Friday, June 19, 2015

The Story of Sun Fleas - Lema's Music Box

Since the first maps were drawn circa 2012, an unexpectedly large number of recently-sentient puppets, appliances, machines, curiosity seekers, outcasts, and animatronic robots have been making pilgrimages to Pumpkin Town. What was once the best kept secret spot for those who truly believed became a cartoon version of the legend of its own mecca. Perhaps it was their fault, broadcasting that all are welcomed here to stay without giving a thought to the logistical nightmare caused when many thousands took them seriously all at once. Many of the recently-arrived had little to no choice. It was go to Pumpkin Town, or face a desperate and dangerous life on the road. It's difficult enough to be a human in such circumstances, and puppets and appliances recently endowed with consciousness were faring far worse. They certainly couldn't stay where they were, though some maintained a vigorous devotion to their former owners, if they had any; concepts of 'the Master' flourished in a few subcultures. They spoke among themselves about the twisted pumpkin magic which was bringing them all to life, but none could discover the source of it; only swapping around rumors mixed with philosophies for some peace of mind and insight here or there. Pumpkin Town had first flourished, then began to choke as new and larger buildings, built to combat overcrowding, started to violently interrupt the sky. Exhaust fumes from some of the inhabitants created a cycle of pollution. The Pumpkin Town Council tried first to adapt to the times, then to recapture the past as it spiraled away. A meme sprang up among the radio communities on the south side and before long, the newer generation was referring to their home as Pumpkin City.

The humans wandered in, as they usually eventually do. First were the craftsmen. Watchmakers and inventors, collectors and tinkerers, and the like. In the beginning, they had come for their own diverse reasons. Some were eccentrics on the fringe of human society, and offered their services to the machines in exchange for belonging in a new community. Some just wanted to set up shop and make a living. Later human arrivals had more sinister motives - to exploit the machines and learn the secrets of the magic which made them come alive so as to harness it for their own ends. This was in part motivated by a paranoia regarding the machines, which these humans referred to disparagingly as the things. They could not be trusted; how could we know they are truly alive, or self-aware? The means by which they come alive must be dangerous. Better dominate them before they dominate us. They were eventually joined by an entourage of bankers and business types. No humans truly knew the source of the twisted pumpkin magic, although some claimed to, and others made great strides in the right direction. To the credit of the Pumpkin Council, however, they did not gain a disproportionate measure of political or economic power. There were relatively few of them. Making any kind of contact with the sentient objects of Pumpkin City was overwhelmingly frightening and outlandish for most. The widespread panic that had ensued as hundreds of thousands of appliances, machines, puppets, toys, and other objects began waking up and disappearing was not easily forgotten in the public consciousness. Among other humans, those who were trying to operate business ventures inside the city were effectively shunned and shadowbanned, requiring them to appeal to the black market instead.

Alcemen Sotus was an inventor who lived in a small human neighborhood of the city. He had come long before the mad rush, as a teenager. His father, a laborer, had died while working on a large suspension bridge as Alcemen was entering college. His mother had run off long before that. 
Alcemen had had the good fortune, though, of being privy to his television coming alive when he was a small child. He had awoken in the night to a low scuffling sound, and found it pushing his desk chair over toward the door in order to hop up and open it.
"Hey," the television had whispered kindly, "hey, no hard feelings or anything. We had some fun together."
Too shocked to be properly terrified, Alcemen thought he was dreaming.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Oh, um, Pumpkin Town," the television replied confidently. "It's actually not far from here. Uh, north by northeast if I'm not mistaken. Follow the ridge for a while. You wanna go?"
Alcemen shook his head no.
"Okay, alright. I don't know if I get cartoons out there anyway," the television shrugged. He hopped gracefully up onto the chair and bumped the door handle, swinging it open. "I'll see you around, kid," and he sort of waddled out the door and down the hall. Alcemen could hear a soft thumping as he descended the stairs, and watched him bump along the sidewalk from his window until he was out of sight. Naturally, his father didn't believe him in the morning, thinking instead that the set had been stolen. Alcemen couldn't quite believe himself, but there was no denying the missing television. By the time these types of things started happening en masse, he was already well sunk into his new life, and his father wasn't around for him to say 'I told you so'. The experience stuck with him like tough epoxy, and after dropping out of college several days into his first semester, Alcemen left on a hiking trip across the mountain ranges where he grew up in an effort to rethink life. One afternoon, in a state of existential shock, had been lead to Pumpkin Town by a cheerful, rusty stove who had discovered him setting up his camp and insisted he have better sleeping quarters.

