Fellow Pro-Lifers, Please Get Vaccinated

GeoStories

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Thousands attended the National March for Life today in Washington, D.C., although there were apparently some in the pro-life movement who considered boycotting the event this year—and not out of concern for having such a large gathering of people without requiring masks during this pandemic (again, for however worthy the cause), but to protest the city’s government for recently issuing stricter regulations to help combat the Omicron surge. Multiple pro-life groups have not only gone on record for griping about such commonsense anti-pandemic measures, but even maintain that this constitutes a deliberate attempt by the mayor to sabotage the march, with one activist rhetorically asking how she couldn’t know that “pro-lifers are among those least likely to be vaccinated”.
Now, I haven’t found any polling data comparing COVID-19 vaccine acceptance of people opposed to abortion versus the national average, so I can’t honestly confirm the veracity of…

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Mixed Feelings About Maya and the Three

I’m still not sure how to feel about Maya and the Three. On the one hand, in terms of quality, it’s absolutely on the upper end of Netflix original animation. Even if it doesn’t rival the masterful artistry of something like Hilda, it’s still absolutely a cut above Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, and it’s miles ahead of the likes of The Hollow. Maya has solid characters—something a lot of shows, Netlfix or not, honestly lack—and that carries it through its narrative hiccups pretty resoundingly. In storytelling, good characters cover over a multitude of sins, and Maya honestly doesn’t have many to cover over, at that.

For those uninitiated, Maya is one of Netflix’s latest animated offerings: A princess-driven, adventure-fantasy story set in a world inspired by the cultures of Central and South America (and the Caribbean). In one breath, it feels very familiar; to Disney princess fans, and fans of broader sword-and-sorcery, party-based fantasy narratives; and in the other, entirely unlike anything I’ve ever seen. While I cannot speak personally to how it channels Latin American culture and historical aesthetics (as a white trash Autistic guy who’s too faceblind to notice ethnicity half the time, I feel uniquely unqualified to comment on such complicated matters), it’s clearly a labour of love by creator Jorge R. Gutiérrez. You can’t say there’s anything else that looks like it, visually (more on its actual stylization later), and personally, I’m all for myth-mining broad continental cultural intersections to create unique settings and ideas. While I’ve certainly heard people complain that Avatar: Last Airbender’s aesthetic was “vaguely Asia,” if Tangled’s setting could be, “vaguely Europe,” why not Asia and Latin America, too? Maybe I’m just an American, but I say, the more myths the merrier. White cultures shouldn’t be the only ones we can mix and mythologize.

Its aesthetic and cultural influences aside, Maya is a unique narrative enterprise. It frequently flirts with what one might call, “subversion inversion,” which is to say, it teases a popular subversion of a still-older trope, and then jerks back, with a slightly knowing smile, and plays the trope straight. Or it plays it straight right out of the gate, and hangs a winking lampshade on it, without actually trying to cheapen the weight. The result is, funnily enough, actually refreshing. Whenever you expect a fake-out, a softened blow, or a sarcastic grin, there is… Just the story, standing there shamelessly, daring you to question it for taking the route that was narratively telegraphed in the first place. Maya isn’t trying to be clever, it’s trying to be brilliant, and throw a lot of character and empathy at the screen while it’s at it, and, for the most part, it succeeds.

As an example: A lot of princess fiction finds its narrative of empowerment purely through the subversion of every possible instruction given to the protagonist. If we’re told to do something, with almost no exceptions, we will not be doing that something. We’ve had a veritable conga-line of rebel princesses, to whom every parent, guide, or guru has been nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome. Moana was notable for inverting this popular subversion to a certain degree—Moana’s grandmother is the one who gives her The Quest—but it still felt the need to pad itself with a dash of modernity by having her embark on it against the will of her parents. At least in Moana there are no parental fatalities (unlike many, many other Disney movies I could mention).

Maya shrugs off this popular subversion almost effortlessly. Not only are Maya’s parents fully-realized, dimensional characters with backstory and personalties that play off one another (along with, in fact, every other couple in the series, creating a startling variety of pairings and dynamics that frankly left me dizzy at the drought of well-developed couples in other fiction), but they are, most often, at least mostly right. They are King and Queen, after all, and they’ve been doing this job for awhile. Even on the rare occasion when they’re wrong, they’re usually wrong for the right reasons, or more right than wrong. In other words, they are actual, reliable guides—actual parents, with a role in the plot—something most popular adventure fiction couldn’t juggle even with extra hands.

So Maya isn’t subversive; not, at least, in the popular fashion. But it is very often original, even when it’s playing close to tradition.

After all, in the same breath that this is a story about family, it’s also a story where we leave from home on a quest, and gather a band of adventurers, and try to save the world. It is, in its broad strokes, truer to the pattern of traditional fantasy than most stories you see. That being said, personally, I feel the so-called “standard,” fantasy narrative of going around in an adventuring party to complete a quest is underserved. It’s one of those things everyone calls cliché, so no one ever uses it, so actually seeing it is, well… Pretty rare, and it comes across as oddly original, as consequence.

And it’s a traditional format for a reason: It works. I haven’t seen an adventure party be played this straight since Airbender, and, as a big fan of Dungeons and Dragons, and that sort of storytelling in general, it’s genuinely a delight. I sometimes think fantasy suffers for being perceived as mainstream—science fiction more often gets away with retreading traditional narrative formats (Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5 being an extreme example of the same pattern being used twice to very different effect) because it’s seen as more niche, whereas fantasy is always being called upon to reinvent itself to please modern fashion.

Maya’s strongest moments come from this motley crew dynamic, and, as any D&D fan will tell you, what makes the adventure party format so interesting is the vast array of characters you can put into it, and the uniqueness they can infuse into its archetypes. I can’t say I’ve met anyone in a cartoon before quite like Maya’s companions, and it’s absolutely the series’ adventure structure—and the classic archetypes it uses as a shorthand to jump off onto more original ground—that gives it the most opportunities to develop them. While it still suffers a little from the post-Marvel, “We’re putting together a team,” effect—that our characters join up because we’re putting together a team, principally, and less so because of circumstances or who they are personally—it pulls it off better than any Marvel fair. It helps it’s played out over several episodes, so we get more cumulative time learning about characters after they’re introduced, and aren’t just stuck with their initial defining character moments and a few later quips.

I only wish we got more time with the characters, especially after the whole party gets together. Maya spends most of its runtime assembling its team or explaining their backstories, and then stumbles directly into its climax.

Maya’s biggest struggle is one of structure, which is—finally—what leaves me with mixed feelings about it. Jorge R. Gutiérrez has described Maya as a, ”giant movie broken up in chunks,” and while, on the surface, I’m quick to welcome any sort of structural innovations brought to animation (which largely followed the same structure in America for decades), I’m not convinced it works in this particular case. Maya is literally broken up into chunks—so much so that episodes often don’t end, they simply bleed. They reach a clear ending, a chapter’s close, and then just continue on without stopping, bleeding into the next episode’s territory before it actually starts, sometimes so literally that, when the next episode finally comes, the last moments of the previous are replayed, shot for shot. It’s like watching an egregiously long film while repeatedly blacking out. Every possible ending or satisfying conclusion is undercut by an unnecessary couple of minutes that drags you into yet another thread at the last second, which won’t get picked up until after next episode’s opening flashback, at which point we’ll have forgotten enough of this brand new conflict that it’ll have to replay the high points to catch us back up, anyway.

I’ll be honest, it’s an odd choice, and definitely results in Maya’s biggest weakness: That it isn’t a TV show. It has everything it needs to be one, even an unusually good one—great characters, a fascinating world, and story beats that more often land than fall flat—but it isn’t one. It’s a sort of mini-series, a thing that exists awkwardly, adolescently between film and TV. And, while its characters tease stirring depth, and are given time to explore it further than most films would allow, I was ultimately left with less satisfaction than a good film would’ve given me. In the end, it feels more like a vertical slice or a pitch reel than a true mini-series: we have just enough time to learn how interesting these characters could be, and then it’s over. Characters develop as fast as they need to, and despite their depth, make progress or changes that would warrant seasons of dedicated storytelling (the ease with which one character rebounds from one love interest to another feels particularly egregious, especially because the characters otherwise feel so real and compelling). Sometimes, in the immortal words of Crow T. Robot, “it needs TV,” and regrettably, in this case, it didn’t get it.

But it’s not just a matter of structural slicing and dicing, unfortunately. Maya has bigger structural problems—nothing egregious, or necessarily uncommon, for Netflix animation—but problems nonetheless. Like a lot of original Netflix animations, its narrative occasionally suffers from a certain hiccupy quality, a problem in the pacing. Multiple times I stopped and wondered if I’d missed a line of dialogue, because the script had just needed that extra pass or two, and hadn’t gotten it. The characters turned too fast from A to D, and I was left wondering where the intervening plot beat had gone.

This is compounded by the rushed crunch of its second or third act (which is hard to identify, as each episode has about five acts, on average, and the season as a whole is a bit all over the place, in its pacing), which suffers from a bit of unnecessary drama thrown in at the last second, as a sort of third act misunderstanding. It begins to make a little more sense, after multiple episodes unpack the lore behind the debacle, and I’m sure it was perfectly clear in the imagination of Mr. Gutiérrez and his writers, but at the time I was just left feeling confused why everyone was so mad at Maya. It feels more like something that happens because it was a bullet point, and not because it has anything to do with the story. Mercifully, it has no meaningful impact on the plot, so it’s comparatively easy to ignore once you’re through it, but that only further brings into question why it’s there in the first place. We get so little time with these characters, why waste it with them fighting over something that doesn’t matter to us? Especially when, in the end, their anger doesn’t impact their choices?

