Sunday, July 26, 2009

GAUSSWERKS goes live

Sunday, July 26, 2009 1
Unlikely as it seemed in my mind that I'd ever get three different sites up with unified layouts online, it's happened, and what's more I've gotten my portfolio back online.

So for those counting at home: (the site your are on.) (design+concept image site.) (newly relaunched portfolio.)

You can also navigated through these three sites with the links at the bottom of every page. Because you know, everyone goes scraping round the bottom of a website for more links, naturally.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Design Reboot: Dr. Ivan Just Can't Die

Thursday, July 16, 2009 14
What high profile game series is least in need of a design reboot? Probably Half-Life. Let's do it anyway. Mental exercise is good for you.

Tricky - Vent

Start back with "Ivan the Space Biker," the earliest incarnation of the Gordon Freeman character model. The chunky hazmat suit, the bushy beard, the flat-top hair cut, the Ted Kaczynski eyes; what's not to love?
We know Gordon Freeman as a cypher, a mute avatar that is nonetheless a heroic figure among videogame protagonists--but how different the original game would be if it were filtered through the perception of Ivan? What gameplay would match the his sensibility, the low constancy of his gutteral rantings?

Unlike the more winsome Dr. Freeman, let's assume Dr. Ivan is as deeply paranoid and reclusive as his appearance suggests.
You're clearly a long term employee of Black Mesa, knowing more than a few dark secrets but also intimately familiar with the layout of the place.
Your status as the facility's recluse means that your tenure at Black Mesa is tenuous at best (ha!)--so you're called to do some cart pushing in the test chamber. Reluctantly you agree in order to keep your job.

The catastropic events that follow might best be described as Diehard meets Andromeda Strain. And you say, "hold on, couldn't that trite movie pitch formula be used to describe the original Half-Life?" to which I say shut up, Dad. I learned it from you.

The game would play as a mayhem-filled survival horror scenario instead of heroic run and gun. As Dr. Ivan, you freak out and hole up in a pre-arranged safe room/storage area deep in depths of Black Mesa, emerging months later very hungry and with a prodigious beard growth, your worst fears confirmed.
Virtually all of your former colleagues are long dead. The US Military is still not far from using the nuclear option on the now alien-infested facility, though desperately trying to reclaim it with conventional means.

But as the time frame is far past that of the original game, the entire base is essentially "behind enemy lines." A First Person Stealth/Insanity Shooter (FPSIS). With cunning, ingenuity, and the self-preservation of a full-blown paranoiac, you'll guide Dr. Ivan to survival, escape... or is it that you've always secretly wanted to go to another dimension and never come back? And what's up with this Barney guy, anyway? Is he on the drugs?

On release, Dr. Ivan Just Can't Die receives a Metacritic rating of 73/100. The game develops a considerable cult following over some years (and a boost in sales once the v.01.05 patch is introduced, which allows players the option to turn off Ivan's rantings), but not enough to fund a sequel. Fans are left wondering just what a deranged, fascinating sequel might have followed from such a difficult, unusual game.

Free Radical, Stalkerbot, and Other Table Scraps

It was 2005, and like a lot of people I was obsessed with Half-Life 2.

I was still fairly fresh out of college and possessed of just enough ability, and time, and leftover invincibility that I believed if I worked hard enough, I could put together a targeted concept art portfolio that could get me a job at Valve. (Spoiler alert: it didn't.)

It was an invaluable lesson; the time spent playing in and around someone else's universe was an education in itself. Possibly more valuable was the understanding that a targeted portfolio can beg unfavorable comparisons to artists like the peerless Viktor Antonov, which is unwise.

I wrapped the images up in a special section of a larger but no less carefully curated portfolio, fiddled with the resume, and then sent the email off to Valve. Riding high, I posted the images on a few artboards including the forums.

On I was roundly excoriated by one poster in particular armed with a short, blunt list of my stylistic and technical shortcomings. Incensed, I clicked to the poster's profile--who were they to criticize, exactly?
It happened to be somebody with an email address that ended (no, I didn't recognize the name). I considered it my official unofficial reply from Valve, as none ever arrived in my inbox, and that was that.

