Making a Game - Project Big Rip - A Progress Weblog - Part 1

When I graduated from college last spring, I had only a vague idea and plans that never really materialized. I studied music and sound, so I've been poking around freelance work. While I have found no drought of potential jobs, the projects all seemed to fizzle out rather quickly soon after I sign on. This is not something that surprised me though as I've been doing amateur composition and sound production for video games since I was in high school (nearly 10 years now). However when looking for work to put on a resume, having a bunch of failed projects with little to show from is not exactly the best impression. This is when I came to the realization that maybe I should just make my own game, do all the sound/music/graphics myself, release it as freeware, and go from there. I've been tinkering with programs like Game Maker for years. I may not know much coding and am not exactly a math wizard, but what I don't know I can learn. It is very common for a gaming enthusiast to want to make her/his own game. Many do not have the knowledge, focus, time, or tenacity to follow through with their dreams. Though I may share the desire to work in the industry, I would like to prove that I don't share the latter qualities.

Now with that, I had to come up with what kind of game I would make. When I was first tooling around with Game Maker back in 2004 or so, I made an incredibly buggy bullet hell game. I never got passed creating the basic engine, a good chunk of the weapons/powers, and most of the minor enemies. The big reason I stopped then was the code got unwieldy, the collision code was awful, and probably some other reasons I don't want to remember. Regardless I thought that since that genre was one that I've worked in before that perhaps I should revisit it. It's relatively simple and I understand a lot more about coding and general game design now. So that's what I decided on.

NES NTSC Color Palette

This wouldn't just be a remake or even a reimagining of that previous project, but something entirely new. Graphics were never a major strong point of mine, but I know and enjoy making small resolution sprites and decided that I should take that idea and run with it. I wasn't only going to make simple looking graphics but emulate the graphical ability of the NES. This would actually prove to take more research and be much more difficult than expected. The NES had a very limited color palette. Not only that it could only show 25 colors on screen at a time. The resolution is also pretty strange and nonstandard. It's not exactly 4:3 like old televisions, but 256 by 224 pixels. Not only that, but it sprites could either be 8x8 or 8x16 for all sprites of the game. However that particular detail is only that I'm going to ignore. Same with the sprite flicker and such. I don't really want to emulate the mannerisms of the platform so much has the visual and aural aspects. Remember I'm not a programmer. Doing such things as emulating an entire platform is far beyond my abilities.

When it comes to sound and music, this will be one of the most enjoyable parts I expect, but no less difficult. I've made 8-bit music before and it's a lot of fun. There is the program I use called Famitracker. Which basically is used to create 8-bit music and can be used to make sounds as well. I've used it on a couple of my own projects and what I have done so far for this project has turned out really well. (There's this one sound that I made that would be a dead ringer for the firing sound of an enemy from Mega Man 2.)

Okay! So I have a genre and a graphical/audio style/limitation set. Now I need to come up with the narrative of the project. A central idea. A structure to build the logic and explanation for what is going on in the game. Well first I thought what could the genre need. How could I make a game that is unique to the genre? I was watching an episode of the History Channel's "The Universe" when I had an idea. The episode wasn't about what inspired the idea, but rather it reminded me of a different episode of the show which was about how our Universe may come to an end. One theory in particular caught my imagination. One called "The Big Rip." I had a setting. The end of the Universe. Now what sort of mechanics could I gleam from that setting. I figured it would be like the ultimate post-apocalyptic setting. Unlike most of the games that fall into that genre, there would be no world after the events of the Big Rip. So it would not have the cultural depression that many of those games possess. This would be about a civilization at the peek of it's technology trying to escape what's left of a dying reality. Of course there would need to be a villainous force, but let's not go into that now. The goal is for a survival-focused bullet hell game with maybe a bit of a puzzle twist, and this setting allows for that.

With all that out of the way, where I am at now is not all that far into development. Earlier this week I actually deleted large chunks of the game because I was not satisfied with how things were working. I ended up rewriting the entire code for the player object and decided to change how it looked as well. Basically I nearly restarted from the beginning. What I did today was get a solid collision engine working with the help of an example from the Game Maker forums for, of all things, a platformer. So right now all the game is, is an area where you can move your ship around some objects and a mostly bare HUD. While there are bullet and enemy objects in there, they aren't programed to go with the new collision system yet.

I will go more into the mechanics and other elements when I'm further down the development line. The plan with the weblog is to update it roughly every two weeks. Perhaps the next one will even have screenshots! This week I plan to codify most things in a flush out development document. I encourage other people who want to get into the video game industry to try something like this as well. Even though I've only been working on this for about 2 or so weeks, it has proved to be very educational and enlightening!

