Saturday, May 16, 2015

Short on Games: May 2015

D



For whatever reason, the thing that stuck with me most from the early critical response to Gone Home was the occasional assertion that the game allowed you to interact with 'everything.' It might have something to do with genre assumptions; the FP(S), horror, and YA feel of the whole thing had me wall-humping, Doom style, and expecting to Scooby Doo a bookcase. Walls and identical books are things, and they certainly resisted my interactions.

I ended up thinking this in terms of the assertions – more common – that Katie, the playable character, was a vessel. Surely there was a way to read her willingness to pick up pencils and milk cartons with her unwillingness to disturb much of the contents of her father's study. At the very least it is a kind of characterization. Obviously there is a technical explanation, but – and then I would stop.

D is a 3DO (and later PSX) game by WARP, Kenji Eno's studio, in which the player controls Laura Harris, whose father has murdered a mass of people at the LA hospital in which he works. Laura enters the hospital during the ensuing hostage scenario and attempts to determine what is going on.

In the game's first room, Laura faces a table. Walking around it, she can be turned to view a dish full of water. If clicked, she leans over and watches it fill, from the rim to the center, with blood. Laura looks aghast; you then regain control, and are free to repeat the little cinematic. You can, presumably, sit there repeating that sequence for the full two hours before the game kicks you out and you fail.

Pass the table and a stairwell into a room with a wine cask and a wall of spikes and attempt to walk toward the wall, however, and a cinematic triggers where the spikes slam forward and stop millimeters from Laura's nose. The wall returns to the far side, but any further attempt to cross the room is fruitless. Laura will no longer walk in that direction, no matter what you input. At least, not until you solve the puzzle that makes the spikes retract, at which point you go along that way to progress.

These little things are ultimately lost in the game's punch-you-in-the-face story, its supreme evocation of mood through space, and the apocrypha. All of those things are cool as hell, of course, just as its puzzles (a weird slot machine, memorizing astrological symbols, semi-arbitrary item use) are kind of bullshit. There's something, though, to a potential genealogy of characterization by way of the elision of interaction. Not here, though.

If nothing else, the moment with the spikes underscores the way that Laura, caught up in a mass murder, learning a story of vampirism and cannibalism by slowly floating from one predetermined point in a room to another, represents more than a camera or a node in a systemic architecture. It offers the whole moody, goofy thing some weight.

None of which is to say, of course, that D needs anything other than what it is to be worth playing, because it is a seriously neat, atmospheric game.




Wolfgirls in Love



Wolfgirls in Love is an unrolling of verbs and nouns to a beat by Kitty Horrorshow. It's a story told through elision about two werewolves making out, running through a city, being pursued and harmed, and coming out the other end okay. The game was made for (or submitted to) Porpentine's Twiny Jam, which means it is less than 300 words and made in Twine.

The first game Short on Games covered was a Kitty Horrorshow title, in which a Twine game was packed. Those had to do with space, and that element remains in this, although as more of a facet of the background. The little game's crutch – a song plays while you play, the instructions suggest you attempt to keep the beat – does effectively shift the focus to the temporality.

Horrorshow doesn't quite make this shift sing in the way that Dust City did with its, but it is a meaningful and promising move. That there is something Caitlín R. Kiernan-esque about the tone of the prose doesn't hurt, either.

Which is all to say that, in addition to being a bit of an experiment and a confident, interesting piece of poetry, even as it is somewhat reliant on a gimmick, that I might recommend it most as a game to see what a tool can do, and where its maker can go.




Chocolate



Chocolate is a narrative pixel hunt by Talha Kaya.

I don't know that I'm entirely comfortable talking about the narrative of the game. It seems largely to be expressions of frustration, manifested as externalized and internalized loathing and violence. Sometimes through text, other times through images and action.

As a system, the interface is very interesting, though. Occasionally the keys will control an avatar like you might expect, but the larger part of the game is done through static screens using the mouse. Move the mouse, say, left, and the jumble of lines on the screen will slowly cohere toward the middle; keep moving it too far, though, and they will begin to dissipate again. You move up and down and however until the image, of text or of, say, a bar of chocolate, snaps into being. That bit stops for a second, and then the next mass of squiggles follows.

