The History of A-J Games: Part Seven

To catch up on the story to date, you can view the archive here.

Did I say that things got better? Maybe eventually, but first we need to backtrack a bit. So far we’ve been looking at character games. Some of the characters are fictional; others are based on people I knew or who I didn’t know were fictional. Whatever the origin, these games are based more on objects than subjects. They didn’t start out as theories or experiments, or attempts to express a thought or feeling though the psychology of game design. Maybe in dropping these objects into the pond I drew some subjective ripples, but in principle my methods would have fit right in at THQ.

What we’re going to talk about now is another level of objective. You will have noticed my constant references to other people’s games — mostly professional, mostly derived from the Miyamoto-fed Japanese school.

It’s normal enough for one artist to look to another for inspiration; art is a form of communication, and nothing speaks to an artist like art. It’s also normal for a novice to model his or her work on something familiar. You can’t begin to speak your mind until you know the language, and you have some idea how to fit the pieces together to express ideas. An illustrator traces to get a sense of form; a musician may spend a lifetime interpreting other people’s music before he feels comfortable writing his own.

I guess what I’m doing is justifying creative laziness. I applaud the growth of new forms, and there will be a period of grasping before a form takes shape, but I always wonder why people will take an existing recording, loop it, and add a few riffs on top. If you drew inspiration from Abba or some Motown artist, great. Build on that. Then, erase your tracks.

There can only be so many Andy Warhols, making a statement about our perceptions and expectations of art. There is a place for collage and documentary, and cultural commentary. Generally, if someone is claiming a recognizable hunk of someone else’s work as his own, to me that speaks of a character flaw. It says that the derivative artist doesn’t give a shit about the original artist, about his or her own reputation, about the integrity of either the original or the derivative art, or about the intelligence of the intended audience.

Unless it is very well signaled I don’t really buy the tribute angle, and I have little patience for pastiche. I hate it when people quote from presumed authorities to make their own points in an argument. I cannot abide organized systems of belief or thought. If you can’t find your own thing to say, in your own words, I don’t want to hear from you.

So this chapter is about my own hypocrisy. I don’t know what parts to damn and what to excuse, so I’m laying out the whole problem now. I also have problems with absolute perspectives; as strict as I may sound, I know that nothing is ever that simple. There’s the principle, then there’s pragmatism. And sometimes to embrace the principle one has to spend a while fighting it.

Take piracy, in the modern lawyered-up creative sense. Is it wrong to copy someone’s work? Maybe; why are you copying it? And what’s the result? Did it do more harm, or more good? I think that copyright should expire after fifteen years, as you can’t control an idea once it gets into the DNA of public thought — but I also think that the original author should be able to enforce attribution. Organized chaos, if you will. Evolution with footnotes.

That doesn’t stop my own guilt when I indulge (as with the borrowed images in these posts), or temper my annoyance when someone builds on my work. I guess I should just get over it.

My least shameful tributes are those where I feel I built something original out of the borrowed material, however wholly I may have borrowed it. That isn’t to say that my divergence was deliberate. How much if art is really deliberate anyway? Anything that matters is usually an accident of technique or circumstance, and anything you try to do tends to end up obvious and meaningless. Why is that? Well, think about it. If you can’t even surprise yourself, how interesting do you think your ideas really are?

Nejillian Flux was supposed to be a carbon copy of Gradius, maybe with a bit of Life Force for variety. As it happens, RSD’s Game-Maker is a poor platform for scrolling shooters. They knew it, and improvements were on the radar, but they never quite happened. So I found some workarounds. Not good workarounds, but distinctive ones.

This was an early project. I can tell you how early because of an even earlier pastiche. When I was finishing up Linear Volume, I asked my client for a title. Linear Volume, he said; I went with it. I also mentioned my next project, a scrolling shooter based on Gradius. He told me to call it Nejillian Flux. It sounded good, so again I went with it.

To this point I had designed, I think, six games — three platformers, and three adventure-RPGs. Although I completed most of them, only one of those games — A-J’s Quest — had been very successful. I figured maybe it was time to try something new.

I hit three technical problems: scrolling, map size, and power-ups. The most fundamental of those is the scrolling, or rather the lack thereof. Game-Maker only supports a strange shifting-focus scrolling, where the camera always tries to place the character sprite 1/3 of the way from the opposite edge of the direction of the character’s motion. If the character is running right, the game wants to put 1/3 of the screen to the left of the sprite and 2/3 to the right. The same principle goes for all four cardinal directions, which in a game with free movement can cause the camera to lose all reason.

There are ways to work with this trait, but for a scrolling shooter it is fatal. The two common workarounds are to point the background gravity sideways, or to adjust the character motion so that it must always move in one direction. Neither really works, but if done well the player gets the general idea.

A related problem is in the engine’s strict map dimensions: exactly 100 pixels, square. That’s 6-1/4 by 10 screens, which may be fine for an overworld map. If you’re scrolling exclusively to the right, that means in less than 7 screens you will loop back to the start. Think of Eugene Jarvis’ Defender.

My solution was to double-decker the levels, and to hide a tunnel between the two stories. The player would keep looping until he or she found the passage, from which point the level became linear until the end. An eccentric choice, but it was the best I could think of at that time.

