Absent Design (June 2021)

We’ve come halfway through the year! My local farmers market has continued running throughout the pandemic, but this month it seems to have exploded to be the busiest it has ever been. I wish to be the same — I am ready to burst with life! I flew back home to see my family and good friends, and have scheduled many trips to reunite with more people soon. I am glad we are able to reach out and hug again. Time has made us so different, and things will never be the same, but let’s make the future as beautiful as we can, okay?

I must confess, though, that I did not make anything this month, beautiful or otherwise. My personal project files have gone unopened for too long. I could invent excuses for myself, but the truth is that I am undisciplined. Making games by yourself is hard, especially when you hit a task that lies outside your experience but must be done. In my case I need to make some sprite art, but I am daunted by the challenge. Design and code are almost invisible to an audience, but with sound and visuals there is nothing to hide behind. It is interesting how much more vulnerable it feels.

The role we call “Designer” in the Western game industry is usually called “Planner” in Japanese games. In some ways I prefer that term, because it more accurately captures the day-to-day deliverables without getting mixed up with the many disciplines of visual design. When a Japanese game credits someone as a “designer” I always cross reference it to check, and usually it is part of the art department as a character designer, sprite designer, or graphic designer. While all design shares a useful bed of theory and history, this sort of work is very different from what we call “game design.” My work involves planning out and testing the functions and needs of as many elements in the game as possible, so that other members can confidently assemble their parts with the certainty that they will fit together. If done right the outcome will hopefully be fun to play, but if done poorly it can mean wasted work for other people and vestigial systems.

It was with those thoughts in mind that I played Trip World for the Game Boy. It’s a pretty obscure title that I learned about while poking through Sunsoft’s back catalogue. The developer had caught my curiosity after I saw a Hebereke speedrun during Games Done Quick and I vibed completely with the cute “shitpost Sanrio” characters. I never see anyone talk about Sunsoft, so I decided to pursue a whim and check out a few of their original games over the last year.

Trip World is a forgotten game, and not without reason. It is a side-scrolling platformer with a cartoon animal mascot character — a crowded genre then and now. What sets it apart are two core concepts: first, that enemies generally do not damage the player, and second, that the player can change forms. Given these concepts and the system it was released on, I assumed that Trip World was chasing after Kirby’s Dream Land, but it turns out that they were released within months of each other. (And besides, Kirby did not have transformations until Kirby’s Adventure on the NES.) Kirby would come to be defined later by its kid-friendly breeziness and many fantastic transformations, but those elements are already set in Trip World. But while Trip World may have come first, the inevitable comparison is not in its favor. They share intentions, but Trip World fumbles its executions.

Platformers generally have enemy characters because they give meaning and consequence to the player’s actions. Without meaningful consequence, there is no drama and no play. Unfortunately Trip World does not have any substitution for the drama afforded by hazardous foes. Critters meander left and right, and collide against the player without any reaction. It is possible to kick them off screen, but there is no real reason to do so. It is also possible, with a power-up, to spit seeds at the critters and cause a small flower to grow on top of their heads. This is surprising and delightful at first blush, but sadly it is also without any consequence. It is a thing you can do, any perhaps that can be enough, if not for the boss fights.

At the end of every level of Trip World there is a shockingly difficult boss battle. While other characters in the world seldom deal any damage, the bosses are brutal and require extremely precise action. It’s not Castlevania hard, but it feels unfair because it is so out of place from what is asked of the player for the other 90% of the game. I am not sure any other game has such a disparate difficulty spike. The challenging bosses put the lackadaisical level designs into question. Either the levels are meaningless because they are not preparing the player for the challenges ahead, or the bosses are meaningless because they halt the chill out vibes of the levels. There is an incompatible miscommunication.

The second conceit, the transformation abilities, do not add up either. The up and down buttons on the d-pad allow the player character to change into a sky form and a fish form. The sky form allows the player to glide, and the fish form allows the player to swim. Each comes with downsides; the glide will stun the player for a period of time when they hit a wall, and the fish can only flop on land. These caveats make the forms only useful in extremely specific scenarios, however those hypothetical scenarios never appear in the game. The base form can travel through water just as well as the fish, only with slower physics, and every jump in the game seems designed to be clearly accomplished with just the base form. There could be speed running benefits to the different forms, but nothing within the game itself asks for nor rewards their use.

