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.

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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

Curious Games and Critical Hit: Playtesting

adventures in gaming, curious games, indie, playthroughs, research

Yesterday, the Curious Games Studio showcase joined forces with the first Critical Hit playtest. So bitter! So sweet! So bittersweet! (By which I mean I’m really going to miss having Pippin Barr around – he’s our first Visiting Game Designer and he leaves Montreal today. Pippin is excellent at giving creative feedback and working with him during the Curious Games studio has changed the way that I think about game creation, especially in regards to my role as a game creator and in terms of what it is possible to do in a game, even with limited resources. Thanks, Pippin!)

Something especially interesting about this joint playing was that I have a game for the Curious Games studio (as you all probably know) and I had a paper prototype of our game for Critical Hit out as well. This is something else that I never would have expected – having enough games in progress to playtest two of them at once. Madness. (Really – I spent a lot of time trying to move between both games. Unfortunately, that probably means that they were both a little underplayed – but it still felt good to have that much to show.)

Another upshoot of this was that I didn’t get as much of a chance to playtest other people’s work, but, at least for Curious Games studio, I know that there’ll be an effort to put all of the games online, and I’ll be sure to post them here, and I’ll have other opportunities to playtest my fellow Crit-Hitters’ (hey, how’s that for a group name, TAGsters?) games. What I did get to playtest was all a super-effective use of our eight weeks of class-time: a creepy home invasion game with a sinister ending (this is a pun about fire – all the internet points if you kind of get it although it’s not a very good pun), a game where you just can’t win with your high-maintenance significant other and a game where your job as the game’s camera is to keep Sir Capsule alive by properly panning around and alerting him to dangers ahead (Capsule being the default sprite in Unity if you don’t create a model).

So, here are some of my notes about the playtests as I think through what people’s reactions mean:

NITROGEN NARCOSIS
There were two major physical problems that I didn’t anticipate during the playtest. One is something that would only ever occur if it was necessary to play the game in a room full of people: it’s really annoying and almost impossible to put headphones on over a scuba diving mask. A solution might have been to use earbuds, but in my experience (at Pixelles when I forgot to bring headphones), people are reluctant to share earbuds, and probably rightly so. The other is very simple, and something that should have occurred to me since I wear them half the time myself: glasses. Scuba diving masks and glasses. When I mentioned it to Pippin, he said basically that it was another opportunity for something funny to happen: people having to lean in close to their screens to play. Maybe. I can’t really think of another solution. I have the option of wearing contacts that I usually carry with me, so it didn’t occur to me, although maybe it’s not a problem I would have been able to fix even if I had thought about it ahead of time.

From a programming perspective, I noticed a bug when playing the game through multiple times: the air sometimes doesn’t reset to its original levels and I noticed that people had a lot of trouble with accidentally clicking on the whistle instead of the piece that they wanted and that they usually seemed to forget entirely about being able to move the perspective around using the arrow keys. The whistle thing was intentional, although I disliked that it interrupted the gameplay and might try to do something like make it even smaller or put it someplace where the player is unlikely to click it by accident.

People seemed to mostly enjoy the novelty of the equipment and sort of marvelled at the difficulty of playing the game in the equipment compared to without. I should add that using the particular mac mouse that we playtested with was plenty difficult without gloves as well. Something that I wasn’t altogether satisfied with but that I think is overall unavoidable is that I found the process of getting on the equipment and the process of adjusting the mask sizes to be slow and cumbersome to the process of playing the game. Honestly, it does mimic reality: getting equipment on and off is something that divers have to deal with and we all have our rituals of what goes on first, what goes on last, and everything in between. But I hadn’t intended for the equipment process itself to be a part of the game because I only really needed the difficulty to be part of the gameplay.

I watched about six pairs of people play the game. I was again struck by the way that the interaction between the two players is really what makes the game – the experience of playing together and laughing together was wonderful to watch. I also got to think more about my own design and how I seemed to have unconsciously embedded more aspects of nitrogen narcosis than I had thought: for example, it’s possible to play five games of tic-tac-toe throughout the game (or more if you run into extra time and Player 2 is willing to drag around Player 1’s ‘O’s for him to the right spot and not cheat…) and tic-tac-toe is a simple enough game that that’s arguably pretty repetitive. As I watched people play yesterday, I remembered a story that I had heard about a diver whose responsibility it was to tie a line to a wreck. He wasn’t able to tie the knot properly and someone else took over for him. Later on, at depth, he found an end of rope that wasn’t tied to anything, and, being narc’d, he started to repeatedly tie knots in it, as if trying to fulfill his earlier responsibility. He would have done that until he ran out of air had his buddy not noticed and brought him up (it’s my understanding that the knot-tying diver was actually violent in his desire not to stop his work). I’d say that out of the six playthroughs that I saw, in four cases both players seemed to really like it, in one playthrough the players seemed a little mystified, and in one case the equipment seemed to interfere with the enjoyment of the game.

What seemed the most successful overall was the interaction between programming and the physical world – how what someone was wearing in the physical world affected what they were able to do in the programmed space. That’s pretty cool.

ROSIE ASSEMBLED/THE ZOMBIE CYBORG GAME

For this playtest, I was specifically trying to see how people felt about our two gameplay mechanics: the ideograms (if they were communicating properly and were fairly easy to interpret) and the block puzzles (specifically: how people felt about them and their relationship to the body that they created).

The answer for the ideograms is a resounding yes: people almost always got the sense of what they were supposed to mean without any help (although there may be a slight learning curve to learning the “language” of our particular ideograms), and what’s more, they really enjoyed them. I think that it would not be difficult to expand our ideogram “vocabulary” as much as we want, because all that’s involved is drawing a 2-D ideogram with no frills – just an outline, really. When the ideograms weren’t clear, people sometimes chose them because they enjoyed their ambiguity.

The answer for the puzzles is unsurprisingly complex, and it revealed a great deal of complexity in regard’s to people’s thoughts about body image.

How the playtest worked:
I provided written instructions to the players and then tried to step back (although most people didn’t really read them and I ended up explaining things that were on the sheet every time anyhow – I don’t mind, it gave me a chance to interact with the playtesters).

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So, as I mentioned, the ideograms really seemed to work. Where things get much more difficult is in the matter of the block puzzles. As a mechanic for sorting out which body parts the player got, the block puzzle seems to work well metaphorically. Where things get more complicated is in terms of which body parts are included in the puzzles.

One person noted that she would have chosen Rosie’s body parts except that she didn’t want to have tattoos (Rosie’s body has tattoos because of her backstory) – she didn’t like tattoos and didn’t feel that they properly represented what she wanted. That’s really interesting because it points to stigma that we didn’t consider: it’s true that there are still some people who feel strangely about tattoos – especially, for example, in a professional workplace (although I’m under the impression that this is less of a problem than it used to be, I really don’t know).

On the other hand, this is a game about being pressured to make choices that the player doesn’t necessarily want to make – in terms of what their body should look like and what career they will end up in. This same player felt that we should include more varieties of body part (maybe we can vary them between the puzzles, because we do have a limitation for the number of blocks that we can include in the puzzle). She also suggested throwing in one other accessory to help narrow down the character’s role – something that the player gets to choose. In terms of blocks, we do have two pairs of skinny arms (that was to increase the likelihood that the player would feel the need of choosing a skinny block) and we could change one for something else, but we really have to think about what that choice would mean.

Another playtester said that they weren’t sure whether they were happy with their body: “I found it hard to tell if I was ‘happy’ with my body… I didn’t have any sense of its utility, for instance. I was inclined to just like it because it was mine.”

Personally, I don’t want players to dislike the body that they end up with – I think that the reframing of the body will only happen when they interact with other zombies – which, for the playtest, were simulated by the crowd of people and the ideograms – and people were allowed to choose whatever ideogram they wanted. In the context of the game, the zombies will be choosing from a more limited set based on what body parts come out and what “stereotype” object the player has.

Similarly, the “stereotype” object is represented in the paper prototype by a small gift box (I felt that it was a waste of resources to make a mini-version of each object for inclusion in the puzzle), and I had whoever the player chose as their assembler assign them whatever object that they want. In the game, we want the player to experience each of the five stereotypes one by one.

I think that forcing the player to take out the objects from the puzzle in a specific order (say, legs first, then arms, then torso, then “present”) might help constrain people’s choices in the puzzle while creating more of a sense of difficulty, since, as it has been pointed out, people can just take out any body part opportunistically right now. I don’t know how difficult that would be but it would make sense if the body were being built from the ground up.

I’ve got a lot to think about!

Thanks to everyone who came out to the playtest and thanks to the Curious Games Studio students and the Critical Hit participants for sharing their games.

Curious Games: Nitrogen Narcosis Up on Kongregate!

adventures in gaming, curious games, indie

Hey everyone,

So here’s a link to Nitrogen Narcosis up on Kongregate.

You will need:
– a scuba mask (or a ski mask, or swimming goggles – these can be bought at the dollar store)
– neoprene gloves (or gardening gloves, or work gloves).
– a mouse (with those gloves on, your trackpad won’t detect your movements all that well)
– Optional: a scuba vest with 10 lbs of lead weights in it or a vest with 10 lbs of something else in it.

We’ll be playtesting the Curious Games Studio games at Concordia this Wednesday, the 26th, in the afternoon. Get in touch with me if you’d like more information!