Learning from Guilty Gear XRDs Story Mode

So this might not be “GAME DESIGN omg ludology” game design but this is definitely relevant to actually, you know, making and finishing a game. For those of us who make (or want to make) games with stories, how you go about it in an effective way (both ‘story telling’ effective and resource effective) is a big problem to be solved. While XRD’s Story Mode isn’t really a game in any sense (it’s like a movie/choiceless VN), it does use techniques that would be effective in many 3d games… and even has some overlapping with 2d games.

Now, I didn’t work on this game obviously and there man have been technical problems with some of the things I suggest I’m not aware of, but that isn’t so much the point as it is to figure out, even in theory, how things could be done better so we can learn from it.

Asset Value

One thing to think about when creating assets for a game is “how much is this asset worth”. Not so much the cost of making it (though that is relevant), but how cost effective it is. Super specific tiles for an area that get used once are low value. They can be worth while to create set pieces and memorable moments, but they’re no very ‘cost effective’. You need to choose your indulgences carefully. On the other hand, a set of tiles that can be combined in different ways to create different environments are very high value. Bastion shows this — while having only a small handful of actual tile sets, the ability to tint colors and mix up the shards allow for huge variety from a small pool of assets.

Guilty Gear XRD is 3d. While in many causes, ASW has said that 3D was just as time intensive as 2d, 3d assets have higher value. An individual 2d fighting game frame is pretty low value — it can be used only in one context. Sometimes it can be used in 2 (OR EVEN 3 OMG) but for the most part they serve one roll and you need a lot of them to make one attack. 3d Models and Animations are interchangeable. Putting animation on other models allow for costumes variations while different costumes in 2d games is so inefficient it’s almost unheard of. You either have different costumes being different characters, or you’re Noel from Blazblue(and also your redesign is trash).

Models can be put in different contexts too. The value you get out of a good model is very high while the value you get out of a good sprite is low. So a huge advantage for XRD’s storyline is it could use 3d models to create more visually interesting story mode moments. Reusing different animations on different models also allows for things like Sol changing outfits halfway through (to his weird Pachislot costume).

Now this doesn’t just apply to 3d cutscenes. I usually try and consider the value I’ll get out of various cutscene pieces and facial expressions before I make them. 3d might have higher value, but if you’re not working in 3d, the concept is still important and you still need to choose your spots carefully.

Creating Movement

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A big failure of the XRD story mode is how static it is. Now, clearly the story had a lot of content and not nearly as much money to do things ‘perfectly’ but still, many poor, cost neutral choices seemed to be made to contribute to this problem. First is the ‘dialog’ setup. It often switched to your typical “codec” or “Visual novel” setup, with two characters facing off in different sides of the screen with a divider showing the setting/background and a dialog box under it. This setup I feel is awful. First, we are looking at both characters at the same time with no cuts. This creates staticness. This also requires both faces to move and respond at the same time to seem animated. Replacing this with a simple “Shot/Countershot” would have many benefits. You know, that simple thing they do in movies where they cut back and forth between peoples faces when they talk. This removes a static entity from the screen while also creating artificial movement. You also have less time to focus on the staticness of a scene. Think about a lot of anime and how they from simple stills to create movement without animation. You might go “Yeah but I notice that and it makes me sad!” but XRD is worse than THAT.

You can look at something like the Ninja Gaiden 1 intro for an extreme example. It’s basically 2 faces and 2 frames of leg animation plus the big wide shot and you get a TON of movement just by way of fast cuts. NG cutscenes also use a lot of pans and other minor effects to make the best with the little they had. On that topic, stock camera movements would do wonders and make the cutscenes still easily scriptable. You wouldn’t be adding much work for a lot of gain. Mass Effect uses a number of stock camera moves and animations to create the illusion of more content. While a lot of us notice this and get bugged by it, it’s still better than where XRD is. In fact, XRD could do less. Going off the anime example, less extreme movements and stock animation would keep the style while requiring less effort.

GuiltyGear-5Also axe the dialog box. It’s unnecessary and ugly. Treating it like a VN also makes the timing on many shots weird and have weird pauses. You don’t press A to advance so it’s not like it matters much. Kill all that and you get a much more cinematic look without much more effort. Now a lot of that might add up, but setting up that system might save more time elsewhere. Now you got something that looks more like a cheap anime movie which is… not optimal, but an improvement.

Also stop talking during freezeframes of attacks during action scenes that looks so gross. FAST CUT.

ALSO EDIT THE DAMN SCRIPT. The script is bloated. I don’t even mean by storylines — by nature of being a fighting game story it HAS to be bloated and include everyone. That said, there is a crazy amount of redundant dialog. You have to record that dialog in two different languages and script it, even though it adds almost nothing. Lots of cuts would improve the pace not only over the overall story, but (and more relevant to this topic) make us linger less on reused shots and environments.