I also ran into problems with the weapon upgrades. The engine does not allow for arbitrary character or control states, so you can’t simply pick up a weapon and use it. The only solution is to give any weapon pickups a hierarchy, and to limit their ammunition. So if you pick up a very powerful weapon, you may only have 20 shots. When you have expended those, you default to the next most powerful weapon for which you have ammo. If you want to use one of the lesser weapons, then first you have to blow through the greater ones.

Then there is the question as to what makes a tougher power-up, as Game-Maker is very black and white about power levels. If your weapon has a level of 150 and the monster is at level 100, then the weapon kills the monster. If the monster has a power of 151, then the weapon does nothing. So weak weapons are pointless, and powerful weapons are perfect. If you’re creative you can find some lateral solutions; in 1993, I was not that creative.

Game-Maker’s engine was always a point of contention and curiosity. With a little lateral thought, it was capable of many things. Its odd and often simplistic arrangement resulted in dozens of unlisted features, and encouraged creative problem solving. Its comfort zone, though, lay in top-down action adventure games. It had the inventory and the four-way scrolling of a Zelda or Crystalis, and it was much happier when one avoided things like gravity or nuanced control schemes.

There are three ways of approaching a set of limitations. You can fight them, you can work within and around them, or you can subvert them. If you fight them, generally you will lose and your work will suffer. If you subvert them, you can produce very clever tricks to wow your peers who know what you’re up against — but chances are the tricks will be glitchy, and will fail to impress anyone else. If you work within the limits, maybe the walls won’t be so obvious and your work will be able to stand on its own merits.

Link vs. Gannon was my first go at working with the engine. This was maybe two or three games before Nejillian Flux. It was clear to me that neither platformers nor RPGs worked to Game-Maker’s strengths, so I relented. If the engine was geared toward Zelda, as it appeared to be, I figured I might as well see how close it could get.

The NES Zelda games are amongst my favorite things ever; the first for the actual moment-to-moment design, and the second for its weird atmosphere and its bold deviation from the original. I loved the claustrophobic focus, but I also loved that sweeping adventure too large to record in every detail — so I combined the design and dungeons from the first game and the free-roaming world of the second. Points of interest were scattered around a huge area, broken up by fields, rivers, hills, and bridges.

I doubt I meant to finish the game, and indeed Link vs. Gannon is the first that I left incomplete. I just wanted to figure out what the engine would handle well. The frustration came early on, when I realized that I was fighting far more than I had planned.

I often think of Game-Maker, if it just had X feature then it would be complete enough and I could work with all of the other problems. When I was in high school, I really needed a better music format. At other times I needed text boxes, or more detailed control mapping, or more complex enemy logic. On reflection, I think the sorest omission is the ability to make pervasive changes to the gameworld.

Here’s what I mean by that. In Game-Maker’s engine, the character can interact with the background — change blocks, pick up objects, kill monsters, and increase abstract counters linked with things like keys and locks. If the player dies or leaves a level, all changes to that level are reset — yet all counters remain as they were. So if you have a level that contains a precious item, you can pick up the item, leave, return, and pick it up again. If you kill a boss then return, the boss is back. And so on.

For a game like Zelda, that is all about exploring, discovering precious tools, and making slow significant changes to the world, it is disconcerting when nothing the player does can stick.

There is a way around this issue, but it involves a bunch of busywork and a tangle of logical wires that are very easy to lose track of. I also didn’t hit on the solution for a very long time. If I did, then evidently I never felt it was worth the effort. And that was my ultimate decision with Link vs. Gannon; it wasn’t worth the energy to figure out how to make it work, or to draw custom background tiles, or to put real work into the level design. I filed the game away, and for a while I continued with my own projects.

Over the years, the counter-and-flag issue kept raising its head. If I tried to do something complex, it was the lack of flags. If I tried to do something simple, it was the counters that wouldn’t reset. One of my more successful games, curiously enough, was a very hard Pac-Man clone. I asked that anyone who enjoyed the game simply send me a postcard, saying “I like Pac!” I got maybe half a dozen cards over the years. Nejillian Flux also traveled a bit. For a while it seemed I couldn’t browse a shovelware CD or Russian shareware site without stumbling over the game.

The problems with Pac were twofold. First, there was no way to contrive it so that power pellets made the character immune to the enemies’ touch. I got around that by turning the pellets into projectiles that the character could spit out. More worrisome is that if the player died before eating all the dots, the counter would carry over but the background would not. In retrospect I’m sure I could have contrived a way to drain the counter at the start of a new life, but the solution I found was to give the player only a single life. One life, one hit point. To reach the end, you have to play a perfect game. Not the most elegant solution.

If it wasn’t the flags and counters, it was a lack of arbitrary character logic. Pac can’t eat ghosts, and Mario can’t stomp enemies. For kicks, one of my later projects involved transcribing the background tiles from Super Mario Bros. and the sprites from Super Mario 3, almost pixel for pixel out of a magazine, in attempt to find some way around the stomping issue.

Even more so than Link vs. Gannon, Jario! is barely a game. I didn’t bother to animate the sprites or design a real level; my whole concern was with trying to force an issue on which the engine wouldn’t bend. It was just as well; I never much liked Mario anyway.

So most of my tributes were a bust. That can be a problem when you have a fixed idea of what you want to do. When you follow the tides of intuition, things tend to just work. You take what comes and you look for something unusual to build on. When you’ve a specific goal and method in mind, anything can trip you up — and since that’s not where your head is you won’t be prepared to roll with the problems and compromise. As time went on I softened in my preconceptions as to what I wanted from a game, as to what a game was, and as to how to achieve that.

