The Origins of In Extremis – Part Two

Last time, we were on the very start of the development of INX as a student project, after years of gathering ideas and inspirations. Of course, hardly any idea survives the world outside of the mindscape unchanged, and the same was true for that project. Thank God for that.

The total time for the development of the conclusion project was exactly one year, and back then, I tough it was more than enough time to realize this apparently simple project (classic rookie mistake). Defining my ideas, I knew i wanted to make:

. a modernization of the shoot’em up genre

. using interactivity to convey meaning

. employing multiple, and sometimes clashing, aesthetics

. and finally, that the project could hold its own as a full game, and not only as an experiment

The first step was immerse myself in the genre, absorbing all possible influences, mechanics and ideas. I spent months basically playing only shoot’em ups, from arcade classics to console mainstays to doujin curiosities, and even borderliners, like the shooters of the arena, grid, and top down varieties. This helped me to create a shoot’em up taxonomy, that would quite helpful further down the road.

And in those not-so-ortodox shoot’em ups were where I found some of my greatest influences. Like Jonathan Mak’s Everyday Shooter, a rather brilliant piece of experimental game play that is also a damn good shooter. Probably my favorite thing about the game is how it changed its rules every stage, but not in a way it became too obscure for the players. Also, those rule changes, alongside with new art directions and dynamic sounds, convey an extraordinarily convincing sense of mood for each one of its stages, without resorting to being overtly literal.

Another remarkable find was Jeff Minter’s Space Giraffe, a psychedelic re-imagination of Tempest, that is actually not like Tempest at all. Like Everyday Shooter, it is content to be a game, rather than a smarter-than-thou art experiment. But it establishes, as you go through its 100 stages, a vocabulary of its own. Because of the visual overload, it is necessary to pay attention to sound cues and other subtle details; also, the mechanics are constantly evolving, with the same enemies reacting in new ways in different moments. This makes playing Space Giraffe akin to learning an alien language; both tremendously taxing and rewarding at the same time.

In the last part, I mentioned the first idea for INX were for its weapons and stages to be based and feeling and emotions. Later, after playing games such as these, I realized that not only this was terribly corny, but also subtle as rhinoceros in a china shop. Why limit yourself and the players to one single, heavy-handed metaphor, when you can make something much more ample and meaningful?

Of course, some of those ideas remained in the game, but the direction was established to something that could encompass several other types of thematics, and also, in the end, permit more different gameplay strategies. Rather than making rock-beats-scissors-beats-paper system, the direction was established so each weapon and stage would represent different, distinct concepts (or bundles of concepts). The interpretation of the interplay between stages and weapons, of course, would also be up to the player.

(Also, this first concept was also very similar to another student game, Solace, a smart shmup metaphor for the five stages of grief – but that game was a one-off experiment, whereas i wanted to make something more complex and open-ended).

But what concepts were we talking about here? Well, I harbored certain interests, not only in games, but in music, film and art, which I was eager to combine in interesting, interactive, ways. Not only that, but my own personal struggles, which kind of were inspiration to some other past projects of mine (like Voo and The Strange Politics of Intimacy – both cripplingly unfinished, be aware). Why not shmup stages based on the visual vibrancy of jazz, the toe-tappiness of Broadway musicals, psychedelic trips, the crippling fear of the unknown, the depths of depression, and lustful, sweaty sexual fantasies? That certainly sounds more interesting than fire worlds and ice worlds, anyway.

So, slowly each stage ended up being planned around a specific aesthetic, reflected both audiovisually and though its mechanics. And the weapons were now named “aspects”, because the warlike connotations of the word “weapon” drove away from what they truly where, reflections of the player psyche, and tools to overcome the challenges presented to them.

Finally, that was one last area that needed a plunge of research before getting my hands messy with code development: virtual sensation in videogames. Since the whole point of the project was to express ideas through interactivity, such means had to be dissected and analysed before experimented with.

Rather surprisingly, there is a bizarre lack of research and literature about this topic. While there is gonzo stuff like the famous talk Juice It or Lose It or Tim Rogers’s Frictionary, i could not use it in an academic works (well, I used it anyway, going as far as categorizing each type of friction Mr. Rogers colorfully described in a handy, shortlist). Eventually, though, I found the resource I had been looking for: Steve Swink’s book Game Feel.

For those who don’t know, Swink’s book is an extraordinary investigation into the building block of what constitutes the sensible experience of a videogame. While before reading I though most sensation comes mainly from physical inputs, how they are processed, and the audiovisual “juice” they generate, Swink also mentions how the game rules, its spatial context, and even its symbolic expressions and narrative choices.

The author does so by establishing the idea of a perceptual field in which there are six points through game feel can be created, those being: Input (the controls available, be it a classic gamepad, analog stick, touch screen or motion-sense), Response (how the game interprets those inputs), Metaphor (how the game system presents those inputs in a coherent manner), Context (the visual context in which those inputs are interpreted by the system), Polish ( the “juice” – screen shakes, particles, sound effects, and other tricks that sell the metaphor – Swink calls Polish the “strained arm” of the industry, and he could not be more right), and Rules (which constraint t and color the player’s perception – think how a game can became more urgent if you have less life or a timer running out).

Through Swink comprehensive system, I could sell the idea of how I was actually was going to make the lofty promise of “interactivity-as-meaning”. Of course, it was not absolutely adequate to my project, since, for instance, Swink proposes that games with looser physics have more ground to player expression, and by definition, shmups need to have very strict, precise input(inertia is inherently at odds with the accuracy needed for the shooting and dodging that defines the genre). Of course, that meant i had to work within the limitations I created, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.

(Turns out I ended up finding a for-real shmup that used virtual sensation rather spectacularly (including citing Rogers Frictionary as a reference), the deeply weird, wonderfully named Motherfucker Galaxy – do yourself a favor and play this, for all that’s holy)

Though one thing more troubling than that was the fact that Swink never mentioned the expressive possibilities of game feel; as in, how that feel could be tuned in order to create meaning. Instead, he proposes a method for good-feeling games, which is also aligned with the goals of Tim Rogers and the Juice dudes. I ended up calling this “sensible hedonism” in my research, and, in retrospect, this has a strong reason of existing; I mean, think on the reception of games with unconventional control schemes (think classic Resident Evil, or P.N.03, or God Hand), or even still, games that create “bad” feel in order to make a point (like No More Heroes or Tales of Tales games). In a way, players and critics alike have been deluded by sensible hedonism into thinking critically about sensation, only in terms of how “good” a game feels (not to mention the troubling trend in modern game criticism of valuing representation over interaction, but this is a subject for another post).

The final unifier of my theorical backlog was an unexpected source; a blog post from a fellow called Matthew Gallant, in which he rather cleverly analyzed the subtleties of shmup Jamestown juxtaposing the idea of narrative arc graphs with the swings of intensity of using mechanics in a arcade game, and also the directed high-and-lows of shmup stage designed. That was pretty much mind-blowing for me, as it brought together traditional narrative theory (something I had a little background with) with the sensibilities I wanted to explore in my game (and also being another mark for Shmups Are Important Dammit!).

In the end tough, all this backlog of information accumulated from years of reading Gamasutra and affiliates ended up being overkill, and more than i could possibly need for composing my game in an academic setting. At least, it helped me overcame the (more expected than real, mind you) academic conservatism of my teachers over the idea of a game as a conclusion project. With that in mind, I went towards building the game.

Next, on the final part of this overlong and long-winded origin tale: the anatomy of a game mechanic, the reasons why every first project need to be ridiculously ambitious, and why even all the hard-work in the world can’t bend the timestream.

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