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Scar Tissue Narrative Interactive Story Video game presentation at Dames Making Games, Tanya Kan and Mikki Benaglia
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Scar Tissue from TOJam 9

While buried with other work obligations, I was really pleased to have the chance to work with some really talented people at this year’s TOJam 9, the largest game jam in Toronto. For the uninitiated, it means that participants in teams of their choosing have 48 hours the weekend of April 25 to 27 to create a game from start to finish. For TOJam, there was a great creative atmosphere of students, aficionados, and professional game developers all collaborating together. The point is to try something new, or work with a new team, to put together a playable prototype. If it doesn’t work, it’s okay! It’d still be a productive weekend of experimentation.

Platform art by Mikki Benaglia

We created a team with Eric Roberts as Programmer, Oskar Pruski as Composer/Sound Designer/Artist, Mikki Benaglia as Artist, and me, Tanya Kan as Designer/Writer/Artist. Because Eric Roberts has a lot of experience with 2D games, I was inspired to try my hand at designing a 2D game as well. He told me to stick with my strengths, which is writing and art direction, while I am simultaneously trying something new. I feel like this is a great advice for many jammers, especially for those, like myself, who have not played the designer/producer role under a jam’s time constraints. As such, I designed an interactive novel-platformer game hybrid, under Eric’s advice. The whole idea is that whatever one player goes through narratively will not be the same experience as another player’s, even if the number of platforms is static.

The story is about a superstar so stressed out by the pressures of her industry (and plastic surgery) that she skips in and out of time, and creates disarray of her “private” life as a result. The narrative itself has been living with me for some time. It first inception was in my little Twine experiment, Sound is a Spectrum, which is playable (but narratively incomplete) on this site.

Scar Tissue Interactive Game spreadsheet preview of dialogue

As also recommended by TOJam organizers, we came prepared with a list of programming priorities. I also created a spreadsheet of all of the game writing/dialogue and corresponding art assets. I created a Grooveshark playlist of the atmosphere that I was trying to set. On Google Drive, I defined the look of the game with reference images with consultation with Mikki, and then we all tried out these experiments at the jam itself! Eric went with an engine structured around 2D called Godot, currently in beta, as he wanted to test drive it at the jam.

Jam version of the game is available for download on itch.io, but is unfinished:
Scar Tissue as created at TOJam in Godot, programmed by Eric Roberts, designed by Tanya Kan

After the jam, I realized that I quite like the idea behind the game as a free release. As such, Mikki and I have continued to adapt the game. We changed the game engine from Godot to Unity, even though the languages are not compatible, because I am trying my hand at programming for the first time. I went with Unity because I really like the documentation and community that Unity has to address most of my questions, and I know that the Engine is flexible around the development needs of my future games. It was definitely an interesting learning curve to say the least, but not as much of an uphill climb as I feared! The other part is also that I can ask silly, simple questions of my Toronto friends about programming.

 

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Now, for this new version, we have a lot more art assets to augment the story. Each platform is meant to have a different visual design to hint at the story inside each of its collectable dialogue boxes. Mikki designed and illustrated about 2/3rds of the platforms and they inspire me to have better design for those that I am in charge of! We tightened the art style so that it is more unified in the fashion illustration meets Dadaist hybrid. I am also playing around with the inclusion of some harder-to-reach platforms so that we get more narrative variety, and have some great friends to help out with the programming side!

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Mikki and I were very kindly invited to present our game at Dames Making Games Speaker Social, where we shared some of our design considerations! It was a fantastic experience, where we received positive and constructive feedback. Thank you DMG and Bento Miso! Here’s the unabridged Powerpoint slides if anyone’s curious.

Update 2015: Scar Tissue is currently on hiatus.

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Review for To the Moon published on IGR

My review on the indie game, To the Moon, created by Kan Gao, has been published on Indie Game Reviewer. Click here to read! “The game is more than a sum of its parts, but really teases at the fringes of our personal philosophies on the subconscious mind and emotions, of how it affects our personal identities and understanding of reality.” I gave it 4.5/5 stars.

