I (and Zam) got some stuff on Critical Distance’s videogame crit roundup

This year, one article I wrote ended up on Critical Distance’s “This Year In Videogame Blogging” roundup. These lists are pretty much always good summaries of the breadth of games crit in any given year. You should skim this list! I was particularly the section on theory and design criticism, and the bit on industry criticism.

The article I wrote which ended up on the list was “Strangling my dinner with my own two hands,” a piece I ran at Zam earlier this year. It’s an essay about power escalation in “survival-construction” games like Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, Subnautica, and Don’t Starve.

Most of the games in this genre seem inspired in greater or lesser degree by Minecraft, and their strategies for escalating player power all seem to bend in the same direction as Minecraft’s. You start by punching trees. After many hours, you end up so powerful you can program giant calculators or make automatic farms two hundred stories high– but the game never releases you from the responsibility of harvesting and cooking your own dinner, fish by fish. No matter how they might market themselves, they are more about having power over nature than about the feeling of being threatened by nature. Nevertheless, they render that power absurd by also forcing their players to perform mundane survival busywork long after they’ve gained godlike control over their surroundings. In the piece, I also get around to talking about how survival-construction games rarely let player power impact nature in a negative way. It’s a toothless, exaggerated, illogical kind of power, and for some reason, we all love it.

I have a long-time obsession with survival-construction games (which has obviously culminated in the fact that I want to make one, hah) and I’m glad that people liked the best piece, I think, that I have managed to write about them.

Zam, the publication I manage, also had pieces by several other authors cited in the CD roundup. Here’s a few:

The Social Justice Witcher by Rowan Kaiser – a great piece about how Geralt’s mystery-solving techniques actually parallel strategies you’re supposed to use for mitigating systemic oppression in the real world.

Why is everyone criticizing Bioshock Infinite these days? by Cameron Kunzelman – a piece about why a longstanding critical take on BI suddenly erupted into public consciousness during the game’s remaster/rerelease.

“Real world issues” in games like Deus Ex are there for marketing reasons, not for art by John Brindle – a piece about why attempts to integrate real social criticism into videogames invariably fail (because they’re usually wedged in to get attention).

Battlefield 1 and Modern Memory, again by John Brindle – a fantastic piece about the difference in the way that American and British players percieve the (good? poor?) taste of making a game about World War One. (Kudos to you if you’ve read the book this title references, hah.) Very proud of Brindle for getting into this list twice at Zam!

1979 Revolution: A snapshot of chaos and propaganda, by Robert Rath – a great overview of the history of revolutionary politics which underpins one of this year’s most interesting narrative games.

I’m super proud of everyone who wrote for us in 2016, in general, and I am particularly pleased that some of our best work made the Critical Distance list! If I could have added my own suggestions, I’d have also suggested some stuff by Bruno Dias, like this piece about Dark Souls 3, and some of our more unusual reviews, like this Aevee Bee review of Fire Emblem Fates. (However it seems as if this list deliberately avoids reviews? Anyway, read that one. I liked it.) I honestly don’t have a recent memory recall good enough to make a comprehensive list of all my favorite articles from 2016, so I’m sure I’ll think of others I liked later, but this is what’s rising to the top of my mind right now.

I do, however, have at least one very strong opinion about other publications’ articles that should be on this list: they shoulda had a Pokemon Go section, and it shoulda contained this incredible Miami Herald article about digital redlining in the game. It was one of the best and most relevant pieces written in the last year about how digital worlds intersect with our physical one. I understand that Critical Distance focuses on writing from, essentially, “game blog land,” however nebulously it’s defined, but I think that branching out to more traditional media for writing about games is absolutely worth it. I suppose it’s on me to pay attention when the submission process opens up for 2017!

Frog Fractions 2 is out!!!

Frog Fractions 2 has been published! Finally!! It’s out on Steam now! I wrote and helped design one of the minigames in it. This is the first game I have worked on that is being sold for money on Steam!

Spoilers ahead! Don’t read past this shrugging boy if you don’t want to know anything about Frog Fractions 2!!

shrugboy

So: FF2 is actually called Glittermitten Grove. Like the original Frog Fractions, FF2 is a mess of hilarious minigames hidden inside a game that seems to be completely ordinary. Glittermitten is actually a chill base-building game– and for the full FF2 experience, I think you should play it and try to figure out how to get to the minigame section on your own. If basebuilding games make you rage, though, and you want to get straight to the minigames, there are ways around it.

My contributions to Glittermitten Grove are the two “SPAXRIS” sections. SPAXRIS stands for Super Passive Aggresive Xenomorph Roommate Irritation Simulator. It’s a game where you are a space marine from the movie Aliens who is trying to annoy your xenomorph roommate until he moves out of your shared apartment. You would kill him, but you are in the same friend group and have too many mutual friends. Your aggression is limited to drinking his beers, messing with his law school textbooks, changing the HDMI cables around on the TV, and flushing the toilet repeatedly while he is trying to brush his teeth.

spaxris3.png

 

Here’s the mildly-weird story of how SPAXRIS got in the game. I’ve done a lot of game jamming in the Bay Area– that’s where I’d caught the bug– and one of the absolute best games I’d made for a jam there is Desert Hike EX. Jim Crawford, the lead developer on FF2/GMG, led the Desert Hike team, which included me and a bunch of his other friends.

A while ago, a friend of mine was running a jam that I had the opportunity to do with Jim. He wrassled up a team and we went. And, like Desert Hike, the team Jim wrangled up was really good, and the art and music were great, and I was able to go absolutely nuts with the writing. By the end of the weekend we did not have a completely finished game, but we did have something that was pretty clearly hilarious. At some point, Jim leaned over and told me, “Let’s just put this in FF2.” So that’s what happened.

