Some very quick thoughts on Bioshock Infinite, which I really liked & thought did some newish things well and revealed we’ve still got a way to go on others.
First up, it’s the most second-person game I’ve seen, and seeing one character through another’s perspective was a good mindset for this kinda story. I didn’t mind the exposition dump ending either, I don’t mind storytime being the pay-off for playing well. Though the reveals seems so obvious to me from fairly early on but I was impressed how well these things were made logical to the story. Except the bird. I expected it to turn out to be Elizabeth’s mother/Lady Comstock in there, since it would explain the aggressive/protective duality. (The actual Lady Comstock showdown needed rewriting, badly.) I was wondering the whole time, “So who’s the bird?” but no answer. Grrr.
But then, Infinite felt weird in how they got obvious stuff wrong but other stuff unusually right. It didn’t start out all “rah rah treating women as only utensils, mcguffins and bargaining chips is wrong”, but it did a good job of treating its female characters as humans. It’s good to see a game not just moralise at players for treating female chars as objects (eg Braid) but offer them an opportunity to practice seeing them as humans. By contrast, it starts out laying on the “racism is bad” a bit too ham-handedly, takes a totally wrong strategy in trying to correct that & nuance-it-up, and ends up treating its POC characters as utensils, mcguffins and forgetting their humanity. Not entirely, but still could do better.
In Lady Comstock’s shrine I was scared it could satirise christian objectification of women while still allowing the game itself to objectify Elizabeth*, but then it didn’t. Female chars got respect, personalities, individual & logical motivations, clothing that reflected their likely style choices**, weren’t objectified by the camera, were animated with natural movement instead of weird hip-thrusty (Hello Halo 2!) or particularly bouncy stuff (Hello everything!). (They all have similar body types though, which is a pity)
I’ve seen it said that Elizabeth is still a rescued damsel, that she cowers in battle and isn’t a “strong woman”. But fuck that. I don’t care if female characters are “strong” as long as they’re well-rounded and follow their own characterisation and that characterisation has sympathy with their motivations and how they came about, especially how the constraints put on them shaped their options. (Also Daisy Fitzroy is “strong”, so it’s not like the game ignores that type; and if this is King Lear, as Lutece suggests, then Daisy is Edmund - justifiably angry, but hell-bent on revenge rather than reform. It’s good to see female characters avoid idealisation and instead being given the kind of characterisations that used to be the domain of male chars)
I particularly liked that Lady Comstock’s rejection of Elizabeth, while rightly seen as cold, wasn’t portrayed as irrational harpying but instead a low tolerance for bullshit. Though, if I lived in a CITY IN THE SKY I might believe that children appear from nowhere, why not?
But Infinite has a way to go with the portrayal of race issues. It’s still vaguely unclear whether it’s “racism, theocracy and oppression” or “destroying the financial district of NYC” that the game considers so terrible it requires a father-daughter suicide pact to avert. I could go with both, as a nod to “patriachy hurts everyone”, but only if the game gave more humanity to its POC underdogs.
As Courtney Stanton rightly points out here, the portrayal of Daisy Fitzroy feeds into existing stereotypes about black people. (Even if Daisy is Edmundish, it’s shitty to stick your one major black character with that particular role. Especially since Lear essentially concludes “Yeah, this system is unjust to underdogs, but it’s worse to let them get power.”)
I disagree with this though:
Centering a story about people of color fighting against racist oppression on a white person and making that white person the agent of the fight’s success is racist. Showing people of color as needing a white person on their side in order to win is racist.
I think the game, totally inadvertently, points to the idea that the responsibility to end oppression lies with the oppressors, and shouldn’t fall to the oppressed. Which I think is true. Daisy shouldn’t have to be the one who fights this fight, after a lifetime of oppression already. Why should she have to do *more* work? Booker should die to avoid being a racist arsehole and oppressing people in the first place. The responsibility of the privileged to make right is a hot topic right now, but the game barely puts any emphasis on this aspect at all, when it has a perfect set up for it! And the fiery rain over manhattan just distracts from the fact that starting a segregated theocracy IS ENOUGH REASON TO KILL YOURSELF ALREADY.