Make Only What You Have To

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XRD’s story mode makes good use of billboards to create simple environments. This is nice because it’s like matte backgrounds in animation, but more flexible and you can sometimes get a few different angles out of one asset. You can also see which characters are drawn and which are models. Things like the Illyium soldiers get models because they allow for a great false sense of scale. Stuff like Chipp’s Ninja Phone Operator get a drawing because… well.. Come on. The only real indulgence here seems to be models for the whole Jellyfish Pirate crew, but they’ll probably get mileage in the long run.

Some whole scenes are done with still drawings. This is a reasonable time saving measure that suffers only from the fact they go on for too long and dwell on the staticness for too long. Stuff like the Ken Burns effect can also be used to stretch some mileage out of those shots.

Of course you should invest when it counts. XRD definitely puts some time into it’s cinematics for certain parts. The climax plays off pretty well too. There still isn’t a lot of animation, but great use of camera helps a lot to create many memorable cinematic sequences. Definitely have to know when to indulge and overdo things or make one-shot animations that make story memorable. Basically invest in your story beats.

Quick Summery

Make assets that can be used in multiple ways to get the most value out of your time. Make use of the camera, either 2d or 3d, to create motion and make shots more dynamic and engaging. Question if you are putting your work in the best light. Both cut corners and invest where you can to create a sense of scale. Both are applicable in different situations and identifying which is which is important.

Not included in the above, but relevant — if you’re working with cutscenes, think about movies, animation and film. ESPECIALLY animation and ESPECIALLY anime. Why anime? Because anime is done so hardcore on the cheap that almost everything made can help teach you how to cheat. CHEAT CHEAT CHEAT CHEAT and make more with less.

More direct comments on XRD’s story that isn’t relevant to the above but might still be interesting?

  • The assassins guild really feels like 3/4 people fucking around in the woods and thats awful. Nothing is done to make it seem like a larger organization. For all we know, Slayer, Venom and Millia are all weirdass larpers.
  • A big issue is there is very few ‘action’ scenes. Not fighting scenes, but scene where an action is taking place. We’re cycling through points of exposition and random dialog. Very little in the way of arriving, leaving, interating, etcetcetc. The moments where that does happen flow better and benefitted the story mode. More establishing shots would have definitely added cost, but would have made things a lot nicer.
  • Game used a lot of running scenes. Those worked pretty good for making motion!
  • Zepp had a LOT of random backgrounds and setpieces for the amount of screentime it had. Though we never saw the city proper.
  • Dr. Paradigm was on point.
  • TOO MANY MUSICAL CUES they got old so fucking fast
  • Elphelts breasts have twean frames when nothing else really does and it’s weird!
  • Sin is less obnoxious in this game than GG2 because now he more clearly looks like a god damned nerd and it just… fits better.
  • Oh my god Justice out of armor looks awesome.
  • I love when Ky got fucking shot that was amazing like fuck Bandit Revolver, Ky got Revolver Revolvered.
  • Leo looks like a total badass.
  • Gabriel seems like a Giant Robo OVA character
  • Where the fuck is Potemkin
  • Story mode made me like Faust more. So chill and helpful for a man with a bag on his head.
  • Pachislot outfits are in full force with Sol’s second outfit and Dizzy. Johnny doesn’t have a beard though and I’m glad. Where the fuck is my Johnny DLC?
  • I hate Ramlethal’s design like they couldn’t decide if she was a loli or this big meaty badass woman and she ends up somewhere in between and that makes me sad.
  • Chipp is a motherfucking President. Of Ninjas.
  • The storymode made me somehow not hate Bedman
  • Sol tries to talk out his feelings with Elph. When it doesn’t work, he punches a lot and that somehow works. I respect that.

What the hell even is Gaming Journalism?

Edit: I feel like this piece has been greatly superceded by this RPS piece . It covers all of my points and then some and does so much more thoughtfully. While you might enjoy reading my off-the-cuff, emotionally charged spin on the issue, I suggest you read the RPS piece as well.

An important element I think I missed is that even the things I said might be able to be reported “objectively” end up just being material given by publishers. Not only is it uninteresting news, if delivered impartially, it is nothing but ads and reinforcing troublesome parts of the system we all claim to hate. Anyways, for archival purposes, here is the piece I wrote…

I’m sure you’re sick of this topic and so am I, but bad news keeps coming in. Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice have basically quit videogame writing at all this. The #GamerGate people are screaming good riddance. “Gotta get rid of all this bias and corruption in journalism! Boo~!” but here’s the thing… Neither Jenn Frank or Mattie Brice are really “journalists”.

