Monday, June 13, 2011

The Best of Formspring

I originally posted this as part of a Best of Formspring collection on Livejournal. I've transplanted most of the relevant games-discussion ones here. 

Featuring: thoughts on background art in 2D games, Sonic Fan Remix and the "redesign trap," programming for beginners, mechanics vs. narrative, and (my personal favorite), thoughts on good "random" humor in games.

This may sound strange, but here goes: When you're playing a 2D platformer (such as, say, most Mario or Kirby games) how much does the background stick out to you? How important do you feel the background is in such games?

Yes, background art is very very important! It provides context and setting, so it should be evocative and have a good color palette. But what's even more important than that is that it not choke out the details of the foreground, and especially of the character player himself/herself. For a good example of this, check out this comparison image of the Toki remake.


Although the image on the right is omg gorgeous~~ and very technically accomplished, the amount of detail in the background can be very confusing to the eye of the viewer. When everything is so immaculately rendered, it can be difficult for the player to tell what to concentrate on, and it disrupts an otherwise smooth gameplay experience.

Thankfully, you don't always need to sacrifice artistry for background art that serves the gameplay. Astal's artwork accomplishes this balance nicely. Although there's a lot of artistry in the way the background is painted and it immediately draws attention, the tones are muted compared to the main character, and it's not so detailed that it pulls attention away from Astal.

On the question of design: Would I be correct in thinking that the Sonic Fan Remix falls into the redesign trap?

You're right, and I think the big problem with this is the foregrounds. Way, way too detailed. That day stage has it the worst. It's really, really noisy and it's hard to concentrate on anything. I don't really understand why you would make so many little details in a Sonic game, when you're going to be zooming past them. Take those Eggman flags: their design is just cluttered enough that you can't "read them" when you're playing the game or watching the video, you would have to pause. Readability is paramount!

That said, though, I really like the night/rain stages. In particular that "emerald city" green rain stage looks pretty cool, mostly because the color palette is so much more cohesive. The variety of greens in the background gives it a shimmering effect and makes it feel jewel-like, and it plays very well with the yellow shades in the foreground. I think that's the most successful of the three.

The sunset level isn't quite there yet. I like a lot of the individual colors used in it (it reminds me a lot of some SNES games), but then it clashes with all those greens used in the foreground foliage. If they just simplified all those leaves or got rid of them altogether, it would improve a lot!

Why aren't more women programmers? Is it a brain thing or a social thing? Or both?

We're too busy being beautiful, perfect creatures to do menial tasks like programming.

No, actually, I couldn't give you an answer on this. This question has been bandied about and studied a lot, in way more detail than I could give you. However, in my own personal experience, I can tell you that the kinds of game creation I enjoy most are simple and straightforward, with very little barrier to entry, like Ren'Py and Warioware DIY (which makes the concept of learning to program a game in and of itself, in the case of the Training Dojo). I like Ren'Py in particular because the terms it uses are so clear and straightforward, and the syntax makes sense. For instance (this is taken from Rock Poke Scissors, one of my KOTM games):
label start:
scene bg_start
show rival
r "Hey, buttface!"
r "I'm gonna kick your ass so hard you're gonna kiss the moon!"
play music "battle.mp3"
scene bg_battle
show rival_battle at right
show megadragon at top
with pixellate
"It's battle time!"
I have no idea if those indentations showed up correctly, but this is basically the first scene of the game. These terms--"play music," "scene [background image]", "show [character sprite] at [position]," "with [transition]" are simple and easy to memorize, and make sense. It's not like my experience with Inform, which pretended to be plain English but still adheres by strict programming rules and syntax, so it's actually more like navigating and solving a word puzzle that just happens to use the English language as a mechanic. (I may give Inform another try, though. I hear the new version is really good.)

I really want to give Game Maker another try (if the Mac version ever shapes up), but it seems like you need to have someone coaching you every step of the way in order to get anything done in it--at least for me. I was talking to my buddy Scattle about it a while back, and he taught me how to code a character to jump in Game Maker, and it was way longer and took more effort than I thought it would! GM is pretty powerful, though, so I can't have my cake and eat it too. I still wanna make a character-based Picross game in it one day, though.

Most of my online friends are girls that are interested in creating their own works, but games aren't usually counted in that, because there's still a really overwhelming perception of "programming is difficult, how would I even know where to start?" I still feel like, even though I could potentially make great interactive fiction and adventure games, where could I go from that? I would want to make other (this is a horrible term to use, but "real") games, and it feels like the mindset I'd need for that is something beyond what I can muster from Ren'Py and Klik N Play. I think I just need to buckle down and work harder, try all sorts of creators and engines...I'm bound to find a sequence in this somewhere, right? A ladder I can use to work my way to the top?