When Comstock lets forgiveness wash away his guilt rather than his sins, but Booker can’t give up his own conscience so easily, it implicitly critiques fundamentalist christianity’s presumption that confession/forgiveness is more righteous than justice/amends, but kinda fails to tie that back to something like ‘Feeling bad about Wounded Knee now isn’t enough. We, like Elizabeth, as unwilling beneficiaries of past wrongs, still have amends to make.’.
So does the game pay lip-service to progressive values or embody them? On the one hand, I’m kinda happier to see a game that fails to say loudly ‘Treating your daughters as property is wrong’, as long as it actually treats its female chars less like ciphers itself. But then I would prefer a game that said both ‘treating POC people like others is wrong’ and didn’t fall in the trap itself. As a game made by mostly white people, for mostly white people, I wish it had lingered a bit more on those questions about guilt, being good allies, and reparative sacrifice. I am so, so glad the sadness in the end isn’t self-pity but remorse for the horrible life you’ve given Elizabeth.
I wondered in my last post where were the “twist” videogames that start with a female character as object then, surprise!, humanised her, and in that respect, Bioshock Infinite made my day. Now I’m wondering where the game that embodies a progressive portrayal of race is.
Update: Courtney made some interesting points on twitter, which I’ll try to summarise: My interpretation ignores that historically, POC *did this work*, in fact huge amounts of work in creating the more egalitarian society we live in today (eg. Rosa Parks wasn’t just impulsive rebellion, she had a history of activism and her moment was the sum of many people’s work over many years), yet POC are rarely shown successfully leading their own movements in popular culture. Instead there’s a white saviour trope. Even if the game is pointing to the responsibility not to oppress, it’s still discrediting the historical work of POC rebels. I think that’s a very good point.
*Thankfully avoiding the “See? We videogame makers aren’t as bad as real sexists!” excuse. Also It stuck to the mission to make Elizabeth fully human so hard she seemed implausibly well-adapted for a teenager locked in a tower her whole life. But given how industriously she seemed to have studied for her eventual escape, maybe she somehow socialised herself too?
**With some lampshade-hanging when Elizabeth switches into her sexier outfit. Even that gets a pass because I want players to not need a woman to be covered up in order to give her respect.
The other day I saw the new character model for Cortana and I was thinking it seemed pretty alright - she looked older, stronger, far less caricatured. If Cortana was always going to be titillating, at least she seemed a more appropriate object of desire: more 25 than 15, more flesh than real doll.
So I got a bit nervous when I saw a lot of negative reactions to Cortana’s new larger boobs. Not because that reaction wasn’t coming from a good place - these were people I respected, reacting against objectification of women and the presentation of unrealistic ideals to young women. But just a couple of weeks earlier I heard they’ve got plans to make the new Lara Croft incarnation deeper, and part of that will be making her boobs smaller. The implication that larger boobs are a liability to well-presented, deep characters makes me nervous because, well, how many stacked women get to have complex stories in popular media? I can think of Joan Holloway and…? Boob sizes have been neatly separating the mistresses from wives, the sexy/trashy good-times-girls from the arty/pretentious hipsters, the ciphers from the plotlines. Video games have certainly fed the first part of the stereotype, that ‘e-cup women are playthings’, but wouldn’t only giving empathetic roles to C-cup-or-less women just reinforce that? (It’s also implying small-boobed women can’t be objectified because they’re insufficiently sexy. The beauty of this system is no-one wins!) Where are the ‘twist’ video games for this gaming trope, promoted as indulging the players’ desire to objectify women, but surprise! actually gives you that character’s perspective about what it’s like to live with all that objectification? Lara Croft isn’t running towards her goal, she’s running away from you, thousands upon thousands of leering players.
But there’s another point I want to make, because the logic that suggests “Sex is fun, fun is trivial, certain bodies are more sex than others, therefore certain bodies are more trivial than others.”, comes from the same place as that attitude towards media: “Play is fun, fun is trivial, certain media forms are more about play than others, therefore certain media forms are more trivial than others.”
