Cities of Jem Cohen.

I had the opportunity to hear Jem Cohen talk three times in the past three days. The first was a supposed ‘master class’, which was really just a talk, where he was accompanied by Guy Picciotto (of Fugazi) and Todd Griffin, both musicians. The talk was called Another kind of music, and it was about the way he approaches filmmaking in relation to sound and music. One of his insights was that making films can be a bit like making music; there’s rhythm, texture, and other sensory elements in the mix, beside the more evident aspect of narrative that is most films’ core. He also said that the way he shoots his footage is akin to a musician’s improvisation.

He showed some of his short films/videos, or fragments of them. One of those was Little flags, which will give you an idea of what he does. The truth is, I went to this talk not knowing anything about this man, other than him being a filmmaker, and his link to music. For, you see, he seems to often work with musicians, or simply make sound a vital part of his work. The day before that talk, I was seeing Avi Mograbi’s Z32 while one of Jem’s works was being screened elsewhere, called Ciudad de México por azar, with simultaneous live music by the aforementioned musicians, plus DJ Rupture and Andy Moor. I didn’t know this event was taking place, or I would have been there, especially after seeing Chain the evening after the talk, which was already a day too late anyway. Chain is a feature-length, sharp, documentary-like view on the culture of consumerism. After the screening of that movie, he was there to answer questions and talk a bit about it.

He’s here in Chile because of Sanfic, the Santiago International Film Festival, which has been my chance to see some new films, and also hear the directors talk about them, which is quite an interesting experience. The final time I saw Jem was after a showing of a few of his shorts, including Lost book found, most likely the highlight among the bunch. In this short, he tells his story of what it was like being a push cart vendor in the city, and his discovery of a notebook that was filled with a strictly categorized, but seemingly nonsensical, list of numbers, places, things, situations related to the city. I asked him whether the story was real, to which he said it partially was. He refused to say if the book ever existed.

Fish in a museum.

Probably the most interesting course I took while in university was Rodrigo Ampuero’s workshop, in 2007. The subject of that semester was as divorced from the core of my degree (graphic design) as my classes got, and I say that in a good way. During that semester we learned about museography: the design of exhibition spaces. It was a fascinating enough experience that I sought to do an internship related to that, but it fell through in the end.

The whole class took a trip to the Museo Naval y Marítimo de Valparaíso (Valparaíso Sea and Navy Museum), where we took a look at their exhibitions, and were asked to conceptualize one new exhibition space. Two classmates, Natalia and Juan Pablo, and I, spent all those months butting heads and working overnight. I’m pretty sure we were on the brink of hating eachother. I’ve never been very good at teamwork, but the three of us ended up quite invested in our work and in our chosen subject, so we had long arguments. While most of our classmates’ proposals were about showing the underwater fauna of Chile, we arrived at the idea of displaying the ugly side; that is, all the damage that us humans are causing the underwater fauna and flora, with statistics and shocking images.

It all started with a brainstorming session we had one day, after we got our butts kicked in class. We were taking a very conservative approach, so we were asked to be bold and completely rethink our stance. During this brainstorm we came up with four radical concepts, two of which I sketched: the ones we called ‘clinical’ and ‘house of horrors’.

Ojo al pez concept sketch

[…]

Allegr.

Allegr screenshot

Sort of a Towlr–like game, created for this month’s Klik. The twist comes at the end. You’ll need to play it more than once to “get” it, though.

Download Allegr (Windows; requires updated DirectX)

It was hard making this one. Or, rather, it was disappointing. It took me an hour an a half to realize that my approach was not facilitated by the software, so I ended up having to patch it up and turn it into a much simplified version of what I had envisioned.

Sheets.

Sheets screenshot

This latest TIGSource video game competition has a double theme: adult/educational. I have to say, it’s a fantastic combination. The idea was that entrants could create a game under one or both themes. I wish more entered games had used both simultaneously, but, well, not even I did that in the end.

During most of the duration of the competition, I didn’t find the time to make my game. Also, I was finding it hard to come up with an idea. Educational games are tough to make; they require familiarity with the taught subject, therefore they involve plenty of research, usually. I wanted to make an educational game foremost, but the adult theme also intrigued me, so I was thinking of incorporating it somehow. When I finally came up with an idea, it was already too late to really consider trying it; a week wasn’t going to be enough. That idea was a puzzle game about additive and substractive color theory, which I still think is good enough to archive for a future opportunity. But since it would take me too long to make that, and educational games in general were already out of the question, I decided to just go for the other theme.

Next came the question of how to make any game in a short enough amount of time. I’ve had the idea, for some time, of creating a small engine for text-based games in Flash, which I would use to make a series of games, and which I would also release independently. Trying to plan that proved to be too difficult with my limited knowledge of programming best practices, design patterns, and whatnot. But I figured I could use the occasion of the competition to just hard code a game in that fashion, which would be an easy thing to program, and in the process figure out what kind of structure my code would need to turn it into an engine. So, by making this game, I fulfilled two goals: I entered the competition, and I learned a bit more about programming.

The game is text-only, but it does deal with subjects such as sex and rape, so it is meant for mature players.

Play Sheets (Flash)

Studying game design.

The past five weeks I have been ‘attending’ an online course on game design, generously offered by Ian Schreiber, and named Game Design Concepts. His only condition was that one purchase the book he co-wrote with Brenda Brathwaite, precisely for the purpose of teaching, which turned out to be a very good acquisition in itself, and which I might review at some point in the future. The course itself involves a blog, a forum, and a wiki. In the blog, Ian posts, every monday and thursday, a ‘lecture’, and lists a couple of extra readings; plus, he leaves a ‘homeplay’ (as he calls it) assignment that usually consists of designing a game under certain limitations, or to make changes to an existing one. That’s when the forum comes into play, as everyone is expected to post their game and comment on a few of their peers’, to generate some inter-feedback. The wiki is mostly just an aside that has served no significant purpose other than as a space to offer translations of the different lessons.

I’ve had lots of fun reading the varied essays on games, some of which I would not have read otherwise, as they are about aspects that don’t particularly call for my attention. For instance, I’m not very inclined to reading on game systems, even though it’s pretty much the core of what constitutes a game, so it’s been very useful. The practical work has been stimulating; since I graduated from university, I’d missed that feeling of rushing things to get them in time for class, which ultimately helps to keep me active and on my toes. The course may not be the equivalent of an in-class course, but given the price of admission, it’s been fantastic.

I’ll be sharing the most noteworthy of my ‘homeplays’ in more posts to come. They’ll certainly be improved over the rather rushed state they’re at right now before I post them, though.

The Tomb.

A few months ago, as I was waking up, and while I was halfway between being asleep and awake, I had this dream/idea for a game. When I woke up properly, I wrote it down in my sketchbook. And only a few hours ago, for this month’s Klik, I made it concrete.

The Tomb screenshot

Download The Tomb (Windows, requires the latest DirectX)

Construct and NitroTracker were the tools used this time around. I sampled my voice for the sounds.

Pixevolución: Monkeys and pixels.

Monkey games

In 2006, for my workshop course in that year’s first semester, I created a graphic work that ironized technology and how the Monkey King (humanity) wreaks havoc on Earth through its lack of restraint and its egocentrism. The next semester I was to base an animation on that work.

This was a semester-long project (it kind of doesn’t show, due to a long preliminary process) for Sebastián Skoknic and Bryan Phillips’s course. Other than being my longest animation since, it marks the first time I ever did anything resembling sound design; I even splashed a bit in the tub to get some water sounds. The most interesting part was using the Game Boy Camera (thus the Game Boy sound hardware) for the electronic noise, which I think worked very well.

The subject of this piece remains the same as the one it’s based on, though I didn’t make any specific references to video games this once, just computers.

Heart, complete.

Heart logo

Heart is finished. It is a short, bleak game that questions one particular human ideal/cliché.

Play Heart (Flash)

The game was created originally for the Ludum Dare competition, and polished during the following week. Coded in Actionscript 3, using FlashDevelop as IDE and compiled using the Flex SDK. For the graphics I used Photoshop and Illustrator, and for the audio I used LMMS and Audacity. […]

What (video) games are.

When I posted my entry for the Ludum Dare competition, Heart, I received mostly positive comments, though many of them were appended with something close to this sentence: “But it is not a game.” I was not too surprised. Indeed, when I talk to people about games, they normally think of them in terms of gameplay, interaction, challenge, fun, goals. Which is not wrong, as most video games can be accurately described with these words, but it is unnecessarily restrictive to categorize the whole art within these boundaries—doing so is an exercise in exclusivity. This ties directly with my previous post about expanding the scope of video games. Do we really need to keep a short leash on what video games are or can be?

I came across a definition for game today, by Corvus Elrod. It is the most elegant and explicit that I’ve found so far. Here it is:

Game is a set of rules and/or conditions, established by a community, which serve as a bounded space for play.

Where play stands for “the self-guided exploration of possibility within a bounded space”, which is a definition I feel to be accurate. I believe that Corvus is forcefully nudging the ‘community’ element into the definition, though (where is the community if one person creates a game for himself alone to play?), so I would actually simplify it into this:

Game is a set of rules and/or conditions which serve as a bounded space for play.

I can’t think of a single game that this definition does not embrace, including board games, sports, playground games, and, yes, video games. It also suggests that games can be entertaining or not, challenging or not, involve goals or not. By this definition, exquisite corpse is a game, which rings true to me.

The definition speaks nothing of the amount of interactivity that is to be expected of a game, but the mention of rules and conditions implies that choice needs to be present. In Heart, the player is required to explore, as the game does nothing without their input. They would discover that the right arrow key makes the character move in that direction. And the opposite key? It triggers a response in the avatar: he cannot go back. It is part of the process of discovery. In Heart, the player is the force that drives the character forward, for without their input, he would stay in place forever. Nothing would happen, the game would not be played, the character would not confront his fate. Is it not a meaningful choice that the player is making, then?

I didn’t mean this post to be in defense of my game, though it looks like it turned out that way. This subject is something that I consider to be relevant, as I don’t see enough game makers thinking about where to lead video games, so I feel the need to touch upon it. I hope to spark debate in some circles, frankly!