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
List of some games with thematically appropriate mechanics
Street Fighter and CS are games about practicing a very technical skill and knowing its details intimately, and the mechanics are similarly complex.
Fez is a game about the delight of discovery and new ideas over comfortable tradition. The movement is fluid, energetic, bouncy, happy.
The Walking Dead is a game about characters whose choices likely have very little effect on their long term outcome, but feel very critical to them. Limited but high stress mechanics reflect this.
The Sims is a game about the diversity and minutiae of an idealised american life, player has a lot of freedom and opportunities.
Call of Duty is a game about you being outrageously overskilled. You kill hundreds of people.
Dark Souls is a game about you being a novice. Hundreds of demons kill you.
Prison Architect Alpha is a game about the prison system. Mechanics are currently broken.
FTL is a game about leaping about space. My mouse spends a lot of time leaping about the screen.
Dys4ia is a game about things we haven’t chosen in life, game offers no choices.
The Counterfeit Monkey is a game about rebelling against a very restrictive, doctrinaire place - unlike a typical adventure game, each puzzle has many possible solutions. You can go with the first one you think of or know that if you think a bit harder you’ll be able to find the cheekier, more lateral ones and feel cleverer. I think it might be my favourite adventure puzzle game.
Halo is a game about befriending the fairy daughter of your foster mum. When you shoot bullets they impact like fairy dust.
Thirty Flights of Loving is a game about a highly atypical life. It’s told in a very unusual way, spatial, temporally.
Thematically, Journey is about a slipping away, a sliding, a dissolving - the movement mechanics emphasise that aspect of the story.
Cart Life is about people who struggle, the mechanics are similarly fiddly, frustrating.
Gone Home is a game about understanding other people’s experiences. The mechanics allow you to study things in depth and replace them carefully, it has a kind of embodied respect for both people and their culture (I use culture to refer to all “things” that people have that reflect their way of life, as well as habits and the way of life itself)
SimCity is a game about designing a city. At its best, the gameplay feels frenetic & busy.
Kerbal Space Program is a game about experimentation, how space travel evolved from many many discoveries and tests. The interface similarly is a process of slowly achieving a complex understanding, more so than many games.
I wonder if I play more seriously, more reflectively when I play with heavier chess pieces - do I emphasise the more important pieces? Do I play more inventively, more recklessly with a cheap plastic set?
Ostensibly the same mechanic - walking forward - can feel 1000 different ways. Or clicking a button. It could be to do with responsiveness of the controls, or the way the world responds, or the way the character is animated or not, the music or sound or or or
6:10 am • 29 August 2013 • 21 notes
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)
3:11 am • 7 April 2013 • 3 notes