About thirteen years after my last Game-Maker project, I unearthed the software as part of a series for an indie game blog. I was surprised how good the design tools still were. If anything, they were more fun to use than most of the games they produced — clear, intuitive, instantly rewarding. I knew the engine’s limits, and I was curious how well it would serve to make a contemporary indie game. In my articles I had mentioned the engine’s strengths; as a test, I chose to replicate The Legend of Zelda as exactly as possible.

I ripped the original sprites and background tiles, then enlarged them by 25% in Photoshop to fit Game-Maker’s standard. It turned out that despite the difference in scale one Game-Maker screen had the same number of tiles as an NES screen — so I recreated the maps as closely as I could, block by block. I found tricks to allow Link to burn bushes and touch an Armos to bring it to life (and maybe find a secret passage). I gave the Octorocks complex behaviors and allowed the Leevers to burrow, immune to the player’s protests.

The only real problem remaining with Overworld was the counter/flag issue. I used a web of level nodes to ensure that Link would only find the wooden sword the first time into the cave, but I knew that after just a few choices the game would soon get much too complex to keep track of that way.

I stopped after filling the world map; I figured I made my point. The dimensions are different from the original Zelda overworld — taller, narrower, and a little smaller overall — so I made do, compressing some locations and expanding or moving others. I figured if I ever continued with the game I could split the overworld across two maps; maybe connect them with bridges across a river.

Although the game was never a serious effort, and indeed took no more than a few hours from me, my mind began to swim with the new techniques I found while bending and cajoling RSD’s engine — the screen-by-screen level design; the complex monster behaviors; the constrained color palette; multi-stage attacks; new monster birthing techniques; and in particular, using monster counter-buffers to alter the level geometry. Those techniques, and their very buggy repercussions, would become the basis for Builder, my first new Game-Maker game in half a lifetime.

Builder was a web of secrets, accessible only to a player who surrendered to and explored the engine’s glitches. A big part of the design involved ensuring that the game’s secrets remained secret until the player hit the right triggers, which on the lowest level I controlled with level nodes and paths. Finally a Game-Maker game responded meaningfully to the player’s actions, and in the most profound sense it did it behind the scenes.

Between these new tricks and my success with Builder, I was ripe with enthusiasm. It had been ages since I had worked on any game, never mind this old engine. I had the notion that I would pull out all my old unfinished Game-Maker games (nine, including Overworld) and wrap them up with style. I would put a cap on that whole thread of my life. No one would ever play them or care, but I would feel a sense of closure.

After perusing then discarding the obvious candidates (The Return of A-J, Sign of the Hedgehog 2) I turned to the best of my tributes, one that had lain neglected since 1994. Rōdïp was the unripe fruit of a competition with another Game-Maker user, a fellow whom I had met through a long distance dial-up board. Both he and I set about designing Blaster Master tributes; his was nearly as literal as Overworld, and my game took on a life of its own.

The vehicle looked similar to the one in Blaster Master, and on paper it had similar abilities — and the background tiles in the first level were similar to the tiles in one room of Blaster Master‘s final level. My vehicle controlled very differently, though — indeed better than nearly any pre-Builder character. The moves and attacks all had their own interesting flavor. The monsters were original and memorable. The level design needed work, but it involved some big, brave ideas. The game had spirit. I wondered why I ever put the game aside; it wasn’t much, but it was good.

It was also fully planned. Maybe I’d just had an Alfred Hitchcock moment and grown bored the moment I knew how the game would pan out. I had blocked the whole thing out — all of the levels, all of the bosses, the environments, the upgrade sequence, and the web connecting it all. All the game lacked was content and polish. So, slowly I added content and I polished it. Maybe I’m still doing it. I haven’t touched the game in months. Right now it just needs a final level, a transition level, and five or six bosses. I also need to complete a water level. I’d say it’s 80% done. I think I’ve just had other things on my mind.

The real trick to Rōdïp is its structure. It’s a free-roaming action-adventure; you beat bosses, earn upgrades, and revisit old areas to climb that wall or destroy that barrier with your new powers. This means affecting your environment, which means setting flags, which Game-Maker won’t abide without a headache.

Well, I survived the headache. The game has only a few items to account and maybe 18 unique areas, but it needs 80 nodes to track the changes and who knows how many links to hold it all together. If I weren’t intent on copying someone else’s idea of a game structure, I wouldn’t have bothered — but I did, and it works.

I’m building up to a point here. Hang with me.

Continuity notes:

After Nejillian Flux, The next game I designed was Explorer Jacko — you remember, the insertion game with all of the Star Control and Trek references. The ship that Jacko steals, early on? Why, the Nejillian Flux of course.

Also, some of the elements in Link vs. Gannon would later be incorporated into Linear Volume and Explorer Jacko. This is why in effect you will see Tektites bouncing around the fields of Motavia.

The story continues in Part Eight

The History of A-J Games: Part Six

To catch up on the story to date, you can view the archive here.

Here I hesitate. It would be easy to skip this next wave, and I am tempted. Posterity beckons, however, and I am resigned to meet it halfway.

In a sense these are all insertion games, or are derived from previous insertion games — but the characters that they insert are fictitious. They’re all avatars, removed from their original context.

