Life Is Strange Is Strange

Art of Chloe and Max
Life Is Strange, Together; fanart, by Sakimichan

With the announcement that Life Is Strange is getting a sequel (what, why), commentators I respect (though mostly just Angus) have brought the strangely positive critical echo of now to bear on the original impressions of then. Specifically, the idea that now, we seem to think better of LiS than we did at the time, and that maybe that’s for a good reason.

One thing I’ve found unifying the commentary and reaction to Life Is Strange is ‘I really liked it, but it had problems,’ a meme that most writers seemed to arrive at independently when they weren’t rendering other forms of Hot Take upon the work or using lenses of queer theory to broaden what the game Wasn’t Really Actually Saying Because The Authors Are Dead But Also The Living People In Question Are Sort Of Ninnies.

Anyway, with this in mind I realised if I wanted to show people what I thought of Life Is Strange I’d need to link them to four articles, which was inefficient when I could link them to one article, now, here, and have the links to those articles within, just like with my Hotline Miami series. And so:

Initial Review
Deeper Look 1: Themes Are Hard
Deeper Look 2: Endings Are Hard
Deeper Look 3: Meaning Is Hard

If you’re interested in seeing more of this kind of writing, driven more by a desire to help you connect to work you like from a critical perspective, and to examine things for their own sake than by an urge to sell units, I don’t know, maybe tell me sometime if you liked it, or how.

The Sierra Death

Tonight, I got to see this:

As with all such things I found myself overthinking it. Particularly, in this case, I got to thinking about the Sierra Death.

they were content, y’know?

It was pretty evident when you first played an early Sierra game that your character was pretty limited in animation. You only ever got to see a character the same way, and most of the time, any action only yielded an [okay] or maybe a joke, which was definitely content. But if you wanted spectacle, if you wanted visuals, if you wanted to see something on the screen change or do something, you usually had to die.

I think that’s the solution of the Sierra death. Yes, it sucked to lose progress – and these days, a good autosave system should cover that. But it’s not just a fail state. It’s a tiny little moment of comedy spectacle. Somehow, dying in a ridiculous way that’s funny is a lot of fun. Dying a lot of times, frustratingly for things that aren’t discernibly your fault (like I’m looking at you, Souls games), that’s not a ton of fun. But the more I think back on it, the Sierra games were at least putting their deaths after interesting or comedy things.

Not that they were blameless, too. The maze in Space Quest ][ was breathtakingly bad.

Maybe something to bear in mind, developers.

Game Anatomy

I’ve mentioned this a few times, so let’s make it somewhere easy to read.

A game anatomy is a simple, readable list of what goes into your game. It can be detailed, it can be simple. Here’s an example for a really simple game of mine, Queer Coding:

  • 1 Front-cover card (rules link on back)
  • 25 Player cards
    • 5 sets of:
      • Q card
      • U card
      • E card
      • E card
      • R card
  • 1 Back-cover card (blank back)

This gives me a simple plan for what I need to put together to make the game. Here’s another example, from Skulk:

  • 1 Top box design
  • 1 Bottom box design
  • 15 Thief tokens
    • Numbered 1-5, coloured 1-3
  • 8 Dragon tokens
  • 40 cards
  • 1 rules booklet
    • 8 pages
  • 48 gold coin tokens

You can fill these in with as much detail as you want, or as little. It’s a simple form of a plan and you can fill it out with specific card/rules text too, if you want to sort that out. Here’s an example from Dark Signs:

  • 1 Cover face card
  • 16 Grid Cards
  • 24 vanilla number cards
    • 4 1 Rune
    • 4 2 Rune
    • 4 3 Rune
    • 4 5 Rune
    • 4 7 Rune
    • 4 11 rune
  • 4 Offering – choose next dream
  • 9 Special low-impact cards
    • 3 Awakening – end nightmare now
    • 3 Restless – ditch best card
    • 3 Touch From Beyond – regrow card
  • 6 Special mid-impact cards
    • 2 Haunting Loss – cards all give 1 st
    • 2 Jealous Rage – card swap
    • 2 Final Word – double card value, withdraw
  • 3 Rares
    • 1 Omen – start weak, strong next time
    • 1 Invoke The Spider – make an egg sac of problem
    • 1 The Sign Of Un – always 13
  • 1 cover back card

So here are some examples of notes of how a card game can come together. I hope this is useful advice!

What Have I Been Up To

Tonight, I sat down and used the Invincible Ink blog for the first time in a while to belt out the games we’ve been making in 2017. Then, I sat down and sorted through the game projects that are cooking for the rest of the year. Then I sorted through shipping costs.

This weekend is Comic-Gong. We’ll be there, next to our buddies at Invincible Ink, and we’ll be selling stickers and bookmarks and games, games, games.

I’ve been thinking more and more lately of setting up a formal patreon, just because it’s a way to cover blogging, social media nonsense, the shirt-and-sticker designs, game design, writing about the game design, and even maybe short explanatory pieces using youtube or podcasting or whatnot.

We’ll see.

‘Bad’ Design

Sure let’s shoot from the lip while it’s 3.30 in the morning and I’m winding down from Thesis stress, but whatever.

Earlier today I watched a video about Dark Souls 2 which was brought to my attention by a friend bringing it up claiming the video was absolutely totally wrong, and that led to me saying something contentious about how Dark Souls fans are weird because they view design one way and they shouldn’t, and that then led to me passing up a fine opportunity to use the word methodolatry, which is of course the worship of a way of doing things without necessarily appreciating the choices leading to that way of doing things, except mostly my friend seemed to just ‘be wrong’ and I didn’t see any way to explain that so I just instead said ‘okay’ and moved on to talk about other stuff.

And that then led to watching a bunch of this game design stuff and thinking about it and coming to the realisation that what was annoying me me off, broadly speaking, is as with almost all things in a discussion of games, is cargo cult criticism. The shape of a critique but not the substance of it. The specific issue here with Dark Souls is whenever anyone says anything is good design.

Design is not a spectrum of ‘good things’ on one end and bad things on the other. The damage design of Hotline Miami is not good design for the map design of Doom, and the engine design of Willy Beamish is not good design for the conversation system of Life Is Strange.

A design is not a school of thinking or a collection of shorthanded trope terms (well it is but in this case I’m not talking about that way we talk about design). A design, in the context of the mindset you have when making a thing is, broadly, the things you have constructed and how they hang together to achieve your purpose. There’s useful shorthand to be had there! After all, a webpage that lacks in reader accessibility is bad design, because it’s cutting out people for no good reason, and that’s something we can largely agree upon as a ruleset for standard practices of web design.

But that’s only really doable because web design is itself a generally agreed upon purpose. Web pages have, almost always, a fairly limited range of tasks they want to do, which can be compared in complexity to a very fancy book.

When you get into dealing with a game things are really, really different because some games are confrontational and some games are meditative and some games want to be able to change their purpose and some games want to have very tightly controlled ways to experience them and none of these things are bad but it does mean that for any given individual game, there are going to be design decisions that do not serve the overall design well, but that doesn’t make them ‘bad design.’

The example that stood out to me in the video in question was the idea that in Dark Souls 1 the entire world, more or less, was one large, existant map; loading times aside, you could have all the parts of it exist at once and nothing would jut through anything else, and the whole world could be looked at from ‘the outside’ and still be navigable. This is really satisfying, and sort of aesthetically pleasant but if you didn’t know that’s how it worked you wouldn’t necessarily have your enjoyment of the game ruined for you. Videogames are full of hacky cheats to dupe your perception and there are plenty of ways to convey that same effect of bigness and interconnectivity without requiring a literal perfectly constructed realisable model of the world. Dark Souls 2 doesn’t do this – it’s full of nonsense that doesn’t work, with its ‘map’ full of overlapping areas or things that can’t fit there or disconnected places or so on.

Now, in the Youtube comments, place of sin filth and vile foolishness there are, there are people arguing that such a thing is ‘bad design’ and Dark Souls 1 is ‘good design’ and I want to drown these people in porridge. Because to me the real thing is that either of these facts are known to the people in question has nothing to do with the design. You don’t have to know these things to progress.

So there. There’s my complaint. Look at what a design is trying to achieve, try to think of choices in terms of being ‘at odds‘ with other choices, rather than ‘good’ or ‘bad.’

Pepsi Normalisation

So, this happened:

Now a thing I’m seeing swapped around about it is jokes in the vein of ‘Pepsi believe Pepsi is cop countermagic.’ Which is silly, and insidious and awful, but. But but but.

I politely request that you keep paying attention. Because I don’t think that’s what they’re doing. I think it’s super easy to take what they’re doing that way, but it’s kind of worse.

Okay, so first up, let’s talk about advertising. You’ve probably heard all sorts of things about subliminal advertising or the impact of advertising on your brain, which is a pretty successful pile of nonsense that convinces you that advertising is really powerful and dangerous and a lot like programming people. It’s not against advertisers’ interests to convince you that they have, in fact, superpowers. Thing is, the #1 job of advertisers isn’t to sell you products, it’s to sell advertising to people who aren’t you unless you are a multimillion dollar company with a giant pile of cash to blow.

Advertising is, let’s say, let’s say there’s a fairly tenuous relationship between advertising and success. Part of this is because advertising just doesn’t have the sample sizes and demographics to prove it works. You remember Dulux dogs? That dog they used to advertise Dulux paint? Didn’t appreciably improve Dulux paint’s sales, but really did improve sales of the dog. There’s also this problem of saturation, where your brain starts to just sort advertisements into big blocks – basically, at a certain point, your brain starts to say, when you’re being shown a product, ‘oh yes. Products exist.

There is however a form of advertising we’re pretty convinced works, and it’s an advertising method you kind of can’t do unless you’re already a massive multinational corporation. It’s supersaturation. It’s designed to represent your product as so overwhelmingly common, so universally available that people think of your product as part of being normal, as part of just existing. It’s about being background radiation. And you do that not by subliminal representation or cow-shaped ice cubes, you do it by just showing up everywhere. You put your brand on the sides of buildings, cars, trucks, vending machines, you put it everywhere, and you distribute your product absolutely everywhere too. It’s got to be this combination of availability and omnipresence. It only works for products you use regularly, for products you want to reach for all the time, replaceable and reusable.

Simply put, this is the sort of advertising corporations like Pepsi and Coke can do. And it’s a model that almost only works for their particular variety of product. You can see other companies wasting money on this kind of thing – even Apple’s marketing in the same vein has challenges in that people don’t need to buy new Apple products every week. It costs a lot to stay on the top of everything, to be everywhere doing everything.

And that’s where we get to this ad.

The company behind this marketing is, from what I can tell, doing exactly what they’ve always done. They’re trying to create a schema, a worldview of everything is normal and Pepsi is part of it. You know things are normal, because Pepsi is there, and Pepsi is normal. The best results of this massive multinational research company, trying to manage its already extant status of everywhere for everyone, is to make this ad, based on exactly what they can prove or know. The thing with this ad is that it’s not trying to say use Pepsi to change your world or Pepsi is part of the revolution. What they’re saying is even when you have a protest, for any reason or any purpose, hey, Pepsi is there. Pepsi is part of your day to day life.

And your day to day life will probably feature regular protests and confrontations with the police.

Sleep tight!

Make This Game: Consulting Detective, but Queer

First up, you need to know what Consulting Detective is. Here’s a review explaining what the nancy it is:

And now we’re going to go into how you’d make a game like this. Before we do, some things to remember, friends:

  • Game mechanics are open source. If your game uses the same mechanics as another game, that’s okay.
  • Anything you make matters, even if it winds up not being good. Making things makes you better at making things.
  • I release ideas like this out there in the hopes someone (like you!) can make better use of them than me.

With that in mind, onward! Continue reading

Owning Games

Games are a fickle weird place, you know. There’s this well established, carved out region of information in copyright law that’s designed to be restrictive enough to curtail methodologies for trade secrets, but explicitly not restrictive enough for methodologies that you sell, or that people can naturally come up with on their own. This means we get to this super weird place with things like lawyers being left unable to basically do any work at all thanks to noncompete clauses, but being hired anyway to do no work because that noncompete clause threat is a useful tool and –

yes I’ve been watching Suits, but anyway.

Point is, games are hard to own. Proprietary systems you can own, and you can brand and trademark bits of them but it’s very hard to tell people that you exclusively own a system for laying tiles down on a board with letters on them. Straight up copying Scrabble is… legal. That’s why you can buy a bunch of scrabble variants that aren’t as nice, why Connect Four has a bunch of different names if you check the Reject Shop.

This is a little dismal as a creative – anyone in the world can take my work, do it better, and get lucky and succeed. The idea I might own my own material is a bit of a thing that somewhere along the line I internalised as a child, and it’s just not true when you work in games. You can copyright texts – rulebooks and game names and card information – but any system you see, well, shit, the way that system works? It’s fair game.

It’s funny, too, considering that there’s all these Youtubers dealing with one of the most choking fists of ownership on the other side of this paradigm, but anyway.

Games And Language: What The H*ck Is Paratext

Paratext, the term, comes from the work of Gérard Genette, a literary theorist from France. He’s contemporary to Roland Barthes, the person who coined the now-widespread term ‘death of the author.’ Genette is the indie band of mainstream literary theory, the one you namedrop to indicate you didn’t just get your academic study from channers screaming about the death of the author in threads about the sanctity of subtitles or something. The book of his you’ll want to namedrop here is Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation.

