Playing and Reading and Making and Writing
Feels weird to say anything about video game journalisms atm considering I’m neither a journalist nor a video game, but here goes:
If your opinions are mainly about people in games, I’m just not that interested. I don’t design or play people.
But if you’re someone who wants to participate in games culture, who wants to talk games and write about games and make games in addition to playing games, I hope the past few weeks haven’t discouraged you too much. I really want you around.
As a designer, specifically a digital and procedural designer, and I’ve dabbled in everything from games to programming to robots to architecture. I love games and game design, they fascinate me. I’m always keen to meet designers and critics, to talk games and see what interesting ideas crop up. Some of these friendships have been enduring and inspiring. I love going to igda meetings, I loved being at uni with student designers, I love going to student showcases, and jam showcases, and indie games events like Hovercade and Indiecade, I love going to PAX. Then I like to go away and write my thoughts out, informed by seeing first-hand what’s happening in games at the moment. You can too! If you have interesting thoughts on character design or narrative or how gameplay is used to do x or y and how that’s new and fresh I cannot encourage you enough to write about it or meet other writers or critics or game designers or whoever and talk talk talk. It’s the best. As someone who likes to make little games too it’s always really inspiring to read or watch videos with interesting insights about games. Don’t worry if your writing is bad or not how you imagined it in your head. Everything takes time to get good at. Just try to do a little every time you have thoughts about games and you’ll get better.
So yeah! Please keep doing that.
4:36 am • 6 September 2014 • 4 notes
There’s a pervasive idea that procedural storytelling and arts are somehow less “authored” than linear narrative, which is bullshit. I love Transistor because it skewers this idea mechanically and thematically, and while many games ask us to question what we consume (a la Spec Ops: The Line), Transistor asks us to question what we make.
Transistor imagines a city where push-button-make-reality is possible. This is a game about a city where citizens create “functions” (a script written to do or create a particular thing, for instance, create a bridge or a new pizza topping), then people vote for which functions they want, then the winning designs are put into practice by the algorithm/robot force that automatically creates the city around them.
Are these generated/programmed works worth the same, artistically, as “hand-crafted” ones? Transistor says yes, erasing old “digital art vs real art” dichotomies in meaningful ways. Most effectively, the combat system merges both intuitive combat — the real-time, expressive responses to enemies — with a more ritual, turn-based system that allows you to “program” your character to carry out future attacks. This spotlights the continuity between what we think of as “authored” vs “procedural” design.
Then the story carries these themes of continuity between “authored” and “programmed” expression forward. Despite “art” being almost entirely procedural here, some Artists are still considered virtuosos. Transistor even frames this in a traditional romantic way: In Cloudbank, it seems possible to program things by transforming aspects of yourself or your expression directly into functions, much like the stereotype of ‘Artist as fountain of creativity’. (How & why this works is left unexplained, but technology, self and personality seem a bit magical here; this world has softer lines between reality and simulation, and might even be made out of uploaded consciousnesses, as Rowan Kaiser has suggested.)
Transistor treats them so normally; Why shouldn’t it? All artists practice according to their own rules, years of experimentation teaching “Do x if you want y” or “Don’t do b or a will happen”: There’s not that much difference between whether you intuitively calculate the outcome of those rules in your head to decide where to put the paintbrush down, or program them into a brush-wielding computer. I can paint a picture of a sky, or I can program a shader that creates beautiful skyscapes, in both cases I’m still an artist executing my vision with my chosen tools.
The game itself is the perfect example: The beautiful environments are a combo of hand painted and sculpted assets along with programmed elements like procedural patterns & shapes and shaders. Both sculpt the world to the makers’ artistic intentions.
But Transistor goes further, and asks - How do we treat systems with many authors, are they just as art? If our art is influenced or aided or constrained by the tools, algorithms and systems that other authors create, is it still our own vision?
