Superman (Atari 2600) alternate map Romhacks, part 4

I had one more idea for an interesting map. This time I wanted to emphasize the importance of the Bridge to the map. So I thought, I would split the map into two halves, and put the bridge between them, as the only way to get from one side of the map to the other.

This was my prototype:

The prototype was shaped like an H.

I thought that this map had interesting potential, but I also had some concerns. I wanted to make sure that the traffic flow would still work, and that by splitting the map in this way, I didn’t make it likely that random movement would tend to collect everybody in one area of the map, and I wanted the random distribution of characters to not be unevenly distributed between east and west ends of town. I also wanted to ensure that the subway system would be evenly distributed, both in terms of entrances and exits, and that the subway provided useful shortcuts.

As I walked through this map, I quickly decided that a less obvioulsy symmetric map would be more interesting. I re-arranged screens and quickly came up with this:

A masterpiece of design!

The connections between the screens are a bit different from my previous versions. Moving horizontally, the map wraps, shifting up a row if you’re at the west edge, and down if you’re at the east edge. Vertically, the columns wrap around without shifting. The Bridge screen is different, when moving vertically it wraps around back to itself. This serves to keep the Bridge screen isolated, so bridge pieces will be somewhat protected from the helicopter when placed here.

Finally, the extreme corners of the map, the northeast and southwest corner screens, are connected to each other horizontally, creating a second junction between the two halves of the map. This helps provide a route for Clark Kent to walk to the Daily Planet at the end of the game, without being forced to use the Subway system, although this overworld walking route is very long.

The subway exits are again unchanged, and the subways provide several routes for traversing from one side of the map to the other. I arranged the subway system so that each colored subway screen has two exits on the opposite side of the map, and one exit on the same side of the map.

Thus, despite the broken bridge in the center, this map has very nice traffic flow between both halves of the map, many interesting shortcuts, and a challenging layout to learn, without the confusing one-way vertical borders on the Phonebooth and Bridge screens that vexed many beginner players of the original. After playing this map a few times, I think it’s every bit as good as the original, and might even be more fun to play. And aesthetically, I love that the Bridge is now the centerpiece of the map, and truly joins the two halves of Metropolis together.

Here’s the map again, with the wrap routes indicated:

I don’t think there’s much more I can do with the map after this. So I think this is where I will leave the evolution of the map variations.

I would still like to introduce randomized bridge piece starting screens, but to figure that out will require more understanding of the source code than I currently have.

I also think it would be neat to make a super-rom that includes all of the map variations in one file, switchable via the Game Select switch. Again, this is beyond my current capabilities with my very limited understanding of the source code and 6502 asm.

You can download the entire collection of romhacks here:

Superman (Atari 2600) alternate map Romhacks, part 3

After publishing part 2 of this series, I played my grid map romhack a few times, and I think it’s rather good. I don’t know that I would say that I prefer it over the original map, but this is certainly a viable alternative map.

After a few playthroughs, I notice a few things:

  1. The helicopter moves bridge pieces away from the Bridge screen much more frequently. In the original, once you’ve placed a piece at the Bridge screen, the helicopter would only rarely remove it.
  2. The helicopter seems to move pieces from their starting screen much sooner, as well.

I like both of these differences; they make the game more challenging, and I think, more fun. You really feel like you need to race the helicopter to complete the bridge task. But I think it’s worth experimenting with the map to see if there’s a way to restore the original design intent, by reducing the number of paths into the Bridge screen. It occurs to me that an easy way to do this is to make the two screens above and below the Bridge screen connect to each other, rather than to the Bridge screen. So the Bridge will exit vertically to those screens, but reversing course will skip over the Bridge, but still place you near the Bridge; players would need to figure out that they are “around the corner” from the Bridge in this map, which is potentially disorienting, but should be less of a problem than the original map, which puts you clear across into the middle of the other end of the city.

I do think that this map has a few peculiarities that make it sub-optimal.

  1. Some of the subway entrances are right next to their exits. There’s little point in a subway trip that results in you re-emerging on the overworld map one screen over from where you started. For example, the Red subway entrance is one screen away from two of its exits, due to being on the top left corner of the grid, and the wrapping effect. The Blue and Yellow subway entrances are about optimally located relative to their exit screens, and the Green subway entrance is directly above one of its exit screens.

It’s possible to remedy this by moving the subway entrances around, or by changing their exits to more useful screens for this map layout. I was reluctant to try this, because I wanted to keep the changes that I am making to the maps minimal, but it seems that these changes are necessary for the good of the game.

Metropolis 21/7

Another thing that strikes me is that I didn’t need to remove one screen from the overworld in order to have even rows. 21 = 3 x 7, so I could have made an overworld map of 3 rows of 7 screens. This might make the subways more useful, since it would make it easier to place the subway exits such that they are 3-4 screens from their entrances.

A 7×3 grid will allow all 21 overworld screens to be included in the new map. Again, I went to an image editor and re-arranged the screens to make a layout, then visually reviewed and analyzed the map for playabiltiy concerns, and made tweaks.

My first iteration of this was to lay the screens out in the original map’s horizontal sequence, and see how that would play. That map looks like this:

First iteration

Without actually playing it, it’s easy to miss things, but I can see that this map has a few potential issues:

  1. The bridge pieces starting screens are all on the west end of the map, and are nearby the Bridge screen.
  2. The Phonebooth, Bridge, and Jail are all on the bottom row, which makes the bottom row feel too important, and the top row feel unimportant.
  3. The “critical path” relationships in the original map are broken in this map. This may not be a problem per se, but it will make the new map feel less familiar to experienced players.
Superman bridge piece routes
The original Metropolis map has a very tight spatial relationship between the most important screens on the map. The new map layout breaks this by moving the Jail screen far away from the rest of the screens.

Otherwise, I think the map looks pretty decent. I’m not sure how I feel about the potential issues I mention above.

I do think that the Bridge should be the center piece of the map, so I shifted rows and columns in order to make it so, but the rooms are still in the original order, using the horizontal progression from the original map.

It’s interesting how shifting things around can change perspectives on things. With this view, I’m able to notice different things:

  1. Now all the “important” screens (Jail, Bridge, Phonebooth, Daily Planet, and all but one of the bridge pieces) are on the west end of town.
  2. But balancing that, all the subway entrances are on the East end of town.
  3. Subway exits are somewhat evenly distributed, but there’s a few interesting things to point out: The Red subway exits all line up in a column at the far west edge of the map, while the Yellow subway exits are all distributed across the top row. The Green subway exits follow a diagonal from the northwest corner of the map, moving southeast. And the Blue subway exits are scattered about as far from each other as they could be.
  4. Shifting the screens changes the loopback point at the top right, and as a result the screen that normally is to the left of the Phonebooth screen no longer is. Which, despite what I thought when I first decided to shift the screens to put the bridge in the center of the map, does fundamentally change the map. Then I realize… I did it wrong!

I can’t just grab the top row and move it to the bottom, and then slice the right couple of columns and move it to the left. That will not preserve the horizontal order of the screens. To do that, I need to grab the top-right screen, move it to the bottom left, and then let all the other screens shift right by one, snaking around. This approach gives this result:

Overall, it’s actually very similar to the first two iterations. It’s literally the same horizontal sequence as the first iteration, but it’s not all that different from the second iteration, either; the “important” screens are still mostly to the west, the subway entrances are still mostly to the east. I think the subway exits are a bit better distributed than in iteration 2.

The vertical path is quite different. I think this map will run slower, due to the placement of the Jail in the corner of the map, and its distance from most of the subway entrances, and the Phonebooth/Bridge screens. There might yet be some quick paths that will become apparent through repeated play, but for now I feel that the map feels disorienting because the Jail isn’t north of the Yellow subway entrance screen any longer, and I struggle to locate it as a result.

Certainly there are many other possible arrangements for the overworld map, and I haven’t even begun to re-design the subway. But I think this is enough to satisfy my curiosity, at least for the time being. I may come back and revisit this further if I feel a need to after playing the maps I already created more extensively.

There’s much more to do in a hack of Superman, as well. I would like to figure out how to randomize the starting places of the bridge pieces, for example. I would also be interested in figuring out how to put up a hard barrier around the outer edge of the map, rather than having the map wrap around at the edges. But these projects, if I ever attempt them, will have to wait until I have a deeper understanding of 6502 assembly.

Download all of my Superman map romhacks here:

Superman (Atari 2600) alternate map Romhacks, part 2

For the second alternative map, I needed to carefully re-organize the screens to put them into a grid.

There are 21 overworld screens, and so I will use a 5×4 grid, omitting one of the overworld screens, since there can be only 20 screens in a 5×4 grid.

Selecting the right screen to omit is important. The removed screen must not be:

  • A subway entrance
  • A subway exit
  • The phonebooth, bridge, or jail screen
  • A bridge piece start screen

One of my goals with this redesign is to keep the layout of the screens reasonably familiar to players of the original game. This is a formidable task, and technically impossible since I am changing the layout, but my goal is to make the changes minimal, and to preserve as much of the critical paths through the map as possible.

But just as important, I want the redesigned map to be balanced and fun to play.

To achieve this, I want the subway entrances and exits to be distributed about the map, and not clustered together too much.

There are 11 unique subway exits, and 5 subway entrances (counting the Daily Planet), so 16 of these screens have something to do with the subway system, and another three are the Jail, the Daily Planet, the Phonebooth, and the Bridge screen. (Both the Daily Planet and the Jail are also subway exit screens, so are already counted among the 16 overworld screens that are related to the subway system, but adding the Phonebooth and Bridge brings the total of “must keep” screens to 18, leaving just 3 redundant screens for possible removal.) I didn’t realize how tight the map design is until I noticed this.

After considering the matter for a bit, I decided that this screen would be the one to go:

But I just as well I could have picked this one:

Or this one:


I mean, they’re all kindof the same, aren’t they?

I note that the three “dispensable” screens all have a similar color scheme to them, green and white, and wonder if there’s something being communicated through a visual language here, or if it’s just a coincidence… there are two other green/light grey screens, the Yellow Subway entrance, and the screen above the Jail, which is one of the bridge piece starting rooms. So… probably just a coincidence, then.

At the edges of the overworld grid, the map will wrap around to the next row or column. As an experiment, I think I’ll also create a variation where the map will wrap around to the same row or column, but I think this variation will only be playable on Easy difficulty — because, when Superman is struck by kryptonite, he will be stuck in the current row of the overworld map, and if Lois Lane isn’t present on that row, he’ll be unable to get revived until she wanders in, or the helicopter brings her, which could take ages, and would be unfair.

I take a picture of the overworld, cut out each room, and put it into an image editor and move them around until I have them arranged in a 4×5 grid that I think will be satisfactory. I end up needing to move things around a good bit to achieve this, but I think I managed to do it while still preserving some of the critical relationships between certain rooms.

Here’s what I ended up with:

Grid map for the Superman romhack
I think this might be OK. And might make a cool quilting project, too!

Here’s the original map for comparison:

So you can see, there’s a bit of re-shuffling that I had to do in order to balance the map out, and many of the vertical and horizontal connections are different in the new map.

The major changes are:

  1. The one-way vertical boundaries for the Phone Booth and Bridge screens are two-way.
  2. One screen is removed from the overworld, to allow for an even grid.
  3. The Phonebooth and Bridge screens are in the center of the map. (Although, since the edges of the map still wrap, center/edge is all relative.)

The important non-changes are:

  1. The subway system exits are all to the same screens as before. (But, due to the shuffling of these screens relative to one another on the overworld, this does still mean there’s some significant differences. The key exits to get to the Daily Planet and Jail screens are the same as in the original, though. And several of the subway exits now get you close to the Bridge screen.)
  2. The bridge pieces are still found on the same screens as they were in the original. I didn’t try to re-locate them. (Sometime, I’d like to introduce randomization into their starting positions, and see how that plays.)

Now that I had the design determined, I had to hack the rom to make the changes for real. To do this, I went through the original code and noted the names of each screen, and figured out from the boundary change code the correct addresses for each room, and mapped them together. This was straightforward, if a bit tedious, but fortunately the map is small.

One thing I noticed as I coded the new map connections was that there’s a peculiarity at the top-right and bottom-left corners of the map, due to the way the rows and columns wrap; if you’re in the top-right screen, going up or right will both take you to the bottom-left screen; and if you’re in the bottom-left screen, going down or left will take you to the top-right screen. This doesn’t make sense, unless you understand the way the overworld wraps. If you get to the end of a row or column, continuing in that direction wraps you around to the next row or column, and at the very end of all the rows and columns, it wraps you around to the opposite corner, and so the top-right and bottom-left screens are connected to each other in two directions.

I have only played through this map once, and mostly just to test that everything was connected properly. I think it’s a viable, and interesting variation, but I wouldn’t call it better than the original. Certainly, due to the re-positioning of the screens, the quick path to the bridge pieces isn’t as short as in the original map, which means speed running potential for this map is reduced. Beyond that, the Phonebooth and Bridge screens are not low-traffic screens any more, meaning that you’ll often find gangsters on these screens, and the helicopter may find bridge pieces that you’ve left at the Bridge site more readily, which will again make it more challenging as the helicopter removes them again.

You can download the entire collection of romhacks here:

Superman (Atari 2600) alternate map Romhacks

So for the first alternative map, I will just make the Up screen the same as the Right screen, and the Down screen the same as the Left screen. This means that there will only be the Horizontal progression through the map, and that Up/Right will be “forward” and Down/Left will be “backward” through this progression.

You can download the modded rom below:

I playtested this, and found that it works exactly as intended. The map is far simpler to navigate, and getting lost is now virtually impossible. Fly up/right to go forward, down/left to go backward, and all overworld screens appear in order. The confusing one-way vertical borders on the Phonebooth and Bridge screens are eliminated.

The downside of this is that traversing the overworld map is slower, since there are no shortcuts to be gained by using cornering techniques. You still can rapidly advance two screens in the horizontal map sequence by going diagonal from near the corner, transitioning on both the vertical and horizontal edge transitions. But compared to the original, where a vertical transition would typically advance you between three and five screens in the horizontal sequence, it’s much slower, and offers no real opportunities for useful shortcuts.

The only real shortcuts possible are via the subway system, which I left unmodified. Despite playing this game over nearly four decades, I’ve never bothered to memorize the subway in its entirety — there’s little reason to. The only exits of real importance are the ones that go to the Jail and Daily Planet. But with this map, knowing the rest of the exits is potentially more valuable, because it can get you to the other side of the overworld in less time than any other method. It may be interesting to study the exits and try to figure out alternate layouts that might make the map more interesting by providing additional useful shortcuts.

I can reliably win Superman typically in 1:30, +/- 15 seconds, but this variant took me 3:04 to win on my first play. I’m sure faster times are possible. The gangsters seemed to be bunched up more, and rounding them up preoccupied me at first, leading to the helicopter moving bridge pieces away, which I think happened earlier than normal. But because the map is essentially a two-dimensional line, finding the helicopter was trivial, making any challenge increase by the bridge pieces moving around quite minimal.

My impression is that this alternative map might have made the game more playable for very young players, ages 3-5, and as an “easy” version for beginning players, much like Superman‘s sibling Adventure offered players Game 1 with a simplified map. But overall, the simpler map makes the game less interesting and less challenging to play. But if you’re interested in the game’s design, playing this variant to see why it’s less interesting is… well, an interesting exercise. I invite you to download it and play it for yourself and make up your own mind. If you do, please drop a comment and let me know what you think.

My next Superman romhack will present the overworld map as a grid.

Hacking Alternative Maps into Superman (1979, Atari 2600)

My research on Superman has lead me to a deep understanding of the map topography, and I have come to regard it as an inspired design. But whenever I hear people talk about Superman, I feel like I must be in the minority. People who like the game tend to agree with me, while people who don’t, don’t.

Often I’ll hear players who do not have the appreciation for the game that I have complain that the map is a weakness in the design. I always rebut this by saying that yes, it’s confusing at first but once you learn it, it’s actually a strength. I can point to all the shortcuts that are made possible by the map topology, its utility in weighting the randomness of the AI movement, and argue that it’s actually beneficial that the map is confusing, because it makes the overworld seem bigger than it really is, and adds to the challenge of the game.

But I think it would be even more convincing to demonstrate alternative maps, and let players experience them and decide for themselves.

It’s fairly likely that I’m the only one in the world who cares about this, and I’m almost certainly the only one who cares about it as much as I do. But what the hey.

I decided to see if I could could learn how to hack the ROM for Superman, and change the map navigation in order to rearrange the map screens. This would be preferable for authenticity, but it might also be limiting, in terms of what’s actually possible.

If that doesn’t work, or if I have ideas for expanding on Superman‘s design that aren’t feasible in a romhack, the other option would be to remake Superman in GameMaker, keeping it as faithful to the Atari version as possible, and experiment with the map that way.

Alternative Maps

The easiest Map design to implement would be to make the vertical and horizontal sequences identical, and to make up/right be “forward” and left/down be “backward”. The subway system could be left unchanged, up to go to the next station, and any other direction to exit back to the overworld, keeping the exit screens the same as in the original. At the end of the list of overworld, we can loop back to the beginning.

The biggest problem with this redesign idea is that there are no overworld shortcuts, other than to take the subway. To get to/from anywhere, it is always a straight line. This is slow, tedious, and to me, it seems like it would be boring. Subway travel helps somewhat to speed up travel, and becomes more important. But a bigger problem is that the gangsters can’t really spread out deep into the map by randomly moving in one of four possible directions. Their possibilities have been halved; they can only go forward or backward to the next screen, and so they will all be found in the first few screens, and rarely if ever would they make it to the end of the map.

But on the plus side, this map is extremely easy to navigate, much harder to get lost in. Gone are the one-way vertical transitions from the Phone Booth and Bridge screens, and the confusion they created. This might make it an ideal variation for a very young player, or for someone who is very inexperienced with Superman.

The other easy to understand map would be a cartesian grid. We have a problem in that 21 overworld screens do not map neatly to a regular grid of equal rows/columns. We can take a 5×4 grid to get 20 of the rooms in, with one room left over. We could truncate the overworld to simply remove this screen, which is the easiest solution. At the end of each row or column, we can either have a hard edge, where you cannot proceed beyond, or we can wrap around to the start of the row or column, or we can increment the row/column and move to the start of the next row or column. I’m not sure how to make a hard edge work, though. The easiest way would be to make these edges refer back to the same room, but doing it this way, Superman would still warp to the other side of the same room, which would be weird. Still, as a proof of concept, it’s quick and easy to do.

The advantage of this map is that it would be still be easier to understand and learn. The disadvantage is that, at least using the first two traversal approaches, you can no longer go through the entire overworld by going in one direction. When the world loops, it will only take you to the beginning of the the current row or column.

The ROM Hack

I looked into it and discovered that the ROM hack path would be much easier than I had anticipated. So much of the work had already been done for me by others.

  • I searched the web and found decompiled assembly source code for Superman, which had been nicely annotated.
  • I learned that sometime in the recent past, someone named chunkypixel had released a Visual Studio Code extension called Atari Dev Studio.

This saves me a ton of time. I don’t have to learn how to disassemble the rom myself, and I don’t have to learn 6502 Assembly well enough to be able to make sense of the disassembled code to figure out what’s going on.

So, literally, all I had to do to get started was:

  1. Install Visual Studio Code
  2. Install Atari Dev Studio plugin
  3. Open the decompiled superman.asm
  4. Edit it
  5. Compile it
  6. Test it in Stella

I’m astounded that it’s this easy. The annotated source code is documented well enough that I can tell where I need to make my edits, and what the changes I need to make are. Hats off to the homebrew community for developing these tools and making the information generally available!

First, I did a test compile to make sure that the decompiled assembly that I had was viable. It compiled right away without any problems. I fired up Stella and ran it, and it ran, and seemed to play exactly like Superman. Success!

To make the edits, I read through the source .asm file and tried to understand what I could. Fortunately, the file is reasonably well documented. Without actually knowing 6502 ASM, I can’t say I understand everything I’d like to, but I can see enough that I should be able to make edits by trial and error, and make progress.

The section I’m interested starts off like this:

Screen00: ;unused??
;Screen Info: 8 bytes per screen
;Offset 0 = GFX bitmap low byte
;Offset 1 = GFX bitmap high byte
;Offset 2 = Foreground color
;Offset 3 = Background color
;Offset 4 = screen above
;Offset 5 = screen right
;Offset 6 = screen below
;Offset 7 = screen left
    .word IF2AC ; $F000
IF PAL
    .byte $46 ;red $F002
    .byte $08 ;grey $F003
ELSE
    .byte $36 ;red $F002
    .byte $08 ;grey $F003
ENDIF
    .byte <Screen00 ;$F004
    .byte <Screen00 ;$F005
    .byte <Screen00 ;$F006
    .byte <Screen00 ;$F007

From reading through the code, I infer that the stuff after a semi-colon is a comment, so the different comments explaining the Offsets help me to understand that Offsets 4 through 7 have to do with the connections between the different screens in the map. All I should need to do is update them with different addresses, and the map will change! Easy!

In my next update, I’ll present my modded Superman maps and do a little analysis of them.

Open World: Video Games and Contemporary Art

Open World opened last Saturday, October 19th at the Akron Art Museum. I attended the opening, and was very impressed with the exhibit. It is a large installation, covering three of the museum’s galleries. The works included cover a wide range of media, from ball point pen drawings to video to prints to sculpture to textiles to interactive media and virtual reality.

Experiencing Cory Arcangel’s I shot Andy Warhol, which is a romhack of Hogan’s Alley for the NES, for art’s sake. And yes, I got the high score.

It’s exciting to see the art world acknowledge the importance and influence of videogames on fine art.

It’s been about 15 years since famed film critic Roger Ebert famously proclaimed that videogames were not art, and could never be. He was wrong about that in so many ways, although to be fair to his argument, we should seek to understand what he meant by that. The word “art” has multiple definitions, and this is a confusing and contentious point, which can trip up many conversations before they even begin as people talk past one another without realizing it. Untangling that mess requires more words than I have time to type here.

But if I can bottom line it, Ebert was wrong, but he had a few good points.

Art is a very broad word, and to think it couldn’t include videogames is simply short-sighted and more than a bit bigoted. To make a pronouncement that games can never be art is arrogant. And of course games are art. Game design is an art, games are comprised of program code, graphics, and audio, and all of these require an artist’s touch in order to come alive.

But no, not every game is a work of high art. Just as not every book or film is art. Not every statue or painting is art. And sure, most video games are thought of primarily as commercial kitch intended for mass entertainment. But sure, a video game can be an object d’art. Why not? There’s an entire genre of videogames called “art games“, which are intended to be experienced as art.

But… wtf is art? Which definition are we using each time we say the word?

Well, that’s an important question, but never mind that. My goal isn’t to write a book about the definition of art, and argue that videogames are, or can be, art. We could spend time exploring that, and it’s not like that wouldn’t be worthwhile. But that’s not my point in writing this post; my point is to talk about the Open World exhibit at the Akron Art Museum, and how you should go see it.

Krista Hoefle

Why not simply go into the world and look at some art, and see if any of it is a videogame? And why not explore the world and find examples of art that show a clear influence from videogames, a clear sign that videogames are culture, that video games are a force that shapes and influences humanity, and has been, for decades, from very nearly the very beginning of the history of computing machines.

It turns out this is a rewarding endeavor. As much as it’s important to think about what art is and isn’t, its much better to experience art, and engage with it.

The exhibit does this very well, I think, by taking a broad survey of different approaches different artists have taken, and the different ways that video games have influenced them in the creation of art.

One of the artworks in the show is a video game: Cory Arcangel’s I shot Andy Warhol, a romhack of Hogan’s Alley for the NES, which simply substitutes images of Andy Warhol, the Pope, Colonel Harlan Sanders, the founder of KFC, and Public Enemy hype man Flava Flav for the usual graphics, to make a statement of some sort, about the historical fact that Andy Warhol was actually shot in real life. What that statement is exactly, I’m not entirely sure. But there it is, a playable video game, presented as art, in an honest-to-god Art Museum. Suck on that, Ebert.

Feng Mengbo‘s Long March: Restart, is another playable videogame, and incorporates numerous sprites from 8- and 16-bit run-and-gun games such as Contra, is another game, but was not playable on the opening day due to technical difficulties.

A lot of artwork that people might think of when they hear “art influenced by video games” would fall under the category of “fan art” — simply, works created by fans, done in homage to a favorite game, or character from a game, or to create feelings of nostalgia. This isn’t really what Open World is going after. The artwork doesn’t serve to celebrate commercial products. But there are a few pieces that might come close, such as the Colossal Cave Adventure quilt made by Krista Hoefle, one of my favorite pieces in the exhibit, or Butt Johnson‘s brilliantly executed ballpoint pen drawings, which simultaneously reference both 80’s video game culture and the Italian renaissance.

Butt Johnson
Butt Johnson

But most of the works in the show are not games. Some are digital works, such as Tabor Robak’s 20XX, or Angela Washko’s “gaming intervention”, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft. Washko’s investigation of Warcraft players’ attitudes on feminism tends to be buried in the visual chaos of WOW’s cluttered UI and fantastical character avatars, but it is nevertheless interesting for its chat content and the social dynamics she frames and puts on display in the context of a popular fantasy MMORPG.

Many of the works in the exhibit reference games in some way, or excerpt from them. Others borrow cues from the new aesthetic of video game graphics in creating artistic compositions, such as Invader’s pixel art created out of Rubik’s Cubes, or Mathew Zefeldt’s life-size barrel and door from Duke Nukem 3D.

Barrel and Door by Mathew Zefeldt

Still others use games as raw material, taking elements out of them, repurposing or recontextualizing them, turning them into art. Still others use a game to stage a sort of theatrical performance, sometimes called machinima. These often are done for social commentary, as with Joseph DeLappe’s Elegy: GTA USA Gun Homicides, which is especially powerful in its depiction of gun violence through a modded version of Grand Theft Auto 5.

The above only covers about half of the total show, so to see the rest of it, you’ll have to go in person. Open World is up from October 19, 2019 – February 2, 2020, and after that will be travelling to Currier Museum of Art March 21 – June 28, 2020 and San José Museum of Art September 10, 2020 – January 10, 2021.

The Day We Fought Space: innovative shooter

Probably my favorite new game I saw at GDEX last weekend was The Day We Fought Space, an iOS game currently under development by TursiopsStudios.

I got to play it for a few minutes, and didn’t have enough time to fully explore it, but even from what little I did get to experience, I am blown away by the creative weapons and innovative controls.

Just a few of the weapons available in the game are shown in this teaser.

Most players will use the touchscreen for controlling the ship, but I preferred playing it with a wireless gamepad as a two-stick shooter. The left stick moves your ship while the right stick very cleverly integrates both aiming and spread. The Y-axis of the right analog stick aims your guns up/down, while the X-axis allows you to spread or narrow the field of fire, to enable you to concentrate fire for big, tough enemies, or spread it out wider to take out masses of smaller enemies.

The game is just packed full of fresh ideas. I didn’t think to get an accurate count, but it looks like you have about 20 (!) different space ships to choose from, each with its own unique weapon and characteristics. It’s almost too much — I’d rather see a complete game made per ship, so that each one can have the opportunity to shine in the spotlight.

The scrolling space shooter has been a bit neglected in recent years, but TDWFS shows that there’s still plenty of life in it. I’d love to see this game ported to consoles and PC platforms.

I don’t see that they’ve announced a release date, but this will be one to watch.

Zac Pierce is destined for greatness

I’ve known Zac Pierce casually for a few years now, and I gotta say, I really like the guy. I can’t say we’re friends, because we don’t hang out and do things together, and I don’t really know him all that well. But I do have an impression of him that’s been forming over the past several years since I met him, and it’s been consistent and continually reinforced every step of the way.

We first met at a meetup of the Cleveland Game Developers, and I remember him demoing an early version of his game Bombfest, now released. Even several years ahead of its eventual release, the game was really fun, and showed a ton of promise. The animation and motion were smooth and felt very, very good. The gameplay was a lot of fun, and the graphics were splendid and cute.

The game was like playing with action figures and toys that had come to life and had the ability to hurl bombs at one another. It was something like Bomberman meets Dodgeball, with realistic physics, destructible terrain, and these sweet little digital models of toy building blocks and figurines, the sort you might have played with when you were maybe 4 or 5 years old. The goal to be the last man made it an outstanding multiplayer game, and I could tell that this game would be great at parties.

Zac delivered a talk at GDEX 2019 entitled Failing to Succeed, which was a look back at four years of developing Bombfest, which he had come to regard a failure.

I’ve never enjoyed a talk so well that I disagreed with so much. Zac is a great storyteller, and he shared his story, turning it into a masochistic confessional where he beat himself up for all the things that went wrong over the course of four years that he spent pouring his heart and soul into bringing Bombfest into the world. It was entertaining, funny, and full of valuable insights. But damn if it wasn’t hard to watch a young guy who I’ve come to admire shit-talk his accomplishments so thoroughly, just because the sales performance was underwhelming.

For certain, Zac didn’t do everything perfectly. And if a few things had been different, maybe he’d have been rewarded for his hard work more like what he deserved. But I don’t think of his story as one of failure. The Making of Bombfest story had far more success in it than failure, and far more than he gave himself credit for.

Bottom line, the game didn’t end up the hit that it deserved to be, and didn’t make him all the money he hoped it would, or needed it to. And bottom line realities are important, and they are harsh. But, despite commercial success eluding him so far, Bombfest was and is a great game, and the fact is that Zac Pierce is destined for greatness.

He’s questioning it right now, and it’s only natural, when you work as hard as he did at something for as long as he did, and it doesn’t accomplish what you hoped it would, of course you question it.

But I’m certain. While I listened to Zac tear himself down for 45 minutes, I heard him rattle off success after success, and immediately dismiss each one.

  1. He succeeded at educating and training himself in the skills and tools of game creation.
  2. He succeeded at coming up with a really fun game prototype with excellent core mechanics and a very polished visual style.
  3. He succeeded at raising funds to continue development through Kickstarter.
  4. He succeeded at completing the project and released the game.
  5. He made a lot of mistakes along the way… and he learned from all of them.
  6. He succeeded not in just releasing the game, but getting it published and ported to the Nintendo Switch.
  7. He did all of this during a period the industry has come to call Indiepocalypse, when even established independent game development studios struggled and went out of business and even bigger studios had a hard time staying afloat. And he did it with his first real project.

Zac Pierce put a game on the Nintendo Switch in his first at bat. Who else can say that, but Zac Fucking Pierce?

Zac, each morning when you wake up, you ought to go to the bathroom, splash some cold water on your face, look at yourself in the mirror, and loudly proclaim:

“I’m Zac Fucking Pierce, and God DAMN if I didn’t make one HELL of a videogame.”

Daily affirmation

The bad news, sales were disappointing.

OK, so there’s that. So despite all the litany of success, that makes Bombfest a failure? I don’t think so.

The sales didn’t meet expectations. But the game is good. Of course sales do matter. You can’t put your life into something for four years and not have it pay off, and feel great about it.

But that’s a shame, because there’s so much about the Bombfest story that Zac deserves to feel great about.

Whether he finds success and fortune in game development or in some other area, he has a bright future, thanks to his talents as a programmer, designer, and artist, his vision, and his energy.

The fact is, the biz is brutal. Indies have it harder than anyone. And there’s a glut of product. You can do everything, or nearly everything, right, and still not end up with a hit game. For his first time out, Zac Pierce did way better with his project than a lot of people do. Maybe he didn’t succeed at the biz side of bringing Bombfest to market, but he absolutely nailed the design and development of the game, and demonstrated dedication to a project that went on for four years.

Bombfest has made Zac about $30,000 so far. It needed to be more. $60,000… $100,000… $300,000… what level of revenue would be enough to tell you that you’ve made it? Enough to be on par with an entry level salary in some “real world” job that you could have taken instead of choosing to challenge yourself? Enough to put you on firm footing to produce your next project the way you want it to be without having to worry about whether it’s a hit or not? Enough to never need to work again unless you want to?

Really, people have strange ideas of what success is, what it means, and what looks like. We think of success as someone standing in a spotlight in a packed arena playing a guitar solo and then going home to a mansion and swimming in money. We think of success as something that happens suddenly, overnight, with little apparent effort, because “when you’re good, it just comes naturally.” We think that way because we don’t see successful people being successful until their success has been at work for so long that it has made them famous enough for us to be unable to fail to notice them.

But success looks a lot different from the inside. What it looks like, most of the time, is a lot like Zac Pierce’s talk on Failing to Succeed: a long story, with hard work, struggle, mistakes, goals met, challenges overcome, and a continuing battle with crippling self doubt and anxiety.

There’s two ways to read that title, as Zac pointed out himself: One, “failing to succeed” meaning literally that success was something did not happen. The other, “failing [in order to] succeed” — the things one must do on the path to success, in order to figure it out and get there. It’s pretty clear that Zac’s story is true in both senses. But in the long run, the second meaning will eclipse the first.

Untitled Goose Game is pretty good

Every year, there’s always one or two indie hits that get a huge amount of attention, and this year it seems to be Untitled Goose Game.

I’ve been hearing a lot about it since its release, but prior to a few weeks ago I hadn’t heard about it at all. My first clue was when I posted that I was excited about picking up my pre-order of Link’s Awakening remake on Nintendo Switch, and one of my friends mentioned that UGG was also being released the same day.

I looked into it, and it did look darn charming.

Yesterday, I finally caved and bought the PC version and played through the first couple of scenes for a few hours.

If you needed someone to explain UGG to you, I would probably start out by saying “You know how a couple of years ago there was that Goat Simulator game that everyone was talking about and it was hilarous, because goats? Well, what’s another animal that starts with G-O?”

There you go.

