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Dazzling Dreams

I think I normally make blogs with some sort of useful utility, but this one is a little more personal.

In about mid November, on a cold day, I was drawn again to the use of ⬛⬛⬛⬛, which has always been sort of unexplainable decision for rare Sunday mornings – a need for realignment and introspection. On a sunlit window, laid looking up at the European Ash on a warm ottoman, I gently came up watching the branches twist and sharpen, reaching up at the sky in content stability, waiting out the winter.

After that, I guess I had a pretty normal start, listening to prog and contemplating aesthetic decisions, until a dull hollow welled up in me, and I found myself scrawling sad looking eyes on a notepad by a window in my loft. It was heavy, weighing me down, and eventually the pencil stopped and I laid almost dead with depression, trying to understand it.

⬛⬛⬛⬛have their way of bringing different parts of yourself to light. While I know that I’m generally dissatisfied with my living, I just, felt it, like standing before the ocean with it all plain to see. They said pay attention: I don’t want to work 4 days a week for someone else. I don’t spend my free time as well as I would like. And this I know, and can’t change for now. But I also want to do more game art, and I feel kinda stuck. I feel swamped by this project, working on stuff I just have to get out of the way, and I don’t know what I have show for it.

I don’t feel like I’m even making a video game.

I mean, Wait. I’m actually, not… making a video game?

Perspective

I’m not making a video game.

Let me first say that all experience is a matter of perspective. The fleeting sensations of animals to the world around them in their first-person perspective is *true*, but we (humans) often get distracted from our own perspectives, for the whirling gift of consciousness giving us a world in our heads. We hear about someone else’s experience and imagine for a second a bit of their perspective, and we cobble together details into a story that makes sense about the world. We may often mistake our stories about people and other countries for reality.

Obviously, art is about putting perspective to reality. You can do it with a fixed and rendered frame or via camera cuts in movies, showing different faces and objects in sequence to tell a story. And I realized a problem I had; I was making a game without the right perspective. Maybe without any perspective, save for the ones in my imagination.

I like having a large perspective on stuff, a holistic one, and I wanted to make a game that paid true attention to systemic workings, to emergent patterns and many autonomous agents. I guess I just spent three years trying to bring that world to life, but I did it from a bird’s-eye view. In my mind, I saw the world as it would be, and looking down from the sky in the editor, fashioned it to be so, creating a forest, little agents to cut down the trees, and their horrific behaviors of drilling pipelines and factories across newly-barren landscapes. It was gonna be stark, something worth killing, cathartic even, once It was duct-taped together enough, I could let a player loose in seeking out weak points and eventually snowball into tearing it all down.

The problem with this – it’s not that it’s a bad idea, or a bad way to go about it. I did have a perspective in mind, but I hadn’t built it yet. But that’s not quite it.

I don’t feel bad for having a dream, but there was stuff mixing around inside of me that I was ignoring. Under the winter sunlight, I looked at my hands, then got up and looked at my project. There was nothing to do (yet). Nothing was really working (yet). And most terribly, it had already been 3 years.

I guess it’s the 3 years.

Long-term pursuit is great. Berserk is great and I think frequently about the late Kentaro Miura putting his life into that work, how young he felt as an artist even at the chapter that he died on, reaching for something beyond a human lifespan.

But mangaka live chapter-by-chapter, panel-by-panel. When would I really start making the good stuff in this game, that I wasn’t sheepishly describing to colleagues as “foundation work”? When would I carve the meandering streams, give vitality to the sensations of ripping apart steel and flourishing it with metaphorical aesthetic touches? When would I be done with this game? Like, when I’m 28? 30?. And that scared me a lot.

I could really reduce this problem: I over-scoped. Haha. The game developer made more work than they could accomplish! Old story. But I guess the fulcrum of this trip was a bitter, epiphany-like dawning realization that I had really been fooling myself. I felt embarrassed. I told people I was making a video game and all I was really doing was… making, like, a big island with little guys moving across it? Making a big room with nothing to do. Something I actually wasn’t going to finish.

It was taking months of my very limited week-hours to produce ones sick-looking mech that could do stuff. Shouldn’t something that takes that long be the most important thing in the game?

I just can’t get it all straight in words. I like old forests. It’s a banger game idea. But I just, don’t want to make a game that big – and that’s the key. I want to make games about places that aren’t across the continent from me. I don’t want to put that much of my life into one thing, even if it’s great.

It’s a weird discovery to have about yourself, and it’s really specific. I don’t want to be the life’s work guy. Even if it’s just 6-10 years and not my life. But the summer I spent making tree assets and little plants and lighting on a test map was the most fun I had on the project in the entire 3 years. It made something tangible and beautiful, that literally brought me to tears looking at during the trip. Just walking around it and talking to a character would be a game I’d be so fucking proud of, and then I could make another place with another story.

