My First Twine is a randomly-generated scifi-horror detective thing (of course!)

I’ve been meaning to get stuck into Twine for a while but had been putting it off until I had a real idea to work with. I’m a big fan of randomly-generated flavour text, and I’d been messing about with the theme of memory-hacking in my writing for years. In We’re All in this Together you play a “neuroscope” operator in a near-future London. There is a plague spreading which causes some sort of psychotic breakdown, and its your job to read the memories of your “patients” and quarantine those whose memories seem… iffy. The memory read-outs are presented to you as little stream-of-consciousness type poems, and if you are unsure you can “re-scan” a patient, at the expense of using up more of the day’s energy. alibi The way it works is as follows. The game has one rather long list of phrases which represent “everyday happenings” in the city. If the “patient” is infected (based on a random 1-100% chance, depending on how well you’re doing) then an addition list of phrases gets added, which are the “tells”. They mostly relate to desperation, feelings of aggression, and icky black goop dripping off of everything (because I’m edgy, hell yes). When a patient is scanned with the neuroscope, four of these one-liners is delivered to the player. The tension lies in the fact that, because it’s shitty near-future London anyway, it can be hard to tell what is a hallucination. In the above image, the two passages are as follows: Not infected: “The Big Smoke crawls / Lo-teks around a garbage fire / Warm tea with friends / Spat gum into a passing drain” Infected: “Lingering smell of rotting fruit / Skin beneath fingernails / Incisor meets a shoulderblade / Dub bass from a window up high” In the infected example, the first three phrases are drawn from the pool of “infected” memories, whereas the last one is from the regular memory pool. Next task will be to make it more “gamey” by adding and tuning the resource-management elements, making those “memory pool” lists longer to avoid repetition, and possibly add conversations between days, and events that might change a few things in the memory pool (for example, a

riot breaking out, or the nature of the virus changing after a certain number of days). I’m thinking about dropping that to three phrases at a time. Might make it more poetic, and more challenging potentially? You can try it out here. Probably, unless I change the title and then this link will probably die.

Coding in the Classroom


A good overview of some of the issues facing computer science in US schools – still very UK applicable even as CS becomes a core subject (supposedly from KS1 upwards)

Originally posted on SocioTech'nowledge:

One need not look to superstars such as Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates to justify reasons for using code and programming logic in the classroom. There’s plenty of literature that illustrates its positive learning outcomes. Coding in the classroom is linked to improved problem solving and analytical reasoning, and students who develop a mastery of coding have a “natural ability and drive to construct, hypothesize, explore, experiment, evaluate, and draw conclusions.”

But there are other compelling reasons for integrating code in the classroom.

Reasons to Teach Coding

1. Coding is a new type of literacy.

Wired Magazine reported that reading and writing code is the new literacy. Those students who master it are better prepared for a technical revolution that spans cultures and language boundaries. That’s because coding isn’t just a language. It’s a way of thinking about problem solving.

2. Coding is a tool to improve…

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Designing Without a Genre Template: Beatopia (a game about building beats and defending cities)

The game I’m currently working on is something I’ve had kicking around in my brain for a while. I like city sims and pretty much any game that involves some level of building, and I’ve been mulling over how to incorporate this with a drum machine in some way. So here’s something I started working on in March which I hope shows some promise.

Beatopia is designed for mobiles, and is a mini-RTS/city building sim crossed with a drum machine. It’s been a challenge to make because of the ways that the drum-machine format constrain what you can do.

beatopia 1

The whole thing started with a 4×4 isometric grid. It’s 4×4 so we get a total of 16s. Drum patterns can be split up into smaller increments but this felt the most manageable. The “pulse” as I’ve called it, starts in the left most square, and moves right, then comes back around. In the image below, purple squares represent bass drums, cyan/teal squares represent snare drums, and orange squares represent hihats. This means that the beat in the above image goes: BM-ts-CLAP-ts-BM-ts-CLAP-ts.

The next stage was to work out what each of these color-coded tiles would *do* in the context of a city simulation. My initial idea (and I’ve managed to retain it) is that Beatopia is a 80s-90s styled cyberpunk city which runs on electronic beats. (Maybe there is some creepy subtext about the population being controlled by music? See final version for pretentious Theodor Adorno quotes)

So here are the (tiny) sprites for the tiles, which are now “districts”. Note that the first four were the initial base for the game and the two on the right were added in later (I’m keeping this log chronological so I’ll explain those further down). I tried, to some extent, to keep the buildings resembling the instruments they play, so for example the orange buildings play hi-hats and resemble a revolving restaurant building – which looks kinda like hi-hat cymbats.

Orange: financial district – produces money and pollution

Pink: environmental – reduces pollution in neighboring districts

Teal: security – reduces crime in neighboring districts


Money – crime – pollution. The way each of these “works” in the game has changed drastically since I designed the sprites, but they are still the three key elements of the game. As hi-hats were played by the city/machine, the player accumulated money, but clouds of green smog would also gradually appear on that district and to a lesser extent its neighbors. I wasn’t sure how to handle “crime” yet, but I felt it should be instance-based, rather than a numerical value (as I had done with pollution).


The above image shows a brief experiment where I was toying with the idea of having the player drop buildings in in-time to the beat. It was janky and I hated it, and I had really set out to make a more relaxing “5 minute train journey” type game. So I threw it in the bin and shouted “begone horrible build!”. (also those colours – yuck!)

beatopia topdown

Then I had a bit of a breakdown feeling like the isometric wasn’t working in the small-screen mobile phone context and that it would be too fiddly to accomplish what I did. So I spent about 2 hours working on a top-down version and people I showed it to went “nope don’t do that”.

This seemed like as far as I could take the game without deciding on a genre and a set of conventions that went along with it. I needed a way to ensure that there was some sort of strategic meaning to the building placement. So over the course of a week or so the game evolved into the state you see below.

beatopia skirmish

Orange districts produce a coin each turn (work the beats-per-minute of the current level: meaning faster = difficult but with potentially higher scores) plus some pollution. Pollution has a very direct visible effect; slowly killing nearby player units. Pink buildings clear pollution. Worker Drones are built at your HQ (the white building) and collect coins (they could fight in the first version but I’ve since made them passive and added a separate class of Enforcers). Glitchers (the red skulls) represent anarchic gangs who wanna take your coins and generally mess with your city. They initially appeared randomly but now they come in waves, as they do in Tower Defence games. This also allows for a nice back-and-forth between combat and building time, which is accompanied by a shift in music; when no enemies are on screen, each bar of beat is accompanied by an ambient chord randomly picked from a pool of 7, whereas when enemies are present, this chord drops out and is replaced by a funkier set of bass notes.

The whole thing started to lean toward a mini-RTS/defense game thing, and I think I’m happy with it this way.

The green buildings became the equivalent of “houses” in an RTS; each one lets you build an additional 2 units. Units are currently built instantly but I will put in a timed build-queue in future too. These little constraints are so bread-and-butter in strategy and it felt like something was missing without them there. Adding the Residential districts as a 4th buildable district-type also gives the player a little more of a puzzle in terms of how to use the available space. Residential districts also produce pollution but at a slower rate than Financial.


So what of blue/teal buildings? They’re still snare-drums, which means we want to them to be important and expensive and to require good strategic placement. I always thought the blue/teal color had the strongest associations with law enforcement etc. So now, these buildings are Armories which recharge the shields of nearby Enforcers (see the little dude with the additional blue bar over his health in the .gif). Enforcers with a shield will attempt to engage Glitchers, and they will flee to the nearest Armory either when a wave of Glitchers has been defeated, or when their shield is depleted.

That’s it for now. I had a ton of other stuff to do on it before it’s even remotely playable. There’s currently no lose-state and no way for the Glitchers to actually disrupt your city, beyond taking coins and destroying Workers and Enforcers. That will be next on the list, and then I’ll move onto making a HUD that isn’t crud.

The below shows a ring of 12 districts. This potentially allows for a level/beat to be in 12/8 time signature. This means a sort of “galloping” feel; like try counting 123/123/123/123 quite fast and you’ll get the idea. One of the coming challenges will be to see whether changing the layout of the available districts really adds any strategic variation to the game. Or whether I should just keep it to 4×4.

beatopia 128

Procedurally Generated Kids’ Apps – is this a thing?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about apps for kids, looking into the market and considering what I can possibly bring to the table there. I’ve got a three year old and Baby Unit Two on the way, and I’ve been mulling over the idea of making some interactive story-book things as a way to hone up my minimalist design chops and also potentially make something which is going to provide some passive income.

Most games I’ve tinkered with previously rely heavily on randomization to produce narrative content – for example a shop where customers have random(ish) traits, names, needs and biographical backgrounds. When most people hear “procedural generation” the obvious example is usually Minecraft, where the landscape is what’s being produced differently each time. But PCG can also be used to create the actual puzzles for the player to solve; such as DragonXVI’s entry for ProcJam2014: Inquisitor – a medieval “whodunnit” where the victim, murderer and other details are different each time.

In the context of interactive kids apps, PCG seems like a way to add additional value through replayability. A plausible business model seems to make a story/set of puzzles which change every time – use that as the premium app – and then release the always-different version as the paid app. Nothing in an interactive kids’ book would be as complex as generating terrain (I’m not sure if they even constitute PCG!) but some examples I’ve thought of are:

  • The player has to put 4 tools into 5 appropriately-shaped slots in a tool kit. A different tool is always missing, and has to be found in the next scene
  • The player has to build a robot using different objects for the three sections of body. They are provided with 6-8 items drawn from a pool of 12-15. The robot they have made is persistent through the rest of the story.
  • A sight-seeing “walk” through an area with a narrator character, with animals/things which appear along the way (picked from a long list) each accompanied by a “what is this called?” type multiple-choice question. The list would be skewed to have more unusual animals/objects at the bottom end, so that the game can keep track of progress of how you’re doing and adjust accordingly.

This is mainly a brain-dump kind of post but feel free to let me know if there are any apps you think I should check out.

Gloomwood: sketching out adaptive music ideas

Originally posted on BossLevelVGM:

Woo, a graph! Well, not really a graph, just an audio timeline from FL Studio. I made this as a mockup of how realtime-adaptive music could potentially work in Gloomwood. The overlaid lines represent the volume of each track, controlled by an in-game variable.


The bottom track, for example, is the walking tuba you hear at around 0:20, representing a police constable passing close by. It’s a bit of flavour and tension, and potentially a way of alerting the player if they’re about to do something nefarious and haven’t looked around first.

At about 1:25 there’s a version of the entire track rendered through a reversed-echo amp model, which gives a sort of twinkly “lots of spirits crying” effect; this is represented by the third (light blue) channel in the graph and could be used to inform the player that something nearby is resonating magical energy.

The green track contains the…

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TOP 10 Posts of 2014


Here is a review of the top 10 most popular posts of 2014 on TGA. This list includes only pieces which were published in 2014: pages and previously published posts are not considered here.

Originally posted on The Geek Anthropologist:

You know the saying, better late than never! Here is a review of the top 10 most popular posts of 2014 on TGA. This list includes only pieces which were published in 2014: pages and previously published posts are not considered here.

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Does the Upturned Nose Really Know? The Downside of Game Snobbery.


Important: how not to be a boardgame snob (sorta)

Originally posted on Roll and Groove:


This blog entry is the result and response of previous discussions on the topic in two podcasts, BoardGames and Brew (episode 6 – 31:51) and Dukes of Dice (episode 22 – 1:20:05).  I started to post in the Dukes of Dice Guild and found that my thoughts warranted a longer response, thus this post.  Thanks to both podcasts for continuing to discuss interesting topics in board gaming.  Check them out.

One challenge with hobbies or interests that have an intellectual aspect to them, is the multiple layers available for exploration. How far you explore really depends on your level of interest and commitment, as well as what you want to get out of whatever you are pursuing.  Given the vast developments in modern board game design, you can continue to develop your understanding of game theory, mechanics, and strategy, refining your comprehension and skills, which in turn can steer you away from…

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Experimental Board/Card Game Design at Margate Geek 2015

geekSo, turns out I’m going to be doing some games design type stuff at Geek; the Games Festival in Margate running next week (20th – 22nd February). I initially asked to be involved in anything that involved getting the public involved in actually making stuff. There were already a team doing things like Scratch. This left me with analogue games which, while not really my area as a hobbyist designer, interests me because, let’s face it, if you give a kid game-making software on a computer for an hour
or two, what they tend to learn is how to use the software. Cards and dice etc. let you get straight into designing mechanics. Anyway, here are the activities I’ve got planned:

  • “Morphopoly”. I’ll be taking a normal Monopoly set and hopefully running a game where custom house rules are introduced by players at specific junctures (not sure if it will be on every pass of Go, or on something rarer like landing on “free parking”). The idea is to introduce people to rulecraft using a familiar game, and as a kind of sjokerilly experiment to see how far people push it or if they’re less inclined to break the game entirely.
  • A number of sets of traditional 52-card decks for people to try to invent their own card games from scratch, either using a set brief from below or on their own terms. Hopefully we’ll end up with a laminated book of new (probably mostly broken) games, but process trumps outcome here. Example ideas can be things like:
    • a card game about two duelling wizards: one Red and one Black.
    • a card game about robbing a bank
    • (please feel free to offer any briefs you think might be interesting)
  • And the back-up plan if all else fails: Margate-based zombie survival table-top RPG using local maps and a stripped down version of the D6 Adventure system. I designed this a while ago to play with friends. It’s deliberately skewed toward creating a Romero-esque air of distrust. Players get given character cards with a role-play motivation and a trail or skill of some sort, which they may choose to keep secret from the others.


(NB I hate Monopoly: it’s a pretty good case study in how to make a game that is painfully slow to lose and hard to turn around; things which make it a personal bugbear. Maybe some kid will fix it for me. Monopoly Empire is a pretty good fix though IMO)

Revisiting my First Ever Conference Paper; on Game Culture, Musical (Sub)cultures, and De-facto Whiteness?

I’ve been looking back at the first conference paper I delivered, nearly 2 years ago, at a really great event about musical subcultures and their portrayal in media. The paper was largely unconnected with my Ph.d. thesis, and there are some glaring flaws in it, but it deals with some things I’ve been thinking about for a while, and could probably have some sort of point to make if I tightened it up, trimmed the fat and made the arguments more explicit. That draft paper is available here, but I think I probably summarize the main points more clearly below. My writing has improved at least slightly from years of supervisors shouting “be clearer dammit” while hitting me with their belts. So feel free to follow the link if the waffle below interests you, but it’s probably not important to understand what I’m getting at. In fact, the original paper will probably cloud the issue. At the time, the main point I was trying to make was that predominantly “white” musical subcultures seem to enjoy a more naturalized place in gaming culture . Even when a game isn’t explicitly \METAL/ – like Brutal Legend or Rock Band – dark fantasy games like Skyrim, Dishonored, DMC, plus pretty much every post-apocalyptic game (due to the references to punk fashion drawn from 80s-90s films of the genre) readily appropriate elements of punk and metal influence into their world building and character design. Whereas hip-hop has generally had a more marginalized place. For example, there was the fuss some metallers made over the decision to include hip-hop on the Twisted Metal soundtrack, and a lot of sneering at Marc Ecko’s “Gettin’ Up” when it came out. Games like Afro Samurai or Wu Tang: Taste The Pain are generally of niche appeal and slip under the radar, and if you go to any gaming events like an expo or a LAN party the ambient soundtrack is generally heavy rock and dance with the occasional pop track thrown in for taste-trolling.

The trouble games have with incorporating hiphop culture in an authentic way is partially down to the social-makeup of dev teams; their own tastes (generally being, if not white, at least middle-class and suburban) mixed with their discomfort with depicting anything that might be criticized as being a negative “ghettocentric” portrayal. It also comes from the fact that fantastical elements like dragons, magic vikings and dystopian cyborgs are more readily visible in the “mainstream” of punk/metal (in lyrics, album art and magazines) whereas hiphop tends to focus on social reality (obviously there are the Kool Keiths and the MF Dooms but its not unusual to see these dismissed as “backpacker” hip-hop for nerdy white kids).
Because angry white music has generally focused on expressing the internal emotional world through grand metaphors, its iconography spills more readily over into the larger-than-life scenarios presented in games, whereas the more well-known rap music has been more concerned with the here-and-now, meaning it (and references to it) only seem to find their ways into games about gangsters, fast cars or street football/basketball. Parappa_one And before you come at me with “but PaRappa the Rapper, but Jet Set Radio!” I’d like to refer you to a comment from a friend:

“A scant minority of games does not a norm make … PaRappa retains its uniqueness because of the music style (rap and hip hop), which means that it’s not the norm. If it was Parappa the Geetarr Playa, nobody would remember the game to this day, because it’s so normal.” 

Good point IMO.

BTW, if you want to get to the meat of the draft article, I recommend skipping to page 8, where you will find a sweet rundown of enemies in 1980s-90s Beat ‘Em Ups and how they all had mohawks (because that was totally threatening and rad).

Thoughts on GamerGate pt. 1: Different Ways of Evaluating Games

So, as a games researcher person I’ve had a few people Tweet at me asking me where I stand on GamerGate. I’ve been thinking about it long and hard enough now that I feel a need to just throw some of it up on here. This isn’t going to be easy and I will probably revise it as I go along, trying to keep to one issue or theme per post for clarity; so don’t expect me to cover everything here.

Introductions first. I think it’s fair to say that most Gaters would classify me as an “anti” but one who’s fair in my dealings with them. I’m not the sort of anti whose entire view on GG revolves around claims about harassment etc. (and I’m totally open to the idea that those opposing GG might harbor their fair share of bullies, doxxers and careerists). As someone who has written about games journalism’s role in maintaining the “gamer” identity, I came into this with quite a few pre-formed ideas that I still haven’t been convinced to part with.

The first issue I want to talk about is this: even before GamerGate had a name, there was an underlying tension around how people evaluate games differently. Putting aside the initial catalyst of the “gamers are dead” articles and various claims about journalistic corruption, many of the Gaters I’ve spoken to in recent months have a long-standing grievance with sites like Kotaku bringing an “agenda” to games journalism (usually by prioritizing talking about gender or race or whatever over whether a game is actually fun to play). They are increasingly frustrated with accusations from the “other side” (of which I am a part, I guess) that they must be -ist or -phobic because they have different priorities for games writing. /KotakuInAction is a key example of this. GamerGate has given a name to a subset of hardcore gamers for whom the gender or skin colour of characters is dis-interesting. To them, an overbearing interest in a game’s representational content is seen as naive; an indicator that the critic is not a real gamer. This is because of fundamental differences between how different groups are perceiving, talking about, and evaluating games.

This polarization roughly mirrors a sort of non-debate that went on in academic games studies some time back. Pick up most games studies books and there will be a boring section on “the ludology/narratology debate”. “Narratologist” was a term given to researchers coming into games from disciplines like film and literature and looking at them primarily as types of story; analyzing the settings, characters, dialogue and so on. On the other hand, “Ludologists” tried to analyse games based on what they made them unique – their interactivity and rules. The “sides” have since reconciled. Really it was always down to a matter of the individual writer’s perspective and what seemed most important to them.

So, it could be said that a sizeable amount of GG are “accidental ludologists”. Their interest in the hobby – their desire to understand how games work – drives them to perceive games as designers must see them; as mechanical objects. More hardcore gamers tend to be less reluctant to play older games or newer indie games with outdated graphics. They’re in conflict with the console game market’s industrial logic which tells the majority of its consumers “buy this highly-polished bauble – the story is good – but mainly it’s another uninventive shooter”. So here’s my first real point: the type of hardcore gamers who just want to hear “objective reviews” about whether a game is “fun” (deeply subjective anyway but hey) are lay ludologists. They’ve spent enough time playing games in numerous genres to have at least some understanding of how these genres work. Mechanics are their main reference point; what they “see” when they evaluate a game.

Here’s where NotYourShield comes in. You can have games whose representational content is arguably racist toward black people, and you can have black fans of those games who don’t see that, and others who vehemently criticize it. Something like racism is to do with social meaning, so any claim about it is always going to be an interpretation at best. The degree to which those different individuals do or do not perceive that game as racist will depend on how they look at games, the lens that they’ve adopted over the years. They’re an entertainment product, to be consumed with your hands, eyes and ears and ultimately no-one has a monopoly on the “correct” way to evaluate, but that hasn’t stopped people staking their claims.

I DO think the sorts of games writers who have been decried as “SJWs” (a term which, in itself, implies that your caring about social issues is false posturing) need to tread lightly when making logical leaps from subjective readings to claims about the “harm” a game might cause. I already wrote about this in regards to the different types of research conducted around race in GTA: San AndreasI DO think that those who are critical of games’ portrayals of gender, race, sexuality etc. should make efforts to adopt language which clearly indicates that they are working within an interpretivist framework, rather than making claims about a games objective meaning (no such thing can wholly exist). But with this comes the assumption that more clearly signalling a subjective approach will stop criticism of “SJW” reviews; something I doubt will happen as long as games journalism is narrowly viewed by GG solely as “buyers’ guides”. Take, as an example, Evan Narcisse’s piece on “black cool” which frames the portrayal of black videogame characters not as “harmful” or “problematic” but as something which makes the author personally cringe.

I even agree, to some extent, with the idea of separating out a “morality score” where necessary; although I personally fail to see how Metacritic scores lowered by such reviews matter in the grand scheme of this. This is probably because I’m not the sort of person who cares for quantitative evaluations of quality – “6/10″ means nothing to me as a consumer, tells me little about how the reviewer’s experience of the game may or may not mirror my own. The cynic in me says that there is a certain amount of false concern for the economic well-being of developers (“bad scores hurt devs!) being used to silence the type of reviews which might prompt a gamer to consider, for example, what is going on in Bayonetta 2 in terms of gender politics (and no, I’m not 100% sold on the “Bayonetta 2 is sexist!” thing either). It’s difficult to separate the genuine concerns from the silencing attempts. A wanker would be understandably perturbed to open up a buyers’ guide for pornography and find the text replaced with the writings of Laura Mulvey. But is it necessary for all games writing to serve the buyers’ guide function, especially now when Lets’ Plays provide a much clearer window onto how a game handles?

Overall, if you’re a Gater whose perspective is that writers shouldn’t make lofty claims about the societal “effects” of games’ representational content; then I have some sympathy. If your perspective is that social topics should not be broached at all – are inappropriate for games writing – then I am less inclined to agree. The social worlds which games construct are part of how they feel and are, therefore, a valid thing to critique and evaluate. They’re even a valid thing to include in a “buyers’ guide”; if your view of the purpose of games writing is really that narrow. Left4Dead would be a drastically different game if the zombies were replaced with immigrants, or babies (or immigrant babies) even if the game were otherwise mechanically identical. The end-feeling as a consumer/player would be different; some would cry, some would laugh. In addition, you can objectively describe the mechanics of a game (run around the maze and collect the pills while avoiding the enemies) but you can’t objectively evaluate whether these are “good” in the sense of enjoyable. Whether a consumer who has never played an RTS will enjoy Starcraft 2 is really not a case of “good” mechanics.

Here’s my main contention, though. I’ve saved it for last. Something I think people on the GG/KiA side of the the gaming community should really think about a little. You don’t stop being a “real” or “hardcore” gamer when the scope of your evaluation moves beyond “fun” or “mechanics”. Gamers who care about different things from you are not automatically naive noobs. To dismiss them as such because a game’s representative content gave them bad feels is horseshit.

Speaking of horses, I’ve seen “horseshoe theory” thrown around the internet a lot recently. This is the idea that those at the extreme ends of a political spectrum are often ideologically closer to each-other than to the center. There is a thing I think we all have in common, and which ties the current “culture war” (if you want to call it that) to the older ludology/narratology debate in games studies. The hardcore are on the tips of the horseshoe. You don’t get in a position where you’re having a prolonged argument with strangers about a medium without having a deep love and knowledge of that medium. There was a brief window when everyone – whether “cultural marxists” or those who went on to form GG, could agree that most AAA shooter games were repetitive, dumbed-down shite. Whether you’re a “hysterical SJW” or “wailing manbaby”, we are all adult hardcore gamers. By hardcore I simply mean that we talk and read about games a lot; we’re probably a minority compared to the amount of folks who own consoles, play the more famous games but aren’t that invested in the pastime.

A lot of people play as teens and their interest wanes as they get older. I have a three year old and I still consider myself a hardcore gamer even as he gnaws at my available time to play DOTA2 and FTL. The thing that unites us is that we want to have adult conversations about games. We’re unable to have these conversations outside of our cliques because, unlike adults, we’re unable to accept the validity of multiple ways of viewing the thing we love.

And that kinda blows goats IMO.


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