Dec 26, 2009

Army Break 12: A bit of Zaku & Atari

Hope everyone enjoyed their Xmas holidays, hope everyone enjoys new year's eve too, but I'm afraid I'll have to leave you for one last time. Hopefully for less than three weeks. And when I return I think I'll have some time for my gaming-blogging activities, as well as the peace of mind required to write for the rather excellent Retroaction magazine.

Guess I'll try and review Zaku for it, provided of course I manage to buy myself a lovely review copy. Zaku is a brand new Atari Lynx (!) game you know (a shmup to be precise), and it generally looks like this:

Dec 22, 2009

Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board: A Featherweight Postmortem

Ben Chandler (, also known as Ben 304, is one of the most prolific creators of indie freeware adventure games and a truly amazing artist. What follows is the postmortem for Featherweight, a dark and beautiful game you should all download here. On to Ben 304:

I've been making short point and click adventure games for a while now, and doing so on a regular basis for about 12 months.

During this time, I've learned a whole bunch of things about writing, illustration, animation and game design in general, but if my experiences to date count for anything, I've got a whole bunch left still to learn.

Some time ago I released a short game called Featherweight. The effort I put into the graphics, story and interface went above anything I'd ever tried to put into a game before – and yet... I can't help but feeling that through all of this I lost sight of the main purpose of a game. Feedback showed that despite all of this effort, the game just wasn't that fun.

We'll start with the good stuff, though.

Project Origins:

Like any project, Featherweight started as an idea. I was at work one day when I heard an older man say to another person “I dreamed that we lost another one last night.” Whilst I can guess the specifics of what this meant, I didn't bother asking. What interested me was the way it was said. I instantly started turning this sentence over in my mind, and very soon story ideas were coming forth and presenting themselves to me.

Initially I had a rather complex story, but for the sake of clarity and focus I ended up dividing this story up into two separate stories. At the time this story had begun to shape itself in my mind I was listening to what was a new album for me – local band Karnivool's 'Sound Awake', and the songs conjured up epic and mysterious science fiction worlds in my mind.

With these images in my imagination I actually created a background for a competition which, upon finishing, I realized would be perfect for this story. And thus, Featherweight was born (incidentally, the title 'Featherweight' was taken from an older Karnivool song by the same name).

FeatherweightProject Goal:

I went into the project with some interesting goals. My primary goal was to create a world that was believable – I wanted to immerse the player into the story by both drawing an environment that captured the imagination and also writing a story and characters that the audience could relate to and sympathize with.

I also wanted to try putting in some elements of tension and danger; something I haven't used very much in the past. Finally, I wanted to create some challenging puzzles, but with a simple and intuitive interface to stop the player getting too frustrated.

Putting it all Together – The Positives:

I've spent enough time using the AGS editor that I'm quite comfortable with sitting down and building an adventure game. The scripting is generally quite roadblock free, and even things such as bug finding and fixing are all very user friendly. Although there were some struggles getting everything just how I wanted it, I ended up with an interface that I am very happy with, and feel it's probably the most intuitive standard adventure game style interface I've created to date.

For graphics I went with the Photoshop 'painted' backgrounds I'd relied on for the last few games. I'd spent a lot of time looking at Oddworld graphics a few weeks prior to putting the game together so a lot of the graphical elements such as strongly coloured light sources, dystopian setting and heavy sky gradients were inspired by these games. The characters are still done with a pixel by pixel style, however unlike most of my games I used a fairly dark palette for them. This graphical style seems to have been fairly well received by most players, despite a few comments that the pixel style doesn't mesh perfectly with the softer backgrounds.

For the story, I wanted to present a fairly standard Hollywood style science fiction story with some more mysterious spiritual elements thrown in. Eventually the only real spiritual element I used was the fact that one of the characters talks about her prophetic dreams, however this was enough to satisfy me.

Writing Thadd's (the main character) lines proved quite a challenge for me as I had to try and emphasize the fact that he was in a tense situation. At Sebastian's urging, I rewrote all of his lines about 2/3 of the way through development, and upon showing these to him, he urged me to rewrite them again. I did this, sat down and played through the game, and then went and rewrote them all again from scratch.

As I usually write comedy, it's very rare that I'll spend so long writing character lines (one complete rewrite is unheard of for me, let alone three!). However, to try and get the 'feel' that I wanted for the game, it was very important that I made Thadd a believable character that players could sympathize with and the story actually seems to have been fairly well received. I consider myself a fairly weak writer, so this is quite a satisfying result.

For audio, I usually give Sebastian a fairly broad idea of the concept I am approaching each game with and then give him fairly free reign. Sometimes I'll make suggestions, but most of the time I let him play a scene and let him do what he feels is right. For Featherweight he created a futuristic and otherworldly score that fitted the concept of what I was trying to do with the game, and used items around the kitchen to make the sound effects for the game.

The last element to look at in Featherweight is the puzzles. And here's where the big cracks start to emerge...

Where I Slipped:

No game is ever going to be a perfect game. There are always going to be elements that make one think “I wish I hadn't done that” later on. For Featherweight, it was the actual gameplay itself.

In the past I've read countless comments about my puzzles being too simple. I hit what felt like a good stride with Shifter's Box – Outside In, and then seemed to veer off the mark again. Creating a satisfying puzzle is challenging, and I really wanted to create some for Featherweight.

Sadly, while some of the puzzles seem to work well, a lot of them do not. I worked very closely with the testers when making the game, but somehow some horrible puzzles seem to have slipped through. There's one that relies on item combining that, in hindsight, is just plain silly, and many of them are combination puzzles that are tedious and not always as clear to the player as they should be. In my attempts to challenge the players, I forgot some of my core beliefs about puzzle design and the end result means the game was less satisfying than it could have been.

For me, creating a good puzzle means that I can get a player stuck for a few minutes and then have the solution present itself once they notice a certain element – creating the “Eureka!” moment. Here, however, I relied too heavily on hiding this element, and therefore the solutions to puzzles are not as clear as they should be. This means that players get stuck for longer than I intended them to, and leads to people giving up on the game.

I also relied too much on combination puzzles. While most of my games feature these, I usually try to make them occur in a manner that makes them all feel different. Here I have a lot of combination puzzles that all feel quite samey, and that makes a game tedious and uninspiring. I firmly believe that varied gameplay is good gameplay, and slipped up here quite a bit.

The graphics, as well, despite being some of my best work are still full of weak points. Areas that could have been/should have been refined were left, making it clear upon close inspection that the work is still very much that of an amateur. In some cases items were not made clear to the player, meaning that players got stuck merely because they didn't realize there was something they could have clicked on – which is absolutely unacceptable.

Whilst looking nice is important, it shouldn't override the need for functionality. This is a game, not a painting, and if it looks nice but doesn't play nicely, then the scene is a long way from perfect.

Moving Forward:

Featherweight has been, to date, my most popular game; receiving a fair bit of exposure in various communities and more downloads than any of my other own games. With each project I learn many new things, and from this perspective Featherweight was most definitely a success. Although there are elements that disappoint me in hindsight, I'm still proud to say that I made the game.

Like any game developer, my goal is to reach a place where I can consistently create pleasing graphics, inspiring stories and enjoyable gameplay every time I sit down to make a game. I haven't reached this stage yet, and Featherweight has shown me some areas in which I have some major weaknesses. I walked away from the project feeling like I'd made a game worthy of the player's time, and even though it is hard to focus on the strengths rather than the weaknesses looking back, I'm glad that people enjoy it.

In the future, I hope for people to play the game and think “Look how far he has come since making Featherweight”. Until then, I'll be here, drawing, coding and writing to improve my skills as much as I can.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Army Break 11: Almost There

There and back again, as Tolkien would have put it. Anyway. Point is I'm back for another week (almost a week, actually) and I know I'll be back for good sometime before the 19th of January. I also know a unique and particularly interesting article will be appearing on Gnome's Lair very soon.

Dec 14, 2009

Army Break 10: Be Right Back

No, really. I should be back before the 24th, which is -admittedly (and hopefully)- bearable. In the meantime I would suggest playing through the excellent and finally complete Tales of Monkey Island series, having a go at Space Hulk, downloading some stunning free games or feeling 100% silly with Band Hero for the Wii.

Dec 11, 2009

Walker and Silhouette: A unique piece of clickable interactive fiction

It seems that while I was moaning about boring, banal, trivial and marketing-led games, everyone's favourite Pacian proved that action is (admittedly at times) so much more important than trying to theorize; especially than trying to theorized while generally confused. Anyway, I digress. The point is Pacian released -via his (Text) Games for (Space) Crows site- the stunning piece of interactive fiction that is Walker & Silhouette, which -incidentally- you can and probably should grab from this place. It is of course a freeware offering.

What's more, Walker & Silhouette is brilliantly written, extremely engrossing, quite easy on genre newcomers, sports two characters, and can even be played with a mouse. Yes, no typing is required in order to enjoy this somewhat unsettling short story of the interactive variety, that, starting from a successfully grotesque introduction, soon evolves into a surreal detective story and makes some subtle but truly insightful political points.

Download and play it. And don't forget to delve deep into that "S" folder...

[Update]: You can save the squid, mind!

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Dec 8, 2009

Enough with the Gaming Industry!

Loom Lucasfilm LucasartsBefore I start ranting away, I have to come clear -or at least attempt to; the army isn't the place for productive thinking you see, and brains do tend to rot- regarding the subject of selling games. I've got nothing against it. I, instead, fiercely believe that people creating them should be able to live off their craft, provided of course they choose to do so. There is nothing unethical in selling a game one -or a group of people- has created, though admittedly that's not the case when companies enter the equation. That's when the creative minds get exploited. This later view though, demanding a rather theoretical piece mostly on the production and exploitation of surplus value, will be wisely left for another blog post. You might as well ignore it for the time being.

Now, let me move on by reminding everyone that gaming wants to be considered an art form; an art form comparable to painting, cinema, theater, music and literature; above all a sellable art form. Gaming after all, especially mainstream gaming, is an art form that shockingly tries to justify its importance by showing everyone the huge revenue it generates, and by convincing mommies and governments they have nothing to fear from it. And herein lies the problem.

Art, the way I see it, has to be thought provoking and at times dangerous (remember the beat generation?), and definitely doesn't have to be a commodity. Art, you see, simply cannot flourish when directed by market research and consumer needs, as these demands necessarily lead artists to self-censorship and, more often than not, banality. Art can be sold, but almost always at a cost.

Art simply does not need industry. I mean, look at the hundreds of late Picasso paintings and compare them to Guernica. Sad, eh?

Well, things are even sadder when it gets to gaming, where market forces were powerful from the very birth of the medium and where even some indie developers can't help but speak for and about the industry. As if the industry were one homogenous whole. As if The World of Goo and the radical games of Molleindustria have anything to do with Nintendo's WiiFit and such militaristic offerings as Gears of War. As if something is worth creating only to be sold. As if money is all an artist should care for. As if the sole yardstick for judging anything were its profitability.

Profitability is what companies care for and the force responsible for strangling myriads of brilliant ideas and even a few almost completed games. And believe me, it's gonna get worse. Perceived popularity and safe choices will get an even stronger grip on gaming and digital expression in general, just like they already did in cinema, literature and music.

Popularity of course, just like the need to be liked, appreciated and accepted is something most artists also crave (usually, that is). They always did so apparently and, admittedly, I think it's an almost noble cause, provided they remember they only have one obligation: be true to ones self and vision. And in the case of game creation, an artist or a group of artists, has only got to make something he/she/they would actually want to play. Something unique. Something interesting. Something with a modicum of passion. Not something that they could become rich from. And, well, if the money comes, so be it.

Just don't let the industry get it. Let the creative minds enjoy it and be freed to further provide us with quality games. Not that I wouldn't enjoy the struggling artist concept, mind. Passion and intense experiences can bring forth masterpieces all the money in the world wouldn't be able to buy. A Rimbaud of gaming would be truly amazing.

So, uhm, why don't you go read the Scratchware Manifesto?

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Dec 3, 2009

Army Break 9: A few promises

Having returned home and planning to stay here for the next 10 or so days, I feel pretty confident I'll manage a proper Gnome's Lair post or two. Also hope to start work on the blog itself, as it will soon (well, soon-ish; March the latest) spring back into action.All improved and nicer to look at.