Dreams settled back down to the earth and between then and now I traveled extensively and worked on various projects.
Years later, I feel rather fond about these illustrations overall, and consider their posting here a kind of exorcism of that old feeling of defeat--I've learned since to consider the work itself the reward, and the things that come or don't as a result entirely secondary. Life as an artist is a lot happier in this frame of mind.

But before I get to the "Valve Portfolio," I was referring to, here are a couple of mod/expansion type ideas I thought about in those days. Like everyone else--who wasn't thinking about Half-Life 2 then?

Free Radical would be the one and only clever name (in the vein of Blue Shift, Opposing Force) for a HL universe project that I ever came up with; the idea itself wasn't so great. Something about a rogue Combine soldier type's journey to the other side; maybe early levels would involve fighting against the Resistance but coming round to following Freeman eventually.

It was conceived to be graceful under the constraints of a one man mod project and so is naturally consigned to triviality by that nature... I still like the image, though.

Michelle is the leader of a small enclave far outside the realm of Combine control--she wears a trophy Combine Elite uniform as a dress. Largely intended as a anchor character for a group that the player encounters and possibly embroiled in petty politics. Gameplay scenario is the "drifter comes to town" where the player becomes familiar with a small, mostly closed defensive layout and then Combine stage a vicious assault. Player must defend and then help with the emergency withdrawal.

Stalkerbot (working title--I suppose Free Radical would have worked here too?) was more ambitious, though still basically a smallish mod project. It was intended as a day in the life experience of someone who slid hopelessly underneath Combine rule.

It opens on a HL2-style limited POV cinematic; periodic time-lapse montage from a vantage point inside an apartment whose walls peel as times go sour. You are a man who watches his wife wither and grow desperate and the (tastefully implied) death of a child from malnutrition. With no other option, you volunteer to become a Metrocop. One of them.
Actually building this thing would have dictated the resolution of the story here (how much Metrocop training/indoctrination?), but I liked the idea of showing how by degrees, even decent people (even you, player) can get roped into evil things.
Before long there's the sequence where the player is an active participant in the brutal suppression of a food riot, probably staged at the very train station from the opening of HL2. You thump on those helpless civilians and it's probably fun, in that Stalinist regime sort of way. You fall a little further down but at the critical moment there's an awakening, a forced ultimatum by a superior say, and it pulls you back to your basic humanity.

And for that, you're hauled away and turned into one of those ghoulish "stalkers" that haunt the corridors of the Citadel.
You end up being further dehumanized by random incorporation into an experimental man-machine weapon rig of the Combine (pictured right), and then fight war-crime worthy mission against the Resistance.
It'd be like fighting in a small-sized mech, HUD and all... at which point there again you reclaim one last stake in your humanity and I don't know, take the Citadel of City ## with you in an enormous explosion. These things always end in explosions. I'm sure it would have been really touching/ass-kicking.

A very early sketch from 2005 of Breen being confronted by three Advisors. I abandoned this fairly quickly when I remembered the implications of the ending of Half-Life 2--Breen would never had this sort of confrontation for the defeat at the hands of Gordon Freeman, because at that point, in order to escape the Citadel Breen had to abandon his body. Oops.

Looking back now, my trouble with the all of the above is that they are generally more story-centered than anything that is concretely related to gameplay, which I think is a classic beginner's mistake.
We are taught to think in stories, perceive the world and recount it to others in stories; it's very difficult to make the transistion to being a designer who focuses on the gameplay experience of the player and the "story" experience as an outgrowth of that, not as the primary concern.

And I must also point out as a fairly slavish devotee to the House that Valve built that however much I like the cold moderism of the Combine "stalkerbot" look, I believe it at odds with the established fiction. The Combine generally developer bio-weapon/quasi-organic solutions for this kind of thing, as evidenced by the Strider and the deleted supersoldier character seen in the (excellent) HL2: Raising the Bar book, not cybernetic.

And finally here are the "Valve portfolio" pieces themselves.