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Knee of the curve

In hindsight, I had a lot of fun new experiences in the last month and a half. This was despite my developing minor but chronic medical complexities since January of this year that lend itself to a whole host of stresses. Two months and a few days ago, I joined EVE Online after very inconsistent or indirect gaming experiences for years and years, such as logging into MUDs for socializing with old friends (that’s text-based multi-user dungeon for you folks playing Crysis on Ultra mode) and watching my boyfriend play his PS3 titles.

In fact, I knew what I was getting into when I was joining EVE Online. I had meant to play the game because I was thrilled by its portended difficulty. Also, less than two months after establishing my account, I would’ve completed a 45 page essay on EVE Online’s game interface and interactivity towards my degree in Cinema Studies. This was a few weeks ago. Now, looking back, the ache of the stress over academic pressures and the debilitating lack of self-confidence had faded almost into nothingness. Not just for this one paper, or this one class, but now I look back over the course of the last year and I think to myself: Wow, I did that. With the guidance and the kindness of many people, I have played hard and I have worked hard.

I had read a lot of articles about EVE before ever starting out on a trial account. Thus, on the thirteenth day, I was gutsy enough to be the last writer to meet the deadline for the 17th Blog Banter presented by CrazyKinux, where each of the eighty participants addressed the topic of how women have engaged with EVE Online, and how EVE Online ought to engage them in turn. With my modest knowledge amounting to an entry of nearly 3,000 words, and where other players may have far more in-game experience and astute writing background than I, CrazyKinux must’ve had his work cut out for him! Somehow, I have managed to find myself in his top ten winner’s list. My heart skipped a beat and butterflies (or frigates!) tickled my stomach when I read his announcement of the winning entries:

  1. The Ghost Report: Eve Blog Banter: The Girls Who Fly Spaceships
  2. “Prove It”: Women In EvE
  3. Blog Banter #17 – Women in Eve
  4. The Ladies of New Eden (An Analysis on How Men are not from Mars, & Women are not from Venus)
  5. Cloaked and Watching You: The Ladies of New Eden
  6. Space Broker: Gal-Ristas!
  7. Tech 2 stilettos
  8. It’s a woman’s world (they just don’t know it yet!)
  9. Ladies of New Eden
  10. Lady Vengeance, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pew-Pew

And a list of recommended reads:

CrazyKinux pronounced that it was near impossible for him to designate who is actually ranked #1, and whom #10, because of the complexity and expansive style and content of all entries. Regardless of where I am placed, I am honoured to be mentioned at all in the 10th spot, on the same list as the talented individuals above me. There is much that I would like to learn from the diversity of style, humor and experience that these and other entries exemplify. The lovely thing is that creative activities such as this generate continual discussion, from forums to TeamSpeak to commenting on other blogs, and are furthermore written by individuals of differentiated interests and backgrounds. After all, I take the attitude that games do matter, even when actions taken within it appear to only affect a self-sustaining alternate universe, with a certain set of rules and premises for conventional behavior. Indeed, they help us build connections between peoples and ideas, both in mundane and exceptional actions in our lives.

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Lady Vengeance, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pew-Pew

The sudden flurry of shared experiences within a game community must be one of the most unpredictable and satisfying things to be engaged with. When it’s a game that’s as prolific as EVE Online, with in-game politics as well as fan-made blogs, guides, databases, and creative media, these vast networks of internet media become the overall EVE Online identity to those who are familiar with the game as well as those who are not. Case in point, this very blog post is part of a network of 79 other blog posts responding to CrazyKinux’s EVE Blog Banter contest on the Ladies of New Eden. The questions posed to all blog participants are as follows:

What could CCP Games do to attract and maintain a higher percentage of women to the game. Will Incarna do the trick? Can anything else be done in the mean time? Can we the players do our part to share the game we love with our counterparts, with our sisters or daughters, with the Ladies in our lives? What could be added to the game to make it more attractive to them? Should anything be changed? Is the game at fault, or its player base to blame?

Despite the immense pools of existing talent, I will still consider that the low female demographic in the game is a loss to the diversity of opinion and politics within the game (Oops! Rather daring of me to say so, huh, right after citing CrazyKinux’s extremely diverse blog banter! My faux pas). Working towards drawing more female players will further diversify the careers and tactics that are at the disposal of all players, and experimentation amongst players itself may bring about new careers. I must stress that this is not an essentialist argument that says that women seek entertainment in fundamentally different things, and thus attempting to gain female gamers would completely eradicate all that EVE stands for. Rather, I would argue that women can be thoroughly engaged by the interplay between entertainment and creativity, leisure and competition that EVE has. But the devil’s in the details, so I will discuss some mechanisms that will enhance the game’s experience, rather than reform it.

And, despite the funhouse mixing of movie titles in my header, you may be able to tell already that the tone of this blog post is gently didactical. However, I also hope that it engages with my personal anecdotes and observations as a female gamer. Although theoretical at times, I hope that you get something out of my writing and continue this seasonal conversation. Feel free to jump around to different sections of the blog post, as the first few lines in each section should be fairly self-explanatory.

Personal attachments: I started playing just thirteen days ago. But I had been immersed for a couple of months before in the fan-made and CCP-made videos through Youtube, and browsing through the wikis to get a glimpse into the scope of the game. There was something that seemed different about the level of commitment that EVE Online machinima compared to that of other videogames: its nitty-gritty level of social and political negotiations and maneuvers between real players had me at the edge of my seat. I held out for a bit, and then curiosity got the better of me.

One of those tipping points was my gradual awareness of how much creative and technical writing has had built up the world of EVE Online. As a budding roleplayer and creative writer, having a community and developer interested in the lore of the world is a huge selling point to me. A hearty narrative also simultaneously functions as respite and as motivation in most games. I was not disappointed when I started my first days as a capsuleer: early career quests already cited the Caldari-Gallente conflict in its pre-written dialogue, while folks on public channels kept recommending me to sites within the broader EVE community.

The second selling point for me was that I heard how challenging it was, by just the game mechanics itself. I had always wanted for something unconventional and tactical, and it delivered in spades. Within hours, I became really enthusiastic about the ingenuity of the click-to-fly system rather than wobbling about in space by pressing the arrow keys. Of course, it allows a whole variety of fittings for items that can be specialized towards certain tactics based on distance and speed. Furthermore, it allows me to think of what I want to do with all that adrenaline at the moment of engagement. I can plan, coordinate, follow orders, remonstrate and call for diplomacy with my enemy. What a maddening mess it’d be if blob battles contained tens of thousands of ships that veer in all sorts of direction and can’t calibrate their distances and speeds for the optimal damage and tanking? The lucid number of menus only made it more immersive for me – as though I was simultaneously in the field of battle and engaging in combat remotely. The screen itself was the world of reality, and it was a good, strong feeling to be had.

Of clothing and of creed: I’m going to get momentarily philosophical here (posthumanist, if you were wondering). Perhaps not everyone is comfortable with the experience of associating deeply with machines. In my case, I feel materially connected to the screen as though they are my eyes, looking out towards the ship that I own, as though I am controlling it remotely from hundreds of thousands of light years away. In a way then, the screen of my eyes is traveling at superluminal speeds to give me information to react to so quickly. At the same time, I am interactively associated with the hidden character within my pod, which obtusely only becomes visible to another set of eyes – my enemy’s – when I get podded. Perhaps this invisible body is something that is more uncomfortable to women than to men, because women are asked to reify their bodies all the time, and their bodies are inscribed with extra meaning many times over. Because of this, women may be more ambivalent about relating to technologies than men, who has had a historical comfort, if not hegemony, in interacting with technological apparatuses. But I will not pursue this line of inquiry any further, for it does not productively give us an understanding of what should be accomplished to bring more female players aboard EVE Online, but only gives a hypothesis of why females may have been avoiding it at a subconscious level.

Neither do I want to jump immediately into the disposition that Incarna will draw more women gamers because of increased customization and fashion and having a body, without a broader framework to support this argument. I’m rather skeptical of stereotyped values. The above opinion is rather frivolous without basis, because there are undoubtedly female gamers who do care less about fashion and socialization, and this opinion is unproductive as to the broader type of innovation that CCP should bring to EVE while allowing it to remain quintessentially the same product that we love. Like the idea of it or not, Incarna shall come to be implemented in EVE Online. The question becomes, what sort of supportive infrastructure both in-game and within the internet community can help EVE flourish in a way that attracts productive and diverse women gamers?

