Dev Roadmap Update, and Progress on Suburban Nightmare

I currently have two large projects in progress: Sunshine and a sequel of sorts to A Night in the Woods, code-named Suburban Nightmare. Sunshine was the game I worked on in Sweden for two months, during which I realized I was a little in over my head. It’s all cool, though, because I have a plan. It’s a constantly-morphing plan, which I wrote about awhile back on my other site. Let’s just say the leap from game jam games to slightly bigger games has not been an easy one for me. When it’s not a 48-hour project it balloons in size pretty quickly. I have to set my own boundaries.

To manage this, I’ve switched things up a bit. I’m going to let Sunshine take awhile if need be. In the meantime, I will fit in smaller projects. Effigy was one of those projects. The ANITW sequel is much less complex than Sunshine, but more complex than a 48-hour game project. I’m choosing these projects based on what I can learn from them. Here’s a summary of my project plan so far:

Big project: Sunshine
Little project: ANITW2
Jam projects: Effigy, Cloister, Infinite Coffee Shop, others
Potential future projects: Rock Bottom 2 (VR)

Effigy is the first completed game from this block. It’s what I call a “digital ritual”, a small game that asks a bit more from the player than most experimental games. You only get out of it as much as you put into it. You supply the pictures to burn, and if you allow the process to have meaning, it will. Confessional worked the same way: if you put your heart and soul into the game, you might find some real catharsis. The next jam project on the block is also a digital ritual. Cloister is a game about seclusion and introspection. I won’t go into it too deeply, as the details are bound to change. It’ll be VR-focused, but I’ll also release a build for normal screens.

Each of these projects is helping me pick up things that are necessary to make Sunshine and other larger projects. During the making of Effigy I learned custom shader building, accessing the filesystem, and tweening using DOTween. Cloister will be my first published VR project, and will also teach me some stuff about accessing the internet through code. Infinite Coffee Shop will teach me some basic procedural generation, which is a necessary part of Sunshine.

Suburban Nightmare is teaching me how to code a virtual cursor, how to modify Unity source code, and data serialization (savegames, basically). It’ll be my first game with the ability to save your progress. The codebase will also be reusable, so I can make more adventure games in the same retro VGA style.

Progress on Suburban Nightmare

The first challenge was coding a virtual cursor that receives UI events, such as hovering over buttons and mouse clicks. This is harder than it sounds, because Unity’s UI system is designed to use the actual operating system mouse cursor. I had to dig into the engine source to get a virtual mouse cursor that works like the real thing.

After I got that working, I could code the inventory system. The inventory system is the most important part of an adventure game like this. It’s based on old first-person RPGs like Ultima: Underworld. First I made inventory slots that could contain items, and modified the mouse cursor so you can pick up the items and move them around from slot to slot.


You can also right click these objects to examine them, which puts a message in the text box on the lower left.

Screenshot (885)

Then I implemented dropping those objects into the 3D world.


Finally, I added the ability to pick those objects back up again. These are the very basics.


Now that I’ve made it this far, I need to refactor. The code here is messy and convoluted. I’m redesigning it and in the process allowing for more features, such as the ability to examine objects in the 3D world, and combining objects to create new ones. For example, adding batteries to a flashlight.

Trigger isn’t Coming to Steam, and Here’s Why

Note: This post contains screenshots of comments that contain transphobic slurs.

Trigger is not coming to Steam. Not until some dramatic changes happen to the service.

I was hoping I wouldn’t have to make this post. I thought that maybe the most recent drama surrounding Steam would die down and the service would become a normal platform again. The kind of platform where you buy games and then play them. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Instead, there is more drama. Steam is yet again host to another childish, politically-fueled ratings brigade. And yet again, there is not a single peep from Valve. Apparently “reviews” with this kind of content are perfectly okay on Steam:

Screenshot of a Steam review with bigoted slurs.