Disclaimer: The game’s still in alpha, so consider these impressions in alpha too. Both could change!
A game about being a Prison Architect is really fascinating to me, mostly because I’m a grad architect and prisons come up in arch theory as intriguing special cases: Prisons are one of the few building types where the whole point is to force your intentions on the users; to have them do as you want, not as they want; and they can’t choose not to use the building. (Similar to the more authoritarian approaches to education and office design, I guess). From Piranesi’s Carceri to Rem Koolhaas’ ‘Exodus, or The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture’, we’ve used imaginary prisons as a chance to explore what architecture might do to and for society if only we had divine levels of control, or a chance to use our knowledge for bad. Because in figuring out what makes some buildings ecstatic and beloved (the kind that people visit to restore their love of the world and faith in themselves), you inadvertently learn what doesn’t. By building up your mental list of ‘never-do’, you’re cataloguing how to create buildings that psychologically & physically torture people, that break their spirits, and render them helpless. Steps too tall, stalls too small, light too glaring, spaces forboding and unnerving. And architects like to explore these as morbid speculations much like the rest of us like horror films or ghost trains.
Gonna admit that I went into Prison Architect expecting a total misrepresentation of what I do, where someone just used the term architect because it’s in plan perspective and it’s about building. Instead it feels a lot like what I do day-to-day: Using CAD. You draw walls using wall-types, put labels, add entourage. It’s fun! It’s really satisfying using a simplified drawing system that seems to have some crowd-modelling abilities built-in. Builders respond instantly to your plans! If something isn’t working you’ll know really quickly if the prisoners are upset! Such readily available prototyping feels luxurious to those of us who have to rely on prior experience and hope.
I’m slightly ashamed I’ve been through maybe 30 restarts so far just trying to find a good starting layout. (There’s no sketch mode for planning what you’re about to build before you okay it. Maybe there will be one in later releases. Fingers crossed!) You’d think as a future architect I’d be good at this game but no. True, the rules for how to lay pipes, size rooms, and arrange furniture are different from the cached knowledge I have about how buildings are designed in the real world, but they’re fairly easy to pick up. What feels weird is constantly expanding and adapting spaces I’d just designed so tightly, so neatly and efficiently to the situation five minutes ago. I have the skills to mentally compute complex briefs and preplan large buildings, carefully consider how the building will be used, arrive at a single, final design over a period of weeks or years, before work even begins (well, mostly). Even in architecture jams you only solve one brief in 24 hours. But this game is a new adaptive-reuse problem every few minutes. It’s got me designing on instinct rather than laboured logic and I like it. (The fact that there are tons of things to consider and a too small budget to do everything necessary feels fairly realistic though.)
Seems fair to call it Prison Architect - a lot of an architect’s job is analysing what spaces are needed, where they go and what materials should be used and wall construction types. Still, that’s not all we do. (And we short-cut a lot of basic organisation by looking at similar buildings that work well and adapting.) We’re most concerned with the sum of the building - it’s overall impression or sense.
In Prison Architect, as far as I can tell, prisoners don’t care if the common room is right next to their cells or at the other side of the prison, behind three cage doors. But in a real prison, that’s exactly the kind of psychological difference one might consider.
Does the prison feel industrial, a great inhumane machine, grey? Where the shower stalls are too small and the beds are too thin, always forcing your body into its most clenched, uncomfortable state? Are the cells tall, with skylight windows, like pits; or are the ceilings low, too low?
Or are they like recent Norweigan and Austrian prisons, spare but calming, with well lit space and simple timber furniture and a little bit of colour and prisoner relapse rates of about half what the U.S.A has (25% vs 50%)?
