One thing I think most people struggle with creatively is starting. People tell me they “just can’t do it”, and honestly, that’s crap. You just aren’t trying hard enough.
For example, I often hear people say “I can’t draw”. Well, I say, that’s because you don’t practice enough. We aren’t born with the ability to draw, and we aren’t born with a crippling aversion to drawing. If you can’t draw, it’s simply because you haven’t had the practice.
To start drawing, find something you like and put pencil to paper. If you’re anything like me, it’ll look awful – but at least you’ve started, and now you’re on the way to being great at it. In the immortal words of Jake the Dog:
Having said all that, there are certain shortcuts we can take regardless of skill level. There are different techniques to any given creative field, a lot of which can help with starting a new project or skill.
We recently looked at a technique for conceptualization. In this case, we were trying to create a concept for a vehicle in a racing game. Mine (pictured below) was among the worst of the lot, but some really looked great.
(I was born with a crippling aversion to photoshop)
The technique we used is known as “Photo Bashing”. Photo Bashing is the process of combining other images to create a completely new one, as in the above example. I used bits of a jet ski, a motorbike, an umbrella, a fire alarm, some gears and more, and managed to create a motorbike (it isn’t my proudest moment).
This is a relatively controversial technique, mostly because of copyright issues. Obviously, collecting large amounts of images and claiming credit for what you create is going to be an issue from time to time. I agree on some level, but I don’t think photo bashing is really used for plagiarism. Rather, it tends to be used for conceptualization – because it can be used to create quickly, it’s ideal for people working to a deadline, for example.
This doesn’t mean that nobody uses it to plagiarize, of course. Credit should always be given to the original images, quite unlike what I’m doing. I did find it helpful – there’s no way I’m skilled enough to create the above image from scratch without the use of this (or a similar) technique.
The point is that this technique (and others) can help with quickly breaking into a creative field. While they aren’t necessarily ideal for building your skillset, they help with building confidence – seeing that you can create something that’s ordinarily above your skill level is a good feeling, which also helps to build interest in improving yourself.
If you’re the kind of person that says “I wish I could do this”, go and do it. Stop having a cry and complaining to people, because the problem is with you. For example, I wish I could sound less righteous on my blog, but it isn’t going to happen without some practice.
Had to take the story down! The competition won’t accept a story that’s been published and while I plan to change it a fair bit anyway, I thought it was best to be safe. Thanks to all for the feedback, and I’m happy to send it to anyone that asks.
This post is going to be about different User Interfaces in games – I’ll list 3 that I think are successful, and talk about why I like them. Different genres need different interfaces, so 3 may not be enough to cover everything, but I’ll try and talk broadly about what works well.
Firstly, diegetic user interfaces. Diegetic UIs are interfaces that exist within the world itself; this means that the player may see that they’re injured because their character is limping, or their clothes are torn. An example is Dead Space:
For those who haven’t played the game, the UI is famously entirely diegetic. The health bar is displayed as that line of lights on the player’s back; as the player loses health, the bar goes down and changes colour and when it’s empty, the player is dead. Similarly, the smaller semi-circle is the display for “stasis”, a resource in the game. The inventory is handled in real-time through a holographic display that the protagonist interacts with.
This is great for horror – not only is the inventory handled in real time (which adds to tension), but it also helps greatly with immersion. Since there’re no displays jumping out at you, it’s easy to forget that you’re simply playing a game, which is obviously great for horror. It’s used in other games, as well:
This screenshot is from Far Cry 2, which generally used a non-diegetic interface (ie. minimap, ammo display). However, the map was both real time and diegetic, which added to immersion and made for interesting gameplay mechanics. Having to check your map while you were driving ended badly for many, many players.
The final diegetic example above is from Metro 2033, which had (in my opinion) a fantastic UI. The game relied generally on in-world cues, such as the objectives existing on a clipboard (seen above). When on the surface, your remaining oxygen is displayed on a watch worn by your character, and the remaining durability on your mask is displayed by the screen cracking and breaking.
I think that it works well for immersion above all, which in turn is great for horror and story-driven games. However, I think there are quicker and more practical ways to do a User Interface, in my opinion. I don’t believe that a diegetic interface would work for something like Team Fortress 2 or any Mario game. For instance, I can’t imagine a way to display a score diegetically inside a Mario game, or how to display a scoreboard in a multiplayer game.
The next type of UI that I’m talking about is competitive FPS. I like them because they’re generally fairly simple, while still getting a lot of important information across quickly. Namely, I love the interface in Team Fortress 2:
The UI has slight differences in each mode, and the above screenshot is actually a relatively empty example. This is Arena mode – the remaining lives of each team are displayed at the top, with the status of the capture point shown at the bottom. Ammo and health are shown at the bottom right and left respectively, with a small area designated for chat. The chat area disappears if nobody talks for a certain amount of time, which saves on screen real estate.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is extremely similar, though it displays armour, selected weapon, remaining money and a minimap as well. I think it does a good job of doing so without taking up too much more screen real estate, though I do question if the mini-map could be placed somewhere else. I’m not sure where, honestly, but I know when I’m playing I spend most of my time looking at it (I’m not a good player). I think there’s probably a better way to display a minimap that lets the player look at it more easily and regularly.
On that note, I think that FPS games are one of the worst in the sense that they’re so rarely improved upon. I believe they do their job fine (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), but I wish more developers would experiment with the tried and true formula. If they don’t, we’ll never see an improvement, whether or not we need one.
Finally, MMORPGs. MMOs are typically very interface heavy, and they’re interesting to talk about. The first MMO game I played religiously was RuneScape, because I was one of the coolest kids around;
RuneScape isn’t necessarily the prettiest or best game, but it was the best free-to-play game around at one point. The interface has since been completely overhauled, but this screenshot shows what it looked like when I played, as far as I remember. I think it was fairly terrible, frankly – it takes up a ridiculous amount of screen real estate, and displays a lot of useless information. There’s no reason the inventory couldn’t collapse when it isn’t open, for example. They’ve since changed these things, but I haven’t played in a long time, so I can’t give an informed opinion of how it’s turned out.
The classic example, and the next big MMO I tried, was World of Warcraft.
World of Warcraft has an alright interface. While it displays quite a bit of information, it does so without taking up an enormous amount of screen real estate. At the time of writing, the game is about 10 years old and still going strong, but the UI has only received minor updates from Blizzard. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the UI is great – a lot of fan-made addons have been developed to replace, alter or enhance the Interface, meaning a complete overhaul honestly isn’t necessary.
It does it’s job, and it does it fairly well. I used to think it was pretty great, until I played…
This is a screenshot from Elder Scrolls online. This game displays all the same information much more concisely – obviously, it’s in keeping with the UI found in Skyrim, but with some MMO trappings. These two screenshots may not be a fair comparison, as the Elder Scrolls Online also shows a chat, XP bar and inventory, but the above screenshot doesn’t have them.
I think MMOs are in a tricky place, because they need to display such a large amount of information without taking up too much screen space. It’s a genre I think needs massive improvement by someone who knows what they’re doing. As I said with FPS games, there needs to be a drive to improve on these industry standards. I understand the risk – no small amount of money goes into these games, and several lives depend on their sales. Still, we’re already stuck into a rut with UI – this isn’t necessarily to say that the UIs are bad, just that at this rate there’ll never be an improvement.
When I first booted up The Stanley Parable and got to the main menu, I saw an image of a computer monitor; on that monitor was that same image repeated endlessly, like a hall of mirrors. The point here, of course, is that the player is also looking into a monitor in real life, which is also showing that same image. This kind of self-aware meta narrative is indicative of the experience that The Stanley Parable offers throughout. The game simultaneously criticises and questions video game narrative cliches and ‘tropes’, such as the notion of free will inside a predefined and finite virtual space, or whether there’s any real difference between victory and defeat inside a game, when each outcome has been predefined and calculated by the designers anyway.
While these points are certainly interesting in their own right, does The Stanley Parable manage to work them into a fun, interactive narrative? I’d say the answer is a resounding “mostly”. The game begins with a brief cutscene, showing the protagonist Stanley working away at his dull desk, in his dull office. We’re told that Stanley follows his orders day in and day out, but then one day the orders stop coming. Worse, all of Stanleys co-workers have disappeared. It’s here that the player takes control, and with the guidance of an incredibly well-voiced narrator, must get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the office building Stanley works in.
The game plays in first person view, with only two buttons – interact, and crouch. In my time with the game, I didn’t actually find a use for the crouch button, but the interact button is used consistently throughout. The aforementioned narrator is the players guiding force – with no interface or heads up display, the player must rely entirely on the world around them and the narrator for clues as to what to do and where to go. The Stanley Parable is not a puzzle game, nor an adventure game – rather, I’d define it simply as an interactive narrative. It’s a game about games, and tells a story that can only truly be told through this medium. In that sense, I believe it’s an incredible success – however, I’m not sure it’s necessarily ‘fun’.
There are several routes that can be taken through the office building and beyond, with each path leading to another branching route, eventually taking the player to one of the many different endings on offer. Each ending can be reached in a matter of minutes, but there are so many that the average player can be expected to spend a few hours on this game at least. This brings up the best thing about the game – the narration. On a repeat play through, I was following a path I’d taken previously. Since I’d experienced it all before, I was rushing ahead of the narrator’s directions. At a point, he stopped his usual narration and berated me for trying to rush through the game – playing classical music in an attempt to ‘calm me down’, while the door I needed to pass through stayed locked until the music ended.
The narrator in The Stanley Parable owes its success not only to the incredible voice work of Kevan Brighting, but due to the way it weaves into the players actions. At the beginning of the game, you’re told to continue through the office building and solve the mystery of your missing colleagues. Since I’d already kicked into my typical gamer mentally, I spent the first few minutes trying to open every door and interacting with everything around me, which caused the narrator to say that “Stanley spent the first several minutes fiddling with everything, for no apparent reason”.
It’s here that The Stanley Parable finds great success – the game is quite literally an interactive narrative. Early in the game, the player is presented with two doors. “Stanley walked through the door on the left”, the narrator calmly proclaims. Of course, as a player, you’re free to choose to do what you wish – meaning that if you’re anything like me, you took the door on the right. This causes the narrator to question Stanley’s listening capabilities, but continue to try and direct him to the correct path, which (of course) can be ignored again and again.
Inaction is a perfectly reasonable decision as well, with its own set of outcomes. The point that The Stanley Parable seems to be making is that no matter how clever the player thinks they are, no matter what decisions they make, they’re still well and truly trapped inside a finite and carefully designed world. There is no real victory and no real defeat – each is just another path designed to be experienced. Each rewards the player with new content and narration, with no path feeling as if it’s worse or better than any other.
The narration is usually hilarious and extremely witty, which really helps sell the cleverness of the game. I laughed out loud more than once while playing, and I expect I will when I go back to it. The simple controls make the game extremely easy to pick up even for people completely new to video games – however, that leads me to one of my major criticisms.
Put simply, people who don’t play many video games just won’t get it. They won’t understand what’s going on, and there’s a good chance that a lot of the narrative will be lost on them. If you’re not a big video game fan, try the demo – it’s different from the main game, so try it either way.
Otherwise, there’s no real gameplay to be had here, though I felt the fantastic narration and thought provoking questions more than made up for this. At times, the game was much too dark for me – I had to adjust the brightness on my monitor just to see where I was going, which often still wasn’t enough (something unique to this game, so far).
Still, I enjoyed my time with The Stanley Parable and I think other video game enthusiasts will as well. If you have only a passing interest in games, maybe give the demo a spin – this may not be right for you.
This post focuses on creative works that influence me that are outside the realm of gaming – things like books and animations that have inspired me and continue to influence my work, as well as the people that created these works.
Before I get started, though, it’s important to note that the TF2 level is still in the works – it’s just had to take a back seat recently. While it’s sitting on the back burner, it is progressing slowly, it’s just that there hasn’t been enough progress to warrant an update. There will be more to come, though.
Back to my influences – I initially found it difficult to think of any outside the realm of gaming, to be completely honest. It made me realise that I should probably expand my horizons outside of this industry. I don’t read as much as I used to, but I still found that books are a major influence. Namely, three that are very similar: Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.
In the case of Lovecraft, I actually haven’t read much, but I found “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” to be incredibly compelling.
The story focuses on a student who, despite multiple warnings, makes the terrible decision to stay overnight at the town of Innsmouth. Throughout the story, he is pursued by inhuman creatures, who are later to be revealed as half-human and half-marine creature. What I liked about the story was the initial mystery and creepiness of the town – I’m not sure I can explain exactly what it is, but there’s something I found incredibly compelling about Innsmouth. The story deals with themes of mental degradation, abstract horror and realms outside human interpretation.
When it comes to Stephen King, I actually find that more than his stories, I really like his writing style. Again, I probably won’t be able to clarify exactly what it is I like about his style, but there’s a definite level of empathy he creates, no matter how unrelatable his characters can be. It’s the way he combines what the characters sees and what they think – when you’re seeing the wold from the point of view of a particular character, the descriptions will change according to their particular bias and interpretation. It’s something I think a lot of writers miss – they write descriptions and interactions as a neutral third party (the author) rather than how the character would see it. I don’t believe this is necessarily bad writing, as I’m not exactly an expert, but the way King writes draws me in a lot more than most. I’d say this is personal preference rather than an objective improvement over other writing styles, but this empathy is the reason I like his stories so much, and is especially important for someone working in Games development.
Pictured Above: Stephen King, the offspring of Ron Perlman and Bill Gates.
It’s not all books from influential horror writers, though. Some of my influences are influential horror manga, in the case of Kentaro Miura’s Berserk series (I have a wide spectrum of influences). The story focuses on a man (appropriately named Guts) who hunts demons across an alternate medieval Europe. The story is absolutely no holds barred – there are some incredibly explicit images and themes, and a total lack of subtlety. What I love about it is that it’s the ultimate revenge story. These explicit horrible moments that are scattered through the story serve to get the viewer to support the protagonist Guts, despite that the fact that he’s a really terrible kind of guy.
It took about twenty minutes to find a slide without extreme nudity or gore., but that’s Guts pictured above. I’ll admit it isn’t the deepest story ever written, but it does attempt to raise questions about ethics, morality and pre-determination. Guts has been doomed to be sacrificed to Demons, and spends all of his time fighting against his fate (without much luck, to be honest). The series hasn’t actually finished – and the writer released about one chapter every two years – but I very much doubt it’s heading towards a happy place. What I like about it is the way it enforces empathy with the protagonist, who as mentioned previously s normally the kind of guy that you wouldn’t even want to talk about. He murders innocent people left and right (at least initially), but when compared to the villains he’s practically Ghandi. It also has great characters and more importantly, great world building.
As a massive nerd, another big influence to me has always been anime, everything from Pokemon to Ghost in the Shell. Specifically though, I found Code Geass to be incredibly. The story is set in an alternate future in which Britain never stopped conquering the world, essentially splitting the modern world into China and Britain (both of which occupy most continents). Also Europe, but it’s role is relatively minor in the plot. The story follows the bastard prince of Britain, Lelouch Lamperouge, as he attempts to grow a rebellion and fight back against Britain’s occupation of Japan (now known as Area 11).
Lelouch is gifted with the power of ‘geass’, which allows him to command anyone to do anything, but only once and only if he has direct eye contact. I found the story to be incredibly compelling, but more than anything I loved the ending. Without spoiling anything, the ending puts a massive twist on the entire series and changes how you think about certain characters, particularly Lelouch.
There are some major spoilers for Code Geass ahead, so if you’re at all interested in watching the show, avoid the rest of this paragraph. Towards the end of Code Geass, Lelouch has become the emperor of Britain, essentially controlling most of the known world. He achieved this through the use of a secret masked persona, known as Zero. Once he’s the emperor, Lelouch rules the world brutally, with an iron fist. He’s hated unanimously, but feared so much that nobody stands against him. The twist comes in the final episode, when his best friend assassinates him dressed as Zero – I’m really glossing over it here, but essentially Lelouch sacrifices himself to unite the world under a certain set of ideals and essentially brings about world peace. What I found so compelling about this is that it’s truly an act of altruism – while many characters sacrifice their lives, few sacrifice their reputations. Lelouch is forever remembered as a terrible criminal and a tyrant, and he knows this is going to happen when he sets his plan in motion.
I’m not sure I’ve managed to express what I liked about these stories so much, but I can’t help but think back to all of these when I start a creative project, in some capacity or another. I’ll be more than happy if I can create something that invokes the same response in someone (even just one person) as any one of these did for me. I also may have rambled in sections, but I think I got the basic point across.
I’m also sure there are influences I’ve forgotten – I’ll be sure to write up another post when I remember some. Another important thing to mention is that, while these are great influences on me, most of my influences are actually from the world of gaming, which I’ll save for another post.
I’ll be updating this blog a lot more frequently this trimester, and hopefully I’ll have some more news on my Team Fortress 2 map before too much longer.
Thanks for reading!