It’s not just the one comment, either. Through an ongoing organized hate campaign, this and countless other “reviews” have spammed the Steam version of Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear. Why? Because the developers dared to include a transgender character. That’s it. That’s the reason.

Here are a couple more “reviews”:

Several more screenshots from the imageboard-organized review brigade on Steam.

This is all, of course, being organized through the usual channels, primarily imageboards. Everyone knows the drill: A bunch of entitled whingers get offended, run to their anonymous accounts, and attack whatever minor little thing offended them. It’s tiresome, it’s predictable, and the big players in the games industry continue to do nothing about it every time, instead forcing those without power to take splash damage.

Small developers don’t have the money and resources to constantly fight back against this kind of nonsense. Tiny one-person outfits such as yours truly especially do not have the time and energy to fight this crap. Every single indie developer on Steam is one offended little brat away from being the next target. When larger companies keep silence, as they always do, we all suffer.

I have no interest in exposing myself either to the childish hate mobs, nor the cowardly lions in charge. Until Valve does something about the ongoing problem of harassment on their service, I have no desire to be a part of it. My game has already received ire just from the title alone—yes, the hate mob is that hypersensitive—and I have no interest hanging out in a den of wolves.

I’m a tiny little developer that Valve couldn’t care less about, so if you have any clout at all, I recommend giving them some incentive to change. None of us can do it alone, but standing together, we can make a difference. If we remain silent, nothing changes, and Steam continues to be a political battleground instead of a place where people can buy and enjoy games.

I apologize to everyone who hoped the game would come to Steam. You can still buy Trigger on, and backers still have download keys for that site. As an added bonus, when you download the game from itch you don’t have to be online to play it.

Firewatch is Accidentally the Best Example of What Games Can’t Yet Do

I played Firewatch twice in a row over the course of two days because I was hooked. How amazing is this game, right? It sets a tone I’ve never felt in a game before.

Then a couple weeks passed, and then one night I couldn’t sleep and lay awake thinking about this game. Something’s kinda weird here, I thought to myself. Just as I was about to fall asleep I figured it out, and now I’m here typing this blog post on my phone at 3am like a dumbass.

Everyone is talking about how this game shows the world what games CAN DO. But it’s also—probably accidentally—the best example yet of what games still CAN’T DO. It’s 3am so bear with me, this will be rambly.

The characters in Firewatch are off-screen, and you should be damn glad they are. What’s rendered in 3D is stuff games do well: inanimate objects, machines, and landscapes.

Delilah and crew are rich and believable precisely because they are not depicted onscreen. You only see likenesses of them: photos and drawings. Ok, you see your dude’s hands. But games can do limbs ok, I guess. Your hands grip stuff pretty well. If his face was shown onscreen though? Forget it.

The face has to capture the essence of a character. It wouldn’t matter if they had the money to hire Disney; those faces would be canned, static, unresponsive little spheres and you would laugh at them. You know how L.A. Noire looked weird? It would be like that.

Be glad they stuck to voiceovers. Voiceovers don’t have to make eye contact. Nor do they have to turn their head to look at you. Nor do their middle-aged cheeks have to react to gravity when your character looks down. Canned voiceovers work in a videogame. Canned animations only work if you lock the camera. Can you imagine Firewatch with a stationary camera? It would suck.

Think of the games that effectively use canned animations for their characters. Now think about the limits those games use to their advantage. Legend of Zelda only works because the characters don’t really act and it’s all text anyway. Final Fantasy works because it’s all cutscenes and goofy anime soap opera. L.A. Noire works because you’re too busy being awe-struck by the performance capture to notice Cole’s head exists in a different universe than his body. Heavy Rain? Can you say SHAWNNNN???? You can do a cheesy noire story with performance capture. You can’t do toon-shaded indie drama with performance capture.

