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.
1. Titanfall was very good. Considering it was made primarily by former Infinity Ward members, it very easily could’ve just been Call of Duty multiplayer but with giant robots. But it managed to be more than that. Respawn thought carefully about the game’s balance. They had to. The giant robots couldn’t just be an instant win. Counterintuitively, if the game was to be about how amazing these big robots were, there needed to be advantages to not being in a robot. The obvious way to deal with this was level design: doorways and building interiors that a titan can’t fit into. Each Titanfall map had a mixture of wide roads and open areas for the Titans and twisting corridors and rooftops for the nimble Pilots. Make it so the player has to leave the titan sometimes. Easy.
The less obvious approach: make not being in a titan feel really good. If the titans are giant, clunky, invincible machines, then the pilots have to be the opposite of that. This isn’t just the default Call of Duty first-person controller. You can auto-dash, wall-run, slide, double-jump. The repertoire of your character opens up Titanfall’s maps in exciting ways. When you are clomping around in your titan, pilots could be anywhere around you while you are stuck in your little area. Titanfall didn’t just make the robots feel good. It ensured the robots and the humans felt polemically different, each contrasting and accentuating the strengths of the other. Continue reading →
I’ve played some really fascinating games lately and have wanted to write about them, but have not had the time to do so.Instead of a post on each game (which each truly deserves), here are some quick and messy thoughts I’ve been having about three games. 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 →
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 →
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.
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