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Working On: ‘Three Sisters’

‘Three Sisters’ is the second of the two games I’m working on currently (it’s hefty original title, ‘Three Sisters in Search of a Mother’, gives away a lot more of what the game’s about). In this game, the player plays as one of three sisters returning to and exploring their childhood home, allegedly in search of their lost mother. It’s what I’d refer to as a narrative heavy experience, placing emphasis on UI narration and text appearing in the game’s world as the player navigates the home. One of its primary interests is in perception, both from a theoretical perspective and from a more practical, gameplay-oriented one. The home isn’t how they remember it, nor can they accurately recall what it was like — as such the house is a cobbled-together amalgam of their recollections and idealisations. They, and in turn the player, must discover the reasons why their mother left them and their father, in turn uncovering some of the realities of their beloved home (realities they were hardly attuned to as children; most notably their mother’s misery in an abusive relationship).

From a gameplay perspective, the player inadvertently passes through, notices, and later actively makes use of portals to alternate versions of the rooms in their home (making use of render planes, duplicate cameras mirroring the player camera’s position and rotation, and trigger planes). The gameplay is largely one of exploration, searching, and light puzzle-solving where appropriate. Each sister accesses a different wing of the family home before their investigations come to an end (and their route is sealed off), with each iteration of the family home becoming more and more dilapidated. Inevitably, the player never quite finds or reaches the mother — she’s never available to provide answers with any certainty. I want her to ‘haunt’ the game but never exactly appear in it. Her voice has been silenced over years of neglect, and now she’s finally gone her children are left scrambling for her words and answers.

I absolutely love the idea of the off-access and idealised past, and I love narratives which explore the tragedy of trying too hard to restore it. I feel the same way about ‘closure’ in general — we can create answers for ourselves but often at the expense of raising further questions; no matter how we might like it, things don’t usually get wrapped up in silk ribbons. And of course, fundamentally, we can’t change the past, no matter our personal development since then.

This is by far my most ambitious project so far — not least because it’s my first first-person game — and although it’s well under way I’ve yet to see whether I can make everything come together (into something tonally consistent). I potentially risk pinning my hopes too much on this project, but if worst comes to worst I can take notes on what went well and what didn’t, making the time to reattempt this project sometime in the distant future (when I have further technical experience in game development).

UKIE Game Jam

A few months ago I took part in my first game jam. While I’d told myself I’d take part in some of these as they cropped up, I hadn’t expected to get invited to take part in one of these so soon after starting my degree. I didn’t entirely feel ready for it, but at the same time it seemed like an exciting opportunity to get a better sense of the practicalities and challenges involved in game development. The team leader and myself reached out to some of our peers, eventually finding ourselves an artist and an additional programmer (who later became our main programmer). I worked mostly as a designer — brainstorming several ideas around the topic of climate change and sustainability, some more practical and realisable than others. I pitched these ideas to both the team leader and the rest of the team; we made some edits, and I accommodated some of the suggestions which seemed to work well with the design. I later developed the game design document for us to refer to and edit as we went along, detailing the various tasks we needed to complete over the two days.

When the game jam arrived, one of my main jobs was simply in populating and maintaining a board of user stories for myself and the rest of the team:

We opted for this over Trello to give our eyes a break from screens

Maintaining this was surprisingly exciting for me — it was my first experience of seeing a design gradually become a reality as assets got made and features implemented. Members of the team picked tasks from this board, moved them over into the ‘working on’ column, and finally into the ‘To Test’ or ‘Done’ columns. I felt like I was developing a practical sense of the workflow of a development team.

The design in question had the player guide and nurture a sapling into a fully-grown plant of sorts, steering it as it grew upwards towards sources of nourishment (rain and light, most notably) and away from area-specific obstacles (stationary and falling branches, acid rain, smog/pollution, thunder and lightning). It was designed to be a fairly minimalist (directional controls only) game which had a certain narrative arch mapped out onto the environment and gameplay: the player would begin in the forest clearing, make their way through to the tree tops, break through to witness the smog and pollution of an industrial world, before struggling against the storm clouds and breaking through into the epilogue. The design was built around a specific play experience we had in mind: something meditative and reflective, letting the player experience the act of cultivating and protecting something precious (while reading some text prompts I wrote for it). The game, while nothing exactly groundbreaking, was designed to reinforce the overall theme of guiding and nurturing the planet. The tone isn’t something I naturally go for — I’m much more used to having downtrodden or bittersweet tones rather than consoling ones — but for the purposes of game jam in question I decided on something quietly optimistic (a bit like, for me at least, the closing lines of The Lorax).