Firewatch is the only game I’ve seen that feels like an indie drama. It’s basically What’s Eating Gilbert Grape: The Videogame. If I’m wrong and this has been achieved before, tell me about it please, but I doubt it was executed half as well as Firewatch. This is new territory. It’s weird. And it’s for the best that it’s all voiceovers. I don’t know when videogame characters will be good enough to do indie drama in front of the camera. But we’re not there yet. And I didn’t realize it until I played Firewatch. Videogames rule, but they also kinda suck.

Future Creep

When you’re building a sci-fi world, you have to pick and choose what you radically alter. Each detail from the real world that you try to futurize creates more work. Maybe you’re trying to make a world that’s moved beyond paper and pencil. So, what do they use, then? How are these alternate writing tools produced? What’s that? Your world organically grows things instead of using industrial methods? Bad news for you: Now you have to redesign everything from the ground up. This is a crappy situation to be in, because you can’t just pull designs from what’s around you. You have to re-think every object, from doors and windows to furniture and computers. It snowballs quickly.

This is a problem I’ve run into working on Sunshine. The solution is to change fewer things. Make the world less far-future. My original concept was very, very far-future. When you make a world that’s a thousand years into the future, your best bet is to keep things as abstract as possible. It certainly worked well for the anime Kaiba, which explores a world where memories are stored in chips and bodies are temporary.

A frame from the anime Kaiba.

The world of Kaiba is so different it feels alien. That was my original goal for the feel of Sunshine. After I developed the hacking aspect of the game, however, I saw that the game’s levels need to map back to the real world. Otherwise the surveillance aspect of the game won’t have as much impact.

As a result, I’m saying goodbye to the very distant future, and pulling the world closer to what’s familiar. Maybe we’re a few decades into the future. Maybe there’s still paper and pencils. Maybe the only major changes are renewable energy, and computer systems.

Phew. That feels manageable. I don’t have to redesign the pencil anymore. I think about things too much as it is; I’d have a field day trying to re-think basic living implements and their design. I’d really enjoy doing that, but I’d be working on the game for the rest of my life.

Instead, perhaps, I’ll play some Human Revolution and take note of all the things in their future Detroit that haven’t changed. Future Detroit has nanobots and augmentation technology, but they also have pencils.

Post-mortem: Trigger

Trigger is an interactive story (aka visual novel) about a woman dealing with PTSD and a mysterious past. It’s a straightforward branching-story game that tells a realistic story about a 30-something woman and her husband. The game has been out for a couple weeks, so I thought I’d write down some thoughts on the project while they’re still fresh in my mind.


This was my first commercial release, after a series of freeware games made in my spare time and for game jams. I worked on the game’s writing, scripting, and music for a couple years before seeking funding. While the story itself is short (just over 20,000 words for all paths), the subject matter hit close to home, which made it difficult to write. I successfully crowdfunded payment for an artist and musician via Kickstarter. We hit our funding goal on May 20th, and spent the rest of the year producing the final art and music for the game.

What Went Right

Often this section of a post-mortem will talk about the intangibles of project management. People will write about how the team was a good fit, or the core idea of the game was fun. While it’s nice when these things work out, I don’t feel like there’s any meaningful advice to be gleaned from these points that hasn’t already been discussed, at length, in pretty much every single creative field. I’m going to focus my points here on what I felt were smart decisions, rather than strokes of luck or cliche truisms we’ve all heard. I am by far not a business or project management expert, but I can tell you the process I went through to make this game happen.

1. Set a Realistic Funding Goal

Many game projects have failed to meet their funding goals on Kickstarter. Crowdfunding campaigns can fail for any number of reasons, and there is no sure-fire way to guarantee success. Given that, it is still really common for indie developers to set their sights too high. Maybe the team is working on their first game ever, or they have no name recognition or social media following, or the game is still deep in pre-production. All three of those are reasons to question your crowdfunding goals as a small-time indie dev, and combining them is a death sentence.

The simple truth is, people will put their money in something they have confidence will actually happen. A lot of games funded through Kickstarter have been canceled, or are still drifting along without a rudder in development hell. You don’t want to be the next project on that list. Your potential backers don’t want to give money to a project doomed to join that list. That means you have to match your funding goal to your reputation. How many people know who you are? How many of those people will care about what you are making? How many finished games have you released? How often do you release games? All of these are things to think about.

