More choices

I just noticed a user review of Desert Bridge in TIGdb, and felt I needed to remark on a couple of points it makes. I hope my posts about reviews don’t feel like I’m constantly being defensive; I’m mainly writing this to illuminate game design choices I made, in the interest of furthering discussion/thought on these matters.

Navigation is awkward at best; it takes a while to get used to the idea that each room is 4 screens, one in each direction, and even then it’s easy to get turned around. There’s no map function, making navigation even more difficult.

I’m not sure what to say about the first point. I realize that the idea of each room having four views is not how most modern games do it (and why should they; they have a different graphical style). But it’s not like this is some weird idea that I dreamed up. In older games – which Desert Bridge is very much modelled after – this was pretty normal. I guess some of these old conventions are being forgotten, which is also normal, but a bit of a problem for an old-school game… not sure where this train of thought leads.

The lack of a map is, indeed, sometimes confusing, and I considered including one at some point. But that just didn’t feel right in terms of the concept. Besides, what’s wrong with making your own map? We’re used, these days, to being spoonfed everything – but I actually think that making maps and jotting down notes is fun – and enormously immersive. Games like Desert Bridge are an intellectual exercise, after all. It’s worth playing them a little differently.

Menus are a bit unreliable, you can only use actions on things that are puzzle-specific, and thus, you can’t take a closer look at any of the myriad possible red herrings and other potential easter egg spots… some people would consider this a good thing, but I still have fond memories of licking a building in the opening screens of Space Quest IV to find Roger Wilco responding with “MMM! Wild berry!”

I’m not sure what “menus are a bit unreliable” means. I hope it doesn’t mean that there are any bits where menus don’t respond – as far as I know, everything you can do in the game will get you a response. I made sure of that.

The simplicity of the interaction with the environment – well, obviously that was a conscious choice. Having multiple interaction icons/verbs/cursors/whatever would add an unnecessary amount of frustration, making the game’s internal logic much harder to understand. I also have very fond memories of some of the odder respones you could get in some games – Quest for Glory comes to mind – but the House at Desert Bridge is weird enough without making the interaction more complex.

Since every single response you can get in the game is specific (and there is a LOT of them), changing interaction in this way would also have meant having to write even more incredible amounts of text, or sacrificing the specificity of the responses. Neither was a reasonable option. Keeping interaction simple and content complex is a choice I am very happy with.

The main part of this game that I was frustrated with, navigation aside, was the download. 40 megs normally isn’t bad for me, but it took a dozen attempts – each time I tried, it crapped out around the 80% mark. Frustration, thy name is “no mirrors available”.

A couple of people reported problems with downloading the game at one point – I think the servers were being updated at one point, which is probably what caused the problem. But I would love more mirrors. Well, having any mirrors at all, actually. If anyone has any good suggestions…

More editing

Yesterday we spent about an hour and a half editing one paragraph.

One. Paragraph.

Still, it’s absolutely worth it, and it’s bound to get quicker as we get to the parts with less exposition and more action. And I have to say, editing is a fascinating process. You can really take a whole paragraph apart into individual bits, and then reassemble it in a totally new way. The result has all the same highlights as the original, but works a thousand times better.

And then there’s cutting. I’ve been working in the university’s Writing Center for two years now, and I’ve always emphasised the importance of cutting what you don’t need. Applying this principle to fiction is sometimes painful, but often also a relief. Some sentences or sentence parts not only do not work, they ruin everything around them by screwing up the structure, rhythm, even the mental associations of the rest of the paragraph. You kick them out, and suddenly everything flows.

And when you’re tired, you play some Might & Magic VII.

Oooof

Spent more than three hours editing the prologue to Verena’s novel. It was good work; we made the text clearer, removed things which didn’t work, and added several things which do. It still needs a bit more work to fill it out, but we’ve taken it from a rough draft to a funny narrative that will catch the reader’s interest.

But man, this is hard work. I knew that going in, of course, but still. I’m exhausted.

Froghead Is Real.

This is the Official Froghead Video. Those of you who have played The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge already know the song, of course, but this deserves to be the most famous video on the internet, ever. Seriously.

Lyrics:

My name is Froghead and I live in a hole
Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah ahahahahahahahaha
My name is Froghead and I eat lumps of coal
Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah ahahahahahahahaha
My name is Froghead and I make sausages roll
Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah ahahahahahahahaha

(And I can add that I am very proud to have played a part in its creation. It was my suggestion to take what was an in-joke between Helen and some of her friends and make it… REAL! Helen did all the work, of course, but I can take some small credit for its current manifestation. Muahahaha!)

Change? Sorry, we’re all out.

It’s depressing to see so many people going wild over Obama. It’s nice, of course, to see that what people are expecting of him is all very progressive and left-wing (he was voted as the anti-war, anti-everything-Bush-stands-for candidate, after all, and mostly that’s left-wing sentiment, even if people don’t want to say it)… but the fact that very little of this is likely to actually happen is so painfully obvious. People listen to his inauguration speech and pick out the things that sound progressive, and disregard the things that will tell them a whole lot more about what’s coming.