That’s not a dig, either. Journalists give you the news. They preferably give it unbias and dispassionately. If they’re not digging for stories, they’re best being passionless robots. While I’m sure Frank did some journalism at one point, what she, and Mattie Brice were writers. They wrote opinion pieces. They were culture critics. For that, you want the opposite of what you want in a journalist — you want passion and you want a position to be taken. Personally, in this field, writers kick the shit out of journalists because there really isn’t much gaming news. Games are an art and art is subjective. I’ve always found the call for ‘impartial and unbias’ reviews to be hilarious. Reviews aren’t journalism, even if they suffer from the same corruption problems. If you want an “impartial review”, read the wiki page on a game because that’s what it would be like. Instead, the most successful reviewers are often the most opinionated. We get to know the people we read reviews from and learn when and where we agree and disagree with them.

What makes this even more frustrating is most opinion pieces are better insulated from corruption in the industry. Big previews are basically big ads (often paid for by companies before they are even written) and reviews feel pressure constantly to give more favorable review scores (especially now thanks to metacritic). The industry is a hype machine and it’s business model makes it so most of the money they receive comes from the media they have to talk about. That industry has other problems too, which plague even normal news outlets these days, such as people never checking facts and just believing other articles.

Surprisingly that rarely comes up with #gamergate (Yes, I’m sure some of you are talking about that. YES, I know you don’t endorse the people who are harassing folk. YES, I do think you’re an idiot for choosing now to fight that fight and sabotaging your cause due to #gamergate’s association with gross misogyny. No, don’t message me about it or link to your fucking github that suggests pretending to be a middle eastern cab driver to garner SJW sympathy. I read it already). Instead, people are attacking people known for their social justice oriented opinion pieces under the guise of “corruption”. It’s hard to figure out what they mean about corruption in this context. If they mean ‘progressive ideas and spreading amount game writers and developers’, I guess yes, we are being corrupted. You will be assimilated, resistance is useless, etcetcetc… but as far as actual corruption goes, a thing I see surprisingly often is “THESE PEOPLE ARE KNOW EACH OTHER.” or “THIS PERSON IS DONATING TO THIS PERSONS PATREON”.It’s… almost as if people who like video games and writing gravitate and become friends with people who are also into that… and support the works of those who they feel are excellent at their craft. Strange! I read someone say on a forum that if he went back in time and was told how interconnected everyone in the industry was, he wouldn’t believe it because of how preposterous it is. What do these people think, that people live in insulated boxes? OF COURSE THIS HAPPENS. It’s the same reason why I see people who have made it in the art industry constantly commissioning other artists. People who care about their craft want to help other people they think are great at their craft. And want to be there friends.

In places were things overlap that can be a conflict of interest. That was the basis of the whole Zoe Quinn drama… but nothing actually happened with that. You don’t have to be a saint as a journalist and avoid all earthly pleasures, you just gotta avoid letting your self write about things you’re bias about. Someone might go “Well what about that Jenn Frank piece where she defended Zoe Quinn!” … Like, that was an op-ed, bro and the Guardian didn’t think her disclosing her friendship was important. Why, you might ask? IT’S A GOD DAMN OPINION PIECE. You are basically ASSUMED to have a bias. Jenn wrote an article about how she sees things. It’s not like she was paid off to lie and defend Quinn despite feeling differently or something. Most of the greatest writers ever were deeply involved with the things they wrote about. That’s what made their writing compelling — it was deep and personal. That’s what they provide, that journalistic articles cannot.

Gaming Journalism has been a mess for years, but Gaming Commentary has been getting better and better and Frank and Brice would be among some of the best. To see them and others like them targeted under the guise of “Fighting corrupt journalism” is a farce and those doing the attacking don’t seem to know what journalism is, or what corruption is, or even who to blame (protip: In most cases of corruption in this industry, it’s not the journalist’s fault anyway, it’s the publisher. Employed writers are at the mercy of their employers and driving off an employee would only get them replaced by someone else who would be forced to do the same thing). Instead they lash out at people who are scaring them and make it sound like it’s a noble endeavor. I’m sure some people honestly think they’re just trying to fight for good journalism, but, well, to use someone else’s words.

giving you the benefit of the doubt that you’re not just a raging woman-hating misogynist, i’m sorry to have to tell you: you have been had by some raging woman-hating misogynists. they have framed their crap in terms of Our Tribe Is Under Siege Oh No and you have swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

it’s basically the same tactic the republican party uses to keep racism alive: just use the word “welfare” instead, along with the traditional stereotypes of laziness and inferiority and worthlessness. people will practically turn it into us-vs-them for you. it’s like magic! if you’re lucky, they’ll even spice it up with some moral panic!

(Tumblr user Eevee, covering some of the same ground as me)

#GameGate Nonsense

That annoying situation where I don’t wanna write formally about something, but twitter is too short form to do it without annoying the piss out of everyone and if I go on tumbr I’ll just be talking to people who don’t need to be told stuff again, so… I guess here we are.

