This post looks at how games in the field of diversity are viewed as having strong cultural and political agendas based on the cultural space that they occupy rather than the intentions of the developers.
Last weekend, at the same time as PAX was corralling indie developers into a ‘diversity lounge’, I had the pleasure of showing Fragments of Him at the Different Games conference at New York University. A few hundred people gathered there to talk about gender, sex, sexuality, representation for people of colour, queer lifestyles, and diversity in games and the gaming industry.
It was quite an emotional weekend for me: I’ve only watched ‘Let’s Play’ videos of people playing Fragments of Him, and this was the first time that I had seen it being played live. It was a very powerful experience, watching as they paused, their shoulders dropping, the mouse perfectly still as the situation in the game revealed itself. Like I say, I’ve seen this in videos, but it was a very different sensation to watch in person. Some people had to stop and walk away, muttering a ‘thank you, it was very good’ quietly as they left. I’m sorry to the people that the game upset; I hope that you find the time to experience the rest of the story and that the resolution is some consolation to you.
Direct and indirect diversity
There were a lot of discussions on diversity, and it was great to see the range of ways in which different developers were addressing these issues in their games. Many were very direct, such as the way in which Perfect Woman combines difficulty settings with a parable about the impact of today’s choices on our later situations: if you choose to be a terrorist as a twenty year old then it’s going to be tough to be a professor at thirty! It was simple, explicit (in more than one sense), and delivered an easy to understand message.
Next to this, the Fragments of Him prototype that I was showing at the conference felt extremely reserved – it’s not a game about a gay relationship: it’s a story about grieving and moving on, which also happens to feature people who were in a gay relationship. I feel that this is a strength of the current prototype, not because being overtly about a gay relationship would automatically make it weaker as a narrative, but because it shows the universality of emotions that people go through in times of crisis, regardless of their sexuality.
However, avoiding dealing directly with sexuality isn’t something that would work in the larger Fragments of Him game that we are now developing after the success of the prototype: looking back at some of the significant relationship events of the lives of the characters, the incidents that their sexuality have provoked will almost inevitably be a point of attention.
I have mixed feelings about this. I have no fear of representing the normal lives of adults who are not heterosexual, but I also feel a little sad that it is unavoidable that some kind of forced sexual or political agenda is going to be read into all of this.
Diversity or reality?
Is there a diversity agenda to Fragments of Him? Not by intention. I want to treat my characters as normal people living in the modern world, and I hope that I can make all of the characters recognisable and believable. By treating non-heterosexual people as absolutely normal human beings (because what else would you want to do?), the story is conveying a message of compassion and empathy for all people, regardless of their identity (not just gay/bisexual men seen in the Fragments of Him prototype, but also other sexes, genders, sexualities, ages, races, and other people who may differ from ourselves in their bodies or lifestyles – some of which will feature in the expanded version that we are now developing). I am making no effort at all to force diversity into Fragments of Him, but a range of realistic characters will automatically contain people with a variety of attributes.
It strikes me as odd that this will likely be received as a political statement about diversity, when my intention is to tell an everyday story of love, loss, and hope. I do believe in the value of diversity in society, and naturally the things that I create are going to reflect those opinions. I would be happy if the game makes people appreciate the commonality of experiences between people with otherwise distinct lives, but the primary intention is to create an enjoyable drama (in the way that a tragedy can be enjoyable through a cathartic release of emotions).
I would welcome social improvements as the result of a game, but I have no intention of preaching my views through Fragments of Him and wouldn’t be egotistical enough to expect that an indie game with a good heart is going to change the world. I hope it will comfort a few people in sad situations, help a some appreciate the lives of others, or assist in thinking a little more about the people that they love… That would be a wonderful result, but that hope is not at all unique to games: it is also what very many storytellers want, I believe, and just because Fragments of Him is a game, I don’t believe that hoping for this result can be called a sexual or political ‘agenda’.
Storytelling and empathy in games
Games are a communication medium, and we must not be afraid of representing the world as we see it, or how we would like it to be. To me, a message of treating all others as humans worthy of respect shouldn’t be considered an ‘agenda’, as if this were a subversive intention: respect and civility should be the default state of all people. If, with the story in our game, we can do a little to help build a society of empathy and compassion, then I’m just fine with that. If this helps games development to mature and find sources of inspiration from outside of the common sci-fi/horror/fantasy tropes, then I would be happy with that too.
I love games, everything from zombie slaying through to blowing petals in the breeze, and I hope that the full version of Fragments of Him will be a valuable addition to the growing number of games that are interested in telling stories outside of the current mainstream. Perhaps, if anything, there is a deliberate agenda in that: expanding the language of our creative field.
The heteronormative agenda of Halo
It is interesting that a game such as Halo is not commonly talked about for its agenda. In many ways it supports the dominant patriarchal paradigm of heroic masculinity. For example, the lead character ‘Master Chief’:
- is a tall, muscular man
- is suited permanently in full armour so no fleshy weakness is ever exposed
- speaks with a gruff voice
- has a face that never shows emotion (because it is never seen)
- recovers almost instantly from injury
- can single-handedly turn the tide of a battle
- has a girlfriend who is a hologram so they never have to do anything as emasculating as kissing or hugging, or squishily organic as having sex
- spends his time penetrating organic-looking alien ships
… And so on.
It would be easy to read this as adamant support for a hyper-masculine ideal, devoid of feelings and mental or physical intimacy, where the primary goal is domination of anything seen as organic, uncontrollable, insane, and other attributes that western society has historically associated with femininity. I don’t for a second believe that Bungie set out with that as their agenda, but it can easily be read into Halo.
It is possible to see an agenda there, if we wish to look for it, just as it is possible to see an agenda in Fragments of Him, but I know which game is more likely to be discussed in terms of having a sexual/political agenda.
Agendas or simply messages?
It is a sign that our industry needs to mature, that the presence of any character outside of a standard heteronormative binary system (people who do not fit a modern stereotype of youthful, aggressively heterosexual vigour) is read as an ‘agenda’. Master Chief fits the system, so he is not viewed as a political statement, but a gay protagonist is outside the norms of gaming lead characters, and so the game is likely to be assumed to be intentionally making a statement.
I’m content that a diversity-aware reading fits Fragments of Him, but this is neither something that I have forced to be present or something that I would ever dream of avoiding. It is a natural result of trying to represent loving and open people both fairly and honestly.
Perhaps I am saying this the wrong way: it’s not that Fragments of Him doesn’t have a sexual/political agenda: instead it is that every game has one. These agendas are usually only identified in games that feature characters that are perceived as being outside of mainstream society. Like all cultural artefacts, all games have a societal message, but in games those messages only appear to be called an ‘agenda’ when they do not fit into a very narrow range of cultural models.
My thanks to the organisers of Different Games for a wonderful and inspiring conference, to all the lovely people that I spoke to, and everyone who played Fragments of Him. I look forward to next year!
If you haven’t played Fragments of Him yet then you might want to try it here.
We look forward to sharing the progress of our game with you as we continue to build it over the next few months. Thank you for reading!
Fragments of Him at Different Games Conference April 4, 2014
It feels incredibly awesome, and eerily scary, to see a game that is so dear to us get on the plane and head for another country. We have the fullest of faith that all the attendees to the Different Games Conference are kind hearted and give the experience that is Fragments of Him a fair glance. Fortunately, Mata Haggis will be there to support the game when needed. If you happen to be in New York you can come play the game or have a chat with Mata. Or both!
Where: NYU MAGNET Center in Brooklyn, New York
When: April 11th and 12th
More info: http://www.differentgames.org/fragments-of-him/
Fragments of Him is a first person narrative game made in 72 hours in which the player can freely explore several scenes. These scenes are the memories of the protagonist. In these scenes, the player can interact with environmental objects in order to progress the narrative that is delivered through voice overs and subtitles. The game lasts about 10 to 15 minutes and should be played with headphones for an optimal immersive experience. We consider the experience to be a prototype and precursor to our upcoming game which is a full feature version of Fragments of Him. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy the experience and look forward to the full version.
SassyBot Studio is a young, award winning, indie studio currently developing Fragments of Him with game and narrative designer Mata Haggis. Dr. Mata Haggis is a senior Design & Production lecturer at NHTV’s International Game Architecture & Design and the designer of Fragments of Him. SassyBot and Mata share the ideal of endorsing diversity in games, the industry, and life in general. Together, we love creating experiences that touch people and break barriers of distance and silence.
Announcing: Duck Simulator 2014 April 1, 2014
Ducks are fascinating creatures. Ever since my parents took me to feed the ducks when I was little, I wanted to know what it felt like to be a duck. When I told friends and family, they seemed to understand. Without their (forceful) ‘assistance’ we wouldn’t be at the point at which we are now. Several years (and funny farms) later, we are ready to announce that we are working on Duck Simulator 2014.
