Epistle 3 Jam

A week or so ago, Marc Laidlaw– a writer who worked at Valve for years, on HL1 and HL2– published a genderswapped Half Life 3 synposis on his blog. You can read it here. Laidlaw has been out of Valve for the last 18 months. This is probably as good a statement on HL3 as we are ever gonna get from anyone at Valve.

Taken separately, I find the first and last paragraphs of the piece very tragic and emotionally affecting:

And here we are. I spoke of my return to this shore. It has been a circuitous path to lands I once knew, and surprising to see how much the terrain has changed. Enough time has passed that few remember me, or what I was saying when last I spoke, or what precisely we hoped to accomplish. At this point, the resistance will have failed or succeeded, no thanks to me. Old friends have been silenced, or fallen by the wayside. I no longer know or recognize most members of the research team, though I believe the spirit of rebellion still persists. I expect you know better than I the appropriate course of action, and I leave you to it. Expect no further correspondence from me regarding these matters; this is my final epistle.

I do know the appropriate course of action: for us to make Half Life 3 ourselves, as we wish it to be. Half Life 3, it seems, was never really going to be a thing; the realest versions of it are a) this synopsis, and b) whatever version of it exists in the imaginations of us players. Half Life 3 may have never really been anything more than a phantasm in the minds of the people. Whatever we imagine Half Life 3 to be, that version has as much a claim to reality as anything else in the world. Half Life 3 is ours; it belongs to us; it’s up to us to make it.

And it’s better, isn’t there, that there be a hundred competing Half Life 3s, each representing a different facet of that communal hallucination? If Half Life 3’s realest manifestation is in our imaginations, then it’s necessarily an amorphous, many-faceted thing.

So I made this game jam on Itch, the best game jam platform around. There’s currently over 140 participants. I’m very excited to see what everyone makes! The jam has been covered in a couple places, and there have been a few submissions already, so I figured I’d address some of my thoughts on the project here on my blog.

I have very strong opinions on whether you should make a game complaining that Valve never released Half Life 3

You shouldn’t. I feel very strongly that it is a thousand times worse that Laidlaw & Co. never got to make the game they wanted to make than for us to be denied a game we wanted to play. We have played many wonderful games over the last decade. We did not suffer in any real way by missing out on HL3. Reading the blog post, though, it’s very clear that some Valve people did want very badly to make HL3, and that they couldn’t. That’s way sadder.

I’ve worked on a lot of canceled projects– seeing a creative possibility on the horizon and never being able to release it is probably the worst feeling there is. When something seems so real you can almost taste it, when you spend tons and tons of energy on a thing and never get to show it to anyone– that feels like death. It makes you feel like years of your life have been stolen from you. I personally feel like I wasted my early 20s on canceled projects. Those are years of my career I will never get back.

So even though HL3 is a community phantasm we all created together, I will feel somewhat responsible (and very sad) if people make a lot of jam games about how pissed they are at Valve. I hope we make things that make them happy, not sad. It doesn’t feel like they deserve people shitting on them over this.

There is no better way to get involved in game development than by making the real Half Life 3

I think that game jams are one of the best possible ways to get involved in game development.

One of the worst things that young creators do to themselves is take on gigantic projects and then fret forever about whether they are perfect (and then never release them!!). I did this about ten times before I released anything on my own and it’s bad!

Game jams, however, force you to pick a small topic and finish it completely. This is very good. And for people who are getting into game development because they are incredibly excited by great older games like Half Life, maybe picking a limited topic related to a game you like is a great way to get into game development.

Also, you get to put a game called “Half Life 3” as the first game on your itch account, which is pretty great.

Stop telling me we’re gonna get cease-and-desisted

I am not worried about us getting cease-and-desisted.

It’s not a script, it’s a synopsis.

The thing he wrote is not a script. I don’t know why it bugs me so much that outlets keep calling it a “script” when they write about the jam. I don’t want potential jammers thinking like there’s this script asset out there that they have to adapt. It’s more open-ended than that. There’s a lot of freedom for people to make whatever they want.

Also, readers can handle the word “synopsis” just fine, if that’s what you’re worried about.

It’s not a competition.