Not going to give a real event summary. If you don’t know whats up you can look up #Gamegate or Quinnspiracy and read about it. Basically an indie game dev slept with a bunch of people (which shouldn’t be relevant but people keep bringing it up), one of which was a journo at kotaku and this was allegedly to promote her game Depression Quest. So now people are freaking out about corruption in games journalism or just her or whatever so I’m going to give my thoughts on some things.

Assuming she even slept with him for that reason, two big things bother me about basing critiques of the journalism industry off of this; It poisons the well. First it’s treating this as anything different or unique. There isn’t anything special about the corruption that went on with Quinn. Sex is about the same as money in this context and she paid off a journalist. Everyone goes screaming that this was unfair. I remember reading some bullshit somewhere about how Quinn wasn’t playing fair and how this gave her an unfair advantage… which is insane when you consider the amount of money everyone else is pumping into the system. Sex wasn’t an “unfair advantage”, it was her PR budget.

The second poisoning issue is an over focus on Quinn. Even if you think she’s scum, her being scum has little to do with the industry being corrupt. If a system is going to avoid corruption it has to do it internally. External forces are always going to try and spend money to market to their advantage. Usually we understand this. When a company buys a site takeover, I think most of us groan at the site, not the company because of COURSE the company would want that and it’s the site’s responsibility to say no. Remember, game developers are not in the business of journalism and them not having journalistic integrity doesn’t matter to them. Any real criticism of gaming news should be independent of those offering the money, yet somehow Quinn has garnered more hate than Kotaku for all of this. Kotaku’s integrity matters for the industry. Quinn’s does not.

Then their is the whole “feminists are corrupting game journalism” stuff which is just hilarious nonsense.

I think the sad thing after all this is that there is probably no actual solution to any of this. Movie reviews tend to be more honest because the industry is set up in such a way that… There are tons of reviewers and those reviews appear in papers that people used to buy and if seen on websites now, are with advertising stuff not necessarily related to movies. It’s insular and with other cash sources. I would imagine that it’s getting a lot rougher on movie reviewers now, but the culture of that industry never seemed to be “pay for good reviews” since the returns were so low in trying to do so (instead you’d just block reviews until release if your movie sucked :P). Game reviews get their money now from the industy. From there ads, from their site take overs, for doing in depth previews and even then they don’t make a whole lot of money. We’d have to pay more money to hope to get reviews free of other moneyed interests and with patreon that’s possible, but I feel like in a lot of cases, those journalists will be uncomfortably bound to us. “Hm, I could talk about this important issue that might piss off a lot of people paying for my content or I could just shut my mouth and say this is great”. That’s probably something someone has ALREADY thought about and there is probably someone who lost a whole lot of patrons by opening their mouth.

But hey you can all worry about that, I haven’t read a game review to inform a buying decision in like a decade. That’s what friends are for.

Addendum: So just some more food for thought here.

Quinn slept with five guys. One of them worked for Kotaku. That person wrote one line about depression quest, before they were even dating. Which makes the idea that this is “journalistic corruption” even more laughable and also makes it obvious that she probably just wanted to fuck the guy (because why wouldn’t she maybe want to fuck someone who lived near her and also had an interest in video games?). With the way people talk about it, you’d think she fucked five journalists to get big writeups or something.

(Post has been edited to better reflect this addendum and correct some misinformation. God the internet had me convinced there was more than one journalist but instead nerds are just obsessed with her sexlife)

Real Domain Name!

So I just got a real domain name finally… kayin.moe (yes, really and yes, that kind of moe). So please try and tolerate any weird website wackiness while I try to set up stuff (or beg my sysadmin to do it ps ur da bes colin) and if something seems super wacky just let me know.

Telling a Joke through Level Design

I was watching some Extra Credits recently and got to the episode on Comedic Games. It correctly talks about a few things — how much funny games are not funny in their game bits — they’re funny in writing or in cutscenes or whatever. They then talk about how it’s hard because comedy is driven by timing and wonders how we could rethink how we do comedy in games. He then goes on for the rest of episodes about how glitches are funny ( and they ARE funny ). All while I’m just sitting there thinking “BUT WE KNOW THIS. WE DO THIS. WE’RE NOT THE BEST AT IT, BUT WE ACTUALLY DO THIS ALL THE TIME”

I would have loved IWBTG to be talked about but it could have been anything. It could have been Kaizo Mario, a romhack made up of what are basically challenging mechanics jokes. The so called “kaizo block” is a mechanical joke. It is subversive in numerous ways, It is a betrayal of trust. It is turning a positive secret into a death trap. It turns a simple jump into a puzzle. It’s also not a one off sudden slapstick gag. This is a joke that can be told with timing. Remember, comedic timing isn’t about “timing”. Humor isn’t a fighting game combo. Comedic timing is about psychology. It’s about anticipation, or misdirection or number of other components. The jump in the classic Kaizo Block trap is MISDIRECTION. You are putting the players focus somewhere else to solve a different problem. This is a real comedic setup. The state of a person right after making a jump, mentally, is about as predictable as one could ever hope for in comedy. The kaizo block then hits, right at those crucial, weak, post jump input moments. The Mario death music is practically a rimshot here, rubbing it in the players face. It’s a full featured, if short, joke.

