Introduction of Manifest Pomposity
Far back in the mists of time, when games were a new thing, and nobody knew what they were doing, before 'best practices', 'accepted algorithms' and 'standard toolsets' and 'weird sets of words in quotes for no good reason', people were making some amazing games. Download Mame and - after deleting all but about 20 of the quadrillion games it comes with - you'll see that what you're left with is A-MAZING. No, really.
In those days, developers looked at their game's requirements and developed exactly what they needed. Nothing more, nothing less. Today, many developers solve their problems by putting together a gigantic lego-stack of black-boxed rendering, physics and A.I./Navigation technology, believing there is no reasonable alternative.
I'm going to suggest that there are alternatives to this approach. I'll focus on Spellrazor's A.I. in particular, and hopefully make you consider whether middleware, A* or State Machines are really necessary in your case.
A Butterfly's Inner World: Or 'Random Fable Anecdote'
In Fable 1 we had pretty little towns and villages filled with complex A.I. behaviour. Try following one person around a village for a full game-day. You'll be impressed at what they get up to.
Did you know that villagers get into bed? I don't mean just lie on top of the beds. I mean actually fold back the sheets and get into bed. No? That's because nobody ever went into houses at night because they were locked. Oh, you could break down the door but nobody ever did, and you'd get arrested if you were spotted anyway. We actually discouraged players from seeing it. (Note: we dropped the entire behaviour set for Fable 2, along with many others such as children's school days. Nobody noticed)
Earlier in the game's development we found out that the villager A.I. was taking a ridiculous amount of processing time. We added various logs and other debugging tools in order to track down the problem. It was only after someone's careless sword-swing smacked into a butterfly that we understood what was wrong.
The butterfly yelled 'Help' and then A* navigated its way to a village exit whereupon it disappeared up a trade-route.
Someone had made the default behaviour 'human'. I mention this as an illustration to hilight that 'Best' is not always 'Appropriate', though many would have you believe so. They should be flogged. Gently. With something moist.
Spellrazor: Or 'What Does Your Game Actually Need?'
Spellrazor is my ridiculous '80s game resurrection project. It's a top-down rogue-lite dungeon shooter for PC and Mac with 27 fire buttons and a host of different enemies. The game goes into a kind of bullet-time when you're in danger, allowing you to use those those 27 spells tactically - even in the midst of a complex firefight.
Nono. Ignore the picture. It's not the same as actually playing the game in all its throbbing neon-tinged glory. Just pretend I didn't put the picture up at all. Keep scrolling. Bit more. Stop! That's better.
Spellrazor is of the same school of thought as old Williams classics like Robotron and Defender. It's sinister, it's deadly, and its enemies are total bastards.
When I started, I had a clear idea of what I wanted game-play to be like. I had a little scenario in my head that I used to test the suitability of anything I wanted to add:
"Okay - on the other side of this door there are 3 flies and a security bot. I'm out of [Z]ap, so... Oh! I have a [J]ump! I can hop over the wall and take out the flies, then use a single arrow followed by a [Q]uake to take out the Security! Here we go..."
I find this kind of exercise useful to figure out the verbs in the game. In Spellrazor's case 'Panic' actually came up too often, so I changed things around a bit. Anyhow, as you can guess from the description, it's a kind of 'breach and clear' game with plenty of opportunity for things to go horribly wrong. For this scenario to work, I required three things:
Embracing Retro Simplicity: Or 'Zelda's Artificial Stupidity'
Seeing as I was in an 80s mindset, I didn't want to use A.I. that led to perfect behaviour. I wanted the retro feel to permeate right through the game - after all, the low-tech approach was good enough for some of the best games ever made: Defender and Robotron. So it should be good enough for me, right?
But wait! Some of you are thinking 'Those games were really primitive! There's no justification for that kind of tech now, in 2015'.
Okay, so how about Zelda? If you've played any Zelda game since Link to the Past, you have probably been impressed by the puzzle design, dungeon design, overall 'feel'. But what about the A.I.?
Can you remember being hit by an enemy other than a boss in Zelda? No? That's because they were games designed to make you feel good when Link hit or blocked an enemy and not the other way round. The last thing you want in a heroic quest is artificial intelligence that allows enemies to defeat you. If anything, heroic games require artificial stupidity; enemies arranging themselves to create the best, most heroic narrative possible, only providing the illusion of intelligence and some kind of understandable risk-reward. Remember the butterfly? Not that. See - I promised it would be relevant.
Most A.I. tutorials seem to work from the Platonic idea of creating perfection in pathfinding and logic (in the form of 'A*' and Finite State Machines) with the assumption that you can always work back from this in order to create personality/flaws. While a perfectly usable approach, it isn't necessary, and is potentially an over-engineered solution for the problems of your game.
I'm going to illustrate this by describing the behaviour of a couple of Spellrazor's units.
Spellrazor: Or 'Using Map Generation to Your Advantage'
Spellrazor has a hierarchy of navigation.
1) Room/Door-based: moving between neighbouring rooms using doorways as targets
2) Tile/node based: moving from grid-square to grid-square at high or low granularity
3) Physics: acceleration, velocity and inertia
Using 1) requires 2) and 3), using 2) requires 3), and 3) can be used by itself. Paired with some simple behaviours, this is sufficient to create enemies that are satisfying to engage with in Spellrazor
Creatures have 3 notions: TargetPosition, GoalPosition, and - rarely - a Sidestep direction.
After creation, my map hierarchy is:
I'll now show how this information is used to elicit the appropriate behaviour for 3 enemies.
Fly - Physics Based Navigation Only
The fly is the simpest of the enemies. It is a little homing missile. It uses no navigation information at all.
The fly's behaviour is:
Flies tend to bunch up quite a lot and slide around corners (look at the original pic of Spellrazor). These swarms break up a little in open spaces due to the random angle osciallation. This is a good thing. It feels right.
Flies are fairly lethal as they are fast and tend to arrive in groups (which form due to their behaviour rather than intelligent placement or other algorithmic flocking).
Despite their simplicity, flies are satisfying to kill because players need to precisely control their positioning in order to accurately target them.
Swordsman - Tile Based Navigation
The swordsman is one of few enemies that require more than one hit to kill. It is also one of the deadliest, despite having no real notion of where it is in the map. However, because this game focuses on players hunting down enemies, this lack of intelligence doesn't matter.
The Swordsman's behaviour is:
Security - A Classic Navigator?
The Security bot is, by far, the nastiest enemy in the game. It teleports into the corner of the target's room, and once it has arrived, it follows the target mercilessly, belching out hundreds of bullets once in range. It is really nasty.
It is also the most complex A.I./Navigator. "Oho!" I hear you cry. Because you are an Edwardian gentleman. "Oho! I spy a case for complex navigation, perhaps even A*? You are bested!"
I'm sorry, Mr Mutton Chops. This is a punk article about punk coding. Take your weird elephant's foot umbrella stand, grab an absinthe and shush.
The above diagram is definitely not drawn in crayon. It does, however, illustrate the route and decision points of the Security bot, and how it gets between them.
Despite the apparent complexity, its rules are fairly simple:
Now, because blockages are never dead-ends and the map is relatively simple (rectangular rooms with big chunks taken out of them to add detail) this simple behaviour results in a devastatingly smart foe. It tracks you across the entire map, yet only rarely does it think about anything other than the nodes immediately around it. Even when it does have to do a search, it's a breadth-first search of around 30 rooms and thus close to instantaneous.
You'll notice that even with this creature, there is no state-machine! The only extra detail recorded is the Sidestep direction.
At no point have I wished any of my enemies were smarter or more complex in their behaviour. Spellrazor isn't 'The Last of Us.' I'm not trying to convince the world that my little robots are people. They're not. They are dangerous little robots. They are predictable when necessary, and each requires very different approaches when encountered.
These are what Spellrazor needed, not what was proscribed by someone else's vision for another game entirely.
A Final Odd Music Analogy
I love early electronic music. I have a particular fondness for the work of Louis and Bebe Barron on the Forbidden Planet soundtrack.
The Barrons didn't have an orchestra or synthesizer at their disposal. Instead, they fashioned small, flawed circuits that often burned out while recording. They warbled, they whooped, they sputtered and crowed and nobody had ever heard anything like it.
I feel we've an opportunity to do the same thing now. The imperfections and flaws in our algorithms are part of our games' personalities and key to the punk developer spirit.
If Johnny Rotten could actually sing, the Sex Pistols would have been just another pop group. Our flaws should be embraced by ditching black boxes and actually learning to do stuff ourselves; messily, clumsily, but originally.
...if it's right for the game...
Spellrazor can be downloaded for free at: http://dene.itch.io/spellrazor
Dene Carter can be found on Twitter as @Fluttermind
Those who know me are aware that BeMuse has been slowly driving me mad over the last few months - if not longer. I'm not happy with the way the gameplay clashes with the visuals. I'm not comfortable with the non-tactile movement. I'm concerned that I've ended up with a one-shot 'experiential' game despite stating that I'd never do that again after Incoboto.
Every day, booting up Unity takes a little more out of me, and each evening leaves me feeling like I've heard the gears of the infernal realm grind away my resolve. To overstretch the metaphor, it's been hell-ish*.
*Note: 'ish' because real hell probably doesn't involve being an indie game dev with sufficient food, a house in the Bay Area, and people who care about him.
There's a Winson Churchill quote I'd like to use here:
I've seen this quote used by people working on long, difficult projects. I've seen it used by indie developers. When times are tough, money is tight, or a set of mechanics aren't working out, it rises up once more to provide an inspirational push.
"Just a bit further and you'll reach it!"
"Come on, all that stands between you and success is hard work!"
"It's tough, but it'll be worth it!"
But there's a problem. While its 'man up' message is useful where one merely needs to grind toward a (hopefully inevitable and positive) conclusion it's a terrible mantra for doubt-ridden, uncertain creative work. Yet I'm guessing even now that some young indie has this as their backdrop, reminding them that if things aren't working out, they should merely keep digging that hole they are in a little deeper in order to strike gold.
Hell and 1% Inspiration
As the 'hole' comment above illustrates, there are other variants,such as:
"Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration"
This, too, suggests that sheer hard work and determination will pay off. You're supposed to read: "Even geniuses need to work hard for their ideas to come to fruition, so you work hard, too, and you're 99% there."
Apparently, difficulties merely need sufficient grinding of teeth in order to turn into success - or at least to make way for another 'Genius 1%' moment to pop in.
In truth, the 'Genius 1%' may pop in and out throughout a project. Sometimes a new 1% pops in and points out that part of the other 99% of work you were doing was really stupid and pointless. Sometimes a 1% will pop in and lie about how cool and successful it is, eventually revealing itself to be just an additional '99% of perspiration' in disguise. The problem is that they all look the same, so it's often hard to be sure which is which, and when the time for hard work alone has come.
The AAA Mindset
So how does AAA cope with the variability of the 1% Genius element? It doesn't. It does its very best to eliminate the vagaries of the 1% and pushes that 99% to a full, hearty, knowable 100% of perspiration (Keep Going!). A modern AAA studio's continued existence relies on getting rid of that tricksy percentile. This is understandable, because for them, the fail-state is unthinkable; publisher cancellation and, after some fraught months, a purge of the entire team.
I've worked at AAA companies for decades and this kind of thinking rubs off on you even if you don't realise it. Like many, I've been trained to believe that every project is a marathon... run at the speed of a sprint, or at least a wild, sweaty jog.
"Working damned long and hard is the only way to make something successful. Failure isn't an option."
My previous game, Incoboto, was built with this philosophy. It was successful, reviewed very well, and was largely a work fashioned by grinding my way through an enormous workload, entirely by myself, in isolation, over a 22 month period. I was incredibly pleased with the results, but it reinforced the wrong-headed lessons I outlined above.
Embracing the Indie Mindset (finally)
'Real' indies don't think this way. Indies often haven't learned the big, adult lesson about grind and grit. They mostly expect to fail in one way or another. And when they do, they shrug it off and move on. Even those agonising over a game for years are usually fairly sure their game works in principle even if it isn't perfect. They've already thrown away more good ideas than I've had published games and that's okay.
As an indie developer, what should I have learned instead of my big AAA lessons? Well, here are 3 off the top of my head:
So, having admitted that I've learned some bad lessons, and finally realised what the correct lesson are, how am I planning to change things? Well, this comes in two parts.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife was required to attend a work event in Mexico. It was horribly hot and humid, so - as a massive introvert - I decided to hide out in the air-conditioned hotel room for the 4 days we were there. During that time, I worked on a weird old game I've considered reviving for many years.
It's called 'Spellrazor'*
*yes, it's a deliberately cheesy title - as befits a child of the 1980s
The cabinet blurb would be:
"Spellrazor marries the procedural generation and permadeath of rogue with the visuals, tactile feel and action of games like Robotron, Defender and Berzerk."
"It's a roguelike shooter with 26 weapon buttons. Each key on the keyboard represents a spell. You kill things, you collect spells (in the form of letters) and you can use these at any time by pressing the appropriate key."
When I was about 12, I saw Defender and fell in love. In its brightly pixelled worlds I discerned a future filled with delight and wonder. I have a particular love of games from this period (1980-1983). They were frequently cold, cruel and utterly uncompromising. Spellrazor is a game from the same school of philosophy.
I released versions online last week, and friends of mine are already playing it. Early signs are really good. Unlike BeMuse, there's no requirement of secrecy or of confused players trying to figure out 'what the hell kind of game is this?'
For those patient enough to have waded their way through this little post, you can follow Spellrazor (and play early builds) on Tigsource here:
For now, BeMuse is going on a shelf. I don't think it's permanent. I hope to return to it at some point in the future, with the verve, joy and speed of progress I'm experiencing with Spellrazor.
In the meantime, if anyone is interested in playing the weird text-heavy skeleton (not the graphical game) of BeMuse, please contact me and I'll be more than happy to share.
Thanks for your time, and for your interest.
See that? That's a skeleton. Useful things, skeletons. They stop you from focusing on skin. Skin is messy, clammy, complex, and superficial. It tears, gets stretch-marks, bleeds and does all manner of unsightly, god awful things besides.
In a game, the skin is often the thing that gets you past the fact that the game isn't very deep. In some cases, the non-game 'experience' is skin, and skin alone. That's fine, if you're trying to create an immersive semi-interactive artwork rather than something with rules, logic and the potential for mastery, but if that's not what you're doing, skin can just get in the way.
In the case of BeMuse, I began with pure 'art' ambitions, but swiftly found myself feeling somewhat discomfited by this. I wrote an earlier post about the 'zone of meh' that exists between a pure art creation and a content/gameplay focused game. As a one-man studio, I feel it's often too easy to fall into that zone. I have too little manpower to create a huge game-world of content, and I'm not comfortable enough with pure 'art' pretentions to try and pass off something that lasts for one hour and ends with the word 'Fin' as a worthy purchase. There's nothing wrong with that, but I'm just not built that way.
GDC and P.T.
Back in March, I took BeMuse to GDC to show a few friends and other indies. It went relatively well, but the general opinion seemed to be twofold:
a) 'Love the way it looks and feels'
b) 'Hate the fact that I have no bloody idea what's going on'
Part of me took pride in b) - I always wanted the game to be wilfully obscure and wrapped in multiple layers of mystery. I played the P.T. demo a while back and felt that it was a proof that my weird attitude to design on BeMuse was vindicated.
I was confident up until I tested P.T. on my brother, Simon. Here's how that went:
Dene: "'Hmm?' You mean 'Hmm! Genius!'"
Simon: "No. 'Hmm.' As in... 'I have a mixed feelings about this.'"
Dene: "How so? It's a game that defies you to understand it! Isn't that refreshing?"
Simon: "No. That's not true. It's a game that pretends to defy your understanding. It is, in fact a 95% linear train ride of well-orchestrated, creepy jump scares... and an obfuscated 5% at the end that defies both understanding and patience."
To be honest, making a game that is defiantly impenetrable is actually quite hard. A lot of the time you end up making decisions entirely in order to maintain mystery rather than to improve gameplay. It also makes it harder to figure out what to cut and what to keep. When you've wilfully refrained from bounding or defining the shape of your work, it's all equally cuttable and keepable. This is far from the best scenario for getting a game out in a timely manner.
Add to that the fact that every alteration requires a huge amount of work in order to not break the existing code-base, to work with all the other systems and so on, and you can probably imagine the pain.
Which brings me back to skeletons.
As soon as GDC was over, I made a decision. I replicated the main systems underpinning the game using Codea on the iPad - it's a little game development system I absolutely love. Oh, ironically, I also converted that codebase to love2d in order to enable distribution to friends and family. No bloated Unity engine. No time wasted trying to fix something that looks distractingly broken but which, in fact, doesn't help move the game design along. We did pretty much the same thing in Dungeon Keeper, and it paid off then.
The game will still look exactly as it does in the screenshots. If you're a fan of the aesthetic so far, you can be confident that this won't change. If you're a fan of the concept, then you can also relax. The testbed is allowing me to keep true to my initial design goals, and to iterate quickly and efficiently.
If you have more questions, or are curious about the current skeletal framework, then feel free to email me.
The game is coming along nicely, and my rewrites of several of the critical systems are pretty much over. This is the period when I stop building systems for a while, and start trying to find ways of showing the systems off through building up the environment.
As GDC looms near, and after the delays and horrors of last year, I'd like to have something I can wave in front of people: a small islet with a couple of ritual bits and pieces, just to see if people are getting to grips with the movement. interaction and inventory. It's time to stop being quite so precious. Still precious... just less so.
Phase 1 - Testing testing
Once GDC is over (and the inevitable bugs and broken things have been fixed), my plan is to put up a web-player based version of the testbed here so people can give me feedback, bitch about the controls, movement etc. and let me know how the game feels to them in terms of mood and tone.
Although it will not be a full game (just a very limited testbed of very specific systems) the feedback will be incredibly important. While people are prodding and poking around that, I'll be getting on with squishing some environments together and finalising some ritual stuff...
...which will lead to Phase 2.
Phase 2 - Finally, Asking for Help
I make my games almost entirely solo. I have had some friends help out with bits of organisation (as in 'for the love of God focus on this bit!) and art advice, but 99.9% of the time, it's just me sitting here by myself, hoping that I'm not going completely out of my mind - or that if I am, it adds something interesting to the game. It's quite painfully solitary, and - this last 12 months in particular - has been really, really hard.
I said I'd ask for help at some point. It's at the root of the name 'BeMuse' (yeah, I thought I was being clever). Now that getting stuff into the game is a lot easier, and the context is hanging together, it seems a good time to start living up to that name.
I want to do this for more reasons than just improving the game. I'd like to get better acquainted with the audience and let them feel they have an ongoing hand in making this something special.
Here're some ways you can help.
1) Who Are You?
You don't have to share your name (some find it creepy), but I'm interested in what brought you here? What are you most looking forward to over the next 6 months? What music do you listen to? What do you look for in games? Art? Literature? Other people? Did you like Incoboto?
2) What Do You Expect?
I remember looking at screenshots of games when I was growing up, and - with very scant information - imagining how that world was going to feel. 90% of the time, games weren't as good as I expected. In some cases they were different, but so much better than I could have hoped (Ultima 4, please put up your hand). So, tell me how you think the game is going to play. Tell me what aspect you're most looking forward to. Tell me how you think it's going to feel.
3) BeMuse - What Would You Like to Share?
BeMuse is potentially endless. As long as there is room in the sky for new Wishes, there'll be room for new rituals, secrets, locations and discovery. So, send anything: a sketch of a weird rock. A scrap of poetry. A name that tickles your particular fancy (the campest phrase in the English language). A weird sentence. Anything you think could have magical, inspirational significance.
We did this with Fable and got the SandGoose. I think we can do better.
I think post-comments are a fairly clunky way of handling feedback, so if I get enough interest I could start some threads in the forums and see what happens.
As ever, you can mail me via the contact form and I'll always get back to you.
Thanks for your time - I know that in this period of our history, attention and caring are more valuable than dollars, so I appreciate it.
3D or not 3D
Those of you not following on Twitter probably haven't seen much of what is going on with regards to BeMuse's evolving look. In November I made the decision to try and make 90% of the game assets full 3d.
One of my aims with the game was to create a world where the interaction of the camera and environment aided the sense of mystery and revelation. A 2d camera (i.e. no rotation - only panning in 2d space) is all well and good, but nothing seems as visually exciting to me as something coming into view that was 'just around the corner' a moment before.
This decision has slowed down some asset creation, but it's also refocused me on using shader tricks and simple assets rather than trying to do awesome art myself (which I've historically found difficult) or hiring other people (which always takes a lot more time, effort and nervous energy than you might expect).
I'm going to refine the lighthouse islet at some point next week and then see if I can put a little video of the thing moving up here. For now, here are some stills. I'm still not happy with the 'discovery' methods for hidden objects and little stories, so I'm going to rip some stuff out (again).
Doubt, Statistics and Magic
I've redoubled my efforts to bring mystery back into BeMuse. My original aim was to create a 'magical space' for experimentation that would sometimes yield results: in this case, opening up more magical spaces for experimentation. The idea was that I would build/generate a ton of rituals which take into account many factors like the state of the moon, what you'd burned in a fire, and so on.
This approach raises an issue: any magical activity with a guaranteed result is no longer magical. It is just science - or at worst - mechanics. If cause 100% leads to desired effect then you've eliminated doubt, and thus eliminated mystery.
On the other hand, any game activity that has a cost (in terms of scarce resources) without a guaranteed return has the potential to be really annoying. Many games use player clumsiness/skill to add a randomising factor (for example - it's quite possible to play Dark Souls and never get hit - it's just unlikely). Others use doubt and statistics... but then give show overt statistical probabilities to measure success: Damage-Per-Second or Average-To-Hit etc. Players of these games will consider and compare their tools and try to minimax the items they use to better aid them in their struggle.
I can't think of a single (modern) game that doesn't give the player all the information he/she needs in order to make an informed decision. With Bemuse, I'm actively trying to stay away from certainty. I'm giving no statistical information. The plan is to leave that to rumour-mongers in the real world. But this approach has an implicit danger and an impact on gameplay.
The Fear of Unknown Things
If a low-feedback-gamble is an adjunct to the main game (e.g. something like building or picking fruit or whatever) then pure randomness can feel far more comfortable and appropriate ("Hey! I'm making progress in other bits of the game. I don't feel so bad about that bit of gambling I just did!").
In BeMuse, it IS the main game. There is no 'MacGuffin' activity. That's a constant struggle that slows my development right down and keeps doubt sitting on my right shoulder at all times. I keep wasting time trying to think of other activities to lessen the strangeness of ritual behaviour. Alternatively, I lose faith and start making the magic a mechanical toolset.
The ultimate issue with a mechanical toolset is that once you know that you feed in a resource and then take steps A, B, C and D to earn your reward, a modern gamer wants those steps to folded together into a single action. E.g. rather than 'Mix ingredients A, B, C and D to create a potion' they want a single button labelled 'Make that potion from A, B, C and D with one click'. This disengages the player from the tactile, ritual behaviour and thus removes the sense of magic from the magic system. But it's also the 'right thing to do' in many circumstances.
So, this dilemma is what causes my wheels to spin, my mind to race back to cowardly, well-worn alternatives, and the game to take much longer than necessary. If ever you find yourself wondering why it's taking so long the answer is either 'family illness' or 'this mental minefield'. It's not indifference, laziness or a lack of effort.
Thanks for your time.
For those of you who haven't been aware, this year was kind of nuked by some very serious family health issues. Thanks to those who enquired and lent moral support. It's meant a lot.
However, the dust is settling a bit now, and though things aren't 'over' by a long shot, there's enough time and mental energy to actually be able to engage with this whole 'making a game' thing.
I promised back in the summer, when our household's gates of hell were opening and spewing forth all manner of evils, that I'd show off a few pre-pro shots to show what I'm aiming for in terms of visuals. Well, things have moved on a bit since then, and not all of it is relevant any more. That said, the mood and tone is still exactly what is intended, so it's still relevant. Here goes:
That's all well and good. Some 2D art showing off what a 2D game will look like, right? Woot.
Actually, no. Since all the unpleasantness has fragmented my time to a marked degree this year, I've taken it upon myself to reconsider various aspects of the game. Most specifically, whether it is 2D or 3D.
I took some time to learn 3D modelling. And now the game is 3D. Splines are being used as I said they would be right at the start, and allow you to move around complex 3D landscapes without having to be a camera-man as well as a game-player.
So, now the game looks like this:
That Demon looks really rather nice when it roars and looks at you. The path to the right curves around into the distance, and you can walk around the level as it all rotates rather prettily.
At the moment, I'm re-implementing the weird rule-systems of the game, reintegrating death/exhaustion and status changes, and will then be going back to those regions and 3D-ing them so that they are in the game, with all of their weird interactive bits intact.
It's getting there.
Oh - as an aside, a huge thank you to whoever it was who pointed out I had lost my way. I had. I'm back now.
Site will be ignored for a while longer, due to continuing horrible circumstances. 2014 is a cursed year.
I uploaded this piccy a few days ago, and received some nice comments about it so I thought I'd explain exactly what is going on.
1) Heart - this is your life. You only have one to start with. Some 'bad' things remove hearts permanently. Eating fruit tops up any hearts that have been diminished, but not those hearts that have been devou... Oops. Said too much.
2) Wishes - wishes are the overall currency in the game. You use them at the White Demon (looks a bit like a bunny) and it starts to build the world up a bit for you. Note that things can be taken away if you perform a ritual incorrectly.
3) Debug map - this currently shows how regions are connected. As the game progresses in development and I actually get people playing it, the number of room-types will grow. The first web version will start with just six.
4) Home - this is where you sleep. It's a safe place to go when the day is over. I've not decided whether you HAVE to go to sleep or not, yet - it would make the repopulation of the zones tidier, and give a nice overall rhythm to the game. On the other hand it's possibly a bit heavy-handed. I'll leave you guys to decide that.
5) Tree - there will be various types of tree. This particular tree grows apples. Others are perches for birds. Small trees like this can be shaken.
6) Bell - this is a glass bell - one of the item types in the game. Each item has several uses. Two of those uses are defined in the game itself. The other two are down to the rituals present in the world.
7) You - yup, another small child with a little hat. Clearly something went wrong in my childhood.
8) Exit - this is the way out to the area to the north. They aren't signposted very well at the moment, so the world becomes a bit of a weird maze quite quickly. Add to the fact that losing your memory will reorganise which regions lead where and it's all a bit discombobulating.
9) Sacrificial Flame - you can burn stuff here. Anything you like. Poof! It's gone. Did it have an effect? Who knows?
10) Henge - this is one of the many weird little focal points present in the various levels. Focal points like this move around when the world is reset.
11) Time Marker - this shows what stage of day or night you are at. The sun and moon do that, too, but some of the regions will be internal and I realised you wouldn't always be able to see the heavenly bodies.
12) Major Demon - This is just a stand-in at the moment, as the final 'Major Demon' types haven't been designed yet. I'm not going to do that for a little while so I can concentrate on gameplay and get something out to those of you who have been waiting.
Overall, most of the things that need to go into the game for a first draft are there, but horribly broken and buggy. Once I've fixed all that up and the randomisation stuff is working correctly I'll try and get a version out there.
Here are my current issues (beyond the bugs).
1) There's nothing trivial the player can do. There's no jumping. No digging. No buying or selling. Nothing to keep those who just want to zone out to some thumb-candy occupied. Everything is geared toward interacting with things, preparing for rituals and performing the right ones. I'm tempted to say: "So what?" But on the other hand, every part of my designer head is screaming: "For God's sake! Give them something to smack with a stick!" I'm going to resist this.
2) Clues. There are only so many ways a Demon can tell you that something is in a moonbeam, or that you should consider waiting for rainfall before performing the ritual. This is slightly problematic in a game of this sort, as it'll quickly get to a point where people 'in the know' get the clues instantly. Everyone else will be at a loss, and *may* give up. There are two solutions to this:
So - that's it. I hope that was slightly intriguing rather than... I don't know... a massive chicken crushing you as it strides menacingly across the land. I'm sure it won't have been that, at any rate. As for why the picture is blurry - I think weird things like this are going to happen during development. Spooky.
Above is a piccie of a couple of Minor Demons hiding in a tree and a rock. They can't harm you... directly. They whisper and chatter all kinds of unpleasant things at you, and often give clues to the rituals in the world by doing so. They also lie. I quite like them. There's something baleful and menacing about their eyes, and the slightly wonky teeth lend them a hungry, semi-British air I think works pretty well.
So, this blog is about art. Failed art, in particular. My failed art, exclusively, in fact.
I can't claim any great talent beyond sheer dogged tenacity and determination. I am not even half the artist of any I have had the honour to work with. To get to a point where I'm happy with my own art, both in form and function, is difficult, rare, and one of the things that leads to the colossal churn I experience during my working week. These Demons, in particular, have been particularly difficult to make, simply because they have to do so much, so subtley.
What's that I hear you asking?
'How difficult can it be to come up with something you can put anywhere, seems menacing, chatty, and yet not corporeal enough to offer a physical threat?'
Well, quite, I am afraid. And I can prove how hard I find it. I will now reveal to you the Gallerie Abominati that is:
'Dene's Demon Failures'
Please note: some of the more generous among you may find yourselves saying, 'Oh, they aren't that bad'. Bless you. I shall buy you tea and absinthe should I see you in person. Perhaps even in that order. However, for the moment, let me tell you what I think of them.
A) Squid Head
He looks to me like Bjork had a bad hair day and turned up to the Oscars without brushing her teeth. Or sleeping. I love you, Bjork, but you really should have gone with your stylist's first suggestion and worn a fluffy Giraffe smock or something instead of dressing like a giant tampon. Next!
B) Crystal Head
I read far too much Lovecraft and similar horror written around the same period. Much is said about things that are 'unnamable horrors', and 'peculiar geometry'. I got it into my head that some shifting, ebbing, flowing, rotating set of geometric things with a face on would look good. I was quite wrong. It looks like someone put some stickers on a snowflake. Grrrrrrrmelt.
C) Puff Puff
Did someone remove the head from a particularly evil Bichon Frise? Fetch! Go on! Fet... oh, you decided to empty the bin over the floor instead. I hate you, but can't bring myself to bake you into a pie you little sod. I shall name you 'Roadkill' and hope that Nomen est Omen.
In my head, I was trying to create a mighty, antlered non-corporeal-being; not quite a wisp-'o'-the-woods, but a malevolent nature-spirit. Instead, I managed to make a reject from Wallace and Gromit's casting sessions. He has no feet or hands, but, despite his disabilities still remains incapable of enflaming any kind of sympathy for his struggle. I want to buy him a beer just to see him try to open it. Baaaaathunk!
E) Flamey Squid
You know I mentioned absinthe before? Well this is what it does to you if you try making art while drinking it. Don't believe the hype, it doesn't make you more creative. It makes you less discerning. I actually thought this was okay until I woke up feeling like my tongue had been swapped with a slug. A fire with antlers extending out of its rear and a sticker for a face isn't a Demon, it's a symptom of Delerium Tremens.
See, this one wasn't even named correctly. That isn't a Pomeranian. It's not even a Bichon. It's a cloud with tentacles and the damned face I used in countless other versions of Minor Demons. For some reason I was clearly thinking 'if a design is crap, reuse elements of it as much as possible until it's not crap'. It's a very John Cage approach to creativity. It also doesn't work if you have only a small amount of talent to start with.
G) Flow Spider
I quite liked Flow. I think other people liked Flow. Apparently I thought that if people liked Flow they'd like a Demon that was ripped directly from Flow's unique aesthetic. I added spider eyes, a spine, a pair of wonky horns and a skull-shaped face to give it form. Someone once said that 'Plagiarists copy, geniuses steal.' I think I have disproved this pithy aphorism. Plagiarists copy... then try to disguise the copy. Geniuses don't touch other peoples' ideas with a barge pole unless they can make them their own.
H) Crystal Head II
Um. Another Christmas Tree ornament. With staring eyes. I quite like the eyes, and the gaping maw. However, they clearly don't work with this format and I've actually ended up with something less than the sum of its parts (quite a feat considering how awful the parts are for the most part). I didn't know that was possible. I say to you - make a sticker of this abomination and place it somewhere prominent. Use it to remind yourself that bad design pushes and stretches the bounds of physics just as much as science. Next step CERN.
I) Cloudy Mc No-Eyes
See... I really like Alien. I love Giger's daring, sleek visions of feminine malice and semi-eroticised, airbrushed biomechanics. As far as my art is concerned though, apparently all I learned was that 'removing something's eyes makes that thing creepy.' Yes, yes it does. Sometimes. And sometimes it just looks like you hid a layer in Photoshop before exporting and forgot to re-enable it. On the other hand, this one did teach me that the black designs worked better for semi-obscuring Demons. Which led me to these...
J) Shadow Blob
This was my first attempt to change the physicality of Demons, rendering them a little less amorphous and - hopefully, by dint of this - more majestic. Instead, I ended up with the world's worst Halloween lawn-ornament. Can you imagine listening to anything this thing would say? Would you take it seriously? I certainly wouldn't. The fact that he looks like someone has pulled the wings off a big, toothy moth doesn't help: "I haff fecretf!'
And apparently, much like the 'eye' thing above, I decided that too many teeth were reducing the purity of the idea, and that by only leaving two, I would improve things. I was wrong. He looks like he has lost his banjo. And he's sleepy. And his horns melted on a hot summer's day on the back porch in Georgia while his wife and sister (one person - thanks Bill Hicks) screams at him, asking if he's found a job yet. "Weeeeell'p. Nochyet. Ahwheeltho'. Tomorrer." Fat chance, freak.
If black horns and a gassy body don't work, how about we swap the horns for white glowing horns and a body shaped like a specialist massage device? What can possibly go wrong? See, some of these elements work very well for the White Demon - the game's secondary character. However, removing the face, the ears and making it black just makes it look indecent. And potentially painful to use.
Pain and Happy Outcomes
All of these were failures. What made them more 'faily' than necessary was that many of them made it into the actual game before I realised how bad they were. I put work into making tentacles wiggle, making antlers flap (yes, really) and many other things before I realised that I hadn't thought enough about form, function and context.
These Demons need to be able to do the following things:
- Hide in amongst other objects. Form and Context.
- Hover in the air. Function.
- Sit on the ground. Form and Function.
- Talk. Function.
- Scare you a little. Form.
- Not look repetitive when reused. Form, Context
If you look at many of the failure-Demons, they are either only going to work on land, don't really have mouths that can speak, can't do scary stuff like stare at you, are so specific that having two of them on screen would look ridiculous, or any other number of things that show I hadn't put enough time into the design stage.
So, after considering all this, really thinking about what I did/didn't like, and what the Minor Demons needed to do, I did the following:
- I took the eyes from H) which I thought were fairly menacing (Clive Barker's art taught me that white eyes in black surrounds can be creepy).
- I took the body from C) but made it black, so it could fit in anywhere in my high-contrast scenes. It's less of a body and more of an interface between the Demon and the context.
- Finally, I took teeth from the movie below, added a bottom set of teeth so the Demon could speak... and look menacing at the same time.
Here he is!
Finally, I hope my self-deprecating, bluntly cruel appraisal of my work amused you rather than just making you think I should do something else with my time.
So, as anyone who knows me is aware, BeMuse has been quite a painful process, so far. Oddly enough, the unrestricted freedom of 3D middleware has caused more churn than I had ever expected. When you are told you can do pretty much anything, your sheet of blank paper expands enormously, and it's easy to get off track.
As such, in an effort to refocus more clearly on the game's core, and ensure that the major ruleset, themes and elements don't flipflop like they did at the end of last year, I created a little BeMuse-themed board game.
It is a single-player game designed to be played in short bursts, and revolves around finding the ritual elements necessary to banish a single Demon in a four day period. Night is more dangerous than day, as Ghosts wander around the environments draining your life if you end a turn on one of their locations.
During the game, the main Demon 'Stirs' (i.e. kind of tosses and turns in his sleep), which causes a whole heap of unpleasant effects in the world.
The good news is that it plays pretty well, and definitely helped me get back to the core of what this game is. As a result, we're going to go through a period where BeMuse looks a bit uglier for a while, as I strip everything back and ensure the core game is working well rather than messing about with shaders at the same time as bringing every single feature in at the same time.
This brings me to another point.
Experiential vs. Rule-based games
Since my earlier post about 'The Zone of Meh', I came to a realisation that the reason a lot of art-games get away with so little actual content is because they are nearly 'experiential'. By that, I mean that their value comes from the sense of immersion in their artistic world rather than any other aspect... and thus nearly every other aspect is unnecessary. Journey, Proteus, Gone Home, Dear Esther... all largely free of 'content', but filled with atmosphere and a sense of place.
Of course, one can argue that nearly all games are experiential as well rule-based. This is true, but not exactly what I'm getting at. For me, I define these terms by answering the question 'where does this game get its appeal?' If the answer is stats-building, or improving skill, or any other mechanical play device, I'd argue it's moving away from Experiential.
Fez is a rare outlier here, as - once you've moved past the whole '2D/3D' gameplay novelty, you realise that it was largely devised as an experiential game (and it starts to feel more like Knytt - a game I have loved for years). It is a pleasure just to 'be' in its world.
All this pseudo-academic musing is very relevant to BeMuse, and what I release about the game as it moves on. BeMuse is supposed to be a largely experiential game, but with a ritual-game-play heart. That means I have to be a bit more careful about what I put out there because crappy, unfinished visuals can horribly diminish the sense of mystery, threat and cosiness. I'd hate that to happen.
As ever, thanks for your patience, folks.
Fluttermind’s director, Dene Carter, is a games industry veteran of over 25 years, and co-founder of Big Blue Box Studios, creators of the Fable franchise for the XBox and XBox 360.