Friday, October 4, 2013

MEGA Gamejam

Hey, y'all.

I'll skip over the whole I'm-sorry-for-not-posting-more shpiel, because let's be honest, reader: this is my second post on this blog, and hey, you probably only exist in the proverbial sense anyway, so it's not like you're really capable of being bothered. Or maybe that was a totally racist thing to say, and proverbial people have feelings just like you and I, and why can't we all just get along, Brendan? Why do you have to be such a bag of dicks?

Anyway, enough of whatever that was. So I did a gamejam over last weekend, and I figured it'd be fun to talk about it a little bit here. The jam was with MEGA, the student game development organization at USC, and was called the "I don't know what I'm doing!" jam. I really enjoyed it: it was pretty much my first experience developing games in a social context, and I met a lot of really cool people who also enjoy being silly and making things.

In keeping with the introductory spirit of the jam, the theme was "My First ______", with the blank being totally up to us. I actually had quite a bit of trouble coming up with ideas that I wanted to use: I really saw the theme as an opportunity to make something sentimental, and to maybe take a little break from my tounge-in-cheek, "well aren't I just the cleverest asshole on the asshole tree?" style. I was pretty happy with how Brain Tumor Lawyer turned out last time, but I've been wanting for a while to make something simple and pretty, something that treats the user a little more sincerely.

Anyway, this ended up being an exercise in utter frustration: at the end of that first night, I had a bunch of half-baked ideas that I couldn't accomplish anyway, and a prototype for a concept that I wanted nothing more to do with.

The next morning, I decided that I just had to pick an idea and run with it, or else I'd have nothing to show for the weekend. So I sat down, started working, and ended up implementing an idea I had come up with many years prior. Let me describe my game, "My First Act of Love":

A recurring mistake I make theme in my work is having an
 executable file whose name does not match the name of the game it contains

Download Link: Coming soon! (Have to get permission for the music)

The game starts off with a fake title screen. Back when I was brainstorming words to fill the "My First _____" prompt, I thought it would be funny to have a title that suggested the player's first experience with something, something that the game would coerce them to do.


The gag continues for a little bit, with the next screen containing a narrative prompt that gives the players detailed instructions on getting brain damage (find a hard surface, and hit your head against it a lot). Halfway through the 4th line of text, a prompt fades in at the bottom, reading "Spacebar: 'This is bullshit. Take me to the real game.'" And upon pressing the spacebar, the player is taken to the game's actual title screen:

Nothing says "professional" quite like a rainbow gradient

And with a final jolt of the Enter key, the player is taken to the game!

The background and the meter in the lower left corner appear as solid colors in screenshots, but in the game they are flashing through the whole rainbow.
The semitransparent circle to the right of the player is actually a cursor. As you can probably guess, it was way too subtle for players to intuitively understand it as a game entity.
According to multiple descriptions, the rainbow sprites look like colorful little bacon strips.

Players embody the little yellow face-guy, who's just about the happiest shmuck on the block. He's overflowing with more love than he can contain in just his body, and so he traverses the land, using his love to free hearts of their captivity in chains. When the player's key collides with a heart, the chains fall off, and the heart starts to erupt rainbows everywhere. Players have 1 minute to free as many hearts as they can.

 Movement is a little funky: players use the arrow keys to move a cursor to the position they want their character to move, and several times each second, the face-guy will do a little rainbow-dash to the cursor. It's essentially a classical 8-direction movement, but the dashing makes each move incrementalized, and gives the game a bit of pizzaz.

The HUD bar in the lower-left corner is constantly going down, but collecting the little smiley faces will refill it. It's not entirely evident what it does, though, until the player starts to witness it running out:

At a low enough threshold, the bar stops flashing and becomes a solid white

Whoops. It's probably pretty clear what this all is, but I'll spell it out for you anyway. The entire game is a hallucination: the smiley-faces are LSD, the "chained-up-hearts" are screaming innocents, and the player's key is a knife. You're a tripped-out junkie in some basement, and you're killing a lot of people. For better or for worse, though, the state of your LSD trip does not affect the way the game is scored.

