Tam Lin Title Screen

Tam Lin: Making Unity Not Unity – Building Custom Visual Tools

Tam Lin Title ScreenOver the past semester, Robyn Gray and I have steadily been working on our Intermediate Game Development project, The Ballad of Tam Lin. We’ve been invited to show our game at a few shows including TEDxUSC and SCA’s own First Look festival. We’ve received comments that the game is surprisingly polished for a project completed in 2-3 months. This came down to good audiovisual design, scoping our project well, and playing to the strengths we knew we had as designers and developers.

As the programmer for Tam Lin, I’d like to talk about how we achieved the layered paper cutout look for our game from an implementation perspective. I remember someone mentioning that very often when using art and design tools such as Unity – and even with many professional-level tools – there are residual tells which indicate that the end product was made using those tools. We aimed from the start to create a distinctive visual aesthetic for our game, and we went to great lengths to achieve a look and feel that was unique to our game. A number of people who played our game during playtests, showcases and galleries commented that they appreciated the distinct visual style we presented in Tam Lin. I’ll explain some of the techniques I used to achieve this style.

Tam Lin Screenshot - The Smithy


Human Asteroid at IndieCade – Review

On October 9th of 2010, after dark fell in Culver City, I participated in a magnificent big game as part of IndieCade.  This game was Human Asteroid.  Seriously, think of the old game Asteroids but instead of rocks moving around in a physical space, it’s people.  And we were lit up with blink-capable LED shirts.  The result is beautiful.

At first I thought being an asteroid would not be something I’d be okay to do.  I haven’t been a performer of any sort in many years and I didn’t want people watching me while I blinked in the dark.  But after I got into the cool shirt costume and played with it for a few minutes, I stopped thinking about it as, “people will stare at me,” and felt like an integrated part of the game, which ended up far outweighing my self-esteem issues.  Practicing in the shirts before we actually had the players playing in the same space with us was a magical experience.  Even with all the directions on how the game works (which I’ll get to soon), it doesn’t seem brilliant until you’re doing it live.  When players got to play in their shopping cart-style ship and begin shooting at us, there was a general mood of fun.  Even though we were mindless automatons as part of the game, there was still anticipation of whether or not the players would win or the asteroids would defeat them.  Players had LOTS of fun engaging in a light up ship with light up helmets and knowing that people were actually creating the experience for them seemed to make it extra exciting and draw in more players from the crowd that quickly formed around our playing field.

The Rules.

To be a human asteroid has simple and, most importantly, uniform rules, so I’ll start with these rules.  Asteroids start out in groups of four, hands on your fellow asteroids’ shoulders, and move very slowly, with a general leader when you bounce against a border or another four-human asteroid.  When someone is shot, a four-person asteroid breaks apart into two sets of two-person asteroids who move a bit faster now, more like a slow dance than a slow crawl.  After that, the two people break apart and move much more quickly with arms crossed “I-Dream-Of-Jeannie” style.  Once shot in this mode, a human asteroid must turn off his or her light and remove themselves quickly from the playing field.  This is the moment when an asteroid is no longer a mindless automaton and can root for the players or fellow asteroids from the sidelines and just enjoy the game.  If an asteroid cluster or single asteroid collides with the ship at any point, the asteroid will shout out “BOOM!” and throw their arms up and turn on the blinking on their shirt (during normal game play, the light is solid).  All other asteroids in the playing field (and generally outside of play, because this part is lots of fun!) will shout as well and mimic their fellow asteroid.  The game is essentially on pause while the ship resets with a new life (or perhaps the game is now over) and all the human asteroids in the field wait to restart.  The only rule for restarting (aside from changing your blinking lights back to solid when the game play resumes) is not to immediately rush back into the ship.  This is also mostly for safety.  Though it’s pretty simple to be a human asteroid, everyone must coordinate and practice together so that everyone works in what looks like a perfect group.  This is definitely the hardest aspect of being a human asteroid volunteer – doing it all the same as everyone else consistently.

