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Why are a bunch of dudes creating a story about a female protagonist?

We should begin with the eloquent words of Pulitzer-prize winning author, Junot Diaz: “The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck…I wring my hands because I know that as a dude, my privilege, my long-term deficiencies work against me in writing women, no matter how hard I try and how talented I am.” In that same interview in The Atlantic, Diaz goes on to detail how male privilege gives us “atrophied muscles” when it comes to creating representative female characters. Indeed, feminist critics like Judith Fetterley and Anita Sarkeesian have explored the many problems that can arise when we writers feel entitled to stories outside of our experiences. They have frequently shown how the subtle but deadly undertow of our culture leads us again and again to sexist and racist depictions in our narratives.

So why is Team reBERth, currently composed of six men, writing a story centered on a young woman? Do we even begin to have the authority to write such a tale? Are we, like so many people, merely trying to profit from an ongoing feminist movement and the increase of female gamers in the market? And are these issues actually important? After all, what we’re making is “just a game,” right?

But as Fetterley explains in “On the Politics of Literature,” to adopt the stance that narrative is apolitical is to “posture,” to put on the “pretense that literature speaks universal truths” by excising the “merely personal.” We cannot so much as present a blank document or an empty canvas without committing a political act. As soon as we create the label “art” pointing to any object in the world, context immediately imbues that object, that pointer, that label, and the system that binds them with the hue of politics. And Fetterley knows the stakes are high because “power is the issue in the politics of literature…to be excluded from a literature that claims to define one’s identity is to experience…the endless division of self against self.” With narrative–no matter how seemingly blithe or low-brow, no matter if it comes with pew-pew bullets and cheat codes–the stakes are always high.

It is true that limiting authors to their own experiences might filter out a lot of harmful depictions of marginalized groups. After all, if narrative is one of the most dangerous disease vectors for hatred, it might seem reasonable to take CDC-like precautions. But we as a culture value freedom in the arts. We balk when we see censorious barriers put on the imagination and its expression. That is why instead of censorship, I believe in discussion. Instead of arguments, I believe in co-exploration. And art, including electronic narratives (a fancy term for “games with stories”), is a particularly fruitful ground on which to embark on those co-explorations.

When Eric first approached me with the reBERth project, the first thing that struck me was that he’d created a pan-vitalist mythos that wasn’t merely derivative. And to live and breathe inside that rich world, he’d created the character of Mel. He didn’t want her to be sexualized. He didn’t want her to be the sci-fi stereotype of the Super Strong Woman, the kind who has no dimension and is strong in a one-dimensional, masculine way. He didn’t want her to be an antiheroine. Instead, he wanted her to be one of those people who could confront tragedy while still maintaining a purity of heart through the strength of a loving family. We’ve defined “purity of heart” to mean moral conviction. In our conversations, something about Eric’s energy for this character and her Campbellian Hero(ine)’s Journey sparked my imagination. I began to feel that crucial feeling of creative co-ownership, of co-authoring, of co-exploration happening with the material. I know to never proceed with a project without that feeling, but when I have it, I can’t stop thinking about it. I began to feel confident that Mel wouldn’t just be a placeholder; yet another player’s Link not to the Past but to a game; yet another Platonically perfect and therefore featureless shape, like a sphere, on which we’d write our stereotypes. Instead, she would step into the world of Spira Firma with agency.

I now feel compelled to tell the story of Mel, her mother Medea, and her grandmother Sycora as I understand it. To me, they are manifestations of the triplicate goddess archetype, the Hecate, the Moirai or three Fates, complete with a maiden, a mother, and a crone. And yet they also feel like real individuals who go through the rupture of their family and must work, throughout the course of the game, to reunite once more. Mel’s incorruptible moral courage, her desire for everyone to be together and to be happy, her dedication to her family: all of it speaks to me. Her mother Medea’s fear that the universe’s infinite possibility is actually a crippling limitation to one’s course in life, and yet her contrapuntal drive to realize some ultimate goal strikes me as a very real existential crisis. Sycora’s desire to feel both the lightness of freedom that a long, accomplished life should earn her, and yet her desire to also take on the heavy burden of responsibility once more is something I think many people will identify with. I don’t believe that these characters are merely ornamental to the game. I don’t believe they are designated as female for the sake of acquiring narrative “flavor.” And so I find myself exploring not just their stories, but how their inner lives can be metaphorically represented in game design, in level elements, even in the code itself (the topic of a future blog post featuring Zeno’s Paradoxes).