It’s funny that the first Steam game I’ve contributed to is something I made almost without knowing that it would even be part of a commercial game at all. I’d just got done doing a lot of writing and localization for a bunch of PC and mobile games that were mostly cancelled. (The ones that were not cancelled before release are Facebook games, and THEY have all been shut down!) Since then, I’ve gained a lot of experience and have started doing story consulting and writing on indie and AAA games, but none of those have released yet, either! I often feel like the last couple years were kind of “lost years” for me. So it’s deeply gratifying that SOMETHING commercial that I worked on in that period is finally coming out and is really good!

I am roommates with Rachel Sala, FF2’s artist and Jim’s development partner, so I’ve gotten to see a lot of the blood, sweat, tears, tiny frogs, etc. that went into FF2. I’m really glad this game has finally come out and that they can enjoy the results! A lot of great things have happened in my life thanks to knowing Jim and Rachel and hanging out with them and making cool shit with them, and I’m incredibly proud of them and the other developers!

Anyway, yeah! Enjoy the game!

One thing canceled, one thing on hiatus, new (commercial) games in progress

Hey folks, I know I’ve mentioned in the past that I will be releasing a sci-fi story collection called “Other Orbits.” I’ve decided not to do that anymore!

Other Orbits would have been an art overhaul of my already-released story The Hive Abroad, paired with two other stories that were new when I planned this collection: Redundant, and an unreleased story called The Long Slide, about a woman who is dying slowly from damage caused by the nanobots designed to keep her alive.

Anyway, two out of the three of these are now released. And I’m not really interested in finishing edits and polish on The Long Slide, partially because it’s just dark and miserable in a really unproductive way and represents the worst parts of my feelings about my own health issues. I think I’ll eventually replace The Hive Abroad with the new, art-updated version, but that’s it. Other Orbits is toast. Sorry! Nothing lost, really, though. Redundant is real good and you should play it!

I’ve got some other news which is a little more upsetting to me, though: Six Months is basically on hiatus for the first half of 2017.

The reason? I am doing too many other things. I wanted Six Months to be a proof of my writing and narrative design ability– I mean, I wanted to tell a good story, but I also wanted to create an amazing proof of skill. I wanted Six Months to be my resume, and I wanted it to be big and bold enough to cover up all those years when I was working on cancelled and failed games. But it’s been, like, three years now, and people are offering to pay me to make faster things which will be equally as good a proof of my skills, so– yeah. Six Months is going on the back burner while I get that stuff done.

I have every intention of finishing Six Months, because it’s kickass and I think people will buy it. Problem is, it’s literally novel-length. I just gotta ship my other stuff and wave it around in people’s faces and say “LOOK AT ME,  LOOK AT MY ‘SKILL SET,’ I’M GREAT!” And in the process I’m gonna learn Unity, which is going to make shipping Six Months even easier.

Anyway, here’s the stuff I’ve worked on/am working on right now, both in and out of games:

  • I wrote for Frog Fractions 2, and the stuff I wrote is hilarious, so when that comes out I’m gonna wave it hard as hell in your faces
  • I wrote for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, which is also super cool. Beautiful weird stuff going on in that game! I’m very excited for people to someday see it.
  • I am doing story consulting and writing for a AAA game being developed in the LA area! But that’s a secret still.
  • I am going to be doing some amount of story consulting for an additional indie game!
  • My friend Nate Ruegger and I are writing a screenplay version of Redundant! We finished the first draft extremely fast and I am incredibly stoked about it. This will be the first thing I finish in 2017. It turns out that when two people who are eager to impress one another write a screenplay together, shit gets done! Fast!!
  • My friends Kent Sutherland and Brody Brooks and I are working on a new version of Words Must Die! We are making a whole new game with a slightly different linking mechanic and a whole lot more polish. We’re gonna sell it for money.

And I’m also working my day job! For years I’ve been working on side projects all night long after getting home from work, but the hours don’t match up in a way that leaves space for Six Months anymore.

And, to be honest, I have not worked on it in a month. It’s better to recognize that and make a plan to put it down (and take it back up again, eventually) so that I don’t wear myself out worrying about the fact I’m not working on it!

About story consulting: at my old job I worked with a creative partner who taught me a very specific iterative story-pitch process that I’ve now started using elsewhere. It’s good for early-stage story planning stuff and it’s great at helping non-writer team members understand the process and the possibilities involved in coming up with a story for their game. It’s also good for helping the writer understand exactly what the other parties’ critiques are about. I hope I get to use it at more places in the future because I like this process a lot and it’s produced really great results every time I use it!

Anyway, no fear: you will eventually be able to help a sweaty sad duke investigate his dead brother’s horrific grenade murder. Just not yet.

Ambient Mixtape 16 thoughts

Ambient Mixtape 16 is a collection of itch-hosted games that were all built in Unity, all use the same first-person camera controller, and were all themed around the concept of “After Hours.” The site says:

AM16 intends to showcase a diverse spectrum of independent developers and how their process interacts within shared constraints.

I played all the games in the collection and I pretty much liked them all. You should definitely check out as many of them as you can manage. Here’s my short thoughts on each of them:

Screenshot 2016-11-21 19.58.50.png

The Migration – Connor Sherlock

Connor Sherlock is a Very Good Developer whose work I have played and enjoyed before, and The Migration is pretty much More Good Connor Sherlock Stuff. This is a long atmospheric walk through a cold desert night. The colors are swell. There are pillars and monoliths all over the damn place, and eventually you reach a booming catharsis with some good-ass music. Please play this one. Please play all his stuff, actually.

