Neon Arrow Amputation

When you make a game, you are making a living landscape; a body. Sometimes its body is static and crystalline, frozen into beautiful forms. Sometimes its body is made of hot mercury which bleeds along the temperature gradients. Sometimes only part of the body is there, and one has to imagine the rest of it. There are many types of games, and they vary so much in form that it’s hard to even say what a game is or assign them a single category. But no matter what kind of body your game has, among the various intended limbs, you will often find that a strange appendage has grown. One of its limbs is a giant flashing neon arrow.

The neon arrow sits there on the screen, demanding attention. It tells players where to go, what to do and what to feel. It is the quest log, the waypoint, the linear environment which pretends to be open, the blue fairy who gives us instructions. The neon arrow is reduction of self-direction in service of the carefully sculpted linear experience. The neon arrow is not an inherently flawed concept. It is a tool and it serves a specific purpose. But instead of being a specialized option which we use where appropriate, it has become the defining feature of the landscape.

This is in stark contrast to many of the most meaningful activities in our daily lives, activities such as being with friends, eating food we love, spending time in nature, having sex, learning, and making art. All of these experiences are self-directed and intrinsically motivated. There is a poor fit here between the medium as it is commonly used and the many things we want to express. In this article I delve into why the neon arrow is so overutilized, and examine the strengths and weaknesses of this tool. My hope is that I can contribute to people approaching neon arrows in a more sensitive way, utilizing them when they are effective and discarding them when they are not.

In Strangethink‘s sculptural wildernesses, the only goals are intrinsic ones. 2014

Edit: when I initially posted this, the project depicted above was unreleased. However, it is now available here: Abstract Ritual

Many creators are afraid of players becoming confused, lost or frustrated. This comes from a sincere desire to give people a valuable experience. A guiding hand is often provided in the form of clear top down instruction and a strictly bounded game world. But this is a dangerous absolutist course, and one built on many false assumptions. First, this assumes that confusion and frustration aren’t valid emotions- that they are somehow inherently undesirable. Second, this is an impossible problem to solve. One can’t include enough safeguards to protect against every possible situation which can lead to these emotions. If one is to guarantee that every player takes the optimal path through the game, the only way to do it is to completely remove all significant forms of self-direction. That’s quite a decision to make in a medium which is defined by its interactivity. And the truth of the matter is that the more safeguards we put in place, the more we erode the landscape we were trying to protect in the first place. Players have only so much bandwidth. If the giant neon arrow looms too large over the landscape, it dwarfs the landscape itself.

I want to stress that this is not an immoral thing to do. No single game creator owes it to the world to abandon the neon arrow, just as no painter owes it to the world to abandon realism. This is a tool which has its purpose. But because of the cultural prevalence of the neon arrow, it’s often seen as the only option.

In Proteus, players are given free license to explore an unpredictable wilderness. Ed Key and David Kanaga, 2013

Another reason for this overemphasis on controlling players is that we borrow heavily from other media. I cannot count the number of times I have heard game creators talk about the books or movies that influence them as if this somehow legitimizes their work. You don’t need to borrow legitimacy- you are a human being making art. But many of us have had experiences where books or movies connect with us in a deep way, and it’s tempting to try to emulate that success by copying techniques. When we adopt techniques from other media, however, we also adopt artificial limitations. These are linear techniques for linear media. The linearity of these borrowed techniques exacerbates the tendency we already have to overutilize the neon arrow.

My proposed solution for borrowing material is this: borrow from your favorite art all you want. Whatever you reference or curate or regurgitate becomes a true expression of who you are. But be aware of the eerie things which happen when you translate to your medium. If you borrow form, you create linearity. If you borrow substance, you create interactivity.

Organ Solo. Andi McClure and Loren Schmidt, 2014

For context, and for empathy with the people who make these decisions, let us imagine ourselves in this situation. Imagine we write a movie-like scene which we’re excited about: Bob and Fred finally confess their love for each other. This forces us into an uncomfortable position. How will we connect the unpredictable game we are making to this wonderful linear scene we made? How will we make sure this linear implant happens at a meaningful point in the body of the game? The dirty fix is to liberally apply linearity to the rest of the game. If we control the player and force them to do things in a specific order, all of a sudden we have directorial, filmlike control over timing and context. This works, and as a result it happens everywhere; this has become the default. A naturally interactive medium is being systematically remolded in the form of a linear one.