Cloudbank, with its beaux arts styling, reminds me of the City Beautiful movement of the 1890s which encouraged citizens to see cities as collective works expressing common values. This city is beautiful, cool, exciting, intriguing, beguiling. By glamourising this democratic city, Transistor (intentionally or not) implies that a collaborative, collective art process enriches cities.
Which, as someone who studied urban design, I tend to believe this to be true. While some architects have been able to impose their individual visions directly on cities — Haussman’s renovation of Paris, or slum “improvements” like Pruitt-Igoe — most cities seem cohesive because of external pressures: laws & regulations, the local properties of brick-making-clay, the harshness of the sun, social beliefs about what houses should look like, builders’ expertise and technology, the will of the people. Architects aren’t fully autonomous but design within these limitations. It’s clear from history that the question isn’t whether social & circumstantial influences can co-exist with powerful works (they definitely can), but whether those influences are good or bad. Influence itself isn’t inherently bad.
But a nefarious cabal of super-rich self-appointed, uh, urban designers, don’t like how emergent this kind of democracy can be. To the Camerata, a city continuously subject to “popular whim” (to quote Todd Harper’s excellent piece on queerness in recent games) changing but possibly changing back, expresses no lasting values at all, no history or evolution or vision. To them, this influence is inherently bad, because it constrains their desires for their own art. Selfishly, they decide their own vision and desires for the city take precedence over anyone else’s, our character included.
However, The Camerata are glamourised too - tragic loves, dramatic deaths, sharp sartorial style - making it difficult to see whether Transistor believes that collective greatness trumps individual greatness or vice versa.
I know Greg Kasavin has written on his blog he prefers stories that explore all aspects of an issue than stories trying to push a perspective, but as an outsider, this “even-handedness” feels uneven.
The Camerata’s goal of artistic freedom only comes at the expense of everyone else’s any-kind-of-freedom. Is being portrayed as the villains enough? After all, they’re stylin’, highly intelligent, aspirational villains. Are they like Don Draper, a character designed to show how horrible ideas often come wrapped in an appealing shell?
It’s interesting. The Camerata’s very attempt to escape the influence of these overarching systems - or least control them themselves - ends up totally destroying any freedom they had. So you could say it ends up pointing to an interesting idea - there really isn’t any art that can exist outside these kinds of forces, some “one true art” that proceeds entirely from an author’s vision unshaped by their circumstances. The best we can do is create systems where the way we influence other artists is as productive as possible.
It also points to how the threat isn’t that the masses will take control of art, diluting its power, but that a handful of the powerful will, corrupting its purpose. (Art, after all, exists to explore our common humanity.)
Corrupt planning forces don’t arrive with robot armies but can do terrible damage to the people who inhabit cities. Poor regulation, or no regulation, can allow injustice & exploitation to run wild, as it did in the 19th century. So can the algorithms that shape ours, if we don’t take time to understand who chooses the variables and why. As we start to use programming more and more to determine those codes and limits - through ordinary stuff like traffic modelling, height modelling etc - we have to start viewing these techniques as something consciously authored, where those rules and limits are selected by someone, based on someone’s assumptions about how societies do and should work.
The rich and the big really do have more power to shape these underlying rules and decide who gets to design within them: Councils, Adobe, Caterpillar and Unreal are as much responsible for the shape of our cities, art, buildings and games as individual architects, artists, engineers and devs. (This was a problem for pen & paper too - the Sydney Opera House design changed because we lacked the abililty to calculate it).
That’s a bizarre thing about some video game fans to me now - people who are deeply concerned that ordinary individual critics might influence art just by popularising arguments and persuading artists to make different choices, but don’t seem worried about the ways that actual money and power can put hard limits what it’s possible for an artist to do (nefariously or not).
It’s not inherently bad that there are influences, since there’s no way to escape some degree of influence, and we’ve shown that systems themselves can produce art that’s as worthy as hand-crafted things - it’s just important that those influences are democratic, constructive and positive.
Cities are a collective artwork we make, so is the video game scene as a whole. Things like underlying structure, regulations and social convention aren’t just there to hinder or advance your art. Sometimes they exist to ensure your total autonomy doesn’t result in everyone else getting lasered by robots.
1:23 am • 10 August 2014 • 26 notes
I don’t think anyone has to be interested in game definitions, mechanics, and inclusivity, but I am, mostly because new players/makers should hash out what games mean to them and what their yardsticks to measure games will be. I see debate over the extent of “games” as a sign that most people feel like they own some of games culture, they belong to it and it to them.
Openly believing-in-one’s-own-definition isn’t the case in all artforms. Visual arts suffer from the conception that “art” is hard to understand, hard to define, and hard to judge. It hurts the medium: It puts off students who aren’t sure if their work is “art”; it puts off fans by making it hard to walk into an exhibition and say ‘I think this is shallow. I think this is bad art.’ because they don’t have their own def of what art is. Acting like art is indefinable is widely used to shut down outsiders’ attempts to ‘get it’. (eg those asinine wags who’ll dead-end any attempt at reflection with ‘Ah, but what is art?’?). This uncertainty lets racists and sexists shield their racist and sexist work by claiming “It’s art” (ie indefinable, unquantifiable, and therefore unjudgable), as if that should stop us from critiquing, rather than invite critique. Maybe I’m putting too much emphasis on personal experience, but once someone clued me to a good working definition of art, my ability to appreciate, criticise, engage with and make art grew fast. YMMV.
On the other hand, conversations about music flourish at all levels and most people feel confident to say what they think and feel about it, in part because music is seen as intuitive to understand, intuitive to define, and intuitive to judge. (YMMV)
I think I’d prefer games to fall into more of the music situation of ‘you decide what you feel a game is, follow your star, let others follow theirs’, than the more visual art type attitude of ‘game can be anything, don’t even try defining it’
That’s why it’s important to me to feel like I’ve arrived at a position on how I define game, and I hope you arrive at one too, even if we don’t pick the same one.
Back in 2012 a friend asked on twitter “Do you think Dear Esther is a game? Why/why not?”. I thought about it and how I make digital worlds for architecture, and wondered what was the difference between those and games. I felt that, amongst the many digital arts, games have challenges, that’s what differentiates them from other virtual worlds.
So I felt a little uneasy when I saw people so insistent that their work was games. I didn’t consider making walk-through digital architecture a demotion. Coming from both an architecture and procedural arts background, seemed odd to see people shrink from the idea that maybe their digital art falls into some non-game category.
I got talking about this to Bennett Foddy (@bfod) and Ed Key (@edclef) on twitter so I put my argument to them: kicking stuff out of the games category isn’t really kicking it out of the medium, because games aren’t the medium, just part of it. It’s weird to call games “a medium”, because they’re not like other media. Films are made on film, Dance is made of dances, Paintings of paint, Murals are on walls (from muralis, which means wall). The name of the medium is what it’s made of or on, not what the works are like or about. But “game”, on the other hand, seems to strongly imply what the content is. Games are made of code*, but unfortunately they aren’t called “codings”, and it’s a pity we don’t have a good word to describe all the expressive things made of code. (Programs is perhaps closest, but it sounds so serious. I like “app” but it’s so strongly associated with one brand.)
7:43 am • 21 April 2014 • 21 notes
Monument Valley: Follies
1. A mistake
2. A costly ornamental building with no practical purpose
Really liked Monument Valley, very clever little puzzles almost like clockworks or Burr puzzles. (It also reminds me of Naya’s Quest, which is a totally underhyped game.) Intimidatingly gorgeous art style, someday I hope I’ll make real buildings that captivating.
At first I enjoyed the mysterious story, the light overlay of context for each Monument, but towards the end I felt like it was overly aloof; like, if you’re going to set up this intrigue, you have to have to give answers eventually for it to be satisfying, otherwise it looks like you just scattered elements together without actually writing a story.
(But then, on the other hand, should the story make more sense than the geometry?)
But I feel like the ending was just enough to feel confident the storytellers knew what story they’re telling. I’m guessing - a bird princess sent her subjects to steal the artifacts of an ancient culture for her, they became trapped, the artifacts caused her to forget her ego, now she regrets and decides to return them, not quite knowing why. I like its inversion of video game and adventure story tropes - an anti-Indiana Jones, a little girl who returned stolen artifacts to their culture. I like that a lot. Much as a I love the British Museum and archeology and history, I hope as a culture we’ve moved on from just saying “finders keepers” about the cool stuff ancient cultures made. It’s quietly anti-colonial, in a “hey, Queen Victoria, not cool gal, not cool” kinda way.
Being sorry for what you did is one thing, but actually repairing the damage you’ve caused takes work, and I like that this game focuses on a character doing that work, not just “coming to a realisation”.
11:07 pm • 12 April 2014 • 2 notes
The Sense of An Ending / Idle Book Club
So many spoilers.
I’m glad there’s an Idle Book Club episode for this book, since I was really hesitant to form a view after reading The Sense of an Ending, because I sort of thought: “Tony resonates with me, but Tony is bad at forming correct opinions, so I don’t really trust that I’ve formed the correct opinion of this book.” I tended to agree with Tony about Veronica more towards the end than I had in the middle even though I knew that’s not how you’re supposed to feel after you find out more about her. I tried to imagine what other people might have thought of it and found that pretty difficult, like on the podcast Sean mentions he doesn’t know how Julian Barnes feels about Tony. Julian Barnes plays Veronica to the readers, totally unwilling to guide us to the correct conclusion.
7:41 am • 12 March 2014
Broken Age thoughts
*spoilers, you should probably play Broken Age first. You really should, it’s good.*
I started with Shay’s story, which was solid. Shay is expressive, dissatisfied in a relatable way (tho probably my favourite character is the teleporter). The Wolf is shady enough to seem excitingly dangerous, the programmable loom delightful, and the whole story & locations form a neat interconnected arc of exploring Shay’s home/life and moving the plot forward. Puzzles are simple but they work hard to tell you about the world. Double Fine somehow made Shay’s fake adventures feel hollow and his real adventures feel exciting even though they’re both fake constructions to the player. There wasn’t a huge amount of difference in them mechanically, but it beautifully outlined a point about how children’s dreams (and games) aren’t just desires for heroism & power but also meaning, which I think gets missed a lot. While Shay’s story doesn’t have the immediate energy of other Double Fine games, it’s gentler and more exploratory.
12:40 am • 17 January 2014 • 3 notes
Secret Life of Walter Mitty
People get hung-up about what makes an experience significant, like if they watch something it’s only worthy if it’s life-changing, or if you make some art it should start revolution or at least a riot a la The Rite of Spring’s opening night. “Life makeover” movies like Stranger Than Fiction tend to reinforce that, like “Here’s a character living a worthless grey life and now Ta-da! they’ve made it epically meaningful”. But what I liked about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was it took pains to show how the day-to-day is valuable. It emphasised a well-roundedness: Dignity from the mundane and glory from the adventurous, each playing into the other. Walter doesn’t become a new person, he just incorporates another side and reassesses.
It was a kinda softness that carried through the mood and particularly the lighting & textural qualities of the different environments. The Time Life Building has a shininess, the play of light with the revolving doors that gives it a sense of optimism, it’s not the bleak office cliche. The landscapes aren’t sudden burst of sunshine but have a softer quality, more respite than metamorphosis. They’re contrasted as different kinds of experiences, rather than one being nothing and the other being “real experience”. Maybe just because I struggled with suspension of disbelief that he could climb a mountain on his own, those parts of the movie still felt tongue-in-cheek, not what the film wanted to anoint “real”. (Less slo-mo soccer thanks)
I’m not surprised that in a movie made a few years into a recession, people look more fondly at the importance of day-to-day jobs and day-to-day people. That said, his life is disrupted by poverty as a teen and then by technological change. Silicone Valley got rich but inadvertently caused print’s demise so they have to sell the piano. I think he could afford to get a little more angry at a system that asked him to sacrifice the possibility of adventure & then his livelihood because of accidents of fate.
The movie teaches Walter to value his life & work but doesn’t really ask the viewer to care that people who had 20 years experience in telling stories are being scattered to the winds. Is it enough that it wants the viewer to empathise with one person? If the movie asks you to value even the stuff that doesn’t start riots, is it true to itself if it doesn’t either? Maybe it’s okay if it’s just a comfort film for people “disrupted”.
It’s true, I’m bored with saving the world and cheap tricks to up the stakes, I like that this took a very small thing and made it very valuable to me. It barbs the gimmicky “no cover” cover, and I think, happily undermines its own reveal to make it softer. Lots of clues as to what the cover is going to be, and no “clever” switcharoo, just something that make polite sense to the story. So yeah, I liked it and I feel like it met my criteria for good art: Not riots, but anything that’s embiggening to our sense of humanity.
2:01 am • 2 January 2014 • 4 notes
I really liked Gravity, I liked it for being an intelligent popular film. I loved the fragility that’s everywhere in this film. Everything’s made of flaky pastry.
I loved seeing a woman dealing with her own dilemma, looking from her eyes. Even if she has assistance, it’s not a movie from the perspective of men-dealing-with-her-problems-for-her (ie she’s not a damsel). She still has agency over her fate, even if she’s not the only factor.
It’s a delicate construction, a movie about how we often have less control than we think but also portraying a woman as capable of self-determination. It gets past the man-effective-woman-futile cliche without going straight to everyone-effective-all-the-time. Here actions are unpredictably useful, so I like how that fits with my feeling it’s worth it to always be trying, but one can never be blamed or credited solely for how things turn out, good or bad.
Religion in movies is a tricky thing to portray (everything in movies is tricky to portray. making good art is hard), but I liked the references to deities here. Praying as reconciliation with being just one force amongst many greater ones, rather than an attempt to bargain with/ control the universe. I liked the overt visual metaphors (mothership as womb) in a way I don’t usually except in comics.
It’s a good movie to see the weekend before you come into work and find out you’re redundant, in a job you kinda took and a city you kinda moved to to get away from everything. This is why women need stories about them. Not that my life is nearly as tragic, but imagining the situation as flaky pastry space junk is comforting somehow, both as “well, at least I’m not that screwed” & “imagining self as central characters in an epic” kinda ways. Also in a “Well maybe I should go to China?” kinda way.
Hello, family in Hong Kong, just thought I’d drop in.
It’s a video-gamey movie in the way it keeps moving everywhere. Apollo 13 is like, sit tight and work your way through the many options available to you and hopefully pick the right one in time to not die. Jason Di Rosso called it a fantasy of powerlessness, maybe. In the sense that it’s a fantasy of trading uncertainty for being forced into knowing exactly what you have to do next, I guess. Upping the contrast.
Gravity doesn’t seem deliberately meaningful - it doesn’t have the irony, the overt questioning, of high science fiction - but I like that here. You walk away with a sense, rather than a message.
I remember a few years ago feeling like my life was falling apart, reading Rem Koolhaas talking about something architecture and painting a picture of the world as loose floating cultural debris on which to surf, that was comforting at the time.
9:05 pm • 25 October 2013 • 4 notes
Complexity and Contradiction In Games
In Architecture there’s this idea that if you are trying to make a building feel light then you should make the joints light (eg, bound timber joints, lightly webbed trusses), or if you want it to feel solid then the materials and joints should be solid too (concrete, solid beams). Nevermind that you can paint fiberboard to look like concrete, creating a heavy-feeling but actually flimsy space, or that the re-invention of concrete allowed us to create buildings with a greater sense of light and air.
