2011/11/24

The Hug Initiation Protocol


When I read Steve Pavlina's blog post Just Frakkin Hug Me, I was inspired. I like hugs! Why couldn't I just hug people more often instead of being all shy and inhibited?

Well, for one, I'm shy and inhibited. Also, hugs are unusual, at least among guys, and so people might read more into my actions than I really intend. But mostly, I just don't know how to go about it in the first place. How do you give someone a hug, especially if they're not used to it?

So naturally, I did some research, and put together this handy Hug Initiation Protocol that breaks the process down into clear, concrete steps. You might think that this is a bit much, but socially awkward nerds like me need all the help we can get. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. ;) You tell me.

Hug Initiation Protocol

1. Make eye contact with your intended hug recipient.

2. Stand still. Do not rush at your intended hug recipient.

3. Hold your arms out, in front or to the side, palms open and up, in an inviting gesture that clearly signals your intent to hug.

4. Keep a neutral or positive facial expression. Do not scowl at your intended hug recipient, unless you are a little kid who looks particularly cute and huggable while scowling.

5. If your intended hug recipient does not respond, you may either abort your hug attempt or verbally offer a hug in case your intended hug recipient did not recognize your intent to hug.

6. If your intended hug recipient responds by hugging you, then congratulations! You have successfully initiated a hug.

7. Attempt to sustain the hug for at least one full inhalation and exhalation of breath. A quick hug indicates that you are hugging out of a sense of obligation rather than a sincere desire to connect.

8. But if your hug recipient attempts to disengage, you must respond with immediate disengagement as well.

9. While hugging, do not rub or pat your hug recipient on the back. Patting is a sign of insecurity, and rubbing is just awkward. Don't do it.

10. That's it!

Yes, I know I'm silly. :p

Have fun putting it into practice. And I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving today! :)

2011/09/11

Revising Flydrill

After a year and a half, I finally updated my game Flydrill. Yay.

You just added achievements!

Ever since releasing Flydrill in March of 2010, I've been dissatisfied with the game, and embarrassed to show it to people. It wasn't a bad game - in fact it has been my best so far, but there were just so many problems I saw in it, so many things I wanted to change.

In particular, I thought that they key ingredient the game lacked was logistical gameplay. Later on, I realized that this was just one of many shortcomings, and that the core of the game and the overall structure of it could stand to be improved as well.

So what I've done this past week is improve the core gameplay.

First of all, the arbitrary dream-logic rule that you could only drill to the right is gone, and now you can drill in all four directions. This opens up a lot more possibilities for burrowing and evading through tiles, slipping out of danger through narrow gaps which you can widen into caverns as in the screen shot above. It's also a lot less confusing for new players. Why can I sometimes drill and sometimes not? That question doesn't come up anymore.

Next, I got rid of the extra lives. Now it's one hit and you're dead. Why so cruel, you ask? One answer is that this is inherently a very hardcore game, requiring the coordinated use of many skills and actions, under significant time pressure. I'd originally tried to make it more casual, and weakened the game as a result. Now, I embrace its hardcore nature. Having a single life sharpens the focus of the entire experience. You stop paying attention and you die.

Getting rid of the extra lives also means that you can no longer feel the despair of being down to your last life, with no hope of recovery. The complacency associated with having two extra lives safely tucked into your back pocket is no longer an option. No false sense of security.

And it's much less confusing. Before, I noticed that many people would lose a life and not realize it, never learning the lesson that running into a swarmer is hazardous to your health. Now, there's no question. When you touch a swarmer, you know something bad happened. And because you've learned something, you decide to try again, armed with your new knowledge. Clarity is more important than coddling.

Finally, having a single life makes it much easier for me to balance the game. I've increased the frequency of invincibility halos and decreased the frequency of portals, so that the experience alternates between frantically dashing through clouds of enemies long enough to find a halo and racing to get the most out of your halo while it lasts, maybe taking out an enemy or two just because you can. Halos are not rare experiences anymore. This alternating rhythm is now the core of the game. If you had more than one life, it wouldn't work as well because the game would drag on and on, and the extreme focus of the halo-less portions would be dulled by a false sense of security.

