Reflecting on the Creative Urge: Don’t Dream, Just Do

When I was about 9 I was given my older brother’s AMSTRAD CPC. It came with a manual which taught you how to code some simple games in BASIC. My dad encouraged me to work through some of it and before long I had found an enjoyment in making things this way. I got to the point where I was writing and saving little text adventures with several rooms (graphical games were a bit more of a pain in the ass).

A little later I was given an old acoustic guitar by a family friend. I never excelled at it – for me it was really just for chords and singing – but I enjoyed playing it. I spent my teenage years covering the songs I enjoyed singing, dabbling in electronic beatmaking, and dipping back into game-making via RPG Maker and various PC games’ level editors.

Although I dabbled in music I didn’t really get into trying to play lead or write songs until I joined a band in my twenties. This experience taught me that the kind of external pressure you get from collaborating with others is an accelerant to practice. I like doing creative practice as a solitary thing. I find it soothing. Learning a new software or instrument occupies my hands – and the anxious neurodivergent brain which operates them.

But I’m also quite approval seeking. I’ve always been a person who felt a bit out of place and weird, so making bits of art or sound which had some sort of impact on people has always been a big thing for me. It’s something which made me feel some sort of belonging when I felt excluded from other areas of our culture; namely sport and anything “laddish”.

There’s a reason why I’m writing all this down and reflecting on it now. I’ve realised I’ve got quite a big empathy gap with some of the young people who come to me for an education in game making. Most folks would not consider joining a degree-level course in music having never learnt any sort of musical instrument or at least some creative software… and yet this is what we often get in games. People think they can just pick it up at 18 with no prior experience.

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t try, but to expect to become professionally competitive at something in three years is bananas. I’ve been making both music and games for 25 years and I only feel barely capable at either. This is how most creatives feel if they are pushing themselves.

It’s just deeply odd to me that people don’t try things as a hobby first before putting themselves into debt for something they might not enjoy. I know the real reason is to do with university as a perceived rite-of-passage; the obvious “what’s next”. Often, a universty applicant’s choice of course is secondary to just “going to uni”. And for some, they see the word “games” and think that it won’t involve work.

We tell our students that we can only show them basics of any given tool or technique, whether that’s something hands on to do with art or using a game engine, or something more conceptual like a game design principle. They have to want to take these tools away and play with them. If we have to force someone to practice, force them to work, then that person is already losing.

The addage “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” rings very true to me, and I sort of cringe at the idea of people forcing themselves to do creative things that they don’t really like. If you don’t like doing it, you’re not going to get a job in a field where everyone else would be doing it for free if they could afford to.

Practice should be your happy place, a form of play, something you find equal parts rewarding and soothing. My previous games studio job wasn’t gotten by studying games at university. I didn’t do that; my time at university and grad school was in traditional, theory-heavy humanities stuff. My value as an entry-level games worker came from a portfolio of game jam entries and other personal projects I’d made just because I wanted to.

When I’m stressed, I play the piano and sing, or get my notebook out and work out little sections of whatever game I’m working on. I use game design to work through my ideas about how the wider world works, as well as my ideals about how it should work. I use songwriting to process more personal things.

There’s nothing wrong with having the odd Netflix or TikTok binge when you’re at a low ebb, but the production of art is not meant to be a chore. If your creative practice is something which is central to your being – which you do for the sake of it – you will get better. Showing what you do to critical friends will speed that up, but you have to have that innate desire.

I have this empathy gap with many of my students, because I taught myself how to do these things. Most creative people I know only learnt a fraction of what they can do from being formally taught it. That’s because you can’t really teach the desire part. And if you have the desire part, you are likely already teaching yourself our of curiosity, because YouTube tutorials exist and most game engines and art software have free versions.

I have this empathy gap with many of my students, because once you hit noncompulsory education and you’re paying for it, my assumption is that you should come through the door with dedication and enthusiasm. This isn’t primary or secondary school, where the government forces you to attend, and then teachers must try and make their subject exciting and fun in order to appease you so that their jobs are easier. Entering the field is optional. If it feels more like work than play, if there’s no pleasure, no compulsion, why are you here?

If the creative practice you are financially commiting to feels like a chore, you should reinvest in something which at least pays better than being a media worker. You have to have enough desire to outweigh whatever fears you have. And that desire can’t be for the end product; it needs to at least partly be about the enjoyment of doing the thing and wanting to keep doing it.

I have not invested all of my learning time into one thing, and I am weaker at most of the things I do as a result, but that’s ok by me. I do these things not because I’m good at them (although that feels good sometimes) or because anyone else values the things I make (they often don’t) but because if I did not do them I would go insane. I have made miserable music when my life has been miserable, and I’ve had times when the music I’ve made has been joyful, but I have never stopped making music. I pursue jobs where I can do and think creative things for a living purely so that I can spend a larger percentage of my time doing them, because they are what make me happy.

There is no cap on the variety of things a person can do, and you’ll also tend to find that aesthetic rules overlap between realms. Fine art theory has a place in makeup artistry. Most of the people I know who make a full-time living in the creative arts are freelancers who grab jobs even if they don’t know if they can do them, and then “wing it” and do OK. That is desire winning out over fear.

Do you feel demotivated by anything you’ve just read? When I was in my early twenties I had alraedy written off working in any sort of media or entertainment or artmaking capacity as a silly pipedream. This can be particularly common for people from working class backgrounds who don’t get to go to artschool or ever speak to anyone who makes stuff for a living. I did creative things as a hobby in the background, but moving into a games studio and then becoming a practice-based lecturer and researcher in a university took some serious life adjustments, leaps of faith, and in some cases the cutting off of unsupportive people.

