Game Development and Media Reviews

Author: Schifty (Page 2 of 2)

Game Developer and Software Consultant

Politics in Video Games is Everywhere

Far Cry 5 surprised a lot of players by openly referencing modern politics.

The recent discussions about including politics in video games seem pretty dumb to me. When people complain about politics in video games, they usually complain about an attack on social norms. The conversation is mostly limited to inclusiveness and gender politics. It lacks the realization that there are political messages in every story and therefore every video game. Even the ones you would normally deem apolitical. This inclusion of politics might not even be intentional but there is usually no way around it. You either reinforce societal norms or you try to challenge them. Let me prove that to you.

Games like Cyberpunk 2077 started to move away from traditional character creation by letting the player select a body type instead of a labeled gender.

Remember Star Wars from 1977? Star Wars is the story about a young man named Luke Skywalker joining the Jedi in fighting against the evil Empire to free the galaxy from oppression. It is not the story about a radicalized teenager turned terrorist who joined a cult and blew up a space station with tens of thousands of people inside. Why is that? It’s because George Lucas chose to make Luke his protagonist; he became the hero of the story and not its antagonist. Remember that the next time you are playing Call of Duty. People usually don’t recognize the choice of protagonist by a game developer to be a political decision as long as it doesn’t go against established norms. Your enemies are called terrorists and you have the duty to shoot them. Now think about the last time you fought off an evil invasion force from the west to protect your family? People would call that blatant political propaganda.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare made it simple to understand who to root for. This was not deemed controversial by most as this game was published during the height of the War on Terror.

The science-fiction setting is usually pretty immune to feeling political as most contemporary context is removed. Ironically, most stories that are set in the future are in fact as political as they can possibly get because they have to predict the future of humanity. Finding the trajectory for humanity has to start with an analysis of the current political situation and its problems. Is humanity prospering without the need for money like it does in Star Trek or are mega-corporations taking over and making everybody miserable like they do in The Outer Worlds or Cyperpunk 2077? Those cases represent massive criticisms of capitalism. Have we learned to live together with aliens and embrace diversity like shown in Mass Effect? Or is humanity locked in a constant war for survival like it is in Halo? Curiously, the latter game is about a pure and homogenic group of warriors with blue eyes that kills diverse groups of aliens. These games touch on the subjects of strength through purity vs. strength through diversity – which sounds pretty political to me.

The Outer Worlds parodies the consequences of unchecked capitalism but its message was not seen as controversial as the context of todays political parties was completely removed.

Let’s look at games like Cities: Skylines. This game is political and it doesn’t even have a story. As you build your dream city you eventually have to navigate your city’s budget. What is a fair amount of taxes? At what point are your citizens going to protest your government? How does lowering taxes impact growth? You can’t get around answering those questions without making a political statement, even if you really don’t want to.

You can adjust the tax rates of your city in Cities: Skylines with several sliders forcing the developer to set a ‘default tax rate’ associated with economic and political consequences when moving away from it.

Politics has always been in video games. When people say that they don’t like politics in video games, they usually just refer to an isolated statement that disagrees with established norms.

Hope that helps.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – Episode 1

The first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier just premiered on Disney’s streaming service. The show started off with one of those typical Marvel action scenes that we have seen plenty of times in over two dozen movies in the MCU. Don’t get me wrong – the visual effects looked very impressive and the editing and directing were on point. However, I started to watch comic book shows and movies with a lingering fatigue when it comes to explosions and everything CGI. Surprisingly, the show moved away from the fast paced action and focused on the main characters. They had problems, felt guilt and acted human. I liked that. I want to see heroes struggle and maybe even solve some of their problems without punching something through a wall. The show has definitely some potential to deliver on that. Wouldn’t that be pretty neat? I’m looking forward to next episode!

4/5 – Hope that helps.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

The theatrical release of Justice League did not remain very fondly in my memory – it actually barely remained in my memory at all. There was this joke about Batman being rich, Superman coming back to life and the assembled team fighting an army of CGI monsters to prevent a doomsday machine. This was all pretty generic comic book stuff. Ben Affleck as Batman, Jason Momoa as Aquaman and Ezra Miller as The Flash looked interesting on the surface but didn’t do anything memorable in the whole movie. The main reason being that their characters’ usefulness just paled in comparison to Superman. ‘Let’s watch this team of heroes struggle for 2h until Superman swoops in and saves the day with ease’ was simply not a very enticing plotline.