You can have competitive jams on itch. This isn’t one! I don’t think it would be in the spirit of the situation to run a competitive jam on this topic.

Everyone’s interpretation of this jam idea is super valid.

It’s exactly as cool and good– perhaps even cooler and gooder— for someone to make a dating game for this jam as it is for them to make an FPS. You super don’t have to make an FPS. Whatever you want to imagine HL3 as is exactly as valid as any other kind of thing. It belongs to you now; you can do whatever you want with it.

The synopsis is great and I love it.

I am a giant fan of the synopsis and I think the Breen-grub is the funniest shit. I love how weird the synopsis is; it sounds extremely Half Life-esque.

Thank you to everyone who’s covered the jam. I’m super excited to see what people make! The final versions will all be in on Halloween!

I’ve updated my website; also, some tips about shitty web design

I’ve updated lauramichet.com and this blog, blog.lauramichet.com, to look good instead of bad. In general, it’s good for things to look good and bad for things to look bad, so I’m pleased with what I’ve done.

I have spoken recently to a number of people who are not professional web designers or coders and feel unsure about designing their own webpages/hosting them/etc, so here’s some advice from me: just copy other websites.

Seriously. Don’t copy them exactly– that’s ridiculous and it will make you look like a chump– but if there’s something on another website that you want to have on your website, take a look at its source and just use the same techniques they used.

The stuff you learn doing this will be highly valuable to you. If you are making a very small static webpage for yourself– the kind of thing that just presents links to your projects without any bells or whistles, or just contains a Twine game or a bitsy game with a title, or is just a lot of centered images with titles or whatever, it will honestly teach you 100% more if (instead of using a web design program) you just write the site by hand and blatantly copy other websites to learn how they do the things you want to do.

Learning this basic HTML and CSS is important because many services– like WordPress, for example– require you to have an understanding of CSS in order to make modifications to their product. WordPress’s 6-bucks-a-month premium package gives you access to a lot of templates, but the only way you’re going to make it look “unique” is if you know CSS. You need to have a basic understanding of CSS to make your Twine stories look unique, too.

When it comes to “coding,” these are some of the easiest skillsets to learn, mostly because you never actually have to be good at them. If you’re the kind of person who makes small projects and just needs to find a home for them on the internet, you can get away with shockingly low skill levels in these departments. I do! My websites are actually terrible and very simple and stupid. My bitsy websites are particularly brainless. You can make a website that’s just all embeds of your youtube videos or Bandcamp albums. You can work in Prof. Dr. style. The amount you need to learn in order for these skillsets to be useful to you is shockingly low in part because it’s so easy to copy other websites. I retain barely any working CSS knowledge between projects and I just gather it all back up again by googling a ton whenever I have some CSS-related work to do.

Don’t avoid learning HTML and CSS because it seems intimidating, either: it’s actually not really coding. Writing a web page by hand using CSS is basically like using a really complicated UI for applying paragraph effects in Microsoft Word. You won’t need to write loops or figure out how to do data input/output or understand search theory or anything– you just need to know how to write out the lines that make things bold or right-aligned or left-aligned or centered in a column on a certain part of the page, or whatever, and you need to understand how those effects nest and overlap with one another. The way you think about problems has to change a little bit when you learn about “real” coding, but the problems inherent in the kind of ultra-simple static website design I’m taking about are probably not very different from the problems you experience when you’re trying to format a stupid image-filled word doc. They’re more complicated, sure, but it’s honestly not so bad.

Anyway, good luck with this stuff. Copy shit and take it easy.

I’m editing Where the Water Tastes Like Wine

I’m horrible at announcing things. I’m extremely bad at it. I never properly announced that I was writing for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine last year and I never properly announced when I became the staff writer for that project this year. So, uh, here’s that announcement:

I wrote for WTWTLW but now I am also EDITING the whole thing! Nice. I have been doing this for a while but I forgot to say it anywhere specific!

Editing WTWTLW involves writing a large amount of extra content for the game’s characters. It also involves straight-up editing the text! On top of that, I’ve also written a large number of random events for this game. My fingerprints will be all over the project.