Or I can talk about IWBTG. IWBTG’s long jokes generally function in sets of 3 (a common number in comedy). The first screen of IWBTG shows this. You walk off the ledge, you hear a suspicious click, a barrier closes above you and, after a slight delay, a big crushing spike wall slams into you with a horrible, grating loud sound. So that’s a mini joke — not particularly clever, but the elements are there. You then figure it out, go to the second floor and go “Ahah! Can’t fool me twice!”. The 2nd rep in a 3 part joke like this is to establish a pattern. It doesn’t need to be pure repetition like it is here, but it still needs to generally contrast the punchline. So the player gets past the second spike platform with no problem. Then they drop down, do the same with the 3rd and get splattered. That’s a 3 stage joke. Of course all this work leads up to the joke of falling into the horrible spike room and dying, but this isn’t a 4 stage joke because the spike room is modular and could come after any real frustrating segment. Also worth saying real quick that there seems to be a lot of humor in delaying game over music just a little. Works for IWBTG games and Mario Romhacks at least.

But okay more IWBTG stuff. The Delicious Fruit room. First fruit is a mini joke. Fruit generally is not thought about as a hazard and some early players (before IWBTG got it’s reputation) would jump into them wondering if they were a pickup. Subversion of expectations is probably the easiest form of videogame humor especially with how much visual language we have with them. Anyways the second part of the joke is clearing out the apples. The player knows what to do and while there are a few headaches, he’ll make it through. In his feelings of victory will be dashed as soon as he jumped and get hits by an upward flying apple. That sequence also has another joke I love. After doing the upper path, the player sees one unfortunately placed apple at the very end. A lot of players will try and bait it out, but it seems very stubborn. The player knows not to trust anything at this point and eventually have to make that jump with and just cross their fingers… and the apple falls down instead of up at them.

A lot of humor in games happen when we take away control from the player in games, but it can be funny when we comedically give them back. The parachute gag is a long build up — a heroic glide in to the stage on a parachute, with awesome music and parallaxing layers and stuff and it’s all cool and the ground is coming up and BAM you are released a few feet away from ground and you fall unceremoniously into the water and die AND forcing you to do the long fly in a game. It’s an obnoxious joke and sometimes people complain about it, but I love it. The repeated waits really sell the gag and, by initially taking control away from the player, you can build your joke however you want, only to drop them, with full control, into the punchline.

My favorite and last trap is in Gaiden — Stage 1-2. After a series of difficult swings, the player is running through a row of crushers. When they finally get to solid ground, they are met with a pit with two spikes over it and a save point on the other side. The swings earlier build up the stakes (don’t wanna do it again) and the crushers build up the tension. The two spikes stop the player from jumping clean across. It would be an easy jump, but one does not simply trust spikes to simply be spikes in IWBTG. Almost all players at this point pause to get their bearings and prepare for the jump. After a few moments of preparing the floor shoots up on hydraulics and smashes The Lad into the ceiling. This is one of those traps (like the tombstone after the Spike Corridor) that just destroys people. For maximum comedic effect, it is important that the floor does NOT come up right away. The player needs enough time to relax just a little and lower their defenses. It’s almost like the Kaizo Block setup only instead of punching them during their commitment, you punch them during their preparation (which you can predict due to the previous crusher segment). The two spikes that make them pause do absolutely nothing…. well, besides making them fall for the real trap. Misdirection is a POWERFUL.

I find there to be a similarity between comedy in magic. Performance arts with a lot of emphasis on timing and pacing… but magic is interactive. Even when no one directly taking part of a trick, the audience is scrutinizing the performer and trying to see through them. The magician on the other hand employs misdirection to control them. Misdirection works in comedy, but isn’t essential like it is in games. I feel like good game jokes need lots of misdirection because it’s one of the best ways to control and setup an active participant. Once you’re cleverly controlling the player, you can do all sorts of stuff! The problem isn’t too hard — we have basically all the answers we need to tell real “game jokes” and are doing it RIGHT NOW. We just need to get better at it and get more creative and try and have more variety (more ways to be funny WITHOUT killing the player?).

