Friday 13 May 2022

Thoughts on Making Games

I was considering keeping this one a little quieter, but I’m very excited to have started work on a classic point & click adventure game. It’s an amalgamation of a few ideas I’ve had for various games, set in something of an alternative 19th Century rural Ireland. Think maybe Monkey Island, Fate of Atlantis or Broken Sword meets Flann O’Brien and Father Ted. I’ve coined the working title of ‘Monkey Ireland’ as a bit of a laugh.

I think it’s safe to say I have a problem with finishing projects, especially when it moves from the exhilarating beginning stage of planning, conceptualisation and exploration, to the more tedious refinement, polish, and eventual release.

I recently revamped my website, moving from Squarespace to Google Sites. When I was doing my undergrad, I made a quick little website using Indexhibit, a free online portfolio creator with a bit of back end coding. Back in those days I was a bit more savvy with doing some web dev stuff, CSS and HTML, having cut my teeth on early internet, Flash, Geocites and Myspace. I switched to Squarespace around 2014, and only recently dropped it as it was becoming increasingly expensive, nearly £200 a year to maintain what is essentially an online business card. I was thrilled at Google Sites and would 100% recommend it to any other artist looking for an online portfolio. Thanks to the wayback machine, there is an archive of my old website, if anyone is interested. 

This was a big deal for me, not only having ticked off one of my big ‘to do’ items for this year, allowing me a bit more financial freedom, and also to reflect on all the weird projects and things that I’ve made over the years. So it turns out that I’ve actually worked on, and more importantly finished, quite a number of projects. And there are still more that I need to add to the website still.

One of the biggest problems indie game developers have is starting a project with too much ambition. Over lockdown I began work on making a new Mod for Half-Life, Valve’s 1998 classic first person shooter. I wanted to recapture some of the feeling of playing that game that I had back in 1998 and worked on a few levels sketching out some ideas and basic geometry. I was happy with the results but I’ve decided to put that project on the back burner for now. I’m a little sad to see that mod languish on the depths of my hard drive, but I might return to it eventually. That said, I am happy with my contribution to that side of gaming, with a number of maps made that gained popularity and are still enjoyed to this day.

On reflection, I have a few other games that never quite made it. I developed a short game about being stranded on a small boat during a flood, having to fish for supplies and befriend a small bird, a Flashback style game where you are a robot trying to return to your factory to be dismantled, a game where you control a hermit, scanning a beach for items to reveal more information about your past, and a Duke Nukem 2 inspired platformer where you play as an older, fat, bald and grumpy version of the classic 90’s action hero. All these titles are on hold, incomplete, and maybe never see the light of day. But theres something about making them that thrills me, I think I’m drawn to the process of development more than creating something to release. 

I often think about these abandoned games, and consider maybe revisiting them and taking them to the final stages of polish, but I’m very happy with what I’ve achieved and what they’ve taught me about making things. Every aspect of the creative process offers something different to me. When I look back on these games I don’t see them as failed projects, but more as experiments that helped me learn a little more about my own creative practices. 

Referring back to the abundance of completed projects on my recent website revamp has allowed me to reflect on my actual achievements, on what I’ve taken from start to finish, and what I can do when I put my mind to it. These finalised works are the results of years and years of those experiments, and I’m very grateful to have the ability and opportunity to take these risks.

The new game that I’m working on is another passion project. Like a lot of my work, I don’t exactly plan on making something with wide appeal. Point and click adventure games are a serious niche, with a very small market, but I think if I release the first act of the game, perhaps some interest will allow me to finish it off. I’ve written the script for it, developed the puzzles and locations. On paper, it works, which is good. But now I need to get into the nitty gritty of developing the actual game. I’m confident I can do it, despite not created a point and click game since I was in high school, The wealth of knowledge and experience in the other ‘paused’ projects gives me something to build on. 

