genre. The first is that the game doesn't forget past decisions you've made when you  reload your save file after death or quitting,  nor  does it forget when you clear your data and start a new game. Many characters are aware of the protagonist's ability to save their progress, and one in particular retains his memory when a saved game is loaded. I can't say more without spoiling the game's endings, but what happens outside of, and between, playthroughs of Undertale is nearly as interesting as what happens within it. At the end, Undertale's metagame is used to great dramatic effect, creating one of the most memorable boss encounters I've ever experienced.

The second obvious differentiating feature of Undertale is its "combat" system, if it can be properly referred to as such. As in most RPGs, you will find yourself in violent turn-based encounters with monsters and the occasional boss. However, instead of fighting them, you are capable of interacting with them in various nonviolent ways, with the end result of reaching a mutual agreement to spare each other. For example, one volcanic monster in the game will spew magma at you, mistakenly thinking that it has healing powers. Instead of killing the monster, you can instead take a turn to criticize the monster, informing it that it isn't being helpful. The monster will then feel dejected and sulk in the corner, ceasing to attack you. The player can then hug or encourage the monster, ending the battle.

source: undertale.com. I didn't know that the website had an official screenshot of this encounter until after I wrote that paragraph. Very convenient!

Undertale markets itself as a game "where nobody has to die," and while a pacifistic run of the game is not an easy feat, it is highly encouraged by the game itself, which is refreshing. Undertale, at its core, is a game about compassion, which is so damn rare for our medium. Not only does it encourage compassionate interactions and emotions through its mechanics, but also through its story. There are, arguably, only two "evil" characters in Undertale - even your main adversaries are incredibly likable and decent characters, making violent confrontations with them especially heartbreaking. Violence in Undertale is tragic, rather than recreational.

Of course, your choice to spare the lives of your adversaries is meaningless without the choice to kill them. The game has an entire alternative narrative for the bloodthirsty player, but it is a tragic story, and the player pays dearly for pursuing it. Again, I can't say much, but a genocidal player will permanently suffer for their actions, even if they restart the game. This serves not only as interesting commentary on violence in games, but on the completionist impulses of players. Undertale may be a game packed with secrets, choices, and alternate endings, but unlike other games which boast these features, it is not a game that is meant to be experienced in its entirety - in fact, it punishes you for it.

Ultimately, what truly makes Undertale so special is its emotional breadth. Most games, focused primarily on conflict, make you feel frustration, fear, tension, and the respective releases from those three emotions. Undertale, because it is as much focused upon compassion as it is conflict, comedy as much as tragedy, is a game that makes you feel the usual video game emotions, but also more. For me, those emotions included affection, gratitude, sorrow, remorse, and defiance. More impressively, the game was able to evoke these emotions in a non-exploitative way. Rather than, for example, force you to watch a predetermined, scripted cutscene in which the villain kills your favorite character, most of the game's most emotional moments are largely the result of player choice.


source: undertale.com
Of course, Undertale is by no means a perfect game. You know how most stories have one climax, and how that generally works really well? Depending on your choices, you may find yourself experiencing two climaxes for the game, one right after the other. Not only does the game's second climax lose some impact just for existing, but it especially pales in comparison to the excellent climax preceding it. Furthermore, as is the case in many fantasy stories, most of the game's endings heavily depend on some fairly nonsensical deus ex machina, diminishing their impact. Thankfully, the game's writing leading up to its conclusion more than makes up for its flawed ending.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to discuss the game in more concrete terms without wandering too far into spoiler territory. Half of what makes Undertale so great is its overall structure and premises, but the other half consist entirely of the game's specific moments. I would happily deconstruct the mechanical and narrative brilliance of the game's first hour, but even describing the game's beginning would spoil too much. Even though the game uses many common tropes and storytelling conventions, it subverts expectations from the beginning, and it often moves in directions which are genuinely surprising. More so than usual, Undertale is a game you want to play blindly.

