Writing a Game

A controller for videogames

You may have spotted that I’ve been banging on about games for the last few posts. That’s because I’ve been playing a lot of games. In fact I’ve been doing a lot more of that than reading books. And I’ve been thinking about how narrative works in games. Which has led to the obvious conclusion of trying to write a game.

So that’s what I’ve been up to.

And will be up to for a little while, because my joyful enthusiasm for writing a game has been met with the actual reality of writing a game.

Because games have code.
And graphics.
And sound.
And all kinds of other shenanigans, as well as the, y’know, fun bit of writing some frippery.

But I’m giving it a go and will post the result here when I’m done. First off though, here’s a few initial thoughts.

How the arse does one start making a game? The good news is that there are a shedload of tools available for free these days. Including some pretty impressive pieces of kit. Like the Unreal Engine.

That’s the engine that games like the next Shenmue and Psychonauts sequels are being built around. It’s bona fide triple A. Also, hurrah for Psychonauts 2! So, being a rookie game developer, the engine responsible for massively ambitious games seemed like the very best place to start.

Yeah. Right.

There are plenty of tutorials knocking around (of varying quality – one was by a chap who had no idea how to use it, but decided to upload a tutorial anyway. Weird), but I swiftly realised that it may have been just a tad ambitious. Particularly as I was missing the most important thing: an idea.

Stupid, huh? I wouldn’t start writing a novel or short story or play without a decent idea of what I was trying to accomplish, so how on earth could I start fiddling around with game design without a plan.

So I had a bit of a think about the games I’ve enjoyed the most recently – Life Is Strange, Witcher 3, The Stanley Parable to name a few – and what common themes I could glean. I’ve also, while looking for some light relief, been trying Wolfenstein: The New Order. It’s a standard linear shooter; very well put together, but I really have struggled to engage with it as it’s so… well… linear. So there’s the answer: I wanted to make something with options and choice.

An idea formed, and after a frank discussion with myself about my art skills (C at GCSE was bloody generous) I settled on an engine called Gamemaker Studio. There have been big games made with it – Undertale and Hotline Miami for example – but it seems a bit easier to get to grips with. There’s also a massive tutorial community on YouTube which is great and much needed.

And so for the last few weeks I’ve been teaching myself the basics of coding, getting increasingly lost in ‘if’ statements, plus learning about pixel art. And somewhere in there I’ve written a load of dialogue and recorded half of it in a variety of silly voices.

Watch this space.

But don’t hold your breath.

@BornToPootle

 

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Scary Games Vs Scary Films

Scaredface

Such scare. So fear.

I’m a big horror fan.

That’s a meaningless statement really. You might reasonably think that I have seen all the Saw films, beaten a path to anything Wes Craven and have a stack of Stephen King novels on the bookshelves. Only one of those is actually the case (King – what a writer!).

Instead, I went through the obligatory video nasty phase as a teenager/early 20-something, got caught up on Japanese and Korean horror films and have fallen in love with more recent(ish) efforts like Kill List and The Babadook. The horror genre is a varied thing, with much to offer. Including games.

I’ve tried my hand at a couple of horror games of late, and I’m not sure what to think. Not because I didn’t find them scary. Quite the opposite, actually. Possibly they’re too scary. Or is it something else?

The only film I have ever left because I was too scared was Return To Oz. I was 4. Jesus, that scared me. I finally watched the whole thing just a couple of years ago, and was pleased to find that it’s still creepy as all hell. But since then, I’ve never left a horror film unfinished, be it Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead (though I should have left part way through the turgid remake) or A Tale Of Two Sisters. But the two games I’ve played recently? I don’t think I can finish them.

Which games am I actually talking about? Alien Isolation and Soma. Both sci-fi horror, both high production values, both really high on my must-play list last year. And I really like both of them, to a point.

Warning – there are some spoilers ahead, more for Alien Isolation as I really haven’t got that far in Soma

Alien Isolation looks great. It sounds great. And for a long time it’s a fun horror experience. Being stalked through a (sort of) empty space station by a seldom-glimpsed iconic monster is a real thrill. It’s pretty much exactly what I hoped for, even if a lot of my playing time was spent looking out from cupboards.

AlienIsolation

Cupboard simulator 2014

But, as in the film Alien, there are androids. Not one bumbling-then-oh-shit-he’s-evil android, but a whole load of them. And the hero, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, starts to pick up a few weapons to deal with them. Never much ammo though. And that’s when things started to go downhill.

The alien isn’t killable. Not with the weapons, at least. You can drive it off with a flamethrower, but it’ll keep coming back. Fine. The androids though, them you can kill. It takes a bit of off effort, but they go down eventually. And so the grind began. Sometimes I killed the androids, sometimes they killed me. And suddenly all sense of fear has gone, replaced with something different: stress.

By the time I’d stop-started and died-killed my way through a room full of androids and dropped down into an alien hive I felt exasperated rather than exhilarated. And now here’s something new – killable little facehuggers. And the grind continues. I’d trade all my weapons for a good cupboard to hide in…

So far in Soma it’s a similar-ish experience to early Alien: Isolation. No weapons whatsoever and unknowable beasties patrolling desolate corridors. I’m in. I’m hooked. And then suddenly I’m more stressed than scared and the illusion gently crumbles. My character is perhaps forever stuck hiding around a corner as a monster traipses back and forth ahead. My character isn’t too scared to move, he just can’t be bothered. He’ll stay listening to the creepy sound effects and having a good time that way.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if it’s something about being able to die and retry that spoils horror games for me. In a film you’re stuck. It’s going to carry on no matter how scared you get, it has a momentum that you can’t stop.

The last chunk of Kill List for example, down in the tunnels in the dark, disoriented and being chased by people neither the audience or main characters quite understand, is thrilling. What about Pulse? There’s a ghost woman walking in ghastly slow motion towards the main character, stumbling in slow-mo. It’s weird and horrible and unnerving as holy hell. But what if the character bungled their escape, and instead of the film ending they had to try it again. And again. And again. The fear would dissipate. It would become stressful. Then annoying.

There are alternatives though. Bioshock managed its horrors brilliantly – there are moments of the first game that I remember as clearly as any great film scare. It’s certainly more action-centric than Alien or Soma, so a slightly different vibe I suppose. I enjoyed Until Dawn recently – the idea that there was no do-over, no reloading if a character dies worked well, adding to in-the-moment tension without becoming merely stressful.

So what horror games can you recommend that don’t trade fear for stress? Layers of Fear looks intriguing…

Maybe I should just get better at games. That’s probably the best answer.

@BornToPootle

 

Games as storytelling tools

I’ve written before about using videogames as storytelling tools – specifically Fable 2 and the awesome stories you can tell away from the main thrust of the game. Well, in addition the shorter narrative-centric games I mentioned in my last post, I’ve also just finished GTA 5 (as with Witcher 3 which I mentioned last week, ‘finished’ is something of a misnomer for games of this size) and it’s got some great tools for storytellers.

My love for Fable comes in part from the interactions you can have – you can get married, go off on a quest and then find that your wife has left you. What you do then is up to you; it’s not important to the ‘proper’ plot, but if you want you can decide how your character would respond. Go to the local tavern, get roaring drunk and pull a barmaid? Give up adventuring for a while to live a life of celibacy and wood-chopping? Have a breakdown and start massacring innocents? Belch everywhere you go? It’s absolutely up to your own creativity.

GTA 5 is slightly different. Sure, when certain things happened to the main characters I updated their outfits and hairstyles to better suit their mental (and financial) states. I made sure they listened to the radio stations they liked rather than my favourites all the time. But although there are myriad things to do in the main GTA 5 game, the way you actually interact with the world doesn’t give that sense of creative freedom…

…until unleashing the director mode and Rockstar Editor. And it’s utterly brilliant.

In director mode you can select from hundreds of different characters in the game (including animals after a bit of unlocking), as well as your own customised characters from the online game, and record them doing… whatever. With all manner of gestures and dialogue, as well as the ability to add props into the world, it’s creative paradise. Once you’ve recorded some action, you can then completely edit the hell out of it, changing camera angles, speed, adding music, splicing scenes together to create whatever you want.

My first foray into the editor was a simple ‘I wonder what I can do’ type scene. Playing to the cliché, I attempted to blow some things up and cause a bit of mayhem. Here are the results – ‘attempted’ is the important word.

That was fun to put together, but ultimately I fancied doing something non-violent. I’ve been a longtime GTA fan, but as games look ever more real I find some aspects more problematic than I used to. Strippers are paradoxically less fun to visit when they look like strippers rather than polygons. Weird, right? And while the blackly comic tone mollifies some of my qualms, not everything needs to come down to violence. So that’s where my next video came from.

Here’s the audition day for Los Santos Community Theatre’s production of Waiting For Godot:

I shan’t expect Hollywood (should that be Vinewood?) to call any time soon! That said, the latter clip only took a couple of hours of messing around, and I haven’t really dug deep into the tools available on the editor yet. I’m going to try a few more non-violent videos and see what I can come up with – no idea how it would work yet, but some kind of rom-com is quite appealing…

@BornToPootle