Hi everyone, I made a new blog over at Neocities: please bookmark it! WordPress has become an unusable pile of garbage in the past year with their new shitty ‘block editor’, which makes editing text extremely unintuitive (starting new paragraphs, shifting to new paragraphs, cutting and moving lines – all things which have been solved – have been more or less ruined by what I can assume is a team of designers with some idiot CEOs breathing down their backs.) I guess I’ve always used WordPress for free, so I guess I get what I pay for…
7:23 am on 2020-10-17 Tags: trails in the sky, write about games melos
Hello! It’s been a while, huh? Getting colder. And I’m getting… tired. Analgesic is actually taking a week vacation next week, because we’re fatigued. Personally I’ve been working at least 4 days every week for the whole year, and I’m tired. It’s good to take breaks. Maybe if I was younger I’d power through, but I’m not! So it’s vacation time! Hahaha! Actually it’s not good to work too much, even young…
Anyways, those fall leaves are changing color, so some old feelings of easing into a new school year, new classes, new faces, new romance, are coming back. I grew up in the Midwest of the USA, so this time of year means watching trees slowly hibernate or change color, it means driving home from after school class, watching the sun set over flat suburban soccer fields, it can mean driving over to a pumpkin farm to pick up some apple cider donuts before settling into some homework.
Ah, but I’m in my late 20s and literally like 6,000 miles away from that in a concrete jungle (just how I like it, right…?). So it just means I can just daydream about the good old days… just kidding! Autumn in Tokyo is great. It doesn’t get colorful till November, but the cooler weather is already a welcome change.
Anyways, I’ve been playing the Trails series of JRPGs straight through. I recently finished Trails from Zero, but I’ve wanted to write about the music a bit from the previous games. So I decided to write about a few of my favorite songs from the Trails in the Sky trilogy. I’m in a bit of a music mood anyways, since for most of this month I’ve been churning out endless drafts of music for our next game, “S”, which is going well!
Originally, I had intended to write like, about 5 songs… but I ended up only doing 2, these posts take a long time.. I tried to break down things in a way accessible to non-musicians, but it might help to know some basic terminology. Please listen to the songs as you read!!
(Note: this post spoils Trails in the Sky Trilogy, in particular some aspects of the 3rd)
Trails in the Sky FC – Path of a New Journey
I think this song could be called “Estelle’s Theme”.
FC opens with this song. The start of a gigantic, 10-game and counting series….
Mood-wise it’s a straightforward optimistic, eurofantasy song with typical instrumentation, although the synthesized nature of various mallet sounds helps mesh the song to the game’s 2D/3D visual appearance. These kinds of songs can easily sound canned as hell, but thankfully this song doesn’t! The strength of this song is is fusing different kinds of optimism in a very tight, pop-like package. To me it characterizes much of Estelle’s character arc and personality.
The A section is the 0:00 to 0:16, opening with the flute. Even though the song never returns to the melody here, I like this section as it immediately set the high point of the song’s energy, and it leaves you wanting to hear it again! Some notes…
The mallets here form a really nice countermelody.
There’s also two types of washed out mallet panned to the left that acts as an echo of the main melody. Passing melodies between different instruments is an effective way of reinforcing a particular hook or motif without becoming repetitive.
There’s a guitar arpeggiation that reinforces the chords, but notably it doesn’t play on the downbeat, and I think it nicely fleshes out missing meaning that the main melody can’t carry alone.
There’s a really subtle accordion sound at 0:09 that is a direct harmony of the main melody. It’s really subtle but I think adds to a sense of emotion/yearning.
B – 0:17 to 0:34: is some woodwind melody. The electric piano chords here are pretty active, which gives a lot of nice motion to the section. Overall you’re likely to remember the melody here just because it’s repeated in B’. There’s a real sense of being comfortable and at home. The melody is based around a chord progression that repeats twice
B’ – is a repeat of B, but with a flute melody and some interesting mallet accompaniment for a playful fluorish. The electric piano chords from B are still here, just much quieter with some harmonic flourishes here and there (there’s a few notes in the left channel at 0:45 I like – it’s a technique that can help add drama to a chord change in a subtle way). Why is B’ a repeat of B? IMO it’s probably to pace out the song better – a big emotional change sometimes works better if the listener’s been anticipating it for a while. But also in this song’s case, it would be weird to go from a woodwind melody to a brass melody instead of breaking that pace up with flute. It’s also just a nice melody, so staying on the playful/home-ish feel for a while is pleasant.
C – 0:49 -1:10 This brings me to that the whole song feels like a theme of Estelle, who is the optimistic protagonist constantly contending with her insecurities and internalized pressures. There’s a bassline here that plays on every eight note, giving a more energized/forward-moving feel. The choice of brass for the melody is very energetic and tied to ‘epic’ music. I think the melody here is pretty elegant, it has a lot of movement, yet nicely transitions into the D section and manages to partially repeat itself once for ease of remembering.
One note about C is that I feel like the B’ to C transition is actually pretty surprising on a first listen, and juuust barely works. It’s like a big shock of ‘loud hope’ appearing out of nowhere. Maybe that’s indicative of Estelle’s outburst-driven personality, though… But once you’re used to it, it seems fine! When remembering this song, remembering the B’ to C transition was the hardest for me. Sometimes songs just call for those transitions, and it can be hard deciding whether or not a transition is working or not. Usually I just take solace in the fact that in a game people aren’t paying suuuper close attention so as long as nothing overly jarring happens it’s okay, haha.
D 1:10 – 1:30 – Straightforward, this is just a section to loop the song. I think the song could actually have looped immediately after C, but with D the song feels more ‘whole’ and paced out nicer. The accordion-thing here acts to bring down the overall energy level that C was at, in preparation for the song to loop. The melody is a little meandering, to help signal that the song is ending its loop here, rather building to a new section. I actually don’t really like the accordion instrument (I know it’s not an accordion but I forget what it is…), but that’s just my prejudice… I think it works pretty well for this section.
Overall I think this is just a song that has all strong sections that are really neatly tied together. I don’t get to write music like this particularly often since our games almost never call for music like this, but it might be fun. It might also be really intense to write, though, because the tempo is so fast, and writing 4 separate sections for a 90 second song is fairly expensive as far as music budget goes! But this song sticks out to me as maybe The Theme of Estelle (and Joshua to an extent, the other protagonist), so writing for this context would be worth the extra effort.
Trails in the Sky: the 3rd – Parallel Universe
I would also call this as “Kevin’s Theme”. Kevin is the protagonist of Trails in the Sky the 3rd.
This song plays in most of the areas of The 3rd (here on TC for Third Chapter) that consist of reprised towns from FC and SC. When you reach those levels in the game, it’s a total surprise and very surreal since you’re totally disoriented, seeing these very familiar spaces from other games. Moreover, you’re juuuuuust barely starting to make some deductions about Kevin’s character and what he’s hiding. The universe of TC is set in (basically) a gigantic VR universe created by an advanced VR technology cube as well as Kevin himself (unconsciously). The form the VR universe takes is based on the character’s memories and beliefs (this sounds familiar to me… hmm…), so in Kevin’s case it forms 7 layers to hell! It sucks all the other characters into it as they puzzle their way out.
Overall… it’s a somber song but it also has this ritualistic/religious energy to it. It also has a strong sense of being lost, but longing for some goal or past. But it’s a pretty unresolved yearning, since all of its energy inevitably lops back to that vast sense of magic/ritual/holiness. And I think those aspects perfectly encapsulate TC’s protagonist’s, Kevin Graham, struggle that he eventually overcomes throughout TC!
First, the song uses a slow 6/8 time signature. That adds to the sense of drama, since the melodies are being built around the dramatic downbeats on the 1 and 4. So you get that nice ‘to and fro’ swaying that 6/8 can sometimes bring.
A: 0 to 14: Introducing the mood
When writing game music a common way to establish a ‘holy’ or ‘mystic’ atmosphere is to do something like this song does – have a 6-note ostinato repeat over different chords. (The 6-note phrase that begins in the opening is what I’m referring to). When that phrase has the right notes (based on a certain scale) it adds a ‘harmonic backing’ to the whole song. The ostinato functions similar held chords (like strings), but the texture is more rhythmic due to the notes being quickly played.
But on the choice of instrument for this ostinato: there’s already a lot going on in this first segment! In order of frequency, from low to high.
A bass drum, delayed to feel ‘epic’ – delayed bass drums are good at creating a sense of ‘space’ in the song. If you listen closely, every other 6 beats, a lower bass drum also plays, giving a very subtle echo to the first bass drum.
The ostinato’s double. In the slightly-left channel there’s a really subtle, octave-down pitch of the ostinato. This is handy for thickening out a certain sound, while keeping the focus on that sound at a higher pitch.
A really quiet, synthesized string patch. This is more to give a sense of wholeness to the entire song – it’s hard to hear, but mostly in the right channel. The choice of note here, based on the song’s key, I think is meant to give a very subtle sense of tension to the whole song right away.
A synthy, metallic reverb hit. You can hear this at various pitches at the start of each measure. This adds to the ‘mystic’/’holy’ness of it. Sometimes these kinds of sounds can be used for an icy, snowy effect but in this case I think it’s more to imbue a holy/magical atmosphere. There’s a very very slight vibrato (the pitch goes up and down slightly) on these hits, too.
A sparkly synth ostinato, mostly in the left channel, playing 16th notes. I think this is a really cool detail: a 16th note synth ostinato also comes in later (more on that later)
Overall it’s a really strong start to the song. It’s nothing super super crazy but it’s effective!
B1: 13 to 40: Introduces the main melody.
The melody carefully approaches a sense of drama, but it always kind of ‘cowers back’. The melodic loop here ends on a sadder chord. So you have a combination of mystery, sadness, holiness, trying to escape your current status… it’s a very simple melody but I think it captures a lot.
Here, a louder strings sound also comes in, as well as some choral breath-like sweeps. The melody is probably two synths in one – a more ‘synthesized’ sound (which is what you probably recognize as notes), and then a more mallet-like percussive texture. Near the end there’s a really cool ostinato at a lower pitch than the melody that comes in and pans across the stereo field.
B2: 41 to 1:07 –
The ostinato I just mentioned gets a lot louder here. It’s not the focus, which is why it kinda flies around the stereo field. Its function (to me) is mostly to keep the energy going to the C section, because the melody alone can’t carry the energy through another repeat of itself. Also, the ostinato’s timbre is a bit mysterious and technological, which is an interesting contrast against the other less ‘rough’ instruments so far.
C: 1:07 to 1:35. This is a pretty tricky section to think about… it’s interesting because it’s simultaneous kinda climactic and not! Of course we have the percussion being introduced (which is kind of indicating the energy peak of a song, at least in game music that starts out without much percussion). At first the section feels climactic, but then the melody and chords start leading into *another* raising of the ’emotional energy’ of the song. I think overall.. I’d say this section really helps bring in the ‘tragic human’ aspect of the theme. The horn(?) instrument used here is a lot more dramatic and showy. Honestly it would be irritating if you start off the song with this kind of instrument: it only works because it’s been built up to. Doing that with a horn, to me, feels kind of like starting a JRPG story off with the universe being annihilated… who cares? I wouldn’t even be invested yet!
C’s melody takes a pretty common chorus approach, which is to just repeat a small set of notes over and over for catchiness and drama. Personally as a composer it’s not super super fun to do that but it’s really effective, and often being effective is more important than something super exciting/original. In particular, C’s melody is built around small loops of melodies (with some variations), which draws focus to the chords that are doing some emotional movement below. Then, when C’s melody DOES make a change, there’s a really emphasized drama to it, because the melody is now really moving/acknowledging what the chords are doing.
The percussion in C emphasizes the 4th beat of the 6/8 time, mainly to more keep reinforcing the ‘big open space’ that the song has been creating up to this point. In this song’s use of 6/8 having percussion emphasize that beat gives a sense of the song always ‘echoing out’ against some huge walls, feeling very expansive.
Energy peak of the song. This is just the song cashing in on all the layers its built up, by re-using the melody it started with in B1.
Repeat of B3-1 for memorability and keeping the ‘mood’ up. Sometimes when writing music, it’s nice to repeat a section, EVEN if not much development in the chords happen, simply because the current moment of the game calls for it and you want to emphasize the emotions happening in that section of the music the most. Or maybe you just want to pad out the OST time a bit, hehe…
As a result of all this repetition, what motif are people probably going to remember from this song…? The one from B1, B2, and B3!
SURPRISE This is just C again! But more layers! I feel like here you can start to notice your ear wearing out a bit. The song has been at HIGH HIGH energy level for a long time now, and it just keeps going… maybe this is my one complaint of the song haha. But it does transition back to the A section nicely. The thing is though, this IS the climactic melody so it would be weird to not end the climax of the song on it. If C2 was skipped and we went to A, I think it’d be weird. It’s like skipping the period on a sentence
I think, if I were to edit this song… I wouldn’t touch much, but.. maybe I’d see what would happen if I removed B3-2? I’d also definitely add an “A2” section right at the end with even less energy than A2, before building back to A. I think the ear could use a little more time to rest.
But overall it’s perfectly executed and does a TON for TC and Kevin’s character. It would be fun to write a song like this one day…
I hope that gave some insight into the music of the game or music in general! Really, writing songs for games… is about just coming up with the right seed or seeds for the song… experimenting with melodies, sound design, figuring out what kind of emotions the chords need to move through… Once you’ve got that down, it’s fairly straightforward to expand that into the needed number of sections based on the context!
Tune in next time! There’s some other songs I’d like to write about – Zeiss (FC), Rock on the Road (FC mountain pass field theme), some songs from the end of SC (Liber Ark themes… woo), and maybe a few other field themes from TC.
Or if there’s a song you’d like to hear about… maybe leave a comment? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Hello. Hello! This is Melos Han-Tani, here to give you barely any new information on our next game, abbreviated “S”. Previously we called it O:3DJ but the title was kind of long.
Set in the near future, you play as a trio of biologists, each of Taiwanese descent, from Japan, Taiwan and the USA. Shipwrecked on an island, all they can do is continue their planned work of biological analysis by using their experimental neural implants. As they explore the island’s caves, events will set them on paths of deep reflection towards themselves, their homes, and each other! Maybe they’ll get off the island, too…
As a refresher, S contains roughly 3 aspects to it.
The 3D Platforming. As you can see above, you’ll be exploring a giant cave system! The cave is actually 3D platforming levels, but it feels like a big cave world thing. Our style of 3D platforming has never been done before… which is kind of strange actually because of how simple the core gimmick Marina came up with is. I’ve decided to call my platforming engine the “Very Enhanced Climbing Engine”. There’s not many close comparisons, but the engine and level design focuses on getting a ‘physical sense’ for the environment through how you traverse it. In that sense, some vague influences include Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Even the Ocean, and Dark Souls. I would put its difficulty a few notches above Even the Ocean, but it’s not really hard for the sake of being hard.
The Puzzle Grid. I haven’t shown pictures of this publicly yet. That’s because we basically are finishing all of the level design before implementing the art side. It’s like a battle system, but it’s not about killing anything. It’s also not like a JRPG in the sense that it’s super strategic – it’s a bit more casual, but it’s also unique enough that there’s level design for the ‘battles’. It’s also not a puzzle, it’s just more convenient to call it “Puzzle Grid”. Like usual, there’s nothing like it that exists somehow!! So it’s totally new and difficult to describe succinctly. I’ll probably talk about this whenever we do a trailer and store page launch, which will be much closer to release than Anodyne 2 was when we dropped a trailer. For now you’ll have to put up with my vague descriptions.
The Literature. That’s just a fancy name for the story script. The script is about 60% as big as Anodyne 2, but unlike Anodyne 2, most of it is not missable (i.e. NPCs). So actually there are a sizeable number of cutscenes this time around! I’m only half-looking-forward to implementing them… (making cutscenes is time consuming… but satisfying) We’re taking a FF9-esque approach to the staging for cutscenes: there are no character portraits, but characters will emote, and there will be dialogue boxes with arrows pointing to the models.
We’ve taken a different approach to past games: I’m trying to use more of a ‘keep the hype alive’ approach. So I’m avoiding any big announcements until we’re pretty sure it’s a few months to release.
That being said, it’s meant we can focus on design and writing first, which imo carry the game. Most of 2019 was prototyping the Puzzle Grid system and me making various iterations of story outlines, and discussing these decisions with Marina. We simplified the Puzzle Grid system a LOT in January/February (it used to have RPG-esque moves, haha, I would go to Matsuya (A japanese fast food place) and brainstorm ideas too much..), as well as simplifying the overall design of the game to be more manageable for us.
I finished the script through March to May while Marina worked on character models and art style (while we both took occasional breaks dealt with the state of the world), then Marina helped edit it over a few months, then Marina finished that in July.
May through August I finished the majority of the 3D level design. All throughout I was also working on graphics/shader tech for Marina.
Marina started working on 3D level art in July (as well as polishing the level design there), and has been doing that since.
Since August I’ve been doing Puzzle Grid Level Design/Programming, and I’ve finished the majority of that, so I’m slowly transitioning into working on Music and Cutscenes. Meanwhile, Marina is making preparations to finish up character 3D model work, as well as work on character animations, so I can then get started on making some finalized cutscenes, before she then returns to the mountain of art to make for the rest of the game! Expect a teaser trailer some time after I finish some cutscenes.
I would say the majority of the difficult design and writing work is behind us, now the major hurdles are the remaining level art, UI art, Puzzle Grid art, scripting the cutscenes and making a lot of music, and of course all the code tying that together. While none of this is easy, it’s a lot simpler than design (at least on my side of things). It’s just a matter of putting in the time each week.
I’m not really sure when we’ll be done (my guesses put us at around March or April next year for a release), but we’re at the point where I feel pretty confident that we *will* be done in a timely manner.
Other than that, well, I feel like we could have gone a bit faster with the prototyping… I really veered down a dead end with some of the excessive RPG elements of the Puzzle Grid system. But in another way, the simplifications we made to the Puzzle Grid allowed us to get to the current iteration of the Puzzle Grid, so that’s good!
But I did move to Japan, and this year the world is in a pandemic, so maybe I should give myself a break… (actually, I have been doing this, I only work 4 days a week now (I take Wednesday off), and a 5th if I feel like it). Marina and I finally switched to voice meetings, which are a lot faster than our usual method of talking in chat for hours.
We’ve been discussing what our next move might be after finishing S, and it’ll probably be something with far less weight on unique levels/art/music. It’s possible we might also just do some more experimental solo work for a while (I feel like writing fiction to get better and also doing looser, All Our Asias-esque games, maybe with all the tech I’ve built for S/Anodyne 2). I feel like that would be good – the time we took off from intense/close collaboration after Even the Ocean (a little over a year) really helped out with making Anodyne 2.
That’s not to say S *isn’t* experimental (in all three of the elements we’re breaking new thematic or mechanical ground we’ve been unable to find elsewhere), but it very much does have a lot of elements of ‘pop’ to it, that I’m a little fatigued on. It’s fun to put a lot of thought behind game design and clear communication, but it does demand sort of a rigorous process of brainstorming/drafting/creating ideas… you can’t just slop stuff together.
On the other side, it’s also a lot of fun to just… not give a shit about any of that, and there’s a lot of ideas I’d like to explore as short games or standalone writing (maybe “sound novels?”) without the level of commitment that our 1-1.5 year games usually demand.
Well, looks like I missed my weekly deadline, oops… anyways, it’s officially “Fall” now! Today was “Respect the Seniors” day in Japan. Technically I was supposed to work, but instead I walked for like 2 hours and bought some books, and enjoyed some rooftop, open-air food court dining.
Somehow today’s post is about Final Fantasy 14, and also “Genres” in games or something… stay with me, hehe…
But yes, it’s fall, which means it’s seasonally time for me to feel nostalgic over apple cider donuts, bratwurst, and average USA Midwest Oktoberfest foods… great things that Japan doesn’t have. As well as some elementary-school-related things. (I think it’s often the smell of cool air.) The other day, I left a peanut butter sandwich out on a table for an hour and when I came back it had that ‘school brown bag lunch sandwich’ smell, which I was surprised to have immediately recognized.
Um… you know what else is related to elementary school? MMORPGs (here on just MMO)! Because I played those throughout school! Sure, let’s write about Final Fantasy 14, which I’ve been playing (too much) recently (thanks FF14 team.) Writing about FF14 like I would a game, kind of feels like writing a review of ‘eating ice cream in a park at a safe distance with some masked buddies’, which would be strange. (“Friend 1: Graphics: 8/10, Friend 2: Graphics: 5/10…”).
A good MMORPG is essentially basically (double adverb!) the same as hanging out, except everything is gamified (number go up!) and you can kind of be whoever you want. It’s fun – there’s a shared sense of progress when you play with friends.