Undertale is a significant work for many reasons, the least of which are its quality of storytelling, its subversion of genre tropes, and its sheer roller coaster of emotions. But it also, in many ways, represents the result of a decade of experimentation in the indie scene. Whether or not game creator Toby Fox was directly influenced by the mechanics of Iji and imscared, the aesthetic and narrative style of OFF, or the crudeness, humor, and charm of Space Funeral and Armada, many game design trends unique to the indie scene, especially the freeware scene, have seemingly converged into this single point, and have resulted in something wonderful.

Undertale is the sort of game that can only be created by an individual. In a subculture that places disproportionate value on the production power of large studios, examples of individually created works with strong personality are vital. Part of my angst about games in general stems from the lack of personality in the majority of celebrated games - an inevitable byproduct of massive collaborations between hundreds of professionals. I have long insisted that individuals or small collaborations are much more capable of creating impressionable, personal, and soulful art. Undertale is a strong example of the potential for individual expression through games.

You can download Undertale for Windows and Mac. It only costs ten bucks. There's a free demo, but... the game only costs ten bucks. That's a little bit cheaper than a ticket to that disappointing blockbuster film that person you don't like wants you to see, and a hell of a lot cheaper than the DLC for Overproduced Military Shooter Game 4: The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre.  Buy the damn thing.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Triple Project Update

I'll start with the bad news. My old computer died a couple of weeks ago, and while I've been able to carry over all of my important data to the new machine, I have, of course, had to reinstall a much of my software. One of those programs, Game Maker Studio, is my primary weapon-of-choice for game development. Between the day I originally installed GMS and the day my computer offed itself, YoYo, Game Maker's developer, changed its licensing system. The old version of GMS allowed me to export games to both Windows and Mac - the current version only allows me to export them to Windows. Regaining the ability to port games to Mac will cost me a $150 upgrade. While I would like to purchase this upgrade, I really can't afford to until I find a god damn job.

Long story short, it's going to be a real long time before you'll be able to play Bloodjak and Monsterpunk on your Macs. I hate it that most of my creative work isn't going to be playable by a significant portion of the desktop computing population, but that's the way it is. It'd be an understatement to say that I'm deeply unimpressed with YoYo for stealing a piece of paid software from me.

However, a more pressing matter than my GMS downgrade is my loss of the previous version of the software, Game Maker 8. Game Maker 8 lost all technical support ages ago - even if you can find an installer and have a legal product key, the servers through which you'd register the program are long gone. Unfortunately, GM8 is the version of Game Maker that I had used to develop Waker.

Waker
Waker
I haven't touched Waker in nearly a year. Student game projects and an undergraduate thesis occupied my attention for most of the past 12 months, and completing Monsterpunk has taken priority over Waker, being the smaller of the two projects. However, I've changed a lot since I started working on the game in 2012, and I have doubts as to whether Waker is the sort of game I still want to make.

My plan has always been to revisit the project, polish it up for new demo build, and then decide whether I wanted to see the game to completion or dump the unfinished version as is, and then move onto something more creatively fulfilling.
 

As I said, the game was originally developed in the now defunct GM8. While it is possible to continue working on the game in GMS, it would require me to recode a very large part of the game. A lot of GM8's features are incompatible with GMS because the latter is designed for multi-platform publishing, while the former could only export Windows builds. It just so happens that Waker depends on many of those obsolete features.

It doesn't mean the death of the project, but it's completion is less likely now than it ever has been. If I don't complete Waker, it'll be due to a number of factors that are well worth writing about, but only worth writing about once. I hate to repeat myself, so I'll save the (possible) post-mortem for later.

Okay, here's the good news.

Monsterpunk
Monsterpunk
Monsterpunk's development is nearing its end. I need to add a couple more songs to the soundtrack, I write the endings,  finish implementing a couple of side quests, and playtest and polish the thing. But everything else is done.

Speaking of the soundtrack,  I recently composed a new loop for the game called "Prom 1999." It's probably some of the best digital music I've written so far, give it a listen.

