The Mystic Western Game Jam

Programming, Video Games

El Viaje Misterioso

Austin’s independent games collective Juegos Rancheros hosted another game jam this summer, and this year the theme was “mystic western”.

I hadn’t initially planned on participating, since I was already rather busy preparing for some summertime travelling. However, I was struck with a fun game idea that really fit the theme and scope. I wanted to make a game based on a specific scene from a 1997 episode of The Simpsons, where Homer hallucinates a mysterious voyage through a desert landscape under the influence of extremely spicy chili peppers.

For the gameplay, I took inspiration from the indie platformer Knytt Stories by Nifflas. It has a very clean, blocky, simple aesthetic that seemed feasible to imitate, even with my limited art skills. I also wanted to emulate its low-key pacing and its focus on exploration over combat. Having enemies to fight wouldn’t fit the vibe of the source material, where the mystic desert was mysterious but not threatening. Ultimately, I managed to translate almost every beat of the five minute hallucination sequence into some sort of playable experience (with the notable exception of the snake, which sadly was cut for scope.)

Mystic Western Jam - Notebook Sketches

Developing a platformer was also a good excuse to apply some of the lessons I learned from Steve Swink’s “Game Feel”. The book breaks down and analyzes the ways in which designers manipulate game physics in unrealistic ways to make platformers feel good. For instance, it taught me to increase gravity when the player is descending to avoid feeling floaty. I also implemented variable jump height, input buffering, and late jumping based on the lessons from this book.

You can download El Viaje Misterioso for Windows and OSX here:

Download from itch.io

Download (Windows)

Download (Mac OSX)

Source Code (GitHub)

At the end of the game jam, I was very proud to find out that my entry was one of the 25 games selected for the Mysteric Western Arcade at the Marfa Film Festival. I sadly couldn’t make it out for the event, but I hope people got a chance to play it there!

→ No CommentsTags:  ·  · 

Yharnam Metal Hypernym

Internet, Programming

To start off 2016, I thought I’d take a moment to write about some of the new Twitter bots I assembled last year. In my last post on the subject, I indicated that I was reluctant to continue making bots because it was distracting me from larger projects. However, since lately I’ve been focusing hard on a big exciting endeavour, I’ve found that making bots has continued to be a relaxing creative outlet in my downtime.

Yharnam Notes is a small tribute to Bloodborne, one of my favourite games of 2015. The game’s asynchronous multiplayer features include the ability to leave notes for other players using templates of words and phrases. These permutations can often be inadvertently lyrical, as Natalie Zed explored in her Bloodborne poetry. Inspired by this, I made a bot that constructs random messages using the vocabulary of the game’s note system.

Hypernym Bot was inspired by the folk proverb “For Want of a Nail”. I wanted to find a way to generate the same structure of text programmatically. Fortunately, Wordnik maintains a list of hypernyms (words that are more generic or abstract) for each word in their database. This made it simple to start with a random word, then iterate up the chain of abstraction of few times.

This is one of the silliest ideas that I’ve actually followed through on. Somehow my errant thoughts on @EveryWord and heavy metal clichés intersected, and led me to render every word in the English language in a heavy metal font. Tweeting a new word every four hours, @EveryMetalWord will complete its task by 2065.

You can find the complete list of my Twitter bots here. Wishing you all a happy new year, may your 2016 be programmatic and random!

→ No CommentsTags:  ·  · 

Challenges for Game Designers

Books, Video Games

Challenges for Game Designers

For the last few months I’ve enjoyed following along with Liz England’s Game Design Book Club. Though I’ve only been participating intermittently, it’s been really valuable as motivation to read books that are often cited and highly praised in game development circles. It has also pushed me to explore certain topics that I may not have chosen on my own.

September’s book club selection was Challenges for Game Designers by Brenda Romero and Ian Schreiber. It covers some common ground with other “game design 101” books aimed at a classroom environment, but it has two unique twists. Firstly, it has an emphasis on non-digital games. This affords a greater focus on “pure” mechanical considerations: chance, skill, strategy, social dynamics, etc. Secondly, as the title suggests, the reader is encouraged to explore the topic of each chapter by completing assorted design exercises; it’s equal parts textbook and workbook.

I was very impressed by the variety of exercises presented in the book. The ones that particularly interested me (and, admittedly, took the least time to complete) involved taking an existing game and modifying it to emphasize a different type of skill.

For instance, one of the exercises in chapter 5 was to “modify [Tic-Tac-Toe] by adding one or more chance-based mechanics”; the game should also be “good for adult players”. I thought this challenge was quite interesting, so I took some time to develop a small game called Catalina Tiles for it. The game is played on a nested 3×3 grid, and players use four 4-sided dice to determine which tiles they can claim on their turn.

