73 – #altgames and Fear of Twine

I wrote Zest with the help of lectronice and PaperBlurt and released it under the name Fear of Twine. We wanted to release under a band name of sorts, and after a few failed attempts decided that the potential confusion would be funny: Fear of Twine was the name of a Twine exhibition I curated last year. We talked about the idea of expanding it into a sort of loose collective, about other projects we could do together under the name–and if those went nowhere, it’s because we all got distracted by shiner projects.

(That we were releasing Zest in the Interactive Fiction Competition, which has a fairly complex relationship with Twine, was part of the impetus for the name: Never let it be said that Blurt, lectro and I aren’t cheeky.)

lectro and Blurt were the first people I noticed to use the hashtag #altgames to talk about their stuff. It’s a logical term: Indie and Alternative, in music, are two ways of talking about roughly the same aesthetic, and while genre scholars will certainly weigh in on the formal differences between the two–a conversation that, as a musician, I’ve had many, many times in smoky basements and will again until the day I die–for our purposes, they’re just different decades’ words for the same thing. #altgames comes with the understanding, as well, that Indie has become meaningless–it covers both Double Fine and bedroom games. There’s even a tinge of success that Indie implies–that, even if you’re not exactly making your rent payments, you’ve got enough Patreon subscribers to help you afford to go to GDC where you show off your game to people who are interested in it.

One of my big challenges has been keeping my eyes on my own paper; I don’t know if this is a universal thing, although I suspect it might be, but it’s certainly something I have in common with most of my friends. It seems everyone I know is either bitter or naive, or, hell, both. I don’t know anyone who’s making a Minecraft clone but I see so many of them in Early Access on Steam and I can completely imagine their mindset: This is popular, I can make a better one and make even more money–and, inevitably, Why am I not as successful as notch, that piece of shit in his goddamn mansion.

I mean, can I point out that most of my friends are Twine devs or otherwise working in extremely niche forms? There is no money to be made in niche game forms. And every single one of us is bitter: About the lack of attention, about our relative successes, about the fact that we aren’t satisfied with what we’re doing. And that you’re a heretic if you express doubt. I remember I said, at IndieCade 2013, that “there’s no money in indie games” and three devs I’d been having a pleasant beer with suddenly snapped: What about Minecraft? What about Braid? What about Fez? It’s considered almost offensive to question the premise that anyone can be a successful game dev. But it’s a lie. Anyone can form a band, but you’re probably not going to be even a minor rock star. How many of us with creative writing degrees sold that novel? How many famous actors do you know? How many high school football players play professionally?

Indie games feels like a club we’re not allowed into. And we are tired of seeing the same people insist, time and time again, that it’s not a clique; of hearing people with dozens more followers than us talk in interview after interview about the lack of attention paid them–and when you consider how unusual notch’s case is, that even the most successful #altgames devs aren’t making much money at all, you can’t blame them for feeling like they’ve been sold a bill of goods even as they’re selling it right back to the next tier. Let’s stop bullshitting ourselves and fucking admit it, cards on the table: No one in indie games is happy or satisfied or having a good time.

I mean, really: Are you?

The arguments about #altgames that I woke up to this morning on my twitter feed: What I am hearing are the sounds of yet another meaningless pissing contest–Game scene politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low. My understanding is we’re arguing about people arguing about whether or not they’re #alt enough, about the money that you can or can not make in #altgames, about who has the right to use the term. To take a cue from Orange is the New Black, we’re trying to strangle people so we can sell mascara in prison.

I’m thirty two fucking years old and I could not find this funnier. Over the past few years  I’ve meditated a lot, smoked a lot of grass, gotten a prescription for antidepressants, dropped acid and yelled at my reflection in the mirror, made some new friends–it’s been a lot of work to get even this much perspective, and I still find it remarkable how awful I feel when I think about stuff like GDC or whatever. I don’t have it in me to do the con circuit, I don’t even want to do it, if being a game developer means doing that shit all the time then I’m taking my ball and I’m going home.

Here’s the secret: Everybody feels left out. Nobody is happy. I’m friends with a bunch of people at different levels of success, guys making Twines in their bedrooms, people whose games have won awards–and they’re all lonely. Maybe it’s inherent to the game developer experience. There’s an alienation to developers that a lot of musicians have too–that most artists have. You don’t get good at playing guitar unless you spend a lot of time practicing. Hell, if I had been the type of person who wanted to go to parties and who got invited to them, I wouldn’t have had the time to learn to play. If you love games enough that you want to make them–and that your games are idiosyncratic and niche–then it’s not unlikely that you spend a lot of time alone, playing or writing. That’s what I do.

There was a bunch of all of that going around when I did the Fear of Twine exhibition–an element of I’m gonna throw my own party and it’ll have better music and a dog. I’m a little heartbroken at everyone who feels left out of the indie scene, of #altgames, of Twine, and I see how upset everyone is that the indie scene, that #altgames, that Twine completely ignores them.

So the only way I can think of to clean up my street corner is to basically open up my house and pray no one breaks my TV or anything. I’ve got this Fear of Twine name and I want to do something with it. I want to see if I can turn Fear of Twine into that loose collective in a way which is inclusive. I think there could be some basic guidelines about how to credit things and stuff like that, but beyond that, if you want to declare your game as a Fear of Twine game, you can.

In terms of intent, I’d like this to be a club in which membership is entirely self-determined. I don’t want people to be arguing over whether someone’s game is FoTty enough or whether they’re really a member–fuck that. I want this to be something that you almost agree to a certain behavioral standard–in other words, if another Fear of Twine member gives you the secret handshake, you’re friends.

This is, of course, utterly impossible, and is either going to fail from not enough people being interested or from too many people doing it and this going the way of all groups–as Carlin says, after a while groups of people formed around a common purpose start to get these nifty hats and armbands. I reserve the right to shut this down when it gets to the armband phase. It’s an experiment.

What I’m thinking in terms of guidelines are something like this:

–It’ll have to be in Twine. Naturally. Whatever that means is up to you, I don’t care about version or genre or anything, but it’s just got to have been created with Twine at some point and running in an .html file at the end.

–I’d like to restrict this to unreleased works, just because that makes more sense to me logistically; if you’re expanding or rereleasing something, we can talk.

Now I will be making an exception for Zest, since that was released under the name. I’m going back and forth about whether I want to include the games from the FoT exhibition or keep that as a separate thing; I might also want to talk to Blurt and lectro and see if they want to include some of their stuff…I guess basically I’m saying that initially there will be some exceptions to this rule–I’d like to start with a few works in the catalog so it doesn’t look empty, frankly–but it’s my house and I’m allowed to do that and you probably won’t be one of them. We can still be friends.

–If you want to put a game under the name, drop me an email. I’ll be putting up a main page on fearoftwine.com that’ll list all the games, maybe give them a catalog number so it’ll seem fancy, maybe put up a description, I’m a little fuzzy on this right now but I’ll come up with some general info.

–I don’t want to host anything but I’ll link to it. Drop me a line if you change where it’s being hosted.

–I don’t care if this is something you’re releasing for free in a Dropbox link or if it’s something you’re selling on Itch. I will, of course, not take any money you make.

–I’ll work on the language, but there will be need to be something along the lines of “Fear of Twine presents…” or “by Fear of Twine” on the title page or first screen, and authors credited separately. I would like there to be an About page with a link to the fearoftwine.com site, but this is all boilerplate that we can figure out later.

–If you’re a Tweeter, I’d probably like you to use the #FoT hashtag as much as humanly possible.

–I’m serious about the secret handshake, though. I know a lot of people on Twitter and in the community feel very–uncomfortable around strangers, let’s say. People worry about randos in their mentions, people worry they’re not good enough to talk to other people–it’s stupid and understandable. So I guess I’m gonna be open to anyone who approaches me, and I want it to really feel like if you’ve got a game in Fear of Twine, that you can talk to anyone else who does. Maybe it’s as simple as “you both know me, now play nice”. Consider it a letter of introduction.

–I’m not going to be curating this in any way beyond updating the list. I don’t want to be in the business of deciding what does and does not belong on the list. Listen: If you’re sending something in, make it a serious entry, don’t be an asshole or an idiot, just be an adult. You know how you’re supposed to act and so do I. So let’s act like that, I guess.

–Showing a version of this to a couple people, the idea of a forum was floated around, as well as some kind of moderation.

Like I said, I don’t want to be in the business of gatekeeping, but at the same time I can totally get that we don’t want troll entries (at the same time as I realize that the concept of a “troll entry” is a nebulous term and that while I think there’s a sniff test for them, I’m not sure if that’s enough). I know I full stop don’t want to do something like “well we can have the members vote on it!” because, well, you know, and I *really* don’t want to do something like finding a subsection of people to make these decisions, because that’s falling headfirst into the problems we’re trying to avoid. Any thoughts?

A forum will be easier–if there’s enough interest, I’d be happy to look into one. There’s a few options: We could do an entirely private forum limited to people who have Twines in the collection; we could do one limiting FoT people to post but which is open for people to read; we could have a completely public forum, a public forum with a FoT section–there’s basically a lot of options; either way I would probably assume this would be something for the future–nothing worse than a forum no one posts in–but it’s something I want to keep in the back burner.

