Studio 2, Diary 3 – Game 1 Postmortem

My Studio 2 students have now finished their first game for the trimester. They had two weeks to make a short game about an experience that is personal to them. On the whole, I am really happy with how they turned out. Small things here and there could have been improved, but considering the timeline they were working on, they all went pretty good. Most importantly, I am excited by the sheer variety of directions they took the brief, with some creating very mechanics-focused sort of procedural rhetoric games and others making very experiential little vignette works.

While some initially overscoped their project (as everyone does), they all admirably worked out what was actually required for the experience they wanted to communicate to the player, and managed to really sharpen that core nugget. I’m really quite happy with how they went with the exercise.

I spent the last week pestering them all to put their games on itch.io so that I could share their games more broadly. If they’re going to have a game critic for a teacher, they might as well exploit that and actually get some exposure for their games. I was perhaps too optimistic to assume they would all create perfectly crafted itch.io pages for their game with builds for multiple platforms and gifs and all sorts of pretty things. Several of them also uploaded their games as zips; some even uploaded it as a .7z or a .rar at first, before I told them to re-upload it. All sorts of little issues that I hadn’t thought to consciously address but which create all these hurdles that might prevent a player bothering to check out your free little weird game This general self-promotion area is somewhere we could use more work.

But the games themselves turned out pretty well! So here is a little bit about all eight of the games:

Home  – Alex Hockley (postmortem)

After originally pitching a more action-oriented game, Alex changed to a game made in Twine early in development since he realised that what he was actually trying to simulate was conversations, and this seemed like a good way to do that. Alex hadn’t worked in Twine before, so taught himself as he worked on the game.

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What works well in Alex’s game is the general sense of not feeling like you have any control over the situation, the general frustration of having to move from house to house so quickly. Once he plugged the art in, that sense of constant transition became real apparent.

Late in development, the game shifted from black text on a white background to Twine’s classic Sugarcane form. I felt this was a bit disappointing as the white backgrounds felt more like speech bubbles to me, but perhaps the white jarred with the art. Overall, considering Alex had never used Twine before, I was really happy with how this turned out.

 

Fishing Adrift – Carlos Merlo (postmortem)

Carlos, I was warned at the start of the trimester, is a serial overachiever. The main struggle I think he had, in the early days, was really focusing on what he actually needed to convey the experience of feeling seasick while trying to fish. I was fairly skeptical that his game actually required a fishing minigame (as opposed to just having your character holding a fishing rod), but instead he went the other direction and made the fishing itself a really central feature. Not a minigame but the thing that you do.

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In the last week especially, Carlos’s project shined not in the way it necessarily came together but in the way he stripped all the superfluous stuff back and found this great, core nugget of an idea. The slow build of the visual effects blended with the awkward walking and the endless waves ended up quite powerful. What he ended up with is essentially QWOP but for fishing, and I look forward to some Youtuber shouting obnoxiously as they play it.

Carlos also actually put a gif and a Mac build on his itch.io page, so he gets bonus marks there.

 

The Church My Mother Took Me To – Toby Welsh (postmortem)

Toby’s game is exactly the sort of thing you would expect a student of mine to make. It is a game about tedium and boredom. You are a kid who has been dragged to church, and you sit there while church happens. Sometimes other people do things and perhaps you feel like you should also do the thing. Maybe not.

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I am really thrilled with the idea Toby explored with this game, but it’s also difficult to evaluate. I never want to tell my students their game needs ‘more content’. A key skill I want my students to learn is what is the bare minimum they need to actually say something with their games. But this butts up against the whole point of university which is to assess skill and competency, which can make a minimal project very challenging to deal with. So while I certainly don’t wish The Church My Mother Took Me To simply had ‘more stuff’ for the player to do, it could perhaps be slightly more focused.

A major component I wanted Toby to add, and that I feel is really crucial for the game’s message, is for it to actually end after an hour of playing rather than just go on forever. I am not sure if he did implement this in the version he uploaded to itch.io or not, so I guess you will need to play it for an hour and find out. For the most part, though, I think this is a clever and funny game and I’m really stoked a student in my class felt permitted to make something like this.

I’ve only posted a photo of the menu screen in this post because Toby did not upload a Mac build, and the menu screen is the only screenshot on his itch.io page.

