Lessons from the BearPig

Learning to think of myself as an ever-improving artist instead of a bad artist

Something I realized tonight is that a lot of my perception of my own art abilities is probably due to having my first job in video games be at LucasArts.

I was pretty over-confident when I started there, and I thought of myself as at least a pretty good artist if not an exceptional one. I didn’t have any aspirations of taking a full-time job as an artist or animator, but I figured I wasn’t bad for a programmer, and being around so many talented professionals would be a great opportunity to get better.

The attitude at the company — or at least, the parts of the company that I came in contact with — was a lot more binary than that: you either were an artist, or you weren’t. “Programmer art” was at best disposable, and more often something that was to be sought out and destroyed as early and as thoroughly as possible, lest it somehow infect the game and bring shame down upon the entire company.

To be clear, I don’t think it was at all unreasonable. There’s no sense in having art made by amateurs in a place that was hiring some of the best professional artists in the business. And I get it on a personal level, too. I wouldn’t want somebody coming in and trying to do my job, even if they were good at it. But it did have a permanent side effect: it made me start to think of my own art skills not just as “not professional,” but as “not fit to be seen by humans.”

It’s only recently that I’ve started to break free from the Talent Binary. It doesn’t have to be either professional-quality or worthless. I’ve slowly started to appreciate that the stuff I draw doesn’t necessarily have to be great, that it’s okay if it’s just good enough. Does it convey what it needs to convey, and does it seem “genuine” instead of just an uninspired copy of someone else’s work? That’s probably good enough.

I also started to appreciate that it doesn’t even necessarily need to be good, if I enjoy doing it. It’s only by being in environments that literally treated art as a commodity that I got locked in the mindset of art as being a product. It’s okay to just have fun trying. And I also started to accept that while I might be able to reach a level of skill that I’m completely satisfied with, if I put in the work every day to practice and get better, I don’t actually enjoy it enough to do that. It feels pretty good to let myself off the hook, without thinking that I have to give it up entirely.

There was a piece of programmer art in The Curse of Monkey Island that was a perfect example of the lessons I should have taken from LucasArts instead of the ones that I did.

For quite a long time during development, the title screen of the game was a DeluxePaint creation by my boss, the lead programmer. It was a simple scene with a calming, light blue background. In the center was the text “The Curse of Monkey Island,” in the usual SCUMM dialog font which some nerd out there probably knows the exact name of but I don’t. Below was a curved line depicting a beautiful sandy beach, and on either side were delightfully abstracted palm trees made from an assortment of brown and green polygons. And in the center of the screen was a face: a perfect brown circle, with two light brown semi-circles representing the ears, two black circles for the eyes, and a light brown circle that was the snout. As the title text suggested, it was the Bear Pig of Monkey Island. At the time, and being the arrogant little shits that we were, we made fun of it. Even the artist himself called it “bad programmer art.”

But was it? It did exactly what it needed to do, which is provide a backdrop for game initialization and indicate where the final title sequence would begin. And during development, it set the mood. This wasn’t just some numbered sequel, but a story with a title and everything. The island evoked the crystal clear waters and sandy beaches of the Caribbean, to envelop us in our tropical setting every day while we sat inside a dark windowless office in Northern California.

And the Bear Pig was a reminder of the folly of arrogant men trying to tamper in God’s domain, daring to create blasphemous, hybrid monstrosities that could serve no possible purpose other than to be a lesson in human fallibility. A valuable lesson to all of us not to get too cocky while working in one of our favorite franchises!

So was it “good” art? No. Oh God, no. No no no no no. But was it good enough? Also no. But… did it serve its purpose? Considering that 25 years later, it’s still a fun memory of one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on a team I’m still amazed I was lucky enough to work with, I’d give it a qualified “maybe.”

I, Too, Am An Adult With Very Strong Opinions About Mario Mario

Lazy dunking on casting Chris Pratt has revealed something I never fully appreciated about the franchise

For a minute, I was confused by how people were having such a strong aversion to the Super Mario Bros trailer, considering that Chris Pratt only has a total of two lines and some assorted grunts. Then I remembered the thing that I always forget about Twitter, which is that it’s all about being first, not about being insightful. People have been gearing up to scoff and/or be outraged ever since the first (admittedly weird) casting announcement, and it’s way too late at this point for anyone to say, “we will remain cautiously optimistic until we see more footage from this family-oriented animated feature film” I often forget how the internet works, and for that I apologize.

But as I was getting more baffled and annoyed at people getting so worked up over nothing, I started to realize something that I never fully appreciated about the Mario series: Miyamoto and Nintendo DGAF. Or rather, they care deeply about the right things, but don’t particularly care about the things people on the internet expect them to care about.

Because pretty much all of the Mario games show such a great amount of care and attention to the smallest details — all of the main-line ones, definitely, and most of the side games, even including many of the licensed ones — it’s easy for me to take for granted that they’re obsessive over the same stuff that I’d be obsessive over, if I were in charge of a hugely profitable, long-running, global franchise: world-building, character development, continuity, and so on.

What’s weird is that I’ve kept thinking of them in those terms, even though there’s absolutely zero evidence in any of the games or licensed material. Each of the games1Except for the direct sequels, like Mario Galaxy to Mario Galaxy 2 takes place in a different universe. Many of the characters and settings are recurring, but new ones are constantly being introduced and old ones re-imagined. Everything is based on the central mechanic of the game — he’s got a magic hat! he’s got a spray gun! he can turn into a cat! he’s in 3D! — and, like 1984, is treated as if it’s always been that way, of course: “King Koopa has always been at war with the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario has always been able to jump through star gates between tiny planets.” Mario has been doing multiverses since before it was cool.

