Tiny Portfolio Retrospective

This tiny portfolio project has been throwing me off since the day it was introduced. I often struggle with managing the scope of my work, and had grand ideas about game design and character illustration. As the weeks wore on, it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to handle that.

So I adjusted. I’m an art student, and have been for eight years now, almost. I’m not short on portfolio work to display, especially not in the illustration department. As I mentioned on my final animation page, I took studio classes for four years in high school, and the thought occurred to me that I could just upload some of my old portfolio work and artist statement, hand it in and call it a day.

But I realized the other day that I have another portfolio I’m working on, the one for my major. It’s not as strong as my illustrative art, but it’s also not something I’ve shown to anyone outside of my fellow animation students and professors. I don’t feel like I’m a real animator yet, given the quality of my work and the fact that I don’t have much, but I’m never going to be comfortable with that term unless I start showing more people my animations.

So, yes, both of these projects are rough. The final animation has flaws beyond counting, and the demo reel is really rough. I’m okay with that.

My professional career starts with being able to admit that. Right now in my Digital Ink and Paint class, I’m reworking the final animation to try and fix some of the mistakes I made that first semester, and the demo reel will eventually be expanded and polished in order to send out to studios when I start looking for work in my field. I can’t be afraid to show my animations forever, and becoming comfortable with sharing my work starts here.

Hotline Miami 2 Review

A few weeks ago I made a post about the first Hotline Miami game and how much I love it and the way the story structure can be interpreted using various story models. I briefly mentioned Hotline Miami 2, but didn’t go into detail about it. There’s a reason for that.

Back when Hotline Miami premiered at its first showcasing in 2012, it was ranked alongside titles with $500 million dollar budgets as the most promising upcoming title of that year. It more than delivered, becoming a cult classic among indie gamers and scoring well with critics; and while I do believe reviewing a game on its own merits without resting on the laurels of a previous installment is important, knowing this about Hotline Miami 2 is crucial, because on the surface the two games don’t seem all that different.

Hotline Miami 1 was a game about responding to mysterious phone calls on your answering machine instructing you to bash through endless mobs of Russian gangsters in late 1980’s Miami. The story was complex but not required reading, so-to-speak. The responsive mechanics, dark synth music, and neon pixel aesthetic of the game were strong enough that understanding the lore was not required to enjoy the fun and bloody romp through each level. This was one of the strongest points of the first game. It had style but still had substance under the surface, if you knew where to look.

Hotline 2 takes that stylish, almost cinematic approach from the first game and ratchets it up to the next level. The game opens with a level featuring a strange man in a pig mask brutally killing a group of mooks and then cornering and attempting to assault a young woman. Already, the violence and shock factor that made the first game infamous rears its head. We discover, as the level ends, that the man in the pig mask is an actor in a slasher flick, and the director of the scene instructs him to handle his co-star more roughly to make it seem more “real”. The screen fades to black and then the “real” story begins in the next level.

It’s an odd scene, and one that feels especially strange next to the open authenticity of the first game’s main character, a man with no spoken dialogue known to players simply as “Jacket”. Jacket, and Hotline 1 in general, kept very few secrets from the player. The player knew as much as Jacket did at any given moment, and the only real mystery was who was leaving the messages on his answering machine, a mystery that the game encouraged the player to solve and presented them with the tools to do so with a small but still visible puzzle piece hidden somewhere on every level.

Hotline 2 not only does away with this puzzle mechanic entirely, it actively tries to ‘pull one over’ on the player in the very first level. This reads as a subtle message from the game. Despite its visual and mechanical similarities to the first game, Hotline 2 is not the same and the player shouldn’t expect it to be.

It’s a warning to be well-heeded, as the first level opens and we are faced with a very different animal than the first game. In Hotline 1, the main objective, and the thing that netted you the most points was speed. Bolting from room to room, while it was more likely to get you killed, would earn you high combo scores and lots of achievements. This was possible and a viable strategy because each level was compact, and divided into many smaller rooms which could each be tackled individually for the most part. The small levels also allowed the player to see the whole board and think ahead about how they wanted to approach each room.

Hotline 2 does away with all of that. The levels are wide and spacious, leaving a lot of room for the player to be shot and killed by enemies they can’t even see, or ambushed from a place they hadn’t even had the chance to scope out. Deaths in Hotline 1 were frustrating, but felt justified because often it was the player’s own fault. They were avoidable. Dying in Hotline 2 feels like an unfair punishment, a cheap way to make the game more difficult than it needs to be.