Players don’t have difficult rules, but they do have a higher level of responsibility for following the rules, as the ship can more easily hurt the participants of the game due to its size and weight.  Players in this run through got two lives.  There was a large crowd and giving too many lives to each set of players may have made each game too long to accommodate as many potential players as possible.  There are two players per game.  One is the shooter who sits inside the ship and shoots.  The other is the captain of the ship who literally navigates in the play space – by pushing the ship around.  Ammo is limited and if the shooter runs out, it costs a life to refill.  If an asteroid crashes into the players, a life is lost and ammo is refilled to maximum while they get to reset somewhere in the playing field towards the middle.  Asteroids pause when this occurs and do not leave their positions at the time of the crash, so the reset place is never exactly the same.  The ship itself is lit up beautifully and a little larger than a shopping cart (which is the base of the ship!).  Players get to wear helmets that light up as well so they are all a part of the game.  The bullets are still not lit up, which is a shame, but it’s a technical issue that needs to be worked out because the launcher requires a special weight and may get jammed if the little nerf-style discs are painted or made heavier by lights or tape or any other similar idea.

The Design.

The design of this big game version of the original Asteroid is beautifully simplistic.  It’s pretty much what you might think of if someone said “What if humans were the asteroids in the game Asteroid?”  Of course, you might want to cue responders to that question with, “And it’s at night!”  This way, people would probably think of bright lights on dark people for themselves.  But the dance of it is something that seems like people might respond with if proposed the original question.  Except, until Nick Fortugno came up with it, nobody ever asked that question.  At least, nobody ever follow through on it.  With great designs and costumes from Nick, Sam Strick, and Dave Warth (as listed on the IndieCade website in this project, whom I did not meet or know about until I looked up exact spellings of names), this big game was definitely a successful recreation of the original digital game.  Both Nick and Sam who were at the event were very nice and very enthusiastic.  They prioritized the safety of their asteroid volunteers as well as the fun of everyone else.  It was wonderful to hear Sam talk about the design of the costumes and the ship, and it even gave me ideas for future projects of my own.  The costume design was simple and brilliant.  It’s clear that lots of time and hard work went into finding just the right pieces to the puzzle and then put them together in a way that created a perfect presentation.  Designer Information from IndieCade 2010 Event Site.

The Performance.

It turns out to look something like this on the evening in which I participated as a Human Asteroid, though this is not from the same night.
A Trailer/Preview.

Actual Game Play with the crowd talking animatedly about it. *This was not the night of IndieCade, just a previous play.

The dancing lights in the dark draw crowds instantly and everybody wants to watch and participate in the game.  When it’s clear the asteroids are having fun while communicating with each other in coordination (so no one gets hurt), people can’t help but be charmed by the experience:  What is it they’re doing?  They say “boing” when they hit the border!  When they’re hit they break apart and still make sounds when they bump into each other and move in different directions.  They all blink when they yell BOOM!  What happened, did they hit the ship?  Somehow, our coordination along with lights in the darkness made us a venue that was irresistible.  And as much fun as it may have looked to others, it was at least double for me.  Shouting “BOOM!” and throwing up our arms was lots of fun and I found myself really hoping I’d get to crash into the ship so I could instigate the lot of us all shouting, throwing up our arms, and blinking.  I did get to, which was enormously fun, by the end of the night.  Then, somehow, the night felt complete.  Whether the players lost or won, they always had big grins and thanked us for being asteroids for them.  I wanted to thank them constantly for playing so that we had a reason to be blinking and bouncing around!  People seemed to really love the beauty of taking an old arcade classic and turning it into someone everyone could be immersed in together in the same physical space.  I suppose that’s the beauty of big games in general, but there was something extra special about Human Asteroid. Maybe it was how a quarter of the crowd spontaneously starting humming the two notes that make up the music for the original, or maybe it was the way our blinking before we even got started (in pause mode) drew people from across the lot, but whatever precisely it was that drew each person into the crowd, the whole performance of it was what kept the crowd pretty solid for almost two full hours.  Just watching my fellow human asteroid volunteers was magnificent and beautiful.  I had a tremendous amount of fun and felt like I was getting this great light show.  It didn’t matter if players won or lost, I wanted to cheer everyone on if I was out of play at the moment – during my “human” time.  I found myself forgetting to be self-conscious and turning on my blinking lights to cheer when the game ended.  I can honestly say that I haven’t had so much fun since my first trip to Disneyland last May, where I experienced the intense excitement of Disney that I hadn’t felt since my 12 year old trip to DisneyWorld in Florida.  I felt like I was bursting with excitement in just the same way – I didn’t feel my feet getting tired or sore in my shoes and I never felt like it was time to stop.

