Archive for the 'concept' Category

Inspiration overload.

Dec 04 2012 Published by under concept

When I look at the collection of reference material for Bientôt l’été, I can’t help but feel inspired. Not the nice and practical “I know what to do” kind of inspiration. But the depressing and discouraging “So much stuff, how will I ever address all of this?” kind.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot there that deserves consideration. What strikes me as specifically interesting at the moment is the number of pulp references. That makes me think that perhaps something can be made around Bientôt l’été‘s themes that is far more accessible than the current game.

There’s references to fashion, to science fiction, to eroticism, to romance, to nature. All very accessible subjects. I don’t regret making a rather difficult piece in the end. But the opportunity to revisit these things is appealing, if somewhat daunting.

I can think of a lot of things that I could do with this subject matter. But the easiest ideas to have are often the most complicated to execute. And since technology is not getting easier and distribution of software requires ever increasing levels of bureaucracy, as the corporations tighten their grip on the internet and therefor our audience, I am lately drawn to radically simple ideas. And those are the most difficult to get.

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Working for the quiet people.

Dec 02 2012 Published by under concept

One of the reasons why our culture is flooded with loud banality is that the people who enjoy silence and integrity are, in fact, silent. They do not talk. They do not participate in the collective circus of capitalism. They do not vote on things. Because they believe making a competition out of everything is demeaning. So what they believe in always loses.

This is not how they see it. Since there is no competition in their mind.

This is our audience. We are like them. It’s difficult. But we believe these people deserve our dedication. Even if they never tell us how much our work matters for them. Even if they stay far away from the social and commercial systems in which their participation could actually help us progress and produce more. We respect their silence, their refusal. We want to support it. Help them feel strong. Connected even, maybe. An invisible network of humanity hidden deep underneath the robotic constructions of consumerist democratic society. Holding each other’s hands so we stay afloat while the self-indulgent self-destruction continues outside.

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Nov 08 2012 Published by under concept

I am very concerned with the experience that players of Bientôt l’été will have. How the game makes them feel. What it makes them think. It’s delightful to hear that it inspires them. That they find meaning and value in the piece.

But I am also concerned with the creation itself. With Homme and Femme, the characters we created for players to use as avatars. With the buildings, the places, the objects. I care about them. To me, somehow, they exist. Even when nobody is playing the game, they are still there in the data, on the hard drive, in the uninstalled archive, in the source code, in the meshes and the textures.

They were created and now they exist. And I want the players to care about them too. Not just about their own experience. But also about these creatures, these places, these objects. Not just as metaphors or symbols or means to an end, tools for pleasure, beautiful, perhaps. But as things that really exist, that have a presence. Things that deserve our concerned thoughts, our care.

They have become part of the world. And now we have to care about them.

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Imperfect perfection.

Oct 17 2012 Published by under concept

There’s a number of things in Bientôt l’été that are imperfect in some ways but that I cannot change because they are perfect in others. They are logical, theoretically sound, but they don’t quite feel right.

This probably explains in part the interesting reactions we get sometimes. People clearly really experiencing something special and unique, but being put off by a detail. Such a detail is often the result of pure logic, of building a system that makes sense, but that is too raw for easy human pleasure.

I do believe that ideally systems should be tweaked to optimize human experience. Yet somehow I cannot bring myself to damage the perfection of these systems. It’s probably laziness in part. The systems are straightforward and logical and tweaking them for messy human consumption would require adding lots of ifs and buts (are there any programming languages that have but statements next to if statements?).

This is a sin in my ideology of putting humans above machines. And yet it feels right somehow. I want the player of Bientôt l’été to enter the digital domain. The experience should be mixed, hybrid, give and take. Bientôt l’été does not solely exist to give you pleasure. It also wants to receive pleasure. So player and game need to meet each other half way. In that vague electronic realm of cyberspace.

Because Bientôt l’été exists. It is a thing. It is not just a means for your enjoyment. It is an entity with its own history, its own culture, its own identity. As such, it requires your respect. When you visit it, you enter a foreign land. Yes, it’s a land that was built on what you know as your culture, your life. But it has improvised on top of that, laid bare some aspects of it, mutilated others. Not randomly, not systematically, but very precisely. Bientôt l’été looks at your life and points out what it finds interesting, what fascinates it, while not entirely comprehending, questioning, amused perhaps, wondering.

This look from the outside may feel disturbing at times, even wrong. A foreigner’s interpretation of your culture is always crude, always feels like a misinformed caricature.

I have no justification for the moments in Bientôt l’été that feel awkward, jarring, disturbing, incongruous. There is no justification. If I were a better designer, I would fix them, smooth out the experience, become successful. But somehow I feel that this would be betrayal. Betrayal of the logic. And also, I feel that this imperfect version should exist first, in its pure untweaked form, before somebody picks up on it and creates an experience that does fit the human form perfectly.

