Project WAM: Learning How Games Tick, Unreal Engine 4, Blueprints, and Learning How to Get Off My Ass

 

Hello! My name is Earvin Ramos and I’m an amateur independent developer looking for work. I’m currently taking ideas and trying to expand my portfolio with more works, with this project being the first. Now, one may ask: “Why? Aren’t you a sound person? Why are you learning Mudbox?” Well, I like making things. At first, I thought it was just music and audio, but I realize I like to create in general. I like creating things and seeing them come to life, so developing inside of an engine and seeing my own creations come to life is amazing. It inspires me and makes me feel like I can keep going, and if it’s expanding my skill base and makes me worthwhile as a developer then “two birds one stone.” It keeps me from going crazy while I look for work, and it helps keep my output lively so I don’t feel like I’m stagnating or succumbing to depression. This is what is “getting me off my ass” so to speak. I need this so that I don’t feel like I’m stuck doing nothing.

So that fact brings me to my first fully independent project. I’ve done some small indie work with friends, and prototyped/made various tools and things before on various platforms independently/with some help. Project WAM, however, is my first thing from the ground up. The basic premise is simple: most games nowadays don’t use fixed cameras anymore. Game developers seem to be focusing on third person camera that tracks and follow a player on some kind of spring arm, or a first person camera entirely. Now, this is not to say that either perspective is bad: these are the basic building blocks of gaming. However, I miss fixed cameras. There are layers to the idea that make it incredibly rich as a perspective to see a gameworld from.

Why Fixed Cameras? Get With The Times!

To quickly summarize the latest “fixed camera” showings I’ve seen that influence how someone interacts with a game, I present a game that has released in the past few years: Republique.

Republique uses its camera system to a thematic focal point: the voyeurism that is inherent to the “fixed camera” mode of perspectives is hard coded into Republique. Rather than feeling like we’re following a character and, via emotional proxy, ARE that character, fixed cameras allow us to feel that we are connecting to a character while retaining our identity and autonomy as a participant. In Republique, rather than feeling like we are Hope per say, we always remain “ourselves.” In fact, this is weaved into the narrative. We are a third party who, through the miracles of hacking, can now assist Hope in escaping. Now, this isn’t always present: When you’re playing Resident Evil, do you feel as if you’re a survivor of the Arklay incident or Raccoon City?

Yet, we still feel intrinsically tied to these characters on an emotional level: Resident Evil 2 is a game I still connect with to this day. Though I personally don’t feel like my actions are what caused Leon and Claire to survive their nightmare, I still feel like I bore witness to it. Again, I feel like I participated in the story without being an active force. Though I am in control of Leon/Claire, it still feels like they are moving and I am witnessing to. Through the action in the game, I feel tied to it. I fear when I’m limping around on Danger, and I see Mr. X coming down the corridor. And this is the beauty of fixed cameras: Because my view into the world is fixed, this adds layers and layers to the gameplay. The feeling of being out of control of the world around me with the only thing I’m in control of is Leon/Claire, this concept creates an amazing duality of feeling strong and powerful, yet weak and powerless.

However, the main idea is this: Fixed cameras allow an uncanny, quantum voyeurism to exist in the fabric of the game that employs them. You are the fly on the wall, the Seer, the Watcher, and yourself.

Now, some might say that harms “immersion,” that being the fly on the wall is not the point of gaming. We want to be Nathan Drake, or Ryu, or Commander Shepard, or whatever we want to be. To some, games are about wish fulfillment: because we can not attain this status or identity normally through our lives, gaming acts as the medium that transforms our identity from that which we are to that which we wish to be. I think it’s a little bullshit, especially when it comes to survival horror. This is why Resident Evil 7 is so warmly welcomed by the fan base after 5 and 6. As the characters became more veteran and the action-moviesque production that went into the game got more and more the thematic focus, everything that scared us about the original games was so clearly lost. Now 7 doesn’t fully go back to its roots, but it taps into the same ideas. Though we tap into Ethan as our “identity” in the game, because he is so much like ourselves we connect with him instantly. Not in the idea of being male, but in the idea of being a powerless human being that stumbles into a hellish nightmare. Now, why does that sound familiar?

In any case, that’s why I feel like starting this project: to explore the idea of fixed cameras, how it shapes and influences gameplay and interactivity, and how to tap into what scared us so well in the past yet is largely ignored by the games of the present.

Working with Unreal Engine 4 and Blueprints

With that spiel done, let’s move on to what you are probably more interested in: how I’m going about implementing things in Unreal and its Blueprints system. Blueprints, as I’ve said many times to many friends as I’m learning, is “for BABIES.” Now, this isn’t a negative: Blueprints is fun, easy to use, and great to work with. Also, I’m not claiming to be an expert on it either. I’m not a programmer, I’m just a creative that likes to program. After, for various reasons, learning C# and dabbling in Unity, I felt like retreating back to something easier. The visual scripting of Blueprints fills this need for me. Thus, if you see me doing stupid things, or saying things incorrectly, or doing things inefficiently, please cut me some slack. Or, better yet, teach me how to improve. We all learn from each other into this new digital Youtube-tutorial age, so the more we learn from each other the better.