There's something about how the game incorporates "ordinary" input methods while relying mostly on this unique little mechanic that is, I think, worth stopping over, at least briefly.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

"Ain't no pain / on a blue train"

The opening image of Cibo Matto New Scene – after some guy had played organ for half an hour (he was pretty good though), after Honda and Hatori had taken their places facing away from the audience on either side of the stage alongside two dudes, one on a standup bass and another at a drum kit, after all four had stood awkwardly for a minute or three waiting – was two hands in a cave, hue-shifted and a sense of depth substituted for the flatness of conflicting layers. A title card and an eye superimposed over a forested landscape, staring up into criss-crossed overhead power lines, later, Honda began speaking over a relatively easy groove, and the show began.

New Scene was an event put on for the San Francisco International Film Festival in which the group live-soundtracked a selection of seven short films over the course of about an hour and a half. The two centerpieces came from the 70s; a film version of Oskar Schlemmer's Das Triadische Ballet, and the "rare" (according to someone?) Yoko Ono film Fly. The former is a Bauhaus ballet in three parts (yellow, pink, and black) with dancers in hyperanthropomorphic costumes; the latter a series of takes of a fly wandering over a nude woman's supine body. The rest of the program was rounded out by Miwa Matreyek's Lumerence (with the hands and the eye), Grace Nayoon Rhee's Unicorn (holy shit), Calvin Frederick's Bermuda, Una Lorenzen's Pranam, and Marcel Duchamp's Anémic Cinéma.

Although the performance was fairly demarcated – no "song" bled from one film to another, and no film had more than, perhaps, three "songs" – the overall effect was, in retrospect, somewhat jumbled. Cibo Matto refrained from doing anything particularly Birthday Cake-ish, tending more toward the sort of things that grooved and built. With Honda often on (what sounded to me, someone not well versed in this sort of thing) the Hammond organ setting on her synth through much of the night, the sound occasionally swung closer to Deep Purple than anything.

The one exception to this, and probably the highlight of the performance, at least in terms of pure fun, was the track over Rhee's "Unicorn." The film itself looks something like a mix of Maya Deren and Monty Python, with heavy film manipulation; the band did a quick build to a crashing climax while Miho Hatori essentially narrated. The narration was, of course, just her screaming louder and louder until she suddenly stopped, and read the subtitles – "Oh, that's a unicorn."

"Unicorn" succeeded the aforementioned, sepia-tinted, surrealist "Luminerence," a film with some powerful images at the level of juxtaposition and an impressive scope. Between the eye in the mountain and the massive face causing an earthquake by kissing the moon, the film's layered flatness of nature gone cosmic sits in that strange space between powerful and not particularly impactful. Contributing to this was the strange way it fit within the New Scene performance. As the first in the lineup, it did little work to set the tone for the piece (except that it was what the rest would be), which ultimately hurt the whole. Taken together with "Unicorn," this is slightly less the case, though as a whole the performance seemed as much about navigating the question of that engagement and what the setting of expectations would actually accomplish.

Some of this is down to my own gaps of knowledge, of course; the only Cibo Matto song proper that I recognized was "Blue Train" (over Duchamp's film, and only after I had returned home and searched for it), and I have no great love for short film as a form (although my ire is reserved for its single-note narrative manifestations). I've been a fan of Cibo Matto for a long time – and especially of Miho Hatori, who I saw live once before on tour for her solo album – but always in increments, in fits and starts.

Of the other short films, Calvin Frederick's "Bermuda" was perhaps the one I did the single widest swing on my feelings towards; as it began, it seemed like the dullest of all possible animations. Kaleidoscopes. As it progressed, though, I noticed that there were strange signs of materiality; the kaleidoscoping lights were slit by small black lines. I realized that the whole thing seemed to be, rather than digitally animated, taking place in some kind of cuboid structure with mirrors for the lengthwise walls. There is something about presenting the materiality of an image as a consequence of focus that works for me; I don't know that it translates though. It also had the lowered expectations that come with the palate cleanser, between the ballet and the Ono film, which likely helped it.

Una Lorenzo's "Pranam," on the other hand, was an animated short which relied similarly on geometric coloring and, like "Lumerence," the imagery of (outer) space. Between it and the relative mundanity of Duchamp's "Anémic Cinéma," the show's conclusion felt somewhat directionless. There is, for what it's worth, this analysis/translation of Duchamp's film which makes it slightly more compelling, but not all that much so.

