Inside Aech’s Basement: A VR Group Project

Our group project was to create various objects using Blender to incorporate into the VR room that is Aech’s Basement from Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One. Each group member brought their complementary individuality which added unique insight, helpful suggestions, and overall, great team camaraderie.

Below, each member of the group highlights their creation process and touches on how important intermediary group projects are to boosting confidence, gaining experience, and pushing academic boundaries.

But first, please enjoy this Game Trailer created by the invaluable, Vincent H.:

https://youtu.be/StVIVT0FUZM

Cheers!

 

ENGL 3726-01 Final Group Project

Janelle O.

The Stages of Using Blender as a Tech Novice

 

Stage 1: Fear

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I’ll admit, I let my insecurities get the best of me.

Make a virtual reality object? Me? Someone who’s never worked on anything STEM related before? In a software that has millions of buttons to press and things to mess up?

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I watched countless YouTube tutorials and felt like the hosts were speaking in a foreign language. It was so difficult for me to believe that I could comprehend, and eventually implement, what they were telling me. The self-inflicted intimidation inevitably led to…

 

Stage 2: Frustration

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No commentary necessary.

But, if you were wondering how many times someone can restart a project on Blender and come thiiiiiiiiiiis close to throwing a computer across a room…

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On the brink of a complete meltdown, I took a step back and realized that I may have been giving Blender too much power. Were the tutorial gurus really speaking in a different language? Was is truly as difficult as I believed it to be? Absolutely not…and once I accepted that, it was smooth sailing toward…

 

Stage 3: Success

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Ultimately, completing my object brought me relief; relief that I would never have to use Blender again! Kidding…kinda.

I felt a wave of satisfaction and pride knowing that I proved myself wrong. I was able to use software I had never used before to make an object in a world I had never visited prior to this semester. This project allowed me to fine tune a skill I didn’t know I possessed in a field that intimidated me beyond belief.

Am I switching my major to Computer Science? Absolutely not.

Did I gain experience and insight in an important field? Yes.

Most importantly, did I learn and grow in ways I never could have imagined? Yes.

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Vincent H.

Skee-Ball Machine and Game Trailer

 

With limited experience with MATLAB and none in computer graphics, I cautiously approached this project that proved to be an interesting venture into the world of 3D modeling.

Our task: supplement an existing virtual reality model of Aech’s basement based on Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

Since many of the objects explicitly named in the book had already been created, I needed to immerse myself into Cline’s world and extrapolate other plausible objects. I was inspired by his line: “Most of them were gathered around the row of old arcade games against the wall.” Though not quite old enough to be an 80’s kid, waves of nostalgia still swept over me as I recalled running through a labyrinth of arcade games in Chuck E. Cheese’s as a child. Each corner was filled with vibrant lights that tempted me with the opportunity to win tickets. Stopping in front of a Skee-Ball machine, the objective seemed simple. Whichever prize I earned would be a manifestation of my skill and not chance.

This childhood memory compelled me to create a Skee-Ball machine, and so I did.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.45.21 AM.pngPerspective view of Skee-Ball machine in Blender

I started by searching for various makes and models of Skee-Ball machines to provide a historically accurate model; in doing so, I also learned more about the rich history of the game. Skee-Ball was invented in 1908. Aggressive marketing campaigns created an exciting buzz around the game, eventually being featured in various media outlets, with one of those being a game called Superball on The Price is Right.

After finding the ideal model to recreate, I began in Blender by creating a scaffold of rectangular blocks to create a vague table-like structure. Blender has a variety of tools for detail work, so after creating the basic shape, I began adjusting the edges, gradually working towards the sleek and tapered model. After using bevel to create curved surfaces, knife to stencil point values on the backboard, and subdivide to generate the metal mesh, my Skee-Ball machine came to fruition and fits well in the room.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.46.07 AM.pngClockwise from top left: (1) Model of vintage 1980s Skee-Ball machine for design accuracy, (2) Wireframe view of final object created in Blender, (3) Rendered view of Skee-Ball machine and ball in Blender, (4) Rendered view of Skee-Ball machine and ball in room environment created with Unity

The object at the end of this meticulous process was similar to the wireframe structure shown above, except for one important feature: it was colorless. I spent the next few days experimenting with different shaders in Blender to generate the matte texture and metallic luster of the machine’s frame. Upon completion of the frame, I was stumped by the deceptively intricate and random texture of the felt for the machine’s surface. Luckily, a trove of insightful guidance and templates were available on the internet, so I found a relevant node map and adapted it for my use.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.46.42 AM.pngNode map of blending shaders to create colors and textures

After a few finishing touches, I exported the object and passed it to Vivian for the final step: uploading to Unity. This project gave me a profound appreciation for the computer graphics all around us, increasingly seen in movies. Although the true experts with years of experience are capable of creating models nigh indistinguishable from real-life objects, anyone with the dedication to learn can become proficient within a month. As a STEM major, I truly valued this rare opportunity to exhibit artistic creativity and learn cross-disciplinary skills in an epic quest to remediate Ready Player One.