I devoured Hotline 1 in less than a week, because each death made me want to try harder, to get better at the game. Hotline 2 took me longer than four months to finish, because dying was discouraging rather than motivating. I felt cheated every time I died because an enemy I couldn’t see shot me from a place I didn’t even have the chance to explore, or because a dog enemy glitched and clipped through a wall to attack me. This is sadly one of the most common ways to die on any stage that has dogs.

The warning about Hotline 2 being its own game remains relevant to the story as well. As the story begins in earnest in Chapter 2, we learn that the events of Hotline 1 are over, and Jacket is on trial for the crimes he committed in the first game. Instead of following one, mute character, we are introduced to no fewer than six in the first 15 minutes, and ten altogether by the end of the game.

Four of the playable characters are The Fans. Appropriately named, they are fans of Jacket and his murder spree, and attempt to replicate it by going out and choosing random strangers to kill and brutalize as copycat killers. Each of The Fans has their own unique play style that makes replaying the game worth it just to try out the pair of chainsaw-wielding twins, but on the first playthrough, the player is limited in which characters they can choose to use on each level.

The next playable character is The Writer, who is trying to write the definitive book on Jacket and his murders. The Writer’s mechanic is easily the most interesting. In a game filled with horrific, bloody violence, he is a non-lethal character, refusing to outright kill any of his victims. This would be more interesting if he had to stealth around levels and not even engage in combat with enemies, but instead he simply hits and incapacitates them, making it killing in all but name.

The Writer’s best friend, a detective named Manny Pardo fills our sixth character slot. On the surface, Pardo is investigating a serial killer and his trail of victims, but, like the first level, not all is as it seems. His special ability is unique gun execution animations, but otherwise his play style is no different from the others. Were it not for his extensive involvement in the story later on, he would be completely unremarkable.

Our last four characters are The Son, a Russian mob boss with abilities that almost exactly mirror those of The Fans, The Henchman, a character that is used for only one level and is then promptly killed, Richter, an escaped convict who magically fires shotguns more slowly after each subsequent pellet, and The Soldier, a flashback character from the first game whose special ability is that he can only carry a limited amount of ammo at a time and cannot switch weapons like every other character in the game.

If explaining each of the characters sounded confusing, imagine trying to play them and piece together a cohesive story with ten unique individuals and how their lives were impacted by one man from a previous game.

This is ultimately the weakest point of Hotline 2. Setting aside the too-large levels, the poor layout of the stages, the glitches, the artificial difficulty, Hotline 2 requires the player to get involved in a story that many people simply won’t be able to follow and consequently won’t care about. By the time the nuke destroys all of Florida at the end of the game, I was simply glad it was over. This is exactly the opposite of the tone at the end of Hotline 1, when Jacket stood on the balcony contemplatively smoking a cigarette as the police sirens got louder and louder.

At the end of Hotline 1, the player is left with the weight of Jacket’s decisions, but ultimately still feels sympathy for him because of the journey he made and his drive to discover the truth, which at that point remains elusive. Hotline 2’s cluttered, jumbled mess of a story leaves no questions and subsequently no emotional attachment to any of the characters. Like its levels, Hotline 2 is a too-expansive, overcrowded mess.

Virtual Economies and The Hubris of Man

It’s coming up on almost 2 years ago now that I wrote a thinkpiece about the virtual petsite Neopets.com and its deteriorating quality of life under the new owners it had aquired in 2014. It’s older but I think a lot of the points still hold true, so I’m going to post an updated, edited version for you today.

 

  • In 2004, neopets was sold by its original owners to Viacom where the site was advertised pretty regularly on Nickelodeon’s 6-13 age block programming (as i understand it)
  • This made a lot of people very angry and was widely regarded as a bad move. for the next 10 years complaints about the site’s slowly deteriorating quality would be attributed to Viacom’s ownership
  • At any rate, in 2014 it was announced that Jumpstart (yes, that Jumpstart) was interested in neopets due to its largely older userbase. many people[1] praised the buyout, as they felt it would bring neopets out of the early 2000s, where it felt like the site had been stuck for a decade. Jumpstart has a decent foothold in the mobile app market, and neopets still didn’t have a mobile-specific site platform. Progress seemed on the horizon for our favorite site

[1] It should be noted that many users were worried that their favorite staff members would be leaving, but they were assured multiple times by these staff members that this would not be the case. More on that in a minute

September, 2014: Jumpstart begins the process of moving the site off of Viacom’s old servers and on to the new ones. The move is not smooth, lag plagues the site for the remainder of the week and the site goes down multiple times, finally having to be taken down entirely when users try to log in and are told en masse that their passwords are incorrect. other fun problems during 2014:

  • shops no longer are able to sell items so users lower their prices to ridiculous lows to try and move stock that is literally frozen in place
  • pets glitch so only one body part displays at a time
  • KeyQuest (one of the most popular games on the site that uses real money to provide board pieces) is taken down for the move. I will quote the official facebook page here: “ …we plan to bring it back up within a week or so afterwards.” It is now 9 months later and KeyQuest still does not work
  • userlookups go down and stay down for months
  • the New Features page, the twice-weekly updated site news, gets downsized noticeably. items get announced with paragraphs of padding to make up for the lack of actual “new features” and what is released is glitched and doesn’t stock in shops or show up on site
  • The site goes down for a few days in Oct to try to fix the lag problem, but nothing really changes and an expensive item is given to every user who logs in after Oct 3rd as compensation for the downtime, causing the price to deflate from 1.5 mil to 30k in less than 24 hours

January, 2015:

After a rocky (Jump)start, nothing new gets changed or fixed for some time. Site still lags incredibly and goes down often. A piece published in September starts gaining traction, noting that Jumpstart may not have had to pay a penny of actual money for the “dying” site.

March, 2015:

THE NEO-PURGE – 

On March 6th, neopets users awoke to find that a vast majority of staff members had been fired from the neopets Team offices, leaving only a handful of mods to work the boards over the weekend. These were staff members known by name to the userbase and who regularly had contact with them. Many users feel betrayed, and rightly so. Jumpstart staff had largely turned a deaf ear to the complaints directed at them, and users felt their only line of communication that remained at Neopets had been cut off. The first neopets mobile app was released a week later to severely disappointing results. (seriously it’s terrible)

—-

Since March, a steady stream of former staff have been fired one by one, culminating in the removal of Droplet, the editor of the Neopian Times and known for her dedication and love for the site.

And so we come to June. Jumpstart overhauled the old filter system and decided that it was good enough to leave unattended (perhaps as a test for the upcoming long 4th of July weekend in the US)? I don’t know whether or not the moderating team was laid off or just given a reprieve, but the former seems likely given what’s been happening.

With no mods to ban offending users, the site has become a haven for shitposting and discussing taboo topics such as “homosexuality” and “politics” (both of which are explicitly forbidden as topics in the official rules)

This is personal speculation, but i believe that the mayhem occurring right now is the result of 9 months of pent-up anger at Jumpstart for their negligence of the site. Jumpstart has made this bed and they’re going to lie in it.

PewDiePie and The Free Speech Argument

It’s been a week since the most famous gamer ever, PewDiePie, got dropped from Maker Studios and I haven’t said a word about it. Not a peep. Even in my private social media life (private social media, what a joke) I haven’t engaged in the discussion, and why should I? So an internet personality says something offensive and faces the consequences, big deal, right? It shouldn’t have to be something I comment on.

Famous gaming personalities like PewDiePie, regardless of sincerity or intent, have created a community that excludes and openly expresses hate for minority groups and if you defend him you’re part of the problem. Period. Full stop.

(pictured above: Youtuber PewDiePie in the video that allegedly got him dropped from Maker Studios)

For those not in the loop: The most popular youtube star in the world, PewDiePie, was dropped by Maker Studios (Disney) for making several anti-Semitic “jokes” in his videos. The backlash from his fans and defenders about the situation has been the sticking point for most internet discussions about this, given that PewDiePie has said he doesn’t actually believe the things he says and that it’s all just satire, or something.

I never found him funny even when his so-called “jokes” weren’t just him saying things like “Death To All Jews”.  What concerns me most is the fact that we (gamers) have nurtured and cultivated an environment where this kind of offensive humor is not only allowed, it’s par for the course. 

Night In The Woods: Monstrous Existence and The Death of Small Town America

If I had to describe Night In The Woods in one word it would be, “timely” which is odd for a game that started development in 2014.

“Death to all fascists,” one side character shouts. “Carry a knife, learn to throw a punch. We can’t afford to be delicate about this shit!” A sentiment I heard echoed not 2 months ago across more leftist twitter-spheres.

Perhaps the writers had a longer view, given the game’s many delays and development troubles. I frankly find it incredible that Finji managed to put together such a tight, aesthetically brilliant game. In terms of indie titles, I feel comfortable calling it the best one to come out so far this year.

Image result for night in the woods

A platforming/visual novel with a dash of cosmic horror, Night In The Woods follows the story of an anthropomorphic cat named Mae Borowski, a recent college dropout who has moved back to her small hometown of Possum Springs and finds that two years away has left its mark on both her and the town.