Which brings us to the centerpieces: the film version of Schlemmer's ballet, and Ono's (and, at least according to the credits, Lennon's) "Fly."

"Das Triadische Ballet" is gorgeous in exactly the sort of way that films which are organized by color and the abstraction of movement performed by human bodies tend to be. Heightened is, perhaps, the word for it; the unity of the backdrop, against which the body enacts conscious practices, results in a moving image outside the realm of the ordinary. Cibo Matto played with this brilliantly, at least initially. The instrumentation was sparse, and Hatori gave inconsistent voice to the actions. A variety of monosyllabic sounds, from "di-di-di-di" to "no no nono no" to "wooooop," accompanied the dancer's actions. Not always, of course – making noises conflicts with breathing in a more direct way than walking a stationary circle en pointe – but closely enough that the relation was clear. Honda would join in this later, using a synthesized sting in conjunction with another dancer, as would the drummer for the portion with a dancer clashing cymbals together. None were perfect with their overdubs, and it was hard to tell how intentional this was, due at least in part to the failure to set up the conditions of engagement with the first film.

As a performance, this was probably the greatest tension in New Scene; were the films being scored or soundtracked? Cibo Matto seemed to tend toward the latter, but instances like the narration over the dancers in the ballet or the reading of the subtitles in "Unicorn" kept swinging it back toward the former. As a source of tension, the effects varied. It was often interestingly, sometimes annoying, and occasionally outright boring. Or, perhaps more accurately: as the dominant undercurrent of the performance, this tension was compelling, but underutilized. When Cibo Matto fell too comfortably into their groove, simply playing music together, it was good (they are a fucking cool band) but in a way that seemed disengaged from the project at hand.

The showing/performance of Yoko Ono's "Fly" was very much the best and worst of this. The film itself seemed very much in the tradition of Warhol's, although with "stronger" directorial presence. That it opened with a shot of the titular fly on a leg, the model's stomach clearly rising and falling in calm breaths in the background, is (I think) evidence of this; from that opening the imagistic narrative and metaphor seemed to be clearly laid out. Which is a way of euphemising the fact that the camera's tracking of the fly would eventually lead to its focus on the woman's vagina and breasts, and that the impression it wanted to leave was one regarding intimacy, albeit in perhaps a number of different ways.

Here's the thing about Ono's film, though: it's incredibly uncomfortable to watch, in a very tactile sense. The comparison to Warhol is important mostly as a differentiation; there are numerous cuts, which are openly exposing of the artifice, and camera placements which occasionally have the fly out of view for the initial few seconds before it crawls into the shot. Although the ostensible point might be one of intimacy and the aesthetic of authenticity, the technique significantly complicates things. The camera itself is sometimes handled inexpertly, automatically refocusing in ways that leave the whole field an indistinct blur. The woman's naked body is already shot in extreme closeup, causing the disjunct body of the visual economy of pornography, but the fly itself is always whole. It is framed in such a way as to make it clear that it is a thing seen wandering, and that makes the affective focus even more clearly on how that wandering, how its legs, must feel on the skin.

There was a moment, during the film – not marked by it, necessarily, though perhaps related to the increasing intensity before the midway drop of Cibo Matto's scoring of it – where I realized that, somehow, in that weird space between the Warholian and the pornographic that this film occupied, with the narrative and metaphor it employed, with the affects it engaged, it seemed most apt to see "Fly" through the techniques and tropes of the horror film genre. The supine, nude woman; the intrusive artifice; the cinematographic character; the voyeurist implication; the highlighting of the empathy of touch; the inhuman intimate. Everything from Psycho to Halloween to The Blair Witch Project – to say nothing of The Fly – seemed contained or presaged in it. And with that moment came some degree of annoyance: why weren't Cibo Matto engaging this? Why on earth would, given this complicated text, they opt for a sort of lengthy, borderline postrock style jam, split into halves over the movie?

The answer, of course (or at least the one to which I came, or which these questions lead to me developing) was the very tension of the piece. What the fuck do you do, exactly, when asked to perform over a selection of short films for a festival audience? I had heard people attending the festival burst into applause at the mocking of the Kardashians, and talk idly about setting up their children with potential partners in order to advance their careers. The first film I attended, an action epic about the PLA, was largely shown to members of the Hong Kong Economic Trade Office. I obviously don't know how this might have affected Honda and Hatori – beyond the small inferences I can make by Honda's tweets in support of Baltimore and that Hatori's show in Santa Cruz all those years ago wasn't even in the biggest of the small venues in that town – on a personal level, but that festival had some concentration of wealth. The goofy, food-referencing genrefuck happy aggression of Cibo Matto's first two albums probably wouldn't sit well in that context, for instance. But the billing was very much on the back of that project. And then, in addition, the imperative to do right by the work of other authors, to take what largely amounted to music videos in the first place, albeit with authorship credit reversed, and replace half of that formula?

