Story Pile: Voltron Part III: Best Beeves

Before I get to discussing the final season of Voltron and why it made me happy, I think it’s worth addressing that I don’t think this series is perfect. No series is perfect. In this specific case, there’s a bunch of stuff that annoys me, or things I’d rather they have done differently, moments where in this thirty hour long story, I would rather they have not. These are disagreements, they’re irritations – not quite at the level of a pet peeve, but bigger, and more specific, like a beef. I have beeves.

I try to make sure that my complaints about a series aren’t about what a series isn’t. I’ve talked about extrinsic vs intrinsic factors in television before. An extrinsic factor is things like ‘the budget was changed,’ or ‘this actor had to leave.’ An intrinsic factor is something like ‘this show chooses to be about men’s pain over women’s,’ (for example). And things like ‘this series wasn’t about the things I wanted it to be about’ are pretty extrinsic to me.

We’re going to talk spoilers, after the fold.

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TableTop AI: Dark Souls, Part 1

Okay, no preamble, let’s talk about making Dark Souls monsters in a board game.

I haven’t got the Dark Souls board game and I don’t think that having it would actually be illuminating. I’m not trying to find out how the makers of Dark Souls would do a thing, I want to find out how I would approach a problem of representation.

That out of the way, here’s a puzzle.

How would I make a Dark Souls Monster in a game I can make?

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MGP – Confronting My Limits

Starting January 2016, I made a game or more a month for the whole year. I continued this until 2018, creating a corpus of 39 card or board games, including Looking For Group, Senpai Notice Me, and Dog Bear. Starting in 2019, I wanted to write about this experience, and advice I gained from doing it for you. Articles about the MGP are about that experience, the Monthly Game Project.

I’ve remarked, but not made explicitly clear, that the game-a-month plan had some problems. In the past I’ve talked about some general problems, like lead times and the awy the Pacific Ocean imposes itself between me and my goal of Making More Stuff. But rather than present that as my problem, I want to talk to you about your problem, if you want to try this same project.

There’s this idea in media making (and a lot of other places) that gets brought up called agility. Agility is the measure of how quickly or how well you can do… things. It’s often used as  a shorthand for how quickly you can shift from doing one thing to doing another, different thing, or how quickly your thing can implement major changes. You might hear the term pivot get used.

I’ve remarked that making card games has a problem with prototyping. It’s just a mechanical concern; if you want to make a game like Magic: The Gathering, it’s not as simple as making a bunch of proxies; you kind of need some way to bulk create pieces to playtest with. Often that can make prototype printings, and that means that these games require a certain scale.

It’s very hard to get to that scale fast.

There are a bunch of games I’ve made that I couldn’t playtest at the scale, and I couldn’t prototype properly. Then, to hit the convention schedule, those games got rushed, and as a result, the games were… well, a bit weak. Just the truth of it: The games were a little worse than they should have been, which is a thing that I really regret now. Playtesting is hard, scope problems make it harder, and I flew real fast, real hard and sometimes it didn’t work.

That’s the problem: What’s the solution for you?

I have three suggestions.

  1. EMBRACE PRINT-AND-PLAY. Make your games for smaller spaces. Don’t think of bouquet card games, at least not for your first games. You can put a PDF out there in the world, made as simply as possible, which is just meant to give people a way to get the game pices working. You can do a lot with print-and-play – boards, sheets, cards, all that stuff. You might learn that ‘shuffling’ is hard, but you still get the basics of how a game works done. Players who make Print-and-Play are really good at knowing how much work they want to put in.
  2. BOOKLET SUPPLEMENTS. You’re one person, working small and experimenting with mechanics. Use existing systems and make single-page variants. Make booklet mods. Make a game that only needs to work for a little while, or maybe make a booklet mod for a board game – like I’ve joked about doing for Monopoly.
  3. MAKE THEM FREE. One of the games I’ve made that’s most successful in terms of distribution is Simon’s Schism. It’s also one of the games with the most feedback… and it’s also free. There’s a fear to missing out on sales for your free games, but you won’t make a lot of sales, and when you’re not charging people for your time, you don’t have to feel bad about making edits or updates to these games. This is your first period making games: Make a corpus of games that are more about showing people your work than it is about making money off them.

Game Pile: Portal 2

For anyone who doesn’t already know the vital statistics, Portal 2 is a first-person perspective puzzle game, the sequel to Portal, that was released in 2011, by People Valve Software Pays. Saying Valve Software made it is possibly overstating the role Valve Software, the organisation, has in things Valve does.

The game is centered around a non-speaking protagnist with a special tool that lets you create portals between two locations. It does this at range, so we call it a gun, because our brains and reference pool is pretty weird. These portals let you connect two points in space – and so much of the rest of the game is just built on exploring that idea. Puzzles become about how much freedom of movement you can get by folding two bits of reality together. It’s also fun because the human brain really isn’t built to deal with that kind of perceptual shift – it’s literally something our brains resist doing.

 

Filling in the rest of the space of the game is an evil AI that’s literally running you through the puzzles, as tests of your mental acumen, and the helpful AI that’s trying to keep you alive so you can escape. You’re followed not by bodies but by voices – old audio logs of a long-lost inventer, and the responses of your two AI companions. The game is stark and empty, but uses that emptiness to fill it with a dilapidated ending, and the story you get is made up of two fascinating parts: it tells you what came before the last story, and what comes after.

Taken as its own entity, Portal 2 is an enormous game, with a single-player campaign that’s very good, then a cooperative campaign that’s pretty good, and then an absolute massive amount of DLC and fan-made levels that range from pretty good to oh well. It’s a lot like Little Big Planet, where there’s some tailored content that sets a very high bar, and then a huge swell of player-driven content that tries to meet it.

You can get Portal 2 on Steam, and statistically, if you’re reading this, you probably already have it.

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Rulebook Template

Writing rules is very hard. I’ve remarked on this in the past, but a big part of what makes them hard can come in terms of forgetting to mention things. Earliest versions of The Botch didn’t include starting diamonds in the rules, which made the game extremely hard to play.

