This is a modified transcript of the presentation I gave at DiGRA 2017. It marks the start of a new trajectory of research for me, but is also in a very preliminary stage. One day soon this will hopefully form the foundations of an actual academic publication, at which point I might have to take this page down temporarily for the sake of the blind peer review process. In the meantime, here is what I spoke about at DiGRA and what I am currently interested in.
The superpower of the protagonist of most challenge-oriented videogames is time travel. Through the loops of failure and dressage that conventional videogame design depends on, the player fails at a task again and again until they have memorised how to proceed through the events that, on the current playthough, have not actually happened yet. This might be a muscle memory, ingraining in your hands the exact rhythm of movements required for a Rock Band track or a Super Meat Boy level. Or it might be a more traditional memory of remembering placements and patterns: the trap door full of monsters you could not have predicted in Doom kills you once and then, on the next attempt, you’re ready for it. Instead of dying you get a glimpse at what is about to happen. You remember what hasn’t happened yet.
The analogy has been made by various critics in the past (I think Janet Murray might have been the earliest) that the videogame player is not unlike Bill Murray’s character in Groundhogs Day, repeating the same system over and over again: at times taking it seriously, at times playing with the system, at times bored and frustrated by it. The more recent Edge of Tomorrow provides a similar conceit, but is I think more accurate of how videogames train players, killing Tom Cruise over and over again on the battlefield until he makes the exact right movements to get through it alive—exact movements he can only make with the memories possessed from the previous attempts. Edge of Tomorrow is how videogames work to train their players; Groundhog Day is more the wide range of emotions that players go through while existing in such a temporal spiral. Continue reading
As I’ve previously discussed, in 2017 I have set myself the goal of developing 50 videogames. I’ve played around with Unity here and there in the past, but never really committed to actually just doing the hard yards and learn how to make videogames. The best way to get good at something is to do it a lot while you’re still bad at it. You need to play a lot of bad piano before you’re good at playing the piano. You need to write a lot of bad poetry and stories before you’re a good writer. You need to make a lot of bad videogames before you are good at making videogames. The goal of 50 games in a year is an attempt to force me to do just that: to prioritise quantity over quality and make a lot of bad videogames in order to get better at making videogames.
It’s something I regularly tell my game design students: no one really cares if you have a degree in game design, they care if you can make videogames. Or, flipped the other way: don’t wait until you have a degree in game design before you start making stuff. Just… make stuff.
I chose ’50’ so I could more-or-less make a game a week with a fortnight of breathing room. At the time of writing, we’re at the end of the 16th week of the year and I’ve released 14 games, so I’m going well! I also meant to blog about the games as I released them, and I’ve been less good at that. This post thus serves as a summary and reflection on the quarter-and-a-bit of this experiment.
All the games listed here are available on my itch.io page, here.
There is a nebula of essays and talks that circle the concept that we reluctantly call ‘game feel’. (No one likes this term, but it’s what we’ve got. Personally, I would like it if we borrowed from music and called it timbre or, at the very least, just talked about ‘how a game feels’ rather than ‘a game’s game feel’, but whatever). Across a range of talks and essays (some directed to designers and execution, some to players and analysis) is an emergent idea of the experience of videogames not being centrally one of engaging with mechanics but, rather, of encouraged affective states. Of some sort of fusing of meaty flesh with audiovisual signs and plastic buttons.
Historically there’s been a reluctance to talk about this because it’s soft, ambiguous, and wishy-washy. Talking about a videogame being tight or crunchy or sluggish or sticky feels like it is at odds with the hardcoded and definitive code and programming logic and on/off switches that videogames are made out of. We have historically intellectualised videogames as hard configurative systems while downplaying the fact that the reason we really play a videogame is because it feels real good within our soft meaty body. Videogames are a carnal pleasure. Continue reading
My Game Design Studio 2 class is currently working on a short, one-week project. On Monday, we visited GOMA, the Gallery of Modern Art. They were tasked with finding an artwork that spoke to them, and over the following week they are to create a videogame adaptation of that artwork. I’ve left what I mean by ‘videogame adaptation’ pretty vague. They can either try to explore themes similar to what the artwork explores, or perhaps try to replicate the sensorial experience of engaging with that artwork. The brief I provided them with is available here (pdf).
I’ve never used this brief before in Studio 2 so we’ll see how it goes. Ideally, there’s a few things I want them to get out of this exercise. First, I’d like them to have to think about what creative works ‘do’. So thinking about things like craft, form, materiality, process, and things like that. Second, I’d like them to start thinking about what videogames do in such a context; what do terms like ‘craft’, ‘form’, ‘materiality’, and ‘process’ mean in a videogame context? Third, I just wanted my students to have to go to an art gallery.
Since I’m currently trying to make a bunch of small games this year, I’ve decided I’m going to make my own game to the brief as well. So while we were at GOMA, I walked around and had a look at the different artworks to see what stood out for me. There were a few for which I had a really immediate and corporeal reaction to. One which was an almost pitch-black room was disorientating and claustrophobic, another work played with scale in fascinating ways that made my perception incapable of grounding myself while I looked at it. Except, I realised that if I tried to replicate either of these artworks I’d end up just making a digital version of them: a black room with hardly any lighting, or a really big object next to the player. I want my students to go beyond just creating assets that look like the artwork, so I need to do the same. Continue reading
So in 2017 I’m making a bunch of videogames. The plan is to make 50 of them in 52 weeks. Most of them won’t be very good, but that’s not really the point. I just want to set a goal of a certain quantity to try to force myself into an actual rhythm of creating and learning and maybe getting better at it. Then, after a year of that, hopefully I’m in a position where I can confidently decide if Actually Making Games is something I actually want to keep doing. I’ve already made six games, and you can find them on my itch.io page, here. I’m particularly happy with Fetch and Flightboy.
One of the reasons I am doing this is, in part, to be a better game design teacher. I don’t need to know how to actually make a game in Unity to be able to do my job, but it wouldn’t hurt. And it’s interesting to try to put into practice some of the things I keep telling my students to do. And to lead by example when I tell them to just make a bunch of shit to get better at making. Since my students also have to write postmortems about the games they make, now I am going to try to do that as well. Continue reading
2016 was the first year ever that I’ve had a full-time job. I completely underestimated what sort of effect the rigidity of such employment would have on the activities that constitute a major part of my public identity even as they were not a major source of income for me; namely: both my academic and critical writing. I wrote less in part because I no longer needed the little bit of money it offered, but primarily because I simply didn’t have the time or energy to do so around my job. This extended to the games that I played. I haven’t played the new Kentucky Route Zero episode, nor have I played Virginia. I’ve only beaten one or two stages of Stephen’s Sausage Roll. I excitedly bought Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor the day it came out and have hardly had a chance to touch it since. After a day at work, I’m more likely to slouch in front of a console or flick my phone in front of a television show than I am to go sit at my desk and play small indie titles.
Suffice to say, my videogame playing this year was rarely up-to-date with the current big releases and in vogue conversations. I missed so many titles and caught up on so many others from previous years. So, like usual, this isn’t a list of ‘the best games of 2016’ because, even if I had been up-to-date on all the year’s releases, arbitrarily compartmentalising games into units of time like that seems weird and unnecessary to me. The true beauty of end-of-year lists is the reflections they afford. As such, this is a list of the best games I played in 2016, regardless of their release date.
The bright side of me not doing much writing this year is that I’ve not had much chance to actually express my thoughts on a lot of these titles before now, so I’m excited to finally do so.
This list is presented alphabetically. Continue reading