I'm currently in the middle of programming a mini-game for Monsterpunk. It's a birdwatching sim in space. You flip through the pages of your guidebook and correctly identify space birds. It looks like this.
VIDEO GAMES
And, as if I weren't busy enough, I'm ready to formally announce a project I've spent the past month working on.

Digimon Red: A Pokemon ROM hack
Digimon Red

That's right kiddos, I'm hacking Pokemon FireRed and am replacing all of the Pokemon with Digimon. 179 Digimon, to be exact. Deal with it.

Why do this? Well, Digimon fans really never got a good Digimon game besides Digimon World (and even that is disputed), and the original Pokemon Kanto campaign holds a lot of meaning for us 90's kids. It's been a lot of fun so far to redesign and reinterpret a classic campaign and breath some fresh life into it.

Oh, sorry, I misunderstood your question. You're really asking: why are you spending hours of your life replacing the characters of a game from one highly commercialized children's franchise with the characters of another? Not only that, but the other franchise in question is one that everybody stopped giving a shit about when they turned 10. Aren't fan works inherently immature anyhow?

I'll begin to answer these questions by introducing Gargomon. Gargomon is a Digimon. He's a fat dog that wears jeans and has machine guns for hands.

Gargomon is a Digimon. Gargomon is a fat dog that wears jeans and has machine guns for hands.
You know your favorite character from your favorite fiction of choice? Sydney Carton? Mal Reynolds? Bigby Wolf? Is that character a fat dog that wears jeans and has machine guns for hands? Oh, sorry, is that a no? Then that character ain't got shit on Gargomon.

Also, most internet users spend their time masturbating to memes of pop-tart cats who are actually John Cena. Most of the media we consume (and like) is trash. We're all in this wretched pit of consumer media shit together. Not all of the media I consume is trash, but of that trash, Digimon is my favorite.

Finally, regarding the stigma against fan works: it's mostly a byproduct of copyright law. When you use characters such as Robin Hood, Snow White, and the Big Bad Wolf in your stories, you're a "creative genius" who's taking advantage of the pre-existing narrative meaning inherent to them. By contrast, when you use Darth Vader, Pikachu, and Harry Potter, you're being "creatively immature." All pop culture characters have the potential to be folk characters - however, copyright law makes the usage of those characters in  mainstream culture difficult, resulting in terribly amateur representations of those characters outside their source work, resulting in the general disdain for fan works.

I'm not going to be too pretentious about this project - it's just me screwing around. But it's some of the most fun screwing around with a computer I've had in a while, and I might as well share the end results of that labor with the rest of the world. While it won't be legally possible for me to distribute the hacked ROM, I will be able to distribute a patch you can apply to your (legally) obtained ROM of Pokemon FireRed.

I'll talk more about the technical and creative challenges of this project later on. For now, here's some screenshots.





Disclaimer: Pokemon and Pokemon FireRed are property of Nintendo; Digimon and the Digimon sprites are property of Bandai. This project constitutes fair use: work is transformative, noncommercial, and has no impact upon sourced work's market value.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Radical Plaything 2: Claw Champion Earth, Alien-Stalker from Pluto, and more!

I really do intend to write Radical Plaything posts at least on a bi-monthly basis - my apologies for their absence over the past nine months. Let's get to this month's recommendations.

All of my freeware game picks for this month are from the Indies Vs Gamers jam at Gamejolt (a jam in which I entered Bloodjak, which placed in the top 10% of entries and got a little mention in Fireside, by the way)! I'll be focusing on games that didn't win the jam but still have a ton of character.

For me, game jams are often an excuse to create experimental, personally expressive, and/or ugly games and get away with it. So, this isn't a list of what necessarily I think are the best games of the jam. Instead, this is a list of games from the jam that, in some way or another, deviated from my usual experience of what a video game is, either mechanically, thematically, or aesthetically. Here we go:

Alien-Stalker from Pluto by Jord Farrell


Heres the finished game. Finished with 5 min left so there might be bugs 
Controls: X to Capture, C to Kill, Arrow keys to move around

I've heard people who've played video games before the 1990's describe retro and arcade games with a certain nostalgia and reverence that, as a young twenty-something, I've never been able to relate to. There's a level of abstraction in archaic games that leaves a lot of potential for your mind to fill in the missing spaces and go wild with your imagination in a way that you can with reading a novel - for whatever reason, most old games fail to realize that potential for me. 