What I’ve taken to doing in recent designs is start with a Word Document that contains what I consider a solid working template. Anything that doesn’t fit in one of these parts, in this order, needs to be considered carefully:

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The Reunion: Setup Mechanic

Here’s the idea: Players sit down and assume the roles of actors reuniting after years apart, who used to work together on a successful, formulaic sitcom. After the sitcom, one member of the cast had a very successful career while everyone else did not – the ‘Star’ of the game.

The mechanic that sets this game up is that each player gets a card indicating their role and the degree of fame they have. Then, starting with the player with the highest value card, players close their eyes – meaning that the player with the highest value card has no idea about how anyone else’s career went, but everyone else can see the people who had more successful careers than they did.

This one-way information is meant to play into the game, because the sitcom was a mess behind the scenes. And the hopeful aim of the game is to create a short story, told in flashback, about what the sitcom was like, about what’d happened since, and about the kind of people they were, all told by the oblivious Star piecing together the narrative of what happened to a life that had nothing to do with them.

The obvious inspiration for The Reunion was Bojack Horseman, which has a lot to say about the way TV comedy gets made. The thing is, the stories of how TV series were made are all so full of extremely strange stories where so many things go wrong, where you can change or replace any given incident and you’d still have a distinct story.

Now, this central mechanic, where there’s a pyramid of knowledge, excites me because it’s a fun puzzle. One player has to start putting together four or five secrets from the things they can be told, while the other players are trying to tell their parts of a story without breaking character. At the same time, though, this isn’t guided – it’s not like Dog Bear where there’s someone in charge of the game who can be told to steer the game to an actual story point.

The really scary thing to me about this game idea is how do I keep it from getting Content Warningy? The whole point is to give players some reign to create, ideally something ridiculous and hyperbolic, but also with a dark twist as to what things were really like. And when you give people a set of prompts about the failures of a creative process, there’s always this part of me that worries people will take it to a really dark space.

In Dog Bear, there’s not just the Boss guiding the game who I can directly entrust with the authority to keep players from being assholes, but it’s also comically ridiculous, with its cyberetch and nanomachines. Not the same thing here. And now, these are the constraints that the design needs to overcome.

Phone Genders

Language shapes thoughts as thoughts flow into language; often we need a word for a thing before we can talk about it meaningfully. We deal with this a lot in academia – much of research is just spending time exhaustively showing a valuable purpose for a name, then putting that name to a thing. The word ludic has a sibling word, paidic, for example, but that word is far less well-known, far less well-shared than ludic.

Language changes what we know, what we can know. Language also is full of features, small and clever and insidious that guide what we can talk about, how we can talk about them.

You might know me as someone who has beef with the English language. A bunch of different, smaller beefs, but one of my beefs is that we have gendered pronouns and almost nothing else. This means that for people, expressing gender can often be about choosing pronouns, which is a feature of language that should be unnecessary.

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Story Pile: Voltron Part II: Faces Of Evil

Last week I talked about how Voltron: Legendary Defender is a series of archetypes. It’s a story made up of scaffolding, and what holds it together is a consistant moral and thematic outlook. One of the ways the story holds its form is through its villains, and how they, consistently, are alone.

We’re going to talk spoilers, after the fold.

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The Riddler Sucks

I like superheroes a lot but they sometimes hold onto some really weird things.

Last year, Adam West died. And his death brought with it a lot of nostalgia. The Lego Batman movie hit streaming services, so I got to watch it. Twitch advertised the living heck out of a game about Gotham Villains, and in it all I kept noticing people bringing up shots of some real classic heroes. Cesar Romero’s excellent Joker; Eartha Kitt, the most legitimately criminally threatening Catwoman; Burgess Meredith, who breathed new life into the Penguin.

But there’s the Riddler.

This isn’t my critique, not really; it’s an idea that was brought to my attention years ago in a stranger, brighter, more 90s internet, by the infamous Seanbaby. The Riddler, Seanbaby pointed out, was a criminal who was slightly easier to catch than normal.

I don’t really like The Riddler as he’s represented in a conventional Batman story. The purpose behind him back in the Adam West show and early comics was that he could change the kind of story into a puzzle that the audience could try and go along with. That’s why he posited his riddles as really conventional riddles, things that a kid might have read. Here are some from the old Adam West show, for context.


What does a turkey do when he flies upside down?

He gobbles up

What weighs six ounces, sits in a tree, and is very dangerous?

A sparrow with a machine gun

What has yellow skin and writes?

A ballpoint banana

What people are always in a hurry?

Russians

What goes up white and comes down yellow and white?

An egg

How do you divide seventeen apples among sixteen people?

Make applesauce

Why is an orange like a bell?

Because they both must be peeled

There are three men in a boat with four cigarettes but no matches. How do they manage to smoke?

They throw one cigarette overboard and made the boat a cigarette lighter


None of these riddles really are going to give you any insight into what the Riddler is doing. You’d need to be Adam West’s Batman with his level of moon logic intuition to be able to get from the answer to the riddle to the next step in the investigation.

But

But

When the comics or the show put that puzzle out there, and then usually take a break, or give you a moment to consider it, you’re left with the sudden moment when this comic book or tv show becomes a game.

Resume Reading

A thing I have to do, in the times I’m not teaching, is look for other work. This means that I’m part of our nation’s unemployment system, which often requires engagement with a series of helpful, motivational, educational tools that are about maximising my chances of having my resume looked at by a business. Since I have worked lined up for the next semester, though, I’m not under that much pressure. Since I’m also a massive nerd though, I read that stuff, and I read it and then I go look online for research.

Not the kind that promises to teach you how to make your resume work for you, or the best ways to get your resume read or your top ten tips. Those are largely really bad and silly and wrong, and mostly motivated by a desire to get you to click on a post and are mostly written by someone whose day job is professional blogging intern.

No disrespect to those people, just like, mostly they’re not going to have the tools to really give you useful advice.

In fact, you probably don’t need advice.

Getting your resume made is a pretty basic process. Get it to your coordinator’s specs, that’ll be fine. It really will. They’re not trying to make your job harder.

