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March 16, 2013

Swimming Home

by Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy's short novel Swimming Home is a fairly gripping read; I finished it over the course of a single day back in January. It's a deep dive into a certain kind of madness; it neither lets go of you at any given point nor does it end up where you expect.

Two couples go on vacation. The first of these pairs a male poet with a female war reporter, along with their daughter, who has been mostly raised by the father owing to the mother's occupation. The other is a pair of shop-owners, who are hiding some financial distress; the two women are friends.

Into this already somewhat strange mix is thrown a young woman who appears to be at least slightly crazy and who turns out to have an obsession with the poet; her biggest goal is to get him to read a poem she has written for him.

It's a very impressionistic experience, elliptical and uncertain, and the vague sense of menace on every page kept me completely absorbed. If I had to say it reminded me of anything specifically, it would be my favorite films by David Lynch, Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet. It carries with it that same sense of strangeness undergirding normal lives, how things are more rotten than they appear, and best yet, I had no idea where it would end up. In a longer novel, sustaining this would have not worked for me at all, but at under 200 pages, this works spectacularly in Swimming Home.

Previous "Notable": How Music Works by David Byrne
Next "Notable": Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats by Roger Rosenblatt
Intro post to my Notable project

¹I'm reminded of Nicola Barker's Behindlings, which I started but couldn't finish because the strangeness allowed the propulsion of the novel to completely stall.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:45 AM | Comments (0)

March 12, 2013

The Worst Thing

I just wanted to take a moment to address the worst thing that could possibly result from those Feminist Frequency videos:

Yes, that. Nothing.

Let me say that again. The worst thing that could possibly happen... is that nothing happens.

Like it or not, games are an art form, and the worst possible step forward for an art form is no step at all, no self-reflection, simple stagnation. An art form dies when it ceases to examine itself, to find things it's not saying or not able to say and ask why it isn't and how it might. If game developers aren't interested in examining what we do, and if our audience is actively uninterested in us doing so, well, we might as well pack up and go home. The unexamined game isn't worth playing; the unexamined game industry simply won't last.

You've seen this in action, no doubt. Failing to examine what a game or genre is capable of causes sequels to fail to interest you on their next go-round. You lose interest when it feels like developers are phoning it in¹, or when a new game in a genre simply repeats what you've seen before in other games. These "new" games don't capture the lightning-in-a-bottle feeling that a great game does, and the reason is that they simply copy what has gone before.

Much of the explosive growth of the games industry in the past half-dozen years or so has come from exactly this sort of reflection, where individuals are looking around at the games available and asking "Where's this game that I'd like to play? Where is the game for me?" or "What can I do that no one else has done?" The degree to which individual efforts are successful or not isn't terribly relevant; what matters is that people are out there exploring this immense space of what games can mean, what they can express, and what they can do better.

Self-analysis at a creative level is what stimulates growth in this art form just as any other. The lack of it just means getting the same thing year in and year out; it means that it dies altogether. Nearly everything you've loved about new games has likely come from someone asking a question, about taking a moment to examine what is and what could be.

Take that away and, well, you'll be left with nothing before long. I love games and want them to continue to grow, evolve, and challenge. Examination of the choices they make again and again is healthy and welcome.

So I say to Anita Sarkeesian and anyone else who wants to look at what we're doing: keep it coming.

I'll be back to examine some more games here in this space probably over the weekend.

¹This is also, I submit, what is fundamentally wrong with the crassest forms of gamification²; there's no examination of how game mechanics might actively support a particular goal, merely the addition of points, badges, ladders, leaderboards, and other "game-like" features to tasks that don't fundamentally work together.
²One could reasonably argue that it's also the reason behind Zynga's current woes, though I'm far from expert in those titles.

Posted by Brett Douville at 03:45 PM | Comments (1)

March 03, 2013

Replaying my own games, part 2

A few months ago I posted about Star Wars: Starfighter, my first title, and now I've gotten to the point in playing old games I hadn't finished where I've run up against my second game, which came out a year later, Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter.