Yes, Obama is likely to restore science to its proper place. He’s not going to be pushing Creationism (but that’s a pretty low standard). Yes, he is likely to be a lot less racist when it comes to people of other countries (which doesn’t mean he won’t persecute them for other reasons).

One of the main themes of Obama’s speech was the collective blame all Americans share for the current economic situation, and how sacrifices will have to be made. Well, who do you think will have to make these sacrifices? The majority of the population that does all the work and whose living standards are falling at extreme speeds, or the 1% that does nothing and lives off of an absurd and outdated economic system that is falling apart in front of everyone’s eyes? Obama talks about cutting government services. Is he talking about investing less in the army or in developing more destructive weapons? Is he talking about throwing fewer billions to the banks? No, he’s talking about the few programs that are left that allow people to survive in this dysfunctional economy. He’s talking austerity.

And what about his cabinet? How is a combination of people who worked for Clinton (who also bombed Iraq, whose embargo killed children in the hundreds of thousands, who bombed Serbia and did all sorts of other nasty things in Somalia and Haiti, who introduced the concept of “rogue states” and who also continued cutting social programs) and people who worked for Bush (you remember him, right?) change? It’s not change. It’s the same damn thing wrapped in different paper.

Obama isn’t anti-war. He’s just for different wars, equally destructive and unjustified, but more successfully waged, and explained away as humanitarian intervention (with bombs). He wants to attack Pakistan. He wants to expand the war in Afghanistan. He doesn’t want to take the option of bombing Iran off the table. He wants to recruit nearly 100,000 more soldiers.

Obama isn’t for social equality. He’s not even for social or economic justice. Hell, he’s not even for legal justice – the war crimes of the previous administration aren’t interesting to him. Because he’s not unlikely to repeat many of them himself. Clinton sure did. (The war crimes in Gaza, meanwhile, don’t seem to be very interesting either.)

Obama isn’t even remotely questioning this whole idea of “the war on terror” that the Bush administration used to justify its imperialist actions. The point isn’t to fight the war with different weapons, it’s to realize that there is no damn war. This “war” is a construct that serves those in power – on both “sides” of it. It’s a fantastic excuse to do all sorts of horrible things, and to have people do anything you ask of them, whether your name is George Bush or Osama bin Laden. But of course Obama knows that. That’s why he could appeal to the huge anti-war sentiment in the US to win against Hillary Clinton, and then go on to drop all of that to make his corporate sponors feel at ease.

Changing the face up there is not real change. Change is only real when it affects the structures that define politics. With the Obama administration, all of these structures will remain the same, and so will the ultimate result of the government’s actions.

Recommended reading:

Jumper

A very short review, as they tend to be.

So, Jumper. It had a trailer that looked somewhere between interesting and silly. As it turns out, it’s more on the interesting side than on the silly. Actually, most of it is pretty good – there just isn’t enough of it. The idea of people with teleporting powers being hunted by religious fanatics is a good setup, and all of the actors are excellent at making it believable (only Rachel Bilson seems a bit too “Hollywood pretty”). As are the special effects and locations, which are all well-done and believable. I didn’t groan once.

I did laugh out loud several times. This is actually a well-written movie. Except, as I said, for the fact that there’s just not enough of it. A major plot thread goes missing and is never resolved, even though it looks like they might have shot scenes about it and cut them out. And the whole story has no proper resolution. It feels more like a pilot to a potentially cool series than like a complete movie.

Still, it’s imaginative and it’s fun, and as such I would recommend it as an enjoyable adventure movie.

Museum Update, and a possible goodbye

Since someone asked – yes, I am still going to do that update for Museum that will get it to run on Vista. Soon. I haven’t had much time lately, and what little time I’ve had I’ve spent working on my film and my novel.

And I must say that, quite frankly, I am seriously considering giving up game design, at least for the next few years. I dearly love making games, and it’s a very strong impulse for me, but after eight years of doing it and next to no response, I am starting to think my time could be better spent on other projects. No matter how hard I work, no matter how many emails I send to various sites, all my work is ignored; I’m tired of feeling like a second-rate William Blake. If at least I had the visions, you know, that might make up for it. But I don’t. And while I don’t need praise for myself, I am proud of some of my work, and I do think the games themselves deserve more – especially Museum and Desert Bridge. But nowadays it seems you have to be selling your games for anyone to take interest – art can only be art if it’s commercial, apparently. So if you sell people a game about an old lady walking around a graveyard, that’s interactive poetry (buying the game adds the possibility of random death! yay!) but if you try to explore the medium and create a unique central metaphor that is impossible in any other form, well… maybe I should’ve charged people 15$ so that Urizen can appear at random and bite off their heads.

Now I’m just sounding bitter. And I have to go to work. But the Museum patch will be done. Soon. I promise.

from Israel

14 Jan. ’09: Israeli Human Rights groups: Clear and present danger to the lives and well-being of tens of thousands of civilians

The level of harm to the civilian population is unprecedented. According to the testimony of residents of the Gaza Strip and media reports, military forces are making wanton use of lethal force which has to date caused the deaths of hundreds of uninvolved civilians and destroyed infrastructure and property on an enormous scale. In addition, Israel is also hitting civilian objects, having defined them as “legitimate military targets” solely by virtue of their being “symbols of government.”

Caught in the middle are 1.5 million civilians in extreme humanitarian distress, whose needs are not being adequately met by the limited measures taken by the army. That distress is detailed in the Appendix to this letter. Its main points are as follows:

This press release comes from eight Israeli human rights groups. Because in Israel there are just as many people with their heads screwed on straight as in the rest of the world, who can see what is going on and speak up for human rights. Only a fanatic will go on to demonize them, too.

Also: STATEMENT OF SPECIAL RAPORTEUR FOR THE PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES OCCUPIED SINCE 1967 FOR PRESENTATION TO THE SPECIAL SESSION OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL ON THE SITUATION IN THE GAZA STRIP, 9 JANUARY 2009

If you need a more neutral source than that, you’re probably a conspiracy theorist. Seriously – if you’re still for this war, or don’t know what it’s about, read this document. It’s easy to read, and not that long. It lays out in very simple and precise terms the nature of the situation.

Choices

A couple of weeks ago a review of Desert Bridge apepared at the an occasional player’s review blog. It’s mostly very positive, but there are a couple of criticisms that are addressed directly at me, so I thought I’d respond.

A couple of things I’d like to bring to Jonas’s attention, though: the use of menus, or more specifically, the use of a menu within a menu. When the game was first released, it was described as a “transdimensional portal” to the Land of Dreams. Fine, sure, but I’d rather the game tell me I can press certain keys to restore or save my game, or even quit, rather than go through hoops for that. There’s got to be some way I can switch a “portal” off when I need to.

The “menu within a menu” design is actually something that has gathered a lot of positive remarks. Yes – oddly enough, a lot of people love the fact that the game menu is an actual inventory item. It does add a couple more clicks to some processes, like saving and loading, but to me (and most players so far) the payoff is bigger than the burden of having to click more.

When I say “payoff”, I mean more than just the short chuckle someone may get out of the idea of “game menu = inventory item”. Presenting the game as a portal to the Lands of Dream is one of its central narrative devices – and having the game menu as an inventory item is an essential part of the game’s internal logic. It’s not a matter of “fine, sure”. It’s not how I’m trying to sell the game, or an attempt to be cute. To use a popular (and somewhat overused) term, to treat the menu differently would be to break mimesis.

As for making you jump through hoops – yes, the game does that sometimes. Have you noticed that the save/load/credits/quit buttons in the menu switch places at random? And that it’s always the last mushroom that gives you the De-Chickening Pills Recipe? To some people this may be annoying, but that’s fine – I think it’s hilarious. In fact, I think that people being annoyed by this is hilarious. (Please note that it’s a matter of context. Not every game should be designed like this. And it’s not like the game goes out of its way to bother you – it just teases you a little here and there, in very tiny and unobstrusive ways. Proportion is everything.)

Second (and this is probably nitpicking already), stop using Comic Sans. There are better fonts out there, for free

Using Comic Sans was also quite intentional. (I haven’t ever used it before, by the way.) Why? For the same reason that I chose to use command buttons, list boxes and even the occasional message box. Because of the “retro” mood I wanted to evoke – most closely associated in my mind with really old shareware games, deeply flawed but full of enthusiasm.

You make these choices when designing a game. And of course you have to be aware that some people won’t like it – not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t see what you’re doing, or because it’s quite simply not their kind of thing. But the important thing for a game designer to remember is that you do have these choices. A broken piece of rock may appear less perfect than a brick, but sometimes it’s exactly what you need to build a stable wall. (A weird metaphor may not seem very meaningful, but it may fit your text better than another straight sentence.)

The Nines

Verena and I recently saw The Nines, a movie by John August. And here is what we thought:

  • The plot was excellent, and so was the writing. I’m not going to tell you anything about it, though, because that would spoil half the fun.
  • Well, I’ll say one thing, because it might get overlooked sometimes. Yes, the movie has a very complex plot. Yes, the movie is occasionally “strange”, though it all ultimately makes sense. And yes, I thought that in the end it was quite touching. But it’s also very, very funny. This is a good thing.
  • Ryan Reynolds is absolutely excellent. He was already quite good in Smokin’ Aces – another underrated movie, that one – but here he is amazing. I hope he’ll get to do more acting of this caliber.
  • Hope Davis is also excellent, but then Hope Davis is always excellent, even when her parts sometimes aren’t. She also gets to play a wider range here, which is great.
  • Melissa McCarthy, of whom I wasn’t really aware before (I haven’t seen Gilmore Girls, though a friend of mine adores it), is also stunningly good.
  • She is also, to use a simple word for it, fat. A fat woman in a movie with an actual part? And one that isn’t just comic relief? Awesome. (I am so tired of clichéd parts for women.)
  • Elle Fanning also gives a very nice performance. Yay for directing children like people instead of simply making them avatars of cuteness (most films) or creepiness (lately, every single horror film).
  • Everything else about the movie is also fine. It looks good. It sounds good. It makes you think. It makes you laugh. What else do you want?

That’s it. I’m not telling you more. Get it. See it.