Also removed from context is much of the games’ content. In assembling these games I repurposed hunks of earlier projects, either to avoid losing material that I had cut or to sculpt dioramas of my own adolescent interests. Though I roll my eyes at projects like Tony & Me and Operation Killbot, I was not immune to that mentality.

If anything, I may have been worse. I felt weird about distributing those games as they were, so I snipped out the most foolish bits — and then I kept those for myself, to indulge my own objectives. This was even weirder for me, so if I chose to distribute the games — as I often felt compelled to — I did it under a series of pseudonyms.

It all started with a practical joke.

Around the turn of the ’90s, to be in tune with videogames meant being a fan. Between third and ninth grades, I loved videogames — incautiously, without judgment or analysis. Some games grabbed me more than others. The games that didn’t, I figured I was just too young to understand them. Bugs, glitches, and bad design struck me not as flaws but as figments of scary, unpredictable realities that I was not prepared to handle.

I think that perception comes out of my approach to videogames. For me they have always been about exploring the unknown; playing with new concepts and following them to their logical extremes. When those extremes take me places that I would not have imagined without that structure, I feel wonder. When something breaks that structure, I feel a stab of cognitive dissonance that offers a window to a greater world view. As wonderful as the structure may be, the idea that there’s something beyond it, that I am not yet in a place to understand, gives me a certain awe. So, I was really into games like Zelda, Metroid — and eventually things like the Game Genie.

When they began to appear, game magazines fed into the mystique, suggesting unknowable depths and hints of what was to come, both within an individual game and within the medium as a whole. The magazines were a way in, and the best outlets made a person feel like there was a real conversation going on. I wasn’t just bashing my head on these worlds and forming my own opinions; I had a few hints at what their authors intended, or what I should be looking for. I could then better focus on the games, and better understand what they had to say. I knew that there was always more to know, more to find just beneath the surface.

I read whatever magazines I could find. There were only so many at the time. I subscribed to Nintendo Power, and enjoyed the early issues. Heck, I subscribed even before it was Nintendo Power. Even before the newsletter became a glossy magazine! It was just pinkish folded-over paper stock. GamePro was sort of the standard, so I read that. When I could find it, I puzzled over VideoGames & Computer Entertainment. That one was often a little headier, and it covered many topics that I didn’t understand. Its back pages were also where I saw my first ad for RSD’s Game-Maker.

As an adolescent, the magazine that struck the best balance for me was EGM. I don’t remember why I so enjoyed it. I think the Review Crew may have had something to do with it. By that time, games were coming out rapidly for several systems. It was getting hard to keep up with everything. To cover as much ground as possible, three of the magazine’s editors and one fictional character would offer short blurbs about each game. Although they never commented in much depth, the blurbs were lined up in columns so you could cross-compare their responses.

In retrospect the format was not only lazy; it was lifted wholesale from Famitsu, the Japanese magazine that Western gamers held as a gold standard until people began to translate the reviews and realized they had nothing interesting to say — and that what little they did say was bought by the game publishers. At the time, though, it just added to the sense of an ongoing conversation. I was fascinated that the writers all had contrasting views to offer on each game that came along. This probably lined up with my sense at the time that there were no bad games; just games that weren’t made for me.

The most intriguing of those writers was of course the fictional one, a mysterious fellow named Sushi-X. He dressed like our cultural consciousness of a ninja and obsessed over tournament fighting games. In reality he was a placeholder for whatever intern wanted to contribute an opinion or whatever editor wanted to speak anonymously. That would not become clear for another decade or so. In the early ’90s, Sushi-X was the coolest dude in the coolest band of game journalists. Which is to say, a boy’s club that set the stage for twenty years of stunted and exclusionary gamer culture. But hey, adolescents look up to big kids.

One of the club’s more memorable shows of adolescence was its yearly April Fools pranks. In 1991 they insisted that with the right code you could call forth Castlevania III‘s protagonist into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II. It sounded plausible, as both games were by Konami, and it played into that vague sense that anything could be out there. The following year brought the Sheng Long prank, which was reported as fact worldwide, and in changing people’s expectations for arbitrary nonsense changed the way that fighting games were designed and perceived.

By 1993 I had a good three months of experience with Game-Maker, so I felt ready to play my own prank on EGM. I borrowed resources from A-J’s Quest, drew approximations of EGM’s Review Crew avatars, and sent Sushi-X on a quest to locate a fabled Street Fighter II arcade cabinet. Along the way he faced the logos of competing magazines, and could regain energy by picking up issues of EGM. I credited the game to Sega, and sent it in anonymously with plenty of lead time for the April issue, to see how they would react.

They didn’t. Fair enough. The game was kind of terrible anyway. The best part was probably the sound clips. The monsters had an entertaining death noise, and whenever Sushi-X found an issue of his parent magazine he would sing the praises of his publication. I quickly forgot about the game, only to unearth it when looking for material to scavenge in the assembly of Tony & Me and Operation Killbot.

A few of the background tiles also made their way into Sign of the Hedgehog, which perhaps justifies this prank a little further. Also as my second attempt at a platformer, Sushi-X Breaks Loose probably taught me a pile of lessons in what not to do. I don’t believe that I repeated my mistakes here.

The negative lessons continued with Dusk Rose, a game based around an early Dungeons & Dragons character.

