Symmetrical Juuls

[rules and fiction] are complementary, but not symmetrical.

When you deal with academic writing you’re sometimes left stymied by word choices. It’s one of the reasons the whole affair can feel super arcane, because people spend a month writing a sentence and then another month justifying that sentence to the people overseeing the writing.

This is something I’m finding. Most days I look at a statement and rewrite it, figuring it might look good tomorrow. So far it hasn’t.

This eight word conception comes from Jesper Juul’s Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds, 2011, and I feel like I could spend a lot of time – like, say, a whole blog post – picking at those word choices. Why not symmetrical? Why not asymmetrical? Why not ‘they are not symmetrical.‘ It’s easy to conceive that the structure of this one little sentence is that simple.

This is from Chapter 4, which is about Fictions. This chapter is – to summarise roughly – about what we sometimes in games refer to as theme or abstraction, not its narrative. Narrative is a story, and it’s how our brains do things – I’ve long since said that a game is a machine for making stories, and we make stories because it’s a really useful way for our brains to store a linear sequence of cause and effect. Fictions is a good way to establish the idea of the world that the game wants that story to occupy – whether an abstracted world where nothing matters but the order and sequence of a play, or a heavily flavoured world of flavours and sounds and spaces and moistures.

The book itself, I learned about, sadly not from my readings – I mean, I’m working through them at my own rate – but from the Game Study Buddies podcast, which is available here. I’m honestly annoyed because it seems that the people involved are both smart and on similar pages to me, processing text and not necessarily agreeing with or disagreeing with it, playing in the spaces of consideration and being able to vocalise good and useful ideas about how academics can consider games, and they don’t fall down into treating all videogames as alien creatures to tabletop games. Heck, they mention that as something Juuls notices, the way tabletop games break a lot of the rules of what ‘is’ a game and therefore ‘game’ has to keep moving as a definition. I’m annoyed because I was pretty happy not following these people on Twitter and now I wonder if I’m going to have to.

But that word choice, that thing up top, it sits on my head, as a friend mentions she’s dealing with internet that is Very Not Good, which I distinctly and clearly understand as different to Not Very Good. That order of emphasis is a coherent conception, and yet if I tried to feather it out for you I might miss the meaning she’s getting at.

Anyway, these ideas, that fiction and rules are complementary is something I have stumped at hard: If your rules fly in the face of your fiction, you weaken them both. The fiction can encode actions in your mind and make game mechanics coherent where they might otherwise not be. I’ll not go into examples here, but maybe I will another time. This is just a given.

But that last point: They are not symmetrical.

To call them asymmetrical would be to say that they are never symmetrical. To call them non-symmetrical would make their symmetry a function of what they are. Much of game studies want to talk about rules without fiction, to break down Plants vs Zombies into specific, tight details that ignore that this is a game about zombies, and how they vs plants, and how that fiction encodes game rules into player’s minds. Juul forwards the idea in Half-Real that you can discuss rules without fiction, but not the fiction without rules.

And that’s what I’m worrying at right now. Because they aren’t symmetrical. Rules can interleave with one another in places that leave the fiction untouched. Shuffling and stacking a deck in a particular way may have an outcome to the fiction, but the rules of the method are there for the outcome, not for the cause. There are ways the fiction can leave the rules untouched, like decals over a chassis. But I’m not sure I agree with Juuls that fiction depends on rules while rules do not depend on fiction.

But we’ll see. This is the problem with readings.

You’re never sure until you’re done and you’re never done.


This blog post represents notes on my PhD reading of Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds, by Jesper Juul (2011), chapter 4.

Print and Play: Adventure Town, Pt 4

Woof, this took a while. I had a post about Adventure Town’s tools and that got caught up because I realised I was hitting a wall for Adventure Town’s scope. So let’s talk about some math.