Exploring themes of depression, isolation, anxiety, and being a millennial growing up in small-town America, Night In The Woods builds its world slowly and subtly, which is a miracle given that a severed arm shows up on the sidewalk less than an hour into the game. Gameplay is somewhat limited, but what it lacks in platforming it more than makes up for in visually stunning environments, eerie, moody music, and some of the best writing I’ve seen in a game to-date. It can be a little on the nose at times, to the point where the characters feel the need to point it out every now and again.

 

Mae: What’s up with everyone sounding like a fortune cookie?

Mom: Friendship is like a tree, you have to water it everyday.

Mae: See, this is what I’m talking about.

 

Like all good games, Night In The Woods is difficult to talk about without experiencing it. I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes clever writing, atmospheric horror, or any college kid who has ever thought about dropping out. Check out the video below for a one-hour preview of what you can expect.

Hotline Miami and The Handless Maiden

I mentioned during my Seven Stages response that I really enjoyed the Handless Maiden structure and was having a good time slotting some of my favorite narratives neatly into the shiny new infographic and I figured I’d share some of that with you while it was on my mind.

I continue to return to Hotline Miami as a subject matter, even five years on. I think it’s a visual masterpiece of a game with fast, stylish gameplay mixed with a rich audio and visual experience that tells a complex story through very little dialogue and next to no context besides, “You’re a vicious killer, now go out and kill. Viciously.”

That said, I think initially I would have initially categorized this game as a fairly clear-cut (if somewhat truncated) Hero’s Journey story.

It’s a simple plot with complex motivations, and explaining it here doesn’t do it very much justice. If you like top-down arcade shooters and the 80s, I’d highly recommend picking it up for yourself. It truly is best experienced as a game than as a summary, but I’ll do my best.

A man receives a voicemail on his phone telling him to go out and kill everyone at a specific location, under the implied threat of violence if he does not comply. After hallucinating a meeting with three masked figures, he crosses the threshold into the seedy underworld of Russian gang violence and anonymous vigilante justice. This Crossing The Threshold is represented visually by bright Drive-style neon colors and heart-pounding techno music, and is a great way of telling the player they have crossed into The Unknown. He meets a girl. They fall in love.

The man encounters other men, foes of the organization he now presumably works for, all while uncovering more and more uncomfortable truths about this organization. In a violent confrontation with one of these foes, he is badly wounded and his girlfriend is killed.

In the hospital, the main character faces death. Unarmed, he escapes and manages to confront the killer of his love. From there, he moves on to the hideout of the Russian boss and wipes out the entire upper echelons of their mob. The game ends with him on the roof of the Russian hideout. He tosses a photograph into the wind while police sirens wail in the background.

And that’s one way of looking at it.

The other way, and the way I’ve been enjoying for a week now is this:

A man, a veteran of a conflict between the United States and Russia, who lost his very best friend to that conflict, receives a phone call giving him purpose in a life he has spent Wandering. He kills at the behest of these calls, Finding Love in a hooker he meets while doing their bidding, until The Harrowing, when he loses that love and his purpose once again.

Upon waking from his near-death experience, he becomes Wild, his killing no longer directed by some unseen hand, but by his own fury and want for revenge. By the time his Wildness has abated, he stands on a balcony, a photograph in hand of his best friend, which he tosses to the wind as his imminent arrest looms.

It’s complicated, and some pieces of information about the story come from the sequel game, but I found it intriguing nonetheless. It was fun engaging the hypermasculine violence of Hotline Miami on the grounds of a feminization of the traditional Hero’s Journey concept, especially considering there are only two female characters in the game, and only one has any dialogue.

I’m not sure this is proof that Hotline is a feminist masterpiece, or even that it means anything besides the fact that stories follow structure, and we can twist that however we like.

(Creative Blog Post, Week 7)

Digital Story Script Draft 1: Drawings and Dragons

To understand my story as an artist, one must imagine a dragon. Then, the paper upon which it was drawn. Then, the little girl at a small arts and crafts table, working furiously to finish drawing it before the class period was over.

Third grade art classes aren’t anything particularly noteworthy, but to a child whose teacher had just finished lecturing her on the importance of paying attention in class, it was a welcome reprieve. The lecture routine, while not new, was wearing on both participants to the point of mild aggravation. Mrs. Barstone was not without reason to be concerned. Her student’s grades were sub-par. Her quiz scores were appalling, her spelling, atrocious. This, from a child in both the advanced reading and math classes. The student, for her part, was simply coping the best way she knew how with a condition that would go undiagnosed for another ten years.

Back at the crafts table, thoughts of being asked to step out into the hallway were far from the student’s mind. The usual art teacher was absent, and as such the children had free reign of the classroom. Mandatory class projects were discarded in favor of nobler pursuits, such as attempting to glue safety scissors together or drawing a monstrous cobra snake on the longest roll of paper the supply closet had to offer.

This student, however, picked up a pencil and drew a dragon. The selfsame dragon, in fact, that had gotten her in trouble in the first place. She imagined it living in the tombs of ancient pharaohs, gobbling up unwary adventurers who would dare desecrate these sacred pyramids. Practical knowledge of Egyptian Mythology was a few years off.

One classmate, having lost interest in his erstwhile attempts at cutting colored paper into 10,000 tiny pieces, leaned over and examined the drawing she’d created.

“That looks pretty good,” he declared matter-of-factly “like a storybook.”

To him, it was inconsequential. Trivial, even. But to her, it was a revelation.

It was, in fact, the first time in any recent memory that a peer had decided her work was good enough to comment on. The first original thing she had crafted in a school setting, that hadn’t been frowned upon, that hadn’t been met with so many tut-tuts and derisive looks.

You see, she liked drawing. Quite a lot in fact. It hadn’t ever occurred to her that storybooks must be drawn by someone. That art, in all its forms be they notebook doodles or ambitious solo projects, must come from somewhere and be made by someone whose job it is to make.

And so, like fire kindled in the heart of an ancient dragon. The love of drawing was sparked in the heart of a child.

Response: Seven Stages Of A Story

I found this reading to be particularly annoying right off the bat. Lambert’s introduction in particular smacks of the kind of self-centered, theater kid rhetoric that made me regret ever taking a high school drama class.

Setting personal taste aside, Seven Stages Of A Story feels like a repetitive exercise in basic writing and spends more time discussing different types of storytelling than it does discussing how we may use these types of stories to tell our own.

The best part of this text, by far, was the inclusion of the Handless Maiden infographic. I had heard the story before, but had never considered it as a basic structure for storytelling, and while I don’t necessarily agree with his assertion that it is an “alternative” to the (perceived normality of) The Hero’s Journey, I think it’s at least an interesting line of thought, and I enjoyed adapting some of my favorite stories into that format.

Lambert spends much of his time talking about narrative theory, as though it were the end-all, be-all for long form storytelling. Having taken Story In Film In Fiction (great course, by the by) and many other similar writing and film courses, I found this tedious. More tedious, however, was his River structure which has neither the iconic flavor of the Hero’s Journey wheel, nor the elegant simplicity of the Handless Maiden story.

For some people, this text may be useful. Perhaps someone in the world will be able to remember and keep straight the seven R’s of this process from Rejoice all the way to Rebirth, and will be able to structure a better narrative for it. Those people are not me.

The text says as much, “…our lives always [reflect] the basic idea of narrative theory “. By simply consuming narrative media, and even some non-narrative media, most people already know the basic structure of a story. Lambert’s attempt to reinvent the wheel here does nothing but confuse the process.

I feel as though this reading could benefit from more exploration about why stories are compelling and how the structure works in tandem to highlight the things about stories that we like, not the other way around.

Photoessay Reflection: The Bad, and the Ugly

For my photo essay I chose the topic of physical games and consoles and how their condition and physical appearance reflects the attitudes and habits of the owner themselves. I wanted to capture the gaming lifestyle and how gamers differ from one another without taking pictures of actual people. This isn’t because I don’t like people or don’t like taking pictures of them, I just thought it would be an interesting challenge as well as perhaps more telling than just a photoset of people playing video games. The idea of taking pictures of the tv screen itself was also not appealing to me, since the games stand alone as their own experience, and it felt too much like miming the success of better art to make my own look better.

I felt, while I was shooting, that I was capturing the environments well and each photo said something different about the subject. This was quickly crushed upon seeing them as a set. My phone camera tinted most of the shots yellow, making them look dirty and amatuer, and in sequence it looked like pictures of someone’s messy house rather than individual statements about something. part of this, I think, was my reluctance to break down and borrow my friend’s DSLR. I completely understand that one can capture beautiful images on a simple phone, but not all of us are genius photographers and a better camera certainly can’t hurt, right?

I’m appreciative of the draft in at least one regard, however. I see these first photos as more of a rough draft than anything else. As a 2D artist (and semi-talented wordsmith), I would call these “preliminary sketches” rather than “bad photographs”. For my revision, I think I’ll also use more captions to break up the sequence and point out how I tried to capture something a little more artistic than, “Here’s a bunch of messy cords wow I sure am a slob.”

I also need to think of a better title because honestly “Gaming In The Flesh” sounds like a horror novel where the protagonist becomes merged to their PS4 knock-off and that is not the image I want to evoke.