Thursday 28 December 2017

The Incredible Playable Show: Everything Learned from the First Year

My 2017 was all about The Incredible Playable Show, and what a year it’s been. I’ve performed it in Sweden, Belgium, and Germany, and it went on to win the Jury Choice Award at IndieCade in Los Angeles.

It’s been incredibly rewarding, and I'm very proud of the reception it's had. I've loved creating and performing the show, so seeing audiences respond so well with it fills me with joy. In a lot of ways it's a culmination of the ideas I've been exploring throughout my career so far, and one of my favourite things I've made.

I wanted to wrap up the year by writing down the lessons I’ve learned along the way. This is a very long article, cut down from a leviathan first draft, so bring a coffee or read it in parts, and thanks very much for taking an interest!

For context, here’s the trailer shot at the Bristol Improv Theatre, in December 2016.

If there’s one major lesson I’ve found in the show it’s to be unafraid of things breaking. Often the lessons came out of changing part of the show on a whim, or to figure out why part of it wasn’t working - and understanding why the changed worked only came from comparing all the attempts that led up to it. None of the lessons learned came because I got things right first time.

But before getting onto that, let’s start with the most important question:

Monday 20 November 2017

Nintendo Hard

When developing games for the NES, Nintendo designers used to have a concept of Nintendo Hard. Most kids didn’t have a lot of pocket money and games were expensive in the Eighties, so Nintendo wanted to ensure their games stood out as good value for money that provided a lot of play-time. To do this, they didn’t just make games hard; they made them Nintendo Hard. They’d do the normal three difficulty levels - Easy, Medium, Hard - and then they’d make a fourth difficulty called Nintendo Hard which was too hard for the developers to beat. Then they’d just shift everything down a space in the menu. So Easy would actually be Medium, Medium would actually be Hard, and Hard would actually be Nintendo Hard. So was the genius of Nintendo.

The above story is absolute rubbish.

There’s a thousand reasons why it makes no sense. Indeed, one of the things that makes Nintendo’s first party games stand out from other games from the same era is how intuitive, accessible and forgiving they are.

But it was told to me in a pub by a drunk guy who was very insistent and I think he liked the idea that he was imparting valuable knowledge to a so-called professional game developer. Who am I to take that joy away from him?

Thus, this is an article about what it really means to be Nintendo Hard.

Monday 13 November 2017

Winner: IndieCade 2017 Jury Choice Award

The past few months have certainly been busy! I flew to Japan to show Codex Bash at Tokyo Game Show, followed by a trip to IndieCade in Los Angeles to perform The Incredible Playable Show, and then after a couple of weeks off I was in the air again, on my way to Hamburg to perform at Play17.

The big big news is that The Incredible Playable Show was awarded the Jury Choice Award at IndieCade 2017!

The Jury Choice Award is eligible by all games chosen for the Official Selection, and is voted on by the judges, jury and production team of the festival.

The Incredible Playable Show was part of the Night Games selection, exhibited on the second night of the festival. I was allocated the main lecture theatre to perform in, and a window of four hours. Having flown over 5000 miles to be there I thought I should make the most of it, and did three one-hour shows. I'm glad I did, as the audience were really up for it, loads of people came to see it and honestly the show was the wildest and funniest it has ever been.

In fact, I was so buzzed from performing that I only slept two hours the following night!

It really is an honour to receive the award and I'm so happy that the team at IndieCade were so impressed by it. The Incredible Playable Show is something that I have worked very hard on - it's brought together everything I've learned from all the previous games I've made, but has also challenged me to learn performance skills and fearlessness. It's a piece of work I'm very proud of and so to know that people have been so entertained by it means that that work has paid off.

Photo from @seraphki on Twitter 
I'd like to send a massive thank you to the IndieCade team for the award, and also to all the staff and stewards, the sound desk operators and the Japanese American National Museum for the fantastic venue - my work can often be complicated to set up and run, so having so many helpful people behind you helping accommodate it makes a massive difference!

I'd also like to send a massive thank you to everyone in the audience who came along, who joined in the games, who made lots of noise, who told their friends about it, and who simply enjoyed the show. Having an audience who is excited to get stuck in is what makes the show work, and so I really do mean it when I say you made it a success.

Monday 11 September 2017

Tokyo, Los Angeles, Bath, Hamburg!

Lots of exciting announcements, and a very busy end of the year ahead for this game developer!


This Thursday I'll be jetting my way to Japan for Tokyo Games Show. Codex Bash has been selected for the Indie Game Area and will be playable at booth A36 from 21 - 24 September.

Los Angeles

Then in October I'll be making my return to IndieCade in Los Angeles, where The Incredible Playable Show is an Official Selection. I'll be performing as part of the Night Games event on Saturday 7 October. I'll also be giving a talk about the creation of the show at 12 noon on Sunday 8 October.