My history with D&D began in eighth grade. The way my associates pitched it to me, a person could make any kind of avatar he wanted; give the character whatever history and personality and talents one desired. In absence of ready game design tools, the notion fired my imagination. I sketched characters; I wrote ornate backstories; I developed quirks and abilities to set them all apart and open up play potential. Mark — you remember, from Operation Killbot — appreciated none of this.

Somehow Mark declared himself Dungeon Master for every campaign. If people planned a game without him, he would flip out. I remember an instance where he screamed at someone for buying a Dungeon Master’s Guide, because only Mark was supposed to know all the rules. Authority was everything to this guy. If a player diverged from the letter of TSR’s guidelines, or failed to take the campaign seriously enough, Mark would turn strawberry red. Often he would kill the player’s character right there, out of spite. He would then take the character sheet and refuse to return it. In time role-playing with Mark (and there was no role-playing without Mark) became a matter of gaming Mark’s temper; setting up situations to draw out and maximize his anger, so that the players could all watch him fume. By tenth grade we got pretty creative.

I believe my first AD&D character, after I graduated up from the basic rules, was a half-Elven thief named Dusk Rose. Although I remember little of it, I put especial work into her character. On her first day out, I failed to adequately respond to Mark’s cues so he killed her. He then took from me the character sheet and supplemental material, rendering all of that work moot.

With Game-Maker, I felt she had a second chance. I figured if I could adapt a few basic rules, then I could allow my character the life that she was denied on paper. The first and most basic test was the AD&D thief skills: hiding in shadows, picking locks, moving silently, disarming traps, climbing walls — you know, all the stuff that Looking Glass explored five years later.

None of it worked. For some failures you can blame my technique. To make Dusk Rose hide in shadows, I colored her shades of black and dark gray, and had her perch in the background. That was silly for a bunch of reasons. Later I perfected the idea in A-J 3; there, you can hold the space bar to turn a certain character invisible.

Other failures are more about the engine’s limits. There are several ways to implement wall-climbing, but all have their downsides, and none work quite as I wanted here.

I was also intent on including adult material, to reflect my detailed imaginings of the character. To hide the material, I imagined and partially designed some branching paths. If the player made certain anarchic choices, he could stumble into some bawdy situations. Otherwise, the game would continue without a suggestion of what lay beneath. Although I later removed these elements, the branches and parallel paths were an early hint of the techniques I would later use in games like A-J 3 and Rōdïp.

Given the common origin, Dusk Rose became a spin-off of Cireneg’s Rings. Although I never finished the game, it does serve to flesh out the game world.

That world is even further fleshed out in Dungeon Erghuck, a game of many sources and a source of much embarrassment.

Back when game magazines came with photographic maps and reviews amounted to a few quips about graphics, the best source for detailed and up-to-date information was a game’s own packaging. The box art evoked a mood and a theme. The template made the game feel like a part of a collection. The warped screenshots and back-of-the-box copy spun the game as a whole world to explore and marvel over.

Selecting a game was a matter of standing to the side of the register at Kay-Bee Toys and peering at the racks of box fronts. When one caught your eye — either a new game or one you might have pored over a dozen times already — you asked the clerk, and she would pass you the game. The shrink wrap gave the cardboard (or clamshell case, if we’re talking Sega) a sheen and a certain smell. There was a whole world in there.

You would stare at the painting on the front, and try to extrapolate the action and experience of playing. With that in mind you would flip the box and animate the screenshots in your head. What were those creatures? What was just off the edge of the screen? What was the character doing, exactly? The text below would offer context and promises.

If the box churned up just the right image, and your parents were amenable, it would go under the scanner and into a paper bag. In the back seat of your parents’ car you would strip away the cellophane, pull out the instructions, and memorize them. The notes and sketches would kindle the imagination, as it worked to sketch out the whole game before you even played it. The odor of the packing material would drift out, rousing some center of your mind with the reality of something new and marvelous at hand.

So it is that one trains one’s self to derive huge and nuanced concepts from just a few shreds of information, and sets a game up for wonder before even hitting the first glitch or passageway.

For me, Game-Maker was a birthday present — one that arrived early. I was allowed to hold the box, and look at it; I just wasn’t allowed to open it or install it on my father’s 286 until I turned 14. For weeks until then, I was entranced with the screens strewn across the box front. It’s like they were trying to kill me with sheer potential. The back of the box gave no hint at limits; only the possibilities that the tools provided. I had no clue where to stop imagining.

Without context, I filtered the screenshots through my knowledge of PC games and tried to find broad matches. My knowledge was largely informed by a disk passed to me anonymously, I think originating in Russia. Those disks were crammed with mostly very old CGA DOS games like Alley Cat and Jumpman. I took Pipemare‘s tile set as an experimental climbing game like Tower Toppler. Another game (as I recently learned, the first experiment by RSD president G. Oliver Stone) reminded me of the box to Deadly Towers, an NES game I had never played but often studied in the mall.

As it happened, the box included no such game. Also, Game-Maker was not built for such oddball games as Tower Toppler or Alley Cat. Yet these images persisted, mingled with the haunting memory of that Russian disk. When I reached a certain comfort with the tools, I set to reconstructing RSD’s dungeon game according to my ideas of how it might have been.

Around that time I began to think better of the bawdy extras in games like Cireneg’s Rings, Tony & Me, and Dusk Rose. The problem with deleting it from the parent games is that I felt I had to put this content somewhere. I throw nothing away. Ask my wife about that some day. Somehow, then, it made sense to dump all of the crude pixelated smut into the dungeon levels. They were vacant, and a borrowed idea anyway.

In its earliest form, then, Erghuck involved wandering from room to room, each one presenting a censored piece from a different game. To make it all cohere, I adjusted the character models into fantasy archetypes. The main character became a Drow Elf, and others gained various pointy ears and mellifluous names. Where they fit, some of the names, such as Si’Nafay and Melwen, were borrowed from deceased AD&D characters.

For a title screen, I turned back to that Russian disk and an EGA port of Artworx Strip Poker II. This was the era before Internet porn, so an adolescent took whatever nudity he could scrounge up. A few adjustments in Deluxe Paint, and there was little question as to the game’s contents.

At first, that’s all there was to Erghuck; fantasy porn rooms. Gradually I refined the game. It gained a story, and as with Dusk Rose I set it in a corner of the world of Cireneg’s Rings.

Choosing to hide my identity entirely, I prepared to release the game under the “Janet L. Groth Productions” label. I never quite dared to upload it anywhere. For a while I also toyed with releasing Operation Killbot and Tony & Me under that banner, to a similar dead end.

Later I revised the game again, toned it down, and made it a coherent adventure. Whereas Erghuck began as a pile of naughty bits, I rehabilitated it into a mildly suggestive adventure along the lines of Steve Meretzky’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos, except lame and pointless. Although the content no longer bothered me, there was no real object to the game except to escape, and that’s no real challenge.

Still, in its final form it again brought life to some of my old characters, and it served to hint at further dimension to an existing world. If that’s my lowest ebb as a game designer, I guess I could be worse off. And indeed, from here things just get better.

The story continues in Part Seven

The Process

Following some earlier points, a forum I frequent saw some discussion on the apparent deification of the Doctor over the last few series of Doctor Who. Someone strongly objected to what he saw as Davies’ “all-powerful, all-knowing, ‘he’s a Time Lord, he can do anything’ approach to the Doctor”. Thing is, that’s not really what’s going on.

Generally Davies tries to undermine that concept, and show that it’s just bravado. Both in and out of the fiction, that myth is just the way that people perceive him, and the image he tries to project.

There’s a long discussion of this on one of the Moffat commentaries, amongst Davies, Tennant, and Moffat himself. They talk about how, for all of the facade he puts on, all the mythology that springs up around him, some of which he encourages, there’s nothing really special about the Doctor. His only real asset is that he can (usually) talk his way into anything.

“He’s almost a charlatan,” Moffat said, “in a good way. He poses as this god-like figure, but he’s just a bloke under there.”

Man and Myth

So much of the new series is about people’s perceptions of the Doctor, counterposed with the reality of the Doctor. This is precisely what “The Girl in the Fireplace” is about. Look at the way Reinette mythologized the Doctor in her own mind, and turned him into this huge figure from her childhood, a man of magic and awe. And there he was, just bumbling around, doing his thing as best as he could. Occasionally showing off. Occasionally acting like a complete ass.

And we, as adult viewers, see both sides. We know that the Doctor is just this guy, doing the best he can, yet we also know him as a figure of myth and legend who brings us monsters and death, because that’s what he chases and that’s what we tune in for — but then he does his best to put it right, and usually succeeds.

It’s not that he’s innately special; he just operates on a different plane from what most people see as normal life. Specifically, he lives the life of the protagonist to a long-running TV fantasy adventure. In that, he sees things that most people don’t see, and does things that most people don’t do. And to be credulous and put ourselves in the weekly companion role, that allows him to introduce us to fear and wonder, and just maybe expand our perspectives, with the assurance that everything will be all right in the end. Roughly. Usually.

So basically the new series is just being postmodern, and aware of itself as a modern myth. And it toys with that. (See “Love & Monsters”, that Clive guy in “Rose”.) Granted, in execution it’s gotten a bit lazy of late… But going by the commentary, everyone still seems to be working on the same wavelength they were in 2005.

Jesus Guises

Of course, “Forest of the Dead” plays a lot with the notion of an all-powerful Doctor, from River Song’s tale of the man Tennant becomes to his apparently new ability to enter the TARDIS by snapping his fingers. As far as River Song is concerned, though, that’s her mythologizing him again. It’s just her own personal impression of the man. Assuming she’s referring to a particular event, and knowing how the Doctor does things, you can imagine the sort of circumstance in which a whole army would run from him. As much as she talks it up, the actual event was probably some bizarre and desperate slight of hand on the Doctor’s part. Yet it sounds impressive if you don’t know the details! As things do.

Everyone believes in the Wizard of Oz, but he’s just a schmuck behind a curtain.

The snap is a little different. I halfway expected that to be revealed as Donna opening the door for him, but no. Then again, you know. TARDIS. It likes him. If anything is truly special, it’s his box. With a little thought, given the Doctor’s bond with the TARDIS, the snapping really isn’t that remarkable. It’s a bit of a parlor trick, really. Consider that Rose flew the thing just by staring into its console and wishing.

Then there’s that ridiculous floaty denoument from last year, which a lot of people point to. That’s not a good example either. It really, really wasn’t executed well, but that’s supposed to be about the power of humanity and hope and faith (to contrast with the Master’s message of despair), with the Doctor as just a focal point of all of those emotions. It’s only in encouraging everyone to believe in him, in becoming a legend, that he gained his power — which is sort of the concept I’ve been talking about, except made clumsily explicit and practical.

Bibliocranium

The encyclopedic knowledge business is getting tiresome, however. “Silence in the Library” is probably the worst offender yet, on this front. As “Midnight” shows, often it’s dramatically better not to have a clue what you’re facing.

The problem, as I see it, in the Doctor already knowing what he’s facing most of the time is that it removes a sense of discovery and danger and wonder from the proceedings, and all the emotions and ideas those might conjure up, and skips right to the business of solving things — a process that the new series (rightly) considers so obligatory as to use all of these shortcuts (sonic, psychic paper) to speed it along.

It’s meaningless to hear someone name something fictional, then watch him fiddle together some random fictional nonsense to defeat it. What really gets the head and heart going is something like The Empty Child, where — although there are hints along the way, and the Doctor may have more or less figured it out by halfway through episode two — the threat largely remains undefined until the end of the story, leaving the protagonists to react the best they can to their immediate circumstances.

Which isn’t to say that every story need be a mystery; it’s just that having bottomless resources is boring, especially when all you’re conjuring up and babbling about is fictional fact. Show, don’t tell! If the Doctor has seen it all before and can defuse any situation by pulling random convenient facts out of his hat, that basically tells us that what is happening right now doesn’t actually matter; that the show is just a sequence of doors and keys, and the Doctor already has most of the keys on file. So why are we watching it?

Keys are for Doors; Heads are for Thinking

You can do a certain amount of this with a smirk and call it postmodern, but you have to be deliberate and do it well — as in “Rose” or “Aliens of London”. “Doomsday” treads a bit close, but gets away with it on the basis of sheer chutzpah. Lately, I think the handwaving has just become a smug excuse.

It’s a similar feeling to what I get with post-NES era Nintendo games — Zelda, Mario, Metroid. It’s all about hunting for the correct key to pass the appropriate tile, and moving on to the next section. Interpretation, picking away at the cracks, the sense of endless possibility you get in something like the original Zelda or Metroid — all gone, in the face of cold, arbitrary mechanics. Which ties into the whole modern fallacy of the Videogame, that assumes that doing things, simply pressing buttons, is and should be rewarding in and of itself.

Mind, this isn’t a crippling problem with the show — yet. As I said, though, it is getting a bit tiresome. And I think this year in particular, it’s starting to undermine the storytelling. As with the dismissal of killer shadows as “Vashta Nerada — the piranhas of the air!” God, what’s more interesting: shadows that can KILL you, or some kind of gestalt entity with a pretentious name, that the Doctor conveniently knows how to detect and whose canned history he can spin off at a drop of his bottomless hat?

Finding and Doing

So basically, yeah. I see the things that people are complaining about. I just think the explanation is a bit off. The Doctor isn’t particularly powerful; he’s just arrogant. The sonic screwdriver and psychic paper and occasional ironic doodad like anti-plastic work in the favor of efficient storytelling. Take away his ability to quickly solve problems and the story will become cluttered with meaningless procedure.

Take away his ability to quickly identify problems, though, and stories may become far richer. Allow him to dismiss any scenario by identifying it off the bat, and unless the writer really knows what he’s doing, the entire story is in danger of collapsing into meaningless procedure.

I’m reminded of an old review of the Dreamcast version of Ecco the Dolphin (narrated by Tom Baker, don’t you know). It’s a beautiful, atmospheric game with a clever story by David Brin. I’ve described it more than once as an underwater Shenmue. The problem is that it’s just about imposible to play. You can know exactly what you have to do (and it’s usually not that tricky to figure out), and still you need to fight with the game for half an hour, trying and dying and trying and dying and waiting for the game to reload each time, to get through a simple hazard.

I think it was an IGN review that praised the game’s difficulty, saying it was the perfect balance — you always know what you need to do, and the challenge just comes in doing it!

… What? Just, what? I mean, granted, IGN. These guys probably give extra points to a game that comes in a bigger box because it looks more impressive on the shelf. But what?!

Meaning comes from extended and nuanced exploration of a topic. Yet you have to balance the reward of any insight against the frustration involved in realizing it. You don’t want to labor too much in the exploration or in the solution; smack your hand too long on anything, and you will lose grip on the threads you’re grasping, along with any sense of perspective you might have been developing. What you want is to cover as much ground and see as many sides of the issue as you can, collecting strands and weaving them together until you’ve completed the picture as well as you may.

In all things, logic should be always a method; not an impediment, not an answer. When process becomes a barrier to development, or is mistaken for development itself, there is an inherent flaw in the system.

The Player is the King; the Game is the Kong

aderack: Hey, this whole process is interesting. He’s thinking like a movie producer-director. “Whose work do I like? Who do I want to work with?”

This is the first time I’ve seen this approach to a movie-licensed game.
ajutla: OPM: What do you think makes a great game?

PJ: A game that gives the player a feeling that they are controlling the course of their own fate — even if it is an illusion.
ajutla: He’s pretty perceptive. I mean, it’s an obvious thing. But.
aderack: I think you need to be… outside.
aderack: To see things.
ajutla: Wasn’t Jackson upset about the way EA handled the LOTR games?
ajutla: That they weren’t accepting his creative input or something.
aderack: I don’t remember. I know that he pretty much opened Weta’s resources to EA. I’d be a little upset too, because the games… largely aren’t that great.
ajutla: Here we go:

“”EA is in the brand business, not the people business,” a Hollywood source says. “With Jackson, they showed that individual creative relationships don’t matter to them that much.”