The trouble with leaving fingerprints as an editor is that this game is a collection of diverse short stories– it is deliberately not a monolithic experience with a single tone and voice. My goal with editing WTWTLW is to preserve each writer’s unique voice, both in the showcase characters you may have seen in trailers, and in random events that take place elsewhere in the game. After the game ships I may have some things to say about what editing this project was like, and about the advantages of embracing writer diversity in a project rather than trying to make a game seem monolithic and consistent.

Prior to working as an editor at my day job, I had no idea I could enjoy just sinking deep into the dark and numbing pit that is full-time editing but– guess what??– turns out I love editing. So now I live in that pit both 100% of the work day and 100% of my nights and weekends also. I love editing. Hire me to edit your shit.

On the value of editors

I’m not just talking myself up when I say that more teams should hire totally separate human editors to edit their narrative games. It is important for more than one person to look at every published piece of writing; having someone else check your stuff and read it from an exterior perspective can dramatically improve the quality of the finished product.

I’m not talking about proofreading; I’m not talking about copyediting. I’m talking about comprehensive full-service editor editors who are themselves good writers and who have experience doing this kind of thing.

The first and most obvious value of an editor is that they can identify errors. Proofreaders can also do this! And editors who can edit for style and clarity offer opportunities for other valuable improvements. But the biggest thing that an editor can do for any project– game, book, article, screenplay, anything– is that they can also turn on their “idiot brain” and try to read work from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about the project and has no personal investment in it.

This kind of distance is very important. Creative people of all stripes often make decisions for personal or team-dynamics-related reasons that are not transparent to their audience. An editor who was not part of that decision-making process and has no investment in it can identify decisions which may not actually be working.

I no longer read books or articles about writing advice; I find that the vast majority of generalized writing advice is completely useless to me. Instead, I prefer to receive direct feedback for my writing from people who have actually read it. You can read all the writing advice in the world and still never find advice specifically suited to your needs and your project’s unique issues. Editors give targeted feedback. There is nothing in the world better for improving a written project than an editor.

Luckily, there are many humans out there who have the experience and background necessary to edit interactive narrative projects, even ones with torturous ink/ren’py/twine structures. If you are working on a project right now and want an editor, ask around; many people who can write for games are also good at editing.

How Nero tried to kill his mom, Agrippina, with a collapsible party boat

This year, I gave another talk at Glitch City’s yearly post-E3 Demo Night. It is the best E3 party because it is the one with the least amount of videogames in it.

I gave a talk last year too. This time, I gave another talk about ancient Roman murder. You can find my source material here. The slides for my talk were drawn by Brendon Chung and his Nero faces make me laugh every single time I look at them. You can find those slides at the bottom of this blog post.

The other talks are REALLY GOOD and I recommend watching the whole playlist of Demo Night 2017. I really liked Johnneman Nordhagen’s talk about early American fascism and the origin of the FCC; I also really liked Tom Astle’s talk about the genetic algorithm, and Chelsea Hash’s live technical art demo!

My talk is #7 in the playlist below. The text of my talk is below that:

So, everyone has heard about the Roman Emperor Nero. You’ve probably never heard about his mom, Agrippina. She was beautiful, wealthy, and feared, and for a short time she actually ran the Empire.

And, when he was twenty-two, Nero tried to kill her with a collapsible party boat.

Here’s the deal. Agrippina was from a powerful family. Caligula was her brother. Claudius was her uncle… and her second husband. She had him killed with a plate of poisoned mushrooms. She was known as an incredibly cutthroat person. Agrippina’s first husband was named Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. When their son Lucius was born, Gnaeus just said, “I don’t think anything produced by me and Agrippina could possibly be good for the state or the people.”

Lucius grew up to be Nero. He was seventeen when he became emperor, and for five years, Nero was fine with his mom in running things– and getting all the credit. She wasn’t puppeting from behind the scenes. She was calling herself Empress and putting her face on coins.

She lost control over Nero, however, when she complained too much about his new girlfriend. Nero kicked her out of the palace. Once he discovered that he could do this, he got addicted to tormenting his mom. He stripped her of all her powers– and sent her bad houseguests. She still had a lot of influence, though.

