In Tongues

It was one of the first warmer days of spring. As much as there is a spring season in San Francisco. I was meeting a friend in SoMa, the sunniest part of the city and also one of the more visible sites of class warfare between trendy tech start-ups and the homeless. I rolled up my sleeves in vain hope to regain any semblance of a tan.

Sitting on distressed wood benches, my latest activities soon came around in the conversation. I expressed anxiety over becoming a fulltime developer and how that changes the kinds of games I can make. I’ve made conceptual pieces across different formats of play that aim to be as accessible as possible. Who cares about these games is telling: social justice spaces, art and academic circles. Outside of my friends, the press ignores my work and many indie spaces pass me over for some more familiar within those fields. If I was to make games my career, I would have to change.

Most of the peers I asked for advice pointed me towards Unity, the Twine of indie games if you will. I have a lot of problems with indie development culture, and Unity represents a lot of them. Mainly a buy-in to technological progression that steadily closes its gates to people outside of tech fields and devalues aesthetic expression not associated with contemporary ideas of polish. My mantra is to make games that others could feasibly make, to express myself after spending a short time with the tools. Coding, modeling, animation, these aren’t analogues for typing on a keyboard to write, putting pencil to paper to draw. When I made Mainichi, the tools had a low enough barrier for me to get my design out of my mind and working in the game. I’ve tried to code, and it is the most unnatural thing for me to do. It would only be a means to an end, not an active tool for expression. I don’t believe in the sentiment that wishes everyone should learn how to code, and applying that sentiment to games only furthers its homogeneity.

My friend, while I chomped on some sort of tex-mex salad, brought up a common critique of the DIY movement I’ve been wrangling with for a while: by rejecting the need to code, aren’t I restricted in what I can express by those who could? I probably made some mildly indignant reply, considering my entire life in this city feels subject to this gap in knowledge. But either way, he was right, and I didn’t have a good answer. When RPG Maker had a feature I didn’t want, I relied on community scripts to get rid of them. If I wanted to use Unity in a new and interesting way, I’d need someone else to do it for me if I don’t learn to code.

A couple weeks later, I was intrigued by Brandon Dillon’s mentality behind his project Hack ‘n’ Slash over at Double Fine. Instead of spreading the need to code, he thought instead we should be teaching people to hack. It was a more approachable and broad version of pleas for systems thinking education, and it encompasses a lot of what play is about. Hacking is a mentality instead of another language, it’s a way of understanding and relation instead of a whole other artform. It made me think about how there is a call for analyzing the code of games to extrapolate meaning, but not so much what the tools themselves are saying, and the conversation a creator is having with it. Coding aims to be total, to create everything in its entirety or to brute-force functionality into an already existent engine. If you look at the from-scratch tools many creators use for their games, they are completely utilitarian and specific to that game, often reported being a mess and not meant for anyone besides the creator. Hacking instead focuses on the partnership between a creator and their tools as separate agents with their own agendas. Like choosing a particular kind of brush for painting, a particular kind of lens for filming.

The irony for me is how much Hack ‘n’ Slash rests on gaming monoculture to communicate this players. When asked about using Zelda as an inspiration, Brandon said that’s his experience and therefore expression, and hopes other people would do similar things that would reach out to others. This sentiment left me conflicted. One of the reasons we have such an outreach problem in this field is because the culture of video games is one that turns many people away, and games like this ride on a nostalgia of the same demographic of people who’ve been playing, and probably entertained the idea of making, games already. The underlying feeling made sense though. Just because his experience is a commonly seen one doesn’t mean it can or should apply to everyone’s wishes, as I’ve seen people react to my work that way. After a few beers and whatever that French phrase is for having a weeks-late comeback, I argued with company that the solution is needing more weird, personal, accessible game-making tools. To broaden our artistic culture is to include people who make tools and give room for expression through them.

Tools already do this, though not intentionally or with a focus on being expressive of the tool author’s perspective. For instance, RPG Maker implies you will be making not only RPGs, but a very specific kind. It makes features that were common in popular 90s JRPGs easy to implement, whereas with Game Maker, creating a textbox is not a one-click affair. In Mainichi, I was able to speak to these JRPG conventions, but I don’t find commenting on genre the most interesting thing tool authors can do.

These more unique tools wouldn’t be all-purpose, not organized by genre but rather creating a world and seeing how other minds inhabit it. This could easily be extrapolated into a game analogy, where the tools are a set of rules, and the designer will express themselves through those rules that the tool maker could approximate to some degree, but overall wouldn’t dictate. This implies we’re already having conversations with our tools, but they might not be very interesting ones. I also imagine tools could start informing game design choices on a more visible level. For instance, games like Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds and Patatap have inspired me on how to move away from the usual controls we give players without being completely arcane about it.

This interests me as a designer because of the added layer of communication and interpretation. The decision for what tool to use isn’t purely utilitarian anymore, and players could also view the tools to understand the game and is creation process. Implied by that is also accessibility, and it’s an important value. Ease of access is necessary both for the applicability for DIY artists and the players of those games. People wouldn’t need to know how to code in order to understand what happened, rather their hacking sensibilities would reverse engineer, toy with, and bend both game and tools to derive meaning.

I want to encourage the tool makers out there to jump in and participate in the DIY culture shift that is going on. Not even just participate, but help it grow and sustain itself. Right now, I see the pressures of mainstream games bearing down on us all. The games made from tools like Twine or Game Maker that look more like the mainstream are more likely to get respected, while others are quickly cast aside as unremarkable. That isn’t to say there isn’t any truth to either of those receptions. More this is all that can happen if we only have tools as a means to an end instead of another avenue for self-expression.

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