Rules for Catalina Tiles [PDF]

Another exercise in chapter 8 involved choosing a “non-digital game with no elements of chance at all” to modify by adding fog of war: “your opponent’s pieces are hidden from you (and vice versa) except under certain conditions.” After researching existing chess variants (there are so many), I developed two unique hidden-information chess games. Luft Chess is standard chess played with invisible kings, and Reverse Schrödinger’s Chess has each player secretly deploying their opponent’s back row pieces.

Rules for “Fog of War” chess variants [PDF]

I had a lot of fun completing these exercises (also learning how to use LaTeX to make fancy rulebooks). Even as someone who works on games every day, it’s been valuable to stretch my creative muscles and make games under unfamiliar constraints.

The Game Design Book Club is online and open to everyone, so feel free to follow along if it interests you. The November selection is Shooter, “an anthology of critical essays about first-person shooters” that Clint Hocking has spoken highly of.

→ No CommentsTags:  ·  ·  · 

The ‘P’ in NPR

Miscellaneous

NPR

The podcast Radio Diaries recently featured an insightful interview with Bill Siemering, one of the founders of National Public Radio. In it, they discuss the original NPR mission statement written in 1969; the document outlined their vision for non-commercial radio that would bring context, culture and humanity to the news.

Mr. Siemering read a short excerpt from the mission statement on the podcast, and I was moved by how sincere and optimistic it was. I have always enjoyed NPR, and knowing the lofty ideals behind its founding only deepens my appreciation. As a media creator, their statement articulates the kind of values that I aspire to express in my own work. In fact, I was so impressed and inspired that I wanted to share some brief quotes from it here (courtesy of the transcription by Transom.org).

National Public Radio will serve the individual, it will promote personal growth, it will regard the individual differences with respect and joy, rather than derision and hate. It will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied, rather than vacuous and banal. It will encourage a sense of active, constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness.

[…]

The total service should be trustworthy, enhance intellectual development, expand knowledge, deepen aural aesthetic enjoyment, increase the pleasure of living in a pluralistic society, and result in a service to listeners which makes them more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent, responsible citizens of their communities and the world.

[…]

It would speak with many voices and many dialects. The editorial attitude would be that of inquiry, curiosity, concern for the quality of life, critical problem solving, and life loving. The listener should come to rely upon it as a source of information of consequence, of having listened as having made a difference in his attitude toward his environment and himself.

[…]

National Public Radio will not regard its audience as a market, or in terms of its disposable income, but as curious, complex individuals who are looking for some understanding, meaning, and joy in the human experience.

I’ve highlighted a few sections that I thought were particularly eloquent. You can read NPR’s entire original mission statement here.

To relate this to my own work, I wonder how a video game could “celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied”. How can we engage our players as “curious, complex individuals” with “a sense of active, constructive participation”? I don’t have any clear answers, but I’ll aspire to keep such objectives at the heart of my creative work.

→ No CommentsTags:  · 

Playing Games on Twitter

Internet, Video Games

Twitter Bot Quilt

I was recently interviewed by Jason Johnson at Kill Screen about the intersection of two of my favourite topics: video games and Twitter bots. Specifically, he wanted to explore the possibilities of using Twitter as a platform for games, and I was happy to oblige! You can read the interview over on their site:

Kill Screen – Is Twitter the Next Playground for Gamers?

In preparation for our discussion, I took some time to catalogue all the game & game-like bots I could find. For instance, image bots (such as Lowpolybot, a_quilt_bot & pixelsorter) are interactive, but are they games? Others explore content from games (MinecraftSigns, Book of the Dead) without being games per se.

Some bots (AnagramBot, ThesaurusGame, and my own TinyCrossword) function like public game shows; anyone on Twitter can reply but only the first correct answer will win. More egalitarian bots (wordassocbot, mazebotgame & fmkvote) let everyone play, and choose their inputs randomly or in aggregate1. There’s a category of bots that don’t take player input at all, but instead play games against themselves (ChessBotWhite & reverseocr). You could even interpret artassignbot as a game, if you approached its assignments sincerely!

Bots can also explore game-like procedural generation and world building. ARealRiver, tiny_star_field and dungeon_bot assemble unicode symbols into microcosms, cleverly working within the constraints of Twitter. Similarly, fantasy_florist and youarecarrying evoke imaginary worlds using only brief descriptions.

Ultimately, I believe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to playing on Twitter and interacting with bots. There are many interesting creative opportunities in both, so I encourage my fellow bot enthusiasts to continue creating and experimenting!

1 The popular streaming bot Twitch Plays Pokémon uses a similar approach.

Tags:  · 

© 2007-2016 Matthew Gallant, hosted by A Small Orange, powered by Wordpress.