Bettering Bertha: Adventures In Representation Pitfalls

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The Witcher 3 received sweeping acclaim. It won every award possible. It was the ‘definition of next-gen’.

I found it painful to play.

It was overwhelmingly straight. Geralt, the main character, would sex anything that moved without exuding any of the rascal-debonair sexuality that usually comes with those hyper-masculine characters.

He was just a walking piece of white toast to me. And yet every maiden, sorcerer, prostitute and washerwoman spread her legs for him on sight. By the way, he was literally covered in shit for half of the game. No, really, he took exactly three baths in 200+ hours of gameplay.

The Witcher 3 was definitely a straight male fantasy. It’s the game I think about when people talk about poorly constructed diverse characters.

Every queer character is either murdered or the butt of a joke. Half of the female population are just prostitutes – not women with families who do sex work, not undercover spies luring a rich client only to garrote him for information – they’re “just whores”.

So on that note, I want to talk about something that has been needling at us for a long time- crafting ‘good’ diverse characters for video games.

There are countless incredible articles like this one by Evan Narcisse. That will go into how games do it badly. Everything from horribly designed black hair, to queer characters that are just fodder for bad jokes – we’ve seen it, we’ve played it, we’re angry as hell.

But I think we have a different perspective to offer.

You see Couple Six is an entirely non-white studio. Three out of five members are black women. Some of us are queer. Yet, we still find ourselves falling into representation traps, especially if we’re not careful.

Let’s start with a wide brush stroke:

Diverse writers do not always create good diverse characters.

It is not enough to be gay, to write a compelling gay character.

Your skin doesn’t give you the privilege to talk for your race, neither does your gender identity make you an authority on trans experiences of every kind in every place. We all know the countless examples of people overreaching. The white feminists who tell the woman clad in a burqa that she has to surrender it to live her best life. Or the gay man living in San Francisco who tells the one living in Jamaica that they should ‘embrace their truth’ and ‘come out and live openly’.

There’s more at stake when you’re trying to craft representative characters – a lot more.

These are super complex problems that don’t have easy solutions. We’re not going to offer any either, we’re just going to tell you the things we’ve learned from working on Le Loupgarou up to this point.

Bertha

When we started working on this game, we wanted to tell this really commanding story about Bertha. She was going to be epic. She was going to be powerful. She was going to be empoweri-

-she was largely ignored for the first eight months that we worked on Le Loupgarou.

In the first prototype, she was nothing more than a prop. She stole something from the Loup’s mansion and you had to follow her scent trail, avoiding enemies and navigating a thinly populated village.

She could have been replaced with a white man, a dog, or a sexy lamp. It wouldn’t have made any gameplay difference. She had no agency, no power, no reason to be Bertha.

Yet here we were, surrounding ourselves with literature about black Caribbean women, steeped up to our eyeballs in that experience because more than half of our team was actually living it day in day out.

And still, we were getting it so wrong.

How did this happen?

Focusing on mechanics. Struggling to push demos for conventions. Saying ‘we’ll get to that when the movement is better’. Trying not to alienate too many people too quickly.

Take your pick, there are countless things that go into the game-making process, but we’ve had to learn that for our team we have to constantly, pause, process, improve.

We returned to our narrative and tried to unpack all of the things that made Bertha awesome.

So we fleshed out her backstory and fought long with uncoupling her from the series of historical events and data that propped her up.

History has a way of saying things like ‘Black Caribbean women mostly did this thing in this way at this time’. But we know intrinsically that human beings are so much more than their historical moment. We are so much more than a tapestry of expected outcomes.

We wanted to her to be at the forefront of the 1930s riots that took place in Barbados. We wanted her to use her employer’s clothing to dupe the colonial elite into letting her speak at rallies. We wanted her to not just have a voice, but for that voice to have power and authority and consequence.

We still have a long way to go in building Bertha, but we’re trying to be as aware as possible at every step.

There’s a Caribbean writer, Jean Rhys, who used to say that she was only interested in ‘Getting it right, getting it as it really was.’

I think a lot of devs, whose goals are similar to ours, think the same way.

But getting it right, getting it truly right, means crafting complex and whole beings. It means not allowing for props. It means being committed to good writing.

It means that you sometimes have to pause, regroup, get some feedback, ask some hard questions, and go again.

Here’s to Bertha,

Mark

 

MarkBettering Bertha: Adventures In Representation Pitfalls
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Crawl. Stumble. Build a World.

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What does it take to build a world?

If you walked out onto a busy street at noon – what would you expect to see? Cars. People rushing past in all kinds of different styles. Maybe there’s a guy playing a sad song on a trumpet. Stop lights. Noise.

There are tons of small details that your brain filters out, like scuff marks on the pavement, because you’re focused on the things that are important to you. A shopping list. A clandestine meeting with a romantic partner that you’ve been working up to for weeks. A job interview.

Virtual worlds are the same.

Sometimes if we see the big important details, we’ll ignore the small bits that get in the way. We suspend our disbelief, a phrase which simply means, we are willing to go on a strange adventure.

But it’s hard to always shut off the part of your brain that takes care of editing reality. It’s still going to turn up and demand some kind of verisimilitude – something that it recognizes and can use as a benchmark – a way to go ‘okay I know how this world works’.

Baby’s First World

This is a screenshot containing a simple green plane (with a long cement coloured strip running down the center) and our main character – that cube with a nose.

What this was intended to be, was a road that stretches from the entryway of Le Brun’s decrepit mansion, snaking its way past a gate (with a guard hut) and into the village beyond. We wanted this space to be the player’s introduction to the game world. We wanted something that would make you feel uncomfortable, uncertain, not quite… sure.

I don’t think there’s a single person alive that can suspend that much disbelief.

This screenshot is over two years old.

It was our first attempts at dabbling in Unity. We weren’t quite sure how to translate things clearly just yet. We hadn’t figured out what kind of mechanics were necessary to make a space like this interesting or fun. We weren’t really even aware how to build a space that was interesting or fun.

We were laboring under a very foundational idea – we were representing the Caribbean, possibly for the first time in a video game, and we wanted to create a space that looked exactly right.

 

We were influenced by period photography (at the risk of upsetting anyone we’d prefer you just google “Barbados 1930s”).

Le Loupgarou is set in 1930s Bridgetown so our earliest iteration of the game tried to borrow very heavily from these photographs. We were interested in transplanting the essence of Colonial Bridgetown – we wanted the buildings to be specific, we wanted the right kinds of uniforms, we wanted the right kinds of street lamps etc.

At that time that was completely beyond our skill set, and the scope of the game, so it ended up looking a lot more like this

You can see the kind of influences that were present at this time as well. The world kind of crumbles at the edges which was heavily influenced by Bastion… and because we simply lacked textures at the time to flesh out a more realized world. It was more of a ‘this world happened to US’ rather than ‘WE happened to this world’. 

However, something always felt off when we were making this particular version of Le Loupgarou. It always felt like something was missing.

 

Crawl as Fast as You Can

In November of 2015, we began rethinking our game completely.

Everything we had created up to that point didn’t mesh with the game’s core ideas. Nothing was quite syncing up.

We debated throwing in the towel and returning to the project when we had the means, and the skill necessary to create THAT game.

As often happens in these scenarios, we grabbed some beers and camped out on the beach for a couple of hours. Joshua is a magnificent sea creature. The water enfolds him.

We would swim, talk,swim, talk, swim, talk, swim some more.

We started to realize that personally, we weren’t inspired by that aesthetic. It didn’t lift us. Change us. Drive us. Move us.

We thought that we had some kind of responsibility to represent the Caribbean with faithful fidelity to these photographs. But this was not what our game demanded.

Realism was against everything we believed in – every way in which we saw the world and the Caribbean. We wanted to build a world that was fantastic. Bursting with life and with colour. That was crazy, cruel, awe-inspiring,jaw-dropping and weird. And we wanted to make the Caribbean we saw when we looked out our windows.

Word to the wise. We are absolutely batshit crazy.

 

 

Over time the game started to look more like this.

The world was full of weird and inexplicable things like floating chattel houses and swarms of roots that came from nowhere and went nowhere. Militiamen became Charred Men (which we thought was an even more horrifying way to represent the experience of people trying to face down the colonial establishment). We started to approach things with an eye to creating more elaborate visual metaphors.

These screenshots are pulled from an Alpha-Demo. You can see way more of that footage on our YouTube channel

Legs. Legs. Legs.

We’ve learned a lot about world-building over our two years of trial, error, error, error, error, (something like) success.

One of the things that really stuck with us was that we had to always go further out. As soon as we zoomed in too close on the world, began thinking about what a chattel house would look like – or should look like – we would fall into a trap of building piece by piece. It’s like trying to create an elaborate lego construction but only having the instructions for one specific part, so you keep putting brick on brick hoping the rest will figure itself out.

This is not a good development strategy.

Every so often we go back and rethink the world.

So here are some recent concept paintings from Josh for our upcoming full demo, which we’re aiming to release to the public in a couple of months.

 

 

It’s not that we’re trying to give ourselves more work, or that we’re constantly redesigning for the sake of redesigning – but we’re constantly searching for something very specific, something that’s very hard to put into words. But we’re closer to finding it every time. And we’re not going to rest until we do.

Our approach to world-building was to constantly apply a highly critical gaze. We stop and think often. This does slow down our production, but it allows us to make calculated leaps as opposed to muddling through with both hands flailing.

So the next time you’re at a busy intersection do two things:

  1. Stop and look at the pavement cracks, you’ll find something useful there.
  2. Imagine a completely far-off design, push it as far as your brain can manage – give it overhanging balconies covered in lush creeping vines with somnambulant human faces for flowers, pillars of ash or roses – whatever your world needs. That’s the road you’re now inhabiting. Good luck.

 

Happy world building,

Mark

 

 

 

MarkCrawl. Stumble. Build a World.
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Le Loupgarou: The Not-Horror ‘Horror’ Game

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Let’s talk genre.

‘Action-Adventure’, ‘Racing’, ‘Shooter’, ‘Stealth’, these are essentially overlarge cardboard boxes that we fill up with certain kinds of expectations. Imagine steam as a warehouse full of games that are neatly packaged into these containers. You open up ‘Action-Adventure’ and you stumble upon a copy of Bioshock. You move a little further down the aisle and you come upon ‘Horror’ and sure enough, Bioshock’s in there as well. Its also in ‘Atmospheric’ and ‘Story-Rich’. Bioshock gets around. You’ve now pulled four copies of the same game from four different boxes. ‘Action’, you think, you’ve always enjoyed those kinds of games; it’s a comfortable fit for you. You take the plunge.

Thirty minutes into the game you start to feel like something’s not quite right. You didn’t expect ‘Story-Rich’ to mean ‘Story-Confusing’; you didn’t expect to be working to piece together a narrative – other games with the ‘Action’ title never expected you to do that. So why this game? This isn’t the game you wanted at all. This is a completely different game.

This is one of the chief problems that such tight genre demarcations can land us in. Its that divide between what we expect, and what’s delivered. Look at ‘Gone Home’, a story-driven exploration game that caused uproar on release because many people ‘expected’ it to be a horror game based on the screenshots and trailer that the developers had showcased. I think those people had a right to be disappointed. They showed up to the concert expecting Nickelback and spent three hours listening to Celine Dion in the carpark. It was a bait and box-switch.

But this isn’t necessarily the developer’s fault. They were crafting something unique and interesting that defied the labels that were attached to it. It’s really a language problem. Think of the kinds of genres that exist. We have genres that speak to a game’s overall feel like ‘Horror’ or ‘Atmospheric’, genres that pinpoint specific mechanics like ‘Stealth’ or ‘Racing’ and genres that are only to do with the actual perspective the game’s played in like ‘FPS’. We have genres that no longer make much sense like ‘RPG’ which finds its way into any game with a progression or hat system these days.

You can see how quickly confusion arises. It’s kind of like walking into a bookstore and seeing a section for ‘Romance’ a section for ‘Poetry’ and a section called ‘To Be Read in Moonlight Only’.

We’ve done this to ourselves. We have made too many boxes and we’ve filled them all with so many different kinds of things that they’ve split open.

Let’s backtrack to ‘Horror’.

Video game genrefication learnt a lot from Hollywood. Horror’s were originally about big scares, tense rising music and a general desire to hard-quit the game should it become too intense. I’ve always been a vicarious lover of horror games. I can’t play them myself – not ‘strict’ horrors at least. I’m easily spooked, so I never played the Silent Hill’s and Resident Evil’s. But I am a huge fan of some of the recent games that wear that badge like the Last of Us. That was a game that was made with someone like me in mind. I enjoy action games, but I’m in it for the narrative. I want the games I play to fundamentally change me as a person. I want to explore and express horrible urges and find compelling new ways to approach problems. It’s why I’ve always loved fiction, it’s why I’ve always hated Racing Games. Its why big scares and big reveals make my stomach turn in equal, but opposite ways.

The Last of Us had parallels to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ (without spoiling anything, both are explorations of a dystopian landscape filled with a kind of absolute hopelessness). Except, I’ve never heard ‘The Road’ called a ‘Horror’ despite it probably being the horrifying of the two.

There are all of these problems then that arise when we try to chop a work up into parts and stuff limbs into different boxes. The homunculus that we get at the end confuses more than it solves.

Recently we’ve been getting a lot of comments saying that Le Loupgarou is a ‘Horror’ game. This is partly to do with the images and screenshots that we’ve been putting out there as well as the actual place we are in our development timeline.

We’re building out core mechanics and skinning the world – so necessarily what you’re going to be seeing for a while is a bunch of unexplained characters without real narrative context. The Loupgarou is objectively scary. The Charred Man is objectively scary. The Drowned woman is objectively scary. But this is not a ‘Horror’ game.

We’re running that divide that quite a few games do, building something that we hope will be deeply unsettling and unnerving, but bereft of big scares and overwrought gore. Not that those things are necessarily bad, but that they are not what we are making here.

Le Loupgarou’s most important genre tags, when we launch, will be ‘Story-Driven’ and ‘Stealth-Action’. But I’d like to break those down a bit more. If you opened up the ‘Story-Driven’ box you’d find many different kinds of games. You’d fine Bastion. You’d find The Last of Us. You’d find Pillars of Eternity. They all have something in common. They’re trying to tell a great story, build unforgettable characters and worlds. That’s also what we’re trying to do.

So let’s end by talking a bit about the Loup’s character:

At the start of the game something has been taken from the Loupgarou, something representing one of the last shards of his humanity. He has already been going insane at this point. He is old, extremely old. Almost blind in both eyes and with the curse eating away at his body he is nowhere near the all-powerful wolf beast he was before although he’s not completely helpless either.

What happened to him was horrifying. What he will experience will be equally so.

But this is not a horror game, at least not in the way you currently think of them.

Until Next time,

Mark

MarkLe Loupgarou: The Not-Horror ‘Horror’ Game
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Modelling Levels off Islands: Why We Were Out to Sea

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Last week we talked about Blindness or rather our tryst with Blindness that ended rather abruptly in the making of Le Loupgarou.

Part of designing that world – the world that existed in a small cone of visibility around the player, was trying to navigate glaring depth issues. How could you tell the next jumping platform, if you couldn’t even see it properly?

Picture this scenario from our Animekon prototype:

The player is pacing the roof of a chattel house, the militiaman’s cone of vision enters the player’s screen view. The player knows, or by this point in the prototype should know, that jumping down at this point means death – militiamen in this earliest iteration had a one-shot kill mechanic. They have two plausible options:

  1. Jump down after the militiaman turns around and sprint for it (this was a difficult outcome, the timing was punishing on his rotation)
  2. Make the leap to a nearby chattel house – one you couldn’t really see because of the blindness mechanic’s interaction with the game object itself.

Some people made the leap purely out of guesswork/hope, others tried the punishing timing route. They weren’t altogether upset or annoyed, but their experience here had been slightly off-putting. We tracked it in their faces and in the way they approached the game from that point – they felt slightly cheated.

In that world, level design was based purely on intuition. Objects were placed in relation to each other using the visual radius as a benchmark. This was fine. Right up until it wasn’t.

Building out a level is a little bit of architecture, mapping, guesswork and Obeah. It’s a careful balance. So if you tip the scales in any one direction – rely too heavily on inexact measurements and intuition, or sacrifice too many chickens – it spills off course.

In the post-blindness world, levels began to take the shape of specific Caribbean islands. This gave us a great pre-built container. Real islands come with pretty exact boundaries. They have built-in cliffs, beaches and walls of water. They also come with cities, towns, plantations – out of the box their useful skins to map off of.

In this fashion, levels became islands, which doesn’t necessarily sound like a huge transformation, but the language with which you phrase something carries weight in the Obeah part of the design process. Islands and levels are different beasts and we called them differently.

So we had islands now. Here’s one of the first ones we put down.barbados_map (1)

 

This is island #1. The container is loosely based off of Barbados, but as you can see many of the ‘1st level’ orange buildings are different sizes. At first glance this is hardly an issue – walk down any street and you’re bound to pass many buildings of different shapes and sizes. No big deal. Except in real life we aren’t really working under the umbrella of built out mechanics. We’ll dive into more details on the mechanics side of things in another post to not make this one overly tedious in multiple directions. One thing to note – absolute measurements good, vague estimations bad.

Since rethinking our island design, and hammering out the absolute measurements for the scale of the world, puzzle building has been smoother than ever. It’s much more apparent how the flow of movement should take place when you understand the exact limitations on that movement.

Here’s a pretty basic puzzle that utilises our exact measurements:

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 9.28.14 AM

Right away you can see that the orientation of certain objects makes more sense and their relation to each other within the actual space. In this scenario the player (beginning at the larger star in the bottom left) navigates from building to building, over water, avoiding static enemies. The biggest difference between something like this and the island above is that with absolute measurements everything becomes much crisper – look at how the first enemy AI is sandwiched perfectly between those two orange buildings. The less ambiguity you’re working with, the more Obeah you’re allowed to stir in – and that’s where the magic happens.

Until next time,

Mark

MarkModelling Levels off Islands: Why We Were Out to Sea
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Blindness: Mechanic-Building Difficulties We Never Saw Coming

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Today we’re going to talk about blindness.

In the earliest iterations of Le Loupgarou, when the main character was still in his messy, underwear-on-backwards-period, we played around with the idea of making him blind. We were trying to undermine the werewolf trope. We didn’t want to make a game that revelled in that power fantasy – there are enough of those out there – we wanted to make a game about being vulnerable, frail, alone.

Additionally, instead of making the blindness a character trait (some novelty gimmick that didn’t really impact gameplay) we wanted to make it a core mechanic. We wanted the player to have their actual vision restricted. We were working in an isometric view so immediately we turned to the fog of war features that RTS and RPGs employ so famously. For those of you unfamiliar with how those usually work, picture walking down your favourite street. At the end of the road where your best friend’s house should be is a wall of immense blackness. The closer you get to your friend’s house, the less opaque the blackness becomes, until it disappears and you’ve ‘discovered’ the house. That’s how the fog of war usually works. It’s about enhancing discoverability – restricting visibility is a side effect. We wanted to make it the entire goal.

 

This is a story of how we learnt, very quickly, that intuition doesn’t and cannot trump player response and testing. To us it was completely rational, 10,000% obvious that this would work. We were wrong.

Le Loupgarou is a stealth game. Stealth games tread that very precarious rift between restricting visibility and creating gameplay BASED on visibility. Think of your favourite stealth game, think of a specific gameplay moment that was absolutely bananas – it’s the thing you think about when you think about that game. At any point were you frustrated, or about to throw the controller, or hard-quit the entire software because you couldn’t see?

That’s exactly the problem that the first iteration of blindness landed us in. We took the fog of war and increased the occlusion zone until all of the gameplay took place within this tiny framing window. We then added enemies who worked based off of sight. This created a chain of design decisions that is probably hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s ever been pressed for deadlines (we were coming down to showcasing the game at Animekon 2015). Here’s the sequence of events:

  1. Blindness causes frustrating visibility issues – players not able to make informed decisions
  2. Create ‘footstep’ system and attach it to AI so that you can see their movement patterns
  3. ‘footstep’ system sits on the same layer (within the unity editor) as the blindness mechanic, but not on the same layer as the player. The result is a precarious and confusing problem of depth.footprints
  4. Show-case game.

con at konThe entire process of building the blindness mechanic out, iterating on it, tweaking and testing, led us to completely reinvent so much of Le Loupgarou. The thing is, the entire process of building out a mechanic badly, taught us about the essential parts of our game.

We are still creating a game that is less about the fantasy of power – we’re just doing it differently. We’ve traded the blindness mechanic for a much more detailed and visually rich world. That was the original trade off. The blindness mechanic predates the amazing visual technique and stylings of Big Josh.

The blindness was our escape clause to creating a hyper-detailed world. A world we really did want to make. That’s where we’re heading now. All of the concept art that we’ve been showcasing on our Facebook page. All of the unique and detailed monsters that will inhabit the world of Le Loupgarou – they’re all a product of that blindness mechanic. They’re all here because we failed, badly. And that’s something to celebrate.

This is  the direction we’re heading in now:

 

LL Takedown Paintover

 

Until next time,

 

Mark

MarkBlindness: Mechanic-Building Difficulties We Never Saw Coming
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Welcome to Couple Six

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Welcome to couplesix.com!

A lot has happened since our last blog post. A lot. We’ve traveled to Trinidad to showcase the game, built out some new and exciting stuff and have just been pouring all of our energies into Le Loupgarou.

This is a short post. I promise we’ll have more to show you soon. This is also going to be a space for us to talk about other things that are going on in the industry. We’ve got a lot to say and this site offers the perfect place to do all that saying.

Until next time,

Mark

 

info@couplesix.comWelcome to Couple Six
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