Given the actual labor required (and even then only that of it which became visible to a relatively unknowledgeable outsider) the ultimate decision to score "Fly" with something approximating Cibo Matto's version of a postrock anthem becomes, if not teleological, at least interesting. That tension, again: the score or the soundtrack, the how the fuck do we do this? And above all its remaining as such, the refusal to resolve it. All performance is about the act of performing, sure, but not all of it in just this way.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Short on Games: April 2015

[Welcome back to Short on Games! Late last year, I ran this as a weekly ello blog, writing 250 words or less about a small, generally free videogame. I liked the idea and the process a lot, but eventually it got derailed. I'm bringing it back, here, with some changes to the format.

The general structure – a screenshot, link to the game, and my own text – is going to be maintained. The two biggest changes are to schedule and word count. It will now be a monthly series, and instead of 250 words per game I am going to limit myself to 1,000 words total. This will mean a little more variation on the format; I may do four games, each taking up a quarter of the word count, or I may do one game that takes up the whole thing.

I should say, too, that these aren't meant to be recommendations or reviews. They will mostly be a small catalogue, with the occasional insight. Some writeups will attempt holistic readings, others ignore the bulk for a particular sparked-off angle. These will not be differentiated.]





Stick Shift



Robert Yang's Stick Shift makes me think, strangely, of Evan Calder Williams' Hostile Object Theory – and of his cops as "comic objects" and "indirect hostile objects." Not because it is a stretch, necessarily, but because the game's foregrounded relation is one of pleasuring objects, and the man and his car never really come into conflict, much less enact the structural hostilities of capital.

Not that strangely, of course, because the similarity seems to me to be in the system, rather than in the narrative. I highly recommend Yang's liner notes, whether or not you play the game yourself.

Cops are indirect hostile objects; they show up at random, an invisible number generated, chosen for representational value. They are comic; the "riot sticks, grenades, and an M4 rifle"-wielding uniforms don't react when you click to make a kissy face, but the amount of real time they will take from you does. They're narrative justifications of designed systems.

Maybe I afford them so much weight because it took five playthroughs over three days to finally see the end of the game, regardless of its being weighted in favor of your finishing, or because I played it with no foreknowledge the first time through and added an hour to my wait before I realized what was happening.

There's also how much Stick Shift's like those arcade racers when, as a kid, you accidentally chose manual transmission, with no instructions and a timer that doesn't depend on the race's finish. And how that means you attend more closely to the transmission than the steering, and how you get publicly frustrated by it, even if you're alone.




Crypt Community



Crypt Community is probably the closest thing I'll ever experience to the pleasures of owning a fish tank. It's a game that wants to be read into – the word community in the title is conspicuous – or at least to be experienced dialogically. I'm not sure how possible that is. At the end of the tutorial, the game suggests that you "try to create a healthy, robust, satisfied crypt community."

When I mention fish tanks, I'm thinking of the kind that Susan Choi's My Education talks about. So when I point out that Avery Mcdaldno and Karl Parakening's game is full of visible numbers, I hope that doesn't not make sense.

You hold the mouse over folks and an unrelated row of lights blinks up over time. You hold the right mouse button down while hovering over a mob and every interval a grunt. You hold the left down over a portal and the sfx build and the light goes brighter until a little mob pops in the door. By the end you've held down so long that sometimes the one that pops in launches one that popped in three ago's body like a billiard ball.

It isn't that I disbelieve the end of the tutorial, necessarily. I can imagine the game reaching a point of equilibrium, where all current members of the crypt community have maxed out satisfaction that doesn't decrease. I'm just not sure how interested I am in that – either as an ultimate gameplay state, or as a theorization of community.

Which equally isn't to say that this (or the game) is 'wrong.' It has qualities – the dungeon-tiled single room, the billiards, the seemingly-arbitrary numbers/values – that allow for it to be experienced with that fish tank quality, which is wonderful.




Room of 1000 Snakes



Room of 1000 Snakes is maybe the most effective tutorial for WASD controls this side of having bought Half-Life when it shipped and having attended LAN parties for the next half decade.

The game opens with a crawl, in which you are informed that "They told you not to enter / You, an explorer, didn't listen / 'I will find out the mystery of the snakes'" and then you're a disembodied camera in an Indiana Jonesish temple. You can walk around, or hop, and look at the neat stuff. There's a dais with a podium with a big red button on it straight ahead; walk up to it to be prompted to 'press E' to use. Once you "use," music swells. It's The Verve Pipe's "Bittersweet Symphony," and it's really, really funny.

The room starts to shake a little, and you probably click use a few more times, and you probably just start wandering around. And then you notice the holes in the wall spewing sand, and then you remember the name of the game. For the last thirty seconds or so, you shake off snakes. The chorus hits and the game ends and boots you out to an associated tumblr where you can buy "Collectible Jpegs." It's all really wonderful.




Eco Fighters



Here's how you control the Capcom Classics Collection Vol. 2 port of Eco Fighters: you spin your arm with the triggers, either bumper fires, and the d-pad moves. Or: the square button swivels the arm left, the circle right, and the X fires. Or: the right analog stick swivels, left moves, and any of the above fire. Or: whichever combination of the above. This is appropriate, because the ship slugs and jolts its way around no matter which you choose.

Eco Fighter is set in a future where green anarchist teens are the space-faring heroes who save the Earth from becoming a "Dread Sphere." Designed by the winner of a contest, it's a horizontal shmup with the unique mechanic of your ship having an arm which can be customized with a weapon and spun in a full circle around you. It's as awkward and goofy as it sounds.

You start off by blowing up a couple cranes, but a single level later you're blasting turtles for no reason. The horizontal scrolling makes the whole thing dreamy, punctuated by seconds of action. Too-often mimetic bullet designs over busy levels with bad controls means enough deaths that they become less full stop and more comma, a clearing of the air. It's a pretty little mess.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Slasher, Cinematographer

Here's why Michael Myers is scary: from the very beginning of Halloween, the camera is tenuously equated with his vision. You never quite know if what you're watching is something that he is seeing. As the film goes on, he moves into being associated with the dark spaces that the camera shows, in addition to the whole POV. It's a movie with a lot of dark spaces, so he ends up being a constant potential; potentially watching with us, potentially in sight but unseeable.

Freddy Krueger works because he is functionally a switch. When he's off, the film plays Hollywood realist-melodrama. When he's on, the world is no longer subjected to those arbitrary restrictions. Freddy means that cuts become expressive in themselves, (special) effects.

The It that Follows is, very clearly, meant to be in this lineage. The opening shot absolutely reeks of Halloween, a film-grainy widescreen circle pan of a woman running out of her suburban house, staring at an unseen pursuer, juking it to run back in, and then back out again to get into the car and drive off. It seems dead obvious that, whatever the diegetic explanation will end up being, the It that will presumably be following someone is going to be formally the camera. Not just because of the Halloween references, or the fact that she spends the bulk of the sequence looking directly into the camera, but even that the camera is literally an it that follows actors. It's easy, sure, but it seems promisingly executed at first, and doesn't have to devolve into some cheap moralizing and self-aggrandizement. Just look at Halloween, where it is used to provide a specific framework in which to explore the lives of some teenagers in a specific place.

It Follows ends up deciding that the monster is going to be the opposite; rather than the POV, it functionally becomes the (visual) background. More specifically, the extras. By the midpoint of the film, at the very latest, your attention is necessarily split; any shot that isn't a close up is not just a technique for establishing your moment-to-moment relationship with whoever is in focus (or their relationships to one another), but a reason to actively engage the whole composition. The dark corners of Halloween are effectively, here, the presence of other people. There's a strange way in which the movie most functionally similar to It Follows is something like Dark City, with all its painterly compositions drawn to attention by the pseudo-anonymity of its villains.

The Myth Time of the movie is an attempt, I think, to enhance this; an early scene has a group of friends watching a black and white SF film on a rabbit-eared television while one reads Dostoevsky's The Idiot on a custom clamshell e-reader. Jay, the protagonist, goes on a date to a movie theater with an organist; her sister Kelly works at a roadside ice cream stand with architectural hints of the raygun gothic; the girl from the opening shot answers her flip phone before she gets Barrymored. The disjuncted technology, like the nature of the monster, compels the viewer to partially refocus on the stuff rather than the action.

The characters, too, play into this. Yara, who is functionally an extension of the e-reader, dissolves into the background until It takes her shape. Paul refocuses Jay, who gives a performance that seems to dare the viewer to look past her. The neighbour children establish early that the being-watched is both mundane and threatening, bridging the gap between the camera/POV and the extras. Greg (who Depps it up) is embodied transportation, necessary to move between those backgrounds. Kelly, Jay's sister, is, well, maybe the only human among them.

The setting is important as well, in exactly the same way. That Myth Time of the film, presented primarily through the technology, is talked about in terms of timelessness, but that's hardly the case. It Follows is largely set in suburban Detroit, and the city proper is remarked as being considered dangerous by the core groups' parents. It is obviously a post-white flight, postindustrialized Detroit. The fact that a blighted Detroit surrounded by (at least) primarily white, middle class suburbs can be described as timeless is, well. The point, though, is that postindustrial Detroit is the very essence of the sort of place that we see for its settings rather than the people in them. Ruin porn, and all that.

All of this works together to create a film which has an incredibly effective mood. Or, more precisely, that works overtime to instill the viewer with anxiety*; not only is the monster frightening within the narrative, but you are being pressed into a form of active viewing that acts as a sort of counter-pedagogy to what films -- even horror films, even of this exact lineage -- normally abide. It Follows' referentiality plays into this, most obviously by its rule: It will follow you once you have sex with who it is following, and you pass it along by having sex with someone else. If it kills who you passed it on to, it returns to stalk you again, and back down the line. Halloween stumbled into the sexual conservatism that Friday the 13th codified and Scream named; It Follows literalizes it. What has been taught remains learned, but the lessons only mirror their plan, not consume it.

For a film to place so many demands on the viewers attentiveness to its cinematography, it is perhaps not surprising that this cinematography is almost entirely aimed at facilitating the mood. Stoker-like circle pans and cameras mounted to cars (and a wheelchair) break up meticulous medium shots that want movement the same way the tension rises and spikes or collapses with it. It's all, as they say, very gorgeous.

Ghostface works because, nearly two decades after Michael Myers, the consensus was that the operation of the movie monster was a form of psychology, amenable to the establishing of rules of engagement. Because characters in a film can be observant of dark spaces and sexual mores, but not on the operation of the camera that captures them, the edits that constitute them.




*Admission: I was anxious by the time the fucking Poltergeist remake's trailer played, and knew next to nothing about It Follows going in, so probably overidentifying that bit.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Structure Does Matter

This was originally published on a now-defunct tumblr in November of 2013. I'm reposting it here with significant edits because I took the tumblr down but I still think this is worth reading for those interested.


0. Introduction


The Dungeon Master is not a storyteller. Within the context of Dungeons & Dragons, this is the role she is usually attributed. Beyond D&D, the term tends to be generalized as the Game Master or Master of Ceremonies; I will refer to the same role, or at least the duties of filling it, as a facilitator. I refer to the D&D term first because it is central to my argument: that the structure of the game matters at least as much as its systems.

Against the storyteller model, I would like to propose an alternative. From this alternative, I will attempt to draw out certain structural properties of Tabletop Roleplaying Games. That alternative is this: The Dungeon Master is the reader. She reads the actions of the players, when brought to bear against the game rules and the proposed setting. She reads, also, the social dynamics, though in this she is not unique.

That the DM is a reader leads to certain critical positions that remain largely unexplored within the theorization of this genre of games. The first is that structure does matter. From this, a discussion of alternative theorizations, primarily Ron Edwards' Big Model, can be undertaken. Following that discussion, the main points can be developed: what constitutes the mode of production of a game, and what constitutes its play.

The essay ends with an exploration of the implications of this theorization on a broader social. Given that the whole relies heavily on the Marxian articulation of the dialectic -- particularly in the form of the Abstract, the Negation, and the Negation of the Negation -- this exploration takes place within the bounds of that articulation.


I. Structural Difference


Any discussion of the merits of D&D must begin by reckoning with the theoretical work done on a forum called The Forge. I feel it worth mentioning that I did not participate in the activity and have approached the body of work there without any real guidance. What follows is not particularly kind to these theories, so I would like to lead by saying that certain theorists from that school, particularly Vincent Baker, have articulated things that I think are very crucial. I will, in particular, refer to Baker's definition of "system," also called the lumpley principle, which is defined as follows: "System (including but not limited to 'the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play."

However, I think I find in their theory a very different teleology than the one that they champion, specifically in their praxis (i.e. storygames), which seem to me to move towards the collapse of structural distinctions between the participants in a way that, while perhaps interesting to play and powerful in terms of reframing the dialogue about what tabletop games are and can do, still fundamentally misses the mark as to how that structural difference functions.

Using a dialectical analysis, I hope to clarify what it is about this structural difference that makes it productive of play in the tabletop setting. When I talk about the dialectic, I mean it as follows: a preexisting abstraction is negated, and that negation is subsequently negated, producing a new thing. This new thing is fundamentally marked by the process and will tend to become an abstraction which itself enters into another dialectical process.

In the case of D&D, the initial abstraction is what we tend to call the DM; that is, not the person who is called that, but the structural role, which is comprised of certain types of authority, a degree of managerial accountability, a familiarity with a system, and an initial level of scenario control. This is perhaps not an exhaustive list.

The model which considers the DM as the storyteller agrees up to this point, but neglects the way in which these structural qualities are themselves functions of the dialectical process of play, instead seeing them positivistically; because of these structural qualities, the DM is an authority, a manager, someone with experience and control. The players, then, are the objects of the game, the audience, being managed and dictated to.

But play happens not through inversion but negation, and this seems obvious in the case of any campaign which proceeds past character creation; the DM immediately has to consider backstories, allegiances, availabilities, interests, and so on, and this becomes the true shape of the game. The players, then, are the initial negation, that which concretely opposes and undoes the abstraction.

The easiest way to see this is in the frequency of the frustration of the DM's position as storyteller: she prepares a scene, the players subvert it (un)intentionally, drawing out an insignificant conversation or proceeding down an unforeseen path, and so the majority of the DM’s prep goes by the wayside. The DM can respond to this in one of two ways: she can insist on the abstraction, railroading the players, or she can work within the negation, improvising or reworking prep elements to fit within her now negated material.

In practice, the DM usually finds some sort of balance between these two reactions. The storygamer praxis seems to consist of an attempt to set up the former possible response as a structural failing and the latter as the true locus of play. Therefore, they extrapolate, and end up in a place where the DM’s structural difference is negated; without a human occupying the structural role of DM, the former reaction cannot take place, and the latter is guaranteed.

Again, this is interesting on its own terms; however, it also precludes the subsequent processes which, in my estimation, are the true strength of something like D&D, or at least are what keep someone like me, who has no particular interest in things like roleplaying or worldbuilding as such, engaged.

The final step, then, is the negation of the negation, or the sublation; the final move, by which the players themselves are negated, and the new thing is instantiated. There are a number of things that could be thought to play this role, and I think it worth a brief detour to list them below:

  1. The improvisation of the DM. As referenced earlier, this is fundamentally a reaction to the initial negation; as such, it contains the seeds of the negation of the negation. It, however, does not negate the players in itself, nor does it “move through” them. It remains within the hierarchical structure which the “storyteller” model privileges.
  2. The various way in which the players assume responsibilities formally accorded to the DM. This appears in multiple ways; players attempting to exploit the rules, players taking over scene building responsibilities, players organizing the sessions, players actively or passively refusing to engage on either a micro or macrocosmic level; all of these and more seem, at least at first glance, to indicate a moving past the first negation. Again, however, this takes the structure as fixed; it democratizes the play to a certain extent (whether productively or poisonously), but ultimately serves to reify the abstraction. This, in fact, is the only way that the DM goes from abstract negatable quantity to tyrant, and it is also, unfortunately, one of the most intuitive and apparently-interesting ways to play the game.
  3. The “contents” of any game/campaign. This is the most obvious answer, and gets closer to the real movement without quite identifying it. This is sometimes called the Shared Imagined Space in storygamer lingo; it is the sort of thing that recaps are made of. What is important is that it is created by all participants in the game, rather than being imposed by DM fiat. While this constitutes a move through negation into the creation of the positive, it only accounts for one aspect of the sublation; it fails to account for the negation of the negation.
Rather than these, the negation of the negation is the negation of the players. The most common examples of how this works would be metagaming or reflection. This is what I am claiming: the play of D&D is, ultimately, the spaces in which roleplaying stops. This is accomplished by way of a dialectical engagement with its ingrained structural difference.


