WIP: No Lack of Void.

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Seule.

Steady progress is being made on the first prototype. Owing to some consulted brains, two rudimentary blobs can now be controlled by two players, their heads can be manipulated using the right stick of a game pad, rendering some very actual puppetry inside the unity scene.

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No Lack Of Void unity scene.

The scene furthermore features invisible barriers just outside camera view that teleport the players from one side to the other, resulting into them exiting left and reappearing right.

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Code.

This is just some code to give some technological credibility to this thing.

Analysis: Gang Beasts

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Blue person emoting victoriously, without reason.

In the course of testing games that might some relevance pertaining to my research, Gang Beasts came along. I suppose it could be classified as a brawler, a beat-’em-up or even a fighting game, but I believe that would be selling this odd little game short.

In Gang Beasts, you and up to seven or so other players play grumpy jelly people. The object is to beat each other up across various large, interactive spaces. You have controls for hitting, grabbing hold of things, lifting things up, and, here we go – emoting victoriously. This animation does nothing – but in various playthrough with various people, it is by far the most often-used function, whether used for humiliating grandstanding or limp irony.

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Romance.

Gang Beasts is ostensibly about beating each other up, but the playground-like design of the levels and the severe clumsiness of the character controllers make for a very playground-style of play, one where people spend as much as time fooling about on the swings as they do actually performing the prime directive of the game. This is abetted by the strange, physics-driven nature of the controllers: The characters often topple over, and their crouch animation makes their arms flap about in suggestive manners, which a lot of players I played with interpreted as either dancing or intimidating gestures. Couple this with the way each character can grab the other and pretty soon various quasi-romantic scenarios emerged. Not because this is a romantic game, but because the players made it romantic.

WIP: There’s No Lack Of Void.

I’ve been prodding at a crude prototype meant to encapsulate a few of my first ‘conclusions’ into testable form. It’s tentatively titled There’s no Lack of Void, after Estragon’s comment in Waiting for Godot. It’s an elementary Godotian setup: There’s a void, with a fake tree and rock in the middle, and two playable characters. Exiting the stage right means entering the stage left. They are essentially trapped in this void, and they can only react to their lot. This will probably be achieved by mapping the head bone rotation to the right analog stick, but I’m still figuring out that one. Also, I’d like there to be a way to actually escape the Void, but I haven’t found one yet.

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Unity ‘infinite’ canvas setup.
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Crude sketch of simple characters.
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Slightly less crude sketch of environment, characters and manner in which they might express themselves.

Kissing in Skyrim

Fus roh something.

Skyrim is one of the most mod-prone games of the past decade. Everything from Spider-Man costumes, Thomas the Tank Engine costumes, machine guns and nudity mods abound. And now, a kissing mod, Not the first, in fact. But this one is interesting because it does not employ custom animations. Instead, it uses some ridiculous tweak to the ragdoll systems which results in characters making preposterously dramatic lunges at one another, during which mouths may or may not connect.

This is (tenuously) relevant, because what we have here is not so much a kissing gesture, as much as a weird jumping-like motion that has been repurposed and packaged as ‘kissing’, and which we accept as such, partly because the movements are vaguely familiar and partly because the modder tells us to. The kissing is implied rather than executed, which is to the consumer the same as being executed. It was not kissing but now it is.

Sub-Question Three

What role does an existing relationship between players play inside a game?

There are some slightly regrettable elements to this question. What ‘role’, is hardly specific. An ‘existing relationship’ is in sore need of some specific definition. On the whole, the question seems oddly specific and wildly vague at the same time, and I’m a loss why I thought this was an adequate question only a week ago.

Regardless, let’s have a stab at half an answer. I think we can establish that pre-existing relationships do play a role in how a game is experienced by two said involved specimens in said relationship. Otherwise, friends would probably not play games together. But they do. And their friendship is a key motivator. They would rather play with a friend than with a stranger. Which is understandable. That’s what friends generally are for.

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Les Loups-Garou de Thiercelieux.

However, the game that is to result out of these findings presupposes a measure of dramatic interaction. Familiar and amicable interaction more or less precludes any dependably dramatic interaction. So should the players always be total strangers and unaware of true identities, like in Journey? Or can their be some mechanic, some transformative element that makes it easier to relinquish existing roles and assume new ones? In Les Loups-Garou de Thiercelieux, players easily cast off existing roles and relationships to assume new ones to the benefit of the game, but a case can still be made that pre-existing relationships influence their decisions inside the game.

Further research is required to make any sort of definitive statement about this quandary. The best course of action, I think, is to organize a few playthroughs of Les Loups-Garou de Thiercelieux and other games that involve some form of roleplaying, and see how this affects familiar dynamics.

‘Drama’ in general, and in games

On to the second sub-question:

What does ‘drama’ entail within a game?

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Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

What does drama entail at all? The word derives from the Greek word  δρᾶμα, which means action. It derives from the verbs to do or to act. Which seems to imply that in drama, things happen. Further glances tell us that “The enactment of drama in theatre, performed by actors on a stage before an audience, presupposes collaborative modes of production and a collective form of reception.”

That’s all very well. Drama is something where things are made to happen in a collaborative effort to be consumed or spectated in a collective fashion. And that’s just dramatic theatre. Would I would like to do in this article is attempt to distill which active elements within ‘drama’, whether it be theatrical, cinematic or something else, are present in video games, which aren’t, and which of those that aren’t could conceivably be transposed into a video game context that realize the sort of advanced puppetry I’m currently envisioning as the end result of this project.