By the big mirror in my bedroom, I’ve stuck a few postit notes, detailing things that I need to do. Not exactly Trello, but I’ve found this method to be really useful in helping me manage my projects. Being the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning is so helpful in keeping me on track. Removing the’ ‘Squarespace’ item from this list was very satisfying, much more than ticking a box on a spreadsheet. I’m hoping to knock a few more things off this list, hopefully including one for this new adventure game. 

Thursday 16 September 2021

Team Fortress Classic: Forge Revived

A map I’ve made for a 22 year old game has been discovered by another developer and given a new lease of life.

I first played Team Fortress Classic when it came bundled with the Game of the Year edition of Half-Life. I was really excited to try it out, having read the back of the box, noting that it was another full game included. 

This was back in 1999, and the early days of internet gaming, and, I suppose, the internet. Team Fortress Classic was an online-only, multiplayer, team-based game, where everyone performed a specific role to lead to your team victory. I instantly loved it, and found a few great servers to play on regularly. The 56k modem was a bit of a pain in the neck, especially if someone tried to ring through, but it was still an awesome little community and a lot of fun. 

I’d been making games since I had a copy of AMOS Professional on Amiga as a kid. When I got Half-Life, it opened up a whole world of developing for me. It came with the editing SDK on the CD, something pretty rare for the time. The tool was called Worldcraft, since renamed Hammer, and although it had a pretty steep learning curve, it was also incredibly powerful. Not much has changed with the original version compared to the latest-used in creating such wonderful titles as the new VR Half-Life: Alyx. It’s still my game creation tool of choice. 

So I’d made quite a few maps, had some mild notoriety as a mapper, making a few maps for TFC and Half-Life Deathmatch/single player. I also made a few maps for an upcoming mod called Mutiny!, which was about piracy and adventure on the high seas. My brother wanted to be part of that development team as an animator but he didn’t get asked. He was furious when I was part of the team, as one of the only mappers. The mod never made it past alpha, sadly, but it was pretty polished and I might dig out some of the old files if I can find them.

The date on Forge readme file says I’d completed it in August 2007, so already pretty late in the life-cycle of Team Fortress Classic, although still before the online juggernaut of Team Fortress 2 had been released. I think the only server I’d probably be playing that on in those days was a weird UK server called Royston Vaysey, named after the League of Gentlemen Comedy show. I often asked the admin to upload a map to try out and see how it worked. I don’t remember giving this map an official release, perhaps we only played it once or twice and I found it had some errors so I parked it on the back burner for a while, eventually forgetting about it. I don’t even think I’ve the source files for it anymore. I was still in university when I made this, I probably did it between second year and third year, on my summer holidays. Probably before starting this blog!

So fast forward to present day… another keen mapper emailed my old address, asking if they could edit my map to smooth out some of the issues and make it more playable for their Team Fortress Classic Server. I was quite shocked, having forgotten about this little project completely. Of course, I gave permission and asked to be informed of any updates. I was very happy to see some of my old work brought back to life and enjoyed on full servers again. So here it is: finally an official release of the Team Fortress Classic map, Forge. I feel like it could be inspired a bit by World of Warcraft, theres certainly a hint of snowcapped mountains and molten metal. Maybe it was more of an opportunity to mess around with the HL: Rally textures for the snowy roads? No idea, its been quite a while. 

Heres a link to the download, and if you want to play it, it’s available to vote for on the ‘OldSchool TFC’ server. Enjoy!

Monday 26 April 2021

A Little Update

I haven’t posted in a bit so heres something of an update on what I’ve been working on. 

I’ve had quite a productive lockdown, mainly focused on paintings. I’ve been able to have something of a studio clear out due to the Artist Support Pledge on Instagram, which also allowed me to purchase some amazing works from artists that I love. 

