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Giant Tank Postmortem

The following text was taken from Devin Monnens' blog. In this post, he reflects back on an antiwar Scratch game that he designed as part of his MFA thesis.

Giant Tank Postmortem Four Years Later

Giant Tank was produced as part of my MFA thesis which was the research, critique, and design of antiwar games. In the game, a lone soldier with only a rifle is fighting an enormous tank. You are not the tank.

Antiwar games are games that critique the nature of war and conflict. They can be opposed to a particular war, such as an antiwar game about the Afghanistan War, about war prevention, such as a game protesting hawkish sentiments about a future war with Iran, or they can be a critique of war in general. I made Giant Tank as the latter because I didn’t want my game to be recognized as belonging to a particular movement in games, similar to how the Vietnam Antiwar Movement is often affiliated with hippies and flower power.

Giant Tank was part of a thesis project that consisted of three games and a lengthy essay on antiwar games. This was all bundled together in a single box. I have since shown Giant Tank in an art gallery and published a revised version of my writing. But I have not done a postmortem of it until now.

Things that went right.

1.      Scratch is fast, has limitations, but these can be overcome

Giant Tank was built in Scratch. Scratch at first glance looks well below the manliness of hardcore game development tools like Flash and C++, but that is because the tool is meant to show kids how to program. That is why it has a cartoony interface and a big, ugly cartoon cat in the main window.

At first I was very reluctant to use this tool. However, I quickly realized how powerful Scratch could be, primarily through its ease of use. With Scratch, you can get a character moving in about 30 seconds. If you don’t know anything about programming, it might take you five minutes. I don’t know of any other program where you can do that from the ground up.

Scratch does have some serious limitations – a single 640×480 screen, no built-in scrolling, and you can’t instance objects (so it’s really tough to make Space Invaders). However, there are many interesting tricks you can use in Scratch, such as using the stamp tool to create a Pac-Man-style game without having to instance objects. Once you get past Scratch’s limitations, you can find some interesting solutions to your problems. I wish Scratch was more robust, but its strengths make it an interesting tool. I hope that a game like Giant Tank can demonstrate that this tool can be used for serious projects.

2.      Simplicity makes the game effective

At first I was unsure about the way Giant Tank looked. I thought having a single giant tank and a lone soldier wasn’t enough. However, I wanted the game to be simple in order to communicate the basic idea: that battles of unequal force, particularly those that use mechanization, are more cruel and horrific than other conflicts, and further, how this could be done on limited hardware such as an Atari.

When I first demoed an early version, the playtesters and observers were very impressed. They could see what the idea of the game was immediately. They suggested I could also display this on an enormous screen to really get the sense of how the tank is overpowering.

I also got some odd feedback – laughter. I suppose there’s something very funny about the situation, mainly from the simple animations of the soldier, but I wasn’t expecting laughter to appear from what I thought was serious tragedy – I just wasn’t thinking about it on that wavelength.

3.      A Classic Arcade Display

When I displayed Giant Tank in Victoria H Myhren Gallery, I showed it on an old 1980 television to make the game look like it was programmed on an Atari. The TV uses VHF connections, which are positively ancient. A VHF is basically two metal prongs that hook onto the back of the television. How do you get a Scratch game to display on such an old TV?

The solution is to find a video card that uses video in/video out. These will let you output video to composite, which you then hook into a box and convert it to coax. Take a coax cable and run it from the box into a UHF adapter. The UHF adapter plugs into the TV. You turn on the TV, get the computer to recognize external displays, and voila! With this convoluted setup, you can suddenly transport your players back to 1980.

For the audio, I took some old speakers and stuck them inside a large wooden cabinet, right next to the surface. Now when the tank moved, it actually rumbled the entire cabinet. It was very visceral, and sounded like the tank was actually rolling through the gallery.

Actually, the cabinet was an accident, left over from somebody else’s piece, and I commandeered it for the show. The cabinet had an opening in the back where you could set up your computer, but it was very hard to get inside. I think the cabinet could have been better if I’d built something on my own, but in the end, it served as a nice display for Giant Tank, and even included a spot where you could put your beer, just like a real arcade machine.

What Went Wrong

1.      Development Time

I feel the entire MFA project took way too long to complete. I was supposed to graduate in May 2007, but I didn’t until 2008. There was no way I could have gotten my project completed in one quarter because I didn’t seriously start working on it until late in the winter of 2006. I had been reading antiwar books and watching antiwar films to get a sense of the literature that was already out there. In the meantime, I got an internship at SOE in Denver, which broke up my schedule. So by August, I expected at first to have something amazing done by the end of November 2007. Making a game couldn’t be that hard, could it?

I soon found out I didn’t have the technical chops to use the platform of choice, Flash. I struggled with the platform, but couldn’t figure out the basics on my own. This caused a delay before I jumped in and started working with Scratch, and that shift initially left me disheartened. Things didn’t get rolling until Thanksgiving, and it wasn’t until around February that all the games were pretty much completed. Another two months was spent on the documentation.

Even though I graduated a year behind schedule, in the end, I think the extra time paid off. I was able to create a really polished MFA project, and I don’t think I would have done something as good if I had stuck with the original deadline. Still, it took much longer than expected, but I feel with better organization and planning, I could have done the same quality of work in less time.

2.      Not enough planning into Venues

For the MFA thesis project, we were required to display our artwork in a gallery. I believe the ultimate goal was to have the MFA students find their own gallery space and coordinate a show that way. Unfortunately, I had barely any gallery experience and didn’t even think about venue until around December or January. Ultimately, I hadn’t even considered what gallery I was going to show this in, let alone thought about how to even approach a gallery.

Thankfully, I had one venue down quite easily – the Grow a Game contest. I actually remember working on Giant Tank until the last minute before sending it out. I think the game was technically completed by midnight on December 31, 2007, but there were a couple small edits I made in January (the finished version says “January 1, 2008”). The game was well-received and won a juror’s pick.

However, I still needed to find a gallery to show the game in. I lucked out when the department decided to hold a joint BFA/MFA show (though I think somebody had to pull some strings to get that arranged). So I actually didn’t do much to get my game into a gallery – it just happened. I remember watching some of the other MFA students working their asses off to get a gallery show, and am a bit ashamed I never had to go through that.

I also took WAY too little documentation. I wish I had a five-minute video of Giant Tank in action and recording people playing it, but as it is, I just have a few stills. You definitely want to shoot as much video and take as many photos as possible of your work.

Venue actually continues to be a problem. I still feel a little unsure about the game, and so failed to send it to another call for works – a show that one of my colleagues got in, along with many other people dealing with antiwar themes. I still kick myself for that. I tend to think that I should be creating something new rather than continuing to reuse the old work, even if other people think it’s very good.

3.      Too Similar to Other Work

I also feel Giant Tank, despite the things it does well, is too similar to other work, mainly Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12th and Kabul Kaboom. Admittedly, I based the idea off the ‘unwinnable scenario’ Frasca used as a solution to telling tragedy through games and its explanation in an essay by Shuen-Shing Lee. I think this even though the concept and core of Giant Tank are very different from Frasca’s work because the concept of an unwinnable game just seems too derivative to me. I guess I was hoping to use a completely mindblowing original mechanic and also tell an epic story, when the game may not actually need that. The picture I had in my mind of what an antiwar game would look like was therefore not the image I created.


Conclusion/Closing Thoughts

As a game artist, it is very rewarding to see your work displayed and played in a gallery. This is something you’ve spent months or years working on, and now you can show it to the world, and that is very refreshing. However, when you show in the gallery, make sure to take lots of pictures and video as documentation!


Scratch Project: