A 'MAKING OF' RETROSPECTIVE AKIN TO SOMETHING
THAT CLOSELY APPROXIMATES A 'POST-MORTEM'
I created ‘You Are Worthless: A Video Game Where Nothing Happens’ as a student of London South Bank University slowly over the course of a whole year. In July 2016 I was awarded a First-Class Honour for my finished work (that’s the British equivalent of a Grade A in America). Not too shabby for a game that was basically consisted of nothing but walking very slowly in a straight line for hours on end. In fact it was briefly advised against by one of my own teachers but there is indeed more to this game than what it may seem. Forgive me for these following digressions; I feel they are tantamount in understanding the many cumulative thought processes and intentions inherent in the game I eventually created.
The germs of ideas for ‘You Are Worthless’ actually started forming a good few years before I even started university when my Dad took me and my brother to see Werner Herzog’s (at time of viewing) latest acclaimed documentary ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’. It focused on ancient historic cave drawings with immensely ahead-of-its-time composition preserved for hundreds of millennia by specific gaseous conditions within the cave, so that even the slightest interaction with bare human hands would upset the balance completely. An intriguing attempt then, to preserve such work on film and fodder ripe for existential With sincere apologies to my Dad and the esteemed director, the movie sucked. The 3D felt completely superfluous and of very low quality, the crew spent more time with the people maintaining and preserving the sanctity of the cave (along with the employee time slots) and the subject matter itself turned out to be substantial enough only for a short film at best. Couple that with a 90 minute runtime that seemed like three hours thanks to the utterly glacial pacing and I found my mind so deprived of engagement that when the film ended, the torrent of thoughts and indignation felt like a rush of oxygen to the bloodstream.
Looking back now, I predict my Dad felt I was on to something when I expressed my feelings, and so decided to plant seeds of “boredom sensations” by exposing me to such works as Solaris, Koyaanisqatsi and Norwegian “Slow TV”. This came to a head during a 2013 Summer holiday trip to Spain. At that point, my mind was still reeling from the possibilities of making video games for a living after being accepted onto the course and was coming up with ideas at a mile a minute. In Spain, I had access to an iPad, a Procreate app with messy brush settings and a veritable number of Boards of Canada mp3s (another thing my Dad introduced me to oddly enough) to set the mood. I started sketching and before I knew it, had roughly 30 (as of now lost) pieces of digital art that charted a journey from a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, over valleys, through caves and derelict cities and into a whole other plane of existence. I initially envisioned this idea with a countdown that exited the game by itself, so the player would be tasked with walking laboriously as far as they could before sundown. This concept would eventually evolve into the blinking eye mechanic that simply teleported the player back to the start.
Before starting university, I already knew my skills in coding were far too insubstantial for me to improve upon, let alone make a game as mechanically complex as some of the other student projects out there. Simply making an empty “proof of concept” was off the cards for rather self-evident reasons and I just didn’t have access to the wealth of programming knowledge and education being blessed upon school children in the 21st century. So I decided to keep my game concept simple and relatively restrained to refine the presentation and so that my focus wouldn’t also stray from my dissertation project. My first idea was to make a free roaming puzzle game in the vein of Myst or Kairo set in some otherworldly etherial plane, but I was mindful that the marking criteria also prioritised originality of concept. It was at the point when one tutor started talking about Flower and the progression of emotions it takes the player through that I found myself reasoning this way: video games inspire a wealth of emotions through their mechanics and the tutors here clearly state that they want us to branch our influences beyond the obvious sci-fi classics and action schlock. So why not make a game that knowingly and willingly induces boredom within the player?
This all gradually took me back to the iPad sketches I lost, of Philip Glass, of that godawful cave documentary I saw yonks ago and additionally of a video once made by one OanCitizen about Gus Van Sant’s Gerry in 2011. He specifically name-dropped Philiip Glass and in doing so, he posited that Gus Van Sant’s Gerry drew upon the hypnotic pacing of the operatic works of Robert Wilson in order to bring the audience into what he dubbed the ‘interior screen’ and in doing so, “bore us into nirvana.” It wasn’t until his Gerry follow up video he made in my second year at uni that I connected all the dots and decided that this was a game that needed to be made.