“Quitting my day job and starting my life as a writer was a tremendous risk. It was a fool’s leap, a shot in the dark. But anything of any value in our lives, whether that be a career, a work of art, a relationship, will always start with such a leap. And in order to be able to make it you have to put aside the fear of failing and the desire of succeeding. (…) Because things that we do without lust of result are the purest actions that we shall ever take.” – comics author Alan Moore

I recognise that my “meh” is often someone else’s “wow”, but that I have to show things to people or I’ll always just think it’s “meh”.

I want to finish my board game. I want to start another one. I want to mix, master and release more of my songs. I want to sell a painting. None of these are dreams; they are all in-progress tasks which are a decent % toward completion.

I’m working on an album with a friend. I just wrote some of what I think is the final track. Part of it goes like this:

I can’t give you any words of wisdom
You want a fortune cookie cutter guy?
Free fall ’til you pass out plummeting
Find your wings or fall into the light

This machine never shuts down
Never slows up, never stops moving
I don’t dream, I just do what I need to do
To stop my mind screaming

Sweat Machine is a collaboration between myself and composer Louis Palfrey; you can listen here: and the other usual places.

Does it Really Need to be VR? Technology Fetishism and (Dis)embodiment

I first got a chance to play around with virtual reality at my old studio when the boss set up a rig and we started throwing around ideas for what, if anything, we would makdse in it. We weren’t a 3D-games-focussed studio, for a start. I remember “playing” some of the Oculus demo scenes, and particularly enjoying sensations of vertigo, of staring down a T-Rex and the phantom-limb oddness of having objects appear to pass through where my body should have been.

Later on we got both an Oculus and HTC Vive rig for one of the teaching computers at my university and I got a chance to play properly, but not much. I did enjoy playing Robo Recall for sweaty half-hour full-body-workout sessions. It also showed (when compared to something like the fantasy swordfighting title Blade & Sorcery) that up-close-and-personal VR combat can only work for most audiences without being icky if the game developer isn’t presenting us with too-human characters. But, overall, the technology is not something I care for enough to want to bring home, and I think this is because – for the most part – my engagement with videogames is about wanting to dissociate from my body as much as possible with an activity entirely about brain, eyes and hands.

Robo Recall (2017) remains one of the better “flail around shooting things” VR experiences.

So, I can admit that even as someone who practices and teaches game design, I am not massively versed in VR as a gaming platform. I don’t think it’s bad. I would like to see games lean into some weirder uses of it, though. I don’t necessarily want to be embodied as a character with limbs. Give me god games in VR. Give me Populus VR. Give me Sid Meier’s Civilisation with a big rotatable orb of a planet to poke, prod, and populate.

There’s also the socioeconomic element: I don’t have a great deal of interest in developing for something which is financially inaccessible to most people. I have “senior” in my job title and I am unable to afford the current generation of consoles, letalone additional peripherals.

I’d rather spend my time trying to address the dearth of couch co-op videogames than to make something which is, to my mind, an example of extreme narrowcasting; a piece of media which can only be consumed by one person at a time.

Honorable shout out to Keep Talking And Nobody’s Explodes for being a game which directly addresses and designs around the “only one person in your friendship group has VR kit” problem. The players not using the VR headset are made to give the VR-enabled player instructions from a printed document. It’s genius and (for those of you who are British and aged enough to get the reference) has a lot of Crystal Maze vibes.

All of that personal context aside, I now have a series of questions for my friends in the field, fellow designers, colleagues etc. who feel drawn toward this technology for their projects.

  1. How many different VR experiences have you had? Have you had enough to have a real sense for what makes good VR stand out from bad VR? Consumption leads to taste, taste informs how you use a skill well. How many albums do you think most msuicians have consumed before writing one?
  2. Do you want a smaller potential user base? Some of the most impactful phenomena in gaming over the past two decades have been the product of users not requiring a dedicated gaming computer; Minecraft and casual mobile games being two examples.
  3. This is particularly relevant for non-games uses; but how does the tendency toward first-person-embodiment in VR work with or against the goals of your project? Are you trying to give people a “feet on the ground” experience? Do you want them to be able to whoosh around (if so, please revisit point 1 until you know what does and doesn’t make people sick on an instinctive, gut level)? Does either form of first person experience actually hit the goals of your project better than being able to more easily manipulate something on a desktop screen with a mouse?

In Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (2010) Ian Bogost argues that what makes videogames special is their ability to explain – through interaction – how systems work. This is a quality which is arguably more salient in genres which give us a gods’ eye view of a situation. Building a model of a place and giving a user some means by which to navigate its floors is only one use for the technology. It’s an easy option, and one which barely scrapes the surface of what we might be able to do with VR if we think a bit more laterally about experience design in ways which move away from the bodily metaphor entirely.

I think the last point is particularly important for those of us in academia who would like to use VR for research project, whether to make them more accessible or to present information in a new and innovative way. While it might be cool to be able to project a user into a physical location and allow them to move around, this only provides one type of experience, and it’s an experience which really mimics the limitations of being a singularly-embodied human entity in the real world. (I, for one, tire of being a singularly-embodied human entity at the best of times).

Different technologies enable different perspectives for game designers. It may be that VR is simply “better” at doing first-person embodiment, but this might be an assumption based on what we assume will have the widest appeal. For example, it used to be a bit of a game development truism that “simulations and tycoon games don’t work on console”, but this attitude has diminshed in recent generations.

I think we also need to be honest about our personal reasons for wanting to do a project with a specific technology. It’s totally fine to start a project with a new technology just to learn how to use it. But most developers are not going to produce something worthy of an audience’s attention on their first, third, or perhaps even thirtieth foray into a new area. Even then, if they’re not critically engaging with the work already out there, their best efforts are likely to produce a dull version of something which was already achieved years ago.

Just as many middle-aged men learn the expensive way that owning a Stratocaster does not make one Hendrix, technology fetishism can often obscure the amount of work it takes to bridge the gap between making something and making something good

This is why any education in technology needs to do more than drill languages and software. It should also give students the conceptual tools to be able to make things which are innovative and useful rather than just functional. Those of us who can access and harness these technologies on academic institutional budgets are a lucky few, but whether we are able to do anything interesting with them is a matter of thoughtful design, not simply learning to use hardware and software kit.

ShutterBugs (2019): a 4-player arcade game about taking photos at the British seaside.

Shutterbugs is a (currently demo only) chaotic 4-player photography game where you pilot a cute little drone-robot around and take photos of, amongst other things, a scub diver, numerous pirates, and business Cthulhu.

It was produced in collaboration with Dr. Alan Meades, my teaching colleague on the Games Design BA at Canterbury Christ Church University. I built the game in GameMaker Studio 2 and Alan produced all of the pixel-art (with a couple of contributions from students which snuck in at the last minute!)

Over the course of 2 months, we made Shutterbugs to sit alongside an exhibit of British seaside photography curated by What started as an abstract Where’s Wally based game of competitive person-finding quickly became seaside themed and loosely based on “walkie” photography; where mid-century professional photographers would take seaside portraits on-the-fly.

Shutterbugs was made for exhibition alongside a collection of British seaside photography curated by It took just over two months and was developed to work inside a four-player arcade cabinet custom built for the exhibition at the Daphne Oram building at Canterbury Christ Church University.

All environment art by Alan Meades. Most character art by Alan Meades with a few additions from students on the Games Design BA course at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Shutterbugs currently only works with 4 players and 4 controllers, as it was built for display in a custom arcade cabinet. You can download a PC demo version at

PseudoCode for Shutterbug collision .jpg

We’re All in This Together (2015): a dystopian text adventure about connection and mental health.

During 2015 I made a scifi-horror Twine called We’re All In This Together.

In the game, you play an “inspector” in a near-future London, tasked with rooting out individuals with a hallucinatory affliction by scanning their memories. The story unfolds through the protagonist’s daily work routine.

Gameplay revolves around using a “neuroscope” to scan your patients’ recent memories, before deciding whether to release or quarantine them. The neuroscope returns 3-line haikus composed of random memory fragments. I’ll do a technical write-up at a later date if there’s enough interest.

The first few scenes may take a little while to load, particularly on mobile devices, as this is where all the heavy-lifting is done in terms of preparing all these memory fragments.

It takes around 30 minutes to play and contains violent imagery.

There’s a bit of background information here about the game’s subtext and the broader cultural themes that played into its creation.

StarCross (2020): a frogger-inspired game about intergalactic love-letter deliveries.

Early in 2020, as the University term was rudely interrupted by a pandemic. To help us all cope with the new rules, and with social isolation, we ran an internal game jam called IsoJam, where staff and students were tasked with making a game around the theme “keep your distance”. One of our students – Matthew Fuller – did a more thorough write-up of the event over at Big Boss Battle, and you can find and play the game here.

For my entry, I wanted to clone a retro game and then slightly tweak some things until it became its own “thing”. This is a practice I highly recommend for people new to both the theoretical aspects of game design, and the technical side of using a game engine. It means that a lot of the core design is there, and you can see what happens to it by making small adjustments here and there.

I started out with the core movement and dodging mechanics from Frogger. After watching some reference videos of Frogger, I noted that the frog moved on a grid, but slid between grid squares. This was the central thing to get “right”; Frogger movement is not smooth-point-to-point, it’s based on stepping across a grid in time-delayed increments.

The jam theme “Keep Your Distance” was a deliberately easy one, because avoiding touching things is a pretty prevalent element in a lot of action games. “Avoid” is a main gameplay verb in pretty much any game involving spatial reasoning and peril.

I was hoping that, with the help of the space theme, I could take the jam theme a bit further, though. My “twist” on Frogger would be that instead of advancing upwards through a screen, players would move left to right between planets, and then right to left, and to-and-forth for as many runs as they could survive for.

Already having settled on a sort of 1990s Barbie/Dreamphone aesthetic for the game, I made one planet pink and one turquoise, and programmed them to inch away from each-other a bit after each trip the player made. You’d arrive at the turquoise planet on the right (delivering a love letter in the theming of the game) and then the pink planet would move further away and more layers of obstacles would be revealed; in this case, asteroids and spacecars.

My colleague and long-term collaborator Dr. Alan Meades helped out providing a massive sprite-sheet of vehicles to block the path of the player ship through space.

I added a powerup to allow the player to hold a Boost button to zoom ahead, which was really satisfying to program in gamefeel terms. I also added a shield which could be accumulated. The combination of these two powerups gave the player the ability to play in more risky way to accumulate score more quickly.

As in the above screenshot, I made each “run” between planets have a score based on how far apart the planets were, and then a multiplier which would decrease over time, encouraging them to rush back and forth.

To conflict with these scoring mechanisms, I also allowed the player to pick up 4 additional “gifts” on the way, which were all romantically themed, Valentines-day-ish gifts. These would add a bonus to the score for the run, but they lost value if they were identical. This created a tension between wanting to get back and forth quickly, and wanting to pick up four unique presents en route.

Although the theme is pretty tacked on, it felt poignant to me, to be living through this weird period of social isolation, and thinking about how important e-messaging was becoming to many of us, especially those of us separated from loved ones or partners by the pandemic and the rules governing social interactions in 2020.