In Adventure Town, you are all trying to invest in the buildings around your town, building them up to make this town more appealing and generate more money when adventurers pass through. Each turn, there’s a phase of dice rolling, representing economic activity and your own plans as a member of the area’s ruling groups. Then, adventurers pass through the town.

I’m not sure if adventurers pass through the town every turn, or if that’s triggered by dice events, too – and while your town is small, only one adventurer passes per round, growing as your town grows. The adventurers have wants or needs, and that means businesses that relate to those needs get more income, and that income benefits most the people who own those businesses.

Now the question from here is how much of anything does this need?

There are three basic values that will give all the rest of the math in this game shape. How many buildings are there? How many adventurer cards need to be, at minimum? How many types of trigger should there be?

We’re going to assume symmetrical distribution of each, by the way. Unequal distribution is good for games with fewer random elements, as they make the rarer incidents feel more wild; in this case, the dice are going to present a randomness for all players, and we don’t want people to be able to bank on long shots that then fail because the dice didn’t come up from them. I want choices to matter, and in this case that means trying to keep people from getting too far ahead with either lucky long-shots or unlucky crap-outs.

When you’re doing this kind of design, there really is no right or wrong place to start. I want the towns to be printable on an A4 sheet, which gives me a boundary to work within. I drew a few designs for the town as a 3×3 group of buildings, then a 4×4, then a 5×5, and a 6×6. 6×6 got a little small for my tastes as an A4 page, so a 5×5 it is. The central square is the town hall, which nobody owns, meaning we have 24 potential buildings.

With 24 buildings, what do we have that can divide into that equally? Well, one option is 24 adventurers that trigger each building uniquely. That’s a bit dull though – it means that once an adventurer triggers a building, you have to wait until that adventurer loops back around. You can’t have any ‘really good days’ when a building gets triggered once or twice in a turn. Also, do we want adventurers to only have one trigger symbol?

Working on the idea that all adventurers need one or two symbols, that we have 24 buildings, I went to this Combinatorics calculator, and jammed numbers in it for a while. If there are 6 symbols, which can be repeated and where the order doesn’t matter, and you pick 2, there are 21 combinations. 21 is a good number for a deck of cards – it’s not too small to shuffle nor is it too big to handle quickly, and it’s small enough I can add some cards to it if I want to.

That is how it’s done, by the way – how I do it, at least. I jam numbers into things to see how long it takes to work.

This has an additional possible application. If there are 6 symbols, and there are 6 faces on a die, it might be that people can spend a dice to trigger a symbol that corresponds to it. I don’t know if I’ll use that, but it’s an option!

Next time, we’ll talk about tools.

The Process of a Meme

Sometimes, the idea just bursts into place, fully formed. I just arrive with the inspiration and execution all at once.


Sometimes, I need to ask someone how I’d do it. It’s a matter of a back and forth, where I know what I’m trying to get to, but they don’t know that yet.

When we talk, there’s always an understanding, though, that they don’t really know what I’m doing, what I’m planning. They just know I’m going somewhere.


Very occasionally, I’ll ask someone who’s done it before. They’ve had a better version of this idea, they’re an expert in it. Most of the time, they’ll see what I’m doing.

These are the times when I start to doubt myself, where they’ll tell me what what I’m doing is kind of obvious, or worse, where I’ll realise that this is pretty pointless.


Then there’s that point where I’m just kind of sadly standing over what I’ve done, what I’ve finally made, and I brace for the reactions, wondering if it’s good enough…

TALEN
Delete this
I HATE THIS
this is the worst
Oh my god
talen, seriously
I don’t get it
oh hang on
ffffffffff

Story Pile: Arrested Development, Part II

After the first series of Arrested Development, seasons 1-3, they revived it. Who’s they? The wizards, I dunno. The point is, thanks to the neverending zombie franchiseland that is Netflix and the endless well of relaunch fever for people who were noticing we were approaching or in middle age desperately tried to head back to the mid eighties, Arrested Development was brought back to life in 2013.

