when the paracosm leaves my hands

John & I had planned to do a proper HANDMADEDEATHLABYRINTH issue 1, but… it’s been nearly a year. Similarly, I’d like to do sequels to many of my other games, but… well, have I ever made a sequel? I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I have a new piece of the theory of how I make games.

A paracosm (also known as a mental wonderland) is a kind of thoughtspace that you can create, control and immerse yourself into. It is a lot less hard to create and immerse yourself into than people expect, almost deceptively so.

paracosm-immersion, retrieved June 17, 2021 (Someone linked me to this wonderful site a year or two back — on twitter, I believe. If you were that person, let me know!)

I tend to create little worlds through a process that involves both writing the code for a game & imagining things that might exist in this world-made-of-code. The videogame. This is a sort of assisted paracosm immersion, the mechanics of the game something I develop alongside my internal theory of the game-world.

Lately I’ve been making a lot of quite small games; in particular my game design “playable” experiments are very short isolated experiences. It’s seemed to me like I should learn how to make prototypes and then develop them into full games.

But, ah, I don’t think I can do that.

when the prototype leaves my hands

drones (above) is a little prototype, a little world, that I often think back to fondly. I’d like to revisit it, I think occasionally. But I know I won’t. There’s a certain moment when a game leaves my hands, when it really leaves my hands, that it ceases to be mine. Or rather, that’s how I’ve operated. I let go of it completely. Its time with me, living in my mind in this way, is done.

This is probably related to my last blog post, but now I question what the right approach is. I let go of it to make way for… whoever plays it. If I’m not developing the game anymore, if nothing will change as a result of my imagining, there’s no reason for me to continue to maintain the paracosm in my head.

When it leaves my hands and you play it, it’s no longer an imagined world in my head, but some other thing; a shared place, now occupied by the mechanics and your play. It feels hard to come back from that. It’s a new thing — not worse or better, just definitively no longer mine.

creative sanctuary

If I’m right, and this really is a crucial part of my process, I need to spend some time keeping my projects to myself — visible development and playtesting erode the strength of my personal worlds, my imagined places, my paracosms.

Until now, I haven’t been able to figure out why I shouldn’t be sharing as much as possible. Feedback and visibility seem like unambiguous upsides. But the cost is a weathering of these fragile mind palaces, until all that remains is ugly pillars of code.

I’ll try keeping my secrets a while longer.

p.s. remaining personally connected

I have a tendency to turn sharply inward when I’m in these paracosms and I need to not do that. Strategy: stop talking about what I’m working on, but keep talking about the other aspects of my life. Play more games. (I’m going to play Wanderhome for the first time, in a park with my sister and a couple friends, sometime this summer.) Talk to more people about food. Go on more walks. Live more life.

I’m the author of Starseed Pilgrim, and I’m alive.

Spoiler warning for Starseed Pilgrim. Discusses a piece of ‘what it really means,’ as well as the ending (in somewhat vague terms). Also I swear a bit, because I got emotional while writing.

Dead-authorism appeals to me because I hate looking back and seeing the trail of destruction and confusion I leave in my wake – I make things, meaning one thing… but once they are out there in the world they are interpreted, in the hands of others, they become more. Outside of the period of the work in which it truly was mine, a game has always felt like a played artifact. Something that belongs to its players.

But, part of that is a learned helplessness, perhaps just my response to the overwhelming reception of Starseed Pilgrim. I didn’t decide how that game was perceived… my authorial intent only mattered so much as it helped me to create the work. After that, it was out of my hands.

Nobody wants to hear what it’s really about, I told myself.

Well, I may be about eight years late, but I think it’s time to free myself of those shackles. It’s not for the sake of the reputation of Starseed Pilgrim that I want to talk about what the game was about… it’s more for my own sense of closure, and my own sense of pride as an artist. Even if it’s true that nobody wants to hear what it’s really about, I fucking want to say it anyway.

I’m not writing this because I want you to think about Starseed Pilgrim differently… but, I am writing this because I think it’s a problem that I don’t want to influence how you think about Starseed Pilgrim! I want to get over it. I want to say things and mean them, and part of that is accepting that I’ve been downplaying what I thought I was saying with Starseed Pilgrim.

