Guiding Lines (part 1)

I’ve started drawing maps for fun again, and have only now begun to truly appreciate their relevance to other forms of design drawing. Whilst I have been an indie and freelance game designer for 7 years now, the times I spent drawing complex flowcharts have almost never overlapped with transit projects like these, which constitute my lifelong hobby. Now that I’ve caught myself re-arranging flowcharts for readability in a manner more akin to that of my transit maps, I reckon it’s a good time to try and unpack what’s happening in this form.

What follows is a series of articles on that topic, beginning with an exploration of transit maps in isolation.

4 Countries, 2570 Stations, 1? Map

My cartographic meditation for this past month has been an ongoing network map of the UK’s passenger railways. As with most of my transit map projects, this one attempts to plug a gap which is otherwise not quite fulfilled by transit agencies — nor indeed, by many other enthusiasts.

National Rail Enquiries publish a series of abridged maps (below), and they also include a valiant effort by Andrew Smithers/Project Mapping. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Britain’s stations are too numerous to be viewed comfortably at once — especially given the contrast in visual density between areas like rural Scotland and Manchester.

The maps offered by National Rail Enquiries and Project Mapping [source] could be said to sit at opposite ends of a spectrum, in terms of scale and the necessity for a zoom tool.

Maps of regional railways are somewhat easier to come by — partly because they’re easier to design and to read, but also because they allow the individual, privatised companies to showcase their services in isolation of others. South Western Railways, for example, are afforded the opportunity for an effective diagonal map, anchored between London Waterloo and the lines’ southwestern termini. These do, however, offer a distorted view of the bigger picture, as their priority lays in encouraging travel via specific lines or companies. They also represent disparate range of graphics styles.

Southwestern Railway’s network map is afforded an opportunity to spread from a single, neat source — their London terminus. However, other railways appear diminished. [Source]

A UK National Rail Map Project

My solution, has been to develop a Train Operating Company (ToC)-agnostic series of regional maps which could form a whole, but don’t, in order that they may also remain visually pleasing. Thus far only Scotland has been completed — as a series of three maps — but it’s been sufficient proof of my graphics scheme for those map segments yet to come.

My UK National Rail map is constructed as a series of artboards in Adobe Illustrator, making it even easier to keep styles consistent and see the whole scheme at the glance. They may be viewed in more detail here.

That development of a graphics scheme — the details of which I won’t linger on too much here — is what started me thinking back to design diagrams in general. It’s an essential part of most transit authorities’ visual presentation, as guidelines for enforcing visual consistency and clarity. The enjoyment I derive from developing such schemes is matched only by that I derive from the naming conventions and game/UX flows I handle in my day job.

Design Schemes

Setting firm rules for micro elements such as line width, station dot size, spacing of text and circumference of arcs lends form to a surprisingly complex piece overall, much like the systems behind most games.

Counter-intuitive though it may sound, these design guidelines needn’t be all that complex. My own for this project revolves around a ‘magic value’ of 5pt — the width of every railway line on the diagram. Stations are represented by a circle half that diameter, labels are 5pt in height (for full-height characters, like a capital ‘W’) and are spaced 2.5pt away from the edge of the line, curves begin at 20pt radius, and so on. All of these are straightforward multiples of that same magic number.

As well as all that, I took a couple of visual cues from some of my favourite transit maps: namely those for London Underground, and Storstockholms Lokaltrafik. Like the ‘Tube map’, my maps are octolinear — in particular contrast to Project Mapping’s one — both on the grounds of personal taste, and a tested belief that this makes a sprawl of hundreds of stations much easier to read. The eye can follow the flow of lines more easily if we don’t have to anticipate many changes to their direction. I also believe this makes it easier to disregard the rest of the map whilst focusing on smaller sections therein.

45-degree angles do cause problems of their own, and many of these are documented in Mark Ovenden’s fascinating book, Underground Maps After Beck. They can be visually dominating, and may force hefty distortions of the maps’ underlying geography — issues which escalate when a system is set to expand.

As with many other transit maps, SL’s map for services in Stockholms län is octolinear — arranging all its railways along strict angles, 45° apart from each other. This rule often requires subtle affordances to be made in order to keep the map balanced, such as in the staggered spacing of stations along its outermost routes.

Fortunately for railway lines built on the world’s oldest network, expansion is rare and relatively easy to account for. New or revived lines tend to serve new areas, as in the case of the Borders Railway from Edinburgh to Tweedbank (formerly Waverley Line, reopened in 2015). My maps do also contain information on ToCs, and these can change over the course of years, but as their bounds rarely change I believe that may be handled by changes to line colour in most instances.