And from there “The Game Where Nothing Happens” started to take shape. The player would walk slowly through a desert in real time, experiencing sights and sounds at a glacial pace even as they mysteriously enticed the player forward for hours at a time, slowly placing them in a hypnotic state induced by the sheer lack of activity. And what’s more, the player would have to make it to the end entirely in one sitting. This game flat-out demands the player’s attention as straying away from the game for more than a handful of seconds, the world would go black, and the player would have to start all over again from the beginning. This was it. This was the game I would make. It was bold, it was divisive, it was strange, it was original, it was alienating. It was perfect.
All I needed now that I had a cohesive and artistically viable concept, was an engine that I could be comfortable coding with in 3D and for that, I chose Unreal Engine 4 for it’s visual-based blueprint system that was less susceptible to game-breaking updates. For the purposes of the demo pitch at the end of the second year however, I used Unity 3D (our standard course-taught engine) to quickly put together a large expanse and filled it with cubes of various sizes and arrangements to communicate the overall visual style I planned to aim for. We were also told to “hire” two assistants who would work with us on our game and also seek out two other students to work on their games, the idea being to create a network of creators within our year group. I ended up working for the storylines of two other students games while getting sound and modelling help for my own. The sound designer, William was at the time overburdened with work and obligations (that I shan’t disclose here) and so could only manage to turned in one piece towards the end of the course. In anticipation, I filled in for him on the sound front and divided his one piece into three. The 3D modeller Krishna, was quicker and had more work to show, though he probably would have been able to get more done if I had given clearer guidelines with a more manageable scope for the requests I had. Aside from that, it was all up to me to actually place the models into the world and “paint” the world with the ones I wanted to have repeated most often.
All the tutors (one of the most influential being Ste Curran of Chime Sharp and Pixelgrams) spoke highly of my concept, but warned me that with such a foreign and unmarketable idea, not a lot of people would like or even understand it as much as they did. This factor I eventually worked into the trailer and promotional posters as its purposefully distancing selling point. It’s also what helped me decide to change the game’s title (because subtlety has never been my forte). Once the idea was approved by my tutors and the class broke up for our last summer holiday, I allowed myself enough time to get a head start on the game development before we came back. First though, I needed to test the concept in full. I modelled a flat plane, placed a cube in the air, quickly set up the mouse click control system by remapping the default keys in the menus and with that, I began to walk toward the cube. The cube never seemed to get any closer than it was five minutes in and yet I had definitely moved quite far from where I had started. For an extra hypnotic effect, I played Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack in the background to set the mood. All this did was convince me even more of this ideas potential to succeed as the same feeling I had when I sat down to watch that vacuous Herzog movie many years ago came rushing back. Perhaps that movie really was worth something to me after all. I stopped after fifteen minutes though because I felt that much was all I needed to get a good grasp on the feel of the game and also because I needed feedback from people besides myself to know for sure if it worked and I wasn’t going to play through all of it by myself at the time (confession: I still haven’t!).
Then came the darkness effect. This is perhaps my proudest achievement of all in making this game, not to blow my own trumpet so to speak. I’d quickly like to thank YouTube UE4 tutorial wizard Tesla Dev for providing exactly the information I needed to get this mechanic working with videos as short and sweet as two minutes apiece. From time counters to matinee fades and contextual area prompts, his channel was key to building my comprehension of Unreal Blueprints and I highly recommend any budding UE4 developers check out his videos. With the systems I had built, I could activate the end credits splash by standing inside an invisible box switch, fine-tune the speed that the darkness would set into the player camera view (which eventually came to emulate the blinking of eyelids) and exactly where and when a negligent player would be teleported back to the beginning with a timer that reset upon every mouse click. The “blinks” were fine tuned to the point that the player avatar would slow down and blink within five seconds of inactivity. Since players were physically discouraged from clicking all the time, this window of rest was created to subtly lull players into a rhythmic pattern of clicking and resting to accentuate the hypnotic sound design.
