Game Night

adventures in gaming, playthroughs

Since roughly January 2013, I’ve been playing games with a group at TAG. This once-a-week meetup eventually turned into Monday Night RPGs, where we rotate the gamemaster so that they only have to plan roughly every three weeks. Members of the group have come and gone (and will come again, darn it, for those of whom we are waiting to return from studying at NYU), but I’ve been playing games in this context for basically as long as I’ve been making video games (I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs since I was 16, or, in other words, as long as I’ve known my husband).

Recently, it was brought to my attention that I might be learning something through all of that playing! For somebody who studies and makes games, I sure do have a hard time finding time to play them (especially video games), so the fact that these consistent play sessions have been there for me for so long is kind of a miracle, an oasis.

Next Fall, Mia Consalvo will be teaching a class called Player Studies, which I think I’ll be taking. With that future class in mind, I thought it might be worth considering what I learn from playing and participating in these sessions. I’ve always believed that doing a lot of reading is one way to get better at writing, although being a voracious reader doesn’t automatically make you a good writer. In the same way, playing games hopefully makes me a better game designer.

Of course I can identify trends in playstyles and behaviour from my group — we’ve been playing together in the same context for three years (and playing together since I was 16 for some the people in this circle). For now, I don’t want to retroactively make sweeping observations about past sessions. I wasn’t thinking along these lines during those sessions, so this is something to consider for the future, when I have the opportunity or notice something of interest.

Platforms and Programming: One Month in the Life Postmortem

adventures in gaming, critical making, curious games

GuybrushSquarePortrait

[WARNING: There are a lot of feelings in this post and there is a lot of frankness — about mental health, mostly. MUCH FRANKNESS AHEAD. If that’s not for you, you probably shouldn’t read this.]

This past semester, I learned how to learn to program (no, that’s not a mistake). With the help and guidance of Rilla Khaled and Pippin Barr, I first learned Processing (Daniel Shiffman is a great programming teacher) and then after a brief evaluation of p5.js, moved on to Phaser and JavaScript.

[A note on guidance: all this learning actually happened under the guidance of a whole community of programmers both in and outside of TAG lab. When I couldn’t figure out how to space out the flower petals around my stem in a Processing exercise, the community was there to help. The other day, when it turned out that I hadn’t learned enough about object-oriented programming in JavaScript to properly manage states in phaser, the community was there to help. So, thank you, community.]

For something that I had been dreading for so long, it was revelatory to find out that I enjoy coding — like, really enjoy it! When the pressure is off and I can appreciate the puzzle of figuring out what to do, I like writing code a lot. This should come as no surprise: I love learning languages, which is why I know, in addition to English and French (the ones that I had to learn), Spanish, a bit of Italian, a bit of German, and an anime fan’s Japanese (so, also not very much).

But, the final project for this class is one of the hardest games that I have ever had to make. It was difficult for a variety of reasons. In my last post, I mentioned how Tom was getting ready to leave for RCMP training, and how I could think of little else, creatively and otherwise. That’s why I decided to make a game about the month between Tom learning of the RCMP’s decision and leaving for Depot. I wanted to take away some of the event’s power by making a game about it.

As I also mentioned in my last post, I would normally never, ever, ever consider making a game (or any kind of writing or other creative work) about something that happened in my life so close to when it happened. Normally, I’d let such an idea sit in a drawer for a few years and then give it a go. But, as I mentioned before, this was hugely preoccupying for me. After being with Tom for nearly ten years and never being apart longer than that one time last year when I went to Europe for 45 days, I knew that this was going to be a big change, and probably a very difficult one.

And it was. I just wasn’t prepared for how hard. A lot of the reasons that made it hard for me to be without him, even though he was an email or a video chat away were because of things that we would normally deal with together — but more on that later.

At first, I didn’t have much time to devote to the game: I had to finish up my semester’s course work, fulfill my TA responsibilities, get Tom ready to leave for the RCMP, and be present for a friend that was also having a hard time. I chose to prioritize my relationships with people that I cared about, and would do so again. And that’s where the time went, up until Tom left.

After Tom left, the game was my priority. I had finished my course work and everything else could be put off for a while. I went into hermit mode and started working on the game. And that’s when my 96-year-old grandfather went into the hospital.