By and large we made some significant improvements over the first. The introduction of large capital ships and Force Powers to the basic formula of Starfighter are welcome ones, and make it feel more Star-Warsy than the original. The storytelling is better, too, with ties to the film largely cut away¹ and some clear continuity in the missions, particularly Nym's story arc, which ties together several missions in the construction of a moon-based cannon to provide cover as they retake the base they lost in the first game.

It had some similar issues with difficulty as the first, just a substantially strange curve, though in this case it tended to err on the side of being too easy at points, particularly at the end where, owing to the ability to slow down time using the Force, you can pretty much knock off the final boss in a matter of a few seconds².

My job on this one was different from the original, my first time out as a lead programmer, and so I think of it differently. I was an active lead, as the only programmer from the first game to return, and took on different responsibilities³. As a sequel done in roughly a year of development, we started from the original game's code and focused on higher performance and adding features such as the Force powers, additional weapons, and co-operative play throughout the main missions. Several of the designers from the first game returned, and their knowledge about the tools and performance characteristics of the engine made for a very stable development cycle; as I recall, this game went through six months of QA with fewer than 400 bugs4.

The one fixed constant through development was the schedule; due to whatever reasons, this product had to ship in the fiscal year, which ended at the end of March. So we adopted a strategy whereby we reviewed paper mission designs early. The format of the meetings was simple; there'd be 10 minutes of the level designer describing the mission and answering brief questions, 5 minutes each from art and tech describing risks they saw with the design, and finally 10 minutes revising the mission or coming up with approaches that would help ameliorate the risk.

For example, the sixth mission of the game as described was originally meant to take place around a truly immense mountain, so high that you couldn't see the ground, and really a cloud cover would provide the visual reference of the direction of gravity. There were obvious difficulties with this and as a production team we allotted a small amount of time to prove out the risk artistically; in the end, it was scaled back to the large but not truly immense landmark that actually shipped. Similarly, a mission that was to take place on a small moon would require gravity that attracted bombs to a point, rather than along an axis, and the recommendation to the designer in that case was to build it in such a way as to have most of the mission take place on the side of the moon which would already align with the way things worked in our ground missions (and in this case, tech was able to give the designer what he was looking for, but the risk was largely avoided by design). Every mission was reviewed in this way.

Certain aspects certainly could be improved:

  • To provide replayability, every mission has bonus and hidden objectives, with the thought that multiple plays would unlock rewards and such, and this lack of information can be frustrating, so it may have been a good idea to unhide them once you finished the game.
  • There's no notification when you receive a new weapon or Force Power, so players may not even realize they have them5.
  • We should have better instructed the player about various elements of the controls, particularly with regard to controlling wingmen, ground units, and in the final mission, the giant space cannon.

Surely there are other issues, but on this revisiting, those are the things that stood out.

It was fun to take the old Jedi Starfighter out for a spin again and remember that frenzied production, which included a dramatic rewrite of the plot after the events of September 11th the year before it came out. I really enjoyed working on those games, and I'll always remember them fondly. Between the two I had so many firsts, including the first time I ever got to be on a production set for a commercial, about a poor Jedi who loses his keys.

¹With the exception of the Jedi Starfighter itself, and a few lines here and there about events on Geonosis while you tackle a mission there... On the other hand, I may just be missing the references, since I skipped the second and third prequel films on the strength of the first.
²It's quite amusing, too, since he ends up playing all of his lines one right after the other, the "I'm at 75% health" line, and the "I'm at 50%" line, all of which are basically along the lines of how feeble I am compared to him, how inevitable my defeat is, how the world will soon be his, yadda yadda yadda, ended with a dying yell.
³This was, for example, my first time professionally programming at the system level, as I made substantial changes to the resource system.
4Here again we had the benefit of a well-built code base and development strategy; the original Starfighter went through a bit longer QA cycle with just around 1000 bugs.
5Indeed, I was nearly at Nym's final mission when I remembered some of the advanced secondary weaponry he had, and I built the damned thing. =) After every project I did with lead designer Tim Longo, I'd ask him what he thought we most missed, and in the case of JSF, it was the planned but cut for time feature of announcing new weaponry at the end of each mission. I can't disagree, in this case.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:08 AM | Comments (0)