Next I wanted to capture the feeling of players being truly and utterly lost in an unfamiliar world, and usually a prerequisite for being lost is usually that one has a place to get to and no way of knowing how to get there. The plan then was to create a world in which the player could walk in any direction starting from the centre of the map and down one of several paths and still reach an ending point without the game telling them which path is the correct one (spoiler alert; they all are). Originally I used a giant disc as the ground but this proved inconvenient when my avatar kept clipping into the ground and popping out into a perpetual skybox. As it turned out, the collision frames between the cone and the colossal disc were less than agreeable and I was forced to finally create a custom height map. When rendered, the terrain was far less smooth than I expected it to be but after brushing over the appropriate crevices with the smooth tool, I finally had a map.
Unfortunately, the custom height map plane was so large and unintentionally detailed that even the areas I intended to be flat had some major imperfections that took hours to wash over with the terrain flatten tool. The biggest problem however, was that the lighting engine couldn’t keep up with all the detail and scale at once, since only one world lamp was being used to provide shadows to everything. But even as it hindered the world navigation in editing and the asset placement process, I played along and directly weaved it into the art style with the fog effects amped up to just the right levels as to blur out objects in the distance without entirely obscuring them. The fog effects were even tweaked to create the faux shadow being cast beneath the player. The final version of the game released for public use then, was rendered entirely with no lighting scheme in place, meaning that if I were to insert textures onto any of the in-game objects, they wouldn’t show up.
Because I had made it this far in creating the game, it meant that no matter how I tried to construct a start menu or credits menu, the system would just skip it and default to the main game, leaving me with no way of knowing how to rectify this. In the end, I settled for a transparent splash that disappeared upon clicking. The final problem (that was quickly surmounted) was the looping system for the soundscape and music. Implementing cones of sound was appropriately long and repetitive but it was manageable in the end. Looping the music was easy after looking up tutorials, but some areas wouldn’t play a specific sound I wanted. This was because for some reason, Unreal Engine doesn’t let you copy-paste a soundscape past a certain threshold. The workaround was to simply import the sound again under a different name to get it to work as intended.
The changes that were implemented after mid-course tutor feedback included the floating spheres at the beginning which acted as a replacement for the rather inconsistent looking cacti leaves that originally littered the ground, a pseudo-title screen that accommodated the splash and various alterations to the teleporting timer and “blinking” visual effect. Stuff that didn’t make it were footprint decals since I didn’t know how to make it happen with the constraints and skills at my disposal, a ground texture with a proper bumpy definition which was never going to be possible with the lighting engine in the aforementioned state that it was, and more hills to sell the depth and distance of the world which I felt would heavily interrupt the bleak repetition and was more than made up for with the objects and structures that formed a loose path for the player.
LSBU Course tutor Dr. Siobhan Thomas said toward the beginning of the course that our final project must feel like a fully realised game; a product that could realistically be released and sold on a digital storefront. At the time, I took this to mean they literally wanted us students to release our game online. Instead, it ended up being a nicely surprising extra credit situation and a nice method of feedback (especially with one rather embarrassing invisible wall error that was quickly patched out mere days after the game was released). If there’s one thing I have learned from making this game, it’s to learn to give myself extra time to become a little more familiar with the tools I’m working with and not just jump right into the fray. This way I can hope to avoid any future problems such as overly detailed height-mapping from cropping up again. I don’t know how I’ll look back on this game, whether I’ll be satisfied with it or write it off as the silly product of an ideal that has long since escaped me. But one thing I don’t think will change is that for what it tried to do, it found it’s place and nonetheless succeeded (no matter how conceptually unrelatable it may be for many, MANY people).
THANK YOU FOR READING!