It’s not very good.

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MTG: Pet Cards VIII, Shadowmoor And Eventide

This block – made up of two sets, a design that we’ll see we’re going to get to see a lot more of in the coming future – was a pleasant surprise after Lorwyn. I hadn’t been so attuned to spoiler season that I knew what was coming, but once it dropped it all made a lot of sense: Lorwyn was an experimental contrast, an opposition in design to where they wanted Shadowmoor to get.

The whole set was built around a hybrid colour mechanical theme and a grim fairy tail flavour theme. While Lorwyn was about can you get value out of these cards, Shadowmoor was much more about can you even cast these cards, and then, those cards you could cast were generally pretty good. Play was still complicated – you had to manage a bunch of colours was pretty annoying – but you still didn’t have the same ‘three lords, you’re boned’ draft environment.

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Game Pile: Hyrule Warriors

I have kind of bought Hyrule Warriors twice now, and never played it. It’s a game for Fox, a game that blends together her beloved Legend of Zelda universe – a series normally renowned for kind of tight, expertly designed small-scale adventure problems – and the indulgent, wide-open reckless ridiculousness of a Dynasty Warriors game, known as the genre of Musou. I say it’s a genre because even if nobody else was making Dynasty Warriors-like games, there are enough of them to be a genre.

Content Warning: Will contain spoilers for the plot of Hyrule Warriors.

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How Unrepresentative Can The US Voting System Be?

What is the optimally “unfair” possible U.S. election? Assuming you can just set the vote ratios in each state to whatever unrealistic value you want. How much can you lose popular vote by and win the Presidency?

This isn’t a comprehensive view of this idea, but a rough summary. Still, it’s an interesting question and let’s explore it. Note that these results involve literally no breaking rules. These are just the ways the system functions based on changes in circumstances. Consider these urine samples from an extremely unwell system.

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What’s Nyarr?

Hey, what have I been up to these past few days? Well, I was writing up the Nyarr.

What’s a Nyarr?

The Nyarr are going to be this June’s tabletop release. They’re not going to be a card game – they’re a new ancestry for your tabletop RPGs, released as my Lost Libram line of content. Lost Libram is my division of my work that’s from my older D&D work, stuff I never released because hey, 4ed came out and my friends are playing that now.

As a designer, I still love this old content, and realising there’s a market for it, I decided I wanted to get it out there. Especially since a lot of writing of this type isn’t mechanical, it’s conceptual, it’s giving flavour and tone for the stuff I’m sharing. RPG writing is in a lot of ways bits that you playtest.

Here’s an excerpt:

Nyarr are humanoids comparable in size to humans, ranging between 150 cm (5 feet) and 195 cm (6-½ feet) tall. Despite their size though they are markedly heavier than humans, ranging from 72 kg (160 lbs) to 118 kg (260 lbs). Nyarr have skin hues that range from a dark brown to a pale green, and some Nyarr are coloured blue or purple. Nyarr have soft plates of chitin on their skin on their shoulders and knees, and their feet are split into two large forks, rather than five small toes. In silhouette, Nyarr are most like humans, though with larger feet and hands.

Nyarr are most easily distinguished from humans by a number of secondary traits; Nyarr have scaled hands with pronounced, thick fingernails that look like claws, scaly plates on their shoulders, horns – typically two, though rarely four, – long, thin tails, sometimes splitting with feet that stretch up into a ‘high’ stance for running. A Nyarr running tends to lean forward a great deal. These traits have been called ‘demonic’ and ‘monstrous’ commonly, though their actual threat is quite minor; the scales protect their hands for fine manipulation in extreme environments, and the horns and tail allow them to steer while running more readily in areas like cliffsides or desert plains.