The Final Review.

I’m not a critic in a magazine or internet site or anything, but on my own blog I get to be a critic if I want to.  And I say Human Asteroid gets a 10/10!  Five Stars!  Here’s a 1-Up!  I don’t know if players or spectators felt, or even could feel, quite as enthusiastic as me, but I know that they would all give it a high score for being fun and appealing from the enjoyment that was clear on their faces.

Notes about Eversion

*As I promised myself a few days ago, here’s the analysis about Eversion.

1 Brief Introduction of the game

Eversion is a single player, puzzle-oriented platformer*. The player-controlled little floral creature moves around the screen to solve puzzles and discover the secrets of the intentionally separated/layered objects inside the world, then (eventually) reach the destination/ending(s), by running, jumping and switching – or, actually, everting – among different layers of the world at some preset spots.

* Some people treat platformers as jumping puzzles, while they can actually present a lot of different genres’ features or overlap several sub-divisions, to me they are still more action games, and my discussion is based on my own opinion.

2 Some notes from my playtest

Below are some in and post-test notes from a 8 hour play with all 14 achievements unlocked (the last one was done with the help of a spoiler…).

a)  Fortunately or unfortunately, I had no idea what’s ‘Eversion’ or ‘evert’, I mean, literally. Also for testing purpose I intentionally avoided all the information I could have got about the game before the test, except its title and price. So when I saw ‘press evert’ at the menu, I totally have no idea what’s that and event thought it could be an informal name of “enter”…anyway, as a non-professional gamer I usually just start a game and try to have an overview of it before go to the control menu, so I tried the common ones started with enter and X…and I didn’t get the chance to give space a shot.

b)  Then, as the game started, my first impression is —- SUPER MARIO!!! Even the arrangement of tests-”score”, “gem”, “world 1-1”…is really recognizable, just no timer.

After having finished the game for a while, however, I got the feeling that the designer might did this on purpose – implying the basic control is quite the same with Mario-which could possibly reduce the learning curve, while setting a trap, like it also has the same skill-centric gameplay-which turned out later in the game, not at all.

c) While testing the controlling, I also tried to differentiate the platforms, ground and background – that is to say, those collidable and non-collidable objects. Maybe because I play puzzle games very often, so I become quite sensitive with those tricks – I felt the clouds look like platforms so that I tried really hard to jump on them, although this time they were just transparent so I could only fail – this mistakenly confirmed my idea that this was just a normal platformer. Then when I first saw that the flowers were not collidable just decorations and trees are somehow firm, I began to thought the design was a little disordered. Also, combined with the problemetic collision, the Mario-look set up did a really good job and made me quite confused when facing the former puzzles – I really enjoy puzzle games but somehow not very into platformers (except Mario!), of course  platformers could be considered as jumping puzzles, as theoretically every game could be treated as a puzzle – just should I test my mental memory or my muscle memory?