Anyway, I'm really sorry for responding to this in such a long-winded fashion. Thank you for the thoughtful question, though.


What are your thoughts on the mechanics versus narrative divide in video game discussion? Do you think that it is a false dichotomy, or that there may be something to it? (The question's overly simple but I can't think of a more concise way to put it!)

I like this question! I actually tried to respond to it earlier but my answer got erased :(; Anyway, I think this is a really big question with a lot of directions to approach it from, so let me break this down into a handy bulleted list.

-First, mechanics vs. narrative as it relates to games themselves: the first thing I think of is Suda51, whose stories are fascinating even as he knowingly and consciously builds up not-too-accessible gameplay mechanics around them. Flower, Sun and Rain immediately comes to mind, which has a really intriguing Groundhog Day-type plot, but contains not only copious backtracking, but actually makes fun of the player for having to do it. I don't mind stuff like this--everyone knows how much I love Mondo Medicals, which is one of those games where the storyline is positively magnetic, but the puzzles can be infuriating/literally nauseating.

-Mechanics vs. narrative as a false dichotomy: I think it is, because optimally the mechanics and the narrative can be the same thing, right? Like you tell a story through the gameplay and you can communicate things like plot twists and development organically, without actually having to divide one from the other. Anna Anthropy's Knytt Story "here the flowers grow big" is a really good example of this, and I know there are others, but that's off the top of my head.

-Mechanics vs. narrative as people discuss them: I think people tend to discuss mechanics and narrative separately because in most games they are worked on and presented as separate things: in any game with skippable cutscenes or text, you can play the game without having to care about or experience the story. But it's really important to note that it doesn't work the other way around: most of the time you can't experience the story without having to care about and be good at the mechanics of the game itself. So people should really be more concerned with discussing not only "how good are these mechanics? how fun are they to play?", but also "how good are these mechanics AT SERVING THIS STORY? in how engaging of a way do they present the story and characters? why use these mechanics if they don't enhance the story" etc etc etc

What sets good "random" humor (Dracula Cha-Cha, Barkley's Shup Up and Jam: Gaiden and that Casablanca NES game) apart from things that are just trying too hard? How can you perceive something like that? What is the line or guideline between the two?

I think the most important question to ask when you're considering this stuff is "if I looked at this in a year, would it still be funny?" Humor that's dated, like internet memes and--well, any other kind of memes, is going to go from hilarious to embarrassing and probably will never work its way back around again.

To a large extent, gross-out humor also reeks of trying too hard. Or not hard enough, because it's so, so easy to do and it's guaranteed to get at least some kind of reaction. This is a little more subjective, though, because we can all come up with an example or two where this stuff has us rolling on the floor laughing.

I'm glad you brought up Barkley and Dracula Cha-Cha, though! Barkley's strength is, I think, that it takes a totally ludicrous idea (Space Jam being canon--oh my god i can't get over how great just the phrase "space jam is canon" is) and plays it straight, all the way through. The game's hilarious, but every character in it takes it deathly seriously. If you read the plot on Wikipedia and just change all the names, it could pass for a serious RPG, which is precisely its point: by changing everyone into real-life celebrities and just making the names even more ludicrous, like the Ultimate Hellbane or the organization B.L.O.O.D.M.O.S.E.S., it lampoons RPG conventions without having to spell it out for you. Compare this to something like Breath of Death VII, which from the VERY FIRST TEXT BOX ("As we begin our story, we find our silent protagonist in a den of trolls...") explicitly states which RPG cliches it's targeting. And we all know what happens when you have to explain the joke, right? Right.

Dracula Cha-Cha is a lot more whimsical. I just went looking for a copy and can't find one, but I do have the trailer to go by, since I haven't played it in ages. Some of the punch is taken out of it since I've played Tomena Sanner, but I really like Dracula Cha-Cha's dry, observant captions, like during a dance contest: "DANCE BABY TWIST THOSE LEGS TRAVOLTA". (I think these work better than Tomena Sanner's rapid-fire ticker, since in Cha Cha you have a lot more time to read what the captions say.) The soundtrack helps, too: "Behind the Green Door" is just silly and anachronistic enough that the player's not expecting it, even though it totally fits with Dracula's dapper wardrobe and dancin' skills.

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