(August &) September 2021 Update

Skipped another month because not a whole lot happened on the game front in that time. Most of the last 30 days has been spent dealing with all the chaos of getting acclimated to a new job–an ongoing process. Still, it’s reassuring to see the war chest not completely depleted. (Plus, working from home is SO much more efficient than the office ever was.)

In addition to that, I’ve been stymied by some technical concerns: my old monitor broke so I had to get another one, and I’ve been engaged in a long-delayed re-archive (and reorg) of all my data into more than just a single external HD (a migration which has been eating up most of my computing cycles for the last two weeks).

(I’ve been looking at building a new PC to replace this old junker, snagging pieces wherever I can get them cheap despite the chip shortage. I’ve wanted to do a DIY since I was 15 years old, and commentators are saying the shortage is expected to go until 2023, so there’s no sense waiting around.)

As far as the game itself goes, most recently I’ve been reassessing structure/design:

  • Artwork – For as dissatisfying as I’m finding the finished products with my current art skills (read: the hunter was mostly okay, but the guy in green just never came out right), and as slow as I’ve been about producing them, I’m going to pivot to a more simplified version of the same assets. (I was more or less trying to duplicate the technique used in Collar X Malice, which I really liked, but I simply don’t have the skill/technique for that yet.)
    I might reuse some of the lineart that I liked–e.g. hunter–but I’m going to greatly simplify the coloring and linework to leave myself freer to iterate and so that each individual sprite isn’t such a time commitment/crunch that any given design feels like a “path of no return”. (There were a number of elements in Mr. Green’s underlying art that simply didn’t look right and needed more iterating on, but I ended up leaving them in bc. I couldn’t figure it out otherwise.)
    • (I’ve also need to do more “masters studies” of particular bishonen artists with clean lineart to try and get a better feel for the form)
      • ((need to do more anatomy studies too, tbh…))
  • Narrative Design – Trying to approach my block from another direction, I started looking at the misgivings I had about my current take on the story, and that led me to some core questions (related to tone and theme) I’d been overlooking. I’m hoping that by resolving those, I’ll feel more confident to move forward. (I feel like I can already grasp the edges of my problems here, and their solutions.)
  • Narrative Structure – I’ve been poking around the question of “how best to storyboard a non-linear narrative” for a while now.
    One strategy I’ve had is to create a single “core” path for each LI, representing their most conventional, straightforward path, then pick out the key elements that
    Another strategy (related to character design, below) is to figure out the core thematic “questions” that any given run might have, then construct scenes within each LI’s timeline that might address them.
    • IDK. I guess I’m still not quite sure the best method here. There’s this big-brain sense of structure that I really fear I lack and I’ve been struggling to try and fill in with research on the side.
      I really want a game that FEELS ORGANIC (i.e. free to the player to direct the flow of the story), but also CURATED (i.e. with a strong sense of structure/arc).
      Most game devs rarely deal with this problem directly: they create a hard branching path in which each choice is a binary that flows down one of two tributaries. This is as true for games like Halo as it is for visual novels: the dramatic tension and release are “hard-coded” into the game’s structure.
      Even something like Disco Elysium, which was lauded for its (seeming) open-ended structure didn’t really tackle the problem elegantly: it created about four recurring dialog options for each conversation tied to particular political ideologies, but the overall structure of the narrative was very set in stone, with almost no room for improvisation or deviation.
    • The only example I can think of a game really attacking this open-ended design problem directly is Valve’s Left 4 Dead, which employed a “Director AI” to take a few randomized elements + the players’ success/difficulties/pace, and then structure the upcoming challenges in such a way that rising and falling tension are created and enhanced.
    • In a narrative-heavy game like a visual novel (read: mine), I’ve been thinking along the lines of a patchwork system of scenes, which gain “preference” depending on the player’s choices up to that point (and the themes they’re focusing on)–the fifth social encounter with character X might be version A, B, C, or D depending on the other factors, or it may not be available at all–with individual sub-patches WITHIN the scenes (i.e. particular dialog branches/tributaries) that would trigger depending on preexisting conditions.
      At that point, to avoid getting way in over my head on writing, I’d need to decide early on what elements of the story can be modified and which are “structured” once the modifying elements have been chosen (see: narrative solutions, above + character design, below).
    • I’m still very optimistic that there IS a way of doing this elegantly; I just need to wrap my head around the “how”.
  • Character Design – I’ve been iterating on the profiles for my characters, penciling in their backgrounds, their psychological makeups, their neuroses, etc.
    One of the key elements to this game that I’ve maintained since the beginning is to make the main character’s personality be at least partially custom for the player, so one of the biggest details I’ve been calculating is “what parts of the MC’s character are inherent vs. which parts are malleable?”
  • Logo – I think the purple might be too dark? IDK.

A realization I’ve had recently is how key boredom is to the creative process. When I have an idea, and I’m just flowing on iteration, I can listen to music or whatever to blank out the background–the same as when I’m working; it helps me focus by eliminating outside distractions–but when I’m trying to create something NEW (or figure something out), the less stimulation I have the better.

I also picked up Clip Studio Paint while it was on one of its 50% off sales, and I’ve just started scratching the surface on learning that. The tech underlying the brushes is definitely more robust than Krita’s, with density flow/bleed and pattern variation tech, and all kinds of cool doodads. The 3D models are also super helpful and intuitive–I suspect I’ll be relying on those more as time goes on. Right now I’m reading/watching advice on how to get good linework out of the program.

And that’s pretty much where I am right now: learning CSP, planning and rethinking structure.

I have concerns that it’s just perfectionism, but these are the things I feel are getting in the way of having a clear roadmap to a finished product. It’s a lot of “establishing best practices” for a field I’ve never worked in before and figuring out (by school of hard knocks) what works for me vs. what doesn’t.

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July 2021 Update

Artwork has been my project du jour.

I never really had much practice with the manga/manhua/manhwa aesthetic that so many VNs use, so I’ve largely been referencing other VNs whose style I like + using Katagiri’s “How to Draw Manga” (an invaluable resource!) as references, trying to recreate the techniques they used.

Anatomy is, as always, a struggle. But at least I have a pretty good eye for when something looks funky.

So far, I’ve only got one of the LIs basic poses finished (the one I’ve come to think of as “the hunter”), but now that I kind of know what I’m doing (esp. the tools available in Krita), I should be able to make faster progress on my other characters. Similarly, the backgrounds I’m expecting will be relatively easy since I’ll be going for a less-detailed aesthetic there.

One frustration is that my camera phone’s fisheye lens isn’t much good for taking reference pics bc. it warps my proportions, so I’ve had to kind of cobble reference pics from multiple sources to fill in the gaps as best I can.

In tangentially-related news, I might end up starting a new full-time job, which I have some kind of feelings about, but I don’t intend on stopping this project–I’ll just be working in the margins instead. I just hope I have the energy for both; it’s been an issue in the past. Either way, a transfusion of money IS needed at this stage in the (metaphorical and literal) game. I’m not quite tapped out, but I’d be down to pennies come Christmas.

The worst part about working full-time? Having to pack lunches. Maybe if I can work from home it wouldn’t be so bad–then I can cook at least. I’ll be missing all my home-cooked meals. It’s back to sad sandwiches and salads. :*(

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May 2021 Update

Hooeeeey! Blew right on through May without an update, didn’t I?

Well, I gave all my social media a face-lift instead; hopefully that’s some consolation.

As of this month, I’m on codebase #3, but I’m feeling more optimistic about it every time. This version is taking advantage of the various gameobjects I have and instead of trying to cram all my per-frame functions into a single method, I’m divvying them up and letting each object pull its own weight.

About halfway through the month, though, I felt like I wasn’t making much progress on code so I pivoted to design and I’ve been feeling good about that decision ever since.

In addition to the social media, I’ve been figuring out menus, interfaces, layouts, fonts, iconography, color schemes, character designs, etc. At this exact moment, I’m slapping together a quick-and-dirty header image for the game’s page on Itch.io (+ the ad copy that goes with that), then I’m going to switch back to interface and finalize my texts, windows, and overall color scheme.

Ended up going with Google Fonts for my two mains, Lato and PTserif: they occupy almost the exact same space and read well on-screen at the sizes we’ll be playing on.

And Toptal was a godsend with subtle, tasteful patterns and textures for both my Itch.io page and the game proper.

I also came up with a few interesting design ideas that will require tweaks to code, but hey, the code is completely disassembled at this point so why not?

Once I’ve got my menus and display finalized, I’m probably going to have to pivot back to coding again. I’m looking at the schedule I had made for myself a few months back and I’m laughing right now. The learning (and design-iterating) curve for so much of this was way steeper than I appreciated, even with all the prep-learning I’d done beforehand. It’d be fair to say I should have taken my original estimates and doubled them.

Not sure how long the money is going to hold out, but I’ll have to do what I can.

On the upside, I’m now fully vaccinated, so I could at least start job hunting again without worrying so much. It’s a shame, though: I’m only getting this much done as-is with all the free time in the world…

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April 2021 Update

Well, by now I’ve completely blown past my time estimates; my nice schedule lies in tatters. Alas.

Most of the last month has been spent working on code and pseudocode for the VN engine.

Initially, I diagrammed and pseudo-coded the game’s program in Unity based on the program’s general workflow: initialize, pull data from game files, etc. (I’m trying to thread a line between “versatile” and “convenient” without letting things get too “bulky” in terms of features or functions–it needs to be intuitive for the kinds of functions and actions that a VN should have; coding it myself means near-infinite versatility if another function I want comes down the line.)

However, that workflow was based on a linear understanding of the program. After I started refreshing myself on how C# works, I realized I hadn’t been thinking of it using C#’s class-and-method-based organization pattern, and so I had to go back and completely redo the pseudo-code to account for this, dividing tasks up into multipurpose chunks and so on.

Insodoing, a lot of my time is being wasted on reflexive hand-wringing over code- and memory-efficiency. Often I’ll see a particular code need (e.g. “I want to take all of the cells in a single array and compare them against a single logical operator function for a when…if statement”), and I’ll find something that seems to do what I need (e.g. System Linq’s Enumerable.SequenceEqual method), but then I end up blowing two hours on trying to get it to work before realizing that I can’t implement it the way I want to (usually because there are underlying concepts that I simply don’t understand well-enough to implement properly).