This is a pity, because each of the player forms has impressive art and physics. The game has some of the best animation I’ve seen on the GameBoy, and the physics programming feels robust. Outside the form changes I have already mentioned, there are power-ups that turn the player into a bouncy ball, into a miniature version of the character, one that gives a long reaching tail attack, and one even stretches the character’s legs freakishly long. Each of these forms has complete animation sets, and different controls with momentum. It is seriously impressive work for the Game Boy era. My favorite detail was a tumbling animation when sliding down a slope.

The reason this obscure game has stuck in my mind this month is because the shortcomings of the design planning undercut the parts that shine. This is a very harsh thing for me to say, but the poor game design insults the craft of all the other disciplines. Working as a designer, I cannot help but imagine myself on the other side of the screen, squandering the thousands of lines of code and intricately arranged sprite sheets that give the player character life.

That was my dark, nasty thought as I watched the credits start to roll. Then I was greeted by one last surprise: the team was tiny. A couple artists, a couple musicians, and a director who did all the programming. No one called themself a planner. This flipped the narrative in my head. On a bigger team, there is a responsibility to prune and focus so that there is a consistent direction. But if, and I admit this is speculation, this was the work of a programmer’s passionate desire to code a bunch of character experiments, and a posse of artists showing off how good they are at pixel animation, then who am I to say that the fish form needed to be cut? Maybe this game isn’t for me — maybe it’s for the people who made it, the people who added a power-up that makes flowers grow on everyone’s heads, not because it did anything but just because they could. Will I forget this game because of its indulgences, or will I remember it for them? Only time will tell.

It would have been nice if Trip World had better level design. It could take something neat and make it great. Its absence makes my professional anxieties spill out. “Where was the planner?” There wasn’t one. Just a handful of people making something new, and tumbling down beautifully. I hope they had a better time making it than I had playing it.


FFVIIR: Intermission (DLC, PS5)

  • FFVIIR’s battle system still leaves me in total awe. Just astonishingly good gameplay. So exciting, so complex, yet before long you can play it without even looking at your opponent. Delicious.
  • Yuffie’s kit is fun! I can’t wait to do battles with her in the ensemble!
  • Does this game want me to think Yuffie just walked out of the bathroom or something and forgot to button her shorts? For the entire game? I am begging you to please change that part of the character design.
  • We borrowed a friend’s PS5 to play this but we messed up and started it in a temporary account that deleted our 3+ hour long save file when we stopped for the night. I think the PS5 is a bad console right now. 60 FPS looks niiiiiiiiiiice tho

Advance Wars (GBA)

  • After the remake of this game was announced at E3 I dove back into the original.
  • This game is legitimately dangerous for me. It is so addicting that it interferes with my life. I finished the campaign within a couple of days and it is taking so much willpower not to start the next one. If I mention Advance Wars again next month I have failed.

Streets of Rage 2 (3DS)

  • The 3DS port of this arcade classic adds stereoscopic 3D and it looks beautiful. I bought a new 3DS last year and tricked it out with faux wood paneling just so I could play these upgraded old games and have the ultimate hipster life. It has been worth it to play this game in the best possible format, IMO. 
  • “2.5D” perspective games like this usually have to do a lot of magic tricks to fake the depth collision and make it feel right. I wonder how much of a nightmare it was to convert that collision calculation to work with “real” depth demanded by the stereoscopic effect. Maybe the original programming was super good and didn’t have to do any trickery so the conversion was seamless! I wonder.

Streets of Fire (Movie)

  • Dude this movie rules??? This movie rules so hard I ordered a collector’s steelbook before the credits finished.
  • I would like someone to write some sort of pithy comparison between Streets of Rage and Streets of Fire but it couldn’t be me.

Dear Brother (Anime)

  • It’s like Mean Girls, if Mean Girls traded all the comedy for gothic dread!
  • The first episode is so intense that I had to stop and take a breath. Nearly every shot is vignetted, like a horror movie. Something menacing is hiding in the shadows. Everyone wears a phony smile. Characters say one thing, and the subtleties of the visuals scream otherwise. I’m still only a few episodes in, but it is clearly the work of masters at the height of their craft.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena, my favorite show, is clearly in conversation with Dear Brother. Many visual compositions are unmistakable quotes, and the themes of school hierarchies and power structures have many similarities as well. Even mundane shots seem like subconscious recreations. It is as if whenever the animators of RGU closed their eyes to imagine a solution, Dear Brother‘s approach always appeared first. It’s fun to trace back influences and see that in all great and novel things, creativity is often much smaller and more iterative than we might expect.

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