Archive for June, 2012

Powerlessness fantasy.

Jun 30 2012 Published by under concept

I understand the joy of power fantasies. But I find fragility often far more interesting and beautiful.

The normal structure of videogames allows us to continuously feel like a winner. When we drop out of the flow channel and are confronted with situations that are not challenges that can be overcome, we may be confused and uncertain. But that is when we become sensitive to many other forms of beauty and joy.

Lack of power is not necessarily sad. Power feels good because it makes us feel superior to others. But lack of power feels good because it makes us feel connected to others. Per definition, there can only be one winner of any competition. Per that same definition, most of us are losers.

But only if we choose to see our existence as competition. There is absolutely no need for that. When we stop thinking in such terms, suddenly the world becomes much richer and more varied and nuanced. Suddenly feelings of confusion and doubt become pleasurable. If only because we know they are shared feelings.

Lack of power is liberating. When we refuse to run the race any further, we suddenly feel the sensation of the gravel underneath our feet, hear the wind in the trees, notice the myriad colors in the sunset.

Even our unfulfilled desires, our frustrations and wishes become beautiful. We are at our most noble when we long, when we desire, when there is something outside of us that is out of our reach.

Bientôt l’été is not a love story. It’s not about two people who meet and fall in love and then break up. Instead it’s a story about that story. We, the players, all know what love is. And in the videogame, we can explore these emotions, we can play with the things that we, humans, say and think about love. It’s not real. It’s a game.

Through this playing, hopefully, we will discover some of the beautiful shades that emotions can have outside of the narrow range of power, victory and success. We can be fragile, with each other. We can be mystified, feel dumb, feel ugly and inadequate, and laugh about it. Laugh, yes, because existence on this planet is wonderful. Even our capacity for suffering and sadness is beautiful, is wondrous.

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Jun 29 2012 Published by under musing

The smaller the number of features in a videogame, the greater the chance that one of them will stand out. Painstakingly refined sounds of footsteps will be completely lost in a game world filled with activities. But if the world is silent and peaceful, suddenly we are able to enjoy, and enjoy deeply, a simple thing like the sound of footsteps.

As mentioned in a previous post, I believe it is wise to select one or two elements to be refined, while the rest of game can remain rather stylized.

A very detailed game world will be washed out in the experience. The trees will become a forest in the mind of the player and there will be no deep aesthetic enjoyment. It’s still possible to have a detailed world, as long as sufficient space is created for the important element to be enjoyed. Almost like isolating a painting on an otherwise blank wall to allow for maximum enjoyment.

The one special element needs to be rendered with sufficient detail. Most videogames contain a lot of elements but not a single one has sufficient detail. If you start focusing, every element in even some of the highest budget games is rigid in some way, and unsatisfying aesthetically. Resources are basically spread too thin to achieve deep beauty, heavily prioritizing quantity over quality.

I believe it’s better to choose a single element as the focus of the game, to give this element all the love and attention it needs to become as beautiful as possible. To increase economic feasibility as well as aesthetic effect, the fidelity of the other elements can be reduced. As well as their number. Remove the noise.

This stylization does not really apply to the composition of the screen. Videogames are not (abstract) paintings. They are worlds with objects in them. Proportion is important. Composition less so. Because the playing mind focuses on objects in a space, not on a picture.

Stories too need to be simple in a similar manner. There should be no plot, no twists, no structure. The focus is on being. There’s no need for detail in the narrative. Just a clear focus.

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Jun 28 2012 Published by under musing

I thought this would never happen, but I’m starting to feel a little bit confident as a designer. As I’m reading through the comments and ideas that players of the alpha build of Bientôt l’été are so generously sharing, it surprises me how clear my opinions about them are. They’re all good suggestions, since the people currently playing the game are thoughtful and interested in more artistic uses of the medium (in other words nobody has suggested inclusion of a shotgun and zombies, not even as a joke). But it is very clear to me which suggestions work in my vision and which don’t.

