Sunday, March 29, 2015

Game Mechanics: 3 Redesign Ideas for the Bioshock Franchise

I spend a lot of time thinking about video games. Thinking about how video games could be different than they are. Not better, just... just different. Not because I think I'm smarter than game designers--no, I realize that I am just a man with a blog. No budgets. No deadlines. No publishers, distributors or fans breathing down my neck for a release date. No design team to tell me my ideas are impossible. No QA team to tell me my dreams crashed the server, froze the engine and killed Ted from accounting. No feasibility, no marketing, just a guy sitting at his unmade bed desk.

So today I sat down, dialed my brain back through the last eight years, and revisited some ideas I had for the Bioshock games. Some of these ideas are original. Some of them are loosely based on concept art or cut content. I'm just thinking.

1) Bioshock 1 & 2: Surviving Humans 
In the Rapture-based Bioshock games, the narrative occasionally suffers when there are supposed to be regular, non-spliced human beings creeping around in Rapture, but you only meet them when they're specifically named in the plot. Rapturites you encounter respond to your presence more or less the same way: violent incoherence and incoherent violence. Seeing some regular people just eking out a living amid the violence would have been radical. It would go a long way to explain how plot-important regular humans lived in the world of these delusional homicidal-types.

Now, this is something that was considered for BS2. There's some cut content that suggests that they had considered it, and when I read about that I thought about how unclear the narrative got occasionally, where non-spliced people were involved. Tanenbaum originally looked like a miscolored Ladysmith splicer, Frank Fontaine looked like Waders. What do you mean, they're regular people? How do I tell? Give me some context!

2) Bioshock 2: Repair missions
This one strikes me as obvious. Delta handles very much like Jack, the silent protagonist of Bioshock, and if you're angry at me for explaining who Jack is, someone asked me that on the Bioshock freaking Subreddit so I guess I need to bloody well explain. Meanwhile, I'm a Big Daddy! Rapture's monstrous, brainwashed custodians. My primary weapon is a rivet gun, which one might reasonably expect I use to rivet things together, but no. The game forgot, apparently! Instead, it's like, "oh no, some ice is preventing this subaquatic train from progressing to the next area. Better find a fire plasmid with which to melt the ice off with. Remember the time you did that in the last game? There was ice and we made you find a fire plasmid? This is, like, exactly like that. Embarrassingly similar, actually. Fortunately it's the only time we reuse a mission. Except for the time when we force you to drop what you're doing and research some splicers for us. And the one where you protect Little Sisters during collection sequences! We made that one a core game mechanic."

 I don't mean to suggest that the game is uncreative. It does expect us to do new things in the story, but the absence of repair missions left the story almost incomplete. I have a rivet gun, and am compelled to make repairs. The first game was a pointed commentary on the fact that gamers have relatively little control over the stories they make happen; forcing a brainwashed character to stop what he's doing and make repairs is a great way to reinforce that message. So please! Make me fix things! Send me out to tighten the rivets on a tunnel, quell the flooding, and let an NPC--one of those humans I mentioned earlier--get somewhere they need to go!

3) Bioshock Infinite: Improving Vigors
Clash in the Clouds was a CHORE for me, because BSI's combat is so squiggly. Vigors aren't terribly valuable or fun; many of them feature arbitrary, cruel limitations (charge can only be used while targeting an enemy? Why?) and without EVE hypos they're too expensive. I get why you don't necessarily want us to carry medkits, but EVE hypos are just specialized ammo..

The skylines were fun but too often the unreliable hitboxes (compounded by my own terrible aim) meant that an A-button press that should have turned me into a blood-streaked comet actually featured me hopping up and down ineffectually, waving my arms like a toddler eager to be carried. Often I found myself trying to jump to a barge or ledge, only to give a gentle bunnyhop, because the SUPER jump is only available when you're looking at the correct pixel on the rail. What I'm trying to say is that I hated the contextual controls.

A handful of vigors should have had advanced movement options in place of traps, the kind you see in competitive shooters like TF2. What if the Return to Sender projectile, fully charged, was also a grabbing point for the Sky Hook? Let me use Bucking Bronco to rocket-jump. Murder of Crows? While I'm using that, let me glide for a moment while I look for somebody to goomba-stomp. Single-use teleporter projectiles would have been neat, like the kind we saw in Plants Versus Zombies: Garden Warfare.  And let me use Charge any time I want!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Miner's Stories:The End of Enders

I smiled, polishing the brewing stand as I listened to the rain drum on my snug sandstone roof. It had taken months of scrimping, saving, and trading, but I'd finally finished constructing my bar. The construction had gone smoothly, even for building in the swamp. Two nights we'd been beset by zombies and a creeper had blown out the front door during a late night installation, but it was done. The storm that had been threatening was coming down now, getting itself out of the way, clearing a path for next week's grand opening to be dry. My new bartender, a testificate named Barthold appreciatively rubbed the sprucewood bar, finished with lacquered countertops, and nodded at me. "Hmmmm."

"Unfinished sprucewood." I said proudly, although I knew what he was really asking.

"Hmmm." Barthold folded his arms over his chest.

"I know it's unorthodox to build a building in the shape of a tree, but I think it looks handsome. We're easily twice as big as the next biggest tree in the swamp, and no other swamp-tree is festooned in jack-o-lanterns to keep the nasty mobs at bay. Plus, I couldn't stand to build something else out of stone."


"We're not having this conversation again. I did! I cut down every tree in every wood plank in this bar. Went through a dozen iron axes. Spent weeks with a shears collecting wool and leaves for the rooms. I... purchased blaze rods for our brewing stands. I didn't get those original, that's true." Barthold looked at me impatiently. He had heard me describe the qualities of my bar a dozen times. Folding his arms into his sleeves, he tilted his head towards the brewing stand. "Hrmm."

"Oh, right. I s'pose I should show you how to use them."

I filled three bottles with water and set them on the stand, opened a tin of extract of netherwart, and poured it into the brew basket. Heat flowed from the blaze rod at the center, condensing the netherwart and distributing it to each brew. We watched for a moment as the liquid loop-de-looped in the condensers. When the first drop hit the potion, I drummed excitedly on the counter.

"What do you thirsty for, buddy? Immunity to fire? Healing? Pep? Pep I like, let's do pep." It seemed fitting that my first step in bar ownership should be a productivity-increasing potion of swiftness. A symbolic gesture to the universe, if you would. I grabbed a clay sugar jar from the pantry, spooned out a helping of the white powder, and stopped.
"Wait, no. This is bone powder."
"Yeah, we SHOULD probably keep this somewhere else." I doodled a picture of a skeleton in the dust on the tin and set it back in the pantry, then stared into the pantry....

"Hmm?" Barthold gently tapped me on the shoulder and nodded to the brewing stand, no longer glowing. The netherwart was fully rendered and the awkward potions were done.
"Oh, right. The, uh. The sugar. Got it!" I removed a porcelain sugar bowl from the top shelf and spooned sugar into the brewing stand's brewing basket. The machine bubbled and rattled, and we sat in contentment, enjoying the resonant scent of sugar brewing. The contents of the bottles turned a brilliant sky blue. Barthold offered up another clay jar, this one labelled redstone.
 "Speed Potion +, eh?" I remarked.
 He nodded and opened the jar, then began to tip it into the brew basket.

"Where's the scoop?"
"Well, I'm not just going to let you tip it in there. You'll make a mess. Find the redstone scoop."

Barthold looked around, then fished a scoop out of a jar of  glowstone powder. "Hmm."
"I don't want to cross-contaminate my scoops, Barthold. Plus, if you mix powders it gets all fizzy and flat." Suddenly impatient to have my first batch of potions finish, I snatched up the glowstone powder.

"We'll make a Potion of Swiftness II. Twice the energy, but half the length." As I tipped the glowing yellow powder into the brewing basket, I silently tried to rescind the earlier offering to the universe; this first potion had suddenly become much less auspicious.

The universe was feeling malicious, apparently. The windows flashed as lightning struck outside, and my door swung in violently, framing a towering figure standing in the rain. It would have been quite dramatic, until the pressure plate mechanism that operated the door released and swung it shut in the figure's mysterious face.The latch lifted and the door opened slowly. The mysterious figure entered mysteriously. Barthold rolled his eyes.

The lady was tall and gaunt, dressed in badly damaged iron armor with a helmet stylized to look like a jack-o-lantern. A long cloth sling hung cross her chest, and she rested a visibly bleeding arm on it. She surveyed the bar slowly. "I... sorry. Normally when I enter a bar, there's a gaggle of regular patrons who stop what they're doing to gawk for a minute, then return to their conversations, eyes hooded with suspicion. Except for the one guy who leaves out the back to convey a message to my enemies."

"Well, we're not an ordinary bar, on account of we're newly finished. I'm getting the inventory shored up this week, and we'll open next week." I paused. "However, we've got things around, you know. I couldn't just toss you back out into that dreck. Come on in, have a warm-up, at very least, come in out of the damp." The universe punctuated my sales pitch with another lightning strike.

"I... no. No, this is stupid. Who makes a pub in the shape of a tree?"
I bravely weathered the insult and pressed the advantage.
"Well, at least let me offer you a nice watermelon spritz for your arm there, I charge very reasonable prices. Full stack of carrots will get you a room for the night and a drink, miss."
"End of Enders." she set her helmet down and gingerly lowered herself into the chair she was much too tall for. I nodded to Barthold, who had been nodding his head back and forth curiously.  He hustled away to fetch up the drinks and I sat across from my first customer.