But Goat Simulator and Untitled Goose are pretty different. Goat Simulator revelled in being sloppily implemented and having terrible, broken, hilarious physics. Untitled Goose, by contrast, is refined and polished. The art style of Goat Simulator recalls older 3D FPS games like Grand Theft Auto 3 or Counter-Strike. Untitled Goose has a more distinctive and original art design that looks illustrated, a bit like a children’s book, if it were drawn with scalable vector graphics and used 3D models. UGG’s physics are anything but broken, and feel like the developers were going for a more realistic simulation. The animations and the sound effects are especially well done, and I love that when you honk, you can get different audio effects by honking into, say, the well, or while holding a bottle in your beak, or into a walkie-talkie. It’s delightful when you figure out how to make use of it to accomplish some objective in the game.

The humor is likewise restrained, and feels a bit British, as do some of the cues in the design of the village. The reactions of the humans that you mess about with and the musical score are what sells the mischief. I haven’t hit an absolutely over-the-top moment in the game, yet, and I’m not sure that there is one waiting for me. I would like to be able to escalate my torment of the people in the village until they have a complete breakdown and go on a violent psychopathic rage. But this never happens. It seems like you can trigger a response by doing certain things, and that’s that. Once you’ve done it, you can do it again, but it never seems to go beyond that. Which is not to say that I’m disappointed, but something about playing this game makes me wish that I could push these poor people to their breaking point.

Gardner locked out of garden, looking at Goose who's nabbed his keys.
Getting to this point with the gardener was rather satisfying. Yes, I took a picture of my computer screen with my cell phone instead of taking a screenshot.

About two hours in to my session, I started feeling sorry for being such a naughty, horrible goose, and I started trying to make up for it. I went back to the gardner’s area and helped him pick all of his carrots. He didn’t like it at first, but once I put them neatly into the bin, he didn’t seem to mind, and just let me do it. But there wasn’t any reward for doing this, other than just the act of doing it. I kindof feel like the designers missed an opportunity there. Like, maybe if you torment the boy in the shopping area until he starts sobbing, you could do something nice for him, like bring him a lollipop that you steal from the shop, or bring his glasses or his toy plane back to him, and he’ll cheer up again, and not be afraid of you, and then you can be friends. House House, if you’re going to do an expansion pack, I kinda demand that you do a Good Goose mission set, where you get to make up for your past mischief by returning and do some good deeds to make amends.

I also wish that I could hop onto things, and fly. I can well understand why this was not permitted. Waddling is way more humorous and flight would be difficult to control. But I still would like to be able to hop up on certain things, like the park bench, or tables. I imagine it’d be quite a lot of fun to waddle along the shelves and countertops in the shop, knocking things over, breaking them, and causing a mess and a ruckus.

I’m not sure how large the game is; so far, I’ve managed to solve the puzzles on the To Do list in the first two areas, and I can see that there’s at least one more area beyond, but I haven’t quite figured out what I need to do to gain access to it. And there’s a page on my To Do list that is all question marks, which leaves me wondering what I need to do next.

To be honest, I’m a bit torn by the existence of the To Do list. On the one hand, it’s helpful to have some kind of guidance as to what I’m supposed to be doing. On the other hand, I think a huge amount of the enjoyment from a game like this is figuring out what is possible, and discovering the things that the developers put into the game for you to do all on your own, without any guidance. To me, it would be far more special to figure these things out on my own, even risking missing something very clever, or not discovering after many hours spent with the game, than to have a list telling me to do all the things, and then the only challenge left is for me to actually do it.

Shoplifting haul.
It took quite a while to figure out how to get all the items from the shop into the cart to complete the Shopping Trip mission. The shopkeeper kept finding them and putting them back, so I just stole the basket and dragged it around the corner. Out of sight, out of mind! And then of course I had to loot the entire store! It’s fun that the lady is more frustrated when she can’t find the broom to shoo you away with because you’ve stolen it. Lol!

There’s probably a lot of things that I have yet to figure out in the game. Which is to say that although I’m trying to resist the temptation to look for walkthroughs, I could maybe use a bit of a clue with some things.

For instance, I found a coin somewhere in the village, and picked it up. I later walked past a well, and of course I tried throwing the coin down the well. It took a few tries, but eventually I managed to drop it. I didn’t hear any splash, which made me wonder why that didn’t happen, but then I walked a bit further own the path, and came to the river that you have to cross to get out of the introductory area of the game, and saw the coin floating down the river! I deduced that the well actually connects to a sewer drain that I had discovered earlier when I was swimming up and down the river. And yes, if you honk into the well, or into the sewer, they both echo in the same way, which was a subtle clue to this connection. I love details like that. But it makes me wonder all the more why there was no splash for the dropped coin, and why “Dropping a coin and making a wish” wasn’t one of the To Do items.

For another, at the very start of the game, there’s a whole bunch of bells strewn about on the ground in an area that you can’t quite get into. I have no idea what their significance is, or why they’re there. The game’s camera seems to direct its focus to them, so they must be important for something or other, but I can’t figure it out.

What is up with the bells?
What’s up with the bells?

Overall, it’s a delightful, relaxing, humorous, fun puzzle/stealth game that’s not very like anything else I’ve played, and it’s worth the $20 they are asking for it.

Recommended.