Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Making of "Sack Trek: Arena"

Pardon a little fuzzy-headedness; I'm running on what amounts to two hours' sleep, and that sleep marked by dreams so vivid and involving it might as well have been wakefulness. Dreams of shifting platforms, flickering menus, pistons, gears, pulleys and explosives, and the constant cycle like a fever-vison: fuckup, undo; fuckup, undo; fuckup, undo. Welcome to the late-nite madness of LittleBigPlanet authorship.

Now, making stuff with LittleBigPlanet's creation tools is easy. Knocking together, say, a functional fire-breathing dragon – or, perhaps more amusingly and certainly more demographically likely, a giant dick on tank treads launching electrified sperms – is the work of a couple minutes. Making an actual entire level, a level more sophisticated than the thousands of worthless “steep hill with ramp” stages clogging up the LBP servers, is more arduous. When my first opus, a cutsey adventure featuring a ride on an owl and a mission to aid a group of deer-worshipping cultists, got vaporized by the close of the pre-release beta period, my heart kind of went out of it; I was content just to meander through the work of others. Yesterday, though, I was inspired to rejoin my worldwide brethren and sistren and get back into the wonder, joy and toil of creation.

Creation... otherwise known as “intellectual property infringement." Unless you move in certain subcultural online circles you may not have heard the howls, but they have been loud and echoing in the hidden chambers: LittleBigPlanet publisher/developers Sony/Media Molecule have been perceived as being hard and merciless in their moderation (i.e. deletion) of LBP levels featuring famous properties. Unfortunately, this means a Pac-Man-shaped portion of the LBP pie is living on borrowed time; seventy per cent of the “community content” – and almost all of the best stuff – has been themed on Batman, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, Grand Theft Auto, Sex and the City (?!) or some other familiar touchstone. This is natural and wholly predictable behavior for early-adopting nerds, and its censure pisses them right off. In old-school fuck-you solidarity, I abandoned my original IP, the deer-cult-owl thing, and set to work on a stage based on the original-series Star Trek episode “Arena". The one where Kirk fights a lizard man.

Sleeves rolled up and elbows-deep into the toolkit, and the depth of possibility LBP makes available becomes more apparent as every new idea becomes quick reality, even (or maybe especially) when doing the broad strokes. Hang a big black rectangle, spangle it with stars and a moon or two, and bam: Space... the final frontier. A few swipes with some grayish-white material, and there's a recognizable Enterprise. Hollow out bridge, Captain's quarters, turbolift shaft, transporter room... drop to the “planet surface," pull in the readymade Desert scenery, click three times and there's a passable ruined colony, still in flames from the Gorn (aka lizard man) attack. Bam, bam, bam. I am like unto a God, a Roddenberry in virtual styrofoam.

Ah, but... God's in creation, and the Devil's in the details. Two hours of tinkering to get the turbolifts a) working and b) not crushing the player against a bulkhead. Another two or three puzzling over how to create a beam-down effect before just saying Fuck It and letting gravity (and a transparent tube) handle the problem. Tinkering with the Gorn character 'til 3 a.m., first fussing over the motion of its limbs (there's a fine line between threatening and spastic) then fine-tuning the aim on the deadly boulders he's chucking. Agonizing over a spring-loaded death-contraption where Kirk has to zipline over some flaming spikes – it's not canon, but no LBP level can be called complete without flaming spikes. Now to model Kirk's improvised musket...

And that's just the mechanical stuff. What really traps you is the set decoration, the need to get everything exactly right. As long as I spent modeling the Gorn, I spent at least twice that furnishing my Enterprise. The red-alert lights, the space-plants and astro-tapestries in Kirk's Love Chamber. The bridge decor: Captain's chair, consoles, viewscreen and the alien face thereon, Spock's dialogue, background electronic ambiance. Machinery of the transporter room, Scotty's red uniform, sound effects of the beam-down...

The only way to stay sane is to stop fighting for fidelity and let yourself roll with LBP's lo-fi arts-n-crafts aesthetic – suggest, rather than simulate. A viewscreen? Here's a sticker that looks kind of like a TV; slap it up on the wall and move on. Players will get it. Here's the power and glory of theming your level on an established pop-cult property: readymade context. Build a big, urban level with lots of ziplines and pulleys and a big black hotrod... fine. Begin that exact same level with a tuxedoed gingerbread man saying “Good evening, Master Bruce!” and suddenly those clankity traverses become Bat-Ropes, that car becomes the Batmobile, a narrative is in play, and it's f'n sweeet.

I think Sony/MM will relent on their IP-infringement crackdown; I think they'll have to. Their core audience – which in the case of a crowdsourced-content game like LBP is also their core creative team – are bred-in-the bone fanboys, remixers, nostalgists and payers of homage, and those folks won't play (or make) ball if their work's a moderator's click away from becoming electron dust just because it has a picture of Mega Man in it. Meanwhile, look for “Sack Trek: Arena”, coming soon to a Planet near you... just as soon as I get those goddamned boulders right...

