Connected by play

JOEL GOODWIN: I’m actually pretty happy with giving up the term “game” myself because it has so much historical baggage associated with it. I grew up with Space Invaders and the Atari console and Star Raiders: these came to define the popular meaning of the word “game” and trying to fight the will of people is like trying to stop a flood with your bare hands.
DROQEN: I miss the historical baggage. I’ve tried to put into words my heartache many times: there is no word that means what game used to mean.

When I was active on the TIGSource forums (a nostalgic time of dreams and community <3), indie games meant something, uh, different. I still remember the arguments over how many people are allowed to be on a team until it stops being indie. Ha ha ha, how foolish those conversations would look in hindsight.

I think I’ve always thought of indie games (or wanted to think of them) as things made only by people who love to play them. Even now this is an enduring fantasy, a deeply-held desire of mine: when I play a game, I want to feel like I’m connecting with someone through the very act of playing it. It’s not always the designer; sometimes I play a game because I want to connect with a friend, to share a space together.

But what makes an indie game valuable, an independent game, is that when I know it was made by a small number of people driven by passion, it’s easier to imagine myself connecting with something in the person who created it.

Connected by play, specifically.

I’ve found it difficult to connect with a lot of highly-narrative games in the same way, and this is because the play itself isn’t what I’m connecting with… in the same way I wouldn’t tell my friend about the feel of turning the pages of a book, there’s nothing playful or feel-y or interesting about the act of advancing text.

I can talk about the events of a story and my feelings about them as well as anyone, whether I read the story, or heard it, or watched it unfold.

The thing that I’m looking for is to participate in an activity and feel connected to another human’s experience, knowing that my play connects me to their play.

There is no word that means what game used to mean.

At some point in the past I might have put this forward as my “definition” of what a game is, or hedged my statement a little and said something like “This is what I like about games” or “This is what games can do that no other medium can do.”

Language changes, and all we can do is mourn its passing.

Front Page, revision #301

What does it mean to have a human brain?

I act on impulse most of the time, and otherwise do what I can to design a life that rewards my impulses with beautiful outcomes. I think designing games is like that: designing little spaces that reward my avatar’s impulses with beautiful outcomes. Only, when I make a game I can share the experience with you; you can inhabit the same space, embody the same avatar, perhaps act on the same impulses, and – if serendipity allows – behold the same beautiful outcomes.

Through making and playing with games and other art, I hope to come to some deeper understanding of not the science of my brain, but the experience and meaning of being some specific person.


Front Page (as of 2021, Sep 10)

Thought process

I keep changing the front page of this site, because I’m never sure how to summarize myself, or my work, or what I’m even summarizing; I had something more like a wordy “tour guide” up for a short time, but it was… uh… well, it was too wordy.

So now I have this weird little bit of prose, possibly poetry-adjacent (?), okay actually what is prose. Is all writing prose, or does it refer to a specific subsection of writing…

1. The ordinary language of men in speaking or writing; language not cast in poetical measure or rhythm; — contradistinguished from verse, or metrical composition.

2. Hence, language which evinces little imagination or animation; dull and commonplace discourse.

Webster’s 1913 (Prose)

I’m not sure. I’d like to think that my writing does not “evince” “little imagination or animation”, and that it is not “dull and commonplace discourse,” but at the same time it is “not cast in poetical measure or rhythm.” So, it is what it is. Language of some sort.

Oh, looking up poetry is probably better and clarifies:

1. The art of apprehending and interpreting ideas by the faculty of imagination; the art of idealizing in thought and in expression.

2. Imaginative language or composition, whether expressed rhythmically or in prose. [..]

Webster’s 1913 (Poetry)

Yeah, I want to write poetry. Thanks, Webster. The second definition even says poetry can be “expressed [..] in prose.” So I guess it’s prose, too. I like to imagine I write poetic prose.

Well, whatever it is, I’ve been pondering and re-reading my front page, and I like it for now.

Blog posting

Why blog post it? Because I keep changing my front page — I keep rewriting new ones as I move on from previous ones, but I think it’s worth keeping the old ones around.

My zine, “droqen was here,” shares the name with my old blog; I like the name because it indicates to me that any given posting, any given zine, any given statement represents a point in time — somewhere I once was, but am no longer.

Even if I move on from what my front page says now, I might like to record it for posterity. The difficulty that I have with the front page is that it seems to me that it ought to represent the present state of things. Having ‘my latest post’ be the front page means that if I leave it fallow for too long, someone who opens up my website — expecting, perhaps, a representation of me? — will only find a flicker of me from the past. If my most recent blog post becomes my front page, each blog post has the pressure of representing me until I make a new one. That’s too much pressure for blog posting, which I’d prefer to be a casual practice.

