Archive for the 'features' Category


Nov 02 2012 Published by under features

I’m starting to believe that some critics from outside of the game industry were onto something when they intuited that videogames couldn’t really be art because of their interactivity. They felt that a certain passivity was required for that special art effect to take place. From experience, I cannot but confirm this. But this passivity doesn’t exclude interactivity as such. What we really need is time.

I have never felt that deeply moving aesthetic joy by casually passing by a work of art hanging on the wall. Or by listening to a piece of music while engaged in another absorbing activity. I need to calm down, slow down, take my time and concentrate. Only then does the art work release its magic.

There’s a lot of moments in Bientôt l’été when nothing happens. You’re just walking. Or sometimes just standing or sitting. But during this time of physical passivity, I feel my brain and heart working. They are exploring the work and being absorbed by it, in a manner that does not happen while being active, but that does linger for quite a while after the moment of passivity.

The problem of the outside critics is not that the interactivity as such is preventing them from being moved by the videogame. It’s that the design of the game does not allow them any time to take it all in, to process what is happening, to stretch out their emotional antennas and sense the atmosphere. This is especially problematic for people who are not used to playing games, for whom even the simplest controls require attention.

To some extent, this is a design mistake. At least in so far as the designer was hoping to provoke this deep artistic pleasure. There is an explicit assumption in the game community that the art effect of a game should be generated by the interactivity, by the game design, by the active engagement with the game’s mechanics and rule sets. Maybe this works for very experienced players. Probably because, through their high skill level, the engagement with the mechanical level does not require all their concentration.

A lot of the joy that art gives me comes from observing my own reactions to the piece. To wonder about why I feel this way or that when looking or listening to this or that, I need time. Time when I do nothing. Time to allow the emotions and thoughts to grow and wash over me, like the waves on a beach.

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Alpha 3.

Sep 26 2012 Published by under features,project

We have (pre-)released a new test version of Bientôt l’été, just in time for IndieCade. Yes, Bientôt l’été has been selected for the festival. Which is not the same as nominated -apparently the IndieCade jury didn’t appreciate our piece- but the only difference is that we can’t win a prize. This version of Bientôt l’été will be playable at the festival. And we will give a short presentation about it at the conference.

— Press button to collect —

The biggest change in this alpha version 3 is the replacement of the unintuitive stand-still-to-fade mechanic for collecting chess pieces, by a simple button that you see when you close your eyes in the direction of an Apparition. Clicking it starts a short cut scene, showing the object, after which your avatar picks up the chess piece.

This final simplification motivated the removal of the Hints from the screen. We figure that the interaction is now so easy that Hints are not necessary any more. They are still available when you close your eyes.

— Hiccups —

Another reason for removing the Hints was performance. Remember those weird hiccups that would happen all the time in alpha 1 and 2? Most of them were caused by drawing text on the screen: Unity3D’s infamous GUI system. To further reduce the impact of this system, we replaced all OnGUI calls by a single one.

We have also transcribed the music mixer from the visual language of Antares Universe (in which the entire game logic is created) to text-based Javascript. This has greatly reduced the frequency of the hiccups that happen in the game. So now we can finally listen to Walter Hus‘s wonderful music without interruptions. Almost. Still a bit of tweaking to do.

Some new music tracks have been added, by the way, to the ambient music of Femme, the female character. Pretty surprising at times!

— End of the World —

In principle, the beach in Bientôt l’été could be endless. It stretches. And the waves and the gulls follow along with the avatar. But in response to various reactions to the previous test versions, I have added an end to the world. To symbolize that end, there is a bench: beyond that bench you will find nothing new. Your avatar can sit on that bench and enjoy the scenery. Should you walk further anyway, an invisible wall will become visible and stop you.

— Gamepad controls —

I changed the mouse controls from conventional point-and-click to “hold down to walk, release to stop”. This feels a lot nicer, I think. Plus it removes the implication that the target where you click would matter.

The major addition, however, is gamepad controls. I wasn’t going to add this until Steam announced its Big Picture feature and I realized how much I enjoy playing videogames from the couch. It was quite a nightmare to make Unity3D play nice with different game controllers on different platforms. But it was worth the effort. The gamepad has become my favorite interface to Bientôt l’été.

A direct result of the implementation of gamepad controls and the dominance of Microsoft’s XBox 360 controller is a change of the letter keys that you press to play the game with the keyboard. Instead of the first letter of the English name of the function, we’re now using the same letters as on the buttons of the controller: A, B, X and Y.

— Future cloud —

We have added functionality that will make it possible to load your collection of phrases and chess pieces into a separate client. This client will consist of only the multiplayer part of the game (the café) and I hope to release it for tablets and maybe the web. For free. So after you have walked some time on the beach, you can load your collection on your tablet to talk to another player. Only the back end of this system has been built so far. So this cannot be tested yet. Just know that if you don’t toggle off the “Cloud Name” in the Credits section, your collection will be uploaded to our database.

Private networking has been re-enabled. If you fill in a password at the bottom of the Credits screen, you will only be connected to players with the same password. So for a private session, you need to share the password with your partner in play.

— Aesthetics —

I have mostly finalized the aesthetics of the game now. Added some color correction to the exterior scene. And a shader that I’m particularly proud of. It’s a “masked blur” shader. I hate how 3D always looks so clean and sharp. But just blurring the screen doesn’t feel nice. So I made a shader that only blurs the screen in specific uneven areas defined by a texture. And then I move that texture around. It’s a nice effect. I have also added Tale of Tales’ patented light intensity fluctuation, which gives a nice feel of moving clouds.

Some of you will be happy to see the new foot prints in the sand and the little splatters when you step in the water. The avatars now have a few idle poses. And they move their fingers a bit. Sometimes their spine spirals out of control. So I still need to tweak something there.

The interior aesthetics have also been polished a bit. Some sound effects were added. And smoke! The more you smoke, the more the room fills with smoke. It looks very unhealthy! Especially now that the bot can smoke too, and drink and play music. It still doesn’t have a brain. But randomness seems to work well enough.


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In Duras’ footsteps. Walking. And drinking.

Sep 22 2012 Published by under features

Taking long walks is the main activity in Bientôt l’été. As it is in many of the novels by Marguerite Duras. Her protagonists roam beaches, the cities they dwell in, in one case they cross an entire country on foot. They walk and walk and walk. Tirelessly. Daily. For months, for years. With no purpose, no goal. Sometimes it seems like they are only half conscious of the act. As if the walking is a kind of physical ritual necessary to engage in a certain mental activity. If only forgetting.

And of course, inevitably, one day the walking is interrupted. An event happens and as of then, the ritual loses its pointlessness. The body of Anne Desbaresdes cannot resist moving towards the seaside café to encounter the body of Chauvin, in Moderato Cantabile. The embarrassed waitress turns up the volume of the radio (also in the game!) while Desbaresdes and Chauvin order one glass of wine after the other.

Alcohol. Another recurring theme. Duras writes about what she knows. Long walks, love and drinking. She was an alcoholic. Probably for most of her life, judging by the frequency of heavy drinking in her novels. She died at age 82 and continued to write highly lucidly to the very end. So she far from drank herself to death.

Drinking, like walking, must have been a kind of ritual -only far less healthy. A way to order thoughts, control the mind. For the Great Work that she was engaged in. Or as Anne Debaresdes wonders in Moderato Cantabile.

Si on ne buvait pas tant, ce ne serait pas possible?

If we would not drink as much, this would not be possible?

Duras was far too clever and sophisticated to draw any simplistic moralistic conclusions about human behavior. She was an observer. She did not judge. Human life in all its variety and with its different kinds of weaknesses. And she realized that it is not despite of these weaknesses that people could be beautiful. It was because of them. I will be forever indebted to her for that insight.

