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Coding For Your Future Self

Last night I spent the evening working on my personal videogame project. As planned, I refactored chunks of my own code to clean up some Unreal Blueprint nonsense and then wrote documentation for my future self.

When you’re only working on a project one night a week, it’s easy to lose track of what code lives where and why I made some decisions. It’s especially difficult when sometimes I spend multiple sessions not coding but instead working on level design, audio, or figuring out why the procedural foliage was all floating above the ground on an invisible flat plane! This documentation is brief but it will pay off.

We’ve got some summer vacation time happening this year and I won’t be making a lot of progress on my game for a while. Which is great and also terrible, because now my game is fun. There’s a particular piece of gameplay that is delivering on the promise I thought it had and I played more than I needed to last night because the cat-and-mouse tension was real and felt great.

It’s got a long way to go but realizing that I had found the fun was a pretty sweet break from revising code.

Creativity is Collaboration

Each week I take one evening to work on my personal videogame project, a karmic roguelike called The Lighthouse. I’m building it in UE5, an engine I know pretty well, and it’s surprising how fast you can put a prototype together with these tools.

I got the last of the core gameplay features implemented two weeks ago including damage, healing, death, respawning, sprint stamina, enemy AI, and victory condition, all in a first draft state. Since then I’ve built out the initial version of the level which is an island based on a relief map I found of a real island off the coast of Greece.

Last night I got procedural foliage populated across the landscape, set up moonlight and a skybox with animated clouds, got volumetric fog working, swapped in a new enemy character, and set up some looping sound effects which are crucial for gameplay.

And, wow. Even just these basic assets combine into something that already has the mood and tension I want. I expect to replace most of these over time, but as placeholders they still hang together well.

I could never have made this much progress this fast without terrific community tutorials on YouTube and a variety of great assets from the Unreal Marketplace. I may be a solo dev, but I already have dozens of retroactive collaborators who made the building blocks I needed to bring this project to life. Not to mention the folks at Epic who have evolved Unreal into a remarkable product.

There’s a romantic myth of the lone wolf creator bringing their singular vision to life. But every act of creation is an act of collaboration with all your influences, all your mentors, and all your tools.

We’re in this together.

Starting a New Game

A few weeks ago, I decided to start developing a game on my own time just for fun. It won’t be a commercial release. But I had an idea I liked and enough experience with Unreal scripting that I knew I could pull it off.

I don’t have much free time for a personal project like this, but after about 25 hours here and there I have the core game systems functional and you can play the greybox prototype to completion and win. Zero polish, zero tuning, just pure functionality, because I made myself a promise that I wouldn’t get to do anything fun and creative until I had a working prototype. (Although having learned coding when I was a kid, I find that fun and creative too.)

The game is a karmic roguelike, which is a thing I made up. It’s a simple game in terms of features. It will rely on the intersection of systems and their expression through content to become the intense and frequently terrifying experience I envision.

Careers are hard. Workplaces, even good ones, can still be frustrating. Sometimes, as we are seeing over and over again lately, they can be heartbreaking.

I have always tried to ensure that when I can’t control the things I want to control, I invent new things to control instead.

This indie game is something I can just make. I don’t need funding or executives or brands. If it works out, I’ll put it up on Itch.io and see what people think. And then I’ll go invent something else.

There’s that line from the Firefly theme song, “You can’t take the sky from me.” That’s how I feel about my creative life. I will always strive to pursue work I’m passionate about both in my job and in my personal life. Nobody can ever take that from me.

Narc Blu-Ray Release

A couple years ago I reposted here an interview I conducted with actor Ray Liotta who was so memorable in Something Wild, Goodfellas, and tons of other movies. I talked to him back when I was a film critic for a Seattle alt-weekly called Tablet many years ago.

A UK home video company called Arrow Films contacted me last year. They were preparing a deluxe Blu-Ray release of Liotta’s film Narc, which he produced as well as starred in, and is the film he was promoting when I spoke with him. They asked to reprint my interview in the DVD booklet and I was delighted to say yes.