Much of the paintings have been a continuation of my work from last year, looking at contemporary landscape painting around the border region in Northern Ireland. I was interested in ideas about Brexit and issues with rising paramilitaries in the news. I tried to portray stillness in these paintings, and focusing on creating unassuming little vignettes of life on the border, including aspects like old burnt out vehicles or the side of a road, or some signage in them. My dad just informed me that a Give Way sign that I included in one of my paintings had recently been stolen. Great.

I had a painting of a UVF flag included in the Beep painting prize, down in Swansea, although I was unable to attend the exhibition in person due to all the Covid stuff and didn’t want to risk it. The curator, Jonathan Powell, has invited me to partake in an interesting new project about borders, which I’ve just finished up. This should come to fruition later on in the year. Watch this space! I've had a few other digital exhibitions too, check out this screenshot from one last year:

As a response to riots a few years back, I started making a 2D game a bit like a GTA/Lemmings crossover where you have to kettle protesters into a specific area. Unfortunately, a recent upgrade on my computer has made the build a bit unstable, so maybe I’ll spend a day or so soon and work out the kinks and get something usable out of it. Heres hoping. 

I was commissioned a while ago by a friend to do a painting of a famous uilleann piper from an old photograph. This started me on a series based on historic pipers, using black and white photographs as a source. I found it a good challenge to paint these portraits. Pipes, fingers and faces are all hard to capture. I guess I couldn’t have picked a harder subject matter, but I’m very happy with how it’s going.

As a piper with a love of poker, I had an idea many years back to make a deck of cards based on famous pipers/makers. I found my initial idea in an old sketch book while moving house, and I felt that it would be a great time to try this again. The initial inspiration was from a deck of cards that we used to play with when I was a teenager: The Millennium Deck. This had a different portrait on every card of famous politicians, scientists, musicians and artists from the last millennium. I’m about half way through this one, drawing some of the most famous pipers using Procreate on my iPad. I can’t wait to see this finished as a deck of cards. I don’t imagine I’ll sell many but its something I’m doing for the passion of it, and a product I’d love to see in my life. Very niche!

In other news, I’ve been doing a lot of music stuff on the side, working slowly on a Celtic Rock Opera which was a lot of fun, but nowhere near finished. I’ve also recorded two albums of Uilleann Pipes, one doing covers of classic Nokia ringtones on historic pipes, and another of straight up traditional solo piping but recorded on an old cassette recorder that I had since I was a kid. This one is coming out soon, just getting the CDs printed at the minute. I think I’ll release on the next Bandcamp Friday. The ringtones album I’m sitting on for now. Seems like not a great idea to release two strange and somewhat novelty albums at the same time. Well, the ringtones is more of an EP experiment.

I’ve also been working on making a mod for the original Half-Life, trying to recreate some of the old buzz from the single player campaign in a condensed way. I have about 80% of the map sketched out, just need to get some play testing done to see how it flows and then I can make changes if necessary. I’m approaching this one a little differently than normal, building very rough brushwork on the maps and then using Procreate to sketch the details in from screenshots, so I can then make the environments a bit more believable and inhabitable. I wanted to make something along the lines of Half-Life: Uplink, that is, a short 1-3 hour game but tight and fun. I’m a big fan of short games, cant be bothered sinking 40-60 hours into a AAA title these days, I just get bored. 

Ok so thats been a busy year for me, more stuff coming, so watch this space.

Sunday 26 April 2020


About a year ago I spent some time doing a residency in SHIFT in Cardiff. SHIFT was a brand new and exciting art space in the centre of Cardiff, supported by the arts organisation & charity Axis. The space was absolutely huge, having been an underground Virgin Megastore back in the day. I instantly wanted to make use of the environment to make some large scale works, but it took me a little while to actually make any. I focused on smaller works and using the size to better understand my subject matter and composition before eventually sizing up to larger pieces. I’m happy with how that body of work turned out, and how it helped me realise what I wanted to get out of landscape painting.