I suspect the culprit of this peculiarity is another artifact of Maya’s limbo status between movie and series: I only see three writers credited on its IMDB page. A small enough group that, if they were deeply immersed in this story and its world (which clearly exists with laudable vividness and realization in Mr. Gutiérrez’s mind), they wouldn’t question the logic of a conflict only they understood the stakes of. It’s a case of theory of the audience’s mind: The writers forget we don’t know what they know, so the emotional sky falls for an episode or so after someone says something relatively incomprehensible, and we’re left reeling in bafflement and wondering what we missed.

Beyond its narrative problems, however, there’s little to dislike about Maya. Its aesthetic is both original and gorgeous, channeling more caricature and overall character into 3D than I’ve seen since Incredibles (or possibly since ever), and the animation, for the most part, is stellar. In general, it pulls off its 3D look far better than pretty much any competing series (Trollhunters is the only other 3D animated show I can think of that really nails its aesthetic), and the use of lighting is pretty solid (barring a Marvel-esque fixation with fight scenes taking place at night, although Maya’s are still dramatically more visible than anything out of Loki). I can blame the quality on Netflix money, to a point, but only so far (Dragon Prince, after all, definitely does not look this good, and certainly does not have action on the same level). At the end of the day, this show is just dang pretty, and it’s mostly due to the talent and originality of its art direction.

Maya’s stylization shines most in its character designs. Maya’s father towers over her like a giant, while other characters are small enough that even our humble heroine dwarfs them by comparison. Even the most minor background characters usually convey something of themselves in their depiction and proportion. The primary villain, Lord Mictlan, the God of War, is delightfully vile to look upon, with twin, swiveling heads that turn inwards to form one visage, and an oral fixation in his characterization that befits his ravenous motives. At the same time, he’s never actually grating to look at, and even the most exaggerated or grotesque characters have some charm to them. Each of the lesser gods is unique, and surprisingly memorable, which is no small feat, considering the sheer number of them, and the multiple nations of Maya’s world all have immediately unique visual identities (even more so than those of something like Raya and the Last Dragon, which is impressive). Even the way characters move is distinct and individual, especially the main characters—something even theatrical films frequently neglect. The artists get full use of exaggeration and characterization in Maya, and you get a sense of who each character is, just by looking at them and watching how they move.

Maya is primarily an action show, and the action is solid. While it has a tendency to get bogged down in fights that are slightly too long, and many frankly I simply couldn’t follow the ebb and flow of—pacing, again, is its greatest weakness—the boarding and bread-and-butter of it is above-average. The narrative of each fight can easily get murky (the story conveniently forgets about Mictlan’s greatest and most-established power, in the final fight, for instance), and I could’ve done with a bit more screentime devoted to our adventuring party being a party, outside of combat, but I was never bored. The environment is frequently incorporated to great effect, and it’s certainly no CGI slam fest. And there are some genuine stand-out moments—a fight taking place on floating, moon-shaped islands is a highlight. At its best, Maya’s action has that feeling of a good fighting game—two masters going toe-to-toe, exchanging jabs and taunts. It’s very Airbender, or Princess Bride. At its worst, it rockets between too many combatants too fast, and we’re left wondering why so-and-so didn’t do that thing he just did earlier in the fight, so much so that one character even lampshades it by quipping, “Why didn’t he do that sooner?”

Maya makes a lot of gutsy creative decisions—and, being on Netflix, doesn’t have to worry about censors; multiple times I questioned its rating of Y7, and I’ll leave it at that—and not all of its gambles always pay off. But I can’t help but admire it for going so hard at its ideas, and looking so good while it does it. This is a story for kids that talks about killing almost as much as six-year-olds do playing with action figures, and it isn’t afraid to “go there,” no matter how tragically. It’s never gratuitous, but I was surprised just how intensely each of our main characters is a broken teacup (the other leads make Maya’s accumulated trauma seem mild, which is impressive. Granted, they all steal the show a bit—especially the orphaned wizard Rico and the feral bow-child Chimi—so much so that once or twice I caught myself wishing one of them was the protagonist. I have a suspicion, however, that the dynamic wouldn’t work as well as I might think without the social glue of Maya in the mix).

Maya and the Three does not hold back, on any level. Sometimes that’s a strength—this is the first time I’ve seen any media actually depict the historical persecution of albinos, which gets some pretty gutsy and dramatic exploration (especially for a Y7 fantasy adventure), and it also comments brazenly on other current Latin American issues like rainforest deforestation. And, again, trauma plays a surprisingly prominent role—which tracks for the kind of things these characters experience, even if most fantasy adventures don’t usually acknowledge that. As a PTSD survivor myself, one scene where a character is staring into a fire, reliving a flashback while quietly panting to himself, was especially moving (and refreshingly accurate. This is the best PTSD representation I’ve seen since Kung Fu Panda 2, and yes, a cartoon movie about a panda is significantly more accurate than a laundry list of live action dramas).

And again, sometimes Maya’s no-holds-barred storytelling tactics are exactly what hamstring it. It doesn’t know when to stop a narrative sentence, and frequently stammers over itself, in its excitement. A lot of good moments get stepped on, or are dragged-out and killed because they should’ve been tighter, or pushed to another episode. Sometimes you can see where there was a good outline, but the moment is lost in the making. Or, very abruptly, the concept in play reverses itself, so we can hit a different bullet point added in a later revision.

One of Maya’s biggest strengths is how it utilizes more traditional fantasy-adventure narrative patterns as a springboard to more original storytelling. I just can’t help but wish it used a more traditional narrative structure, too. This is a story that easily could’ve been three seasons of a TV show, but instead it’s only nine episodes.

At the end of the day, it’s a show that I enjoyed, I just wish I could’ve gotten to see more of it as a show. As it is, it exists somewhere awkwardly between TV and film, and while it’s a good story, it’s strained and compressed for lack of proper medium. With essentially every narrative thread wrapped up (without spoiling anything), I don’t honestly see how anyone could write a sequel to it, so I think we shall simply have to watch it pass. A failed narrative experiment, but one with a beautiful aesthetic, and an excellent story.

Luca and the Snobs: Pixar’s Latest Film, Animation Criticism, and the Beauty of Simplicity

I just watched Luca, and I don’t think it’s gotten the critical reception it deserves.

Animation has always occupied a strange niche of professional criticism. With innovative masterpieces emerging from the medium with a frequency that feels almost regular, from Studio Ghibli films such as Castle in the Sky or Spirited Away, to Pixar and Disney classics such as Up, WALL-E, Tangled, or Lilo & Stitch, to Sony’s Into the Spiderverse and The Mitchells vs. The Machines, you’d be a blind and foolish critic to dismiss it outright. Putting aside these sorts of films make an enormous amount of money, and therefore it would be critical suicide not to cover them with at least some veneer of positivity (a critic who pans everything finds himself relegated to the lower sphere of the whiner), it cannot be denied, to the reasonable artistic connoisseur, that animated films tend to be far more experimental, on average, than live action. WALL-E had practically no human dialogue, and was virtually silent for more or less the entire first act (something you’d never see in live action—at least, not in a live action film clever enough to also make money or be interesting). And arthouse films in the line of the Japanese Studio Ghibli are so painstakingly beautiful and intricately crafted even the stuffiest critic can’t keep away from them forever (though many have tried. I’m reminded of how, in 2014, a member of the Academy described The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as one of two “freakin’ Chinese f*ckin’ things that nobody ever freakin’ saw,” the other of which was apparently Song of the Sea, which is Irish. Racist, ignorant, and depressing. And allegedly qualified to vote for the Oscars).

Nonetheless, animation usually does find itself the snub monkey of the film world. Famously, if one begins a career working in animated films, whether as an actor, a director, or anything else, it is remarkably more difficult to break into live action filmmaking than it is in the reverse. For years, it was popularly said that the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture was given to whatever film the Academy voters had happened to watch with their children, and whether or not this was ever true, it says enough about how the world sees animation that people believed it (according to a cursory Googling, it seems to be more true than not, although the prevailing theme just seems to be that most Academy voters did not watch most of the nominees, and did not care when they did. One voted because a short film happened to contain a dog, which I don’t consider the pinnacle of artistic criticism, by any means). Nothing against the tastes of children, of course—they tend to have at least more grounded sensibilities than these so-called critics—but we ought not to expect children, who are learning, to best elucidate the artistic intricacies of experimental artwork. And, regardless, critics are asked for their opinion professionally, and ought to be expected to at least try to give an original thought, and not just recommend whatever they happened to see with the fam last movie night.

But animation is not taken seriously, at least outside of its own industry. It is often simply relinquished to the realm of “children’s entertainment,”—and not, of course, in the sense of Alice and Wonderland, The Hobbit, or Winnie The Pooh (the books). Not in the sense of the classics, which are, of course, High Art, and therefore most essential for children to read, to best shape their imaginations. Those are children’s art, tellingly, whereas animation is always children’s entertainment. Children’s entertainment is implicitly implied to be a lower form, a cruder practice, something contrived to “sell toys,” (as if the production of devices to bring joy to children and engage their imaginations was some dark, eldritch, corporate practice rife with secret meetings and conspiratorial cigar-smoke).