I really enjoyed making StarCross, and I learned a fair few things about myself and my process as I did it:

  • I tend to lean toward making action games for small projects, even though action games are not really where my heart lies in terms of what I want to have designed.
  • That said, I really love programming game-feel and animations:
    • I loved making the ship poot out little heart-shaped puffs of smoke.
    • I loved unnecessarily procedurally-generating a starfield.
    • I loved implementing the screenshake and SFX for making the ship chug along faster when the player boosted.
    • I loved working out how to gradually zoom the camera out so that one of the less obvious “reward” for surviving a long time was seeing the enormity of space and screen crammed with cute little ships.
  • When you’re working as a solo developer, having an aesthetic in mind from the get-go (at least an art style and a limited colour palette) can really free you up to just plough ahead and not spend too much time on art assets when you should be programming.

I really enjoyed working on this project, and although it’s just a game jam game, it has a high-score feature implemented and, as such, is the sort of thing you can download here and get a few hours of gameplay out of.

Getting started with storytelling in your game dev project

This post is intended as a non-exhaustive primer for anyone who is making games from more of a mechanics and art perspective and who might struggle a bit with story or narrative.

Let’s start with what those two words mean, because they mean different things. “Narrative” implies the existence of a narrator. While a story is a series of events – real or fictional – the narrative is the *telling* of the story.

So, let’s fast-forward and say we’ve already decided on the story. There’s some bad stuff going on in the world, because of an evil wizard. So far, so standard. But maybe the king was secretly involved? That’s slightly more interesting, but it’s only interesting if we don’t know it from the beginning.

That’s the difference between story and narrative; as narrators – in any medium – we can choose to withhold information until specific moments, when it would be more impactful to the audience to find out. Or we can reveal it in more or less interesting ways, for example, having information come from an unreliable narrator or be delivered in a way that it might be missed – like background clues in a murder mystery.

Once we understand that distinction, we can start to think of the difference between story and narrative in terms of the audience (or player) experience. When is it most impactful for the player to learn of the king’s treachery, and how should they learn about it? Reading a letter? Overhearing a conversation? A slow drip-feed of subtle visual clues on things, royal seals where they shouldn’t be, and so on?

This question of “how” brings us into design and production considerations. When I teach students to make narrative games, we often use an engine like Twine or Ren’Py which is meant specifically for creating interactive fiction. The reason for this is that the on-ramp to adding elements like voice-over, text-boxes, branching dialogue and so on to an action game in an engine like Unity or GameMaker is much longer.

So the first practical question should always be; “does this game need an explicit narrative at all?” How much background information can be inferred just through the environmental design?

Do we, as players, care why the dungeon in your action RPG exists? Perhaps not. But even if it’s not worth the time to implement a system that can deliver extensive background lore to the player, it might still be worth having the dev team work through these questions to help guide their design decisions – both aesthetic and mechanical. Knowing that the dungeon was built by a religious fundamentalist cleric, verses a scientist obsessed with cruel experiments, is going to give the whole place a different flavour even if it’s only at the level of decorative objects. But it might also have a relevant influence on gameplay flavouring when it comes to things like enemies and weapons, too.

After considering what story can be told through the environment, my next piece of advice would be to consider the cost of implementing each type of narrative device. A narrative device, broadly speaking, is any “method” for delivering story content. In a movie, this could be, for example, a regular scene, a flashback, a voice-over. Games use all of these, and more medium-specific methods (like, for example, object descriptions in the Dark Souls games).

I would then think through different ways of delivering parts of the story I want to tell, e.g:

  • in the environment during gameplay
  • between levels (not as cutscenes, but as short interstitials visa vie Darkest Dungeon or Mirrors Edge)
  • through found documents or recordings
  • through voice-over and/or text-boxes (let’s not even think about implementing player dialogue choices at this point, urgh).

The list above is, in my mind, ordered in easiest to hardest, or cheapest to most expensive, or however way you want to think of development effort/time.

Environmental storytelling is not cheap or easy to do. So why have I put it first on my list? Because it’s about making clever use of the part of the game that you have to develop anyway – assuming that you’ve already got an action/strategy game taking place in an environment of some sort. Things like “the city is ruined” or “the forest is haunted” are such generic tropes that we don’t even consider them storytelling. But they are; and the visual specifics of how the city was ruined, or why the forest is haunted, are interesting to explore, both as a developer and a player. How far can you get with placing “clues” to these questions in the environment before even having to think about having to include a different type of narrative device?

Giving the player things to notice and work out for themselves is great, but if they are fundamentally trying to play an action game, they will miss a lot unless it’s repeated. My favourite element of playing Elden Ring was observing the in-world funeral processions and gradually developing my own theory about how they tied into the gameworld’s economy in some way. Is there a document or character somewhere in the game who might have told me about this instead? Probably, but I don’t care to speak to them (they’re probably a weirdo).

Storytelling through interstitials like comics and animatics can be a relatively cheap way to give some vital information – or to provoke a sense of mystery. But my advice would be to always lean toward the latter.

When I teach narrative design, I don’t lean much on traditional Narrative Theory, but one thing we do regularly use from Roland Barthes are the concepts of action and enigma, and of paying attention to the balance between these things. To put it as simply as possible, how often is your game/book/film telling its audience something, and how often is it making the audience ask by giving some incomplete information?

This interplay is fundamentally what gets people hooked on serial TV series like Game of Thrones or Lost. Every time one question the audience may have about the world gets answered, at least one more gets thrown open. So they have to stay to find out.

So, when you decide to put that little comic-book cheap-excuse-for-a-cutscene between your levels, make it count. Don’t use it to exposit any more than you need to – let the player do the finding out during gameplay – if they can.

Let’s take Darkest Dungeon as a best-in-class example. In the interstitials we see and hear “the Ancestor” who is generally fretting over something awful he’s done. But in true Lovecraftian style, there is usually a considerable delay between hearing someone express their feeling of regretful dread and seeing the source of it. The interstitials at the beginning of a game section are used to create a call of “what have I done?” which is usually answered by the player encountering some in-game abomination. At which point they roll their eyes and say “that pesky ancestor, he’s been at it again!”