As mentioned previously, a lot of definitions mention, in some form or other, ‘collaborative modes of production’. In a lot of cases this refers to the gesamtkünstlicher nature of theatrical productions, and the ensemble of creators necessary to facilitate it. The writer, the performers, set designers, builders, a small army is required to play out the drama contained in a play. Similarly, we can steal the definition and hereby propose ‘collaborative modes of production’ could also refer to players. A multiplayer game is nothing if not a collaborative mode of production, the production being the final, unique experience of gameplay, the mode being the actual play, and the collaboration the very fact that two or more players are interacting with one another in a designated arena.

But can we say that presence of X systems guarantee a Y amount of drama? How much is 1 drama? Can you have too much drama?

The problem is that, much like improvised drama, most significant interaction will take place between players, who are, contrary to the system, complete mechanical unknowns. There is no sure way of predicting the totality of player actions, which is at once what makes it beautiful, but hard to encapsulate from a designers’ standpoint. This means that there is no true guarantee of a coherent story or even something that is interesting. Somehow, the means available to the players must be constrained to simultaneously imply a sufficiently large range of expression, as well as conducive limit that challenges them to reach beyond what is offered and start to create situations themselves.

When a player kills another in a game it is a nuisance for the receiving party. But it is not necessarily dramatic. If the two players concerned were on the same team, and this killing was in fact dramatic, this contextualizes it as dramatic, but as long as this is not sufficiently backed by the players’ performance, it is simply tomfoolery. So, how can the environment and the programming aid in contextualizing players’ actions as those of a dramatic nature?

Ralph Bakshi

I like Ralph Bakshi. It stems partly from the medieval times in which I purported to be an animator, but I suspect the reason is more all-encompassing. The man is, like a lot of people I pointlessly prop up as effigies as if they reflected somehow on me, impractical in many ways. He tried to film The Lord of the Rings on a preposterously small budget. He tried to transpose Frank Frazetta’s art into moving pictures. He tried to introduce graphic sex and violence to animation. A lot of these impractical ambitions he realized through brazenly dealing or not dealing with people and not listening a lot to advice. A lot of his projects failed, but they are not necessarily failures.

In this video he has some choice advise for current creators, and the wealth of options they (including me) regularly fail to see. By disingenuously placing this on my blog, I hope some of it rubs off on me.

Drama at the receiving end of an AK-47

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Thy drugs are quick. Thus, with a kiss, I die.

Shooting things with a shooty thing mounted in the middle of your screen is perhaps one of the most pervading and immediately recognizable images of modern gaming. The first-person shooter has been a fixture since Doom, and although it can be argued that its zenith days may be over, it is still easily one of the most popular means of killing people on the computer.

However, even in these seemingly base games there can still be found the seeds of a dramatic performance not warranted but sprouted by both the game’s internal workings and a developed culture between the players. Most evident (and probably most familiar to involved players) is the concept of Teabagging, a low-brow debasement of an unrelated mechanic which, on closer inspection, is actually an ember of culture within a digital framework.

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All that’s spoke is marr’d.

Teabagging is what happens when Person A shoots Person B dead, after which Person A repeatedly crouches on top of Person B’s lifeless head, implying that he is pushing his scrotum into his vanquished foe’s face. While in essence a base form of ritualized humiliation, the very fact that the crouch button – usually used for crouching – has transcended from a tactical control to a human expression, however dubious, is an interesting and encouraging one. The game lacks a visual language, so the players inhabiting it develop one, repurposing existing movements and reestablishing them as conveyors of information, of emotion even. However base. This type of unassisted dialect creation is something that I’d like to emulate in Exit Pursued By A Bear.

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And then all this thou seest is but a clod And module of confounded royalty.

The second element of first-person shooters I wanted to touch on is Spectator Mode, a feature of many multiplayer modes. The concept is simple. When you die, you usually have to wait for a bit, either until the end of the match or until a respawn timer or some such mechanic has run its course. Many games offer the use of a Spectator Mode to use in these types of situations, or sometimes have dedicated Spectator Modes for entire sessions.

It basically does what it says on the tin – rather than actively participating in the game, you are a spectator, often having a choice between fixed camera angles and piggybacking on the players’ perspectives, an objective overview and a subjective angle; all boiling down to the same thing: Suddenly, the game has an audience. The game played is not just for the benefit of the involved players, but also caters to an invisible audience of onlookers.

Now, in an era where both Twitch-streaming and Youtube Let’s Plays have become staples and fixtures, this may not sound overly interesting. It might, in fact, even sound outdated. It is. Twitch presents a far more direct way of letting spectators in on your games and Youtube allows far more channels of communication between players and audience; but Spectator Mode is an embedded function inside a game. The audience is, to an extent, there, not merely watching the players’ screens, but inhabiting the game space, invisible, yet still in control of their own movements and perspectives. They have a choice what to view and how to view it, a choice that they must make as the game is being played, not before or after. Even though they are spectating, they are in effect also playing.

It is this ‘involved audience’ mechanic that I would like to capitalize on in this project. A performance-centered game by definition appears to need someone to witness it to qualify as something to do with performance, and I would prefer it be to the benefit of more people than merely the players. What play is only to the benefit of actors. Except, perhaps, Larps. More on that later.