 

That’s basically where my head is at on this. Don’t take any of this as set in stone or anything, but is this the kind of thing any of you readers would be interested in? Do you have any ideas, or spot any potential problems I can’t?

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67 – Zest

I’m lazy; Zest has been out for months, as part of the Interactive Fiction competition, which has been over for a few weeks now, and I’ve been able to talk about it, but I’ve just let that time go by.

Well anyway! My game Zest, which I worked on with lectronice and PaperBlurt, is now out, and you can go play it here. The reaction was as mixed as I expected; some people really got it, some didn’t, but I think it touched the people it was supposed to touch and pissed off the people it was supposed to piss off, and that’s all I feel like saying about it right now. I hope you enjoy it.

61 – Planescape Torment club?, Zest update, Gothic II

So I’ve never played Planescape Torment because I’m obviously a terrible person. I didn’t play a lot of CRPGs growing up–missed Ultima entirely, played and hated Might and Magic II, didn’t play Fallout till college, have never gotten past chapter 1 in Baldur’s Gate. Weird, because I can tell you pretty much everything about every JRPG released in the states till about two years ago. Torment is one of those big holes in my gaming life: I’ve played through a chunk of it, but it’s such a big Thing in some ways that I’m nervous to approach it.

Well, I’ve reinstalled the game and I’m going to be playing it in the next couple of months, and based on some preliminary talk on Twitter, it seems like there’s a lot of people who’d be interested in some kind of Book Club thing. Now, I don’t know quite what form this should take. I don’t want to do the “okay let’s all play this much of the game this week and all discuss it”, particularly because it seems like one of those sprawling RPGs that isn’t conducive to that sort of thing. Maybe it would be enough to just encourage a ton of people to play and write about this game on their own blogs and we can link each other. Perhaps Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance could be convinced to give up some real estate in his forum for discussion.

Either way, if you’re interested–let’s say July-ish?–let me know, and if you’ve got an idea about how this thing could work, please, I’m all ears!

–In Zest news, the basic flow of the game has been outlined. The flow of the game is going to consist of  about a half dozen “time blocks”, each of which essentially has a different “deck” associated with it. The player’s stats influence a degree of randomness–we’ve actually been throwing out the tern “narrative roguelike” to describe the basic feel. My current goal is to come up with a couple dozen basic cards in all the separate categories; once that’s done, I’m handing it off to Lectronice and PaperBlurt who will respectively finish programming the card system and come up with some preliminary CSS. I’m shooting for a hundred cards int he final version–like TWEEZER, I want it to be a game that encourages many very short play sessions. We’re targeting an early July release–that’s part of the reason I’d like to do Planescape around them–so watch this space.

–Again, for a game with comparatively few verbs and stats, there’s a lot to learn in Gothic II. I keep learning new tricks for playing it–where I need to stand in order to pull certain enemies, the timing on how to chain certain attacks, what stats I need to increase to effectively kill things–and there’s plenty more. I still haven’t begun to figure out whether there’s a more efficient way to buy and sell things.

At this point I’ve done a broad survey of the bulk of the island–there’s a lot of stuff I certainly haven’t found, and I’ve only really seen the surface of most of it, but I’ve been, at some point, on every corner of the map, even if there’s only about a quarter of the game I’m able to navigate without trouble. What keeps striking me is I’m just on the first *chapter*.  There’s a lot to see and do in this game, and not all of it consists of doing quests–again, it’s the kind of game that’s rewarding just to poke around in.

–My save–which I’m going to get to as soon as I finish typing this post and will play until it’s time to go to work, I love this fucking game–has me in the middle of an area I have never been to in the middle of the night. Night is scary–or, rather, it’s more threatening than the rest of the game is, and the rest of the game is pretty threatening. While I wouldn’t say Gothic ever becomes a horror game, the sense of vulnerability never quite goes away. The game is like Dark Souls–I’m sorry, I’m sorry!–in that even beginning-of-game enemies can kill you at any point if you’re being too cocky. ANd while Dark Souls has much better creature design, there’s something hilarious about how my Gothic II character ran, panicked, from two chickens–who never fucking give up pursuing and who run fast–and accidentally pulled aggro from two boars, only to run headfirst into a lizard who killed him instantly. Props to the sound department, too: Each enemy has its own cry, and usually–there are a ton of trees–you end up hearing them long before you see them, and so it’s one of those games where the second you hear an animal howling at you, you either relax, though not completely, and maneuver into a position where you can be at the advantage, or you realize there’s two of them and you can’t take on two of them, or it’s something you’ve never heard before and you just run the fuck away.