Granted, it’s not the most insightful epiphany I’ve ever had, but it gives me even more appreciation of the brilliance of the franchise than I had before. If Miyamoto and Nintendo were as precious with Mario and the associated characters as some people expect them to be, obsessed with lore and continuity, it would’ve quickly become a soulless, repetitive, and predictable run of decreasingly inspired sequels. Instead, they’ve generally shrugged about the sanctity of the characters2As long as they’re generally family-friendly, and true to a basic set of personality sketches even less detailed than the Disney characters’. and only insisted that the games themselves be imaginative and polished.

Instead of being overly fixated on a style bible, they’ve allowed the characters to be re-interpreted in dozens of different (and highly marketable!) ways. Why shouldn’t they play tennis together, or golf, or race go-karts? Why can’t they have plumbing side-jobs as doctors or ghost-hunters or typing instructors? Instead of being overly possessive of their “classic” assets, they made two whole games just giving you all the pieces and inviting you to remix your own games. Instead of being risk-averse with casting, they agreed for their flagship character to be played by a professional wrestler, and a British guy.

I initially thought it was weird to cast Chris Pratt as Mario, but in retrospect that was a dumb reaction. Why not cast a personable movie and TV star with experience doing comedy in both live action and animation as the lead in your animated family action comedy? Mario actor Charles Martinet (who is also prominently credited in the trailer) is extremely good at suggesting a ton of character with just the occasional “it’s-a me!” and “okey dokey!” but that specific voice would be hell of grating over an entire feature film. And having Mario stare blankly and silently while the surrounding characters are all energetic and interesting would just rob Mario of any personality; he’d end up Gordon Freeman-ed.

So to sum up: I think the new movie looks pretty neat and fun, and I’m more interested in it than I was before. I think Nintendo’s handling of the Mario characters is even more clever than I did before. And a lot of people on Twitter seriously need to chill out, go outside, and touch some mushrooms.

  • 1
    Except for the direct sequels, like Mario Galaxy to Mario Galaxy 2
  • 2
    As long as they’re generally family-friendly, and true to a basic set of personality sketches even less detailed than the Disney characters’.

Haven’t Got Time for Immortality

Immortality is both a masterwork and a frustrating example of the limitations of interactive storytelling. Spoilers within.

Immortality is a fascinating and frustrating interactive movie that asks the audience to solve the mystery of what happened to a promising young actress by watching and scrubbing through clips from her three unreleased films. I can’t remember ever having this kind of reaction to interactive entertainment, where I can recognize that it is both a fantastic achievement of ambition and execution, and also a disappointment.

I’ve been careful to say “interactive movie” and “audience” instead of “video game” and “player,” because Immortality is not a game. I don’t consider calling something “not a game” as a pejorative, and it’s absurd that people get so hung up about it, but this is kind of a weird case. The main thing that keeps it from being a video game is my biggest issue with it: you navigate the experience with insufficient information, so you’re essentially wandering through a collection of very well-made video clips, instead of making meaningful choices.

But this is a perfect example of how I’m of two minds about Immortality, because the thing that made it ultimately not work for me is the same thing that made it an amazing experience for the first several hours. It’s structured so that it’s front-loaded with discovery, as you’re uncovering more and more stuff and marveling at how deep and layered the whole experience is. It’s honestly unlike anything I’ve experienced in games or interactive entertainment before, and to come up with any kind of comparison I’d have to go way way back to the early days of the internet, when following a hypertext link could result in diving down a rabbit hole that seemed to have no end.

I read a review that promised no spoilers, but then talked about something crucial to the game that I really wish I’d discovered myself. So I recommend going in cold, with just one piece of advice: play it with a game controller if at all possible. I spent the first evening using just a mouse and keyboard, and while it was still fascinating, it turned out that I was missing a crucial part of the experience, and I was just going around in circles. The rest of this post is going to necessarily give too much away, so I recommend giving it a try even if just for those spectacular first few hours. It’s absurdly affordable considering how much work obviously went into the production, and it’s also currently included with Xbox Game Pass, if you want to take a risk-free dive into it.

Spoilers follow

I Don’t Know How I Feel About Dreamlight Valley

Disney’s new “kind of free-to-play but also not really” game is confusing the heck out of me and I can’t stop playing it

Disney Dreamlight Valley is like if you took Kingdom Hearts, removed all the traces of a Japanese RPG, and replaced them with The Sims and Animal Crossing. Or, if you want an unfairly uncharitable interpretation: if you made an IP-synergy game mashing up most of Disney’s characters, applied free-to-play mechanics, and then sold it as a retail product.

To be clear, it’s not actually a free-to-play game, and its mechanics don’t feel anywhere near that exploitative. It’s more like the Sims 4 model, where there’s an endless supply of purchasable content, except you can get much of it just by playing the game normally. Even though “normally” does often feel like doing fetch quests or variants on “collect these 3 things” or “cook these 3 things,” or waiting for timers to expire.

It’s odd, is my point, which might be entirely because I’ve largely been out of the whole “casual games” environment for the past several years. Maybe this is just how these types of games work now, and I’m unfairly equating the mechanics with the types of free-to-play games that I absolutely hate?

Whatever the case, the end result is that I’m absolutely hooked on it, even as I’m constantly wondering whether it’s “okay” for me to be hooked on it. I keep wondering whether I can just enjoy it in perpetuity until I get tired of it, like Animal Crossing, or whether the other shoe is going to drop at any moment, and I’ll find the seedy underside of the business model. I suspect that I’m either just paranoid, or too set in my ways, where you paid your 50-60 bucks and got the entire game until the sequel came along a few years later. I get nervous when I see any sign of the business model in the game design itself.