This isn’t to say anything I said was particularly well-said or meaningful, but I want to know that, whatever it was, my past self’s voice existed… so that I can have faith in my own voice today and continue to say things. To make things.

Starseed Pilgrim is about feeling like a failure, and burying those feelings.

(edit:: “a failure” is wrong. more like “a person who failed in an important way.” “a person who did a bad thing.” “a bad person.”)

That’s a simplistic way to put it, but the setting of Starseed Pilgrim was, to me, a sort of memory prison, the pilgrims each fragments of emotion felt by one person, denied and buried.

The poetry in Starseed Pilgrim is scattered and hidden in a way that marries perfectly with my attitude at the time and my attitude for the next several years: “What I’m saying isn’t important or real enough to communicate directly, so I’ll hide it behind layers of obscurity until nobody notices what I really meant, and I can forget it ever existed in the first place.”

It’s a story of regret and of having done something unforgivable and burying that regret so deep that it tears you apart when you dare to face it. The impossibility of the task laid before you — it’s impossible in the way owning up to something awful is impossible, and it’s impossible because I didn’t want you to see everything in there. Not really.

In some ways I think finishing Starseed Pilgrim is missing the point, but at the same time I’m always thrilled, proud, overwhelmed when I hear that someone has beaten it, finished the game.

The end of Starseed Pilgrim.

The end of the game is when you finally face the buried thing. The reward for fighting tooth and nail to uncover the truth is that the truth is terrible and it destroys everything.

But I don’t know, anymore, whether that’s a good or bad thing. I feel like I’m dealing with my own uncovered truth now, and it feels good. The destruction of the game world, if the game world is a metaphorical prison for the emotions, can only be a good thing, right?

Even if the prison was beautiful.

Cruel World and the future.

I have a lot of miserable nihilism about the state of the world today. Cruel World was a pessimistic game about how everything is fucked and how individual action just doesn’t matter. And when everyone had a good time anyway, I was… god, I was overjoyed but also kinda angry! How could everyone be missing the point and having a good time with my nihilistic, pessimistic videogame about the end of the world.

I wanted to pull the strings and have people blame each other (like it says in the subtitle), in good fun, but I wanted the vicious cycle to show itself so viscerally that everyone would agree, yes, what a cruel fucking world.

There was a bit of a turn when Patrick Klepek asked me directly if the experience — of Cruel World’s players actually having a good time and striving to co-operate and connect — made me more hopeful and less cynical. And I struggled, I tried to find the good, but I fell back on how terrible it all was.

People can get used to—and even find joy, beauty, and solace—in just about anything. [..] But maybe it means as the end of the world draws nearer, instead of fighting to stop it, maybe everyone will just endure it.

me, in that article, giving an awfully depressing response

I’d like to take a step back and be able to focus on the beauty in the world around us, in our lives, but it’s really hard. It’s hard.

I’d like to make more games about birds and nature and humans and the plain & simple joy of interaction. I want to make a game that says “the world is beautiful” and mean it. I don’t want to shy away from the sharp edges of reality, but I don’t want them to be the only thing I see, either.

In a way, I suppose the positive events of Cruel World are making me hopeful and less cynical, but it took a while.

It’s taking a while.

… It’ll take a while.

Thank you for reading.

The “Multipresence” behaviour pattern across (multiple) (real-time) spaces

GAIA 2021’s first session, “The New Spacemakers,” was a Zoom call close to a hundred viewers strong, a digital call about digital spaces that was started off with a prompt from Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan to take a breath, take a minute, and consider our physical bodies and the lands we inhabit.

(I looked out my window at the commercial and residential and mixed-use structures just outside and thought about what the land might have looked like before anything had been constructed there.)

GAIA: https://gameartsinternational.network/

Touring five aspirational and personal online spaces had me reflecting on some of the things I’d wanted to do in the past, and on the issues I currently have with my relationship to a lot of extant spaces. Social media. But Discord, too, and even texting my friends, and family.

Why is it so easy to maintain a real conversation in Skittish, in Togethernet, in Em Lazer-Walker’s bespoke Roguelike Celebration space with anyone at all – a friend, a handful of acquaintances, a total stranger – and yet in casual text conversations I can find it anxiety-inducingly hard to begin conversations, maintain them, or end them?