Closer to home, I'll be performing The Incredible Playable Show in Bath as part of Bath Digital Festival, at 7pm on Tuesday 17 October. Entry is free with a festival ticket, which can be purchased here.


Finally, November sees me returning to PLAY Festival in Hamburg, where I'll be running The Incredible Playable Show from 2 - 4 November, in Markethalle Hamburg. I'll also be performing a special surprise skit at the opening party, for audience members who like to give their vocal cords a good workout!

Tuesday 25 July 2017

Codex Bash Selected for Out Of Index 2017

More exciting news! Codex Bash has been chosen for the Out Of Index 2017 Official Selection in Seoul, South Korea.

Out Of Index is an annual festival of experimental independent games, with a mission statement of exposing unusual and surprising works and making them visible and available to a wider audience. 98 games were submitted to the selection from a grand total of 22 countries, of which 12 made the final shortlist.

The exhibition will be this Saturday 29 July, and it marks the furthest Codex Bash has travelled from its birthplace in Bristol - narrowly beating Los Angeles by a mere 200 miles!

The developer presentariona can be live-streamed at 9am BST on the Out Of Index Twitch channel

Friday 7 July 2017

Breaking Sonic 2: The Marathon

Earlier in the year I gathered together some friends to try to beat as much of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992, Sega Mega Drive) as we could using some of my hardware and software hacks. We didn't get very far, but it was a lot of fun!

Four players, one controller

First off we tried using the Mega Cooperator - a four button co-operative controller where each player controls one of the Mega Drive's buttons. The buttons change what they do every thirty seconds and the only way to find out what they do is to press them!

Part 1: Emerald Hill Zone
Part 2: Chemical Plant Zone
Part 3: Aquatic Ruin Zone
Part 4: Casino Night Zone

I love way the kit forces everyone to communicate with each other. You need to listen as well as speak, wait as well as act, and unlike Codex Bash - my codebreaking installation which I adapted the hardware from - you have to act in tandem.

Jumping between moving platforms, for example, requires a lot of attention to what the other player is doing. Are they running fast? Are they tapering their speed?

When the game breaks as you play

Then we tried to do the same with the self-glitching emulator I made. I set up a script in the emulator to glitch random bytes of level data every time Sonic collected a ring.

We skipped around levels this time to see what other effects could come up.

I love the way this setup forces you to play the game differently. You play to avoid rings rather than collect rings, and sometimes you have to abuse the way the game's physics work to launch yourself over level geometry that was never meant to be there.

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Homunculus - Lyst Summit 2017

Earlier in the month I was at Lyst Summit in Copenhagen. While I was there I worked on a playful performance called Being There, which I’ve talked about in an earlier blog post.

At the same time, this happened…

I say “happened,” because unlike the other games made during the weekend, Homunculus emerged practically fully-formed.

The rules of Homunculus are simple. A participant dons a morphsuit and becomes the homunculus. The player closes their eyes, while a volunteer chooses a “pleasure point” on the homunculus - a hand or an elbow, for example, or an ear. All other parts of the homunculus’ body are “pain points.” I call this “programming” the homunculus.

The player opens their eyes, and must find the pleasure point by touching bits of the homunculus’ body. The homunculus must, through physical movement alone, convey whether the point they have touched is a pleasure point or a pain point.

As you can hopefully see from the video the experience is both awkward and hilarious! Witness, for example, Sabine Harrer (PhD student and member of Copenhagen Game Collective) in stitches watching a player grope around for a pleasure point on a homunculus’ belly.

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Being There: An Interactive Performance for Lyst Summit

A couple of weekends ago I flew to Copenhagen to take part in Lyst Summit, a symposium and game jam about love, sex and romance in video games. During the event roughly forty creatives from disciplines inside and outside games collaborated to make experimental games and playful experiences.

I teamed up with Maya Magnat, a performance artist from Tel Aviv, and Anders Børup, a sound designer from Copenhagen, to create Being There - an audio-led role-play for two people.

About Being There

Being There is played by two participants, who each take a headset loaded with an audio track. The two participants start the audio at the same time, and have to follow the actions described to them by the audio. The two tracks start similar, but over time the perspective offered by the two narrators changes. One participant’s view of the events will become increasingly different to the other’s.

The story that participants act out is the story of a relationship from first date to break-up.

If you want to try the prototype version we made during Lyst, the mp3 files are below for you to download and try out. And below them, a bit of an explanation and discussion of the process, if you don’t mind the magic being spoiled!

You will need to hug, hold hands, and have your phone on you to take a photo with.

Download: Participant A
Download: Participant B

The voices are provided by myself, and by writer Jordan Erica Webber.

Monday 5 June 2017

How Sonic the Hedgehog Uses Colour

There’s a lot of excellent use of colour in the very first Sonic the Hedgehog game on Sega Mega Drive.