While I work on these characters with the team, I certainly feel that hand wringing that even the likes of Junot Diaz feels. I worry about our collective blind spot. In our meetings, I try to adopt a zero-pretense approach and talk about the sexist and racist tropes I have replicated in my own work. I hope this will contribute to a safe space for us all to own up to our own prejudices, a space where having one’s work called sexist or racist doesn’t have to come with the connotation of “morally bad, close minded person.” But I still keep thinking about how unlikely men are to write good female characters, and I feel discouraged.

That is why I am grateful to have brilliant artists like Toni Morrison to lead the way. She tells us writers to “forget writing about what you know; write about what you don’t know.” Of course, when we do this, we must still adopt the humility of the outsider. We still must listen more than we speak, and we must write from the most vulnerable places within us to have any chance at success. And I am grateful to critics and artists like Anita Sarkeesian and Alison Bechdel, who have so clearly and succinctly given us guideposts to follow as we try to create experiences for people to enjoy, hopefully without their having to suspend their ethical sensibilities.

Because such an endeavor requires a daily recommitment to its core values, there is a near guarantee that we will make mistakes. When we do, I hope we will keep committing ourselves to listening to our collaborative critics and to fixing our missteps. And I certainly hope that if the reBERth project succeeds, we will expand our team such that it has a balance of gender and race, of perspective, of dimension. I hope it will be the kind of creative endeavor where narrative becomes not a disease vector for hatred but a medium for reinvention, empathy, and humanity–all those difficult things that so often benefit from the sugar-coating of an awesome game experience.

A Team That Works Together, Sticks Together

You could call me the team Producer, Project Manager, or some other form of team unifier, but my responsibility is to make sure the team is organized and marching in the right direction. The position often gets misunderstood as “the annoying guy that makes everyone follow an arbitrary process.”* While this can, unfortunately, be true at times, what I want to do today is outline how my role has brought a bunch of people together to bust their asses for a year for a pretty rad project.

*Quote is for emphasis, and not what anyone on the team has actually said.

I’ll start by offering a bit of advice…A team, or any organization, needs the same things to work together:

  1. Goals
  2. Trust
  3. Consistency
  4. Rewards

If you’re still onboard with this rousing topic, then keep reading. By the end, it should give some good insight into how an effective team works together.

Goals

A good project has an outline of what should be accomplished by the end. Even if you’re not certain that you’ll hit every target along the way, its really important that you set goals for the project and the team.

Most people start with an idea that makes practical sense.

“This jumping mechanic be super cool if this was a game.”

It’s great to hold onto those kind of ideas, but it isn’t the rallying cry to gather the troops. You’ll discover, as the project progresses, that no one person has the same idea about what the end product will be if that’s the way you start development. This should be swiftly addressed.

The way we’ve handled it on reBERth is to summarize what the ideal game will be in a succinct paragraph. It should answer the 5 questions (who, what, when, where, and how), and address the need for the project. It should capture the imagination of the team, if otherwise compel someone to be interested in the idea. If you have the team’s attention, then you can go into a breakdown of the details: What kind of game is it? Where does it take place? Who are the characters? What kind of gameplay should I expect? How is it original?

Most importantly, sell it as a story. The idea has to really paint the same picture in the team’s head.

Use flowery wording. Write it in the voice of the movie trailer guy. Invoke inspirational sources when selling the big picture.

Next, take the time to set some parameters by outlining 3 (or more) facets of the project that should always be respected in decision making. You may, for instance, choose story telling, atmosphere, and core mechanics. With those set, you make sure to never betray those concepts. In other words, if a decision would make it more difficult to tell the story, but would be a super game play mechanic, you may have to be on the cutting room floor.