Nyarr gender differentiation is complex to explain, as Nyarr have at least three major genders. Their words for each gender are translated as generally ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘onyar’. Physical differences between the genders are hard to determine; roughly half of Nyarr have a shape regarded by some students as ‘feminine’, but commonly-recognised indicators like hips and breasts are not common to the genders. While female Nyarr tend to have shapes other cultures regard as ‘feminine’, and male Nyarr tend to have shapes regarded as ‘masculine,’ these are not hard rules at all. Onyar Nyarr vary the most, with some onyar having prominently powerful arms and legs, with a more petite body trunk. Some Nyarr tribes even send out explorers to learn from other Nyarr other genders, trying to find the best ideas for their people to choose.

The Nyarr then, are a deliberately enby inclusive race of cool monster people for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, who are powerfully social, deliberately cooperative, and inclined towards trying to make friends, even as they are careful about trusting the rest of the world for being hazardous to their culture at large. Visually they’re kind of like big-footed and big-handed Tieflings, and they have culturally, an idea of ‘choosing’ genders from their three major genders, with the understanding that some Nyarr choose other genders if they’ve heard of them.

One detail here, and which I’m putting out there to put on the record even if I fumble how I say it: I am recruiting non-cis artists and writers to contribute small bits to the text of this. My thinking on this is pretty simple: The Nyarr represent a way for a game player, someone who isn’t necessarily heavily connected to the world of nonbinary genders, to be introduced to them, and, as a creature in a game, it gives people a chance to play with, and come to understand that idea. If I’m going to put that kind of thing out there for people to include in their game, I’d want to make sure that people with experiences like the Nyarr interacting with other cultures, are able to put their mark on the work.

Complicating almost all relationships Nyarr have with other cultures is the expansionist trends of almost every non-Nyarr culture. Nyarr have a phrase that translates roughly as Be Wary Of Those People. In the past, Dwarves have hollowed out mountains that Nyarr considered home, collapsing the landscape underneath them. Humans have cleared forests they considered home and turned them to furniture and machinery. Elves have magically tamed jungles and ousted Nyarr from the trees they considered home, in the name of making them more like their own forests. Nyarr tend to view all these cultures as invasive.

Humans and dwarves are very much cultures that judge and compete, and view survival as a personal thing. Nyarr culture rejects these ideas, and sees survival as being a shared responsibility. Also the humourlessness and lack of fun in Dwarf culture is abhorrent to Nyarr outlooks – to survive without an ability to feel joy is to be as good as dead. Dwarves can sometimes appreciate Nyarr because of their survival abilities, while others see Nyarr and their culture of change and cooperation as weak and strange.

The cultures less prone to building empires and starting wars tend to cooperate with Nyarr better – particularly orcs, who rarely want territory that Nyarr alone can hold. Nyarr feel a kinship with the half-humans like the Half-Elf and Half-Orc, seeing them as something a bit like themselves; outsiders in a group.

It’s a little ostentatious, I guess, but I want to be careful about the ethics of it. I don’t want to stomp into gaming with Here Is A Trans Metaphor For You, As Expressed By Me, A Cis.

If you’re at all interested in this, if you’d like to give the Nyarr a read before their release, let me know. I don’t pretend to be an expert, and I can’t really afford a proper high-grade sensitivity reader, but if you’re curious, let me know.

Boundaries of Autoethnography

Hey, here’s some more study reading – specifically, reading a chapter of Doing Autoethnography. It’s a collection of Autoethnographic essays, critically examining works the creators have made that are, themselves, Autoethnography, which is to say it’s kind of an oroborous of moebius or something like that.

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Game Pile: Rhino Hero

At some point in the past two years I really did shift my attention as a writer from let’s take videogames seriously to let’s take games seriously, and part of that was an appreciation for tabletop and board games. Videogames were fast on track to become the biggest industry in the world, and the people loudly proclaiming they wanted more, different takes on videogames showed me that even if they did want them, they didn’t want them from me, since they’d much rather renew arguments about ‘are games art?’ and make fun of Ludonarrative Dissonance for being a long term.

Let’s be clear – at no point since this blog existed have I not been playing tabletop games. Mostly, what I’ve been playing have been RPGs and CCGs, but I’ve still been in those game spaces. But it wasn’t until a year or two ago – when I realised the boundary for making board games was so low that I could just jump into it, rather than needing to cultivate a new skillset like code.

And one of the first games I got to watch played, that blew my mind as a maker was this.

This game.

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Blog Tips – Queues and Bins

I blog a lot. I blog constantly. I try to make sure, when I can, I write something every day. Whether it’s big or it’s small. The big trick for me is finding a thing to write about, which can sometimes make for a long or short post. It’s you know, the challenge of finding the thing about ‘what gets me started.’

Here are two blog habits that have helped me though:

Queue in Advance

Don’t post your blogs when you write them. Post them a week later. Schedule them. Why the delay? Because it means you’re not going to be fuelled by the now, by an immediate and urgent need to express. You’ll have time to go back an double check what you said. You’ll have the opportunity to revise or expand as events change. The hottest of takes is the worst of takes, because hot take theatre is just the way to rile up hot emotions. Let your takes cool.

Make a Draft Bin

Every time I get an idea for a blog post when I’m near my computer, I try to jot down a phrase or an idea and throw it into a draft post in my blog. That means when I’m scrabbling for ideas, I can come back to these things and see what ideas have been on my mind, and give me a chance to well, sculpt a well-cooled take around an idea, maybe do some research for a thing that needs it.

Story Pile: Why Cap Ain’t Supe

The comparison between Superman and Captain America is very much like the comparison between tractors and trucks. They’re not an unreasonable comparison to make, especially when you only know of either thanks to movies, but the more you know about either the less the comparison works. The two have some very broad similarities, but when you start to talk about the kind of stories they can tell, things start to break down.

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The Pop Of Porn and ASMRtifacts

Media does weird things.

First things first you’re going to need to know what ASMR is before I keep going. It’s a hard-to-explain thing, so let’s go with an arch, academic-sounding definition then get fuzzier. ASMR, standing for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is an experience characterised by tingly feelings across the skin, alike to static electricity, often running down from the top of the scalp down to the back of the neck, which seems to be experienced by a non-majority population of the world.

It is hard to study because it’s a thing people may not even realise they do experience, it’s an individualised experience, and there aren’t clear, hard predictive triggers. Some people get it from a few things, some get it from a lot, and some people may never discover that they’re affected by it. It is not necessarily sexual – despite the title of this post – but for some people it is.

ASMR culture on youtube is therefore a grouping of channels, often with odd titles which seek to promote to you different and sometimes blisteringly specific scenarios, containing things like ‘tapping’ ‘squish sounds’ ‘no talking’ ‘personal attention’ and the like.

I’ve been thinking about this XKCD strip:

Panel 1.

And I’ve been thinking about it in light of ASMR.

The idea of the comic is pretty funny but it’s also pretty easily grasped. Things we experience in our developing lives impress upon us in odd ways. Rather than being overly invested in the pornography itself, the narrator is impressed upon by the medium of the comic. There’s always, with XKCD, a sort of boring futurism where the audience tend to make every comic self-fulfilling. You’ll find people holding [Citation Needed] signs at rallies, for example, and there were people saying they were sure that this person really existed and reflected a real experience.

ASMR videos are often made with sensitive audio equipment that capture a lot of noise and create the impression of existing in a space, and do their best to create a blanket of white noise. I have some very nice headphones (a gift from a friend) and this means that when I’m listening to an ASMR video, I can often hear things that the track isn’t really meant to have – the sound of birds far away, or the sound of a siren many blocks away. Things you have to really strain to hear.