To define Paratext, first we need to define text. Text is basically, the stuff of the work. If the work is a story book, for example, the text is literally just the story from beginning to end plus all the illustrations involved. If it’s a comic book, it’s every panel, how they’re arranged, what is in them, what they say. If it’s an instruction manual, it’s again, the words that make up that set of instructions, all the illustrations explaining it. The text of a painting is, basically, just the painting itself, the image and how it expresses itself in the world. Text is, broadly speaking, easiest to nail down when you’re talking about books: The text is the stuff the author (or authors) made to tell you.

What about videogames,” you ask, well, that’s where things get muddier and where I think I disagree with some speakers on similar theories like Dan Olsen. But let’s save that for later.

When Genette coined the idea of paratext, he focused on books. Books, boy does Genette love books. Paratext, to him, was the threshold between the text and the not-text. Your lunch isn’t part of the text, very clearly, so that gap is easy to see – but the gap between the cover of the book and the text inside it, that’s not so obvious. The title of a book? Its table of contents? Publishers’ notes? The year it was published, as information? The weight of the book, the feel of it, the type of paper? These, Genette said, were its paratext, and they were the “a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: A privileged place of pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that… is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it.

Which sounds fancy, but we’ve had some years to work on it. Paratext, once the idea was established, became pretty important to how we recognise the ways in which people experience media. Genette, for example, with his loving focus on books, didn’t do a lot of good for the unsighted people in the world who have a much more limited experience of the paratext of books, but definitely have a stronger attenuation to audiobooks. So we worked on ‘paratext.’ The working definition I use is:

Paratext is media created as a requirement to experience a text

So, if we’re talking about an audiobook, the voice actor and the speaker quality and the freedom of movement it gives you while you listen is itself, part of the paratext of that book. If we’re talking about a painting, a surrounding gallery environment is part of its paratext – you need those things to experience that painting though if the painting’s location or form changed, so to could that environment.

And now we’re on to videogames.

I forward the idea that play is paratext. That is, the text of a game is the stuff that’s ‘stuck down,’ in the game, without a ludonarrative element; it’s the artwork, the models, the spaces designed, the construction and cinematography of cutscenes, the choices in editing and when and where the audience is given and loses control. That is text, but in order to experience any of that, you have to play it. You, a hypothetical you, a player, has to engage with the work and create a play experience in order to ‘see’ that text.

But then, that asks, doesn’t that make the play experience ‘not-text’? Well, sort of but also not really. It’s a threshold. Just as how the original structure of a game may work on the basic assumption you’re not going to stand still and wait for the timer to run out, there are assumptions of things that make the text a reasonable experience. You bring yourself to the table and you play, and you interpret, and in so doing, you create part of the game that’s there for the play experience.

This is part of why it’s so hard to analyse videogames in particular in terms of broad textual analysis, because a lot of people have it in their heads that there’s one singular model of how the game ‘should’ play, or two or three forking forms of it, without embracing the idea that part of the game is the player experiencing it. That competence and skill change the way a game feels, that pre-baked literacy or an absence of it changes what a game says. The ludic ballet of a speedrunner glitching around whole problems while perfectly evading random generated elements is as much the game as is the stilting steps of the first-time gamer learning how to aim and walk at the same time. What’s more, the idea of this paratextual element means we can look at things in terms of the general ways in which players tend to be pushed – we can view the play paratext in aggregate of experiences (the way lots of people create the paratext) or we can view each paratext as an individual interpretation that has potential to be interesting for consideration.

If we recognise play as paratext, we recognise ourselves as part of the creation of it. And that, that right there, is one of the most powerful things about games: Games let us create some of the text for ourselves.

By the way, Genette is still alive and I really, really hope he’s not reading this because he’s an old bloke and I doubt he gives two toots about videogames.

Accessibility Help: Voiceless?

I’m working on a game right now that’s meant to be a small, light game to play. Part of it is based around that classic game ‘Going to Grandma’s House’ where you repeat a list then add to it.

In this case, what you’re listing are fighting sounds – a biff and a thwack and a crunch.

When I work up these documents to make these games I put in a section where I list things I know the game needs and see if I can check if these things will exclude people. In this case, I realise, this game excludes people who can’t talk, and people who can’t hear the other players talk.

Now I don’t have any connections in the Deaf community and … is there an ‘unvoiced’ community? But I’m wondering about if this is an access concern I should build around/cater to, or if people impacted this way already have their own workaround for it, and I’d look silly ‘trying to help.’ Does sign language have distinct gestures for ‘biff’ and ‘thwack’?

An idea I conceived was carving out a small space on the card for a single set of morse code digits, so players could, if they couldn’t say the cards, could rap out the beats. Is that condescending? Is that ridiculous?

I don’t know. I don’t even know who to ask.