This comes at a tremendous cost. The interactive medium is sitting out there, waiting to be explored, while most of us are busy trying to make it into movies.

in Noctis, players goallessly explore a universe of generated star systems. Together they assemble a galactic encyclopedia. Alessandro Ghignola, 2000

In closing I’d like to say this: please continue to appreciate whatever games you appreciate, whether they are full of neon arrows or not. But think about how often you’ve been annoyed when games tell you what to do, about how many times you’ve wanted to explore and run into an invisible wall, about all the times a game has told you what to feel when you didn’t feel that way at all. Remember that these are not times you ran into a limitation of the medium; these are times you collided with someone’s design choice. The neon arrow is voluntary. When people approach this technique with an open mind, we have many more tools at our disposal. I can’t wait to see what happens when we widely recognize not only the merits of external control, but the freedom of players to guide their own experiences.

Untitled. Strangethink, 2014


White Lake Announcement

I’m working on a new game called White Lake. White Lake chronicles the misadventures of an astronaut who crash lands on a hostile planet.

The world of White Lake is a tangle of locales which connect to each other in physically impossible ways. Some of these are fantasy environments: poisonous alien jungles filled with alien flora and fauna, an (impenetrable?) strobing fortress, a realm inhabited by robots which hate dirt. Other places are ones which you or I might encounter in our day to day lives, such as a train station or a grocery store. These are all linked to one another in ways which may not make sense physically, but which make sense emotionally.

The project began while I was visiting relatives in the Midwest. We drove through grids and grids of corn fields, taking photos of cell phone towers. I spent time sitting by the lake, staring at bugs and watching the clouds. It was a peaceful time, but also one during which (perhaps because it was so peaceful) I revisited painful past experiences.

What came out of this is a screen based arcade game which also has a strong visual narrative side. Moment to moment it plays like an action game; there’s running and shooting (and even collecting fruit). And these elements are an important part of the game. But ultimately my goal is not to give people a set of mechanical challenges or a pat on the back for killing a bunch of lo fi aliens. It’s about combining this local mechanical engagement with a broader set of esthetic experiences. It’s about the feeling of the thing.

Fun Fact no. 1: The world is entirely composed of live, writhing cellular automata. The ground wriggles beneath our feet as we walk. Projectiles erupt into clouds of twisting crosscurrents which settle into small luminous oscillators. Geometrical colored clouds obscure the screen and follow us from room to room.

Fun Fact no. 2: White Lake is, I believe, the only game to feature a sequence where one navigates a zero gravity area using the recoil from vomiting.

The game is currently in development for Windows, Mac, and Linux.


Carpet Landscapes

I’ve always loved the terrain in games like Comanche:

It has so much texture to it. At a distance it looks vivid and sharp. Up close, it looks like a sea of luminous rectangles. It looks strangely real and tactile.

Over vacation I played with the idea a bit, and put together a test. Here are some images:


This kind of terrain gives me a few different ideas for games. I’d love to wander around a landscape like this or fly over it. Some day, after I’m done with Love Machine, I’d love to return to this tech and make a game with it.

Mildly techy detail:
This type of tech was often called “voxels” but that’s a bit misleading. It’s actually a based on a 2d image where each pixel’s value determines its height. There’s then a second image which determines each pixel’s color. The terrain is drawn by firing a single fan of rays. It’s more like Doom than voxels. If anyone’s interested in learning more about the tech, there’s a really good explanation here: http://www.flipcode.com/archives/Realtime_Voxel_Landscape_Engines-Part_1_Introduction.shtml
And there’s another explanation here: http://simulationcorner.net/index.php?page=comanche
I’d be happy to discuss ideas or share code if anyone wants to do something with this.


Typing with Hands

This simulator allows you to type with hands. It is aimed at people who don’t have hands, or those who wish to experience using someone else’s hands. (This also, I realize, doubles as a nail polish simulator).

Press keys on your keyboard and the hands will type them.
Hands made by Kim Moss.
http://vacuumflowers.com/typing/


I usually spend most of my creative time making computer games, but recently I’ve been working on a board game. The game is about a group of adventurers navigating an unstable sorcerous labyrinth. During their journey they encounter strange beings, horrible monsters, and treachery most vile.

The game focuses on player interaction. There is a lot of cooperative play, but allegiances shift constantly and there is also a lot of backstabbing.

The world is built out of square rooms. It starts as a single room, but as players explore outward they place new rooms and the labyrinth expands.

In the early days I tested by drawing the world on a single sheet of paper and using scribbly hand made event cards (see above). It was playable but awkward. Now that the rules have settled a bit, I’ve been playtesting the game with friends using the set you see below. I’m doing everything on the cheap: I put stickers on plastic cubes to make custom dice, made playing pieces couple things out of clay, and found some glass counters at the dollar store. Everything else is thrown together on the computer and printed out in black and white. Because everything is paper we can write on the game as we go, making up new rules and rethinking things on the fly. I threw a few blank event cards in the deck too. If someone draws a blank, they get to make up a new event card.

A few of my friends do a monthly board game meet- I’ll bring this along and do some more testing there. I am both excited to see more people playing it and terrified of the flaws they will discover. I’ll post more once the game’s a little further along.


“Seven Hours Pass” Translated into Spanish


In April I wrote a small interactive story called “Seven Hours Pass.” David Marchand has gone to the trouble of translating it into Spanish. Thanks David!

Play Seven Hours Pass (Spanish)


Spores


Today I cleaned up an older project of mine. You can see it here:
Spores v.2

What’s happening is that randomly colored organisms reproduce and spread across the world. They are growing on top of an image which is invisible to us. The organisms which match the color of that invisible image best tend to be selected, so over time they converge on something like the original image.


Factions

Hi everyone. This is the second in a series of posts about my new dungeon crawler (you can read part 1 here if you missed it). This time around I will talk about some of the characters in the game. These are divided into several factions:

Faction 1: Wild Animals

The murky depths (and non-murky surface regions) of the labyrinth are home to all manner of strange beasts. They have a wide range of natural abilities. For instance, the green and orange segmented creature in the upper left can chew through walls. Another example is the bird in the lower right, which is reborn from its own egg every time it dies. Also worth mentioning is the fearsome lime green duckbeast (pictured center).

Faction 2: Fungoids

In this perilous world dwell a race of intelligent fungoids. They are resourceful opponents which compensate for their inferior numbers by using group tactics, technology, and magic. The network of underground cities, farms, and temples which we encounter on our journey was constructed by this race. Why the dungeons are laid out in such a fashion as to facilitate adventuring, or why they are conveniently stocked with caches of supplies and equipment, is a mystery.

Faction 3: Us

We’re without allies for now, though I plan to add creatures which aide us in various ways.


While many creatures are hostile to us, they also attack members of other factions on sight. This means that there is a fair amount of tactical variation beyond the standard “run into a room and attack a group of monsters” scenario. Sometimes we engage with multiple factions at once, which makes selecting the right targets important. Other times we deal with single faction groups by luring them into territory controlled by a rival faction. And once in a while we blunder into a large battle between rival groups, and the best option is simply to run away screaming and wait until the dust clears.


Two Small Games

Today I’m releasing the two small projects I started last weekend. Jam games have (for me at least) a way of getting out of control and turning into larger projects, voraciously consuming all in their path. There is still more I’d like to do with both of these, but it’s time for me to set them aside and return to my main projects.


Seven Hours Pass

The first of these is a small text based game called “Seven Hours Pass”. I don’t usually spend much time writing, but I really enjoyed making this, and it reinforced my desire to do more writing in general. Unfortunately I can’t describe the game in detail without saying things which should remain unsaid. You can play it for yourself here:
Play Online – Seven Hours Pass v. 1.0


Untitled City Game

The second of these is a building game. You can’t directly create people, but you can place houses, farms, and supply lines. Make whatever you like: sparse rural areas, small towns, a huge city with roads and skyscrapers. The people reproduce freely, and will populate your creation at whatever density it can sustain.

I spent the better part of this week guiltily tinkering with this game. There are a lot of directions I’d like to explore from here. What happens, for instance, if you create a system which relies on a limited resource such as lumber or fossil fuels? I also have a lot of ideas for generated buildings, roads, etc. which I wanted to include in this project, but I had to hold back or I’d have ended up neglecting my larger projects for weeks. Needless to say, I’d very much like to revisit this territory in the future.
Play Online- Untitled City Game v. 1.0


Against My Better Judgement

Against my better judgement I’ve decided to pack two game jams into my already crowded weekend: I am making games for both Ludum Dare and Klik of the Month. It should be fun if a bit hectic.

For Klik of the Month, I’m planning to make something text based. At the Oakland Molyjam, I had the privilege of programming alongside a group of people who were doing an interactive fiction project. I was amazed to see how much were able to accomplish.

My Ludum Dare game follows a population of tiny people which farms, eats, builds, and makes more people. It doesn’t look like much yet, but I’ll post more soon.