Except, again, critics cannot possibly get away with this blatant snobbery in the case of all animation (whether because of how profitable a given film is, or how obviously experimental, or just generally good). So you have awkward moments of pandering. Roger Ebert once said that, “Every time an animated film is successful, you have to read all over again about how animation isn’t ‘just for children,’ but ‘for the whole family,’ and ‘even for adults going on their own.’” And while Mr. Ebert absolutely was a snob in his own right (especially in regards to the then-new medium of interactive art, although it’s hard to be too hard on him, as plenty of people who bill themselves as legitimate video game critics even today allege video games aren’t art, which does beg the question why games then require critics—after all, there are no toaster critics), he was correct that, every time an animated work rocks the zeitgeist, the whole world of pretentious critics scrambles to explain why it’s alright for them to see this movie, and praise this movie that is so obviously a masterpiece, while still comfortably keeping the medium of animation at an arm’s length.

And then there are the films that straddle the line. The films that are quite well received with audiences, quite successful (although that very term is eroding in the age of streaming, without box office numbers to anchor spineless professional opinion to), but unapologetically sincere, simple, and crafted for children (in the spirit of aforementioned print classics).

Here, such critics cannot retreat to the popular, safe refuge of calling a singular animated work shlock or smut, as is too often the case with Japanese cartoons aimed at adults (although, as an aside, I do wonder where the apparently unwavering moral compass of the critical community was when live action travesties like Game of Thrones were committing often significantly more heinous sexual objectifications or indulging in far more gratuitous forms of hyperviolence). But they can’t simply say such a straddling film is “for children,” either, in the dismissive childist sense, because it actually is for children, and is better for it. And where does that leave the snobs?

So we come to Pixar’s latest film, Luca. At its heart, Luca is a simple, slice-of-life story about a trio of misfit kids who live by the coast with their dreams, hang out, and have to learn to grow. It’s the kind of movie we don’t see much of anymore, because it has the guts to be simplistic, and to do it well. It reminds me, in fact, of Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, and of Ghibli in general.

But you can’t call Luca experimental, not in the comfortably pretentious sense. Not in the WALL-E sense of having very little dialogue, or the Ghibli sense of being a million ideas at once executed to seemingly impossible precision. Luca may be narratively innovative, in that it’s the sort of story we don’t see much of, anymore—the kind of comfortable, quiet narrative with lower stakes and richer characters (a stark contrast to a film like Raya and the Last Dragon, which is so breathless it scarcely has time to talk about itself)—but noticing that would require treating it like an actual film, and that’s something the sphere of snobs just cannot bring itself to do.

The oddest thing to me is that, of all the pretentious criticisms I’ve seen clumsily leveled at Luca, for lack of the usually dismissive accusations of childishness (which it wears proudly, as it ought to) or adultness (which it unapologetically leaves out entirely), the most common seems to be the accusation that it is not innovative. That it is unoriginal (despite being a story about Italian mermen who want to buy a Vespa). The New York Times calls it, “familiar,” and “not a masterpiece,” while the (somewhat predictably) more pretentious Roger Ebert website calls it “Pixar’s least enchanting, least special film yet.” That’s quite a claim, considering this is the same studio that made Cars 2 (but then, Cars 2 had more visible box office numbers).

Putting aside Luca is the first Pixar film in years to feature substantially different character stylization (which in of itself is more a compliment to the movie than to the studio, but would require an actual modicum of expertise to notice), it is an absolutely revolutionary movie, precisely in its quietude and its unassumingness. In this age of Marvel movies (and now mindbending Marvel TV shows, half-incomprehensible to the uninitiated), or films like A Quiet Place Part II, and The Mitchells vs. The Machines, when every popular movie, whether animated or live action, seems to be screaming constantly at a riotous pace, using quiet almost exclusively as a means of contrasting against tension, it is refreshing to see an actually gentle, low-stakes movie tell a simple, slow-paced story about a summer by the sea. Luca has moments of tension, but they arise primarily out of relationships. The world is never on the line, and the tension, rather than building to a crescendo, either plays out like a fishing line, sinking into lingering emotion, or pops off like a friendly fire-cracker, as we smile and say, “Ah, I’m glad that character made the right choice, I’m proud of them,” scarcely worrying about any dire consequences.

To be frank, I can’t think of an animated film—or any film at all—out of the US that captures this particular energy, beauty, and innocence. It’s slice-of-life as a movie, and honestly, we could do with more of it.

The funniest thing to me is that, if Luca was live action, it would win an Oscar. If someone with a physical camera actually had the guts to tell a story this simple, heartfelt, and low-stakes, the world would lose its mind. The critics would be tripping over each other to praise its “quiet seaside tone,” and obsessively trying to dissect its slightly unusual plot structure, and casual, friends-hanging-out tone. They would call it the most experimental thing in the world, precisely because there were no exploding robots, no larger-than-life, terrifying villains (although the villain in Luca is eminently and deliciously hatable), no horror or pretension, no bombast and no veneer. Luca isn’t cool, it’s not flashy, it’s not even exciting. It’s just good. It’s just a sweet, gentle coming-of-age story with unique characters; without violence, depressive ennui, or confusing camera angles.

Perhaps it’s sad that that’s so innovative. But it is. Luca is the kind of movie I wish I could make, and it’s the kind of movie I wish the critical world could recognize. But the one thing snobs cannot abide is something with absolutely nothing snobbish about it.

Scribble Conspiracy Postmortem: What Did We Learn?

After a lot of thought, I have decided to shelve Scribble Conspiracy.

I want to be clear, I did not arrive at this decision easily. Nor did I arrive at it because I was disappointed with how the game was turning out. On the contrary, given my inexperience, I think it was turning out quite well. It was just turning out a visual novel.

The funny thing about visual novels is that I don’t play a lot of them. It’s actually a genre   I have very little experience with, and not a whole lot of interest in. I had assumed, perhaps naively, that this was just because of what people were doing with the genre, and I had thought perhaps I could bring something different to it. And while I certainly brought good writing, and a somewhat interesting map mechanic, when it comes down to it, the actual moment-to-moment gameplay was still a visual novel’s. Click, read, watch some images shuffle. Click, read, and so on.

It turns out, I don’t much like visual novels. It wasn’t a question of the writing, or the design, or even the art. I just don’t much like visual novels. They’re not spatial. My huge draw to games and game design, my primal and deep-seated love of them, lies in their spatial nature. Spatial storytelling is a concept I want to explore. Spatial interactivity, the “physics” of an illustrated space, the movement and relationship fo characters within a space, these are the things I actually love about the game medium. Visual novels are… Not a very spatial genre.

Now, if I don’t like visual novels, and I want to make intensely spatial games, why did I spend about three months trying to make a visual novel? This is, of course, the question I’ve been asking myself.. On the one hand, I had not played enough visual novels to know I did not like them. And, on the other, I think it’s just a testament to how easily, in the process of trying to make a game, you can completely forget what game you’re actually making.

Gamedev is hard. It’s very difficult to know what you’re making, before you make it, and it’s very easy to lose sight of what you were trying to make by the time you’ve made anything at all. A lot of this comes down to the multifaceted nature of game development. I am often tempted to say that gamedev is the hardest art form—I can at least say, with some certainty, that it is the most multidisciplinary. Game development is Coding, a whole art form unto itself. It is also Design, a fairly nebulous, abstract set of mental gymnastics and multidimensional, pseudo-psychological visualization. It is also illustration, composition, rendering, music, sound design, and a million other disciplines. Without even one of these, your game will feel as if it is missing a dimension. Yes, you can work in a team, highly specialized, with a person to each discipline, but if you do not each have some knowledge of how the other disciplines operate, within the context of a larger whole, you will not be able to work together, and produce assets you can combine across multiple disciplines. Games, like all works of art, are holistic. Without a notion of how all the working pieces fit together, your endeavours will come out a discordant, jumbled mess.

Game development is a bit like martial arts. If you don’t know multiple disciplines, you will be more easily defeated. And even if you do, you will never know how the fight will go until you’re in it, and you can’t plan for where you haven’t gotten yet. Some people have compared game development to building a train track beneath a moving train. Personally, I think that is ridiculous—a train at least knows for a fact what direction it’s going. By contrast, a martial artist only knows he wants to win, that he wants to succeed, he wants to wrestle his obstacles to the ground and make something of it. But no matter how much he trains, and how many moves he learns, he’ll only know in retrospect what success will really look like,

So why did I make a visual novel? I thought it would be fun, and I thought it would be easier than making something more complex. It turned out, for me personally, that it was a lot less fun and interesting than placing my dialogue and characters in an actual, physical, interactive space, and it was no more easier than making any other sort of game development project.

So what did I learn from this? Through making and ultimately shelving Scribble Conspiracy, what did I learn about game development as a whole?

—1. There is no easy project. With this project, I bought very hard into certain aspects of popular internet wisdom. Particularly, the idea of making something small, simple, and easy, “just to learn.” However, in my experience, there is no easy game development project. Anything you make of any meaningful breadth will take a very, very long time to make, and a lot of work. Do not waste your time making something you do not care about, just because you want to be able to say you’ve made a game. Starting small and making simple things sounds nice, but if they aren’t small and simple things you would actually enjoy playing, then don’t make them. Which brings us to…

—2. Make a game you would want to play. I think, for a lot of people, this one is fairly obvious, and intuitive, but it wasn’t for me. Make something you would actually play, of a genre you actually enjoy. Explore concepts and mechanics you personally appreciate, and find uniquely interesting. Look at the kind of games you actually like to play, on a regular basis, the ones that speak to you on a spiritual level, and make something like that. Make something in that genre. Make something that compels you. And that brings us to…

—3. Don’t try to make a game you are not 100% in love with. This one is a bit trickier, but very important. Game development is literally the most draining, most exhausting, most soul-sucking, most existentially and mentally changing form of art I have ever undertaken. I say that as someone who has written a novella, has dabbled in drawing and illustration, singing and songwriting, and a dozen other disciplines. Games are hard, perhaps the hardest. You need to love what you are making, and love it so deeply that that love will carry you through the process. Nothing but total and complete love for your game is going to carry you through the work of making it, short of entirely and utterly crushing your own soul.

—4. Make the experience before you make the game. This one takes a little explanation. It’s very easy to get lost in design documents, and plans, and ideas, and concepts. And you can come up with great designs that way, and they can do exactly what you intended. This was my case with Scribble Conspiracy—I built a map mechanic, and it did exactly what I wanted it to. However, you won’t know how something feels to play, until you can play it. Before you put in months of work trying to make an entire game, figure out what the core play of your game is, and build that. In my case, yes, I built a prototype, but it was a prototype of the overworld map—it wasn’t an exploration of the core of the actual game. If I’d just written one scene, one example of the moment-to-moment gameplay, the experience itself, and plugged it into Ren’Py, and made it playable, I would’ve quickly realized that this was not the genre I want to tell my stories with. Find the heart of your game, find your core play, and prototype that. You can’t know what you’re making until you have a prototype of that central experience, that central play.

—5. Write your dialogue script in plaintext. This one is more oddly specific, but kind of huge, and I’ve never heard anyone mention it before, so I’m mentioning it now, for your sake. If you write all your dialogue in an ordinary text document, like any writer might write, and try to copy-paste your lines of dialogue into hard code, you’re going to have a nightmare, especially if you’ve used any kind of quotes or formatting. I wrote my dialogue in quotes, like this, thinking it’d be easy to copy-paste and easily transpose into working code:

Pol, “Wow!”

Pol, “This place smells really… Different.”

Dop, “It’s like apricots, only… Saltier.”

Pol, “Aw, they have one of those sad sewer waterfalls.”

This was a mistake. Turns out, quotations (“” characters) in a rich text document (any non-plaintext document) are different from the quote characters used by code. I had to remove all my quotes by hand, and reenter them, and it was horrible. Also, trying to use quasi-coding vernacular without actually using exactly the right coding formatting is a waste of time. Either use something you’ll have to copy-paste piece by piece, or just literally code it ahead of time in exact coding terms you can plug directly into your engine. In my case, I split the difference—Dop and Pol were designators I was planning to use in the code, but the commas were not code-friendly—and it was a mistake. Either code or write; don’t try to do both.

And those are really the key things I learned. I’m heartened by the fact that I executed very well on what I meant to make—it was shaping up to be a good visual novel, or certainly exactly the sort of visual novel I had planned, it just turned out I didn’t much like visual novels in general. The writing was good, the art worked, and the mechanics, such as there were, functioned as I intended and expected. Coming through all this, I have learned I am actually a good designer—I just have to learn to channel my abilities towards making games I’m actually going to enjoy playing.

As a last lesson, I would recommend…

—6. Devblogging is helpful. This I did not expect, but it turns out, sitting down and writing out what you’ve achieved, and what you’ve learned, is a great source of inspiration and introspection. I don’t think Scribble Conspiracy would’ve gotten this far if I hadn’t devblogged about it, and I also don’t think I would’ve understood so well why I ultimately decided to shelve it if I hadn’t been following and chronicling my thoughts so thoroughly up till now. I think the most useful purpose of devblogging is actually in its role as a way to introspect and to explore the experience of game development, not as a way of advertising the potential future play of a game that does not yet exist. I think, for my next project, I will probably devblog again, in one form or another, and I would wholeheartedly recommend the practice to other aspiring developers. Not as a way to build buzz for your game, or communicate how it will play, but simply to build more understanding of what making a game is actually like. It’ll help you build more empathy for developers, too, and help you understand why devblogs can be so infrequent, brief, or pained. This is a hard business, and the only way we learn is by admitting it.

With that, I leave you. This has been quite an interesting journey, and I enjoyed it very much. I have learned a lot from this, and overall, while I did not decide to continue development on Scribble Conspiracy, after I implemented and played the first scene, I do think I discovered a lot about what I do want to develop, and how I might implement it.

I will see you all again, sooner or later, I am sure. In the meantime, I am going to go explore Godot, an amazing open source engine I’m falling head-over-heels in love with. As one project dies, and falls to the earth as a seed, so another begins to grow.

Scribble Conspiracy Dev Diary #6: Art Angst & Déjà Development Vu

Scribble Conspiracy is an in-development visual novel full of absurd comedy and childhood angst, using a conspiracy map as a world map. It follows a brother and sister, Polly and Dopop, as they unravel imaginative and nebulously connected machinations in a small town called Dead Lighthouse Lake.

So, my original plan for this dev diary was to swoop in and show off a total implementation of a scene within the game. Granted, in retrospect, I’m not actually sure what that would’ve looked like, since I don’t wanna spoil too much of the story ahead of time, couldn’t have done that in screenshot form, anyway, and I wouldn’t have the art done on the first pass, but it was something I wanted. A big struggle, writing dev diaries, is wanting to have a lot to show off, while the reality of gamedev is that the visible / comprehensible end of your work progresses at a snail’s pace, and only really comes together at the very end. So yes, this diary is a bit late, as far as these unofficially scheduled diaries go, but it’s just because I wanted a really slam-bang post to post. In the end, though, I decided it’d been long enough, and I’d done enough work. I still haven’t implemented a scene yet, but I do have some more ordinary bits and bobs to show off.

The big struggle over the past few weeks has been my chronic health problems. I’ve had a lot less energy to play with lately, and because coding takes more energy than just writing, and I’m holding off on writing more scenes for Scribble Conspiracy until I’m actually sure the conspiracy map works as a narrative framework, I just haven’t had as many chances as I’ve wanted to work on the game. I’ve been trying to keep my skills / imagination busy with other writing projects, to kinda keep limber, but I’ve been really missing Polly and Dopop, my little disaster children. I’ve been functionally bedridden for some months, now, but the “functionally” part of that is starting to slip a bit, which is complicating matters. I finally got my spinal MRI (waiting on results), which is wonderful, but of course all that travel and lying in tubes without a constant heating pad on my back wiped me out, and adding in the fact I’ve finally gotten into therapy for my PTSD (PTSD is curable with treatment, thank God), which is equally wonderful and equally emotionally exhausting, it just hasn’t been my time for gamedev projects.

But I did get some work done. Firstly, a fresh style test:

In the top right is an older style test for Dopop’s style, which you may recognize, and in the bottom left is a recent sketch showcasing Polly, as drawn in Polly’s style, and Dopop, as drawn in Dopop’s style. I think I’m getting better at badly drawn drawings. I don’t know how well the expression reads, but the siblings are supposed to be unimpressed.

Scribble Conspiracy is a game with two protagonists, and ideally, I want each of them to have their own distinct (but still very scribbly and inexpensive to draw) style. I’m going for “childhood sketch” as my aesthetic, which was a real stroke of brilliance, because it means I don’t have to get good at drawing to be able to illustrate my game. My original idea was that I could use this for narrative purposes, so I could show how a character felt through the lens of one of my protagonists, and highlight what my protagonists are paying attention to by who draws what, but I’m getting a little doubtful about my lofty ideals. All the map pins so far have been done in Polly’s style, and while I might add some Dopop-y ones at some point, honestly the whole fate of art for this game is completely up in the air.

Way back at the outset of this project, when I was young and naive, I had this notion I was going to draw multiple unique illustrations per story scene, as if Polly and Dopop were kind of drawing their own unique reactions to each situation. I’m starting to realize that was a really, really terrible idea. As awesome and scribbly as that would be, it would also be a massive resource load, considering I want to have more than, y’know, twelve scenes. I’d like to be able to tell an actual story, here, not just an interactive diorama with a fun nonlinearly experienced but still completely linear narrative gimmick (side note: someday I’m actually going to be able to explain what I’m doing with this crazy game, and not just talk about it).

I’m considering possibly doing some kind of emote-based system, with set illustrations for each emotion, but I know that’s kind of more par for the course, and while I’m starting to get why, I’m still averse to trying something I’ve already seen when I could try something experimental. It’s not like I have a budget for this thing, beyond my own time on the planet, so I can afford to try clever and unique solutions, rather than falling back on cruise-control wisdom. Also, figuring out how a roster of emotions would work with two protagonists, either of which could potentially illustrate a given reaction in their own style and through their own personal lens, is… Yeah, hard. There’s a huge complication to the art in that I want every screen to show both the siblings together, interacting with each other, hugging and touching each other, because I’ve never seen that done, and that’s super important to me, to show this duo as a duo, but boy does that make any kind of dynamic change effectively twice the work. I’ve considered completely redesigning the code structure for the sibling screen, so that I could actually overlay separate image files into one composite image, but that would mean somehow drawing the siblings independently, but still somehow posing them so they can stand side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, and that sounds like it might really hamstring my ability to pose them against each other meaningfully. I’m thinking about it.