Figure out how long it will take to churn out what needs to be produced (all estimates end up being wrong, but if you can’t at least make a ballpark figure, you need to work on it), figure out your expenses for that period, and if the resulting amount is higher than your reputation can sustain, find a way to cut down the funding goal. Which brings me to my next point:

2. The Game Was in Beta Before Crowdfunding

Trigger was playable, start-to-finish, before I even thought about crowdfunding. This is partly because I first thought the game would be a throwaway experiment, but also because I didn’t have the confidence to crowdfund before 90% of the game was completed. That lack of confidence worked in my favor; the writing and scripting went through numerous changes before completion. The amount of art needed changed dramatically. The style of art I had in mind changed several times. If those changes had happened while the clock was ticking, mid-production, on a fixed crowdfunding income, it would have been a nightmare.

I think the games industry is naive in how it approaches pre-production. We all know that game projects pivot drastically during development, but we keep planning new projects as if we can actually predict that process. Some studios include playable prototypes in their pre-production work, or vertical slices. I don’t think that goes far enough.

Thankfully, visual novels lend themselves to a more expansive idea of pre-production. You can know, for sure, that the game works as a whole before producing expensive art and sound assets, and you can know for sure by using nothing more than a text editor. Because of this, Trigger reached its own form of beta before any money was raised, or assets produced. This “pre-production beta” status was what made my next point possible:

3. Production Needs Were Explicitly Outlined

I knew roughly how many character sprites needed to be created. I knew exactly how many backgrounds. I had a demo recording of every music cue in the soundtrack before bringing in a composer and live performers. I knew where I had wiggle room and could cut corners, and I knew what assets were absolutely necessary.

Even this clear outline morphed during production, but because I knew where we could cut corners, those changes didn’t eat into production time. My artist and musician were filling in the blanks of a completed game, rather than throwing out work as the game itself changed. As a result, the development process after crowdfunding felt like a relatively straight line trending upward to 100%, which almost never happens in game dev.

4. Sought Feedback from Trusted Friends First, Strangers Later

The story in Trigger would not be as good as it is without testing. Most devs know about testing: Test early and test often! Get strangers in front of your game as much as possible!

Trigger was a different animal, though. Feedback from strangers, in the early stages, would have pulled the game closer to conformity with the rest of the visual novel scene. That would have conflicted with my goal of ditching anime genre writing in favor of something more true-to-life.

The testing process during pre-production was, fittingly, more akin to how one might seek feedback while writing a novel. When writing a novel, you don’t want strangers to read your work at first; you want trusted opinions from smart people who aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings. Without that approach, Trigger would not be the game it is now. It was only through my small circle of trusted advisers that I found the story I wanted to tell, without it succumbing to gamerisms and trope overload.

Now we completely turn this post-mortem on its head. Brace yourselves.

What Went Wrong

1. The Economy

I highly recommend creating games outside of economic bubbles on the verge of bursting that inflate the housing market until rent is unaffordable. It’s also smart to avoid creating games after a global economic meltdown. This means your best bet as an indie dev is to make a game outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, before the year 2008. Failing that, move somewhere affordable as fast as you can. It helps to be white and know people with money. If you’re poor and disabled, it helps to have government assistance. Don’t talk to your Bay Area techno-libertarian friends about being on government assistance, even if you are white. They’re still convinced they’re the player character in a Fallout game and will come out of this mess unscathed, and that taxes are the Big Bad you have to kill at the end of the main quest line.

2. My Health

If you live in the United States and are poor, don’t get sick. If you do get sick, prepare to be sick for a long time, and expect everyone else to blame you for being sick. If you take my advice from the point above and move somewhere affordable, prepare for your health insurance to disappear for several months. Come up with bizarre home remedies that might actually make your condition worse. Prepare for your doctors to blame you for doing your best to manage your condition on your own, absent an actual healthcare system. If you get a sinus infection, just pretend you’re healthy. If you get severe joint pain, just pray your limbs stay attached. Consume lots of ibuprofen and dollar menu food.