Now, as someone who lives in a town with decent public transit, I haven’t yet acquired my license. We visit my grandfather fairly frequently, and Tom usually would rent a Communauto (car-sharing service) car and off we’d go. I was upset that my grandfather was sick and that I had to rely on there maybe being space in my relative’s cars in order to go visit him, or possibly not visit him at all (as it turns out, I now have a standing offer from a friend to drive me so long as she’s not at work). I was upset because, at 96, even small ailments can be hugely important, and these ones weren’t so small. I found myself completely unable to focus on the project. I felt like my brain was betraying me – this was when I needed to be able to focus the most, and I was getting nothing done.

livingroomfront

So, I left the scary parts for later. When I was able to focus, I did the parts that were familiar and pleasurable to me — I wrote dialogue, I drew pictures of my cat and my apartment, and I thought about the design of the game. But, when all that work was finished, the deadline was coming and I still hadn’t programmed anything. What’s worse, I couldn’t remember any of what I had learned all semester. On top of that, feeling like I might not be able to finish the project before the deadline was stressing me out even more, increasing the pressure.

I had actually chosen a slightly early deadline for the project, thinking that I would get nothing done during IndieCade East, which was happening right after the deadline and which was where we were going to show In Tune perhaps for the last time.

So, I fought back the feeling that I was somehow disappointing the people who had been so kind as to take time out of their schedule to teach me in a directed study this semester, and I wrote asking for an extension.

The relief was palpable when the extension was granted. That, along with the fact that, at that point, my grandfather was getting better and would be released any day, helped me regain my focus (unfortunately, he’s now back in hospital). Things went slowly at first, but working diligently through IndieCade East at the NYU MAGNET, with the support of some lovely friends there, I managed to program portions of my game. And I was enjoying it. And, given that this was my first time with JavaScript and Phaser, I felt like I was doing a pretty good job. I managed it! It had seemed impossibly stressful the week before, but things fell into place.

Well, so that’s how it was to work on this game. In terms of the workflow, what I would have of course liked to do differently is give myself more time to work on the project long before the due date – that’s kind of my style. But, up until now, I have had the privilege of an excellent support system that has allowed me to focus on my work, even when other things in my life were going on, and this was my first time doing without it. I’m not sure what I could have done differently about that.

That means that it’s time to talk about the game itself and the design decisions.

What I wanted to do in the game was juxtapose some version of the conversations that Tom and I were having about his departure with our cat’s daily shenanigans. As it says in the game, cats don’t care about human drama. They don’t understand it. So, what felt very dramatic and important to me didn’t have much of an impact on our cat at all.

I like the juxtaposition. The game is pretty slow-paced, so there’s time to read the conversations and interact with the environment (at least, I think so). My worry is that there aren’t enough animations to keep the player engaged in each scene.

For this project, I had to scope very tighly given the time frame, but I was also sick of certain of the choices that I usually make while making games on a short timeline. Namely, I wanted to try a different art style. I was sick of making pixel art for these short little games. This was at odds with the fact that I didn’t have much time to work on the game. Each individual animation was taking way too long to make. So, I had to make the decision to do story-board style animations, with very few keyframes and a simple style. Overall, it’s not what I had originally envisioned but I’m happy with the result given the timeframe.

I’m not a professional animator – I just dabble. What that means is that even the storyboard-style animations took enough time that I made relatively few of them. I wish that I could have made more of them, because I wanted to them to function as a visual reward for the player. How I made up for it is made it so that when you click the cat, messages about the cat appear, and I find those fairly entertaining. But that might just be me.

Of course, the most important thing to me about this game is that I programmed it myself in Phaser/JavaScript and that it works. That’s a big milestone for me. It was also one of the main goals of this directed study, so I’m happy that I managed it. It’s an empowering feeling, even if I know that I might struggle just as much the next time that I sit down to program something. I’m okay with that — knowing that I can do it at all is huge.

[This game is available for play here.]

overthrowthepatriarchy

Platforms and Programming: Final Project Begins!

adventures in gaming, critical making

I’ve done it! I’ve moved from Processing to p5.js to Phaser, now. After doing the p5.js tutorials, it seemed like there were few enough differences that I ought to move on to Phaser. My pace has slowed down a bit because of other responsibilities and, well, the fact that it turns out that I was very, very spoiled by Daniel Shiffman’s Learning Processing book. Holy cats, Shiffman! Would you please teach me all future programming things forever?! The Phaser documentation, in comparison, and other library documentations are really pretty horrible. Although I’m told that, in comparison to still other libraries, the Phaser documentation is abundant and clear and wonderful. So it goes.

Naturally, the introductory tutorial for Phaser is a one-screen platformer, something I can make in five minutes in Construct 2. It was essential that I find a project that would keep me engaged and motivated to learn, something like the Earth Twin project for Processing (although Processing is pretty appealing all on its own, I needed to find a project that used its more unique affordances, and that turned out to be computer vision stuff). We came up with the idea that I could combine the Tracery library by Kate Compton with Phaser in order to make something interesting.