EA executives insist they have a good relationship with Jackson. “We had a creative partnership with him, which was a surprise to us,” says Bing Gordon, referring to LOTR development. But it’s pretty clear that Gordon didn’t think of it as a 50-50 proposition. “Lord of the Rings didn’t need Peter Jackson’s involvement, but we had it.”
aderack: Aha.
aderack: Well, that’s about right.

Which might explain some of his early statements in this interview. About avoiding companies and looking for individuals whose work he’s enjoyed.
aderack: This puts his involvement with the Halo movie in more context.
Thom: ho
Thom: we may actually be breaking out of the ‘studio period’
Thom: the last question is fairly unintentionally hilarious
Thom: I think the way they’re going about it with King Kong (and to be fair, what was happening with Enter the Matrix) is the right way to do it – play to the advantages of the medium and provide different experiences, rather than trying to translate one medium to another
aderack: Yeah, forgot the Matrix game.
aderack: Then again, that was the Wachowskis.
aderack: And they picked Dave Perry. So you get what you get there.
Thom: yeah, right idea, poor execution
aderack: This time you get Peter Jackson digging up the BG&E guy.
aderack: I should find a copy of that.
Thom: I like his deflection of the BG&E as a movie question
Thom: the God of War question really is hilarious, because that’s such a gamer question
Thom: whereas anybody who’s looked at Peter Jackson’s work would know that LotR is about as ‘action’, in the traditional sense, that he likes to get.

EXTREME BUTTON-PRESSING ACTION

A guy ahead of me in line began to stare at me while I was waiting to see the new vampire western FPS game by Sammy Studios. Eventually, after getting the attention of the rest of his posse, he spoke.

“Dude. So you’re a journalist?”
“… I guess so.”
“Have you seen Halo 2?
“No.”
He paused. I could see he was confused. “But you have a press pass. You can get in to see it, right?”
“Theoretically, I suppose.”
“You aren’t going to see it?”
“No.”
A companion with bleary eyes and blond hair looked incredulous. “Why not?!”
“It doesn’t interest me.”
They stared. I ignored them. The first guy spoke up again. “But [whatever the name of Sammy’s game is] interests you?”
“Not particularly.”
“Then why are you here?”
“It’s the first original game by Sammy Studios. That is kind of interesting.”

They found nothing else to say to me.

I didn’t make it to the show flow today. I was just too tired. Several days of barely any food or rest, and too much eventitude, was enough to make me immobile until maybe an hour or two ago. I guess that’s okay. I saw everything I really wanted to see, the first two days. Today would have just consisted of poking around. I heard that Katamari Damacy is playable in an obscure corner of Namco’s booth, for instance. Also, it would have been nice to have talked with Tycho some. I keep missing him, although Gabe seems to be everywhere. Then there is the Pac-Man game for the DS, that two people in a row asked me about. I never got a chance with it, as the booth babes were rather quick to shoo me out of the demo room.

I have things to write.

Most interesting items this year:

There’s the Nintendo DS. It really could be revolutionary. You can’t understand until you hold it. This has the most potential of any current system to do something interesting. The PSP, while attractive, is just more of the same thing that Sony has been doing for nine years. There is no comparison between the two systems. Nintendo wins, somehow. I am shocked and surprised.

Neo Contra is a new Contra game that might as well have been made by Treasure, although Kojima insists that it wasn’t. It is more fun and bizarre than any other game in the series besides perhaps Hard Corps, for the Genesis, and it might be an example for how to do a series like Ikari Warriors in the modern era.

I asked Michael Meyers for a demo of KOF: Maximum Impact. He asked me if I had a dev system. I told him no. He said that it probably wouldn’t do me much good then, at the moment. He will send me a press demo when they have one ready. And. Good, because I want to play more of this game. I think I spent more time here than anywhere else. SNK did it. This game is more than competent. It is darned good — on whatever terms you might want to examine it. Brandon and Vince dismiss it rather quickly. They didn’t look close enough. Seriously, this is the start of something really good for SNK. I’m proud of them.

I hate Biohazard. Resident Evil 4 (version 3) is probably tied for my game of the show, along with the chat program for the Nintendo DS. (Just trust me on that one.) As Tim put it, it is already a great game. While it ain’t perfect, I can’t blame its few downsides in the face of what it has accomplished. There is an energy here.

Then there is Rumble Roses. I…

Jesus.

This is perhaps the most honest thing I have seen in my life.

It is a female wrestling game, designed by Yuke’s and published by Konami. It includes a mud wrestling feature, and a girl with devil horns and a tail who is chained up in a cellar somewhere, being whipped by another woman. They are still deliberating whether to include a nude mode. I think they should. From what they have accomplished so far, I see no reason to hold back. It would… taint the honesty of the rest of the game. And they say it will be an adults-only game anyway (the videogame equivalent of NC-17), so why not.

Tim says that he bets the game was designed by a woman. I think I agree with him on that. It would… take a while to explain.

Perhaps most surprising is that it plays well. It is a real game, with real depth to it. It plays like a 3D fighter, basically. And it’s just plain fun. Although again, it does not pretend. One of the main options on the menu is a computer-versus-computer mode.

Beat that, Itagaki.

EDIT: Wrong subtitle. Guh.