The next thing you need to do is to breathe in, relax, and breathe out.

When we make the conversation about what you can do to maximise your resume we kinda break the perspective on it. Because when you think it’s you to make your resume great, it’s making it your fault when it doesn’t get picked up.

On average, every position gets too many applications. They are sifted by people, and those people are having to sift a large pile of information, which isn’t their specialised skill. This means they’re basically looking at paperwork, and they are using whatever excuse they can to discard a resume. This isn’t just your typical things – like conscious racism, unconscious racism, safety racism –

Oh, you’re not familiar with safety racism? Safety racism is when you’re confronted with having to make a positive action in the face of racism, and you instead avoid engaging with it entirely. It’s the racism of letting caution for your own safety promulgate the imagined racism of someone around you. This happens a lot, and with sexism and transphobia and all that stuff too.

– but there is other stuff as well. There’s stuff like throwing resumes on the floor at random to speed through the list. There’s things like ditching resumes based on staples or not having staples, whatever dissolves the pile faster. And what’s more, there isn’t actually any real regulation for this if they’re actually getting rid of resumes at random.

This is my advice to you, resume-writers.

Try to hurt yourself less over the fact you’re not getting jobs. It’s not your resume’s fault. It’s the fault of the people picking it up. They’re the ones with agency.

Game Pile: La-Mulana

One of the hackneyed games journalist points these days is to compare things to Dark Souls, which is usually done by people who want to evoke a comparison to a control scheme and fixed animations, and maybe some exploration. Who am I to fight a perfectly good trope, then?

Dark Souls is kind of like La-Mulana.

La-Mulana is a single-screen platformer puzzle adventure game where you explore an enormous ruin with a whip in your hand, using a retro computer and your wits to pick up upgrades, unlock routes, overcome monsters with increasing ease, and die. A lot.

An innovation Dark Souls brought to this formula of exploration and death was relatively convenient reloading, dispensing with a classic limited-slots save-game system. In La-Mulana, as a nod to pre-1990s computer technology, you can only save at specific key points, and this makes the game much less forgiving than the otherwise fluid Dark Souls. There’s also an ‘experience’ mechanic in Dark Souls, where you can spend resources to get better at dealing with the enemies you face, and every time you save the game, it refreshes your resources. Not so for La-Mulana.

For some context, as I go on: I’m not good at La-Mulana. I didn’t finish it. I’ve put a few hours of work – and it was work – into this game, and didn’t feel I was making any headway. Also, the person who gifted me this game is very good at this game.

You can get La-Mulana on Steam and GOG.

Up front, though, despite not liking this game, I want to say that La-Mulana is not a ‘bad game.’ It’s vast and there are people for whom its particular movement and mystery are exciting and interesting. There’s a ton, a ton of stuff going on, bosses are varied in a lot of different wild ways, there’s a deep lore, riddles and NPCs and a True Ultimate Boss that – I assume – rewards thorough exploration and mastery.

Really wasn’t for me, though.

So let’s talk about colonialism.

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Caillois Indifference

If you’ve been paying much attention to my talk lately, you’ll know I’ve been reading a book called Man, Play and Games by a 20th century sociology academic called Roger Cailliois, where none of that is pronounced the way I thought it was. There’s one thing about this book, though, that isn’t really academically profound but I find funny and interesting.

See, it’s a translation from French to English, and the translation is trying to make sure it uses both consistant wording and academic language. That means that there’s very little vernacular, and we get such wonderful phrases as:

… [Ilinx] inflicts a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind.

On the Game Study Study Buddies podcast, Michael Lutz pointed out that this kind of talk is a bit like a Metal Gear Solid villain. I tried that out:

Me, I thought about this. See, my feeling was that the takes read a lot more like something from Neon Genesis Evangelion:

But then, as I read onwards, I saw a phrase that stood out, a phrase that demanded its place in a different game.

It’s not a bad book, except in the ways it’s bad.

But it’s funny when it’s recontextualised.

Bad Design As A Swear Word

People like to talk about game design.

More and more these days game design feels a bit like being the kind of people who have strong opinions on coaches in sport. It’s one of those things where there seem to be some sort of generally-agreed upon field of good versus bad decisions, a sort of external commentary option. This is Good Design Because. This is Bad Design Because.

There’s a language we use here, and I’m not sure it’s helpful.

It’s not helpful because the more I hear it, the more and more often people with no clue about games who nonetheless think of themselves as experts, which for now we’ll shorthand as gamer, we hear these gamers talk about game’s design as if there is game design that is good and there is game design that is bad, and the more your work belongs in the first group, the good-er it is.

My favourite example of this is an infamous criticism of Dark Souls 2.

See, back in Dark Souls, there’s this point about how some sections of the world connect to other parts of the world in a way that kind of makes sense. In Dark Souls 2, this is less of a clearly communicated thing. Oh, both Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 make conventionally-disconnected, teleporting-based maps, it’s not like one does and the other doesn’t.

In Dark Souls 2 there’s a windmill that you climb, and at the top of the windmill there’s an elevator. This elevator takes you from the top of that windmill, up into what seems to be an underground cavern full of lava and with another big fortress inside it that you then have to fight your way through, to get up to another boss you fight in a lake of lava.

This is generally brought out as an example of bad design, where these two elements don’t connect in the same way as the first game did. Now there are a bunch of ways to address this, but the best response, in my opinion, is who cares.

Design is not a bar you fill.

Design is not a percentage that you attain, as you complete the level.

Design is a sequence of choices made within the existing constraints of the project to achieve an intended end. That intended end can change, the constraints can change, the whole project can change, but nonetheless, design is not about attainable end goals as it is about choices.

Evoking game like game is making bad design into a swear word.

It also means that you treat good design like an act of emulation. You’ll treat doing good design as a task of making something that’s like something else. It creates this sort of culture of nitpickery, this conception of design as traits, rather than design as choices.

I’ve covered this topic before – about two years ago, now. Same example, too – Dark Souls 2 elevator, even!