Arrow’s edition of Narc is out now and I just received it in the mail. It’s gorgeous and loaded with extras. I’m glad to see that afternoon I spent talking with Liotta found a home one more time. He was a great interview and a really interesting person to talk to. Narc is a hell of a great movie.

Interview with Ray Liotta

Actor Ray Liotta passed away much too soon this week at the age of sixty-seven. I interviewed him in early 2003 when he came to Seattle to promote his new film Narc, which was his debut project as a producer. At the time I was a film critic for a Seattle alternative newspaper called Tablet which is both gone and forgotten.

Narc was great and so was Liotta. I spoke to him at a point when Narc was critically acclaimed and his gamble to self-produce his own film was really paying off. He was both reflective and enthusiastic, and it was a real pleasure to spend some time with him.

Here’s the article, rescued from the memory hole. I think it’s a good read.

The Glitter and the Glue

John Tynes

Actor Ray Liotta By gdcgraphics - https://www.flickr.com/photos/gdcgraphics/8140672892, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23645495Actor Ray Liotta made a big first impression when he burned his way through Something Wild. With his wiry intensity and starburst eyes, he was by turns funny, cool, and terrifying. In Scorcese’s Goodfellas he turned up as mobster Henry Hill, delivering the second great performance of his career. Movie buffs tend to point to DeNiro and Pesci’s work in that film as the most memorable, but Liotta transcended the violent mob shenanigans with a portrayal of a real guy who takes one step after another towards disintegration. His hungry, angry, but sympathetic voiceover in Goodfellas is one of the best such efforts in film. Liotta has been working steadily in film after film in the years since Goodfellas, a reliable supporting actor.

But Ray Liotta has had enough. He and his wife decided to get into the movie-producing business, so Liotta could deliver the kinds of performances in the kinds of parts he was born to play. Their first producing effort, Narc, is in theatres now — and it gives Liotta his third acting masterwork in film.

I spoke with Ray Liotta when he came through town to promote Narc. After seeing him bulked-up and blustery in that film, I was surprised to find Liotta his old wiry, energetic self. The guy is a great talker, and we had a great talk.

Tablet: Seen any good movies lately?

Ray Liotta: No, I haven’t. I have a three and a half year old and I like to be hands-on with her, so basically the movies I see with her are like Spider-Man, Lilo & Stitch. There are a lot of good movies out now but I’ve been busy with Narc and haven’t really had time. Have you seen Punch-Drunk Love?

Tablet: Twice.

RL: How is it?

Tablet: I liked it a lot. It’s a very strange movie and very off-kilter and so forth. I think it’s really sweet. I saw it again last night.

RL: Just for the hell of it?

Tablet: Some friends of mine were going to see it so I went along. The film makes me happy, actually.

RL: I’m really looking forward to seeing it. I really like Paul Thomas Anderson.

Tablet: Yeah, it’s good stuff. So one thing I wonder about right off the bat is: why become a producer?

RL: I wasn’t really pleased with some of the stuff I was getting and I wanted to be more pro-active. So I changed agencies and formed this production company with my wife, Michelle Grace, and a partner, Diane Nabatoff, to start looking around.

I told my new agency to just give me any scripts they had that were unattached. I didn’t mind if there was a director or writer but I don’t want any producer or studio attachment because that’s too many cooks in the kitchen.

It just happened that the first thing across my desk was Narc. I really responded to it. I loved the story. It really reminded me of a 70’s movie with the anti-hero thing, it wasn’t just black and white, it was brutal, it was honest. I liked the idea of taking on a character like that. I knew physically what I would have to change to look different and I liked that aspect of it. Also, it moved me. I cried at the end. It really affected me. I met up with Joe Carnahan, the writer-director of the project, and I really liked his sensibilities.

Then all of a sudden I got parts in Hannibal, Heartbreakers, Blow, and John Q, so my career was coming back around. There was a period there where I wasn’t very pleased with the stuff I was coming across but you gotta work on your craft and make a living. Now I thought: you know what, I’m protected because I’m doing these big studio movies, so I can spend some time making Narc happen.

