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Howth, Crystal, Zozimus, Kells, Paddy's

Two busy, fun weeks.

Two Tuesdays ago, we hit up Howth, a bubble-shaped town on the east coast on Ireland. I had some delicious fresh cod (fried, with salt and vinegar; yum), and Bonnie and I went out on the famous cliff walks. After wondering amongst muddy hills, and prickly bushes, we discovered that we weren’t on the famous cliff walks after all, but rather a random path that wasn’t really meant for humans. We found the real path, but we were already wet from the rain, and muddy from the- well, mud. (Admittedly, it was quite fun.)

The Saturday before last, Bonnie and I went south to Waterford, a town best known for its crystal, for which it’s known worldwide. A tour through the facilities allowed us to see glass-blowers in action, as well as other elements of the process. We also saw a lot of pretty things we couldn’t afford.

On Sunday, we went on a tour through old Dublin with Bonnie’s flat-mate, Dee, led by an actor playing a blind man. He called himself “Zozimus.” We called him “the blind guy.”

Last Tuesday was for Kells, best known for the Book of Kells, which is in Dublin, and not Kells. Kells itself is a neat little town, with a fake lighthouse in the middle of nowhere, a few nifty cemeteries, and quite a few big celtic crosses.

On Wednesday, Johnny arrived with three of his Syracuse/London friends (Evan, Mike, Mark), and Mark’s friend Simone. Bonnie’s friend, Elaine, arrived on the same day, at the same time, on the same flight from Edinburgh, Scotland. They all met on the plane.

Leading up to St. Paddy’s were a few days of Dublin wanderings. Johnny and his cohorts hit up the classic Dublin sights (Jameson Distillery, Guinness Storehouse, etc.), while Bonnie and I took Elaine around to more humble, free things. On Thursday everyone made their way to Smithfield to see Grupo Puja, a bunch of acrobats and musicians from Argentina and Spain, who played repetetive, ambient rock music while others did aerial stunts on a giant metal ball moving a hundred feet in the air). It was pretty cool, unlike the weather, which was pretty cold. We went out for drinks afterward to warm up.

I’m supposed to have a lot to say about Paddy’s Day, but I really don’t. It was, however, a fun day. We made it in to town around 11 or 12, and tried our best to secure a good place to watch the parade. The streets were flooded with people, and lots of lots of green. In the Temple Bar area, the streets were just as crowded, and in the pubs, there was scarcely room to breathe. We did an admittedly minimal amount of drinking in Dublin that day, returning to Bonnie’s flat around five to order Pizza and watch Arrested Development. When I say ‘we’, I mean Bonnie, myself, and Elaine. Johnny and his friends made it a pint-filled day, returning to UCD around 11:30. All of our guests left Saturday morning, giving us a lazy day filled with Cheez-its (thanks to Andy, Michelle and Shayla!), and homemade vegetable korma (thanks to Uncle Ben and Patak’s!).

We leave for Edinburgh on Tuesday, and will be traveling around Britain for about two weeks. When we return, I’m sure there will be stories to tell (and photos to share). -sj

The Game/Art Problem Presents: The Intruder

The following is reprinted from bard xy, where it originally appeared on 28 September, 2005. Although the weekly feature idea never really took off, I still feel strongly about this piece, which finds successful game design in a work of net.art.

I’m hoping to start a new weekly feature on xy, entitled “The Game/Art Problem.” Each week, I’ll be posting links to examples of the synthesis of art and video games, and discussing the issues demonstrated by these pieces. This week, I’m presenting Natalie Bookchin’s “The Intruder”, a hypertext/game interpretation of the same-named story by Jorge Luis Borges.

Bookchin, an L.A. artist and professor at the California Institute of the Arts, executed “The Intruder” in January of 1999. By visiting the site, the user (slash reader, slash player) is confronted with a series of simplistic video games, which he or she must complete in order to progress through the narrative. Each of the ten games unfurls a portion of Borges’s original story (translated into English from the Spanish original), with the unveiling of the text dependent upon the user successfully playing through the game (or, in the case of one game, failing to play). Though mostly modeled after classic Atari 2600 titles, each game is visually related to the portion of text it covers. For example, as Borges’s story talks about a woman who is shared sexually between two brothers, the user plays a version of Pong, where a female avatar replaces the ball.

In hypertext and net.art communities, this piece is heralded for its use of video games to affect one’s read of the classic story. This sort of view, however, strictly looks at game as assisting the read of the text. A description of the piece on Rhizome.org exemplifies this view of game as supplementary to story: “Playing transforms former readers into participants who are placed inside of and implicated in the story—-Borges’s short tale of a tragic love triangle.”

I refer to this issue as the Game/Art Problem, or specifically the issue of discerning whether – in a specific instance – a game is art, or whether art is using game: Game as Art, or Art as Game?

In the case of Bookchin’s “The Intruder,” the standpoint of the literary community is that art utilizes game in order to convey meaning. Instead, however, let us look at “The Intruder” as game before art. Consider, in a series of ten different games, how the inclusion of Borges’s story alters the goals of gameplay. Without the element of story, each game is played with the goal of defeating a computer opponent, or avoiding obstacles. When narrative is introduced, however, each game is played specifically with the purpose of furthering narrative, of completing story.

A player strives to complete each game in order to further the narrative. At the same time, the player is aware of their activity in relation to the narrative. The game is no longer game for game’s sake, but an extension of story. Players can not help but be made aware of the symbolic relevance of their actions in gameplay, whether they be participating in a series of duels over possession of the girl, controlling the girl and forcing her to fall repeatedly to her death, or simply holding a targeting reticule over her floating image in order to hear the entirety of the tale’s horrific conclusion. Bookchin’s piece draws distinct parallels between the importance of gameplay and the progression of story, while gaining popularity over the years not as an example of game utilizing story, but as story utilizing game. How has the gaming community passed over this work for so many years?

The Game/Art Problem presents: “The Intruder”

Birthday, Capote, Rock, Sheep, Cahir

I had a superfun birthday in Ireland. The snow let up fairly quickly, then it snowed again, then it stopped minutes before we departed for city centre. The rest of the day was beautiful.

On Friday we went back into town and visited the Glasnevin Cemetary. A tour that was supposed to happen, didn’t (big surprise), so we simply wandered around, admiring the wide variety of tombstones. Afterwards, we met up with Dee for dinner at the Metro Cafe, and the three of us saw Capote. I’ve officially seen more movies in my short time in Ireland, than I have in the five or six months preceding. Let’s go over the list:

  1. Breakfast on Pluto
  2. Brokeback Mountain
  3. Memoirs of a Geisha
  4. Walk the Line
  5. Jarhead
  6. Capote

I blame the damn movie trailers. Every time I think I’m seeing the last interesting movie playing in Dublin, some trailer pops on the screen and looks really interesting. Now, it’s V for Vendetta. Yes, I know it’s the Wachowski Brothers, but it looks really cool ^_^

Capote was goood, by the way.

On Saturday, Bonnie and I went to Cashel, best known for the Rock of Cashel, and the ruins which sit atop it. We stayed over at a lovely hostel (made lovelier by our lovely room, with a lovely view of the ruins of Hore Abbey), and bussed to Cahir the next morning, to see Cahir Castle and a beautiful old cottage which was (surprise surprise) not open this time of year. Still, it was pretty from afar.

A long bus ride home, followed by a long(ish) night on Skype, chatting with James about the new direction for Scratch. I think the name is staying. The best part of working with James is when we agree on something name-related. He still hates the name sqube, but it’s here to stay.

Social Networks in Small Games

Big Games have the social networks going on.

It’s understandable why. When you’re dealing with a games on the scale of person-to-person relationships, the social networks created are some of the most concrete and compelling outputs of gameplay. As such, there’s a desire to utilize them in new and creative ways. Plus, there seems to be a rising cultural interest in the digitization of the social network. Communities like Facebook and MySpace illustrate this quite plainly, and area/code’s SuperStar shows how this cultural interest translates seamlessly into a successful gameplay concept. It’s 2:15am on a Sunday, and I wish I could start playing SuperStar right now. The only thing stopping me is my lack of a cameraphone.

Why do I feel this tug to throw myself so quickly into social networks? More importantly, how can I take advantage of this energy? Not in big games, but in their tiny, digital brethren: video games.

James and I have now thrice reimagined the gameplay mechanics of Scratch, and this time I think we’re on to something. Previously, the most complex element of gameplay was that of movement, which worked through an ‘orbit’ concept. We’ve put the orbit concept aside, simplified movement mechanics back to where they originally started, and are now considering the potency of data visualization in gameplay.

If I’m being cryptic, it’s because I’m about as paranoid as a Poe character when it comes to game design. Call me crazy, but I have a need to talk about these ideas, while at the same time keeping them all to myself. Is this a problem, or something everyone goes through? Should I just keep my mouth shut and wait until the game’s completed to give a post-mortem? If so, what’s the fun in that?

Gardens, Juice, Stephie, more Juice, 21

On Tuesday, Bonnie and I hit up Powerscourt, a large estate with beautiful gardens, in County Wicklow. Walking around the property was quite a trip, as the owners of the property had imported trees from all around the world. I didn’t even know you could do that. Also worth noting were the recreation of a Japanese garden, and the tiny pet cemetary, where the various ponies and puppies of the old family had been buried.

Back in City Centre, we went to a place called Juice for dinner, and discovered our favorite non-Indian restaurant in Dublin. Juice is all vegetarian (good for Bonnie), and all delicious (good for everyone).

Stephie arrived in Ireland on Friday, and we met up with her in the city. We had Wagamama for dinner; I had a small habitat of miso soup. After we dropped off Stephie, we went to a screening/performance of Rocky Horror. Not enough people in the audience knew the callback phrases, but I don’t know them either so I can’t really complain. We had great seats and it was really fun to see.

On Saturday, we made a day of it in the city with Stephie. The three of us met up with Dee and Despina for a pint at Stag’s Head, and went to a chipper for dinner.

Sunday, we headed up to Malahide to see Malahide Castle. We also got Indian food, because we love Indian. Malahide Castle was interesting, but the Museum of Childhood, which had sounded really cool, was sadly closed for the season.

Monday was Stephie’s birthday. After my class, we went back into the city for tea time at Bewley’s, and birthday dinner at Juice (again).

And today is… my birthday! ^_^

The big two_one. Our plan is to do chili for lunch, head into the city for some birthday shopping, do Indian for dinner, go out for a couple pints, and meet our only Irish friends at a club for more drinking and dancing. I hope we can still do all these things, because as I typed this post, the world started snowing down on Dublin, and it’s looking to be a very white birthday. -sj

(Photos coming soon)

Starting Out: The First Step of Game Design

For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of working on a game is the first step.  There’s nothing more thrilling than starting the design process over, and working from a clean slate with nothing but possibilities ahead. It can, however, be a dangerous temptation – to abandon work on an old project to start work on a new one. In a way, James and I have been fortunate that the original energy that pushed us through our first alpha of sqube still remains months later, even when starting work on a new game.

In reality, we were careful to keep our amibitions in check, even from step one, and to be as efficient in our process as possible. Part of this has to do with working from a practical starting point, and using that to dictate the timeline for the rest of the project.

No two games necessarily start out the same way. The design process a game goes through should be dependent upon what is most important to the developers. Prioritizing in this fashion can keep a project focused, and maintain the momentum beyond the first big bang of ideas.

As I see it, there are three primary starting points from which a game can be approached:

      the rules of the game

        the toolset required for the game

          the players needed in order to play the game

These three primary starting points for a game are also, in my mind, the three pillars of the design process, which are required in any game, and must be balanced out in order to achieve maximum playability with minimal waste.

The approach chosen by a designer should depend on what their eventual intent for the game is. Based on this intent, the designer can choose which of the three pillars to start with. The primary pillar becomes, in this process, the most static of the three elements, and least variable.

Starting the process in this way keeps the design from becoming too chaotic. It’s best to think of the primary pillar as the “control” in a game design “experiment.” If it becomes necessary to make changes to this pillar, then it becomes necessary to designate another as the “control,” and never let all three elements become variable at the same time.

When James and I started working on sqube in November 2005, we started with a very basic concept: to utilize traditionally two-dimensional gameplay mechanics in three-dimensional space. James worked this into a rough but playable demo, of a line which could be drawn around the six faces of a cube. This offered us the starting point of a defined toolset (a line and a cube), and a basic rule of gameplay (that the line was restricted to movement on the cube’s surface). The design process was able to continue when we devised the ‘intersecting lines’ mechanic, which solidified the ruleset. From this, it followed that the game would be a single-player experience.

In an inversion of priorities, our current project is centered around the idea of having a larger, multiplayer experience, with the competetive gameplay scalable from 2 to as many as 16 players. The rules and toolsets are still currently in a variable state, as we determine the best method of matching – if not surpassing – our original intent.

With regards to the above methodology, so far so good, but obviously there are exceptions to every rule. Concepts are great starting points, but sometimes must be abandoned when the mechanics determined for a game drive the development in a vastly different, perhaps better, direction. In this case, it might be counter-productive to adhere to initial concepts, as they might be holding the project back in the event of a ‘better idea.’

I’ve also only applied this process one-and-a-half times, so there’s a very clear possibility that it’ll prove worthless in the midst of a third or fourth project. At the moment, however, this process is proving extremely worthwhile, and has thankfully held up in spite of the large, geographical distance between myself (designer) and James (coder). I might have to start thanking iChat in the credits for these games…

Obelisk, Korma, Galway, Jarhead, Swans

Valentine’s Day was exhausting, but great. Bonnie and I headed to Pheonix Park, where we picnic’d, admired the monstrous obelisk, and generally enjoyed the clear skies and green grass. Pheonix Park is very, very large, very lovely, and apparently (according to our Let’s Go! guide) not a place to be once the sun goes down. I’m guessing vampires.

In the evening, Bonnie and I hit up a stand-up comedy set on campus, followed by a late dinner, cooked by me: vegetable korma with peas and carrots, spinach, basmati rice and naan bread. It made for a delicious end to a lovely day.

This past weekend, we headed west to Galway, an up-and-coming European city known for its youthful, transient population, who come expecting to stay for a weekend, and wind up living there for a month. It’s smaller than Dublin (everything is), and full of interesting shops. We went pub-crawling Friday night after a tasty dinner, and walked 30 minutes to a cinema for a midnight showing of Jarhead. Great movie, but the walk back to the hostel at 2:30am was not my cup of tea. On the plus side, we now know what it’s like to be the last two people in the theatre.

We spent Saturday exploring the city, checking out sites like the Medieval wall which is now part of an indoor shopping centre, and the Saturday open-air market, where I purchased an adorable (and practical!) new change purse. A walk along the water gave us wonderful views of the ocean, with Galway’s rocky coastline, and hundreds of swans around the harbor. The evening consisted of more pub-crawling, with a late-night brownie dessert (I’ll admit, I had two).

Sunday was full of buses. We dedicated the entire day to a bus tour through Connemara, a rocky, grassy, mountainous region just north-west of Galway. While certainly not the most active point in our weekend, the bus tour allowed us access to a lot of sites we would’ve otherwise been unable to see on foot. Sites included old houses with thatched rooves, hundreds of sheep, gorgeous mountains and lakes, and the Kylemore Abbey. We opted out of the photo-op with a replica of the house where scenes from a John Wayne were filmed.

The bus tour run from 10am to around 5. We caught a 6:30 bus back to City Centre, Dublin, getting in around 10pm, and then caught the 10 bus back to campus. Like I said, a bussy day. But I discovered that long bus-rides are good for two things: 1) doing class readings you otherwise wouldn’t have the attention span to do, and 2) taking four pages of game design notes.

James and I have a lot to talk about in the coming weeks. I think I finally figured out the mechanics for sqube‘s “main” mode of play, and I figured out a compromise for the design of our second game that will hopefully improve the strategy as well. I am excited.

Mummies, Authors, Cash, Improv, Trim, WiFi

Busy weekend, but not as busy as it could have been, which was nice.

On Friday we headed into City Centre, Dublin, and went to St. Michan’s Church, of which the big attraction is the naturally preserved mummies which dwell in the crypt underneath. Our quirky but lovable tour guide informed us that the mummies ranged in age, but averaged around 300 years old. Want to hear the creepiest bit?

He let us touch one.

No joke. I’ve touched a really old corpse. I washed my finger later, though. Bonnie and I then hit up the Dublin Writers Museum, which offered an audio tour spanning the history of the Irish literary tradition. Next, we made our way to The Savoy, a crazy-cool theatre with plush-red seats, and the largest movie screen I have ever seen, hidden behind a gorgeous red curtain which was pulled open for previews, closed, then opened again for the feature, Walk the Line. Great movie. My favorite line: “She’s not my wife. I keep askin’ her, but she keeps sayin’ no.” Bonnie’s favorite line: “Hi I’m Johnny Cash.”

After a quick dinner, we ended the night at The Bankers, where an improv group called The Craic Pack was performing. There were only a scant few cultural jokes that I didn’t get (perhaps due to the abundantly obvious American tourists in the back), and the rest of the show was all sorts of funny.

We spent Saturday in a town called Trim, about an hour out of Dublin. Trim’s known for its castle ruins, which made for incredible sights. We spent a large amount of time walking in and around Trim Castle, and then headed further out of the town to check out the gorgeous remains of the Yellow Steeple, Sheep’s Gate, and a breathtaking old cathedral. When we got back to Dublin, we ate good, cheap Indian food. If only we could find a place that does buffet…

Sunday was a lazy one. We headed into the city around 4:30 with my laptop, in a desperate attempt to find internet access that would grant precious use of FTP clients and Second Life. After trying several different coffee shops, two café’s, and a McDonald’s, we gave up and met some friends at a sushi place… which apparently had free wifi. Hence, Bonnie was able to cavort around Second Life for a short while, and I was able to upload WordPress’s config files, and finally start this blog like I’ve been meaning to do for the past week. Thanks, aya!

Flickr photos from last two weeks are now up. They start here in Dublin, on 31 January, and go backwards through Cork and Blarney, which we visited the weekend of 3 February. Photos from this past week start here at St. Michan’s Church on 10 February. Remember to click back, and not forwards through the photos, as they are arranged in reverse chronological order to keep the newest at the top. Enjoy. – sj