"Moral Aesthetics" and the bloddy quest for cute boots

Go ahead and ogle, rotate the camera for a better look, let your gaze move up from the toes in slow femme-fatale exposition: kicky pirate boots, striped breeches tucked into their turned-down tops; a heavy, dark leather duster with a face-obscuring high collar; piercing eyes; an elaborate bonnet, once the pride of a merchant-class matron, now rain-stained and battle-battered. Everything in shades of blood red over the full but firm curves of a woman of action who's not shy of calling for another plate of mutton. Sex and danger, she accessorizes with weaponry: a burnished pistol, a samurai sword.

Yeah, Fable II is the shit for dress-up-dolly.

Seriously. At this point, I'm only in it for the outfits. I've been playing this busting-at-the-seams action/RPG sequel intermittently for a few weeks now – mostly as a break from my Fallout obsession, which is problematic since Fallout's “jump” button maps to Fable's “cast magic” button and I'm constantly freaking out the townies by accidentally shooting fireballs around the pub – and nothing gives me more satisfaction than popping open a treasure chest to find the goblins gave their lives guarding a sweet hat. The other night, I played an extra three hours into the morning because I refused to rest until I'd scrounged up a decent pair of gloves. It's that kind of game.

There's more to Fable II, of course; lots more. I guess there's a crazy evil wizard-duke or something? I'm supposed to be questing for closure with that guy. But even that closure extends into the dress-up-dolly realm, into... moral aesthetics. You choices change your look. Saintly searchers for truth and justice get a glow about them, pale and bright an angelic; hell-bent reavers of bloody vengeance have their complexions veer into the dark and diabolical. My deeds so far haven't had enough ethical weight to make for much of a moral makeover; you're not really picking sides in the cosmic battle while shopping for dyes or rummaging through bookstores for dog-training manuals. All my girl's got so far is a little bit of a hollow, haunted look around the eyes, probably as a result of all the scared-shitless rubes I've left in my clumsy fireball-flinging wake. To get the real exotic smoky-eye look, she's going to have to slaughter a slave caravan, at least...

That is, if I continue playing very much longer. Fable II offers a lot to do – you can get married (even gay-married!), have kids (or not; condoms are a common treasure item), buy a house, buy a business, build a trade empire – but there's something that keeps it from becoming the oh-god-just-six-more-hours-then-I'll-save-and-quit-I-swear obsession it'd have to be to power me through all that stuff. That something is its mechanism for social interaction.

In Fable II, you communicate with the world's denizens through dozens of “gestures,” little animations that evoke certain responses in those near enough to see/hear them. Brandish a trophy from your exploits, and folks might clap and cheer, bumping up your level of fame. Do a little dance in the town square, people might think you're funny and nice and like you more. Blow a fart (or launch a fireball) and you're going to alienate the crowd. I see where they want to go with this – to model your social interactions more organically than might be possible with canned dialogue choices – but the result is just... well, silly.

Let me give you an example. Wandering a misty clifftop trail one moonlit evening, I encounter a ghost. This ghost, the forlorn shade of a jilted lover, charges me with a task: seduce the chump that broke her heart, then do for him as he did to her. I always do what ghosts tell me, so, OK, I head to town and find the guy. I get his attention with a little trophy-brandishing, then just start mashing the “Seduction” button. As the townsfolk look on and cheer, I blow kisses, whisper sweet nothings, wink and mince about, and eventually the guy's love-o-meter is filled and he agrees to marry me.

This takes five minutes, five whole minutes from “Yo!” to “Yes."

Granted, it may have had something to do with the fact the guy's a crummy townie and I'm a buxom samurai-sword asskickin' vixen with a crimson corset and a pouchful of sheepskin jimmy-hats and he'd be a lunatic not to jump at the chance to park his raggedy unemployed ass in my paid-for gypsy caravan, but still. The whole scene was so ludicrous, the gossamer threads suspending my disbelief all snapped in a hurry; I was out.

And yet... the clothes! They bring me back in; I still haven't found the gloves I was after, you know? I can put up with the ridiculous clowning for a while, fired by imaginings of what wonderful shirts, boots and doublets might lie farther into the mysterious reaches of the land of Albion...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

I swear, to you.

This is my hammer. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me my hammer is useless. Without my hammer, I am useless. I must swing my hammer true. I must swing straighter than the nail that is trying to defy me. I must hit it before it hits me. I will. My hammer and I know that what counts in carpentry is not the nails we use, the noise of our hit, or the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count. We will hit.

My hammer is human, even as I am human, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, its weight, its head and its claw. I will keep my hammer clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other.

Before you I swear this creed. My hammer and I are the joiners of wood. We are the masters of our work. We are the builders of my life.

So be it, until construction is complete and there is no work.