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.



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