28 Feb

Newsletter 6

Week 6 of our development was the one after Quarters. We demonstrated a prototype of our game with one playable quest during this first milestone, which was incredibly helpful – we received a lot of feedback from the faculty and got a much better understanding of the direction we should move in.

Since our presentation most of our time was dedicated to processing faculty’s comments and suggestions, and planning of the new sprint took a little longer than we expected, so it officially started on Wednesday. In return we were able to plan it in much more detail and to know very specifically what kind of emotions we want to evoke during the new scene how to achieve that.

We decided that before halves we will put have focus mostly on the beginning and the ending scene of the game. This week we started to work on the intro which happens in a dream environment and simultaneously introduces the player to the story of the game and serves as a tutorial.

One of the ideas that we decided to incorporate from the visual point of view is to use real videos of our actress instead of making a model and animations. Not only it saves a large amount time for our artist, but looks pretty:

Next week we will have our introduction ready for playtesting and we will look forward to hear from people about what they think and which emotions do they feel while playing.

16 Feb

Newsletter 5

This week was dominated by preparing for, surviving, and digesting Quarters walk-arounds, which are, for readers unfamiliar with the Entertainment Technology Center and its project-semester rigors, involves the entirety of the faculty visiting, in pairs, each team’s room in 15-minute intervals and deploying whatever feedback is possible based on each team’s independent offerings. As a process, it’s not altogether dissimilar from the hazing rite for collegiates who wish to be granted acceptance into a fraternity or sorority, or the initiation rituals of Freemason-esque secret societies, but rather than enduring a gauntlet of physical harm and psychological humiliation, each ETC team must withstand a cross-examination from an ever-rotating panel of assessors. The insight the faculty receives from this ceremony will color their perceptions and expectations of each project for the remainder of the semester, and we students are granted a barrage of raw perspective, some transformative, some provocative, and some outright bizarre. For all involved it is an ordeal, but one that is warranted.

On our part, toward the close of our second sprint, we decided, in collaboration with Dave, to strive for an ambitious showing at Quarters and assemble a playable prototype of our game featuring a quest, the foundation of our key environment (with a few somewhat-final textures implemented), rudimentary versions of our exploration and conversations systems, fully voiced and branching dialogue, insomnia visual effects, ambient sound effects, and a detailed soundscape. By utilizing the developmental infrastructure we’d been instituting from the second week of the semester, and by augmenting and finalizing it in targeted areas (such as in our modeling and sound pipelines), we were able to conceptualize, plan, and execute this prototype within approximately five days, which was a massive (and massively encouraging) win for the team.

Due to the fact that we weren’t able to spend much time conceptualizing, planning, and executing the prototype, however, the Quarters response we received was both disconcerting and enlightening. For instance, because of the freshness of the prototype’s completion in comparison to when we showed it (i.e. about an hour), it occurred to none of us that, messaging-wise, we were exhibiting what appeared to be a relationship simulator as opposed to a game about life with insomnia, as a branching (and heated) conversation between our protagonist and his fiancee comprised the nucleus of our offering, and the relationship between how the protagonist’s insomnia could influence this conversation–or any conversation in our ultimate product–was unfortunately underrepresented. Similarly, because the relationship-dynamics were unintentionally at the forefront of our prototype, we received a surfeit of commentary concerning gender issues, and how responsible we’ll have to be when dealing with subjects like domesticity, and how to best avoid portraying men or women in lights which reinforce negative cultural stereotypes. The faculty also asserted that it’s crucial that we devise a protagonist who is, chiefly, sympathetic, so that when the player is forced to behave in abjectly disagreeable ways due to the character’s insomnia, he or she will not outrightly, viscerally loathe the digital skin in which we’ve enveloped them, but will instead be compelled to understand distasteful actions when they occur in-game.

In the days following Quarters, we convened to determine how to best respond to the most pertinent of Quarters-raised concerns, and to plan for our next sprint. There was some confusion amid our viewership as to whether the prototype was the beginning of our game or whether it was a moment out of context, and it was very much the latter, so we’re now developing the introductory coda of our project, which will introduce our central characters, depict them at their happiest, and inaugurate players to the core systems of the experience. Over the next two weeks, we hope to fashion the emotional heart of our game, and to instill in players the desire to care about our characters.

16 Feb

Newsletter 4

The fourth week of the development for Prisoner’s Cinema is the week before Entertainment Technology Center milestone – Quarters walkarounds. That means that faculty will be able to get the first glance at the project and get the feeling of it. Our goal for it is to put the emotions and ideas that we want to convey through the game in the most presentable form.

