Author Archives: Naomi

The Dreadful Gravity of Hit Points

Take Any One You Want

When we tell people we’re working on game inspired by the roguelike lineage of games, we usually end up making a number of qualifying statements. After all, LIBRARY isn’t set in a dungeon of geometrically ordered tiles, a map of corridors and chambers where you might stumble across a weak goblin or a terrifyingly powerful dragon, a magical sword to smite those enemies with or a healing potion to quaff when the fight is over. The inspiration we draw from roguelikes is primarily in the idea of exploring and attempting to master a procedurally generated space that’s different every time you play. We also love the rich, combinatorial grammar that’s been born out of the rougelike tradition: a wide array of items, potions, traps, equipment, enemies, spells, and more that can combine to produce unpredictable results, sometimes deadly and sometimes life-saving in the nick of time!

For a while I was telling people “it’s similar to a roguelike game, but in a setting inspired by Borges’ Infinite Library.” (In case you’re wondering, a lot of those conversations also ended up either explaining roguelikes, the tale of the Infinite Library, or both.) Later I started saying “it’s inspired by roguelikes, but in a procedurally generated space that’s made out of linguistic meaning.” In October, four of the Brooklyn Game Ensemble were at the Indiecade festival of independent games in Los Angeles. Since one of the most common questions there is “so what game are you working on?” I found myself starting to tell people that we were working on a different kind of roguelike that sought to avoid traditional systems of combat, hit points, and damage — instead using systems of words, letters and meaning.
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Summer in Brooklyn

It’s been a sleepy summer for the Brooklyn Game Ensemble. Nathalie and Eric were out of the country until last week, and though the rest of the team’s been in New York, we’ve had our hands full with other projects, vacations, and summer hijinx. Still, we managed to get together and meet a few times; I can scarcely believe that I took this photo of the Brooklyn Bridge during one such session. How many people get to work on a rooftop with such a great view of the East River and Manhattan’s skyline? BGE programmer Kris Schlachter does on a regular basis, since it’s his rooftop, and I felt pretty lucky too!

Like a lot of independent game development teams, the Brooklyn Game Ensemble is nomadic, distributed and goes without an official headquarters. Earlier in the sumer, Eric and Nathalie were bouncing between Berlin and Paris while setting up their room-sized art-gallery game, INTERFERENCE. We caught up with them on Skype occasionally, and enjoyed a fascinated squint through an iPad camera at the results of their architecture+game-design+art+mischief collaboration: five hanging game boards of riddled metal filigree studded with poplar cylinders. On other days, we’ve all worked from home and instant messaged, but we’ve always found that we can better focus our thoughts and energy on LIBRARY when we’re able to meet face-to-face. Before the school year ended in May, we were convening regularly at NYU’s amazing Game Center, where we’ve now returned for the fall semester. Through most of the summer we were clasically rootless freelancers: meeting in back yards, rooftops, and even hotel lobbies with free wi-fi on several occasions. (Pro tip from Josh: in fancy hotels that like to think of themselves as experts in hospitality, as long as you look like you’re supposed to be there, nobody will ever kick you out of the lobby!)
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Of Chroma, Cameras and Connotation

We’re pleased to announce that Brooklyn Game Ensemble has added a new collaborator to our roster: Vincent LaCava of This is Pop, who is stepping in to guide the art direction and visual style of LIBRARY. Vincent has a well-honed and extremely stylish visual sensibility and we’re excited to have him aboard. Until recently, the visual look of our exploratory prototype reflected an emphasis on rapid iteration and functional placeholders, with relatively little time devoted to feel or style — except insofar as those things arose from the systems we’ve been building and tweaking. In other words, we’ve been working in a rich space of meaning, but with visuals that are one step further than bare-bones “programmer art.” Nathalie has been the leading pioneer of our visual style to date; she’s contributed immensely to decisions about the construction of our library’s procedurally-generated space, the perspective the player sees the library from, and a lot of directions we’ve explored with regards to color — but in recent weeks she and Vincent have been collaborating on taking the visual side of our game one step deeper.

The installation art of Olafur Eliasson come up repeatedly in our discussion of light, color and space. His works have an inimitable way of harnessing qualities of the atmosphere you move through — the transmutation of light and color, the refraction and physical feel of tiny particles of water, even the temperature of the gallery rooms his pieces occupy. Nathalie described one of the pieces she and Eric experienced as floating in a space consisting purely of colors, where the walls and ceiling and sense of structure seemed to fall away or become irrelevant.

Our spatial explorations, on the other hand, have been driven partially by our instincts about mood and feel, but primarily by more formal concerns about objects in the space, player interaction with objects, and clarity of meaning. For several months we were using color as a quick and easy shorthand to denote properties of different kinds of books: were their natures hidden or revealed to the player? What could they do, and how were they important? Did they belong with other books as a set? Was this book the one you’re looking for? As we grappled with the handles and edges of our nascent system, we used simple signifiers of distinct, solid colors to mark our progress and stake down the amorphous, billowing tent of our design problem.