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD – Lycaon

This one lets you know right off the bat that it’s about the creator’s depression. I’ve played kind of a lot of games about depression over the last six or seven years, and this is certainly the one that has made me feel most physically anxious and uncomfortable– which is, like, a serious achievement! If you’re sensitive to flashing or flickering lights you might want to skip this game, but the rest of you should check it out. Really effective use of sound and disruptive visual effects. Short and strong, like a punch to the chest.

Screenshot 2016-11-21 20.07.56.png

t- e ni hтm-are of·`a c ty – Pol Clarissou

This game is evocative of a place and a feeling– being in a rainy city at night, feeling and hearing the cars pass by with violent speed in the dark. There’s no story content, but there’s some very cool disorienting effects. You can probably get a good feel of it in only two or three minutes. I am honestly not sure if there’s anything else here– I got quite turned around and lost, which is the point of the experience, i think.

Rotting Crescendo – René Rother

A cool puzzle and some atmospheric boat environment work. Beyond the mood, I am not sure that I “got” it– it ends with a an image-heavy but context-light poem that I am not sure is there to be “got”– but I did enjoy figuring out the puzzle.

touch me2 –  animal phase

There’s a cool gag here involving a FPS hand that I really enjoyed. Short as hell, but the gag is pretty sound, and it’s well-centered in the game. I feel like the creator could do a lot more with it– but regardless of whether or not they plan on that, this is Funny and Good and I liked it.

Panoptique – emptyfortress

A short walk through increasingly static-y hallways while dudes in shirts and ties shirts with computers for heads tell you how fucked society is. A little rough, compared to the others in the collection. I think I completed it in less than a minute.

Screenshot 2016-11-21 20.35.47.png

Exit 19 – Jack Squires

This one uses a neat noise effect on near landscapes and structures. Right away, this establishes a really interesting, coherent mood. Lighting and colors help a lot, too. There’s a huge environment to explore, though, and the signposting is not great, so I almost quit a few times before I suddenly stumbled upon the ending. The game will return you to the correct path if you wander away from it too much, but that brute-force method doesn’t feel great and there are a few environments where you can wander in circles again and again without figuring out where you should go. The scenes dotted around the desert are really damn spooky-good, though, and the music and sound design are great, and the weirdly Lovecraftian text snippets are fun. Worth checking out.

I Have Been There Twice – RoboCicero

A mysterious walk through a rainy brown city. You leave a track of glowing polygons behind you in the dark as you pass mothy orange lights and sealed-off doorways up the hill toward a glowing pillar of light. Another example of a really efficiently-captured and spooky mood. I ended the game by doing SOMETHING weird, and I’m not sure if I really saw the whole thing, but it was chill nevertheless.

Screenshot 2016-11-22 00.56.14.png

Media is dead, you are alive – MrTedders

Perhaps the most explicitly gamey of all the games in this collection. It has puzzles with rules and a learning curve. It has an appealingly noisy pixelly aesthetic. It has calm robot-y voices that chant quotes from games studies texts at you in environments made of throbbing polygons. I am not sure that I actually completed it– got to a pulsating greyish screen at one point and just figured I was done. I am a big fan of weird throbbing polygon environments, though, and these were some good ones.

About the collection in general: the site seems to say that the collection is meant to show people making diverse works within a shared set of constraints– perhaps to show a lot of very different takes on a simple idea, the way a game jam does. The restraints were pretty loose, too: just a shared camera controller and a vague-as-hell theme.

However, these games were pretty damn similar across the board. That’s not bad, really! All of these were pretty much the kind of thing I like to play in a single-session environment-explorer. But these creators did demonstrate a common fascination with rainy city nights, giant (Lovecraftian?) edifices, and a kind of blurry-edged cosmic-horror-slash-existential-despair. I was glad to see touch me2 explore some different ground, tonally.

Similarities aside, though, these creators are really really talented at capturing that kind of vague dread. I was particularly impressed by The Migration, Exit 19’s art and audio aesthetic, the rainy distortion in t- e ni hтm-are of·`a c ty, and the repetitive thudding despair of The House that Dripped Blood.

I hope the organizers do another one of these in the future!

The Brigand’s Story

This Halloween, I released a kind of interactive short story/game based on a cyclical story-chant kind of a thing that my friends and I used to tell in grade school. The story goes like this:

It was a dark and stormy night, and around the campfire burning bright sat brigands large and brigands small. And the captain, turning to his lieutenant, said: Antonio! Tell us one of your most famous stories! And Antonio began: it was a dark and stormy night, and around the campfire burning bright sat brigands large and brigands small…

The story repeats endlessly– or until you get tired of telling it. I looked it up in October out of curiosity and found this livejournal post and comments section, which together contain so many alternate versions of the story that I was honestly blown away. I’d thought I was telling the rhyme in some standard form, but it turns out that there’s so many different versions of it that there isn’t even really an obvious “official version” of it to pin down. (There is, however, an “Antonio” in most of them.)

I immediately had the idea for an interactive short story or game where you live through several versions of some fantastical, time-looping bandit-and-Antonio-related event. I cracked it out as fast as possible and released it Halloween morning.

You can find it on itch here. You can find it online here.

I am very proud of this story– I am genuinely pleased with the results and I wrote it in three weeks flat while I was also busy doing a hundred other things, displaying, I suppose, a discipline and efficiency with story-writing that I strive for but rarely actually reach? Anyway, I hope you take some time to play it! It’s got only one significant choice and only one firm ending, but it does have two alternate ending-paths which you can explore, and a few “environments” where you can read things out of order and draw your own conclusions about what’s going on in the tale.

Words Must Die – Pippin Barr Game Idea Jam

I am a huge fan of Pippin Barr and his enigmatic “game idea” tweets, so when I saw that they were running a jam based on those tweets– like, a better Molyjam– was all over that shit absolutely instantly. My friends and I wrangled up a gigantic team (for a jam, anyway) and we made a game called Words Must Die.

You can find Words Must Die here.

It’s the first jam game I’ve made in Unity. Well, I didn’t do any of the coding or touch Unity very much, but my friends Brody, Rosstin, and Brian did, and they did a phenomenal job. Here’s the full list of participants:

This was a thrill to work on, and it makes a really excellent stupid idea that Kent, Rosstin and I had over a year ago into a real, good thing. And we worked with a lot of new people and that was super great!

Definitely check out the rest of the Game Idea Jam entries, because this was an extremely good jam idea.

Update! We’ve been covered on the following sites:

Rock Paper Shotgun: “It’s certainly the best western-themed FPSIF I can think of.”

Kotaku: “Words Must Die is what happens when a first person shooter and visual novel have a beautiful baby.”

Some Hungarian site: “Üdvözlet a vadnyugaton, ahol rosszarcú cowboyok és levegőben lebegő szövegrészek állják majd az utadat.”

And a bunch of YouTubers!

About excavating old projects

I have nearly all of my writing saved from about 7th grade onward. From 7th grade, I’ve got a single essay about Of Mice and Men; after that, I have nearly every essay or story I ever wrote saved in whatever file format I wrote it in. It’s incredible. I’ve got every typed Latin translation I did in 8th grade. I’ve got the application I wrote to my school’s yearbook committee in 9th grade:

yearbook9thgrade

From 10th grade I have an incredibly insulting poem I wrote in rhyming couplets about my English teacher, who was notorious for sloppy grading and passing out in her office on Robitussin. I actually distributed this one to my classmates, who never revealed me as the (extremely obvious, in retrospect) writer:

rageofgillis

From 11th grade I have another poem, untitled, in a document called “hmm.doc”, which, among other things, claims that we’re going to be graded poorly at the end of the world by god if we eat too much salad:

11thgradepoem

From 12th grade I have an incredibly elaborate script I wrote for my partners in a history class mock trial. We did an extremely large number of mock trials in 12th grade AP Euro, and for several of them I wrote all the prep materials for my partners and tried to get them to memorize various arguments. I once made a classmate cry in a mock trial:

12thgradepug

I have most of my notes from college; a few years were lost to broken hard drives. The most impressive schoolwork I’ve found so far is a folder full of notes and drafts I made of a paper about plays about Robespierre. I took 43 pages of preparatory notes from the various papers and plays I read in prep for this piece:

robespierrepaper

The result of all this was a paper titled “Why Robespierre has no ‘personal life'” which was so good and so much fun to write that I physically shook and cried when I finished writing it. My history professor liked it so much that she offered to submit it to a competition for me; unfortunately, she sent the email after the end of the term, and I did not read it until the next year, when the deadline had passed. I just reread the paper now and I love that I got to write something so bizarre and interesting. It includes stuff like this:

robespierrepaperexcerpt

It’s fun to look back at my old schoolwork; I really truly and deeply loved being a student, and I had some fun successes, and the research work I produced as an undergrad is still entertaining for me to read today.

The fiction I wrote as a child and a teenager, however, is physically painful for me to read!!

Some background information: when I was in 6th grade, my close friend Liz approached me in the after-school program and handed me a floppy disk containing a 30-40 page fantasy story she had written. She asked me to read it and tell her what I thought. I remember that I said quite nice things to her– nicer than I really felt, because it was a romance story and I did not like or understand romances. It took place in a world highly similar to the Stock Fantasy World we all read about in Lord of the Rings and Lord of the Rings ripoffs, but the horses had six legs, and that really bothered me, for some reason.

I had an astonishing number of uncharitable private thoughts about her story, actually. I remember sitting in the after-school program room and giving her suggestions and suddenly clamming up when I became aware of the sheer number and crankiness of the suggestions I had stored up in my head. I’d written my own “books” in composition journals before– lots of talking-animal tales– and after seeing Liz’s work I was suddenly consumed by the desire to write an entire novel on a computer. My own novel, following the suggestions I’d been telling her before I suddenly recognized them for my own taste.

So I basically started writing fiction because I wanted to privately show up one of my best friends. This doesn’t reflect well on me. But right there, that very day, at that exact computer, with Liz’s story open on a window in the background, full of indignation that her horses had six fucking legs, I began writing a fantasy novel in 10-point Arial font.

It ballooned to over 300 pages by the end of 8th grade, when I finished it. It absolutely consumed my free time. Throughout those years I kept various version-controlled copies of the story burned to CDs and hidden in jewel cases taped to the back of my dresser and the underside of my desk drawer. I still have all those copies, saved on various external hard drives:

chronicle-version-control

This means I can go back in time to the earliest version of this story and read it. It’s the one down at the bottom in .rtf format, and it is the actual file that I typed and saved on that school computer where I read Liz’s story. (I actually kept it saved there at school for months until my dad mentioned at dinner that it was possible for hard drives to fail.) Anyway, here are the first two paragraphs:

chronicle-first-version

That, right there, is my 6th-grade storytelling. I absolutely love my strict dedication to sticking the exclamation point after the parentheses.

I hate absolutely everything else about this story. Not only is it silly young-person writing, but it embodies some life attitudes and political sensibilities that I no longer agree with, and it makes me very uncomfortable to see my child self proselytizing them in a book about wizards who wear color-coded clothes like karate masters and spend a lot of time arguing about the semantics of the word “werewolf”.

was-wolf

The biggest reason these stories make me uncomfortable, though. is that I am still subconsciously excavating them for writing material today.

Between 6th and 12th grade, I wrote four different novel-length stories. Three of them were rehashes or recyclings of the story I started writing when Liz showed me her six-legged-horse romance in the after-school room. The first version, above, started out as some kind of weird action story political thriller thing with wizard politicians sentencing one another to imprisonment before racing to kill an evil wizard at the north pole who lived with t-rexes in a cave. (It’s deeply uncomfortable to read now, but I have to recognize that it was badass.)

The second story I wrote was a super-confused sequel. (It had no t-rexes.) The third story, though, was a complete remix of the original premise. I saved the city names and two of the character ideas and completely redid everything else while keeping generally to the same themes. But one of the characters I saved was a wizard– and then he got recycled again when I started rewriting the story as an adult, and guess the fuck what– he’s been recycled a couple more times and now he’s in Six Months. He’s your research assistant in that story. He’s completely different and I no longer write like an 11-year-old, but the bones are still visible to me, and Jesus Christ, guys, this is terrible! This is terrifying! I’m trying to write a novel-length game which I now completely and fully realize is based on recycled material I created in the sixth fucking grade!

The cool thing about writing is that your time spent doing it is never wasted. Even if you write something that is never published, you are getting better every moment you spend toiling away. I once wrote well over a hundred quests for a cancelled game, and freaked the fuck out when I learned we were ceasing development. The next day, though, I woke with some kind of spooky icy calm and told myself that I’d learned so much doing it that it wasn’t actually a waste. Spooky-me was right. Writing is the hard work we do to communicate with other people, but even if other people never get to see it, you’re getting better at the communicating, so it’s fine. It’s fine! It’s okay.

It seems however that I’ve been subconsciously saving a lot more from my middle school works than I thought I was. I wasn’t just taking new skills with me when I moved on. I wasn’t just recycling place-names. My work is built on some really old fucking bones and I had no idea how old and how obvious those bones were until I read all this shit today.

Everyone tends to have their own private-but-obvious themes that they gravitate to in their writing– even their most commercial and crass writing. In 2014, I wrote like three different versions of the same relationship in three different failed writing projects, and in December of that year, I suddenly laid all those stories out next to one another and nearly shat myself.

When it comes to stories about wizards who live in renaissance-era cities, I have been writing for like fourteen or fifteen fucking years about, apparently, the same couple people, doing the same couple things off and on as they skip between stories and contexts and shitty fucking magic systems. Soller in Six Months combines the ignorance and cunning I gave various of his older selves in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010, and 2012. Simon Villano is actually this humble old regent dude from the 2006 story, which I wrote in high school:

villano

Later in that story he is so nervous about fighting a battle that he barfs in a closet. I knew I was recycling those themes, but I had no idea how closely I was sticking to them!

A lot of people keep elaborate moleskins of notes so that they can refer to them later and mine their passing thoughts for good creative work. I used to do this in college. These days, though, I am almost never more than two feet away from something with Google Docs on it, so I actually try writing out a couple paragraphs of any idea I have to see if it feels good or not. I have hundreds of page-long moments saved in my Drive where I tried an idea out and realized it sucked, actually.

But the very first idea I ever had is still haunting me, apparently. Does that make it shitty? Sure feels that way to me, even though I know that feeling’s wrong. Maybe recycling these ideas over and over again for fifteen years has made them extra good. Maybe I tumbled the sediment out and only the gems are left.

Or maybe I’m just lazy. Who knows? We’ll find out, eventually.

My old Imaginary Games Jam prompts

I mentioned a while ago that I might upload the prompts I wrote for the Imaginary Games Jam, the jam I created OBAWCATRVOS for. For this jam, we were asked to review games which either did not exist or could never exist. I invented a few impossible hardware platforms (augury, interactive bathroom mirrors), genres that never existed (Japanese cowboy games, games where you lie completely still and pretend to be a corpse), and a prompt even I cannot completely understand now (what the hell was I thinking the editing game would play like?)

Someone picked Sub Way to inspire their work for the jam; the rest were passed over. Anyway, here they are:

Sub Way (Sam Guss) (Resultant game here)

Heads up: this is not an entry-level augury. Guss has provided the setting details and code necessary to get the game started, but you’ll need to provide your own sheep and duck. All told, the start-up costs for this title ran me over $400, in addition to the game itself. Of course, Sub Way also requires a certain familiarity with standard oracular procedure– die-casting, leaf-reading, livers, cards, and dream-interpretation all make an appearance. Anyone with at least a high-school-level of forecasting skill should be able to get to the end of the game.

Because, let’s be honest: Sub Way isn’t doing anything exciting with the form. The actual augury gameplay is pretty routine, and if you’re looking for some really tricky and thrilling predictions to execute, you’ll be disappointed. As a mood piece, though, this is sublime. Guss eschews a “realistic” fictional future in favor of a highly-stylized one where everything seems to exist barely outside the realm of the possible– a really weird feeling to have in a genuine augury. Everything’s a little too dark, a little too apocalyptic. Prussia doesn’t exist. People use buttonless cellphones. New York has below-ground tramlines. Divining such a profoundly false future feels really, really odd. I’d love to know more about how Guss pulled it off.

If you’re looking for a chance to play, Guss will be releasing a patch that updates the game for next month’s lunar calendar. Though the forecasts are a little boring, the story is great, and anyone with the luxury of eight free nights in March (and some extra budget for livestock) should give it a shot.

Shaving (dreamblind)

This mirror install is one of the better ones I’ve played over the last year. It runs on Samsung and Google bathrooms (sorry, Apple die-hards) and any model from those brands with eye-tracking should do the trick. You don’t need to actually be capable of growing a beard to play.

Told over the course of fourteen mornings in St Petersburg in 1998, Shaving swaps your reflection for that of Ivan, a 14-year-old whose father has been threatened by the mob. Each session lasts about 15 minutes, which is about how long it takes Ivan to shave. You could technically play it all the way through at once, if you can bear to stand up in your bathroom for that long, but I spaced it out over two weeks.

Did I love it? Well– I loved what it was trying to be. It’s probably the buggiest game I’ve played this year! The razor-tracking was horrible– the blades kept clipping into Ivan’s skull, and I had to restart one day after this caused Ivan to cut his ear off. I encountered another bug on Day 8 that made it impossible for me to actually get the hairs to come off his face, and on Day 11 the game failed to load Ivan’s model and made me play with just his voice in an empty bathroom– which made shaving extremely difficult. The story, though, is gripping– some of the tensest shit I’ve seen in a while. If you ever wanted to play a thriller in your bathroom, this is probably the best (only?) one that currently exists.

Slick Willy (Taharbrand)

Okay, okay: it’s another corpser. The usual critics are calling Slick Willy totally tasteless, but I’m an apologist; there’s honestly more going on here than most people are willing to acknowledge. Yes, ‘Willy’ has no skin. Yes, you’ll spend most of the game in a morgue refrigerator. But this time, the focus is on what’s outside the refrigerator, not what’s in it.

Slick Willy is really more like Jane Eyre than last year’s Dead Jane. Taharbrand have crafted a bizarre and extremely fraught, melodramatic love-triangle romance catastrophe between the three young lab techs who admit Willy’s corpse and take care of the morgue. At normal volume levels, their conversations will be dimly audible just outside the refrigerator. Players must lie very still and quietly in the real world in order to hear the things Clarissa, Bryan, and Robin are saying to one another in the game. These listening sections are interspersed with more traditional corpser content on the dissection-table, but the real guts of the tale– ha, ha, ha– are the refrigerator sections.

I think this probably deserves to be the game that brings corpsers to the mainstream, but given the outraged backlash this title got even before it was released, I don’t think it will be. But if you’ve got an extra ten bucks, a pair of really good headphones, and an open mind, you should give Slick Willy a shot.

The Life and Times of Virginia Stennig (Diane Crisp)

Virginia Stennig’s been billed as a ‘interactive editing experience,’ but let’s be honest: it’s a bad shooter. You’ll be spending most of your time shooting. Crisp released the game alongside an ebook explaining that we are only supposed to be shooting the parts of the text we don’t like, but I’m worried that so many people will be shooting so many sentences that she’ll assume we’re all trolling her. But really: no sentence in the story is good enough to spare a bullet.

I usually enjoy games which allow me to play at shooting things I don’t like, but the shooting in Virginia Stennig is awkward, buggy, and unsatisfying. When you shoot a sentence it only turns a slightly lighter shade of grey. The shots lag considerably after each click, and the gunshot sounds are canned and unrealistic.

And worst of all, of course, is the book itself. It’s one of those sprawling alternate-history family epics that are absolutely swamping the market right now. Look: I am totally done with  bildungsromans where the hero travels abroad to find their lost Soviet rocket-engineer grandmothers. I am so done with them. And now that I’ve had to edit a bad one with a gun, I’m done-r than I’ve ever been.

Laredo Tale (Choice Choice)

I assumed that this modern sequel to 1995’s Dodge City Tale would suck, but god, was I wrong. If anything can be called a true revival of the classic Japanese cowboy game, this is it. This has gotta be it.

You’ll be spending most of your time out on horseback on the prairie with the cows and the other cowboys, but there are plenty of town sections, and a few action sequences both in-town and in dramatic natural environments. The game can’t properly be said to be ‘open world,’ but the environments are big enough to disguise this. The game certainly benefits from a largely linear focus.

It also benefits from major changes to the character-customization system. The game no longer limits you to playing a straight white man: you can now play a cowboy of any race or gender you please, and dude cowboys can romance the other dude cowboys on the trail. It seems like series creator Tetsuya Highsmith has been reading the fanfiction.

Finally, fans of the classic cow-organization gameplay will be absolutely thrilled with Laredo Trail. Pasture simulation is better than it’s ever been, and the game makes use of the same ‘MASSIVE’ software used to simulate battles in Lord of the Rings to simulate cow movement and clashes between rival cow herds. All in All, Laredo Tale is an absolute triumph, and possibly heralds new life for the entire genre.

Fermi Jam – The Galactic Snub

I recently participated in the Fermi Paradox Jam, a game jam organized on itch.io by Loren Schmidt and Katie Rose Pipkin, two creators I seriously admire. The jam encouraged people to make games inspired by or somehow related to the Fermi Paradox– a concept which tries to dissect why we haven’t yet met any space aliens. Even if we assume that very few planets can or do support life, space should be crawling with aliens, because space is full of planets. So why haven’t we met any of them yet?

My submission, The Galactic Snub, posits that all the aliens are hanging out in space together already and have simply chosen to ignore us. You pester them for explanations, and they give you excuses:

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This game includes a background sound/music track by my friend Ford which is honestly the best sound I have ever had for any of my sound-including personal projects. Ford is looking to do more sound design! He did the music for Plus Ultra projects SlaughtertrainMonstr, and The Ritual for the Mysterious Godforce Which Unites Us All, and he is pretty dang rad.

UPDATE: Someone has letsplayed my game!

I played several other Fermi Jam games and liked some of them! Here are some of them:

The Echo Initiative, a cool, toy-like little satellite that you must puzzle out

The Fixed Stars: A Primer, by Loren Schmidt. A hypertext work that requires a little active exploration. Some really really nice stuff in here.

Hero and Leander, a pair of twitter bots who are searching for one another across the “space” of thousands of hashtags

No Stars, Only Constellations, a game about stargazing/disappointing your boyfriend, by Robert Yang

The Planets are Occupied by Living Beings, a deeply strange Twine game containing the fictionalized tale of a (historically real) Russian theoretical rocket scientist prophesying our ascension into space

Paradox is a surprisingly robust little space exploration/trading game with a command-line ship and docking-bay interface that I found rather charming. The UI and artstyle reminded me a little of Capsule, which I played in a state of profound anxiety for hours while lying on my friend Kent’s couch during a Los Angeles apartment search in 2014– and which has had quite a big impact on me, I suppose. It was fun to see reflected in Paradox here.