Up until now, I was so insecure as a designer that I felt I had to program everything myself. I needed total control over the creation. But I have been considering another type of creation, where my role is more that of a director. And realizing that I now am able to discern between ideas gives me great confidence that such an approach might actually work, in a future project.

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Jun 27 2012 Published by under musing

I have a strong memory of somebody playing an early demo of our very first games project and saying that she liked the sound of the avatar’s footsteps.

At that time, all videogames avatars’ steps made sounds. So we just copied what everybody else was doing. In most games, you hardly noticed. And if you did, the sounds might have been annoying, even. But because the activity in our game was so sparse and the atmosphere so calm, suddenly the simple sound of footsteps became a source of joy.

There’s a lesson in here that I’m only now slowly starting to fully understand.

Beauty can be very simple. The trick is to bring it out. Find a beautiful element and then remove anything that prevents the enjoyment of this beauty. Don’t be seduced to add more cool features or other things that would be nice. Find the one beautiful thing and show it. Forget about politics and rules and “proper use of the medium”. Beauty is your goal. Nothing else.

There’s an odd paradox in creating simulations: the better they are, the more they approach reality, the less impressive they become. It is very strange how, after meticulously fine-tuning the timing of sounds of a drawer sliding in Bienôt l’été, once it is done, I hardly notice it anymore. It’s only normal that the drawer makes a sound when it slides.

That doesn’t mean that players cannot be delighted by such small details. The trick seems to be to isolate them. Don’t design an entire world. It will just look like the real world and will not make much of an impression on all but the most dedicated experts. Stylize the environment and select a few things to bring into focus. Charm the player with beautiful detail in those things while muting everything around them.

Simplicity may be the key to dealing with the lack of subtlety in videogames.

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Simple love?

Jun 26 2012 Published by under musing

I was half-hoping that Bientôt l’été could be a game about love, moving as a Hollywood tear jerker or a melancholic love song. Rather silly, of course, given Marguerite Duras as the main inspiration. Her work moves me when I read it, but only once in a while, in the little points that she makes, after unnoticeably building up to them. And these moments are never about the surrender or the ecstasy of love but more about accepting its complexity, and embracing the sadness as well as the joy.

This complexity shines through in Bientôt l’été, I think. But that still leaves The Game About Love on my to do list. I’ve learned something about how to approach it, though. The annoying thing about videogames is that they don’t lend themselves well to subtlety. That’s not so much caused by the limitations of the medium itself as by the wildly different ways in which people play videogames, and a greater sense of “ownership” of the experience, because of agency.

So The Game About Love will have to be extremely romantic, naive like a Disney movie, casting aside all doubts and complexities. That seems contradictory to the exciting openness that a procedural medium allows for. But it’s only logical that a creative desire to evoke a specific emotional effect clashes with that openness.

Our stance has always been to not force things too much, to allow people to have any emotional response to the work they like. And I’m still interested in that approach. But not for making The Game About Love. Then you have to be merciless, grab the hearts of the players and not let go until you’ve squeezed out every bit of tear they can muster.

It’s hard to call a deep emotional response to a work of art shallow, but in a way it is. Maybe it’s intellectually shallow when one emotion overwhelms, necessarily at the expense of any other reactions. As a result, such uncomplicated experiences may be somewhat forgettable. But that’s perfectly acceptable. There will always be the memory of the joy, even if the joy itself cannot be felt again by merely recollecting it.

We can’t leave videogames split into simple games about negative emotions and complex games about positive emotions. We also need simple games about positive emotions -and complex games about negative ones.

There’s something simple and gentle about love. And I hope to capture that in a future game.

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Jun 25 2012 Published by under project

I’m very grateful that people are actually taking the time to play the alpha build of our game and share their impressions and ideas. A lot of interesting things have come up that I really would not have seen so clearly without their help.

I’m still expecting some reactions that I’m especially curious about but a few issues have already surfaced.

The collecting interaction is still not right. Moving away from explicit finding and collecting of objects on the beach was a good choice. But the current replacement of phrases gliding over the screen and standing still to collect them is just not clear. So I’ll be experimenting with different ways of doing this.