 

The Boy Who Cried Turtle – Andrew AW (postmortem)

Andrew’s game is raw, honest, well-considered, and quite powerful. It’s perhaps the most explicit and direct of all the games I received in the way it wears its heart on its sleeve, but it also manages to be one the most allegorical games of the group as well. Andrew decided to make his personal game in RPG Maker in part because RPG Maker has a personal resonance with his past. I really love that his consideration of the game’s theme extended into his choice of tools.

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The game itself is Andrew’s way of trying to convey something about how he feels, and the need to just keep moving forward without distractions. The game conveys this by really indoctrinating in the player a sense of what buttons you are not allowed to press, but then requiring you to press them at certain times. There are a few moments where the power of this simple interaction really shines through.

Andrew did all his own art for this game, and has even uploaded a small art book to the itch.io page along with the game itself. An incredible amount of work for a two week project.

 

Love/Fear – Jake Andrews (postmortem)

Love/Fear is another game whose simplicity I really appreciated. Jake wanted to explore his conflicted emotions towards cars, so he made a game where the player simply flits back and forth between two scenes: one cruising down the road, the other slowly walking around a car crash. Simple and straightforward, but it does the trick.

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Jake was perhaps trying to over-engineer some aspects of the game, but like the others he quickly managed to figure out what about his game was actually crucial to express the meaning he wanted to express and scoped down accordingly. I think there is a real evocative atmosphere in each of his scenes, that he has managed to capture with some real simple models, lighting, and textures. I particularly like the slow walking speed the player is forced to endure near the car crash. There are some technical issues (having to let go of W and press it again when the scene changes, for instance), but these are minor.

 

Tunnel Vision – Jake Garrett (postmortem)

Jake’s game is about social anxieties and high school. The player simply walks down a corridor after class, and if they make eye-contact with other students they get nauseous and their speed changes. The ideal dynamic here is the player looks at their feet at they shuffle awkwardly through the school. This was captured during testing where the anxiety was just a bar on the screen, but in the final version where the effects of the anxiety were more qualitative, players don’t notice this so much and tend to put up with the effects rather than try to avoid them, as they don’t know what is causing them.

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However, the general message of the game is still successful, even if the initial ideal dynamics were altered (another victim of such a fast turnaround). I particularly love the slowing of the audio along with the player’s speed. Such a great touch.

I also love that Jake was able to identify and remove aspects of his game early on that he realised were arbitrary. Instead of the game getting harder, it gets easier day after day and this gives the game an overall optimistic tone.  As with Jake Love/Fear, I think Jake also achieved a lot with very simple models and effects, which is to be applauded.

 

Could You Carry This? – Matt Allen (postmortem)

When Matt presented this game in class, he had to plug two keyboards into a single computer as the computer lab’s keyboards were so cheap they couldn’t handle all the inputs at once. I think this actually became a really nice feature that amplified the message Matt was trying to get across.

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Could You Carry This? is about the careful balance of self-care and being there for your friends. The ‘balance’ aspect, Matt has identified’, is perhaps not as pronounced as it could be due to the slowness of the visual feedback in relation to player input. Regardless, it still successfully conveys a sense of the protagonist being stretched too thin. Matt also reached out to the animation students for his artwork, and that has really helped.

Originally, Matt was considering a more intellectual sort of interaction, where you just choose who to help and when. When he pitched the idea, I mentioned the game Mega-GIRP and the finger acrobatics that entails. I wasn’t sure if it would work of if it would make the game too ‘funny’, but Matt ran with it and made it fit what he wanted the game to say.

I also just really liked having to play it with two keyboards.

 

This is Good For You – Gareth Haage (postmortem)

Gareth wanted to make a game about a time when he was sick and had to take a medicine that felt even worse than the sickness did. His initial iteration gave the player a choice: take the drug or not. If you took the drug, the maze was more challenging immediately but got easier over time. This didn’t quite work because the feedback to the player was unclear. And, as another lecturer pointed out during testing, it didn’t express Gareth’s personal experience with illness, but just an experience of being ill. So Gareth removed choice from the equation and simply crafted his mazes in such a way that you have to take this thing. By the third or fourth level, you are practically braced for this thing that you know is going to be terrible.

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This is Good For You is minimal and simple in its presentation, but it uses this to its advantage to get its point across. I’m particularly happy with the amount of time Gareth spent looking at eye-curdling screen effects.

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