We have finally finished our basic promotional materials: website is launched and our team photo is ready. We welcome everybody to browse, and promise that soon there will be more content and social media resources connected to our project.

Since the playable version of the game that we are working on will be a rough prototype, we don’t expect it to be a very good emotional representation of the final project. For this reason Nathan has been working all week on documenting our ideas in game flow documents and writing user stories, so that we have a tangible way to describe our plan.

At the same time, the playable prototype remains our strong objective. Casey keeps iterating on the building where our character lives, and since this will be the place where the player will spend the most time, he is putting a lot of attention to the details. He is currently modeling and texturing specific objects for the quest, which we will not announce in this newsletter to keep some narrative secrets(!) that we will elaborate on later.

Alex was implementing a lot of things for the prototype. He worked on visual effects, to convey the feeling of grogginess of the character, specifically vignette effect and eye blinking. He also continued improving the player movement from different aspects, so that the player can relate to the character by being able to see his body and its motions and implemented basic conversation engine, so we can demonstrate some dialogue in our demo.

Arseniy has continued to conduct Scrum meetings and analyzing the process, so that in future sprints the team can accommodate the most significant parts of it and avoid time consuming elements that don’t work so well for the team. He also has started to work on the sound library and preparing the sound effects for the prototype to create the general atmosphere that we will start iterating on after Quarters.

And what is probably even more important, the posters finally arrived for the decoration. Now we are proud owners of these beautiful images that will inspire us eternally.

By Wednesday of the next week (when our Quarters time is scheduled), we will have a working prototype of our game. We are excited.

04 Feb

Newsletter 3

The third week of our project was a transition from the concept phase of pre-production to actual beginning of development. After first two weeks in the semester we felt very comfortable about our common team vision, and as soon as we got access to version control software, we began to work on our prototype.

To do this in the most efficient way possible, after working on a high-level schedule, Arseniy officially started to incorporate AGILE method and SCRUM and assembled a physical SCRUM-board. On Monday team had a meeting where we broke down our game on core features, created user stories, assigned priorities to them, and then broke them down on tasks. Each day since then team had 10-minute meetings updating on the progress and with all the routine that comes with following the rules by the book, we have to admit that there is some satisfaction in sticking the posted-notes on the wall-board.

 Alex and Casey were excited to actually start developing the prototype in Unity, and soon enough, Casey has developed the first iteration of a house-plan and a shell building for it in AutoCAD. The team has got an access to Unity Asset Server, and as soon as pipeline was established by putting a cube model from Casey in the scene, character’s apartment appeared in front of us magically. Casey keeps iterating on the architecture and is currently working on furnishing the rooms.

Nathan’s focus this week was beginning to create the narrative for the game. He was working on character’s bios, project description and level design in collaboration with Casey. He created and shared a folder with reference-pictures that would help Casey to convey the feelings of alienation and being out of place through the architecture, since well-thought environment is decided by the team to be one of our main focuses and the main character of the game will spend a lot of time in his apartment.

Besides all the content work, after advisor meetings we decided that since an ETC deadline of Quarters is very close, we want to find a good way to convey our vision to the faculty and to general public, and for that Nathan is also working restlessly on documentation, such as game flow document and lists of visual effects we want to incorporate in the game.

Alex started with making the player movement as comfortable as possible, and after Arseniy received the Oculus Rift for the team, he immediately started to work on enabling it to work with our game. This is being done In order to improve the immersion by having a body for a character you play as instead of floating in space as a ghost, like you do in most first-person games. He also found a way to tilt player model’s head in a natural way depending on the Oculus movements, which will really come in handy when we will have the mirror-like surfaces in the game. Besides that he wrote the shaders for materials so that the environment in our prototype looks realistic and special, and doesn’t say “Unity project” by just looking at it.

We feel like we are doing a really good progress and a great vision of the game we are making inside the team, all that is left is to convey this vision to the outside world.

04 Feb

Newsletter 2

This week found us continuing pre-production, working fastidiously to establish the bedrock of a communal creative vision. Naturally, this pursuit could only be realized by the lot of us barreling headlong through a meeting-gauntlet; fortunately, as a byproduct of the necessary creative crucible in which this week we simmered, we’ve discovered that we collectively possess a preternaturally high threshold for meetings. And although none of us are clairvoyant in the strictest sense (at least to the knowledge of this author), it can be intuited that this collaborative tenacity will serve Prisoner’s Cinema well for the duration of the semester.