One Move to Change a Match-Up

I was going through the SCR Norcal vs SoCal match after watching Evo and was taken back by how Ricky vs Snake Eyez played out so differently. Now Snake Eyez won both games, but the matches were extraordinarily different. At first I thought it was due to change in Ricky’s play, but I hadn’t considered the Ultra changes too much at the time.

So during SCR, we see Rufus HAVE to play like Rufus in a matchup where you don’t wanna be up and close. Rufus has to be aggressive because he has no other choice. Zangief can outfootsies him easily and most of Rufus’s moves get beat by Zangief’s standing medium punch.

Ricky vs Snake Eyez at EVO is a whole different beast and while there are many chnages that effect the matchup, but that change to Standing Medium is by far the biggest. Zangief’s biggest tool in that matchup has been weakened and now Rufus can play defensively. That change alone (an increase in St.M’s hurtbox) is enough to create this entire change in dynamic. Now Rufus can play footsies instead of feeding himself to the Zangief-Grinder.

Now I’m sure Ricky DID have an axe to grind after that match at SCR and I’d guess that matchup got a bit of attention leading up to EVO, but the biggest change was the hurtbox on a single move.

Mechanical Irony and the Suspension of Disbelief

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This kills me. This is right by the Shrine of Winter in Dark Souls 2 (which I love, by the way. Perhaps an article on that some other day). This tiny bit of rubble — one that would take two big steps to clear — is responsible for half of your epic journey. You spend hours tracking down powerful souls and risking your life, rather than just finding a stool.

I call this mechanical irony. Mechanical irony is when the limitations in control we have over our character become all too real. “If only I could climb over that” or “if only I could jump off this ladder” or “if only I could step over this gap”. or whatever. When the sensible, real life to a video game problem becomes obvious, it becomes difficult to sustain immersion and the suspension of disbelief. To an extent this is unavoidable. We’re making games and not simulations. We don’t want to give the players the ability to do all these things, we want to convince them to think in the verbs we’ve given them. We want the player to trust us and give we get that, they will give us a lot of leeway.

Bionic Commando for the NES is very good at this. The game requires a large conceit (.. can you even use that word like that?when talking about mechanics?) from the player. You can’t jump. You have to move around with your bionic arm. You’d think the game would be litered with moments of “if only I could jump, I wouldn’t have to go through all this hassle”, but it’s surprisingly not. Every situation where you wish you could jump is quickly solvable with the mechanics the game provide. The game doesn’t want to remind you that you can’t jump, it wants you to focus on swinging around. To a degree, new players still get frustrated with the inability to jump, but when you consider what a huge concession that is, the game does an amazing job of making the player think about it’s core mechanics.

The Shrine of Winter in Dark Souls 2 does not do that. It’s downright taunting. It could possibly be ignored as a dead end, except for the item on the other end. While many areas of souls games could be destroyed with climbing skills, you generally don’t think about it (though probably also in Belfry Sol!). Here, it’s preposterous. Here it looks like, without invisible walls, you could possibly even jump over it with the mechanics given to you in the game. It could even get you to think about other things. Like, what is that shrine even for if it would be so easy to walk around in real life? Little stuff exists like this every where (welp, fell down, time to walk all the way back to the stair case instead of pulling my self up from the edge) but usually those are so minor, people don’t notice. Here? It’s HALF THE GAME and totally avoidable. No one looks at the Lordvessel door and goes Well you know, if I had some TNT or a hammer…”. People just go with it. If the Shrine of Winter blocked a bridge, most people wouldn’t think about “simply getting rope”. That’s because they’re not having their face rubbed in it. They’re not being taunted. The players want to be immersed. Not everyone is going to fall down little thought-holes like this, but they’re best to avoid when possible, especially when trying to construct games with structurally sound worlds.

Now, taunting isn’t always bad. Dark Souls taunts all the time (though usually not in ways that damage the integrity of the world). A good example of this is Vini Vidi Vici in VVVVVV, where the character, who can’t “jump” is forced to reverse gravity and fall through several screens of spikes to get around an ankle high block. VVVVVV has little “immersion” to speak of and it serves as an excellent gag for an excellent challenge. You could even argue for this in more serious games. Again, the Belfry Sol is an annoying taunt, but it’s repercussions are mild. Is it a good gag? I personally wouldn’t do it, but I could fancy an argument for it. In most cases though, if you’re making a game with any kind of “world” you want to avoid bringing attention to aspects like this.

Horrible hacks and Language Support in BEP

Usually I don’t do too many updates anymore because I’m afraid of just running out of material and showing the whole game off before it’s done, but this should be fun.

So one thing I noticed with IWBTG is that it was very popular in Japan and the Japanese fans of my work are super cool. While this popularity probably won’t extend over to BE:P, I still always wanted the game to be easily localizeable for them. Unfortunately, far too late in the development, I discover Construct Classic doesn’t support unicode. Brutal!

So in the last two days I implemented a hack I’ve been thinking about for awhile. Construct uses the ANSI character set, provides 217 characters. BE:P uses 83 of those characters by default. The rest of the characters are accented letters and bizzare stuff like § or † or even ‡! Really wacky symbols. So most of that could all go. Unfortunatey, even if I used all 217 characters, that would be an insignificant amount of kanji. FORTUNATELY, basically all NES games were written, due to space issues, in kana. Kana lends it’s self better to this, being two syllabic character sets. Between alternative characters and japanese diacritic marks, the set comes out to 100ish characters, just barely squeezing in. In fact this is apparently how any “English -> JP” fan translations end up being done.

So the next step would be keying ansi characters to kana. Fortunately, BE:P doesn’t use a real font or anything so it’s easy for me to make a character appear however I’d like. Characters are searched for on a big key string and that index is used to set the text objects frame. The character key when Japanese is enabled looks like….

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZabcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz!/#$&'()*+,-./0123456789:;<=>? @`;€ƒ„…†‡ˆ‰Š‹ŒŽ‘’“”•–—™š›œžŸ¡¢£¤¥¦§¨©ª«¬1®¯°±²³´µ¶·¸¹º»¼½¾¿ÀÁÂÃÄÅÆÇÈÉÊËÌÍÎÏÐÑÒÓÔÕÖ×ØÙÚÛÜÝÞßàáâãäåæçèéêëìíîïðñòóôõöøùúûüýþÿ”

Everything up to ? and ” ” is represented in game in english. @ and ` are controller characters for linebreaks in the dialog engine and everything after that is dedicated to kana. So if we were to search for “©” on this string it would come up as character 120. Frame 120 of the text object is the pixel version of “は”. Easy breezy! The dialog file also has support for easily creating additional text boxes. This is going to be important for Japanese because “kana only” japanese is, screen space wise, pretty inefficient and the kana font I’m using now only allows for 3 lines of text to english’s 4. Still, it ends up looking really nice! Also in this setup, I can easy change the secondary characters. The game can only display one set at a time, but that still allows me to implement all accented latin characters, or Cyrillic or any other non-logographic character set.

Of course this brings up the issue… if construct can’t handle UNICODE, how can I even read the dialog? Oh, well I had to hack together a crummy little python script that’ll read a file and “encode” it into the hacked ANSI characterset setup. So when release is near (it isn’t) I’ll make that available to help people localize the game in other languages if they want without having to resort to dealing with super gross hacks directly.

bepkana2

Not sure if the Katakana is even right, but it’s looks pretty cool!

Scanlines, CRTs, Faux Retro games and whatever

So I was browsing 4chan, as I often do (because I make bad decisions) and decided to drop into /vr/. Without fail there will be a thread about scanlines and NTSC/CRT/RF shaders. I actually find this interesting, because despite not caring about the aesthetic, I do want to have some sort of filter for Brave Earth that isn’t just “lazy scanline overlay”. So I ran into this and found it hilarious.

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Personally, the appeal there for me, is baffling and I’m no sure it’s going t make people wish indie devs were “more accurate” with retro stuff. My first memories as a child involve me playing on my mom’s Atari 2600 and my uncles NES after that. All on crappy old CRT sets over RF. Hell we had one of those hilarious furniture looking console TVs. Maybe it was building sprites in Mario paint, or the better pixel quality of computer monitors and making games in ZZT and megazeux, but the whole “retro means blurry and with scanlines” thing never quite clicked for me. I see thing as pixels. When I play games on the CRT I still use for console games because I’m cheap more than anything, I don’t “see” blurry phosphors. Since our brains fill in a lot of details for us, in my head I’m seeing pixels. So games emulated on LCDs are a plus to me. I like big clunky sharp pixels. Other friends I have look for stuff like framemeisters or buy line doubles and scanline generators to get something closer to what they see in their heads when they play retro games. That’s all cool. It’s awesome to try and recreate things in the past to preserve it for the future. IT’s why stuff like Higan (a super accurate and CPU intensive multi console emulator) are important, even if I will never bother using it.

Still there is a growing number of purists I see getting mad about this stuff. It won’t be a big deal if it was just crazy people /vr/ or those crazy shmup forms or whatever, but I’ve seen even people I know say shit like “this game couldn’t run on the original hardware” or “this isn’t what retro games look like”! I even had one person I know complain that Jamestown had too many bullets for a Neo-Geo game, which is absurd since Jamestown doesn’t claim to be anything. So here are some thoughts on all this, because it’ll probably only get worse once BEP is out (in 50 years).

But old games were designed to be viewed on CRTs!