Visual readability has been a personal bugbear throughout my time in video games. There’s been some cases where I’ve been really happy with the choices I’ve made, and others where I feel I could have done much better. From my point of view, visual design is only partly about making things look pretty. It is primarily about conveying information that the player needs in order to interact.

Where are the key objects in the scene? What do they do? What can I interact with? How can I interact with it? What is my goal? What should I aim to avoid? Once those questions have been answered, then the developer is free to answer the question “how should I feel about this scene?”

The original Sonic the Hedgehog is visually outstanding not just because it presents landscapes that feel rich, vivid and fleshed out, but also because it has a very strong grasp on delivering key information. I’ve always admired, for example, the fact that Sonic when rolling is the exact same shape as his hit-box

Sonic the Hedgehog conveys its information not just through the shape and form of its visual elements, but also by its use of colour. That’s what makes it an exciting example I want to explore in this article.

Monday 29 May 2017

On What Games Are

My brother asked me a very interesting question last time I came to visit. He’s an author, and we were talking about why we do what we do.

“If you had to pick two games to demonstrate - to someone who’d never seen video games before - what games are to you, what would they be?”

Originally he asked me to do it in one game, but I couldn't describe the entire medium in one example. Trying to do it in two was much more interesting. You can't describe an entire medium in two examples, but the process of trying to do so is very telling about your perspective as a developer.

I’m going to talk about the two games I chose, but this piece is only partly about the games and why I chose them. It’s also about why the question is interesting in the first place. Eventually it’s a question about Ian Bogost and whether or not games can tell stories.

But I digress.

Sunday 5 March 2017

Building a Glitchable Mega Drive Emulator

This is a little project I did back last summer, to explore glitching games. I've long been inspired by speedrunning, and glitches like the Missingno glitch in Pokémon Red and Blue.

I love being able to pull apart the game and see how they work, an getting an insight into what the data looks like from the perspective of the machine. For example, the Missingno glitch shows us what happens when the GameBoy interprets the player's name as the parameters of a Pokémon.

I also think there's a certain beauty to seeing a game not as a finished work but as a raw material - a starting point to be reinterpreted. Speedrunning gives us a new objective, and can turn a game of exploration into a deep exercise in resource management. Changing the control system for Sonic 2 allowed me to turn a game about dexterity into a game about teamwork.

With this project I worked on modifying GenesisPlus, an open source Sega Mega Drive emulator for Mac, which is bundled as part of OpenEmu. I put in a system of scripting interactions with the console's memory. This means it can write new values into memory on certain triggers. These include a time period passing, a button being pressed, or another value in memory changing.

I then worked on turning this into something that would be fun to play in its own right. I added networking features so that players playing separate copies of the game can interact with each other, using glitching to fuel a competitive challenge.

The video below talks about how I created this, how it works, the thought process I went to, and the Sonic the Hedgehog 2 variant that emerged as a result. I hope you enjoy watching!

Wednesday 15 February 2017

The Human in the Machine

ELIZA was the world’s first digital psychotherapist. Created from 1964 to 1966, long before Siri and Cortana, long even before the first commerical videogames, ELIZA was an AI that had conversations with its users.

A user, communicating with ELIZA through a terminal, would be asked a question about themselves, and ELIZA would listen, prompting the user with questions.

Except ELIZA had no idea what was going on. ELIZA only created the illusion of understanding, using pattern-matching and substitution to parrot the own user’s words in the the form of a question.

ELIZA’s conversational ability grew over time - not through machine learning, but through users adding new rules and behaviours to her script. She was an illusion, non-sentient and entirely artificial. Nevertheless, users were reported as having meaningful conversations with her. ELIZA talked them through their problems. They found the experience comforting, often revealing to themselves inner feelings they hadn’t acknowledged.

Joseph Weizenbaum, the creator of the program, was dismissive of this response. He had created ELIZA as a parody of artificial intelligence, to demonstrate the superficiality of communication between man and machine. He felt the popular response was merely a result of humanity’s tendency to anthropomorphise the world around them.

Regardless of what was really going on under the hood, users had a meaningful human experience with ELIZA. Whether or not the machine was actually intelligent is not important. Even whether or not users actually believed that the device was intelligent is, arguably, of little consequence.

For the end user, their emotional response was the entirety of the experience. The banality of the program only mattered if believing it to be artificial affected that response.

Maybe it was enough to simply play along with the artifice.

Monday 6 February 2017

The Incredible Playable Show comes to Screenshake Antwerp

This Saturday I'll be bringing The Incredible Playable Show to the Screenshake 2017 festival in Antwerp, Belgium.

The show takes place at at 6pm at Het Bos, Ankerrui 5-7, 2000 Antwerp - taking over the Local Multiplayer Hall for one final digital extravaganza before the evening's Screenshake Party.

Tickets are available from

Come along and prepare to be part of an incredible playable experience you will not forget!