When lines carry multiple services, and each is represented by a different colour, those key routes which attract more operators end up pronounced — such as the contrasts in route thickness from the rural Shotts line (extending left), through northbound central routes (top), to a branch of the West Coast Main Line (bottom).

In railway diagrams, as much as diagrams made as part of a design process, the chief tasks are to display a mostly-known quantity of related information, and ensuring that those relationships can be read as easily as possible — to allay confusion, and to prevent fellow developers and passengers alike from getting stuck at the wrong destination.

In the next article I’ll explore the kinds of flowcharts and relational diagrams I create in my roles as a game designer.

On-rails: Train Jam 2017

Last month and for the first time, I was honoured to be able to attend Train Jam: the annual, trans-American game jam event which now drops an entire train-load of developers in San Francisco, just in time for GDC. I did so courtesy of the event’s diversity initiative, for which I am extremely grateful. As anyone who knows me personally (and a few who don’t) will have noticed: trains and game jams are kind of my thing.

My usual custom for game jam wrap-ups like this is to go in-depth on some of the lessons learned, explain a bit about the game we made, and try to keep aspects of the journey or the setting either in their own post, or confined within my Flickr gallery. With Train Jam more than most jams though, I feel as though the journey contributed too much to the process to be taken in isolation. So, now that I’ve finally been able to sift through my photographs from this long weekend in the United States, it’s time for a ‘read more’ jump:

Continue reading “On-rails: Train Jam 2017”

Joy in the Moment

Death feeding pigeons in an anonymous, American city square. Rayman and Globox swimming loop-de-loops in a wide-open, undersea valley. Kate Kane dancing with a woman she likes at a high-society ball. Countless moments spent rapt by music and atmospheric light, on the coast at Arcadia Bay and in the shade of Kentucky’s more mysterious transit routes.

All these narrative memories which I have taken to heart have one thing in common: I was able to take charge of the flow of the story in which they sat, and metaphorically hit ‘pause’ – remaining in the moment long enough to savour it before I decided to let the story progress again.

It seems basic to remind ourselves that games progress only through interaction by the user, or that comics display a story in frozen moments of time – but I was only reminded of the true impact of this quite recently, in the course of a PBS Idea Channel discussion on single-frame fancomics. In it, Mike Rugnetta explains how a single frame can allow the reader to remain suspended in a moment for as long as they wish.

As a consumer of these media, I believe it’s important not to forget the importance of being able to stop and enjoy a moment – something which a few recent ‘indie’ games in particular have taken to heart. In many ways, Max and Chloë listening to Amanda Palmer on Chloë’s stereo as the morning sun filters through a makeshift curtain is the standout moment from my entire Life is Strange playthrough.

It may be that such moments feel more potent because they appear in linear narratives. Indeed, when such a moment strikes in a game like Minecraft it feels less like a narrative pause, and more like a particular arrangement of an ongoing scene. Instead I think of these pauses in linearity in the same light as Mamoru Oshii’s Niihama-shin montages in Ghost in the Shell:

It would seem that a key aspect of these moments’ potential lays in the player or reader being able to engage with them at their will, and on their terms – and so they are an inherently tricky thing to author. Nevertheless, I hope that game-makers continue to consider these ‘montage moments’ as part of a wider narrative/design lexicon. I find that as I mature alongside games, my own tastes have led to my favouring this technique most highly.

Not for My Daughter

Yesterday I gave a talk at Stockholm’s Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (Royal Institute of Technology) on the subject of gender diversity in games. Delivering said lecture from atop a decommissioned nuclear reactor site felt like a remarkable enough thing for me to reflect on, but I was also struck by a discussion which emerged in the Q&A, on why parents might not wish for their girls to get into games in the first place.

It’s easy to make quite a reflexive response to such a question. There is much to unpack there, from the assumption that games are a destructive hobby to the apparent inevitability of boys being sacrificially lost to it. With that having been said, I do feel that – given the space which games still occupy in contemporary culture – it isn’t actually a particularly unusual or unfair question.

It can be hard to evangelise the gaming medium in the face of harassment like that which had been catalogued at Fat, Ugly or Slutty,  and a variety of gaming streams. I don’t think it unfair to view games objectively as a medium still dominated by at best masculine appeal, and at worst misogyny – in a view which is biased by my own work, but also perhaps by sheer weight of marketing. Video games remain, to many people, still a thing of home consoles rather than ubiquitous digital devices – synonymous with identification as “a gamer”. This also becomes a question which cannot easily be argued without drawing in the ‘games as art’ debate.