A couple of years later, Zack Snyder was able to release his original vision of the Justice League movie. His ‘Do Over’ released on HBO Max in a 4:3 aspect ratio. You have to be prepared for some thick black bars on your left and right of your TV screen. The movie is divided into 7 parts including an epilogue and has a runtime of almost 4h. It starts off with a personal message from Zack Snyder thanking his fans that made this release possible. It is, generally speaking, the same movie but with some extra time spent on fleshing out the characters. The movie made me actually curious about the Flash and the main antagonist Steppenwolf. Unfortunately we also get a lot of bland CGI battle scenes that do not bring anything new to the table although they were noticeably more violent. I also never cared for this whole Amazonian world-building that they did in the Wonder Woman movies and unfortunately we get a lot of that in the first part of Justice League as well. I actually ended up hating the first third of the movie. The rest of the movie was better – significantly better. The characters had something to do. Each and every one of them contributed to the plot. Well, except Louis Lane who was just there to make us feel sad about Superman’s demise. The assembled team was interesting to watch but it was never really explained what the individual characters could and could not do. This led to some ‘I guess they can do that now’ moments. Despite the team being way more useful than before, the movie still felt a lot like Superman just showing up at the end to save the day. The end of the movie with its whole epilogue chapter overstayed its welcome, despite having good scenes with the next antagonist Doomsday and another very intriguing dream sequence that was set in the previously seen dystopian future where earth seemed lost.

Overall, the theatrical cut of Justice League failed where Zack Snyder’s cut succeeded. The new version made me curious. I actually want to see more. I want to see a standalone Flash movie and I want to see Batman fighting alongside Jared Leto as the Joker against the army of Doomsday and an evil Superman. That might be fun, right?

3/5 – Hope that helps.

5 Books That Helped Me Become A Better Game Developer

As a game developer I was never much into books. I loved playing video games, binging shows and watching movies but I was always alien to the greater value of reading. I had to work through a couple of math books in college, loved Harry Potter and Game of Thrones but rarely picked up anything beyond that – and at some point in my professional life, I stopped reading books altogether. And then 2020 happened. With some time on my hands and the desire for self-improvement I stumbled upon this statement:

If you don’t read, it’s like you can’t read at all. There is no difference.

These words resonated very strongly with me. I started to wonder about all the missed opportunities for self-improvement and all the valuable insights I lacked. Independent video game development is much more than knowing how to create art, code or design – it’s also about understanding goals, noise, and habits. I started to have this massive surge of FOMO about broadening my perspective that pushed me right into compiling and working through my first reading list. These five books are not specific game development but they really helped me to find focus in life and therefore become a better game developer.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey was actually on a recommended reading list for my computer science degree in college. It’s a classic that introduced the concepts of proactivity and synergy to a broader audience. It took me around 10 years to finally read that book and I am quite saddened to have waited that long. The first part of the book focuses on personal growth. The author explains to you how to identify what is important to you and how to get there. The second part teaches you how to engage in meaningful relationships. This book profoundly shifted the way I perceived my work and the interactions I have with others. I realized that making video games should have more priority in my life – waiting for the perfect moment to focus all my energy to advance my life’s agenda doesn’t cut it anymore. I recently reduced the hours of my current day job significantly and started to reach out to publishers and other independent game developers in hopes to someday be a part of something great. ‘Your project looks fantastic! How can I help?’

Atomic Habits by James Clear is a book about the power of habits. It focuses on how to develop and maintain good habits while also explaining how to get rid of the bad ones. I started to compile a weekly habit tracker to make sure that I work out, clean my apartment, study Russian, and wake up and go to bed on time. So far I’m almost half a year into this fixed daily routine. If you can figure out how to manage your life outside of game development, you have a better chance of focusing on it

Make Time by Jake Knapp taught me about the dangers of smart phones. I used to waste a lot of time on my phone scrolling through Reddit or watching YouTube videos. Don’t get me wrong – it’s absolutely fine to watch videos or read articles you are actually interested in. I use the word ‘waste’ here because I remember distinctively how I wasn’t even enjoying much of that time. To stop this, I removed all games and social media apps from my phone. I blocked websites like Reddit and Facebook and put restricting timers on apps like YouTube and my browser. I deactivated all notifications and put my phone permanently on silent mode. I also started charging my phone in the living room over night. This helped me to avoid those ‘30 minutes’ of phone time before going to bed and after waking up. I was able to massively cut down the amount of procrastination and fatigue that I experienced every day. As a result, I ended up having more time and energy for game development.