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In Duras’ footsteps. Café music.

Sep 21 2012 Published by under features

Someone playing the piano is a recurring theme in Duras’ work. Several of her novels have a particular song that keeps being heard. Either a classical tune, or a dance, or a mysterious droning and chanting.

There’s a virtual jukebox in the café in Bientôt l’été and one of the songs it plays is Hervé Vilard’s Capri c’est fini. This was apparently one of Duras’ favorite songs. She mentions it in her novel Yann Andréa Steiner.

Quelquefois c’est au bord de la mer. Quand la plage se vide, à la tombée de la nuit. Après le départ des colonies d’enfants. Sur toute l’étendue des sables tout à coup, ça hurle que Capri c’est fini. Que C’ÉTAIT LA VILLE DE NOTRE PREMIER AMOUR mais que maintenant c’est fini. FINI.
Que c’est terrible tout à coup. Terrible. Chaque fois à pleurer, à fuir, à mourir parce que Capri a tourné avec la terre, vers l’oubli de l’amour.

Other music that comes straight out of Duras’ work is India Song. It appears as an instrumental in several of her novels and films. But she also wrote lyrics for it, sung by Jeanne Moreau.

Toi qui ne veux rien dire
Toi qui me parles d’elle
Et toi qui me dis tout
Ô, toi,
Que nous dansions ensemble
Toi qui me parlais d’elle
D’elle qui te chantait
Toi qui me parlais d’elle
De son nom oublié
De son corps, de mon corps
De cet amour là
De cet amour mort

The remaining songs in the jukebox come in part from my own childhood memories of my parents’ fondness for French chanson. And from Bientôt l’été composer Walter Hus’ suggestion, whose idea it was to play this kind of music in this scene in the first place. They are just wonderfully sentimental songs. Sometimes I wonder what pop culture would have been like of not the Anglo-Saxon but the French had dominated it.

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In Duras’ footsteps. The black in the white.

Sep 20 2012 Published by under features

The piano in Bientôt l’été comes straight out of Marguerite Duras’ novel Moderato Cantabile in which the young son of the protagonist is learning how to play when the incident happens in the café. But there’s also a piano in Agatha. A black piano in an abandoned villa where the brother and sister make love.

One of the incarnations of the exterior of the café on the dike in Bientôt l’été is an abandoned building. The ruin of a colonial mansion refers to the many stories by Duras that take place in former Indochina, where she grew up, not as one of the idle rich she often describes but as a poor white person. The colonies are always a place of conflict in her work, romantic conflict, racial conflict, cultural conflict, class conflict.

The pile of coal in Bientôt l’été refers to the lower classes, back home, in Europe. The workmen in the factories. Working in the mine, digging for black gold. The rock is something else. It’s a symbol of pride, of majesty, of stubborn resistance, of faith, for me.

A black piano, blackened ruins, black coal, a black rock and a black lamppost. That calls for a rainbow, the ultimate symbol of naive hope.

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In Duras’ footsteps. The idle rich.

Sep 12 2012 Published by under features

Next to the tennis courts, several other elements that refer to the life of the wealthy recur in Marguerite Duras’ work. There’s always a villa somewhere. Often inhabited, as in Moderato Cantabile, by the unsatisfied wife of a more or less invisible rich husband.

So one of the incarnations of the café exterior in Bientôt l’été is a villa. And when somebody enters to start a twoplayer session, a window on the first floor opens and we can see light through the curtains. Referring to the sleepless nights of the mistress of the house, spent gazing out, observing young couples taking nightly strolls under the dark shadows of the flowering magnolia in the moonlight.

This magnolia tree also makes an appearance in Bientôt l’été. Its almost nauseatingly sensual scent penetrating the nostrils of the doctors and lawyers and politicians and entrepreneurs invited to the dinner with their glamorous wives. One night, the lady of the house takes one of the giant flowers and ornaments her cleavage with it. Then she drinks too much and vomits. She had already been having cheap wine in the café with a factory worker.