Naoki Yoshida is a unique game director, as he wrote a long weekly column for Famitsu. They’re about his experience developing Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn (here on FF14). It’s candid at time and gives me a deeper appreciation for MMORPG devs, yet also makes me more resolute in never, ever wanting to go anywhere near MMORPG development. Except maybe as a dungeon designer…
So I was reading these articles about FF14 by Yoshida and it struck me that “wow, the two of us live in almost completely separate game design worlds.” Now, there were obvious overlaps – doing stuff like PR, managing a game’s production, being overwhelmed during debugging and QA, but of course Yoshida and other FF14 staff deal with these things at a gigantic scale, with different kinds of difficulties and pressure. For example, traveling the world to do PR is certainly difficult (even being one of the world’s most recognized gaming brands), but so is getting the word out about a game you and one other person made. To be honest, you can’t really compare the two, even though they’re both “PR”.
Yoshida compares FF14’s business model and design to an amusement park at one point, comparing new levels and bosses to new attractions.
This is appropriate, as you can choose different activities to do when you decide to play. Fashion? Gambling? Reading a bit of the game’s story? Gathering? Crafting? Exploring nature? Conquering dungeons, fighting bosses? In a way, they’re all separate ‘rides’ or ‘parts of the park’ in terms of the amusement park metaphor. When a new ride comes out, it’s fun to check it out with friends.
Why I Don’t Like Genres
Okay. FF14, and Anodyne 2 – they are both games. The priority of FF14 is to give you a place to go to have a good time with your friends or on your own, over a long period a time: it’s something you live alongside. It’s like board games night, or hanging out at a bar (except you can be a catman). There’s obviously vision and direction in FF14’s world, but to me that feels subservient to the focus of being a place to hang out. Sure there are different systems and stuff to do, but even something like just messing around in a car in FF14 can be as fun as something elaborately designed like a long dungeon.
The priority of Anodyne 2 is… to give you a world you can visit in a fairly controlled manner, that exposes you to ideas that Marina and I found interesting and worthwhile and that we hope you might resonate with in personal ways.
Of course, wide variance exists amongst games or any category of media, but… it’s interesting to me like, the purposes of these two games feel *so* different to me that it’s interesting that they can also be both in the same category. I mean, that sounds a little like being fascinated about there being cooking books and children’s books, but what I’m trying to get at is more that, despite their gigantic differences, it still feels very natural to compare FF14 and Anodyne 2 despite their reasons for existing being different.
But perhaps it shouldn’t feel natural. Like, you wouldn’t compare a cookbook and Where the Wild Things Are, but it’s easy to find yourself doing that in games, somehow, even if the things linking FF14 and Anodyne 2 are “they have a story” and ‘you walk around in 3D’. There aren’t competitions where you rank a cookbook over a textbook, but that basically happens with games like in peoples’ Top 10 lists or competitions like the Independent Games Festival.
Why does this urge to compare very different games feel natural…? I mean, it makes sense when you do it along very particular dimensions like “effectiveness of storytelling” or “effectiveness of spatial design”, but… when you can compare or rank any game against another by thinking of them all as ‘games in a genre’, there’s an urge to find ‘what’s the best’, and it’s easy to start using boring modes of comparisons like ‘graphics.’ (I feel really bad for people still trapped in the mindset of thinking fidelity of graphics matters even a little bit with games…)
People need recommendations for games, but when stuff is categorized so neatly, what happens when someone googles “fun adventure game 2020”? They get a list of 5 big budget AAA 40-hour games where you do the same thing 5,000 times but go along with it because the trees are pretty, only because lots of people played and talked about them, and they probably won’t see a 4-hour indie game, even if it would be something totally enriching and new. This kind of encourages a player base who choose fewer, longer, and more narrow experiences, vs. changing it up by including shorter, smaller, more varied experiences.
Go to any store: games are categorized by ‘genre’. Adventure. Action. RPG. By games being thought of in these neat boxes, with the way the internet works it ends up making it so we see less of the diversity of games and mostly just games which can afford to fight their way to the top.
Anyways… it’s time to watch the asobu indie game showcase, a showcase of upcoming or new japanese indie games! Also Anodyne 2 is in there too, hehe…
Well, I just finished Trails in the Sky SC this morning, so I thought I might write a little about it. I’m going to assume you’ve played Trails in the Sky FC and SC (hereon just FC/SC), which is probably not a lot of you! Hopefully even if you haven’t played these you can still get something out of this post,
What is Trails in the Sky???
Trails in the Sky (FC and SC – I’m playing the 3rd currently) are a series of games in which you get interested in reading the in-game newspaper. It’s a game in which you’ll spend extra time in the protagonist’s hometown to make sure you’ve taken care of the things your neighbors need. It’s a game that has the ‘friendship is great’ theme but I think actually does a good job on making it work by showing a wide variety of people at different ages who followed – or didn’t follow – that life advice!
More generally, “Trails” is a franchise of 10 chronological games set in one world, and that makes it really interesting to follow, one-by-one.
If that catches your interest, go read some reviews or the wikipedia page!
Should I play Trails in the Sky
A Town as a Character
I like that Estelle and Joshua are learning about the world’s economic/political systems at the same time that you are. You visit the towns in a round trip, one by one, learning about the towns’ political leaders, citizen lifestyles, main economic markets, history. This is communicated through talking to people around town or quests. What ends up happening is towns have specific… personalities to them? In real life, cities absolutely don’t work like that, but in fiction, the towns having specific personalities make it easy for us to contrast where we live/have lived with whatever aspect of FC’s city is being drawn into focus (Rolent’s focus on mining energy with a slower-paced and welcoming feel, Zeiss’s focus on technology/manufacturing). I’m used to immediately forgetting about a JRPG’s town as soon as I leave it, so how Trails in the Sky approached towns was refreshing.
Within hours it’s clear that making a game like Trails is 100% impossible without a team of over 15+. I go on a lot about why I like smaller things more generally, but Trails feels like an exception – it feels like a successful experiment in ‘how much detail can we put into NPCs and how much can we sell this world to the player?’ Which I like – to be honest, if I’m spending hours doing something in a game, I’d usually prefer it to be reading…
I think there are still takeaways for indie developers despite how hard it would be to make a game exactly like FC/SC. I wouldn’t have to necessarily replicate the scale of the game’s dialogue to borrow from the ways they flesh out a town, for instance. Also, by seeing how the game achieves what it does at this scale, you can pare those techniques down and apply them to your own games.
I wonder how original players of this game dealt with no turbo (to the unacquainted, Trails in the Sky on PC lets you hold a button down to speed up!) You walk a lot in this game! Trails FC is um, Dark Souls, if Dark Souls was a JRPG where you walk around a country… never mind…
Since the game’s world is set on a big circular path, you get a really good sense for how everything fits together. This is useful because when characters refer to locations or events happening in other towns, you can instantly visualize where that was and what happened.
Walking does get a little annoying, sure… but I think that’s because there are too many side quests, and some of them have you running around too much. Regardless of how annoying it is, walking still effectively ‘grounds’ you in the game’s world. I really enjoyed this lack of abstraction (where some games might use world maps) because it felt utilized well for the game’s themes (of Estelle learning about the country on foot). It also kind of makes an argument for walking around your home neighborhood/town more…
Being Socially Grounded
The game takes care to establish Estelle’s relation to Joshua, to her dad, to the Bracer Guild, to her hometown, and its citizens, way before we’re worried about deep state conspiracies or shadowy anime villains. Piece by piece, we zoom out from the person-to-person social relation way before we’re even thinking about the nation-to-nation Liberl-Erebonia relations. Because the game spends time building these pieces at a low level, it makes the world’s national-level events genuinely interesting and exciting (which is why I’m so curious to see how all the other Trails games pan out!). This is why the news ends up being fun to read, it’s also why, during FC’s ending festival with all the NPCs bustling outdoors, there’s a sense of “I’m missing out” while wasting time indoors!
It’s interesting – I’m not usually the type to go for these high-detailed fantasy worldbuilding games, but there’s a lot of memories/emotional resonances that FC/SC make possible because of the sheer detail. I wouldn’t be able to trigger my memory of ‘feeling like I’m missing out during a summer festival…’ if the game didn’t put me into that situation after being invested in the world. (And that’s just one example!)
Some Bad Things
FC/SC aren’t perfect of course! For one, the game frames militaries and cops as benevolent things. Most big problems are solved by Bracers (at times detectives, but also at times, cops) arresting people or by the military’s forces saving the day. It’s a JRPG in a fantasy setting, so of course you end up with stakes around killing people/beating people up which usually leads to military/soldiers/cops being framed that way. But… I’m willing to let that slide because trying to expect explicit abolitionist ideals in every game I play would be miserable. There are just some things I gotta let slide. I just said slide three times… oh well.
The battle system takes too long… it’s unimaginable how long the fights must have taken without turbo…! I had to change my save file in SC halfway through because of how long the battles were taking. The negative effect of this is that it leaves me fatigued to reading more dialogue, so I’d develop negative/burnout-y feelings towards the game at time. I like the battle system and how they balance new character skills acquisition, but after like 100 fights I’m pretty much done…
I’m still not sure how I feel on this, but so many characters having traumatic backgrounds – I mean, sure this game is set 5 years after a war, but I wonder to what extent making your characters traumatized – to what extent that should be used in character development and motivation…?
FC or SC?
Both games are great, but FC feels more memorable by how it paints and builds its world and pairs that with its growing protagonists, creating what feels like a character study of a fictional nation. SC, although set in FC’s world, feels more like a standard JRPG: clear cast of villains, clear escalating stakes, killing a demi-god. SC is done well, fleshes out all the characters you meet in FC nicely, and introduces some great new ones. But to me, SC was kind of awkwardly mashing together the slow build of FC with a SC’s plot, that took forever to take off. By the end of FC you’re already invested in Liberl, so there wasn’t much need to have 4 “kill this monster” quests and 2 “run around for 30 minutes” quests in each town in SC. Just 1 or 2 quests focusing on key locations/minor NPCs probably would have been good enough!
SC’s first half at times felt like a slog, mainly motivated by wanting to make it to Trails The 3rd (which has an experimental narrative structure). But boy, that Liber Ark section is sure something to play through given the world today!
Favorite line in FC/SC?
“That’s some serious sparkage!” (Joshua from FC, in Zeiss, when Professor Russell is trying to saw open the Gospel…)
Welcome to my weekly or biweekly ‘column’ that I will definitely make it past installment 1 where I try to casually write about some aspect of game design or games. Or maybe just what I ate for lunch… This time I’m talking about my part-time experience teaching game design/music to college art students from 2016-2019!
