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GAME DEVS FOR FIRIES

Hello! As you may be aware, my country is currently running that enduring serial The Shit Is On Fire Show, with unusually horrific consequences. Here’s a rough guide at the BBC.

Local legend Morgan Jaffitt has organised a Twitter campaign #gamedevsforfiries (note spelling!) where game developers will offer something to the highest donor who gives to a nominated fire service. Details on how it works can be found here, but the tldr is that you nominate an amount you’re going to donate in the twitter thread, then when the auction is over on 22 January, you donate, show your receipt and receive Thing.

I don’t have the ability to give away my commercial games, and all my personal games are free! So what I’m doing is offering a writing or consultation service to the highest donor.

If you’re a game dev, I can offer you a first draft of barks for your game, write a tutorial, or any other kind of writing your game needs (including tech docs). I can also offer a pre-production consultation – via your preferred videoconference service, but also in person if you’re in Melbourne – to help you beat your game idea into a viable project. The only restriction is that I should be able to do it within 24 work hours (over whatever time period).

If you’re not a game dev, I can write you a fic or any other kind of writing you’d like. This includes your resume or website text, but not your uni essays, sorry!

One last thing – the format of this fundraiser is an auction, where the biggest single amount wins the service. However, I am deeply sympathetic to people with no @#$%^&* money, so the first five people who send me a receipt screenshot for a small donation (like, $2 or up) can have little a drabble, as a treat!

Great Game Openings – Getting to the Point

I’m working on a game that has a fairly dramatic inciting incident to kickstart your adventure, but I have a problem whereby I need to introduce the situation and characters before that incident happens, so that the player actually gives a crap about the participants and has a direct stake in the consequences.

In order to ease my mind about the ideal sequence of events, I’ve been reviewing the openings of my favourite games, from the time I click the icon to the start of what you might call the first act or main gameplay. Here is what I’ve discovered…

Dragon Age Origins

A voiceover introduces the concept and origin of the darkspawn. You then go into character creation, which describes a bit about who you are in the world (ie Dalish elf vs City elf). The actual Origins start out in a fairly leisurely fashion, introducing your life and friends and giving you some tutorial tasks, and then Something Big Happens where you demonstrate your quick thinking and combat skill, and Duncan rescues you by recruiting you into the Grey Wardens. Then the game really begins (or ends if you do what a lot of people did and just play all the origins).

Dragon Age 2

DA2 starts with Cassandra interrogating Varric, but the player is very quickly dropped into combat with the Hawke family running from the Darkspawn in Varric’s retelling. After Varric’s intentionally exaggerated story, where the player is given advanced skills they won’t actually unlock until late game, Cassandra delivers her famous “BULLSHIT!” line and then the player starts again at level one, dirty and desperate and squabbling with their family for the most basic survival.

Dragon Age Inquisition

Inquisition starts with an explosion right on the menu screen as soon as you hit New Game (which I still think is pretty freaking cool), then a shadowy figure is seen escaping the Veil monsters. The figure stands and you are then in character creator for the next five hours. The game proper begins with the player character being interrogated by Cassandra and Leliana, who helpfully exposit the crime you’ve been accused of and overall game plot, and Cass takes you out to the crime scene for a spot of tutorial.

Prey 2017

Arkane’s Prey opens in a leisurely, not especially creepy way – you wake up, say hi to the repair lady as you head out to see your bro, do a few tasks for your staff… and THEN you get your inciting incident, and it’s revealed that your attractive modern environment is quite different to what you’ve experienced. Up until The Incident the game is fairly quiet and chill, but the Big Reveal is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a game, and the arc from uneventful morning to HOLY FUCK WHAT HAPPENED TO MY STAFF is almost 90 degrees.

The Witcher 3

The Witcher 3 opens with not one, but TWO (thankfully skippable) cinematics – the first, a brimstone-laden sermon from the Church of the Eternal Fire, condemning witchers and urging men to repent in the face of the abominations plaguing the world. THEN it opens again with a battlefield sequence featuring Yennefer of Vengerburg, switching between her maneuverings and flash-forwards to Geralt and Vesimir searching for evidence of her flight. Then it flashes back to Ciri’s childhood in Kaer Morhen for you to do some tutorial stuff and meet your bros. TW3 is an 80+ hour game, so has a bit more time to fuck around, and your relationships with Ciri, Vesimir and your fellow Witchers are vital to the emotional core of the game.

The examples above suggest I probably do have a little bit of playtime before I start shanking characters right and left (whoops, spoilers!). Still, a voiced-over cinematic seems to hide a multitude of sins….

RIP Susan Cantplayit

Susan of OneOddGamerGirl/SusanCantPlayIt was a leading light in the world of accessibility and video games, but I thought of her primarily as a fun person to shoot the breeze with on Twitter. My most recent conversations with her were trying to talk her through some of the more irritating features of Bioware’s new loot shooter Anthem, such as finding how to change the colours and textures on your Javelin (easily the most important part of the game) and controlling your rage when your team has that one person who accidentally picked up a mission object but has no idea what to do with it, no matter how hard you jump up and down next to the target.

Susan's Interceptor javelin from Anthem
Susan quickly got the hang of Javelin customisation

But this morning I logged into Twitter to find her partner had posted “Susan passed away yesterday evening and I’m sitting here looking at 74 notifications from people wishing her a speedy recovery.” I have been sick myself, and missed the notification that she had had another stroke – it was all so fast. I’m still disbelieving, still seeing interesting links and thinking “hey, Susan would love this!”.

Susan’s most recent project was moving on from the old One Odd Gamer Girl site to setting up Can I Play That?, a more general accessibility review site with contributors evaluating games for various accessibility aspects. It’s all great and you should definitely support the site – aside from anything else, they just started selling merch – but I particularly want to share Susan’s evaluation of playing the game Prey (2017) with schizophrenia. It is an amazing piece of writing.

Playing with Schizophrenia in Prey

I will very much miss Susan’s humour and dedication.

In which I learn a well-timed lesson

On Twitter, Steve Gaynor of Fulbright Games invited people to share their “most embarrassing game dev crimes”. I chuckled my way through a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t quite understand – for project management reasons I understand why it’s hilarious that Baldur’s Gate shipped in debug mode, but not so much for code reasons. 

Then Alex Scokel from Obsidian posted something that hit me right between the eyes:

I hurriedly asked for clarity, horrible memories clutching at my brain. 

After having my first coffee and breakfast, I finally understood what he meant.

My game, Dancing With Myself is a cosy game where you go on a date with yourself, and you can choose the venue, the kind of dinner you want to have, and how you will dress. The full options are:

$venue - Movies, Park, Home  
$dress - Glam, Casual, Relaxed
$dinner - Fast, Fancy, Home

This is a sample of the code that results when you’ve made your choices:

This is not absolutely disastrous code – the game works and if I may say so myself, is fun to play. But it’s possible for the player to be in two time sequences on the same page (in my defence, the idea was that time passes… but I didn’t do it deliberately) and if I want to change something, the whole thing has the potential to fall apart.

A better way to do it, allowing you to make situational tweaks without ruining everything, would be to group the conditions together, with only very tiny inserts for flavour, like so:

<<if $venue is "park" && $dinner is "home" && $dress is "glam">>
(Resulting text for those conditions)
<<endif>>
<<if $venue is "park" && $dinner is "fancy" && $dress is "glam">>
(Resulting text for those conditions)
<<endif>>
<<if $venue is "park" && $dinner is "fast" && $dress is "glam">>
(Resulting text, etc)
<<endif>>

This may seem fussy, but if I want to change some text relating to the fancy dinner, I can quickly find and replace all the “fancy” parts seamlessly, whereas the way I’ve written it in the game makes it much harder to find those parts in all the tightly woven code. It also means I won’t screw up the text in the “fast” and “home” conditions for the players who chose them.

Note that those are only three of the 27 blocks that would result from these combinations! So for a tiny cosy game like this, it’s probably better the way it is. But in a major AAA game, 27 blocks is NOTHING, and gamers will absolutely notice if you fuck up which faction they’re with. As it is, I’m still salty about my Lavellan having to ask “Who is Mythal?” in Dragon Age Inquisition, and I *know* why it’s hard to track that sort of thing.

TLDR: weaving variables makes you feel smart and clever, until you have to make an adjustment that picks the whole macrame owl apart.

Barb’s Barks – World-Weary Gunslinger, with Kevin J. Powe

Every once in a while I like to put a call for prompts on Twitter to get practice on an aspect of writing I need to develop. Usually it’s making Legendary weapons and armour for people (nominate a basic item, I’ll write flavour text for a personal legendary), but in this case I wanted to develop my bark-writing skills so I asked people to create a character, and I would write barks for that character.

Voice actor Kevin J. Powe came back with “World-weary gunslinger”, which I have to admit is not my preferred genre – making this great practice! I did a bit of history research on swearing in the old West (tl:dr, offense creep means that “damnation” has upgraded to “cunty mcfuck!” or suchlike) and came up with these somewhat Yosemite Sam-like barks.

Needless to say, both Kevin and myself are available for hire.