I don't know what it is about Alien-Stalker, but its crude pixel labyrinth and the monsters that inhabit it somehow seem more real than the labyrinths from similar games made in the early 80's. 


Mr. Pigcat by IsmoLaitela


Move Mr. Pigcat by using 'ARROW KEYS'.
Shoot/Puke using 'Z'
Press 'X' to use special when available. Increase your score during the special attack by smashing the keyboard!
Be aware of burdocs, hoovers, waterballoons and red lasers!

You're a fucking Mr. Pigcat who vomits on things. The game has screen shake in it. It also requires that you smash your keyboard. Any question?
(Also, I'm currently the highest scoring Mr. Pigcat player in the world!)


The Secret World of Arcade Game Repair by the Wzzard


TSWOAGR is a 2D infinite procedural wave shooter bullet hell nightmare game! Play with a gamepad or keyboard! Get the High Score by destroying glitches. Grab powerups to help with your repairs. Try again when you can't dodge any more!

At its core, TSWOAGR is a standard, but well done, side-scrolling shmup game. Aesthetically, it's a real treat. Stuff's flashing and shaking and blowing up all of the time. Many of the songs from the soundtrack kick ass.

Download TSWOAGR for Windows!

Claw Champion Earth by Taylor Bai-Woo (FromSmiling)   


Do you want to become a champion?

Maybe even a claw champion?

Please, search no more for your ride to becoming the champion of claws. A fierce claw-battling campaign. Climb your way up to becoming a champion and beat as many other claw-playing-opponents as you possibly can. The champion's throne awaits you.

You know those bullshit claw game machines they have in restaurants and amusement parks? Imagine a world in which there are competitive, multiplayer claw machines. Now imagine a world in which you can be a champion of the competitive claw machines. This is a pretty seductive world we're talking about, right?

Claw Champion Earth is charming, humorous, and well written. I wish most video games had just half the heart that it does. I'll take genuine, goofy stuff like this over Gears of War any day.

Download Claw Champion Earth for Windows, Mac, and Linux!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Monsterpunk Development Update!

First off, Toilets, Meat, and Drugs, as you might have noticed, is now named Monsterpunk. Less syllables, easier to remember, less toilet references. Also, sexy.

Secondly, I've been working on the game's soundtrack over the past months. It's my second attempt ever at creating digital music (the first time being for Digital Toilet World), but I'm feeling pretty good about the results so far. I'm about halfway done composing music. It doesn't make for the best casual listening, but it is video game music. It does what it needs to do.

Listen to it here. I've also uploaded the (tiny) Digital Toilet World soundtrack, for anyone curious.

Thirdly, I've been experimenting with recording gifs of game footage. Being a punk inspired game, it looks a more impressive in motion than in stills, so it's important for me to have some video to show off!

Violent conflict. People say sad things when they die.

Flirting! Right click on people and hearts fill the screen!

Eating a meal in a graveyard.

More flirting!

More violent conflict :(

Pooping!





      
The game's getting pretty close to completion - I'm aiming for a September release date. I've finished re-writing most of the dialogue, have implemented a user-friendly tutorial, and am constantly tweaking and balancing everything. I still have to write the endings, finish composing the music, and implement a needlessly complicated and over-the-top secret easter egg side quest. Not that you heard anything from me about it. 

I will leave you today with this question. Or, rather, this poop monster will: 


Monday, July 27, 2015

Bloodjak V 1.1


Bloodjak's been updated to version 1.1!

