We intend to create a world where everyone will enjoy our games without exception.

2011/06/15

Deer Hunter X: Postmortem of a Game Nobody Played

In a whimsical mood as the endday light sweeps orange across my spartan studio, I feel inclined to reflect upon my past exercises in quixoticism. When I uploaded that game onto this esteemed site, I begat a debt of analysis, a promised post that would surely explain everything. Now, afflicted by this perverse sentimentality, I find myself at last in the proper state to fulfill my vow. No longer will I allow this strange artifact to float unmoored in the online panopticon without a guidepost, an almanac, an epitaph. It is time for a DHX postmortem.

Deer Hunter X: Operation Worldsaver is the terrible endpoint of my usual creative methodology of taking a dumb joke way too far. The idea came during a five-hour drive to Hamilton College after my senior year’s winter break, at one of the occasional rest stops along the otherwise tree-lined I-95. Like every other rest stop, it had a few arcade cabinets – invariably either golf or deer hunting games. I thought to myself: if every bar, truck stop, and airport in the country has one of these deer hunting games, does that not make the genre one of the most saturated in the world? How odd that these popular games are not the ones with compelling stories or deep mechanics, but rather a number of identical, easy-to-cheat-at Duck Hunt clones about killing harmless forest creatures. It’s not like playing these games would actually make you a better hunter. It’s not like there have been any significant advances in the genre over the past fifteen years. And yet, they remain.

This, I thought, would be a prime subject for satire. What if I made a deer hunting game that had a storyline, that relentlessly justified your ruminant slaughter as just and penultimately important? It could playfully call attention to the mindlessness of such games and highlight the importance of narrative context in recreation. And if I made the story so prevalent that it overshadowed the gameplay, it could simultaneously satire the recent wave of self-serious, mythology-laden, cutscene-heavy action games. (I’d recently played Metal Gear Solid 4 and Resident Evil 5). Also, it could stand as a criticism of the games industry’s preoccupation with violence and need to expand its expressional vocabulary beyond gunfire. It made so much sense that I wondered why nobody had already done it.

I began work on DHX in January of 2009, working on it in my downtime. It was a solo undertaking, with me doing all the writing, programming, art, and music – the only exceptions being my friends’ voice acting and some nature photography I used for backgrounds. I thought making it myself would serve to underscore the self-indulgence inherent in the game’s obsession with its own mythology. Plus, I didn’t have any other options.

DHX Title Screen

Nine months and hundreds of hours of work later, I finally completed it. I posted the game on Kongregate, where it currently has 4,741 plays and a 2.95 rating out of 5. It was classified as an RPG, I guess because it has a lot of talking. (The game takes about an hour to play through, fifteen minutes or so of which is actual gameplay.) The comments run the gamut from “hateful” to “posted by my close friends.” The ad revenue has earned me about $8.

For a long time I held an artist’s irrational passion for the game – if you didn’t like it, it was your fault for not getting it. I’ve since grown to realize that if nobody gets your work, you suck at communicating. There were a lot of things I could have done smarter, and plenty that I should have done dumber, and I may have alienated the all-important everyone audience. Yet, I remain inordinately fond of DHX. I think most of the jokes hold up, and if you actually manage to sit through it, it communicates at least some of that satirical melange I was going for.

Even if it’s true that I was basically making the game for myself, I managed to learn a lot from the experience, which I shall now share in what I hope will be adequate recompense for your time.

Lesson 1: If something is bad on purpose, it is still bad.

Satire is a treacherous ground. The songs “Born in the USA” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” were both satirical, but most people take their catchy choruses at face value. The travails of popularity and franchising have caused Duke Nukem and Leisure Suit Larry to symbolize what they once mocked. As Kurt Vonnegut said in Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Such are the infamous pitfalls of insincerity, which I knew well going into the project. But there are also others perils so obvious I missed them. Namely: if something is satirically bad, and it is unpleasant, people will not like it. If you make a movie where the camera is shaking around all the time as an action parody, people are going to be nauseous. If you make a video game that takes infuriatingly long to get to the action for comedic effect, people are going to be infuriated.

The final disclaimer

It’s extra bad if something is offputting on purpose for a joke that nobody will get. For whatever reason, I chose to make the end credits rock song a Hold Steady homage. It seemed appropriate at the time, but in retrospect The Hold Steady doesn’t have all that much cultural cachet, so regardless of whether the piano breakdown is spot-on, to most people it’ll just sound like I’m even worse at singing than I actually am.

