Pixels in Praxis Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
14Aug/170

Oxenfree (2016)

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It wasn't until yesterday I realized I've developed an affinity for media centering around alienated young women dealing with some vague apocalyptic threat.  In movies there was Before I Fall, The Edge of Seventeen, in music I had Grimes, and in video games Life is Strange and, now, Oxenfree.  While varying in tone and presentation, to say nothing of being in different mediums, there's a liberating feeling throughout all these pieces of art.  Life is open to possibilities in a way media centering around men feels like it's on rails.

Oxenfree isn't as world-weary as any of those other artistic endeavors to its benefit and detriment.  It's nice exploring the world with Alex (Erin Yvette) and directing her conversations like a water spigot where I choose who gets told what as time marches on.  At the same time, Alex and her friends are on an island haunted by the spirits of an United States submarine sunk by American firepower, and by the time Ren (Aaron Kuban) and Jonas (Gavin Hammon) make the same joke about military figure "Dick Harden" I was wondering if any of them were aware the danger they were in.  There's a disconnect between the increasingly grave threats of the spirits compared to the joking tone the cast continues to use throughout Oxenfree.

Whatever reservations I have about Alex and co. treating the situation lightly are moved aside ever so slightly for a remarkable dialogue system.  Alex is free to select conversation topics as they slowly fade from view while walking around the environment may trigger other options to bring up.  No conversation flows with ease, characters talk over each other while Alex's interjections are just as likely to be ignored as they are to silence, and there's nothing stopping those characters from picking up their previous train of thought if interrupted.  This is the primary source for that feeling of spontaneity I felt in Life is Strange and so on, it also means that what the player puts into the game is likely what they'll get out of it.  Granted, that may be true of most art, but consistently engaging with background observations or taking the dead-end paths reveals more information that gives context to the characters' emotional state.

12Aug/170

The Boy Who Stole The Sun – Devlog #3

Guardian Concept © Seth Gorden

Whew! July was rough. The tools update from last time has had some consequences in the clean up phase. While the tool for assembling terrain data was relatively simple to put together, the update to the loading code for maps that use this terrain data breaking a bunch of assumptions from the previous revision. Or rather, it would have been simple except that map data for the game and the editor are slightly different, and I have some work to do to make sure the terrain file loading goes smoothly in all cases.

As a brief aside, I have a little episode from the home life to share. It's part of the journey that things go poorly sometimes, and it's not always code that causes trouble. The problems revolve around getting a new roof put on our house. The positive side is that insurance is covering most of it. The downside is that it took WAY too long to complete the job by any reasonable standard. There were reasons given, and some of them were understandable, but the cumulative effect is that our house was under siege for a whole month. We didn't have access to our driveway or garage due to a giant dumpster parked there. We had some rain leaks due to portions roof being left in unsuitable conditions prior to stormy evenings. The workers often showed up late in the morning, and departed around lunch time or early afternoon. Many days they didn't show up at all. The worker team itself had a lot of arguments, and I'm pretty sure two workers quit as a result of all the yelling. After some calls to the company's owner, they applied some discounts to the project. That was nice, but there were continued communication and reliability problems all the way to the end.

Guardian Concept © Seth Gorden

Suffice it to say, this whole ordeal ended up triggering my anxiety pretty hard in the last week of July. The wife and I had navigated most of the upsets pretty well together in the first couple weeks, but that week was so full of disappointments that I buckled under the pressure and it got the better of me. Work was affected. Doing well again this week, but the recovery time is at least in part due to having support and accountability in place. I'm a pretty high-functioning anxious person, and a lot of the mental game of the condition is under control. But one of the sneakier side-effects is a hesitation that sticks around after these incidents. Which leads to getting stuck on decision making points. However... despite the stress, several important gameplay decisions got made last month... excited to share, and also excited to have a clearer plan for the player progress through the game.

One of the "Aha!" moments was deciding on having a series of guardians for boss encounters. From the early design, I only had one guardian encounter in mind, a giant bear, altered by uncanny magics to guard the Sun Stone which is our MacGuffin for the game. The Guardian at the end. When explaining this creature, and asking about how to mark out major challenges in areas between... my brother (kindly acting as a sounding board for ideas) asked me about the Guardian's origin. I explained that one of our major NPCs had created it. And his response was "If they can create one, they can create several. Just have a bunch of guardians." Seem so obvious  now. But at the time it felt like an epiphany. Of course there could be several. Sometimes when I'm bogged down in tools code, and wrangling things on a micro scale, some of the obvious choices for the macro scale elements can be missed.

Once this was decided, we went to work on figuring out how to make sure guardian encounters would be significant for both gameplay and narrative. The basics are that each guardian will be placed at the entrance to some area of exploration, rather than at the end. The choice to void violence as the primary language of interaction make boss design tricky. I don't think we can avoid violence entirely, but aiming for problem solving as the primary experience. We won't need to teach the player tools and weapons (Zelda-style) to lead up the boss fight at the end. Guardian encounters are instead going to block access to explorable areas. Each one will introduce basic gameplay and navigation concepts needed in the areas ahead, and will include a narrative-affecting choice during or afterward.

Guardian Concept © Seth Gorden

Specifics: each guardian has a power stone that it protects. The stone is not placed in a room. It is rather strapped to the animal itself and feeds power to the animal, distorting it from its natural state. These stones are essentially lesser versions of the Sun Stone we're after. These lesser stones will be necessary to unlock the path up the final mountain. When the stone is removed from a guardian, they will shrivel and be left in a state of suffering. The player can choose to move on from there, running off with the power stone and leaving the animal in such a state. I plan to include some audio of suffering noises (wailing, mewling, etc) that can be heard some distance off to play on the emotions and cue the player that the guardian encounter may not be quite done. They'll be free to ignore it, but I'll set up as much encouragement as possible to get them to investigate further.

Players who remain and explore will discover they can, mercifully or otherwise, kill a defeated guardian. But I wanted to dig into that further to see if it was possible to create a gameplay experience that hinged on the manner or attitude of killing a creature over which the protagonist suddenly has power. It's hard to distill abstracts into gameplay like that. But the idea that surfaced from discussion was the potential of setting the creature at peace before killing it, and that doing so would alter the dialog and story in a few controlled ways. It essentially amounts to an optional side-quest for the completionists. There'll be some backstory and details available to those who figure it out. We talked through several mini-game ideas, including some Ocarina-like song or rhythm elements. But ultimately decided upon some light interactivity and narrative feedback.

The game revolves around the idea of making murky choices without enough information, and letting the player feel their way through the narrative feedback they receive. I'm planning for replay value and I hope each of the paths being offered will have enough ups and downs to be a rich experience no matter what personality the player brings to the game. Easier said than done, but taking it a step at a time. The main thing is that now I have a map of encounters and a layout for the how the player will mark progress.

6Aug/170

Yooka-Laylee (2017)

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I'm not immune to nostalgia.

That's the most painful lesson I learned playing Yooka-Laylee.  It was one of the few projects I backed on Kickstarter and one I was excited for.  Colorful levels built on stone monuments with gameplay built from the core of old Rare employees who made their mark during the Nintendo 64 era.  They were responsible for some games ahead of their time like the complex and awkward-to-control shooter Jet Force Gemini, brilliant bits of destructive ingenuity in Blast Corps, and set the standard for console competitive multiplayer shooters with GoldenEye 007.

A solid pedigree, but you may notice I didn't include their platformers like Banjo-Kazooie or Donkey Kong 64 in that list.  Those were, at best, clunky if charming with far too much reliance on collecting things instead of tight platforming.  They still had their moments with Donkey Kong 64's "Donkey Kong Rap" setting an impossibly high bar of cheer while going through what each member of the crew can do.  So I let those positive memories numb my usual resistance to nostalgia, backed Yooka-Laylee based on its pedigree and colorful screenshots, and waited - waited - waited - and waited some more - for the game to be released.

30Jul/170

Layers of Fear (2016) and Inheritance (2016)

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There was reassurance, darkness, and - finally - pain.  My doctor assured me the stint did not need to stay in for long, it only needed to be installed as long as it took for my body to finally expel the stones it carried around.  I was taken care of for a bit then I was alone.  At some point in the night I developed a fever, the pain medications barely kept the needles digging through my crotch at bay, I couldn't lay down and could barely walk but the fever and pain kept me moving.  Eventually I found my notebook.  I'd been writing poetry before the surgery.  In between my screams, stomping, and falling I scribbled whatever thoughts came to my mind.  The trips between the bathroom, my bedroom, and living room where I insisted on keeping my notebook bled together.  When it finally ended my scribbles were useless, the words were barely coherent, and whatever usable prose remained tied too strongly with the feverish pain from previous nights.

My madness felt like it had no end and when it finally caved to the pain meds as the fever broke I don't remember what happened to me afterward.  Any time I read a video game managed to create a feeling of madness I left disappointed.  Not that it's a sensation I have any wish to return to, but that developers are unable to grasp the tenuous balance between being in control and at the mercy of my worst impulses.  Layers of Fear, despite an intriguing premise, led me to think I'd be entering another video game experience where madness equates to hallucinations out of the corner of the game's vision or my save file refusing to chart my progress.  Those are the sorts of design choices that may lead a player to frustration - not madness.

23Jul/170

Breath of the Wild (2017)

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The last time I felt a sense of personal exploration, that I was going to places forgotten or unseen, was when I lived in South Carolina.  I could pick a path in our barely constructed neighborhood to find a shack in the middle of nowhere with a couple of decorations hanging up and nary a sign it had been used in years.  On a more distressing scale, and indicative of the racism of South Carolina, I might visit a friend then walk a couple of miles to find one of the predominantly black churches burned with the skeletal frame remaining.  The landscape of South Carolina told a story with both the good and evil being erased as the neighborhoods sprawled out to take over places that once held some hope for human life.

I felt that melancholy, the longing to preserve a past that will soon be erased, exploring the largely deserted ruins of Hyrule and its surrounding lands in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Breath of the Wild from this point on.)  All these shrines that held the promise of peace were overgrown with bramble and infested with enemies.  Sometimes my best path forward was to try and find a way to avoid disturbing the natural accumulation of danger around these places of power.  Maybe I'd glide overhead, or find some path away from the prying eyes of the moblins who insisted on breaking my tour of the landscape with an indelicately aimed club to my head.