Behold, the tender fruit of violent brainstorms.

Our most bounteous seance this week was focused on the structure of our game, though we also substantially touched upon gameplay possibilities. We plan to architect our experience around some derivation of the circadian clock–which is Casey’s personal favorite biological phrase, and which denotes a chronologic cycle of 24 hours–but our current quadry (and one which will likely remain unresolved until we’re able to begin prototyping and iteration) is whether to approximate the day’s hours in accelerated real time, so that players must endure each passing, glacial, fleeting moment from the subjective viewpoint of our protagonist; alternatively, we question whether the game should progress in a more authored manner, in which we as creators will select which segments of day and night the player will assume the consciousness of our protagonist, and in which the player will have to place their trust in the fact that we are allowing them to control the protagonist’s most significant moments.

Pertaining to gameplay, at this juncture of the project, during which we have the affordance of conversing about ideals, we plan to include three “modes” within our experience: exploration, conversation, and “mini-experiences,” a phrase that we’ve coined to represent discrete and self-contained instances of varied gameplay which may only occur once during the course of our game (and, for all intents and purposes, are synonymous with mini-games, though we’ve knowingly chosen to spurn the term and its wretched ludic associations (and in the process we’ve perhaps sired a term more offensive still, though endearing to us, for it is uniquely ours even in its monstrousness)). We spent a great deal of time defining the features we hope will comprise each mode, and, for sake of brevity, it’s fair to divulge that we hope our exploration system will be sufficiently Gone Home-y, and that our conversation system will evoke a certain The Walking Dead-ishness. To be clear, our goal is not the mimicry of these existing games and their systems, but to rather use what they do well and how they do it as a foundation for our singular creation. (And pertaining to “mini-experiences,” we’re very early in their conceptualization, but touchstones are presently games like Heavy Rain or Shenmue, in which distinct gameplay moments arise unpredictably, and during which the player must fleetly acclimate to numerous, disparate interactive challenges.)

Gone Home: Observe the asymmetric pizza grease blotting and the unctuous impressions of individual pepperoni slices!

Individually, each member of the team has sought to make as much tangible headway as possible during our pre-production phase. In addition to creating suitably ponderous promotional materials for our project for formalistic ETC purposes, Casey has also begun collecting reference materials for and executing drafts of our protagonist’s dwelling–the very nexus of our game.

As Casey finesses our team poster, Arseniy and Alex contemplate Creation itself.

Alex researched our shortlisted tech options and winnowed them into definites, and he also begun prototyping in Unity a first-person camera perspective which allows the player pivot the camera downward and view our protagonist’s neck, shoulders, arms, legs, and–yes–even feet: our hypothesis is that by better simulating a true-to-life first-person viewpoint–the one with we as humans are all so inextricably familiar–a more empathetic relationship between player and player character may be forged. Alternatively, this perspective could appear horrifically unnatural, subconsciously unsettling, or unintentionally hilarious, in which case we can simply adopt the curiously conventional, metaphysical first-person viewpoint in which the player character is represented only by a crowbar, gun, or disembodied hand which repeats the same three idle animations ad infinitum throughout a 60-hour game. Arseniy, meanwhile, developed a high-level project schedule, erected a SCRUM board, and was in a continuous producer’s flight ensuring that the team was well equipped and happy (including procuring a coveted CintiQ tablet for Casey’s disposal). Lastly, Nathan met with Dave and later spoke with Shane, our external advisor, during a team kickoff meeting with him, about the usefulness of player story design documentation, and has been preparing to compose it.

Production will begin in earnest next week, and we couldn’t be more enthusiastic about this transition.

04 Feb

Newsletter 1

We are Arseniy Klishin, producer and sound designer; Casey Ging, artist and animator; Alexander Moser, programmer and technical artist; and Nathan Baran, co-producer and game and narrative designer. We are Prisoner’s Cinema, a Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center Pittsburgh-campus pitch project with the goal of creating a game exploring the internal and external struggles of a life beset with insomnia, and which evokes player empathy. Our faculty advisor on this endeavor is Dave Culyba, and Shane Liesegang, a past ETC graduate and presently a narrative designer at Sony’s Santa Monica studio, has graciously agreed to serve as an external advisor. (Fascinatingly, one of Shane’s credits is LMNO, the legendarily unreleased Steven Spielberg-helmed EA project the aim of which is whispered to have been wringing real tears from any player who beheld it.)