3. Too Successful

After successfully raising funds for Trigger, I was unexpectedly accepted to a non-profit game accelerator in Sweden, to work on a different game. (They’re going to do another event, by the way, and you should apply. It’s life-changing.)  I naively thought I could work on my other game during the day in Sweden, and do art and music direction for Trigger at night, during my off hours.

In reality, most of my off-hours got eaten up by networking, socializing, and a magical thing known as a sauna. (Which was purely medicinal, I swear. See my point above about my health. Sweden beats the United States at healthcare even when you’re a foreigner in the middle of the woods.)

My dual-development schedule didn’t work out as planned, and this caused the majority of delays on Trigger. No matter how much we want to be superhuman, it’s best to remember we are not.

4. Story Was Perhaps a Bit Too Close to Home

While Wendy has a unique story all her own, a lot of the broad themes in Trigger are inspired by my own life experience. This let me get into the head of a character with PTSD more than most writers can, but it also meant that sometimes the game was too exhausting for me to work on. I sometimes had days where I was too triggered from actual life to work on the game, because the story mirrored reality too closely. I had to become numb to the story to get it out the door. Thankfully, the most important parts were already written and polished by that point, so it didn’t impact the quality of the game too much.


I’m very happy with how the game turned out. It was amazing to have my first crowdfunding attempt succeed, and for the result to be so incredible. I am blown away by the work of my artist Stolen Computer, and my musician Brandon Maahs. The game would not be the same without their contribution, and that contribution was made possible by crowdfunding. I hope to apply what I learned here on my next project, especially the concept of a pre-production beta.

You can buy Trigger online, DRM-free.

Trigger is Released!

After a little delay, our visual novel Trigger is finally out.

Our Kickstarter backers that got a $5 or higher backer reward, and all Patreon supporters have received free download codes for the game.


What kind of game is Trigger? I’m not so great at writing ad copy, so I feel a bit like Wendy here.

Trigger is different from your typical visual novel. We didn’t use anime-style art. The soundtrack has few loops. Most of the music cues are unique, composed for specific story beats, and feature live instruments. We aren’t telling stories about high school students. There aren’t any romance options to pick from. (Apart from Wendy’s husband, I guess.) There is no “win” or “lose” end, just different windows into Wendy’s past, and different possibilities for her future. The story is short, intended to be played in the same span of time you might expect from a show on Netflix. You can replay it several times to get a different story.

In short, it’s a game intended for adults that want a deep story, and want their time to be respected.

You can follow Wendy’s story here. The soundtrack is pretty amazing, if I do say so myself, and you can preview and buy it here.

It’s Not About Power, Silly, It’s About Power


I came across an article today that tries to refute the idea that videogames are about power fantasies. Here’s a quote:

Perhaps games aren’t really about power, they’re actually more about agency – the idea that we can have any sort of influence and control over what happens to us, and the world around us.

The problem here is that influence and control over ourselves and the world around us is power. It doesn’t matter if that power is fantastical or mundane. Whether it’s military killing machines or being able to stand up and walk, we’re talking power.

The article does not distinguish between power and “agency”, rather it distinguishes two aesthetics that power often assumes. One is explicit, the other implicit. The explicit power, the fantastical one, involves things such as flying like Superman, mass murder without consequences, conquering nations, that sort of thing. This explicit power, when it appears in videogames, is often a bit campy, a bit over-the-top. It is a very useful fiction, however, because it helps us conceal the other form of power. It is a power simultaneously boring and impossibly horrific: the passive power of a person or group already at the top. When you’re a part of that passive power, you often don’t notice it’s there. Another quote:

Games, then, aren’t about power as much as they are about just having one fricking place where the system does what it says it will…

A world where things “just work” without hassle is very much a power fantasy, of human control via individual and infrastructure. That we pull stuff out of the earth and burn it to power the devices we use, that is power. That we shape the landscape to suit our needs, cutting down forests, building roads, that is power. That we can hold a toy in our hands produced by this massive machine, and simply accept it has a purpose it’s “supposed” to fulfill—that we are so sure it has been built for us that we feel justified in getting angry at it—this is power.