Anyway, there’s like 80 games in this jam, so I’m sure I missed some good ones. It was a really, really good jam prompt– both specific enough and open enough to inspire a lot of very very different and differently-interesting games. A+. The next game jam I’m likely to do is the Pippin Bar Game Idea game jam, which also has a ton of good good prompts.

Let’s Talk About Choices: Traditional CYOA

When I tell people that I work on choose-your-own-adventure -type projects, they usually think of the original Choose Your Own Adventure-brand books from the 80s and 90s. They think of stuff that looks like this:

df5V8MB[1]

In the original Choose Your Own Adventure books, choices were presented in separate blocks of text at the bottom of the page. There was often a horizontal line or other marker between the story content and the choice itself. These choices were usually all italicized and right-justified– they looked different from all the rest of the text on the page. They almost all used the same very specific language: “if you insert action here, turn to page X.”

When I was a kid, I accepted that this was “how choose your own adventure stories work.” As far as I knew, separating choice text from story action was the only way to handle choice at all. It made these books easy to read. It standardized them. This uniform look was part of “the brand.” It was also similar to the way that all of my favorite narrative videogames presented choice.

I pretty much continued to believe this all the way until I started writing my own stories with Twine.

Over the past four years I’ve come to realize that the way you present choice to the player has a huge effect on the overall mood and internal logic of a CYOA story. Changes to the way choices appear in front of your audience can totally alter their understanding of themselves as a character in the story. You can make a reader feel differently about themselves by presenting choices in a different way!

This is probably obvious to a lot of you who have written Twine pieces before, but I’d like to dig into this phenomenon a little bit. I want to write several blog posts covering ways of presenting choice in hypertext stories, and discuss the ways that each of these can make the reader feel differently about themselves and their role in the story’s world.

I plan on covering traditional CYOA choice formats, inline keywords, cycling text choices, color coding, and other tools I’ve seen used in hypertext stories.  First, however, I’m starting with…

Standard old-school Choose-Your-Own-Adventure choices: what they are like, and what they do

So, anyway, remember this?

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The big fat bold number at the top. The stand-out questions at the bottom. The strong visual distinctiveness of the different elements on the page. The clarity of their purpose. The characteristic “If you do X, turn to page Y” language. These are all part of the classic CYOA choice system, and those of us who read these books as kids have the whole “feel” of the experience carved indelibly into our brains.

I’ll be classifying any choice structure that uses separate lists of choice options at the end of a narrative passage as “CYOA” style. This classic structure– as it appears in the old books– makes the story very simple to read, and makes it easy to tell that the story is branching. It was designed as a way to talk to kids. The page elements I listed above provide clarity. They’re pretty foolproof!

They also directly address the experience of reading the book. “Turn to page 200!” There’s no attempt to disguise the experience or couch it in “immersive” explanations. Every page admits that this is a book, a non-traditional book, with its own particular way of being read. The whole page is set up to be clear and honest about what you are doing. It is also relatively honest[1] about how the story works.

But these clearly-demarcated, foolproof page-sections also make the experience of reading CYOA stories into a staccato, irregular experience. Choices, sequestered away at the bottom of the page, take place in a realm of frozen time– in a dimension where only the choice exists. They are separated physically and stylistically from the rest of the story. The narrative pauses– time stops. Choice happens. Time starts again, and the story continues. The reader is the story’s analog operator, and the reader needs to do the work to make it move forward. This takes time.

But the reading experience isn’t the only thing this staccato organization of time affects. Separating the choices away on their own part of the page also has an affect on the way the plot of the story can leap and bound across time. As a child I was always bemused by my CYOA books’ erratic relationship with time and space. The choice region of the page was capable of eliding whole months and years, skipping over whole continents, totally eliminating whole characters and problems in a single sentence. In that frozen moment of choice, your future reached out to many different times and places at once. On page 18, you’d be boarding a pirate ship; when you turned ahead to page 72, suddenly a whole month would have passed, and you’d be tackling the next problem, whatever that was. The choice-dimension can eat whole chunks of timeline effortlessly. If you would like to go through boot camp, turn to page 99. If you would like to be digested by the Saarlac, turn to page 302. If you would like to sleep for a thousand years, turn to page 12.

The CYOA question style also does funny things to the player-character. The “you” in traditional CYOA statements, like the ones above, was frequently the player themselves:

pick-adventure-note[1]

These books addressed your external control over the story in a very frank and honest way. You’re not really always a character living in the world of the book; you’re a reader of a complicated text, exercising your intuition and wisdom to beat the challenge of the story.

And despite what that introductory warning says, as I play more and more experimental games that push boundaries with narrative, these traditional, hyper-frank-and-honest CYOA books seem less like immersive stories that take me on an adventure, and more like trial-and-error puzzles couched in the language of power and fantasy. They do not really make me feel as if I am in control of anything. They are so clear and honest about what they are doing that they expose the author’s control to me quite clearly. Each time I choose, I think more and more about what the author is trying to communicate with the choices, what the puzzle of the book wants me to do, and so on. To adult-me, CYOA books feel more like a weird, alienating puzzle than like a participatory story. This isn’t to say that I don’t like the books anymore! These are merely the emotions and thought-processes that sequestered-choice, page-turning CYOA inspires in me.

Even if you disagree with me about this, however, it’s undeniable that CYOA choice format can influence the way the reader thinks and feels about themselves and about the story.