Of course, this way, I remain the uncelebrated forerunner, the mad creator who, almost pathologically, blurts out wisdoms that he does not comprehend himself but that inspire others to greatness. It’s a noble, yet lonely position that I do not intend to stay in all my life. But for Bientôt l’été, it seems appropriate. I’m curious to see what this one’s ideas will give birth to.

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Meaning and closure?

Oct 04 2012 Published by under concept

Some people seem to have a problem with Bientôt l’été being meaningless and lacking closure. I honestly don’t know how to respond to that criticism. Other than admitting that perhaps the whole design is a mistake and it’s probably just bad art. This would be unfair, however, towards other people who thoroughly enjoy the game, despite its lack of closure, etc.

What can I do? I can’t add meaning where there is none. That would be dishonest. I can understand the human desire for closure, but I somehow feel that closure is perpendicular to the nature of the interactive medium. It’s one of the reasons why I love this medium. There doesn’t need to be an end, a conclusion, a final word.

I actually see this desire for lack of closure in a lot of modern literature, not in the least Marguerite Duras’ own work. But the novel, while perfectly fine in many ways, remains a form that is limited by the linearity of language and even the physicality of its medium, the book. At some point, the reader will reach the last page, read the last word and close the book. It doesn’t matter how unfinished the writer might think the story is, how open-ended, how much there remains to be said. The end happens, undeniably.

No so in videogames, not if you let them be what they are: computer programs. A computer program is something that a user starts up and shuts down. We do this without thinking when using an email client or a web browser or a word processor. But when we’re using software for entertainment or enlightenment, we suddenly lack the willpower or the sense of responsibility to do the same. Suddenly we cannot decide anymore for ourselves when we’ve had enough, when we’re done. We want the program to tell us that it’s over, that we should close the application.

Given the desire in a lot of art in other media and the unique potential of this medium, this seems a shame. But people are people, and “we cannot want what we want” as Schopenhauer knew. We just want. And when we don’t get what we want, we are disappointed.

Would Bientôt l’été be better with an ending or with a clear meaning or a story? It would certainly feel better, it would make us, as players, feel better. But would it be better? In my experience, deep aesthetic joy is always accompanied by a sense of mystery. Something lacking in my understanding, something that goes beyond what I know, something that I do not know and that I cannot really learn but only be aware of. The awareness of this lack, of this mystery, greatly heightens the aesthetic pleasure. I guess it is the opposite of kitsch, where extreme familiarity renders something that in and of itself may be pleasant to look at, a thorn in the eye.

I think the lack of meaning and the lack of closure makes Bientôt l’été more beautiful. Less satisfying, perhaps, but more beautiful. And more memorable. There will always be a reason to return to the beach or the café, a sense of lack, of missing something, of incompleteness. Maybe that will be the ultimate “message” of Bientôt l’été. Who knows?

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Not a game at all.

Sep 27 2012 Published by under concept

I’m very sympathetic to the attempts of people like Chris Bateman to make use of the term game in a broad inclusive way. Much more sympathetic than I am to the nitpickers who have contracted the meaning of the word to only the kinds of activities that they enjoy (usually rigid formal games with specific rules, goals, challenges, conflict, competition and victory conditions). But when I play Bientôt l’été, I find it difficult to think of it as a game.

Walking my avatar on the beach doesn’t feel like playing a game. Even if the controls are very similar as in other videogames. Bientôt l’été is about doing something. Imagining being somewhere.

This has nothing to do with games at all. Unless maybe games of make belief. But even then. We don’t really believe we are there. It’s a game of imagination, of what if. It has nothing to do with formal games. In fact, it is so different that I can add chess without causing any confusion (just as one could mention chess in a novel or draw it in a painting).

Playing Bientôt l’été is about how it makes you feel to imagine being in such a situation. On a beach, in a café, in love, or not. On a space station, in a simulation, with a virtual creature. It’s not about the fiction, or its meaning. It’s about the emotions and memories triggered in you while you’re playing. These emotions are real not fictional. It’s not about empathy. It’s about you. Not how you feel about somebody else.

I guess the closest equivalent to pretending to walk on a beach in Bientôt l’été is actually walking on a real beach. Not a game. Not a fiction. Just something you do. Something that affects you emotionally and makes you think.

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A brief history of collecting.

Sep 07 2012 Published by under concept

You can collect two types of items on the beach in Bientôt l’été: “Things” and “Thoughts”. Thoughts are quotes from Marguerite Duras novels (280 phrases from a dozen or so books). Things are physical objects.

