The Withered Spring
A wicked sick adventure game about BLOOD and NIGHTMARES

Check it out! Gorgeous artwork and a very intriguing setting… it’s been too long since I explored a game world that was really captivating.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ghostinabottle/octopus-city-blues

the design of castlevania levels / nonlinear ability-gated level layouts

it’s apparent that in certain games this ability-gating design is much more compelling than in others

in some games you see some bricks or something you can’t break em and you just go ‘guess i can’t break those yet whatever’ and it’s just REALLY dull and you don’t care

but when it’s done right you see something really enticing and you’re like ohhh mannnnn i wanna get up there and see what’s there but i fuckin canttttttt

what is the design difference that seperates these two reactions?

i think some possibilities are;

1. making it ambiguous HOW you will end up gaining access

  • this makes it more mysterious because you don’t just know ‘i will gain the ability to break yellow bricks and then i will break the yellow bricks’/ the potential of what you will be able to do in the future is still captivating your mind and it makes the unreachable area seem more unknown and rife with possibilities

2. demonstrating multiple cases of unreachability 

  • if you keep seeing these inaccessible areas or passages that are clearly made reachable by the same maneuver, a tension will start to build in the player’s mind… "fraak if only i had the thing that let me get there and then i could explore all these enticing paths’

3. teasing properly…

  • ensuring that what little of the inaccessible area the player can see as he gazes longingly from the outside SUGGESTS more… this can be purely aesthetic (interesting and new art) if the game is potently artistic as in the case of sotn
  • it can be something mysterious suggesting game mechanics (or an expansion/new application thereof) as yet unknown to the player
  • it could be something as simple as having a visible door… a door suggests potential… there could be anything on the other side of it and you are just burning to open that door and see
  • there are a lot more ways to tease 

4. establishing a precedent for intrigue

  • if your game is boring then nobody will care about your unlockable paths… but if it has already proven to be a captivating experience and demonstrated intriguing mechanics and rewards, (in the form of items, abilities, aesthetics) then naturally your expectations for what could be behind that curtain will be very high…and not being able to open it positively unbearable!!!!!!!!

5. varied applicability

  • some games based around ability-gated levels do something really infantile like you get the new move and then use it literally one single time to pass through an obstacle and then never have to use it again. or worse yet - when you pass through the thing you immediately get ANOTHER new ability that completely obsoletes the first one. i’m totally not talking about portrait of ruin SYKE (btw color coded doors each opened by a different variation of the same missile projectile isn’t any better than this)
  • if the ability you get that helps you navigate the levels has some universality of application, such as in combat or basically just ANYTHING OTHER THAN THE ONE GEOGRAPHIC FEATURE IT HARDCOUNTERS, the player will be more excited about getting to an unreachable place because he knows that by doing so he will also gain access to a wicked sick new move that will change the way various situations in the game are approached

6. complexity of level layout

  • this one is harder to define, but games with highly intricate maps tend to do a better job of enrapturing the mind, because it is visually evident that there is a great abundance of possibility (even if it is just an illusion). if you’re on a straight path, and there’s a single, inaccessible branch, then you see it and continue along the linear path, it’s not really that intriguing because it’s just a matter of returning to that one place later. plus, if it’s only one branch you’re more likely to assume due to the apparent lack of content that it will be mandatory to return to that path later anyway so there’s nothing to worry about. all the tension dissolves and the player feels less pressure to take it upon himself to remember.
  • but you WANT the player to worry! if there are a number of paths in the midst of a complex level, the player will become anxious that he won’t get to explore all of them, and becomes self-motivated to make note of and thoroughly investigate your environments. you want those gated-off areas and branching paths to be gnawing at the player’s mind as he is tragically forced to leave them behind. mentally puzzling over things like where does this lead and how does this all connect together is a compelling experience
  • dark souls relies on extreme map complexity alone, particularly in the undead burg and parish. it isn’t ability-gated and does not observe any of the other principles put forth here, but manages to be fascinating just by virtue of its weaving, interconnected level layouts

7. will i even have the opportunity to explore there?

  • sometimes you see an area on a game map that is seemingly unreachable. there’s no evident means of entering it, so it’s unclear whether you will eventually gain access or if it’s just decorative. sometimes it’s just beyond a wall or below a bridge, sometimes it’s a notable area that can be seen from a distance. this kind of thing is actually so psychologically compelling to players that there are an abundance of false internet rumors about various games stating obscure methods to gain access to the space players made note of but were denied entry to. i can’t think of any specific examples right now but it’s stuff like "HOW TO EXPLORE THE GUARD TOWER IN JUNON CITY BRING 99 TISSUES TO THE GUARD OUTSIDE"
  • as a kid whenever i crossed this bridge in secret of evermore for some reason the space underneath it seemed very intriguing to me. i always wanted to be able to go see what was down there and explore. you could only see a tantalizing little bit of it! it helped that the game was full of hidden NPCs, items, and alchemy skills - it had successfully conditioned me to be highly curious about its world, and i was dying to explore every corner of it. as you can see from this wider shot taken from vgmaps,com, the area isn’t even finished! the game designers actually managed to make me fascinated by a bit of thrown-together graphical filler under a bridge. freaking HOME RUN!!!

image

all artists and creators should behave like rockstars and experience a vibrant life

Chris: Any fun stories of going out drinking with Sakaguchi or anything like that?

Ted Woolsey: You know, we’d go out drinking in Tokyo, we’d go to the clubs and hang out. It was high times, people were just high on life. We were all much younger then and had lots of dreams ahead of how to take over the world and force the hardware makers to buckle under our combined wills.

There were times when we’d meet in Hawaii, where they’d just have the entire Square company fly over there. Those times people were just completely undone, just completely lit on the beach falling over having a great time.

why can’t people make video games right STILL

so that shadowrun game that has 2x crits and 0.5x ‘weak’ hits so your damage could really just be any number you can imagine aka the correlation between input and outcome is negligible

you start and it’s asking this shit about what race you want to be and the associated stat bonuses

okay so in 2013 sapient human beings who make video games still can’t figure out the problem where making a choice to which one has no frame of reference is 1. completely meaningless 2. impossible and they will just guess 

if you don’t know what the stats do and don’t know how they come into play in a practical combat situation then making a stat allocation choice is just ?????

also choosing a class - every game in existence has this problem

making an informed decision about which class you want to play is impossible because games make no effort to communicate to you what playing the class is like

there should be example descriptions and/or videos of their skills or combat options on the side of the class selection menu so you can see how it plays and decide if it is well designed and fun or not

instead it always just says <NAME OF CLASS> this class does things and other things

uhh okay.. but.….what…how… can you tell me some of the skills they get… could you…show me examples of this class in action

this is an ANCIENT problem and it has not been solved nor even acknowledged

so after XX minutes of going through various character customization screens all of which are so meaningless to you as to resemble reading a foreign language you get in the game and all you can do in combat is left click a badguy to shoot at them 

how about starting off the player as a generic base character in a sort of prologue… let them see how the game plays… learn how it works for a while… BEFORE the customization screens…

then start offering them choices about what kind of skills or stats they want to go into, so they can be like ‘yeah i’d really like to do x in these fights’.  ’yes i would like to be able to shoot faster and hack a thing that seems helpful’

isn’t this like the most obvious apparent basic logic that anyone should be able to deduce by thinking about this for 1 second?

but paid industry professionals whose job it is to work on these things and do so over a period of 1-5 years cannot come to these unbelievably plain conclusions

whatever 

I want to paint the air with notes

There is a great deal of information regarding musical composition on the internet, but rarely have I encountered personal accounts from students of composition detailing the struggles they went through in learning how to actually write music. One can learn all the theory in the world, but actually being able to compose a piece of music is another thing altogether. There isn’t much in the way of learning how to distill all that knowledge into a working ability to create. I thought I’d write about my experiences, because if I’d known what I know now back then, I’d have had a much easier time of it.

I wasn’t one of those lucky children who was handed a grand piano or a violin at the age of three and forced to master the thing. Nor was I trained in musical composition by the best professors in the world, earning Master’s equivalency by adolescence. (Sod off, all you rich kids!!) I recall expressing a desire to own a piano at a very young age. Unfortunately, money was such that I acquired my first keyboard at the age of fifteen. I entered piano lessons three months later and was immediately placed in the eighth year. Apparently I had some natural aptitude for it, but it never seemed very special to me - as Bach said, you press the correct keys at the correct times and music comes out. Though I still intend to improve my skill, I eventually left serious piano study by the wayside.

I was more interested in learning to compose, in becoming an arena rock-star with all the sophistication of knowledge as the classically trained. I grew up listening to Vivaldi and Oldfield, Kikuta and Zeppelin. Such a maelstrom of ideas and feelings. I had ideas about music that nobody else seemed to have explored. I felt it would take tremendous composition ability to execute works implementing all the innovations of the late 20th century while maintaining the virtuosity of the 18th and 19th. I had great disdain for the contemporary radio stars, who seemed to make a mockery of the craft with their utter lack of virtue. I set about my studies as much in defiance of these filthy infidels to the church of music as in reverence for the great composers whose works gave me so much.  

Two of my best friends

A couple friends of mine.

I envisioned music of profound depth, unmatched complexity, and stunning originality. Music of such a level I would not encounter until years later when I heard Soshiro Hokkai’s Harmony of Dissonance - now there was a shock. But then, I didn’t possess even a fraction of the necessary ability to realize the vague concepts swimming about in my mind. I thought that simply by studying more and more, I could reach a level of skill where I would be able to compose the music I wanted to write. I listened to material written by other amateur composers and determined that I had no interest in writing music so poor - I would study and study until I could create incredible work, and until then I didn’t want to write anything at all. After all, why would I want to create music that I myself knew was derivative or poorly executed?

Of course, I didn’t realize that’s not how it works. You can’t just study your way to the top and then begin writing masterpieces once you’ve achieved Level 99 Textbook Status. I don’t know why I thought that would work. In my efforts to bring the powerful concepts in my heart to life, I hit constant stumbling blocks. Almost every time I composed music I would get stuck at some point in the process, and I wasn’t sure why. Lacking confidence, I listened over the parts I had already written again and again, trying to determine if it was any good, trying to figure out how to proceed. Naturally, by doing this the music became so nauseating to me that in my mind it was ruined and I would never be able to finish the piece. That is a special brand of frustration not easily matched in other experiences.

My solution to this was to read more textbooks, transcribe more music, study more scores. My knowledge increased exponentially but my ability to actually write a piece of music did not. I struggled with this until I discovered two pieces of advice that completely changed my approach. Finally I broke down, swallowed my pride, and asked one of the musicians I greatly admire for advice. He told me something indispensable, yet so obvious that I should have known it from my language studies, if not from common sense.

Don’t rest too soundly rock’n’roll, I am coming back for you!

He told me that when transcribing music to learn from it, one should play it on the keyboard, as it’s easier to understand the internal logic of the piece when you have it under your fingers. Of course! In my experience, most composers work out their material on the piano before putting it to the score - which is to say, in the very moment one is working out the composition, the whole of his musical understanding is distilled to the motions of his fingers over the keys. A vast knowledge of theory does not necessarily help in this moment. When it’s just you, the keys, and the score, that wealth of knowledge can be all too abstract and distant. 

In musical composition, every single note is specifically placed to achieve a desired emotive effect. Your job is to manipulate the feelings of the listener in such a way that he understands what you are trying to convey. The purpose of aurally transcribing music is to gain an understanding of exactly how the composer achieves a specific effect, so that you can harness the theory principles behind it for application to your own work. When you play the songs on the keyboard as you study them, you are linking your new-found knowledge to muscle memory. Now, instead of just knowing in your mind that the Dorian i - IV produces a majestic, adventurous effect, your fingers know how that sound feels. When you’re sitting above the keys working out the harmonic structure of a phrase, that is invaluable.

What could make more sense than tying your theoretical expertise to the physical implement used to compose music? It’s no different from learning to use the non-roman characters of a foreign language. It’s important to write them down as you learn the meanings and pronunciations of the characters so that all the possible applications - reading, writing, and speaking - are linked, increasing your ability to recall the knowledge in various situations.

My introduction to Flutes, Oboes, and Clarinets

My introduction to Flutes, Oboes, and Clarinets. Thanks, Queen Bluegarden.

My second discovery was when I came across an interview with Jeremy Soule, whose soundtrack for Secret of Evermore instilled in me at the age of nine a profound love of woodwinds and dark harmonies, wherein he mentioned J.S. Bach’s assertion that it is crucial for students of composition to write music every day. Of course, there are innumerable separate skills involved in the process of musical composition, and it is obvious that exercising these skills is indispensable to one’s growth as a composer. But! When I considered this statement further I realized why I had so often gotten stuck in the midst of a piece. I lacked the necessary command of my knowledge to give voice to my musical concepts.

It was in part because my knowledge of theory was so abstracted from my process of composition, but also due to an important truth of the craft; that is, the better you know beforehand what to write down to achieve the effect you desire, the easier the process of composition and better the final result. Knowing exactly what to write before you write it is, strangely enough, a skill not acquired through study of textbooks. Simply knowing a lot about music isn’t enough, you need to be able to use it.

The only way to build that skill is to compose… a lot. To build up a personal library of knowledge about what notes, intervals, chords, and arrangement techniques create specific sounds and feelings, so that when your heart tells you to evoke the melancholy of a spring evening, you already have a good idea of how you might do it. The process will be heavily informed by your creativity and stylistic tendencies, but having a powerful command of all your theory - a certain ease of application - is what enables you to bring that vision to life. 

So many melodies come to mind.

In a conversation with Bear McCreary on his blog, he told me something to the effect that one’s technical skill should be secondary to one’s creativity. I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time, but I think what I have been talking about is the very same issue he was getting at - achieving that command of your musical knowledge so that when your creative vision points in a specific direction your technical skill is ready and waiting to follow its lead, allowing you to effortlessly paint your soul onto the score pages. I suspect that achieving such facility is an endless journey. 

In summary; yes, you should study textbooks, scores, and transcribe lots of music.  But remember that each discovery is a tool that can be internalized and employed in the future. Be thorough. Be inquisitive. Experiment a lot, and examine the effect produced by harmonic, contrapuntal, and arrangement techniques. Remember to apply all your findings to your composition process. When you discover a modulation which possesses a quality you like, play it on the keyboard and internalize it. The knowledge is worthless if it cannot be applied in that infinite, fragile moment when you set out to write your feelings down in notes. 

The Withered Spring

The landscape in my mind keeps shifting. Today I live near a scattering of shallow ponds, the autumn wind bringing stories of imagined romance.