Nero finally decided to have Agrippina killed. But she had been eating antidotes for so long that she was IMMUNE TO ALL POISONS. So Nero found a solution to the unkillable mom: he built a death trap party boat and gave it to her as a gift.

He planned for the party boat to smash her to death with a heavy lead weight positioned directly above her lavish boat throne. Agrippina went out on a night cruise, and someone triggered the giant lead weight– but her boat throne was too powerful! It had a high back and wings and they protected her.

The boat rowers were in on it, and they had a plan B: run back and forth over the boat from side to side and tip it over to drown her and hide the evidence. But chaos erupted. Instead of running to the same side, half of them ran to one side and half ran to the other, so the boat DID NOT TIP OVER. It took them FOREVER to sink it.

Meanwhile, Agrippina’s friends aren’t even sure if this is an accident. Agrippina’s servant-girl can’t swim, so she starts screaming, “HELP, HELP, I’M THE EMPRESS! Save ME!” — so the murderous boat rowers just smash her to death with their oars!!

Agrippina sees this. Now she knows what’s going on. Immediately she turns and swims away. She swims right into some fishermen who are sailing to the scene. She tells them, “I’m the empress, save me, DON’T go over there.” So Agrippina gets out of the boat death zone and SURVIVES.

Agrippina decides to play stupid. She send a letter to Nero saying, “OH I WAS IN A TERRIBLE BOAT ACCIDENT WITH THE BOAT YOU GAVE ME, BUT I’M SO HAPPY TO BE ALIVE HOW ARE YOU EVERYTHING’S FINE.”

Agrippina misjudged, though. She’s scared of Nero, but NERO IS EVEN MORE SCARED OF HER. He LOSES HIS DAMN MIND. Remember, he already saw her kill one emperor. So he gets his soldiers and he says “just go and fucking murder my mom.”

His soldiers stomp into Agrippina’s palace, breaking down doors, and when they finally get to her room, they find her sitting there with her belly out, and she screams, “strike me in my womb, where HE CAME FROM,” and they DO, and she DIES!!! WHAT THE FUCK!!

I first heard this story in high school– I studied Latin for six years in middle school and high school. Everyone in it was such a bloody-knuckled kind of a person. It from this murderworld there was no room for even a microgram of kindness and everyone was assassinating each other all the time. I spent years learning about these people and Genghis Khan and World War One and the conquistadors and Salem witch trials and Julius Caesar getting stabbed and Emperor Tiberius scraping a man’s face off with giant knobbly crabshells, and when you’re a teen and you’re learning about history, it’s scary, and this stuff makes you wonder:

Was everyone in the past just horrible fuckmonsters living in a 24/7 violent orgy of suffering?

Let’s be honest, no. They were not. Studying history can sometimes make you feel like everyone in the past was so awful and gross that they are aliens to you. History class makes the past feel like it was universally bad and full of overwhelming suffering, and yeah, life was hard, but murder orgies like this one are serious outliers. Most people in history had what we would recognize as totally normal lives.

If I could change the way history is taught, I would spend a lot of energy making stories about peaceful ordinary people’s lives as exciting as people who kill each other with rube goldberg death boats. For the last five or six hundred years, we know enough about ordinary dudes that it wouldn’t be hard to show students how to feel kinship with the people from the past.

For the ancient past, however, it can take an act of imagination to really understand the universal humanity you share with people who lived two thousand years ago. So imagine for a second that you were in the happy crowd of totally normal peasants waiting on the shore for that once in a lifetime chance to see Agrippina step safely out of the fishermen’s boat. Imagine that you saw her beautiful face and her soaking gowns, and later you heard some terrible rumors, but she passed in and out of your life like a lavish ghost, and you never saw her again.

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Frog Fractions 2/Glittermitten Grove will be at the Indiecade E3 Showcase

I’m excited to learn that Glittermitten Grove (Frog Fractions 2) will be at E3 this year! Indiecade is hosting a booth again and our game will be at it.

I’ll be at E3 again this year, but I’ll be stuck doing my day job and will only be stopping by the booth randomly. In fact, I’m not sure who will actually be at the booth, but I do know that it will be a fine place to check out the game. (If you can’t wait that long, just check out Youtube.)