In the beginning I was thinking of both Thoughts and Things as items washed up on the shore. Collecting is a common activity when walking along the seaside. So it felt natural. Indeed, I did mean to include all sorts of shells. In the early versions of the game, I used several objects from our Vanitas app. The bird skull worked particularly well. At that time, the Thoughts were written in the sand (albeit it in a clean typeface, not hand drawn, to refer to the artificial nature of the presentation).

To collect these items, you had to stand close to one and close your eyes (by holding a key). Then the item would be shown in the middle of the screen against a black background. You were required to keep your eyes closed for a little while until the object or phrase was collected. The motivation for this interface was that I wanted the player to focus on something and then remember it, in tribute to Duras’ precise and concentrated writing. Your memory was represented as a classic inventory that you saw any time you closed your eyes. Things on the left, Thoughts on the right. You could collect a maximum of 16 of each.

The problem with this design was that it pushed the player towards a sort of mechanical behavior that was all about the act of collecting, irrespective of the nature of the object or phrase that was being collected.

To reduce the emphasis on activity (and hopefully move it to content), I decided to show the phrases that were written in the sand also on the screen when you walked past them. So when you were close to a Thought on the beach, the phrase would appear in the middle of the screen, without requiring closing of eyes or any other action. To collect the item, you would stand still near it and wait a while. The phrase would fade out and when it was gone, it was considered memorized, collected in your inventory and removed from the beach. I especially liked how the phrases slid from the top to the bottom of the screen or vice versa as you passed by. I called this system Passing Thoughts.

I didn’t want to use this mechanic for Things because I thought close ups of objects in the middle of the screen wouldn’t look as good as the nice clean text. This started me thinking about the nature of these objects. So far, I hadn’t really considered what they were going to be. And since I apparently didn’t care much, I decided to remove the feature. I still wanted the player to have physical objects because they were fun to play with on the café table. But instead of having them brought in by the waves, like the Thoughts, I moved them to the “Apparitions”.

Apparitions are larger objects or landscape features that appear on the beach as a sort of glitches or dreams. There is always only one Apparition, a different one each time you leave the café. Analogous to the Thought collection, you would stand still next to an Apparition to make it disappear. When it had faded out, the avatar would spontaneously walk towards an item lying near to it and pick it up. These items were related to the Apparitions. So the magnolia tree would give you a magnolia blossom (referring to Chauvin’s memory of the huge flower in Anne Desbaresdes’ cleavage at an awkward business dinner in Moderato Cantabile).

The problem with this interface was that players didn’t understand that they were required to stand still and wait. This is very unintuitive. And subtle hints on screen didn’t help everyone. So many ended up in the café with nothing in their pockets and all they could do was talk about drinking wine.

In the latest alpha version, the phrases still appear on the screen when you are near the sea. But they animate up and down with the waves that roll in, unrelated to your position. Every Thought you see is remembered. Without having to do anything. To fully enable this, I removed the limit of 16 items. The inventory was removed as well. Instead, every phrase that was remembered is written on the beach (instead of removed). The stand still and fade out collection mechanic for the Things was retained, but as to be expected, didn’t work very well.

So the last change I made was another simplification. If you close your eyes while facing the building on the dike, you see a button that says “Enter”. You see this button no matter how far you are. You can always enter the café. You don’t need to walk towards it. I have added a similar button for Apparitions now. If you close your eyes, you can see the Apparition from afar, because it’s bright pink and emits lots of particles. A button hovers over it. When you click that button you see a close up of the Apparition feature and then an item falls out of the sky for your avatar to pick up, while the Apparition disappears.

All of the Things are now chess pieces. So there’s 16 of them, for a full set (white if you’re playing the man, black if you’re playing the woman). Well, there’s actually 17 Things. But I’ll keep the last one a secret, just to tease you.

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Dry interfaces.

Sep 05 2012 Published by under concept

One way of making interfaces unobtrusive is to present them as completely uninteresting actions. True immersion doesn’t really exist. We are always somewhat aware of the system that we are running the program on. Holding a controller, seeing a screen, the light in the room, the position of the speakers, the seat of the chair we’re sitting in. The reason why these elements hardly disturb our enjoyment, is that we’re not interested in them.

So perhaps this is an inspiration for interfaces. Just make them dull and simple, so we can all but ignore them. Showing a picture of the button we’re supposed to press to do something in a given context works really well for me. As long as this doesn’t come with extra demands, like pressing the button repeatedly, or doing it within a short amount of time. Then my attention shifts to the system too much and away from the fiction.

Showing an icon for the button to press is sometimes even better than hoping that the player remembers. Because when he doesn’t, he is sent straight back into the system level, out of the fiction (since it is the player who doesn’t remember, not the character). This feels somewhat counter-intuitive since clearing the screen of all clutter seems like the best choice for immersion.