Along those lines, I've also greatly improved the pacing of the game. In Flydrill's very first release, the game started out very slow, and to many players, boring. In response, I crudely ramped up the pace, throwing everything at the player right away. This was not optimal. But I figured that overwhelming the player was at least better than boring them. Now, however, I think I've succeeded in making the game interesting from the very beginning, while also gradually introducing new enemies to the experience to keep it feeling fresh.

The first thing I did was increase the speed of the swarmers. Back when the game gave you multiple lives, the swarmers would start out really slow, and very gradually get faster as you progressed, slowing down whenever you lost a life. Like Pac-Man CE. However, with three lives, this meant that the swarmers started out so slow as to be totally harmless, and eventually got ridiculously fast, neither of which were fun situations.

So I made them speed up much more quickly. To compensate, I made them slow down every time a swarmer dies, whether by colliding with another enemy or with your halo of death. This creates a nice feedback loop - the swarmers get fast, but once they reach the point where they're so fast that they're running into each other, they slow down. And it means that if you can dodge the swarmers long enough, they'll slow down so you can escape safely. But as soon as you travel out of range, they'll have gotten fast enough to catch up with you again and the cycle repeats. This alternating cycle nests nicely with the larger cycle of halo having and not-having, and makes the core gameplay much more enjoyable.

The next pacing improvement I made was to space out the introduction of enemies. Now that the game was interesting just with swarmers, I could wait to introduce the other enemies, without fear of boring the player in the beginning of the game. Puffers come in shortly after swarmers, teaching you to watch where you're going as you dash madly away from danger, and then later the gunners, teaching you to use walls for cover instead of hanging around in the open, and then finally the diggers, teaching you that sometimes a cozy little burrow can be the worst possible place to hide.

Lastly, I made big solid walls appear every so often, to provide some milestones in your rightward journey, and throw in some opportunities for serious drilling. At first I'd assumed that these walls would be very dangerous places, where you are stuck frantically drilling as your enemies nip at your heels, so to speak. But as it turned out, with the four-way drilling now available, these walls became safe havens that I'd look forward to - places where I could burrow safely, feeling through the gaps in the tiles that my enemies could not fit into, where I could be pretty sure to find a halo or two in the safety of the solid wall. Unless a digger stopped by for a visit. But that made it all the more exciting. :)

And the portals, those bubble things that change the background color and clear all enemies from the screen, now have a more pronounced effect on what type of enemy you are likely to find. The colors have stronger associations - red for gunners, green for diggers, and blue for puffers - and the difficulty does not go down so much when you enter a portal. So it's not always something you want to go for, especially if you see a green portal in a nice, safe blue zone. You have to make a choice. And that makes it more interesting.

Also the portals now have big halos around them to make them easier to hit. New players often have trouble with the timing-sensitive flapping controls, and hitting a portal shouldn't be a challenge in itself. But the portals also don't appear as early to tempt these new players either, since the color changes and corresponding enemy distribution changes would totally throw off the gradual pacing I have set up.

The last change was to add a persistent high-score display, inspired by iPhone game Bit Pilot, to replace the now-useless extra lives in the upper-left corner. This game is entirely about pushing your score a bit further than last time, and I decided that I'd give this goal the attention it deserved by making your best score constantly visible as you play.

The other last change, the last last change, was to add achievement notifications.

"Achievements?" you gasp, "How crude!"

Yeah, that's what I thought at first too. But wait, there's more to this than you might at first think. I didn't go with the typical trophy-style achievements, where there is a list of things to achieve, and then you achieve them, and you are told that your achievements have been "unlocked" and now you can see them shining magnificently in your list. I mean, that would require a whole new interface to design and implement! No way!

Instead, I went with the second option.
From Chris Hecker's Achievements Considered Harmful?:

For interesting tasks,
  1. Tangible, expected, contingent rewards reduce free-choice intrinsic motivation, and
  2. Verbal, unexpected, informational feedback, increases free-choice and self-reported intrinsic motivation.