It’s September in Tokyo and it’s not that hot anymore! August was horrible… but my electricity bill was worse. Maybe electricity companies conspire to give Japanese apartments horrible insulation… sigh. Oh. Even the Ocean came out on consoles (PS4, XB1, Switch) a few weeks ago. It’s cause for celebration! Oh wait, I can barely go out to meet people… okay, maybe it’s just time for a parking lot party with two people. Um… ETO coming out got me thinking back to its original release, 4 years ago, at the end of 2016. Ah… it must have been an overly relaxing time for me. Why?
Well, I was in Taipei in August 2016 (4 years ago! agh! pain!) and my friend William (creator of Manifold Garden) texted me about getting an offer to teach game design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (aka “SAIC”. It’s an arts college in downtown Chicago.) William was too busy with Manifold Garden so he asked if I’d be interested. Sitting at a window, enjoying some A/C and a cold milk tea, looking at a misty jungle after the afternoon summer rains, with the release of Marina and I’s nearly 3.5 year development time game in sight… I said “sure!” The department head then e-mailed me.
Before I knew it I had to reinstall Skype to do a brief interview, but I was basically hired on the spot, despite having no teaching experience. I know you might be thinking “hey, wait a minute,” but it’s not like that! You see, the part-time game lecturer market doesn’t have that many applicants at any given time.
Qualifications to teach
First, there’s a matter of qualification. This position required teaching Unity 3D, so the teacher obviously has to make games, which is uncommon, but further it’s limited to designers who also program, since you have to teach the program to first-time students. Second, they have to be interested in teaching! While a good number of developers make tutorials, the subject of teaching is an entirely different level of obligation. Third, they have to be willing to put up with low pay. Part-time lecturers at art schools, if you were wondering, don’t make much money (at least in my eyes, given the prerequisite skills!). And if you’re a programmer, uh, you can make a lot more…
Er, fourth, you have to live in Chicago! Oh wait, right, fifth, you also need to be looking for work. I helped hire a few other lecturers after I joined SAIC, and I know a handful of cases in which one or two of these conditions were not true and they couldn’t take the job. Most game designers who code are working somewhere and too busy!
Moreover there’s pretty much no consistent way to do outreach for applicants (I would help hire a few people later on, through mailing lists and networks)… oh, and myself getting hired was last minute because the guy before me quit out of the blue. I like to think my experience at that point was enough, but if you look at the context, it was probably I was hired more out of necessity (I actually applied two years before to no response, hehe). I mean, I wasn’t totally unqualified, but still…
Well, I had like two or three weeks to create a syllabus, so I panicked and e-mailed past teachers of the course for ideas and their syllabi. Somehow, despite only briefly knowing how to use Unity 3D, things still went okay. Actually, looking back on it, that’s unacceptable! What the heck, me! Teaching a college course without being well-versed in the engine they’re using? Well, when I applied I said “I don’t know that much Unity.” I did not lie. I was told it’d be fine. Besides, I decided that half of the course would be playing and analyzing games, so I should be able to get up to speed with Unity given my coding background (and I did, eventually…) Two or three chaotic weeks later… wow, I’m going to college! Again! I looked like a college student. I mean, I still do… *smile* *smile*
Teaching at SAIC
I started in Fall 2016 and would teach at least one class every semester until Spring 2019, when I quit (for a mixture of reasons I still haven’t fully come to a conclusion on), finished Anodyne 2, and moved to Japan. I taught “Experimental Game Design” 5 times (I designed the syllabus) and “Video Game Music Composition” twice (a course I both proposed and designed).
But if I talk about those things – planning, teaching, etc… – I will never finish this essay so we’re going to skip all of it! The focus is supposed to be about how this relates to game development or something…
But, okay, what’s teaching like, then? Well, let me remember some of the minutia that isn’t about teaching!
Very cold, very quiet mornings. When I reminisce on Chicago I think about the summer or early fall, but really it’s mostly cold… I’d often have to wear boots and then I’d change into shoes once I got to class. Waiting for the Metra Electric train (I lived in a half college/half residential neighborhood called Hyde Park). The cold air, coming back in the evening as the sun set, hoping the train would stop at a position on the platform a bit closer to my exit. The wi-fi cutting out at Millenium Station, where I’d sometimes board. Picking up snacks at the gas station on the way home. Crossing the 6-lane road to the train station when it’s completely snowed over. Buying the 10 of the wrong ticket for the train. Seeing someone at the train platform who totally went to college with me but I didn’t really know who they were…
Reader: “Where is this going…”
Having to draft marketing tweets as I eat breakfast, sending them out in the moments before class starts as the students trickled in. Handling work e-mails during lunch break. Calling maintenance because our room was always too cold or too hot…
The students who sometimes ate greek yogurt in our room without ventilation while watching YouTube during lecture. Browsing the Korean family-run snack store at Van Buren St. Metra Station for red bulls or candy… wearing the same grey wool pants every day because it was way too cold. Putting up fliers for my classes to attempt getting full enrollment. Walking to the water fountain. Walking back from the water fountain.
Reader: “What happened to the essay…”
The second door at the Walgreens always being broken, the Panda Express line being too long. Being able to visit the Art Institute for free during lunch. Trying to make it to the bus to get home earlier. Waiting in an art store while it’s freezing while waiting for the bus to come. Running into – or avoiding – students who happen to be at the bus stop. Running into students while eating tacos. Running into students while going to get water. Drinking barley tea in class. Praying the projector works. Debugging students’ code.
Reader: “Melos I want to know what teaching’s like, not this crap!”
Ah… but it’s more fun for me to ramble off these things!!
What is teaching actually like!
Well, the teaching I did was me and 12 students agreeing to meet somewhere for a fixed amount of time to communicate with the hope of one gaining knowledge. For my courses, everyone is interrupting their lives for 7 hours (these classes were literally 6 hours a day, once a week, with a lunch break). Students were overworked, they were tired, they were giggly, they were excited, absent, sick, willing to learn, bored, worried. Students certainly did learn game design, basics of programming to various extents. The varied success could be chalked up to my lack of teaching experience, but it’s also the context of the class itself. In that mix of conditions – students having to take so many classes, game design being very broad to teach – it was fortunate that students did manage to make games! I think college, or school, is run very strangely and generally students should be taking fewer, more intense classes so they have time for their life and time for learning. Otherwise they’re just stressed out and get sick…
When I taught, my abilities and weaknesses as a game designer really came to light. Of course there’s stuff I’m good at. “Oh yeah, I am good at programming!” But also there’s stuff like “Well I don’t know much about shaders though…” There’s a lot of doubt – what qualifies someone to teach game design?
But I also realized that I obviously can’t teach “everything” about game design, so I had to laser focus on what I really wanted to pass down with the limited time I had. I mean I think some things still ended up being kind of overly general out of necessity, but… my teaching focus was on wide exposure to varieties of games (mainly Indie), and giving some tools to analyze those experiences. This was limited by students sometimes being too busy to play even one game or read an article, due to SAIC’s coursework demands. A student might have thought they were going to learn how to make an MMO, but no! You’re going to code teleports in Unity and play Oikospiel!
I did teach how to make games, but I really wanted to teach how to begin to look at games critically… not just design-wise, but also the political contexts. Because to me, that’s more important, and the mechanical skills of making the game come with time and grinding. And you can kind of figure that out on your own time if you want to, but you can’t easily find a game designer lecturing and talking with you and 11 others for 3 months.
I also taught coding fundamentals in Unity and made a set of simple exercises that I hoped would make it easier to play a game and be like “Oh, okay, maybe that’s how that works…” When I learned game-making, revealing that curtain, bit by bit, through programming forum posts on how to shoot a bullet or change levels – those fed into how I perceived and played games.
Anyways, those approaches… kind of worked. My evaluations were generally positive (thanks!) with reasonable complaints. I could have done better. But I was busy myself, too… (aren’t we all…) Also teaching is acting in some ways and it would take a lot out of me to be very enthusiastic in ways that I feel my most memorable teachers were. I don’t think I could reach that level… at least not in the context I was in.
The idea about focusing on something specific applies to teaching game music. I’m not technically skilled at things like mixing, mastering, or music theory. But I have a strong intuition and focus on the process of ideation for game music: I focused on thinking of game music as a problem in which you solved by finding lots of reference music and then using elements of them to drive your direction for a song. I focused on listening to music actively and making internal lists of emotions and images evoked, and analyzing why we have those images and what kinds of experiences may have informed those images forming (popular media? nostalgia? experience and chance?)
Of course, this was an issue when some students needed help on learning to pen melodies, or some students wanted to learn how to get into the industry, or write technical-sounding music, and I just could not help that much, as it came through experimentation and practice to me! But I did make my class fun (if a bit repetitive), I made prompts of game music and had students write the song, and we’d listen to all the songs each week and discuss it! I imagine that would have been nervewracking, but I did that a bit in school myself and it was very beneficial.
Just one teacher
In game music and game design, there were many things I couldn’t teach, couldn’t do – especially as there was not really a games curriculum at SAIC. I’m just one teacher (there were a few others, but in DIFFERENT DEPARTMENTS!!!)
But just like making an indie games, it’s this limited capacity that I think makes for a special experience. To me, art school classes – as a student – the real opportunity there to me is being able to work with an “expert” (haha, am I an expert? Hmm…) for 15 weeks, getting to see this ‘Melos Han-Tani’ weekly, and ask him whatever questions. Then he rambles about game design ideas, rambles too long about some game that was assigned, talks too long about programming that even he gets lightheaded, tries to lead a discussion… and that strange combination of things he decided to teach, somehow that hopefully becomes memorable.
I think game developers (or people in general!) should continue to share knowledge to the capacity they can… detailed notes on production, approaches to problems. In casual blog posts like this! Or elaborate video tutorials if you have the time. Releasing a game is great, but going a step further is even better.
Trying to teach Unity in 2016 got me motivated to make All Our Asias in 2017. Likewise, wanting to gain more experience got me motivated to make Anodyne 2 in 2018 and 2019. It all feeds together nicely like a loop…
The teaching experience got me to think about teaching within my game design practice generally. I like to think about what I want to pass down to other developers, fans, players.
Game making is being a part of a small history: I’m creating something with the hope it becomes a part of someone’s life in some way through the ideas it addresses and places it leads to. I’m creating something in response to my ‘game design ancestors’, learning from them but also expanding on them in ways they didn’t or couldn’t do. I’m creating something for future games: reference points for future game designers to look back to.
And teaching, or talking about the games you make actively, giving details, behind-the-scenes, open-sourcing a game, answering questions on a Discord candidly, letting you go out of bounds with a swap or a magic car… that’s all a part of teaching, in a way…! If I’m going to hyperfocus on this one strange medium of human creation, then I believe I may as well do it in a way where I can try to somehow share that knowledge.
Okay, time to go play Final Fantasy 14… (doing these posts is inspired by past Naoki Yoshida’s biweekly column series on FF14…)
I’m currently working on a side project with friends, where you control a character in an apartment complex. It’s about the day-to-day lives of these other characters, and we were considering whether or not to include items in the game. This post is just some open, loose thinking about the topic of items in story-driven, single player games with more or less fixed stories.
Spoiler: the conclusion is that ‘should we include items’ depends on lots of other choices, so this post is mostly driving in circles… but anyways…
(If you have comments, thoughts or ideas that might be useful for a mostly linear, story-focused game set in an apartment, please let me know!)
History of Items?
This led me to think about the history of ‘items’ and games. The usage of items in games stems far before videogames existed in the mainstream – the earliest that I know of would be Dungeons and Dragons and early Interactive Fiction from the ‘70s. Of course, I could say that a football is an “item” in the game called “Football”, but I think at that point things are getting too abstract and I don’t really care.
So, for this post, let’s ignore games with ‘physical’-esque elements – combat, platforming challenges – games in which items change how big the numbers get when you slash a slime, or change your moveset. Let’s just talk about games where you can move around a space and talk to things – games that are closer to visual novels, or perhaps are visual novels.
Items as Currency? In this case, items represent a type of ‘currency’ for the player that can be exchanged for narrative. For example, if Asako lends her hat to Kosuke, but you obtain the hat, you can then ’spend’ that hat by returning it to Kosuke, in order to receive narrative relating to Asako and Kosuke. In another way, it’s a way of the game shifting the game’s storytelling progress more towards the player, since the story doesn’t advance until the item is “spent”.
This can take various complexities: a common use is to make a puzzle out of figuring out what item to use. In a very boring context, this is a fetch quest: find 3 Apples for Asako. Neither the apples nor giving Asako the apples probably feels that significant. In a tightly designed context, this is something like presenting the correct court evidence with the correct chunk of a witness testimony in Phoenix Wright: the puzzle forces you to inhabit the role of the attorney more, pay attention to the mystery, and the puzzle also just makes sense with the context of the game.
One note is that when it comes to story-focused games, innovative uses of items seem to require very good writing! Which shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s worth noting that I don’t think writing can really be an afterthought in a story-focused game that is using items. A simplification I wanted to consider for our game is to remove items. Which made me wonder: what are pros/cons of having/not having items?
Gathering Items can stand in for prose/dialogue
In a game where you talk to characters, if text is related to getting further in the overall story – that dialogue takes on significance more than flavor text (witty jokes on objects, or short lines by minor NPCs).
So, in story-driven games with items, the items are usually used to drive the story. Items are used as a type of currency to give you more story. But also, the process of finding an item – done by controlling a character – is part of the story/feel of the game. The way that the game deals with the abstraction between the concrete – players physically doing each thing – and the abstract – using text to describe stuff happening – builds the texture of the game.
The player’s focus shifts to the character who is finding these items. If you go around a community in a game, and talk to everyone, the story still filters through that controllable character’s personality. A designer can add cutscenes not featuring the controllable character, but these still have a lower level of precedence since you’re not controlling those characters. You could also allow multiple characters to be controlled, but the same idea around ‘focus’ still applies.
That is to say… it’s all in how a designer puts items to use, whether they end up irritating or interesting.
Okay, so what if items are removed entirely? Well, there’s still a character to control. So I think the range of storytelling possibilities is not that different from a game with items. To me, what would change is what the designer might find themselves designing around. A game in which you’re not employing items would probably lead to complexity in some other system (unless the game is intentionally very straightforward.) For example, maybe talking to people has complex, state-tracking actions. Maybe information becomes a type of item. Maybe the characters have detailed schedules and move around. Maybe it’s like a JRPG, or a novel, – you have a cast of characters and you put them in different contexts (It looks like I have just defined what a story is… maybe this post is going nowhere…)
What about when focusing on a community?
Umm… so my initial question into thinking this is that the game I’m working on wants to represent the community and relations of people living in an apartment complex. I initially wondered if having items would make the game feel too ‘about’ the player character, but now that I look at this analysis, I think what I was worried about was a boring usage of items in which the character ferries items around for other characters: where “Here, take this package to Bob” becomes the driver of the story, versus any other game design system possibility or way of storytelling with a cast.
Complexity of items in the game’s design
With items, there’s a whole dimension of complexity added. In Point and Click adventures or games like Chulip, Giftpia or Moon, there’s often a lot of experimentation with using items with the right character at the right time. It can also be prone to frustration if a player gets stuck and experimentation is difficult (dying in Chulip is pretty rough…) or if there’s not a very good hint system available, or if there are just too many minor items that it’s hard to tell what items are important or not! Inventories can be powerful by creating a whole dimension of choice, but they also carry a lot of complexity if not carefully considered.
To bring up Phoenix Wright again, I like that game’s inventory since you only carry relevant items, and it’s a small enough space of items that you aren’t that confused. Moreover, the items aren’t used in a blatantly transactional quest-like exchange.
On the topic of confusion, I was also thinking about times after playing Ihatovo Monogatari, a minimal SNES no-combat RPG: it’s a game with a very simple inventory and quests, but you’re often at a loss as to who you need to talk to in order to progress the game. The game tries to conjure up a shared town community, which the game partially succeeds at, but your time there is mostly about seeking out the next person to get a key item from, and the frustration of trying to find where to go next takes away a player’s stamina towards interacting with the town more.
The presence of items in the game causes you to wonder if you might be missing something, instead of just knowing you haven’t talked to the right person yet. So… not knowing if there are items left increases the mystery of a game’s world, but it also has its downsides.
But if you do remove items, it means you do lose a layer of interaction with the world in finding stuff on objects or on the ground. But it does mean that now the game primarily has to be driven by conversations with characters, so that could be a good thing. Like I mentioned before, maybe items are just ‘unfulfilled wishes’ (like in Giftpia), or something else.
Items seem to be like the color red. In the sense that there’s nothing inherently good or bad about it… it’s just something you can use. So I think in this case I was asking the totally wrong question.
What this sort of indicates to me is that there are unknowns elsewhere in the game’s design that need to be addressed. So far, we’ve decided to keep the game scale down by setting it over 5 days, focusing on the protagonist’s interactions with a particular apartment resident on each day. I guess the next thing is to try out some writing drafts, and hopefully that leads us to figuring out the best way for the characters to be shown and the stories to be told on each day.
This post is just some elaboration on some short Twitter threads I posted over the past weeks.
Someone posted a quote by Flannery O’Connor on Twitter.
It’s a sentiment I agree with: while reviews and criticism are useful for helping me ground and deepen my understanding of a game or book, there’s a lot inherent to the experience of consuming a complex work that can’t be replicated merely through summary or a few sentences or tweets.
When I saw this back in June, I tweeted a bit about not liking elevator pitch/GIF-driven design. While I think it’s good to have something about your game that translates well to showing it to people who only look at something for a few seconds – I also think that there’s a path in which you prioritize or overfocus on social media appeal that could weaken the core of the game. This mostly comes to mind because I see developers who scream about “Elevator Pitches”, but the thing is that ANY game can have a good elevator pitch and I feel like yelling about this gets young developers to interpret it as “well the whole GAME has to be elevator pitch-able!” which… it shouldn’t! Some games when I see them – they feel optimized to ‘look good’ on Twitter or attract the eyes of publishers. When games are primary driven by an urge to appeal to trends of the time, they feel… flatter to me – designed for some generalized viewer’s immediate pleasure or amusement instead of anything deeper.
I like to think about Anodyne 2. Had we been overly concerned with the game being easy to pitch, we probably wouldn’t have combined 3D and 2D, right? It’s impossible to ‘pitch’ Anodyne 2 in 10 seconds, so I ended up focusing on the ‘nostalgia adjacency’ of the graphics (even though that wasn’t a deciding factor of why we chose low poly art/pixel art)
Worrying about elevator pitches or how well the game translates to GIFs… especially in pre-production/planning – can really bog you down and prevent you from brainstorming more exciting design ideas.
The Future of Games
Leading on from that, it makes me think about games that we’ve seen praised as ‘the future of games’ for looking very realistic or basically being movies. I mean… if you’re reading this I probably don’t need to convince you that what Corporate Games offer us is an extremely narrow view of what’s possible. The future of games feels like more games that are hard to define or describe without playing, one where one player’s comparisons might vastly differ from another player’s. Games whose creation and design are inspired by more than lofty ideals of someone’s GDC talk or famous games in a particular genre – games inspired by history, the current era’s events, etc…
Right now a lot of indies seem to be designing for the ‘present’ of games. Trying to find the next slight modification to a niche that’ll grab the attention of streamers. Focusing on art too early at the expense of design, trying to game social media to maximize retweets and favorites. Creating games like a business (sure, that’s necessary to an extent if you’re doing it for a living, but pursuing this to its logical end of scaling/hiring… only results in having to rely on funding and conservative market-tested game ideas)
The Present of Indie Games: A Field Of Funhouse Mirrors Reflecting Gods
Games often feel like some kind of weird pyramid scheme where indies collectively pay tribute to Gods (the “classics” of games… Mario, Zelda, etc), treating the games as the ideals which can never be surpassed. Designers take their design for granted, imitating it without thinking about where those choices came from. The games that result are these strange mixes and distortions of those games: like a house full of mirrors, distorting and misshaping things.
Occasionally in this system, one developer manages to strike gold, via pent up nostalgia for games – Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, Zelda, Metroid… in essence it feels like occasionally, these eternal game brands are rewarding a few lucky developers for sacrificing enough of their life in order to resurrect the brand in the minds of many players. Occasional clever twists may come and go, but indie games often feel eternally stuck in the past, even if their art may be updated for present-day tastes.
Obviously as designers we’re indebted to the past… we hone our craft and art by analyzing the past and looking for trends and seeing how other designers handled problems. But we don’t need to put ourselves in the shadow of a popular game – thinking of ourselves as inferior replicas. Doing that only guarantees that we forever get trapped running circles in the past. Our ideas have worth: they have more worth than the ideas of large corporations trying to drown out the entire audience of game players.