I still like the Civil Protection Carrier & riot shield designs very much despite their derivative nature; I was a little let down by Episode 1's lack of depiction of civil unrest in the face of the Citadel's destruction (alluded to in the first image).
I also thought that Metrocops with riot shields were a gimmee for gravity-gun play--say you still couldn't grab the cops, but you could grab the shields and then launch them at the other cops, or hold one up in front of you to block shots. Great fun.
(This first image is the only one I really noodled with in a fit of George Lucasing before posting. Feel free to examine the original version to the left from November of 2005 and tell me Han shot first or whatever.)

The City 16 material is middling, mod fodder at best; though the citadel on Xen is still a strong visual to me and agreeable callback to the first game. The aerial shot was the very first of its kind I had ever attempted.

The Mobile Barrier is an almost complete failure since not only is it nonsensically redundant--functionally the same as the citadel's creeping outer walls but not as pure, not as abstractly menacing--I failed to communicate the key aspect of the design, which was that the upper boom-arm would in conjunction with the other barriers project a forcefield wall, a key visual I neglected to actually depict.

I've always admired artists that leave out early evidence that they were once mortal men--I'm still terribly mortal, as an artist or a designer, but here's hoping a generosity of spirit gets me somewhere later on.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Design Reboot: SIN Episodes (Part II)

Monday, July 13, 2009 10
Continued from the previous post, here are character redesigns and dossiers.

Ocuban - Syndrone

Largely a cypher as most FPS protagonists are damned to be, at least John Blade now has the dignity of shedding the vinyl vest and leather and chromed jackboots. He sports a hand-made SMG reminiscent of a vz. 61 chambered in a rifle caliber, dangerous and short-ranged. The leather shoulder holster is for laughs and for show.

Jessica Cannon is a harder woman than she looks or her wardrobe might suggest. She eschews "The Tactical" for a lower profile in public, just another affordably pretty face. Then the heirloom paratrooper M2, kneepad and mag-purse come out of the trunk. She has had a long and mostly business relationship with Blade.

JC is a huge dork, but very capable at his job as the hacker/support character of the group.

SinTek's property guards and shock troopers are in bondage, body and soul. Company store tactics keep them without other employment opportunities; some just really like the outfit. Their weapons can be carefully reverse engineered to operate region-free, if you know someone who can do the work.

Elexis Sinclair looks nothing like her baby picture. She hasn't left her penthouse for the last seven years. Guests invited to rare semiannual events there sign extensive waivers and are allowed no recording equipment of any kind. Her latest event left a body in a dumpster.

Design Reboot: SIN Episodes (Part I)

What follows is a short sketch of a hypothetical design reboot of the SiN (1998) and SiN Episodes (2006) game and universe.
Some of these ideas and sketches I've been kicking around for a couple years but finally decided to commit them here. I enjoyed both games very much--Sin Episode 1's gameplay in particular has aged better than I remember and I invite people to reload it on Steam--but much of the tone and presentation left me pondering.

Try a neo-noir detective role for John Blade; the world-weary spirit with a heart of violence. Jessica Cannon reframe as his classy gun moll, all haute couture until the guns come out of the trunk of the black 1963 Buick Riviera.

They're anomalies, small fry in a world much as the ill-fated Episode 1 only suggested: a teeming metropolis balkanized by corporations. Citizens dead within prisons of their own desire. Microstates where international law changes at the edge of a wifi hotspot.

Latex gimped thugs patrol with plastic furnitured, electronically fired assault rifles governed by the same network zones--they can't shoot outside their turf, but our heroes' vintage/custom weapons can.

Elexis Sinclair is the delusional second generation CEO spending her father's company into the ground while she lives a dollhouse princess fantasy, perverse and eccentric... and now she's overstepped her bounds.
Now there's a body in a dumpster one foot over the line into the wrong territory, and Blade snags the biggest client he's ever had without knowing the stakes of the game he's in.

(He's in an FPS with innovative mission layout and story control, weapon customization and mild strategic management elements. First Person Erotic Action-Noir (FPEAN), if you will.)
gausswerks: design reboot. Design by Pocket