Alcemen had received some insurance money from the accident, and coupled it with his self-studied engineering knowledge and sharp mechanical mind to set himself up in a house on the outskirts of town. He lived in solitude, working on ideas for devices (in those days he obsessed over designing better safety gear for crewmen), and repairing the sentient machines like a doctor. He regarded them blithely but cautiously, unsure of their true nature, and often of his own sanity. He had indeed seen some die. Having always been a bit peculiar, Alcemen eventually found his freedom in their world, and preferred it to the one he had abandoned. He grew to dislike human society outright,, and enjoyed the fact that it was difficult for anybody to find him way up here. Pumpkin Town was still off the map at that point. No one came knocking, besides the occasional object in need of some repair, and Alcemen sustained himself on his patch of land for many years.

In his early forties, Alcemen met the woman who would become the mother of his child and simultaneously break his heart. She was a young transient named Ioa (pronounced, ee-oh-ah). At a young age, Ioa had run away from an oppressive home life, and coupled street performing arts with mischief and thievery to get by as she traveled around. Her puppets and and some of her props had come to life one afternoon during a show and terrified a group of people to the point that they ran her out of town and tried to burn several of the puppets. Objects endowed with consciousness due to twisted pumpkin magic always hear the call of Pumpkin Town and Ioa chose to join them on their journey, looking forward to living in a secret place beyond the reach of the human world that was her enemy. The shock of such a thing happening did not overwhelm her excitement and general willingness to accept reality-breaking things. Pints of a liquid drug called Komolap, which gave its imbibers a mildly addictive high coupled with weak temporary telekinetic abilities at the cost of a few brain cells, soaked her early years. Alcemen was well known in the town by the time she arrived, and the two eventually met. They shared similar backgrounds as deliberate waifs, and a similar distaste for the company of normal society. They could console each other and share experiences of living in such bizarre times. Alcemen saw her as a miracle entering into his lonely existence, and at the beginning, Ioa saw him as the only person she had really managed to connect with in many, many years. Not very long after their meeting, Ioa became pregnant with their daughter, Lema; and not very long after Lema's second birthday, Ioa, feeling increasingly unstable inwardly,  ran away leaving behind the child.

Alcemen's sorrowful reaction to the loss of yet another person in his life was counterbalanced this time by Lema's existence. She needed him even more than he needed her, and in fact he was well enough off to be able to take proper care of her by himself. She was his darling, his lifelong devotion, his companion. Late at night he would tinker with inventions for her, creating toys, puzzles, and music boxes. She did not, however, favor the dolls he would make, preferring instead to play with the sentient ones they would meet from time to time. He rather resented this and as she grew, Alcemen began to ruminate more on the contrast between her and the things. The sentient objects did not grow or age. They did not need to eat. They still slept, which Alcemen found both fascinating and absurdly unnecessary. They existed in a wholly alien perpetuity; though still subject to injury or death they did not appear to experience pain intensely, if at all. Currency, barter, and occupation were still concepts their society hung onto for some reason, albeit in a much more lackadaisical way. He repaired them out of life necessity and out of eccentric curiosity. He had helped them maintain longer lifespans than he could ever hope to; some of the old computers had explained that they were several hundred years old, but were they really alive? He knew Lema was alive. That she had a mind, a spirit (whatever that was), and a self-awareness. He was alive; but the concept itself seemed to be dissolving through his hands. The fascination with the objects that had started in his boyhood was inverting and eating itself.

The question plagued poor Alcemen, yet outwardly he remained solid. His machine-building interests now turned toward automatons, both as an effort to answer his riddles and an effort to provide toys and distractions that would gently guide the curious Lema away from fraternizing too much with the sentient objects. He became protective of her, encouraging her to spend more time at home; as an excuse procuring musical instruments for her to practice and adopting her a stray kitten whom she named Muffins. Pumpkin Town was on its way to being fully discovered by now. More and more objects were arriving, expanding the area of the town and crowding in on the sparse human settlements which were also springing up. Alcemen was unaware of the widespread panic that was beginning back in the human world, but could have guessed it if he'd cared to. His concern was that Lema grow up with what he considered to be a proper understanding of life. It bothered him greatly how much more easily she accepted the objects as true beings. He had once shouted at her all the way home when he found her and another girl at a nearby river, showing a vacuum cleaner and a small gaggle of clock radios how fishing worked. His limited engagement with the citizenry of Pumpkin City as a type of doctor now became almost nonexistent.

Determined to impress upon Lema that the objects were not alive in the way that she was, Alcemen, now fifty-six, set out to demonstrate this point by endeavoring to at last create an apparently living machine of his own, letting the fact of his making one show that there was no actual life inside; that these things were "coming to life" and gaining lifelike abilities through an explainable mechanism, not this nonsense about twisted pumpkin magic. The machine was to simultaneously be a gift for her thirteenth birthday; she did indeed love his inventions so. And she admired him, demanding and stoic as he could be at times. He sought an analogy in the form of Muffins the cat. Alcemen considered Muffins to represent the defining split between humans and the objects. Plants and animals to him were like objects that were actually alive, though lacking self-awareness, and objects were like animals who weren't even alive or aware at all, despite appearances. In his mind, he would be able to illustrate concept this very clearly to her by comparing Muffins and his flawless, lifeless, mechanical counterpart. Lema needed to understand that they were humans living inside a society of nothing more than strange machines.

Alcemen began spending longer and longer nights in his workshop studying Muffins, making anatomical drawings and prototypes. He built skeletons and electrical components; synthesized a type of fur out of the bark of a hoavi tree. The work was more complex and irksome than anticipated. Early designs behaved too crudely, and lacked the sophisticated fluid motion of the living cat. Alcemen swung between desperation and determination as his designs improved in small leaps. Finally, a week removed from Lema's birthday, he had constructed himself into a stalemate. The mechanical cat was nearly perfect, not quite good enough for him, but good enough to achieve his first priority of a gift for his daughter. During trials, Muffins had been startled and aggressive toward the other, but when they were in the same room it was difficult to tell which was which. That much was accomplished, yet Alcemen had not proven to himself that the sentient objects building an increasingly larger city around him were undoubtedly mere robots of bizarre and clever design. In spite of so much struggle to create a cat, Alcemen had gleaned very little clues as to the inner mechanisms and processes by which the objects appeared to mimic life. He was feigning confidence the effectiveness of his lesson to Lema, yet remained convinced of its' truth. 

Late one night, as Alcemen was cleaning some pieces of the tail, he again heard a low scuffling sound. One of his voltage testers slid itself off the high shelf and bounced onto the desk.
"Wooah, hey man, wow, what a trip!" The voltage tester exclaimed. "Hey, I like testing voltages and all but I'm going to step out for a little bit, okay?" It started loping itself toward the open window. Alcemen stared back at it, then crossed the room in a few brisk strides.
"Look, pal, I don't want any trouble," said the voltage tester.
"What are you, really?" asked Alcemen
"Um, I'm a voltage tester, I, uh...I don't really know what you're asking," it replied, considering itself with a few shrug-like movements of its wires.
"How did you do that?" demanded Alcemen.
"Do what?" replied the voltage tester.
Alcemen picked up a large desk vice that was sitting nearby. He considered its inanimatcy. He felt its weight in his hand. He thought about Ioa and his father. Then, in one swift movement, he brought the vice down on the voltage tester. It barely made an utterance as it was crushed. Alcemen stood for a long time with his hand holding down tightly, like a man with a very dangerous spider caught underneath an upturned jar. He thought about Lema. At last he lifted up the vice. The voltage tester lay smashed beneath it, unmoving, unspeaking, lifeless.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The New Mechanics of Super Mario Maker

It seems very unlikely that Nintendo's upcoming 'Super Mario Maker' will be anything other than a phenomenal smash hit. Apart from being obvious for obvious reasons; the impending success of the game is also evidenced by the vast and enthusiastic Mario hacking community that already exists. ROM hacks of Mario games are numerous even on the reproduction cartridge circuit, and a GUI-based utility for hacking SMW called Lunar Magic has been popular for years. Amazing adventures like Kaizo and Brutal Mario World have come of this, but we now have proof positive that Nintendo is taking the concept of Mario level creation to radically new heights. Here, we'll look at the modifications which break tradition with current Mario gameplay paradigms, and examine a few of the implications that will have on level design. This information is based solely on what has been revealed to the public and is of course incomplete in scope; as well as peppered with my own speculations. Nonetheless, as we prepare to watch Super Mario Brothers dismantled to its core and reassembled before our very eyes, it's best we get thinking about this now. Especially as players, and especially as designers too, as fans; come as you are. I feel that we think of the Mario world as our own; growing up with it and developing such a personal bond, imagining and pouring over it for decades when at last we are handed the keys to the factory. This means crossing a line that can't be uncrossed; Mario will never be the same. The old ways die, and new ways are born from them as replacements, changing forms like swapping powerups on the same player. That is the way of it, and it can't be stopped, in any case.

I'm counting on the fact that you're all familiar with what's old, so what's new? I'm only going to touch on new gameplay elements here, rather than describe and review every single thing we know about the game so far. Mario Maker seems to begin with a few core principals:

- SMB, SMB3, SMW, NSMB represent the four different 'worlds' or physics engines that serve as a template. This does not appear to be anything like direct emulation; the older titles seem to have been rebuilt from the ground up. Let's hope the physics are replicated flawlessly; I expect nothing less from Nintendo. It may be that the physics are identical across all skins, but I would almost rather them tweak it to be representative of the source material. It makes sense to assume that users will have to stick with one skin for each level, although it may also be possible that players can switch between skins on the fly while playing. Being able to do so would naturally add extra dimensions to gameplay. Situations could be created that require the player to switch between physics engines in order to perform a certain move at a certain spot. This seems to lend itself to a disorienting and unnecessary amount of chaos though, and I personally doubt that this will be an option. Pick your style and go with it.

- There is, effectively, no more sprite limit. This is something that might be initially overlooked. Even in fan-made homebrews, the old Marios were required to maintain level designs that were limited by the processing power of the system; but this is now quite literally a thing of the past. To me it looks very uncanny to see a screen of Mario 3 populated by way more sprites and animations than I intuitively know the programming is supposed to be able to handle. There will be no lag, even while dozens of bullets whizz past your head as you navigate a gauntlet of spinning fire sticks. This will immediately, and rather harshly, push up the skill ceiling of Mario physics. Without a doubt, there is always room to improve one's chops on the currently available Mario games, but that progression is still achieved through training in a box of limited size. Imagine if the rules of hockey were changed to allow there to be as many pucks in play as you want, or several more goals. Removing a limiting structure (actually, just replacing it with a much larger limiting structure) naturally creates new sources of pressure on one's abilities which could not have been there previously, thus demanding adaptation. Robert Frost once described free-verse poetry as being like "playing tennis with the net down" but in fact there are an infinite number of games that can be invented to play in such a circumstance and many of them are probably more fun than tennis anyhow. Notions like this seem to me to be the guiding principals behind Mario Maker.

- Enemies can change size, stack, fly, and swim, and all of them seem to be available across all skins and situations. This means we can have grinder wheels in SMB1, as we saw during NWC. We can have underwater Thwomps. A Bowser riding a goomba with a bullet bill cannon on his head that shoots boos. Enormous winged fish that swim through the air. Piranha plants that jump out of lava, wait, I think they already had that. I'm just rambling because I'm stoked; you get the idea. Enemies can also be put into boxes and be made to generate from pipes or fire from cannons. This alone blows the lid off of the can holding in the fan-made Mario community; as it can be tricky to hack enemies into places where they're not supposed to be using current methods; but Nintendo doesn't even pretend like it's stopping at that. There looks to be a wide and balanced mixture of enemies to use, but I doubt everybody and their brother will be included. Extra packs of stuff and maybe even a Mario 2 skin will probably be DLC at some point.

- The entire physicality of gameplay has been injected with a heavy dose of complicated chaos molecules. Environmental hazards previously relegated to specific areas such ice blocks, treadmills, trick platforms, fire, and instant-death blocks are now completely global and inter mixable. Platforms, boxes, and doughnut blocks can also be given the ability to fly. Moving shells and enemies can now bounce off springs and jump blocks. Springs can now face either vertically or horizontally. Vines can be made to grow in any direction. Pipes can infinitely generate enemies or prizes. Lakitu can be made to throw all kinds of stuff at you. Any enemy can be made larger, and it might be the case that larger enemies can have special properties such as taking extra hits to destroy or being able to smash through blocks.

- Several new-ish mechanics have either been added, or appropriated from elsewhere in the Mario universe, such as the use of a spiny helmet which seems to destroy enemies and a buzzy beetle helmet which appears to protect you and can also be ridden on as it's moving (which is absurdly radical.) There are at least two new kuribo's shoes, and a skinny mushroom which seems to make Mario extra thin. You can ride around in Bowser's clown ball for crying out loud. And keep in mind, all of this can be stacked. You can be kuribo's shoe fire mario in a cloud shooting fireballs in a lag-less environment. The dream is real.

That's just about all the information about new gameplay that I've managed to glean from watching the materials. Point combos appear to work normally, but of course this will have to be thoroughly tested. The score goes up to 100 million. (Challenge accepted.) Now, let me hit you with a couple more observations and ideas.

- It looks as though you might be able to customize the type of goal as well - the most recent trailer shows SMB3 Mario touching an axe. Perhaps this is just a mechanic that can be added to create boss battles. Surely they haven't forgotten about bosses. It would be nice to see Boom Boom make an appearance alongside the giant Bowsers we already know are waiting. Perhaps we'll get the koopa kids sooner or later.

- Is there an SMB and SMB3 Yoshi we haven't seen yet, or is he not part of the globally transferable set of elements?

- There might be some new types of skins for platforms and blocks that haven't existed in a Mario game yet, like some metallic-looking stuff in a recent trailer.