During this time I experimented with an idea that I had left simmering on the back burner. I’d always been interested in the unusual (and disturbing) crossover of violent materials and children. I’ve written about this quite a bit, particularly regarding The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the freshly apparent glorification of ‘the good old days’ by kids. It’s something that has always been a big part of my work, and when exploring the historic violence in Northern Ireland using video game software, I found there was an inherent link between simulated online violence by kids and the real-life violence that influenced so many.

With this small project, I want to make something that bridged that link whilst also using new technology. I had a few ideas from before about using the idea of a balaclava in my work after seeing a piece by Paul Granjon–that had absolutely nothing to do with paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland–but it inspired me to use it as an object because it's such an iconic and thought evoking symbol.

I actually don’t like using Snapchat, but it has featured in my work and influenced my practice a fair bit. I suppose I referenced it most directly in a project emulating Willie Doherty in a lighthearted series of live online ‘performative’ pieces, and there is some similarity with the work I did with #rambo. I did personally use Snapchat for a few months when it came out but pretty soon after I gave up and stopped updating or checking it. I know it's super popular with kids, I imagine in part due to the 100% inaccessible UI that makes it inoperable to the boomer generation, a bit of an ‘anti-Facebook’. I thought it might be interesting to create something along the lines of a face filter that used a balaclava, and Snapchat’s relatively simple filter-making software allowed me to do this.

When starting this project I found it drew out some parallels between IRL activism, online anonymity, gaming culture, privacy, oversharing and illegal activities. Why not use a balaclava to hide your identity for online activities? I suppose the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask would be more appropriate when referencing these issues, but as someone from Northern Ireland, it's hard to move past the image of a balaclava and its inherent implication.

As it stands, I might break this work out for an exhibition some time. I understand it is possible to use geofencing to localise a Snapchat filter for events and such, or do I have a device in the exhibition with Snapchat locked in for people to post their own balaclava photos? Or why not both? Maybe a running feed on a display of people’s filtered faces when posted on social media and tagged with a specific hashtag. The balaclava model might need a little more fine-tuning and tweaking but the overall concept and execution is solid. Now to work on a face mask & ventilator filter for this COVID-19 pandemic…

Sunday 1 March 2020

Randomly Generated Landscape Paintings

I’ve been working on this project since my Masters but only recently shown any of the outcomes to the public. You could say that this represents the ‘physical object’ outcome of my Digital Border work, as it stemmed from the same randomly generated landscape game that I made using Unity 3D.

My process with Digital Border was to create these unique landscapes using a Perlin Noise algorithm. I then added in generic game objects from found online sources and created these little narrative-driven vignettes that were ‘photographed’ in-game. The photos were reproduced as 9x16cm acrylic glass on aluminium, emulating the language of a mobile phone screen. I also recorded a few and replayed as video installation work (see my exhibition in Nantes and also my MFA show).

During this time, I was using the same algorithm to generate landscapes with the idea of producing physical work of charcoal on paper with them. I made perhaps 10 or 15 works based on this but never uploaded them or shown anyone. They were purely run as tests–and I was happy enough with them–but my focus was on digital work at that time.

I’ve gotten back into painting since then, so I decided to expand on my simple charcoal sketches and developed them into full-blown paintings. This came from a random opportunity in Splott Market. I was having a look at the car boot section with a friend of mine and came across a load of floppy disks that were going for free. I instantly knew I had to paint on them, and that paintings derived from digital source imagery would be perfect for them.

Also, painting on floppy disks? Sure–why not? I had someone comment that they were reminiscent of Richard Higletts little landscape paintings on old paintbrushes, and I didn’t think about it but there is a familiarity there and I really like Higlett’s work. I had a bit of trouble figuring out how to best approach the surface for painting with oil. I initially tried to mimic canvas with a heavy gesso crisscrossing but then I realised how much I actually hated painting on canvas. I dipped the disks in generic varnish a few times to prepare the surface and found that this worked much better.