The library seen in earlier posts on this blog have been full of vibrant splotches of color, sometimes rainbow-like, all representing nuances of data in our game (and in the library it represents). At times we’ve relished the candy-like colors, randomly drawn from the full RGB palette — no, really, a lot of the colorful images we’ve been using operate on three random numbers between 0 and 255 for red, green and blue values! The arbitrary, digitally-driven nature of our color values has highlighted the fact that each colorful book is a data object, at times making the navigation of the library feel like a cyberpunk exploration of a world-like database. We wanted to try a different path, more evocative and moody — one inspired in part by Eliason’s work with color — so Nathalie and Vincent led our prototype towards this look:

The recent builds of our game are far more monochromatic — but across the same range of colors as before, simply one at a time. (We plan on restricting the palette in the future to a more curated set of shades.) Using 3D lighting filters and scripts that twist more conventional notions of fog, palette swapping, shafts of light and other effects, we’ve created a world where the player (represented still by a little pawn) floats through single-hued chambers in clouds of color. In lieu of darkness at the edges of the world, away from kindled light sources, we now have an ever thicker fog of color, its intensity increasing until the shapes of our book-stacks bleeds away into formless hue.

We’re still not sure how permanent or useful this look is. As a literal representation of an information space, it’s far more murky than previous builds — but then again, a detailed overhead map would probably be the “clearest” way to represent the procedurally spaces we construct, and that’s not our goal. LIBRARY, at least in its current form, is as much about uncertainty, glimpsed shadows and murky areas beyond view as it is about understanding exactly where you are in a space made of linguistic meaning. More precisely, perhaps it’s about a contentious voyage between those two poles. Along the way, drifting through clouds of color adds texture and shifting, highly interpretable mood to your movements, but also denotes a change of place. Each room is thoroughly infused with a distinct diffuse color; first you are here, and the world is blue. Now you have walked a few paces into a new chamber, of new meaning, and the world is ochre, or mauve, or lavender. Associations with color abound in games, but these colors arise from an algorithmic process. What do they mean? Perhaps only what the player allows them to.

Deprecated: the Cutting Room Floor of Game Development

We’ve recently made some significant changes to LIBRARY and realized that it’s around time we clean up our virtual workspace. After nearly a year of iterating, pruning, trying something completely different, picking up previously discarded ideas, and initiating new experiments, we have a lot of bits and pieces of code and gameplay that aren’t in use. We might come back to them at some point, or use their presence in our accumulated code as raw material for a completely different feature. In the meantime, we’re sweeping up our cutting room floor and putting things away. Among other things, Eric has just finished streamlining all the variables that we weren’t using, and the look and feel of our LIBRARY has gotten noticeably cleaner and less clutered: the virtual world we’re generating mirroring the reduction of chaos in our code and configurations.

Although we’ll probably post some more images of what our rough-hewn virtual library looks like in days to come, for today we thought it might be nice to show the raw sweepings, the deprecated configuration variables that have piled up over the months. These are the knobs and levers that we’ve been tweaking in order to control various elements of the experience. Because our game is highly procedural, with maps, behaviors and clouds of interrelated meaning arising from algorithms and processes, we don’t have anything like traditional “level design,” just lots of different data-sets. These are the pieces of data that we’re no longer using; glancing back through their names is an archaeological glimpse into many of the ideas we’ve experimented with. Take a look and keep in mind: these are the things that no longer exist.

Familiar Fragments

We’ve been playing with more ideas related to flow of particles through the space of a game, which is one of Kris’s areas of keen interest as a programmer. At the moment, LIBRARY is inhabited mostly by floating clouds of dust that get in your way and are hazardous to travel through, but we’re investigating other angles on clouds and streams of particles as well: things the player might look for, or which could affect their exploration through the library in other ways. Here’s what some of those particles might look like, as a first draft:

This is a 10×10 sheet of 100 different shapes; to think about what these might look like in LIBRARY, you have to imagine them swirling around each other. (Or you could wait until Kris and Josh implement them into the game.) Looking at them spread out in a grid, however, you might notice some familiar forms; these shapes were created by slicing up letters, usually with just one cut across an aesthetically interesting axis. “Broken letters” seemed like a natural fit in a world made of meanings, words, and books; these might be the subatomic particles of our game, the pieces that are too fragmentary to have meaning. What might happen if you stumble into a cloud, a lake, a stream chaotically teeming with letters-that-once-were, or letters-that-might-be? I guess we’ll find out.

Where books come… to life?

Not long after we decided to set our game in a library, we started thinking about how to bring that library to life. We knew we were going to break the bounds of reality somehow, but the possibilities were wide open: a library that grew, disappeared, and returned in myriad forms based on your actions or whims? A library haunted by ghostly clones of little girls, or roaming animals made from ink? We explored ideas ranging from words floating and hovering over the stacks, to fleeing from a shadowy minotaur-like threat through mazelike corridors.

Last week we returned to this topic and started looking at possibilities we hadn’t considered before. We’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks refining the semantic structure of the library: the organization of books and words, clouds of meaning. As a result, we started thinking about ways that books themselves, or the contents of books, could come to life. We’d briefly considered ideas that involved the illustrations in a book springing off of the pages, but ultimately decided that those kinds of visuals were not only well-explored, but also difficult to create a repeating motif out of without growing tiresome. Still, we knew there were other interesting points of reference out there that we could take inspiration from.

Nathalie and Eric found two videos one evening last week which explore a couple different ways of creating worlds out of books:

The second film was especially interesting to us because of all the ways that the animators found to give their “living books” character. Some of the books have images on their pages which come to life as characters or informational displays. Other books express their personality through movement, texture of their pages and covers, or differences in size from one another.

Although we’re certain that players of  LIBRARY will be interacting with and using books, we’re not sure if books will be the lively characters and companions that Morris Lessmore devotes his life to. There are plenty of other possibilities left to explore: individual letters with character traits and life of their own, or even motes of light that drift amongst the books like fireflies?

Nathalie found these photos just the other day of a forest full of fireflies in Okayama Prefecture, Japan. The images were captured with time-lapse photography, magnifying the number of fireflies in the trees into a gorgeous earthbound galaxy. We’re currently thinking about how we might use fireflies, or other clusters of floating, moving entities, as players explore our own forest-ish landscape of books and meanings.

Fireflies in Okayama

Debug Vistas

At some point in the early history of libraries — many millennia before the Dewey decimal system, presumably in the ancient stacks of Alexandria and Mesopotamia — curators of books and records must have realized that they had to get organized. Even an obscure or difficult classification system is better than no system at all, especially in a large collection where it could take years to find a single tome.

I’m somewhat pleased to announced that we’ve reached that point in our own library, decidedly surreal and virtual though it is. We’ve hit a turning point in our design, something we’ll hopefully be talking more about soon, and it hinges upon a way of organizing the books in our infinitely re-created library. What do the books in a single room of this library have in common? How do you navigate through these chambers?

We’re experimenting with these questions as we speak, and some of the results have turned out to be visually fascinating.

Debug Vista

The colored lines represent relationships between books that are scattered across the overlapping spheres that create our library (which you can read about in a previous post!) We’re also exploring the use of color to convey these relationships to the player, but we’re really not sure yet if we want a rainbow-colored library, a monochromatic library (the preference of our resident architect) or something in-between.

Debug Vista

As for what these relationships represent… well, that’s still under wraps for now, because we have no idea if it’ll lead to fruitful gameplay, or end up as an odd idea that we pursue for a while, but fall back from to explore other directions. Fortunately, we’ve found so far that every time we do pursue an avenue that we end up retreating from, we come back from the exploration with some interesting pieces and flavors that continue to inform the overall design. On we go!

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Oh, the Levels We’ll Make

We’ve started to dig deeper into the possibilities unlocked by the procedural level architecture system that Kris devised to create an endlessly shuffled variety of LIBRARY spaces to explore. LIBRARY draws some inspiration from other games that generate procedural levels every time you start a new game, from roguelike games that build maps of boxy rooms and angular corridors out of a grid of ASCII characters to Derek Yu’s Spelunky, which creates a set of connected chambers that the player can descend through and explore. After less than a day of experimentation with the numerous settings in the system, some interesting variants emerged from Eric’s tinkering:

Am I the only one that kind of wants these patterns on a t-shirt?

As with some earlier diagrams we’ve shown, each little white speck you can make out in these images represents some books in a stack (or possibly a shelf? nothing is certain yet in this library). The rooms of our library are made from thousands and thousands of books that the player can interact with — moving them around, searching through them for valuable meaning, even destroying them or hurling them across the room at a tense moment. The four images above each represent about eight to ten thousand books. What’s fascinating about the four images above is that they each evoke a somewaht different character: some feel much more messy and chaotic, while others have large open spaces, or thick expanses of books separating hard-to-reach areas. We’re thrilled that all of these are produced out of the same lines of code, and hold so many possibilities. Looking at the images above, you can see chambers that you’d have to dig through piles of books to reach, narrow corridors to search down, large chambers that you might get lost in the middle of, and “weak points” where you might choose to break through a wall of texts.