 

Robert W.

The Music

 

My responsibilities differed a little from the other group members. My time was pretty evenly split between the softwares Blender, Finale, and Cubase. I wanted to add a little aural spice to the otherwise silent basement. Since a large portion of Aech’s and Parzival’s time is spent playing video games, I thought video game music would make the most sense as an incidental soundtrack. One of the only games the author mentions explicitly as a favorite of Aech and Parzival (which also has a decent soundtrack) is Golden Axe.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.47.33 AM.pngMy 3D model of the Golden Axe Genesis cartridge

I turned to that soundtrack as a source material for my synth work. I arranged a piece of music from the game, which took several hours of transcription and input in the notation software Finale (the only piece of software I was already familiar with).

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.47.43 AM.pngThe Finale file of my arrangement

From there, I exported the midi file into the digital audio workstation Cubase. Cubase is where I got to transform my generic midi file into a slightly more interesting electronic piece.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.47.50 AM.pngRaw import of my Finale file in the Cubase DAW

I wanted my percussive sounds to emulate those of a sega genesis system, so I worked with the virtual instrument VOPM, a digital synth designed specifically to emulate a sega genesis sound chip. My work with this synth proved a unique challenge. You must describe a sound in your head in terms of attack time, attack delay, reverb, detune, modular shape, etc. in order to create the instrument sound you desire.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.48.01 AM.pngVOPM interface

In order to add a unique, slightly more palatable character to my arrangement, I used some virtual instruments created in the Spector digital synth, which is a more modern and practical plugin than VOPM.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.48.15 AM.pngSpector synth. Fun fact, the total cost of the software I used for this project exceeds $1000. Thankfully Blair owns all the software so I didn’t have to foot that bill

Even though music is the focus of my degree, my engagement with Cubase and electronic music in general has been limited. Nearly every step of this project (outside of arranging the original track) was a new and valuable experience for me.

 

Wooseong C.

Modeling and UV Mapping  

 

I came into this project without even knowing what Blender was. When I opened the software for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the number of different tools and view modes the software offers.  I mainly learned from Youtube videos that showed the step-by-step process for making a 3D object. During the process of learning to use this software, I learned two Blender fundamentals – modeling and UV mapping.

Modeling simply refers to crafting the shape of your object to match that of the real-world version. This often requires you to have a second window with a picture of the real world object you can refer to:

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.51.37 AM.pngModeling an open magazine – I chose to create comic books to add to our VR version of Aech’s basement. I wanted to have a comic book that was open to add to the “realistic” aspect

Having a reference is really helpful, as it allows you to be more detailed and accurate. The process of making an open comic book entailed making a plane, extruding edges to make the folded part and curvature indicated by the red arrows (above), and adding the subdivision surface and solidify modifier:

Another blender skill I learned was UV mapping. This step allows the user to map an image acquired online onto his/her object. This allowed us to map images onto our posters and comic books:

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For the Astrosmash cartridge, additional steps were needed during UV mapping. Because I needed to add different images to the different surfaces of the object, I had to incorporate the use of Photoshop. The steps entailed unwrapping the 3D object into a 2D map, exporting this UV map to Photoshop, adding the online pictures to the photoshop, and importing the new UV map back to Blender

Overall, learning to use Blender to add objects to our VR representation of Aech’s basement was a very valuable experience. Although the initial learning stage was difficult, I can now use Blender at the beginner level. I now appreciate the vast amount of options and tools that overwhelmed me in the beginning, because it reflects the infinite amount of possibilities one has to create characters and objects. I am very glad that I took this course during my last semester at Vanderbilt. This course was different from all the other courses I have taken, going beyond the traditional essays and lectures, ultimately creating a more hands on learning experience. This final project really gave me appreciation and the confidence to continue using programs like Blender and photoshop in the future.

 

Vivian L.

Uniting All Elements in UnityScreen Shot 2018-04-24 at 10.40.01 PM.png

My role in the Aech’s Basement project group was to take each of my other group members’ separate Blender 3D objects and any other creations they worked on and implement them into the Unity Scene, ensuring everything looked as it was intended and worked properly. Another portion of my job was to raise the almost non-existent level of interactivity in the room. Prior to this semester’s final project, the player was not allowed to move within the room at all, and there was no way to touch or pick up objects, and I desperately wanted to change this.