I also keep wasting a lot of mental energy hemming and hawing over the way story scripts are stored in memory: initially I wanted to store the whole thing in an array, but then I decided that would take up too much memory so I looked for an “in-file” solution with StreamReader, but that also proved to be too onerous (esp. when searching for the next line + because I don’t fully understand the StreamReader’s “find line in” function well-enough (another example of the prev. paragraph frustration)), so now I’m back to storing in an array again, memory concerns be damned. (I’ll just have to cross that bridge once it burns down…or…something.)

Maybe the broadest personal problem I have is that, as I sketch and code, I keep noticing use-cases (esp. aesthetic ones like being able to fade to black for a VN) that I need to account for, which is really increasing the back-end of my coding time. (It’s less feature creep and more unacknowledged subfunctions and process hierarchy considerations that I needed to account for when I was sketching, but didn’t realize were in conflict at the time.)

My immediate work is learning coroutines: I’m coding in the “fade” effects for everything from background audio to “fade to black” to moving/transforming the dialog window. Mostly, it’s a lot of trying to figure out the best way of implementing “timing” in a code-efficient way.

A silver lining is that I’ve gotten reorganized somewhat–C#’s method system doubles as an excellent organizational tool, chopping up a whole program’s code into chunks of accomplishment–but the drain of trying to keep the whole program in focus while also making changes to bits and pieces (as I bump up against my own ignorance/limitations as a coder + having to make aesthetic decisions that will end up hard-coded at a system level) keeps overloading my brain’s RAM and CPU, and I end up losing whole days to ADHD-style hyperfixation on isekai manhuas. (Seriously, I burned through all of Cultivation Chat in like three days.) My sleep is atrocious and my progress is sluggish at best.

But, I will persevere. I just hope I can get this out before my bank account runs completely dry or I die of self-induced stress, lol

I went back and stress read/watched all of Bakuman and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken + am clutching “I did it and so can you!” threads on the Lemmasoft forums close to my heart to keep morale up. !!! I got this!

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March 2021 Update

Friendship ended with “anxiety over art”; now “anxiety over coding” is my best friend.

———-

Most of the last month was spent finalizing my reference materials (picking up a few others that fell in at the last minute) and brainstorming–I hit stage 5 of my snowflaking plans and then my notes exploded because suddenly I found myself organizing and allocating all the little “what if we did X?” and “consider Y while writing this character” notes scattered throughout my files.

It wasn’t a wholly pointless exercise: it helped me isolate a lot of the conceptual issues I was going to need to tackle before I take this story to the next phase and compress down a lot of my recurring concerns into more complete thoughts.

But it felt like I was hitting a wall–brain-blocked trying to keep it all in my head at once and starting to feel dissuaded/anxious/intimidated–so I decided to pivot back to coding…

———-

As such, I’m currently struggling to use Unity. Copypasta from my Twitter feed:

I can pseudocode what I need, but when I watch someone putting together a comparable project in real time it’s like I’m immersed in a foreign language and only catching words here and there w/o being able to parse their relations to one-another.

The worst part is the steps that they’re taking that seem like safeguards (or infrastructure) against future problems or engine requirements that I’m not even aware of.

I’m okay with burning my fingers on a pot to learn, but at my level I barely understand what an OVEN is.

I really enjoyed the C# Yellow Book and understood most of the principles there as he was going along; I feel like I need something similar for Unity as an engine.

I suspect that, despite the relative simplicity of the project itself, I’m going to need a more ground-up approach.

-@CatXBirdGames

So, that’s basically where I am right this moment.

I’m only passingly familiar with the conventions of C#–I understand it in broad strokes, conceptually, but when it comes to actual coding, I’m at hunt-and-peck level using my notes as reference for what does what + what requires what.

Trying to combine my pidgin C# with a totally alien environment of Unity feels like more than a challenge: it’s being thrown into the ocean.

I’m confident that I CAN learn the systems and skills necessary to start swimming on my own, but every tutorial or “let’s make a” guide seems to go from A -> B -> X -> pi

Again, I keep thinking of backing down and just opting for Ren’py, but I WANT these skills bc. there are other non-VN projects I’d like to make in Unity as well, and I know I’m more of a “learning by doing” type so there’s no point in cowarding out at this stage of the game. (Ren’py would just mean needing to start over from scratch with Python instead anyway, plus there’s no guarantee it would have the robustness necessary to do everything I need it to do.)

I think my takeaway here is that, for me, trying to follow a “let’s make a” video tutorial only works insofar as it familiarizes me with the interface, but it doesn’t let me internalize or “own” the work I’m doing–I’m just parroting what I’m seeing without understanding its significance; coding is too abstract for that. Most of all, it’s too damn fast, skipping over too many assumptions that I don’t have experience with yet.

But that’s okay. This was always just an experiment to see if I could pick up the necessary knowledge from imitation–it failed. That’s okay. We get up. We dust ourselves off. We try something else.

My next coding attempt is really an OLD coding attempt: going back to a piecemeal ground-up approach that most game devs us.

  • elaborate a game engine flowchart (what needs to exist, and how the game needs to behave)
  • break that flowchart down into small, testable, iterative components
  • write pseudocode for each of those components
  • start coding from the ground up, familiarizing myself with the tools I need as I go along

I think this might be the best way to learn what I’m building AS I’m building it.