There's no list. When you do something cool, like travel 1000mm, or kill 10 enemies, or hold a halo for 20 seconds, the game tells you. When you do something even more cool, like travel 2000mm, or even 3000mm, or kill 20 enemies, or hold a halo for 40 seconds, the game tells you again. And that's it.

Short of adding coins everywhere, it's one of the few things I can do to make the player actually feel good about what they're doing in the game, instead of just making them frantic and terrified or temporarily relieved at having escaped with their single life for a few precious seconds of respite inside the safety of a wall.

The only shortcoming is that this feedback is not entirely unexpected, since the pattern is pretty easy to pick up on, and it tells you every time. I might experiment with the game only telling you the first time you do something, making its announcements much more rare and precious. But for now I think the system works pretty well.

And I didn't even have to design a new interface for it. That's the best part. ;)

The changes I'm considering next are more drastic, like adding baby fliers to guide for upgrade points and adding upgrades to spend those points on. Logistical gameplay. But I'm not sure how it will all turn out.

For the moment, I'm just glad that Flydrill is finally, at its core, a solid game. I'm not embarrassed to tell people about it anymore. :)

So try it out and tell me - what do you think?

2011/05/10

Space Isn't

Experimental Gameplay Project: ZOOM in May

Step 1. Inspiration
(from Less Talk More Rock)


brontosaurus wrote:

skydome

zoom in and out

galaxies

nebula

dawn

brontosaurus wrote:

super nova

black holes

intelligence

from this distant vantage point,
adrift in an ocean of space and time....

axcho wrote:

When I came to the word "dawn", the image of it brought a smile to my lips like the last line of a haiku. Thank you.

brontosaurus wrote:

:)

axcho wrote:


axcho wrote:

Zoom into a star that you see.
Watch it get bigger, reveal itself to be a flaming ball of gas.
Planets?
Pan to empty blackness.
Zoom into the blackness, more blackness, more...
Then a faint hint of something on the left, a speck, a smudge.
Center on it, zoom in, don't lose it...
See it resolve, grow brighter, more defined.
It is an entire galaxy.
Zoom out so it is again small.
Double-tap to name it.

This is like exploring a fractal.
This is like Jason Rohrer's Inside a Star-Filled Sky.
But without the shooting gameplay.
It is like Eric Svedang's Kometen.
But without the orbiting mechanic.
It is like The Scale of the Universe.

Is there a story? Characters to know?
Only the story of your fellow observers.
Read the names of stars, competing names.
Touch one to lend it your support.
You can name one star every day.
One name to add, like one cow to click.
A name grows with every click, until it is tweeted.
As your names are favored by your peers, you grow in influence.

Step 3. Rock

2011/04/17

Active Sketch 05 - Planets

It's been more than a year since the last one. Time for a new Active Sketch.

I made this to test out an idea my coworker suggested for indirect control through gravity wells.

In this little physics prototype, you can click to add planets and drag them around, and your little face person will zoom around, orbiting them according to Newton's laws of gravity.

Can you imagine playing with this on a touch screen?


Nothing fancy. Just a little experiment. Turns out that gravity among all these planets is a chaotic system, where it's almost impossible to predict where the orbiting face will go next. That might make this a little too confusing for a game, though who knows - maybe if you slow it down and draw motion trails showing the future paths of all the objects, it might be pretty interesting.

Still, I think springs might make a better physics-based mechanic than gravity, at least for a real-time action game.

So this Active Sketch was pretty quick to make - maybe an hour to get the basic mechanic working, and another hour to polish it up for release. This is encouraging, because it means I might be able to make more of these, even in the limited time I have now that I have a job as a game programmer.

I don't want to make any promises, but with any luck hopefully you'll be seeing a lot more of these little prototypes from me in the near future. I'm looking forward to it. :)

2011/03/06

Interview with a Game Programmer

One of my cousins asked to interview me for a school project, since I'm a real game programmer now! I went all-out on these questions and thought I'd share them here, so if you know anyone who's considering a career in games or programming, feel free to send them over for a bit of behind-the-scenes with a recent college grad who has just broken into the game industry.