BUT, after I figured out what is evert and got the idea of the game, (almost) everything became clear, related and reasonable.

d) After looking around the screen, testing what I could/couldn’t do, I spent some time looking at the controls and found X and space are for “evert”, which was the word on the title screen, then finally looked it up in dictionary. However, because of the “Mario” idea, i supposed it as some ability that I’d get after I found a “mushroom” or “flower”. If it’s not because I accidentally pressed X with Z while jumping at the certain screen , it would take me much longer to find the hidden spot where I was supposed to evert through.

Of course, the designer actually set up a few signs for the player surrounded the evert spot-mixed back ground colors and musics – very inharmonious composition – to make player very uncomfortable when steps closer to it – and it’s really just like saying:”There’s some problem.” BUT, that’s for puzzle games, which means player is expecting this to be a puzzle game and willing to solve it as a puzzle, rather than an art/music style of the game that conveying the designer’s expression or even a technical issue or bug. Until then, the expectation I’d built up didn’t make me treat it as a puzzle…anyway, I discovered the spot accidentally so I’ll never know what could have happened.

No matter what’s the coincidence, I got the basic as well as the main mechanics of Eversion – by everting, the expression of things/the presenting layer of the world/the effect of interacting with the same object changes.

e) As getting to know the core mechnics of the game, all the things I just doubted turned to be reasonable – clouds, trees, flowers, etc. They switch between different forms – collidable or not, harmful or not, breakable or not, killable or not – and so as making up the (solutions of the) puzzles. The way that the puzzles are set up makes the switches meaningful and inevitable. For example, at the level 1 where I first encountered the evert spot, I had to evert to the second layer of the world where the clouds turned into solid so I could get all the gems, then when moving forward I needed to go back to the first layer otherwise I would be knocked down into the gap by the cloud floating above it.

Or like during later levels, the higher platforms require those unkillable monsters as spring boards to pass multiple ultrahigh platforms. Player should have learnt in previous levels that monsters could be used as spring boards, and right before this level it has been revealed that monsters in the last layer are unkillable, while could be immobilized for a while. So theoretically player just needs to understand how to combine those two features to solve the single solution mini-puzzle and reach the hidden evert spot (no circle indication when press X) – which is actually a little too simple as a puzzle in the last level. However, the real challenge is mastering the jumping skill and the find the correct timing – key elements in platformers, based on the problematic collision which makes the platformer – not the puzzles – hard.

Almost all the puzzles in Eversion are set up in this way – meaningful, reasonable but inevitable and linear – that is to say, the puzzles are interesting but the settings are deliberately intentional, so the solutions are so obvious that almost turn into memory exams or skill tests majored in repetitive jumping. That’s why I’d rather call it puzzle-oriented platformer. Also, may because that the designer was more focusing on the meaningfulness, interrelations of the puzzles, and the visual, audio part that could help to represent them, while the puzzles themselves and usability part was less tweaked or polished.

f) Particularly, besides having typical puzzles through the whole game, puzzle games always have hidden rewards/levels/endings, etc. So I get the habit – most puzzle game players’ habit – that always (at least try to) go to every spot on the screen – even it looks impossible or useless. This also applies to most adventure games or some RPGs.  Eversion delightfully added more endings which required quite a few works to uncover them, such as finding out all 8 hidden letters or the secret exit in a ultralong, sectional repeating, non-retrogradable level. But because of the go-to-everywhere rule and the less difficult of its puzzles, I found the first few hidden letters even without realizing they were special items. To some extent, this also reduced my fun of playing it as a puzzles game.

g) Because of its “one-way”, non-optional solving pattern and the really annoying collision problem, sometimes when I was stuck, I really didn’t know whether it’s because my jumping and moving were not fast or accurate enough, or just there’s a shortcut I didn’t pay enough attention. The most frustrated thing was that there’s one and only one place that when I failed it’s like because of only less-than-one-second difference, and there was another former similar situation which was an absolutely platformer-skill test, so I assumed that my awkward jumping caused the failure. I tried harder again and again, and after I raced the time and finally even succeeded, then I found there’s a “regular” solution. I won’t criticize it because this is actually a pretty normal way to set up a trap, but the control problem makes the puzzle very ambiguous in a not very positive way. It’s simply like by making the control harder, adding a lot of constrictions and setting tons of enemies and pitfalls will definitely increase the difficulty of finishing a game, but not necessarily increase its gameplay and may decrease the fun a lot, even it’s just a pure platformer.

h) The moving clusters that appeared twice (the clusters at the final level were immobile) were somehow not really applied to the theme, or the story of the game, especially the claws that flew out occasionally. But beyond that I feel it’s actually a good way to change the rhythm of the game, as well as giving the player a shock – which makes the game fun.

There was also a level that initialed with a block with could (make player) evert through several layers and so that player can go forward. This is the only block that didn’t give out gem and was the only place where player could evert through layers (normally evert only happens between adjunct layers). There seemed no other related settings or events so I supposed it’s just an interesting way that designed specifically to start the level. However, though sometimes we add ridiculous elements to make the game more fun, when there’s a pre-designed concept/theme/story that run through the whole game, some singularity might disengage it.

i) The last level is my favorite level. Not only because it’s the retrospect of all layers that let me retrograde from the last/deepest layer to the first layer of the world, in a non-retrogradable way, or the nested alternative loops which go beyond the former puzzles’ skill-testing-oriented purpose and allow player to explore more, though still require a lot repetition and memorization, but also because the concept it tried to convey and now enriches – the exploration of the parallel and dimensional structure of the our world, in different ways.

3 Puzzle game vs. Platformer – Exploring vs. Practising

It’s very hard to classify games into different genres perfectly, not only because the boundaries are quite ambiguous, but also because even a game has only one core mechanics, it can still contain different elements that feature different genres.

Puzzle solving and platforming are two of the popular mechanics that can result in amazingly chemical reactions. And depends on their proportionality coefficients, the games will have distinctive emphasises.

As I play puzzle games, I’d like to treat it as an exploring to discover possibilities, other than a practising to increase proficiency. Apparently it’s not deniable that a lot of puzzle games also require a lot of in game practise, but too many repetitions will just turn deliberation into memorization. It’s like if you need to enter a house, of course you can repeatedly knock the door until break it, and most of time you can always find a way to break it no matter how long or how hard it takes, and sometime it even turns out to be the most efficient and direct way, compared with the time, material or energy that needed to find and test other solutions. However, there are still windows, chimneys, keys and maybe even the door wasn’t locked.  The potential of multi-solutions is quite important, or at least need to be considered carefully, when set up a puzzle game. I also won’t disagree with solve all the puzzles by force because it’s also a solution, however, it shouldn’t be the only one. Moreover, in a lot of situations, force could only make things worse.

According to me, I can see Eversion was designed originally as a platforming puzzle game, how ever the coincidence of the single solution puzzles and the problematic collision had made it a platformer.

4 Spiritual vs. Spacial – a weird conceptual analysis of Eversion

How do you feel about the game world of Eversion? Before the last level of Eversion, what I’d seen and felt through the game were really not that much abstruse. Maybe because I’m more sensitive to spacial perception, I always try to first see how them working in a spacial way.They were not parallel universes – they formed a single timeline; maybe the objects were projected onto those layers which have distinctive spirituals and so as presenting different configurations. Or I could also imagine that those 3D objects were sliced by 7 planes and we saw their sections at different depths.

But why they were aliened perpendicularly in this way? I could only constrainedly say that it’s because of their biological or physical properties, or we should rethink about it from the other direction.

They were not resolved by clairvoyance upon co-existences – I used to try to think they were, but they were mapped in such obvious seven-in-one relationships – looked more like reflections of different people’s consciousnesses towards the same object in a 2D space. The consciousnesses were sorted by depravities, aliened decreasingly. Then those share the same degeneracy were distributed according to 2 directions on the surface that is perpendicular to the depravity.