Another open window is in a hotel, also present in Bientôt l’été. Through this hotel window, in several of Duras’ novels, a woman observes a man making love with his mistress. She does this hidden, lying down in a wheat field that grows next to the hotel, as in Bientôt l’été. The man knows she is there but he cannot see her.

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In Duras’ footsteps. Still at the seaside.

Sep 10 2012 Published by under features

Other Marguerite Duras-related seaside features in Bientôt l’été include the pier and the tennis court. The pier is modeled after one of the twin piers in Trouville-sur-Mer, the coastal French town where Duras spent the last decade of her life. Impressive wooden constructions with a small metal lighthouse at the end.

I don’t have any recollection of a pier in the Duras novels I have read. But tennis courts occur often, especially abandoned tennis courts. There’s a fenced off tennis court on the beach not far from her home in Trouville. But I’m sure they appeared in novels from before she lived there. A lot of her work refers in some way to class distinctions (Duras had been a member of the communist party in France). And in her book, tennis is a sport for the idle rich, more specifically for the embassy personnel in the colonies.

I remember a trance-inducing repetition of references in Le Vice-Consul to Anne-Marie Stretter’s lone bicycle leaning against the fence of the abandoned tennis courts in the park of the French embassy in Calcutta. I don’t believe anyone ever actually plays in her novels. The purpose of the tennis courts is to be abandoned. As I’m sure they are in Trouville, most time of the year, when there’s no tourists.

There’s something beautifully melancholic about out of season tourist towns. Especially at the seaside where the cold wind continuously tugs at the closed off attractions while the gulls shriek there terrifying cries.

Gulls. Dead. After a storm. On the beach. Another recurring element in her novels. Also a dog. Also dead. As in L’Amour, where the man had gone to utter an inhuman scream after frustrating encounters with the woman.

The black rock on the beach refers to the Vaches Noires cliffs, a remarkable rock formation on the beach of Villers-sur-Mer, neighboring Trouville, and possibly what gave Duras’ residence its name.

The harbor crane is not necessarily a seaside feature. But it refers to the industrial harbor town in which Moderato Cantabile takes place, the novel that forms the basis of Bientôt l’été. Another class symbol, if you will, contrasting with the tennis court.

The row boat refers to the harbor as well. But a gigantic cruise ship was added because I was very impressed with them in Venice, surreally towering over the delicate stilt constructions. A cruise ship takes the elder brother, and later the rest of the family, back to France at the end of L’Amant de la Chine du Nord. So there’s still a link with Duras.

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In Duras’ footsteps. The seaside.

Sep 09 2012 Published by under features

The seaside scene in Bientôt l’été is based on a mix of influences. The dike is a typical element from the Belgian coast line that I’m very familiar with. But Trouville-sur-Mer, the French coastal home town of the writer whose work inspired the game, Marguerite Duras, doesn’t have a dike. Instead, a row of buildings is planted straight on the beach, including Duras’ residence, the majestic former hotel, Les Roches Noires.

This building was the direct inspiration for one of the exteriors of the café on the dike in Bientôt l’été. In front of Les Roches Noires is a boardwalk, referred to on several occasions in Duras’ novels and also present in the game.

Another building typical of the Belle Epoque coastal towns is the casino. There’s a casino in Trouville and one of the buildings in Bientôt l’été was inspired by it.

A coastal casino is a recurring feature in Duras’ novels. It hosts the ball room where Anne-Marie Stretter breaks Lol V. Stein’s spirit by seducing her financé. And the café in Bientôt l’été, sometimes.

As a seaside resident, Duras often refers to the ocean in her novels. Seldom as the typical romantic environment, though. And having spent two nights in Trouville, I understand. The sea is a violent monster, as mysterious as it is indifferent.

One of her novels, L’amour takes place almost entirely on the beach. It’s about a confused love triangle. And of course there’s Moderato Cantabile, written long before Duras lived at the seaside -it’s one of her early successes- that takes place in a small industrial harbor town at the Atlantic coast. The character design and the entire talking at a café table come straight out of that book.