Needless to say, the views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fugazo, Inc.

What is your name and job title?

My name is Alex Cho Snyder and I work as a Game Programmer at the casual game development studio Fugazo, Inc.

How long have you had this job?

I started this job on August 9th, 2010, so I've been working at Fugazo for about six months.

Please explain what a typical day of work is like for you.

I have breakfast at home, pack a lunch, and take the bus downtown to the office. I usually get there around 9:30am, but time is pretty flexible there, so it's no problem if you get there a bit late. I go to my desk - all our desks are together in the same big open-studio-style room - turn on my computer and wait for it to start up so I can check my work email, download the latest images and files that my teammates have added to the project from the SVN repository, and start up Visual Studio, which is kind of like Microsoft Word for programming code. I also look through my work notebook to refresh my memory about what exactly I've been working on and what I was thinking about the day before.

I work on a team of about three or four other people, making Fugazo's next hidden-object adventure game. There are about two other such teams at Fugazo, each working on a different game. Each time has one designer, one programmer, and two or three artists. I'm a programmer. I like to think of it in comparison to building houses. The designer is the architect, who draws the plans for the house and manages the overall process. The artists are the ones who prepare the pieces of the house - boards, doors, roofs, siding, etc. And the programmer - me - is the contractor putting the pieces together and actually building a functional house. I like building things, so it works out. But I really don't like remodels, where I'm taking an old building that someone else made and have to tear out old parts of the building and fix it up and add new rooms and features. You never know if one wall or pillar is okay to take out or if the whole building will collapse when you do. That's the annoying part.

In more specific terms, my designer will come to me with a feature or puzzle or something that he wants me to add to the game, and describe exactly what he wants while I ask questions until I feel like I understand completely. I usually like to write out the details of the task in my notebook by hand, because it helps me wrap my brain around the problem. Then I'll either start writing ideas for possible solutions, or look through the existing code of the game to get a better understanding of how the solution will have to fit in. Then I start actually writing code, and testing it out. Most of my time is spent going back and forth between thinking about the problem, reading code, and writing code. If I get stuck I'll ask the designer for clarification, or talk to our lead programmer to ask how he would recommend solving the problem. Once I've got something actually working on screen, I'll show the designer and ask him for feedback. Either he'll suggest more things to change, or he'll give me the next feature he wants me to build.

At noon we have an hour for lunch, and I often walk down to a nearby alternative school to volunteer-teach game programming to some middle-school kids. After that I'm back to work, until around 5:30pm when everyone leaves and I take the bus home or to martial arts practice for exercise.

What have you enjoyed most about your occupation?

That is a hard question for me to answer. I love thinking of ideas for games, and hashing out designs with teammates, but as a programmer that is something I am rarely involved in directly. In my role as a programmer, my enjoyment comes from exercising my near-magical ability to create imaginary worlds that live inside a computer screen. When I have gained enough understanding and familiarity with my tools that this process is no longer a confusing struggle but a mildly stimulating problem to solve, I find this very enjoyable. This usually happens when I am asked to create a smaller puzzle within a larger adventure game, where I can visualize the end result I want and then figure out how to actually build it with computer code. When things are going smoothly, I can go from start to finish in this process within a day or two.

I like seeing the fruits of my labor up on the computer screen - the quicker and more immediate, the better. I like to take something that works, that I can see and play around with, and tweak it and adjust it until it's just right. It is very rewarding to me to see and appreciate and savor this thing I have created, and when I am deprived of that gratification for too long I can easily become frustrated. I'm quite stubborn, so I don't give up when things take a long time to sort out. That doesn't mean I have to like it, though! :p

Do you believe most of your fellow colleagues or workers enjoy their work? Why?

I think they do. But not necessarily in the way you might assume. Many people mistakenly conflate the fun of playing games with the hard work of making them. I like to compare the process of game development to cooking or baking. Most people love to eat pastries and cookies and donuts, just like most people enjoy playing games. But not everyone likes to bake those cookies, and not everyone likes to make games. If you want to become a baker, it certainly helps to like eating pastries. But it's not enough.

Some game companies are more like donut factories. They are not fun places to work. Fugazo, where I work, is more like a successful neighborhood bakery. The work isn't amazingly fun, but it's usually interesting, and the people are nice, and it's not a bad place to be all day. And at the end of a project, after a few months, you have a finished game that's pretty cool and you can feel proud of it and show your friends and family and all that. And you get to think about games all the time.

If you could change anything about your occupation what would it be?

If I could make games without ever having to sit at a desk and stare at a computer screen, I would. If I could run around in a virtual forest, climb inheritance trees and swing from conditional branches, build towers with blocks of code, and just use my physical body and my stereoscopic vision and my musical ears and my agile primate fingers, I would be so much happier. I love plants; I love being outside. I also love the ability to create virtual worlds that other people can experience, through computers. But every minute that I spend in front of a computer screen is a sacrifice that I make in exchange for this power to shape (virtual) reality.

More realistically, if I never had to renovate another programmer's poorly encapsulated user interface code, that would be awesome. Most frustrating part of my job right there. Also, if I had more teamwork throughout the day, I think I would enjoy that. I love collaboration, and I get just enough of it to avoid feeling unbearably lonely throughout the day, but I really get very little. There's something called pair programming where two people share a computer and take turns writing code and observing, and I've done that a few times in school and I think I'd very much like to do that again. However, it's obviously not as feasible in a small company like Fugazo where each game has only a single programmer to work on it.

Have you gone back for more educational training since you began the job?

Nope. For me, working at this job is all the educational training I need! It has been at least as educational as an equivalent time at school was, in the six months I've been at Fugazo. In computer programming, school can be essential to getting started, but once you're actually working, you should be learning a lot as you gain experience and your company starts branching out to new technologies and platforms. At the least, you can learn a lot from your own side projects as well.

What educational background do you have?

I graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science. It took me a little less than five years at the UW to decide on my major, take all my required classes, and graduate. Throughout college, however, I had a summer internship or two working as a programmer and also made quite a few of my own games on the side, which is crucial if you're trying to get a job after graduating. Just a Computer Science degree doesn't cut it. You need to have experience working at a programming job, at least as an intern, and show that you have the passion, skill, and discipline to make your own games in your free time.

If you won the lottery and did not have to work, would you? Explain.

For a while, at least. ;) I decided to look for a job last summer so I could earn money, spend my days working on a team instead of by myself, and get experience learning from people who know what they're doing instead of fumbling around on my own. The lottery would only take care of one of those things. My life's work is to change the world through games. The most important thing I can do right now is to hone my skill at designing and programming games, and become fluent in all other aspects of the process as well. I will work at a company for as long as I need to until I'm ready to strike out on my own and form my own team, and I can't imagine finding a better place for that than Fugazo right now. A lot of game companies are not fun places to work. Fugazo is a notable exception.

What kind of strategies do you use when your job gets stressful?

Programming is often frustrating and can easily get stressful if you are not careful. I find it important to take breaks whenever I am really stuck or not thinking clearly, and I find that taking a walk right before lunch is very helpful in clearing my head. I also have started giving myself permission - with my boss's encouragement - to take short naps when I feel sleepy, especially in the afternoon. When it comes to jobs like programming that consist almost entirely of difficult problem-solving, it is often much more efficient to take a twenty-minute nap and come back refreshed than to fight back sleep deprivation for three hours without getting anything done. As with any sort of activity that involves sitting at a computer and staring at a screen all day, I've also found it very helpful to take a few minutes every so often to get up and move around, do some handstands, stretch, get my blood flowing, and help loosen whatever mental rut I might have gotten into while hunched over at my desk.

In your career field, is it difficult to balance work with home/family or personal life?

The game industry is one of the most notorious when it comes to poor work-life balance. This is a problem that is slowly improving, but it is definitely a real concern. Many companies, because of poor scheduling, can have months of forced "crunch time" at the end of a project, where people are working evenings, even weekends, continuously until the game is finished. Obviously, this is a very bad thing and it is arguably counter-productive in the long run, but many companies still do it. Even at Fugazo, where I work now, there may be a week or two of crunch at the end of a project, where I stay late in the evenings, but I've never worked weekends. Even then, no one is forcing me to stay late - I choose to keep working because I have a long list of things I want to get done, and I tend to be a perfectionist about these things. And I'll usually be the only one working late on most occasions, since no one is forced to crunch.