I applied the same approach to preparing the wooden panels for painting. Rather than gesso (which I normally do) I found this gave a fresh and interesting flat surface for painting on. My favourite will always be painting on sheet metal or MDF, but this worked well too. I might try some varnish with canvas at a later date and see if it give that amazing smooth finish that I love.

So from these initial charcoal ‘en plein air’ sketches evolved a body of work around the same subject matter and with cool & unique paintings on 3.5” floppy disks. They were recently shown at a View from the Edge in M.A.D.E. Gallery in Cardiff, with other works by landscape painters with unusual approaches to the subject matter. 

In the past I've made some work exploring plein air painting with digital images. I found the act of working from 'live' sources than working from photographs breathes extra life into the process and the introduction of random chance and change adds to the immediacy of the paintings. When I painted from in-game DayZ, there was always the danger of an incoming Zombie or enemy player ruining the scene. The environment forced my hand to make quick decisions about how to approach the work, and I enjoyed this freedom and embraced immediacy of painting like this.

I’m currently revising making paintings from webcams. This was a series I’d only made a few pieces for, and I look forward to exploring the process again and seeing what new outcomes arrive.

Thursday 31 October 2019

Endurance Art and Crazy Self-Imposed Gaming Challenges

I was thinking about the relationship between performance art and the performative aspect of some digital artworks.

Pushing the human body to it’s physical and mental limits has featured in many performance artist’s works. Perhaps the best-known example of this ‘endurance art’ is American artist Christ Burden. His performances such as Five Day Locker Piece and Shoot (above) put the artist through great risks, physical pain and endurance.

We see virtual similarities within the gaming community. Things like the World of Warcraft Iron Man Challenge, or the Nuzlocke Challenge in Pokemon (amongst countless other challenges) allow gamers to get more out of their games by self-imposing limits, very often to the point of ridiculousness. The rise of streaming, social media and online multiplayer gaming have allowed these challenges to grow, with people now able to get immediate feedback from the community from their exploits.

I had the idea of doing a virtual marathon in-game after playing a little on the 2002 PS2 title, The Getaway. In this game, the developers broke significant ground by creating a virtual version of London that was vaguely recognisable. The now-primitive graphics were cutting edge for the time, and having a digitised version of London as an open-world gaming environment was fantastic. For example, the second mission in the game calls for you to visit ‘The Reptilian’ gallery in Hyde Park (read: The Serpentine) and steal a Chinese artefact, before making an escape across London to your hideout in Soho, chased by Triads and Police.

So I had the idea of drawing up a route based on the London Marathon and recording my run around virtual London as a performative work. Take some water bottles, energy gels, buckle in with my PS2 and see how many hours it takes to run my avatar around 26.2 miles of virtual London without dying.

Talking with a painter recently about the relation between ultra-endurance running and landscape painting sparked further questions on how learning an environment through repetition helps to understand better. The outcome is more than just a visual replication, but something towards a more in-depth representation of the entire landscape. Painting through the image and with a better understanding.

As a runner (albeit, not yet interested in 100-mile ultramarathons) I had questioned this idea before. There is something to be found in the detachment of painting a landscape from a single source image. Perhaps this is more to do with how we have mostly second-hand experiences through photographs and other media these days. It could be a psychological thing. Still, when we look at, for example, Plein air painters, is it possible they’ve developed a deeper connection with their landscape, and this has, subsequently, informed their work differently? Probably more to unpack here than is necessary for a short blog post.

Sunday 9 June 2019

Red Dead Fashion

I recently stumbled across this weird and unique subreddit:

r/reddeadfashion has taken gaming avatar customisation to a new extreme, evolving into some strange Red Dead Redemption based Instagram vs IRL simulacra.

We have redditors creating digital avatars, customising their hair and appearance before kitting them out with some unique in-game clothes. Some are trying to mimic real people/celebs and other pop culture references (as seen recently in Soul Calibur), but it’s the submissions that are just trying to look cool or unique that interest me the most. Here are a few of my favourites so far: