Making Horde, and stalling

Last November, I started telling a few people about a new game I’m making. It’s called Horde, and it’s very much an experiment. It started out as a proof-of-technology for a different project, which I want to work in a very specific way; I wanted to see if I could get Twine to do certain things with loops and time-based variables, and to use a different project to learn. Something that would give me a tangible thing to play and to work on, while also learning new skills.

But as it grew and got more ambitious, Horde started to make sense in its own right. It’s an incremental game, a sort of text-based Cookie Clicker, in which you build a horde of barbarians and send them out on increasingly peculiar errands. It’s a tricky thing to build, mechanically, especially if you’ve got no experience of coding, but macros and new features in Twine make it possible to build this sort of thing on the shoulders of work done by other excellent people who know what they’re doing.

So I put it up as an alpha build. And suddenly people were playing it and telling me about it – giving me incredibly useful bug reports that helped me sort out some tricky problems, but also suggesting new avenues for development, giving me ideas, being excited about what was coming next.

That’s an incredible feeling, by the way. It’s a gift, when people play your unfinished work and give you thoughtful responses. Not all the feedback is always useful but the fact that anyone cares enough to offer it is a sign of support for what you’re doing, and that was enough to tell me that Horde is worth carrying on with, worth trying to turn into something finished, or at least vaguely feature-complete. (Whatever that means.)

I started putting up a new build every week, or trying to. I started making sure that I gave it a little time, a couple of hours at the weekend or an evening, and that time started to expand. I put up little incremental tweaks, and then a few bigger updates, and then found myself rewriting it to make the coding less weird and icky now that I understood more about what I was doing. Then, in the middle of an attempt to make a particularly sticky system, in a problem to which there’s no right answer that will make it work perfectly how I want it to, I hit a wall.

I stalled. I’m still stalled, a month later. I hit a page full of red errors, and instead of trying to fix it, I walked away. I’m not massively proud of that reaction. All that work is still there – all those hours I’ve poured into it have made a solid base to build on – but I hit a problem that felt insurmountable and as yet I’ve not managed to pull it apart into small enough chunks to work on.

Learning to code is hard, especially when you have no directed support; learning anything around the edges of a more-than-full-time, stressful and pressured job is even more difficult. Creating things when you spend a substantial part of your work day creating is tricky, too. Tiredness creeps in. Things distract you. Often, and perfectly legitimately, it’s quite nice to stop working, even when that work is self-chosen and self-directed.

But I can find time, or I can make time, if it’s what I really care about. That’s always been true. Horde is something I care about making, even though it’s a very silly game and a draftwork, because enough other people thought it was worth playing and talking about. Hopefully by this time next week it’ll be at least a couple more hours closer to completion. Even if that’s all, that’s a start.

Animal Crossing: Lonely Town

Entering the new town
The train to a new town.

Dressed in a green cap, as Link, I strode into the Lost Woods, certain that I would find my way through. I didn’t know which way to go or how to solve the puzzles there. Eventually I had to ask friends how to solve it, so that I’d be able to progress. I couldn’t work out something that, in retrospect, seems incredibly simple. Follow the music and you’ll find friends. It seemed impossible at the time.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is similarly, strangely impossible. I haven’t played the other games in the series, and I picked this one up with some trepidation. Not because it didn’t appeal, but because I was worried it might appeal too much. To be given a canvas and asked to create is a wonderful opportunity, and rare in gaming outside of modding communities. New Leaf, from what I saw of it before I bit the bullet and bought it, was not an unfiltered sandbox but a carefully constructed playground in which you could decide to play with the toys you preferred. You can catch bugs and fish, harvest and rearrange your fruit trees and your flowers. You can add buildings, make friends with digital townsfolk, create your own clothing, furnish your house. It is not a world-building game, nor a story-driven one, but a game about quiet creation and your own personal interests. Here is a town you can create from whole cloth, sewing yourself in where you wish. Here are a myriad potential towns: choose your own path. I am sucked in by such promises.

I was nervous before I bought it. It’s strange to say it out loud, as an adult, but I’ve watched other adults get sucked in, calling out for friends online so they can get the most out of their little town. I wanted to make something in New Leaf, a little world of my very own, but I didn’t want it to be cut off from the world. I understood instinctively something that @jennatar touches on tangentially, in passing, in her review: Animal Crossing, without real friends to ground it, becomes impossibly lonely. Impossibly sad. You are building something not to share but to sit untouched. New Leaf is meant to be played with other people: you open your town gates and other people come by, via the internet, to play together and see your little world. You go online to visit others. It’s a game about visiting, about creating something special and then sharing it. It has the nervous joy of showing someone your own artwork or reading your creative writing. It’s fragile and delicate.

My game has a problem. I can’t connect online. I can see other people’s gates are open. I can open mine. But only once has that connection functioned as it’s meant to. Someone came in and gave me a bounty: nine cherries, which I used to plant a new orchard. I wanted to show it off, next time they came. It has never let me connect online again. I’ve built a museum exhibit and stocked the flea market full. I’ve built bridges and clocks, planted bananas and mangoes, persuaded all of my animal townsfolk to stick around. I’ve made black flowers and caught rare bugs and learned to dance, and each of those moments was quietly exciting, in its own way. But without another human touch in this little computerised world, it’s meaningless. It’s a lonely town, and I’m a mayor without a purpose.

New Leaf is a beautiful game, and it’s wonderful to play online. I’m certain of this, because I’ve seen on Twitter the glee other people express when they find something new or share something entertaining. It’s a game full of delights and tiny surprises and astonishing, unfathomable attention to detail. But without other people, it becomes a grind: a slow, limited playground where your creations are nothing but fodder for animated creatures to use to fake a relationship. You sink time and energy into creative processes, coaxing life from pixels, then get back nothing in return. Sending letters and bushels of fruit to collections of automated responses is not enough. New Leaf makes you yearn for human touches: by design it asks you not just to create for yourself, but to create for an audience. When it fulfils that need, it is vastly successful, I’m certain. When tech problems mean that need is unfulfilled, it is nothing but cruel.