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Dreaming Out Loud

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Having taken some time away from making games to focus on only writing, I am back to splitting my time between creating games and writing in my studio. So, I begin with a short story concept and then try to figure out how to deliver it, in indie fashion, without the huge over head that most “gamers” are so used to now due to the Triple A game titles that have ballooned now like the tent-pole movies that are made in Hollywood. Essentially, the belief that bigger is always better.

Being a fan of short stories (and not of endless games that go on forever) I approach the game as a place to bring people into a story. The images you see on this page are just some recent explorations in creating environments like a painter rather than treating the game world like pixels. To me there is a story even if the player isn’t aware of all of it, and a painted world, the style of the artist behind the brush. This is hopefully one difference that can occur in Indie games, and we see it clearly in games like Fez and Super Meatboy. Personally, If I don’t feel compelled by the painted world or the writing, then it all fizzles out for me as I imagine it does for many.

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Aside from my goal of making a “short story format game” I am trying to enjoy the process of creating. In other words if the enjoyment of the process fizzles, then I’m going to let go and do something creative that will let me create without the technical road blocks.

As an artist and writer, I want to treat the game environment as a canvas that I’m painting on, and trying to bring my audience into that canvas. What I’m saying is that as an artist I’m far more comfortable with writing and visual arts rather than the technical side.

I can do it, but it isn’t where I thrive, and I feel that the game engines are still road blocks to more creative games because individual artists and writers cannot sit down like a pianist at a piano and just create from that unconscious place without the technology getting in the way. Imagine if every note a musician wrote had to be programmed, and they couldn’t actually touch a piano, but rather a robot played it in another room, with a glass barrier between artist and medium.

That is partly what making games is currently like to me and likely many who steer clear of it entirely.

This means trying to find my comfort level in this medium where I can created un-impeded by the technical constraints of the medium. It’s a tough nut to crack because in the end even with powerful game engines it’s still highly complex, and the promise even of engines like Unity and Unreal have their flaws which I won’t get into analyzing right now.

Part of the production process that I always talked about with students when teaching is building up a library of assets so that when it comes to the game, you can create environments and explore. I have hundreds of assets that I’ve made for games over the years and I’m trying to mix and match them to create this world. Making games is so complex compared to the act of designing a game or writing a game. To make an environment it often takes thousands of assets.

The approach I’m taking as an Indie artist is to NOT emulate triple A games, but rather to know my limitations. If I chose to have assets along the lines of Bioshock Infinite then I would need to realize I’m competing with hundreds of artists who have labored for years creating those worlds.

Having worked in production for years on animated films, visual effects and video games, I know what it takes to produce a big game and I’m trying to produce something with that knowledge so that I don’t fall into the trap that many do, which is to say biting off too much.

To me, knowing how to trim down your game as an Indie developer should be like writing short stories. Let’s say you want to publish in a Sci-fi magazine, so you have to obey the limitations of that publication. If a publication demands that you keep your writing to 3000 words or less, then that is the limitation.

Putting boundaries around the format of a game can be liberating. Putting some time structure around it can allow for an Indie artist to be more like the short story writer. Short story writers write many stories and submit them all over the place in hopes one will land. If you spend two years working on your Indie game, and it doesn’t fly, then you are stuck with beginning again.

I’m not even saying it won’t take me two years to finish an indie game, but my goal is to eventually make it happen like that creative flowing process that partly comes from that unconscious place while you do it. To do it in small groups or individually so that the work becomes more personal and more akin to literature rather than action movies with guns and gratuitous half naked women shots (think both recent Star Trek films or Transformers). Everyone comments all the time that video games are not an art form yet, but with the millions of dollars and talent going into them they aren’t likely to get there because there is too much riding on their financial success and because they are taking their beat from Hollywood films. Not to say that films can’t be art, but who among us thinks of Transformers as art? (Note this is not a critique of the artistry that goes into those productions – two different subjects).

Making indie games is daunting. This is why you’ll hear people like Jonathan Blow, who made the popular game Braid, talk about all the games he began, but never finished. Even for indie games there is typically a huge investment in time involved with making a game, which is why so many games with months of development end up in a scrap heap as people move on.

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I’m not claiming to be the only person interested in this. At some point I should probably write about some of the short games I have played that I feel do fit the short story format. You can play the games in under an hour and feel like there is artistry and creativity unimpeded by delusions of being “triple-A”. These games I find far more compelling than the huge triple A must have games, which in the end feel like they are designed to suck up my life and keep me from doing creative work, sleeping or spending time of with my family all of which are priorities in my life, not “finishing” Halo 4.

In the end I’m not trying to talk about what people should do, in creating games. I’m just talking about how I’m trying to approach this, and why I feel compelled to bang on what I think is a visual medium still in it’s infancy, and despite the fact that I made my first game in the 80’s using Basic programming on a Timex Sinclair, I still find it technically challenging to bend this medium in a way that expresses what it is I wish to say.

If I can’t find my comfort level with the medium then it will be like other mediums that are not a fit for me, pastels or charcoal, things that litter the bottom of my art bin while I move on to things that resonate for me and allow me to continue living an active and creative life.

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