Hello and welcome to the post-mortem for Super Stormont Deadlock, my game about the impasse that has left Northern Ireland without government for (at time of writing) 16 months. This started as the standard “5 Good 5 Bad” industry format for a post-mortem but I could only think of four good things and then went on a bit of a tangent in the middle but hopefully it’s interesting to read? Only one way to find out, folks! Let’s go!
On the positive side: This was a good exercise in learning Unity and the Playmaker extension - up until the second published build the project folder for Super Stormont Deadlock was called “Playmaker Tutorials thing”. I’ve fooled around in Unity before, and previously finished a small game, but this is the first really intentional thing that I’ve made from scratch up to a finished product - although in the age of super polished indies and Games As A Service it is hard to think of it as “finished” so much as “a functionally complete product I have no desire to work on further”. But in the course of making Super Stormont Deadlock I’ve gained a fairly solid grasp of how to use both Unity and Playmaker and I’ve figured out most of the essentials, or am at least some way towards figuring them out, and I’m already applying that knowledge to the notions of other wee things I want to make.
I’m also very pleased with the reception this got. Admittedly this is mostly because it was topical and because a video game about Northern Ireland is novel enough that a silly thing like this can get picked up by the BBC, but still, for the sake of a handful of posts across social media I got just under 1,000 views, 193 downloads and $33.00 in donations - not huge numbers by any means but pretty decent for a joke game made by a nobody. Some legit talented and funny people also followed me on Twitter which is probably worth sod all in real money but is still nice.
Exposure on Twitter also lead directly to the game getting picked up by Jayne McCormick at BBC NI which was a surreal, wonderful experience and having my work featured on their website may prove useful in showing off my stuff down the road - we’ll see! Either way it was extremely cool and I have been called an artist by a national news outlet now which is the most help one can hope to get in resisting imposter syndrome. Thanks Jayne!
On a more negative note, I’m not happy with how slow the turnaround was on this project. I had the idea fleshed out and an almost feature-complete prototype together in December 2017, and didn’t release the first Windows build until July 2018. The reasons for this were chiefly a lack of motivation, a bad/inefficient workflow, and being short on time and energy while working a fairly demanding job in hospitality. I’ve since patched that job, am trying to address my workflow, and have no idea what to do about motivation - answers on a postcard please.
These delays were bad for a few reasons: firstly, the “game” is basically a slightly interactive political cartoon, and as such it relies on topicality. This was a reasonably sharp idea when I had it but by summer of this year felt a bit like flogging a dead horse. In any semi-reasonable country, the window to make a gag like this would have shut a long time ago. In a recent episode of 99% Invisible, Scott McCloud made the point that comics, as a time and labour intensive medium, are better at communicating big picture ideas than fleeting, topical subjects. I think there’s something to this, and I think video games are (or can be) even more time and labour intensive, but it also begs the following questions: what about quick, fast, rough comics/games? What about political cartoons, published weekly if not daily, in response to political “moments”? Where is the boundary between the big picture and the topical, and on which side of the boundary should one place the Stormont crisis?
I haven’t quite come to a conclusion on any of those questions, but they’re worth thinking about. Whatever the answer though, I do think games can be uniquely suitable to making little cartoons like this. The idea that became Super Stormont Deadlock was originally intended to be an animation about a UFO arriving in Belfast, then a comic that pastiched Pacific Rim, but I think the video game form was the right choice.
The classical political cartoon is often basically a diagram of a system - sometimes complete with little labels! - and games are perhaps better than any other medium at illustrating, or at least recreating, systems. I think this can be as much a problem as it is a strength of the medium - I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every fashy alt-right boy you’ve ever met has a shallow aesthetic fascination with classical antiquity and also happens to play a lot of 4X games, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many people can’t imagine a world without consumer capitalism when our most popular fantasies don’t bother, etc etc ad nauseum - but it can also be very useful!
Games are a great medium for demonstrating theories and making small, pithy arguments (like this or this, or these - you get the idea) and that’s exactly what I set out to do with Super Stormont Deadlock. I think it worked, for the most part. Borrowing an existing, well understood, rule set - in this case the basic fighting game loop - and then breaking it is a pretty effective way to illustrate a broken system. The most edifying review I got of the game was from a friend who messaged me that they thought they’d found a bug because they couldn’t land a hit, then messaging me a minute later like “ohhhh”. So I think abusing the Street Fighter ruleset was a good way to make the point I wanted to, in a more pointed and concise way than I could have done with an animation or a comic, and I think for whatever it’s worth the analogy hangs together pretty well.
That all said, I don’t think that games should or can be understood solely as systemic models. I think the wealth of art games, flatgames, trashgames, walking sims and even certain design trends in AAA development (like “cinematic” QTE-heavy narrative games) goes to show that Games are a broad aul church and not universally reducible to the ‘sets of rules’ description favoured by certain ludology-focused scholars. Furthermore, I think games have a fantastic capacity for affect and evocation, especially (to me personally) 3D games have the ability to portray space and place in a way that no other medium comes quite close to. This extract on vignette games by Llaura McGee from Dreamfeel Zine #01 is something that kept going through my mind when making Super Stormont Deadlock:
What makes vignette games interesting is that they express meaning without coding explicit value systems and interpretations into the mechanics. This is directly opposed to 'simulations' and the metaphorical mechanics of late 00's 'artgames', which both express meaning with literal rules and thus reduce meaning and simplify it until it often doesn't say anything. Vignette games try to get at meaning sideways, in a more poetic and interpretable way, such that the meaning can never be explicit or static. They recreate a moment, which may or may not illustrate something, whether it's a feeling or a theme, but it's left to the player to do the lifting and so players can have wildly different interpretations.
This is very explicitly the opposite of what I was doing, which weirdly haunted me. I was very deliberately making a smartarse, mechanically focused, game-with-a-point. Was it too blunt? Too polemical? Was it more propaganda than art, and if so, propaganda to what end? What’s the audience for this? Is this smug centrist pablum? Is this Jake O’Kane “Don’t Vote” cynical bollocks? I mean, realistically, I think it comes over as a two-minute joke that most people laughed at and moved on, and these worries probably sound like so much self-indulgent wank, but when you spend months telling a two-minute joke it stops being funny a long time before you finish. A dissection in reverse. Lesson learned: make an actual game next time.
Another lesson I learned was scope control. Minding feature creep is all good and well in theory but putting that into practice was a lot harder than I expected, especially when it comes to actively cutting planned content. This is where I found having a hard and fast release date and being merciless was extremely helpful. I definitely wasted too much time on small, inscrutable background details that are almost impossible to notice (compare, for example, the full resolution face of Sammy Wilson with his in-game incarnation) but I also managed to cut a good whack of stuff that I initially thought was pretty vital to the meaning of the game.
Originally I had planned to have various different parades and marches passing in the background of the scene, a chronicle of real events during the period since the Assembly elections, but cut these for time. I justified this to myself by replacing said marches with various stickers (most of which probably went unnoticed because they’re very small) and deciding that it was emblematic of the fact that, just as said marches did not actually pass through Stormont, popular politics do not take place in the empty seat of government. The moral: talk shite and fool yourself if that’s what it takes to cut cut cut and pare back to the essentials.
Fooling myself with excuses also let me leave the game “feeling” pretty terrible, though, which is less desirable. I pretended, and will continue to pretend, that the floaty, awkward movement controls were fine because this was basically an anti-game and it’s meant to be all broken and what not, but this is obviously bollocks and the real reason was that I did not have the will to revisit the character controls, which were poorly hard-coded early into my learning the tools. The chief lesson I learnt here was to keep my systems as modular as possible so that changing things doesn’t cause too many dominoes to fall elsewhere, though I also have a new appreciation for just how hard it is to make things “feel” right in a 2D action game.
The other thing that I’m not happy about with Super Stormont Deadlock is its accessibility, or lack thereof. It seems to play correctly on Windows, and more or less correctly on Mac (enough to get the gag across) and it doesn’t require anything approaching a beefy computer, but the controls are hard-coded to a certain keyboard set-up and not configurable, and there’s nothing in the way of AI. The forced multiplayer isn’t so much of an issue because the nature of the game means it honestly works just as well with one player as with two, but the controls are a real problem - its not really all that playable on non-English keyboards, and not very accessible for players with motor impairment. This is a top priority for whatever I do next, and when I can summon the will power to revisit this thing it’ll be the first and biggest fix I make.
In conclusion: this silly wee game took far too long to make, but it was a good excuse to think a lot about games and cartoons while making it. Next time I want to get from idea to finished thing faster; make art rather than an argument; be inclusive and accessible when it comes to playing the damn thing; focus on feel and atmosphere over mechanics; keep my back-end clean (teehee), organised and modular; and keep trying to edit down to the core spirit of the thing. If I can get on the BBC again that would be cool but I won’t bank on it, so I’ll also have to figure out a better strategy when it comes to disseminating my next project.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed either Super Stormont Deadlock or this diatribe, find me (@AndrewRPope) on Twitter or follow me on itch for my next thing, which will likely be either a walking sim adaption of a Borges story or an irish horror anthology! You heard it here first!
- Andrew Pope
Employee of the Month March 2018
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