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First impressions of Bastion. (PC version)

Like many of you I have been excited about Bastion ever since I first heard of it in the way back time of early 2010. After hearing how well the game was received on the 360, I could not pre-order it soon enough once it appeared on Steam. Well today was the day that Bastion was released on Steam.

1 pm rolled around and I downloaded/installed it as quickly as possible. Booted it up, played for about 2 hours, and wow... I'm really enjoying what I've played so far. The keyboard controls are not prefect. I found only being able move in 8 directions makes movement a bit unsuitable for the types of environments, but I have yet to encounter a real problem with it other then just general clumsiness. I'd imagine each control scheme has it own issues.

Currently, I'm running with the Repeater and Bow as my weapons as I didn't really enjoy any of the melee weapons I've found so far. Both are pretty satisfying, especially once they're leveled up a bit. It's get a bit hairy once if I get surrounded, but rolling is really useful. The story is also really interesting, and I don't think I'll ever get enough of Rucks' voice.

I can't wait to get back into it once the Bombcast is over!

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Thoughts after completing the story of Catherine. *!SPOILERS!*

This will be a sort of review, but since I want to discuss my feelings on the way the story unfolds and how the game presents itself I don't want to make it an official review. Also note that I have not read Jeff's review as I did not want it to color my opinions at all. I played the PS3 version so I'll be using that terminology.

In a nutshell, I really like Catherine. It is fun and challenging in all the right ways. It's rough in places (namely the controls), but generally the game gives you everything you need to get through it without holding your hand and that's really to it's credit. It can be very difficult for puzzle games to explain everything the player needs to know without explaining too much or not enough. Many don't get the ratio correct at all (Braid, Limbo, Puzzle Agent 2.) Catherine does however, and that is refreshing. It does so at a pace which isn't overwhelming too. I would go as far as to say it's the best puzzle game with a story since Portal. Or rather I would like to say that, but there's a point in the story where it all just went from "Oh this is a really awesome outcome," to "... Really?" This happens shortly after you complete Cathedral.

Allow me to preface this. I was answering questions as honestly as I could up to that point and ended up with the elder Katherine. I am not sure how this event plays out otherwise and plan to play a through it again to find out. Had you not take the path I did, it may not be a good idea to read any further. This is where the spoilers appear.

Once the Cathedral is completed Vince wakes up and finds Katherine("K") at his door wanting to discuss things with him. Catherine with a C appears in his apartment. Things go real bad and the younger Catherine ends up impaled on a kitchen knife. Then it leads to a stage where you must guide K through while a monstrous version of C chases you both. This was a great twist on the mechanics and would have suited for a wonderful finale! However this is actually relatively far from the end. The next day, or rather the same day since it all turns out to be a dream, K wakes Vince up and breaks up with him. She has no memory of his dream, nor knows anything about C other than Vince was cheating on her with someone. I thought that this would have been a great, albeit, sobering ending. Since it was said that those who reach the top get a wish, I figured Vince's wish was that C never existed. That would be that. Tie up a few loose ends and roll credits.

Unfortunately that's not how things play out. Vince goes a bit crazy after this. Which is sensible. His girl friend just broke up with him, the girl that he was seeing every night doesn't exist, and not to mention he never seemed like he was altogether emotionally stable. During this day of freaking out there is a scene with the Bartender, Boss, where it is revealed that Boss is actually the boss behind all the events of the nightmares. Something that's an obvious twist from early on. At first this point is glazed over by Vincent and I thought that would be a good way to leave it. Have the protagonist too drunk and damaged to realize the origin of his woes is right in front of him and go on. This also isn't the case. Boss continues to expound that C is actually a succubus and can only be seen by Vince, him, and non-mortals. Vincent then decides that he shall take up arms and bring down that whole system, essentially saving the human race from a terrible block pushing nightmare prison.

This is lazy, trite writing. It takes a great story about infallibility, the nature of adulthood, and love, and turns it into a story about saving humankind from a great injustice. Not everything has to end in a "save the world" plot. Nor does every single aspect of a fictional world have to be explained. Having C be some supernatural force is so boring and banal. It leaves no mystery to her. No allure. Maybe she was just a crazy co-dependent with an unfortunate past? Nope! She's a 100% succubus sent to make Vincent cheat on his girlfriend. Now let's go beat the entities that are responsible for this since we obviously can't release this without having the main character be super empowered and take out the bad guys! That is immature story telling. It shouldn't matter how and why cheating men have to endure the nightmares. The rumors alone are enough of a back story. The main character doesn't have to be the all-conquering hero of absolute justice by the end. It's alright if a character has a bittersweet outcome (Honestly neither K nor C were good fits for Vincie-boy.) Explaining it is akin to explaining the laws of gravity in a crime drama set on Earth, then going after a dastardly personification of said fundamental force because the victim's were being thrown from roof tops. This is a notion that I'm not particularly against, it is just used it just about every form of media targeted at the demographic that I happen to be a part of and I'm just plain sick of it. (EDIT: How could I forgot this little jewel!) The worst thing about the story, that really pissed me off when I heard it, was how the writers bluntly said they were "masterful" when Trish is telling you about the nature of story at the end. Talk about arrogant bullshit. Really? Guys? Really? You're really going to say that unironically after such a cliche plot twist? *grumble grumble*