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Alpha 2.

Aug 09 2012 Published by under features,project

We have released a new alpha version of Bientôt l’été today. People who preorder the game can play it.

In this new version Apparitions and building changes have been enabled. Thanks to the modelling efforts of Theresa Schlag and Daniel Hellweg, you can now find strange things on the beach and different buildings on the dike, often referring to Marguerite Duras’ life and work.

But the changes that I am eager to hear feedback to concern the interaction design.

In the beach scene, the waves along the sea shore bring quotes from various Marguerite Duras novels to the screen. You collect these phrases to use them in your conversation with another player in the café.

In the first alpha version, the appearance of the phrases was tied to the movement of the avatar. Standing still for a while would collect the phrase. This turned out to be unintuitive. In the current version, phrases are tied to the waves and all the phrases you see are collected without requiring any action. I removed the limit of 16 so now you can collect all 270 of them.

The biggest change pertains the two-player part in the café. In the first alpha you could put objects on the table (there was only one, but there were meant to be more) and you could select phrases from a list to speak them. That felt very rigid. Now there’s no visible phrases anymore and putting an object down on the table speaks a phrase. You select which phrase by hovering over the fields of the chess board pattern on the table top. So it looks like you’re playing a game of chess without following the rules.

Another change pertains the look and feel of the interior scene. Many alpha 1 testers mentioned a desire for more realistic detail. They wanted to see more of their partner and their surroundings, and be able to do more. But I didn’t feel comfortable with adding all that.

Instead, I redesigned the mood to feel more lonely and pensive, which I hope will reduce the desire to see more detail. The background noise is very quiet and sporadic, and you hear the sea in the distance. The random music was replaced by a sort of jukebox that plays fragments of French love songs when a player selects them. The voice of your partner now sounds as if it comes through a loudspeaker, to complement their representation as transparent hologram.

The multiplayer interface has been simplified to a single button. The choice for simulation is now a simple button in the café scene. And private sessions have been disabled. Also, when you’re in the single player part on the beach and somebody starts a two-player game in the café, a window will be opened in the building with curtains blowing in the wind. So you know somebody is there who wants to play with you.

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Back to work.

Aug 01 2012 Published by under features

My vacation is over. I want to get a second alpha release out of the door by the end of next week. Before the distraction of the Game Developers Conference in Cologne.

A lot of things have changed already. I want to hear some feedback now.

(Spoilers below!)

The mechanic for collecting phrases on the beach is different. Now it just happens automatically as phrases float in on the waves. And only after they have been collected do they appear in the sand. I liked the previous system with the phrases moving over the screen as you walk past and standing still to collect. But this appears to be completely unintuitive and subtle hints don’t suffice. So rather than ruining the experience by explaining the mechanic with hands and feet, I just removed it. It’s funny how the collection mechanic has gradually disappeared from the design.

The interface for speaking the phrases in the café has changed as well. Instead of clicking on the lines of a list with all collected phrases, the phrases are now tied to the fields of the chess board pattern on the table. So you speak the phrase that belongs to the field where you put down a chess piece. This makes the chess aspect a lot more prominent. I’m curious as to how people will respond to that.

I also want to tweak the networking system a bit and enable Apparitions and café exterior changes. Apparitions are items that appear on or next to the beach. There’s always only one. Some are small, others gigantic. Many refer to Marguerite Duras’ work and life. They are the places where you can collect chess pieces. The exterior of the café will also be different in every session. It starts small and becomes bigger in a few steps. And then it shrinks again. Here too, the buildings refer to Duras: there’s a café, a villa, a hotel, a casino and a colonial mansion.

I had originally considered finishing the visual aesthetics of the game first, so that I could spread screenshots and movies early. But after the results of the first alpha test, I’m eager to test the changes and additions. So I’m focusing on functionality for now.

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