Okay, this isn’t related to any of the above. What the hell is with gacha mobile games being so damn laggy? I can see the future now… in 2040s, GDC talks will be about how “Lag” teaches patience. It’ll be taboo to have a UI transition take over 0.1 seconds. Changing a volume slider takes 10 seconds BECAUSE it encourages mindfulness. And then some indie designer who got famous for a meme game about being a shoe named “hat” in the 2020s will win a BAFTA in 2050 for “removing lag from games”, showing their vision…
But… anyways… laggy mobile gacha games. Clicking on buttons, opening menus – everything takes 3 seconds because the game has to contact a server to make sure you’re not cheating so that the IAPs people purchase are legit and so on. God, what a miserable fucking future for games, where every single one of our button presses are verified by some anti-security thing. Once you realize Gacha games are so anti-cheat because – otherwise – it would discourage gambling-addicted players from spending thousands in order to grind and rank at the top of time limited events if their achievements were dampened by cheaters – Gacha games feel a lot more grim.
Moreover, every time I open a Gacha game, within 5 minutes I get depressed and think about how literally anything I could be doing would be more worthwhile than playing this fucking Gacha game. Fuck gacha games. So many (all?) gacha games are a mediocre gameplay system padded out , and maybe peppered with scraps of story (or decent one, hello FGO). The characters are then themed on gross anime stereotypes and possessing idealized women or men. Everything about the game is designed for user retention.
After a few hours, you hit a wall. You need better gear! Whoops! Better play the game on Saturdays at 3:10 PM to 3:35 PM to grind for Pink Slime Gel so I can level up my Unfulfilled Highschool Waifu Fantasy to “Decadence Rank 14” so I can get +10% damage against Chocolate-type monsters to beat the new event quest under 14.5 seconds!!!
Gacha games are exploitative as fuck, designed to take advantage of people prone to gambling addictions, and giving the rest of us mild dopamine hits. A $70 single time game purchase is a hell of a lot more honest than well, Gacha Games. Also Gacha Games are ahistorical and will be canned the instant they’re not profitable.
I look forward to seeing designers in 10 years reflect upon their childhoods playing this crap.
I will say that they’re not worthless to play. Actually, the idea of a game taking up a tiny bit of time over a long period of our lives is interesting. Some games already do this. It’s just gacha games are the absolute worst form of this and only encourage habits that make us sad or give FOMO when we forget to get a daily login bonus.
In fact I’m willing to admit there’s probably a good gacha game out there! Haven’t found it yet though!
Okay, that was therapeutic… uh..
What I’ve Been Consuming
Ihatovo Monogatari (SNES)
I was lucky enough to get to play this for a HardcoreGaming101 Podcast. It’s a very simple game where each short arc is based on a Kenji Miyazawa short story (he’s a famous Japanese poet and writer from the early 20th century). It’s pretty experimental for the SNES – to be honest, it pales pretty badly in comparison to the original works, but I have to give the game credit for trying. It’s mostly walking around trying to find the next character to talk to in order to progress the story – which isn’t something I dislike, but it’s often hard to figure out what to do in Ihatovo…
Miyazawa’s short stories are full of the natural world coming alive in mystical or strange ways, and are often clever or funny subversions on fairy tale, fable or other short story formats of the time. I read through a book of his short stories and enjoyed some of the humor and surrealness, as well as how his deep experience with agriculture (I think) influences his writing. A lesson that we should all get hobbies! Ha ha ha…
This is the 2nd novel by Kawika Guillermo, who is also a professor who studies games, race and more! This novel is about a spirit in the afterlife who is on some ‘afterlife cruise’ and occasionally jumps into the ocean to revisit their past lives, always looking for some lost love. I’m only about halfway, but it’s a fun and exciting novel that jumps across 4,000 years of time from a wide array of perspectives. I’m… not describing it that well, but trust me, it’s good!
Well, that sure seems like enough for today’s writing!
I found myself thinking about the Dark Souls trilogy, again. Maybe one day I won’t have to think about them again… here is my attempt at exorcising them. Okay. I’ll refer to them as 1, 2, and 3 here.
So the other day I wondered some things. In particular:
I had meticulously (and wastefully) platinumed 3. Then why do I have little impression or sense of wonder when recalling it?
Why does 2 stand out as the most fascinating and exciting in my mind, even if I only played through it once?
Why despite 1’s first half being so strong, is it still not as memorable as 2?
I skimmed a speedrun of 3. It’s easy to see why it’s less memorable than 1 or 2. It has a fairly standard and safe art direction (undead decrepit stuff, dreary boring high fantasy). Environments out of that genre that don’t mystify me (sprawling castles, medieval villages in visually dense cliffs, swampy woods, European halls, catacombs…).
I can recall many of the spaces and levels in detail, but I don’t have the tinge of awe and jealousy I tend to get when being impressed.
Drawn in contrast to 2, some other reasons surface. 3 is far more world-designcontinuous (here on just continuous) than 2.
See the Appendix at the bottom for definitions of the terms I’ll use in this post – hyper-, normal-, semi-, and discontinuous. I’ll assume you sort of understand what I mean by these terms going forward:
Okay, so Dark Souls 3 – or just 3 – the game is split into three chunks – Castle, Forest, and Snow Castle. There is a break between Castle and Forest (where you fly, conveying a sense of descent into the world), and a break between Forest and Snow Castle that’s articulated by a level (catacombs, conveying a sense horizontal-plane traversal into the world). These chunks are nearly hypercontinuous within themselves – while they’re not open world, there are handfuls of mutual vantage points, things are detailed and realistically sized. (3’s three chunks are circled here:)
Dark Souls 1 is roughly similar to Dark Souls 3 in continuity, but it takes place in a vertically oriented world. We could pick apart definitions as to what extent these two are continuous, but my focus isn’t on those games. Still, this glass model by Twitter use @rigmarole111 captures 1’s world well: Notice that the game has four strata: the top-level areas – Anor Londo, Duke’s Archive, mid-level areas (Sen’s, Parish, Burg, Garden), lower-level areas (Blighttown), and subterranean areas (not pictured).
People love 1’s first half because you’re exploring the middle and lower-level areas, totally on your own, shrouded in mystery, and the game is good at helping you create connections between the world (as you play for the first time the structure is not at all obvious). The goal of the game is initially to reach Anor Londo, but you’ve got to explore all over before you get there, and many closed off/difficult paths will tempt you.
I would say 1 gestures at hyper-continuity at times, but actually some of its major mutual vantage points are faked (to good effect), and I would classify it as actually closer to normal-continuous. That is to say, none of its connections are confusing or baffling. If we are walking down, we’re going to the underground, and reach fire-y lava areas. If we go up, we go towards grand, royalty castle areas. It’s standard videogame world stuff (see any castlevania game), executed well in 3D.
Still… it’s not as inspiring as 2 to me. Why? By most popular accounts, 2 is a ‘mess’. The areas don’t make any sense, they connect randomly, there’s no ‘blog-worthy shortcuts!’.
Here’s a world map of Dark Souls 2, where I’ve highlighted the game’s paths.
A few notes:
Everything spirals out from Majula, a seaside village.
Collect 4 Important Things at the end of 4 paths, located in: Black Gulch (deep dark area), Iron Keep (fire castle in mountains), Brightstone cove (church/caves near a settlement near the ocean), and Sinner’s Rise (moonlit fortress near the sea)
Visit Drangleic Castle, go deep deep down all the way to Undead Crypt
Go way way up to Dragon Shrine
End the game at Throne of Want (in the castle)
There’s basically no crossover between main paths and there are barely any mutual vantage points
2 varies from 1 because 2’s world is representing an entire continent. There are little to no mutual vantage points because as you walk from one area to another – even without loading screens – you might be implied to travel miles. The player is going on a world-spanning adventure, much like a JRPG, just without the game giving us the abstraction of a world map to make that feel more coherent. We walk through a mysterious tunnel from Majula to Heide’s tower, and emerge 10 miles away. A quick trek through some woods and a small cave system shoots us out at a shore all the way at the other end of the world. An elevator at the top of a poisonous windmill takes us to a fire-y lava keep. And so on and so forth.
Because 2 is missing a world-map-esque abstraction layer, the game world inevitably connects in some confusing ways. Walking 100 meters can actually imply travelling all sorts of distances. Thus 2 has inconsistencies to how you travel between spaces, and it approaches being discontinuous, and thus becomes a semi-continuous game at times.
Back to Dark Souls 1: while playing, you are oriented within the world. Even as you uncover new places, you’re still aware, roughly, where you are vertically within the game’s world, and if you’re not aware (perhaps as you go to blighttown for the first time), a mutual vantage point (Great Swamp to Undead Burg) comes along and situates you within the world. Or if you wandered into Demon Ruins early and are disoriented, you’ll still become oriented once you see Demon Ruins from Tomb of the Giants.
As a player explores a game’s world, tension slowly builds as they sense they’ve drifted far from home, far from the familiar. And within this tension is where lack of continuity can be used to achieve various effects. Connect the player back to a familiar place and let them feel grounded. Or lead them further and further from the familiar, connecting areas in surprising ways.
2 doesn’t do anything to situate you within the island unless you go and look it up. It’s just one area after another, and the sense of endlessly going deeper into some fever dream of a continent. You just pick a random direction from Majula and keep going and going and going, and it feels like you may never reach any end point. You just know you’re either “sort of far” from Majula or “really far” from Majula.
Eventually, you do hit the end of a path, and the magic wears off, and you get one of the 4 magic items and go on to find the next.
This kind of semicontinuity is fascinating to me. It happens when a game establishes a consistent physical logic but then chooses to break its rules at certain times, or to at least not be consistent in one method of arranging the game’s world. Dark Souls 2 creates fairly continuous areas such as Forest of Fallen Giants, but at the same time does absurd things like having a well take you to a rat-infested catacomb, which THEN takes you to a poorly-lit cave with shambles of wooden housing, and finally some eerie, green cave. Nothing in the game really explains how this connects spatially to the rest of the game (unlike 1’s Lost Izalith, which you can see from elsewhere in the game). Instead, 2 is content to shove you from one area to the next. 2 feels like the randomness of some old videogames’ worlds, but expressed through a detailed 3D world with no loading screens. It’s full of interesting and inconsistent ideas, and like some Twitter mutuals put it – feels like playing a romhack of Dark Souls.