I guess the practical takeaway is that if you’re making a satire or especially a parody, try to identify the parts that must necessarily suck and ameliorate, frame, or at least draw attention to them in a way that will give people a chance to see the joke through.

As a caveat, this is a general rule for making things that people enjoy, and there are definite exceptions. For example, Messhof has made a career out of games that are really frustrating and hard to control.

Lesson 2: Don’t spend time on things nobody will ever care about.

In other words, be New Dumb.

The single worst decision I made in the production of DHX was lip-syncing speaking animations to the dialogue. My memory may be exaggerating things, but I honestly believe about a quarter of the game’s production time was spent going through the scenes frame-by-frame and triggering the correct facial animations at the correct times. If I went with some Star Fox-style two-frame flapping jaws,

I doubt anybody would have noticed a drop in quality, and it would have saved me a ton of time better spent adding something useful like subtitles, or enjoying college instead of working on DHX.

There are a couple things I did right in this category. I made a few animations that play after random amounts of time – like characters blinking, and scratches on the Hawkcom visuals.  Those took about twenty minutes total, and they comparatively add a good deal of visual interest to the game’s conversations.

What an adorable supervillain.

Also, using photographs as backgrounds instead of attempting to draw trees saved me about infinity hours.

As a good synecdoche for DHX‘s quixotic nature, it has five endings, which can only be unlocked in sequence. Five. And the only way you can see them is by beating the game five times. I can pretty much guarantee that nobody has seen the third, fourth, or fifth ending. But I had to do it, to leave room for a sequel. Oh yes, I was planning a franchise. Derivative works, transmedia, plush toys – the works. I… I still want a Cervidae plushie.

 

Lesson 3: When using friends to do voice acting, it’s important to be professional.

All the voice acting in DHX was done by myself and my college friends, which likely isn’t a surprise to anyone playing the game. The decision was easy. It would be a lot of fun, whereas it would be a lot of hassle to find professionals willing to read my silly script. Plus, I’m a naïve idealist when it comes to some things. I honestly believe that every person can draw on his or her experiences to think up at least one good pop song, write at least one deep poem, and play at least one great character.

The voice acting ended up being, at best, a mixed bag. I’ve since come up with some guidelines for casting friends as actors. Only do it if two out of the following three conditions are met:

  • The person is actually a professional or extremely talented.
  • The person is the character you’re looking to cast.
  • The person is interested in the project and excited to work on it.

If it’s just one of the three, you may be tempted to go through with it, but chances are it will be more trouble than it’s worth or lead to a bad performance.

About half DHX is some variation on this screen.

I also learned that it’s very important to be assertive as a director. You know how everything is supposed to sound. You know the nuances of the lines, their subtexts and intensions. And it’s your job to make sure all of them come across, even if you have to do a bunch of takes, even if you risk pissing your friend off. Even if you realize it’s not going to work out and have to recast the role. In making DHX, I was more concerned with friendship funtimes than actually getting good performances, so I was far too lenient with the direction. As such, it has its moments, but is really uneven.

Recording myself was way easier because I had free license to be a hardass and make sure everything sounds exactly like it does in my head. I don’t have any acting cred, but I can say that Deersbane sounds precisely as the writer imagined while writing his lines, and precisely as the artist imagined him sounding while drawing him. One unforeseen hazard of playing and editing multiple roles, though: it is one of the freakiest possible experiences to hear an evil laugh and not know where it’s coming from and realize it’s your voice.

As far as logistics, I did the casting by making a list of all the characters, with their pictures, a summary of their personality and role in the story, and a brief description of what I imagine their voice being like. For a few days, I carried that along with a copy of the full script to lunches and such, so that friends could peruse it and sign up. I ended up with all the roles cast and without many conflicts. Perhaps I would have been better served by just asking specific people directly for specific roles, but the signups seemed far more diplomatic.

I recorded each scenes with all its actors in the same room, instead of having everyone record lines separately. That was fun, and I think it helped some people have better rapport, but I understand why most professional studios don’t do it that way for logistical reasons.

Oh, also, if you’re never going to see most of your voice actors again after a few months and they don’t have any home recording equipment, double-check that you got all the lines you need and they came out right. There’s a chance that a take will be inexplicably scratchy and filled with hisses. That’s why Axis’s final speech is so hard to understand. Fortunately, because of the context, I was able to put some filters on it and play it like he was phasing in and out of existence, and I don’t think anyone noticed

Lesson 4: You will always regret direct parody.

When it comes to humor, I am an unrepentant snob. Playing DHX a good two and a half years after I wrote it, it’s clear that some of the jokes hold up much better than others. As a rule, I think DHX most fails when it’s content to be a genre parody. There were a few times where I thought I could just take a line from Metal Gear Solid and it’d be funny because it’d be a deer saying it, but now those parts make me seriously cringe. Not all referentiality is bad – I’m still fond of managing to innocuously set DHX in the same fictional universe as the works of William Faulkner – but when you use it you’re playing a dangerous game, and the price of losing is being a subpar Family Guy knockoff that the populace pities and scorns.

Remember this part? Haha, just kidding. I know you didn't play past the first five minutes. It's cool.

I think DHX most succeeds as a comedy when it goes beyond parody to subvert expectations, and in doing so approach satire. An example I’d give of a joke done right is the reveal of Deersbane’s origins (the “perfect genetic engineers” line). It plays off the tendency of conspiratorial fictions like Metal Gear and LOST to convolute backstories and (especially in Metal Gear) give unnecessary exposition at key dramatic moments, but it also works as a standalone punchline and gets out of the way quickly when it’s over.

Every time I do a comedy, there’s always one joke that I later realize I subconsciously took from something else and get really embarrassed about. With DHX, it’s the “deer psychologist” line resembling the “whale biologist” bit from Futurama. Fortunately I subconsciously remembered it wrong, so the jokes aren’t really that similar aside from the cadence, but it’s still enough that I kind of regret it.

Lesson 5: Venue is important.

I kind of thought that game distribution worked like this: you put a game on the Internet, and then everyone in the world can see it, and then those people who like it can play it. I learned that things do not work that way. How and where you present your game can be as important to whether it is appreciated as the game itself.

Surely these comedy QTEs would have been regarded as brilliant on console.

If you make a game meant to satire console games, and you put it on the computer, it will likely reach an audience less appreciative to its humor. If you make an hour-long Flash game with forty minutes of cutscenes and put it on a Flash games portal, it is going to get utterly savaged in the user comments. In fact, just don’t make an hour-long Flash game with forty minutes of cutscenes (see Lesson 1).

I’m curious about what would have happened if I’d made DHX in XNA and put it on the Xbox Indie Channel instead of making it in Flash. My guess is that I would have found it way harder to animate and quit halfway through, but I can’t help but think there’s a chance it would read better as a console game.

I secretly hope that if I become incredibly successful, I’ll get a chance to remake DHX as a real console game (if maybe a budget one). I think it’d be way funnier with actual production values. It’d make the parodic aspects more true and make the fundamental absurdity of the premise more obvious. Basically, it’d be a completely weird and stupid thing to put a few million dollars behind, which is why I’d want to do it.

Lesson 6: You will grow to hate any long-term project.

I was really psyched about DHX when I began work on it, and I was able to keep up the momentum for quite a while. It was during college, so it helped that I was never working on it for too long without breaking it up with work on my creative writing thesis or my computer science thesis. I think it helped psychologically to have those more urgent priorities, to be able to designate DHX as “fun” instead of “work.” When summer came and I had nothing else to do, DHX became my top priority, and thus became “work.” I gradually began slacking on it, and eventually I had to really force myself to get anything done on it.

Bleak as a Slavic deer family.

No matter how much you like a creative project, if you work on it for a while you’ll always begin to wish you’re doing something else. You’ll always have other exciting ideas to pursue, and you’ll always feel that day-to-day production is a total drag compared to the creative rush of making something new. But if you always abandon your unfinished projects in favor of newer ideas, you’ll just end up with a trail of dead projects, which are identical to broken dreams.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t abandon a project if you realize it’s not great after you prototype it, or that you should keep working on something if it’s killing you. But it’s an important skill to be able to take a step back, maybe take a little time off, and find that initial spark, that reason why you were so excited about the project in the first place.

Lesson 7: You will grow to love any long-term project.

This may be a corollary of what is known as the sunk cost fallacy, a freak of cognitive dissonance. I can’t be sure whether you love a project because you work on it for so long, or whether you work on a project for a really long time because you love it. But regardless of DHX being a bad idea, despite it only being enjoyed by me and like three other people, despite the painful couple months I had to utterly force myself to get any work done on it, I still remember it fondly, and I always will.

If we can make peace with the deer, why then... I suppose anything is possible.

Miscellaneous Self-Absorbed Fun Facts

  • My favorite freely cannibalizable gameplay idea from DHX is dialogue options being a skill challenge. In DHX, it represented malign telepathy, but it could just as easily reflecting the abilities or mental state of the player character. RPGs should do that.
  • Oh God, it's... it's in the timeline. Why is it in the timeline!? Why is there a timeline at all?

    DHX was the first time I’d used Flash for anything non-trivial. The code is absolutely hideous – it’s entirely embedded in the timeline, and the programming techniques changed every level as I learned more about what I was doing. But you know what? It works fine. With a game that scope, there was no reason to go back and make all the code nicer. Plus, this way, if anybody tries to decompile it to figure out the programming they will bleed out of their eyeballs.

  • The biggest influence on DHX that’s not immediately obvious was Resident Evil 5. I was simultaneously appalled and bemused by that game’s story. The plot revolved around implausible pseudoscience, which the bad guy tried to explain using implausible pseudophilosophy. It just seemed like a strange attempt to weld a grand conspiracy narrative onto something that had previously been content to be “the bad corporation made some zombies.” As a sign of its Metal Gear aspirations, the bad guy who was not previously British now looked like Liquid Snake and talked like Alan Rickman. It was so ridiculous that I had to do something to make fun of it.
  • His only actual powers are glowy eyes and a bad British accent.

    You know what upset me about Resident Evil 5? They didn’t have a consistent schema for how mind control works. As much as I loved the original Metal Gear Solid, they didn’t either. Mantis’s powers changed from telepathy to possession to hypnosis to some weird mystical stuff. In DHX, I made sure to be very consistent in how mind control works. Namely, it doesn’t actually work. It’s just the placebo effect. Telepathy, if spoken loud and commandingly enough, might be mistaken for one’s own thoughts.

  • I’d originally wrote the rival character, Rex, for my friend who has a fast-talking New York accent. But hecouldn’t do it at the last minute, and it was a bit of a crisis. We ended up desperately asking the quiet medical student upstairs, and out of nowhere he busted out a totally over-the-top sneering performance.
  • To get into character as the gleefully evil deer-villain Cervidae, I listened to a whole bunch of Sunset Rubdown. Later, in an interview, Johnny Depp cited listening to Sunset Rubdown to get into character as the Mad Hatter for that Alice in Wonderland movie. Isn’t that a great recommendation for listening to Sunset Rubdown?
  • Audio plugins can be fun and rewarding, but be wary of overusing them. That’s why it’s impossible to tell what the last boss is saying.
  • Perfect for your next Lazermage cosplay! (I don't own this one.)

    Aronn Deersbane listens to Shearwater to stay calm and appreciate nature to its fullest. Mira Wildfate listens to The New Pornographers to stay relatively upbeat and get through her workdays. Lazermage listens to Jonathon Coulton, because even though the songs stopped being funny after like the second time, he’s convinced himself that they’re really good music.

  • You can still purchase DHX merchandise. I own the poster, the logo shirt, and the Cervidae shirt.
  • I was seriously starting to plan out a sequel for DHX if it caught on. DHX ends with peace between humans and deer, so it would have been about Deersbane having to work together with a deer to fight a greater threat. There’d be some obvious buddy comedy potentially. I was imagining it being a co-op game, where one player used the keyboard to play as the deer and run around in a platformer, and the other player used the mouse to shoot things as Deersbane. I’d started hinting at the story in the secret endings that nobody saw. Cervidae was really a double agent for some other agency that wanted people to stop hunting deer. But now that he’s served his purpose and no longer has powers, the agency wants him dead, and he’s on the run. It would have turned out that the agency was wolves, and the grand conspiracy involved wolves trying to travel to space to fulfill the Norse prophecy about Fenrir eating the moon. Certain elements of this plot coincidentally ended up another game I worked on, and now I feel somewhat obligated to some day complete my “games about forest animals with mind control powers” trilogy. Though I suppose I wouldn’t want to be pigeonholed into being the guy who makes games about forest animals with mind control powers.

4 Comments »

  1. This is the best piece of game writing that I have seen in 2011.

    Comment by David Mershon — 2011/06/21 @ 20:01

  2. Reading this makes me want to go back and get all the endings I didn’t get the first time.

    Comment by Sam V — 2011/06/22 @ 00:25

  3. Bravo. I think I got through most of DHX, actually. There’s some good advice in here! I too have lost the majority of a production timeline to lip-syncing. It’s truly evil.

    Also, I do believe this article moves UHM forward onto its next step, which I believe is taken with the left foot.

    Comment by Teddy Diefenbach — 2011/06/22 @ 02:31

  4. Thanks, all!

    For the record, the extra endings are pretty terrible. They are basically a deer doing improv.

    Comment by Mike Sennott — 2011/06/26 @ 16:58

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.