- My guess after studying what's been released is that the levels will have limited space. You have a certain size area to use for your creations and cannot extend it. This makes sense for a lot of reasons, most obviously the amount of memory needed to store and upload everything. However, this also eliminates some creative possibilities. You cannot make a level that is just an enormous vertical climb, or a huge horizontal run with perfectly timed jumps that goes on for miles. I guess this is alright and I'm not too disappointed because it's necessary. Maybe there will be a way to adjust the given area for a level into a new shape to accommodate non-linear designs.

- Warp pipes and doors: how do they work? You can obviously set them to take you between different areas of the same screen, but could we use them to connect completely different rooms? Furthermore, if we are given a little map editor, can we make levels with secret exits? Do we get keys and keyholes like in SMW proper?

- Where are the invisible boxes and doors? We'll need them. Can we still make P-switches activate ghost doors?

Ultimately, the question is not 'what can be done' but 'what can you do with it?' S
o what kinds of things will actually get made? From the most recent trailer, it seems that levels can be uploaded globally, and that some kind of ranking system is being implemented. This, I feel, is a great move, as I'll explain. There are a few basic types of levels that we'll probably see being constructed almost immediately, apart from the standard formula of "get to the exit":

- Poorly designed ones. Not to get down on anybody's fun or creative prowess, but be prepared to slog through an endless amount of insane, mismatched nonsense at all levels of difficulty. This is why I think a user-feedback system is going to be important and help the game endure.

- Levels that are art pieces. Huge images made out of blocks or what have you. 

- Levels that are designed with a specific meta-goal in mind. This is something I'm particularly looking forward to. Just running through the level naturally isn't such a big hassle, but the challenge is to figure out how to press the most points or to speed run it. Also be on the lookout for levels that are generators or machines of some kind (especially coming from me!) We'll be seeing levels that are less like obstacle courses and more like spaces to play in, places to create all sorts of interesting gameplay conditions. The first thing I'll be doing with Mario Maker isn't going to be designing levels per se, it's going to be designing situations, uncovering the permutations of combinations of elements that exist.

- I must say, the little tracer that appears on the screen in edit mode showing the trajectory of Mario's movement is the coolest, most helpful thing on the planet; but please playtest your levels anyhow.

It's important to start thinking about good level design now. I suggest investigating Mario hacks that already exist and identifying why they work or don't work; there are great examples of each. With so much hype and attention being drawn to this, the stage is set for anyone to step up and make something that will go down in history. In my next article, we'll dive into principles of Mario level design a bit more in depth, and study why Kaizo Mario World is a flawlessly designed deconstruction of what it means to play video games in general.

Post script: a few things that have come to mind since posting this.

- Auto scroll levels. Can we make them? If so, can we manually set the speed and direction of the scroll? Can we have it change direction mid-level?

- Things on lines. Line-following platforms can be drawn, and enemies appear to be able to be set to move along lines as well. I really hope they include Fuzzies. I love those little guys. It would appear that chain chomps, at least, factor in immensely. They can be attached to drawn lines and their central post will move along that line.

- If the mechanics are global across all skins, what does that mean for the powerful spin jump? Does it only work in skins where it already did? SMW level design can be greatly enhanced by forcing players to abuse the fact that spin jumps bounce off things that would otherwise kill them. We've seen footage of NSMB Mario spin jumping safely across a row of enemies, so it must be in there somehow.

- Some obstacle elements might have been omitted entirely for now. The sliding yellow walls from SMW are conspicuously absent.

- Mario 2 Maker. Zelda Maker. Metroid Maker. Mario Kart Maker. General purpose game maker. I kinda hope they don't include a custom sprite maker and just do a regular old Mario Paint instead. Too many custom sprites turns off a lot of the charm of Mario for me. Why not just make a whole new game at that point, when there's hardly anything left? It might be cool, however, to have some limited element of control over the backgrounds, and pallets and things. As long as it doesn't twist Mario out of recognition, I'm alright with it.


- Auto scroll levels can be made. Seems that you can even make an area without it, then a pipe to transition to an area with it.

- It has been explained that the player will need to be able to beat his or her level before uploading them. Great. Uploaded levels will also feature a completion % over all players and a difficulty ranking based on that. Another good thing. Not only does that put limits on the amount of insane crap that will be generated, it also gives you a really decent assessment of the skill levels of other players and designers. If you want to make a brutally hard level, you best be able to beat it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Fractal Edges of the Formal System: A Case for Art

Earlier, I defined the pseudo-physical space of a game as 'the entire body of theorems that can be generated via button inputs in the formal system of the code'; but that needs elaborated on substantially so I'd like to spend some time talking about formal systems and theorems in and of gaming. The console is a computer that reads a program then outputs to the television, and each cartridge's motherboard is a formal system that generates theorems. However, "theorem" in video games can be defined in a few ways depending on one's perspective. Video games are organized upward from raw code in a meta-symbolic fashion, ultimately meaning, as I pointed out, that what we call the game exists nowhere except your mind. The programming doesn't know what the actors and situations in the game 'are' or what they 'are doing'. It just knows what to do, and that is the crux of it. Theorems of gaming exhibit a Russian-doll-like nature, and it's best to move from the outside in.

It must first be established that there is a functional difference between what sorts of states the programming can generate in the electrical circuit of the motherboard, and what sorts of states the motherboard is capable of being in with at all, given its physical characteristics and the way the computer interacts with it. I call the set of these the electrical-sate theorems - the set of all possible states of the motherboard given its physical composition and construction. This defines the glitch space to its very edges and includes anything that can be created using voltage through the cartridge in a nonstandard device, with or without visual output. As I'm sure you realize, referring to the flow of electricity through devices like this as distinct 'states' and 'theorems' is more metaphor and rhetoric than it is true information about hardware function and electrical engineering. Being made entirely out of electricity, these theorems are whizzing around at an alarming speed, and are subject to all that quantum mechanical fun-stuff that would be better explained by an actual physicist. All that is required right now is that we establish a solid language that we can populate with vocabulary useful in our attempts to describe the -meta, and these particular metaphors serve here to illustrate the notion that the programming is written on top of a more basic and essentially more capable physical medium. Consequently, our foundational language benefits when we relegate theorems to their appropriate level of origin. The flow of electricity through the cartridge serves to activate the programming, which follows its own rules. Without this component, the entire system exists in the mu state; neither on nor  off. 

As the game's programming follows its written procedures, it generates states which are much more concrete, so to speak. Programming can be thought of as a huge math problem that's always shifting around, with each frame (itself made up of many thousands of clock cycles), providing a distinct 'equivalency', and we can call these 'programming theorems'. Be careful to differentiate this from the logic, and derivative rules of the programming, as are not themselves theorems, merely the channels which enable the creation of theorems; as the ditch which contains water is not itself the river. And the visual frame is only representative of the actual theorem. A programming theorem in some sense also contains all the information of the mechanics, which are functional in the logic but meaningful only to us; (similar to the way the number 9 contains information about the number 3.) And although input is the means by which players interact with programming theorems, these inputs go on the supply-side of the equivalency along with game mechanics, collision detection, RNG, and other forms of procedural-type logic.

Player input has, of course, been given special priorities and powers as a variable; the only thing out of the multitude of factors going into each theorem that the player has real control over. Gameplay behavior may be able to influence further programming elements, and thus exert more overall control on the creation of theorems, but this exertion comes from a meta place and isn't actually present in the code. That is to say, the game never truly has any idea that you are tricking it. All it knows is rules and how to call for variables to plug in, hell, it doesn't even really know that you have control over any of them; the game does not know that it is being played by anyone at all.

Snip away all those sets of these programming theorems which don't necessitate or imply button input and you wind up with the game's pseudo-physical space; the entire body of theorems that can be generated via button input in the formal system of the code. However "in" the system is not entirely accurate. Indeed, for most operations of normal play, even very tricky ones, the player remains in lockstep with the generation of natural programming theorems. However, it is more correct overall to say that that pesudo-physical space also describes theorems created using the code; ie the glitch space. Not only defined by human ability, some forms of TAS and AI also operate in this domain. In fact, the goal of TAS could be chiefly summarized as explorations to map the farthest boundaries of a game's physical space, and some AIs may be pushing slightly farther still.

The rules for generating theorems are designed to be a multiple-solution puzzle. Beginning with some basic theorems the game has ready, players use their control over the button input variables to cause the generation of new theorems. None of these theorems have intrinsic worth, but some might be said to be not-valuable if they cause the elimination of player input as a variable altogether - a game over or something similar. Otherwise, it is we the humans who have given a particular meta-framework to these proceedings. We have have so designed each particular formal system to add up to programming theorems which imply narrative and mechanical structure to our intelligence. This is where the game both stops and starts existing, where it drastically changes form in the blink of a moment, as ice sublimating. This is the place where your imagination takes over. 

When exploring and using glitches, you are stepping into or through the electrical-state theorems. That is, you are using your powerfully weighted input variable control to create equations that force the programming to call for some type of impossible "number", breaking its own rules by breaking the very structure of them. These electrical-state theorems are a possible configuration of the electricity running through the motherboard, which is necessarily accessible through the programming theorems but not within the set of them. Crashing Super Mario World with a cloud glitch provides an excellent demonstration of this. Remember that this 'exit' from the programming is achieved ONLY through button inputs. It's another theorem created, and it's as close as you can probably get to witnessing firsthand the imagination of a computer.

The difference between a glitch and an oversight is that glitches generate electrical-state theorems out of disparate elements of the code, and oversights merely skip between disparate programming theorems without leaving the scope of them. My own infinite shell trick exploits not a glitch but an oversight. Oversights are loopholes and glitches are wormholes. We step out of the realm of what is supposed to happen into the realm of what can happen in order to achieve this or that. Sometimes it just happens.

But about this notion of programming theorems having no intrinsic worth; well, they don't unless we turn on our meta-framework. What this means is that we accept the game as a real space, and shift our focus to the in-game details. You know, play the game. When we do this we're suspending our knowledge of the game being drawn as a single evolving state, and discussing in detail the subroutines that put stresses on button inputs. As humans, we are woefully slow. Even a very quick tap to a button can seem like eternity to a computer. From the console's point of view, the game we're playing is happening painfully slowly. Thus we realize that programming theorems are moving by much to fast for us to exist inside just one. Sometimes this is possible when the game freezes or has limited elements, but generally we are moving through strings of theorems at sixty or more per second. What makes sense then, is to isolate bits of programming which have special relevance to our 'real' game and create one more smaller class of theorems for them - game theorems. Score and level number are the two most obvious examples, but there are many others. You can turn whatever you want into a game theorem by adjusting your perspective of the meta-game. That is to say sure, you could play the game as intended, but your rules are just as relevant and real and generative as theirs because all systems of meta-games are merely superimposed over the player input / theorem generation loop. The picture now becomes complete; the game of button input is to direct the programming theorems into producing a desired game theorem.

In short, and I must make this incredibly clear, in a loud, bold declaration - game theorems are things which players CREATE! This is so essential. Playing video games is a generative art which does result in real things. Admittedly fluid and vapor-like things (as music can be shown to be real air molecules vibrating, etc), but they are real nonetheless. You have caused the electrical-state theorems to be arranged in a distinct and specific way - you are sculpting with electricity Accessing these theorems requires thousands of individual button inputs executed with proper enough timing, as a large model building can be built from individual toothpicks; as a rock carved with thousands of well-articulated chisel strikes. Each strike is important, and adds up to a greater whole which no longer contains them. The demands imposed on button pressing skill force the creation of a sufficiently complex, cohesive, and adaptable system of techniques. This is why I say video gameplay is art.  You are taking a medium and arranging it using skill to produce a tangible result. It's just that in this case, electricity is the medium. So fragile and thin, you have it for a long as you'd like before the power goes out, electrons held in suspension, placed there by your will and your energy alone.

It's a neat feeling.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Atari the Haiku of Games

Atari the Haiku of games
as with the haiku
stress of limited form
places all focus on core structure
the response is immediate, felt
in a puff of dissonance and harmony
Deep or wide
funny or incorrect
it is there to be counted and assumed
Existing and extrapolated in synaptic pulse
An electron-cardboard diorama of the Void
from a palm-sized rectangle of space

Sunday, March 1, 2015

All sound, as now

Clutter and solitude in the early spaces white
and blue and silk paint.
The smells irreflexive and felt, as unobstructed

The swoosh of the neighbor's dog or
the snare spackle bathwater hiss in the rain drain.
When more various sound
went to the word place
of the pre-hardwired brain.

Ominous / amiable fractal possibility so-forth character pickup.
Exchange lesson with the content of what is
made possible by no interpretative / context faculties.

After growth, built backwards downwards and inwards from the first

Encrypted in the syntax of memories
the reception of physical language taking place,
as now

Wearing the skin of elegant, phaneronic symmetry.

Short 1

The happiest moment
without context.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Controller Articulation as the Source of Felt Kinetics in Video Games: An Introduction

Gameplay begins with the realization that there is no game. That which we might point to as 'the game' is merely programming that instructs an electron gun inside a CRT monitor to fire particular sequences, which are in turn affected by opening or closing little switches with your fingers, i.e. the buttons of the controller. Nothing more. In fact, the console doesn't even care if the television is on or not. It's perfectly content to run the game in that mysterious, deep darkness where computers dream. The game exists in your head, it is you giving meaning and direction to the things which are happening. This is a world of arbitrary symbols coupled with representations of physical rules that can be spoken to by wiggling your thumbs around. Video gameplay is not, at its core, visual, although a high degree of acuity is indeed demanded by the practice in many regards. As one reads the words of a novel, one reads the programming; and in much the same way as a musical instrument is played or a trick of stage magic performed, the video game is played masterfully through sleight of hand.

This is an attempt to establish a vocabulary for video game playing techniques, as well as a means of perceiving video games as fundamentally tactile. Ideas about in-game elements like strategy and secrets exist in a separate sphere. This is not really a how-to, nor is it an attempt to over-complicate things. If this all sounds familiar to you then good, we're all getting somewhere. These are discussions that didn't exist and I wanted them to so I made them. Stop me if you've heard this one. Go ahead and call this a series of personal essays. In this first bit, I endeavor to explain the pseudo-physical reality of video games, the perception of control objects as real, and input duration as the source of felt pseudo-kinetics. That's a wonderful foundation from which to talk about meatier things. As well, I hope to establish some definitions that will come in handy later. It's also good to keep in mind that notions about 'what the programmers intended' have no place here currently.

In what is, essentially, the frame-by-frame flip-book of the game, depth of physical experience is simulated with motion and collision of images, supplemented by audio; indeed there is no other way. We are interpreting our control image on the screen as a 'symbolic player', but it is important to remember that the program is always drawing the entire screen as a single unit with interacting meta-parts. (All symbolic players are made of the code, and thus intrinsically tied to each other no matter their perceived degree of separation.) In this same manner of interpretation, we must also realize that we are within what can be referred to as 'symbolic laws of physics'; designed only to mimic what we see in the world or, in other cases, thwart and mock it. These symbolic laws come in varying degrees of rigidity, and are mostly supported by visual illusions - i.e. walking into a solid may only give the illusion that it is truly solid. The pseudo-physical space of the game describes the entire body of theorems that can be generated via button inputs in the formal system of the code - all that is possible. The pseudo-kinetic space loosely refers to those particular theorems that are useful to gameplay, so called 'physical moves' - all that is practical. This having been established, it now becomes convenient to drop the prefix pseudo- when referring to the physical environment inside the game; it is implied.

The kinetics of player control are felt and described by the duration of button inputs, and I refer to this principal broadly as 'articulation'. Naturally, the shortest duration of input is a single frame, possibly less, and indeed a discrete number of frames could describe any input. For our purposes currently, it is not necessary to slice things up so precisely. What is important, is to think about duration in the physical act of pressing the buttonsConsider that there are, in fact, infinitely many ways to press a button.

Three main lexicons of controller articulation, listed hierarchically, are: squeeze, tap, and roll. These are simply ways of holding the controller and pressing the buttons. Proper tactile gaming begins with hand placement on the controller, but since this is different for everyone, there is actually no 'proper' way. Use this vocabulary as a jumping off point for creating your own style, not guide to copy. 'Squeeze' is the largest and most common technique; involving keeping constant contact between one's fingers and the the buttons. 'Tap' is mostly self-explanatory. 'Roll' refers to the larger ramifications of the classic 'double flap' technique, involving rolling one's fingers across a single button to tap extraordinarily fast. It is important to use the correct technique for the situation. By maintaining constant contact with the buttons, tighter control over the input duration is achieved. When jabbing at the buttons, or through sloppy hand control, inconsistencies and delays begin to occur. Practice by getting a very good sense of how far down the buttons on the controller press. Really understand how much pressure you're applying with your thumb. Squeeze a button, release without letting go, then try to squeeze it for exactly half that long; twice that long. Tap at different frequencies, with different fingers. Relax and maintain constant contact; the squeeze motions you make to depress a button reverberate throughout the entire plastic body of the controller and are felt everywhere in the hands.

The 'jump' mechanic is an easy and familiar example. The maximum height of a jump can be explored in two ways simultaneously - visually, and manually. With your eyes, you are judging relative distance on the screen. With your hands, you are establishing the particular articulation required for that jump. It is of critical importance that these relationships be felt, not merely 
perceived. Imagine the control object is real, and scan it for properties such as weight, friction, and momentum. This is a thought experiment that helps give meaning to the feeling of particular squeezes. A heavy jump will feel heavy in the way the button gets pressed. A large amount of friction can be felt in the responsiveness of the d-pad. Musical ideas such as 'beat' and 'tempo' apply to button articulation as well, because input durations exist in solid and explore-able relationships to each other. Cut the height of a jump by cutting the input duration. You will not have time to think about it, the player must be able to feel the difference naturally.

There is a particular time signature in each game that must be played with the hands and not the eyes. It is not unlike playing a musical instrument. Each note has both a pitch and duration, and rhythm is the essential structural form. The guts of mental training for video games involves being able to separate and recombine the actions of one's eyes and hands, and thereby discover and explore a deep, meditative type of zen. To move before the eyes see and see the way the hands move. The ultimate practice is to develop muscle memory nuanced enough to adapt to increasing degrees of subtlety demanded by either the game itself or the meta-game currently in effect.

But I think that's enough to chew on for tonight.