At the beginning of this project, while all of my other group members worked on creating their assets, I researched and tested different ways to allow camera and body movement in VR. I looked into Unity Oculus Rift support pages, watched many Youtube video explanations on how to track the headset, and what the sensor controllers were called when used in the Scene. My initial thought process was to create a system in which there was a camera affixed to a Capsule 3D object that represented the player. The capsule would then rotate and translate itself according to the detected player headset movements and the Oculus Rift controller joystick input. To create the hands, I wanted to move two Sphere Colliders anywhere that the touch controllers were sensed. Lastly, to simulate the ability of picking up objects, when the player moved their hand Sphere Colliders to hit any other object that was meant to be moved, had a collider on it, and the grip trigger on that hand was being held down, the object would follow the Sphere Collider’s movement.

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Sounds fairly simple, right? I had initially thought so too.

However, I soon realized that although I had the thought process down, I had no idea how to physically code them into the room. I had scarcely any experience with writing C# code, which is the primary language in Unity, as well as using any of their numerous class libraries. I was also still piecing together how the controller input was read in Unity, and was largely unsure of how to read physical headset location. Another difficulty was the inability to test my code outside of the VR space in the Wond’ry.

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After another week or so struggling to write my own interactive player in VR, I decided to ask for Dr. Molvig’s help on the issue, since he was my professor last semester in the class Virtual Reality for Interdisciplinary Applications. He showed me many helpful websites and more videos on VR player bodies, especially Unity’s own player model. Following tutorials, I was able to put the model into the scene, but it didn’t quite work as expected.

#1 tip for all things Comp Sci: It never works like you expected

In fact, it crashed the game many times, and even when I got the Scene to play, my attempts in creating the hands painstakingly exact to a video I was recommended were ruined by the fact that it seemed as if the controllers were not being tracked in the scene at all! I believed that it was partially due to last semester’s attempts to create a teleportation system that was quite ineffective, and the tampering of the Scene files.

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This led to another large difficulty in my project. Since Unity does not allow the copying of Scene objects with their existing properties into another separate project, I would have to choose between spending more time trying to fix the existing scene, or create an entirely new Scene and copy all of the objects into it by hand. Given all of the time already spent trying to bugfix whatever was going on in the original scene, I decided that starting over may be my only choice if I wanted the movement and object interactivity to be a part of the room. I spent many days re-importing and organizing every detail of the room, testing it along the way to make sure that body and hand movement still worked.

Once I had finally recreated the original room, I held my breath when hitting the “Play” button one more time. It worked! The camera moved, my hands moved, and my body moved! I was filled with relief, but this was only the first step.

It was time to put the efforts of my teammates into the Scene. Altogether, we had quite a few assets created to put into the room; comic books, a skeeball machine, posters, a VCR player, game cartridges, and more. (I’m sure my teammates could tell you a lot more than I can about the specifics of their objects!) I also added a few Coke cans, mainly for hand and object collision testing.

A few things happened when I trying moving the objects into the Scene.

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  1. Objects were completely devoid of color.
  2. They were ginormous.

I knew I had to fix the color issue, but the size was not a problem. I could scale it to my will, but adding the correct materials was a separate hurdle. I researched what each of the little options on the objects did, and realized that clicking a button labelled “Lightmap Static” allowed many options, one of which was to assign materials to certain surfaces of the object. This meant that I would first need a material to assign, though. My teammates largely used pictures online to properly wrap around their objects, so I looked up how to create Unity materials from images. Once I figured out how to do that, I realized that objects that were supposed to have separated images on each face, like the Betamax VCR player, had only one surface on which to put the material. Without a proper UV map, I went around this issue by creating the object out of 6 quads, each representing a side. Then, I assigned a separate material for each of them. This worked nicely for neat geometrical objects, but I worried what would happen with more complex ones.

Screen Shot 2018-04-24 at 10.52.23 PM.pngThankfully, my teammates supplied me with UV maps that worked like magic for some of the other objects. For others, I simply looked up images online and utilized those. Sizing was done as realistically as possible

Eventually, every asset created was put into the Scene with the correct coloring and sizing. I was very happy with the results and seeing everyone’s work in the space, in VR, amazed me. Lastly, I was to put Robert’s Golden Axe music into the scene. I decided to create a Audio Source centered at the TV. I attached the Golden Axe audio clip to it, and changed the radii to reflect the distance at which the volume plays normally, and the distance at which it completely fades out.

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This marked the end of incorporating each team member’s object (and music) into the final room. Aech’s Basement is far from complete, but progress is progress, and each team member had our own learning experiences completing their parts.

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Seveneves: The Role-Playing Game!

 

[featured image taken from https://www.nealstephenson.com/news/2015/05/26/seveneves-site/%5D

When you were a kid, did you ever play those games where you would look up to the sky and imagine the clouds as bunnies, dragons, or anything in between? Did you ever play the ever-popular “the floor is lava” game? If so, fantastic, because as a kid you’re sort of expected to have an active imagination. But why does this expectation fade over time? What about “growing up” means that you have to lose your creativity? Well, we believe there is absolutely no reason for that imagination to wane, and in this blog post we’d like to suggest a fun way to keep your inner kid alive and well.

It’s called a role-playing game (RPG for short), and you may have heard about more popular ones, like Dungeons & Dragons, as there has been a resurgence of interest following the use of this particular RPG in popular culture (think Stranger Things). We made an RPG that was a combination of Dungeons & Dragons, Stars Without Number (a sci-fi RPG), and Seveneves (a science fiction book by Neal Stephenson). Ours may not be the best RPG out there, but if anything we hope this blog post shows you how, without enough time and thinking, anybody can have a great time making and playing an RPG.

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The idea of the RPG is one that has been solely rooted in the fantasy genre, and by association, the wider genre of romance, something that we have discussed at length in this class. The RPG brings together a group of people, often with varying skills and interests that offset each other, with a shared goal. There is usually some form of quest, self-redemption, or self-revelation that occurs, and because RPGs are more focused on player character development than most other forms of interactive media that we discussed, we thought it best to use to remediate a science fiction novel. Additionally, we both have years of experience playing role-playing games such as D&D and Pathfinder, and have planned our own campaigns before as well as played personal characters in others. All of those campaigns were solely in the fantasy genre, however, so if we were going to make a science fiction RPG, we would have to do a little research.

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The first order of business was understanding the book in which we were basing our RPG. Internet synopses can tell you more than we can here, but this is the gist: the moon was destroyed by an unknown “Agent,” and in the two years before the moon rocks crash to Earth and destroy everything, humanity stashes itself in space to return thousands of years later as collection of seven races, stemming from the seven fertile women who survived in space. You can see more contextual information later in the post and in our notes, or if you’re really invested you can even read the book. The point is this book was perfect for creating a sci-fi RPG.

Furthermore, we scoured the Internet for tips and resources on how to make a sci-fi RPG. From Googling those exact words to thumbing through Reddit threads, we took a few days to amass as many ideas as possible. We settled on the system Stars Without Number, as this RPG system was freely available and seemed to be quite well developed for our purposes. Specifically, this system did a great job at reframing D&D classes into various jobs and skills that were more suitable for life in space, rather than a fantasy world, and the system itself was flexible enough to modify.

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Why would we need to modify the system? Well, our goal for this project was to develop a “one-shot” game, or an RPG that is meant to be played in a single session rather than in a multiple-session campaign. With this in mind, our primary concern was providing the players enough time to explore the world we were creating. We easily adjusted the mechanics for making skill checks to be less based on players stats and more based on intent and narration. In more practical terms, players could essentially do whatever they wished without all the role-playing and messing about that takes time, so the Game Master (GM) could provide more narration about the environment. It worked out pretty well, as you can see in the videos we’ve placed here and throughout the post.

There are many other mechanical considerations you have to make when planning an RPG. Where is the game set? What is the history of this setting? What is society like? What maps do you need to make? Who might the players encounter, and what will that encounter look like? Is there a point system? Since we based our game on the world of Seveneves, we had a lot of the contextual questions taken care of already. We answered the RPG-specific questions, and you can see our notes in the Google document link in this post later on. The doc can speak for itself, but we’d like to briefly elaborate on the point system, which we developed from the ground up. Normally “points” in the RPG world are experience points that accumulate to level up the player. However, we used “assets” as a way of measuring how well the players were forming bonds with the species on Old Earth, and so whichever team (Red or Blue) had the most assets by identifying and succeeding in more opportunities by the end of the session won.

We gathered up some of our friends to play a short one-shot on a Monday. In RPG terms, a “one-shot” is usually a game or storyline that takes one or two sessions to finish (as opposed to usual longer story arcs in regular play). We planned on filming the session to use in our presentation, so we wanted to have every possible race represented. Our friend Penn played an Ivyn engineer, Jacob played a Camite priest, Nick played a Julian aspiring politician, Jamz played a Moiran biologist, Ethan played a Teklan transport specialist, Jordan played a Dinan astronavigator, or “astrogator,” and Matthew played an Aïdan technician. Torie acted as the “GM,” or the Game Master, who essentially narrates the campaign and prompts the players to make various “checks” in order to see if they successfully complete the actions they wish to perform.