We started this process thinking that we’d find an ideal set of parameters to feed into Kris’s system so that we’d have an endless supply of levels that fit our criteria. Through playing around with our hand-crafted tools, however, we’re starting to feel like we might want multiple types of spaces to explore in succession, so that sometimes you’re pushing your way through a dense, messy cluster of books, and other times you’re exploring wide avenue and corridors. We’re just scratching the surface of possibilities for how these different kinds of spaces might relate to each other, or proceed in succession, or fit into some larger structure, so the best is yet to come!

The shapes and patterns of these level-maps have some of the “digitally organic” feel of Conway’s Game of Life or other cellular automata simulations, as if our stacks of books were bacteria in a petri dish. Eric also likened the endless permutations to John Simon’s Every Icon, a procedural artwork which runs through every possible combination of black/white pixels in a 32×32 grid. Every Icon feels like a performance or recitation of the possibilities of a binary space, and the idea that it contains every possible 32×32 black and white icon is eerily like a pixellated counterpart of Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, another major inspiration for LIBRARY. I’m just relieved that our system produces interesting, playable spaces in less than 5.85 billion years, which is how long it takes Every Icon to run through the possibilities in only the first 2 lines of its grid! Thank heavens for algorithms.

New Perspectives

What a difference a splash of aesthetic vision makes!

At this point in our embryonic existence, Brooklyn Game Ensemble consists mostly of game designers and programmers (and one talented hybrid). We’re not devoid of visual aesthetic sensibility — Eric studied painting, for example, I got my start in graphic design back when it was being called “desktop publishing,” and we all have a keen eye for usability and flavor. Still, when we jump into working on a game as programmers and game designers, we want to prototype a structure to play around with as quickly as possible. We leapt from the unformed tohubohu of abstract concept into the actuality of a 3D prototype world, and when the mists first cleared we had this:

Our library consists of stacks of books — and our first books were plain rectangular boxes in a few different colors, piled up in randomly placed stacks. We used this as our workshop to try out various ideas on how the player would interact with the environment, and what objects might exist. (As you may be able to tell from the image, one of the objects we had been considering seems to be represented as a giant ink well… hmmmmm.)

As we moved towards the procedural generation of our library-world, we also started to discuss the perspective and visual style of the world. Fortunately, our team includes an architect: Nathalie Pozzi, who’s making her first foray into digital games but brings enough experience and vision about the aesthetics of space that she’s frequently elevating our game to new levels and new ways of thinking about things the rest of us might otherwise take for granted.

Kris and Josh provided a number of adjustable variables, handles into the code generating and rendering the level which allow the rest of us to affect how our world looked without getting our grubby hands into the nice, clean code. Here’s the “after makeover” shot of our world after Nathalie spent an afternoon tweaking what it looked like:

For now, we’ve chosen a fixed “orthographic” perspective, with stark shadows on the edges of the books. The floor’s bright blue for contrast, and a blank slate in more ways than one, since we haven’t explored too many ideas for what lies underfoot. Making prototypes is one of the most exciting phases of game development precisely because they’re like rickety little boats which you’re sailing into the unknown — but revealing more about themselves to you as you sail along!

Asking questions at PRACTICE

Last weekend, three of the Brooklyn Game Ensemble (Eric, Josh, and Naomi) were at PRACTICE, an incredible conference on game design orchestrated by the NYU Game Center, where Eric teaches and helps coordinate the program. PRACTICE was an unparalleled opportunity to have great conversations about game design and hear about the techniques and challenges that designers are working with all over the industry (and beyond!) Our Ensemble might be a little biased since we know a lot of the people who helped make it happen, but I can honestly say that it sparked my thinking on at least half a dozen deep topics, and it was the most worthwhile symposium of ideas that I’ve been to in years.

Besides all of the amazing information and concepts flying around the space, we also got to show some of our work on LIBRARY in public for the very first time. One of the most popular sessions at PRACTICE involved a series of designers getting up to present their work along with a problem they’d encountered in the design. The rest of the assembled designers shouted out potential solutions and suggestions in an free-flowing exchange of ideas. We kicked off the session by showing the procedural generation of the play environment that we’re experimenting with in the current LIBRARY prototype. The image above shows an overhead view of a space made out of hundreds of tiny blocks, shaped into circular “rooms.” Kris coded this procedural generation technique based on aesthetic ideas that Nathalie provided for the space.

This process started with a whiteboard drawing we created collaboratively while imagining what a journey through LIBRARY might look like. We envisioned circular rooms with interstitial spaces that could be explored through excavation or the happenstance of “walls” with varying thickness. Each member of our team brings something different to the group: Nathalie’s vision of an architected space quite different that what we’re used to seeing in digital games; Kris’s love for algorithmically generated worlds; and my own thoughts about what kind of game experience we wanted to craft. The rest of us were quite impressed when Kris produced some code, just a few days of work later, which could replicate the kind of sketches we’d done on the whiteboard in a digital environment, producing a different set of circular rooms each time.
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