But this one has progress bars, and more than that, this one comes up because I think that while the habit is a problem, it belies a bigger problem underneath itself. It is not that it is bad design to do X is a simplistic phrase. It’s that we bring up bad design when we’re trying to attack an entity, when we’re trying to prove something about it. Many, many times, what we’re trying to say is I don’t like this, and masking that want under the cloak of it being bad design.

It’s not an unuseful shorthand. For example, I still think most of the Assassins Creed games are ‘badly designed,’ because their mechanics do not hold together well in a satisfying way, or connect well to the way those games try to tell their story. Yet many times, especially in tabletop games, we will hear those words spoken to try and argue about the inherent quality of a thing – rather than its aims or its outcomes or its consequences.

We need to get better at being honest about what we like and why. And we need to learn to respect it when someone tells us what they like and why.

Emergence Vs Progression

We talk a lot about games using inexact language. Genre terms are some of the worst – I’ve talked about how awkward our framework is. Sometimes we describe games based on their mechanics, their country of origin, other games they remind us of, the camera position, and even a few games get named based on the creator. It’s not a good system.

That said, let’s put out some Game Studies language that may be useful, maybe.

In half-real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, Jesper Juul, Dutch Games Studies academic and renowned speller-of-videogames-as-two-words describes a whole range of stuff. It’s a good book, it’s got a lot of stuff in it, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t, because that’s how academic books go.

In this book, though, he describes the idea of games of progression and games of emergence. Juul describes games of progression as functionally being about games where a player moves through a sequence of events one after the other. A common metaphor for this kind of game you’ll hear is a route. The simplest version of this could be mapped as something a bit like this:


That’s not to say that they’re strictly linear. You can make a game of progression that has varied sequences of routes that meet up, or even ones that go off in different directions.

The point with a game of progression is that by design they’re structured. Players in games of Progression have every reason to expect predictable responses, and a linear flow. That’s not to say you can’t go backwards in this kind of game’s spaces or anything – it’s that the game has a sequence of expected events the player moves through.

The other kind of game is known as a game of emergence. These games are built instead around rules that react and interrelate. Games of emergence set rules, and then let the play experience put those rules in contrast with one another. A good example of this is Minecraft, where the vastness of the worlds it generates and the things within them that connect to one another are mostly made out of very small sets of rules.

There is a corollary: There’s a common thing called emergent behaviour, where players engaging with a game use things in unexpected ways. This isn’t what games of emergence are about.

A good example of this is how in Quake, levels were designed with large open high areas that you had to reach through circuitous routes, and the explosive force of a rocket was made to let you knock enemies around and to give the weapon impact. Combine the two, and the ability to shoot a rocket at your feet and throw yourself into the air becomes a way to circumvent barriers in the level, to short-cut through parts of the game.

If the Quake levels hadn’t been designed with their bigger areas and overlooks, then rocket jumping wouldn’t be a useful emergent behaviour. If the rocket hadn’t been designed with the knockback it had, it wouldn’t be useful for short-cutting around the level. These are all just parts of the game, that never were planned to work alongside one another, and once players got their hands on them, they found the interaction and created something new.

As with all game models, it’s important to remember that these two things aren’t really as simple as they look. While you can point to (for example) World End Economica and see it as a linear game of progression, and SimCity as a game of emergence, games move between these zones hazily. One might be tempted to call Bloodborne or Dark Souls games of emergence because of their nonlinear structure and extremely flexible semi-random combat system, but one can also consider most games in the Soulsborne mould as a sequence of levels. You may do them in a different order, but the progression through each area is absolutely a path from a beginning to an end.

Juul’s short-cut for identifying the games is to look for a FAQ for the game. If the FAQ describes a sequence of things to do, it’s probably a game of progression; if the FAQ describes a list of strategies, it’s probably a game of emergence.

Story Pile: Voltron Part I: A Series Half-Full

Voltron: Legendary Defender has ended. There is now as much of Voltron: Legendary Defender as there is ever likely to be. The story is done, its themes and story are all there; nothing can come in to change the text that is and we can consider what it means, or what it is about, or what it says to us.

If you’re wondering should I watch Voltron: Legendary Defenders, in the broadest possible way, with the minimum of spoilers, then to be up front: This series is great! It’s a cool adventure story with a bunch of interesting, diverse characters, and a regularly shifting status quo that keeps the story from becoming static. It’s very much an adventure story of big robots and fighting monsters in space, rather than your monster-of-the-week model you got in the original Voltron series, and there’s a lot of really cool different stories that make up the whole of the show.

I like Voltron: Legendary Defender.

And I want to talk about what it was about.

We’re going to talk spoilers, after the fold.

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Gamebooks: An Introduction

This has been sitting in my draft folder, with the subject line “Are Gamebooks Games”, since November 2017, and I haven’t deleted it because I don’t know why not. I’m normally pretty quick about clearing things out of my draft box that I’m not going to get to.

I know that this question came up somewhere – someone, probably on reddit, getting mad about whether or not gamebooks belonged on a game subreddit of some variety. Odds are good, I mean, someone on reddit annoyed me. The question persists, though, I think in part because to me, I feel like gamebooks are really underserved as a type of game design, and I kept wanting to come back and deliver a fullthroated defense of gamebooks.

When you find nobody’s attacking your idea, though, it gets a little harder to defend them because you look like you’re trying to feel more important than you are. I don’t want to be that sillyboots, and so the draft has languished, unchanged, as I try to wonder just who was taking pot-shots at gamebooks?

Then again, did I need an excuse to talk about gamebooks?

For those of you who aren’t familiar, gamebooks are a type of book that’s an adventure game. Of sorts. The technology core to these books is that you number entries of story, and at the end of each entry, it tells you where to go to see the next section. This lets the story go in different directions, right?

If you turn to the left, turn to 83

If you turn to the right, turn to 16

This is a really cool little bit of technology, a sort of basic engine that you see in books like Choose Your Own Adventure, a long-running series that mostly focuses on a simple story where the reader is the protagonist. The more complex Fighting Fantasy gamebook series works on a more classic adventure formula, with dice and dungeons to roll your way through, and the chance to just plain out die.

These Fighting Fantasy games were kind of the standard template that were mostly successful. Lots of people played them and they sort of set the rules for how gamebooks got made. They’re not the whole of it, but they were so much ‘the way these games worked’ that even games that wanted a different style of mechanics, like the Sonic the Hedgehog and Lemmings gamebooks,

One of the things that really surprises me about this is how the gamebook technology went relatively underexplored. There were quite a few Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that added some tools – Creature of Havoc, for example, had a neat thing you could do on entries to translate language, which meant if you learned to speak, you could go through a whole different game. One or two of the games added stats – like the Evil stat in one or two of the games to keep you from overusing magic. Night Dragon had a Dread stat that meant the longer you took to get to the Night Dragon, the stronger it was. I even wrote about the spellbook mechanic in the Sorcery! series.

Despite these innovations, they were still built around the very basic narrative of a single character progressing linearly through an adventure like a rollercoaster ride. Some manage to make some exploration, some mazelike structures, so there was something there.

Now, if you’re experienced with Twine, you know a couple of games like this. And twine games can do things like remember, store variables, do random things, and that’s true. But there are other things a physical book can do that Twine has a hard time doing.

I’m thinking on this puzzle, at the moment. I can see the idea that you can make a gamebook that’s about a story of a place; or a book that produces a diagnosis at the end; or a gamebook which is designed to create based on what you do when you play it, or a book that deliberately obscures information from you in ways you have to decipher yourself.

The other thing is, mostly, these gamebooks aren’t actually really coherent stories? They’re mostly sequences of interruptions; you open a door, you enter a room, you find the thing in that room. Sometimes you decide whether or not to open a chest of treasure. Sometimes you don’t. There are games of dice, but few games of (for example) cards.

Gamebooks are a wonderful little artifact, a niche interest, but with print on demand, and more room for more voices, I wonder what we – not just me, but you too – could do with things like light novel gamebooks.

Getting Around The Ocean

One thing I wanna do more of this year on this blog is talking about design. Particularly, I want to talk about things I learned in my three years of monthly games. I want to make sure that information lives here on a blog, a searchable data point, rather than in a notebook with an index and a scribbled number.

I’m doing this, because I want you to know what I’m doing. I’ve done a bit of stuff about the graphic design techniques I use, and I’ll try and keep those up. But I’m also going to try and talk more about decisions, the actual plans involved.

Okay, with that in mind, gunna start on this. Design is the process of making choices to achieve outcomes within constraints.

One of my constraints at the moment is the Pacific Ocean.

If I want to print a game, DriveThruCards asks me to order at least 1 copy before I can sell it on their storefront. They have to print it, then send it to me, a process that takes a few weeks. If I want to change anything, I have to print another copy, and get that sent. This means that a small revision can add two weeks to a work and a large revision can add six or so. This can also mean that sometimes I’ll have to stock up on a game, and realise it’s got a mistake in it after the fact and then I’m left with goods that just fail in some way. This can be a real bummer!

This is definitely a local thing. If you’re in America, the costs are much lower, and the wait times aren’t so bad.

This has me thinking more about digital distribution of goods. Things I can send to people digitally, or small products, are a good idea. Right now, the most basic ideas I can see here are what I consider booklet games, where a small booklet (and maybe some extra things like dice or playing cards) is all you need to play. Another option is RPG Supplements – things like classes, ancestries, equipment or whatnot for various tabletop game systems I like and use. Another option is print and play, which… well, last year I meant to do experiments in that, and I didn’t get around to sharing much about it.

The final option, which is a bit more ambitious, is the idea of an expanding supplement game. A game that starts with maybe 10-15 cards as a print-and-play; and then month to month, I start adding more to the print-and-play, until it culminates with a large, final design and visual aesthetic. This sounds really exciting especially if people invested in it get to request/suggest specific card ideas, and see their ideas implemented!

These are some ideas.

For now I think I’m going to try and talk more about the process of finishing up betas for Adventure Town, then the project currently called The Reunion. The Reunion is an improv game, a single-session RPG which can have a storyteller or not, based around the players all being actors coming together to reunite after their most successful show has ended, inspired by Bojack Horseman and a hidden-identity mechanic I cannot escape thinking about.

 

Game Pile: Risk of Rain

Risk of Rain is a platform game where you play an alien dropped on a planet. It has procedurally generated levels, a huge variety of characters, and a core, highly rewarding gameplay loop. The game modes can be customised with a bunch of unlockable buffs called ‘artifacts’ that reward you exploring each level you get into. Each level has boss monsters of a particularly large scope, and the game’s difficulty ramps up on a timer. Time spent exploring will typically reward you with more stuff, but more stuff makes the eventual waves of enemies that spawn towards the end of the level harder.

The game has playable characters that eat enemies and gain powers, it has rolling and tumbling movement, it has ranged attackers and melee attackers, and despite playing it for a few years now, I haven’t even managed to plumb its full depths. It’s an excellent, responsive, fast game, whose biggest problem is probably a steep difficulty curve and its camera positions you somewhere around low earth orbit, making the delightful chunky pixel art kinda tiny.

Risk of Rain is really good! It’s a good game, and I like it a lot, and I recommend that you check it out. It’s on sale regularly and it’s not expensive when it’s not on sale.  You can get it on Humble or Steam, and the developers are making a sequel, called helpfully, Risk of Rain 2.

And that’s it as a game review. I mean, you don’t need that much space to know this game is pretty damn cool.

There’s more to say, right? There’s always more to say.

Continue reading

MTG: Tapping Out

I’m not going to write regularly about Magic: the Gathering this year.

There are a few reasons for it, but the basic one is that it’s neither easy nor fun any more.

When I started writing articles about Magic: The Gathering the plan was that since I was playing Standard, Modern and Commander, I’d just post the deck I played that week, give it a little twist, and move on, or maybe talk about new sets when they came out. This would build on my old work on Starcity Games under the heading Tact or Friction. I think about that column from time to time – a year spent writing, for money, about Magic to an audience of thousands. I think about it because I think it was such a colossal, embarassing waste.

I wanted, in my heart of hearts, to make the kind of content that FNM-fan Magic players could enjoy. Things that could help the new players step up, avoid the pitfalls of chasing expensive junk rares. I thought I could talk to the design of the game (and in many ways, I was right, a fact I hold to my heart as tight as I can in these moments of despair), and I wanted to try and make the game better and more fun in the ways that I thought it could be. And as justified as I was, I’ll still always be that guy who submitted a spiteful, angry ill-thought out screed and it got paid for.

I know I could do better now.

I wanted to work on Magic: The Gathering content, which has three basic forms that are easy to work with, using my new direction of not being a total asshole. First, there’s talking about a deck, or a deck piece. The second is responding to new releases, doing things like set reviews. The third is to respond to current events, things like big public events, like when I wrote about the data release problem two years ago.

Well, the big events thing ran into a problem in that there wasn’t a lot of happy news around Magic: The Gathering to respond to. People I liked left the company, which was a bummer. The story went directions I didn’t enjoy. There was a boycott of worlds, moments of commentators being total dicks about things, at least one sexual harrassment scandal, and the classic reddit spiral of ‘jackasses saying the same wrong stuff about the game.’  There was an endless maw of news, but it was always spiteful, and tired, and ignorant.

As far as releases go, they were dreadfully uninspiring. I literally forgot to do a set review for Hour of Devastation, back in 2017 and my review of Ixalan was so negative that I actually revised it to be nicer to the set because I know people worked hard on it. I just skipped the set reviews since – I found myself not wanting to say much that was nice about Rivals of Ixalan, which reflected in my ‘set review.’ I barely bothered for the remaining sets of the year – Core Set 2019, I mean jeeze.

Oh, and of course, there’s the importance of Nicol Bolas. I don’t care about Nicol Bolas, I don’t like Nicol Bolas. He’s not a compelling villain (to me), and the way he’s brought in to be behind everything feels like a DM’s pet NPC (to me). He’s had something like six cards in the past two years and every time we get a New, Different Nicol Bolas, he’s eating the space that could be used by something I care about. We could be exploring new mysteries or building new villains or just dealing with something other than more of Nicol Bolas’ plans, but seems that no. No, it’s much better that we keep going back to the well of an omnipresent, eternally important character whose defining trait is well I already thought of that like you’re playing lets-pretend with a little kid.

Over the course of the last year, Standard has been an environment about waiting for it to change. Dominaria was full of promise, but mostly spent its time reminding me how bad Magic used to be. Ixalan promised an exciting new place and insight into Vraska, but no, that’s just another Bolas plot. Guilds of Ravnica promised to return to beloved guilds and plane, but no, turns out that’s also a Bolas plot and also the guilds I liked look awful.

The past two years of Magic: The Gathering have been very much Not For Me, even as I appreciate and am glad to see the new technological developments and improvements the designers have had access to. I genuinely find that exciting. But the environments they’re creating and the ensuing play experience has just not appealed to me, and it has slowly but steadily driven the kind of content I can make, leading to things like the pet cards (which I really liked doing) and the Kamigawa revamp (which was fun, but exhausting).

I’m going to keep playing the game. It’s still a great game. But it’s a game I don’t want to play every week. It’s not a game whose content churn is pleasing to me, nor do I want to be part of.

2019 Going Forward!

2018 I set down some achievable goals, and I met them mostly. There were some complications with some of it, but I largely feel I met the goals. Particularly the largest, hardest goals were met.

So here’s this year’s clear, distinct, achievable goals.

  • One t-shirt design a month.
  • Daily blog posts, with weekly entries for:
    • a Game Pile article, on (my) Monday mornings
    • a Story Pile article, on (my) Friday mornings
  • One video a month, released near the 20th.

There’s not going to be Magic articles this year, at least not on a regular schedule and I’ll go into why later in the week. I intend to make each month themed, maybe with a description of what the theme is at the start of the month, but we’ll see. You might notice there’s also not a monthly game release, too, and we’ll get into why on Patreon.

Now, off the blog there are going to be a few commitments throughout the year that I already expect. The biggest one is my PhD needs what’s called an RPR – Research Progress Report. RPR is basically a stand-up presentation where I stand in front of a room full of my peers, my PhD Supervisor, other academics in the field, my sub-supervisor, and try to justify the past two years of reading lots of books and talking about board games.

It is terrifying.

Just imagine standing up in front of a room full of people tacitly asking the question well who do you think you’re fooling. And everyone in that room is an expert and it’s going to be awful. That is the big thing this year, study wise. Maybe that’ll effect the schedule on the blog, we’ll have to see!

Last year had high-productivity points and low-productivity points. Right now as I write this the future log is only 15 articles long; throughout 2018 there were points where it was 60 posts, which I don’t mind – after all, I like being able to take some days off. Still, this year is going to feature a lot of reading and writing that doesn’t get to go on this blog, and we’ll see how that works out.

Decemberween: Ettin, Moreso

If you were here last year, which I’m getting a strong feeling you were, you might have seen me talking about Ettin. Ettin is a good egg, and this year he and I both got started on an adventure of Using Patreon To Finance Stuff.

Ettin is what I consider stubbornly imaginative. When you give Ettin a blank slate, he’s a little stymied. If he gets to set all the scope, it can be hard to get the spark to push against something and get going. This is why he’s good at writing within other people’s creative spaces, and why he’s good at writing ridiculous premises. You may find yourself thinking those things can’t work, and that’s when Ettin’s imagination kicks in and goes hell I’ll show you.

This means that throughout this year, each month, Ettin has taken two poll options, which usually are chosen by people who actively are trying to annoy him, and stitches them together into some kind of game concept space. Sometimes it’s a whole game – you’re not usually getting a dense mechanical engine as much as you’re getting an idea palette that you can use to inform the flavour of that kind of game that you were already going to run. It’s system agnostic, usually.  The other thing is… Ettin’s really good at that. Most of these logos convey the idea behind them, and usually that idea is itself interesting enough that you know whether or not you like it.

You should check out his Patreon. He’s cool, he makes wonderfully silly ideas, and if you try and torment him it will only make him stronger.

Story Pile: 2018

It’s been a year, hasn’t it?

Game Pile work is by definition slower and more difficult to do than Story Pile. I can watch videos or listen to audio dramas or digest movies while I’m doing other things. Cleaning the house and playing a videogame at the same time isn’t going to be a problem. Unless a series is remarkably long (looking at you, Star Trek), even if I don’t get it, I can get it more on a rewatch. I don’t tend to be drawn to media that needs multiple viewings, too. Not to sound like a snob but the kind of academic reading I have to do right now really has me filled up on ‘oo but what does that meaaaaan’ kind of fictive experiences.

What this means is that rather than rethinking the Story Pile in my head with hindsight, what I’ve mostly been thinking about has been the general texture of the quality of what I’ve been watching, listening to, and reading this year for my pleasure.

Some stuff this year has been great but the Story Pile has also, in the latter half of the year, taken its time to kick around some utter tosh.

Okay, first of all, good stuff, reviews that I think are good commentary on good media. Stuff where I liked what I saw or read or listened to and I think you’d like it too. I tried not to do too many of these – I didn’t want the whole year of talking media to be about things I already knew I thought were great. This list includes Arrested Development (the first series), Monster, Hello Rockview and Cul De Sac. A TV series, a manga, an album and a newspaper cartoon – pretty odd grouping, really.

Then there’s the stuff that I experienced for the first time this year that I thought was super great: Pacific Rim, Black Panther and Drive. I feel like Pacific Rim got a treatment that’s the closest I get to just boring gushing. Black Panther is a little different, because I mostly wanted to whack at some common public opinions without involving myself in the discussions of how it should be seen.

Some of my media intake isn’t just rewatching things I half-remember, it’s informing myself on the ‘classics’ I completely missed. This year, I watched The Blues Brothers, a movie that’d been cut out of my childhood. I enjoyed Blues Brothers 2000, a movie that was not very good, and going back and watching The Blues Brothers was like taking a hit of something much more crude, more raw, and much more potent.

Of course, there’s been a bunch of crap, almost all masquerading as something that hypothetically I’d like. Arrested Development went on to a second series that is just plain out bad, for example. All flabby and meanspirited and unnecessarily awkward, even though it had a framing device I like.

The superhero space got its fair share of garbage, too, and so you could see me being a giant pissbaby about my superhero stories not being good enough – I went in on Daredevil Season 3, The Punisher, Justice League, and Iron Fist Season 2 (Danny sucks), and even gave Aquaman a stomping, even though it just came out yesterday.

Also, special mention goes to Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning. My review of that book received an enormous amount of attention, and I think that, in part, it’s because I wrote it in a clever way. Nonetheless, I am glad, because Trigger Warning is a silly book of mediocre garbage that wants to cloak itself in knives.

Then there were the surprises. Stuff I didn’t know I’d like, stuff I was actually willing to ignore at first. The surprises, like Nanette, a truly blistering comedy show that presented the mind and pride of Hannah Gasbdy. Or Sonic Boom, a tie in show for a Sonic the Hedgehog game that has both nothing to do with the game and is really excellent on its own merits.

And who could forget how much I enjoyed Kamen Rider W, a series I’d been stupidly sleeping on for almost two years! These were all pleasant new things I got to experience this year, and I’m really glad I did. Nanette was excoriating and intense and amazing and heartful and wholesome while also brutal, and Kamen Rider W was a whole new genre of energetic love in form.

I liked Nanette enough to make a video about it, and I liked Kamen Rider W enough to make a whole month of essays about the ways it’s a Good Show. Basically I liked Kamen Rider W as much as I disliked Iron Fist. Is that a good metric?

There’s stuff I wish I’d written about – The Dragon Prince, and Voltron: Legendary Defenders, or the manga-and-anime Geobreeders. I wish I’d found the time to read Windblade and make my video about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. But these things will come in time, and now they have time to percolate in my mind, to get better and better as I learn how to make better and better media. I know one thing I want to do is talk about why I dislike Hunk in Voltron so much, or talk about why media like Stephen Universe and She-Ra and the Princess Of Power lost me.

Oh, and go check out Dragon Prince, it’s really good. And Voltron. And watch Korra again!

Decemberween: abad1dea

Last year, I wrote about abad1dea, and this year I wrote about her perspective informing her books. I’d like to just go on about why my friend is really cool –

so I will.

abad1dea is one of those people with a huge wealth of expertise outside of mine. She’s not a card game or board game person, and her love of videogames is for a period and strata of games conspicuously different to mine. I learn a lot listening to her, about not just things that mattered to Americans, but about things that mattered to her.

She’s interested in very specific technical system problems of videogames – the way glitches work rather than just how to get glitches to happen. That’s stuff that can sometimes involve extremely complex computer science, and it’s not just that she understands it, but she understands how to talk about it in common language.

And boy, is that something that computer nerds are awful about.

It feels like every day or so whenever abad1dea talks about anything technical on twitter, someone is there to smarmily ‘correct’ her. It’s alway commafucking too – the kind of more-precise-than-thou unhelpful idiocy that assumes the speaker knows what she should have said, because they know what she should have meant, which inevitably, they don’t, because they’re not listening to her.

Being a woman on the internet, especially a visibly competent one, sucks.

It sucks especially because I’m not in that field of expertise and sometimes when she explains something, it’ll immediately click to me what she’s saying, and then I’ll watch her descend into ‘kindly rack off’ conversations with people who insist that it would be better if her statement had been more obtuse and less useful. That annoys me because it’s bad communication, but it’s definitely not my place to wade in.

abad1dea has focused on her music composing this year, and I’d like to share a link to her soundcloud here. Check it out!

MTG: Kamigawa Revamp, Part 5: Betrayers of Kamigawa

Wizards of the Coast Employees, this article is going to feature custom card designs.