LMNO, a meaningful sequence of letters.

Before chronicling our first week’s progress, for the sake of our likely befuddled readership, at this point it’s worth proffering an explanation of our team name–Prisoner’s Cinema–which is a hallucinatory psychological phenomenon which manifests to those affected as an abstract lightshow or visions of humanoid figures, and which is caused by sustained exposure to darkness or other forms of sensory deprivation. As the name implies, prisoners are the cohort who are most commonly subject to this anomaly. After an exhaustive and sanity-eviscerating team-quest to unearth a suitably weird name which would be associative of the ephemeral space between waking life and dreaming (the scientific term for which is “hypnagogic,” which lacks a certain delicateness, and which doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue), we selected  “Prisoner’s Cinema,” as it satisfies the aforementioned condition, it alludes to the state of insomniac incarceration in which our protagonist will exist, and it’s a surprising and enigmatic collision of traditionally distanced words which possesses an inherent mystery. One of our favorite contenders was “Intrinsic Gray,” which, we discovered, is tragically already the moniker of a One Direction fanfiction site, which we all looked upon and were all, as a team, irrevocably changed by: as Nietzsche wrote, “Battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

With regard to our accomplishments this week, Dave, in our first meeting with him, asked us to classify our vision of the game as it stands now into key categories such as “Emotion,” “Technology,” “Scope,” and “Inspirations.” And although this is a pitch project and a great deal of brainstorming took place prior to the semester’s onset, this exercise allowed us, for the first time, to communicate, clarify, and share ideas as a team; we now feel confident proceeding in earnest, and with a communal understanding of the game that we will create. Concerning project touchstones, Alex suggested that we investigate the film Inland Empire, and by extension the oeuvre of director David Lynch, whose work embodies the skulking dread, surreality, and the permeation of dream-logic into the mundane realm which we aim also to convey, interactively.

 One of the greatest romantic comedies ever made.

Another significant cinematic influence is Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Alienation Trilogy,” comprised of L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse, which follows a series of characters who are existentially adrift, emotionally listless, and neither able to forge meaningful human relationships nor able to articulate their disaffection. The narratives in these films are nomadic, focused on inexplicit, symbolic moments, and are often deliberately anticlimactic, allowing viewers room for interpretation and the transposition of their experiences on the films’ characters; similarly, the trilogy’s acting is uniformly subdued and nuanced, with expressions of raw emotion meted so as to concentrate their impact. Last, architecture is of paramount importance to Antonioni, and the rigidity and obliqueness of the films’ subjects is sustainedly reflected (or juxtaposed) by the scenes’ placement in metropolises or outlying lots, the urban versus the rural, the new versus the old. Given that Casey studied Architecture and has professional experience in the discipline, we hope to utilize all available opportunities to channel emotion and parallel/contrast our characters with conscious, thoughtful decisions about the settings they will inhabit.

Reflections can be a powerful motivator for emotion or a canvas for symbolism.

In drawing this introductory, ungainly newsletter to a close, this week we were also able to return to several videogame referents that impacted our project pitch and which inhabit the same still-amorphous, non-combat-based, emotive, societally conscious, intellectually provocative market space we foresee that our end product will. Gone Home and Dear Esther, for example, showcase environmental storytelling and purposefully minimalistic mechanics; That Dragon, Cancer tells a supremely personal story about a child’s sickness which challenges audience expectations about what constitutes a viable “game”; the conversation system in The Walking Dead will heavily inform the choices we make when developing an equivalent system in our game; and Out of This World (or Another World, for our European readers), though released in 1991, illustrates the expressive potential and fluidity of animation possible from a minimalistic aesthetic design and low-poly models.

That Dragon, Cancer: Emotionally and artistically daring.

Perhaps our most potent takeaway this week has been the concept of deliberateness, as submitted by Dave during our first advisor’s meeting: that each artistic, sound, narrative, and gameplay decision we make should contribute toward the evocation of empathy in our game in a way that each of us recognizes and should be able to speak toward. In other words, no element of our game should be predicated by randomness alone. Next week, we’ll continue to concretize what is feasible versus what’s possible, we’ll develop a series of player stories so as to create tangible connections between in-game actions and the corresponding sensations and emotions we hope to stoke in players, and we’ll begin testing our technological hypotheses so we can begin building the game at the earliest possible juncture.