Getting Things Done by David Allen is a book that focuses purely on productivity. It argues that people who feel sluggish and overwhelmed might have too many things on their mind. The book describes a system where you have to create and maintain a set of lists. These lists enable you to offload all the things you worry about onto paper. The things you have written down do not occupy your brain space anymore and you don’t have to waste your time thinking about doing your taxes over and over again. The book inspired me to write down all the raw ideas I come up with and all the raw feedback I’m getting for my game into a list – this is my ‘Inbox’. I review that list when I plan my next update and assign an action and a priority to it. Writing everything down helped me to finally implement ‘would have been nice’ features that I had in my mind for almost 2 years.

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon is actually the reason I started this blog. The book recommends you to detail your journey as a creator as a way to promote your work. People are interested in the process of making video games or are interested in what you can teach them. Some people might even want to collaborate with you. The book argues that creating your little space on the internet and sharing your work beyond the pure product connects you not only with potential customers but also with likeminded people. Great artistic endeavors do not originate in a vacuum, but are usually the product of a network of artists.

These are some of the books I have read in the last six months. Hope that helps.

How to Find a Voice Actor on An Indie Game Budget

I’m currently working on my very own indie game where I had to find 4 voice actors. I’ve heard a bit about Fiverr but did not have any previous knowledge on how to actually hire and direct talent. Fiverr is where I started my journey and I came to believe that Fiverr is actually a decent place to start looking for people.

If you are working on a cutscene and need to work on the pacing and mood of your scene, you can hire somebody for 5$-$10 to read around 100 words. You won’t be able to use the recordings in the game though as licensing is not included and usually an extra $40 in that price range.

Having a real person read your lines helps you tremendously to further determine what you want and don’t want from a voice actor. I found 2 of the 4 final voice actors in my game on Fiverr. It’s really a random hit or miss on this platform as the ratings and price do not really reflect the quality you can expect. I had people for $50-$100 sound bored and asleep while people for $20 really sold their lines. I am hesitant to give out bad ratings on Fiverr as I don’t want to be responsible for ruining somebody’s livelihood or even burn an industry contact – we all have a bad day after all. I believe many of my game development colleagues feel the same. The selection of voice actors is a little bit limited. I looked for an English-speaking voice actor with a Latin American accent for my character Pablo Escobeer and I did not find a lot of options.

The thevoicerealm.com is another website I checked out to find a quality voice actor for my game. The selection of voice actors seems bigger. You can submit your lines on the website along with some direction and a couple of voice actor will read your lines for free. The quality of voice actors varied a bit with some of them being truly amazing. That talent comes with a price. The license for using that voice in a video game is $115 for 100 words. This sounds like a good deal, until you realize that this does not even allow you the creation of a YouTube video featuring your gameplay footage. That license is $200, which feels like quite a lot for an indie game budget. The restrictive licensing and the forced indirect communication with the talent caused me to refrain from hiring somebody from thevoicerealm.com.

Another option I can highly recommend is social media. I found a really talented voice actor here on Reddit and another one over at Twitter with the handle @VACastingRT. Tweet your voice acting requirements mentioning @VACastingRT and find your inbox full of voice actors wanting to audition. The price ranges here from $20 – $250 as you encounter voice acting enthusiasts and seasoned professionals.

I found working with voice actors to be really fun. Just be friendly and communicate your expectations clearly. Don’t leave them on read if you have trouble deciding which one to hire or if you have already decided to hire somebody else. There is always another project and another opportunity to work together, so be as respectful as you can be.

Quick shoutout to @lalaboowelsh, @Isaakwells, @TonyrayVA and @StevenPFortune for helping me with their amazing voices!

You can check out their work in Run For Cover!

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