There’s a problem with using the phrases in the conversation in the café as well. Currently, you just get a list of the phrases you have collected and you select one to speak it. This stimulates a form of goal-orientation that is not compatible with my vision for the game.

The pure keyboard controls also don’t seem to be ideal, or have the desired emotional effect. Several players prefer the experimental mouse controls, often claiming it makes the experience feel less game-like.

Suggestions have been made to show the ghost of another player on the beach. Not sure how I feel about that yet. Maybe I just need to experiment with it and see.

Currently, there is no end to the beach. You can just keep going, and part of the beach moves along with you. Some people like this but others feel that, since there is nothing new to discover, you might as well make them stop in some way. I’ll have to think about this.

Some suggestions are good but would require too much work to implement. I’d prefer to keep the number of features small but polish them really well. If, however, Bientôt l’été would do well commercially, I’ll probably want to work on some of these ideas anyway and release them in a new version, or as additional content. Especially being able to interact more with another player is attractive to me.

I do realize that the people who are currently playing and commenting are a narrow selection particularly interested in this sort of game. But I’m still happily surprised by how common it has become to simply enjoy a game for its atmosphere and mood. It’s such a joy not to have to fight for the right of a videogame to not have puzzles or enemies anymore.

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Jun 24 2012 Published by under musing

Bientôt l’été will probably end up being one of the “purest” videogames I made. Pure in the sense of trying hard to approach what I feel is right, fine-tuning the expression so it matches what I have in mind as closely as possible. And what I have in mind is intensely personal. So personal that I don’t expect many people to enjoy it like I do.

That is where purism leads: away from an audience. I’m essentially making a game for myself. And after Bientôt l’été, I think I’ll be ready for something else.

Because the deeper I go, the more acutely I become aware that in the deepest depths, there is nothing. That is also where purism leads. You keep chiseling away the unnecessary parts, there’s always something that seems wrong, and in the end, nothing is left.

This purism may be the way to arrive at the best possible art. And in my mind this means that it can only be enjoyed deeply by a small group of people. I don’t think this sort of elitism is a problem in and of itself. It’s just not something I want to be involved in all the time.

I will continue the production of Bientôt l’été along its current course. But I don’t think the next project I’ll be working on will be quite as purist. It’s interesting to dig this hole and enjoy the quiet and the concentration. But after this, I’ll be happy to crawl out and engage with simpler pleasures that are more easily shared.

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Moving on.

Jun 23 2012 Published by under musing

A young man was showing us a videogame he was working on the other day. He was explaining how his game was different because it didn’t have any puzzles or combat or scores. We were expected to develop an opinion about his work, and I couldn’t help but think that this was not special at all, not anymore.

At first I was surprised, because it’s the kind of thing I have been saying and defending myself for a long time. But then I realized that this means that we have moved on, that something has happened. Something has changed.

Sure, the commercial mainstream rages on with its mediocre conservative spectacles. But there are alternatives now. We may even be approaching a situation similar to that in other media, where the popular mainstream is just banal titillation but where there is also a strong stream of other, more sincere, more artistic work.

Perhaps today the phrase “this videogame doesn’t have conventional rules or goals” has become as little revolutionary or special as “this music doesn’t have drums” or “there’s no explosions in this movie” or “this book is not structured like a hero’s journey”. Drums, explosions and heroes may still be super-popular, but everybody knows that other things exist as well, and that those things are valuable, even if, perhaps, sometimes they require a bit more attention to appreciate.

And the greatest thing about this is that suddenly the creation of artistic videogames has become a lot more challenging. It is no longer good enough to make a game without guns or platforms. We’re in the next phase now: we need to work harder. Finally!

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Alpha 1.

Jun 22 2012 Published by under project

The first alpha build has been sent out to people who have pre-ordered Bientôt l’été. And even though I know that through the act of pre-ordering without even seeing a screenshot, these people show more than average sympathy towards our work, I’m nervous as hell.

At first there was the fear of disappointment. I was, and still am, fully prepared to refund anyone who does not enjoy the game. I am also worried that people may not understand the game. Bientôt l’été is awfully calm and understated, and probably more conceptual than anything we ever released. I don’t think I’ll be making art games for a while after this. It’s nerve-racking.

