So there I was happily chipping away at my videogame. It’s a SHMUP infused with BSG/Star Trek themes that I had been working on slowly for years when what seemed like the entirety of videogame culture exploded into flame -- Well… More than usual at least.
When The Last of Us Part 2 came out, all at once, an inferno of almost all of the medium’s past negativity came to the fore. The misogynists and transphobes came out and attacked the game and its creators. It was a toxic mixture of “fans'' coalescing in what was essentially gamergate version 2. On the opposite end, the reviews coming out were overwhelmingly positive. That is to be expected in this industry for any high profile game with enough marketing thrown at it. However, this praise was edged with the sentiment that it was so artistic as to finally elevate the entire medium out of the kiddy pool in virtue of it coming into existence. This lead to discourse very reminiscent of the moment in time when someone declared Metroid Prime to be the Citizen Kane of videogames and the most viral take (at least as far as I can tell) on the game, which aimed to draw yet another parallel to film, did not help this issue.
So here we were, once again having this very similar discussion on the medium’s artistic merit and so of course "Ludo Narrative Dissonance" was a phrase that also came back to increase the amount of useless, years old, jibber jabber.
I had assumed (perhaps foolishly) that collectively, we had gotten over that phase so I couldn’t help but get caught up in the furor. I too have views on the artistic merit of videogames and seeing all of these takes on the game being this medium defining piece, when it seemed somewhat ashamed of being a game, was quite annoying to see. I found it concerning that the great strides forward made by games like Nier: Automata, Bloodborne, Undertale and even Super Mario Odyssey, to name just a few, were being overlooked in favor of a very filmic game.
Harnessing that drive, I set out to write my thoughts on things and…I’ll be brief and say that it was a bit of a mess. Showing this proto blog to a friend confirmed to me that I was trying too much while also trying to be succinct. This in and of itself wasn’t all that big a deal as I could have separated things out into parts to make things less scattershot or something of that nature. I ended up abandoning this blog in the end though because there was a stronger feeling of negativity gnawing away at me.
Who was I to say these things about this game or indeed the direction of the medium? I’m not a critic nor was my name attached to any games. I was a nobody with zero credibility in this space. I realise that that doesn’t actually stop anyone from writing about stuff anyway but I couldn’t shake that feeling of inadequacy.
I decided to make a game. My reasoning was that getting a game under my belt will add the credibility that I need to remove that feeling. It would also serve the purpose of providing an example of all of the things you can do with games to convey ideas and themes as a rebuttal to The Last of Us Part 2’s which has as its main theme: revenge is bad -- I know there’s more to it than just that but we don’t have time to go into it here.
I sought to answer a question. How do you convey the revenge tale using videogame language while borrowing as little from other mediums as possible? Thankfully my brain was fully on top of things in this moment and within like an hour a had the main things I wanted to do given that criteria.
This was going to be a really small project, in and out game jam style. It ended up taking me a solid month of full time work to finish. This might seem off given the size of the game but I like to think it is because most of the code and systems are built for reuse in other projects, and the game itself is fairly polished despite how it looks. The polishing phase of the game actually took the most time and caused the most grief so here are some examples of the difficulties I made for myself.
I have a tether thing that comes in at the start that would have been real simple to draw/animate. Since I lack the ability to draw, I ended up over-engineering the solution. In order to fake a rope-like movement, I ended up making a game object that is a programmed line renderer that is on a vibration/shake coroutine that will react to a timer event to convert from a straight line to a sine-wave shape.
Having tiles/platforms just disappear would be enough to convey the idea of digging your own grave but nah, let’s see if we can have them dissolve instead and have them start that process when hit with blood particles. This is where I think polishing a game can take a really long time. Having goals of making something look nice might just involve altering a system that isn’t designed to handle it. Tilemaps treat their tiles as one object so they can be efficiently rendered. so applying a dissolve shader to 1 specific tile was actually quite complicated to do so a lot of time was spent trying to understand how that system was implemented and also messing around with shader code(which I have little knowledge of) to pull this off. I think I ended up cheating and just spawning a new sprite at the exact location needed and applying the shader to it instead.
Pulsing lights are also a neat thing to add that make things feel less static… But I remember reading a tweet about accessibility and people who have seizures and things like that… Alright I’ll add in a menu option and track down every light in the game to make its pulse function turn on/off depending on what was selected. There’s plenty more examples of me doing unnecessary things, like adding a basically imperceptible amount of camera shake, but I’ll leave it at that.
Thankfully I did have enough experience at this point working in Unity that experimenting was fairly easy. Another thing that made things easier -- and honestly without this I may have just abandoned the project due to it looking like garbage -- was that there are places out there where people share their art assets free to use. opengameart.org and freesound.org were where I went for those assets and because of them I was doing work in the engine that I had never ventured to before.
Previously working on my other projects I had never gotten past the stage of making the engineering side of the game (creating mechanics, state preservation etc) but now, oh we are in aesthetics town baby! And as some kind of masochistic reward I decided that instead of a regular credit sequence I needed to give myself more work and make my credits sequence a playable area. I’m actually quite proud of this change because, though it is rather simple, it is more of a celebration of the work of the people credited than the standard crawl. It also fits into the purpose of the game -- which is to give an example of how you can do things like providing credit in a uniquely videogame way.
Emboldened with this clout of having officially made a small game it was time to go back and convince everyone that games are art.
Not long after I finished the game, news began to trickle out about the 35th Anniversary of Super Mario Bros. Well hot damn! That was the game I used as my primary example of the artistic merit of videogames. I can’t just write a stupid article for this occasion, I need to go big! Let’s make a video instead, which will make some of my points easier to understand. Yeah..!
My Rational Mind: Tommo, mate! Have… You made videos before?
Me: I’ve done a bit of editing but I mean not real…
My Rational Mind: What about your ideas, are you even sure that ALL of the Mario games are made with artistic intent?
Me:Well not really but the first and last game show some…
My Rational Mind: So you;re just going to go a head and make things harder for yourself?
So I decided to make not just 1 video but a 3 part video series. The seed of the idea behind this series actually originated back when RetroforceGo! Was still a podcast that was coming out on this very website (shout outs to any of y'all that listened YOU ARE AMAAAAAAAAZING 5/5 DOLPHINS!!!!!!!!!!!).
One episode aired after the release of Super Mario Galaxy and a line has always stuck with me, “It’s fun just running around and being Mario”. When I was finally able to play the game I couldn’t help but agree with this statement but I wondered why. At some point during play, I was running beneath a star that had spawned and was curious as to why I wasn’t able to just run into it for collection. It seemed like, basically the entire game, I had to always jump to collect the star. To get my reward I had to jump… Has Nintendo been doing some pavlovian style conditioning this whole time? I looked back at the first Mario and the flagpoles sealed the deal.
Video 1 was that last paragraph but in video form with a little bit more added to it. Video 2 was decoding each game in the series and finding out what themes drove design decisions and Video 3 was using all of those ideas to look at Super Mario Odyssey and confirming its status as a masterpiece of communicating an idea (of having a vacation) with game language.
So these three bad boys each ended up taking me a month to do. Which I’m not sure is good or not but, at the time, it felt like ages. Considering how many games I needed to play, learning how to edit in new software and the fact that I was still working my regular ole job, it’s probably somewhat reasonable in retrospect. However I recall many instances of trying to fix something I wasn’t happy with, to end up just being frustrated and deciding that I had spent way too long on this one thing and that it was time to move on.
The first video has some great examples of this in how poorly planned it was. I wanted to do these whiteboard bits to make up for my lack of ability to create art assets and I figured it would add a sort of school-esque vibe to things. What it did though was make doing takes much harder and also any mistakes that I wrote wouldn’t be fixable in the edit. There was also a bit where the game footage doesn’t time well with the voice over. This meant trying to speedup/slowdown the clip at various points to try and have things line up which I couldn’t really pull off without it being jarring. It’s at times like these where present me looks back at past me and tells him how much of a lazy bastard he is.
It wasn’t just the planning where the pain came from though, other times it was just a lack of understanding of this new thing I was doing. For instance it took me until the third video to realise that animated text was even a thing that was in the software from the start. I also wasn’t aware of creating lower resolution proxies of your video files. Not making these proxies meant the software was trying to shove as much of the video footage at its original quality into RAM as possible and when that got full(which was basically instantly) the CPU would be working overtime to try and figure out how to deal with the situation which meant that editing would slow to a crawl. For some reason, in the moment, this felt like just what editors have to go through but, with hindsight, I can’t help but look back at past me and tell him how much of a dumbass he is.
The last source of suffering I’ll go into here was the unavoidable type. Some of this is just running into bugs in the software or many of the other failures that happen when you are learning a new skill. The rest though is ultimately me just making things harder for myself. the need to add stuff like visual metaphors to the videos(which meant learning how to solve a Rubik’s cube and losing a bunch of takes to my stack of hats falling off) or getting sidetracked for a few hours trying to create some kind of meme that is made up of other memes. These were in pursuit of making the thing better even if no one really notices it which is similar to the polishing phase of making Revenge Quest. It’s at times like this where I look back at past me, pat him on the head and say, “Don’t worry... At least I noticed that thing that you did”
Thankfully there were also moments of enjoyment sprinkled through this process. To name one, I ended up being quite fond of the second video. Seeing the games and how they not only adhere to a theme but increasingly, over time, using/developing more and more game language to connect to it was really satisfying to figure out. Since I hadn’t actually come to any conclusions when initially writing that script, it felt like I was solving a puzzle when playing them and each solved game providing more clues to solve the others until the entire series formed a clear picture. (hence the use of the cube as a visual metaphor)
The last few months, though long and probably more arduous than it needed to be, I ended up in a place of satisfaction. A completed game with my name on it, a series of videos that, though still quite rough around the edges, I ended up being happy with. Now that the holidays are coming up I can rest a bit before hopefully getting back on track with that SHMUP thing!
That is until… This prompt came along and made me reflect on why I did all of this in the first place. I have unfinished business. The Last of Us Part 2 needs to be taken down a peg (I actually don’t have much ill will toward the game, it does do some great stuff... this just sounds more dramatic). So instead of a much needed rest and celebrating the ending of a terrible year, I have an irrational compulsion to go back into the muck and grime to appease a low anger that isn’t even present anymore but I nonetheless feel obligated to quench. So of course, I am going to make things harder for myself.