Found documents and recordings can be a great way of meeting in the middle, telling a piece of story that’s been frozen in time, but allowing the player-character to reveal it as they’re exploring the environment. They also add a bit of human character to post-apocalyptic or ruined settings which might otherwise be lacking that kind of humanity.

If you’re going to use audio notes or diaries in this way, consider the following things:

  1. How can I chain together entries so that the player learns a bit more each one. How do I make it so that there is a point to listening to three of these rather than condensing it into just one?
  2. What is the player learning from this set of recordings? If it’s something simple and local to the level (like learning where a key item is hidden) is there some way I can contextualise this in the broader world-event to add more information? (e.g. “I’ve hidden the key in the thing, because otherwise the looters…” < like that but better).
  3. What is the “voice” of the person recording the message? What is their unique character? Even if it’s just someone who appears for two or three diary entries, some sort of unique turn or phrase or odd preoccupation or obsession will help to satisfy players who want your story fragments to feel like genuine story and not just key items in a safe-combination puzzle.

As with most creative tasks, the truth of “how is this sausage made” comes down to planning. Make a rough table, split up what I’m going to learn about both the story and its storyteller into three parts, and maybe think about how the tone of each might change, before actually trying to write or record any of the player-facing text or speech.

The great thing about logs/diaries etc. is that, although they may be somewhat overused, they do allow you to experiment with characters telling stories in-game without having to have the characters interact dramatically in real-time. Which leads us to…

… the last category I want to talk about, which is actual real-time dialogue, where an in-world character is speaking as a voice-over or using text-boxes. In terms of “how to do this well” you want to attend to a lot of the same things I mentioned earlier:

  • What am I learning in this scene/dialogue, as a player.
  • Is this the most interesting way to learn about it.
  • What is unique about the character talking to me? Why do I want to interact with them?
  • What questions are going to remain unresolved, so that I still have some sense of mystery pulling me forward in my mission/quest?

But, those creative questions aside, in terms of implementation, you should really exhaust all the other options on the list before you attempt to implement characters talking in real-time.

You have to pause the game in a way the other methods do not require, and you have to have events/triggers which are of a magnitude more complex to get this working. If you want characters to speak during gameplay, you’ll also probably need to do stuff with sound-ducking (although the same would be true of found logs too).

If you’re making a smaller project (like a student game, for example) will the multiple weeks it takes you to get all of this working be worth it?

As with most advice I give, it’s not a hard and fast rule. Never say never. But sometimes the “cheaper” way to achieve something is genuinely better. If you want to make a first person shooter where the main character is constantly narrating things in a voiced-over internal monologue, that could be very cool, but there needs to be a good reason for choosing to do this, over other methods which might be easier (style and aesthetics can be reason enough – but you have to be able to justify them to your dev team).

Although I haven’t gone into any of these areas in massive depth, I hope this primer gives you what you need to start thinking about narrative in your games. Narrative is the method by which we allow players to encounter the story events. At the forefront there are two key areas; the form (narrative) and the content (story). In terms of content; trying to identify what would be most interesting or intriguing should be top priority. In terms of form, work through the different ways of delivering story and think about which gives you the most “bang for your buck” in terms of difficulty of implementation verses what it adds to the experience!

Subverting combat mechanics in RPGMaker

Every so often I mess about in RPG Maker to see if I can trick the combat system into doing something it’s not designed for. Here’s a little animated .gif of an interrogation minigame… presumably for some sort of High Fantasy Buddy Copy thing.



The out-of-the-box RPGmaker combat system usually looks like:

reduce the enemy’s HP to 0 to end combat and win. Do this by using physical attacks (DEF save) and magical attacks (MDEF save).

In the above example I’m using HP as “cooperation”. The suspect drains their own HP with most of their actions, and the game throws a bespoke “win” event if you keep the suspect’s HP (cooperation) above 0 until a certain round. You can improve the suspect’s cooperation by either using Persuasion abilities (defended against by a stat called Suspiciousness) or Intimidation abilities (defended against by a stat called Courage).

The broader idea might be that, for example, you could reduce their defenses using bribery and the like.

Press X to Nurture: on Fiction and Fatherhood

Jason Rohrer’s game The Castle Doctrine got some flak on release for how it instrumentalised wives and children as property to be guarded

Because most games are still primarily about agency – regardless of whether that is exercised through combat, racing or exploration – they can’t really convey to young male players what fatherhood is actually about.

Maddy Myers and Seb Wuepper both wrote some time ago about the proliferation of  games where the typical AAA grizzled dude protagonist is fleshed out a little and made more human by giving him a fatherly role.

“I think I’m just playing the wrong Dad Simulators. I can’t empathize with playing as a character that has immense social and physical power and misuses it to hurt the characters in the game that I have come to like, seemingly at the game’s behest. I don’t want to play a game and feel as though agency and value has been misattributed to the incorrect person” – Maddy Myers

One problem I see is that these games – like the movies Taken, Leon or Man on Fire – all frame the paternal purely in terms of justification-for-force. Home-invasion thrillers like The Purge (or its videogame equivalent The Castle Doctrine) provide a fantasy world where being a “Good Dad” is synonymous with being an agentic, forceful individual who functions by dominating others.

Themes of protectiveness associated with fatherhood are just there to provide some sort of moral veneer to typical power fantasies related to directing physical force at other people. These games aren’t really about fatherhood in any real sense.