Which isn’t entirely fair, because Dreamlight Valley is charming as hell. I’ve played this kind of “let’s throw all of our IP together in one place” type game a few times before, from cheaper mobile games to more ambitious stuff like Kingdom Hearts and Disney Infinity, and the art direction and production value of Dreamlight Valley is some of the best yet. It feels aimed at a mid-range, widely accessible game engine, instead of being thrown together on the cheap. The characters and locations I’ve seen so far all stay close to their on-screen versions — without radical redesigns to give everything a common art direction — and I think it all works pretty well.

I’m also very happy that they’ve continued the trend of the Disney Animation Studios 3D character designs for humans that started around Tangled or Frozen, which allow for customization and skew towards cartoons, but are all inherently appealing. I can only dream of hitting the level of Daddiness that my in-game avatar pulls off effortlessly, even if I do still wish that the game had representation for people like me, i.e. those whose hair and beard are completely different colors.

It looks like they’re ready for a full suite of dozens of different characters, so they’re not all exhaustively animated, but each has a set of standard animations that’s still full of character. Merlin does his happy dance, Maui slaps his chest, Remy acts enraptured by what he’s smelling, and so on.

Also, for all my uneasiness at the systems and “compulsion loops” seemingly laid bare, the systems do all fit together in clever and frequently satisfying ways. I’m too much of a Gen Xer to ever be completely comfortable when Disney starts laying it on thick with the power Dreams and Magic and Imagination, but I still am extremely pleased to be playing a game where you level up by doing nice things for your friends. It’s just a really nice, comforting suspension of disbelief to be able to ignore the fact that you’re looking at a semi-randomly-generated list of craftable items, and instead tell yourself, “I’m going to take the time to make Mickey Mouse a vegetable casserole, because I know it’s his favorite.”

I’m playing the game on PC with Xbox Game Pass, which might be part of why I can’t quite get comfortable with it. I still don’t fully understand the business model of subscription services. At least with free-to-play games, I had a vague understanding that they were exploiting “whales” who contributed more money than the average player. I hate it, but at least I understand it. Playing a game like Dreamlight Valley — with its roped-off hallways suggesting near-infinite expansion packs and downloadable content in the future — might feel more relaxing if I’d paid for it up front.

At least for now, though, I’ll keep doing favors for Scrooge McDuck (more or less the Dreamlight Valley version of Tom Nook) and trying on different outfits and cooking meals for Mickey Mouse to take on picnics and do my best to ignore the feeling that the rug is going to get pulled out from under me.

My Favorite Games: Device 6

A brilliant, Prisoner-inspired game for iOS from way back when iOS felt like it had limitless potential as an inventive gaming platform

As I said back in 2013: Device 6 is a painfully good game for iOS by Simogo. From inspiration to execution, art direction to technical implementation to music, it’s just a masterpiece.

Everything I loved about it in 2013 is still true. It’s so imaginative, so slick and inventive in its presentation, that I was scrambling to solve the puzzles just so I could get to the next scene. It still feels like they approached the project as if they could do anything they wanted, and every decision they made was exactly the right one. It’s even got a few really catchy songs!

One thing that’s changed since back then: a while ago, I realized that I’ve been absurdly fortunate that people have made the effort to get in touch with me a few times and tell me that they really enjoyed something I worked on. It makes me feel great every time, but my imposter syndrome always kicks in before I can really appreciate what a gift it is. And yet I never do the same for the creators of stuff I like, instead just coming here to gush about stuff on a blog that essentially might as well be private. So one night I wrote a fan email to the Simogo website, sending thanks for the game and a link to the above blog post. And I got a kind and gracious response from one of the makers of the game, assuring me that yes, the homages to The Prisoner were very much deliberate.

Looking back at the game now just reminds me of how, early on, it seemed like iOS was a platform with infinite potential for imaginative new games and an install base big enough to make development of those games sustainable. Thinking of non-shooting games a few days ago reminded me of another favorite iOS game, Helsing’s Fire, which had such charming presentation and a central mechanic that was a) ingenious, and b) really only suited to a pocket-sized, powerful computer with a touch screen1I’d forgotten how clever that game was. “DRACULA: What are you doing? Stop it.”.

Unfortunately, iOS didn’t go in the direction of Device 6, but instead encouraged a race for the bottom and the overwhelming preponderance of free-to-play2Or more accurately, pay-to-win games. Lately I’ve been using the Duolingo app again, and the ads for Unity puzzle games just make me feel like they’ve found a way to take all of my optimism from the early days of the App Store, crystallize it, burn it to cinders, pee on it, bury it in a deep hole near a sewer, plant a tree, pee on the tree, cut the tree down, set the remnants on fire, eat the ashes and shit them out, bury the shit in the same hole, point and laugh at the ground where my optimism is buried, and then come to my house, ring the doorbell, and when I answer the door, slap me in the face.

But Device 6 is still really, really great.

  • 1
    I’d forgotten how clever that game was. “DRACULA: What are you doing? Stop it.”
  • 2
    Or more accurately, pay-to-win

My Favorite Games: Portal

Looking back on a masterpiece that lets you take a peek through the fourth wall but never breaks it

I’m not going to be the guy who suddenly has a breathtaking new insight about Portal. Even if it hadn’t been analyzed and re-analyzed and over-analyzed over the past 15 years, I’ve already had multiple chances to write something clever about it. And I’ve never come up with something better than “Damn this game is good, huh?”

While I’ve been making this ongoing list of my favorite video games, I’ve been trying to come up with a concise1At least, as concise as I ever get explanation for why it’s so memorable to me. That’s especially difficult with Portal, because it gets everything right.

It’s the perfect length, lingering on each idea just long enough for you to get it before moving on2Which is a big part of why I like it more than its more ambitious and frequently more spectacular sequel. Its antagonist is one of the best-written and best-realized characters in any game. Its aesthetic is instantly unforgettable and fits perfectly with the tone of the game. And that tone was a revelation: confidently hilarious, sinister, and self-aware while never coming across as trying too hard. It’s obvious why it more or less became the default “voice” of the whole company.

