Wednesday, May 5, 2010


I'm going to be blunt: I have all the artistic skill of snail trying to wrap its slimy tail around a half-eaten crayon. But I'm also a stubborn autodidact who wants to do everything himself, and has only recently begun to rely on other people.

My reluctance to do so comes from my experiences as a filmmaker; until you've been there, you can't imagine how frustrating it is to get into an editing room and find out that someone else forgot to turn the mike on. Depend too much on others and you can get burned; depend on yourself, and you've no one but yourself to blame when things go wrong. That's the way I prefer to work, or at least it was until I started making films with my wife-- the only other person I trust with a camera.

Bringing this back to games, I've made it a rule from the beginning to rely on myself for every aspect of the game's creation, from the art to the level design to the coding (minimal though it may be, as I utilize the Game Maker engine) to the music.

If my artistic abilities are crude and perfunctory, my musical stylings are even worse-- atonal blisters that would give even John Adams pause. It quickly became apparent that my ear-violating "melodies" were not only irking players, but indeed tipping the scale towards outright loathing. And so, after my first few games-- most of which, lucky for your ears, are no longer online-- I started outsourcing my music. First, I took baby-steps and downloaded a free pack of songs by a composer named Lateksi2-- his music, for example, adorns both my platformer Run Jump and the original Side Saddle.

Then, I went looking for brand-new compositions and got submissions from two different composers. One of them, Nathanael Crane, I've used for both Side Saddle 2 and Ultrageist. The other, C. Filipe Alves, will be working on the music for Sequence Breaker.

I might have went into my search for composers thinking of the music as background, a necessary filler; as a filmmaker with fairly Dreyer-ian ideas about the importance of visual rhythms, I tend to avoid music altogether. But working with Nathanael, and listening to Alves's other compositions, I've come to see my composers as vital collaborators, co-creators, whose music is not filler but an important part of the game's over-all aesthetic experience.

One argument you hear a lot, and an argument that I used to make in my game design articles, was that if you took a current generation game and just replaced all the artwork with blocks, it would still play the same, it would still be the same game deep-down, so pretty graphics really don't matter. But such a game wouldn't feel the same. The vibe would be different. A Super Mario Bros. with Intellivision graphics might still control like Super Mario Bros., but it wouldn't be bright-and-bouncy, wouldn't feel like Mario, wouldn't play like Mario.

Aesthetics matter; sound and picture and story aren't more or less important than the gameplay, but rather all tangled up with it, all working together to create an experience that's hopefully worth having. Players complained that my blocky graphics for Ultrageist felt kinda dead in the game's black play-space. A day later, I had implemented the current "growing circles of overlapping colour" motif, and not only did those complaints lessen, but I found myself that the game was more fun, more entertaining, more engaging with this simple addition.

And it's with a renewed devotion to crafting not just a gameplay experience but an aesthetic one that I've come to face facts: if I suck at art, I shouldn't be doing all the art for Sequence Breaker. I've already secured the services of one artist for the player character's sprites, and will soon be looking for people to bring my enemies and backgrounds to life while I concentrate on the game's story, pacing, and level design-- areas that are, at least in theory, ones in which I've demonstrated some slight modicum of talent.

All my games have been largely experimental, and small-scale. For this game, I intend to break this sequence of my own design and to create something with a bit more polish, something that provides the player with a somewhat fuller and more satisfying experience.

NEXT TIME: Widescreen.

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