But it would be dishonest for me to dodge around it: I personally wasn’t too happy with the final product. I found the experience of the game jam incredibly rewarding but I feel there was a lot more we had to give. On the one hand, it taught me about the necessity of certain compromises within a development team (particularly in a time crunch), but on the other hand it taught me there are certain things we shouldn’t compromise on unless we absolutely have to. In planning out five different areas for certain tones, narrative moments, and gameplay experiences, we’d spread our resources thin — there was only so much a single artist, for example, could do in that time frame. In spite of the stress, we always tried to keep our calm, have feedback sessions and scheduled breaks, and treat each other well. It was towards the end of the first day that I had a good conversation with our team leader who seemed to voice some of my own concerns. We were at a point where we knew we wouldn’t be able to complete most of the original design — the question was now a matter of how much of a finished product we wanted. It would have seemed unthinkable to me at the start of the project, but I needed to revise the design so that the game took place within one level. It wasn’t easy, but over the remaining hours I revised the design in accordance with how much we could feasibly get done, aiming at the very least to deliver the core play experience of ‘a short, reflective game of nurturing and cultivating something precious’.

I think on the whole we coped well as a team. We didn’t crack under pressure, we always made an effort to keep our hopes up, and we’re still on very good terms on the other side of it. I took several notes during this game jam, particularly of some of the lessons I was learning. Most of all, I took note of the things I could do better:

  • If I think a feature’s really important to the play experience, make sure, personally, that it gets implemented. Push your team to make something they can prove has been implemented fully. In some cases, implement the feature yourself if it’s within your ability — being able to contribute something tangible or practical can be invaluable in team-building exercises like these (especially with a time crunch).
  • Be very clear about what you want, especially with your artists. It’s always better to be too specific rather than less specific. Do a rough sketch for them and make sure they understand (potentially ask them what they think you mean). It’s worth the risk to be overbearing in the beginning in order to stop them spending time on something that isn’t to specification and can’t be used.
  • Don’t be too ambitious with your game design. If you have strong narrative interests for your design, ensure the narrative arc can be realistically achieved in the time frame with your team. For the design itself, be as creative as you can when brainstorming, try to think outside of the box, but then ask yourself how much of this can we feasibly get out within this time, and is that amount enough? And, more fundamentally, ask yourself whether the core gameplay loop provides enough that couldn’t really be undone by a lack of content/levels. An MVP should largely be about getting these core mechanics working correctly.

I find it incredibly beneficial to generate and consider constructive feedback like this for myself. In terms of what I think went well, personally, I believe I had an organised workflow, checked in with the team regularly, generated a generous number of ideas for us to work with, and was willing to make some compromises to ensure we had a ‘complete experience’. There is, and will probably always be, things for me to improve and bear in mind. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience, and having the opportunity to design for and coordinate a team was both a pleasure and a privilege. I’d be eager to do something like this again.

Choice, Agency, and Endings: Videogames and the 20th Century LGBT Novel (Part II Dissertation)

Context

The final year of my undergraduate degree offered me the opportunity to further guide my education towards my own interests. I increasingly knew I wanted to talk and think about videogames, and it was a large part of my motivation to take the Visual Culture paper (as well as transferring some of the skills I’d developed in close reading and literary analysis onto other media). But I also knew that, at best, I’d only be able to talk about them in one of three questions in the exams. My only other feasible options were either the Tragedy paper or the Part II dissertation. The Part II dissertation would count as a fifth of my final year result (ultimately determining my class mark), and staking it in an effort to talk about videogames within the Cambridge English Tripos was not going to be playing it safe.

While photography, film, and the ‘visual arts’ more broadly find their way into many of the papers offered within the Tripos, games were less fortunate — getting, at best, a mention in an occasional lecture or class. Granted, digital games are a newer medium, but I nonetheless becoming more and more aware of some of the great work people were doing in the industry — award-winning work in writing and narrative direction which, to me at least, seemed perfect material for literary criticism. While I was finally able to discuss them in Visual Culture, I was still picky: considering games as a ‘visual medium’ only does justice to one of their many facets, sidestepping, I felt, a consideration of them as a legitimate, effective medium of storytelling. In this regard, my interests weren’t so much in the ‘literature’ of videogames (although there is certainly some good writing to be found), rather in the narrative structures of games. My Part II dissertation still seemed to be my best bet at making some of these considerations, so all I needed now was a supervisor.

I remembered back to one of my favourite lectures from my second year: a lecture on the digital humanities titled ‘TL; DR: The Survival of the Literary in the Digital Age’ by Dr Jenny Bavidge. I half-expected a somewhat dismal tone to the lecture, about the ‘death’ of the literary or of the novel. Instead, I heard her speaking about a range of new and exciting mediums writers were taking to — talking about the potential of ‘the non-hierarchical nature of online textuality’. And, to my delight, she spoke about videogames. I was both stunned and inspired to find a lecturer within the Cambridge English Faculty using the v-word. And I felt invigorated, finally; excited about the future for the first time in years. It was as though there was this gleaming ray of hope amidst all my doubts about the future of the literary in the modern world. I spoke to her some more after the lecture, and a year later when my Director of Studies needed help finding me a supervisor, I knew exactly who to ask for.

Having her as my supervisor was a privilege. I felt like I could finally be myself, talking and thinking about the things which interested me most with someone as receptive, well-read, and intelligent as she was. She told me at the start that she didn’t personally consider herself an expert on games, to which I said that, ultimately, what mattered to me most was someone who was open-minded and supportive. I knew that, without this, I would have struggled to work on something that would almost inevitably get penalized for its subject matter. We did a lot of thinking and planning, and while it took awhile to get a sense of what the dissertation was really about I think we eventually isolated it: choice, agency, and endings.

I decided earlier on that I wanted to connect videogames with a more specific interest: the LGBT literature I’d been reading in my spare time over the last year (with Giovanni’s Room proving to be one of my favourite pieces of literature). From as early as my first year, one of my favourite thematic interests in literature was in freewill and determinism, and I found that so many of the narratives I adored had an almost extreme sense of fatalism. In planning and in writing, I eventually navigated the subjects of choice, impossible or unrealised endings, the subject of agency in narratives (and in narratives of identity formation in particular). While I wanted to talk about a wider range of games, my supervisor and I both knew I’d need to make sure there was some solid close reading and analysis if I was to win over any examiners. I decided, for the most part, to focus on two novels and two videogames, all while attempting to adhere to the rubric of a 2/3 weighting in favour of written texts. And I decided, ultimately, to focus more on the narrative structure of games rather than writing per se. While there’s some really good writing in some of the games I wrote about (Life is Strange, most notably), it didn’t feel right to try pitting the language of videogames against the language of novels. I wanted, as best as I could, to find a way of analysing both mediums in a way that was mutually incisive.

In short, this project was incredibly important to me. It was around this time that I started reading widely around videogames, and began taking an interest in game and narrative design in their own rights. Around my studies, including in exam term, I began working my way through books like Rules of Play, Game Feel, and Half-Real. Reading and thinking about videogames made me feel at home.

I remember getting an email from my supervisor on results day:

We got away with the dissertation?

Somehow it seemed we had.

About me (and why I love games)

My name’s Marcus, and I’m an independent game developer with a passion for storytelling. Over the last few years I’ve been attempting to connect up a love of stories and a love of videogames.

My background’s predominantly in literature — something I developed an interest in while reading Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ for a class in Year 8. I was stunned by the ability of language, perspective, and storytelling in general to create fictional worlds and inspire emotions in their readers. I enjoyed analysing and taking apart the stories I read, eventually reaching the conclusion that stories create meaning. The narratives we create, tell, and subscribe to give meaning to the actions and gestures within them. Stories are incredibly powerful, and I firmly believe in their ability to change, however slightly, the people that read them. 

I later developed this interest by reading English at Cambridge, immersing myself in many of the literature and creative writing societies available. I created and ran a college-based creative writing society in my first year (‘Persephone Group’) before joining the newly formed Cambridge University Poetry and Prose Society (CUPPS) and publishing a short story in Notes in my second. After attending a lecture on the digital humanities, I was inspired to hear of certain Cambridge lecturers who were beginning to think and talk about videogames as a medium of storytelling. I later made a request to my Director or Studies, asking whether the lecturer I’d seen would be interested in supervising me for a dissertation and part of my Visual Culture paper. The supervisor accepted, affording me the opportunity to write a Part II dissertation considering videogames and the 20th century LGBT novel (provided I adhere to certain rubrics and guidelines). In short, we got away with it, and finally having the opportunity to think and write about games like this excited me. It was around this time that I reached the bittersweet conclusion that there was nothing that excited me about the future quite like videogames, and that if there was anything worth taking risks for it would be this.

I discovered Goldsmiths’ masters in Independent Games and Playable Experience Design while looking for courses which were both open to humanities students and specialised in the storytelling, artistic potential of games. I wanted a course which saw games the way I did: as immersive, interactive experiences with the potential to enrich those that play them. Or, at the very least, I wanted a course that offered me the space to continue seeing them this way (as opposed to thinking of them as marketable commodities, first and foremost). For me, focusing on indie games allows me just this, developing a mindset I can bring to a range of different creative environments (one that respects both the potential of games and the potential of gamers to create meaning). From a more pragmatic angle, this year’s also about me learning practical skills in game development, most notably with Unity and C#, 3D modelling and animation with Maya, and physical computing with Arduino. The degree, and perhaps indie development more broadly, encourages me to try my hand at a variety of different disciplines in game development.

With all this being said, I think my interests ultimately boil down to game design, narrative design, writing, and programming. I often work at a macro level, thinking in terms of play experiences, narrative arcs, game loops and themes, but I also find it refreshing and grounding to work some smaller problems: how do I get this mechanic to work? how do I make this feel good? And, sometimes, these smaller questions raise much larger design question: how can I work with this limitation in my design? how might this tweak change the gameplay loop and experience as a whole? I might not ever be a specialist programmer, but I believe it helps immensely to have an appreciation for the sorts of problems they address and the value of sometimes thinking on a more micro level.

I feel incredibly grateful to have this year. It’s an opportunity to learn new skills, take part in team-building exercises like game jams, and generally make the most of the events and opportunities available in London. And, for me at least, it’s about doing what I can to connect up two chapters of my life.