I’m trying not to think about art, but realizing more and more I’m going to have to, especially since I’d like to build out all the scenes I’ve written, as a test of how the game plays, and then run through it all with a light art pass and see how the whole thing looks and feels with actual pictures alongside the text (and also how I could potentially, realistically implement art assets, and how expensive it would be to hand-draw some special reactions for scenes). Maybe even release what is functionally the first little bit of the game as a kind of demo or prototype. A foretaste. Lemme know what you guys think about that in the comments, if you will. Would playing the initial opening of the game be a spoiler, or a fun preview of what I’m working on, and the direction I’m headed? Obviously, if I did release anything at this stage, it would all be subject to change.

The bulk of the actual work I’ve been doing has been re-implementing stuff I worked out in the old prototype into the actual Scribble Conspiracy game, with better art assets, the real conspiracy map, and a full resolution. By the way, quick PSA, to all you Ren’Py developers out there: If you’re building a prototype, make sure it’s the exact same resolution as you want your final game to be. I made the idiotic mistake of doing a smaller resolution, because I thought, “Oh, it’ll be smaller art files, and smaller game files, so that’ll be efficient.”

That was stupid. Don’t ever do any resolution except the full resolution you want. I spent so long tearing my hair out, doing weird math and getting the wrong answers as I tried to figure out how to translate the ratios of my sibling screen to the rest of my UI, so it would look as good as it did in the prototype, even though the actual shape of the screen was now subtly different. It was a headache, and nightmare, and I’m glad it’s over. At least I didn’t draw yet another placeholder asset for the sibling screen (my brother encouraged me to just use one of the many placeholder screens I’d already drawn, haha).

The sibling screen will display to one side in all story scenes, and show the emotions of Polly and Dopop, as drawn by them, in any given situation. Other characters will be set against a background on the right.

The border color on the sibling screen (I keep wanting to call it the sib or sibs screen, which is how I shorten it in the code) isn’t correct, yet—eventually it will be the same purple color as the highlights on the map (there’s a story reason for that). And speaking of purple highlights…

In this instance, my mouse is over the Sad Sewer Waterfall, and I have already visited The Dine & Dunk, and Uncle Tibby.

I reimplemented the “hover” and “visited” markers for pins on the conspiracy map, so now if you’re hovering your mouse over a potential scene, it will be circled, and if you’ve already visited a scene, it will be crossed out. You’ll be able to revisit crossed-out scenes, but it will just play a kind of recap of the scene (so either Polly and Dopop will have a quick conversation, going over their prior conversation, or they’ll go back to the place where they were and be reminded why they left).

Going over it all, it does feel like I did both more and less than I thought, which is ultimately encouraging. It is actually surprisingly motivating to sit down every couple of weeks and go over my accomplishments with this project, in spite of my worsening health and generally chaotic life

I know there are some people who read this, so if you would be interested in playing just the opening of this game, or even if you just think it would be a good idea, to get a little buzz going about the project, please do let me know in the comments. I’ve been a little adverse to doing it, because of the potential for spoilers, but honestly it might be good for people to finally understand what the heck this game even is. And getting anyone excited about the full release would probably be smart, since even if this project takes years, it will probably take just as long to build up any reasonably sized community of people who have or want to play it.

In the meantime, stay safe, my lovelies, and keep dreaming!

Scribble Conspiracy Dev Diary #5: And Then it Began

Scribble Conspiracy is an in-development comedy (drama?) visual novel about two kids unraveling an imaginative conspiracy, being developed as a hobbyist project by yours truly.

I don’t know how to start this one, I’ll be honest. Let’s cut to the chase:

It paid off. All of it. Big time.

I still haven’t plugged in the scenes I’ve written yet, so I won’t know if my whole design thing is actually compelling to play in its true form until a little while later, but nonetheless: It paid off. All the work, all the prep time, all the design and preproduction and planning. I have a functioning, conspiracy-theorist-style world map I can navigate by clicking on pins, accessing scenes (which are currently placeholders until I implement the real ones), and ultimately advancing a plot (unlocking new pins and, if all goes according to plan, updating old ones with fresh scenes).

Purple lines? Didn't I tell you?

Finally! Some art that is scribbly, but not placeholder. Barring a big overhaul, this is what the conspiracy map should look like when you first see it.

Behold, a conspiracy theory map with locations, characters, and inanimate objects, all entangled in suspicious (but unclear) connections! A nonspatial navigation map! My whole central gimmick, and it FUNCTIONS!

Granted, when you click on any location, it just takes you to a placeholder screen, ’cause I haven’t implemented any scenes yet (let alone the intro that leads into and sets up the conspiracy map), but when you come back…

In case you’re wondering, the Dine & Dunk is a hotdog place. And we are starting to get into spoiler land, so there may be less I can show you from hereon out? I’m not sure.

I can make it unlock more pins! Do you see the lines? Do you remember how hard I worked for those? They’re here. Everybody’s here. It all worked together, and it WORKS. Praise to the Lord God in Heaven, it freaking, hecking, legitimately works. And I mean that sincerely, not taking His name in vain.

There’s even a little highlight, when you hover over the pins, but I didn’t bother to screenshot that. It was something I had to fix, actually, because if you don’t put a background to your highlight map image, it will only work when you’re highlighting the letters or lines themselves, which made it… Flicker. But I fixed it!

This represents the first real step towards an actual game. Everything up to this point has been planning and prototyping. All of the stuff I’ve just shown you was made in a Renpy project actually entitled, “Scribble Conspiracy.” I actually got to make the official project file!!! And then remake it, because the first time I generated a GUI around the wrong resolution. Whoops.

But the point is, we’re well on our way now, people. This is the true beginning of Scribble Conspiracy, the start of the actual codebase (building off stuff I worked out in my prototype) that will become the thing you someday (hopefully) get to buy and play. I mean, if you want to. I would say this is the very thing you will get to hold in your hands, but, well… It’s the very thing you get to bring to life with your imagination, and that’s just as good, but different.

I also worked out the first batch of scenes (sort of like a first chapter? I’m using the term “batch” internally, which just means in my head, because this is a solo project), which will all get plugged into this map (which is why I moved on to work on the map in the first place). I can’t remember how much I talked about this last time, but I also figured out how to explain when a new pin unlocks. When you finish all the available scenes, I can segue directly to a type of scene I’m calling an “Unlock Interlude,” which sounds like a super obvious solution, but wasn’t. And then when you come back from the Unlock Interlude, there will be another new scene you can access… You get the idea.

Oh, also, I’m just banking at this point on being able to switch out which scene the Uncle Tibby pin leads to, later on. If that doesn’t work… Well, it’s going to work, hahaha. I’ll make it work. The whole point is to reuse the pins to re-access narrative topics in the context of new scenes as the plot progresses, so… Yeah. It’d better work, haha.

Technically, I also need to make the “already visited,” pin overlay, too, so it’s more obvious when you’ve already visited a pin (I always forget that!) but that should be fairly straightforward.

So yes, in conclusion, all that mindnumbing, soulsucking prep I did last month was 100% worth it. I’ve got tons more work to do, both with coding (which has only just begun) and writing (which has also only really just begun), and plenty of revisions, fixes, and glitches in my future, but for now… It has begun.

I’ll admit, I’m terribly proud of myself. As loth as I’ve been to let this become, “Luke’s battle with disability to make his visual novel,”  because my disability is enough of a dominating factor in my life already, my health has been very, very bad lately, worsening even over the past couple of weeks, and I wasn’t sure I was making any progress with the game at all. But all those little invisible tasks did pile up, and I do have something to show for it. The map has begun, the story has begun, the game has begun. So take that, seizures! Art is still happening!

(GIF added in post, after my brother made it reading this).

(GIF added in post, after my brother made it reading this).

Scribble Conspiracy Dev Diary #4: Well Past a Month In

Scribble Conspiracy is an in-development comedy (drama?) visual novel about two kids unraveling an imaginative conspiracy, being created as a hobby project by yours truly.

What they don’t tell you, starting out in game development, is not only how difficult it will be, but how progressively difficult it will be to talk about it.

Gamedev is a rollercoaster. Sometimes you feel like a hero, and sometimes you feel like you’ve worked incredibly hard to achieve absolutely nothing. And over your head, all the time, there looms the possibility that your Design Could be Wrong. You have to do a ton of work before you can test anything, and you’ll only know if your Design is a good idea once you can test it. And so, inevitably, there’s the very real possibility everything you’re working on will have to be thrown out, and you’ll have to start all over, if, when you finally go to knit the squares together, the quilt simply doesn’t look right. Or, to drop the metaphor, the game simply doesn’t play right.

Games are one of the few forms of art you cannot create and experience at the same time. When you write, you also read (though you’re technically using different parts of the brain, you are in one sense still reading, and of course can still stop and read as the reader would at any time). You can experience your work as it would be experienced by  your audience. With movies, there is the complication of editing, post processing, camera angles, effects, and so on, which mean an actor may not know how his or her movie may turn out, precisely. But nonetheless you are witnessing a physical, visual performance, and while you may have to supplement that with your imagination, it remains still a similar, predominantly visual exercise.

Even something as simple as painting—still visual art, which cannot be wholly experienced until it is finished—is still a visual experience. You create it visually, and experience it visually, and so while you may not know how it will look in the end, you can see immediately the results of your efforts, and how they might fit together.