I WILL probably still need to go back and do at least one or two tutorials videos, but this time I’m not going to be starting from where I want to end up (with a visual novel engine). Rather, I’ll just be aiming at bottom-of-the-mountain projects that will (hopefully) show me the smaller components and idiosyncrasies I need to know before I can do anything.

At any rate, that’s where I am now.

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February 2021 Update

Stress still has me down, but I’ve finally (at the end of the last month of work) moved on firmly from research to actual design-writing. The research I distilled down by a few key topics–aesthetics, thematics, and market research.

One problem is feeling like I’m saddled by my research instead of empowered by it. It should be a wellspring of potential/possibility, not the boss leering over my shoulder. That’s partially bc. I’ve never tried to write in this genre or about this subject matter before–I don’t want to screw it up.

I should just have more confidence and accept that there’s going to be fuckups along the way and that I will have the will and energy to address them as they arise: that’s really the only way to move forward.


One of the big draws for me for this project was shifting from off-the-cuff writing (which I can kind of do, but it usually ends up) to actual structured design: an iterative pre-planning phase before actual writing.

Another struggle I’m running into with that is shifting from a “it’s on the page–if I want to change it, I’ll do it in a later draft” attitude to a “change it now before you write it” attitude, which has me feeling weird about tweaks and experimentation, even though both of those are MUCH easier to deal with at this conceptual and planning phase than 10,000 or 20,000 words into a writing project.

I’m sure getting used to it will mean improving my work overall.

Design-wise, I’m collating all my ideas and spitballs from research and sharpening my editorial machete for the first thicket of feature creep. My key goal right now is getting the story down into a clear vision and structure that’s both interesting and feasible. (I really want to correct a lot of the elements that I found so unsatisfying about the works that I studied, but I don’t want to lose the “heart” that people love about the VN genre.)

Again: confidence.


Yesterday I got some of my social media set up, in part. I initially set them up using as much anonymizing web security as I could, but now I’m thinking that was probably pointless, so I’m going to go in and change all that today. (It was a fun cybersec exercise at least.)
Twitter: CatXBirdGames
Discord: CatXBird

This week’s mood is “bad”: worries about art skills rusting or not being up to snuff (haven’t started on design yet bc. I’m still hammering out the details of story) and coding being too much for me to produce anything good. I get mild to moderate seasonal affect disorder, so that’s probably part of it too–my sleep schedule’s totally inverted right now because of it. And then there’s my rapidly-dwindling bank account…

Incidentally, part of my research for the game suggested that exercise is a really good way to destress, so I’m going to (hopefully) add that as part of my work routine. (Similar to how that Oxford nutrition study recommended conceptualizing exercise as part of one’s meals.)

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January 2021 Update

Brand new year, same old me.

I’d like to blame some of my lack of productivity on holiday stresses + plague woes + fear of fascist insurrections + financial troubles…

so I will.

———

I’m still keeping track of the days on my organization chart, and it still feels like a boon, though I’m WAY overbudget on a few sections. My main problem is time allocation: I’m not going to crunch, and so I’m dipping into my “flex time” a lot more than I’d like as I struggle to do certain planning phases; case in point:

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been distilling my notes. I constantly feel suspicious that it’s procrastinatory make-work for myself, but as I start to come out the other side of it I DO feel like it’s been useful: isolating key elements of what I’m discussing makes them feel more accessible and plastic. My hope is that it will serve as a bible for the snowflaking I’m about to do–a philosophical ref. sheet and moodboard for moments when I might otherwise lose track.

On that note, I’m thinking the most efficient method of actually WRITING the story will be to do a full flowchart of scenes and triggers, then doing the actual writing within the scripting engine itself: basically combining the “scripting” and “writing” phases together, then handling editing with a debug system that lets me select parameters and scenes.

I’ve thoroughly refreshed myself on C# and Unity and I have a much better sense of how the engine and the code interact now. Even so, I suspect it’s going to be a lot of starts and stops once I finally sit down with it: a lot of discovery moments of “there’s a much easier tool to do X than the weird workaround that you’re doing”. But we’ll get there. Might work on that if I get the code sketch done this month.

And THAT is really the important thing right now: getting the bones of the game down–the key features, isolated from the chrome–and then hammering out the rest from there. As far as the scripting engine is concerned, my goal is to minimize any trade of efficiency for versatility while still retaining all the functionality I’m looking for. As far as the rest goes, I’m still not 100% what all I want to include. I had an idea for a cafe order memory/interpretation game/puzzle–a kind of low-energy Papers, Please mechanic–but I worry it will become to tedious, esp. on additional runs. On the other hand, I’d like more interactive functionality than mere branching paths and reading comprehension. IDK. I suspect it will come down to the structure the game ends up in by the end.

Still chugging along, even if the engine is under duress.

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December 2020 Update

The holidays are always a stressful time of year for me; this year tempering much of family drama with COVID safety drama as it has been for so many of us in America.

At any rate, work continues apace, albeit slower.