In Duck Simulator 2014 you finally get to experience life as a duck. Armed with your wings and fearsome quack not even James Pond can float in your way. Cruise and strut your way from puddles to lakes. Become the game as either the floathsome Nathan Drake or loafely Daisy Duck. In Duck Simulator 2014, you start the game in a dark closed off space when you realize; It’s a duck in a box! The tear jerking plot eventually reveals that you have been left as an inbread.
In reality, a duck’s life is tough and everyone seems to be out to get you. Avoid large groups of hostile birds or you might get flocked up. Overcome numerous puzzles designed to make you sink. Along the way, you come across moral choices. Will you help your fellow fowl or tell them to duck off? In a few encounters, for example, you get the chance to flip some birds in order to save them from a watery grave. If you’re lucky, you might even save the young Robert Drowning Jr.
In order to realize this epic task we make use of some cutting edge, next gen, technology in order to capture the most breathtaking performances imaginable. The game engine runs on custom technology that utilizes and extraordinary amount of floats. Motion capture was the first thing that came to mind when the idea for this game was first pitch. An obvious choice, really. What’s been more difficult is trying to nail the perfect performance. It made us wonder what it means to be a bird. Some of that internal exploration has been pretty emotional and life changing. What you can see below is without a doubt the most gut wrenching performance we have managed to capture and really illustrates what this project means to us.
After we capture a performance, we clean up the data which results in an animation similar to what you see below. Beautiful if you ask me.
Unlike many of our other projects, we didn’t just wing this pitch. In case you haven’t heard, bird is the word! Recent aerial appearances by upset or fapping birds have made it apparent that birds are extremely successful. Considering the quality we have on our hands, we are sure that this project can’t possibly fail.
To ensure a soaring success, we believe that keeping a development blog on Breaddit is something that our supporters would appreciate. Additionally, you can become a folwlower on the fluttering fly message service Twitter and get first peck on our updates. Finally, we are considering to start a Quackstarter where patrons can be benefactors of the cause and take this concept from hatch to heights. If you put your quack into it, we will be able to add the following to the game:
- Profanity mode. Everyone loves a little fowl language.
- BDSM mode. Introduces rubber ducks and duckinatrices.
- The hunt for Moby Duck. Arm yourself with a shakespear and assist Ahab in his revenge frivolities.
- Get a new perspective by using game changing boosts from the local ducks dealer.
- Play breadbasket ball with your flappy friends. Be careful to not commit a fowl or risk being sent to the duckout. Or is that played by different game.
- Additional end bosses such as Geese Lightning and Ron Swanson.
- Motion and quack performances by, Sheryl Crow, Ethan Hawke, and a flight of other great actors.
- In-game titles. Earn your place as the duck of Wellington, York, and Edinburgh.
- A special edition wrapped in downy duck n’ cover.
Amongst our supporters, we will distribute recognition titles where they are due. Curious to find out what these are? Ponder no more and read on.
- Scrooge McDuck: Don’t donate anything
- Duckling: Donate 1 duckcoin or more
- Featherweight: Donate 10 duckcoins or more
- Tailblazer: Donate 15 duckcoins or more
- Wingman: Donate 20 duckcoins or more
- Quack specialist: Donate 25 duckcoins or more
- Aviculturist: Donate 30 duckcoins or more
- Not giving a duck: Donate all your duckcoins.
We really hope you’ll help us make this project take flight and give it the airtime it deserves. Without your devoted support we won’t be able to run a Quackstarter as described above. Thank you for your time and keep yourself afloat.
How Lego can enhance your workplace March 20, 2014
Admit it. You have played around with Lego, if only even once, when you were growing up. It’s something I have done more than I dare to admit. Some would say that Lego is considered to be a plaything for children. I couldn’t disagree more. Lego is easy to understand, adaptively challenging, and scratches a creative itch that you didn’t know you had before. If you’ve ever gotten into contact with Lego then you’ll probably have had a period in your life that you’ve forgotten all about the Legos stashed in the garage or attic. Next time when you encounter a problem and you don’t know how to solve it, ask yourself if you can fix it with Lego!
Meet Elwin, my programmer in law. Elwin has a very clumsy and wonky polystyrene monitor stand which made him very sad. That monitor setup was bound to give out one day. Then, Elwin got inspired by a friend that fixed a problem using Lego. Elwin’s drive and inspiration was suddenly as plentiful and overflowing as the Lego crate he dragged in the next morning. Of course, he wasn’t allowed to touch the Lego before his chores were done.
Contrary to most of his work, finishing the Lego monitor and cellphone stand was done in minutes. Playing with Lego at older ages obviously comes with swag of its own and so sunglasses appeared out of nowhere once he was done. It also goes without saying that we don’t use the NERF gun in the picture on unproductive employees.
Seeing this Lego solution to a problem got me curious about what other solutions may be out there. So far, I’ve come across plenty of inventive chargers for devices of one sort or another. Some have different uses such as a Raspberry Pi case or a cutlery holder. Perhaps I’ll join in too to create a useful laptop stand or a replacement for my broken headset. Automating manual labour is also an option. Who needs a employed stress testers when there is Lego to do this for you?
Probably the most awesome workplace improvement I’ve come across is one that uses Lego as a calendar system. Here is a tangible and clear Lego calendar that keeps track of several projects which accommodates for several people both online and offline. Whether this works that well in practise is yet to be seen although the idea sounds great.
There are several other life hacks we are using in and around the office which make life much easier. If you have any sweet contraptions or elegant solutions to common problems then we would love to hear from you through Twitter or Facebook. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to close Pandora’s (Lego) box otherwise Elwin’s is pretty much a lost case.
This blog is intended as a write-up of recent events and activities of our game development company SassyBot Studio. As a result, the contents of the blog reflect personal approaches and insights that we like to share and should not be taken as industry facts. We hope that by sharing our thoughts and experiences of past and future events it may help other start-up indie devs with struggles and questions of their own. We embrace contact and encourage you to share your adventures and lessons with us either here or through Twitter @SassyBotStudio.
Office space for digital media
As of this month, you can find SassyBot Studio in an office space of its very own. Well, that’s not technically true as we share it with a few other folks. Regardless, we believe that having a space for our projects and operations is invaluable.
It could be argued that, because the nature of our business is largely digital, game developers don’t really need office space. That would be true if virtual collaboration with others would be as rich, synchronous, and seamless as it is in the real world. The biggest bonus of having a dedicated space for work is most definitely the noticeable focus and productivity increase compared to working from home. Working on a different location outside of home gets you out of the everyday domestic distractions. It’s possible to find these work places at a library, university, a diner, or coffee shop. The real benefit of an office space over public work places is obviously the ability to customize the work space, determine your own work hours, and the peer pressure of showing up and putting in the necessary hours.
Of course, there are also downsides such as rent, insurance, furniture, equipment, and other matters that are mandatory or recommendable to a practice such as ours. Even though an office space comes with an initial time investment and financial cost, we think it is definitely worth the sacrifice as productivity has increased and collaboration is now a lot easier.
Additional assistance – interns
As of this month, our team is also being reinforced by the very cool Baiba, who is active for the foreseen future as an art intern. She is currently assisting us in the character department of Fragments of Him with character concepts. When we post future videos and images about our character development process, it is very likely that you will be seeing some of her work. It’s important to have a focus for the work of an intern, and in a small company it is especially important to be sure that they fit with the group both creatively and socially.
There is much to be said on the subject and we mean to share more about working with interns in the future.
Fragments of Him update
Progress on our upcoming title Fragments of Him has been picking up over the last month, although other important matters, such as external work and the recent Casual Connect conference in Amsterdam, has taken a chunk out of our precious development time. An outline of the game’s design now exists and it is enough to block out the premise, characters, and mechanics for the game.
Based on the instructions and descriptions in the design, we have started blocking out environments that provide the player with context in which the game will be taking place. The basic gameplay systems are currently in place, such as player navigation and an art pipeline that allows for fast iterations.
The characters in Fragments of Him are going to be more dynamic than those that were seen in the prototype that is still up on Kongregate. Even though the story in the prototype could be told in an impactful way with static characters, we believe that lifelike animation can greatly emphasize the message, if acted out properly.
We want to have a lot of short, realistic animations in the game. In order to quickly iterate through motions until we have the right one, we think that a motion capture system could be greatly beneficial. Hand animating believable and lifelike character motions requires a substantial amount of time and expertise to pull off. Cleaning up animation keyframes from motion capture data takes less skill and it will probably be faster to get to the desired result. For these reasons, we are close to making the decision of creating a motion capture rig of our own.
The software we intend on using to create a motion capture setup that fits within our budget is called iPi Motion Capture and it supports consumer motion cameras such as Kinect and PS Eye as input devices. What we have seen up till now has made us very enthusiastic about the ease of use and overall possibilities using this technology.
Fragments of Him development approach
As we are creating a larger game than previously attempted, we have been doing quite a bit of high-level thinking on how we can best approach this project. It’s important that we make the best use of our available time and resources by catching problems early on when they do not yet have a considerable financial impact on the end result.
The high level approach we currently use for making Fragments of Him can be seen as a sequence of phases which we have labelled as follows:
- Horizontal slice phase
- Vertical slice phase
- Decor phase
- Polish phase
During production, we use the term horizontal slice to indicate the bare minimum that we need in order to have the game playable from A to Z. In this phase, we try to put the most important and rough objects into the game as soon as possible. This is also known as the MVP (Minimum Viable Product). The horizontal slice is made up out of critical elements that are necessary for the game to function.
We are going to approach the horizontal slice of Fragments of Him in this order:
- Environment blockout/whitebox
- Key interaction objects and functionality
- Critical interface elements
- Narrative system with placeholder scripts
- Main characters in crude forms
- Audio placeholders
- Sound effects
Good audio is critical to the experience of a narrative-heavy game such as Fragments of Him and, although this approach appears to place it at a low priority, we hope to move on to including it very rapidly. We expect to use free assets from classical royalty free libraries before moving on to working on a finalized score for the final release.
The result from this phase can be used to figure out if the core value of the game can already be experienced. Usually, the first result will not create the experience that the design has in mind. From this point onwards, a lot of iterations need to take place that will nudge the game towards where it needs to be. When the core design is present and representable for the game’s intended experience, we can include playtesters into the iteration cycle who will be able to tell us whether or not the design and game is working as intended. While that happens, we can direct our attention towards creating a vertical slice.
Vertical slice phase
A vertical slice represents a short segment of the game to a standard that is representative of the final product. On a graphical level, this can set the standard as to how the rest of the game should look and feel. Additionally, this is useful for promotional purposes as it can give people a taste of what they can expect in the full game. If you are looking for funding for your game, then creating a vertical slice of your game can be used for this. With Fragments of Him, we intend to create a vertical slice for promotion in order to raise awareness and muster support. We’ll try to make this vertical slice available to as many conferences, game journalists, and let’s play content creators as possible.
To get an impression of what is required for a vertical slice, you could imagine the work required for the phases below applied to approximately a 10% segment of the final game. It is basically getting a taste for a piece of the cake.
The décor phase can be seen as the phase where non-essential assets and functionality gets added to the game. A lovely analogy for this is this:
Imagine actors rehearsing for a theater play. These actors picture the environments and props around them as they practice to get the entire piece acted out and presented properly. In many ways, that can be seen as the horizontal slice. The décor phase is where the set dressing, lights, music, audio, and character costumes are pulled out to complete the set for the grand performance.
Essentially, the elements that get added in the décor phase of our game development process are to accommodate for mood, atmosphere, flow, and ambience that support the core of the game. The elements required for this phase are not critical for playing the game, but it does add tremendous value to the intended presentation. Some of the elements you can think of adding in this process are:
- Scene dressing
- Complete set of rigged character models
- Additional, non-essential, animations
- Scene lighting
- Particles and effects
- Additional, non-essential, functionality
- Interface graphics
- Complete audio set for music, sound effects, and foley
When we get to the point where all the elements of the game are put together, we will go into the polish phase. In this phase, we will not add any more assets or elements unless they will add considerable value to the game. Usually, this phase can take the longest to finish. Most of the work that is done in this phase is not really visible to the player and takes place behind the scenes. The purpose of this phase is to improve game performance by optimizing game assets and code as well as track down and minimize the occurrence of game breaking and experience hindering bugs. This process aims to make the game look as great as our resources allow us. Some of the activities we do in this process are:
- Clean up and perform optimization of:
- Game systems
- Tweak scene light parameters and light bake settings
- Quality assurance of the game’s performance and experience
This last month has been pretty busy as we moved into SassyBot’s first office, attended a conference, and the awesome Baiba joins us as an intern. Due to all this, the development of Fragments of Him has taken a slight backseat although we have made progress. We also decided that motion capture will very likely be the way we intend to get animations into the game and have researched cost-effective ways of doing this. Lastly, we have planned the development approach of Fragments of Him by dividing it up into the horizontal slice, vertical slice, décor, and polish phases. Thank you for reading all the way to the end and we hope you let us know what you think either through Facebook or Twitter (@Tinovdk & @SassyBotStudio). What blog topic will be next? I don’t know, but I’ll let you know when I do.