Changelog:
-High scores can now be viewed in-game
-Spawn patterns are slightly less random, especially in the early game.
-Player is invulnerable during the last 1.25 seconds of jacking out (this is when the screen flashes)
-Points awarded upon destroying enemy ships are now displayed

Hopefully, the new spawn patterns will make the game more interesting for less skilled players. The ability to view the high score table in-game is an essential feature that I simply ran out of time to implement during the jam.

I've been debating making changes to the game's difficulty, especially during the jack-out sequence, and have tried out some potential solutions. However, I am not comfortable making any drastic changes to the game without live play testing. The game's difficulty is part of what makes it what it is - it's probably going to continue to be a challenge.

I would eventually like to make a Mac build and add Xbox controller support - however, making Mac builds in Game Maker is a pain, and I still don't have a controller of my own.

Anyway, just get the new version!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Bloodjak and a Return to Conventional Game Design


Surprise! I made a game last weekend! It's called Bloodjak.

It's a fun little side-scrolling arcade shooter set in cyberspace. I made it in 72 hours for the Indies vs Gamers jam at Game Jolt (voting is still underway this week, so be sure to play some games and vote for your favs).

I outsourced the music to a fellow named Geoff Backstrom, and I'm glad I made the decision. The game sounds kick ass.



It might possibly be the best complete game I've ever made. It's also the most conventional game I've ever made. This is not the sort of game that idealistic teenage me wanted to make. In fact, it's a very radical departure from the sort of games I was working on when I started this blog, and is personally significant for that reason.

This isn't the first time I've written about how I've felt weird about the games I make. But it's a different sort of weirdness than I felt when I made The Void Hero Blues, thankfully.

Look, if you just want to play and enjoy the damn thing, stop reading and do that. You should play it. It's fun. It's hard. It looks cool. It sounds great. I'm really proud of this one, and I think it'll do well in the competition. But if you want to read about what the game means to me, well, get comfortable. This might be one of the more self-indulgent things I've written. I don't care.

Things have come full circle in the strangest way. Let me explain at the beginning.


Making Games as a Child: In Pursuit of Fun

The earliest games I made as a pre-teen were mostly shooters and fledgling attempts at RPGs. Run-of-the-mill stuff - imitations of the mainstream games I was playing at the time. It was 2005. The contemporary indie game scene was barely forming. The artgame, notgame, Twine game, and altgame scenes were, as far as I know, totally nonexistent. Communities for hobbyist game development around certain tools, like Game Maker, existed, but those communities were isolated.

By 2006 or so, I got pretty good at making shooters, for a scrawny 13 year old boy. Me and a bunch of other 12-14 year old boys were making first person shooter games with this software called Silent Walk (the original, low tech version that we used is hard to find nowadays). In retrospect, I was probably one of the more prominent of the young game designers in that community. I was the first person to have created a game in Silent Walk with original 3D models (they looked like shit), and also had a reputation for being one of the few people who made a game with stairs in it (it was a big deal). Silent Walk, while very accessible, wasn't very powerful, didn't require code, and was used by a bunch of preteens. The quality bar was pretty low, but I surpassed the bar, damn it.

I owe a lot to that community. Just thinking about it reminds me of how magical the internet felt back then.

Point is, I gained a ton of experience making action games during my first 3 years of game dev as a kid. I think that experience greatly influences my game design today. They were formative years.

My design tendencies changed around 2009. I was 16, and was finally learning how to think for the first time (still trying to get it down, honestly). Tale of Tales released The Path that year, spawning the artgame and notgame movements (near as I can tell) and changing what many people believed was possible with interactive media. I was one of those people. "Wait a minute, you're telling me that I can create interactive art without goals, challenges, violence, competition, risk, or any of the things that have made games what they are until this point? And it can actually be good? Sign me up!"

Making Games as a Teenager: In Pursuit of Emotion

Notgame design philosophy fundamentally changed my mission as a game designer. My goal was no longer to make games that were fun, but games that were profoundly emotional. I am still trying to meet this goal - it's six years later, and I do not think I have yet succeeded.