So in that hour, Disharmony died.

Just the day before, I had been working on it like I was going to until I was 30, and the day after it was over. And it didn’t die like the code broke, it’s that Disharmony was an idea and not a thing and it died in me.

I mourned for it – I’m still mourning for it – and even though I did and still have an idea of what I want to make in its ashes, I’m still processing this, circular logic. This bitter pill that I could have done it but didn’t want to, that I didn’t know I didn’t want to.

What died was me. A function of me. The part that becomes blind to dazzling dreams and pursues them to unknowable ends. I don’t even think that’s a good thing, per se – and it’s beautiful and productive when I see other people do it. Social media is filled with people calling grey boxes and Quixel assets much grander things than they are, and some of those will turn into great stuff. But I can’t do it anymore.

It was making me sad.

So I guess what I’m saying is this: I had a perspective shift. Following a grand vision is tiresome, and frustrating. I like AI programming, but actually doing it for a long time doesn’t feel fulfilling. It doesn’t feel fulfilling to me. I like making little plants and little flourishes, but not too many, and not overly-detailed like popular Artstation models. I like making *just enough* and putting it there, then adding another element.

I want to live on the tips of my fingertips like this. I want to follow vague hunches, render a stand of trees with more hidden color than anyone else and less detail than a perfectionist, and then move on too soon and add something else. I want to make characters where I’ve been too intimidated and busy to try before. I want to take all my written ideas and characters and facial expressions and lonely lines and get them out without grand an innovative structures (unless I can buy a plugin or convince someone else to do them).

I want the perspective of the drawing line, always moving one moment at a time – leaving a trail behind a single momentary trajectory. Always working with what I can see with my human eyes, not projecting something else on top of it while I’m working.

I think that’s how I can make games as a solo developer. That’s how I can tinker and make vital and colorful stuff.

The trees? Keeping those. Gonna have a character betwixt them. Self-dialogue and pensive mechanics. I’ll make them all one moment at a time and see where it leads me. I doubt I’ll use any of the AI work I’ve done in the past 3 years, but that’s just kinda how it goes.

After two months of idle mourning and another good vacation to the old forests, I’ve picked myself up a little bit.

I can see clearly now, with my own eyes, and I follow what my hands and heart want to do. It’s positive, and refreshing. I feel like I’m making more, and I’m happy.

This is something I could do forever.

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Ecology Review – Elden Ring

When making art, humans pull from what they know, reaching into what they have studied and experienced. When these experiences are always fleeting, what comes out?

I think a lot of games lack in how they represent the natural world (among other things), possibly because making landscapes is a requirement and not a passion for making certain genres. An Ecology Review is my attempt to make sense of a game’s relationship with Earth through an eco-critical lense1 as they meet this challenge, examining the presented mechanics and symbols pulled from the ethereal stuffing of a roomful of nerds. For example, my humble debut the Halo: Infinite review, developed simply into sections from a thesis of scope and fidelity failing to come up to anything natural or novel, going topic by topic on how it failed to match real landscapes.

I like to keep an unreasonably high standard for this exercise, but as you could have guessed, today’s topic is Elden Ring, which has proven more difficult to talk about cohesively. Its merits go a lot further (as my hours clocked on Steam or online theories may illustrate) and I had to let go of a lot to write this review, which in reality warrants a small novel.

Would I like to talk about every knoll and forb in this digital epic? Yeah – and I think the fans and broader society would thank me and praise me for it – but I’ve landed on the main takeaways, hoping to impart the the nourishment and critique and things in-between that can be drawn from this mighty and curious game. Without further ado, we can begin with the main theme.

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Ecology Review – Halo Infinite

After many years, a new installation of Halo has come upon the world, drawing in a high level of my curiosity for reasons I do not yet understand. As a game where the multiplayer and the shooter-ing are oft-examined, I and probably many other gamers have been waiting with bated breath for the answer to only one question, all this time, as it impended: how would 343 craft Halo’s classic boreal ecosystems using contemporary quality standards and rendering techniques?

There will not be spoilers of any kind in this review, but I have elected to undertake this assignment extremely seriously and with a fresh set of high standards, resulting in an exhaustive examination of the game’s entire map to ruin both mine and your own enjoyment of its painfully well-rendered environments. Let’s get at it.

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Mac and Cheese Horror

There is something quietly dreadful about mac and cheese.

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Growth and Regrowth (2-Year Dev Retro)

Two years ago I started making a videogame.

