I haven’t written about writing for a while. I tend to not want to, since, well, if I’m writing about writing I figure I should just be writing.
The last time I did a writing update, I had a story out for submission and another one almost ready to go out. Both of those stories ended up getting rejected, but one of them was on hold for its third time (fourth maybe, but two of those times were at the same place).
I haven’t sent that story back out, and I’m not sure why. I think I want to have several ready to go at once. It’s tough to hang all your hopes on one story, even if you know it’s good and you have had several outlets tell you it’s good (just not good enough for them right now for whatever reason).
I have three stories almost ready to go, but I probably won’t have them done until the new year at the rate I write.
So I guess that’s it. Not much to add for this update. I’m still writing… slowly. I have about eight other stories started, but I have put them all on hold until I finish this first batch.
Best Games - SubSpace
In 1997 you would be lucky to get two computers to talk with one another long enough to play a short game of quake.
It wasn’t impossible. Networked multiplayer games existed. Lots of people played them. I played them. But they weren’t exactly easy to get running. They weren’t exactly responsive. They weren’t exactly stable. The idea of running a single game that could accommodate over two hundred players on a single server, over a dial up modems, well that was sorcery.
Higher speed connections to the internet were available, but they were either extremely expensive or only in specific locales. Wherever you happened to be, that is where high speed internet probably wasn’t. It was all a little too big an ask just to play a multiplayer game. If you wanted to do that you would pack up your pc and move it to where you could hook up a LAN. With a bunch of other people. Maybe even a party. A LAN party.
Now, if I want to play a game with any number of other people I can turn on one of the many devices within arms reach that will let me do that. Including this IPad I am typing on right now.
What if there were some sorcery that let you do that in 1997? What if there was at least one game where you could join in and play with an absolutely staggering amount of people.
SubSpace is all at once close to a decade ahead of its time while also being a throwback to the very early days of video games.
SubSpace is multiplayer Asteroids. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that SubSpace is massively multiplayer Spacewar!.
Spacewar! is a head to head space combat game from the early 60’s. You control a spaceship in pitched combat against another spaceship. There is gravity, inertia, explosions, a star you can slingshot your ship around. It’s actually pretty impressive. And it is likely the first ever video game.
SubSpace is that, but if two hundred other people were also playing and there are missions and team and sometimes you would join up with a bunch of random people from anywhere in the world to play some spaceship soccer.
It felt like it shouldn’t work, but it did. It was amazing.
Unfortunately, being amazing doesn’t always mean commercial success. Subspace didn’t sell well enough to keep the servers running for very long. And like far too many online games, that would have been the end of it. With no server, the game had nothing to call in to, no place in the world to call home.
But SubSpace was amazing, and a lot of people knew that. These people did what people who love something amazing do. They made it their own.
Today on Steam you can play SubSpace Continuum. It is a aground up recreation of SubSpace. I don’t know if there are people playing it now, but I think it might be worth your while to try. Get a group of two hundred or so people together. Go fly tiny 2D spaceships around 2D mazes and shoot at each other. It’s fun. It’s one of the Best Games.
About a half an hour ago I solved an issue I have been having with my 2D (but actually 3D) game project. It feels great.
When I started this, I had an extremely specific aesthetic and feeling that I wanted to capture. A late 80’s to early 90’s arcade machine. The first part of the journey was creating a CRT effect. That came together fairly quickly. The next part was making properly looping animations and a system for making them either 3D or 2D rendered sprites. In the end I managed to make them 3D meshes that get rendered in a spritelike manner.
After that was control. I wanted analog control that still felt snappy like D-Pad or joystick inputs. I think I have that mostly taken care of, along with a simple, but solid general input component that handles button presses and gamepad or keyboard inputs. I have interaction with colliders and trigger volumes working. Animation trees are mostly ready to go. The only thing that never worked quite like I wanted was the camera.
Godot 4 is pretty well known for having camera jitter when trying to create pixel perfect movement and panning. I experienced a lot of it. Eventually I was able to get the player and object movement to be pretty crisp. There wouldn’t be very much pixel twitching when you ran the little character around. Background tiles would stay stuck to the simulated phosphors and CRT bloom. Until the camera moved. If it moved slowly, everything looked okay, but as soon as it started moving with any sort of speed things got very twitchy.
I did the first thing anyone would do, I looked it up on the internet. I watched tutorials. I snooped around in code off of GitHub. I did the research. There are a lot of people doing pixel art games and a lot of those people are working on pixel perfect cameras. Not one that I found were solving the same problems as me, and a lot of them required so many weird workarounds and caveats that it would be a chore to develop the actual game. I want aesthetic constraints, not arbitrary technical ones.
Anyway, at the end of all of that, I combined some techniques and figured out a solution that actually allows me more artistic freedom, and it looks damn near perfect.
I could try to explain, but you can just watch this and judge for yourself.
I have been playing some Atari 50. It’s part game, part documentary, part interactive museum highlighting some slices over the 50 year history of Atari.
It is packed with high resolution scans of game manuals and marketing materials. Most of them are what you would expect. Flyers filled with details about cabinets for arcade owners to peruse when making purchasing decisions, complete with the requisite amount of hype. I find all of this historical miscellany fascinating. This is the sort of stuff that typically gets tossed, since it doesn’t offer much value to the company. Not much money to be made with a flyer for an arcade machine that isn’t being produced or sold anymore. It’s even more difficult for people to see any value in artifacts created for temporary commercial purposes within their own lifetimes. The first Coca Cola logo ever produced is historically interesting, some slight change to that logo produced in the last five months is not. Maybe it should be. Maybe we should celebrate these small artifacts. Small works.
One of the things I have been extremely taken with when playing through Atari 50 is the T-Shirts. T-Shirts come up a lot. Pictures of people wearing weird T-Shirts, stories of people making T-Shirts, and the company using T-Shirts as marketing material. Compared to most corporate T-Shirts today, the design of a lot of these T-Shirts absolutely rips.
I’ll admit here and now that I haven’t done a ton of research on this, but I think there might be a reason these particular T-Shirts are great. Most of these T-Shirts are from the late 70s and early 80s. There was a certain confluence of technologies and design during that time that would lead to some really fantastic T-Shirts.
First, screen printing technology, which had been around for literally hundreds of years at the time, had fairly recently been commodified to the point that a person could buy or build a screen printing setup for a few hundred dollars. That meant that it became pretty easy for people to print images and words onto T-Shirts, at least if what you want is fairly basic.
Around the same time, graphic design and camera technology was going through a similar commodification. We weren’t quite to the point where all of this work could be done on a computer, setting up artwork was still mostly a manual process, but improved photographic film, emulsion, and lithograph materials helped designers work cheaper and quicker than ever before. This led to an absolute boom of high quality design being applied to products that never would have enjoyed such high quality artwork even a decade earlier. Toys and moderately priced consumer products started getting the premium artwork treatment. Artwork that could be resized and reused for anything and everything. Artwork that could be applied cheaply to something like a T-Shirt.
Of course, the graphic T-Shirt options somewhere in the vicinity of 1979 were nothing like they are today. You can get a cheap shirt with basically anything you want on it now. You can even have a place print something you drew with your finger in a jack box game and they will send you that shirt in a few days. Maybe even less. But that also means that most shirts are considered cheap, almost disposable, items. Companies that make shirts don’t always bring their A game.
In the late 70s they had a bunch of good artwork and it was very easy to make T-Shirts. Maybe not as easy as it is today, but if you are silk screening the shirts and not inkjet printing them, it was pretty close. If you are a company like Atari and you want to make some shirts to sell, and maybe promote your company and products, you will use the artwork that you have ready for screen printing. The best artwork your company can make. Simply put, nothing else is ready.
Almost all of the T-Shirts I am seeing in Atari 50 follow that model. They are screen prints of some bit of art that the company had already photographed and set up for making screens or plates. In other words, their best art. I’m sure they had a few duds, but I haven’t seen them.
While the flyers and other advertising materials were probably held in a flat file somewhere until they were scanned for this project, I doubt the T-Shirts exist now. T-shirts aren’t really known for their durability, but also, people don’t tend to consider artifacts like that important. At least not historically important.
That’s unfortunate, since they represent a lot of skilled artist’s work. That, and they were a damn sight better than just another corporate logo in the center of someone’s chest.
Best Games - Retro Game Challenge (GameCenter CX: Arino no Chosenjo)
For the last twenty years the show GameCenter CX has played on Fuji TV One in Japan. It’s a comedy show where Shinya Arino attempts to play, and beat, old video games. Arino is an affable man, usually quick with a joke, who suffers the task of playing these games at the behest of the CX company, a company that gleefully promotes and demotes him based on his performance in the games, but one that he also appears to run. His assistants will show up to alternately help or torment him, whichever is funnier in the moment.
Between games, Arino and his crew tour around Japan interviewing legendary figures in the video game industry, and, more often than not, playing games with them.
The entire show is built on good natured enjoyment, and an honest love of video games.
When indieszero set out to make a game based on GameCenter CX, the only way to do the show justice would be to build into it that same love. So that is exactly what they did.
Since GameCenter CX isn’t really a known commodity outside of Japan, the English title of the game was changed to Retro Game Remix, but the content of the game is largely the same.
In Retro Game Challenge, you play as a young kid in the 80s, playing with your neighbor on what looks to be a Nintendo Famicom.
A low poly version of Arino will issue you challenges, much like he deals with during the show, and you must complete them by playing a series of fictional video games.
It would do a disservice to the games included, to call them minigames. The games are often more fully featured than a lot of early Famicom games. They are often ridiculously authentic. If a player weren’t familiar with the real games that these fictional facsimiles are referencing, they could fairly easily be confused for real games from the mid to late 80s.
The games are good too. They look good. They sound good. They play good. They are good. They aren’t just good enough for a minigame collection. They are legitimately enjoyable sans the game master Arino framing device, and arbitrary challenges. Indieszero made games within a game, but they made them so well, many of them could have stood on their own, wrapped in a plastic cartridge and jammed into a Nintendo console.
The love for gaming doesn’t end with the high quality of the fictional games. Each game comes with a period perfect manual that you can flip through for background and tips on how to best play each game.
The manuals are beautifully designed and pitch perfect. There is a deep love that went into the fake packaging of these fake games. They feel real, because they are real.
The last threads of the nostalgia tapestry making up Retro Game Challenge, is the magazines. Every once in a while a magazine will be added to your shelf, and you can take it down and read it. The magazines are filled with poorly, but authentically, written reviews, hints, and articles about the games you are, and will be, playing. The magazines provide a sense of place. A connection to the time that these fictional games occupy.
Retro Game Challenge loves games just as much as the show it’s based on, and that love makes it one of the best games.
I don’t really have a style. I have a way that I draw or model or design characters, but I don’t really have a style.
I was watching an artist on YouTube, something I do quite a lot, and they were trying something a little outside of their ordinary, but they said that they were adapting it to their own style.
Have you ever seen those articles or news pieces about how some people think in fully formed images, some people only think in words. It often comes as a wonder to many of them that there are people out there that process the world in very different ways. That one person can hold an extremely vivid, three dimensional representation of a tomato in their imagination, while another person can clearly imagine a symbolic representation of the letters in the word tomato with only a tangential connection to what a tomato is or looks like.
I imagine that picturing the perfectly realized tomato is what knowing your own art style is like.
So I do what so many people with slightly different thought patterns do. I fake it.
I have a way that my hand likes to make lines. I have an attraction to certain forms and shapes. I put those into my work and shrug at it. Maybe that’s my style. I don’t feel like it is, but if other people can look at something I have drawn or sculpted, and recognize that it might have come from me, maybe that’s all that having a style is.
I watched that artist on YouTube draw a set of portraits. They were all recognizably from the same artist. They did what they said they would do. They adapted those portraits to their own style.
Did they just use shapes and arcs that their hand could draw, and continue to reuse shapes that they were attracted to. Maybe, but I don’t think so. It seemed like they had a personal style that they had spent time crafting. They chose an aesthetic and they bent all of their art toward it.
I can honestly say that I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know what that is. That tomato doesn’t exist for me. I fake it. I make the marks I make and I bend the image in a way that solves the problem I am trying to solve. I adjust proportions, I infer emotion, I attempt to tell a story. If any of that comes out as some sort of cohesive personal style might be for other people to decide. That part of my brain just doesn’t work that way.
I had reason to think recently about the way that art is taught.
I think there are a lot of art teachers, instructors, and professors out there that do a fantastic job. You can even find many of them on YouTube or various art instruction channels.
I’m talking ‘capital A’ art here. As in, any medium of expression that people use that is not purely informational. Visual art, music, performance, writing, interactive, culinary, fashion, architectural, competitive, martial, etc, etc, etc.
There are a thousand and one books on any artistic topic you might be interested in. Dozens of courses offered at an institute of learning near you. Art is our first, and most diverse, form of cultural communication. Art is the difference between loose groups of cave dwelling hominids and globe spanning civilizations. Art is on a very short list of the things that make humans human. And we keep on teaching it to each other wrong.
I have written here before about how art isn’t a thing you make, it’s a thing you do. There are exactly as many ways to do art as there are people. Every single one of us will do the things we do in slightly different ways. We will create our cultural artifacts or express our ephemeral performance arts in slightly different ways than any other person.
Art is also an industry, and industry requires some amount of consistency. A level of repeatability. The good thing is that a trained and practiced human is pretty adept at consistency. We are good at creating patterns and repetition. It’s in our nature. We build machines and tools that aid in our consistency.
The problem is, that sometimes, we mistake the industry and consistency for quality.
There is a large contingent of the art instruction world that would like nothing more than to create robots. Individuals that will, when asked, repeat a set of processes to create a consistent, repeatable, product. They think they are teaching art, but they are teaching the creation of artifacts. Art and artifacts are very different things. Artifacts might be what we make, but art is what we do and how we do it.
The only way to get better at anything, is through practice. Repetition. No person starts out making their first mark on paper and ends up producing a masterpiece. You have to practice. You have to work through processes. But that doesn’t mean that you only have to practice making that one mark.
I suppose it’s a mindset more than the actual, physical steps that you have to take. You can, of course, draw seven thousand circles so that you might be better at drawing circles. But that’s not all that you learned.
In drawing those circles, you learned the arc of your hand. The dexterity of your wrist. You learned the rhythm of movement. The pressure and angle you can apply to graphite. You didn’t just make circles. You aren’t only good at making circles. You have learned motions and processes that can be applied to drawing any form. You can draw a hip, an ear, a leaf, a stream flowing past a cottage illuminated by moonlight. You didn’t only learn to draw circles.
There are far too many teachers trying to teach new people to draw new circles so that they can take up positions in the circle drawing industry. These new people will be practiced, they will be consistent, but unless they realize the depth and breadth of what they have learned they will go on thinking that they are quite good at drawing circles, and nothing more.
Art is the act of creating.
That is the part that needs to be taught.
Best Games - Shatterhand (Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain)
By 1991 the last nails were already being driven into the coffin of the NES. The console wouldn't actually be discontinued for years, and in its home market of Japan, a full decade. Games would continue to trickle out during those years (there are still games being made for the old Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System), but releasing a game for that machine in 1991 was just asking for it to be forgotten.
At the tail end of a console's life there are usually only two kinds of games that get released. Weird licensed games and games that started development way earlier but took a long time to reach release. Either way, the results are not usually stellar.
Shatterhand is sort of an outlier. It originated as a licensed game based on a Japanese action show. Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain or Super Rescue Solbrain was a superhero show where cops wore special high tech armor to fight crime in Tokyo. This is the sort of thing that licensed game dreams are made of. If you want to make some money selling games to kids there are a few things you will need to do. Make something flashy, make it vaguely resemble the show, design and develop it quickly so that it comes out while the show is still relevant. Making the game good usually doesn’t factor into these equations. If you can, you just copy another game, a popular game, and you use all of those mechanics in your licensed game. Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain does none of that.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. They did make the game quickly, and it did come out when the show was still on the air, but Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain is not a quick flip of some existing game design. It is the height of what the developer, Angel, was capable of making at the time. Nearly a decade into working with the famicom hardware, they made a game that is rock solid, interesting, challenging, beautiful, and, above all, fun. That isn’t normal for licensed games.
Even if people from Angel or Bandai suspected that they may have a hit on their hands, localizing the game must have been difficult. Obviously, very few people outside of Japan had any reverence for Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain. Instead of a basic translation, the developers opted to create Shatterhand, a recreation of the original with new art, a slightly modified story, and some new level designs. Playing them back to back, I would even say that Shatterhand plays a bit nicer. Smoother. Better.
The game is, as the English name would suggest, all about punching. Unlike Mega Man your attack range is the length of your arm. That means that playing Shatterhand feels a lot more timing based and visceral. There is an immediacy to all your actions that just feels great to play.
You do have more than your fists to get you through the game. Shatterhand also has one of the most innovative upgrade systems I think I have ever seen. You collect Greek lettered power ups, either Alpha or Beta. When you collect three of them they combine to activate a satellite robot. Depending on the order you collected them, you will get a different helper, with different abilities. Trying them all out and finding which ones are the most useful for each stage offers a whole range of exploration that action games of this type just don’t have. To top that, if you collect two sets of the same robot helper in rapid succession, they will turn into a super armor that will give you enhanced abilities for a short while.
There are a lot of reasons that Shatterhand shouldn’t exist. It was released too late in its console’s life. It was a remake of a Japanese licensed game. It bucks convention for the type of platform action game that it is.
This is a game that should never have seen a North American release, and yet, here it is. Claiming its place as one of the Best Games.
I hope you have, or have had, a good Thanksgiving. If you are American, and you have your Thanksgiving one week before Christmas or Hanukkah or whatever, what are you doing. Spread your family holidays out a bit. That’s just wacky.
I’m fighting a battle against pixels and I’m losing.
Maybe I’m winning.
It’s hard to tell.
My pixel art game project is sort of stuck, but the wheels are still spinning.
This is the problem with working on something where you are going for an extremely specific look. You can get right up to the edge of that. You can have the look almost perfect, but if it’s not perfect it’s difficult to move forward.
The pixel look I am going for is like 95% right now, and I think I probably need it around 97% or 98% before I can really let loose on the artwork. It doesn’t seem that much does it, that 2 or 3 percent. It’s almost nothing.
I have done some work on the collision interactions and the animation pipeline. All of that is going fine. It’s drawing the pixels to the screen that need a tiny boost.
I have a very promising filtering shader on the go. I have a camera adjustment script that keeps things from looking twitchy. Maybe, just maybe, one of those will be the solution to my problem.
I literally have the shader open in another window while I type this and I keep jumping over there to make changes.
I trust that I will be able to shove this project that extra 2 or 3 percent, but to do that I will need to get back to it. So I guess I will.