Thursday, September 20, 2012

Orson Scott Card on writing in videogames.

The Orson Scott Card writing in videogames workshop was today! It went from 8:30-5:30... so it was a long day. Luckily Card is funny and engaging. The workshop was made possible from a grant a UVU faculty member applied for... so good on him!

Highlights: Card is so amazingly fun to brainstorm with. I found myself being critical of other people's ideas, whereas he ran with them to make some really interesting scenarios (see the notes for details). Maybe I need to work on brainstorming more, since turning my critical mode off would really be useful once in a while.

I'm a fan of the Ender series, so hearing an author I like talk for a while was kind of mind-blowing (authors are real people!). I admire that he's done so much on his own and how he tries to show both sides of issues, and how there isn't always a right and a wrong to a situation, which I think videogames could really use (thanks, Bioware). But then again, since combat is such a big part of so many genres, there's kind of a need for an everlasting, ever-spawning enemy, which limits the kinds of stories you can tell.

Drawbacks: Card kept complaining that he hadn't seen any awesome SF/Fantasy writing in videogames... but he's not all that into videogames. He's content to play Civilization II, which is fine, but he made a lot of generalizations about the industry that I felt weren't as accurate as they might have been ten years ago (he hadn't heard of Skyrim or Minecraft... just sayin'). He was aware of Kickstarter though, and how the publishing model is dying, so he's not completely behind the times. 

Card is a writer and as such, was pretty focused on linear storytelling in games. It's what he does best! But I'm also interested in how story and gameplay can merge. 

I've scanned in my notes below in the interest of archival-ness and maximalism. 

Proof that this actually happened

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Making a videogame is... really fun.

I participated in Adventure Time Game Jam! I made a game called When Sneezles Attack. I used the engine Twine, which was really easy to work with. If you'd like to make a game in Twine, Anna Anthropy/Auntie Pixelante made an excellent tutorial (and look my game is totes on her list of sample twine games I am proud/flattered).

Writing the story was really fun. I had some ideas about how I wanted the story to go--I wanted to be able to visit parts of Ooo, I wanted to include some of the regular characters, and I wanted it to have the same kind of bizarre but sometimes logical humor I love in Adventure Time. It's much easier to imitate a style and use someone else's characters than to make my own, and that helped me write it all the faster. At first I wanted you to be Neptr and not realize it right away, and then have to find Finn and then start your quest, but I felt like that would be kind of frustrating. I liked the idea of undermining the expectation that you were playing as Finn though. Adam helped me design the story so you have a goal right away (at first it was just nebulous exploring), and he helped brainstorm a few things with me too.

After I wrote the initial story, I worked on the variables. Basically, if you ever pick up an item or return to a location, I wanted it to make a difference in the story. So the third time you visit Princess Bubblegum, she'll ask how Jake is doing (that one was actually pretty hard... but I found a way for it to work by ordering the text a non-chronological way). Whenever you get an item, the game remembers, so you can use it later on. It was my first time programming a complete game with variables, but this was an excellent place to practice that. It's like magic!

Working on the code was kind of strange... like, after I had read through the game so much I couldn't tell if it was funny or not anymore. It also felt like my brain changed from creative to complete bug-squasher. Coding also reminded me that I'm not a robot (if I were, writing <<endif>> [correct] instead of <<end if>> [incorrect, but a very common error of mine] would have been so much easier).

I feel really excited when people tell me they have played it! Especially if it made them laugh. Like, kind of giddy... is this how all game developers feel about their games? No wonder they keep making them.

I guess making this game, and seeing people enjoy it, reminded me that I can write pretty well, and given the right circumstances I can be funny too! I found it really satisfying. I recommend this experience. :-)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Things games haven't touched: how to get pregnant, mysterious illnesses, and housekeeping.

Blogs of the Round Table, or BoRT, is back. Part of the topic this month is about what subjects games haven't explored and what they should focus on.

One thing games do well is simulation. I can grow a garden in Cultivation and maintain a dam in The Best Dam Simulation Ever. These are complex situations with multiple variables. I think the same technology could be applied to help women learn about their fertility cycles.

This sounds weird, but stick with me. I've been trying to get pregnant for a year and finally stumbled upon the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility, which discusses how a woman's waking temperature and cervical mucus can indicate if she's fertile or not (I discuss it in gruesome detail over on my non-gaming blog). There are a couple of different hormones that contribute to things. And knowing about how these variables are connected can help women understand when they can get pregnant or if they have emotional patterns associated with these variables. Do you see where I'm going with this? It seems like the perfect setup for a simulation! Easy mode could have completely typical hormone levels and simple goals like conception or avoiding conception, while more difficult ones could involve weird illnesses or thyroid disorders.

There are a lot of other topics I find would be good subjects for videogames. The game TRAUMA looks at a woman's experience with some kind of, well, trauma. It's one thing to have a sickness that doctors can identify and treat, but quite another to have real symptoms but no diagnoses. Wouldn't it be interesting to play a game in the shoes of someone who suffers from Fibromyalgia, and feel the frustration of not knowing what your body will throw at you next? I suppose that doesn't sound very fun, but I feel like games have such a potential for us to understand minority or simply unusual circumstances that I'm surprised there aren't more autobiographical games like dys4ia.

Another type of simulation I'd love to see is a relationship simulation with a significant other--someone your character is committed to and has already courted, and preferably they live in the same space. It could even be a roommate I guess. And then figuring out how to resolve various conflicts, like whether or not you want to kill the invading mice or who does the dishes or what kind of budget you have (basically housekeeping things). It just seems like the logical continuation after Princess Maker 2 or any game that ends with your character getting married.

I keep dreaming of a simulation game that involves all these things, but I recognize that I don't yet have the skill to implement it. I know game journalists wanting to make games is kind of cliche, but I'm definitely curious. And studying Python. :-)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

8-bit sculptures as minimalist homages

It's not enough to have cool/cute pixel art anymore. It has to relate to previous modern art canon. Michael Whiting's 8-Bit Modern shows how the elegant limitations of a pixelated form can make for beautiful modern art. As Whiting puts it:
In my visual experience Pac-Man came before Donald Judd, Carl Andre or even Mondrian. For me Broadway Boogie Woogie will always be an homage to Pac-Man. My current work explores the visual connection between minimalism and early video games.
I took these photos in BYU Museum of Art's sculpture garden here in Utah. Seeing the abstract forms out in nature is surreal. Unlike their videogame counterparts, these sculptures are static and impervious to my actions. I recommend stopping by the museum this fall if you have time, especially since there's a Takashi Murakami exhibit there too. 

Michael Whiting's site and his blog
Plus + gallery has actually professional photos of this exhibit at the MOA.