My first goal in setting up Project WAM is simple: Navigation. Building prototypes from the ground up, as I’ve learned before in my experiences, is key to getting a game started. Start with core functionalities that make a game “a game,” then from there, you add the bells and whistles. Too many people think “Wow, I want to make a game kind of like Pub-guh but with THIS element instead of this and you do THIS instead of that and oh my god I have the next hit on my hands!” I’ve learned that this is truly not how it works. I forget where I read it from, but one lesson I’ve learned is that you have to make sure things are fun to play as a game. You’re making a game, first and foremost. Don’t write novels in your design documents and work on the socio-economic idiosyncracies of warring states in your universe if you don’t even fully know how your attack system is going to work. So, even though I personally have ideas in mind of what I want the overarching impression of the game to be, I started at the basics: Navigation.

Navigation

Dealing with Navigation is super important, you have to be able to move. However, UE4 is incredibly simple: for your player character, you no longer have to set up a pawn and have the player control it. Now, most of the functionality of this, specifically to create a standard character that the player controls using the Character Blueprint. With basic functionality in mind (such as jumping, walking, crouching, etc.) in place for you already, the Character Blueprint template is a great way to get started. However, I found myself needing a bit more functionality than that. In essence, I needed to make a full tank control style with multiple states, so my Blueprint was expanded:

Movement Blueprint 6/2/2017

(If you need to, you should be able to right-click and open the image in a new tab for its full size view)

Now, this is a basic movement blueprint I have set up to track and control 3 different states of non-rotational movement. They are: Walking Forward, Running, and Walking Backward. They all have a variable speed and weave into each other in different ways. It is tied to the input axis of “MovingForwardBack”, which is mapped to W in the positive and S in the negative. To quickly explain the flow (which I significantly decluttered for this), it first checks if the character is Aiming, a functionality I’m planning for but haven’t fully implemented. This is the True portion of the IsAiming Branch. When I am aiming, it turns the IsMoving and IsWalkingBack flags false. That was super important to debugging my animation states when I had to add this functionality after I was done setting up my animation states.

After that, it checks if I am actually moving in any direction (the axis can be positive or negative, so you are moving if you are pressing either direction and making the axis not-zero. Interestingly, if you are pressing both W and S, the input zeros out and you aren’t moving. Thus if you are moving, in any direction, I track that using IsMoving.

One note of importance is how my Blueprint checks for which speed to use while moving the Character. The final speed that is applied to the character is a value called “SpeedApplied.” SpeedApplied is then filled in by other parts of the Blueprints. By using the final Add Movement Input function, I can use this final speed and directionality in conjunction with the preexisting Character Blueprint settings (like walk speed, etc) to move the character. I found this MUCH EASIER, as before I had written it using Actor transforms. This caused my Character to interact funny with falls, he’d topple over for some reason, etc. It was so frustrating that the only way to rid myself of it was to take out the old Actor functions and use the more “standard” Add Movement Input function.

Next is the IsWalkingBack check. If the input axis is less than zero, then you must want to walk backward. Why is this important to track? In my inspiration games for this project, walking backward is significantly slower than walking forward. It also has a different “oh god what is this in front of me” animation. It checks if the input axis value is less than zero, and if so it returns True and thus IsWalkingBack is true. This causes a set of SpeedApplied to be SpeedWalkingBack, and thus our new movement speed is the walking back speed.

If IsWalkingBack is False, then it moves to an IsRunning check. Running is simply holding down the Run button. Pressing it down makes IsRunning true. This is important for flow reasons. If the character is holding down the run button while you are WalkingBack, I wanted to set it up so it does NOT use the running speed at all. Using this as a flow modulation point ended up serving my purpose, as now it is impossible for the game to recognize running if you are walking back, so walking back always results in a slower speed despite the pressed state of the run button. If it is true, then it applies SpeedRunning and our new movement speed is the running speed.

If both IsWalkingBack and IsRunning are false, logically the only thing left to track is just plain walking. This is the plain SpeedWalking variable. This feeds into the scale variable of the Movement function, which bless Epic Games I didn’t have to write, and moves the character to this float speed.

The last thing of note is the direction of movement, the yellow Vector3. This I actually caught from a tutorial. Because I’m only working in 2D space, which is the Yaw, I only have to get the character’s Yaw rotation, make it the sole rotation, then get a forward vector of the Yaw (which is where the character is facing). This feeds into direction Vector3 of the Movement function.

And thus, movement! This reacts well and tracks all the states I need. The Booleans I used in hooking up my animations states with a cast (more on this in a later post), all variables are editable so if I want to change speeds it’s as easy as plugging in new numbers, and additional functionality should be expandable (I added IsAiming as another check today before I started this blog post).

rotation and Bools

And now, Gals and Ghouls, it’s time to talk about Rotation and Bools. Rotations had their own set of problems that I didn’t notice until I started to play test the prototype. Booleans help control flow and are simple enough that I was able to set them up.

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(Again, Right Click Open Image in a New Tab for full view should work)

Rotation is very simple. It is driven by the rotate Right-Left axis, with right being positive. Again, first I tried to use an Actor Rotation set, but that was very buggy and disgusting. I’ve instead changed it to Adding to the controller’s Yaw Input instead.

The game sets a boolean of IsRotation to show that the character is rotating. Rotation can be accessed from any state, so there are no limitations or branches. This, however, is specific to a tank-control style rotation. It rotates independent of the camera, only using the controller’s yaw instead of a viewpoint’s yaw. So, when you hit right, it moves the character to the right. When movement is applied, it also continually updates the yaw rotation as well, so you can do lines in the game as well as the forward vector of the character is always accurately in front of them.

Rotation is simple and elegant. Also of note, I have a Get for the World Delta Time. THIS IS IMPORTANT! For some reason, this rotation is tied to frame rate and I only learned this during my testing. My Editor viewport was running at 120, but when I tested in a standalone game setting, the game was locked to 60. Somehow, all my rotations were 50% slower. Thus, I tested it using t.MaxFPS in the viewport and lo-and-behold, the rotations were again inaccurately slowed down or sped up depending on the FPS. in order to get rid of this, I set the scale of the rotation to be influenced by the world’s Delta Time, multiplied by about 100, to get the scale in the right place again. Now the rotation is the same, independent of the frame rate

The booleans at the bottom are again, self-explanatory. While tied to the input actions (which have a pressed and released state), each one describes to the Blueprint if I am Running or Aiming. The intended functionality is that IsAim supersedes all movement (though not rotation), and Walking Back has priority over Running.

Setting up cameras and switching them

Now, this functionality is a bit trickier. How do you get it so that you switch cameras in the game when a character moves around the map? One approach I’ve seen is with barrier triggers. When you walk through a barrier, you trigger a camera switch. However, this screamed potential bugs at me. What if you somehow miss a barrier? Then the camera won’t update, and you’ll have a shitty view. Not that I completely avoided this, but it seemed a lot easier to do with a “barriers” set up.

The best functionality I saw was from getting colliders the size of whatever room/view you wanted, then tying the camera switch to when the player enters the collider. This functionality worked perfect for me, with minimal bugs that I can iron out by hand.

However, how do I get this up and running? In one room, there may be anywhere from 1 camera to 3 for a smaller room, and even more for larger ones. How do I keep track of them, and how do I avoid rewiring the same Blueprint over and over?

I learned how to do this with Actor Component Blueprints. By creating a script I can throw onto a collider, I can tie that collider to a camera and have the same switch code activate each time I switch cameras regardless of which collider was firing. Here’s what it looks like:

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This is the Actor Component Blueprint I use for Camera Switches. It starts at BeginPlay, and passes through after. So, there are two tracked variables which represent objects: The ColliderBox and the SelectedCamera. These are variable objects that I can select after I attach the script to another Actor in my scene (usually my collider box). I select which Collider I want and which selected camera I want, and this associates the two in the script.

The BindEvent binds it to a specified event that can happen with the Target (in this case, in an OnActorBeginOverlap event), and brings the event into the component script. This has a potential if there are more actors that can trigger collisions, but I can probably use the overlapped and other actor nodes for a check. I’ll work that in when it happens.

The great thing about making this a component script is that I can change the script once and have it apply to all components thereafter, so I don’t have to redo each object every time I add functionality.

Now, getting the player controller is kind of weird here but it’s required for this next function. Not sure why. In any case, once the overlap happens I can switch the camera to this one.

This functionality doesn’t work for the FIRST START of the game. Thus, I had to make a second component script that DOESN’T call for an event trigger at all, called it StartingCamera, and added it to the camera I want to be the starting view of the level.

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So, with this functionality of the Component script in play, I can just select the script component, set which box (usually the same box I placed it on) and camera I can to function with, and that box will have the same switch function every time.

First Prototype


And so this takes me to about here in the prototyping phase: my first prototype release. This is after I had realized that Add Controller Yaw was frame based but before I added the Aiming flags. It shows off all the I had here actively in a game. Lighting is temporary and the game is simply blocked using UE4’s geometry tools and has some starter assets.

So what’s next for the prototype? I want to get item and landmark interactions down in the game. Inspecting, picking up items, maybe inventory, and other things like this will be up next. This hopefully shouldn’t be too bad. Fingers crossed!

Notice, again, I haven’t mentioned art style. I haven’t mentioned characters. I haven’t mentioned story. I haven’t mentioned the themes I want to explore. All of this is left open ended, and in that there is a beauty of possibility. When walking around this environment, I got some serious ideas of directions I can take this. I can use this as a starting point for an adventure game instead of the survival horror I had in mind in the first place. I got an idea for an art style I originally didn’t consider or recognize as a potential path. Keeping things simple and forgetting the small details to focus on the big picture of what makes this “a game” is giving me achieveable milestones that help keep my roadmap malleable and flexible.

CAYNE Review

(This review is featured at Steam Shovelers, which can be found here)

While Resident Evil 7: biohazard pulls a sick and torturous twist on the idea of a “Happy Birthday,” CAYNE, by independent developer The Brotherhood, brings this reference full circle.

CAYNE is a sci-fi horror isometric point-and-click adventure title where you play as Hadley, a woman who decides she wouldn’t be a fit mother and chooses not to keep her baby. After falling asleep on the operating table, she wakes up to a hellish nightmare: she has been taken to the Cayne facility and must find a way out of this gory and demented laboratory. It’s visceral, dark, and not afraid to show its insides to you.

Where CAYNE shines is how its story connects its nature as a point-and-click: by deemphasizing combat and focusing on puzzle solving and story development, it allows the horror to be more cerebral. As we investigate the Cayne facility, the horror of its experiments and the people conducting them become more and more evident.

