Sunday, May 31, 2009

Side Saddle 2: Side Harder!

My adventures in game design are largely experimental in nature; I like to take weird ideas and ask weird questions and see if the end result is playable or interesting. The only one of my explicitly experimental games that I'm not embarrassed by is Side Saddle.

Side Saddle
Added: 08 January 2009
By: tomrussell

(You can play it at Yo Yo Games using their instant play plug-in or you can download it right to your desktop.)

Action games are about controlling space, but in non-arena shmups, both vertical and horizontal, I find the control of space to be too easy. Yes, in bullet hell games, it's difficult to dodge-and-shoot, but in many games you can basically just strafe back-and-forth along one axis-- the horizontal axis in a vertical game and the vertical one in a horizontal-- and rapidly press or hold the fire button to destroy whatever legions of enemies are coming at you.

The player can hang back at either the bottom or left of the screen and fire from there; their shots stretch out over wider axis of the game's orientation.

There are some shmups, of course, that don't allow the player to fall into this trap. Enemies with heat-seeking missiles and arcing bullets prevent the player from getting too comfy. Cactus's great game Clean Asia requires you to ram through an enemy in order to gather the shots used to defeat them. And you don't want to move along one axis in a bullet hell game.

But I was wondering to myself, is there another way to do this? The big problem for me was, again, the way the bullets dominate the longer axis. I considered using "funny" bullets that spin around and I thought about using bullets that peter out after so many seconds. But I couldn't really get either to implement particularly well.

That's when the thought occured to me of flipping the axis; of having the bullets control the short axis rather than the long one.

In such a game, the player would have to get right next to an enemy in order to shoot them, putting a renewed focus on how the player moves through and controls space. And that's when I started working on Side Saddle, a side-shooting vertical shmup. But there was still a problem; I found that my playtesters were moving along the vertical axis, up-and-down, shooting willy-nilly. Shorter axis or not, it was still the same trap.

And that's where the ammo idea came from; players would now have to conserve their ammo and aim carefully. Accuracy became important. And the reloading motif-- the ammo only reloads when the player isn't moving-- would require the player to think more deeply about the way they moved through space, to consider if they should stop here and for how long.

It also introduced a dynamic tension into the way the player dealt with enemies. If you kill an enemy quickly, you'll have more time to recharge ammo for the next wave; if you wait longer, the enemy will be worth more points but you'll have less time to recharge. And since every 10,000 points gave the player a turret power-up, thus increasing their ability to control space and avoid dying, scoring more points is ideal.

So that, in a nutshell, is the decision-making process that resulted in this game. It's a difficult game, but it's perfectly winnable if the player (1) conserves ammo, (2) fires accurately, (3) stops moving to recharge his ammo, (4) strikes a balance between his ammo-needs and his power-up wants, and (5) uses the entire playfield.

The problem with all that is, it's pretty much hard-wired to support one style of play (the style enumerated above) and to dismiss all others (such as the move-along-one-axis and firing-willy-nilly-at-everything school of shmupping). I stand by the decisions I've made and I think there's a lot of good, challenging, and strategic play in it, that it has a fair amount of replay value.

At the same time, I'm dubious about any game that doesn't allow the player to use their own play style and strategies. While I still think, at least at this stage when it is admittedly still very fresh in my heart and my mind, Side Saddle is a good game, it should have supported more varied styles of play.

Part of the problem is, admittedly, by design-- the whole point of the game, from the start, was to "correct" "lazy" play habits in shmup game play by removing the strategy of moving along one axis while controlling the other with your bullets. But, y'know-- some people like that style of play. (Heck, sometimes I do.) So maybe the whole time I was operating from a false premise.

I'm certainly not trying to dissuade anyone from playing my game--please dear God play my game-- and in fact I hope that the preceding prods some people into giving it a look.

(Please forgive the poor image quality in this clip; it was either shoot off the screen as I did or use Cam Studio to slow the game down to an unplayable crawl.)

I'm currently at work on another shmup, a sequel that takes three of Side Saddle's defining features-- side-shooting on a vertical screen, placing turret power-ups, and an ammo feature-- and pushes them into a new direction, one that hopefully supports more diverse styles of play. If anyone who has played the original wants to give me some feedback that can be implemented in its sequel-- or if anyone wants to play the original now and give me more of the same-- now would be the time to do so.

Side Saddle
Added: 08 January 2009
By: tomrussell


Honorary Russell Jake Hildebrandt-- he who is The Man Who Loved, as well as Daniel Taintview in the There Will Be Poon segment of Son of a Seahorse-- is perhaps better known as one of the Two Jakes of Steampunk. (And while it wasn't exactly steampunk, his technological prowess was responsible for the fearsome Robot Lady in Son of a Seahorse.)

Lately, much of his time has been spent creating a computer as a give-away for the upcoming steampunk video game Damnation. And the following videos provide an in-depth look at that process:

Visit Jake at his official website.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Game Review: Riddick (Butcher's Bay & Dark Athena) Over at Monitor Duty

Tom here. I've begun doing game reviews of new commercial titles over at Monitor Duty, the geek news website. My style hasn't changed much since I opened my appreciation of Super Mario Bros. with a quote from Proust-- if you like in-depth analysis from a game design perspective that's unafraid to take the art form seriously, then it's for you. If you're more partial to, OMG!, this game was awesome!, look elsewhere.

First review: The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, which contains both that game and the original, Escape From Butcher's Bay.

turtlebit: Video game commercials

I found an interesting item at GamePlayer. Here you will find 19 classic video game commercials, a virtual smorgasbord for the mind, waiting for you. Here are three to get you started.

First up is an ancient Sega Saturn commercial

Next up is Super Smash Brothers.

Last up is Sony Playstation 2.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Busy, Busy, Busy...

My To-Do List For This Weekend:

- a review of The Chronicles of Riddick: Butcher Bay & Dark Athena for Monitor Duty;

- my long-delayed second column in the Stripping With Tom Russell series for Comics Should Be Good!;

- finalizing the mini-commentary and menus for the self-distributed DVD edition of Son of a Seahorse, with Mary;

- getting back to work on the screenplay for our next film, Olivia Forever!, with Mary;

- digging up parts of our backyard in an attempt to transform it into a scrumptious vegetable garden;

- completing the design of the fourth and final level for Run Jump;

- and coming to terms with the fact that Saturday is almost over and that I won't get half of this done this weekend.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New Finalish DVD Slip Cover for SON OF A SEAHORSE

As we finalize the details/contents for our self-distributed DVD of Son of a Seahorse, we gave the cover another once-over and spiffed it up a bit.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Son of a Seahorse Trailer # 3

The third and probably final trailer for our film Son of a Seahorse. Might have to fiddle with your speaker's volume nob a little bit; YouTube has an alarming tendency to take audio we've spent a good chunk of time mixing just so and making it either too loud or too quiet for no discernable reason.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Son of a Seahorse Poster & DVD Cover Design

For many low-budget filmmakers, marketing is a word that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Marketing is about selling, not about art; about targeting an audience, not engaging them. And then there's those filmmakers and studios that are all about the marketing, all about selling the tickets and not about, you know, making a good film, making something that lasts.

In fact, so much was Tom's dislike of marketing that the first film the two of us made together, Milos, did not have a website, as was the trend. It was Mary, perhaps the more realistically minded of the two of us, who insisted on having a page for The Man Who Loved and Son of a Seahorse.

But now that we're self-distributing our films via Amazon (starting with The Man Who Loved), we can no longer ignore that marketing aspect. DVDs require DVD slip-case covers, and self-distribution requires some degree of self-promotion.

And actually and honestly? Mr. "I Hate Marketing" finds that he kind of enjoys the process of finding & creating images that might (1) communicate what the film is about and (2) persuade someone to purchase it, of deciding on and then arranging different elements, of creating "logo families" and tag-lines. It has absolutely almost nothing to do with filmmaking, but it is a sort of bastard art in its own right. (And even Mr. "I Hate Marketing" can admit that he has some serious love for some of the old posters, especially those that came out of Eastern Europe: so striking, so lovely, so kinetic.)

Anyway, with that preamble out of the way, we thought we'd take you through some of the various forms the marketing (such as it is) for Son of a Seahorse.

To begin with, there was this poster:

Three things here that you'll note: the blue font (Aardvark Bold, which was actually used in the film), this particular shot of David screaming, and the salmon-coloured suit that he's wearing. These three things remain pretty constant through-out the various itinerations that follow, mostly because they're distinctive and, we hope, memorable.

Our second poster is really just the first with the full cast; a miniature version of this was sent to festivals along with the screener. Were we doing this to try and capitalize on the presence of Joe Swanberg in our cast? You bet your ass we were. Did it work? Not in the slightest.

Our next poster concept was a little more daring:

Notice that the three motifs we mentioned before are present: the blue Aardvark, the screaming David (in the form of the line drawing), the salmon-suit. In this case, the suit is suggested by negative space, the colour filling up the poster. The shot of David walking also had a nice "lonely man" motif-- something that we felt reflected well on the film.

I think it's a really neat concept for a poster. Unfortunately, we couldn't quite execute it to our satisfaction. The major problem was the drawing: if you look back at the first two posters, David's facing left. We drew it that way, and then flipped it; flipped, it just doesn't feel "right". At the same time, the head facing inwards (towards the walking David) didn't feel right either. We tried it without the drawing--

-- but it's not striking enough, doesn't communicate enough about the film. When we started working on the DVD cover, we abandoned this concept and went back to our original for the front. We tried the drawn version of that same image, now facing left once more, for the back.

We added as text one of the best lines from the film:

Unfortunately, that line is Adrienne's. Putting it next to the David head makes it look like it's his line. And then it doesn't make any sense: is the angry guy yelling at himself to stop yelling? We decided we had better go for a more traditional back-of-the-box text, in all its ego-stoking glory. Gone went the head.

Also note that instead of a solid orangey-pink-salmon back we added a blue box and separated them with a bar of black/stills. This put a greater deal of stress on the use of blue for the text, making blue and salmon our film's two marketing colours. But that "Jam-Packed With Extras!" blue is a little lost in the bottom box, and so we made one more change:

And, by the way, it is going to be jam-packed with extras. In addition to a mini-commentary like the one we provided on The Man Who Loved, you'll find the complete short film Bernard the Lonely Snail, and three episodes of Ned and Sunshine, the zombie sitcom, including one no longer available online. And, heck, we might even throw in a trailer or two:

(Really, seriously, click on that HQ button; the "standard" edition lags and chops all to hell.)

Unless we get a sudden offer from a distribution company (which, being poor, we'd be more than happy to accept), you can expect Son of a Seahorse to be available this June for fifteen measly dollars. Heck, buy it with The Man Who Loved to qualify for that free super-saver shipping. Or wait until later in the summer, when our long unseen original cut of Milos will be made available for the very first time, also with various fine and sundry supplements.

The marketing of that one, of course, will be a whole 'nother discussion...

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Thoughts Towards a Nose-Hair Free Cinema

The Close-Up is a beautiful thing. Striking, powerful, unrelenting, searching. The cornerstone of cinema, of continuity editing.

From top to bottom: Dreyer, Chaplin, Capra, Leone, Cassavetes, Bronstein, Motlagh, and us. By grouping these stills together, we don't mean to imply any equivalency; the only thing they have in common is a human face that fills up the frame. Hopefully, you'll find those human faces as interesting and the images as visually arresting as we do. The close-up can have an enormous amount of impact.

Heck, Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc is pretty much all close-ups, all the time, edited together with hypnotic, almost feverish force. So you're not going to hear me saying something like, "Close-ups should be used sparingly to maintain their impact."

All that being said, it has come to our attention that an awful lot of contemporary American independent films, particularly those shot on digital video with a 1.37 aspect ratio, use an awful lot of close-ups. Our own film, The Man Who Loved, as you might intuit from that last still, certainly falls into that camp, for good or for ill.

Some might say that an over-use of close-ups results in a claustrophobic film, but I don't think that's true; to give a sense of claustrophobia, one must be made intensely aware of his or her physical surroundings. A claustrophobic film, like an agoraphobic one, must give the audience some meaningful sense of space. A film comprised solely of close-ups doesn't do that. Instead, it does quite the opposite: it makes things more abstract. Characters in close-up are disembodied and quite cut off from their surroundings, so much so that those surroundings cease to matter. The characters are no longer people in places but ideas untethered and adrift.

Dreyer understood this in making his Passion of Joan of Arc: by keeping us close to Falconetti, he keeps us inside her pain, pushes us into the spiritual glories of her beatific suffering. A process that is assisted ably by his purely visual rhythm (do not watch it with music; that is a heresy.)

The thing is, I'm not sure if we and our contemporaries are going for what Dreyer is going for. The way we hear it (and tell it) we're all about representing life as we live it, keeping it real, insert another cliche here, et cetera, et cetera. And by over-relying on close-ups and thus removing our films from the physical world and the concerns of physical bodies moving through physical space, we run the risk of utilizing a style that runs completely counter to our aims and intentions.

We realized this ourselves just before we began shooting Son of a Seahorse. There were three things that were more-or-less responsible for this realization.

First, there was some dissatisfaction with the use of space in The Man Who Loved. Both Man and Seahorse were shot in our home, with most of the action taking place in the living room-dining room-kitchen area, three rooms which overlap like so:

In one pivotal scene in The Man Who Loved, Sarah (Adrienne Patterson) exits the kitchen towards the dining room and into the living room. Before George (Jacob Hildebrandt, the angry looking fellow from the screenie) can follow, she whips around the living room and back into the kitchen via the hallway. It's a cool little shot.

Unfortunately, because we didn't give the audience any real sense of the physical space the characters were living in, it didn't really work: it was like she was popping up out of nowhere. We didn't realize this, of course, until we actually sat down with viewers who didn't live in our house.

The second thing that led to this realization was the fact that longtime friend and collaborator David Schonscheck was taking the lead role. David absolutely defies any attempt to contain him in a close-up. He's such a big sprawling gangly personality, filled with a nervous energy, always on the move, using his entire body to relate even the most mundane of anecdotes. Filming with David meant we had to frame wide for David, and it occurred to us that this was a more respectful way to work with actors.

Instead of chopping their performances into tiny close-up slices, crafting personalities and creating new life-rhythms in the editing room like tin gods, our actors simply raw materials to use at our will-- instead of that, going wider and holding longer meant we had to trust the actors to set the pace for a given scene, to interact with each other, to hold the audience's attention, to inhabit their characters through movement, gesture, and mass rather than just their voices and faces.

Thirdly, we started playing video games-- Tom coming back to them after a long dry spell and Mary coming to them for the first time. Even more-so than in film, the clear statement of spatial relationships and the ability to impart a sense of geography is paramount in the video game art form. If you can't see how wide a pit is or you can't judge the speed of an enemy (a common problem in the earliest of 3-D platformers and action games), you're screwed; and how many of us have spent needless time wandering around a level after finding the red key trying to remember where the hell the red door was? Spending more time playing, writing about, and creating video games really got us thinking more critically about the spatial element in our films.

The end result, I think, is a much stronger-- and much more realistic-- film. Something to think about the next time you're zooming in for that close-up.

A final note: this is not directed at or inspired by any particular film by any particular contemporary filmmaker. We're just commenting on a trend and trying to inspire some thought and some debate.