So. That project.

I should start by saying that if this were a short story, or any kind of writing, I wouldn’t be touching it before at least a year or two from now, at minimum. It’s possible that a lack of clarity and perspective about the event will interfere with trying to fictionalize/make art about something that’s happening to you right now… It’s raw and tender. And sure, that can make great art, and people do this about their lived (with no fixed end point) experiences all the time. But, as a general rule, I don’t. I don’t really make personal games and if I do involve my own experiences (as one must, to a degree), it’s fictionalized and years after the fact.

Tom, my husband, is leaving for RCMP Depot Training on April 17th. This is a good thing! He made his first steps towards applying something like three years ago now, and he’s finally made it in. The steps to get here were endless. He’s put in a huge amount of work. He’ll be great at being an RCMP officer and jobs with the benefits and pay and other opportunities that this offers him (us) really don’t exist anymore.

However, I have known Tom for basically a decade, and in that time, the longest that we’ve been apart is when I went to Europe last spring for 46 days. He’ll be gone for six months! And afterwards, the chances of him moving back to Montreal is almost exactly zero. I’m a first-year PhD student – I’ll be in Montreal for years yet, and even when I’m done the things that require me to be physically present in the city, the truth is that the community here is unique and supportive in ways that don’t exist in any other Canadian city. Fully 75% of the postings are in the West, with only 25% in the East, so there’s not even a particularly good chance that he’ll be close enough for me to easily visit. They are supposed to take your family situation into account – they want your posting to be mutually beneficial to you and to them, but it’s a lot of uncertainty to have thrown into our lives. The RCMP tells you not to interrupt your life plans and to go on as if you’ll never get it (and when you consider that it took him three years to get in, one definitely could finish a graduate degree in that time, if not a PhD).

The time that he has left in Montreal before leaving coincides with the end of the semester at Concordia and, as a result, all of my deadlines. So, while I would normally a) not make a game about my personal life and b) would definitely not make it while whatever is happening is still in progress, this is all that I can think about right now. It’s taking up a huge amount of my headspace and emotional energy, and many of these deadlines can’t be moved (end-of-term work, TA responsibilities, public talks, conferences, a book chapter). So, in order to deal with it, I’ve decided to make my final project for this class about it. The hope is that it’ll allow me time to think even as I do all the other things that need doing.

THE GAME:

rcmpcatnotes

This is a game about juxtaposition and duration. It’ll take place over the course of 30 days (roughly a month), which is the amount of time that Tom had between finding out he was accepted and going to Depot and the time that he would be starting there. The genre that I’m aiming for is characterized by an account of events determined by a period of time, exemplified by books like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In writing workshops, we often referred to it as the “a day in the life of” technique. The juxtaposition part is because this’ll be 30 days in the life of our cat, doing cat things (like playing with toys, destroying the furniture, napping), placed alongside procedurally-generated conversations (using Tracery) about topics that Tom and I (or people in similar situations to us) would have to discuss in this limited time-frame.

At first, I thought that I would have one top-down view and that would be the end of it, but then I thought about Molleindustria’s Unmanned which I think is an entry into my “day-in-the-life-of” game genre. The different scenes and perspectives in the game are really nice and very cinematic. Maybe that’s something that I can make work for me (although it will of course be more work). One thing that I like about this game is that the actions that the player has control over (with the radio, with smoking, with playing games with the main character’s child) are symptomatic/revelatory of the character’s internal life and affect the story, without allowing the player to overtly make decisions about the path of the story. The causal link between the two is vague in a satisfying way.

Rilla (Khaled) also pointed me to The Cat and the Coup yesterday, which I’ve downloaded but haven’t yet had the chance to play. I plan to play it as soon as possible.

Art-style-wise, I again do like Unmanned‘s style. I’m used to animating with PyxelEdit but I also like the sort of cut-out minimalist collage style of things like the Fiasco books. Here’s the cover of a Fiasco playset that my brother and I recently made for my friend Allison:

MagicalGirlMinimalistCover

I might go with this kind of style, but I’ll have to figure out a different animation/spritesheet making program. Help and suggestions would definitely be appreciated. I might experiment with OpenToonz but I’m worried about the learning curve in the short amount of time that I have to make this first version of the game. Hey, there’s of course nothing stopping me from working on it after I’ve turned it in for class! I will check it out and see if it’s simple enough (apparently there are a few stability issues).

So far, I’ve got a very basic Tracery thing working in a Phaser tutorial. More as it happens!