2 is the most memorable for these reasons. You take an elevator down from the top of a castle, and for some reason it shoots you out into a sprawling, blue, underground lake:
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s another elevator which takes you to an underground crypt.
In another section, a mansion sits off the side of a road: you then take the world’s tallest elevator up to a floating set of islands and dragon temples. Now, these strange transitions extremely memorable just because of how bizarre they are, peppered in between fairly reasonable transitions (e.g. walking through misty woods, to forested pathways, to some shady ruins). These moments are strange because the game has lots of non-strange transitions (like the interior of Drangleic Castle), and the game plays them both off as normal.
What semicontinuity gets at for me is the exciting ways we can represent our game worlds as designers. There’s no need to adhere to any one formula or idea: the ways areas are connected can be carefully thought through and become expressive.
It’s something we thought about while making Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (Spoilers ahead.. if you quit Anodyne 2 after 1 hour this is a good time to go finish it!!).
We initially establish a videogame-y logic to shrinking into people located in the 3D world, putting the game in the vicinity of normal-continuous. But as the game goes on, it’s revealed that the linkage of “3D character” and “2D world” is not always paired. Iwasaki Antimon takes you to a mailbox of a person Iwasaki obsesses over. The fur of a dog-creature ends up being a village you reside in for weeks. The desertnpc takes you to something completely unexpected. Pastel Horizon, Minorma’s Orb and New Theeland connect through an alternate Anodyne 1’s Nexus. The notions of space and how they should connect shift from a straightforward videogame-y premise to something disorienting and discontinuous. Anodyne 2’s continuity shifts as you get further… and it uses this to suggest a certain location in 2D as further away.
These sorts of formalized techniques can be used hand-in-hand with the story themes to make certain ideas resonate stronger with the player. For example, putting Dustbound Village inside a nano area makes you wonder about the rest of the 2D worlds you’ve visited – and gets you to rethink what you’ve learned about your role as a Nano Cleaner in Anodyne 2’s world. The strange large areas in the Outer Sands break down an attempt at a ‘logical’ understanding of Anodyne 2’s world’s fabric and suggests something that exists on a more fantastical layer. Thinking about and using continuity in different ways can create different headspaces for a player to inhabit as they read what you’ve written or prepared for them to play through.
Anyways, all degrees of continuity can result in interesting games. On the hypercontinuous end, we could have an exploration of a single bedroom, not necessarily sprawling and repetitive corpgames. Or an exploration of a single town (like in Attack of the Friday Monsters). There’s no right approachto making games or picking the level of continuity. But if you’re designing games it’s good to find some approach that you care about.
Appendix on defining continuous/etc
As always, game design theory is… sort of made up, right? These ideas may bear fruit when analyzing certain games, they may be worthless for others.
I’ll define continuity as a game’s tendency to have unbroken, realistically-sized spaces that you travel through without many cuts. On one end of the spectrum, games can be hypercontinuous (painful accuracy to real life – exteriors of buildings always match the interiors, the camera never cuts, there is no fast travel). I don’t know of many large games that are hypercontinuous, but the majority of recent open-world corporate games (corpgames) are close to this (Breath of the Wild, God of War, Grand Theft Auto).
Or games can be discontinuous – levels connect with seemingly no underlying logic (Yume Nikki, Goblet Grotto, Chameleon Kid).
But most games tend to lay in the middle – normal-continuous. This is when a game employs the standard set of breaks in its spatial traversal that we expect: a JRPG brings you from a world map (abstract) to various towns and dungeons. We traverse the world both concretely (through dungeons and towns) but also abstractly, through a world map. However, to the player, it’s always understood where you are in this world and the game generally intends its world to be remembered as a continuous space, even if it may change the level of abstraction from time to time. Normal-continuous represents what today’s commonly accepted practices are in terms of how a game articulates its transitions from one area to another.
Characterized by a game whose spaces have an experience of moving about them that is very close to real life.
Likely to not have restricted levels (e.g. you can walk anywhere)
Exists at big and small game scales: From “See that mountain? You can visit it!” to “spend a day sitting in an apartment.”
Usually 3D, just because 2D more or less is always an abstraction from “realistic” representations of 3D space
Most games. E.g. JRPGs with world maps, visual novels with different areas
Spaces may not be ‘realistic’ in representation or connection
a player can make sense of where they are in the world most of the time, because areas are connected with consistent logic and the game makes an effort to let the player situate themselves (through a world map, etc.)
travelling between areas is consistently represented and has consistent outcomes. E.g. when a game has 3D houses you can enter, if you enter the door and then always enter an interior area, the game is following its own rule that “Going into houses leads to an interior space”. A continuous game is unlikely to violate this rule. Other rules could be – Doors take you to new areas, doors take you to the same area if you re-use them, etc. A discontinious approach would be that sometimes a house’s door takes you to a beach or something
Either a mixture of discontinous and normal/hyper-continuous approaches, intentionally (or not ) breaking ‘good practices’ and breaking the sense of logic to its game’s world
If a game never situates its player in a familiar place, but shows one surprising locale after another, it enters the realm of discontinuous, like dream-exploration Yume Nikki, labyrinthian platformer Chameleon Kid, semi-procedurally-generated 0n0w (https://colorfiction.itch.io/0n0w) or spiraling 2D/3D maze 10 Beautiful Postcards (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68N1udqRrvk) , or various early PC games that didn’t seem to ‘care’ about player’s navigation or “good practices”. Games that use this approach can explore unique feelings, sometimes terrifying. Digital space within discontinuous games can be implied to be infinite and unknowable, and that’s a very interesting situation to place a player into.
In choosing not to embody a place and be hypercontinuous, a discontinuous game begins to embody an abstract sense of feelings depending on the game, but also the game opens up more space for a player to relate *their* spatial memories with that of the games.
Anodyne 1 is somewhat discontinuous, by way of Yume Nikki’s influence. And I think it’s a big reason why many people remember its world and take away different things – in a discontinuous game world, a player is left to form many of their own associations based on what images and text the designer provides.
As a game changes its digital space from more realistically connected to more discontinous, the world may feel unknowable, a fever dream of unrelated parts and images that seem to go on endlessly, a fearsome nightmare or dream, all contained within a few bits on a computer’s hard drive…
Hi! I’m Melos Han-Tani (https://twitter.com/han_tani). I’ve been making indie games as a hobbyist and professional for almost a decade (Anodyne 1+ 2, Even the Ocean, All Our Asias).
Some friends have been talking about and asking about ergonomics – it’s something I’ve been taking fairly seriously since my mid-20s and making investments in that, I think, are far cheaper than the cost of later medication or physical therapy. So I’m going to go over my current set-up!
Let me just preface this by saying that obviously, all of this costs money and it’s not about shaming anyone if they can’t afford something. Some of this can be solved by workarounds (I used to use old package boxes or books as a footrest), but anything you can get here will help. Because I work full-time and rely on game development for my income, I’ve invested into the higher end of equipment, but even making adjustments with cheaper choices can do wonders for physical health.
Context for my work: I have a home office and work about 40-60 hours a week, though I’m probably at my computer in some way a lot more than that. I program, which is typing-intensive, and write music and design games, which are very mouse and keystroke intensive. If you do something like illustration this may not be as useful.
I’m in my late 20s and have dealt with wrist RSI as well as neck/back strain in the past (which are more or less gone under the right circumstances). I can’t play clicking or button press intensive PC games without a controller, I can’t use a regular mouse for longer than 15 minutes. This is partially from using computers too much over my life, but also years of bad posture growing up, and also sports strain (I was a competitive bowler in grade school, which puts a lot of strain on your body if you’re not buff enough (which I was not.))
Nothing in this article will be that useful if you work for 2+ hour stints without getting up, stretching, or drinking water. Find some stretches that work for you, in particular, the wrist, shoulders, arms, upper back, eyes, jaw, neck. Try to plan your day so that you can get up at least once an hour (30 minutes is best).
Exercise helps. You should try to stretch your entire body or get a little bit of cardio before working at a computer each day. This doesn’t have to be running a mile, but just enough that you’re ready for the strain of working at a computer.
It helps to learn to identify tension in your body – there are lots of physical therapy or massage videos you can watch. Things like muscle tension can lead to various types of other pain in parts of the body that might not even be the things that are tense.
If you can, light muscle workouts can help build a strong core which makes it easier to have good posture.
Good posture is knowledge and practice, and good equipment lets you achieve that posture. But good equipment won’t help much if you’re not using them with proper posture.
Eye and Neck
If you work at a monitor, generally you want to make sure that when sitting upright, you don’t have to tilt your head up or down to see your screen. (This basically rules out laptops!) The rule of thumb is your resting eye angle should hit the center of the screen, but depending on the work you do this can be higher or lower, or even left or right. You may need to adjust your software or monitor to achieve this angle (some software may focus your eyes on the left side of the screen, etc)
Your form with typing matters: don’t slump your wrists while typing. Rest your hands on your thighs when not typing, or off to the side in a neutral hand position. From your elbow to your fingers, your forearm should be straight – you don’t want upwards wrist tilt (like a waiter holding a big serving plate). I think a little downwards is okay, but to the extent that a loose wrist will tilt from gravity. I try to keep my wrist flat.
You want a little bit of tenting for your keyboard as it accommodates the natural rotation of the wrist more. Most good keyboards let you customize this. I use a fairly gentle tilt of a few degrees – find what works best for you.
The angle your forearm and upper arm form a the elbow is important for typing: about 90-110 degrees is good. The angle your upper arm and spine form is important, too – roughly parallel to 10 degrees is best (the idea being, you don’t want your elbows shooting behind your back, nor do you want to be reaching out uncomfortably towards your keyboard).
This illustration shows a pretty good forearm-upper arm angle, as well as a good upper arm-torso angle. The Spine to seat angle might be a bit too far back though.
There’s even more! How much your forearms are rotated inwards in order to type matters! But more on that in the keyboard section.
As far as your torso-to-thigh angle – I alternate between sitting up straight closer to the edge of my seat, and sitting up with my chair supporting me (slightly at an angle like the above illustration). Generally you don’t want to let your upper back slump forward, nor your neck to tilt downward or extend forward. Your neck should be parallel with your torso in most cases.
I’m not sure about the ideal upper leg to lower leg angle. I find anywhere from 90 degrees and up to be pretty good, as long as I can achieve the proper foot angle and upper body posture.
Lastly, your feet: they should rest flat on the ground comfortably without your thighs angling up too much (indicating a too short chair), or without the feeling that you have to extend your legs to reach the ground (too high of a chair). This is hard if you’re short (like me). You might need a footrest if you’re short (actually I recommend one either way, but you likely will need one if you’re short because most desks and chairs are designed for average heights, and you won’t be able to achieve the proper angles otherwise).