I just couldn’t get that script out of my mind. My wife really responded to it too and just wouldn’t let it go. So when I started into the usual machinations of loving something, and then doubting it, questioning it, all that bullshit actors go through, I just said fuck it and did it.

Tablet: What was it like talking to studios as a producer with your own project, instead of as an actor?

RL: There were no studios. Joe tried to get this thing made before and was turned down everywhere. Nobody knew him, so he was just rejected by everybody. I came on board, and my career wasn’t exactly on fire at that time, so we basically decided to just go off and make this movie on our own for three million bucks.

Then the money dried up and there was this whole horrible thing two weeks into it, people weren’t getting paid, I wasn’t getting paid, so we decided to forego our salaries. And that’s why there are so many producers credited on the thing, because we had to go out and raise money to keep the shoot alive, and everybody that puts up money wants something in return, they want their name on the picture as a producer. [Narc’s credits list fourteen executive producers.] But we had good momentum going on the set, and who knew what was going to happen, so we didn’t want to stop for three months and try to start up again.

As it turned out, the new producers we got were really busy with another film in New York at the time that was having a lot of problems, so nobody said anything to us about our film! What you see up there is what we wanted, what Joe had in mind.

Tablet: Your character has got this really amazing physicality to him. Whenever he’s on screen he’s like the biggest thing in the room. How did that come about?

RL: When the agent gave me the script, he obviously talked to Joe first, and Joe said he thought I’d be great as Oak. So I was reading it and I’m thinking oh man, this Oak is a bad guy, although I realize too that one minute I’m putting a pool ball in a sock and beating the shit out of somebody and the next I’m telling the guy if you hurt your wife and kids again, you’re dead. So Oak’s a really complicated, interesting man.

Joe said, “I want you to have a goatee and I just want you to look different.” And it’s like when a director says, “I want you to do this faster.” You know, what the hell does that mean? So I broke down the script. There’s that scene where I’m talking in the car about how I became a better cop the day my wife died, because I didn’t give a shit anymore about anything else. I realized he was like that about everything, he was so intense and wound up, just looking for the bad guy. That’s why I put these bags under my eyes, looking tired, because he probably slept three or four hours and then went back to his obsession.

Also, he’s not a guy who goes home and makes a salad for himself, you know? He eats burgers and pizza and lets himself go, he just doesn’t care. So I put on about twenty-five pounds and used little movie tricks. I wanted to be taller, the name is Oak, it just seemed big, so I had this long coat I always wore. Joe asked me to take it off for one scene and I said no, but he insisted, and when I took off the coat it all went away. It didn’t work. With the coat on and everything Oak was just hulking, plus he had those black gloves on all the time. I also shaved my hair back and made it thinner.

Tablet: Yeah, it looked like he was always nursing a hangover.

RL: No, I don’t think he was a guy who drank much. I think it was just lack of sleep and obsession.

Tablet: How do you think the film stands out from the usual Hollywood cop movies?

RL: We got one of the nicest compliments. Paramount bought the movie when it was done, and the head of the studio, Sherry Lansing, is married to director William Friedkin. Friedkin said it was one of the best cop movies he’d ever seen. I just wanted to throw that in there — it doesn’t really answer your question!

I think what makes it different from the usual is the whole style we did it in: the grittiness, the anti-hero character, everything’s gray, one minute I’m beating a guy with a pool ball and the next I’m crying about my wife, the big twist at the end. Now at its core, this is a cop movie, it’s a whodunit. But it’s smartly filmed with great twists and turns, and it’s got really great character work. Jason Patric’s character, he’s an ex-junkie cop and he’s been suspended for this awful shooting, and then you see him just holding his baby in the shower and it’s amazing, it’s beautiful.

When I asked Joe how he wanted to shoot the film, he said he wanted it like The French Connection, a sort of John Cassevetes style. We shot it hand-held, maybe 80% of the footage was shot off the cameraman’s shoulder, walking and moving around with us in the scene. We used natural lighting, low lighting, and gave it that blue kind of cold, lonely feel. Plus the music is really good, we got Cliff Martinez who does a lot of work for Steven Soderbergh, and thank God that Cliff did it for just a little money. Those guys usually get paid very well.

Tablet: Did you get involved in the casting process?

RL: Totally, totally. I’ve done it before as an actor where after you’re cast they test other actors with you to decide who else to hire. But this time I got to say yes and no. It’s nice as the producer to definitely put my stamp on it, though this is Joe’s movie and I supported him.

We didn’t know who to cast for the Tellis role. We met with some actors you would definitely know who just didn’t get it, they didn’t understand. Others had problems with the nature of the character, you know, everybody has places in their career where a character like Tellis fits or doesn’t fit.

Then Joe suggested Jason Patric, who hadn’t worked in like three years since My Friends and Neighbors. Once we met he was just such a good complement to what my guy is like that he was the right choice.

Tablet: On the set, what was it like working with Jason Patric?

RL: I’m not sure how he works. I was kind of methody on it. I just didn’t feel the need to become friends. My guy doesn’t really give a shit about him, he’s just using him to get knowledge about who the bad guys were. Jason likes to talk things out a lot so he spent a lot of time with Joe. I like to just be self-reliant and left alone. But it worked.

What’s great about Jason is he didn’t try to compete with my character. You know, sometimes you’re the glitter and sometimes you’re the glue. On Goodfellas I was the glue and Joe and Bob were the really flashy, extreme characters. This time I’m that way, and Jason didn’t compete or challenge. He knew who his guy was, he wasn’t confrontational, and he let my guy just steamroll over everybody. It takes a big actor to do that, and he did a great job.

And then aside from Busta Rhymes, the rest of the actors were from Canada. We were shooting in Toronto, and I don’t like shooting in Canada anyway. But now they insist if you’re going to shoot in Canada you have to use Canadian actors, and I’m like, fuck you, but it’s either that or leave. So the supporting cast were people we found up there. We had this little casting office up the stairs from this street with strip clubs in this really seedy area, and we just had these people come in and read and I felt really strongly about a few.

Tablet: You took this film to Sundance. Was that your first time there?

RL: Yeah, it was. Sundance is beautiful. I thought it was some big extravagant community but it was just this sweet little place. You can ski into town!

Sundance is where the movie really started to pop. Dustin Hoffman called us to say he liked it, so did Warren Beatty. There was this whole buzz that got going. Then Paula Wagner watched it and sent it to Tom Cruise, who’s her producing partner, and Tom called and said, “Anything I can do to help you guys,” and it was Cruise & Wagner’s involvement that got Paramount to see the film and they decided to buy it from Lion’s Gate.

Tablet: Did you feel a lot of pressure going into Sundance?

RL: No, no. We were proud of what we’d made. We thought it was a decent movie but had no expectations. We just didn’t know what would happen.

Lion’s Gate got involved back before shooting started, just based on the cast and the script, but they only put up half the budget and that was on completion, not up front. They made no guarantee whether it would be a theatrical release or an HBO movie or what. We really wanted a theatrical release and Sundance made that happen.

Tablet: And Paramount is releasing this for Oscar consideration for your performance, right?

RL: Yeah, Best Supporting Actor.

Tablet: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is a bit of a digression. I saw you just did the main character voice for the new Grand Theft Auto videogame.

RL: Yeah, yeah, that word’s out, huh? How’d you see it?

Tablet: I saw it in a review of the game. I played the last one.

RL: I’ve never played. I heard it’s a great game. I also heard it’s pretty raw. Well, I know it is, because I said the stuff! It’s out there. But I checked it out and saw there was a rating system like movies, so I figure people got the right to do what they want to do, and hell I did Goodfellas, it’s not like I haven’t done a movie that’s a little harsh. I figure as long as parents do their job then kids can do what they want.

The Game at the End of this PDF

I created a new game inspired by the fascinating storytelling experiments available at Itch.io such as The Mermaid Spell by Jamila R. Nedjadi and by the pioneering metatext The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone.