With all of that set up, set a semi-arbitrary date for when you want to get it done. Perhaps PAX Prime is when you want a playable vertical slice of the game. Set the date, and work the schedule backwards. Take into consideration release build time, QA testing, polish, code freeze, feature lock, content completion, Alpha, and Beta (yes, even for a vertical slice). Plot it out. If it doesn’t work out, reset your schedule and keep building.

I promise you, winging it brings a ton of unmanageable headaches.

The last step is to sell the schedule to the team. Do they agree? Good! Use that to move everyone forward. Voice the goals often and reassess it frequently.

Trust

When we started reBERth, we brought on two people that were familiar enough with the game concept to want to jump in and start working with out Goals. We received good grace from them not because we had a strong idea of what we were building, but because we built trust amongst them. Trust can generally be earned by not being a jerk (i.e. not throwing anyone under the bus).

It’s also very important to provide value to their work by either complimenting their workflow, or supporting what they do. More so, it’s important to not hinder it. Additionally, listening and acting on input from the team ensures that your team will believe the things you say in the future.If you aim to do right by each person, then trust can be maintained.

Warning: Do NOT ABUSE THIS. IT IS EASILY LOST, AND VERY DIFFICULT TO REGAIN.

Consistency

This one delves into some fun Pavlovian behavioral training. Essentially, people learn fast when the framework (or rules) are consistent, and the reward and reaction are predictable. Make things unpredictable and people become real irritated real quickly, and lose whatever momentum was in place.

The first thing to do is to set up simple processes that happen at consistent times, and have a consistent format. Enforce the format, and don’t change it unless people agree to a change. Make sure the processes are scheduled at a time that can reoccur.

For our team, we have the same weekly meeting that follows this format:

  1. Start with goals review
  2. Summarize what work is completed r
  3. Reviews the completed work by each team member
  4. Sets goals for the next week

We do this every week, and we try to maintain it to the best of our ability.

The second part of this brings me to…

…Reward

We all want to be acknowledged for the good things we do. Without it, its like working in an echo chamber. Even if we work solo, we will eventually show off what we’ve done, or talk about it. Why? Because it’s reaffirming, and presents validity to why we spent the last 14 hours of your weekend working to make sure the build was functioning for the rest of team come Monday.

Reward doesn’t even have to be some kind of physical gift either. It can be as simple as understanding the value of someone’s output. This is why systems like code review work so well. One person provides output, another person provides input. It’s a cycle that can be immensely rewarding.

To make sure the reBERth team has rewarding work, we’ve made team review part of our weekly meetings. Everyone is given a chance to show what they’ve done. Everyone is given an opportunity to give constructive feedback. Everyone gets to walk away with some feeling of accomplishment.

This can also be done for larger goals as well. Did the team meet an important milestone date? Was the build passed through cert with flying colors? You might want to think about throwing a pizza party to the dulcet tones of the Slow Jams Pandora station (trust me, its an awesome station).

Conclusion

You have to run your team like anything else: give them something to look forward to, build trust, set expectations and deliver on them, and reward good behavior. If you can manage that, you would be amazed at how a team can gel around an idea and deliver beyond expectations.

Designing with the Team

Introduction

As the Lead Designer on reBERth it is my responsibility to propose designs for systems, outline requirements for feature development, verify that designs are on target and adjust them when they’re not, and overall ensure a cohesive, entertaining experience for players.  This means lots and lots and lots of decisions, both big and small.  As these decisions pile up, so do the problems.

The core issue is that the brain is only capable of making a limited number of quality decisions over any given span of time.  This is due to an effect known as decision fatigue.  As we make decisions, our brains burn up our glucose stores.  As glucose depletes, we become reluctant to make trade-offs.  With the astronomical number of decisions required to make a game (let alone one that people enjoy), it’s easy to see how susceptible the process is to suffering from poor decisions.

So what is a small team with a single game designer to do?  How does the designer productively tackle all the decisions that need making in order for development to progress?  As a team of six developers, we are not limited to a single “decision making battery”, but actually have one main battery with five in reserve!  Not only can we make more decisions together as a team, but we can make better decisions overall.

Every developer on reBERth, whether a composer, artist, programmer, product manager, or level designer, is invited to contribute to the design of the game.  The one requirement is that proposed designs must be in line with the shared vision for the game.  To that end, I developed and maintain a Vision document that is separate from other design documents: it lays out the expected final gameplay experience and establishes a set of design pillars that help direct the entire development process.

Invitations to contribute design input aren’t rare, either.  I try to recognize when I’m feeling creatively stymied or otherwise caught between what appear to be two (or more) equally good options.  In those cases I reach out to members of the team and ask for their thoughts.  At times they come back with ideas I hadn’t even considered, which is extra rewarding.

I’d like to provide a recent example that shows how working on design as a team can lead to some big wins.  Let’s dig into something at the absolute core of the reBERth gameplay experience: the Weapons System.

Case Study: The reBERth Weapons System

Some History

If you’ve played a version of reBERth already then you should know that what you played was a prototype.  To date we’ve created two such prototypes, each with a separate take on “musically driven weapons”:

  1. Pressing down the “Fire” button puts the ship in “firing” mode, but it doesn’t necessarily shoot.  Different elements in the music cause different weapons to fire.  If no such elements are playing, the ship is silent, even though the player clearly wants to shoot.
  2. Pressing down the “Fire” button turns on an audio track that’s synchronized to the main level music.  This track is special, however, in that there are always more music notes coming.  When those notes hit, the player will fire.

We built these two separate versions to get a better sense of what does and doesn’t work for our players.  Of course, the second prototype was informed by the first, and they are both informing our current implementation.

The Proposal – Iteration One

When it came time to draw up designs for the next (and nearly final) version of the weapons system, I turned back to the Vision and thought about where the prototypes failed to meet our goals.  I proposed a new system that broke the level’s audio into multiple layers, each of which could be tied to a specific weapon.  The player would decide which layer to “focus” with the controller, and this would simultaneously cause the audio system to duck out the non-focused layers.

With this system, the player would be encouraged to strategically connect their specific weapons (pew-pew gun, laser, etc.) to a layer of the music and then see how their connections worked.  Of course if a layer ever went silent, that weapon would not be able to fire, and the player would be forced to switch to a different weapon.

As part of a quick technical prototype, I built a multilayer ducking system to showcase and sell/prove the idea to the team.  With my initial prototype, the user would simply press a button to set which “layer” was focused, and it would stay that way until a different button was pressed.  Simple!

Iteration Two

I showed this prototype to a reduced team (holiday break) and asked for feedback.  Evan (our programmer) mentioned that while he thought the idea was neat, he felt a bit saddened that we wouldn’t be able to hear the original version of the music anymore (the full mix), especially since our composer put so much effort into making the music sound so good.  He paused for a minute before proposing a simple solution: “What if you only duck it while the player is holding down the fire button?”

giphy

The change was simple enough that it took less than five minutes to implement in the prototype.  The results felt incredible.

Iteration Three

With the entire team back from break at the next meeting, I was able to proudly show off the new weapons system design that Evan and I had put together.  Reactions were positive and yet lukewarm.  Several on the team were hung up on the fact that players might not be able to use their favorite weapons whenever they wanted to, that forcing them to switch to a different weapon based on the music would create a poor play experience.  “Strategy!” I countered.  “Frustrating!  Confusing!” they struck back.  Sensing myself starting to feel defensive, I asked rather what they would suggest to overcome these shortcomings.

After a few minutes of spitballing and digging into each other’s ideas, they proposed a new approach: separate weapon choice from the music layers.  “Players get to keep using their weapon of choice and, better yet, we can modify that weapon based on what layer they focus on!”  I was initially skeptical, but began running it through a few imaginary gameplay scenarios in my head.  How did it feel?

The more scenarios I ran it through, the more excited I became: this proposal inherently encourages experimentation.  Furthermore, not only did it address the issues that my initial proposal set out to address, but it absolutely nailed the Vision:

[T]he player should feel like they are channeling the music, focusing the energy of it into a tangible form with which they can influence the game world.

This quote was lifted directly out of the vision document and practically describes the new Weapons System design proposed by [Evan-Justin-Larry-Eric].

Wrapping Up

My initial proposal for the Weapons System was the result of countless hours of worrying over details of how the player would express themselves in the game – how would they channel the music?  What would that look like?  Is it feasible to develop technically?  Musically?  What happens when the player presses a different button?  How do we smoothly teach the player how the system works?

With such an innovative system at the core of the experience, there are simply far too many decisions for a single person to make effectively within a reasonable amount of time.  “That’s why we have playtesting,” I hear you say.  Yes!  We’ve already built and playtested two separate prototypes and will continue to playtest this new design once we get it moving.  However, the iteration that less than 30 minutes of focused attention from minds with a shared vision was able to get us cost far, far less than the playtesting loop would have.

Now the only thing left is to build it.

The Art of Orchestration: A Sonic Painting

Hello again, Larry here! It’s been a bit of a while since we last updated, but rest assured the team’s been working hard starting 2016 off right. We’re chugging away at building our demo level that we hope to share with you this spring, so bear with us while we’re under construction!

In the meanwhile what I wanted to share with you since we last talked is how the music has changed from just a mere piano sketch to a full-blown orchestral fury. I knew the music was going to be big, but man. This thing has grown to space-epic proportions.

If you’re a composer in my shoes, and you’re commissioned to write a piece of music for something, where do you start? The first and most important thing is that the music must tell the story. Therefore, as the composer it’s important to first conceptualize and internalize the emotions and drama that have to be captured and expressed. The notes on the page function to serve this purpose.

The second thing to be sensitive to is once the notes and themes have been sketched out, how do you want these notes to actually sound? What instrument should play them? Each instrument (acoustic or synthetic) has what musicians call a timbre, a particular color that makes the sound unique and identifiable. You could very easily make the metaphor that timbres are like tubes of paint. As the painter, you’re interested in not only which tubes you’ll choose to start off with, but also how you’ll combine these to create subtler or more vibrant shades. A good orchestrator has a good ear for not only what instruments sound like independently, but how well they would blend with another for a specific intention in mind.

There are many reasons to want to blend instruments with one another:

  1. Having multiple instruments act as one gives that musical line greater strength simply due to its compounded loudness. The more instruments there are that back a particular musical line, the more prominent that line becomes. This is why domineering melodies are not usually just a soloist but a whole army of instruments, whether they are the entire string section or an alliance from other sections such as the winds and brass as well. (Maybe you were wondering what happens to the flute melody after the cymbal swell… in fact, a clarinet, trumpet and French horn join in and change its hue and increase its loudness to the upcoming climax).
  2. Another similar but important reason to point out is that blending instruments can help add clarity to the musical line. For example, if your musical line is played by predominantly sweeping sustain notes from the strings, it may help to punctuate the attacks of each note by including percussion as well, whose sharpness would help cut through the other parts of the music. (Towards the climax signifying the arrival of the final section in the excerpt, the snare drum plays the exact same rhythm as the strings to help bring out their fast arpeggiated passage closer to the ear).
  3. Blending instruments helps to minimize the number of independently moving musical lines. This is important because… Generally you should aim to have 3-4 distinct musical lines at max. These act as your foreground (melody), middle ground (counter line), and background (harmony). People can only keep so much straight when you unleash your full orchestra onto their unsuspecting ears, so it’s good practice to make the effort and organize your sounds just like a well balanced painting. Know what you want the listener to pay most attention to (foreground), have something interesting in the periphery (middle ground), and create a contextual space for these to reside in (background).

Generally these are some rules of thumb that I try to keep in mind when I go about fleshing out my meager piano sketch into something symphonic. It is very much like creating a painting, being sensitive to textures and colors that are at your disposal. The biggest thing, however, is realizing the vision in your mind with the tools at hand. In this case, the priority is the narrative and the prospective gameplay experience. What that narrative and gameplay will be… we hope to reveal soon!

Recycle: Recurring Themes and Reharmonization

Hi everyone, back for another round of music talk! I wanted to share with you a little bit about how I go about writing music for large scale works. Unlike a single song that stands alone, large scale works (such as films, albums, and television series) call for multiple pieces of music threaded together to make the storytelling experience what we, as an audience, take in. Since these projects call for range while maintaining continuity and cohesion, one technique that I rely on is having themes that recur and help solidify a particular character, event, or location. In general, music relies on repetition to strengthen its presence and significance.

Now, going back to the excerpt I shared with you guys last time, the seeds of a recurring theme were already planted. Below is a snippet of the melody from last time:

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Melody A (one time through)

Here is a snippet of the melody in the boss battle that happens later in the song:

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Melody B (first part, one time through)

See (and hear) anything similar? There are two significant structural motifs that make up the meat and bones of this theme. The first is the scalar run you hear at the beginning of each, then the two sequential rhythmic jumps you hear following it. Here they are pointed out:

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Melody A with identifiable motifs

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 6.11.34 PM

Melody B with similar motifs

The scale motif is even reflected in both melodies practically note for note! If that’s not recurring, I don’t know what is.

“But Larry,” you might ask, “isn’t just rehashing familiar tunes going to be boring?” WELL. A composer has ways of spicing up recurring material by varying other elements of the music around it. We’ve pointed out how they’re similar. Now let’s see how they’re in fact different:

  • Time Signature: The first melody is in 4/4, while the second is in 3/4. Whoa. Totally different feel!
  • Rhythmic speed and displacementYou may notice that Melody B is twice the speed as Melody A (motivic eighth notes are sixteenths). It’s also worth pointing out that the scale motif actually starts Melody B on a pickup, creating a more “rolling” feel, while Melody A feels more square since it begins on a downbeat with a note that holds and waits for the scale. The difference in placement is key.
  • Reharmonization: Harmony plays a huge role in how we hear a melody because it gives context. CONTEXT is SUPER IMPORTANT. Temporally, this can mean where you are in the song’s unfolding: what chords precede the current moment, what chords succeed the current moment, and how long you hold the chord of the current moment. Given that the linearity of time plays a big role, what tonal color you establish earlier in the song sets the stage for how different chords afterwards will sound in contrast. You can hear for yourself how different the two melodies sound with their respective underlying harmony:
    • Melody A with Harmony
    • Melody B with Harmony

From a cognitive science perspective, what we find interesting and pleasingly exciting is a blend of the familiar with the unexpected. If something is too familiar we are desensitized and lack attention. If something is too jarringly unknown it can startle and pull us out of the moment.

Now with all that out of the way, here’s another excerpt of the demo level’s musical journey, the first boss battle. Currently it’s in a frankenstein state of being slowly transformed out of its piano sketch outline into real instruments we’d like to use. A fresh percussion layer and a pumping bass definitely give it a new feel (#contextissuperimportant)! Please bear with us!

Enjoy!

Windows to the Soul

As the title suggests, this post is about eyes, specifically the role they play in conveying emotional states.  You see, reBERth is a story-driven game centered around Mel, a woman who barely escapes the destruction of her homeworld and begins a quest to save the rest of the galaxy.  A key element in any such story-driven experience is the emotional arc.

Each level of reBERth will tell its own portion of the story and feature its own emotional arc.  Much of this will be expressed through the music of a level.  But reBERth is a game that combines music and visual experiences wherever possible, enabling each sense to reinforce the other.  This is where eyes come in.

We’re not talking about the players eyes: we’re talking about Mel’s eyes.  As the pilot of the eponymous spaceship reBERth and the game’s hero, the emotional arc is really her arc.  We want you as the player to connect with her; to feel for her.  And the best way we know to do that visually is to show you her eyes.  It’s been shown that “[a] person’s face, especially their eyes, creates the most obvious and immediate cues that lead to the formation of impressions.”

One of our current milestone tasks is to hone in on a design for “Mel Reaction HUD.”  This is an early concept piece by our artist Jacques:

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An early exploration of the Mel Reaction HUD

In this image, Jacques is exploring a couple of facial expressions and testing the impact of Mel’s visor on the readability of her emotions.  This particular concept attempts to portray Mel in a state of pained concern, in order to trigger empathy in the player (by eliciting a similar feeling).  As expected, the image on the right is far easier to read on an emotional level.

We’re really excited about the direction this HUD element is headed.  Even these concepts help add a sense of gravitas to the game — and they haven’t even made it into our white-box level yet!  We’re itching to see your reactions when this system is actively reinforcing (and reinforced by) the action on screen and the music in your ears!