In my experience, early fatherhood isn’t an exercise in the sort of agency we associate with traditional videogames. For men, learning to nurture children is often about stopping trying to exercise so much control. Fatherhood requires us to unlearn everything we previously thought we knew about manhood. Yet there are still men in the world who believe that doing dangerous things like dressing up as superheroes and climbing tall buildings is an appropriate way to convince courts of their ability to nurture.

Having children has been a difficult adjustment for me precisely because of the reduction in agency it entails. I’m psychologically wired around things that are very difficult to do while carrying a baby around or playing Duplo with a toddler.

Childcare is The Sims or Jostle Parent. It’s a tamagotchi with a direct line to social services.


The boy’s experience of early separation and loss is traumatic. It leads to a strong desire to control his environment … Men see a hierarchy of autonomous positions. Women see a web of interconnections between people. – Sherry Turkle

Books and movies have generally done a much better job than games when it comes to helping me come to terms with this change.

We had our first child when I was starting the final year of my undergraduate degree. During my then-wife’s first pregnancy, one of the film geeks on my course leant me the DVD of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Eraserhead is one long nightmare sequence which, from where I was sitting, seemed to centre primarily on the horror of agency-loss. The protagonist – a stand-in for the director – is left alone with a sick baby to care for, and suffers various metaphorical castrations (the standard Freudian metaphor for a loss of agency).

Lynch likes to say that this is his most ‘spiritual’ movie, which I think is just his pretentious way of saying it’s the only movie he ever made which is primarily about his own feelings.

Why does a movie like Eraserhead exist? If men are bad at expressing themselves, its doubly true when their emotions are socially unacceptable; childish even. At its core, Eraserhead is about the selfish, stupid feelings that creative people have about becoming parents. When will I finish my magnum opus? How will I ever get to become heavyweight boxing champ now? The film allowed me to acknowledge that this is to some degree normal, even if it’s something that people don’t talk about.

A spiral of guilt. Feeling bad about wanting to do things that require focus and the use of both hands. Seeing your partner take to the whole thing more naturally than you. Finally seeing your inner child for the spoilt brat they are.

Will Self’s Book of Dave pretends to be a piece of post-apocalyptic scifi, but it’s primarily a parable about how our culture churns out men who are ill-prepared for fatherhood. Titles like The Last of Us fail to address this because their mechanics leave little room for dadly expressions that move beyond the vengeful or protective. They can’t correctly emphasise inaction. The medium won’t allow it.


Traditional videogames are poorly equipped to deal with a transition which is primarily about the diminishing of agency. It’s not rare to hear game designers raise these sorts of concerns. Lofty ideals about how there must be something more that games can be about. I’m not talking about the stuff of cutscenes and dialogue; but the mechanics that make the game a game.

Games stop feeling like games when they deny us agency. We start to call them slurry terms like “walking simulators”.

hockey dad
most contemporary representations of fatherhood in games aren’t a long shot off the “Hockey Dad” fighting game in a 2003 Simpsons episode

Being a grad student is a lot like being the presumed player of the latest open-world 500-hour completion sandbox game. You’re assumed to be the kind of person that can just show up whenever and play for 9-hour sessions. A teenager with a never-ending surplus of free-time and paradoxical cravings for fantasies of free-roaming.

As I moved through the Ph.D., things mostly went well on campus and at home. That’s primarily because I tried my best to treat the thing as a regular weekday 9-5. During the first year I only worked 4 days a week and had The Boy to myself on Fridays to do bonding and stuff. I’d usually be around at breakfast time, and home to cook dinner and put His Majesty to bed.

But there was a creeping sense that I was entering a place that was unsuitable for people with young children. When you’re a dad in their mid-20s, academia is full of older folks who think you’re a bit young to have kids.

The archetypal grad student is a bastion of agency; working until 3am everyday, generally swanning about doing what they want most of the time. These assumptions were embedded in things like conferences, where I felt great guilt going away for 3 or 4 days to arse about drinking and using long words in self-indulgent contexts under the guise of professional networking.

I feel an ongoing conflict between wanting to have a “decent” job before the time my children are grown, and knowing that academia will most probably mean less money and more away-time than other more mundane things I could be doing. Combine that with the imposter-syndrome that comes with studying games in an old-fashioned uni with no games programme, and it has been paralyzing at times.

lee clem
press R2 to STFU and listen for once in your life

Fatherhood is like one of those bad escort missions, long ago consigned to game-design history by fans and developers alike. Children are mission-critical NPCs with bad AI and friendly-fire permanently on.

Some days I wish that the only requirement for being a good dad was punching a bunch of Bad Dudes in the face while looking cool. Then I remember I’m probably not alone, and that’s why The Last of Us and its ilk are so popular in the first place.




merging the mundane and fantastical in game design

A lot of games stick to the safe territory of superheroes, sci-fi and high fantasy, and for good reason. In these settings, the differences between people can be greatly exaggerated into noticeable differences in the way that characters behave in-game; their personalities, skills and abilities. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the merging of character personality, look and function in archetypes (the ‘fire’ character is lithe, quick, red and angry!) Videogames are often about shooty shooty, bashy bashy, so we use similar sets of crude numbers to represent what people are like (strength, agility, intelligence and so on) which aren’t necessarily relative to anything in reality. We use them because most players are familiar with them and because they’re easily relatable to stuff the player might want to do in-game.

How do the characters of the TV show Lost fit into traditional RPG class archetypes? What makes someone a Paladin rather than a Warrior? If Sawyer and Kate are both “Rogues”, do they represent different sub-classes of this archetype? Try the same exercise again with something even less fantastical (e.g. a ‘kitchen sink’ drama).

We make games in ‘tombs’ and ‘dungeons’ because these fantasy standards provide an environment designed entirely around navigating traps and monsters to find shiny stuff; a contrived assault course with some tentative link to reality. A dungeon can be relatively non-functional and abstract. So can a post-apocalyptic ruin. If everything is alien or ancient or destroyed then we don’t have to consider things like the logical placement of toilets in an office building. This is one of the reasons why Steam is so awash with procedurally-generated games with “dungeon” in the title.

