Disclaimer: if you do know anything about computers, please forgive my ignorance, I have no idea how true these impressions turn out to be the deeper you dive into this strange computery world. These are just simple thoughts I had that made me think all this tech stuff is more fun and artistic than I originally gave it credit for.
1. Everything is more complicated than I thought it was.
The first game I made on GameMaker was eloquently titled “My first game EVAR!!!” and because I cheaped out on the free version that won’t let you export to HTML, no you can’t play it. However, I can describe it to you in vivid detail.
Essentially there’s a little blob named Blinky and when you press left he goes left and when you press right he (can you guess?) goes right. It’s very artistic. Anyway, the first thing that struck me is just how damn complicated everything is. I mean, yeah, you can just say “when the left key is pressed, move left at 5 pixels per frame per set” or whatever but that’s a boring, uninspired way of moving. You get a much nicer, more fluid way of moving if you set it so that you accelerate up to a top speed, and when the key is released, you slide to a stop by playing with the friction settings. It’s really pretty fascinating. And to be honest, it’s that sort of macro stuff that’s the easiest to pull off, it really snowballs when you want to add a delay to a jumping animation so you can see the little dude bending down to ready himself. All of these things you take for granted when playing big budget games. It’s really the simple, nuanced things that make a game feel polished and professional that are the toughest to pull off.
2. Everything is way simpler than I thought it was.
I mean really, who knows how a video game works? For that matter, who knows how a computer works? I think I could give a pretty good rough explanation of how pencils and paintbrushes work, hell I could probably take a decent stab at explaining the camera, but the idea that all these letters appearing on this lit up screen in front of me is the result of some complex series of zeros and ones? On a scale of one to making sense that scores a grapefruit. It’s completely alien to me, but really once I started tinkering with the code, I sort of figured its all just maths, and not even particularly complicated maths.
I don’t know who invented the “if statement”, but whoever it was is the patron saint of compooter things. It’s a stroke of genius, you give the program a condition (like if the left key is pressed) and then the computer stares at it, and it keeps giving off zero, zero, zero, zero, and once it lights up and turns into a one, it executes whatever code you put in the if-statement (go left). It gets really cool once you have a string of them together. If the up key is pressed, and if the player is on the ground, increase vertical speed, if vertical speed is greater than zero, play jumping animation, if player is off the ground, set gravity variable, if player is on the ground, set gravity to zero, if vertical speed is zero, play stationary animation. There’s a really beautiful synergy to it, when all the different parts of the code come together and run smoothly. You get the hang of threading these things together really quickly and it’s very rewarding.
3. Your personality is inevitably going to come across.
I always thought that the real magic in game design came from the idea men, the storyboarders, the artists, the musicians. I thought the actual programming was a monotonous, mechanical process that was simply necessary to glue all the other bits together. Boy was I wrong. It’s really a lot like making music. You have a sort of rough idea of how you want the game to play but in the end you’re just pumping in figures and variables, play-testing, and seeing what feels good. You’re not going to program the perfect jump in one go, you’ve got to play around with it until it feels right. I found that it’s really the accidents that make for the best game experiences, it’s all about recognizing what works. A lot like how most of the major developments in electronic music have been people making mistakes, but realising that it sounds good, so they stick with it. It’s a lot more of an artform than I gave it credit for.
It sort of blew my mind when I realised that your individuality is inevitably going to come through in any bit of programming you do, no matter how generic. A lot like how if you got 50 people to paint the same tree, you’ll get 50 different paintings. If you get 50 programmers to make Space Invaders from memory, you’ll get 50 different games.
4. There’s art in games and games are art.
The late great Roger Ebert once butted heads with the gaming industry by saying “video games can never be art”. Honestly I think its a fairly ridiculous argument that pretty much just boils down to a semantic disagreement. Firstly, art has to be defined and secondly we need to decide if video games are “games” in a true sense. Neither are things I’m particularly interested in doing. I’m sure if games were called “interactive audio-visual works with peripherals for generating input” there would be no debate but because they’re called games we have to clash with critics (similar to how “comics” are stigmatised even when they’re not comical).
Anyway, I always knew that there was art in games. There’s concept art, narratives, soundtracks etc. but this is the first time I realised that the mechanics themselves can be art. I’ve spent a little time searching for interesting contemporary examples of people using technology in innovative ways to create poetry and it’s definitely something that will only get bigger in the future. I for one think it’s already there, there’s definitely a sort of intrinsic beauty to a block of functioning code, and there’s an amazing physical sensation you get from the visual feedback in a game. It’s amazing when a jump you programmed feels just right. Or maybe I’m just too sentimental!