And while a lot of people (including myself) were navel-gazing and trying to figure out how narrative games function at their core, trying to solve the unresolvable tension between what the game wants and what the player wants, Portal just did it without making a big fuss about it. “What, is this supposed to be hard?”

Now that it’s been so long since I last played it, and I’m so far removed from it, what sticks with me is how it seemed to be making a point of shattering the fourth wall, when in reality it was doing anything but. While there seemed to be a fad at the time for game developers to wave their hands like stage magicians and whisper “ludonarrative dissonance!” as if they’d just blown your mind, Portal just seems to treat the whole question as if it were silly.

The game’s most surprising moment — when you first “accidentally” get a peek outside of the test chamber — is still fantastic, but in retrospect, it’s not actually as performatively avant garde as I’d thought at the time. The designers weren’t suddenly turning around in their high-backed chairs, taunting us with a sneering “Well well well, it seems you have discovered that this is a video game. But the question remains: are you the player, or are you being played?!” In reality, it was just an unprecedentedly ingenious way of saying “hey, the tutorial is ending.”

I have to be a curmudgeon here and admit that I’m now unimpressed with the games that did make a much more overt assertion that they’re meditations on the nature of player choice and free will. They seem kind of obvious and clumsy now, like the people who act astounded that the Rescue Rangers were designed to look like Indiana Jones and Magnum PI and nobody ever noticed! It’s kind of silly for a game to act like it’s making some deep philosophical observation about player agency when they’re all observations that every player makes the first time they’re allowed to jump on a table or teabag someone during a mission briefing.

So what’s remarkable to me about Portal now isn’t that it breaks the fourth wall, but that it keeps the wall completely intact. It embraces the “gameness” of the game in a way that makes players feel like we’re all in on the joke. The last half of the game, outside the test chambers, is constructed of puzzles that are every bit as contrived and artificial as the ones in the first half; the only difference is that the goal of the puzzle and all of its components aren’t as explicitly spelled out for you.

At the time, I misunderstood that to be a minor flaw in an otherwise perfect game, since all of the “real-looking” environments just drew attention to the artificiality. Now, I feel like they were never all that interested in making it feel “real” at all, but instead assuming that people buying and playing a video game understood how suspension of disbelief works.

It’s not a comment on narrative game design, it’s just really good narrative game design. It keeps the player and the player’s character perfectly aligned throughout: what you want is always exactly the same thing that she wants.

  • 1
    At least, as concise as I ever get
  • 2
    Which is a big part of why I like it more than its more ambitious and frequently more spectacular sequel

My Favorite Games: Pokémon Snap

My favorite game I’ve barely played

There are two video games that have delivered moments of pure, unrestrained joy for me, but that I never bothered to finish. To be clear, I don’t finish the majority of games I play, but I usually at least play enough of them to feel that I’ve gotten the bulk of what they’re trying to deliver. With these two, though, I stopped early on, partly out of a desire to preserve my memory of that one moment where I laughed out loud from sheer delight, as if I were in an advertisement, or an early 80s Spielberg movie.

One of those was Super Mario Galaxy, which I stopped playing not long after the first time seeing Mario getting launched gleefully from a volcano, shooting through stars along the way. The other was the original Pokémon Snap for the Nintendo 64.

As somebody with a long-running obsession with Disney parks, I tried just about every Disney-published game that promised to deliver the experience of their best dark rides. It seems like it would be a natural. Put the player in a ride vehicle, set it off through the level, give the characters more freedom of movement than would be possible with an animatronic, boom, you’ve got a best-seller.

But Disney Interactive never seemed particularly interested in recreating the theme park experience — probably a good thing, actually, since it likely would’ve felt like an unimaginative retread. Of the few Disney-licensed games I know of that are actually set in the parks, the most interesting was probably the cart-racing game through Walt Disney World, and still the novelty wore off fairly quickly.

So I was surprised that the game that best captured the feeling of being on the best of the Disney dark rides wasn’t a Disney-licensed game at all, but Pokémon Snap. The first time I set out on a photo safari, riding the vehicle along a preset path while creatures jumped out from all sides to have their pictures taken, took me right back to being a little kid at the Magic Kingdom.

It also bears pointing out that the creators of Pokémon Snap did a better job of creating an interactive dark ride than any of the actual interactive dark rides that have come out in the 22 years since. Not just because even a Nintendo 64-era virtual environment is capable of being more fantastic and dynamic than a physical one, but because the interaction itself is more interesting. You’re taking photos instead of shooting. I haven’t seen or heard of a single actual ride with an interactive element1Maybe the Mario Kart ride at Universal in Osaka? I still don’t have a clear idea of how “interactive” that ride is. that isn’t built around shooting at a target in some form or another.

Whenever you complain about games — and entertainment in general — being over-reliant on guns and shooting, it’s always interpreted as some kind of scolding, liberal pacifist agenda. As if you’re being too uptight to just let people have the kind of fun that everybody knows they really want to have. And while I do in fact believe that the pathological obsession with guns as entertainment is a significant part of what keeps America’s epidemic of gun violence alive, that’s not even my main objection to guns in interactive fiction. My main objection is that it’s boring. It just shows a lack of imagination.

Obviously, there are some great games that are based on shooting as their primary mechanic2And rides, too. I’m a fan of Toy Story Midway Mania, for instance. But when you have a game like Pokémon Snap (or Fatal Frame, or Portal, or Luigi’s Mansion) that’s giving you a template for how to design an experience that lets the player interact with the world in a new way, it seems like a shame to keep going back to the same old thing.

