Best Games - Death Rally
This post is not really about a game. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Death Rally is great. It’s as much fun now as it was when it launched as an Apogee published shareware title 25 years ago. This post is about first steps.
In 1995 a group of Finnish demo scene kids set out to make a game.
Let’s walk this back a little. The demo scene, if you’re not familiar, might be described as a loose network of extreme hacking clubs. These are the type of people that like to make dazzling animations set to electronic music on Commodore 64 and Amiga Machines. Sometimes long after the usable lifetime of the machine. They like to compact an unreasonable amount of data into a miniscule space just to watch it sing and dance. These are the type of folks that want to see what they can make a computer do. They are most often European. Not sure why. It might have something to do with the Amiga.
This group of demo scene kids had been dabbling with the PC. In 1990, no one would have tried to make a fast action game on a PC. PC’s were primarily business machines. Beige monoliths with green and amber crt screens. Good at crunching numbers, awful at moving pixels. Machines much more suited to spreadsheets than Mario. In five short years PC’s went from ascii art to Commander Keen to Doom. Formidable graphics and sound advancements, along with the concept of shareware, had made the PC the place to play for up and coming developers.
That’s the world that this group of Finnish demo scene kids were working in. They knew how to make a PC sing, and they wanted to try their hand at making a game. They pitched a car combat game to Apogee, the shareware people, and got to work. They needed some writing done, so they got their friend who was studying English literature to do it. They were in the right place at the right time, yes, but they had arrived there with the right skills.
Death Rally is a PC take on arcade and console driving games like Super Sprint and Badlands. It remains a great game to pick up and play. The controls feel great and the car combat is satisfying, if maybe a bit too difficult. It looks like a SNES or Genesis game that got dislodged from its cartridge and somehow ended up on a PC floppy disk. Suffice to say, the game is great but the real reason I selected Death Rally for a Best Games has less to do with the game and more to do with who made it.
The team at Remedy who made Death Rally went on to create Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Control. Some of those same demo scene kids are still there, still at it, making dazzling images set to phenomenal music. Death Rally was a first step. It’s a very good one. While their games diverged from Death Rally in terms of genre and point of view, one ingredient remains. You can tell that these games are made by people that aren’t aware of what the boundaries are. They don’t know what the ‘right and proper’ way to make a game is. They are still demo scene kids trying to pack as much of everything they love into every single game. As a result the pacing and tone of each of their games is slightly different than what most studios would make.
So there it is. As a first step, Death Rally is really quite phenomenal. Go give it a try. It’s one of the best games.
First, write something.
I write a lot here about games. I write here about game development. I write about art. I sometimes even write about movies. I write about all of these things, and even though I have been writing about them for about ten years, I never really write about something I spend a lot of my time doing. Writing.
It’s tough. I feel like I know a fair bit about the subject of games. Games and movies are absolutely the entertainment mediums that I have spent the most time in my life enjoying and analyzing. While they may not always be great opinions, I do have opinions on those forms of art. That means it’s pretty easy for me to rattle off a thousand words or so about some game or movie. The thoughts are all right there on the surface. I rarely write about writing because I don’t really feel like I have a lot of expertise in the field. I have opinions, but I am absolutely not an on the subject.
All that said, here are some thoughts on writing. At least how I do it. You can do it any way you like. If you have been thinking that you would like to write something but didn’t know where to start, this post might give you some ideas about how to get going. And more importantly, how to keep going when you feel stuck.
If you read this page at all regularly, it probably won’t come as a surprise to you that I don’t edit these posts very much. I read them over (usually). I fix major mistakes (usually) but I don’t pore over them. I don’t test and compare word choices or sentence structure. These are stream of consciousness posts, for the most part. When I write stories though, that is an entirely different beast.
When I write stories I like to get a first draft out of my head as quickly as I can. I stick to the concept and sort of see where it leads. I have been informed that this is the panster method. As in ‘by the seat of your pants’. The opposite of the pantser method is the plotter method, where you plot out every beat of your story before writing. So I suppose I am sort of a pantser-plotter, because when I edit, I like to plan.
Once the first draft is down and out of my head I feel like I have stuff to play with. Some paint to smear around. Some clay to work into shape. It gets fun, but also a little frightening. What if I plop the wrong paint daub down or lop off the wrong bit of clay. Something that was working might now look like a heap of word trash. That’s the fear and adventure of editing.
I open up a new document, or several new documents, and start making plans. I write out timelines. I gather research notes. I write short character biographies. All of this stuff will be only for me. Then I start working my way through the story pulling out parts, changing them, moving them around the timeline, clarifying them, and weaving them back into the rest of the story.
I take most of my inspiration from film so I tend to write in scenes. This is helpful for me since I can usually pull a scene out, change it, and put it back without disrupting the scenes around it. At least not too much. When I plan, each one of these scenes is usually represented by one or two lines that sum up what happens, and why the scene exists. The “why the scene exists” part is especially useful when it comes to cutting or removing scenes. Lots of times changing one scene will make another scene redundant and it becomes easier to pull it out. Of course I never just delete a scene. I cut it out and paste it into my orphan scene document, where all the ideas I liked but didn’t work go to spend languishing in digital eternity.
All of this is probably pretty standard editing workflow stuff. I’m sure there are tricks and techniques that authors use all of the time that dwarf my feeble nonsense. I’ll keep adding those tools as I carry on learning to write.
I think that might be the part I like about writing. There will never be any end to it. There will always be something new to learn. Some way to get better. Some new way to string one word after another to tell a story, or describe a process.
Really, I just bang out my thousand or so words here once a week and then write a few thousand more in the times between. That makes me feel like I accomplished something. It might never grow to anything larger than that, but I suppose that is okay too.
While writing this post, I removed two full paragraphs that didn’t need to be here. I changed a few dozen sentences, and several hundred words. That’s about as stream of consciousness as I get. So that distills it. My advice on writing anything. First, write something. Then read it to see if it makes any sense. Then change the parts that don’t. That may sound too simple but it’s that first step. The one that starts everything. First, write something.
I think I finally finished editing one of my stories. Kara’s Spine is a short, near future, sci if story about an elite athlete who receives a life changing surgery. I did a few rounds of edits and improvements on it over the last few weeks. A huge thank you goes out to the beta readers who helped me find places to revise and improve it. They know who they are. It might not be perfect, but I think it turned out alright. If you send me a note I can tell you were to read it and let me know what you think. Good or bad.
Best Games - The Outer Wilds
Movies are linear, plays are linear, songs are linear, books are linear. They can all contain stories told from start to middle to end. There are Choose Your Own Adventure books and even some Choose Your Own Adventure style video things, but they are all, at their core, linear. You can make choices that change the moment to moment story, but you can’t experience that story in a way other than the way the authors intended. You can try but it just won’t make any sense.
The linear nature of stories isn’t a limitation. It’s a feature. Imagine trying to decipher a film that has been chopped up and rearranged in a random order. Each edit decoupled chronologically from the ones before or after it. I’m sure it would make the rest of your experimental film class very happy, but no one else would want to watch it. Our squishy meat brains can’t deal well with non-linear time. I mean, we can intellectualize it. We can wrap our minds around the idea of it. We just aren’t very entertained by it.
Now imagine this scenario. You walk out into the woods. You come across an abandoned cabin. Inside that cabin are the remnants of a life you weren’t aware of until now. Bits of writing. The places where people slept and ate. Things they collected but were unable to take with them when they left. You gaze around at all of this and then head back home. All of those tableaux tell a story through clues and inferences. It’s a story that you build in your head during the quiet parts of your hike. These sights become a story that you tell to yourself.
The story you create is linear. You left home, you saw things, you came back. Beginning, middle, end. It satisfies the arrow of time that our brains demand. But there was no authorial hand directing you to see the kitchen of the cabin before the bedroom. What is the story you tell yourself when you examine a poem etched into the doorframe before seeing the jar filled with potting soil or the yellowing single mattress? Is it different than when you see the unwashed dishes in the sink first? Does reading the signature on a painting determine what you think of the rest of the house? Does the story of the space feel different depending on how you experience it? This is storytelling through discovery and it is something only the real world, or a game, can do.
There are a great many games that tell their stories through discovery. This style has a name. Environmental storytelling. Most times, environmental storytelling is additive to a more explicit linear story. A narrator or quest giver will direct the player down a path and the environmental storytelling will be used to fill in the gaps. Apparently, a lot of game devs imagine that a person might write on a wall with their own blood rather than attempting to stop bleeding it. Unlikely, but it does tell a story I suppose.
The Outer Wilds is straight, uncut, and distilled environmental storytelling. Any bit of story, any strand of narrative, is something you, the player, must seek out or encounter on your travels. Not one bit of important story is required for you to ‘beat’ the game. You can easily bypass all of it. The entire game can be finished in minutes, but there is enough story written and presented visually to fill dozens of hours. This story won’t come to you. You will have to wander into those woods, open the door to that cabin, and find it for yourself. This can happen in literally any order. There are clues and processes that you discover while playing The Outer Wilds that will lead you to new mysteries and additional vignettes, but there are a lot of tales that you will come upon by chance.
In your life there will be stories that you remember because they were told to you. Everyone has their own favorite childhood movie or book. The sort of thing that you will recall with nostalgia years and decades later. These stories will be important because they mirror or inform a part of your life. Songs will bring back memories of impactful moments. These stories are tied to you, but they are separate from you. Distinct. Maybe more important are the stories you experience.
The Outer Wilds has its own story to tell. It’s a story that is as grand as it is simple and personal. It is melancholic, joyus, introspective, and harrowing. Most important, it is a story that you can only experience. No one can tell you this story second hand. You can’t watch a video of that first descent into the maelstrom of Giant’s Deep and feel what the game is presenting to you. Multiple trips into Dark Bramble wouldn’t stick with you unless you have felt your own pulse quicken in preparation for the trek. Stitching together the tales of Nomai travellers who came before you would have no impact if they were read from a script. They need to be found and discovered and mined for meaning. Each scrap of text landing harder as they lock, puzzle like, into empty spots in this story that you are telling to yourself.
The Outer Wilds is a walk in the woods where you stumble across a splayed out campsite. An abandoned cabin. A story that ended before you arrived. A story filled with danger and mystery and lightness and sadness. A story that you now have to tell yourself. It’s a walk in the woods on a universal scale. It’s also a small story that roots itself inside you, because the only way to really know this story is to experience it.
The Outer Wilds will be remembered as a pivot point in video game storytelling. It might not be a thing that can be replicated or even emulated. It might be that only the relatively small number of people who will ever play it will carry that story with them. Without a doubt though, The Outer Wilds will be a touchpoint for every game developer and serious storyteller creating from this point on. In a medium that values experiences over traditional, linear, storytelling, it is an important artifact. The one that showed how it is done.
I look forward to playing the descendants of The Outer Wilds style of storytelling. Truly some amazing experiences on the horizon.
And storytelling is only one of the reasons that The Outer Wilds is one of the best games. Really, you should play it.
I had a different thing queued up to write about this week, but I did another revision of the story over here.
It's getting much closer to 'done' so if you came here before, saw it, and chose to wait until it was done, you could probably read it now. I meant to condense some stuff and ended up adding some. It happens.
I did a pretty major edit to the story over here. I think it has some promise and after reading a bunch of articles, some web how to's, and more than 1 book on the topic, I finally have some idea how to fix the structural problems I keep running into when I'm writing. I doubt that I have cleared up 100% of the problems with that particular story, but I have pushed it further in the direction of 'good'.
Best Games - Moto Racer
Moto Racer is a deeply unfair game. Every slight bend in the road could end your race. A mistimed button press could mean the difference between finishing first or last. Nailing every corner, every straightaway, every jump is absolutely required to win. That’s on the medium difficulty. Moto Racer demands perfection.
That might sound like a recipe for a bad game. Players typically don’t want to trial and error their way through most games, let alone a racing game. Racing games are supposed to be about speed and timing and weaving through opponents. Taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. Balancing aggression with racing tactics. Moto Racer isn’t that type of game.
There is a certain joy in learning and then perfecting a system. Optimizing to the minimum number of movements in the shortest span of time. That is the type of game Moto Racer is. You are presented with a handful of tracks in two different modes. In the street racing mode it’s all about speed and careful use of a turbo that boosts your bike forward, but also decimates your maneuverability. In motocross mode it’s about drifting hairpin turns and hitting jumps with the right amount of speed so you land cleanly with your speed intact. In both modes you will have to hit buttons and lean your bike at exactly the right time lap after lap after lap.
That’s really what this game is about. Moto Racer doesn’t boast a realistic physics model, or complex tracks, or deep upgrades. It’s about learning the tracks, perfecting the tracks, and then trying to shave millisecond off your lap times. It feels like racing.
You will not win the first time you play Moto Racer. Every time you start a new track, you will lose. It won’t matter how well you did on the previous track. It is unfair in that way. It is unfair as a game. Run a track 5, 10, 20 times though, and you will start to memorize it. When to let off the turbo and when to open it up. How early to start a turn, and when to dive out of a corner. You will master the tracks and you will win. You will have earned it.
Moto Racer might not be able to stand up to modern racing games, but the developers added something to the game that a lot of its current day counterparts lack. The heart pounding feeling of pushing your precision to the edge and succeeding.
Moto Racer is brilliant and it’s one of the best games.
A full first draft of the new story is up here. Like all first drafts it's a little janky in places and will have errors, typos, and plain busted stuff all up in there. If you read it and have suggestions on how to correct that jank, please let me know. I'll probably give it a couple weeks to breath and then revisit the story to punch it up. I have another one that I am in the process of punching up, so I'll probably do that first. In any case, if you read it, I hope you enjoy it.