I have no notions that there needs to be equal representation by people of different race, creed, gender, and religion in EVE. Not only is that an impossible ideal for any game, but it is also a fairly useless one to aim for. Difference will never be measured in equal numbers. Rather, what I am interested in is the diversification in ideas, of subjective intuitions that are as differentiated as our real life experiences. This generates discussions and tactics as never before, because the discourse of differences intermingled together creates simultaneously inclusion and dissimilarity. Women may very well respond and enact competition much more differently than men. Having more women in no way makes the game more ‘balanced’ – but in fact it will unsettle and make outcomes more unpredictable than ever. The existing EVE community would have to take on new negotiations and schemes to meet the expectations of their female corp-mates and enemies. Is that not thrilling? The EVE community has always touted itself to be the most difficult of all games, so I hope that it is not just hot air when it comes to treading readily into unknown territory of differentiated engagement.

There is a Ph.D. of Economics on the CCP staff who makes quarterly reports on EVE’s virtual economies. Blogs discuss whether corporations in EVE are realistic to real-life corporations, if they are business partnerships, or even the feudal hierarchal model. These characteristics are not necessarily fundamentally more impressive to men than they are to women. Similarly, investing strategically in multiple regional markets in New Eden is not intrinsically less creative than manufacturing outfits for Incarna. The main difference, I contend, is in the form of the competition. The markets may be measured by your margin of profit for your success, but the thrill of fashion design remains a more subjective competition.

Must we always compete?: So we’ve just entered the heart of my argument, which claims that the corporate mentality of competitive capitalism in EVE Online is a very masculine enterprise. That’s not to say that women can’t get into it because it’s masculine, but it is associated with the industrial military complex writ in large has historically privileged a masculine ideal first, and had been sustained by it. So, female players, who are aware that there is a certain masculine association with the art of war and the industrious stockpiling for war, may find themselves putting EVE Online down onto the “maybe I’ll join later” list.

There’s a multivariate solution to this:

  1. Create a niche economy that has nothing to do with competition and military strategies, not even like mining. This can include developing for stations, entertainment and fashion, for planetary interaction and other things that are not measured by strength but by a more subjective measure of trend-based products.
  2. Advertise discussions, creative writing, and media creativity by the developers and fans alike across multiple platforms.
  3. Integrating forums as a space of discourse within the game client itself with more streamlined functionality than through the in-game browser. Include methods of following and subscribing threads and PMing specific players within and outside of the game client, and by removing the word limit if possible. Make it easier to read for an extended period of time with white on dark or dark on white text and background (not grays). CCP may have been working already towards the direction that I am thinking of, with EVE gate in the next expansion to facilitate the networking aspect.
  4. Advertise different career paths beyond mining and combat (I’m looking at you, you gorgeous Butterfly Effect trailer, as much as I adore you) on Youtube and other sites heavily frequented by gamers.
  5. Install more mechanisms for group engagement such as a directory for public channels, an easier-to-read channel window, and more streamlined function and less lag for having text conversations through this medium.
  6. Incarna as the means to facilitate casual engagement, rather than necessarily focusing on dress and customization, but more as a smooth-running, chill-out zone.
  7. Promoting the crafting aspects as tied to its narrative aspects and roleplay potential.

In the next section, I shall detail some of the threads of thought of one of my broader suggestions from this list.

Planetary Folksperson Interaction and other curious inspections: Remember that there is something that is expanding the EVE Online world before Incarna, and may change the interaction of exploration yet again? Planetary interaction may also draw more girl gamers who have always wanted to fly somewhere to explore new planets and go into low orbit to observe curious new species and cultures, rather than rocks and ships.