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The plot itself was simple: each of the player characters had been gathered as part of a co-racial mission from an orbiting space station around the Earth to explore a newly terraformed surface and investigate for human life. You can read more about it here. You can also see the racial traits and backgrounds we provided for our player characters to choose from. In our game, which lasted about three hours (typical for a standard RPG session, at least for us), our group encountered a race of humans that had adapted to living underwater for over 5,000 years that the orbiting population nicknamed the “Pingers,” after the sonar-esque transmissions they intercepted from their society. While at first a little hostile, our group managed to curtail the growing violence and managed to establish good terms with a group of Pingers. (Here is a video of their “first contact”). They shared technological knowledge and made some vague promises at treaties with military leaders, and were pointed to the underground race of humans (“Diggers”) to assist them in repairing their broken communications device.  

As a player character, or PC, I found the sci-fi context fascinating. Personally, I’ve always loved engaging with any media from this genre; though everything is scientific and futuristic, it’s still all imagined and possible, so it makes me feel optimistically youthful. For this game, we had a mix of rambunctious and withdrawn players, so that made the three hours we played pass with much entertainment. I was in the unusual position of being a quasi-GM, meaning that I was privy to everything that might happen in the game, but I still had to engage as a player who did not know these things. Thus, I found myself motivating the players to pursue various paths that I knew would keep the action in the game flowing. I wish we had had more time to thoroughly explore the world that we had created, but that’s just the nature of a one-shot game.

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As a GM, Torie found that there was a lot of the story that she did not prepare for. Unfortunately, only one member of the group besides us had actually read Seveneves ( a couple of them did read it after the session, though!), and this proved to be a bit of a problem when Torie ended up killing a lot of game time explaining background situations and mechanics of the players’ society and objects to them. Both of us (Torie and Matthew) have been Game Masters for our own games before, and while Torie had over twenty pages of GM notes, we both knew that planning a successful campaign and story took a much longer amount of time than a single month. Even with the most careful planning, though, the fun of RPGs is that the players make their own decisions, which means that there is always something happening that the GM has zero plans for. Torie expected this, and because of it, was able to work mostly successfully with the players’ wishes as they went. We were hoping to have contact with both the Diggers and the Pingers in this, but, after three hours, the group had only made it to the Pingers, and we decided to call it a night. (This is common with our experience as GMs and players, stories always take a little longer to tell/roleplay than you think they will). 

In conclusion, we loved the opportunity to take something we both love to do as a hobby and integrating it with the themes that we have learned in ENGL 3726 with Professor Clayton at Vanderbilt. We have both grown up with these “new” forms of media that we have discussed in class, and have been fans of the fantasy and sci-fi genres since childhood. Being able to put those together in this new creation was a really satisfying culmination of these themes for us, and we know that our friends enjoyed playing through the story with us as well.

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A Song of Gunpowder: An Adaptation of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

My goal in using Twine to create a text adventure game based on Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came was to put a creative spin on an intentionally ambiguous story, remediating a poem that I thoroughly enjoyed in the context of a game with original art. I wanted to capture the romantic themes and narrative of fate and the eeriness of the ominous dark tower while at the same time applying elements of more conventional storytelling in the form of dialogue, an antagonist, and definitiveness to the threat at hand. I also wanted to incorporate some of my own fantasy creations, and utilize anachronisms in order to both facilitate more robust world building as well as exacerbate the dangers faced by the player protagonist. The concept art I created was intended to increases the sense of immersion and further the mood of peril and prophetic theme. Some of the inspirations for my original creations and story line (excluding Childe Roland) included Game of Thrones (in some of the place names and sigil) and the Metro 2033 book series (with the design of the Stalkers).

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Originally, my goal was to have 5 or 6 distinct story lines and endings, but that immediately proved to be an overwhelming task as soon as I started writing. In the end, I shaped my narrative to that which I wanted the player to experience, leaving choice mainly in the goal of escaping death and furthering the mission (until the final choice). I felt this was more in keeping with the general premise of the poem, as the journey is a fated and unavoidable one, the only difference being the perfectly ambiguous ending. In my game, because I made the threat of the Tower definitive the endings are more clear and based on my interpretation of the text and how best to remediate it. The second to last stanza reads “Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it toll’d/ Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears/Of all the lost adventurers my peers,/How such a one was strong, and such was bold, And such was fortunate, yet each of old/Lost, lost! one moment knell’d the woe of years.” To me, this meant that Childe Roland was fated to the same end that his peers met, but he was happy to have completed his quest. This sentiment is reflected by one of the final choices in my interpretation.

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In terms of using Twine as a program, for the most part I enjoyed it immensely. The passage creation is intuitive, it is completely free and there is a very helpful and welcoming community of other Twine users with extensive experience (both in Twine and in CSS and Java). I was able to implement most of the storytelling tools I wanted to, as well as cosmetic and aesthetic alterations. However, the glaring problem that exists with Twine as a program is that of music and image imports. In order to incorporate original content in either of those categories, you are forced to use an html converter or create a website and upload the pictures, using the link as part of the code. Both of those options proved horrendously buggy (the images refused to be re-sized properly and fit to the contours of the game and youtube links don’t work for incorporating music) and I was forced to abandon my plans for music as well as relegate the art I created to concept material. If I were to start the project again, I would spend time figuring out more robust options for image incorporation and aesthetic manipulation to make the game more unique and more suited to my individual intentions. There were also many interesting prospects for game creation that I had to overlook due to the time limit factor that I would definitely be interested in adding if I make another game (including health, inventory, weapons, etc.). Overall though, I found this final project workshop to be a fantastic opportunity not only for my personal development in learning how to code and use Twine, being creative, and incorporating elements of other media into a video game setting, but also in better understanding the possibilities for remediation of the romance narrative.

 

Here is the link to download the game. You can play it right in your browser.

http://www.mediafire.com/file/j02ucfxsesc6hts/Childe+Roland+to+the+Dark+Tower+Came-+A+Song+of+Gunpowder.html

Andrew Hoffmeister

Gladiators to Gamers: The Evolution (or Lack Thereof) of Spectator Entertainment

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Bread and circuses. A phrase coined to describe the appeasement of masses. It first referred to cheap food and entertainment used by Roman emperors to curry favor and rapidly gain influence. The Roman Empire has since fallen but the concept nevertheless remains.

Billions of people around the world tune in to radio and TV broadcasts of their favorite sports. The most recent 2014 FIFA World Cup received 3.2 billion viewers, almost half the world’s population. Biologically, it makes sense for the players themselves to feel an adrenaline rush and sense of accomplishment from winning each game, but what do spectators have to gain? The easy explanation is that watching sports is similar to watching a live-action movie. Perhaps you have team preferences based on their geographic locations. Or fan loyalty is a family tradition. Or their colorful mascot simply appeals more to you. No matter the case, one competitor is rewritten in your mind as the hero that must overcome conflict to defeat the villain, and you are invested in seeing them win.

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NFL team Green Bay Packers fans colloquially called “cheeseheads”

The advent of more affordable and faster computers in the 21st century has driven the rise of e-sports, or competitive video gaming. With competition comes the same levels of enthusiasm and fanaticism seen in athletic sports but channeled into a different emotion, anger. A viral video of a German kid raging at his computer when failing to register for a tournament is an excellent case in point. Although the video was later revealed to be staged, the creator stated he wanted to parody the all-too-real emotions of a gamer.

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Angry German kid. Full video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbcctWbC8Q0

Twitch.tv is a live-streaming service started in 2011 that now distributes gameplay to over 15 million daily viewers. It hosts 2 million monthly streamers for almost every video game on the market and has also expanded to music and real-life events. But what’s different about Twitch.tv is the interactivity for viewers. Twitch incorporates a chatbox with a variety of emote icons as well as messages accompanying donations that facilitate direct communication between streamer and viewer.

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Twitch chat spam. This is a relatively mild form when compared to other copypastas.

Twitch.tv compounds the active frustration experienced by the gamer by superimposing the taunting of viewers. This is especially evident in the game Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy which challenges the player to traverse an obstacle course of nigh impossible jumps with only a hammer. The game itself is already programmed to provoke the player with philosophical quotes about perseverance in the face of failure each time the player loses progress, and having to read a flood of laughing emotes would surely push the streamer over the edge, right? This brings me back to my original point: entertainment. Many of the streamer’s actions are exaggerated because he plays for an audience. It is without a doubt that players become invested in the game and experience a catharsis during frustrating gameplay but to what extent?

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Losing all progress in Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017). To be fair, the sign warned “Do Not Ride Snake.”

This question is especially relevant when discussing the now-popular League of Legends streamer Tyler1. Initially having a small following, Tyler1’s notoriety skyrocketed when he was indefinitely banned from the game for toxic language and intentionally dying. The #freetyler1 movement to unban him consequently exploded on Twitter with thousands of retweets, and despite Tyler1’s ban from League of Legends, he prospered as a Twitch streamer by playing other games. Tyler1’s hothead personality only seemed to grow more extravagant after such operant reinforcement. After petitioning for 2 years, Tyler1 was finally reinstated, and his first League of Legends stream received 400,000 concurrent viewers at its a peak, a record number for an individual streamer. The events surrounding Tyler1’s ban and reinstatement are comically dramatic for the billion-dollar company Riot Games that created League of Legends and rival the plot of a reality TV show.

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Tyler1 is well-known for his outbursts of anger while playing League of Legends (2009)

Are e-sports simply a revamped version of gladiator games designed to entertain the masses? What role does a spectator analogous to the jeering crowds in an amphitheater play in polarizing performers? Is it even accurate to compare streamers to performers? Albeit interesting, these questions pale when considering the Hawthorne effect on a larger scale. News media today has a prominent role in agenda-setting, in which topics covered by reporters are deemed more important. This directs the populace’s view to controversial issues. How do world leaders react differently when they realize they are being watched?

-Vincent

Learning the Ropes about Tropes

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Spoiler alert for Gone Home — Don’t read further if you want to avoid spoilers.

Just say the word “western,” and I can immediately visualize a high noon showdown, as if I were hiding behind a barrel on the porch of a saloon. Say “sci-fi,” and now we’re zipping by the stars at light speed and shooting lasers at corrupt galactic empire forces. I played a game called Gone Home recently, and everything about it was telling me “mystery” and “horror,” so you can well imagine my thoughts as I stepped into the dimly lit, sparse mansion in the middle of a forest on a dark and stormy night.

Turns out, it’s not horror — your character, Katie, is just trying to figure out why the house is empty on the night of your return from abroad. The reasons are dramatic, rich with complexity, but totally benign of anything supernatural.

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Why was I so scared, though? Why were my immediate thoughts upon entering my family’s new home, “Something horrible has happened here”? Granted, I scare fairly easily, but I think there was more than my lack of fortitude at work. I’d like to say a word about tropes, how they’re used in Gone Home, and how mystery and horror tropes were perfect for this game.

trope is an easy way to make the participant feel standard things: just like I described at the top of the post, they provide a framework for thinking about setting and emotions. I’ve definitely been one to harp on tropes in the past, but really, they’re crucial to storytelling. Without some expectation for what’s about to happen, there can be no surprises, no twists, no novel deviations — the things that are more beloved of a story. Tropes may be a heavy-handed way of establishing the expectations, but they can be incredibly important when used right!

All that said, I think Gone Home uses tropes expertly. In Gone Home, even the title screen, with its silhouettes, secluded look, and one light eerily lit, is a trope of horror, and it immediately makes you feel jittery. I even used the word “eerily” just now, and I’ve already played the game and know it’s not horror! Throughout the game there are a number of tangible cues that make you feel like something in the house is amiss: the house is called “The Psycho House”; the lights flicker constantly; your father has an obsession with conspiracies; the list goes on. My favorite example is the upstairs bathroom stained with red, but you find out it’s just hair dye.

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You might now be thinking, “So what? Why does it matter that Gone Home uses these tropes?” Well, if you think about it, this game desperately needs to rely on them. You are the only player in the game, and you have only one environment to explore. Without the notion of mystery and horror, you would have very little incentive to explore the house — actually, you would have no incentive to explore. This and many other games relies on the assurance that the player, when confronted with a mystery (Sam saying, “Don’t try to find out what happened”), will promptly disobey and begin to search. The trope of flickering and dim lights, secret passages, and a paper trail are tediously common, but they draw you in so the true story can unfold. I guess that’s what I’m trying to get across: the tropes do not make the game; they create the tension players need to discover the game.

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Moreover, I find the implications of the horror tropes in this game fascinating. How many times have you awakened in the wee hours, gone to the bathroom, and then the floor creaks in just the wrong way, making you complete your mission a little too early? Certainly in such circumstances, we have the very same tropes of horror in mind, but we can still recognize they’re just fiction, right? I think Gone Home recreates the very same effect we experience in real life. There is absolutely no danger in the game, but good grief it just feels like something is going to get you!

I’ll leave you thinking about that — is a trope really something you feel just in a book, a movie, a game? Or is it something you carry with you and project? Gone Home wrestles with these questions and blurs the lines between virtual and real experience. It makes an ordinary home come alive with mystery, mythos, and the thrill of discovery. Isn’t that what we all want, a way to make the unremarkable, unforgettable? If that’s the case for you, I have a great game to recommend.