Before starting my 7th semester of college, I prepared to talk with my professor about a free-form project for CIS 690 – a tech elective where you pitch, perform, and reflect on whatever you want. It was about 1 hour before I walked out of my neighboring apartment onto the campus to talk with him that I deemed the moment salient to choose what the subject of my project would be. I had some ideas written down, picked one for a few good reasons, and continue to this day working on that project at a healthy and generous pace.

The game – now called Disharmony – has changed a lot since then, as I would imagine most do from inception to production. But through planning, prototyping, reading, painting, playing, thinking, and doing nothing at all, it has taken on a different meaning entirely while retaining the shape I thought of on that day. It’s these forces of change and holding onto the central shape that I want to talk about, even only partway through this journey, since the act of finding what’s worth keeping in an oddly-growing game is the never-ending challenge of the craft.

(featured painting is Premonition by Remedios Varo)

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“Why Do We Need More Systemic Games?” Part 4 – Diverse Games

Systemic games can split the field wide open. Wild diversity must be harnessed to drive the potential of the medium forwards and pull it out of its niche.

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“Why Do We Need More Systemic Games?” Part 3 – Living Games

Games lack life. They are inherently static.

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“Why Do We Need More Systemic Games?” Part 2 – Cohesive Games

“A system is made of parts that interact to form a purposeful whole.” – Mike Sellers

A systemic game is made of parts that interact to form a purposeful whole.

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“Why Do We Need More Systemic Games?” Part 1 – An Introduction

(Author’s note: I wrote this in college, so please forgive the air of academia. The royal “we” is generally aimed at anyone who makes games, but particularly aims itself at stagnant, “conventional” games from high-budget productions (the likes of which which I probably imagined myself working for in the then-cloudy future). I had spent a lot of time making games, however, and I think the theory stands up, though it’s likely I’ll revisit this more fluidly and extensively (and succinctly) some day. Thanks for reading.)

Narrative is a space.

This is not unique to games. Books divide their pages to deliver their contexts and thoughts and actions; a canvas can be carved and pushed with color or shape to create forms; the audio-visual harmony of a film weaves continuity by captured associations. Every medium has a way of engaging us – pulling us into another perspective and leaving us dizzy when the curtain falls or the credits roll or the last page is turned. When we leave this space, we sit back and remember there was a world around us; we struggle to synthesize the space of our fresh experience with the everyday mundanity of the world around us. Meaning is created. We comment about novelty or production values of the space. Sometimes we can only sit back and remember our journey.

The virtual space of video games is a complicated space indeed. It exists in the hardware of a computer, the scripts of a software executable, the colors and sounds from a screen – and, of course, in the imagination or understanding of a player’s mind. And the medium at large has no consensus on what to do with it. Pages and web-pages of theory can come out every year – never penetrating some creators while deeply influencing others. Textbooks can be written about technical nuances that never touch the all important je ne sais quoi of what that tech is meant to make; a new designer might dream up their masterpiece that can never be feasible. It’s a mess – an explosion – the wild west – a liberating new sphere. The minds and perspectives trying to leverage this space have come to countless results in the last fifty years.

So why do we need systemic games? What can their depths of interaction do for a medium that’s gotten by on looking good and being fun? What can their mutability and complexity offer us in a world of trade-show sizzle-reels and indie developers with shoe-string budgets? What can their unique experiences and nuanced possibilities offer us in an industry driven mostly by investor-funded products aimed at men from 18 to 35?

What can making games with this kind of thinking do that games can’t do already?

Systemic games can change the landscape. They can structure our experiences, give life to our games, and leverage the space in a way that’s unique to the virtuality. They can give us a vocabulary the tools as creators to draw in more people and tell more nuanced stories. Systemic games can define the medium.

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The 2019 Year in Review

I feel that 2019 has been a big year for me.

There are other cliche ways to begin a year in review, but that one is the most appropriate. The last year has been an odyssey of self-discovery, new experiences, and time management; 2019 carried me from a skilled, broke college student finding his way to a skilled, young adult with finances and a partner. I’ll probably always be finding my way.

I found art in drawing, refined in painting – and through it, myself – displayed in dazzling color and through curious, thoughtful aesthetic works that challenge me to think and learn in whole new ways.

I found a love of nature I had previously only appreciated at a distance – a love for atavistic rituals and natural lifestyles, ecology and hidden natural systems, and for trees, plants, and the multitude of growing things that make up our world (particularly mushrooms – and our friends, the whales).

And, indeed, I found love in Bailey – my loving partner – and all the small moments, activities, nuances of human experience, and breath of emotions, cognition, and sensations, that come with committing to another person.

There are countless things I found in 2019 that transformed me, making this review more personal than the last one.

It happens to be also the only thing I’ve written since the last one – so I suppose I was out for catching up on a lot from the start.

I’ll start with the beginning of the year.