But mostly, I’m embarrassed to admit it, I’m nervous about rejection, about failure. And I know this is stupid and that I need to fight it. In videogames personal taste is almost non-existent. Games are either right or wrong. And if you make a game that people don’t like, your game is wrong. If you make a game that isn’t massively successful, it’s because it’s a bad game.

And I know that is not how I feel about other media. You like that kind of music, I like these kinds of books. We are happy for each other that we both find something we like, but neither one of us is wrong, and neither are the creators of these works. They do what they do and some people enjoy it and others don’t.

Anyway, releasing an early alpha has a purpose: to collect responses to the game. And even though I would infinitely rather hear gushing praise and reports on how much people love Bientôt l’été, what matters now is making the game as good as it can be. And for that I need to hear criticism, I need to hear what people do not like about it. And then I need to judge if it can be fixed without altering the purpose of the piece, or conflicting with my own preferences.

The latter is important because I do not see Bientôt l’été as a commercial release. It needs to be good, on its own terms, not necessarily as widely successful as possible (I’ll reserve that ambition for another future project). It needs to be good in the way that I think videogames can be good. And I know that my taste is not exactly mainstream.

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L’amant de la Chine du Nord

Jun 21 2012 Published by under research

The North China Lover is a re-telling of the same story as in Marguerite Duras’ probably best known work The Lover. The novel makes references to its predecessor in the form of corrections. The male protagonist, for instance, is described as slightly different in this version, while the female protagonist, or the child as she is often referred to, is described as being the same. The book also includes film directions, as if Duras was trying to correct the film Jean-Jacques Annaud had created the year before, based on the first book.

The story takes place in the French colonies in Asia, where Duras grew up. So it’s likely that it is at least in part auto-biographical.

A French family in colonial Vietnam, impoverished after the death of the husband and some bad business decisions. A mother, two sons, and a daughter in her early teens.

The girl meets a rich Chinese man and they have an affair.

He is madly in love with her. But it is unclear throughout the entire book whether the girl actually loves him or if she is just manipulating him out of childlike curiosity on the one hand and financial gain on the other.

Nevertheless, they do have a real relationship that consists mostly of meetings in an apartment the man seems to possess precisely for this purpose. He is described as weak and fragile. He does absolutely nothing. He doesn’t need to. His family is rich. The contrast between him and the girl’s older abusive brother could not be greater.

Despite the age and race difference, the girl’s family encourages the relationship for the sake of the money. The man does help the family in the end. But this cannot prevent their return to France. The emotions the couple experience in the period between knowing she will leave and the actual departure are described in great detail.

The book ends years later when the girl, now a woman, in France, receives a phone call from the Chinese man. He tells her that he has never stopped loving her.

This is another book in which Duras investigates “abnormal” love. But, again, she does this without dismissal or glorification. The fact that the girl’s feelings remain ambiguous seems perfectly normal, given her age. She is simply not capable yet of loving the man as much as he loves her.

The novel also paints a very nuanced portrait of racism, in all its shapes and sizes. Despite the white family’s poverty, they still feel somehow superior to this immeasurably rich Chinese man. But this does not really bother him. He is accustomed to it. He is very sophisticated, well mannered and even kind. While the white family of the girl comes across as virtually savage, cruel and uncultured.

But it is to Duras’ credit that she doesn’t judge. There is love everywhere. Next to the romantic and sensual love between the girl and her lover, there is the adoration of the mother for the older son, the love of the girl for her younger retarded brother, the love between both children and an indigenous servant of about their age, and the love between the girl and her schoolmates.

Many beautiful details appear in the book. Movingly precise descriptions of the motions of hands, glances of eyes, warm humid skin, etc. Duras’ superb restraint somehow leads to some of the most acutely recognizable presentations of the emotions that coincide with love, and the suffering of separation. It’s when we are silent that we feel the most. When nothing in our face or our demeanor betrays any emotion, that we show our nobility, the nobility of creatures who love.

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