I’ve spent the last few weeks helping to submit several games I’ve worked on to a variety of events and festivals and I gotta say: I never realized how expensive it was before! Most of these events have submission fees, and they pile up. It only reminds me how important it is for us to have a lot of indie curators working in public. Stuff like Warp Door is great, and itch.io’s front page, and @moshboy’s work on the massive 1000 gamemakers twitter thread. I miss freeindiegam.es a LOT. I’ve seen some people remark– often, people who have to stop working on curation for whatever reason– that the curation mechanisms of the past (often, the one they’re specifically working on) are obsolete, but I’m pretty sure that’s never been true. More than ever before, there are tons of free, small games to play, and few good ways of finding them.

I hope someday to have enough free time in my own life to run a curation site for small stuff, but right now I’m so busy (with stuff like… festival submissions!!!) that I don’t have time to even play many of those games, much less curate a selection of them.

OBAWCATRVOS will be at Now Play This

Now Play This is an experimental games event in London which takes place during the London Games Festival. If you are lucky enough to get your body to the event, you can see a large number of extremely cool games, both digital and non-digital, including the extremely horrible party game I made for the Imaginary Games Jam in 2016, Our Bleak-Ass Writing Competition At The Ragged Verge Of Spacetime (OBAWCATRVOS).

OBAWCATRVOS will be playable Saturday only. The event organizers have purchased an ACTUAL DAMN METRONOME to use with this game. I am extremely stoked! The two times I tested it I had to use a metronome app, which is far less thematic.

OBAWCATRVOS is a party game designed to make people very frustrated. I submitted it to NPT under the category of “impossible or unproduced games” because at the time I had only been able to play it two times, because nobody I knew wanted to play it with me. I have no evidence that it has yet been played any other times. It is very awful. You and other players must shout words at one another in time to a metronome. If someone in the group refuses to cooperate, the rules offer you no escape. You must continue shouting at one another until the end of time. If you cannot agree on points-scoring, you award the round’s points to me, Laura Michet. The ruleset is filled with extremely bad jokes like this one.

Anyway, if you are able to attend the event, let me know how it goes!

You Got This, Brutadon is now available on your Alexa-enabled device

The game that I and my friends made for the Global Game Jam this year is now accessible on Alexa-enabled devices. If you have an Echo or an Echo Dot, you can find it on the Alexa Skills store. Just search for “brutadon” in your Alexa app. Like all Alexa skills, it is 100% free.

We’ve been having some trouble with people who want to install it via voice command. Because “brutadon” is not a real word that Alexa understands outside our app, the system doesn’t seem to be able to easily match that word to our app activation phrase (unless you’ve already got it installed on your device). The ways Alexa misunderstands the app name are pretty funny, though. (We had it hear “taco dog” at least once.)

If you get a chance to play it, please check it out and let me know what you liked or, better, didn’t like about it. One good place to leave a note is on our itch page.

I am very proud of this particular Amazon rating we got:

screenshot-2017-02-19-14-41-06

What is this?????? FIND OUT FOR YOURSELF BY INSTALLING “YOU GOT THIS BRUTADON” ON YOUR AMAZON ECHO OR ECHO DOT SMARTHOME DEVIIIIIIICCCEEEEEEE!!!

Check out bitsy

Bitsy is a game creation tool in development by Adam Le Doux. It’s a bare-bones toolset for making small, stark, environment-explory games. I see it following in the tradition of Pico-8: both are game engines with strict limitations designed to encourage creativity within tight constraints.

The limitations in Bitsy are more intense, however. While Pic0-8 limits colors and filesize, Bitsy limits you to a specific category of tile-based game with arrow-key controls and a three-color palette. No sound. Nothing moves around but the avatar; all animations are limited to two frames. Nevertheless, people are able to achieve some really interesting things with this toolset.

Here are some examples of bitsy games I liked:

The Summit High by Sam Wrong

Zen Garden, Portland, The Day Before My Wedding by Cephalopodunk

Dog Walking, Dog Running, and Dog Still by Cephalopodunk

HIS ONLY LOVE by codejill

Modern Living by Night Driver

You’ve got three categories of objects to play with: a player avatar, environment tiles, and “sprites” which can trigger text boxes if the player bumps into them. The background is always a solid color; sprites and environment tiles can be different colors, and the player is always the same color as the sprites. This encourages a particular attitude toward the art which I find quite charming. Check out Dog Walking, Dog Running, and Dog Still above for some really neat ways of using pixel art, colors, and scene layouts.

Bitsy seems perfect for creating extremely short, poemlike games about low-stakes interactions or environment exploration. Unfortunately, I’m a garish asshole and the games I made with Bitsy this week are kind of senseless and berserk:

Don’t Go South, a game about not going south. My first attempt.

Goodfishas, about fish violence.

Reunion, SCI FI BODY HORROR!! focused around a specific visual joke.

The creator is going to add more features eventually, and takes feedback on Bitsy’s itch forum. If you are looking for a toylike gamemaking tool that will encourage you to be as creative as you can within the tightest possible constraints, check this one out. It’s extremely charming and I hope it flourishes.

I am now my own webmaster and my power is immense and mindboggling

I recently learned how to host my own sites through Amazon Web Services, so I’ve been migrating all the sites I own off of my friend’s server/my Namecheap hosting and storing them there. Namecheap is pretty, well, cheap, but I’ve decided I like the AWS hosting experience much better, and it’s honestly cheaper in the long run for a lot of the sites I own.

I’ve taken this opportunity to back up a lot of the Plus Ultra games hosted at plusultra.ninja, and to create more sensible locations for some of the older games and media which were previously only reachable at very specific weird locations on my old site.

New locations for some of my/my friends’ older games

Other cool stuff

I’ve also hosted some other media online for future reference.

Here is the ORIGINAL NORMAN REEDUS DEATH STRANDING TRAILER ZOOMED-IN BLURRY REACTION FACE MEME IMAGE CIRCA GDC 2016

It’s worth saying that I use this face repeatedly on twitter not because it means anything specific to me, but because its blandness achieves, I think, the perfect VOID of emotion. It is a null expression in that it’s a facial expression that communicates ABSOLUTELY NO EXPRESSION WHATSOEVER.

Also, it’s a bad, ugly face; I do not know why anyone is attracted to Norman Reedus. I can understand Kojima’s obsession with Mads, but his obsession with Reedus is totally baffling and suggests to me that Kojima is not a genius human, but, in fact, an ensorcelled victim ridden by some strange demonic spirit whose sexual tastes are totally orthogonal to normal human experience. Perhaps he sold his soul to the devil, and in exchange for giving him game development success, the devil cursed him with an attraction to the face and body of Norman Reedus. Who knows!

And, finally: here is the content of the excerpt of The Dream Journeys of Bram Hessom, as it appears in Frog Fractions 2/Glittermitten Grove.

People often contacted me after GMG came out to ask me where the rest of TDJOBH could be read. Sorry, the story can’t be read in full online!! I’m not done with it! But if you’d like to read the original form the story took when I was trying to write it for the first time in 2013, you can check out the ‘Under the Village’ unfinished demo linked above.

But, backstory: The Dream Journeys currently exists as a 90-page draft manuscript that requires major edits. I put the first 15 pages into Frog Fractions 2 because Jim suggested to me that I could put anything, “even a novel,” into the game– so I took him up on that offer.

I plan on finishing it– doubling its length, probably– and releasing it someday. It’s special to me because it is mostly just a sendup of late 19th/early 20th century adventure fiction like Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Lost World, etc. This genre was very influential to me as a child.

Plot-wise, The Dream Journeys is primarily about what happens to Bram after his biological father chooses not to kill him and instead banishes him to the fish world. While there, meets an anthropomorphic talking fish-man whose civilization was destroyed by his dad’s inter-dimensional crime syndicate. Bram and his new fish buddy, Tahey, parasite themselves onto a religious war in fish-land so that they can gain control over a radio-teleportation device and return to Earth. Instead of returning to Earth, however, they find themselves traveling here and there across an ancient network of worlds filled with many kinds of odd sentient creatures. (I cannot believe that this paragraph makes sense to me, but it does!)