Goodness me, this project took some time. The opening documents you’ve read so far have all been done, weeks, no, almost months in advance, but as I sit here and pen this, it’s only two weeks before it goes up – and my goodness it has been a time to get this project finished.

First, let’s introduce you to the cards, and then we’ll talk some afterwards.

Continue reading

Decemberween: Lucy Morris

Odds are good you might have seen this tweet, if you’re around my circles.

The woman behind it isn’t just a game developer, though. Lucy is an artist, a podcaster, a streamer, event organiser and games educator, and this year she’s been spending time building up her twitch following over at Party Shark.

Talking about a streamer is always tricky because like, mostly, streamers are just people and you just interact with them? But for the particular kind of content Fox and I wanted at several times this year, someone who was available during Australian evenings, actively moderated the chat, and wanted to include the audience in the experience, Lucy’s been a wonderful creator to watch.

I’d like to recommend her Vods of the Witchers 1-3, where you can get a solid experience of the whole game without having to play them, as filtered through a squawky New Zealander who knows a lot about user interface and design.

Game Pile: 2018 in Review

One full year of game reviews down, with 51 articles written, refined, processed and posted. If the actual size of The Game Pile as it relates to my Steam library has been of concern to you, well, this year marks the point where the Completed category on my Steam Library has sharply overtaken the Uncategorized. I’m at 294 completed games, 275 uncompleted.

Still, it has been a whole year. What’s changed? What’s improved? Continue reading

Decemberween: Fox!

Fox Lee, my partner, is an artist, designer, writer and web developer. She manages our websites, writes ad copy, edits rulebooks and creates entire games on her own. Fox has made a free otome game, which is great, and I recommend you go try it. That’s all been true as of last year.

This year, the games of ours that Fox contributed her art to include LFG, with its beautiful vibrant designs, Sparklebutt, which is… in development as I write this but it’s one good day from being done. Fox has had her own projects in the works, too, with Swan X Swan, an otome game modelled on Swan Lake, But Gay, which has had months of work poured into it.

She’s also managed basically our entire convention presence, including a heroic effort to get a presence at SMASH! despite a problem with our booking. She’s gotten us places to sleep, transport and printing and all while also hand-crafting goods like bookmarks and postcards. I know with my blog it’s focused on my work, and my own productivity, but Fox is an amazing creative and her work is fantastic and I love her and I’m proud of her and she’s great.

It’s kind of hard to talk about Fox without sounding like I’m just repeating myself.

Anyway. Happy Christmas Eve!

Decemberween: Calvin and Dee

Uh oh so

So uhhh

One of my friends turns out to kind of be a movie star?

A little bit?

Not really, but not not?

Calvin Wong Tze Loon, or, to me, ‘Calvin,’ is a writer, board game enthusiast, journalist and… in the movie Crazy Rich Asians? Which is pretty odd as a thing to just, you know, have happen in the middle of a year when you didn’t know it was coming. Oh hey, look, there’s the news, and wait why is Calvin sharing this.

But the glitz and glamour of… whoever made the movie aside, though, Calvin and his partner Dee are two very impotant people in the space of tabletop games, games journalism and games culture. They love what they love, but they’re also willing to hate what they hate. But unlike your typical game reviewer who wears those feelings out loud, the things they love are games and the things they hate are fucking racism.

I know full well I don’t have great sources in Malysia for anything. Between a language gap and a contextual hole, there’s a ton of stuff I simply don’t know and can’t get. And that means that when I find someone who is both of a place and willing to talk about it, I want to hear what that means.

This year, with Netrunner announcing its conclusion, Dee and Calvin spoke at length about how much they loved the game. They spoke not about ‘loving the community’ because anyone could do that, they talked about a vision of a future that wasn’t absent of people like them, a future that recognised a world of culture, that drew in everyone all over in the cyberpunk dystopia.

They’re also annoyingly hard to convince they need like official sites or places for their own stuff. But oh well, step by step.

Story Pile: Whatever Kuno’s Watching

Surprise!

I don’t watch a lot of anime. I don’t watch a lot of kid’s anime. I also only ever bring the perspective of an ex-cultist messed up angryboy who yells about cartoons. I’m also, if you’re not inclined to notice, not especially Horny On Main. My perspective is very much that of A Guy, for example. Some lines of dialogue are just not going to affect me the same way they might affect a more obviously queer person.

My brosis Kuno, available here on twitter, tweets at times about the anime they’re watching, in semiregular threads. Now, back when I started on Decemberween I was planning on making a post about some of Kuno’s best threads about anime, but … uh, they’re kind of a mess? Because twitter is a mess, itself. So instead I want to take this Story Pile entry to instead talk about the nature of the twitter thread, and its use as a commentary tool.

Throughout this year I wrote a series of threads reacting to Kamen Rider W, a series that Kuno gave me. In those threads, I made up and repeated a number of jokes – particularly, the model of Nothing Gay Was Happening, or The Sexaphones, or Has Gun, or The Guy Who Sucks.

This is a model of humour that’s very hard to create anywhere else, I feel, because it’s kind of like an MST3k presentation, but much longer form, and with a much more engaging media work. You kind of watch the material, read the thread, rewatch the media, or the thread inspires or reminds you of the media experience, or the thread is this out of context range of very slightly absurd things. At the same time, some of the jokes work best because they are sincere reactions to the show surprising the commentator, unlike the more formally written stuff of MST3k (usually).

And I wanted to say, this is a form of comedy that Kuno is really good at. I feel like trying to live up to their standards and make Kuno laugh made my threads better (and a bit less meanspirited). Because Kuno is incredibly funny and witty in this very emotionally raw and honest and soft way. It’s one thing when a guy like me with my range of privilege and damage can get up and make jokes about being hurt and kicked around, it’s like performatively throwing myself down the stairs. It’s another thing for them, with their context, to be able to make jokes that are both intensely dark but also uplifting and humanising.

If you follow Kuno and watch the kind of comedy they write about the shows they like to watch, you’re going to see stuff I’m never going to mention to you, enjoyed wholly and sincerely. And that’s great and I really think you should keep an eye out for the next time they do a thread on an animes.