Outside of extreme circumstances like crunch time, I do often struggle to balance work and personal life. I wouldn't necessarily attribute this to the game industry itself. I think this has more to do with my inexperience (I've been working full-time for less than a year) and my tendency to cram way more things into my life than I could reasonably have time for. Though maybe the game industry tends to attract people like me anyway, so who knows!

What was it like when you went to high school? What kind of career planning did you have in high school?

I started high school about eight years ago. Back then, I wasn't thinking about jobs at all, but I knew that I wanted to do something with games. At the time I was doing a lot of programming on the graphing calculators we used in math class, making little games and releasing them online. I was also starting to read about using games for education and social change and became inspired to make that my life's work. As it turns out, those were the perfect things to be doing if I later wanted to start a career in game development!

What do you feel is most important when choosing a career?

There are a lot of ways to think about this question. One approach that I like is to think of something that you could see yourself getting really good at, if you spent the next ten or twenty years doing it for a living. That doesn't mean something you are already good at, necessarily, but something that you could see yourself learning to get really good at. I started learning to make games about ten years ago. The reason I choose to make games for a living now is not that I'm particularly good at it now, but I could see myself becoming really good at designing and making games over the next ten years. And that has less to do than the skills I currently have, and more to do with my passion and what I'm excited about and what I enjoy doing and learning and thinking about in my free time.

If you really love to do something, chances are that you could get really good at it - that if you kept doing it for a living over the next ten years, you wouldn't get bored and drop out - you'd keep learning and exploring and getting better and better as time goes on. I wouldn't suggest that you think about money right away. The jobs that tend to make a good amount of money are the jobs where you can keep getting better and better, where someone who is really good, with a lot of experience, can be worth ten or a hundred times what someone might be worth when they're just starting out. Like programming. Or game design. And you're going to have a hard time getting better and better unless you really love doing what you're trying to do. So try a bunch of things, find out what you love to do, and then ask yourself, "Which of these things could I really become good at, if I did this for a living for the next ten years?" Start there.

What advice do you have for me as I think about my future education and career plans?

Explore! Try lots of things, read about lots of things, ask lots of people about the things they do, and follow your curiosity when something attracts your interest. I was in fourth grade when I first learned that it was possible to make your own computer games. Before that, I guess I just assumed they spontaneously materialized in the store, fully formed, like action figures or LEGO sets. But once my eyes were opened to this possibility, I started reading every book I could find about how to make games, buying educational software, signing up for programming classes. At the time I had no idea what I was doing so my efforts were surprisingly ineffective, but I was persistent. I just wouldn't give up. And this interest gradually grew from a drip and a trickle here and there into a full-fledged flood of obsession that has significantly shaped my life and taken me to where I am right now.

But game development was not the only field that caught my interest. In high school, for example, I read tons of books on biology, philosophy, and how the mind works, just because I was so fascinated by these subjects. I thought I'd end up studying evolutionary biology or psychology or neuroscience in college, even though I ended up in computer science. And there's nothing wrong with that. In middle school I was big into music, and I started learning to make bamboo flutes in high school. Throughout the last several years I've been doing a lot of martial arts practice. And I'm still working as a programmer. But the key is to keep exploring. Be curious. There are so many things you could do with your life. Your life's work and passion may turn out to be something you've never even heard of yet. Before fourth grade, I'd certainly had no idea that I could make a living making games. If I hadn't been willing to explore, I would never have found this path.

And, if you want to get a job in the game industry, the best thing you can do right now is start making games. I made my first computer game in sixth grade. It wasn't a great game, but it was something, and I learned a lot in making it. And more importantly, after that I made another one. And another one. And another one. If you don't know how to make computer games, go and find out how. Look online, read books, take classes - whatever you can find. There are so many more resources out there now than there were ten years ago when I was starting out. Download a free tool like Game Maker to get started - you don't even need to learn programming. Or make board games, and test them out with your friends - no programming required. Just make games, and keep making games, and by the time you are actually trying to convince someone to hire you, you will be able say, "Look at this. I made this. And this, and this, and this."

If you want to make games, make games.

2011/01/12

Lucid Sight Dreaming

I had two lucid dreams this morning. The last lucid dream I had before that was less than a month ago. A year before that I had another. And my first one, more than a year before that. I like to think that the process is accelerating, that this reflects some underlying spiritual or psychological growth that is just beginning to manifest itself in the form of these dreams.

Perhaps.

Lucid dreams are those dreams where you realize that you are dreaming, and "wake up" within the world of the dream. Often this means that you can then control the dream, or at least influence the course of it. I've never had much success with trying to control my dreams, though. It's something that takes a lighter touch - you make something happen by expecting it do so, not by concentrating really hard and commanding it to happen - and I've had little opportunity to practice such controlled expectations in my dreams so far.

However, there is one thing that I have experienced in every lucid dream I've had. That is, a particular clarity and sharpness to the visual details of the dream world. Everything looks so much more real when I'm lucid, much more than the vague and muddled state of my ordinary dreaming. And the more lucid I am, the more calm and aware I am in my mental state, the more my sight improves. It's like putting on glasses.

To illustrate, I'll tell the story of my lucid dream last month:

2010/12/26
This morning I had a lucid dream after going back to sleep. It was my longest and most calm lucid segment yet. I was telling someone that I was dreaming, then decided to try to become lucid and started writing on a piece of paper, "I am dreaming." I saw the letters change as I read them, as they do in dreams, and continued to write on the paper and watch how my writing changed. Then I walked around, and I found that the level of my lucidity would correspond to the brightness of the space around me. I would start to lose it in dark areas, then become more aware again in bright areas with their windows open to the light and visual details outside.

That's it. The dream was notable in not feeling rushed or frantic at all. I was able to maintain my lucidity for a long time, relatively, with a calm and open mental state. It was like my mind was a net, holding everything together, and I was able to keep it from collapsing without much effort as long as I stayed in the light.

The key here was the light, and the visual details that went with it. But it wasn't until my dreams this morning that I realized the significance of this factor.

2011/01/12
I had a lucid dream. It started when I went outside to the backyard, in my dream. The openness and brightness and visual detail opened my eyes, and I became lucid. I collected my mind and did some breathing checks to confirm that I was dreaming - I found I could still breathe, even while pinching my nose shut. However, it must not have lasted too long, since I can't remember what I did after that other than walk around in the grass.

I had another lucid dream. I fell asleep again after writing about the first one, and dreamt that I came across some of the guys from Novel that I used to work with after graduating. I started walking along with them, near the university, and some others were with us too, talking about balance issues with the new MMO they are working on. There were a lot of students around, walking, too, on the sidewalks and street.

And then I opened my eyes and became lucid. Again, everything sharpened, the visual details popped out, and I realized I was in a dream.

But I found that I couldn't control the dream. I couldn't even walk anymore. When I tried to move my feet in the dream, focusing in on the feel of them pressing against the ground, I just felt my own feet in my bed, faintly but stronger and stronger the more I tried. And I realized it must be after 9am, and I must have fallen asleep again accidentally after writing in my notebook. So I allowed myself to come into my own body fully and woke up.

The interesting thing about these dreams is that they seemed to happen spontaneously, triggered not by some dream check or verbal reminder but just by the act of opening my eyes.

But with the experience of these last few lucid dreams so fresh in my memory now, I have realized that there is a particular trigger behind the lucidity I experienced, and that it is actually much easier to practice than a more conventional check like pinching my nose and trying to breathe.

What came first, the lucidity or the enhanced sight? Neither. It was the act of looking, wide-eyed, out and up, in awe, holding my entire visual field in perception, like this, that did it. The lucidity and the visual detail came together, in response.

Stepping outside in my first dream this morning triggered this act of looking. Looking outside, into the light, strengthened it in my dream from last month. And somehow, looking out at all the people, walking in sunlight, triggered it in my second dream this morning.