In addition, I have some experience editing audio. One thing you want to avoid in audio is around the English letter sound p and to a lesser extent, b. These sounds carry a burst of air, which means that they for a tiny moment increase the volume of spoken audio, known as a pop. There’s a whole host of equipment designed to help you minimise these effects, and radio voice – the practice of speaking to recording devices – tends to have non-severe P sounds. They are, when you hear them in professional audio recording, basically an error. Software can get them out, hardware can prevent them happening, you should probably never hear pops on audio tracks.

ASMR videos are full of pops.

ASMR videos are often built out of experiences of intimacy and comfort from points in our youth. Things like being the focus of attention for a non-failable test, hairdresser visits, hearing exams, having your makeup done – lots of different scenarios. The super-sensitive audio devices pick up the pops and the pops seem to be things the audience respond to. It might be because it reminds people of old audio software, but it also might be because feeling someone draw a breath, or hearing someone pop when they say a word creates the same illusion of experience as you get when someone is whispering in your ear. Even moreso, starter videos tend to have fewer pops, but as people get more familiar, they pop more, because audiences respond well to the sound.

The overlap of an error in audio recording (in most situations) with an intended affect (in a highly specific situation) comes back to the XKCD strip. The idea at its root, that we can fall in love with things that are themselves limits of technology.

MTG: Pet Cards VII, Lorwyn And Morningtide

Lorwyn is a wonderful world, and an almost wonderful set. It wasn’t a set well-designed for its high-profile purposes; the draft environment was so catastrophically complex and often so debilitatingly lopsided, where someone would wind up with three lords to your no lords and you’d lose games based on your board being overloaded.

There was a certain awkwardness to making tribal decks in Lorwyn, too! Because the environment was full of cards of a type, but the best cards of each type were pretty similar. There were only so many good soldiers, so many good kithkin. You could try and overlap on your synergies, but even then you just got these very dense decks full of Dorks that Attacked.

What’s more, the Spells – you know, those things That Make Game States interesting – were all a bit weak in Lorwyn block, attached as they were to the Clash mechanic.

I’m also sad about how Lorwyn introduced the Tribal supertype, which is an unsupported type, now. It’s sad because while the rationale for Wizards to never do it again is strong, it means that the only Changeling or Tribal cards we ever see are the ones we got. Sure, for Nameless Inversion, that’s great, a solid card, but Blades of Velis Veil just isn’t in the same league. I love little effects like that, small corner case cards that are useful to a whole variety of decks you might want something like it in later building.

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May Wrapup

And now here we are at the end of May!

Daily posts again! This month’s favourite articles include The Whole Sort Of General Mish Mosh Of Confrontation, Helping You Write When You Can’t Write, and my review of Far Cry 4. Also this month I started making blog posts more directly from my PhD readings.

This month’s t-shirt is a pair of shirts – both designed to evoke the old TMs of Pokemon games. You can get them both on Redbubble!

Game launched? May’s game was The Roads To Springdell here at Invincible Ink and DriveThruCards! This time, it’s a gentle, pastoral trick-taking builder game, where you can make your own little town build up out of nothing.

Springdell is another game made possible by Patreon, thanks to people helping to finance the stock art I purchased from Anabal Casis.

This month’s video is honestly a bit weak, but it’s weak for a reason. Most of my videos so far have been some variety of a slide show, and I haven’t gotten into the habit of recording video of every game I play yet. This meant that when I was done with a game, reinstalling it and getting footage of it was basically another week’s work, time I didn’t have. Instead, I assigned myself a goal, to produce a video in four hours.

It’s weak and it’s inconsistant but I learned a lot from the tools. So I’m happy with that.

As always, this work is being financed, in part by my Patreon! As before, this is a way you can get tailored content for you! We’ve got a possible thing happening over there for patrons about getting copies of games for free or expanded copies of games for the print-and-players.

This month I started recording how often I ate fast food, how often I had no-meat meals, and tried to arrange so that once a week, I had a non-meat day. It’s been interesting and honestly, kind of fun so far.

The Whole Sort Of General Mish Mosh Of Confrontation

If you haven’t worked it out, since I read every day, and I don’t want this blog to just be a nonstop festival of Hey, Here’s Today’s Academic Boring Stuff, I’m doing some of these out of order.

More reading from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop. In this case, this is super useful because it gives me an academic source for just a very simple list, a starting place, for my thesis argument of the idea of confrontation.

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May Shirts!

Hey, here are a the shirts I made this month!

First of all, here’s the Play Rough shirt, which I first conceived as part of a series. If you want a particular move name, let me know and I’ll see about whipping one up for you!

(You won’t)

That design gave way to this one, with a big chunk retro TM disc – and I concocted this moveset as an example of a perfectly good, cool moveset for a person to have.

Story Pile: Deadthor

One of the reasons I shifted this particular blog feature from ‘series or movie’ to ‘media’ to ‘story’ is that some things don’t neatly fit into a constrained form like that, and I still want to talk about them.

Comics are a good example. If you want to talk about a comic story, you really have to go with this is a good place to start, because even the most contained comic is still part of and reflects a greater historical context. Things that are old enough to proceed no other comics like them still have to explain where they got some of their base ideas, like why Superman wears his underpants on the outside. If you want to talk about a comic story in like, 1990 well, good grief, you need to explain why then is different to now, what characters have moved on, all that stuff. Really, if you want to give a comprehensive rundown of comics you have to start a few thousand years before comics began and just kick it off with Enkudu and Gilgamesh.

Nonetheless, we are in a time where interconnected media interests allow us to see and partake of media that spreads far and wide into a deep and weird comics history and with that in mind, now we are finally in a place where, through staggering coincidence, people are generally aware of Deadpool and Thor’s Loki.

And to that, I want to tell you about my favourite page in all of Deadpool.

Here’s your basic starter point. Deadpool has found himself stranded on the moon, with Loki, who tells him that he, Deadpool, is his son, and that he knows the secrets that Deadpool knows. Continue reading

Structure, Hierarchy, Winning and Losing

I’m going to be trying something new here for a little bit. I have to read, every day, for my study. It’s just a rule. I also want to take notes on that reading, to connect what I’m doing and make a history of that work easier to track. As I work on my PhD, expect more of these posts to show up, as I put my work in a broader academic context, and hopefully, make game-writing academia a bit more approachable.

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The Misbegotten Design of Trivia

If you don’t know, I teach a class on game making. I do it at a University and it’s great fun and I like it, and I offhandedly joke that every class features two types of games that students are always going to suggest making. The first is a drinking game, and the second is a trivia game with the word ‘bullshit’ in the title. There’s a third type of game, which is a roll-and-move about being a university student, which always makes me a little bit sad, but anyway.

Now, I don’t think I need to point out why Drinking Games are a hard sell to me and I tend to judge them very harshly, but trivia games are their own special thing to me because while it’s a genre of game that clearly exists, it’s not ever one I’m excited to see someone try and design, for three reasons:

1. Trivia is mostly about your personal framing

When you make a trivia game, you are the person making it, and that frame influences what counts as trivia. For me, talking about Shamgar, Son of Anath isn’t really trivia, and neither is Bendan, Delilah’s Alter Ego, but neither of those things are good trivia questions because who else is going to get that. The trivia questions for a copy of Trivial Pursuit that are even 10 years old are sometimes gaggingly weird, because the people who made them frame them. What about trivia that cares about ‘history’? Who tells that story? Your culture moves and your framing moves and writing trivia questions is mostly done by the kind of person who wants to feel they’re the smartest person in the room, which in turn means those questions tend to be more annoying than interesting.

2. Trivia is high-variance in a boring way

You either know an answer or you don’t. When a game presents you with a trivia question, you’re either aware of the answer, or you aren’t, and there isn’t really a space to be ‘close’ and being ‘close’ is more frustrating than anything else. How do you balance that? How many answers in a row do you expect a player to get right? Half? Two thirds? How do you design a catch-up mechanic? Do you make easy questions for that? How do those easy questions represent anything other than not failing? And what’s more, what do you do when you play against an expert, or play against someone with wildly different levels of information? Is it hopeless for a child to play this game? Who does this game let you have fun with?

3. Trivia is really only good at being Trivia

Now, I’ve seen a few games that try and use Trivia as part of a non-abstract game design, like where you cross a bridge and one of the enemies challenges you by asking you trivia questions, but that particular variety of game jerks the whole thing to a halt. Answering a trivia question can’t be a metaphor for fighting a battle or climbing a wall or engaging a plane because the trivia is so actually itself. You’re always answering a trivia question because what else can your trivia question be? It’s like those old Christian videogames, where being able to provide chapter-and-verse memorisation of a Bible verse was a ‘skill’ you were using to ‘do battle’ but the action was so far removed from metaphor your mechanics don’t reinforce them at all.


This isn’t to say there are no good trivia games – I don’t like them but I can at least recognise some basic, interesting game mechanics that work around trivia as their abstract core? But while I can see ideas for using roll-and-move, trivia as a core game experience just seems fundamentally bad to me.

Game Pile: Yooka-Laylee

Yooka-Laylee is a collect-em-up game, in the vein of Psychonauts or a bunch of other games I haven’t played. It has a particular aesthetic, that singular form of storybook cartoon character, where people you meet are almost always some variety of pun. You travel around the world, you get the powerups, you collect the things, you solve the puzzles, and you win the game, at some point, I assume, concluding with a sort of tedious inevitability.

I’ve started writing this article about twelve times now, but I just stop, like I’m sliding off a waist-high invisible fence.

It’s not even that Yooka-Laylee is a bad game, I wouldn’t call it that. I really liked just randomly hopping around on Yooka with their charming little roll mechanic, bouncing and crashing onto things. I liked scrabbling around buildings and I liked the way you could just find odd things around the place. Then the game did something like hold up the game to give me an explanation for something and I alt-tabbed to check my email.

My work email.

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Helping You Write When You Can’t Write

Hey friends. If you’re anything like most of you, you have times when you struggle with getting anything done more complicated than getting out of bed and starting a Netflix queue. It is okay. Life is hard and emotional energy makes it harder. This can make planning long-term projects, like writing lite novels or comics or game development really hard. I wanted to share a technique here that I hope will be useful for people who struggle with writing big things and making big plans.

Disclaimer, of course; I’m not an expert in ADD or ADHD, the two major areas where we examine Executive Function. I’m not a medical professional or even a published writer. My expertise is mostly in practiced ways to get things done.

First things first, get some Index cards. They do not need to be numbered or lined. Having them be handleable is good. Too big is unnecessary. You want them small enough that you can easily handle them, not so big you need to write a lot of detail.

Take one card, and write on it something you want in the story. You can write a character’s name. You can draw a picture. You can do a map of a location. You can do some math to work out how long something might be or how much time it might take. The point is, nothing on a card has to be anything in particular. Some examples you might want to write down.

  • What’s a cool line your heroine says?
  • How does your heroine look?
  • Your heroine fighting a villain
  • Your villain doing something wicked

And that’s it. You write an idea down, and you put the card away and you’re done. You don’t need to do more than that.

The idea is that when you can’t think of much to do, when you’re struggling, you can take these cards, and identify what order you feel they should be in. You can make a story out of little scenes, out of single ideas, lined up. Then when you line all the cards up, and build up from one card to a dozen cards, to twenty cards, all with very little effort, you can look at your cards and see the outline, the structure, of a story. Looking at the cards will give you ideas of other things you want. You might decide you don’t want some cards, or get rid of others, or want to turn some cards into other, new ideas. That’s okay too!

And you never had to start out a plan. You just had to think of something you want, in the story, that’s cool.