Of course dry interfaces only work with simple mechanics. But I believe simple mechanics are a first requirement anyway to pull players into the fiction. Carefully chosen and designed mechanics can help the immersion. But it’s very tricky, may not work for all players, needs to suit the fictional context very well, and requires instructions that may break the spell. I think it’s often a smarter choice to let the computer do the work: simple player interface for complex character action.

I don’t believe in emotions triggered by mechanics much. These emotions too happen on the system level and even if they are similar to those the character might be experiencing in the fiction, they are certainly not on par. When you feel victory over winning a fight, the character might feel relief about barely escaping death instead. Dry interfaces will bring you much closer to the character’s emotions.

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Fiction in videogames vs other media.

Sep 03 2012 Published by under concept

I feel protagonists in videogames are very different from protagonists in other media. And as a result, the kind of fictions that fit well are different too.

In a film, a novel, or a comic, protagonists are other people. You can empathize with them and enjoy observing the fiction they live in. But you never imagine being in their shoes, not really. A videogame very often puts you firmly in the shoes of the protagonist. You control where they go, you control what they do.

As a result, to be enjoyable (for me, at least) the fiction of the videogame needs to be one that you can imagine being in yourself. Not one that you simply enjoy looking at. There’s many situations that are amusing in movies or books, that I wouldn’t want to find myself in. As such these situations are plain intolerable for me in games. For example, the moments where the fiction makes the protagonist responsible for something grave (the death of a friend, killing innocents, self-mutilation, etc). In a film, you sympathize with the protagonist, and given their context, their life, their story, you understand their choice, or it cements your disgust with the character. In a videogame this doesn’t work. There’s a conflict between the fictional reality and the reality of the player in such moments. The game is making the player responsible for something bad that happens in the story. This shatters the fourth wall and breaks the fiction and the believability of the protagonist.

For the same reason, books and film can get away with clichés much more easily. There is a certain distance that allows us to accept yet another zombie apocalypse in a film. But in a videogame that puts us in the middle of such a situation, we cannot take it seriously.

I think to the player, the fiction of the videogame is more real than the fiction of a film is to the viewer. Because you have power in the game world. You can change things in it. You affect things. And because it feels more real, it is much harder for people to accept certain fictions. The amount of stories you want to be a part of is always smaller than the amount of stories you can tolerate reading or watching.

The only reason why videogames have been getting away with so many trite and cliché stories is the prominence of gameplay. If the attention of the player is sufficiently moved to the mechanical level of the game, they will just accept the characters and world as backdrops, as mood. But as videogame stories are becoming more prominent, it becomes painfully clear that what works in movies and books, does not work when players have control.

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Mechanics and interfaces.

Sep 02 2012 Published by under concept

The mechanics in a game are like the interfaces in software. They allow you do to things. The aim of good interface design is oblivion. A good interface is one that you are hardly aware of. One that just lets you do what you want to do without having to figure out how. One that feels natural.

I believe the same applies to videogames. Mechanics should be transparent. They should offer you access to the fiction of the game without demanding any attention for themselves. They should feel natural to do, logical, spontaneous. It should feel like they don’t exist.

There is, of course, another school of thought. There are people who love interfaces. They love sliding things around on their iPhone screen, pressing buttons and flipping levers. They are not particularly interested in what they can get done with the software. They just like to play with the interface.

A similar thing happens in many videogames. In fact, it happens in most. And often even to their detriment. There is a group of games that is almost nothing but mechanics. All games that are derived of traditional games fall in this category. Others are more focused on the emotional experience of the player, on narrative, characters, moods, places. They are the games that have made a medium out of videogames.

Many of those “media-videogames”, however, are still partly stuck in the mindset that considers mechanics design equal to game design. So instead of making transparent interfaces that allow the player to enjoy the fiction, they are often still riddled with obtrusive designs that pull you away into the abstract interface level. Shooting an unlikely amount of enemies while picking up ammunition that happens to be spread around all over, pulling a lever in one room that makes some gears turn in another which opens a valve that makes a heater go one in the basement that leads to the release of a key from a metal clamp on the roof, jumping on conveniently placed platforms, picking up gold coins spraying from fallen enemies, and so on and so forth. Fiddling with buttons and sliders instead of actually doing something.

A videogame should take its fictional universe seriously. And the experience of the player should take place entirely in that universe. The interface to that universe should aim to be as invisible or seemingly non-existent as in the real world. Any interactions that do not pass the transparency test should be removed.

(unless of you course you cheat like I do in Bientôt l’été and make the interface part of the fiction)

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