My game is called The Game at the End of this PDF. It’s now available for free and is formatted for reading on mobile phones. I hope you enjoy it.

Delta Green: The Labyrinth is now available as an ebook

My first all-new tabletop RPG project in two decades is now available as an ebook. Delta Green: The Labyrinth is a sourcebook of allies and adversaries for the Delta Green RPG from Arc Dream Publishing. It’s available now at DriveThruRPG. The hardcover edition ships in early 2020.

I’m really proud of this book and I hope you enjoy it.

 

Adventure’s Procedural Game Design: The Bat on the Atari 2600

Adventure cover artWarren Robinett‘s early videogame Adventure for the 2600 is mostly remembered for including the first known easter egg, and indeed was the example that caused the term to be coined in the first place. Adventure was a remarkable achievement by any standard, but especially for a platform with 4kb of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM.

One of Adventure‘s signature characters was the Bat, and the Bat was both elegant in its simplicity and awesome in its impact. In short, the bat would fly randomly through the game’s screens and would pick up and drop items. The bat’s movement and item actions were simulated even when the bat was off screen, meaning that while you traversed the world the bat was always out there doing its thing. (By contrast, the dragons only did two things: charge you when they see you and try to kill you, and run from you if you had the sword.)

Besides being an autonomous and persistent actor whose behavior was highly randomized, the bat had two unusual abilities:

  • When it arrived on the same screen as you, the bat could choose to steal the item you were currently carrying and drop whatever item it previously had in its place.
  • The bat not only could pick up and drop items, it could also pick up and drop dragons.

With this basket of behaviors, the bat was a true agent of chaos who was neither your enemy or your ally. And its unpredictability and broad freedom to act resulted in a variety of delightful procedural outcomes:

  • You are looking for a crucial item. The bat flies by carrying exactly what you need. Argh!
  • You are carrying a crucial item. The bat steals it from you and leaves behind something useless. Argh!
  • You are carrying an item. The bat flies by with a better item and swaps it with you. But the item she drops is on the other side of a wall because you’re in a maze. Argh!
  • You are running from a dragon. The bat picks up the dragon and flies away with it. Yay!
  • You are in the invisible maze with the sword. The bat enters carrying a dragon. The bat takes your sword and leaves you with the dragon and you now have to escape the dragon within the maze. Argh!
  • You are running from a dragon. The bat flies in carrying the sword and flies over the dragon. The sword kills the dragon. Yay!

This, of course, repeats, and to be clear none of the above examples were deliberately coded scenarios. They simply arose naturally out of the behaviors.

The combinatorial outcome of items, locations, player goals, and creature behaviors resulted in a highly replayable experience that could repeatedly surprise, delight, and aggravate you. Adventure was a fun and innovative game, but the bat is what pushed its gameplay over the top.

 

Narrative Sandboxes in Delta Green: The Labyrinth, CoC, and Gumshoe

Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu was the first investigative roleplaying game and arguably the first to really expect and deliver a recognizable plot for every adventure. By the time I launched The Unspeakable Oath magazine and started Pagan Publishing in 1990, Chaosium’s published adventures were increasingly plot-driven. They were typically composed as a linear series of canned scenes which the players were expected to progress through in order. The transition from one scene to the next was frequently triggered by some kind of investigative skill check such as Spot Hidden or Library Use. You played through the scene, you hopefully acquired the clue through the skill check, and the clue led you to the next scene.

The more I played and ran Call of Cthulhu and the more I wrote and edited adventures at Pagan, the clearer it became that this linear series of scenes had a lot of problems. While they initially appeared to make the Keeper’s job easier, since you could run the adventure scene by scene, they frequently broke down whenever an investigative skill check failed. This then made the Keeper’s job substantially harder as they were required to improvise new scenes or discoveries on the fly and stitch the investigative thread back together.

Introducing Narrative Sandboxes

Pagan staffer John Crowe was instrumental in recognizing this issue and pushing for a better approach. His landmark campaign Walker in the Wastes was our first big attempt at what I’ve come to think of as a narrative sandbox where the adventure consists primarily of character agendas and location descriptions. Because when you know what the NPCs want, and you know the relevant locations, the actual scenes of the story can emerge organically from the actions of the players. If the players took an unexpected action, good or bad, the story could continue because the Keeper understood the agendas and timetables of the NPCs.

Our approach to narrative sandboxes was focused on giving the Keeper more information and giving the players more freedom. And it worked, but it was in its own way very demanding. We expected players to actually solve mysteries through investigation, interviewing NPCs, and making intuitive leaps. Our own playtest sessions were quite lengthy and much of the time was spent in discussing the investigation and coming up with theories for what was happening. It was an intense intellectual exercise interspersed with violent action when we’d succeed in disrupting the villains’ plan. We had far fewer investigative die rolls but required the players to be much more thoughtful and thorough in their exploration of the mystery. We relied on clear character agendas for the NPCs to drive the action at the table.

Gumshoe and What to Emulate

Game designer Robin Laws took a different approach in 2007’s Gumshoe. He kept Chaosium’s more plot-driven style but ensured that all crucial clues could be discovered without die rolls. As long as the players are in the right place and are generally asking the right questions, they will get the right clues. Instead, Robin puts the emphasis on interpreting the clues so that the players get the fun of solving the mystery without the random pass/fail that skill checks enforce.

Robin’s approach is based on his long-time interest in translating the audience’s experience of genre entertainment into RPGs. I would argue that before Robin, RPGs took the basic D&D model and wedged in genre elements such as spaceships or detectives or whatever. But with his 1995 Feng Shui RPG Robin bent the entire game design and adventures around replicating the experience of watching a Hong Kong action movie. When he did Gumshoe years later, he wanted to give players the fun of solving a mystery within the framework of a tidy, dramatic narrative with ready-to-run scenes that looked and played just like scenes from mystery movies or novels.

Our two approaches to investigative scenarios are fundamentally different, even though both set out to solve the same basic problem. At Pagan we wanted to simulate the experience of conducting an investigation. Robin, I believe, wanted to translate the experience of watching or reading investigation-themed entertainment.

I think both approaches are great. I believe it’s fair to say that our approach is more cognitively challenging for the gamemaster and for the players, while Robin’s approach is likely more reliably satisfying as a group storytelling experience. Neither is better or worse and it comes down to what a group of players and the GM want to do with their time.

Designing Delta Green: The Labyrinth

So how does this get expressed in my new book Delta Green: The Labyrinth? It’s definitely not a collection of adventures, but I have tried to bring this narrative sandbox approach to how I design the organizations profiled in this book. Primarily this manifests as a three-stage progression for each org.

The bulk of each org’s text sets out their history, agenda, resources, and important individuals. But once the org starts to interact with Delta Green, it begins to change. Whether an ally or an enemy, no org stays static. Each one begins to corrode in some ways and strengthen in others, either becoming more focused on its mission or being diverted towards a new agenda. I wanted to ensure these orgs were not targets in a shooting gallery, maintaining a looping state until disrupted, but that they would instead react, change, and even instigate new events in the campaign.

Once an org gets into your campaign, it has a life of its own. As you continue running adventures, the org is doing its own thing and reaching back into the campaign. The Agents will find themselves getting phone calls from an org they met two adventures ago, dangling some new opportunity or challenge before them. They may suddenly find themselves attacked mid-adventure by a third party completely unconnected to current events all because of agendas set in motion earlier. And the more they connect with these orgs, the more the rewards for doing so are balanced by new and increasing risks of exposure, moral failure, madness, and death.

My overall approach for this book is still very much rooted in Pagan’s style. I want to challenge players to investigate mysteries and make intuitive leaps. I want to keep the emphasis on character agendas rather than on plot. But to take a page from Gumshoe and from Chaosium’s now-classic adventures, I want to provide clear dramatic beats for each org that will drive new scenes and surprises.

It’s been great to come back to designing mysteries for players to investigate after so many years away. And I can’t wait for this book to reach Handlers worldwide so they can lead their players through dramatic journeys rife with strong characters, dynamic agendas, and spectacular action.