It's common knowledge that this game was developed by the team that made Persona 4. While that game took no simple effort to explain it's story to you, it's an SMT game. What happens at the end of Persona 4 makes sense for nature of spiritual/paranormal beings in the SMT universe. The team did not distance themselves enough from working within that canon when writing Catherine. It might as well be another game under the SMT umbrella.

Let's discuss the controls during the puzzle portions of the game. These have been a complaint from even the people that enjoy the game. What a lot of game developers and enthusiasts are often unaware of is that every aspect of a game informs it's player of the game's narrative. EVERY aspect. From the simple color scheme to the UI, sound, and so on. This is infinitely true for the controls. They tell a player how the character we are controlling feels. So what does Catherine's controls tell us about Vincent? Well... More importantly does the player feel like they are controlling Vincent? This player didn't. This is not a negative thing, per say, it's only that the way the puzzle sections control are like you are playing something that is controlling Vincent instead of the character himself. For example, when shimmying along a ledge sometimes left will move you right and vice versa. From what I can tell, it depends on which side of the block Vince is hanging on from the player's perspective instead of Vincent himself. The camera is like this as well. It's unable to completely swing around the block towers freely, and is mostly restrained to the arbitrary front view. Not only does this make some of the puzzles somewhat more difficult, it puts a soft limit to their design. Generally they were able to design with the camera limits in mind, but it still feels like a missed chance on some truly clever designs had they used a more free camera.

More importantly, how do these controls impact the narrative? In some ways it makes complete sense. It's a dream. Even at their most lucid, no one truly has full control over their dreams. But does that mean that sleeping Vince was watching a horned and boxer totting dream Vince and guiding that version of himself as the player guides his decisions? That's a bit Inception-esque, but I suppose so. Now the practical question. Does that make the game play better? Well... If the players were given full control over the camera and the shimmying controls worked relative to Vincent then how would that impact the narrative conveyed through the controls? Through the game Vince is congratulated for being a wonderful climber. A true master! The current control scheme doesn't accurately represent that. It shows a man who is being lead by some unknowable force. Not a master of his universe.

Ah ha! That conflicts with the bit of the story that I disliked, right? No.

No, the controls in some way enhance that aspect. These awkward controls present the idea that anyone, no matter how insignificant, can overcome forces beyond their imagination pretty well. Regardless of any narrative sense they make, I would have much rather them be the way I mentioned. Playablity outweighs narrative in this particular case. Especially since they would better empower the player the way the character becomes empowered. That still fits the narrative.

Accidentally pressing X when hanging over an endless pit then falling to the retry screen is just frustrating.

Not being fully sure whether a directional input will take you in the direction you're intending is just frustrating.

Falling off the world because you walked into an area which you can't rotate the camera is just frustrating.

Fortunately, (on Normal) retries are frequent to the point where having a limit is irrelevant. Also I kind of feel that it's a similar type of frustration as games like Super Meat Boy cause, but these controls are not nearly as refined.

This last thing is a bit of some nitpickery, but there's some odd choices with the audio post production in parts of the game. It's not frequent, and I probably shouldn't be bringing it up, but there are few cases that made me go "Huh?" to their choices of sounds. Why does Vincent's front door make the sound of a submarine hatch. Was the guy at Vincent's door wearing high heels? And is there concrete or marble out there? That's all I say about that. Minor things, but very obvious and silly things.

Like I stated at the start of this little weblog, I really like Catherine. I even plan on going for a gold medal on each level. There are just some aspects about it that I don't like. Those issues really keep a great game from being an amazing experience. Despite the story issues I'm still excited to see the other endings and how things change if you don't save your bar-buds (Though the cop died on my game.) I would wholeheartedly recommend Catherine to fans of puzzle games. If I was pressured into giving it a score, then it'd get 3/5 stars or a 6/10 (which is quite the good score despite what most people that use an 10 unit system).

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