I’ve always meant to get back into Pokémon Snap and play more than just the first set of levels, but then they released New Pokémon Snap for the Switch. I figured I’d enjoy playing the 20-years-newer version with all the various improvements on the basic formula. I’ve still only played the first set of levels.

But I still feel like I got my money’s worth! It’s not as much of a novelty as the original was, obviously, but it’s still a uniquely satisfying experience, with a gameplay loop not like anything else I’ve played. And now that Universal’s building Super Mario Lands all over the world, maybe one day there’ll be an actual dark ride version of the best dark ride video game?

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    Maybe the Mario Kart ride at Universal in Osaka? I still don’t have a clear idea of how “interactive” that ride is.
  • 2
    And rides, too. I’m a fan of Toy Story Midway Mania, for instance

My Favorite Games: You Don’t Know Jack Movies

Did someone order an 8-inch sausage?

Warning I’m about to be extremely Gen-X here: out of all the multi-million-dollar budgeted AAA games I’ve played, none of them have managed to give me as strong a visceral reaction as the first time I played You Don’t Know Jack, and the pre-show voice said, “All right, lose the desktop.”

That was the first sign that the Jellyvision/Jackbox writers knew how to speak directly to me. In fact, I found out several years later that one of my other most impactful moments in video games — when the Seaman responded eerily insightfully after I told him my favorite movie was Miller’s Crossing — was also written by the team at Jellyvision. The thing that’s been consistent across different games and different genres is a commitment to ignoring conventions and expectations and instead making something that really connects with the audience regardless of the medium.

Or more specifically: the You Don’t Know Jack series isn’t funny for a video game, it’s just plain funny. Even back in the 90s, there was already this whole subculture of in-jokes and self-reference among video games, as if the medium could only ever appeal to a subset of nerds. You Don’t Know Jack defied that by making stuff that engaged with the audience on its own terms, instead of targeting a specific pre-existing audience.

And the Movies version remains my favorite because it felt like they were relentlessly experimenting with the format throughout. All of the question bumpers were built around movie references — my favorites being the bomb countdown, and the porno — with a confidence that the audience was going to get it. They also experimented with the format itself, like with the repeating questions about Groundhog Day. The whole thing gives the impression that they were making video games because they wanted to make video games, not because they were slumming until they could find jobs in “legit” media like television and movies.

I was especially impressed to find out just how much thought went into it, as well. At my first Computer Game Developers Conference1Long enough ago that it was still the Computer Game Developers Conference, I saw a fantastic presentation from Harry Gottlieb in which he explained the philosophy behind the You Don’t Know Jack games (and Jellyvision in general), and how it could be applied to non-game platforms like banking and medical assistance. Seemingly every single detail was designed to tear down the interface — or specifically, assumptions about the interface — and establish a more direct and natural connection between the user and the developer. Among other things, that meant more natural, casual language; and a responsiveness to everything the user did, including stuff that was traditionally ignored in interfaces, like interrupting a prompt.

It’d be well over a decade before those ideas took off, with corporations’ brief fascination with chatbots a few years back. The reason that failed wasn’t concept, but execution: they never really felt natural, so it just felt like adding unnecessary complications to what should have been a much simpler process.

But back to video games: the You Don’t Know Jack series remains the best-written comedy video games ever. And they did it by deliberately not targeting just an audience of video game nerds, but an audience of real people who could be trusted to get the joke.2And also by responding to my taking too long to type in a name by calling me “Loose Stool” for the rest of the game.

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    Long enough ago that it was still the Computer Game Developers Conference
  • 2
    And also by responding to my taking too long to type in a name by calling me “Loose Stool” for the rest of the game.

My Favorite Games: Suikoden 2

The game that changed how I think about Japanese RPGs and how I think about Kobolds

Featured image is from a post about Suikoden 2 on VG247.com

None of the main-line Final Fantasy games will show up in my list of favorite games, because I haven’t loved any of them as much as I loved Suikoden 2. (Final Fantasy 9 comes close, though). It’s my favorite JRPG, and it showed me why people like JRPGs so much. And I probably wouldn’t have heard about it at all, if I hadn’t worked at Infinite Machine.

Final Fantasy 7 was my first introduction to JRPGs, and I was every bit swept up in the hype as every other video game player at the time. I thought that not only was that game representative of the entire genre, but that it was the best possible example of the genre. Did you see those cut-scenes, after all? That epic story that just seemed to keep growing and growing? The absurd production value? I was stunned that they’d drawn or rendered a different combat background for every single environment you could fight in!

By that standard, the Suikoden games seemed like unambitious throwbacks. Why were my coworkers so obsessed with this game? You want me to play a sprite-based game after I’ve just finished this huge adventure with fully-3D characters?1Cloud Strife alone must’ve had at least a dozen polygons! More than that, though: Final Fantasy 7 genuinely pushed video game storytelling forward, both with its more cinematic presentation and also its more complex world-building. Suikoden 2, on the other hand, starts with the most cliched premise for a video game RPG: the main character is a boy whose quiet home town is destroyed in the game’s opening.

As it turns out, that feeling of “old-school JRPG” is a huge part of Suikoden 2‘s charm. And the appeal of a somewhat simpler and more straightforward story, where more focus was put on the game mechanics than a linear storyline, felt like comfort gaming even to those of us who’d never actually played the old-school JRPGs. (There’s a reason Final Fantasy 9 went back to the basics, combining all of the aesthetics of its roots with the series’s newfound focus on more linear and cinematic storytelling: it felt like welcome fan service for people who’d loved the earlier games).