When read from this deeper understanding of power, the article unwittingly makes the opposite argument, that videogames are inherently power fantasies. That the very interface with which we interact with videogames is itself a power fantasy:

So game machines are specifically built to present us with symbols of control – buttons, touchpads, interfaces – it’s just that here, the symbols really do work.

The controller is built for us, with the express purpose of doing what we tell it to do. Sounds a bit like power to me.

There are so many events that lead up to us holding that controller, though. Who pulls stuff out of the ground so we can power these toys? Who works at the factories that build these things? What animals are displaced or killed by these acts? We are so powerful as a species that the majority of us in the industrialized world do not have to think about this, or care. We can choose to forget the entire human industrial machine that makes these products, and then claim these products aren’t about power. That is passive power. That is power already claimed. Power taken for granted so thoroughly we’ve forgotten it. But the things we do within that bubble are only possible because that power is in place and has been for centuries.

In Videogame Land we take that passive power and call it “agency”. It sounds a lot nicer, after all, and makes you feel a lot better about yourself. It makes power feel innately good. It makes it easier to just do stuff without questioning whether you should or not.

The point here isn’t that we should feel guilty, or some weak “we are the world” sentiment, or a Luddite call to arms. The point is that you cannot remove power from the equation, you can only disguise it. Power is a factor at every scale, from microbes to nuclear bombs. There is no cutoff point where power stops mattering. This applies across the board, not just to videogames.

Rather than questioning if videogames are a power fantasy, we need to ask ourselves better questions. What kind of power do these fantasies evoke? What power might they conceal? How do we use these fantasies in a social context? What impacts of these fantasies do we refuse to acknowledge?

If there’s a statement to make about the allure of the typical videogame power fantasy, it is how we use it to uphold our industrial fantasy of powerlessness. There is a reason the demographic that most violently clings to the over-the-top, explicit videogame power fantasy is a group that already holds the most power. It’s a simultaneous refutation of existing power, and a way to feed the desire for more. It’s having your cake and refusing to pay for it. Or even, getting angry when you are asked to pay for it. After all, the whole world was built just for you, wasn’t it?

Finding New Narratives for Multiplayer

A lot of people say that mechanics and narrative don’t mix. When I watch deathmatch games these days, however, what I see are mechanics without context. I got that feeling watching this alpha gameplay of Descent Underground, a game I backed on Kickstarter. I don’t mean to say it looks like a bad game or that I think deathmatch is dumb now. Far from it. The game looks rad. I love deathmatch, especially free-for-all in Unreal Tournament, my all-time favorite.

But after playing so many games the past couple weeks that layer meaning on what you do, deathmatch feels different. It’s cheesy to do cross-media metaphors, but really, it’s like watching a silent film after a week full of talkies.

What I find interesting is that I didn’t have this feeling playing Portal 2 co-op, which I played to the end for the first time recently as well. I thought maybe the context for Portal 2’s co-op gameplay for me was “player 2 is my girlfriend”, but I’ve played it before with friends (only for a few levels) and it still had that unique feeling to it. Like there was added meaning to the things we did. Maybe the meaning, then—in an art critique sense—in these mechanics-heavy multiplayer games is inextricably tied to that moment, to those people playing, and how the game pushes them to interact with each other. And if that is the case, we still have a lot of games saying the exact same thing, because they invoke the same personal interactions. Kill, capture the flag, protect the base, heal, tank, DPS.

Portal 2 Co-op Screenshot
One of you is responsible for stopping you both from plunging to your deaths. The other has to block a conveyor belt of turrets. This goes far beyond “shoot the zombies and run.”

Portal 2 co-op, for me, feels fundamentally different than any other game’s co-op. It creates situations that require you to place your partner in danger, like the “trust fall” exercise where you fall backward and someone catches you from behind. It does this in several different ways throughout the campaign. It also puts you in situations where it’s highly likely that both players will bumble about, unsure of what they’re doing. One player will have a random idea, say “Why not, let’s try it?”, and then the second player will get inspiration from that shot in the dark. These elements of the game create a dialog between the hearts and minds of both players. I haven’t experienced that feeling anywhere else, to that degree. The multiplayer experience here is intimate. I don’t think this is inherent to co-op. I think it comes down to how the game makes people interact.

It leaves me wondering, what other multiplayer experiences can we craft? What new feelings can we evoke? If the “narrative” of a multiplayer game is the interaction you foster between the players, we’re in desperate need of some new stories.

Let the Right Game In

My game Confessional is going to appear in an exhibition at Babycastles, a space in New York billed as “a collective … dedicated to building platforms for diversity in video games culture at every level”. It’s a really cool place and I wish I had the money to fly over to NY and check it out. I’m pleasantly surprised by the game’s inclusion. I assumed Confessional would be a game people glossed over and forgot about.

It’s a weird game, after all. You sit in front of a virtual computer that has a short writing prompt. From there, you just type.

Confessional screenshot

People either love the game, or hate it. The ones who love it, generally, let themselves type things and forget they’re in a game. The ones who hate it want action. Most games engage with you expecting a layer of separation between game and reality. It’s a fiction you step into that is separate from the rest of your life. I wanted to break that barrier. The rest of this blog post outlines how I planned the game to work in an ideal situation. You might want to play the game before reading any further.

I give you a lot of time to write, in the hopes you’ll break into real feelings. Maybe you’ll start typing silly things, or surface-level thoughts, waiting for the “game” to happen. After a couple more minutes, if you keep writing, you’ll forget you’re in a game and type your actual raw feelings onto the virtual screen.

Then, there’s a knock at the door. You have your guts spilled onto a virtual screen and now the game has come rushing back to greet you. Barrier between game and reality cracked. But if you have your guts on the screen, you might panic a little. This is where you reach a “gamey” contrivance: Press TAB to bring up the privacy screen, which is a fake DOS command line. Once you do that, the door opens, and your mom pokes in to see what you’re up to. You see her shadow, and your shadow. You appear much smaller. This is child you. But the writing prompt talks about the past, and if you typed your guts out, you wrote about your past. Two different time periods overlap. This first time, you’re safe. Symbolic virtual mom goes away. Secrets protected.

Then you can keep typing. This time you’re more likely to expect an interruption again, but you know how to handle it. You keep typing. Mom knocks again. She pops in a second time and goes away. You might feel pretty confident about your secret-keeping skills. Maybe you’ve got a reflex for the TAB key now. And you can keep typing again.

Then she shows up a third time, unannounced. No knocking. You have a brief moment to press TAB, or you leave your guts visible on the screen. This is where the game really enters your world. You’ve spilled out whatever secrets you’ve kept locked up, and symbolic virtual mom sees it. She says she forgives you. She picks you up and holds you.

That’s the ideal experience. A lot of players got there, and they thanked me for it. Some were brought to tears. Some felt catharsis even though they just typed out the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody. Other players wondered where the hell the game was supposed to be. And that’s cool, too. The confessional booth isn’t for everybody, and it doesn’t work the same for everybody. But sometimes, you need to make whatever is locked up inside you real. I think it’s pretty cool you can do that with a game.

You can also read this slightly more pretentious post I wrote about the game shortly after making it. You can also download the game here.

Ludo Gets Angry

This is Ludo.


He’s a big lug who is surprisingly sweet. He doesn’t usually understand what’s going on. He does know his games, though. After all, he’s named after them! “Ludo” means “play” in Greek or Roman or something like that, and it’s all very serious business for academics. They constantly argue as to what purpose Ludo plays in life.

Normally Ludo doesn’t care what academics have to say about him. The words they use are too big for poor Ludo. He’s been around a long time—since the dawn of mankind, possibly even before—and his brain is a bit rattled. To make matters worse, he has a new home now. Sure, he knows his games, but he’s only lived in Videogame Land for a few decades. You might think, “Big deal, right? The economy stinks and people move all the time now when they get a new job. That’s just life.” The problem for Ludo, though, is that Videogame Land is a bit confusing.

Videogame Land

It’s basically a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. The thing about Videogame Land is, no matter how many choices you make, you fundamentally end up accomplishing nothing. Choice is pretty much an illusion for as long as you run around in that maze. Your only real choice is to exit the maze, or yell at the game designer.

The Game Designer
Pictured: The designer. The balls are a metaphor for crunch time.

Ludo isn’t the only one who was forced into an awkward relocation to Videogame Land. There’s also this chick named Sar—I mean, Narrative.

Her name in this blog post is Narrative, and you’re just going to have to deal with it.

While Ludo and Narrative had a bit of a struggle when they first met (you have seen the movie, right?), they’ve gotten along just fine ever since.

Narrative Friend

What bugs Ludo, though, is that people keep writing TMZ articles about how he and Narrative had a big argument and hate each other now or something. Or that they were never friends to begin with!

This makes Ludo angry.

Ludo is stuck in that maze (he doesn’t have a license and public transit is terrible), but he has some friends on the outside writing words of support for him and Narrative. Which he appreciates. Thanks a lot guys. He told me to tell you that.

Ludo does his thing regardless of what the academics say. Sometimes he and Narrative get along, sometimes they walk down the same path for completely different reasons. Sometimes they’re at opposite ends of Videogame Land playing Marco Polo, and sucking at it. That’s what happens when you live in a big-ass labyrinth.

The whole time, Mr. Game Designer is having a blast. (That guy and his sweatpants, I swear.) While the game designer enjoys himself no matter how well Ludo and Narrative get along, sometimes the audience isn’t so happy.

Remember, game designers: Goblins don’t have to be your audience.

Some members of the audience think it’s more fun when Ludo and Narrative have no clue what the hell the other is doing. They think the experience is too boring when Ludo and Narrative get along. Where’s the grinding? The boss fights? The active reload?

Other members of the audience hate it when Ludo and Narrative aren’t joined at the hip. They say the experience is—forgive me, please—disjointed. What’s the point of Videogame Land if your besties never get to hang out at their favorite coffee shop?

But let me tell you a secret about relationships: Sometimes you can’t get enough of your best friend, and other times you just wanna do some stuff on your own. Maybe you’d be ok with a few texts from Narrative, or a brief wrestle with Ludo, but then you need some ME time, amirite? Girls’ night out! It’s time for a visual novel! Or boys’ night out! (I do not know what boys do when they get together, but I have written several fanfics about it, with intense mechanical gameplay and lots of grinding.)

All these experiences are valid. They exist in their own categories. They even have their own names, when we’re talking about actual besties and not a bizarre extended metaphor involving muppets.

We should treat these different relationships between Ludo and Narrative the same way. We should give them names. We should think of them as categories of game, rather than measures of success or failure. I don’t know what we should call those categories. All I know is that I don’t want the names to include “ludo” or “narrative”. Gamey-shootey-with-a-splash-of-story games? Tightly-interwoven-meaning-of-what-you-do-and-what-the-text-says games?

Whatever we call them, they’re all good, man. Game designers can use Ludo and Narrative in their games however they want. If we accept them as tools (the ludonarrative stuff, not the designers), and think about the subject from a different angle, we might even birth a new genre.

New Genre
“In my new game, you have a special power called Magic Jump.” “It reminds me of this other game.” “What game?” “The game with the power.”