I think the poem above might have a chance at representing me for a long time.

See how I feel tomorrow. ; )

Extended Techniques

I was looking up ‘pizzicatto on grand piano’ and found this video instead of quite what I was searching for: a man spends four minutes passionately but simply displaying a handful of grand piano techniques I’d never seen, or even heard of, before. (Sure, one of them is just slamming the lid shut, but the act of including it in a composition is in itself still novel to me.)

There’s some feeling I got while watching this video, that I’m reminded of now while trying to figure out what to write about it, which is crystal-clear but I can’t put into words. Maybe you get the same feeling. Whatever the feeling is, it inspires me to think about “Extended Techniques” in my own work, compels me to find other people who are eager to share their own.

I learned to play piano when I was a kid, but I’m absolutely not a pianist; I can’t appreciate it at that level. All I can do is watch Brian Ciach and believe that he’s at the cusp of something, doing something new, as I hope to do, and as I hope you are hoping to do as well.

after 7 years, my new musagi: Surge VST and Instatetragrammaton’s NES patches

I used to make music in musagi until one fateful day seven years ago when I switched operating systems. Suddenly, the tool of my dreams was out of my hands. Whoops.

musagi (windows only):
musagi tutorial:

warning: it's so good and simple and usable, you may find it difficult to switch tools. it took me seven years.

I like to think I got pretty fucking good at making music in musagi. Or at least *I* really loved the last four songs I made (“No Room Signal”, the album linked at the top), and will drop everything and listen to them absolutely anytime to give me some energy, no questions asked.

But, I couldn’t use musagi anymore.

So I tried a lot of tools over the years as little side-projects. Supercollider was a favourite — fun, but not great for making music. I tried REAPER and LMMS. I dabbled with a lot of free trials. And I could never find something as friendly as I found musagi. What was it? I blamed it on the DAWs’ design for being inferior to musagi, or myself for being too familiar and unable to learn; surely I could just make a melody in any other tool.

VSTs are also hard to come by. A VST, if you’re not familiar, is… okay, I’m not defining the word here, this is just a description of the ones I’ve actually used… BASICALLY a little synth (an instrument) that you can get off the internet and install and then you can use it in a program (known as a DAW) to make music.

I used a free VST called Helm by Matt Tytel and, again, tried out a lot of other alternatives (free, as well as trials for not-free ones). On top of the cost of a DAW (a Digital Audio Workstation), some VSTs are also commercial products. Not microtransactions, but a totally separate layer of things to spend money on. I didn’t know what I wanted enough to spend money on anything — far as I was concerned, I was in love with musagi and nothing else would do.

I think I tried Helm + REAPER for a while. It was fine, but I wasn’t inspired. The result: no music I cared to finish, or listen to again, or release in any way.

Surge VST

I changed upon Surge VST, a paid VST that had gone free. An additional wrinkle is that a lot of the VSTs I wanted to use were windows-only. So, many were out of reach. But then, hey, Surge VST. Why not try another one? This is an ongoing project for me: what could possibly replace musagi?

(Note: I’m skipping the part where I got into Bitwig Studio as a DAW; Tyriq Plummer uses it for his music, I thought I’d try it out, and hey, I like its piano roll and interface. It’s not exceptionally musagi-ish, but it’ll do. I’ll continue to spare you the sordid details of my musagi heartbreak.)

And sometimes, everything just falls into place all at once. Or maybe it has to happen that way; if it doesn’t then nothing happens and there’s no story to tell?

I played around with Surge VST, and thought, hey, this is great, but I just want a Gameboy Drum Sound and I googled something to that effect. I still did not get a Gameboy Drum Sound, but I happened upon this reddit post by a user by the elaborate name of Instatetragrammaton:

I’ve constructed some patches that aim to emulate sounds typical of the NES. You can get them here.

These aren’t exhaustive and mostly serve to demonstrate some of the principles described in here.

I’m shit at reading instructions, so I didn’t read a thing in that post (I probably should come back to it though – it’s right down my alley and maybe I can make my own drums), but I downloaded the provided NES Patches for Purge VST.

Surge VST:

The reddit post with the NES patches:

And, hey, I immediately made some music that I loved:

What’s the moral of the story? I dunno. Sometimes you lose the tools that really speak to you, that work for you, and you have to claw your way back up and out of that hole. Sometimes you just have to keep trying, occasionally, for as long as seven years (or longer, haha), at things that aren’t quite working just to get back into it.

Without the footholds made by other people I wouldn’t have been able to get back into music (and hey, maybe this blog post is premature and I’ll never make another piece again, but I’m really having a good time right now). Without musagi in the first place I probably wouldn’t have been able to get into music in the way that I did at all.

Sometimes I find it easy to forget the impact that one creation can have on one person, and then I connect with something deeply myself and I find myself appreciative of someone out there (thanks Instatetragrammaton for your thoughtful post and all those NES patches, and also everyone who contributed to Surge VST) and find the renewed hope that I can do something like this, but something else for someone else, again someday.

But man, I still love musagi (thanks, DrPetter).

P.S. The second moral of the story is, hey, it wasn't the DAW that was the problem at all! I spent seven years running in circles trying to figure out the perfect replacement for musagi when literally all I needed was some NES-like synths I could play around with, and none of those other types of sounds that weren't hitting my brain just right.

The tools that you use matter.

structures, 2

I don’t know what it means to invent a structure; it’s really more like a pattern, like sequences and patterns found in mathematics. The numbers were there all along — you just pointed out an interesting way to look at them.

In my last post I linked to a blog post containing a very large list of worldwide story structures, and in this one I think I’m going to talk about a couple ‘new’ structures I’ve noticed.

world – conflict – world unchanged

  1. Describe the world. (My preference is an auspicious setting full of variety and possibility.)
  2. Tell a story of struggle, perhaps using another story structure, but in particular I suppose you can use this structure to tell a story that doesn’t have a satisfying ending.
  3. Describe the world again, unchanged.

I first realized that this pattern (this story structure, or we may say narrative structure or whatever) is present in the classic roguelike; an individual run may be an unsatisfying and incomplete story, but I find there’s something comforting about having the unchanging world full of possibility always there waiting to efface all my efforts, for better or for worse.

I also noticed it in the Jabberwocky! The first and last stanzas are identical.

And finally, it’s been pointed out to me by others in Paradise that episodic TV shows in general often take this format as well, opening and closing on the same world. So this is definitely not a new idea, but I haven’t seen it described through the lens of a story structure, and I’ll be thinking about it for a while.

secret – misunderstanding – reveal

(in particular regarding character motivations but could be applied to other things)

I’ve been watching .hack//SIGN slowly, and I noticed this pattern used quite clearly in a few places; the thing that interests me the most about it is that the plot revolves heavily around a small cast of characters with different and pretty obfuscated motivations, and “Why are they even playing this game?” is tied in to those motivations.

(.hack//SIGN is set inside a fictional MMO, and all the characters are just virtual avatars played by people outside The World, though you never see them and they rarely say anything about their real lives.)

Anyway, the structure goes something like this (I noticed it most clearly in episode 7, in which a minor character’s secret-misunderstanding-reveal arc happens rapidly over the course of the single episode).

  1. Someone’s actions or statements are questioned, and they do not reveal their motivations.
  2. There is a misunderstanding. (With or without consequences.)
  3. They reveal their motivations. (Or not.) (And, not necessarily as a result of the misunderstanding.)

This is a really, really simple ‘structure,’ and I expect it’s pretty much analogous to the way any sort of mystery should go — there’s something unknown, you don’t understand something because you don’t know it, then you learn it, wow.

custom structure for custom brain

But it’s nice to build these little tools for myself. I rarely have any sort of attachment to the structures built by other people, for whatever reason, and these ones I’ve ‘invented’ or ‘noticed’ myself are tied to personal moments of inspiration, and media that’s close to my heart.

I’ve never been particularly interested in mysteries in general, but going in the other direction, I like the idea of applying this ‘secret-misunderstanding-reveal’ character motivation structure to some other type of mystery. It’s anchored in my mind to .hack//SIGN, to the one-episode arc of A-20.

And maybe somewhere down the line these two will hold a special place in my heart as ‘the first two story structures I ever cobbled together for myself, bespoke’ of tens or hundreds of little fragments that come together as my personal language through which I appreciate storycraft.

play and structure

This massive blog post describes countless story structures from around the world:

“Worldwide Story Structures – 김윤미 Kim Yoon Mi Author”

It’s so long I’ve never read it all the way through; I get caught on something or other, inspired to play with one of these structures, and lose my place before I can finish. (Most recently it was Jo-Ha-Kyu and the Wikipedia article for the same.)

Working on games, sometimes I forget it’s important to play, too. I obsess over how to design play, forget to lose myself in it. Lately, it seems that I find it easier to play with stories than with code. I suppose this is going to be a very simple blog post:

I’m just putting this here because I want to remind myself to play more, to rely on structures like these that inspire me to play around with ideas, and to be further inspired to design my own structures-that-inspire-me-to-play.

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.

i've redacted much of the article in which i reveal what Starseed Pilgrim is about to me because... i wanted to. this blog isn't about me baring my heart to the internet. my email is at the bottom of the page if you want to ask a question though. i am still alive, after all.

-- 2021, august 20th

Starseed Pilgrim is about [REDACTED]



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.”


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.



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.)


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?


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:

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 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!