1. No Man’s Sky is a small videogame made by a tiny, indie studio that, like most small indie videogames, is clearly trying to achieve a very specific experience for a very specific audience. No Man’s Sky is a massive, triple-a videogame being released by Sony on a disc for a full sixty bucks that, like all triple-a games, has to please everyone who plays triple-a videogames. Both these statements are true, which, if nothing else, mostly highlights how categories like ‘indie’ are constructed more from a perceived sense of performed ‘indie-ness’ rather than any quantifiable factors. How you perceive No Man’s Sky is intricately tied up in whether you think it succeeds at being that particular thing for a particular audience, or whether you think it fails to be the next big triple-a open-world game for all gamers that it was set up to be (in part by marketing and in part by those gamers). Continue reading
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: Continue reading
On Wednesday my students pitched their ideas for short games based on their personal experience. It was a really chill pitch session where we just sat in a circle and talked through our ideas. I’m pretty excited about the different ideas. All of them seem relatively well scoped and doable, and there are some legitimately interesting ideas in there. Hopefully the games match the ideas!
Before next week’s class, the students have been asked to analyse one of the games about a personal experience that was provided to them and to think about what it is about, how it is about that, and what they can learn from it for their own game.
One of the games on the list is Andi McClure’s He Never Showed Up, made for a dating sim game jam. Despite following Andi’s work for years, this is one of the few games on the list I’d never played before (a previous lecturer of Studio 2, Christy Dena, added it). It’s a simple and powerful short game about being stood up on a date. The player has a hammer and can smash apart the screens reality, knocking down buildings and the stars themselves if they want. Eventually, the player finds the elusive boy and smashes him, too—only to find out it was all a fantasy: the world was not smashed, the boy never showed up, and you were still stood up. Continue reading
This trimester I am teaching a studio class at SAE Brisbane. My students have to design games that focus on meaning, expression, and emotion. Up to this point in their degree they’ve been focusing on the bits and pieces that make up a videogame. Now, at this point, I’m to try to get them to think about just what they can do with that toolkit. My interpretation of this is to show them a whole bunch of weird shit and to encourage them to make equally weird shit.
My students need to keep a blog throughout the trimester, keeping track of what they are making and why and how. In sympathy with my students and in an attempt to pressure/shame them into actually writing these blogs, I thought I should write about the course as well.
I’m increasingly convinced that students should be playing and making the sort of stuff you would see on itch.io moreso than the stuff you would see on Steam. There’s several reasons for this. First of all, the sort of weird experimental games on itch.io are not necessarily ‘better’, but they are often doing more interesting things from a purely design perspective. ‘More interesting’ in the sense that most students have already played a first-person shooter and a moba and a platforming game and playing new first-person shooters/mobas/platforming games is only going to teach them so much. Whereas the sort of experimental stuff on itch.io is constantly pushing the boundaries of how videogames can say things. Continue reading
(All photos by Sofie from SK Games)
Back in January I wrote a post about how I would like to try running a public game event. A couple of weeks ago, thanks to SK Games and a whole heap of people, I was able to actually do this with the inaugural Trees Go Ping. It went really well! A bunch of people rocked up on a weeknight and people seemed to really enjoy the games and the atmosphere. It is definitely something I would like to do again. This post serves as both a reflection of how it went, and where I want to take Trees Go Ping in the future. Continue reading
(Minor spoilers for Superhot and Cibele.)
Late last year I had the opportunity to play Eurotruck Simulator 2 with a virtual reality (VR) headset. Generally I am pretty skeptical of the marketing promises of VR and the whole project of immersion-through-escaping-your-own-bodily-senses that it depends on. Partially, this is because we are being told the same things about how VR is just around the corner in 2016 as we were told in 1996. Mostly, though, this is because I reject the very premise of VR, that the player can ever truly have their consciousness and senses detached from the playing and situated body they are sensing with. Sure, I can use a VR headset to explore some alien battlefield, but I am never not sitting in a chair in front of a computer, and on some level my mind is always aware of this because my mind cannot exist separate from that body.
But Eurotruck Simulator 2 with a headset shocked me with its effectiveness. It was disorientating and fully encompassing. I had the stupidest grin on my face as I noticed my own senses being so successfully tricked by the illusion that I was really sitting in this truck. The only other VR experience that I have found nearly as affecting was when I played USC’s The Meadow at Indiecade. This was a VR experience about sitting in a virtual meadow while things happened. The visuals in no way attempted photorealism, but the illusion was, again, incredibly affecting
I remember semi-jokingly calling it a ‘sitting simulator’ at the time. Except this is exactly why both The Meadow and Eurotruck Simulator 2 made such powerful VR experiences: because they each accepted and reinforced the player’s own awareness of their sitting body, rather than stubbornly trying to distract the player away from that body. Players are bodies and that will never not be true. Where other VR experiences work to have you forget “the meat and all that it wants” as Neuromancer’s Case says, these two experiences reinforce the strength of their illusive worlds through the player’s own somatic awareness of being a sitting being.
I’ve played two games in recent weeks that in different ways draw attention to the player’s inescapable existence as a body sitting before a computer screen: Nina Freeman’s Cibele and Superhot Team’s Superhot. I played neither of these games through a virtual reality headset, but like the above virtual reality experiences, each of these games worked to use the player’s tacit awareness of their own body-ness as part of the experience of a virtual world. More specifically: each is explicitly conscious of the player’s context as a body sitting before a computer.
As a rule, I am generally skeptical of fan remakes. Often, the rhetoric around them can perpetuate the already problematic discourse around videogames that conflates ‘more’ with ‘better’. The kind of discourse that assumes if a game has more polygons or more gameplay or more features or more levels or more stuff then it must be better than a game with less stuff. This is the games-as-content-buckets approach mixed with a technological progressivism that sees game design on this linear trajectory of continual improvement where new games will always be better than old games. Fan remakes often fall into this discourse uncritically: what if Link to the Past came out on the WiiU? What if Super Mario Bros was made in the Unreal engine? It’s this general idea that games are continually held back by the technology we don’t have yet, and with better technology we can finally fix these games. Of course, this is also the source of the excitement behind Final Fantasy VII’s official remake: now, at last, we can see Midgar for what it really is.
But somehow Brutal Doom avoids this. A mod for the original Doom that adds kicking, mouse movement, iron sights, new lighting effects, and a whole range of other features, somehow Brutal Doom doesn’t feel like an attempt to make a ‘newer’ Doom. Instead, despite the addition of all this extra stuff, it feels like an amplification of a core Doom-ness. This is Doom made Doomier. Continue reading
Spoilers for both.
On the first day of Firewatch, you are walking back to your tower after chasing down some irresponsible teens when a shadowy figure shines a torch in your eyes. You are in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness and no one is meant to be around, but now this man is looking right at you. Henry, your character, is startled by it, but Delilah, his workmate-cum-friend in another tower is nonplussed: it’s the wilderness, of course there are going to be some other people around. Sure, okay. But at the same time, the reason there might always be someone around is because, for the overwhelming majority of the time, there is definitely nobody around. That is why my reaction to the man was the same as Henry’s: I was startled. I was expecting, moment-to-moment, to be alone, to be that one human who happened to be in this particular bit of wilderness. Then suddenly there was movement. That was terrifying.
For most of Firewatch, you don’t see anyone. But the fact you did see someone that one time kept me constantly on edge as the game progressed. What if someone else just jumped out from behind a tree or walked down a distant path? “We can animate humans in this game,” that first reveal seemed to say to me. “We can do it again whenever we want.” That would be terrifying to see that movement. The absence of animals in this national park only amplifies that terror not of being alone but of potentially suddenly not being alone without any warning.
This is where I think Firewatch is most enticingly like Gone Home. There are easy comparisons to make between the two games: each is a walking game set in a semi-open world where you walk around and inspect objects and a story progresses. Each is a game about difficult personal relationships set in the late 20th Century. But these are easy comparisons to make. More interesting for me is how each game is about making you feel very, very alone, and then playing on your imagination to make that loneliness feel oppressive and terrifying, and then, finally, making you feel like an idiot for letting your imagination get so carried away. Continue reading
So I am writing this post mostly as an initial testing of the waters to see if there is any interest at all in what I am proposing. This isn’t an announcement post or anything official. Just testing the waters.
Since moving back to Brisbane from Melbourne mid last year, I’ve really missed the real collegial games ‘scene’ like Melbourne has. There are a bunch of game studios in Brisbane and a bunch of both indies and ex-AAA people. There’s more than a few academics and a heap of students around between the few universities. The local IGDA does some real important industry-focused events every year. Others have been putting on a range of really interesting shows and events. But there’s still something missing that Melbourne had. Something that isn’t just about developers (and especially isn’t just about development in the commercial space) but also isn’t just about game enthusiasts either. That real sort of cross-pollination of games people and art people and writing people and just general ‘culture’ people that Melbourne manages largely just through having a high density of such people. Continue reading
Yesterday I obtained an Avenger Reflex controller skin for my PlayStation 4. I bought it because these things fascinate me, and I want to do some research on them from a phenomenological perspective on how bodies integrate with videogames (I wrote briefly about this here). When I tweeted about my new possession, however, it was a side comment I made about a marketing blurb on the box that got the most attention.
The blurb promised that the controller skin will “Increase your PS4 gaming skill without cheating!” I find that fascinating. This device is confident that it will give its user an advantage over other players, but it is categorically ‘not cheating’. I am not particularly interested in claiming that it either is or isn’t cheating. Rather, I think a lot of fascinating insights can be pulled out of a statement such as this one to better understand videogames generally: why is using this device to improve your chances not cheating? What sort of advantage would be considered cheating? Why? Continue reading