Let’s summarize. The traditional, interrogative CYOA choice format as seen in the books can have the following effects:

  • The choice section of the page often gives the impression of existing “outside time”, in the “choice dimension”
  • The choice section of the page has a strong visual distinctiveness that can interrupt the flow of the story
  • It can very quickly leap over time, space, and events
  • It makes choice and plot-branching into a clear, explicit, foolproof experience
  • It frequently addresses the reader as a reader, acknowledging their controlling input

To some extent, all of these problems and advantages can appear in Twine/hypertext games which use the CYOA choice model. But with modifications, the traditional CYOA model can be altered to avoid the form’s pitfalls and amplify its advantages.

CYOA-variants for hypertext

Most of the cool CYOA variants I typically see in Twine stories are all about re-contextualizing the voice of the choice to make the reader feel differently about their relationship to the protagonist and to the story.

I’ve seen choice statements which continue sentences found in the main body of the story. For example:

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These continued sentences are a good way to link choices to the story– to tear down the wall between the body text and the “choice dimension.” Although these choices are still abstracted from the physical space of the story passage, they are not entirely removed from the flow of the story’s language. There is less of a stop-start feeling to the reading experience.

I’ve also seen choice statements written from a personal, first-person perspective:

screenshot-2016-09-13-19-13-20

These first-person choices are also good at reducing the player’s abstraction from the text. They sometimes make the story sound as if you are talking to another person– they mimic the conversation of a dungeon master and a role-player. If you write your CYOA story with choices that follow this prompt-and-response structure, you create a logical explanation for why the choices are separate from the flow of the story in the first place. It sounds like conversation, and feels less artificial than the “If yous” of traditional CYOA.

Then there’s choice statements written in the personal idiom of the main character, or as the character’s thoughts.

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Choice statements written conversationally can be used to express a character’s innermost thoughts. They can be used to show exactly what the character would say, how they’d say it, and how they would justify it to themselves. There’s a good reason why many western RPGs write out the whole choice text as if it were a sentence the player would say! In many stories, you want to ease the player into sharing the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. How does this person think? What idioms do they use? Write it all out as a choice on the bottom of the page, and you’re turning the “choice dimension” into the “inside of the character’s brain dimension.” I think this is a much more helpful use of space on the screen.

Of course, this isn’t to say that traditional CYOA language has no uses. For example, it’s very good at rustling up strong feelings of nostalgia. If you want to bring your readers back to 2nd-grade reading-hour, there’s no better way to do it than with the traditional CYOA tropes, the traditional choice sentence-structure, etc.

Traditional CYOA choice setups are also extremely foolproof. They list precisely what you are about to do. They make it very clear that the story will branch. I never met a kid who couldn’t eventually figure out how to read a CYOA book! Because they address you-as-reader so directly, without the conceits of “immersion”, they’re great for stories that are more “gamey” or puzzley. Maybe, unlike me, you like pausing time in the choice dimension! Or maybe the game is intended for young audiences, or for people without experience in hypertext stories! Traditional CYOA is definitely one of the most accessible ways of presenting choice in Twine. It is appropriate for all audiences, and for many writing styles. In the end, a lot of writing is not made any worse by CYOA’s pitfalls.

Subtle meanings conveyed by CYOA choices

And in some cases, it is made better. It can do stuff that other choice schemes do not! What quiet messages does a list of choices send that is impossible with inline links, cycling links, and other choice methods? Here’s a couple things you can only do with lists of choices:

The first and most obvious is list-based humor. Lists provide good structure for joke arcs. When I was in undergrad, I had a column (a bad one) for a humor magazine entirely focused on telling jokes in list form. You can arrange a list of statements in such a way that the list order and format is a big reason of why the things are funny. The same is true of choices in a CYOA story.

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You can use the list to replicate a series of thoughts. Although this is also possible in in-line link setups, like the one I used for Swan Hill, it gains very elegant expression in a CYOA story.

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You can also use the list to make some choices appear more important than others. Typically, the first and last choices in a list are considered more important or distinctive than the others.

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You can even use the choices section of a story to reveal information about the setting or the protagonist that you have not previously revealed in the body-text of the story. This can sometimes be quite good for story pacing. It can also be very silly:

cyoareveal

Presenting choices in a list allows you to add subtle shades of meaning that are not possible– or not possible in the same way– with other choice-presentation systems. There are plenty of jokes and emotional arcs that are much, much easier to achieve when you  have a set-aside space to put lists of options.

Conclusion, I suppose

So what does this all mean?

If you’re going to use a CYOA structure for presenting choices in your stories, you should be aware of the subtle shades of meaning you’re adding, and the way in which your reader is experiencing time and space while they read. You should be aware of the ways in which your choice-presentation affects the reader’s concept of self. Are you using the word you? The word I? Are you telling the player what to do? Are you having a conversation with them?

And, most importantly: will your story benefit from the staccato treatment of time that CYOA choice-lists create? I have seen extremely long fight scenes written out blow-by-blow in CYOA format and, let me tell you: it isn’t pretty. I’ve grown to prefer addressing action in hypertext in different ways– ways which resonate more with the action they describe:

kicking

I hope to write soon again about inline links and why I prefer them for the kinds of stories I like to tell. They help to arrange a reader’s thoughts about themselves and their character in a very, very different way– and they pose some challenges of their own.

I think CYOA will always be the simplest and perhaps most elegant way of organizing choice on a screen or a page. But it’s worth stepping back for a moment and realizing that it isn’t necesarrily the default, and it isn’t neutral. It’s a way of organizing the reader’s thoughts and feelings. It has an actual impact. And we ought to start recognizing it, everywhere it appears– even in AAA videogames, where it’s begun to change and morph in ways I never expected as a child.

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[1] With some beautiful exceptions; see the Many Conclusions section of this wonderful essay.