Prison Architect addresses amenity and the effect it has on prisoners, but not through particularly architectural means. You can switch up the materials, but that’s as close as you’re getting to really changing the character of the space. Bookcases, phones, tvs all play a more important role than access to the right kinds of light and air and space and prospect. And that’s ok! But a game that really measured architecture would be crazily interesting to me, particularly since the creator would have to make up some kind of detailed metric to quantify and map it onto the behaviour of prisoners, and how the hell would you do that?*
Currently, prisoners don’t seem to have particular lengths of stay, they don’t reform or get parole or reoffend (or not), so the game has no way to imply the influence of architecture on a prisoner’s personality during or after incarceration. However, issues of reform vs punishment are central to the game’s opening tutorial, so I’m really interested to see how this game evolves through the Alpha and future Beta and final release, and whether it explores them further.
*But then, there’s a ton of things we didn’t used to be able to measure (even lengths and stuff! We didn’t always have a counting system), so I’m not like some architects that suggest our art is beyond a scientific understanding. But I reckon there’s some extreme amount of variables and it’ll be a very, very complex.
Not all code is poetry. But some can be. Code could be seen as a form of meter, a very restrictive syntax that you work with and against to make your point. There are lot of different meters that poets choose to work in, and there’s no reason they can’t choose code syntax as one. In English poetry we’re used to very casual meters, a certain number of syllables per line, usually. But other poetic traditions have much more complex meters. Latin poetry specifies not only the number of syllables but the kind of syllable (heavy or light), and the pattern that they fall in, and differentiates between line breaks and breaks within a line (caesuras), and how they can be used. Just because a meter has very complex rules doesn’t mean it’s not a meter.
To me poetry is about finding the same feeling in the rhythm and timbre of words and/or typography that you find in the thing you’re describing, or perhaps outlining that feeling by using a constrasting sense. It’s about seeing a synaesthetic parallel between the feelings that we get from using and hearing language and other experiences, then trying to use that kind of language to express that thing.
If programmers see a certain amount of parallel between the structure that they’re using and the thing it’s describing, then those particular examples of code are poetry. When I made a little animation that caused a dot to spiral about, and saw the same patterns in the looping IF clauses in the code, it had the same sense of satisfaction as onomatapoeia. When I have more than one option for how to structure my code to produce a particular effect, and I pick the one I feel is the most lyrical one, the one that reads most elegantly, the one where following the movement and metamorphosis of the variables through their processes is most satisfying to the mind, what should I call it?
Dan asserts that
“code is perhaps the only language in existence that does exactly what it says it will”,
but he’s wrong. There’s lots of language that does what it says, eg. “I now pronounce you man and wife”. These are called Speech Acts. I don’t know that anyone would try to argue that Speech Acts aren’t poetry, considering so many historical speech acts - pronouncements, orders - are revered as examples of high oratory. I don’t think whether something does what it says it will rules it out of being poetry.
“But we have to take into account the functional and material differences between poetry and code. Code does exactly what it says it will. Poetry opens itself for others to say what it will. Code acts, while poetry waits for others to act upon it.”
I agree with a lot of what Golding says about the two media. Code usually acts while poetry is more passive. I’d like to hear detail about his argument that code and poetry are defined by the gap between printed paper and program. But it just feels like he ignores that key thing about poetry, that it says things both in word-meaning but also in meter, rhythm, onomatapoeia etc. Code can be written so that it is both a literal set of instructions but also structured, divided, expressed, layered with resonances only a human would pick up, just as traditional poetry follows its meter and still invokes its own particular sense, and that’s the very art of poetry.
Went and had a stickybeak at Federation Square while I was in Melbourne to see how it had changed in the five years since I last saw it and 10 years since it was built. I’ve had people (mostly Sydney people) say to me that this was Melbourne’s attempt at a Sydney Opera House but not 10 years overdue and without the fourteen-fold budget blowout. Lab Architecture’s design used (mostly) commonplace construction techniques to create a cluster of buildings around a common square, a fitting typology for the relatively fine-grain melbourne centre. Wrapped over that was a unique custom cladding that made the best of repeated pieces to form a constantly modulating pattern.