My favorite thing about Jules Verne’s work is that it was, at the time, science fiction– but today it reads like fantasy. I started writing The Dream Journeys because I wanted to write fantasy about characters who believe that they are living in a science fiction story. The story’s title is actually a reference to another influential work I read when I was younger, HPL’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” which has a plot somewhat similar to the Dream Journeys, particularly in its fantastical elements. You can find the Dream Quest here. It’s a bizarre story with an ending that I find incredibly poignant . Nostalgia and homesickness are, it sometimes seems, a kind of constant and incurable curse that modern young adults in my profession are all forced to live under. We spend a lot of time making homes that will never quite match the rosy imagined fantasies of the places we used to live, and building fantasy worlds which blurrily reflect the vanished places and circumstances of our childhoods. I can’t quite tell you whether I fear or long for the moment when I realize my creative journey has really just taken me on a squirrely trip into the back of my own head.

You got this, Brutadon! — Global Game Jam 2017

Last weekend, I once again drove up to Facebook’s Menlo Park campus to participate in the Global Game Jam. Facebook has a really, really cushy site– four catered meals, including beer and wine at dinner. A bunch of the people I like doing jams with live in the area (or work for Facebook), so it’s a good deal all around!

This year, Kent Sutherland, Rosstin Murphy, Kellie Medlin, Brook Nichols and I cracked out a game for the Amazon Alexa platform in two days. (Alexa is the platform that runs on Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot products.) Our game is called called “You Got This, Brutadon!” and it’s a voice-controlled adventure game where you play the hype man for a kaiju battle between your friend, Brutadon, and the hideous Gromulox. YGTB contains about fifty different randomized battle events written by me and Kent. There are two endings. We wanted to make a voice-controlled game that was centered around the experience of speaking or conversing– not just merely a combat game controlled with voice commands, but a game about talking. YGTB certainly lives up to our goals in that respect!

You can see a full playthrough of You Got This, Brutadon! here:

Although we haven’t passed Amazon’s certification process yet, we have uploaded a working build of our app to itch.io. If you have an AWS account and an Alexa, you might be able to load the game onto your own device. If you wait a couple weeks, though, we’ll have a polished, sound-designed version of the app up on the Alexa app store.

If you own an Echo or Echo Dot and have ever taken a look at the “skills” store (“skills” is Alexa bullshit for “apps”), you’ll probably have noticed that the vast majority of Alexa apps suck. Since the Alexa store is not currently monetized, there’s no great incentive for anyone to put a lot of time and effort into polishing up a really good Alexa app. The “games” section is practically all trivia apps, and it seems like the vast majority of all Alexa apps, period, are “facts” apps– Bird Facts, Bacon Facts, Cat Facts, etc. These facts apps appear to be the “hello world” of Alexa development.

What I’m saying is that You Got This, Brutadon! is already better than, like… a conservative 90% of all Alexa games? I mean, I’m biased, but I and some of my teammates were really shocked with the low quality of the vast majority of Alexa apps. Lots of them just seem like stupid experiments, and a lot have extremely low utility. There’s a color wheel app that does almost nothing. This was one of the top ranked utility apps during the weekend we were making this game. I’m sorry, but this is pretty damn ridiculous!

Going through the certification process, I’ve also learned that Amazon has some pretty strict rules for user interactions. They contain some bizarre design restrictions– like, you’re not supposed to include any commands in the app that the app does not explicitly prompt the player to say. This means that they’re uncomfortable with apps where the player has to guess command intents. It should be possible to get some kinds of command-guessing gameplay in there without breaking the rules. Right now, however they’re already asking us to put command prompts into Brutadon in a few annoying ways.

The big thing that gets me right now is that a bunch of IF classics are focused around experimentation, command-guessing, and avoiding prompts, like Aisle. If something like Aisle could make it onto the Alexa app store easily, then I’d say the Echo would be in a good place for game development. (That said, I haven’t actually tried to make something like Aisle, so I don’t know how much pushback we’d get trying to do that.)

Oh– and they should let us make money with these goddamn apps. Until then, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to spend a lot of time seriously making a polished, content-dense game for this device.