Has anyone played the single-player PC game entitled Black and White? Maybe there’s something that can be taken from the page of that very unique game, and one line from the Sim City franchise. How are the people on planetside going to react to a capsuleer whose body is immortal, and takes their natural resources? Should they get a cut to keep them happy? Would they work more to your benefit if you pay for using such resources, or will they be militant in their labor demands? Are they religious? Should you institute a religion to keep them in line, or to aid them in a network of shared faith with other planets and societies? Can you learn trades from the peoplefolk towards working in Incarna space stations? Where else am I supposed to know to distinguish the mind-altering boosters from the girly cocktails? The Servant Sisters of EVE epic arc really didn’t go into that particular detail…

Speaking of exploring mysterious things, what if wormholes were more tied into the canon of storylines and mission running, even with the threat of that space closing up? Planetary interaction as also not neatly fitting into the calculus of pure profit margins, but also depends on your politics and ideology. Maybe ganking in lowsec does not fit into the same moral framework as indentured labour of a whole planet or dealing with pollution spillovers, since the capsuleer you’re ganking is immortal, anyhow. Maybe it doesn’t. Whatever the reason, it offers broader play styles and choices that may not be directly reducible down to military superiority or profit margin.

The naiveté of MMOs: MMOs are still in some ways in their infancy, and the visual MMOs that we associate with today have only had slightly over a decade of innovating the styles and gameplay that we’ve become familiar with. A lot of us still chose our games based on social aspects. This is a positive thing. The less positive would be that more casual players are more likely to chose games that appear social, such as upon a networking site like Facebook, or due to their popularity, or because they have great avatar customization. The latter especially shows how easy it is to slip into the trap of thinking that a game has a great community because no two avatars look alike, and therefore everyone can retain their individualism and let their personality burst forth.

Genre is also a deal-breaker for some, but at the end of the day, genre is not nearly so important as gameplay and the social experience that you get out of playing an MMORPG. If you don’t look after the truly social aspects of your game experience as the one that you feel is the most satisfying, why bother with an MMORPG at all? A console single-player would likely have better graphics and better immersion. I am no sci-fi buff, but I like it enough that it is a truer fantasy for me to fly a spaceship than to be a night-elf. But if there is no such thing as corporations and the institutionalized potential for meeting like-minded capsuleers, I may have very well let my trial time run dry without subscription.

The primary way to solve this would be through diverse marketing, and to let the game players mature in their viewing and interactive strategies. It’s comparable to the advent of film, in a way, that audiences will grow to be more sophisticated over time. Encouraging EVE’s player base to continually generate more EVE-related content can only bolster the interactive strategies that potential new players may come across, and take time to immerse him or herself in.

Diversification, or: It only does everything: CCP has been working towards the direction of inclusivity all along, but never at the behest of its original world. With Dust 514, the FPS players and those that want to joystick their ships will get their taste of on-the-ground battles, they way they like it the most. But it is more than just profiting from the market for CCP: it is tooted to add a whole new dimension the beautifully coordinated sandbox that we love so much of EVE. Dust is like a direct response to the Halo machinima Red vs. Blue, where the soldiers don’t know their own backstory and their own origins. FPS fighting in the sandbox (an FPS/MMO hybrid), tied to EVE Online, certainly expands the range of impact as well as the lore of the world, connecting many diverse forms of leisure and entertainment together.

As you can see, I’ve moved away from the paternalistic notion of “how can we market this towards the girlies” to “how can we diversify and enhance what is already at the heart of EVE’s characteristics”. Maybe with all this diversification, we’ll see a new class of ladies who are the ones to establish themselves in null-sec while sending their boyfriends into the plucky battlefields of Dust 514. Here’s to seeing things flourish.

Please take a look at some of the other entries in Crazy Kinux’s Blog Banter!:

Sorry, No Pink Spaceships Here Please
EVE Blog Banter: Chicks ‘N Ships
The Girls who Fly Spaceships
Is eve a man’s world? – blog banter
Blog Banter #17: The Ladies of New Eden
CK’s Blog Banter #17: What women want…
Blog Banter 17 – The Female of the Species

My follow-up to this topic into my third week of the game is available here. The post is entitled “Lady Vengeance returns: A roundtable about women at EVE University.”

Contest results: I am happy to announce that my entry is part of the top ten award winners of CrazyKinux’s 17th Blog Banter. Results were posted on his site on June 14, 2010, and can be viewed here.

Good luck to all entrants, and thank you for reading.

Best Regards,

Marceline Nantakarn