I like epic dungeons and spaceships, but I have very little desire to make games set in them. Part of it is about maintaining a manageable scope*, but its also down to these settings being saturated. I don’t want to make a worse version of a game that already exists. I don’t even want to make a better version of an existing game, because ultimately I’m motivated by creativity and novelty. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take familiar tropes and make something fresh out them simply by turning them on their head a little.

a tongue-in-cheek approach to an existing ‘geek’ genre may be more achievable for new developers with less resources.

Recently, I’ve been playing with the idea of introducing the mundane into generic fantasy and scifi settings. Terry Pratchett’s discworld took the normally grandiose genre of high fantasy and delivered the same epic stories but in a much more grounded and tongue-in-cheek way, in a world where there are  guilds for Lawyers and Glassblowers as well as Rogues and Mages. Comedy science-fiction like Futurama, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf is also able to explore big ideas and ‘what if’ scenarios without taking itself so seriously it becomes cheesy and unintentionally hilarious. And there’s a sizeable amount of people for whom the staffroom banter and romantic subplots in Bioware games are one of the most memorable parts (self included). I would happily play Mass Effect and DragonAge games minus the combat – no joke.

Back in early 2014 and friend and I made a short jam game** about running a VR Parlour in a cyberpunk future. During the process we both realised that we were essentially making a game about jobs we have both done in our late teens (he used to work in video-rental place and I worked in a record shop). Even Papers, Please is about doing something mundane in a setting which could easily have been used for a AAA shooter like Just Cause or Homefront. Fallout Shelter is also a very mundane game set in a fantastical world. So are Recettear and Kairosoft’s Dungeon Village. Often these games can be a way of using ‘hardcore’ gamers’ existing tastes to draw them into more casual modes of play.

Mundanity isn’t a goal in itself. Sometimes games about mundane tasks such as managing a business or caring for a person or creature can become time-sinks which provide the same sort of pleasure as scratching your butt***. But I am noticing this pattern in a lot of my ideas. What if the player runs a crèche for the children of superheroes? What if the player runs a dating agency for Tolkien-esque fantasy characters?

In the next post I’m going to talk about all of this in relation to a 2-4 player card game I’m developing called Hook-Up Heroes.

*I spoke about issues relating to scope for new developers here.

**You can play VR Tycoon over at but it is very very broken.

***”Richard Rosenbaum offers a good explanation of how operant conditioning techniques are used in casual games to make them addictive.

How to stop talking about your brilliant game idea and make a sort-of-ok-ish game instead


A very enthusiastic, clever teenager I work with keeps telling me about these ideas he has for comics or games. I feel kinda mean doing it, but my response is always been the same; “How are you going to make this idea into a thing that I can consume?”. This is because I’ve been in his position. And now I’m a 28 year old dude with 2 kids still figuring out how to make my ideas into actual things.

Ideas are like seeds. No amount of talking is going to turn that seed into a tree. Maybe if you’re standing very close to the seed, so that your talking inadvertently provides it with an abundant source of CO2, and you’re simultaneously providing it with the right amount of water and the right type of soil. I don’t really know where this metaphor is going anymore.

It’s a harsh lesson, but anyone who wants to spend their adult life paying the bills while making entertaining or expressive work needs to learn it quick and fast. I’ve done a string of creative things in different media, some successful, some not so much. I’ve learnt the hard way that ideas alone have very little value. Think of the worst movie or TV show you’ve ever watched. It’s often the case that the central idea could’ve been something you enjoyed, had the execution been different.

 Adjust Your Expectations

The trouble is – particularly for newer game designers who tend to think in terms of stories and settings rather than mechanics – the thing in our head is so often at odds with what we’re realistically able to achieve. Take that cool videogame idea in your head. If it’s mainly a narrative thing; could you make it into a Twine or Adventure Game Studio thing? If it’s mainly a mechanic thing, could you boil it down to a small arcade game first, or even something analogue p1busing cards or dice?

Keep asking yourself these sort of questions and you’re already well on your way to Actually Finishing A Thing.

One friend of mine wrote a really great script for a sort of sci-fi comedy TV thing. It was a great script with humour and pathos, and I genuinely think I would have rated it highly even if this guy wasn’t a friend. After sending it off to THE TV PEOPLE and getting no reply, my friend had plans to cast the thing and shoot it himself. I keep trying to get him in the studio to make it into a Hitchhikers’ Guide radio-play/podcast, because that would be far easier to self-produce and it would take off easier in that format, with a potential conversion to TV later. Even with the script written, that idea is still very much a seed. It’s still just that.

So when I hear aspiring creatives talk about their ideas, I think about the unheeded advice I gave my friend: Don’t write a script for a relatively-high budget TV series that will never be made, make a script for a dramatized audio play and then make the thing. In order to do this, you have to adjust your expectations so that the thing you want to make is feasible. I’m sure you can already see parallels with the way that every aspiring developers wants to make a VERY BIG RPG (see here for my own VERY BIG RPG).

 Do It Yourself

So you write down all your game ideas into a game design document and set about finding people to help you. The reality is that even if you’ve spent what seems like an eternity writing those ideas out, your programmer, artist, sound person etc. are all going to have to put in more work than you.

Dietrich (2004) developed this framework for understanding different forms of creativity. Being the ‘ideas guy’ is a spontaneous, non-time-dependent form of creativity, whereas tasks like writing dialogue, programming script or making tonnes of visual assets are more deliberate forms of creativity which take potentially much longer (and are more akin to ‘grinding’ in videogame speak).
Dietrich (2004) developed this framework for understanding different forms of creativity. Being the ‘ideas guy’ is a spontaneous, non-time-dependent form of creativity, whereas tasks like writing dialogue, programming script or making tonnes of visual assets are more deliberate forms of creativity which take potentially much longer (and are more akin to ‘grinding’ in videogame speak).