But for being “somewhat simpler,” Suikoden 2 is still enormous. Its basic premise is the same as the other games in the series: the main character must recruit the “107 Stars of Destiny,” characters who will combine to summon some divine power to defeat a great enemy. That means finding each character and completing some type of quest — sometimes simple, but often surprisingly involved — to convince them to join your side. At a certain point in the story, you unlock an abandoned castle as your base of operations, and you can return to the castle and have conversations with all of the characters you’ve recruited.

More than that: an absurd number of those characters can join your adventuring party, using their unique skills in combat. You have a party of six, cleverly split into a front row and back row based on close-up and long-range fighting. There’s a version of Yojimbo, whose animations even include Toshiro Mifune’s mannerisms from that movie, with devastating sword skills. There’s a chef who fights with his frying pan and ladle. There’s a makeshift robot made from a barrel. There’s a squirrel, as well as a noble Kobold warrior and the Kobold puppy who idolizes him.

Many of the characters who don’t join you in combat will instead open up shops in your home base. Meaning that as your team grows, you can buy and craft better items and equipment. Some of the characters will continue their storylines after they’ve been recruited — for example, the chef will frequently be visited by people challenging him to an Iron Chef-style battle mini-game, using the ingredients you’ve found during combat.

And the characters combine in interesting ways. Having similar characters in your party, or in specific placement within your party, will unlock special combination attacks. The two kobolds can unite to unleash a pack of hundreds of dogs onto your enemies, for example.

In terms of game design, it’s just an immensely satisfying combination of systems, all building on top of each other and feeding into each other. But in terms of experience design, it perfectly captures the appeal of the first adventure game or the first RPG that you truly loved: the feeling that the story allowed for limitless exploration, and it would just keep growing and surprising you without end. To be clear, none of the characters’ stories in Suikoden 2 are particularly deep. But they’re all appealing, and there’s so many of them!

I’ve forgotten many of the details about the game, but I can remember the point where it really hit me that this was going to be one of my favorite games.2I’d already fallen in love with Gabocha the Kobold puppy at that point, but I was still thinking of the game overall as “basically charming.” I was exploring the castle that was serving as my home base, and I was surprised that it seemed to keep going and going. It felt as if it’d been clearly set up with areas where a character was obviously going to set up shop, but it also felt as if there were a lot of wasted space. Then I found a cave with an underground lake. What was going to be there? I had no idea, but I couldn’t wait to find out. It struck me like a moment from a Hardy Boys novel. It occurred to me that the real appeal of this game for me wasn’t depth, but delight.

  • 1
    Cloud Strife alone must’ve had at least a dozen polygons!
  • 2
    I’d already fallen in love with Gabocha the Kobold puppy at that point, but I was still thinking of the game overall as “basically charming.”

My Favorite Games: Myst

The first mega-hit CD-ROM game still doesn’t get enough credit for what makes it so special

To start with, two personal notes about Myst:

  1. The dialogue poking fun at the game in Curse of Monkey Island was not written by me, because I was a big fan of the game. And I respect the people I worked with too much to throw Jonathan Ackley under the bus by saying who did write it. (Seriously, though, he’s always said he liked the game, too. The gags in Monkey 3 were just a side effect of Myst being the 900-lb gorilla of CD-ROM adventure games at the time, making it ripe for parody).
  2. My first surprising1Surprising at the time, completely obvious in retrospect crush on a video game character was Achenar in the original Myst. You guys be cool and don’t tell Rand Miller I said this, but Atrus could get it. But I only met Atrus later. For most of the game, the way Achenar would get uncomfortably close to the camera and ham it up, begging me for the pages just got me confusingly twitterpated. What can I say? I admit I’ve got a type: mentally unstable guys trapped in inter-dimensional voids via magic books.

A glance at all the Myst-related wikis tells me that the “trap books” were retconned in subsequent games, although even after reading two separate accounts, I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how or why. The ensuing lore after the first game — built in novelizations, several sequel games, and a seemingly never-ending line of remakes of the original — never managed to grab me. I read The Book of Atrus and played Riven, but that was about as much of D’ni as I could handle.

But that’s not a knock against the extended lore so much as an acknowledgement of what made the first game so special. It was perfectly evocative of a deeper and weirder fantasy story unlike any I’d seen before. The possibilities suggested by Myst were more intriguing to me than any book or game would be able to make explicit.

I think over the years, we’ve collectively come to an over-simplistic explanation for why Myst was such a huge hit: it came at exactly the right time. Both CD-ROM drives and 3D-rendered imagery were still a huge novelty, and the people buying new computers wanted something to show off the potential of a machine with all this newly-available storage. Everyone at the time was talking about the potential of multimedia and new media, but there was little to show for it, apart from discs filled with uninspired shovelware, The Seventh Guest, and Myst.

I think that explains why it became so huge a hit, but it doesn’t explain why Myst has had such longevity. Creatively and artistically, it was all novel and stunning. It went beyond the “steampunk” aesthetic to combine classical architecture, early-20th century sci-fi, contemporary science fiction, and high fantasy. Even the presentation was completely novel to me: the windows into the trap books appearing like static-filled television broadcasts is such a formative idea, and I’d never seen anything like it.

It’s perfectly fitting that a story whose core conceit is the ability to create new worlds by writing in books — worlds limited only by the imagination of the creators — would hop across so many different genres.

Also, I loved it because it was originally made in HyperCard. It seemed like the ultimate realization of what was possible with the software many of us had fallen in love with for its seemingly limitless potential.

A VR version of the original game came out not too long ago, and I tried it on the Oculus Quest. It was not for me. Not only did it give me motion sickness that lasted over 24 hours, but I’d forgotten the degree to which it requires note-taking and generally being aware of the world outside the screen. I tried taking off the headset, updating the notes on my phone, putting it back on to get more information, taking it off again, etc… and it almost immediately felt like more trouble than it was worth. It’s a reminder that VR games in general come from a different age2So to speak: when Myst first came out, it was still pretty common for games to require you have at least a note pad handy, if not a full supplement of printed maps, guides, and code keys. VR took off only after games demanded that everything be supplied in-game3And often with over-long and too exhaustive tutorials.

I’m usually the exact opposite of one of those people who says “In my day, we made graph paper maps for games, and spent hours figuring out ciphers and logic puzzles, and you kids today are too damn soft!” But I’ll make an exception for Myst, since it’s so good at giving you the feeling of being trapped in a world with nothing but clues and scattered pieces of paper, and it’s entirely up to you to puzzle your way out of it.

  • 1
    Surprising at the time, completely obvious in retrospect
  • 2
    So to speak
  • 3
    And often with over-long and too exhaustive tutorials

Crank ’em if you got ’em

My thoughts about the Playdate and some of my favorite games for it so far

For the couple months or so, I’ve been obsessively following the release of the Playdate and responses to it. It’s been driving me crazy to read so many people’s opinions about it and not putting my own up on the internet.1Posting unsolicited opinions is what the internet’s for, after all.

I’m biased, of course, but I think the thing is just fantastic, both the actual device and the philosophy behind it. I think that even though I’ve spent so many years working on a game for it, I didn’t fully appreciate what Panic is doing until I saw its release and the response to it.

And it’s been many years. Several times over the past couple of weeks, I’ve marveled at the fact that a relatively simple, silly strategy game with 1-bit art has taken up five years of my life. Then I made the mistake of digging through my emails to find out when I first sent a pitch document to Panic, and I saw that the date was 2015. So it’s been seven years of my life.

To be fair to me, I haven’t spent that entire time working on Sasquatchers. I spent around a year working on the first game that I pitched, which was weirder and more targeted at an earlier conception of the season model, in which a game would last one week. But while I was pretty happy with how that game was looking, it never really gelled into an actual game. I put that one on hold — I would like to revisit it at some point — and switched to a more straightforward concept. After all, “Advance Wars plus Pokemon Snap” is an easier idea to wrap my head around.

Still, there were lots of redesigns and rewrites. The most compelling part of the game wasn’t even in until pretty late in the process, because I didn’t want to overtax my already strained art skills. Plus there were multiple job changes with accompanying crunch modes, and long stretches of time when I just couldn’t work on the game at all. If I’m being 100% honest, the pandemic and supply chain shortages and other delays are probably the only things that gave me a chance to actually finish the thing.

Even up to the point of release, though, I was still thinking of the Playdate — non-pejoratively — as a “hipster Gameboy.” Something that knew exactly what its niche was and which audience it was targeted at, and would attract a bunch of accomplished indie game devs wanting to make weird side projects.2And people like me, who were lucky enough to have a friend with connections to people at Panic!

But it’s only since the device has been released, and the SDK and developer forums have been made public, that I realized the full implication of Panic’s making a truly open platform for nearly-frictionless game development. It reminded me of my freshman year of college, geeking out over HyperCard and making games with it. I knew I was excited to be able to just make something without all the hassles of technical pipelines and production schedules and marketing and monetization and platform integration, but the real power of the Playdate is making that excitement available to everybody who wants it. It feels like it’s inherently not a device just for consumption; the games are cool on their own, but they’re even cooler as inspiration for you to make your own stuff.

Back when I started working on Playdate games, my old annoyances with Lua came back in a big way. Its simplicity and versatility are great for starting out, but gets progressively more time-consuming as the project gets bigger and more complex. Because the language (and the Playdate SDK for that matter) don’t impose that much structure on you, you have to make it yourself, which often means you’re given plenty of rope to hang yourself. I didn’t have a solid and flexible UI system until way too late in the process, for example, so adding new screens and features took way longer than it should. Once I devoted some time exclusively to setting that up, it made everything that followed much easier to development. So that’s my main tip for anyone making a Playdate game: invest in making a flexible UI system up front!3I’m also planning to rewrite the one I used as an open-source one available on GitHub, assuming I ever get the time to do it.

After I had to put my pencil down on Sasquatchers, the ideas for other games started coming fast and furious. I’m currently about 10 levels deep into a stack of game prototypes and proof-of-concepts; maybe one or two of them will turn into something? I was surprised how much the SDK has matured, too — what felt like a daunting blank slate when I started on Sasquatchers now seems like a trivial process. I’ve gone from “hey, here’s a weird idea” to having a few simple screens and UI running on the device in about 15 minutes. That’s absurd!

If all goes well, Sasquatchers will be released tomorrow to the people who got the first round of devices. I’ve already gone through multiple stages of “This is awful and is going to be such an embarrassment and no one at Panic will ever speak to me again” self-doubt, so seeing it get a pretty good response was an extremely pleasant surprise. Here are a few of the nicest reviews:

Edge magazine’s season one game recaps: “Advance Wars meets Pokémon Snap in this winning combination of strategy and photography.”

ArsTechnica‘s run-down of the 24 season one games: “…the absolute chocolate-and-peanut-butter combo to put Playdate’s library over the top. […] I’m always looking for fun games that prove challenging and engaging without any killing required, and Sasquatchers does that with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and cool, hand-drawn art design. What’s more, the further you get in the game, the more you have to adjust your crew to favor abilities like attracting beasts or opening up field vision, and this tactical spice keeps the game engaging from start to finish.”

The Verge‘s review of the Playdate: “My favorite part is how Sasquatchers uses the crank: it serves as your camera, so you have to turn it around to nail the picture or video you’re attempting. It’s very satisfying.”

Eurogamer’s Playdate review: “That same ambience permeates a game called Sasquatchers, which is basically Advance Wars but with people who want to photograph cryptids rather than deploy tanks and soldiers. Played out on a grid, regularly interrupted by moments in which you chat with your crew and turn the crank to line up pictures, it’s a playful, handicraft thing. I love it and I want to play more.”

People on the internet and in game review contexts actually being nice and supportive is such a weird and unusual experience for me, it’s yet another one of those aspects of the Playdate that reminds me of why I wanted to work in games in the first place: being able to experiment with weird ideas and focus on the merits of the game itself, instead of its value as a purchasable entertainment product.

I’m particularly grateful to my friend Seppo for playtesting the game, both for making suggestions4His suggestion led to the choose-your-own-title screen to differentiate save games, but especially for giving me the last boost of encouragement I needed to go from “this is an embarrassment” to “I actually feel okay releasing this into the world.” I’ve had so many ideas percolating and started so many projects over the years that the biggest achievement of Sasquatchers is that I actually finished it.5More or less. There are still plenty of things I’d like to add or rebalancing I’d like to do. Maybe at some point? What I love about the Playdate is that it makes that possible for more people; there’s an implicit assurance that you can do this too.

Lots of people already have, the Playdate category on itch.io has dozens of entries from developers, several of whom just used the free emulator without having an actual device in hand! Some of my favorites:

And those are just out of the ones I’ve had a chance to play. Looking through the entries reminds me a lot of looking through listings of HyperCard stacks back in the late 80s. Weird, hyper-specific ideas not necessarily intended for marketability but just on the hope that at least one person out there might find it cool and useful.

Also, a few of my favorite games from Season One:

  • Star Sled by Greg Maletic
    Near-perfect rendition of the 80s Atari aesthetic, with some really cool glitch effects. This one hits exactly the right difficulty level for me — I’m still terrible at it, but every time I crash I immediately want to try again, instead of bouncing off in frustration. I’ve probably played this more than anything else.
  • Pick Pack Pup by Nic Magnier and Arthur Hamer
    A twist on the Match 3 game that actually changes how you think about the puzzle. Great presentation that keeps throwing new ideas at you, and the music is absolutely fantastic.
  • Inventory Hero by Steven Frank, James Moore, and Neven Mrgan
    A frantic RPG where you’re just in charge of managing your character’s inventory. This one captures “the spirit of the Playdate” because it starts with a weird twist idea, keeps riffing on it, and then nails the execution.
  • Omaze by Gregory Kogos
    This elegant game makes perfect use of the crank, wordlessly teaches you how to play, and its sfx plus simple but evocative graphic design make it feel like it was delivered fully-formed onto the device by an alien civilization.
  • Demon Quest ’85 by Crooked Park
    A very well-written visual novel/logic puzzle about a bunch of 80s teens summoning demons in their house. Kind of sells itself, really.

I hope people get their Playdates soon and love them. And I hope a lot of people are inspired to make their own stuff for it, and share it6And/or sell it! on the internet! Personally, I’m looking forward to finishing unpacking and finding my Apple Pencil so I can get back to work on my next game.

  • 1
    Posting unsolicited opinions is what the internet’s for, after all.
  • 2
    And people like me, who were lucky enough to have a friend with connections to people at Panic!
  • 3
    I’m also planning to rewrite the one I used as an open-source one available on GitHub, assuming I ever get the time to do it.
  • 4
    His suggestion led to the choose-your-own-title screen to differentiate save games
  • 5
    More or less. There are still plenty of things I’d like to add or rebalancing I’d like to do. Maybe at some point?
  • 6
    And/or sell it!

The Sasquatchers

My favorite team of paranormal adventurers

I’ve mentioned before that I’m doing a game for the Panic Playdate — coming soon! — but I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned the inspiration for it.

A few years ago, I fell down a rabbit hole watching YouTube videos, and I landed on the most fascinating channel. It seemed to be a couple of guys (and an at-the-time unknown photographer) wandering through the woods at night, trying to get photos of a Sasquatch.

And I mean, that’s not all that weird on its own. Where it got weird is that I actually saw a Sasquatch, in the background of their video! At first I figured it must be one of those elaborate prank videos, or some kind of demo reel for a CGI compositing house or something. But to be honest, it didn’t look good enough to be either one of those. The way it looked uncannily real and not-real — plus the fact that they were so nonchalant about it — convinced me it could only be the real thing!

Anyway, the team is called The Sasquatchers. Their channel seems to have disappeared, and the website was down forever until they got some kind of legal issues squared away, but it’s back up as of the time I’m writing this. They’ve been doing this kind of work for years, but never got the recognition I think they deserve. It’s a shame that the only photo of theirs that still exists online is the one I put at the top of this post, which they said was a rare double-sighting of the Willow Creek Wailer.

Their videos are (or were, anyway) full of never-before-seen animal sightings, but the guys are completely nonchalant about it. They’re all about media impressions, and getting them in selfies and such. But they’ve had some funding issues on top of (and because of) the legal stuff, so they’re eager to get a little bit more exposure so they can get out and start spotting more dangerous and more obscure cryptids.

I had just left Telltale and had some free time, so I decided I had to meet the guys. I was able to talk with them for a little bit when they were in San Francisco researching some kind of video project1I could never figure out whether they were saying that the Zodiac Killer was a Sasquatch himself, or just that he used Sasquatches to move around silently and commit murders, and they seemed stoked to have a video game made about their adventures! It’s a simplified and highly-abstracted version of the real thing, of course, but I’m hoping that if people enjoy the game, they’ll be interested in checking out the team’s real work.

Oh yeah one thing: I don’t know how it happened, but somehow they got the impression that I’m a famous game designer at an AAA studio and had a team of dozens of people working on the game. So everybody just be cool and don’t tell them, okay?

  • 1
    I could never figure out whether they were saying that the Zodiac Killer was a Sasquatch himself, or just that he used Sasquatches to move around silently and commit murders