The experience and the method of construction should exemplify the same idea. Kinda like the idea in games that mechanics should be thematically appropriate for the story.
Nevermind that humans really like ironies, non-sequiturs & paradoxes*. To vastly oversimplify: In the 60s architect Robert Venturi wrote “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” a book that celebrated the richness of “the difficult whole”. He felt the diagrammatic mid-century architecture was obsessed with harmonising effect with means to the point of producing one-liners. He, with Denise Scott Brown, later wrote about the different between “ducks” (buildings that symbolised their contents, roles or idea, like a Duck shop shaped like a duck), and “decorated sheds” (buildings that exemplified their content, roles or ideas, like a bank decorated very richly on a pedestal of firm stone. This building is actually prosperous in decoration and secure in materials, it doesn’t just symbolise prosperity and security through, say, statues of the Goddesses Prosperity and Security).
If these two points seem contradictory, I’m sure Scott Brown and Venturi would be pleased. They argue both for buildings that exemplify their themes, and for buildings that do not merely exemplify their themes or edit out richness in the name of purity.
I think that’s the best lesson - yes, avoid ludo-narrative dissonance in your games if you can, but also know it’s not always bad, it’s a tool you can use to bring a sense of irony or sublime, paradox or sublte unease, and many other things. Maybe don’t sacrifice these things in the name of avoiding ludo-narrative dissonance if they bring richness to your game.
*I have a personal theory that the bible is attractive because of its internal contradictions, not despite them. They play upon the mind like the unresolved drama of a pop song; supposedly they’re resolved in some other dimension, inviting us to consider the sublime. It’s the way it feels beyond our comprehension to fully resolve its contradictions that makes it feel ‘Holy’.
8:37 pm • 4 October 2013 • 58 notes
The Other Sides
I usually find it pretty easy to be happy about videogames - between playing amazing, inventive new games, talking to my friends, reading the likes of John Teti, listening to Idle Thumbs - I know a fantastic culture exists that manages to be compassionate, welcoming and hilarious, buoyant, sometimes drunk, outspoken and always entertaining.
This week I’ve been playing Fez though, and it’s making me angry and sad. This game is so beautiful, so well made, it has a love of play woven throughout it, a love for games. The more I play, the fonder I get of it, the sadder I am that Phil Fish was terrorised out of the industry.
I get this feeling when visiting ancient ruins, particularly stuff that was actively destroyed by some other group. The foundations of the walls remain, revealing the plan of the building that was, and all I have access to is this one face of the building, this flatness to stand for what was whole. These are amazing, but there’s no left-trigger to show me the rest, because someone else couldn’t stand it so they razed it.
I’ll never get to see the other facets of this artist’s work, and playing this game just reminds me of that.
It’s weird that one group fighting to prove they love games the mostest meant the tearing down of actual game makers and the prevention of game-making, but only insofar as it was weird that people who sought to prove they loved god the mostest meant the tearing down of temples/churches/mosques and the forbidding of worship.
That group turned hard on Phil Fish, not in a way that suggested they wanted him to be a better person or make better games. I was late to this debate, so I only caught the tail end, but I don’t think they hated him because he once called Japanese games crap, but because he was irreverent towards bro culture and fairly progressive in his values, and he made excellent games. The fact we have games like this that are more fun than most of the sexist/racist crap out there challenges the doctrine that we’re just killjoys, out to turn all games into sermons. So they wanted to salt the earth so nothing grew there again ever more.
So maybe it’s the aesthetic of ruins, maybe it’s the void I keep falling into and the vertigo I feel every time Fez screams, or because Fez reminds me of Plasmo (a melancholy kids TV show from the 90s). But between players who revel in calling Shanghai “Whore of the Orient” or identifying with Dickwolves or defending Killer Is Dead, I felt like we’ve lost something valuable and put hollowness in its place, like when a property developer, who always profess to be all about how cool and great buildings are, demolishes a grand old picture palace to build a carpark.
7:16 pm • 6 September 2013 • 4 notes