What this experience has told me is that the way to inspire more lucid dreams in the future is to practice this "wide-eyed" mental state often in daily waking life, rather than obsessively doing weird dream checks throughout the day that I can never seem to remember while asleep.

Because this state of mind - as well as the correspondingly muddled state of non-lucid dreaming - is one I recognize from my waking life as well. It's the same in both waking and dreaming, and I know it well. Having experienced the contrast so recently and often, relatively, I am now able to see this.

Just look up, open your eyes, let the details emerge, and become lucid. Not a bad habit to have, even while awake. Especially while awake.

2011/01/01

Yugen and Games

"As the taillights of that last ride grow small and wink out, the horizon gathers itself to your singular perspective. There is no grandeur to bait expectation, no promise to invite distraction, only the quiet of ditch and litter and grass and self; without preconceptions you begin to see your place in a different way, from the ground up. You warm to how consummate this place is in its becoming: the perfect pattern of stones along the shoulder; the fast food wrappers, their logos clinging just so to the sage; there at long rest in the shadows, that old trilobite of the highway, the fallen muffler. And so you become consummate yourself; instead of a face lost in an embarrassed crowd, you become unique and necessary to that moment, your perspective creating, for better or worse, this one place in the world. It is a time to whistle."

That was a quote by John Landretti, from his essay "On Waste Lonely Places" in the book The Future of Nature. I had written it down by hand in my notebook close to a year ago; looking back through my notes of the past year in reflection, I found it again and decided to share it.

It reminded me of this blog post, which I had just come across earlier this week. The author describes playing the small art game The Graveyard, then the bigger and decidedly-non-art game GTA IV, and how both of these games created in him an experience he called yugen, "the sudden perception of something mysterious and strange, hinting at an unknown never to be discovered."

Playing it, I found an odd thing. I found my head starting to clear. It wasn’t so much that I was sensing the emptiness around me - rather I was the emptiness. My thoughts were coming and going on their own - frothing up then melting away again - and slowly the oceans of my mind began to fall calm.

There was nothing mystical or arcane about it, merely an experience of being right here, right now. It was very ordinary.

To me it sounds like the experience of meditation, or at least the kind of meditation that I am familiar with.

And it sounds like a fruitful area of experience for notgames to explore, since this is something you are left with when you strip the "game" from "games", letting only the interaction and immersion remain.

The feeling of yugen hovers in the background of many games - filling me with the desire to explore those green hills behind Super Mario World’s flat levels, say - but it usually only breaks through fully when the mechanics of narrative and threat have been removed. My mind can’t empty in Another World - despite the barren, evocative landscapes - because it is so focused on avoiding death and finding a way home. It is when the designers take a step back from filling our time with obstacles and rewards, and allow us just to experience the realms they have created, that the subtler emotions like yugen are given room to manifest.

Still, I think there is something missing, something that we will have to identify before we can really make compelling yugen-ish experiences that are not games. When you strip the distracting goals and challenges from conventional games, what you get is rarely worth writing blog posts about. If nothing else, such "gamification" is good at getting people to care about what goes on in a virtual world, and the other ways of creating engagement and involvement with a story and characters common in movies and books and such tend to be more difficult in interactive media. But I think we just don't know enough.

I suspect that there are ways to direct this experience more subtly, still from a game designer's perspective, but not so heavy-handed with goals or points or typical game-y things. More toward Knytt, perhaps, but further. Much further.

I don't know. I guess I'll just have to try it sometime.

Happy New Year.

"Offering your attention to a waste place is like finding a book in a library, a book nobody reads. Or perhaps a book harboring a single due date, one purple smudge thirty years old. And there it is in your hand by the effortless design of coincidence. You look over its pages and before is effort and presence; whether the contents have appeal is another matter, but the book does exist and is open before you, full of its telling. And so it is with these shelves and sheaves of world that daily surround us: every rock, blade, and bottle, every leaf, an invitation to an understanding."

- John Landretti, "On Waste Lonely Places", The Future of Nature