The problem is, no matter what’s our perspective, even we take every instance of those objects and put them into a 3 dimensional matrix, there were still only 3 dimensions. We couldn’t find the clue to go beyond that, because physically we were lacking the necessary degree of freedom.

And that’s all for the last level. At the last level, where the constrain of the world was removed, those layers could start to divert, and what’s more, amazingly formed those nested layered-circular time and spaces. By everting between those parallel closed circulating layers, we finally reached the higher dimension.

However, after finally extended the game world into a new dimension and built up such an interesting spacial puzzle, without closing or exploring the potential to close the nesting or digging deeper and circulating the spiritual dimension ordinate in a meaningful way, the the designer abruptly ended the game with some ambiguous endings.

484/489: When Hurting the Player Can Help the Player

For a bit of context, this is an essay I wrote for my first Intermediate Game Design course. I was asked to designate this game, Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist, as following one of the three schemas listed in Peter Brinson’s post here.
Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist by Mark Essen does everything in its power to be an avant-garde game. Its four minigames are exceptionally difficult and punishing to the player. The narrative is extremely unclear despite the fact that it’s using an episodic structure, which leads to confusion and miscommunication with the player. And finally, by placing the player in this unsettling dream state, the game either prompts serious contemplation or prompts the player to turn the game off in a fit of frustration.
In terms of formal elements, dramatic elements, and dynamic elements, RBMA does all it can to confuse and disorient. The unnatural controls of the minigames (as with most poorly designed interfaces) force the players to bend their playstyles to the will of the game; in two of the minigames, one has no sense of direction since the camera is constantly rotating around the character! The one relief to the player’s pain is the fact that one cannot lose or die at any point in RBMA. As a result, frustration is the primary enemy in this game. Additionally, the game feels like it is about the length of a poem; and while its episodic progression keeps the gameplay fresh—each minigame is clearly a different scene—there is little indication as to how the different scenes all connect. In fact, the game’s opening states that the main character is “all drugged up on drugs,” so we are diegetically relieved of ever having to make sense of the story.
Your character floats through the third minigame in zero-G
By providing such a disorienting experience, RBMA is creatively trying to put the player in the same mindset as Randy Balma, himself. Of course, the game makes one work hard to comprehend it, but in this case, that’s an interesting and artistic use of interactive media. Mark Essen is exaggerating of the conventions of a game—get to the next level and overcome constant obstacles—to deliver his message of confusion. Though its ultimately difficult to play and perhaps a little nauseating, it is definitely asking questions that few other games are.

About Eversion

It turns out when I’m not in a good mood and have to play a game not for fun while taking notes every 2 minutes, I become very negative and critical. Compare the notes I’ve made about Eversion and another puzzle-oriented platformer which I played during the summer, I was much more generous and recorded pretty much just all the brilliant aspects. I realized that rather than ripping into the puzzle design details or technical issues, I should have been more moderate and impartial to describe, explore and analyze the game from different perspectives.

So hopefully I can finish the paper analysis about it asap, submit it on time, and then post it here, which may help whoever heard my terrible presentation about it to regain the will/rethink about the possibility of trying it, or at least know why there’s no need to give it a shot.

According to my recent pattern of behavior, I also decided to set up this post as a sign to remind and push myself.

Indie Game Schema

Here’s the paper excerpt that is largely a review of Week 1’s lecture.  For next week, you will play a number of videogames. And in class you will discuss a number of questions as a group. Part of that includes describing a videogame as innovative, experimental, or avant-garde in order to better understand the value of independent game design (or as I like to call it, independently-minded game design).  More at http://usc.peterbrinson.com

I consider “indie games” to be videogames that challenge the mainstream, and I parse them into three perspectives – innovative, experimental, and avant-garde. Some “indie games” function as a constructive proposal for commercial opportunities, while others offer a clear critique of the mainstream. In this discussion, “indie games” do not refer to the indie scene as vibrant art community that does it all – develops, plays, celebrates, debates, and critiques videogames, nor does it relate to the question of funding sources. In particular, there are plenty of videogames developed independently of larger videogame companies that otherwise embrace traditional designs, aesthetics, and themes.

Innovative Videogames
When I talk about avant-garde videogames, I am not describing incremental improvements on established design models and concrete genres – what the commercial perspective hopes to offer consumers as soon as possible. Rather, innovative videogames represent visions and ideas for the near-term future of commercial videogame design. So just as Half Life integrated elegant cinematic moments into the first person shooter to inspire a myriad of successors, the Wii controller re-imagined the console interface so that accepted game designs could be repurposed as providing refreshing experiences. This does not mean that innovative approaches are not financially risky. Nor does it suggest that designing innovation requires anything but the most rigorous creativity. But innovation looks to chart new territories while targeting the largest possible audience. Innovative videogames are developed with a sound business model in hand in an attempt to provide solutions to widely understood concerns and goals, such as combining storytelling and play (Half Life) and popularizing alternative interface methods (Wii). And so an innovative videogame is not so much outside of the mainstream as it is an immanent expansion of it.

Experimental Videogames
Before I can discuss avant-garde videogames, I must first describe my conception of experimental videogames. Compared to innovative videogames, these are indeed positioned outside of the mainstream. Such works might not be concerned with profit, and are ostensibly looking to enrich the form. These may tackle themes that have been traditionally relegated to cinema, poetry, and music, but not to videogames.

Art as Experiment
If innovative videogames expand commercial domains, then experimental videogames push the form’s artistic boundaries. Experimental games are the champions of the independent videogame scene as they tackle game design questions the industry is indeed asking, and to which many gamers are receptive. These opportunities include broadening the videogame designer’s emotional pallet beyond experiences of tension and guilt, as well as simulating conflicts that look nothing like violence. Jason Rohrer and Rod Humble’s shorts are held up (by critics, industry veterans, and academics alike) as hopeful glimpses into a future of videogames as art, not just commerce. The fact that Rohrer and Humble’s work are about personal experiences is hardly radical, but the experiences they provide is no doubt paving new artistic ground.

Experimental videogames include Ian Bogost’s Proceduralist’s Style videogames, which both take advantage of the procedural nature of videogames while inviting personal introspection and subjective interpretation from the player. “These games say something about how an experience of the world works, how it feels to experience or to be subjected to some sort of situation: marriage, mortality, regret, confusion, whatever.”

Even though the commercial potential of experimental videogames may be quite viable and easily imagined, they are primarily experiments into what the form would be without business compromises. In fact, a popular experimental videogame is an ideally suited influence on innovation. The experimental videogame does indeed demonstrate Flanagan’s critical play without subversion being a foregrounded quality.

Independence as Simplification
Many indie games embrace low-resolution graphics. These videogames stand as an appreciation for a time when videogames were simpler and supposedly did not make commercial compromises. In his GDC 2010 “rant”, the game designer Jarrad Woods described the value of such videogames as the “nu-lo-fi”. It is well known that contemporary industry developers spend an impressive amount of their resources on creating high-resolution art assets. Producing the myriad objects, characters, and buildings for a 20 to 60 hour videogame represents a daunting amount of work and craft, and often compels the developers to compromise every other production task, including game design.

Woods says he is not describing “retro” games. A videogame like Fez provides new game mechanics in combination with its pixelated look. But Woods is not quite right; Fez is smartly and selectively “retro”. Its visual aesthetics operate as an allusion to older videogames. This approach defers any player expectations of hi-fidelity images, so that our critical eye shifts elsewhere. Videogame developers of the nu-lo-fi are not only making wise use of limited resources, but are making an open, authorial claim – their videogame’s visuals pays homage to an earlier era when high-resolution graphics were technically impossible. These developers hope that players will quickly recognize a nu-lo-fi videogame by its graphics, and therefore will probe deeper for the true site of artistic priority, namely game design, the proper expressive concern of videogames.

This self-positioning is not unique. Many filmmakers of the 1960’s looked to the earliest films for inspiration. They wanted to work from a clean slate, to shed the baggage of Hollywood tradition as much as they wanted to rebel against it. Jonas Mekas’s film, Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, opens with “Dedicated to Lumiere”. If Mekas looked 70 some years back, then perhaps artistic cycles are indeed shorter than ever, and so it is not surprising that many videogame developers today look back to the late 70’s and early 80’s for a conceptual and material resetting of design paradigms and visual and audio aesthetics. (No doubt the recent attention to big games and augmented reality games also stems from a similar sensibility.)
And like the Dogma films of the 1990’s, ideally, this rebellion against industry polish and excess is a starting point for expression in order to serve a higher goal of mapping out new expressive trajectories. This is not so with most videogames of the nu-lo-fi as most of them simply lack high fidelity images, rather than doing so in the service of unconventional gameplay, radical story techniques, and the like. Experimental videogames are often also nu-lo-fi videogames, but by no means are nu-lo-fi videogames necessarily experimental.

Avant-Garde Videogames
Having made these distinctions, I can now address the avant-garde videogame with less confusion. Like its counterpart in cinema, the avant-garde videogame is both in conflict with and paying tribute to mainstream videogames. Avant-garde videogames propose design questions the industry is not apparently curious about, while practicing methods that subvert tradition.
Avant-garde videogames can be described through the traditions they reject. They have taken a look at what videogame developers have created thus far and are trying to do it differently, by purposefully using so-called “bad” game design to make good videogames.

Divergent Shift (aka Reflection) out Aug 16


This is an impressive team. Two years ago, the first version was developed in the Intermediate Class (here: http://interactive.usc.edu/projects/games/20080514-intermedia.php),

got more ambitious (and on the DS) in the Advanced Class (a collaboration with CS) and now it being released commercially. I’m sure they have a good story to tell.


Divergent Shift (aka Reflection) is releasing on Monday 8/16 on DSiWare. The world splits in two when a powerful mirror is broken and its shards dispersed. Run, jump, and slide as the agile Kirra, but to successfully navigate the shattered world, you’ll need to use both screens of the Nintendo DSi together!

Developed by Intrinsic Games at USC as part of the Final/Advanced Games Course, and winner of the 2009 IGF Mobile ‘Next Great Mobile Game’.

List of Credits:

Keith Riley Co – Director

Hersh Choksi – Producer

Henry Liu – Designer

Jeff Magers – Designer

Jeremy Jung – Designer

Abhinav Jain – Designer

Aadarsh Patel – Senior Engineer

Noel Overkamp – Engineer

Gersh Payzer – In Game Art

Andrew Tio – Character and Concept Art

Igor Nemirovsky – Composer

Kenny Wood – Composer

Bill Rahko – Sound Designer

Nathan McNamara – Writer

484/489 Usability Test 1 – Koonopakarn and Kohn

From Joey and Komdetch,

Our first playtest went satisfyingly well. It was very fun seeing

people who didn’t have a hand in making the game actually play it. We

got to see the different ways people went about solving our puzzles,

trying things that we the game designers would never have thought to


A major issue we found with people first playing the game was a lack

of clarity regarding the instructions. We included a text file with

instructions, but feel it would be better to add an instructions

screen into the actual game.

We also found that the familiarity of chess could sometimes be a

drawback. A tester familiar with (and skilled at) chess was able to

breeze through the levels once he figured out the basic gameplay.

However, a tester who had little to no chess experience had difficulty

understanding how the pieces worked, and ended up frustrated.

In the end, it was very reaffirming to see that despite some hiccups

and frustrations, people overall liked the game. The feedback was very

helpful and the lab was a very cool environment to work in.