If they’re any good (i.e. they’re able to work to the standard of the Unrealistic Thing You Have in Your Head) then they’re unlikely to trust you enough to work for free. If they’re any good, they’re probably already regularly working freelance for people who finish projects. You’re an unknown quantity to them, and seeing as you’re reading this blog, I’m going to assume that you’re not wealthy enough to pay a team of people to water and feed your idea seed for you. Where does this leave you?

Well first off, you can start practicing an additional creative role, like programming or graphics. Make something that looks like it has enough potential for other people to want to work on it with you. I personally have been modding games since I was a teenager, and did a little bit of BASIC as a younger kid – I can’t really code, but I can use Stencyl and similar programs, so I’ve opted for making my own 2D assets. This is a slow process! But I did do art and design up until university, and I do believe that anyone with a good enough eye can do visual art if they stick at it.

Part of this, again, comes down to readjusting expectations. So you can draw buildings but not characters? Great; make a game with buildings and no characters! (This is exactly what I’ve been doing with Beatopia). After a few hours messing about in Illustrator or Inkscape you can draw characters but they are kind of childlike and derpy? Great! Make a game that makes good use of that! Maybe you want to practice drawing static, un-animated characters? Then spend a little time working in a game genre that will allow you to practice that (a visual novel, for example).p3

Adjust your visual expectations! Think of all the web series that are quite loved but use quite simple drawing styles but are very loved (The Meatly, Cyanide and Happiness etc.). I hope Ben Ward and Dan Mashall won’t mind me using them as an example; but their adventure games Ben There, Dan That! And Time Gentleman, Please! are really good examples of this. The developers did what they could do at the time, and now one of them (Marshall) has gone on to make The Swindle and other games while outsourcing the artwork/animation jobs. Your art can be simple, just set yourself some basic rules (consistent approach to palette, line thicknesses, stuff like that) and roll with them.

 Be Efficient

Although it hasn’t always seemed that way, the choices for me over last couple of years have been simple;

  1. readjust my expectations to something I can make and finish myself
  2. pay awesome artists and programmers with my non-existent family fortune
  3. never make games at all and just cry in the dark instead

One of those things is impossible and one is kinda sad. So I scale down my projects until they’re things where I can realistically do all or most of the work myself. If you’re constantly buzzing with ideas, then paring that list down to the viable ones can actually be quite liberating, allowing you to focus on brushing up whatever skills you need. And all those people who are better than you are coding or art or narrative design are never going to come and work for you until you’ve proven that you are a person who finishes stuff. I’m still getting there.

So when I say to adjust your expectations, the same goes for mechanical features too. If you’re new to game-making and coding then you will probably have similar experiences to me. Standard game systems; things like dialogue boxes and inventory systems that we take for granted in software like RPG Maker – these are a pain in the butt to put together. Does your game really need a massive inventory system where you can slide things around? Have you ever tried to build one of those from scratch?

And finally, the most important question you should ask yourself: are there ways in which your game might actually be a better, tighter experience if you don’t include this or that complicated (but taken-for-granted in AAA) feature? Maybe the game would be more strategically interesting if your characters only have 3 inventory slots. Maybe your game will be emotive and immersive if you chop out those 10 screens of expository text [that you didn’t even write very well anyway]. Remember earlier when I asked if your game would work as a card game or a Twine project? Keep asking yourself how you can chop that Ridiculously Ambitious Idea down into Something You Might Eventually Finish. And in doing so you can reflect on whether the feature bloat we see as ‘standard’ in some genres of game is actually good design in the first place.

So, what is your ‘minimum viable product’?

I’ve been talking to a successful graphics guy I know about making some sort of visual novel in the near future. Something where I can concentrate primarily on narrative/world design type stuff and he can really flex his muscles at making static monster and character portraits. He’s an artist but he’s also a business-dude, so his approach is very pragmatic and informed by lots of TED talks by wealthy successful types; what is your minimum viable product. Those of us who are more artsy don’t like thinking of what we do as product (and that’s perhaps why he’s making a living solely off of design right now, and I’m not).


To understand minimum viable product in relation to games or similar work, you need to imagine what you’re trying to make, and pare it down to the version of that thing that will get the most buzz with the least effort. It’s less risk – it’s putting less eggs in a single basket. But mainly because it’s a way of getting as many of those cool ideas to fruition. If your game is narrative heavy, can you release it episodically, giving people the first part of an overarching story while only having to produce the content for a quarter of the whole game? If your game is more of a mechanical, arcadey affair, can you work toward an early version with less levels just to build some buzz?

Throughout this post I’ve been emphasising just getting something finished. Make a thing and put it on The Internet! Getting feedback and validation from players you’ve never met is so important to growing and keeping yourself going. But also, if you can start to get a trickle of money coming in from or an appstore or similar, then you’re on your way to becoming a professional.

Unfortunately we live in a world where the worth of what someone does is judged by whether and how much they get paid. “Oh, Jennifer’s wedding band is getting so many bookings she is only working at the office part-time now!” said the person who thought Jennifer could never have a career in music.

Those around you – your immediate emotional support network who may know or care little about games – will often need to see those first steps being taken, in order to take you seriously and to be able to fully get behind what you do and let you get on with it. That’s not people being mean, it’s just realistic in a world where everyone has a ‘good idea for a game’ but isn’t willing to put in the grind to make it.

But I’m only an expert in how to fail!

So feel free to share any further tips or opinions you have in the comments.