Multipresence

I don’t know when I adopted this habit but I realized a very long time ago that the playless text-only pseudo-real-time nature of (for example) MSN, Twitter, Discord, and SMS meant that I could have two or more conversations going on at once.

I’ve always been a fast typist with a low tolerance for waiting, so it felt natural. Why focus solely on one conversation and spend (at best) half the time waiting for a response, when I’m here at my computer, with so many ways to better spend that idle time? And since I’m already in this program that lets me talk to other people, why not spend that idle time talking to someone else at the same time?

I can have two or three or four conversations at once by overclocking my brain a bit — and nobody will know, not with the cues all eroded by platform optimizations and limitations.

I only coined the term “multipresence” today for describing this tactic, but the tactic itself isn’t new. It’s so old I forget what it was like to not do this. It’s so old it doesn’t even feel worth naming, but if you’ve followed my blog you might recognize a pattern of me naming these nameless troublesome things. Names, labels, give me power over them. They pull these long-accepted things out of the obscurity that has been protecting them from analysis.

Being a Single Presence

I’ve had my gripes about Twitter, and pined for the good old days of the TIGSource Forums, supposing that was the problem to be solved, and a viable solution, if only people still used forums. Discord has been getting a little overwhelming lately too, though, and it was troubling to me that I couldn’t find a general-case version of the problem. What was my problem?

It was in the afterglow of the whole “The New Spacemakers” session — after the grounded tours of the new spacemakers’ online spaces — after admiring the sprawling shape my conversation with xin took in Togethernet — after catching the tail end of whatever happened in Skittish (I’d missed it and just quietly hung out with Andy Baio and Mer Grazzini around the portrait of bird-droqen that Mer had painted on the ground out of red and yellow flower prefabs) — that I thought I might have finally identified the general case.

There are a few nice pictures of the aforementioned portrait of bird-droqen but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to share pictures of my time in Skittish? You can see what it looks like here and just ~imagine~ a bird made out of flowers:

https://twitter.com/skittishHQ

You’ve already read me describe it once further above; it’s Multipresence, it’s this weird thing that doesn’t happen in real life for the most part because we have one body, one voice, one set of ears. Maybe it’s just an ADHD brain thing (?) but regardless I think anyone is capable of Multipresenting —

We can have as many digital selves as we want, but with every additional simultaneous presence, our attention is further divided, our sense of whole-self-ness is further degraded.

for me, anyway, I think it’s a state that causes a great deal of harm over time.

Strategies for Disrupting Multipresentation

This topic is interesting to me as a designer and as an easily-distracted, easily-fragmented player/user. How can we disrupt multipresence in our designed spaces if it really is, as I experience it, just a “bad habit?”

Engagement (one hue-shift away from addiction, which somehow became a good word when describing games) is a powerful tool that I always want to be cautious about wielding, but I think engaging experiences that draw and demand focus are valuable weapons against multipresence. They let us focus on one thing, on being one individual with one goal, inhabiting one space.

The nature of an awkward, disembodied computer experience shatters our presence a little; the concept of Game Feel is about how as humans we’re capable, if given the right tools, of transplanting our perception-of-self into another state.

(I could go on about other books discussing the concept that perception-of-self is something not innate, that it is something we lend to even ourselves, but I’ll try to stay on topic. Ask in the comments if you’re interested though.)

So any platform can combat multipresence by, like the Roguelike Celebration’s custom MMO-like social space does with its raidable kitchens and tangible world, giving its inhabitants toys to play with that further embody them in the space itself, rather than leaving blank space which users have to fill with activities that take them out of the world. This isn’t about keeping people’s capital-E Engagement metrics high, it’s about providing tools to help people who’ve chosen to exist here fulfill what I see as a genuine desire to feel like one focused, present individual.

They can also take advantage of our existing wetware by giving us a face or a voice, or through giving us a motile avatar that makes us feel tangible and human and embodied (even if we’re birds or elephants or crescent moons or candles).

What I can do myself

Ultimately, the platform is in some ways just a catalyst; it’s my brain reacting. I completely recognize that multipresenting is not something that everyone does necessarily, or finds problematic in their own life.