To rewind a little: I had begun my lecture (to Masters students in media and media technology) by quoting Anna Anthropy’s introduction to Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. In it, she makes the following observation, which related strongly to my overview of games as a male-dominated medium:

Text reads: “Digital games [..] are here, and they take up a lot of [cultural] space. And almost none of these games are about me, or anyone like me. What are videogames about? Mostly, [they’re] about men shooting men in the face.”
Slide from my presentation to Media Technology Masters students at KTH
She goes on to unpack the idea of games as art – creative products which have the potential to impart human experiences through the medium of interaction and game mechanics – and of course spends the rest of the book empowering people to do that for themselves.

Her argument that art forms should reflect as wide an aspect of the human experience as possible is a convincing and powerful one. At the very least, the more we can hold up examples of broader works like JourneyThe Stanley Parable and , framing them properly within the context of “digital-” or even “video games”, the more we can disrupt the stereotype of games as a single, violent, first-person perspective genre.

Furthermore, we tend to consider this problem purely from the creative angle – diversifying game content in order to offer a broader range of experiences. But to what extent are consumers actually seeing this diversity? Even an individual who’s regularly exposed to games in their own work and leisure time will instinctively take pause when considering exposing their children to the hobby, having seen one expression of this medium make its voice heard above the others.

I’ve long held that cultural education should be one of the gaming medium’s top priorities. Just as theatre makes continued attempts to bring a wide range of works to the public’s attention, we too should support those festivals, creators and platforms which have the will to change public perceptions of what a game is.

I think that what I’m coming to understand now, though, is the depths to which ‘games as art’ actually matters. More than simply having a vested interest in seeing the medium mature, being interested to see what games and technology are capable of, or even feel justified and supported in pursuing art in this medium myself, I think I want to see that creative breadth proven to other people. Just as television can be seen to incorporate soap opera, satire and documentaries, so too should games be recognised as a medium for thrilling action, personal drama and exploration.

Spring Round-up

I’m stepping into a blogging trope here, but what follows is an article in which your humble author has to apologise for having been quite busy lately. I’m starting up a business, annual meetings have been held, and talks have been given – it’s all dragons, democracy and diversity. To summarise, starting with the biggest news first:

For the past couple of months, myself and Delia Hamwood have been collaborating to found a games studio. We’re keeping most of the details hushed-up until the launch of our debut title, but I can say that the games and tools we make will pay close attention to inclusivity and accessibility. Delia and I last worked together on A Planet Wakes, as part of Antholojam; this whole new venture will see us working with the business incubator at Sweden Game Arena.

I’ve also begun spreading awareness and tips regarding inclusive game development at conferences, primarily through a talk entitled The Art of Letting More People Play Your Game. A summary version debuted on the fast track at this year’s Nordic Game Conference (below left), and a more detailed version will follow at Castle Game Jam in July. I also spoke at Gotland Game Conference, on a panel discussing games’ past and future (below right).

Photo by Ian Hamilton
Photo by Ian Hamilton
Photo by Gotland Game Conference
Photo by Gotland Game Conference

A few annual meetings have come and gone too, and as I step up to chair TjejHack for 2016, I’ve stepped down to the position of vice chair at Diversi. Both organisations have a focus on expanding their networks this year, and the latter is set to institute an exciting new membership scheme, to help better fund its activities.

LadyCADE has also been busy recently, as once again I hosted the women-friendly fika at southern Sweden’s Creative Coast Festival. We were invited to run a booth during the festival as well, and so across a span of three days, visitors were invited in to play a variety of women-made games – including TjejHack’s #GemmaHat.

LadyCADE Meet-up; photo by Sebastian Bularca
LadyCADE Meet-up; photo by Sebastian Bularca

Looking forwards, the next couple of months contain some pretty solid development time as we work towards an early access/prototype game release in late August. The intention is to maintain a development blog during this; articles will be posted at our studio website (link to come soon).

I’ll also be a proud host to this year’s Lyst Summit in Hamar, Norway – acting as conferenciér to a typically marvellous array of talks and interactive experiences on the subject of love, sexuality and romance in games.

As long-form writing proves to be a bit more challenging of late, I would humbly invite you to follow these and further exploits of mine on Twitter until normal service can be resumed!