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.

Krantt & Credibility – A Mass Effect Andromeda writing test

sararyder.jpg

A while back I applied for a job at Bioware Austin, which required you to submit a 1000 word quest outline and a 5000 word script. I didn’t get it – for a start, I’m in Australia – but if I do say so myself, I wrote a pretty decent sidequest. Without further ado:

Krantt and Credibility 

(Play hint: Choosing Scott or Sara makes no difference, but the companions you take with you and the conversation options in the confrontation make a huge difference to the ending.)

Great Game Quests!

(adapted slightly from my blog at Pillowfort)

I’ve been looking at ads for Quest Designers, which list responsibilities such as:

– Meticulously craft delightful quests and stories (my emphasis)
– provide detailed feedback on quests implemented by other designers.
– Evaluate and critique environment designs, level design, creature spawning, creature abilitiesNPC spawning and actions, and level flow.

For me to perform the first task, I’ll need to deeply understand the second and third. Why do I love my favourite levels and missions?

LA CAGE AU FOU – THE SPOON WRAITH

The Witcher 3 is full of delightful missions, but La Cage Au Fou’s Spoon Wraith stands out because the non-violent option is so unexpected. Everything in the game, let alone the mission, leads you to believe that this will be solved by chowing down on decoctions and spamming a few Yrdens, but you’re hiding in a closet – itself a very well framed cutscene – and suddenly offered a timed choice – jump out and attack the monster, or try to lift its curse. You’ve actually been given all the tools to lift the curse, so if you were paying attention, you’ll be able to successfully perform the ritual, a poignant and horrifying “date” with the creature.

ELEMENTS: 

  • Creepy as shit – the spoons hanging everywhere gave me goosebumps
  • Surprise – unexpected development
  • Moral dilemma/skill test (not only do you have to decide quickly to lift the curse or not, all the evidence suggests that Marlene was a total bitch who deserved what she got)
  • Subversion – the meal with the nightwraith is almost a pisstake of Geralt’s romantic date with Keira
  • Reward – you end up with a house servant…

BLOODSHOT RAMPARTS

Borderlands 2 is a comedy game, but my favourite level in terms of combat isn’t funny at all – it’s the Bloodshot Ramparts, where you have to go rescue Roland after breaking him out of prison.

It’s surprisingly linear – I just looked it up and I think it’s supposed to be a dick and balls, but you know what, it works. Someone has gone “lol, I’mma make a shooter level out of a dick and balls” and it’s a really fun level. Kudos, anonymous level designer.

Because of the designer’s boner for making boners, you have a level where you can’t get lost – there’s plenty of nooks and crannies and of course the In The Last Place You Look challenge, where you have to find teeny-tiny car keys left in the many, many hulks littering the scenery – but you won’t, say, turn down a crevice and end up 20 minutes out of your way, Frostburn Canyon.  Instead, the tubular space (hmmmmmpfffff) directs you through a tight gauntlet (hhmmmmPFFFFF) of mooks, bosses and death from above in the form of shield and repair drones who won’t attack you themselves, but who need to be blastoed before they make your life miserable. So there’s not much space to your left or right, but you’ll definitely need to keep looking up.

At the balls, er, end of the level, there’s a massive statue/shrine to Marcus Kincaid, which baffled me for years – I tried dropping guns in it, normal then rare then legendaries, nothing happened. I now discover that team players  can sacrifice themselves by hurling themselves into the shrine as another player throws the switch, turning the player into an explosion of treasures (and presumably making them revive just outside the scrotum). This is what you miss by being a cranky loner, and is a topic all by itself.

ELEMENTS:

  • Penis shape is funny, but also results in a focused journey – flow
  • Clusters of enemies, each with a boss, at each “inch” of the dong – predictable, but still challenging and fun
  • Small space is busy and intense – there isn’t the opportunity to run away that you have in larger levels (though you can retreat to regen HP)
  • Enabled to plan your approach – you know exactly where EXP-loaders are going to run at you, where the Badass WAR Loaders will spawn etc

Watch this space for more design breakdowns!