This is mostly bologna and the thing you need to ask your self is, for any technique, would the art designer NOT have done that if their art was on a LCD or better quality display? Things like dithering come up a lot. Something like say the contra logo… on a CRT the colors blur together more, making the gradient smoother. But the technique of dithering has been used quite often on LCD screens (Just look at Jim’s portrait in this EWJ gameboy port) or in PC Games forever. Acting like LCDs and CRTs is silly — they obviously have visual differences, but there are really very few techniques you’d use exclusively on a CRT. Besides, this is basically any unfalsifiable anyways since we can’t know what the artists were intending or not intending. I would imagine you’d see both artists glad to see their art viewed crisply, and ones who are disappointed by it.

with modern indie stuff where this stuff is thrown around (like with the picture at the beginning of the post)… well, I’ll have more to say about that later, but for now I just wanna say… Play the games on a CRT. Why is it the game’s responsibility to pretend it’s something else? If you plug an NES into an LCD it doesn’t give you scanlines and blur. Internally, for the purposes of this discussion, “retro” indie games and old video games are sending the same thing — an array of pixels. How the device they’re connected to displays them is the displays business.

Besides, this all doesn’t matter anyways. Many greek statuses were intended to be painted, but we prefer clean white marble. Modern statues and modern pixel art reflects that change. Even if it’s not accurate, it’s what most people enjoy and prefer now.

This game claims to be like a (insert console) game but it does this that and the other thing wrong!

If we wanted to make a perfectly accurate game, we’d probably all do what Battle Kid did or what Retro City Rampage tried to do. Most of us don’t. What we want varies. Some of us are just using lo-fi aesthetics as they’re one of the faster style to make while still being a style people respond to well (and remember, making games is hard, especially by yourself. Try it sometimes, it’s fun!). Some care a little bit more about the whole package. When this discussion comes up with people I know, oftne they’re like “Oh but you’re using colors and stuff in a mostly authentic way, you’re okay”… Like, am I? I modified the NES palettes to give me new colors I didn’t have, I don’t obey rules regarding sensible sprite sizes. I have far to many objects on screen at once and like megaman, these already large sprites would need to use MORE sprites just to get the density of color of some sprites.

In fact, adding those extra colors on Naomi was a big thing to me. When I made a mockup and asked people if I should give her more colors (technically possible, but not in the overall picture of the game), people pretty much universally said “Yes. Do it. Why wouldn’t you do it?”. For most people, they want the style up until the point where it interferes with the game. That’s why BEP has a third button. Oh sure I can say it’s start or whatever, but that’s an excuse.

This is the thing with art and fashion. When someone takes stuff from the 80s and 90s, no one (sane) ever goes “OH YEAH WELL IN THE 80S NO ONE WOULD WEAR THEIR HAIR LIKE THAT” because that’s not how fashion works. We take aspects we like forward. We take things that are familiar and transform them. I personally feel that if everyone who made “retro” games tried to, collectively, be more accurate about this stuff we’d be WORSE off. We’d just be wanking nostalgically to things that have already been done, instead of using the past as a spring board into the future… and that’s someone who loves when people maintain history. Making games for old hardware is some awesome digital SCA type stuff. But it’s historical more than anything.

Brave Earth started relatively more accurate earlier on and has gotten progressively more ridiculous in some of the things I put on the screen. But I don’t regret this — when I started this was supposed to be a small free project that didn’t have to move things forward. Now it’s something far more ambitious and better offfor it. It has an identity beyond being “Castlevania but with a sword”. Retro City Rampage also moved on once the shell of the NES got too hard for it to be contained inside and while some may bemoan that all that’s left is a prototype rom, most people are happier for the change. If all retro graphics mean to you is reliving your childhood and everything that comes with it, well… I don’t think much retro indie games are even meant to appeal to you.

We need to understand, lo-fi and pixel art and all that is a STYLE. Do you think the superbrother games are trying to be like a “retro game” and that they would look better if their games seemed more ‘authentically 8/16 bit’? No, and that’d be completely missing the point. People will point to Ridiculous Fishing as being “retro” when the art in the game is composed almost entirely of triangles. There is a huge gradient hereof how these styles can manifest and anyone is free not to like them…but to act like a certain kind of style is somehow more noble is ridiculous. You can still criticize how a style is executed but we have to realize that most of this is a matter of taste and priorities. We all have different desires and developers have different goals. I get driven crazy when games that MOSTLY get it right do things like transparency and sprite rotations, personally. I’m sure Brave Earth will set off people on different issues. But then people will complain that IWBTG doesn’t maintain a consistent pixel density and uses rotating sprites and stuff and it’s like… seriously? Did you miss the point that hard?

The past is a tool and we should not be slaves to it… and that said, I’m still going to try and get construct to do some amount of CRTish effects as a toggle option because I hate my self.