A constructed language.

For my Master’s dissertation project in the New Media program at the Tokyo University of the Arts, I quickly devised a small constructed language, something that would be a tool for me to explore language itself in abstraction. Before I undertook the subject of human communication languages, I had been researching programming language design, and in that process came across a paradigm that was new to me, called concatenative. This paradigm is mathematically very elegant, structurally very simple, and in superficial appearance very similar to human written languages. I thought I could use it as a basis for a simple human language, and so I took the main ideas of it and applied them to my design.

My language is not really a language in most traditional senses, if you compare it to existing languages. It does not comprise a lexicon, nor does it have any inherent writing system, or phonetic system. It consists of just a set of rules, and they can be applied in many ways in any pertinent medium (written, oral, electric, etc.,) and is purposely unspecific about other things. It is, if you will, a framework for communication, or a protocol, more than a language as they’re most often thought about.

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A ‘metaclass’.

Kanji metaclass posterEspañol

I was invited by the center I formerly studied Japanese at (Ceija, here in Santiago) to give a short workshop. It was an open invitation, as I could suggest what the theme for it would be. I decided long ago that I’m no good as a teacher, so I almost rejected the request, but finally decided to propose a non-traditional program in which I would not be a teacher but just someone who’s been studying longer (a senpai, as a Japanese person would put it,) and turn the classroom into a more level place for discussion and discovery. The themes to discuss would be the Japanese kanji writing system, and self-study. I called it kanji metaclass, loosely using the ‘meta’ prefix the same way it’s used in the word ‘metadata’: that is, to suggest recursiveness, learning about learning.

Although I haven’t found the teacher in me, I do think about education a great deal. I’ve been teaching myself lots of things since I can remember. I am largely frustrated by the way in which education has been institutionalized. And I work developing ludo-educational software.

I strongly believe in intrinsic motivation as key to learning. Extrinsic motivation would be grades, rewards and punishments; that is, how most schools nowadays work. Intrinsic motivation would be doing something because it is its own reward, or because it leads naturally to our reward. Put another way, I think that mainstream education teaches us to hate study and learning, by making those the hurdles we need to hop over to get to the carrot they put in front of us instead (or to get away from the whip behind.) But, of course, there’s no better stimulus to learning than just wanting to know.

So this class I’m about to finish offering this week reflects my views on education at large, and experimental as the format is (for someone inexperienced like me,) it’s been, from my point of view, a great success. My main priority was to make everyone curious, invested, and in charge of their own learning. I got everyone enjoyably (even excitedly) discussing varied subtopics, once they got comfortable enough with me and one another (that is, by the second session.) The flow of each session is almost entirely freeform, it leading wherever the discussion takes us. I prepared beforehand a long document full of little packets of (largely personal, even anecdotal) information, though, which I use as a resource to plant new ideas and questions. It still remains to see how this influence impacts their learning, but first I just felt the need to impact their mentality.

So that is one of the things I’ve been up to. And to end this post, here’s a little bullet-point manifesto I wrote for myself, to keep me focused on my goals for this workshop:

  1. The classroom is a place for active discussion, exploration, and exchange of knowledge and ideas by and for all.
  2. Our themes are Japanese kanji, self-study, and the intersection of the two.
  3. When leaving the classroom, study has just begun.
  4. A student questions, asks, errs, researches, teaches themselves, shares their knowledge.
  5. The teacher is but a guide.
  6. If one must teach, teach that which is elementary and general.
  7. Better than teaching is suggesting.
  8. Better than suggesting is asking.
  9. Better than asking is listening.
  10. Anything can be debated.

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Charade.

The game I posted last about, Ascension, was made by talented game author Jonathan Whiting.

I will ramble. Please forgive.

One day, on a whim, I contacted a few fellow game makers to see if they would be interested in taking part in a little experiment. Following up on my whims has been my modus operandi since I started making games, so this just seemed appropriate. A few caught on, and what we set out to do was make a game each, and then switch around the credits, so each of us would release a game that was not of our respective creation. […]

Campodecolor got me out of college.

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As of today (yesterday), I am a professional graphic designer. My final project, which I now refer to as Campodecolor (Spanish for ‘Colorfield’), was the same videogame I have been talking about for some time, the one about visual composition. It’s not finished as a project, but an important milestone has been reached: its first purpose has been accomplished, which was to get me my degree. Of course.

Here’s my project report (in Spanish), which is a bit out of date and a bit incomplete, but I guess it shows the main arguments that support my project. I have touched on these a bit in past posts, and I might do it further in the future, because they are based on my opinion that videogames, as an artform, can be a relevant contribution to society.

For my defense I had to —evidently— show the game, and do a presentation of basically a recap of the same points already covered on the report. On top of that, during the past week I recorded some playtests, and edited a brief video with that material to show to the committee that graded my work. It was pretty funny to watch the testers stumble around and finally grasp the mechanics a bit, though some came to the conclusion that the game was more about the music than the visual aspect, which, I suppose, is a compliment to the sound design in the end.

Campodecolor, final presentation version

I have uploaded the version of the game that I presented today (yesterday). The algorithms are still lacking, I’m afraid, but I plan to make them my top priority now. The dynamic audio is created using the minor pentatonic scale, with the sound of a Rhodes piano, as recorded by Guy Cockroft. I’m glad it sounds as well as it does, considering the notes are selected randomly from the scale. Since it seems to be crediting time, I have to thank Stephen Lavelle and muku for their invaluable help and suggestions on all aspects of my game. Also, of course, my teacher throughout this whole process, Eduardo Castillo. […]

Making a game about making.

In a previous post I explained what motivated me to make the game I am currently making as my final project in college. In this entry I will actually describe what I have achieved so far, and my plans for what’s to come. If you so wish, you may play the game, incomplete as it is, before reading what follows. If you do, I’d be very interested in hearing about your experience, how you approached the game without knowing exactly what it was about, what could have been clearer or better.

What I sought, as I explained in that other post, was to create a game whose main objective is not to rack up points, but to create a visual composition. This is a game about creativity, indeed; a subset of games that, I have found, is not very largely represented.1 Kenichi Nishi said something in an interview that I quote here because I consider to be extremely significant:

Recently, games have been ‘passively interactive.’ Users do not really have to think about what to do; they are guided around until they reach the end of the level. These types of games do not rely on the creativity of the users.

This is why I started to consider my idea more important than at first. Although there have been games like Mario Paint, that are like tools that are given a context of fun, I wanted to make something simpler, something abstract and more concentrated. There was also the question about how this would work as a game; I didn’t want it to become a color-matching, chain-making fest, so how to evaluate what was being made for its own sake? It didn’t need to be competitive, but it also needed a purpose, a raison d’être. There was the possibility of it being multiplayer, and people judging each-others compositions, much like the abovementioned Nishi’s own game, Archime-DS (or LOL, as it’s being brought over to this half of the world). I took a bit of that idea, as I will explain later, but I deliberated some more until I came to the conclusion that the best would be not to judge quality, but to evaluate compositive characteristics, or parameters, as I’ve grown used to calling them. The point being that every visual composition can be evaluated in terms of different characteristics, like how symmetric it is, whether it uses warm or cool colors, whether it is rhythmic or not (presence of visual patterns), etc. We can use these parameters to objectively determine if a composition is harmonic and pleasing to the eye, if it is foreboding, if it is unsettling, etc.

Personally, I am more of a supporter of holistic rather than reductionist approaches to analysis, but in this particular case (and in many others) it is much simpler to compartmentalize the data—especially given that I am hardly a mathematician, or even a programmer, so it simply made my work a lot easier. I realize that to this point I’m still talking abstractly, so let me show you the game proper.

Screenshot

That is what it currently looks like. In the center, but leaning toward the top and left, is the canvas: a grid where the player creates his composition. To the right is the carousel; sort of a conveyor belt of colored groups of circles, that the player can grab at any time and drop on the canvas. In a bar at the bottom there are a series of pictograms of differing sizes: they are actually dynamic, and change depending on the current characteristics of the composition, as perceived by the game (right now the algorithms that calculate this are not very finely tuned). Each pictogram changes to either a neutral, high or low graphic depending on the value: For instance, the fire icon indicates that the colors are mostly warm, and it would change to a snowflake if it was the opposite. Its comparatively small size means that it is not leaning that much toward warmth. The pictograms still need some work for them to be easier to understand, since, as I said in that previous post of mine, this game will use no words, so they need to be self-sufficient. Finally, in the bottom right is the time counter, which, when depleted, will prompt the game to show a results screen, which is pictured below. […]

  1. I counted 14 games I could qualify as requiring creative input in the top 100 games of a series of specialized publications, as compiled by Kirk Israel

Ambitions of pushing the envelope.

I’m currently in my final semester for the Bachelor of Graphic Design degree, so I’m devoting my time to a project I haven’t discussed here so far. Now that I have something to show, though, I think it’s time to talk about it a bit. I’ll start from the very beginning: the conception of the idea.

I’ve been an avid videogamer for the best part of my life, so I can account for many hours spent in front of a screen, with a controller in my hands. One day, around two years ago, probably while playing this brilliantly elegant game called Polarium,1 I realized that I was having more fun creating levels, and making sure that they were both solvable and aesthetically attractive, rather than just playing the game proper. I found that the visual patterns created by the simple colored shapes in puzzle games like Tetris, Puyo Puyo and Puzzle Bobble could, and sometimes would, form beautiful patterns. This is, of course, where my training in design comes in; I realized that a game could be made where the objective, the very goal, was not to match shapes or make chains, but to create an interesting visual composition.

I had very little experience programming, though, so I never took it upon myself to make that game. Time passed, and one day there was a special event, hosted by a friend, called the Super Game Bakedown, that simply consisted of creating a game for the duration of a single month, in the spirit of the NaNoWriMo. I knew I couldn’t achieve such a feat, but I joined anyway, and made it my goal to finish a design document for this dream game of mine. I even added a secondary characteristic to the game, which was an idea that had intrigued me for a while: The game would not use words (or numbers) whatsoever. In the end, I didn’t even finish the design document, but I did get a clearer idea of what I wanted to, and could, achieve. […]

  1. Polarium is a videogame developed by Mitchell and released for the Nintendo DS. It’s an abstract puzzler whose objective is to turn every row, from a rectangular grid of white and black squares, into a single color, by means of tracing a path that flips white tiles to black, and vice versa. This simple premise, intuitive during the first few stages, gives way to mind-bending puzzles that test the player’s ability to analyze and recognize patterns. It includes a level creator. There is also a free-to-play Flash clone called Blackflip

An ant gets up and goes on parade.

Remember that idea I had of making a round-robin webcomic? Well, I’ve finally launched the site, with a strip to start things. It’s called The Ants Parade, a name that, I believe, illustrates what I want to achieve with the comic: collaboration, a succession of authors, whose works, together, contribute to a bigger opus. Not that big, of course –we’re not talking elephants here–, but hopefully worth everyone’s time.

The first strip is already almost not a comic strip, which is how I wanted to steer this from the beginning. Not that I mind traditional comics, but I wanted the project to explore vastly different ways to make a comic. If we’re talking many authors with so many liberties, the least we can expect is radical diversification. So I hope that my first strip, regardless of its quality, can inspire future contributors to go wild.

The site incorporates one rant per strip for the author to voice his thoughts, as long as they’re vaguely related to the comic. There’s also a blog, which, honestly, I don’t foresee getting used much, but it’s there for the different contributors –who might not even know each other– to discuss anything at all. Anyone can comment on posts, and I can promote registered users so that they can create new posts. It’s almost a message board, really, but those are generally too hermetic to outsiders, so I wanted something that was transparent, with a quicker flow.

The technology I use is Pixelpost for the strips and Chyrp for the blog. I had used Pixelpost before, and it’s as easy to set up as ever–even if it lacks versatility, reason why I had to edit the script’s code at times. Chyrp, on the other hand, I will admit, was a big pain. Its theming language is really poorly documented, and the little documentation there is seems to assume that the reader is familiar with Chyrp’s code. Errors in the themes’ syntax don’t even receive a helpful error message from the parser, which just breaks, so bug-catching is a slow process. In all, the experience was pretty terrible, but once the language (called Twig) gets some decent documentation, it might become very usable, since it’s quite flexible–but hell if I know how to tame that flexibility right now. The engine itself is very economic, with none of the bloat of WordPress, but, then again, with the limitations one would expect, which are partly offset by its modules (add-ons). What that means is that the blog can be exactly what you want it to be, with none of what you don’t need; in theory, because it’s rather difficult to get it to be what you want it to be in its current form.

But the site is up now, so whatever happened in the process doesn’t matter. It still needs to be improved and polished, but it’s perfectly usable right now…, I believe. All it needs is some more strips.

Round-robin webcomic project!

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I read some thread on some forum, which was about the webcomics that posters had been involved in. Comparing all the varied styles I thought “I’d like to write a webcomic once too. Too bad that I suck at drawing comics, and also at being persistent.” But the answer to my problem was right before my eyes, and realization suddenly and dramatically hit: “I should make a round-robin webcomic!”

Round-robins are a format in which a group of authors take turns in writing the story. In this case, one comic per author. With this whimsical idea I approached a friend, who okayed me, and then some other people kind of gave me the thumbs-up unenthusiastically. But that’s okay! Because after the first few kick it off, everyone will want in. Especially considering what little effort it takes to just make a comic, and make it part of a larger project.

I will eventually be creating a dedicated website for the comic, and, I guess, draw the very first one myself. In the meantime, in case this idea interests you, here are a few anticipated rules of play, or rather a statement of principles:

  1. Comics should be original, use no copyrighted content and be made specifically for this project.
  2. There will be no restrictions in their aesthetics, plot, characters used, etc. Except for those in the following two points.
  3. At least one element of the preceding strip should be used or developed in yours, to keep a modicum of continuity. Examples: a character, colors used, a part of the plot.
  4. No text may be used at all, no matter what language it’s in (unless it’s a fictional one.)
  5. Strips should consist of a single image file of png, jpg or gif format, in any proportions (there might be a maximum width decided at a later time,) but made to be read on a screen. Maybe we should keep an archive of 300 dpi originals just in case, too?
  6. Those interested in contributing need to be of my acquaintance, or of an author of one of the strips (this is not a completely open project.) No special talent is required.
  7. Authors may not draw a strip again if they have already drawn one before, unless there are no fresh candidates.
  8. The use of a particular logo of the project somewhere in the strip might be a requirement in the future. Maybe a name/pseudonym as well.

Take your strip as seriously or as lightly as you like; that’s the whole point! The rules above are only to make sure that the spirit is maintained, and for basic coherence. Things not mentioned are that I’d like it to be weekly, if we can pull that off, and that we’ll have to decide what to do in terms of authorial rights; some creative commons license should be okay, I suppose. Contact me if you’re totally in, and also to suggest a name for the comic.

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