One more note on posture
Move around a little! It’s good to not just sit in one position all day, which is why adjustable footrests and sliding chairs are good. Good posture doesn’t have to be one position – it can vary a little.
Don’t feel like you have to follow these exactly: if something is causing strain or lasting pain then it might not work for you.
Say no to laptops!
I can’t stress enough that if you are a professional working with computers significantly, stop using a laptop ASAP and switch to at minimum, an external keyboard and external monitor. As much as whatever marketing speak might want you to believe, laptops are not designed for 40-60+ hour workweeks. If you’re in your teens or 20s and feel healthy still, you’re increasing the risk of eventual RSI, eye, and neck issues with hunching over the screen and the cramped, repetitive motions your hands have to do on a cramped laptop keyboard or tiny touchpad.
This, of course, could be mitigated depending on your childhood history and entertainment preferences. If you grew up playing tons of computer games or hanging out online, OR, if you do either of those now – those are risk factors. Someone who grew up mostly ‘offline’ and doesn’t use the computer much outside of work, might be able to use a laptop for longer. But I honestly wouldn’t recommend anyone use a laptop if they can avoid it.
Again, you don’t need to buy a desktop computer (I’ve never owned one) – just get a monitor and external keyboard. More on those later.
Chair – I use an Okamura Baron Chair. These go for over $1,000 new, but I found mine for around $400 used (depends on condition). The neck rest is not really needed as you shouldn’t be leaning back while working.
I believe this is a ‘soft mesh’ type chair. While this is vastly my preference over other types, there are some disadvantages to keep in mind (See https://www.btod.com/blog/mesh-office-chair-problems/ ). In particular, if you weigh a lot (I’m quite light and short), that may lead to the seat or back cushion distorting over a long time. However I’ve been using mine full-time for nearly a year and have not had any lower back pain since from when I used cushioned chairs. I find cushioned chairs make me sink in too much and focus pressure on the wrong places.
Always try to test a chair before buying, keeping in mind your height. Some chairs may not go low enough, some armrests may be too high.
My Baron chair lets me adjust how far the seat goes forward, as well as the obvious like height, or how far back the back of the seat will tilt. You can also adjust resistance of the back. The armrests can also be replaced with adjustable (rotateable and raisable) armrests, which is great – I actually don’t have these on my chair, but it would help a bunch as my elbows have to tilt outwards to rest on the armrest, and the armrest is about 1 cm too high.
I use an motorized sitting/standing desk which can be programmed to various heights. I try to stand an hour or two a day, it especially helps when I need to stay awake. But the main use is that it prevents you from having to sit all day which can lead to soreness. However if you take breaks and don’t overwork, not having the standing option isn’t a huge deal.
Because I’m short, I need a desk with a height of 60 cm, so that I can use my footrest and still have the correct typing angles. The vast majority of adjustable desks do not go this low, so I bought the Flexispot, which is about $400 and is motorized and very sturdy! Not to mention big.
I don’t use this, but if you’re on your feet a lot you might want a ergonomic pad to stand on. I stand in comfy slippers, which let me stand for roughly an hour before wanting to sit down. (Standing can be just as bad as sitting, which is why motorized desks are great since you can alternate easily.)
I use a BORDERLESS foot cushion (about $100). I know that sentence sounds absurd, but it has foam with just the right amount of give, and the taller side has a good curvature for your feet. It doesn’t slide around easily, has a washable cover, and can be pushed forward or closer depending how you’d like to rest your legs.
You can likely be okay with cheaper – anything with a curved end to it is good. (The shallower end of this cushion is for reclining which I never do)
You don’t need anything fancy, but if you don’t use a blue-light reduction tool (like Flux) you should download that. Depending on your needs you might want glasses or a monitor that can help reduce blue light further. You can find a good monitor new for about $100-$150. Some monitors have fancy features but I think if you take breaks for your eyes you’ll be fine.
I have a 1080P ASUS monitor – the monitor should be big enough to be easy to read but not too big that you have to move your head to read far parts of the screen. 1440P or 4K are fine (clearer to read) too, just make sure your computer’s GPU can handle it (looking at you, my 2013 MacBook that thought trying to output 4K was a good idea).
It’s worth mentioning that if you use a multi monitor set-up, try to keep stuff you only occasionally need to reference off to the side. You definitely don’t want to have your neck tilted for hours while working. (I use my laptop as a 2nd screen, and put stuff like notes there.)
With that in mind, you’ll probably need to stack your monitor on some books or boxes to achieve the proper eye to screen angle. There are expensive stands and stuff that can do this and let you adjust your monitor as needed. I’ve never owned one, but I do generally need a slightly higher monitor height when standing so I’ve considered it.
Use trackball mice. Trackpads on a laptop simply aren’t designed for any long term, serious work, and regular mice will eventually destroy your wrists or fingers because of the wrist movement required.
Trackball mice let you minimize movement by only requiring a ball be rotated to control the mouse cursor.
There are many trackball mice out there: experiment at a store to find what works well for you and your needs. If your RSI is not as far along, you may be able to use a mouse that you move with your thumb, or ones with huge trackballs. But for me I have to use a Trackman Marble.
I’ve used a Trackman Marble with my left hand for years, which runs about $60. Note that there are only four buttons and it’s only feasible to use three of them at a time. I use the tiny one for double-click, then the big left/right for left and right click. HOWEVER:
Lots of clicking is pretty bad for your wrists. I used to use NeatMouse for mouse emulation – letting my keyboard simulate clicks. For example, I might have 8,9 and 0 be left/middle/right click.
Nowadays I do this with remappable keyboards (more on that soon).
Also, depending on your work, you might be interested in auto-click software – software that clicks for you when you stop moving the mouse.
Note that some games are hard to play with trackball mice.
Keyboards come in various ‘ranks’, but I’ll just start with the best.
About $300-400 depending on features. I’ve used the Ergodox EZ for a little over 2 years and it’s the best keyboard I’ve ever used. My only complaint is that it could use one more row of keys.
the Ergodox EZ is fully remappable, meaning you can use a software tool to flash the keyboard and upload your own key bindings to it. This means you could make every key type “A” if you wanted to. Practically speaking, it means you can move around keys to where you need them to be.
It also has a concept of “layers” – with one keystroke, you can set the keyboard to an entirely different set of keys, either until you untoggle it, or until you release a key. For example, I have a hold-toggle layer that I use to zoom in and out of a scene in Unity (a game editor software). I also have a press-toggle layer that I use for mapping J, K and L to mouse clicks, and WASD to mouse movement.
I also have keys mapped to Alt+tab or Ctrl+tab macros. The Ergodox can do a lot. I also map the keys near my thumbs to mouse clicks as well.
The Ergodox is also, well, ergonomic. It’s fully split meaning you can move the halves around, so you can move it so that you shoulders are resting natural and open. There are keys rotated to work well with your thumbs. Keys are arranged straight (vs. offset like a regular keyboard), so your fingers extend more naturally to reach keys. It takes a few weeks to get used to, but is great.
You can also tent the keyboard slightly (I use a tenting of a few degrees). You can also give it lights (I don’t use these) , or a wrist rest (I don’t use these as my wrists slump – I rest my wrists on my thighs or at my sides when standing.)
You can also customize the key switches to your preference, for comfortable key feedback (which may affect wrist/finger fatigue). I use MX Cherry Brown.
If you don’t want or can’t afford the Ergodox, there are plenty of alternatives. However, the majority of keyboards are NOT programmable and so you’re limited to the manufacturer’s design. Split keyboards are better than non-split in all cases, but it’s best to get ‘true’ split keyboards (where it’s two halves). Keyboards with tenting are better than none, but you need a ‘true split’ keyboard to adjust the tenting to your body’s preference.
For one, any standard external keyboard (with a USB plug) is better than a laptop keyboard, simply because you can then elevate the laptop or move it away from you.
Here are some okay cheaper alternatives:
The Periboard is about $60 – it’s a great ‘starter’ ergonomic keyboard. As you might notice, it’s gigantic – you pretty much need to use a left hand mouse with this or you’re going to be reaching too far to the right.
The Sculpt is pretty good, too:
Beyond that things tend to go into the mid to high $100s. I would say if you’re looking at that range you’re better off saving for the Ergodox – it’ll last longer and it does about everything you might need.
I used to use SoftFlex computer gloves (I’m not sure if the maker is still selling them) for years, but rarely do nowadays as most of my wrist pain has been alleviated by my chair, keyboard and desk investments. To be honest computer gloves feel hard to recommend and probably depend on your situation a lot more than other stuff I’ve talked about.
SoftFlex computer gloves will redirect pressure away from certain nerves to reduce RSI / carpal tunnel /etc pain.
But with my current setup, if I take breaks and stretch the wrists and type properly, I almost never experience RSI pain unless I was also playing videogames the same day, or doing a particularly intensive repetitive task like level design (involving lots of repeated or held keystrokes etc).
In total, my equipment runs about $1500. That is a lot of money, but it feels reasonable to me as an investment into my future health in terms of concrete results. I plan to use this equipment to create games for years, so I want to make sure to buy stuff that will last. In any case, keep in mind that most of that cost is my choice of desk/keyboard/chair.
Recently I’ve made two new purchases which have immensely improved my setup:
Articulated Arm Rests ($80-$200/piece)
Armrests on office chairs are notoriously bad and barely fit anyone properly. I recently purchased two of these and removed my armrests from my Baron chair and it’s been great! Articulated arm rests move with your arm and accommodate movement instead of making your shoulders carry the weight of your arms. Reaching for far keys or a mouse takes a lot less strain. They’re also adjustable.
I’ve seen friends use Ergorest, but I think cheaper options exist. I’m in Japan and bought two AERO CA-600s for a little under $200.
Ergodriven’s Topo ($100): A fairly firm mat for standing desk usage and shoes. It’s harder than most ‘squishy’ fatigue mats, but I think with shoes this is actually a good thing – the varied height of the mat lets you change your feet posture to different angles, which is actually healthier than just standing.
I’ve bought a few things since last year!
My computer monitor now has an arm. This lets me move around the monitor if I need to, and clears room below the monitor (in my case I place a music keyboard beneath it.). In particular I use the Ergotron arm:
I also have my laptop on a laptop stand! This elevates it to the same height for use as a 2nd monitor, and frees up space beneath it. I use this: