DISSERTATION UPDATE: Plugging Away at It

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, reflective games, research

Still working away on TRACES!

Yesterday, I edited the rewritten objects (2,5, and 7) and reached out to people to voice-act them. Some of those folks will only be available as of April 19th, so I’m back to working on the sculptures again. I’ve got two left to make and honestly, I need a bit more inspiration.

Today, I had an impromptu conversation about the project that I didn’t record (because it was impromptu) with one of TAG’s visiting artists, Jonathan Chomko. We talked about the goals of our respective projects, and, talking aloud, I identified three “pillars” for TRACES:

The first, as I wrote about when I started the project, is “Alienation” — which is one of the feelings that got me started thinking about this project in particular. The second is “Exploration” (and speculative fiction, exploring the space, etc). The third is “Recognition”, but as in, recognizing yourself in the game, or identifying in some way with the game (this one being aimed at other queer and marginalized folk).

Alongside that, I want people to feel like they’re doing something sort of covert, and like they have to watch what they do in the space.

I also expressed my worry that the game will somehow wind up feeling like an audio museum tour (I really hope this is not the case) because of the scanning of sculptures and accompanying audio. I think the kind of audio and the objects in question will prevent this, but it is something that was briefly brought up at the Arcade 11 playtest. I don’t find the comparison flattering.

So I kind of want to bring in more “game-y” rules. Maybe some kind of way to track what audio has been collected (my nightmare) would work, but I don’t think so. Maybe some kind of reward? Maybe some kind of rule for how to behave around the objects? Maybe something else? Possibly I need to help players get into character more? I’m looking for low-cost (timewise and difficulty-wise) ways of making the players more involved.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to talk this over with some other folks at some point in the near-future.

Meanwhile, here’s hoping I can get two more sculptures ready to paint!

Here’s what the task list for the game is looking like:

– Finish and paint sculptures, add RFID tags to them.
– Record and edit Audio for 3 re-written objects
– Amend the JSON dictionary for the game
– Measure timing for the text and speech in the game and adjust those variables accordingly (hopefully it’ll be similar within one object).
– Update the Raspberry Pis with the new code and audio files and hope they don’t break.
– Playtest!

DISSERTATION: Playtest Crunch

autoethnography, dissertation, playtest, Uncategorized

I have an unsurprising confession to make: in the time since my last blog post, I crunched to get a version of TRACES ready for playtesting at Arcade 11.

You can follow the traces (ha) of my digital programming crunch here: https://github.com/jekagames/traces

Between each commit, I was working with all the different broken processes unless I was sleeping.

The other physical object-making crunch that I engaged in is evident on instagram.

Everything took longer than expected. There was a lot to do to get the project ready — and the fact that each task took longer than I expected it to — each and every single task — was a constant source of stress.

The documentation for each of the libraries that I was using was incomplete, poorly-written, or assumed knowledge that I didn’t have (or was never meant to be combined in the ways that I needed). They’re usually open-source of course, and I appreciate that people have other jobs and other work, but when your constructor uses the same name for the variable and the data type without explaining, that’s really difficult to parse (looking at you, socket.io).

For the installation of certain things on the Raspberry Pi, I got it to work once and I’m not sure why it worked, because it wouldn’t work again on the other machines even though I followed the same instructions. So, instead, I cloned the card. I’m a bit nervous about when I have to update the code and the audio files and such. I hope it’ll go okay.

My 3D models would look fine in theory, but would have physical limitations or issues when I actually printed them. I had to redesign one particular object something like 4 or 5 times — and wait in between each re-design to print it to see what problems arose.

So, I expected to have around a week to build certain parts of the project and instead wound up with 24 hours. What a mess.

I am very, very grateful to the people that helped me — by volunteering their voices, by helping me with programming, by physically building things with me.

Right now, that’s these folks (quoted from my credits):

“VOICE ACTING
System Voice – Natural Reader (modified)
The Handler – Jess Rowan Marcotte
Object 10 – Ash Cheshire
Object 09 – Thomas Deliva
Object 01 – Gina Hara
Object 05 – Enric Llagostera
Object 02, 08 – Jordan McRae
Object 03, 04, 06 – Lukas Rowland
Object 07 – Dietrich Squinkifer

3D-PRINTED OBJECTS
Jess Marcotte (20×4 LCD cover, Arduino Uno Case top)
brandroid64 (Brandon Bowles) (Customizable Raspberry Pi 3 (A+/B+) Case)
djminnesota (Dan Johnson) (Arduino Uno Case bottom, modified by Jess Marcotte)

SPECIAL THANKS TO
Enric Llagostera and Dietrich Squinkifer for their help with all of my programming questions and for helping me debug.”

Some of that will change, though, now that I have had the chance to playtest. I have some internal playtest notes, both physically written down and that I took of my general impressions after the playtest.

Obviously, the sculptures that Tom and I made in 24 hours are not the final sculptures. I actually spent a fair bit of time calling around and contacting Molded Pulp product companies to try and find more of the kind of molded pulp that I had from our dishwasher (that I turned into objects for the game). It turns out that most local packaging companies do not make molded pulp products. One company only made 2 products, which they sold by around 20 000 units at a time: 4-cup holders and egg cartons.

So. I went to a caterer’s store and bought molded pulp takeout containers and plates in a variety of shapes. The nice thing is that they’re compostable, so I feel okay about using them for that reason since I imagine there will be waste/mistakes (though I will be painting the final sculptures). I do have a few leftover shapes from the products I had. I’ll try to work them into what I make.

So. That’s on my list. Making molded pulp takeout container sculptures. Nice.

The next thing on my list is finishing 2 more controllers to accompany the first one that I made fully. I managed to make 2 for playtesting — one that I had fully finished and one on a wooden form that Tom helped me make. So, that’s something I still have to do.

Then, from there, I want to try and further synchronize the text that’s displaying with the audio. I think that means adding another database entry and passing a variable into it in milliseconds that also changes when a specific object from the database is called, and for me to individually check how fast the text needs to display compared to the speaking voice of whoever voices a particular object.

That brings me to two very important other items: first, it seems that some of the voices were a bit distracting to players, so I will likely have to re-record those. Certain voices may also need to just be a tad louder.

Second, it seems like some of the objects are overly didactic, leading to an overly didactic impression of the game. With some playtester advice in mind, I will be thinking about whether I should cut certain objects, about whether to add or change certain stories, and whether to shorten certain parts (like in the introduction — I think I will cut a bit out from there).

This project really changed gears in November 2018 and became more about the rise of fascism in North America, in some ways. I think that I need to return to my goal of telling the stories about trans people (particularly nonbinary trans folk) in our times. The rise of fascism is a part of that, but I think there’s a little too much of it in there right now, which is why it’s coming across as didactic. Also, I was trying to write from the perspective of people coming to the past to study it — so I guess the didactic tone in that way is part of that. But I guess I need to bring it back to the characters and personal stories.

There’s a lot to do! But I do think it’s worth taking the time to do it before I move on to the final project.

DISSERTATION: Time Marches Ever Forward But Now So Is My Project

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation

Just dropping a note to say that work on Traces is going well — I’m actually hoping to have something playtestable for the very beginning of March, so I’m busily working away on all fronts — I’m soldering components for the scanners and screens, installing software on raspberry pis, writing code, thinking about sculptures and recording audio, thinking about displaying the script on tiny screens, thinking about the aesthetics of the controllers and how they’ll all fit together… There’s a lot afoot.

It’s exciting to be in a thick of it, even though I’m keeping a hectic pace. I would love to have something finished in time to playtest at Arcade 11 — that’s currently my goal. I would be right on track for six months with this project if I finished by then, which is kind of incredible given the delays and difficulty I was having with it earlier.

Squinky helped me with some programming last week. I also had to figure out how to work with the Uno clones that I bought (the Metro 4 Express from Adafruit), which didn’t work as expected out of the box. I had to write in a new board definition in one of the libraries I’m using and disable a different library that didn’t play well with it (the servo library). Squinky also helped me get audio working.

One on-going concern is that I have a 4-line LED screen, but I have to be careful about the max number of characters it will display because it will simply cut text off. I will have to write something that trims the dialogue to the right character length and then shows the next bit of dialogue at an appropriate pace. That will probably require some massaging. I’m sure it’s possible, but I think I’ll likely need help figuring it out. I’m currently waiting on USB backpacks for the screens that should arrive tomorrow so that I don’t have to fiddle too much with the wiring and can control the screens through one of the serial ports.

I was recently chatting with Enric Llagostera, who helped me to challenge my assumptions around what the controller could look like. I had given a lot of thought to what the objects the player scanned would look like, but other than wanting something functional that won’t overheat the components, hadn’t given thought to how the scanner would look beyond that. I had thought that I wanted a very raw look, that showed the components and looked sort of future-hacker-Shadowrunny. I’ll be trying to rethink that while, again, not overheating anything and not interfering with the functionality of the boards and such.

I also have to do some thinking about the dimensions and designs of the objects — they do have to be a certain distance away because of the range of the scanner (I don’t want the tags to interfere with each other). But I also don’t want the objects to be too huge, necessarily. I am thinking it could be cool for some of them to be installed with either suction cups or double-sided tape, so that I can vary how I position them in the space.

Well, I’m going to keep at it! Here’s hoping I manage to get it all done.