"I haven't got a stack of carrots." She said as she arranged her sling carefully in her lap, interrupting my next thought.
"I'd accept a stack of potatoes, or even a halfstack of watermelon."
"Those either. I've been hunting, but I'm afraid I'm out of meats."
"I accept craftables. Eight iron ingots." She reached into her sling, and removed a quarter-stack bill with an ingot on it. She began folding it in her hands as she watched me, then tucked the bill into her sling. I smiled patiently as Barthold walked up, carrying a bucket with a bottle of instant health 2 cooling in it.

"What would I get for this?" She pulled her hand out dramatically, and offered up smooth teal sphere in one hand. It lifted slightly out of her fingers, and hovered there above her hand. An enderpearl.

"Hmm!" Barthold began vigorously batting at the cold water on the front of his shirt, then, grumbling, he recovered the bottle he'd dropped.
"What... did you say your name was?" I was starting to put things together as she said what I thought she'd said.

"End of Enders. I'm an Ender hunter." She looked at me and thrust out her chin, eyes blazing defiantly. I looked back at the grinning jack-o-lantern helmet. At the ragged slash mark on her arm, raked by vicious claws. I stared into her eyes for a moment, sweating, then averted my gaze, calculating what an enderpearl was worth.

"You killed an ender for this? That's crazy. I've heard all kinds of rumors but I don't think I've ever seen one. It's Hard out there." I paused a moment, thinking. "Is it true? You can teleport with them?" Without responding, she cocked her arm back and sent the pearl sailing across the bar. There was a flash of purple motes as she was suddenly gone, leaning through the window that connected the kitchen to the bar and grinning widely. Barthold spilled another bucket, and grumblingly returned to the sink.

She crawled through the kitchen window, and raised the sling. "They break after one use, but they're handy in a pinch." I looked at the orb for a minute and recollected my enthusiasm just minutes before. Embarrassed, I tried to retroactively regain my composure.

"One use, eh? I don't know what I'd ever use it for. I can give you a potion for it."  The End of Enders scowled at my airy disdain.

"I had to kill an Enderman for that. You ever fought an Enderman?" She tilted her head as she spoke, revealing a long pale scar under her jawbone. Wrong move. I held my hands out, palms up in a supplicating motion; I'd pushed too hard.

"I'm just negotiating, madame. But I've forgotten my manners." I really had. Even more embarrassed, I waved her to the bar, and cancelled every excuse that rose to mind why I had. No use excusing bad manners.

"You can have the Upper Boughs for the evening. One potion (your pick), one meal (delicious), and a place to stay out of the rain." I scooped the enderpearl up gently, and tucked it into my inventory. I didn't have a lot of use for it right now, but I'd think of something. And if I didn't, well, I could put it on display. Maybe somebody would offer a meritorious trade.

She settled into a chair, loosening the straps on her iron chestplate so she could de-equip it. "What have you got that's vegetarian?"
The night progressed pleasantly. Since the bar was empty and it was really just myself, Barthold, and the End of Enders, I'd offered to join her for dinner and she'd graciously accepted. She enjoyed a mushroom stew and baked potato dinner, but I, who hadn't just spent a month in the bush living off of hunted meat, was inclined towards more robust fare: charcoal-broiled chicken over bread.

I regaled her with the story of the bar's construction and our trial with the zombie. She replied with her adventures camping in the deserts to the South and hunting Enders. I must confess she won pretty handily.

"So he's got a flower, right? And I think, aw, that's sweet, this big purple eyed monster is going to give me flowers. I go to say thank you, and he locks eyes with me. I freeze, and I can't look away from this guy's stare. These huge eyes, just staring into me, and he's shaking. His jaw opens up and he lets out this horrible scream. Next thing I know, he's behind me, trying to rip my kidneys out. I spin around and just go crazy swinging my sword at him, until he makes this sort of sniffing sound and vanishes. So now I'm standing there, panting, thinking I won, but BOOM he's behind me again! I'm hurting bad and every swing he takes is like a stone knife in the guts, and every time I turn to face him he vanishes and turns up behind me.

I'm staggering and all of the sudden I feel this sharp prickle in my back. It hurts, but compared to the Enderman's claws it's like a hug from a bristley beard. I've backed into a cactus. The Enderman howls again, and vanishes, and I spin around, hoping to beat him out before he can slice a fresh line across my back. And there he is, trying to step through the cactus, needles in his belly and his legs, and finally he rips the cactus out of the ground and comes at me, holding it over his head. But he leaves an opening."

The End of Enders was standing on her chair, empty bowl held over her head with both hands, smiling broadly with a row of teeth like snowy mountain peaks, eyes wide with excitement for her harrowing tale. Slowly, she tapped herself gently on the sternum.

"I leap up as quick as a flash and stab him with all my strength. The sword isn't much, just ordinary iron. No enchantments, nothing. But I've finally got him! He makes this weird, warbly noise, like a scream, and topples over next to me, wrenching my sword out of my hand. And I howl, this awful, wonderful death howl, because I'm alive and he's not. I go to get my sword back, but its stuck in him. I tug, and I pull, and I can't quite--- you know, so I lever it out."

She's standing on the table now, sawing the air with her bowl. Barthold has retreated to the kitchen--I can only imagine to cower in the pantry--and she laughs triumphantly.

"Finally, a bone gives way and I pull free my sword, when I see it. There, nestled just next to his heart, is this." She holds up the enderpearl.

"It didn't look like this when I killed that Enderman. It was still a little soft, and it was warm. It.. it grows in them, but not like it's an organ or something." Her triumphant grin had dimmed slightly.

"It's almost like... there's something in them. There's something wrong with them, and their body gives off this stuff, and it coats it to protect them. But they can use it to teleport freely, constantly. When they die, it crystallizes, and then you can only use that once." The End of Enders gnawed pensively on her spoon her eyes far away.

"They're building something, out in that desert, you know." The energy seems almost gone from her now.

"You'll see them, with handfuls of dirt, or a pumpkin, or some flowers. They're trying to build something, but I don't know if they know how. Or even what it is. They'll go out into that desert and arrange things out there."

"Arrange things? Like, how? Are they trying to build a portal, like the way we can build Nether portals?" I thought of the obsidian column in the center of the old township, before we'd installed the Gate Lock.

"That's my thought. We all knew the Endermen aren't from here. They just showed up one night. They seem like they just wander around, but I think they're scouting. Prepping for an invasion." She leaned back in her chair as she finished the rest of her Potion of Healing, then slammed it down on the table, this gesture apparently the coda to our conversation.

Barthold, lured back out into the dining room by the diminishing volume, tilted his head. "Hmmmm." He yawned. I nodded and stood. "Well, Ms. End of Enders, It's late and I would enjoy some sleep. Barthold and I can carry any excess inventory to your room in the Upper Boughs." Barthold hefted her chestplate and helmet, and I guided both into the back and up the spiral staircase to our deluxe suite. We paused on the landing--which I'd named the Fork, because I loved naming things--and I gestured grandly at the swamp I called home.

"Wow. Quite the view." The End of Enders said. I smiled; this spot had been chosen for its scenic view of an adjacent jungle biome a few chunks away to the west, and the Palm Forest to the east. "If you squint you can see the Amin-ra's

"And good news! The rain has stopped! Ah, I get so worried about lightning when I--"
"What did you say?"
"The lightning. Flammable houses have that problem, you know, they burn so easily and of course so many stacks of jungle leaves, you can imagine, they're quite expensive."
"No, the rain? When did the rain stop?"
"Well, just now."
"Your bar. How secure is your bar?" She grabbed a handful of my shirt, eyes wide. I gently pushed her hand off of me and Barthold rolled his eyes. He'd heard the security lecture four times, partially because he spent most of his first day jumping up and down on the pressure plate.

"There's a pressure-plate driven gate/door to discourage zombies knocking on the door--a necessity when employing testificates. The oak walls are vulnerable to creepers, but there's a cat sleeping in the kitchen and another by the main door to discourage them. The Fork, where we are now, was deliberately designed with a lip to discourage spiders from climbing it.
"Your ceilings, though. How high are the ceilings?"

She looked at me, then looked at the wall, counting, and I put together what her fear was. "My counter is not looking at them! I just don't provoke them and we don't have any... any problems." I trailed off as I followed her eyes, and looked out into the swamp. A pair of purple eyes stared up at us. Then another. And another. And another.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Stop Motion Superbonus: the Ghost

Making movies with my little cousin, she planned and wrote it and I offered animation advice, foley and voice acting. Everything that happens in it was her idea and execution! Pretty neat, huh?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Stop Motion Sunday: Earthbender 2

Another shot at earthbending in Lego form. Playing with faces and more dynamic camera motion, too. Music is Arco Arena by CAKE, sped up 2x.
You can find their music here:

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Stop Motion Sunday: Earthbender Versus Firebender

Had a lot of fun with this one. I want to develop the process of bending with LEGO characters a bit more. Have any ideas? Have a story you want me to animate? Drop me a line in the comments section, or follow me on Twitter!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Stop Motion Sunday: Father's Day

Weekend projects with Dad were always fun, even though us boys (Hawkeye in stripes, Hans in the white zip-up, and Doc with the hat) were never actually so cooperative. Dad, I'm lucky that you're my dad. Hope you have a great Father's Day.