Archive for May, 2012

New shades of doubt.

May 31 2012 Published by under musing

I have so much doubts about Bientôt l’été that it’s funny. It’s so bad that I just want to finish it, publish it, walk away from it and start working on a new project.

That’s the problem with these long productions. You have so much time to think about many things. And the world doesn’t stop either. The world in which we invented Bientôt l’été does not exist any more. It’s already an anachronism.

Earlier I was plagued by doubt about the strangeness of this project. And I was kicking myself asking why I couldn’t make something nice and normal for a change. Now I’m leaning towards the other side. Maybe Bientôt l’été still contains too many conventions, maybe it tries too hard to be liked, maybe I didn’t take things far enough.

The concept of notgames has definitely added clarity to my thinking about design. But it’s not easy! It’s not easy to ditch a decades old tradition -that was itself based on a centuries old tradition- in favor of something new, a new use that fits this new medium better. I guess it’s only normal that this is a slow process that involves a lot of failure. And I’m so happy that we’re not doing this alone.

Because of this, the new doubt expressed above is ultimately a positive doubt. Finally a context is beginning to appear in which we actually have some competition. Several developers are doing things along similar notgames lines. And it’s actually refreshing to have to wonder if our work will hold up next to theirs. Will it be good enough?

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Helping is wrong?

May 30 2012 Published by under features

I’m starting to get a bad feeling about adding things to Bientôt l’été in order to help the player. I design activities and interfaces because I think they would be fun to do. But when I think about it, they often don’t make sense. There’s no intuitive reason to do these things, or to do them in the way that I have designed.

So I help people by highlighting things they should pay attention to, visualizing processes so they know what’s going on, and re-designing interfaces to feel more conventional. You know, proper design work. But it’s starting to give me a bad taste in my mouth.

If I need to explain what to do and how to do it, maybe this activity or this interface is just not very interesting. Maybe I should take the need to clarify something as a cue to simply remove the feature. And only keep things that are simple and straightforward. So that people can enjoy the game and concentrate on the content rather than wondering about what to do, then how to do it, and then, unavoidably, why to do it.

Or maybe I’m just being a coward.

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Il faut se perdre.

May 30 2012 Published by under Duras

Il faut se perdre. Je ne sais pas. Tu apprendras.

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May 29 2012 Published by under concept

I am putting several objects in Bientôt l’été that feel right to me on an intuitive level. Some of them refer to elements in the work of Marguerite Duras. But non of them actually mean something. Not in the sense that they are a symbol for something and that together they form a riddle that can be deciphered. Unless, perhaps, on a psycho-analytical level.

Everybody is free to interpret things however they see fit. And I don’t exactly mind the prospect of some people constructing a meaning out of what is being presented. But it does give me pause in terms of selecting the objects. Some of them are easy to interpret as symbols. And I don’t know if that means I should remove them or keep them and let it be -given that some people really enjoy interpreting the hell out of things and who am I to rob them of that pleasure?

This desire for meaninglessness probably comes from my own lack of interpretation skills. I am notorious for not understanding even the most banal movies. It starts with not being able to tell the actors apart. But I just have this tendency to let things wash over me, to be part of the event as it happens and to not jump to any conclusions until long after the fact. This attitude makes me a perfect amateur of obscure art films, I think.

It’s not really that I believe that there is no meaning in my work. It’s just that any meaning that can be constructed in logical language never suffices to capture the true spirit of the work, or an aspect of the work. It’s really very much about being there, in this event, as it happens and trying to take it in as fully as possible. In a way, without thinking, without even imagining too much. Just allow your body and your memory to respond to the work and bring you in some kind of meditative state, I guess.

That is how I enjoy this kind of stuff. But don’t ask me what it means. I have no idea. I don’t even care. My body knows. That’s what matters.

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Introverted play.

May 28 2012 Published by under concept

When I design a videogame, it’s not with the idea of providing a specific experience to the player. Instead I design a spectrum of opportunities. As a result our games can’t tell you what to do in order to have fun. You’re mostly on your own. And you have to figure out for yourself how to amuse yourself with our work.

But we don’t design open worlds either. Our environments are very much authored with certain emotional effects in mind. We just don’t set up much structure to help you achieve them.

I’m not sure if this is a smart approach, but it seems to be what we are drawn to. Also as players. Nothing gives us more joy in a videogame than doing something out of our own initiative. It makes the game feel like a actually existing reality. Even if what we did clashes with the fiction of the game.

Bientôt l’été takes this approach one step further, in line with the atmosphere we want to create inspired by Marguerite Duras. It plays with emptiness and indifference as themes. The largest area in the game is a practically empty huge white room. Your avatar is dressed in white as well. They look away from you, avoid eye contact, remain isolated, introverted.

It’s not unpleasant, though. Much like it is not unpleasant in real life to sometimes be on your own, alone with yourself. To feel so connected to your environment that the wind seems to blow straight through your body. As if you simultaneously do not exist and are everything.

Then you take this introverted creature inside, to meet another, equally introverted. You try to talk. The contact is pleasant. It’s nice to hear a voice. But what can you say? What can one possibly say that will make this other person become part of us? Like the sea and the wind?

Maybe, instead, you will discover joy in the existence of something, some body, outside of yourself. Another being, whom you cannot possibly comprehend, let alone fuse with. But who is there, across the table, as aware of your existence as you are of his.

Maybe there’s other sources of joy than indifference.

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Escaping the hive.

May 27 2012 Published by under musing

We need to find a way to sustain cultural production without the requirement of massive commercial success. The internet has given us a means to create small niches of kindred spirits. This offered the potential of small self-sustaining subcultures. But so far, as soon as finances are involved, economic principles of the old, large, mainstream, broadcast model are applied.

There is an obvious logic to the issue, nonetheless. But it hasn’t been applied successfully as far as I know. It’s simple: products that appeal to large groups of people can be sold for a low price to make their money back. Price multiplied by number of sales should equal or exceed production budget. By the same logic, products that appeal to only a small group of people should be sold for a higher price. But that is not happening.

On the contrary, even: independent games are often sold for a lower price than AAA games, even if they target a much more specialized and infinitely smaller group. I believe we should find a way to sustain smaller subcultures. We owe it to society. Without diversity, culture withers and dies, and civilization with it. I can see the symptoms of this everywhere.

Without glorifying the past (because I do feel the present offers opportunities that are potentially preferable), before we all fell prey to market logic, a certain cultural hierarchy protected smaller subcultures. Some kinds of art were considered more valuable than others, even if they did not have the same wide appeal. Classical music, opera, theater, art film and fine art have all survived thanks to this. But the pressure on these subcultures to become mass entertainment or die is very high today.

A problem with this custom, is that it only really protects traditional forms of culture. A well know illustration of this is the inability of media art to find a place at the same cultural table, for instance, despite of its widespread recognition among art circles and some undesirable compromises by artists to make their technology-based work more compatible with conventional exhibition or performance practices.

Scarcity has been one of the aspects of art that has been used successfully to justify a higher price. But the most relevant thing to do for an artist today is to use technologies that allow digital distribution. This annihilates the very notion of scarcity. And thus drops these works into an economic system where they don’t belong, and where society cannot sustain them.

The results are disastrous. Sincere talented artists are avoiding technological media (thus reducing the artistic quality of even popular entertainment), and the ones who use them are encouraged to give up on their artistic vision -so valuable for our civilization- and produce work that appeals to the masses (simply in order to sustain themselves). That work may not necessarily be bad. But it’s far from an ideal situation.

We need to find a way to support and encourage small scale contemporary cultural production. With Tale of Tales we have managed to do this more or less by combining arts funding with income generated by sales. But we know we have been very lucky. We were at the right time in the right place with the right sort of background. Yet the budgets we have access to are extremely limited. And arts funding cannot really be used for in-depth continued research and expanding on ideas (since it leans towards a degree of novelty).

Ultimately, I’d prefer a sustainable situation for many creators without needing to rely on regional governments. The idea that working with an international medium requires such localized support is rather strange. Especially given the potential reach we all have through the internet. Can we not figure out a way to solve this problem among ourselves?

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Play, then pay, if okay.

May 26 2012 Published by under project

This occurred to me:

I don’t like free. If I enjoy your product, I want to pay for it. Because I want to show my gratitude and because I want to support your continued production. If I don’t enjoy your product, I don’t even want it for free.

I don’t know beforehand if I will enjoy a product. Refunds could solve this problem. But there’s still a barrier, of course. It’s not pleasant to pay for something just to try it. That takes all the fun out of shopping!

A compromise is to offer a free trial version of the product. Digital content can be distributed very cheaply. In fact, when a customer downloads “free” software, they are paying for the low cost of distribution -or at least of transportation- themselves.

The downside of the try-before-you-buy concept is that the producer is encouraged to make the trial version persuade you in some way to buy the full version. This can happen by simply making the trial very good, which is honest if the full product is of equal quality. But it also happens, and tends to be more lucrative, in all sorts of less honest ways.

So what I have been considering for Bientôt l’été is to allow the customer to pay for the product after playing it. You would be able to download the full game and I would only require payment when you’re done. If you didn’t like the product, you don’t pay and remove it from your hard drive. No harm done.

I realize that this potentially opens the gates for abuse. But I may be willing to take that risk. Abuse happens anyway. People pirate software, for instance. I also hope that the audience for my work possesses a more than average sense of responsibility and ethics. That they would only be content with themselves if they behave decently. And finally, I think that if you treat people like civilized human beings, perhaps there is a better chance that they will act as such.

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Keyboard only control?

May 25 2012 Published by under features

I’m still working on making the entire game playable through keyboard input only. The keyboard in some ways feels more intimate to me than the mouse. In part because typing is mostly an activity of the finger tips, while using a mouse is something you do with your arm and wrist. So there’s more distance when using the mouse. But also because of the relationship between typing and language. The keys of the keyboard are not just buttons. They represent letters that we can use to form words that we can use to talk to another person.

I worked on the interior scene today, where you pick items to say and drag objects around over the table. The original interface is for the mouse (in part because I’m hoping the release a tablet version of this part of the game at some point). But despite my expectations, playing this scene through the keyboard feels quite well. Dragging objects around by pressing the cursor keys doesn’t feel as natural as doing it with the mouse, but the floating object as I press the key looks strangely magical.

I am always inclined to add as many interfaces as possible. So my instinct is to make the game playable through keyboard, mouse and gamepad. Even all simultaneously. And definitely to include a way to play the game by only using the mouse, without modifier keys: just single hand control.

But I’m not sure if this is the right approach here. Maybe I should choose for one interface and disable the others. To keep the controls clear to the player. For Bientôt l’été, that single interface would have to be the keyboard. But I’m hesitant to throw away the other options.

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Less real. More meaning.

May 24 2012 Published by under aesthetics

When building simulated worlds, one has to choose an aesthetic style. Realism is the obvious choice for those mainstream games that seek to rival cinema. And stylization is the obvious choice for indie titles that hope to stand out on a budget.

I am personally very much drawn to figuration in fine art. So it stands to reason that I would prefer some realism in my own work. But of course I share the budgetary concerns of my fellow independent developers. So compromises need to be made.

There is something incredibly unsatisfying about working in a realistic style, though. If your only reference is reality, then the more you approach it, the more dull your work becomes. If you would achieve perfect realism, nobody would notice anymore. The game would look exactly like real life. And we have a talent for ignoring that.

Things get more interesting where they deviate from reality. But not when they are completely different. A very stylized look invites a detached sort of aesthetic consideration, of pure form and pure color. And that is also dull to me.

When a simulation approaches reality, the places where it differs become areas where meaning starts to exist, where emotion happens. This is true in painting and sculpture, as well as in realtime 3D.

Feeling real is an important reference for me. But things don’t need to look real to feel real. The beach in Bientôt l’été is a perfectly white perfectly flat plane. And yet it doesn’t feel stylized to me. It really feels like one of those sand beaches in Belgium or the north of France. The motion and the sound contribute to this.

Other things, like the waves and the sky, are more stylized. But I hope that people will recognize the way in which they deviate from reality as interesting and meaningful. The sky is blank. But it is not clear whether we’re seeing clouds or clear sky. That says something to me. It becomes expressive.

Some things are further removed from reality. The exterior of the building in which you go to talk with another player changes throughout the game. Sometimes it looks a small café, other times like a large casino and sometimes like a ruin of a colonial mansion. And every time it’s the only building in the entire scene. Then there’s the apparitions. Every time you come out, a single thing will be different. Something has appeared and will disappear again.

It is in these areas, where things deviate from nature, that my imagination is triggered, where my mind starts racing and wondering what meaning I could derive from this. A realistic approach is essential to give a direction to the experience, to create a world that the player can associate with. But once we’re there, it is in the deviations from reality that we find deep aesthetic satisfaction.

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May 23 2012 Published by under project

If all goes well, Bientôt l’été will be released 3 years after our previous desktop game (Fatale) was released. Production of Bientôt l’été should only take 9 months, though. Before we started on Bientôt l’été, we made an iPhone game, we created prototypes for two new games and worked on a collaborative project with Alex Mayhew (of Ceremony of Innocence fame).

None of those projects have lead to a release yet, but I now notice that several of the ideas developed in that period, have found there way into Bientôt l’été.

The sci-fi layer comes straight from Cncntrc. The chessboard on the café table with objects that you can move around comes from the experiments we did on iPad with Alex. And the graphical user interface, including the textual hints, is similar to what we have developed for The Book of 8.

I don’t have very fond memories of the prototyping period. I came away from that project with a rather negative attitude towards prototyping. The problem with prototyping, at least the way we did it, is that it’s endless. You can make many prototypes and never know if they’re any good. And there’s always something that can be improved, so there’s always more experimental work that can be done with placeholder graphics. Which is rather irrelevant when you do work like ours in which visual impact plays such an important role.

But we did learn a lot in that period. Next to the concrete ideas mentioned above, that knowledge is also being poured into Bientôt l’été. Even the dislike of prototyping has had a rather positive effect on Bientôt l’été‘s production. It pushed us towards figuring out a concrete buildable design. This lead to a reductionist aesthetic that I’m quite happy with. And also to a design approach that eschews theoretical “on paper” design in favor of creating systems in the game engine based on how they feel. It’s the closest we’ve ever worked to our ideal situation of “the game is always finished, all we do is refine it”.

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