Game development is groping in the dark. Perhaps it is an inevitability of the medium, as effectively the most physical, reactive, and fully-realized form of worldbuilding (worlds being defined as interactive spaces, and worlds being a frequent pursuit of complex art, and a game being inherently an exploration of a world, no matter how two-dimensional or simplistic. Games are spatial art, more than they are visual, auditory, or even interactive, because interactivity is an inherently spatial thing. This is why, incidentally, a “Zero player game,” such as the Game of Life, is still, technically speaking, a game, and can employ the same methods and mechanics). I do not know if it is inevitable, or if we shall, someday, find the golden process that leads us to an understanding of our interactive art as we create it. I expect we shall not, as we have no such magical process for Tag or Chess, despite their ancient nature, or even dance, which is probably games’ closest artistic relative (it is no accident we say both gaming and dancing, but not booking). On a side note, it occurs to me there could be a future for gamedev in a prototype process imitative of dance rehearsals, where interactive relationships are simply “roleplayed” by human individuals…

All of this is to say, gamedev is hard. And not only hard, but distinctly and uniquely difficult in that it is effectively the creation of puzzle pieces before you’ve seen what picture they’re supposed to make. And not only that, but you’re making each puzzle piece in a different, dark room, and the puzzle pieces take radically different forms, rather than all being physical blocks of wood. Over here, the writing, over here, the coding, over here, the art. Over there, the soundtrack, completely uncertain.

I express all this frustration because I want this diary not merely to be a chronicle of my accomplishments, but also an earnest and sincere exploration of my struggles. And this month was frustrating. It was frustrating from a game development perspective, as I transitioned painfully from the honeymoon preproduction-to-prototype period to the grueling, making-all-the-content-and-hoping-it-fits-in-my-uncertain-framework period that professionals called Production. It was also frustrating from a personal health perspective. I may have a lot of good progress this month, technically, in more ways than one, but that doesn’t mean it felt good.

To briefly recap health things, and give context to the backdrop I’m fighting against to make this visual novel: Things are bad. My spinal issues have escalated to the point where I’m having regular, violent seizures from pain, and my mental health has crumbled to a point of debilitation. It is frustrating, as someone who suffers from trauma, how much that trauma has impacted my art, and my health (which was bad enough already,  see my need for spinal surgery alluded to in my last post). It is a great injustice, how much the actions of other people can rip you apart for years afterward. But the good news is I have scheduled an appointment with a therapist (after two years of trying to get one! Woo!), and I am actively seeking an appointment with a neurosurgeon. In a few months, things will be different.

Funnily enough, Scribble Conspiracy stands in a similar place. In a few months, things will be different, and I’ll have a much better idea of where this whole project is going. I struggled and fought a lot with the game this month, mostly in silent, invisible ways that most people will never know about.

In addition to heaps and heaps of writing, I chopped up the ballooning dialogue script into separate files, scene by scene, and arranged them in a folder, to try to get a sense of the map hierarchy.

It doesn’t look like much. Frankly, it looks like I want Scrivener, but can’t afford it. But weirdly, this has actually helped a lot, and I recommend the exercise to anyone trying to write all the dialogue for their game in one long text file. Having a file for each scene is a strange and wonderful mercy. Being able to line them up horizontally, and show which scenes can be accessed simultaneously from the world map, has helped enormously, simply from a perspective of visualization. A lot of gamedev, I’m finding, isn’t actually the coding and the writing and the arting, but just sussing out how the heck to organize it.

I really hesitated to show that picture, by the way, because it shows just how many scenes I’ve actually managed to complete in well over a month. It doesn’t feel like a lot. In fact, it feels like very few. It doesn’t include all the cut scenes and writing that naturally get discarded in the creative process (the art of writing is figuring out what you want to write, usually by writing a lot of other things first), but even then, workaholic that I am, I wish it was more. I think, for the first time, I understand why game developers (might) be infrequent or inconsistent with their devblogs: It’s not just time consuming to write about your game development, it’s depressing. You want to have something meaty to share. And whenever you share anything, at the back of your mind, a little voice whispers, “That’s it? That’s all you have to show for it? That’s all the work you did?”

And the answer, of course, is no, it’s not all the work I did. But it’s all I have to show, yes, because games aren’t a visual art form, at their heart. They’re just a visual product, an environment that can be encountered visually like the real world, but is not purely at its root visual. Actually making the art, the world, requires all senses, including crippling self-doubt.

Mostly I wrote this month. I’ve done a lot of work finding and exploring the tone and characters, and I’m beginning to set up the major conflicts, both apparent and less so. I’ve already written a lot in this post (and in this month), so there isn’t a ton of space for me to get into it very deeply (and I largely want to avoid story spoilers, too, if I can help it), but suffice to say I’m very happy with how the story side of the game is coming out. The characters are good. The jokes are funny, the comedy is solid, and already, this early on, I have introduced some heart and some drama. This wasn’t the plan, but I don’t want to pull punches or pad with this game—it’s going to be short, and sweet—and so if I want to set up some darker personal conflicts juxtaposed in contrast to the comedy (which can work very well, see Gravity Falls for some professionals doing this), I figure it’s best to do it now, when it feels right. The comedy is absurdist, which is, of course, my style. The final tone of the story, however, will only be certain when it’s finished.

As a last note (because I weirdly found this most fulfilling, go figure): I also coded a tiny sort of transition which is difficult to describe, but effectively solves all my anxieties about my structural plans for the game’s conspiracy world map and overall narrative framework (at least, until I have enough content to try some real testing, and see if it really works). Essentially, to try to describe something purely visual / kinetic, after a player’s visited all the “pins” (think locations, but they can also be characters, or items, or ideas—anything that could prompt a scene) currently on the map, I can immediately direct them to a scene, that can then segue back to an expanded batch of pins. This lets me give some narrative explanation for why there are new options, so it is not jarring or confusing, but flows seamlessly across the nonlinearly accessible scenes within a “batch.” So much of game design is quietly finding ways to not confuse people.

That all sounds very complicated, and doesn’t make a lot of sense, but trust me, if I’m right, it’ll play great. And it does feel good to click pins and go to scenes connected to them, so maybe, just maybe, all these pieces I’m making will come together into something coherent and beautiful.

Till next time. Stay safe, stay inside, God bless you all.

Scribble Conspiracy Dev Diary #3: The Long, Slow Grind

Scribble Conspiracy is an in-development comedy visual novel about two kids unraveling an imaginative conspiracy, being produced as a hobby project by yours truly.

So first, an addendum for last time: It turns out I wasn’t finished with prototyping all the mechanical functionality for my visual novel (i.e. the clicky bits that don’t come prebuilt with the engine). Shortly after writing the last post, I realized I needed a way to mark pins that’d already been visited on the conspiracy map. So I made one:

See that red X on the “Dine and Dunk”? That appears after it’s been visited once. It’s completely placeholder at the moment, like all the art in this technical prototype. I don’t even know if I’ll go for the style of a red X—I might try a checkmark, or something completely different. Heck, the red lines already present may actually wind up being purple, in the final game (and obviously, a lot of the ones in the picture above are just placeholder art rubbish, the bits that matter are the X and the connect-y curvy bit).

If I recall correctly, I just used the same technology for the red X that I hammered out to overlay the connector line (as I detailed with much incoherent screaming in the last post). When I actually have a real conspiracy map, with pins that lead to story scenes, this will allow me to show the player what parts of the present scenario / puzzle they haven’t plumbed yet. I intend to have revisited scenes play back a kind of abridged version of the original scene, as a recap.

I suppose I should take a moment to explain my actual plan for the story structure of Scribble Conspiracy. Basically, I intend to have an ever-expanding, tangled network of pins, which will lead to different scenes in the story. As the story is progressed, new pins will unlock, and once it passes certain thresholds (I’ll probably refer to these as Gate Pins—basically important scenes that are hard to get past without information from other pins), all the visible pins will refresh with new scenes, and the world state will change. The goal is to create a tangled web of locations, characters, objects, and topics, giving the player a way to explore a story though a nonspatial navigation map that will hopefully be intuitive. It’ll (hopefully) make more sense when it’s actually interactive, and not just a bunch of rambling written in a blog post.

How it will actually feel to play, however, I don’t know, so right now I’m working towards getting enough of the dialogue written to be able to build the first little chunk of the game and test out a batch of pins.

And this brings us to where I actually am. Slowly, steadily plugging away at the dialogue script. At the moment, I’m trying to write it linearly in one long text file (we’ll see how well this works out, in the end, ’cause while the game is probably going to be strictly linear, having only one route and one ending, you can access any scene from a batch of scenes in any order, which makes planning… Complicated), including some light “stage direction” type bits; who says what, what images pop up when, when a (purely hypothetical) sound effect plays, etc. I have a lot of faith in my characters and my humour, and even if every joke doesn’t land, it should at least be weird enough to be compelling. I’m more concerned about the larger narrative structure turning out, and the fact that I won’t know if the work I’m putting into all these disparate pieces will coalesce into anything actually interesting to play, in the end. I suppose that’s gamedev for you, though, isn’t it?

The larger obstacle to production, at the moment, is my health. I’ve worsened considerably, physically and mentally, which has made development very slow. I need to get an urgent spinal surgery, but naturally, with the pandemic, all surgeries have been put off (it’s for the best, anyway—I’m medically fragile with severe asthma and a bad immune system; I’m not even going outside, at this point, let alone to a hospital), so I’m having to make do. I’ve said before that this project is going to be a struggle between my creative ambitions and my chronic health, but more and more that’s becoming apparent. If it is anything at all, Scribble Conspiracy will be an answer to the question, “Can someone disabled and functionally bedridden, suffering from temporal paralysis and intermittent seizures, make a video game?”

To be honest, I do feel a certain urgency. I have always wanted to make, finish, and publish a game. While I have every intention of making many more (I have heaps more ideas for further visual novels, already), I would like to get one made now, while I can. Of course, there’s nothing actually swift about game development, but so be it. Long or short, in six months or six years, I am determined to finish this game, if only now out of pure stubbornness. Do I have ideas that are more mechanically complex, more ambitious, maybe even more interesting? Oh, heaps. Am I making those right now, though? Absolutely not. This day belongs to Scribble Conspiracy.

To be clear, that’s not a promise, though. I worked on an RPGmaker game for a year, and ultimately shelved it when I decided there wasn’t enough heart in the actual story. However, I did plug away at an RPGmaker game for a year, so my track record with stubborn commitment in game development has been good, lately. At the very least, I’m going to give this game my best shot. That’s all anyone can do.

This is where the hard work begins.

Scribble Conspiracy Dev Diary #2: IT WORKS! WHY DOES IT WORK?

“IT WORKS, AHAHAHAHA, IT WORKS!!!… Why does it work?!”

So I cried silently through my tears as I basked in the glory of my technical prototype for the “conspiracy board” world map I’m trying to create for my visual novel. Rather than an ordinary town or world map, I want something a bit like a stereotypical conspiracy theorist’s wall. If a conspiracy theorist’s wall was drawn by a couple of kids. Hence the name… “Scribble Conspiracy.”

One pin.png

It doesn’t look like much, right now. You can play through the entire prototype in about two seconds, and all the art is placeholder. BUT, you can see one pin (which is what I’m calling objects on said conspiracy map), in this case the local Dine & Dunk, an example location that may or may not be in the actual final game. You can click on the Dine & Dunk, go to an example scene with some filler dialogue that directs you to go see “Aunt Loraine,” and then come back…

TWO PINS AHHHH.png

AND THERE ARE TWO PINS. And yes, you can visit both.

So far, you might say, “So what? That all seems pretty simple.” And to be honest, it was. At first.

Setting up an “imagemap” and defining conditional regions of it to display depending upon different circumstances, and ultimately lead you to different scenes, was all pretty easy. Ren’Py (my chosen engine) is pretty good at that, and provides what is actually an incredibly nifty means of  doing that relatively quickly. Also, I found a shockingly good tutorial on some old forum (https://lemmasoft.renai.us/forums/viewtopic.php?t=22410), which was honestly the only reason it went smoothly at all.

That got me as far as two unconnected pins displaying on a white background. And then I thought, very foolishly, “But I want the red line connecting them…”

Ah, young, foolish, naive me! The clickable pins were easy, how hard could it be to put in one little red line between them? Making the image was easy, just a red curve, how hard could it be…?

NO. NO, NO, IDIOT PAST SELF! YOU FOOL OF FOOLS!

Turns out, the red line was harder than I expected. Much, much harder. ‘Cause you see, Ren’Py displays things like world maps using a screen system, and the funny thing about that screen system, is that it makes no sense at all, and is actually pure evil.

Explaining why it was hard to implement a little red line to connect pins on my conspiracy theorist world map is difficult, because I still don’t entirely understand why it works now. I should mention I am completely winging this, teaching myself how to use this engine via included tutorials (which are excellent), and whatever info I can find on the internet (which usually takes the form of dubious forum posts from 2013 about making dodgy dating sims. I believe in visual novels as an art form, but for goodness sake, could somebody make one that isn’t a dodgy dating sim? I’ve considered including a “dating” section in Scribble Conspiracy to parody just the common rubbishness of the genre, but at this point I’m pretty set against it, because the whole genre is so dominated by either rubbish dating sims, or parodies of rubbish dating sims, it’s like nobody even believes you can do something more with the medium, which you can).

Essentially, I couldn’t get my red line to display, and when I could, it would hide behind the world map screen, and it wouldn’t show up (except occasionally in the actual scenes, where there were supposed to be CHARACTERS, not random red lines floating around. And if my use of caps makes me look insane, it’s because I have been driven legitimately out of my senses coding this tech prototype). “Alright, I said to myself, no problem, Ren’Py has a Layers system (apparently), I can just display it on a different layer…”

The rest is a blur of pain, tears, and incoherent yelling at my code to, “JUST WORK!!! PLEASE, JUST WORK!” Turns out, of all the languages you can code in, screaming is not one of them.

I have returned from this bloody battlefield with several revelations. One is that I still have no clue how Layers work. Also, “Images” and “Displayables” are two different things, and I don’t actually know what that means, either? But I kind of have an idea? If Displayables are like boxes, and Images are like the cookies you put in boxes…

This is not a tutorial series. Do not listen to anything I say here. Except for my admonition to investigate the “zorder” property. Zorder is very important.

In the end, I got one workable prototype created by having a second screen on a different “Zorder,” which doesn’t use the Layers system at all (for some reason? I guess that’s a good call, though, considering the Layers system is nothing but a useless, laughing monstrosity lurking in your options.py config file). Unfortunately, it was kind of janky and laggy, and the red line kept displaying before the map would load in, which looked… Stupid.

I suppose I should explain, in an aside, why I want a red line in the first place. The fact of the matter is, the stereotype of the conspiracy theorist’s wall, covered in pictures of people, places, and things, always involves red string drawing the connections. The whole basis of conspiracy theories is drawing those little red-line connections between seemingly innocuous things, until the Mystery is Revealed via increasingly mounting complexity. And, since I’m trying to evoke this idea with my world map, red string lines were absolutely essential. It wouldn’t’ve been a conspiracy theorist’s world map without one. It just had to look this way. Anything less wouldn’t’ve worked, visually.

ALSO, IT WAS ONE FREAKING RED LINE, IT HAD TO WORK, OR NOTHING IN THE WORLD MADE SENSE ANYMORE.

I grew dissatisfied with my “zorder,” solution. Also, I’m not sure how efficient using multiple screens actually is? Nobody seems to know, online. It’s a mystery. At any rate, it looked janky and bad, and just did not run or transition super smoothly…

So I investigated other solutions. Turns out, there’s a thing called a Composite image, which is also maybe a Layeredimage, but more Python. I’m still unclear on what exactly it is, honestly, but I decided (oh, so naively!) to use it, instead.

AHHHHHHH, WHY?

This was painful. Very, very painful. Composite images are not your friends, they are bitter enemies to be conquered, ghosts in the code to be slain with vorpal swords. They exist in this unsettling grey area between hard Python code and Ren’Py vernacular, making it difficult for either half of the Ren’Py’s engine (easy shorthand vs. pure Python) to really recognize them. Also, they’re Images, not Displayables. Turns out, there’s a difference, and it’s IMPORTANT.

Honestly, I don’t remember much of the last couple of hours. All I know is that my arms ache like crazy from typing (this gamedev project is going to be a fight against disability and nerve damage as well as a simple coding adventure), and I now have a little red line. And yes, by saying this, I KNOW I’M NOT SHOWING MY WORK, AND SO PERPETUATING THE BAD HABITS OF YEARS OF FORUM-GOERS WHO SAID, “OH, IT WORKS NOW,” BUT DIDN’T POST THEIR FIXES FOR THE SAME PROBLEMS I HAD!

In the end, what really matters is I was able to incorporate my Composite image into my original world map Screen, by displaying it inside a second imagemap, so it can remain an image, but become a displayable (???). I’m actually really pleased with this solution—defining a LiveComposite (I have no clue what the difference is between a Composite and a LiveComposite, but I decided to use the second one) that I can add red string images to, and then displaying that LiveComposite as the “ground” of a second imagemap within the same screen as my base world map imagemap.

All the amateur technical mumbo jumbo aside, what this really means is I can display my conditional world map and my conditional red string, at the same time. No weird delays, or jank, or layering issues. It just works. I think. Hopefully.

Why couldn’t I just put the red string inside the original base world map image in the first place? Well, it’s mindnumbingly complicated, but basically, the world map image functions a bit like a piece of paper you cut rectangles out of to display, and if you happen to clip anything in the corners of those rectangles, it will show (note the placeholder pin images I actually used, which show the ends of tons of original red strings which aren’t even supposed to display, hence why I had to design a system specially just for the red string I actually want). Also, if I want red string to ever overlap, and because I only want them to display when their proper pins unlock, I can’t use a standard imagemap screen system. Hence the LiveComposite. Hence the nightmare that my life has become.

This diary was 90% technical jargon I myself don’t entirely understand, so let me recap what’s actually relevant: I have a world map that evokes a stereotypical conspiracy theorist’s wall. It’s going to be cute and scribbly, like kids made it (because our protagonists, Polly and Dopop, lest anyone forget, are kids). It’s going to have places, people, and things unlock as the story progresses and evolves, and when you unlock new “pins” (areas, people, or things that you can click to access scenes), there can be fun little red lines that connect them to other pins. And those lines can overlap.

You can’t click the red lines. When people play the game, at most, they’ll think, “Oh, that red line is fun! Like the string on a conspiracy theorist’s wall!” Never dreaming, of course, that the red line took more work to put in than the entire world map system, and all the non-default systems for actual scenes.

In coding, it’s always the little red lines, the little details you need but that no one will notice, that will crush your soul and laugh all the way to the bank with it. No one will know, but the game will float or sink on these little, agonizing, almost invisible details.

With these abominable red lines behind me, I have OFFICIALLY (I think) finished the tech prototype for all the functionality I needed to figure out for Scribble Conspiracy. At least the base functionality (I’m undecided on the Fish Minigame, and if I prototype that, it will be in a separate prototype, first). Now, I should be able to take what I’ve figured out and deploy it at scale to actually implement the script (as in dialogue script, not coding script) I’ve been working on. Currently, I have nearly two scenes written, which isn’t much, but the good news is that I think I’ve sorted out the structure of how I’ll manage storytelling via pins and this world map system, and the overall structure of the narrative. I may need to suss out some way to visualize it, though, to keep track of scenes…

I would go into how happy I am about how funny the script I’m working out is, or what the narrative structure I’m using is, but the red lines have drained me of strength. Adieu, my friends, adieu. Whatever red strings exist in your life, I hope you conquer them.

Scribble Conspiracy Dev Diary #1: The Dream

I have a very simple idea. I want to make a visual novel.

Now, I know my track record with publicized creative projects is not exactly the best (see my Wattpad story as a prime example of what usually happens when I count my eggs before they’re hatched), but I thought, partially as a way to chronicle my progress, and partially as a way to share my dream with others, I would begin doing little write-ups for this idea. I’m only a hobbyist gamedev, at best, and obviously this a just a personal blog that’s already home to a lot of other washed-up project ideas, but the advantage of that is that the pressure is off. I could write updates on this for a month, a year, or never again, and it would fit into this place all the same. I created this blog as a multipurpose space, and, with the new year and all, I figure it’s high time I started embracing that to its fullest potential.

Obviously, this is game development, so nothing is promised. This is a journal of my efforts, not a marketing manifesto or a feature list (I actually personally feel contextualizing games through the reductionist lens of vaguely but fixedly defined “features,” arbitrary to an artistic whole, is an overly simplistic, and deeply flawed way to look at the medium, but that’s a topic for another day). Not only that, but I am a hobbyist gamedev, and this is not the only project, gamedev-related or otherwise, that I am working on. And not only that, but I am also physically disabled and chronically ill, and battling a laundry list of issues that, at present, leave me wheelchairbound and sometimes even bedridden.

Long story short: It’s a miracle I’m trying to make this thing. And it will be a miracle if I finish it. But that’s alright; miracles are worth making. So let’s talk visual novels.

For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, visual novels are a sort of video game that tells a story through images, text, and prewritten choices (and, confusingly enough, often is not as long as an actual novel). Long Live the Queen is an example of a visual novel, though it leans more into the mechanical, stat-management, lifesim end of the visual novel (or VN) spectrum. For my VN, I intend to err much more on the text-and-choices, linear storytelling side of things, for the sake of simplicity and ease of execution. Instead of also juggling stats and variables, I’m aiming for my player to just experience a story, and get to build an interactive relationship with some characters. That alone is going to be plenty challenge enough.

I’m a one-man team, so I’m keeping my scope and my aesthetic very minimal. The hardest part of nailing down a concept has actually been reeling in my ambition enough to pursue a concept I can actually execute. A lot of my earlier ideas were much more mechanically heavy (stats for characters, etc. etc.), and I’ve had to pare down significantly to actually get something I can reasonably code, illustrate, implement, and finish. When it comes to writing, I’ve never believed in killing your darlings, but when it comes to gamedev, you definitely have to stop chasing your unicorns. Well, at least, find a slower, smaller unicorn that’s quirky and weird enough you can be enchanted by its comparably low mechanical threshold and simpler visual fidelity. Something like that.

So, without further ado, allow me to introduce you to Scribble Conspiracy, a visual novel that, at the time of this post, exists only as a concept, a core cast of characters, some test sketches, one scene of dialogue, and an unfinished tech prototype. And a dream.

In Scribble Conspiracy, you play as a pair of siblings, Polly and Dopop, who have been shipped out to spend some time with their Uncle Tibby Claymore. And yes, you do play as both siblings—not alternating, but synchronously. My current vision, anyway, is to keep the two siblings together at all times, with the player making a choice for either one or the other, depending on the situation. Over the course of the game, Polly and Dopop will be unraveling a town mystery, creating an expanding conspiracy wall that will serve as the worldmap, or at least as a way of navigating scenes. At least, that’s the idea. The next tech test will actually be how viable that is, but the general goal is to make a visual novel where you play two protagonists, and navigate a conspiracy theorist board to unravel a heartfelt absurdist comedy.

Today, I did something very simple: Set up the sibling picture.

Something I want for Scribble Conspiracy is to display the two main characters at all times, in a box to one side, separate from the current scene and other characters (I’m taking this idea from a visual novel called Pizza Game, which I have never played, but I watched a couple of let’s plays of it, and they have the protagonist and her inner voice off to one side, sort of sequestered in a different window).

The entire aesthetic of Scribble Conspiracy is a scribbly, child-drawing sort of look. This is largely for budget reasons—with my nerve damage my art abilities are limited, and while I can create better digital art than I’ll be using for this project, I’m going for quantity over quality, so I can have more emotion and expression (and so I can create more than one drawing a week). It’s more important to me that my characters can emote and react, than that they look fantastic.

But the aesthetic choice is also for narrative purposes. The entire conceit of the game is that Polly and Dopop are illustrating their adventures with their own drawings, both with their conspiracy board, and with every character and place they encounter, and they will each have their own art style that will convey both their personality, and who is drawing what (which will communicate both what they individually emphasize as important, and their opinion of said things). The goal is to create a look that is both low-budget and charming, and more importantly, communicates something about the characters, the world, and the story. That is, after all, what aesthetics are for.

Part of my vision, both aesthetically and narratively, is that I want to try to always display the siblings together. I want them to be able to interact, touch, and react to each other, hug each other if they get frightened, et cetera. To do this easily, in-engine, I’m going to always draw them together, both characters in one image, and then display that image to one side. In game, this will probably be kind of deepened by the idea that one of them is drawing this picture, off and on, but that explanation will be intentionally stretched, to allow them to emote even when they wouldn’t necessarily have the time to draw a new picture. How much of the whole game will be taking place in these siblings’ imagination will be intentionally up for interpretation.

Long story short, I made a box, and stuck a placeholder sketch in it as a style test (this is Polly’s style, specifically). Behold my placeholders!

Watch out for snakes!

Obviously, the rest of the window is all placeholder Ren’Py engine stuffs, but the box is good! I think I got the proportion just right. When I have other characters involved (which is technically what that silhouette is), I will might put them a little more centered to the right, to give the illusion that the interface is bifurcated. But I’m not sure.

This box took me a lot longer than I’d care to admit (coding always does), but I’m proud to say, after all my work it can take any image name as a variable, so I can easily change it on the fly within a scene, no fuss. I may or may not need a more robust, conditional system later on, depending on how nonlinear the game ends up being, but for now, this is better than I could’ve hoped. I’m still super new to the Ren’Py engine, when it comes down to it, so I’m kind of muddling my way through this. Baby steps. Oh, and yes, if you’re wondering, I’ll be using Ren’Py for this project, and drawing the graphics in Affinity Designer.

Obviously, I still have a long way to go, but I’m very excited, both for my concept and my interface ideas. I have plenty of story ideas, as well, but I will probably shy away from those, to try to avoid spoilers to some degree. I haven’t decided if I’m going to talk about the fish yet.

style test.png

My first style test—I wanted to develop two simple, but very distinctively different styles, one for each sibling, and experiment with some emoting. Polly’s are on the top, Dopop’s on the bottom. These turned out to be too wide to use, but it was good exploration to figure out the characters and the aesthetic. Also, I don’t intend to use a lot of color in the game, but Polly may make use of some purple, which is actually lipstick.

Well, that’s all for now. Next up is prototyping the conspiracy board map, which is probably the most technically daunting task of the entire development (beyond, y’know, writing and finishing a whole script based on scenes triggered from conspiracy board map pins, rather than pure linear progression). That may be the biggest development hurdle, which may float or sink the whole project—working out how to plan and write a linear narrative’s worth of scenes accessed and advanced through nonlinearly accessible worldmap. I’m thinking probably a gate system, where certain key scenes advance the whole world state, but have to be unlocked first by actions in other scenes (which maybe can be revisited, at least locationally). Honestly, the design still has a long way to go. But it’s better to have something emergent and flexible that can be tested as I go, than something completely nailed out that invariably needs to be ripped out and reimagined when it falls flat in testing. Gamdev is more alchemy than arithmetic. Every idea has to be tested in the pot before you know how it tastes with everything else.

Till next time! This took longer and more work than I expected to write up, so I may aim for shorter next time. Anyway, adieu!

God bless, and stay safe during the pandemic!

board placeholder.png

This was just a test to mockup what a conspiracy board map might look like, structurally. What I actually go for will probably be substantially different, both in style, complexity, and (most importantly) the pins it includes, but I’ll probably use this to test the map mechanics, since I already have it done, and draw the actual map much later down the line. But yeah, very little of the actual story to speak of in this one, it’s mostly random nonsense. The story will be intentional nonsense.