As I’m shifting from research and study into production, I built myself a new organization system:

(the new time block allocation system)

I started off chopping the project up into “work to be done” blocks by “department”: research, analysis, design, coding, art design, art production, writing, and scripting (+ a week of flextime for when a particular portion NEEDS to go over budget–should be a MONTH, but w/e)), then taking the total number of days I have until my desired release date and blocking out a quota of “days” to spend on each portion.

On standard work days I put a red tally mark, and on days off (a.k.a. unofficial work days) I put a blue tally. (My day limits are only intended to include standard work days.)

The benefit of this system is twofold:
— it’s flexible to fit my style of project management in which I might jump from one portion to another if I’m feeling burned out on it (so if, say, I’m overloaded on art theory, I can jump to coding or narrative design without losing track of how much time I have left to use).
((Obviously I won’t be able to shift gears as much as I’m further along on production, but for now it’s helpful in keeping myself fresh and eager.))
— it helps me think about my time as a “budget”, which has REALLY helped me make a lot of tough choices about what to spend time on and what not to

With that in mind, let’s see where I’m at now:

—ARTWORK

Mostly, I’ve been doing a lot of gesture practice over the last few weeks–an hour a day or so–using a combination of Proko’s and Michael Hampton’s (Figure Drawing: Design and Invention) methods, using some really invaluable online resources including Line of Action and SketchDaily.

It has been…frustrating.

I definitely am feeling the muscles (and tool familiarity) built up by doing Drawabox over the previous few months, but unlike drawing a 3D box (where my considerations are limited and precise), the complex and multifaceted considerations in the human figure often lead me to artistic myopia where I’ll end up overblowing the dimensions of one part of the body or seeing a long stretch from:

(several more recent gesture drawings: a comedy of errors)

My biggest issue is with ratios and my own concentration: often my focus will fail as I roam the model’s body trying to find a foothold that I can use to orient my next line around, and–failing to find one–I’ll just throw out a hasty guestimate which, when I go back and look at it, I immediately recognize as not being properly considered.

I WILL say that gesture has been helping me develop a three-dimensional sense of the body, but it’s slow-going that becomes painful when I think about my production schedule. It’s only been a few weeks and I’m not expecting miracles, but I AM rummaging around for those moments where things “click” + I’m anxious for my practice to convert properly into experience.

Multiple sources have indicated that one’s rate of progress in art is limited by two things:
1. optimal practice (which I would analogize to “using good form when exercising”–bad form can mean not working your muscles as hard as they should be AND learning bad habits)
2. personal aptitude (i.e. a combination one’s innate and pre-learned experience with line, form, and three-dimensional thinking)
Aptitudes aren’t really something you can do anything about, but I am anxious that I might not be practicing optimally. If I’m still floundering come mid-January, I might beg for critique online and see if anyone can point me in a better direction.

At any rate, I’ll continue practice to keep honing my skills, but considering my limited time frame, I’m probably going to start character design even without a properly-refined sense of form, relying on both the line-simplicity of the manga aesthetic and the intensive application of CTRL+Z.

(Or to put it another way, I’ll just have to work harder, because I am presently incapable of working smarter.)

Beyond gesture, I’ve read most of Mateu-Mestre’s Framed Ink and, using it as a guide I’ve started pre-production on backgrounds and panels with some loose lighting value sketches and direction.

(some initial panel sketches, with value and direction)

I can’t go too far into this without finishing up thematics (more on that at the bottom), but at the very least I’ve been able to start thinking about the world my characters will be inhabiting and the feeling/mood I want each set to evoke, which are good: I NEED a more concrete sense of the game, and visuals help me with that.

— CODING

Another month has passed without doing any coding work, but that’s not to suggest I’ve been sitting idle.

I’ve been studying my flashcards (made with Anki) every night and that’s been helping me a lot with maintaining my familiarity with C#’s conventions and keywords.

Most of the code I’m going to use is going to be one-off tasks that I can just look up others’ solutions to online–the critical thing for me will be making sure I UNDERSTAND how the example code works so that I can tweak it for my own purposes. (Though I still want for an explainer on how objects in Unity function in relation to C#…)

Here, again, my primary bottleneck is in concept, which depends on thematics, which means philosophy/writing (next section, below) is what’s holding me back. Until I’ve defined the scope and design of the game, I can’t know the architecture it requires; until I know the architecture, I can’t know how to code it.

Right now, I have a big huge document full of ideas that, on a good day, looks like a huge brainstorm of potential, and on a bad day (which is most days) feels lot like feature creep and aimlessness.

Until I have my theme and structure hammered out, my emotions will need to be set aside and most coding will have to wait. (Hopefully, not for too much longer.)

—PHILOSOPHY/WRITING

With Sontag’s On Classical Pornography, Hiroki’s Otaku, Carter’s The Sadean Woman, a handful of the most critical Stanford Philosophy pages, and the most critical cross-section of the female gaze (Portrait of a Lady on Fire was FANTASTIC) under my belt, I’ve pretty much finished up–or rather, ran out of allocated time (I ❤ u new organization scheme!)–on philo research, and so my project now (literally now–today–as soon as I’m done with this month’s journaling) is to distill all my notes down into the key, guiding questions and principles that will define the project.

It’s exciting stuff–so exciting, that I’ve repeatedly found myself mentally and emotionally drained just facing the task–but it gets done just like everything else I’ve done so far: by taking one step at a time.

My main emphasis is on a few zones of inquiry:
— the definitive limits of “female” (inasmuch as it can be isolated from the strictures of gender)
— feminist critiques and revolutionary vs. survival strategies/ideologies (incl. the way human desires have adapted and various takes on the female gaze)
— overlaps and distinctions between the myth of the “devouring feminine” and the vore fetish (with a particular eye to the context of each)
— the ludonarrative of the visual novel and how it might be customized for my purposes given the above

From these (and my ongoing brainstorming throughout the research and study phases) I’m hoping to derive:
— a concise theme and a collection of subjects
— a good sense of world design (esp. the places where it deviates from our world)
— some concrete designs for my LIs, peripheral characters, and antagonists
— MC paths/routes (esp. ones that speak to theme)
— guidelines for tone and subject
— guidelines for ludonarrative design
— theme(s) and subjects
— lingering questions any mysteries to explore

What we leave out of a work is just as important as what we put in. In game dev, we aren’t just leaving ambiguities in theme for the reader to soul-search (as in literature and film), but INCORPORATING those ambiguities into play as modes of being. Figuring out what to leave out, I think, is going to be a challenge for me going forward.

My current concept is a bit of a gamble, but even if it fails I should be an interesting failure. I guess that’s all you can really hope for when it comes to being ambitious? Balancing fun with signifiance–it’s a headscratcher, to be sure.

Back to work!

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November 2020 Update

With COVID, I’ve decided to go into deep(er?) sequester–only cooking through what food I already have; no more visiting parents–for the remainder of the winter, from now through May.

What this means–ideally–is having a five-month block to put this game together, start to finish, without interruptions.

How REALISTIC that ambition is remains to be seen. I plan on setting up a loose calendar of goalposts for the next five months based on my previous rates of progress, with at least one month’s “flex” time to work out kinks and bugs as they arrive. I’ve done a lot of preliminary work already: learning to code C#, getting the necessary hardware and software together, doing preliminary research into market demos and design. But now we’re getting into the actual design and production stages, which is where self-doubt (a perpetual enemy) can start to creep in and muddy any clear vision I might have.

(Vision questing from my research is my next major goal.)

Until then, here’s what I’ve been working on:

—ARTWORK

I finished up Molly Bang, and got about a third of the way through the textures exercise on Drawabox before I started getting drawn more towards conceptual research.

(As an aside, one thing I really appreciate about video game design is that whenever I start to feel burned out on a topic, the other two or three subjects I’m studying start to feel enticing again, and I can pivot over to them and let my current work cool down a little.)

I’m doing texture studies of an alligator’s scales on various parts of its body, though I’m not sure how much value this will have for me going forward since I’m not doing formal, realistic artwork for this project. (Still, I want a good foundation.)

Clip Studio Paint has been on Black Friday sale 50% off, and while I’ve heard lots of good things about it, I just don’t know that I can justify a $25 expenditure on a slightly better piece of software when I already have Krita, which is free (and which, according to various forum posts, handles colors better anyway). I guess I won’t BUT SALES THOOOOOO

I started putting together a moodboard of various artists and related subjects to get the feel of the game like I want. (I still have a lot more to do there, but it’s going to be a secondary concern to workshopping the “vision quest” primary design doc. for the project mentioned above: once I’ve done that, I’ll have an idea of just what all I need in terms of backgrounds, sprites, etc.)

I’ve also been idly side-browsing a few artists I follow online when they do Picarto streams and wondering when/whether I need to start studying the digital-specific tips and tricks that exist for producing particular aesthetic effects? (The alternative, I suppose, being “fuck around and find out”.) I also don’t really know much about brushes–their creation, their utility, etc.–but scuttlebutt in art communities seem to suggest they’re a useful tool, but too often become an overused crutch to more fundamental skills of drawing and design?

IDK. I guess I’ll just keep on keeping on with what I already have.

(One area of concern is my draw debt (i.e. time spent practing rather than just drawing stuff for fun) is getting redder and redder… I keep reassuring myself that by the time this project is done, I’ll have paid it back in full.)

—CODING

Haven’t touched this at all for the last month or so, and I can already feel the itch.

I’ve mostly committed myself to the philosophy side of things (see below) as it is my primary bottleneck which will inform not only the artwork and aesthetic, but also what ludonarrative and interactions will be necessary, so coding (by extension) has fallen by the wayside.

That being said, the fact that coding keeps getting pushed back has reopened the possibility of just abandoning Unity and switching to Ren’py. It would mean saving time on building an engine and codebase for the particular functionalities that a VN requires, but it would also mean needing to learn a completely different coding language and POSSIBLY having to drop features that I want for the game. (Then again, maybe a hardline block against feature creep wouldn’t be such a bad thing?)

VNs aren’t exactly a very code-intensive genre, so I’m not overly concerned with the burden of coding (even as a novice coder). There are tons of tutorials online for the specific features I need. Though I still have a lingering anxiety over my lack of firmness in understanding some of the features and functions of the way that Unity interacts with C# code vis-a-vis gameobjects. (Maybe I’ll devote some of the next few weeks to studying my C# and Unity flashcards…)

Of course, if the urge to code gets too severe I feel pretty secure in putting together the VN parts of the code (i.e. moving sprites around, transitioning between scenes, dialog boxes, interaction windows). Those conventions of graphics and interaction won’t really be different no matter where the ludonarrative falls in the end.

—PHILOSOPHY/WRITING

THIS has comprised the bulk of my November.

About three weeks back, I finished up Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (in a kind of truncated reading that included about 70% of Part II). TONS of useful material there, though I continually found myself questioning/second-guessing de Beauvoir’s relevance for contemporary women, and trying to find women talking about her relevancy today largely fell into philosophical discussions about de Beauvoir’s position feminism in general (i.e. as a political position) rather than differences/similarities in lived experiences and/or psychological principles.

A couple days ago I finished Zizek’s Violence (which was kind of a breeze until I got to the final two chapters, where I TOTALLY lost sight of the references he was making and whether the positions he was staking out were criticisms of his own).

Today I’m about an hour or two shy of the end of Angela Carter’s The Sadean Woman and have just hit on an opening final chapter that feels basically like Carter is sitting down and skimming my project notes and offering feedback, holy shit, this is awesome.

THAT is what I’ve done so far.

Lately I’ve been humming and hawing about reading Bataille’s Erotism, for several reasons:

  • I haven’t been running into many/any citations of Bataille in my other research
  • my motivations in reading him are more out of desperation at the paucity of other philosophical readings on the nature of/definition of the erotic than any particular interest in Bataille’s positions themselves
  • with the time crunch I’m under, I’m really trying to cut my conceptual research to the quick

These first two factors combined make me distrust any authoritativeness I’d lend it, and the time crunch I’m under amplifies the third point greatly.

That being said, IDK where else I can go for other information on this subject…? Maybe I need to drawl some philosophy/psychology forums some more.

If I give that a skip (which it looks like I might), I’m going to instead finish up Carter today and then move on to a handful of Stanford.Plato summaries:

  • Sex and Sexuality (skim at least for broad topics)
  • Foucault (esp. section on history of modern sexuality)
  • Double-Consciousness (vis-a-vis objectification)
  • Feminist Perspectives on Objectification (whole thing)
  • Erotic Art (whole thing–should be valuable for contextualizing VNs)
  • Feminist Aesthetics (whole thing)
  • Desire (whole thing, esp. re: feminist aesthetics)
  • Love (esp. in terms of definitions and also in contrast with desire)
  • Alienation (in regards desire, esp. sexual desire)
  • Beauty (esp. with the Kantian idea of “beauty-as-distancing” and the double-concept of “taste”)
  • Jean-Paul Sartre (specifically, his work on “the gaze”)
  • Continental Feminism (specifically the sections where Irigaray rips into Freud and Lacan, and maybe the sections on Kristeva?)
  • Feminist Epistimology and Philosophy of Science (specifically any mention of “cognitive style”; skim the other subtopics for anything else of relevance)
  • Psychoanalytic Feminism (seems crucial to finding new ideas/flaws)

In addition, I’m to check out Susan Sontag’s “On Classical Pornography” lecture, and I absolutely MUST read my excerpted copy of Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, which had some theories about contemporary consumer culture that really looked intriguing. (I also need to finish Leo Bersani’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?” and dig more into the Pleasure Principle via Lacan.)

Then I’m going to do some contemporary film analysis on the aesthetics of the female gaze:

  • Secretary (2002) [as an offbeat romance plot that treats female sexual agency frankly]
  • Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) [by way of a counter-example: a totally failed attempt at female gaze aesthetics that falls back into objectification/]
  • Outlander (S01E07–2014)
  • The Handmaiden (2016)
  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) [probably the most widely- and highly-recommended example of the female gaze PLUS a treatise on the nature of the gaze itself PLUS it’s just a really great movie]
  • Wynona Earp (S04E02–2020)
  • Cuties (2020) [as autobiographical work/treatise about male gaze turned inward and the dissonance between sexuality and sexualization]

Once all that’s done, I’ll assemble my own thoughts from the research I’ve done (plus my own ideas inspired by the various sections) and jump into the design proper. (As in my previous post, my primary concern is over my central position/theme, which will determine story and ludonarrative, and then every other design decision will be built up on top of that foundation.)

It’sssssss a lot. It’s a lot of a lot.

But I gotta do it so that I can at least feel reasonably confident that I know what the hell I’m talking about. (And I already have a lot of ideas.)

I’m also somewhat anxious to develop my CHARACTERS more, which can only come after I understand what their function in the story/in relation to my main character will be…

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October 2020 Update

It’s been a busy month. Busy busy busy.

So what all have I gotten done in the last month on game stuff?

—ARTWORK

As of today, I’ll have finished the 250 box challenge (and possibly Molly Bang too), and moved on to the next lessons! My draftsmanship is improving somewhat, esp. with digital tools, which no longer feel totally alien (though they are a bit crude in my hands, since I’ve only been using a standard hardline brush, the line tool, and layers).

I also reevaluated my learning resources (books, Drawabox) and have redesigned my “path” through, based on what Drawabox does and doesn’t offer and when:

  1. Drawabox 0 – Getting Started
  2. Drawabox 1 – Lines, Ellipses and Boxes
    1. 250 Box Challenge
    2. Molly Bang – Picture This
  3. Drawabox 2 – Organic Forms, Dissections, and Form Intersections
    1. Marcos Mateu-Mestre – Framed Ink
    2. James Gurney – Color and Light
    3. (gesture drawing practice–from here onward)
  4. Drawabox 3 – Applying Construction to Plants
  5. Drawabox 4 – Applying Construction to Arachnids
  6. Drawabox 5 – Applying Construction to Animals
    1. George Bridgman – Constructive Anatomy
      1. George Bridgman – The Book of a Hundred Hands
      2. George Bridgman – Heads, Features, and Faces
    2. Michael Hampton – Figure Drawing
      1. Ozawa – How to Draw Anime and Game Characters Vol. 1
      2. Ozawa – Bishoujo Game Characters Vol. 5
      3. ImagineFX Manga – Digital Painting Techniques
    3. (figure drawing practice–from here onward)
  7. [GENERAL RESOURCE: Loomis – Creative Illustration]

Bang and Mateu-Mestre will hopefully give me a good grounding in composition (which I’ll need for CGs) and Bridgman and Hampton seem to be solid foundations for figure drawing. (Loomis remains a widely recommended resource, but Hampton seems more inline with the construction-based approach which Drawabox teaches, and Bridgman has been recommended as a better “bottom-up” resource for figure drawing, as opposed to Loomis who presumes a bit of experience (which I probably don’t have enough of).) The Ozawa books seemed particularly geared towards my personal concerns, but many folks online were recommending just copying the drawings of other manga artists that you like as a way of learning manga style, so maybe I’ll do that as well?

—CODING

I’ve done some more research here and there, but none of my fiddling and poking hasn’t gotten me much further in memorizing what I need to know.

I’ve made some Anki flashcards for C# to try and ingrain the various terms and methods and keywords that will come up a lot in coding, just so I don’t have to cling quite so desperately to my notes from Miles’ book.

In the meantime, I’ve dabbled with prototyping in a Visual Studio sandbox those features that will be used in the scripting program (and, by extension, in the game itself), mostly by Googling the techniques or code I need and learning how others did it and tweaking it a little to fit better with what I need mine to do.

My current sticking point (from a design perspective) is working out the nitty gritty of how to encode in-game dialog and event SCRIPTS so that they take up as little memory as possible during actual game runtime, while also being versatile enough for my needs, and also so that they’re easy to code for. (It’s feeling like the most efficient method might be aping something similar to the way disk space is allocated in hard memory, with a “key” file at the start denoting character positions of specific lines, scenes, etc.?)

Right now the game is looking like an interaction between two “engines”: the Architect Engine that monitors the worldstate and moves the game between different scenes or gameplay elements based on that worldstate condition, and the Dialog Engine, which handles the standard VN presentation of text in a dialog box, moving sprites around, changing sprite faces, and triggering special effects/sounds/user interactions.

I’m also coding in a “skip previously-seen dialog” function, which most VNs have, but I want to incorporate that into narrative design rather than just being an immersion-breaking hard jump. (Specifically, I want the game to treat it as a diversionary path into alternative dialog that sums up the conversation that was going to happen, but didn’t.)

—PHILOSOPHY/WRITING

I’ve watched a couple of the aesthetic references, but this part of things has been neglected over the last month in favor of getting my art skills through Drawabox’s boot camp.

I’m still making progress on the “Myths” sections of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and the insights there have been equally conciliatory and thought-provoking. (And hopefully SCENE provoking once I start drafting the script.)

I also still need to finish compiling my VN market research… Maybe I’ll do that tonight as a breather from learning for a bit?

I’m still at 2/15 on the snowflake, but with an eye towards the future.

Overarching design remains a concern, but that will undoubtedly be fleshed out by the later stages of the snowflake method, which remain bottlenecked by philo. research, so maybe I’ll focus on that more in the next month.

Emotionally, I’ve been feeling the usual vacillations of ennui and optimism that mark most of my creative projects, doubting whether it’s a good idea at all vs. seeing the potential in it. (Doubt is a good friend to have for a creator, just as long as they don’t have the reins.) Usually I try to keep terror at bay until the end of the project, but for a longer project like a game or a novel means having to work on everything piecemeal; I guess existential dread is part of that too.

My main worry is that I’m offloading too much “work” onto the narrative portion of the project. I do have some confidence in my ability to write, but the story itself still feels extremely vague and lacking in characterization to me: I have the loosest sketch of the story, but I don’t know where or how many divergences that story will have. The more effort I put on the other sections of the game–artwork, coding, design–the emptier the (pivotal!) narrative feels, and the bigger my ulcers get.

I’m also fretting over how to balance narrative against player agency. Specifically, I want to avoid any situation that will override a player’s entire “run” through the game due to the choices they’ve made, and their unanticipated consequences–I don’t want the player to feel like their entire run/narrative arc is meaningless bc. they were aiming in a specific direction and failed to get it. Or maybe the real problem I’m having is balancing “a feeling surprise/wonder” with “player agency in narrative”? Or maybe moving away from a linear VN format means I shouldn’t worry about edge cases like that?

More thought is needed here.

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