Honestly, I think it has to say something about me, that I sat down on the first night of this jam wanting to make something sentimental, and by the last day ended up with this. While the other jammers and observers were pretty amused with the game afterward, though, I went to bed that night with a strange sense of unsease.

Now, I've always understood that in my first few years as a game designer, I need to curb my expectations regarding the value of what I hope to create, and that for now, I just need to focus on finishing things. But though this game is indeed quite limited-- "Move around and collect things" has never been such an inspired archetype, and most of the user experience is loaded in first-time shock value-- my discomfort with this went a little deeper than it being a not-so-interesting game. That night, I was feeling like the thing I had made was obscene.

When I was in second grade, I had this sweet babysitter. My brothers and I were always excited when he would come around, because he was the only male sitter among all the others we'd ever had, and we'd get to talk about fun boy things, like video games. One night, though, this sitter called my brothers and I to come around the computer, and he showed us one of Newgrounds' "Madness" Cartoons. I don't remember it so specifically, as since then I haven't touched one of these, but I remember being utterly horrified by the carnage in that cartoon. I had never seen anything so horrible, and for weeks that stupid clown was the first one to greet me when I closed my eyes every night.

Of course, as most gamers do when they grow up, I eventually grew far more used to simulated violence: my friend and I recently had a lot of fun messing around in Mortal Kombat, and I can even enjoy games like Madworld. But in both of those games, the brutality comes from and goes towards dehumanized bad people. Looking back on my game that night, I was thinking about snuff films, and those image boards where people post photographs of dead bodies in car accidents. Those spaces of the web have always scared the shit out of me, because the fact of their existence implies a section of the population who don't agree that people getting killed is bad.

I don't want to sound like I'm giving myself too much credit here: the thing I made is waaay too crude to be as disturbing as a gore-board, or even a Saw flick. It's just not so much that what I made was utterly disturbing, but that it at least tried to use the same sort of tone; it was in a category of media whose existence, I think, makes the world a worse place to leave in.

Mortal Kombat and Madworld use violence in a silly way; dudes don't get ripped cleanly in half in real life, and so seeing it happen is actually kind of funny. It's this lightheartedness that makes the experience feel safe. But that night, all I could think was that second-grade-me would've been horrified by what I made, and far more than just some silly fighting game, because the game implies a space where people want to see people getting killed.


Anyway, this was a pretty weird night for me, but I've been feeling better about the project since then. In the end, the only important thing at the end of a game jam is that you've made something. You want that something to work, and you want that something to look alright. Anything else beyond that is nice, but not the point of the challenge. The whole idea of jam themes, after all, is that we let go of our meta-goals as artists, and make something we wouldn't usually make.

I'm still a little bothered by what I made, and I certainly wouldn't want anybody in my family knowing about this. But though I can't necessarily feel pride in what it is, I can at least feel good that it is.

And ultimately, it was a fun event. I got to have my work on display, and got to meet a lot of cool people who also make games. Together, we casually laughed off the thing I had, for some reason, created.


So my plan with this blog is to just post updates whenever I do new gamey things. If I were a "real" developer, I'd have enough going on that I'd be on some weekly schedule, but as it stands, my first semester classes have nothing to do with games, and I'm only able to put so much time into game jams and sidelined pet projects.

If anybody's actually here, maybe I'll put out an open question, just for the sake of fun: Have you ever worked really hard on something, only to find out once it was finished that you hated what it represented?  I have this amusing picture in my mind of somebody like Jonathan Blow, who with the last semicolon of his code realizes he's spent a month re-making Farmville.

So yeah, I hope you enjoyed reading this, Proverbial Reader. And Actual Reader, well, I'm just thankful you took the time. I really don't intend for my future entries to be so freaking long; this was just a project that I felt kind of weird about by the end, and so I wanted to convey that. In the future I think my jam posts will be a little more straightforward, just a simple "Hey, Look at what I made!"

Anyway, too many words here. I'm out. Love ya!