Thanks for reading!

Matthew

Tell me a story

What do you value over everything else when it comes to video games? For me it’s story, every time.  I don’t care if it’s an old game or if the graphics are just bad, or if the gameplay is a little clunky, or if it’s too long or short of a game.  If it has an original and/or compelling story, there’s a good chance I’ll like it quite a bit.

Recently I’ve been quite into the fantasy/dark fantasy genre, specifically Dark Souls.  Through my experiences with the Souls series, I’ve realized that it’s not only the content of the story that I enjoy, but how it is told and presented to the player.  In many games, the story is basically told to you straightforward, without making the player do a whole lot of work to discover the story.  There may be puzzles or little notes that you find to delve deeper into the story, but it is rare to find a game that just says “Go.”  That’s essentially what the Dark Souls series does to the player.  You begin the first game with a cutscene that means  quite a lot if you are familiar with the series’ lore already, but is quite overwhelming to the novice player. The player is then given a simple instruction to ring two bells and then gets tossed in the (kinda) right direction.  Now this might just seem like a bad game and, based on the evidence I’ve given, that wouldn’t be a terrible first impression.  I promise that’s not the case.

Dark Souls found a way to have a vastly complex world and lore, with interesting characters and history; and the game doesn’t hand any of that information to you.  You have to go out and throw yourself at seemingly impossible levels until you master them or quit.  And bit by bit, the more you explore and the more characters you meet, the more of the story you uncover.  FromSoftware took a gamble with this style of storytelling (which they started with in Demon’s Souls, the spiritual predecessor to Dark Souls).  If you put in the work to find the story and learn what all is going on, Dark Souls will be one of the most satisfying gaming experiences you have.  Because it’s not just about what the story is, it;s about how you tell it.

An Unlikely Pair

Over the break, we were asked to play Gone Home.  Unfortunately, due to extenuating circumstances, we were unable to talk about it much in class, which is a shame, since this is one of my favorite games that we have played for the class.  One of the things that made me enjoy the game was its unique style.  At first glance, the game appears to be a horror game; your character, Katie, arrives at her family’s new house (dubbed the “Psycho House” in-game) in the dead of night while a storm rages outside.  What’s more, no one is actually in the house besides you, which is both very isolating and dark, as no people means very few lights on in the house.  As you continue, you find creepy hidden passages and even a very small sub-plot involving the alleged ghost of the previous owner of the house, Oscar Masan.  However, these horror elements are not the main focus of the game.

Instead, the focus of the game is on the true protagonist, Sam, and her relationships: to her sister (the character you are playing), to her parents, and most importantly to Lonnie, a girl who Sam eventually enters a romantic relationship with, leaving her homophobic parents’ house to join Lonnie in Salem, Oregon.

These two different types of games-atmospheric horror and character-driven walking simulator-seem somehow at odds at first, since the stereotypical demographic of those two genres are so different.  However, the horror elements of the game actually heighten the player’s experiences with the character-driven portions of the game by providing tension throughout the game.

First of all, the tension the horror provides gives players a reason to be engaged in the game.  Exploring a normal house is boring, but exploring a dark, abandoned house that might be haunted by a sinister being is more compelling.  This is especially important in the early game where the horror is most prevalent, since players have not developed a reason to care about Sam yet.  As the game goes on and it becomes more clear that Gone Home is not actually a horror game, the player’s (theoretical) interest in Sam’s story is enough to carry them through to the end.

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And if you’re not a fan of horror games, don’t worry-there is an option to turn all the lights on from the beginning.

More importantly, however, that tension allows players to get into both Katie’s and Sam’s heads.  For Katie, the reason is simple; imagine you came home to a house you have never been to before late at night.  Your family, who you expected to be waiting for you, is nowhere to be found, it’s storming outside, and the lights in the house keep flickering.  Being slightly scared is expected in that situation.  However, this tension is also mirrored in Sam’s experiences as she writes them down in her journal.  While large parts of Sam’s journey of self-discovery are fun and exciting, she also has to deal with unfamiliar, scary situations-just like you, the player, are dealing with.  Sam has no support system outside of Lonnie since she has just moved to a new school.  She knows her parents will be unsupportive, and her only possible familial help, Katie, is away on a year-long stint in Europe.  Sam is exploring uncharted waters where even usually welcoming sights can be dangerous, just like the player is.  By including these horror elements, the game makers are also including a pathway into Sam’s own experiences.