How to Fly was the first notgame I created. You play as a bird who flies around eating mosquitoes in mid-flight. The more you eat, the larger you get. However, by the end of the game, you shrink back to normal size, then are transformed into a mosquito for some reason, before getting hit by a truck and dying. Your score is reduced to 0.  The game is full of symbolism, the original meaning of most of which I have since forgotten. In retrospect, it's a pretty game, and one that I appreciate, but it's not the emotionally profound masterpiece that my teenage self set out to create.

How to Fly
I remember presenting the game to the Game Maker Games community and it was immediately shot down. Everyone there hated it for it's lack of traditional game elements. My ego was crippled. 

Later that year I created A Day by the River, a game made for a high school English class project about the importance of civility. Notgame design philosophy also guided this project. However, this game had also failed to meet my objective of emotional maturity. In fact, the game I made was about as emotionally immature as I was. The game was supposed to be serious and dark - instead, the class laughed most of the way through it. I didn't realize it at the time, but the game is actually quite ridiculous.

For the next three years, I would struggle to complete any game projects. Waker was one of the last project that I started with artgame or notgame design philosophy in mind. It was one of the last times I attempted to create something with deep emotional significance. The game has been in development hell for 3 years now and counting. Making people feel things outside of tension and fear through video games is hard.

Making Games in College: In Pursuit of Thought

Two things happened during my college career that resulted in another large shift in my design tendencies. The first was that I got a little better at thinking. The second was that I became exposed to games and writings of  "punk" game developers: developers associated with the queer, Twine, and most recently, alt games scenes. These developers were not only conscious of the social and political themes in games, but in the social politics surrounding the creation and play of games.

Whereas artgames and notgames, traditionally, held themselves to high aesthetic standards, punk games usually were less concerned with aesthetics and more concerned with ideas.

This isn't to say that art games aren't about ideas, or punk games aren't about emotion (indeed, all of my attempts at artgames have been very message-driven). But I think that my exposure to punk games prompted me to focus primarily on the ideas of my games without trying to purposefully evoke emotion through aesthetics.

My mission as a game designer had expanded: not only did I want to make games that made people feel, I wanted my games to make people think. I didn't necessarily want may games to be fun - but if fun happened along the way, I wouldn't lose sleep over it. 

Empty Chambers, Digital Toilet World, The Void Hero Blues, Mandibles: Change is Coming, and Monsterpunk are all games in which I attempted to communicate ideas through narrative or mechanics. Most of them purposefully disregard typical aesthetic standards in games, and, as a small act of rebellion, none of them feature white male protagonists. Chambers and Void Hero both criticize traditional conventions in first person shooters.  Mandibles has overt political themes, and Monsterpunk subverts gender expectations and has themes of environmentalism and pacifism. Even Digital Toilet World has underlying themes about religious zealotry and the futility and dangers of human progress (it's not just a poop joke)!

Monsterpunk
Over time, you can observe my game design become more conventional with each  of my creations. Among Chambers, Toilet World, Void Hero, and Monsterpunk, Chambers is the most mechanically subversive, giving the player a gun and then rewarding them for not using it. Toilet World and the Void Hero, while emphasizing their anti-game quirks, are more conventional, featuring and encouraging shooter-based combat throughout. This was especially problematic in Void Hero, a game which attempted be both a criticism of first person shooters while also trying to provide Quake-esque gameplay. Monsterpunk is the most game-like of any of these, featuring layers of complicated rules and mechanics and traditional win conditions.

Bloodjak is the conclusion of this trend towards convention. The Indies vs Gamers jam had two requirements for its entries - the game had to be arcade themed, and the game had to feature online high score table support. While it is possible to create experimental works that meet these criteria, I had trouble coming up with a good artgame or punk game idea that did within such a short time period. So I made a shooter.

It is not a game designed to make you think. It is not a game designed to make you feel anything beyond tension, fear, and excitement. It is a game that is meant to be fun.

I'm back where I started. 

Making Games Now?

Bloodjak's been out for a few days now, and it's already becoming one of the most well-received games I've ever made. People have been telling me that they love it. One person's already enthusiastically competing for the first spot on the high score table; a kid's already recorded four minutes of gameplay, threw it on Youtube, and gave the game an astounding recommendation. The game's received more ratings on Gamejolt than anything else I have on there, and not one of them has been negative, which is unusual for me.

 
Don't get me wrong: I'm really glad people are enjoying the game. I enjoy the game. I'm really glad to have made the game! At the risk of sounding arrogant, it's a good freaking game. However, Bloodjak is not the sort of game I expected to be making at this point. My mission as a game designer for the past six years has been to tell meaningful stories, stories about politics and human experience, stories told through games that are accessible to both gamer and non-gamer audiences. I've had mixed success trying to do that, and perhaps am now having great success not doing that.

Hopefully, the creation of Bloodjak will give me the room I need to finally tell those stories I've been wanting to tell. Most of the games I've been over the past two years have straddled the line between convention and experimentation - I wanted to change people's perceptions of what video games could be, but felt a need to prove to the world that I already understood what video games were. I felt as though I needed to demonstrate not just a willingness to break the rules, but a complete understanding of them.

Bloodjak, I hope, is proof that I can design a conventional game, and do it well. Now, maybe now, I can give myself permission to start making stuff that's more beautiful, nonviolent, personal, political, and experimental than the games I've made up to this point. Or, at least I can try to.

In the meantime, blow up shit and have a good time doing it.



Wednesday, May 6, 2015

High Transit and a Thesis

I keep making things. Today, I am sharing two of those things with you.

1) High Transit

High Transit is a team student project for which I was the primary programmer and level designer. In the game, you get to jump on fast moving trains in the sky. That is pretty cool. What's not cool is that it's loaded with bugs and rendering issues.

I feel incredibly conflicted about the game - more so than I usually feel about my projects. It is not the most polished, personally expressive, subversive, or experimental thing I've worked on. However, it does feature some of my best  mechanics and level design, and is a blast to play.

Check it out on Game Jolt!

2) Cuties Killing Video Games: Gender Politics and Performance in Indie Game Developer Subculture

I spent the past year writing a 200 page thesis about how online communities and noncapitalist modes of game production make feminist politics in gaming subculture possible! I figured it might be of interest to some of you in such communities who use such modes of production to perform such politics.

You can download it from here!

With both of these massive projects out of the way, expect more Toilets Meat and Drugs development, and the actual return of Radical Playing.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

On Baltimore

This blog post has nothing to do with video games, but I'm having trouble giving a damn about video games right now, for reasons detailed below.

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I have never had so much difficulty writing about anything. I struggled to decide where to even begin regarding the riots in Baltimore. The best I can figure is to introduce who I am in relation to the them.

I grew up right on the western edge of Baltimore city. The city/county line bisects the house where I was raised. The schools I attended and the friends I visited were generally in the suburbs, but a very significant amount of my life has otherwise been spent in the city. I am white, but grew up in a mixed race neighborhood. I am not currently in Baltimore but will be returning home shortly.

Many people, but especially those from outside Baltimore, have said that they "care more about broken spines than broken windshields." Today's riots have been preceded by centuries of violence performed against people of color, and that violence continues today. I understand the anger and frustration of the rioters, and I believe that the anger is justified. The violence that has resulted from the riots is insignificant compared the the violence that motivated them (I am referring to "violence" in a very general sense here, to include the infliction of harm beyond the physical).

However, I feel as though those who have never lived in Baltimore, who have no personal stake in the city, do not fully understand the cost of the riots. Some of those people even seem to be romanticizing them. It's hard for me to do that when its my city that's burning.

That barber shop I used to go to? Window smashed. That market I got lunch from? Looted. That cafe I once went to? Destroyed. That neighborhood I rode through on a regular basis? High school kids there got hit with pepper spray.

For some people who have never lived in Baltimore, the "broken windshields" they reference are abstractions. For me, what is being damaged by the riots are not just windshields, imaginary or literal, but actual places and living, breathing people.

That being said, while I do not condone the riots for reasons that should be obvious, it is, frankly, difficult for me to condemn them. Peaceful protest alone is not always successful. The threat of violence can make people in power more inclined to listen to peaceful activists. Not only do militant activists make peaceful protesters seem more appealing by comparison, but they provide an incentive to enact progressive change. People in power are presented with a choice - either reach a settlement with the nonviolent demonstrators today, or deal with the fire in your streets tomorrow. If you believe that peaceful protest is a magical one-size-fits-all solution to every social justice issue, I encourage you to question that belief. Every situation requires a unique response. A whole lot of rioting occurred in the 60s alongside Dr. King's peaceful demonstrations. It would be foolish to believe that riots did not impact the perception of Dr. King's faction within the civil rights movement, or that riots did not make dismantling white supremacy a more urgent issue for the general public.

However, violence is violence. I should not have to explain here why violence is bad - I do not think there is a single person watching the events in Baltimore who would not prefer a peaceful solution. However, I honestly am uncertain, one way or another, whether a purely peaceful solution is feasible. I do not know the best method for achieving racial equality. I do not know, in this context, whether or not riots are necessary to bring sufficient attention to the problem of white supremacy in America. I do not know if peaceful protest alone can be sufficient. Neither, probably, do you.

Therefore, I am reluctant to condemn the riots. However, the pain that they respond to, and the pain that they cause, are real. White supremacy is not an abstraction to most of you reading this. However, for many those of you who are of a certain age and have never been to Baltimore or Ferguson, the riot is still unreal. It is not something that has personally affected you. When Ferguson burned, the riot was an abstraction to me. This is no longer the case.

The revolution is here, but there is no glamour in it. It is real fucking ugly.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Mandibles: Change is Coming

I just finished writing a 200 page thesis called Cuties Killing Video Games: Gender Politics and Performance in Indie Game Developer Subculture. To celebrate, my thesis advisor and I collaborated to create our first Twine game!



It's called Mandibles: Change is Coming. Look around a room. Don't get your head bitten off by an ant. Start a revolution.

We created it an hour. It is amazing regardless.

With the completion of my thesis, work on Toilets, Meat, and Drugs is picking up again. I might have something else cool to show before then.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Toilets, Meat, and Drugs Development Update

Sorry for the continued silence on this corner of the net. I am unable to work on my personal game projects at an ideal rate - my thesis and student development work continues to take priority - but some progress has been made! Character dialogue in Toilets, Meat, and Drugs is nearly complete. In fact, now whenever you flirt with characters in game, they'll say something cute! Or they'll reject your (probably) inappropriate advances.



Oh, and now when you take pills in the game, you'll hallucinate! I really want to drive home the negative aspects of drug/medication dependence in this game, and it was difficult to do that without adding an explicitly negative consequence to popping pills in game. Not only will hallucinations visually impair the player, but the longer you've been taking drugs in game, the longer the hallucinations last. I think the new feature makes the in-game decision to take drugs a lot more interesting, and adds a ton to the game's flavor.

I myself have had horrendous experience with ADD medication, and wanted to capture how awful that experience can be through a game. Being able to better explore themes of drug dependence, both recreational and otherwise, adds a greater degree of personal relevance to the game that makes it more engaging to me, and hopefully to others too.

I've only just now noticed how suggestive this screenshot is. Eh, the hallucination is randomly generated, what can you do?

I was worried for a long time about whether I was spending my time wisely continuing to work on Toilets Meat and Drugs - I've spent nearly nine months now on something that should have been a side project, and the jam version of the game was one of the most poorly received games I've made. I've spent a lot of time on a project that had a very real potential to be unenjoyable to a general audience, but now that I'm reaching the end of development, I think that the risk is going to pay off. The game has so much soul. If I were a video game, I would be Toilets, Meat, and Drugs.

I've pushed the expected release date to summertime. Sorry for making everyone's Christmas miserable by not releasing the game by then like I said I would. This year's Christmas will be better.