The environment design — a twisted mix of hard gray steel and squishy red flesh — become the main theme of the game, creating a squeamish body horror that fits in well with the genre. Where it shines the most is in its exploration of themes not commonly found in any gaming genre: motherhood, abandonment, demented and repressed sexuality, the social and societal implication of scientific experimentation, and much more. Though I can’t say all of these themes are explored well enough, or with enough finesse and subtlety as other point-and-click titles, they are present and explored; they give weight to the story and how it impacts the player.

Puzzle-solving is also fairly decent as well. While balancing on the rope of leaving the player to their own faculties and guiding them along, sometimes CAYNE is inconsistent on how it brings on puzzles. I found myself gliding elegantly through some puzzles and horrendously stuck on others. The puzzles I was stuck on I eventually solved, however, small bits of information and light guiding may have made the experience exponentially more rewarding.

Part of that puzzle-struggle is also rooted in the UI system which, although functional and relatively straight forward, could use work to make the point and click experience much more intuitive. Hovering over objects with the cursor to see their description disconnected me from interacting both with Hadley and with my environment. Clicking and interacting with objects also felt slightly disengaging: I picked up which cursor icons meant objects were actively interactable, however being able to click a non-interactable object and have Hadley move to the object wordlessly and with no feedback outside of a hovering UI description felt like a bad point and click choice.

The characterization shines strongest on how we interact with and peek into the mind of Hadley: our pregnant protagonist. The voice acting for Hadley is great, provided by the amazing voice actress Sarah Anne Williams, and actively engages us in her story. Her quips and personality feel at home in the point and click genre, and helps CAYNE as a whole reside within that genre comfortably.

Though the character list is long, the list of characters that the player interact with in-game is much smaller. It lends itself to a more personal and private experience, allowing us to explore Hadley’s motivations, thoughts, and background. Other characters that aren’t alive at the time the game begins are explored through other means: we see their photos and diary logs through PDAs scattered throughout the environment.

The UI and environment description writing as a whole in CAYNE feels a bit verbose and pedantic, but the diary entries feel engaging and paint a portrait of the struggles and perversions of those working in the Cayne facility. Each one drives a new character through their own viewpoint and thoughts, allowing us to understand these characters from a perspective that’s almost as intimate as we understand Hadley.

As a tie-in to the STASIS storyline, and from my not having played STASIS beforehand, I felt slightly unhappy with the ending. Though CAYNE is a standalone title and is playable with no previous experience in the STASIS, I personally recommend trying to piece together a synopsis of the STASIS before heading into CAYNE.

Without spoiling or divulging details, I will say this: I felt like I had just finished the game holding a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, reading off “Be Sure to Drink your Ovaltine!” from my computer screen. Though its tie-in and pushing of STASIS is understandable, I felt odd that it’s advertised as a stand-alone title when I also felt pressured to buy STASIS to understand the storyline and how the implications of the ending affect it. Without previous knowledge of the universe the game is set in, the ending feels dry and begs too many questions while answering none.

Overall, CAYNE is a fun point and click horror title that fills a niche I hadn’t explored in years. And, for the better part, has put the Brotherhood games on my radar: in my own gaming sphere that is dominated by MOBAs, action-packed triple AAAs and (insert quirky indie puzzle-platformer with 8-bit graphics here), it’s refreshing to see a developer tackle this genre with the know-how to bring on a point and click like this.

Though I may not jump into the STASIS pool just yet, I will be paying attention both the developer and their overall IP. What more could I ask for from a completely free title?

Score: 76/100

Resident Evil 7 Review

(This review is featured at Steam Shovelers, which can be found here)

The hype bullet-train started by Capcom for its latest numbered entry in the veteran horror series Resident Evil has come to a final stop, with Resident Evil 7: biohazard finally unveiled to the public and made available for purchase.

Between cryptic trailers and playable demos, Capcom promised to satiate our appetites for nerve-wracking, spine-tingling, and nostalgia-driven survival horror of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But, as the Bakers did in the Dinner with the Bakers trailer, did Capcom serve us a genuinely heartfelt and respectable numbered entry?

The short answer: Yes. The long answer? Yesyesyesyesyeysyes OH GOD YES! That is not to say that RE7 is without its flaws, or that it is a perfect game; it is an amazingly well-built and fine-tuned horror title that fits perfectly in the Resident Evil atmosphere. Between years and years of survival horror releases that failed to meet our expectations and had notable growing pains, it’s a refreshing change. Silent Hill: Homecoming, Silent Hill: Downpour, Resident Evil 6, the cancellation of Silent Hills, this list goes on with failed titles that betrayed expectations for survival horror gamers.

As a fan of survival horror, ever since I first completed my Claire A campaign years and years ago, I felt disillusioned. I felt my childhood and teenage years were forcibly put in the past behind me by the industry, and that I needed to suck it up and eat the games that were put in front of me. No more! As 2017 is the year of resistance, it is also the year that survival horror made its triumphant comeback.

Resident Evil 7 is, just as Capcom promised us, well aware of its roots, predecessors, and genre defining moments from many different media that helped make horror a mainstay in our culture. It has a mix of everything, and it does each trope fairly well.

The game has many influences from old horror movies, making it reminiscent of horror from the 1970s and 1980s. Previous Resident Eviltitles have been out-of-tune, as the latest titles have gone for a large Hollywood Blockbuster action-oriented experience, playing an almost super-human main character destroying giant bosses. Whereas RE7 dials this back down to what initially made the series great.

The escape from the house, the Baker family, and even specific scenes in the game are echoes of the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and proves that horror is “all in the family.” “Welcome to the family, son” indeed.

“Welcome to the family, son” indeed.

The VHS imprinting and cassette type save system felt like a recollection to Ju-On (2002), known in the states by its American remakes as The Grudge. The idea of emotions and moments in time imprinted on VHS tapes is a nostalgic reminder of our childhood, a juxtaposition between the fear of a growingly tech-focused, nigh tech-obsessed world, and the marvels of what technology brings.

The body horror and deceptive supernatural undertones seem to call back to The Evil Dead (1983), bringing warm memories of Ashley back into our minds. RE7 does justice to these and other strong, deeply rooted horror titles by bringing them into a modern context.

How is this survival horror? Or, on the other hand, how is is Resident Evil? The exploration of the Baker house feels very similar to the mansion exploration that was a key asset to the early Resident Evil titles with a modern facelift: there is an indescribable sense of claustrophobia that governs the entire design of that game.

Between shimmying through bug-infested shortcuts in the mansion, panic-inducing chases through cramped hallways, drudging through small crawlspaces and tunnels, the game makes you feel the ‘weight’ of the estate in every sense of the word. This new interpretation of the old feels both incredibly nostalgic and refreshingly new.

I felt myself falling back on old survival horror habits, with some of my thoughts ranging from ‘Okay, I need the Snake key to open this door. Themed keys this is amazing’ to ‘Okay where was that door with the Crow on it? I remember seeing that during the early part of the game. Backtracking to it would probably be rewarding’ to ‘Oh my god these mansion puzzles are amazing, it’s great how all of these new things fit into my idea of RE.’

However, I did also have my reservations. The Baker estate, naturally being smaller than say the Spencer estate or the huge vastness of the Raccoon Police Department, leads itself to fewer rooms and less exploration. I felt myself wanting a bit more of this, noticing that I had explored most of the estate by the time I fully felt immersed in it.

By the time I finished the campaign, I felt like I knew it like the back of my hand. It’s a war between the area being unnecessarily convoluted and too linear and straightforward, but I feel that Capcom did a good job balancing the two poles.

I had a tough time running through the hallways in the beginning, but I found my mastering of the area and second-nature exploration started a little too soon for my expectations walking into the game.

The combat is strong, though with some hiccups. It does seem to take from the later trilogy more than it does from the original trilogy and friends. However, I found it satisfying.  RE7 rewarded me well-enough for accurately placed headshots and I felt adequately punished for missing them. The range between when I made shots and when I missed shots felt fair, and I always knew why I missed shots.

It felt like I was really in combat with these creatures: I was rewarded for taking my time and calming down for my shots, and my own aiming and skill suffered when I was rushing and becoming a frantic mess. I found myself finding a ‘flow,’ where I realized how to properly engage, disengage, and even skip altercations altogether.

At that point, however, it felt like I was fighting both enemies and the claustrophobic design of the mansion as hallways are incredibly cramped. Once I realized certain pathways, especially in the estate portions of the game, I was able to give enemies the slip.

Chase sections, when a constant and difficult enemy follows you around the area, felt well paced and tense. Though the enemy AI feels a little dimwitted and easy to avoid, these sections reminded me of the Mr.X chases from Scenario B in Resident Evil 2. Bosses did, again, take more from the later action-oriented trilogy. They’re big baddies that command space and attention, but the intimacy of space is respected like in the original trilogy and feels like a great balance between the old and the new.

The biggest criticism I have on the combat system is that sense of bullet sponges has not left. Many normal recurring enemies requiring headshots to efficiently take down, as body shots will soak up bullets, and dismembering enemies with shots is much less efficient that simply head shotting.

Resident Evil 7: biohazard is a fine addition to the series and an amazing blend of the future of the series with its past. It respects your expectations and also provides experiences I’d never thought I’d have, or even knew that I wanted. It serves up something I’m very fond of in a new way, allowing me to both walk forward with survival horror and glance back at where it came from.

It held my hand and whispered, “Shh, it’s okay… survival horror isn’t dead.” Though it does feel like a short campaign, with my final time clocking at about eight and a half hours, I’m left wanting more in both a mostly positive and minimally negative light. Its replayability seems strong enough, though. However, if you blaze through Madhouse increased difficulty and find all files and items, there isn’t much of a replay factor. We’re left to wait until the DLCs drop, as well as a promised free content later in Spring 2017.

Although RE7 isn’t a clone of Remake, it stands out with its own toddler-like legs and gets its first steps firmly planted. It has convinced me that Resident Evil can exist in an FPS space and still retain the hallmarks and atmosphere that define it, more so than the Gun Survivor series ever did.

I can’t wait to see what else Capcom does with the series, with survival horror gamers foaming at the mouth for Resident Evil 2’s remake details. However, if Resident Evil 7 is any kind of a clue for what we might see for Remake 2 and further numbered titles, I’ve officially regained my faith again in Capcom and in their ability to churn out horror hits. Now, the pressure is on for other IPs to follow suit.

Score: 91/100

VR: Altered Space, Altered Mind, Altered Future

Virtual Reality has definitely come a long way. From humble beginnings, and products like the Nintendo Power Glove, it’s finally looking like VR Spring. As we lay 2016 to rest (/all rip GG we threw this year kinda hard report my team pls) and aim our sights on a newer, better year, we can look forward to stronger and more diverse VR experiences. The technology that powers our current VR offerings is blossoming, and with these experiences slowly becoming the norm we can tap into a new era in the game development industry as well as a new era in gaming as a whole. As a consumer of games, an independent developer, and an enthusiast of VR tech, I have high hopes and plans for VR.

One doomsday prophet-esque event buzzing around game development as the hot new topic point (with a lot of hot takes) is the so-called “indiepocolypse.” In a nutshell, believers in the indiepocolypse say that the bloating of digital distribution platforms like Steam, decreased sales, and increased competition will lead to a bubble-burst. Indies will be swallowed up, eaten whole, and go without revenue from an apathetic market that refuses to buy any more indies.

This DOES sound like a scary prospect, with our doom as independent developers prophesied as lingering on the horizon, waiting to rip us and our dreams a new one. However, I personally feel that my hopes are renewed in independent development. Within the bosom of VR, a new and budding technology, we have the perfect space to pioneer a new frontier in gaming. Games such as Cosmic Trip, Kingspray, Thumper, Superhot, and many others are proof: unconventional development and quirky titles from small teams are the current lifeblood of VR. As we wait on larger development studios and AAA games to slowly adopt the technology, it will be the meek indies that will inherit virtual reality.

This is the best of all worlds. We as independent developers can take on bigger risks, harder challenges, and further the technology more than any of the developer giants and titans can at this early point in VR development. We have the keys in our hands, and development has never been easier. Both Unity 5 and Unreal Engine 4 have easy-to-jump-into licensing for smaller indie projects that allows you to grow into your projects, as well as ample and robust support for VR. On top of this, headsets such as Oculus CV1 and Touch also function as high-grade development kits. With this in mind, and barring pricing, it has never been easier to take the dive into VR development.

A childlike joy and wonder filled my first experience as with VR. I tried The Unspoken once and I was hooked. Memories of my childhood flooded my mind. From late nights lying in bed, staying up and imagining how it would feel to be a Mage casting spells, or an alchemist of the Full Metal variety, or having a pet creature and human friends in a Digital or Pocket Monster world, or touring the Wild Wild Space-West with lively bebop jazz in the background… In a instant, when I put on that headset, all of these memories from my bittersweet childhood came flooding back to me. This rush of utter joy is what VR really is, and it is our duty as independent developers to bring this experience to as many people as possible. This technology has the potential to make all of these dream worlds real.

As a result, my opinion has definitely changed. VR truly is the next frontier, one of limitless inspiration and potential. The Age of Indies shan’t be over, and hopefully will never be over. However, the future of ourselves as developers and the future of VR rests squarely on our shoulders. We must not buy into the chatter and anxiety over the lifespan of the indie scene. As long as we have the the chance to create our own dream worlds, the ones that are our very inspiration and drive us to create, we have no limit to our viability as an industry. I am throughly convinced that VR is the tool we need and the new platform to revive our lifeblood as developers. The current and future VR landscape is one of promise. I’m truly glad and humbled to see it with my own eyes, both real and virtual.

In a Sea of Thinkpieces, a Latino Voice

In a stunning and quantumly predictable yet unforeseen turn of events, I woke up facing a harsh reality before me: the people of the United States (my own “home and native land” as the Canadians would say and Republicans would repeatedly deny), divided by race, social class, and political party, had elected a basketball to the presidency.

This not to say that I hit the snooze button all Election Day yesterday. Like many people my age, I was glued to Facebook and Twitter with reactions to state breakdowns, Electoral College numbers, voter turnouts, demographics, and everything that both fairly and unfairly affects the political process in our nation. As I watched state after state filled in with Red, I stayed strong for both my family and my people.

However, after losing key battle states, I quickly began to lose my sense of direction. After channeling my energies and thoughts, I began to piece myself together enough to interact with others, and argued and debated the results. I simply talked about the signs that this could have happened. The telltale marks in the Clinton campaign that were pointing to her downfall, the signs in the manipulative and deceitful Trump campaign that pointed to its victory; all these things and more I talked about and debated with friends on a social media platform. In a way, I take comfort in that.

Democracy, at its very core and aligned with how our founding fathers intended it to be, is exactly that. Discussion, arguing peacefully and calmly with an open mind, discourse, and a constant moving forward. I take pride in knowing I have participated and continue to participate in a tradition of logical thinking, voting, and democratic debate that is the true pinnacle of our over 200 years as a nation. Though, it may surprise our founding fathers that it’s a punk Latino kid who’s doing the thinking and voting.

And in this, I find solace. It would be easy for me as LGBT+ identifying, a person of color, and a 20-something year old trying to play the politics game to give up; as a minority in so many senses of the word, it would be easy to cry and play victim. It would be easy for me to collapse on the floor, claiming to be a martyr of modern politics. Many people my age ARE doing so, with snide “it should have been Bernie” posts on Facebook. However, the strongest guiding light I have is that I do not have the luxury or the privilege to do so. In these discussions of “What now?” and the absolute terror my brethren and sistren in the Latino and LGBT+ communities, we get up to fight again.

Surrounding me in Orange County is a very real, hateful rhetoric that is very sobering. I am no stranger to this, as I’ve been pressure cooked in it since birth. As a native of Anaheim and an alumnus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, being surrounded by a white, Republican majority and all its caveats is something I’m no stranger to.

In a world where a voting majority felt its rights were taken away by a “black man in the White House,” we are now facing a racist “white man in the White House.” For us, our very way of life is within firing range of not only a bigoted President, but a very powerful Republican-controlled House, Senate, and a seat still open on the Supreme Court. The consequences of losing this election are very real, and may take decades to repair.

However, this means we must continue to fight tooth and nail for the rights and liberties we deserve. Continuing under the assumption, after securing PoC rights in the 60’s, a woman’s right to choose in the 70’s, or jumping forward to the strides in LGBT rights we have now, that our struggles were over was almost naive and foolish. We’ve been fighting every day of our lives, making a place for ourselves and succeeding.

We must continue to fight, continue to succeed, and continue to prevail. Our future wills it, we have no other choice. We can’t afford the luxury nor have we the privilege to treat this election cycle as a joke. We can’t let our will be drowned out in a sea of ironic memes about Bernie Sanders, Trump caricatures, and half-hearted tweets lamenting our situation. We must take continue action, continue in the political process, and continue our struggles.

In a sea whose tsunami-like waves threaten to swallow us whole in a sea of white-foam and pitch-black waters, we must continue. We must go on; we have no other choice.

Latinos, Tech, and Gaming: Oh My!

(This article was picked up by Pocho.com and can be found here)

Under a shadowy veil with months of leaks, a global ARG, and hush-hush secrets from headquarters, the new hero for Blizzard’s hit game Overwatch has finally been revealed: a Mexican Latina named Sombra. However, how does this impact the culture of Orange County? The culture of video game development? The very essence of Mexican and Mexican-American culture? I, as a first generation Mexican-American, think Sombra represents an important and much-needed shift in thought to get Latino people into careers that we are consistently underrepresented in. She represents a new tech-forward identity that uses its own skills to take matters into its own hands. But, most importantly, she’s really freakin’ cool.

For a reader who may not be up-to-date with the games industry, Overwatch is a much-celebrated new addition to Blizzard’s flagship products; it is a First Person Shooter, or shooting game from a first-person perspective. However, in a genre almost defined by the Caucasian de facto standard, Overwatch is extremely unique. The global and international nature of the game, from its storylines, settings, and characters, is at the forefront. In a genre dominated by depictions of our culturally accepted identity of a White American soldier, Overwatch turns this preconceived notion on its head. In Overwatch we fight for our very future and our core beliefs in a Six versus Six war using a colorful cast of characters from all over the world.

From D.Va, a female professional gamer who hails from Korea, to Tobjorn, a Swedish weapons designer, to Lucio, a black Brazilian D.J., to say the game is merely “diverse” would be an understatement. In a genre so dominated by our images and media of war movies, Overwatch is one of the most refreshing games to be on the market. The Overwatch cast is one of the most diverse on the spectrums of age, race, nationality, and sex in any video game, let alone a first person shooter.

How fitting, then, for the next character on the roster to finally be a Latina. Sombra, a Latina hacker who grew up in a fictionalized version of Mexico, was the victim of a war she had no say or power in, and grew up an orphan. After stumbling upon a mass global conspiracy that threatened her own safety having discovered it, she rid herself of her old identity and was rebirthed as Sombra: a chaotic hacker who has no true allegiances outside of herself. In my eyes she represents a new wave of ideas that the Latino culture and identity needs. We need to be tech forward, we need to “infiltrate” STEM careers, and we need to secure our own place in the rapidly developing world of science and technology.

It’s no secret that the video game industry and game development is a very male industry. Even Overwatch has come under fire as a reaction to this, with character designs and animations for female characters being criticized as sexist (see the scandal on Tracer’s butt-pose). Sombra can be viewed as a new counterexample to this identity, and better yet a role model for women looking to study and “break into” the fields of computer science, electrical engineering, and many other tech-forward areas of study and career paths. However, it is just as pressing and urgent to stress her background as a Latina.

As a first generation Mexican-American Latino growing up in the middle of Anaheim, not but 30-40 minutes on the 5 from Blizzard headquarters in Irvine, I didn’t have the resources to know what I know now having finished college and seen things from a perspective no one in my family had seen before. I was never encouraged to go down these career paths because no one in my family had any experience with tech careers. I was mystified by the things I learned in university, and left dumbfounded by how ill prepared I was by my high school education to tackle the tech-world. Had I not been fascinated by computers as a child, I quickly realized how these opportunities would have passed me over. No where in my Latino-majority high school were people talking about developing games in Unity, using C# and .NET to create Windows software, or the latest processor offerings by Intel.

For a fictional character, I think Sombra represents a new possibility for Latinos to tap into new careers and new offerings that were previously untapped by our people. With so many young Latino people hard wired into the Internet, and almost glued to their Facebook and Twitter, the potential we have to take the tech world by storm has never been greater. Our access to technology has never been stronger, and to let this chance slip by us would be the largest of tragedies.

All this from a simple character… Though it may be doubtable that Blizzard had these intentions in mind when designing and developing Sombra, the character has truly engaged me and affected me strongly. As a young Latino trying to find a career in the video game industry, to me Sombra represents the ability for Latino people to also be seen as tech-capable and on the forefront of computer technology. She represents and strengthens my ability to stare down these white-boys-club careers straight in the eyes and remind myself que “Si se puede!”

Review of BAE 2, by YUNG BAE

At its heart and root, Bae 2 is a cornerstone album for the present phase of future funk. However, I say this for reasons that are both positive and negative in my eyes. Bae as an artist is starting to develop a sound and workflow that will define him as one of the trendsetting and tastemaking producers of the genre, but in this creates a dilemma: from the source roots we have a lot of preconceived ideas that are now being abandoned.

Take someone like Macross for example. Sailorwave, one of the defining albums of future funk, takes a lot of obscure Japanese funk tunes and does what we now interpret as a standard future-funkification to them. Macross’s identity as a producer comes through consistently and incorporates one thematic focus that makes Macross my favorite producer: the thin veil between him and his samples that allows an air of mystery and subtlety to exist. Where he gets his samples feels like he’s pulling them out of random selection of vinyls in an old, thrifty record store and breathes a life into them that is nameless and more direct. He acts as the analog to digital converter that bridges us into funk that normally would have gone untapped. It’s almost like a quantum veil between you and “the funk.”

To shift away from subjectivity and metaphor, there are more objective and concrete reasons I hold this position. Macross has a tighter style when it comes to his sidechaining and how he mixes his kicks into the funk samples. They feel more fluid and more together, and more one with the original sample as a back drop. Examples would be Rei from Sailorwave, comparing and contrasting the Dress Down quote in 82.99 FM from A Million Miles Away to its source material Dress Down from Akimoto’s Cologne album, Asuka Bad Girl, or Jutsu from from the Jutsu EP. Although the sidechaining is fairly strong, the bass still melds into the source material, creating a seemless experience in the lower bass (250~500hz and under feels smooth as butter). A huge chunk of this is also how he deals with everything above 5kHz. How you approach the high mid and above will dictate how “future funk” you sound.

Let’s start to compare and contrast. Bae, especially in Bae 2, does not follow suit. Some example tracks would be towards the end of the album with Ain’t Nobody Like You, Not a Single Question?, and Party in Me. The kick in these tracks comes off sticking out in the mix. Now, to not be extremely nitpicky, the argument can be made that this is a “producer’s choice” situation. This can be considered part of Yung Bae’s sound, and is thus an interpretation of what Future Funk is/will be. However, the veil between source material and its new interpretation and production is becoming more and more opaque. The middle man is showing up in the music, and thus Yung Bae has more of a distinct sound and identity to him than Macross. This has both positives and negatives. I, personally, don’t want that. The transparency between me and the original funk is a reason why I celebrate Macross. I feel more in tune with the source material, and it feels funkier.

Bae betrays that for me. In exchange for pushing his own identity, he abandons what he samples. His kicks come out far too harsh, they overpower the source material and become more “80’s funk with piercing kicks over it” rather than “future funk.”

For example, compare and contrast Party in Me to its source material by Gene Dunlap. In the original track, the kick drum is more subdued. Bae’s interpretation of it brings more of a hard dance element. This was at first pleasing to me and I enjoyed the track, with one caveat: I hadn’t listened to the source yet. One of the defining and best parts of the future funk sound is how the kick and side chaining in modern music production can play with the rhythm guitar patterns and offbeat rhythms in funk music. This is lost almost completely in Party in Me. The flute, rhythm guitar, and bell-y rhodes piano drown in the new kick. Again, the source material isn’t as well respected. Another big negative is the fact that, aside from the low passing and sample work, most of the track is honestly 1:1 with the source. Yet, despite it being very close to the source material, a lot of the shining gems in the source material are lost.

Take Ain’t Nobody Like You as well. Again, the kick drowns out anything worthwhile or “funky” about the source material (“The Dude” by Quincy Jones). What we’re left with after the kick comes through is the new saxophone texture that’s too astringent to carry the track. The next thing that carries this track is the honestly quite lazy lifting of the verse from “It Wasn’t Me.” Whenever I revisit Bae 2, I skip this track for these two reasons.

Not a Single Question? is the defining moment in the album where my opinions on it were solidified. The source by Lalah Hathaway (Something) is pitch shifted up. This creates a really interesting and refreshing bass line that peaks much higher, and lets it and the naturally alto voice in the source material have new colors. However, again, the kick drowns out anything positive in the track. We can hear every single hit of it like a truck, and on top of that any kick off the half note pulse feels out of place, needlessly compressed, overtly strong, and overpowering.

Bae is developing his “Bae” brand. His presence on Twitter, his activity in the community, and his structure and planned release schedule of new tracks, singles, and new albums is something that is refreshing in the community. It gives us something to listen for and look forward to, especially in a subset of genres where you never know when the next release from a producer will come out. However, is this new branding the future of Future Funk? He’s creating an identity that is very opaque, unlike any other producer in the genre. If we look back on the roots, this has never really been done. Take into example Vektroid (who is starting to follow a similar route by shaking off these preconceived notions) or even something as deep as Lopatin. Vektroid is infamous for creating a new alias and persona for each new release. Lopatin DOES have Oneohtrix Point Never as a steady alias, however this alias is very transparent and indistinct. The celebration of anonymity and the cloud of smoke that covers up the production of the music is very apparent in early Vaporwave. Releases would come and go, and nameless faces would give us music and never return. We were left to wonder if we had dreamt up these releases, and if their producers were figments of our own imagination and subconscious. Future Funk is losing this, and I think the rise of Bae is a direct reflection of it.

Bae 2 definitely marks a shift in tone for Future Funk as a genre and as a whole. I’m not sure what this means, or if I even enjoy it, but I guess we’ll see over time what it has in store for the genre and its listeners.