I’m personally trying to spend time in at most one “digital space” at a time, somehow signalling when I plan to leave or when I’m about to go idle. Most of all I wish there was a simple, feel-y way to indicate I’ve turned my attention towards a topic or conversation or away from it, that didn’t involve calling extra attention to the fact I’m doing it.

in Discord it’s all-or-nothing, and Twitter has no such feature at all. I used to say “hello” or “goodbye” or “good night Twitter” in my tweets and threads, and I stopped a while ago, because I wasn’t sure why I still did it. Now I have a good reason to resume.

That’s everything. Enjoy your digital life.

Good night.

Design notebook for the inception of a jam game: Dungeon Bounce

Yesterday I streamed three post-mortems in one crazy video (with some technical difficulties please be prepared), but while I had collaborators on with me for the HMDL issue 0 exhibition & for Yrkkey’s Paradise

Dungeon Bounce was a game I designed alone for the #ChainLetterJam. On-stream with sylvie & torcado, I got to hear them break down their understanding of the game in real time as they were figuring it out (which was so fun), but I didn’t really get into how the game was designed. So that’s what I’m writing this blog post for.

I’d just spent the better part of the week trudging through some scope-creeped work on a certain death-labyrinthy project, and getting nowhere fast. So I yote myself out of that funk by working on my pending #ChainLetterJam game.

And, as #ChainLetterJam law demands, I was to make a game inspired in some way by Arithmetic Bounce. Because of what I was escaping from, I was setting out to make something without inventing too many new mechanics. I wanted to work with the material of the existing game; that was my starting point.

I focused on just thinking and taking notes, and the stream of thought turned out particularly readable! No visuals, but here is a lot of the text, lightly edited, from that mental design session.

Design Notebook

I started with my goals:

How could I use the existing mechanics of Arithmetic Bounce to make something that feels different? I don’t want to always be chained to inventing new mechanics to implement, so my goal is: re-use the mechanics of Arithmetic Bounce.

[..] I think I’ve gotta break it down into individual components to even begin to think about this…

These notes are from my notebook, but putting bullet points in a quoteblock acts weird:

  • There is a background number
  • You are an arithmetic sign
  • You can move, double-jump, quick fall, and switch from + to –
  • Touching a number adds/subtracts it to the background number depending on your sign
  • Lots of numbers are available at any given moment
  • There is a bit of pressure to bump the right number
  • It’s trivial to stray from both goals and danger at the same time
Arithmetic Bounce! If you haven’t tried it, play it on itch.io and see if you would’ve picked out different elements as crucial or interesting.

For a while I pursued this line of thinking first–was there an emotional arc I could capture with regard to how ‘safe’ it is to just stray from your target numbers? You can go to 20, 50, 100, and the game doesn’t really apply any pressure at all to you for that. I thought it was interesting:

As a player you’re carefully managing resources in pursuit of victory. Why be so careful when you could simply survive? Is there a real-world situation in which you have to approach a particular value and not stumble into the wrong one?

I remember getting up and pacing a lot at this point. In Arithmetic Bounce, I found I did a lot of “holding the numbers” in my head, and I wanted to turn that into something a bit more feel-y, so I was thinking about how to recontextualize the mechanics into something more intuitive. And, holding on to the above line of thought, I was letting myself feel fine about a system that’s not always forcing you to progress.

Maybe rather than numbers I can do distance? What’s a tangible, relatable scenario where I’m constantly shifting around in position, and hitting the wrong spots will leave me dead? I guess something Necrodancer-like, exploring a dungeon. Take a few steps this way, take a few steps that way. I could have walls.

If I’m exploring a dungeon, what’s the time-pressure-number-picking metaphor? Drinking potions? Maybe I’m a wizard. Hmm.

Oh, of course, monsters! So I’m a rogue with a bow&arrow, and enemies are constantly spawning, then approaching me. The “movement” items I collect are also attacks. If I don’t attack every so often, a monster reaches me, and I die.

I felt great about this solution, but a little guilty I’d wound up designing something combat-fantasy-heavy. So I wandered down a few thematic alleyways that didn’t really pan out:

Consider a social situation… giving a speech, making jokes, etc. You want to get points for saying interesting things but not lose points for saying the wrong thing.

I’m still interested in the “social scenario” sort of situation, so maybe I can pull it back somehow. The timer there is… you’re constantly trying to leave the party? Edging towards the door, and if you don’t say anything, you leave.

The life-or-death dungeon-full-of-monsters-and-traps metaphor was too tempting, or too familiar, for me to get away from.

Okay, back to the super-simple dungeon metaphor.

At some point I recognized something I’d missed from my initial set of bullet points:

  • If you take too long to make a decision (in Arithmetic Bounce), the numbers that are available to you (due to the arc of gravity) dwindle until you’re forced to either grab whatever number is right below you, or miss grabbing a number entirely (and fall off the bottom of the screen) (and lose the game).

I added this feature to the monsters; as they approached, they would eat up the numbers that had been scattered around for you to click on along the way. Unlike in Arithmetic Bounce (where you have to touch the the numbers to collect them), the positioning of the numbers in Dungeon Bounce didn’t have a diegetic function yet. So now they had one.

The super-simple dungeon metaphor as it appears in the final game.

The dungeon is a straight line (maybe a narrow/long grid, like 3×20?). Monsters approach from the “ends” of the dungeon, and if they reach you, it’s game over. Movement commands appears on the tiles of the dungeon, and clicking one grabs it. The reason for this is to mirror the ‘dwindling options’ dynamic of Arithmetic Bounce: As the monsters reach the tiles, they eat them! Just to make sure you always have a reasonable number of tiles, monsters will approach from both sides but at different rates.

The bad numbers are trap tiles.

The good number is the stairs down to the next floor.

Let’s do this.

From this point I went on to make a bunch of stuff feel and look good! But that’s beyond the scope of this blog post and I think a lot of it is stuff you can experience yourself through playing the game.

These notes were surprisingly coherent, and I wanted to share them because I thought an example of this process might be valuable to someone out there. Thanks for reading. Leave a comment, let me know if I was right!

Nemesis

I joined the Nemesis Jam on a punkish whim, and because something about the Nemesis system had always appealed to me. Just a few weeks prior I had been having a conversation with Asymmetric Publications’ Zack Johnson about how it was odd that everyone had praised the Nemesis system’s amazing possibility space and yet nobody had really done anything more with it. Serendipitously, the patent stuff reared its head only days later.

We’d forgotten about the looming patent.

My understanding of the whole patent situation is that now that Warner Bros. has secured a patent on the Nemesis system (a phrase which never appears in the actual patent, but it’s an easy shorthand), they have a legal foothold which will allow them to (attempt to) sue developers/studios for infringing upon their patent.

From their perspective, it is a tool. From the outside, it is a minefield.

Continue reading “Nemesis”

AI, Playtesting, & Posting! (January postmortem)

👆 Pictured: the cover of issue#20 of my monthly zine (more). i’ll post some contents of one of the zines in a future monthly postmortem!

The first month of 2021 is just about over, and I’m doing a little retrospective/postmortem/whatever on what I got up to this month!

AI (and Personality)

I made and released this small project that got a bunch of nice comments (both on the itch page and on twitter). It was a very satisfying expression and exploration of using the videogame form to express personalities.

Continue reading “AI, Playtesting, & Posting! (January postmortem)”

Designer/programmer problems: I habitually work on code instead of design

Writing code to make videogames has been a part of my life for a ridiculously long time, an absurdly large portion of it. I learned Visual Basic when my age was in the single digits and I like math; programming is second nature to me.

I had a conversation with a non-programmer lead game designer a couple years ago and asked point-blank “how do you design games?”

Continue reading “Designer/programmer problems: I habitually work on code instead of design”

“Truckle gluttony” might have solved my relationship with twitter. (Or I’m just in a very creative form of denial.)


p.s.

does the presence of those social media icons/numbers completely recontextualize the words in this image for you too? no? just me?

I wrote this thought for January’s upcoming droqen was here (#20!), and immediately felt dubious about my usage of the word addict. It seemed to have the right gravity about it, I wanted to take this problem seriously, but I didn’t (and still don’t) think it was quite appropriate — for me or for the word.

Continue reading ““Truckle gluttony” might have solved my relationship with twitter. (Or I’m just in a very creative form of denial.)”

Individual Language: Demons & Other Things

What do you call a word that was invented expressly for individual use? The perfectly ironic thing is I couldn’t find a word for this; a neologism is at least etymologically defined by its new-ness, so an established piece of personal language need not apply, and a protologism is even more explicit about being a word that aspires to become a part of common use.

(i) DEMONS

Continue reading “Individual Language: Demons & Other Things”