I’ve always felt it was a good strategy that just needed slightly better resolution (or maybe just more money and time). The buildings don’t seem to be in quite the right place. The square is isolated from the waterfront. The cladding pattern looks good from a distance but doesn’t have a secondary level of detail to appreciate up close; it feels like it needs just one more level of complexity, one more governing rule to its pattern, to be interesting enough. (Complexity isn’t the only way material can be interesting but this particular pattern feels like it would benefit from it). There’s a section with complex 3D steel structural frame, but the detailing/joints seemed a bit off-the-shelf. Overall, the square felt just a bit too bland, a bit like looking at a 1:100 drawing blown up to 1:50 size.
Going back though, it seems like it’s settled really well. A bit of weathering was adding a layer over the original materials. Unlike pristine concrete, the pink sandstone was marbled enough to handle water-staining pretty well. Nothing seemed particularly broken or obviously chipped, though sharp-cut corners on the sandstone steps had been rounded off just slightly by use. The zinc cladding wasn’t really winning or losing yet. The exposed galvanised steel structure had started to develop a little patina, softening it up and making it seem a little less like a temporary scaffolding. The Flinders St side of the square was full of people, people seemed to use the square as a proper landmark - an orientation point within the city, to meet, to describe other parts of the city in relationship to, as a proper amphitheatre in a way the SOH is more rarely used.
I had a lot more faith in it as a contribution to the city. But it felt like it still lacks a kind of exuberance, which seems key to me to great public spaces. True, Melbourne was suffering from a burst of outlandish buildings constructed in the early-mid 2010s boom, so was looking about five years out of fashion, and Fed Square’s less gimmicky design saved it from the same. Still, in silver steel and pastel pink stone, the square can’t help but feel just a little bit reserved and business-like, something that shattered geometries can’t shake.
“These projects have been criticised for being too costly by education secretary Michael Gove, who in a conference last year said: ”We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school, we won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no one in this room is here to make architects richer.””
This hostility towards educated professionals and it makes me wonder if the government is hostile to education in general. Thus the move to restrict architecture isn’t just about being unwilling to spend on education, it’s hostility towards the more modern, more flexible, less authoritarian learning styles as accommodated by less rigid architecture. The ban rules out curves, indents, dog legs and notches in the plan, the kind of techniques that create implied division of space, that break down the more confrontational lecture style classroom. It also rules out curtain walls, lest students see the outdoors and suspect they’re not in a prison, I guess? Specifically it calls for “simple, orthogonal forms”. Yes, ruling out notches/indents minimises the amount of perimeter wall, which is the most expensive. But school-sized, orthogonal, unarticulated buildings with small windows sound like hostile, authoritarian places to me. Hardly conducive to a curious mind.
A little while ago, Dan wrote about how games play much like the movie Russian Ark, in one continuous shot that tracks the whole level. He observes that cinema, by contrast, more typically cuts space together, both to augment it (larger than it could be, adjacent to things it couldn’t be), and to abbreviate it (shots cutting between places with no sense of their spatial relationship). Thirty Flights of Loving, he suggests, is highly unusual in that game space is chopped and abbreviated in this way.
Bryan Ma points us to an eerie analysis of the hotel from The Shining:
I was thinking maybe this was just a way of abbreviating the shots without having to use cuts - maybe the shot of Danny circling around would just take too long if the rooms were the right width? Also, the set is 8th-wonder-of-the-world huge (for a 70s movie set), maybe they didn’t have the budget (or lot space) to build the extra rooms and light-well that should exist there? But the bit where they walk into the cold storage room via one door, but exit on the other side of the corridor, that must have been deliberate and just for effect. So instead I get the feeling this hotel doesn’t just have ghosts but ghost doors and ghost rooms, old configurations of the hotel that simultaneously exist at the same time as new ones.
I’m really curious now if there are games that approach non-linear space like this too? Do they have impossible space, self-overlapping levels and doors that open into rooms that don’t exist from the other side (tardis-style)? I imagine it’s possible to swap in different bits of levels depending on which way you arrive at a space, but has anyone tried? Portal or Fez is maybe the closest example I can think of?