II. The Big Model


For those unfamiliar, the Big Model is a diagram which came out of the Forge/storygame crowd’s theorization of RPGs.

In the diagram, the largest circle is labeled the “Social Contract,” and consists of all the stuff outside a game that creates the conditions for play (travel, social dynamics, availability, etc.). In this section I am going to articulate why what I have detailed above is more than a simple recapitulation of this model.

According to Ron Edwards, the creator of The Forge, the Social Contract is the “big box” that encompasses the play of RPGs. In the model, it is where the arrow labeled “Creative Agenda” begins. The short version of my claim is this: framing the social as a container fundamentally misprises play and results in a necessarily hierarchical, fixed structure, even in cases where the mechanics work explicitly against this. Also I am going to drop the “Contract” from here on because it seems bad.

The key idea in this theory, which posits itself against the Big Model theory, is that DMing is itself the beginning of a dialectical process, the result of which is the negation of roleplaying. Another term for this negation could be the social.

While it would be a peculiar sort of ignorance to argue that social conditions don’t represent the material conditions on which RPG gaming is based, it is equally ignorant to argue that they subsequently function in the sort of cod-Freudian way that The Forge theorists tend to, pointing to issues in play as inevitably symptoms of a dysfunctional group sociality, generally under the rubric of a divergent Creative Agenda.

The Creative Agenda, in the Big Model, is a way of formalizing the knowledge that individuals approach play with different interests. It does so in order to claim that any given group functions similarly. Broadly, the claim inherent to the diagram's guiding arrow is that any given gaming group will tend towards one of three broad camps. Implicitly, it is primarily used to indicate that any sort of social dysfunction in any given group that is not obviously preceding the game arises from conflicting desires within the group.

There is something like a class-based antagonism going on here, of course; The Forge was primarily a space for game designers, whether professional or amateur or aspiring, to work through their theories, and so they have a vested interest in preserving a reliance on the means of production.

The Creative Agenda is nothing much more than a system-specific recapitulation of a tripartite psychoanalytic model, a way of providing a scientistic basis for the reconstruction of motivations or inclinations based on an understanding of a socially-determined individual. If the Big Model lacks an explicit oedipal myth, this is only because Oedipus permeates it so wholly as to be invisible. Everyone has their initial subjectivating trauma; whether that manifests as a recurring dream about wolves or a particular GNS predilection, the talking (playing) cure will reveal all.

Positing that the social is the material conditions of roleplaying games is to say that, yes, they take place in the frame of the social, but that previous theorizations neglect to account for how that social is the material which is acted upon by the transformative labor of play. Reducing the social (by way of the Creative Agenda) to the Lacanian Real or Freudian unconscious works well enough if that’s your goal, but recognizing the way in which this kind of play organizes sociality into a productive labor is central to navigating the particular way in which gaming structures at the same time as it is structured.


III. Modes of Production


Storygaming is an attempt to alter the relations of production without addressing the means of production. As such, its attempts to reorganize games structurally succeeds in the sense of changing how any particular game treats the material of the social; however, this success is based on the false premise that the models it builds are a rejection of the hierarchical model that precedes, and with a deep misunderstanding of the way in which this particular kind of play is a pleasurable extension of, and mimetic reflection on, labor, and its own structuring of the social.

Dialogue surrounding roleplaying games is deeply concerned with a sense of creation. If there is a single value that could be universally attributed to this type of play, it would take a strong argument to claim anything else. The object of creation, of course, generally remains unarticulated. So, what is it?

The obvious answer here is "a fiction." This is where the "DM as storyteller" model comes from; RPG play is a structured social interaction with the aim of producing a (shared) fiction. This idea is also why so many awful fantasy books get likened to D&D campaigns; the author is a (real or presumed) Dungeon Master translating (poorly) her campaign to the written word.

The Big Model theorists have a slightly better term for the product of the campaign: the Shared Imagined System, or SIS. This gets closer to the way that the act of play produces not a fiction in and of itself, but a space in which fictions occur. Rather than a rote fantasy novel, then, sitting together to play a game is (at least on one level) the act of collaboratively producing a universe in which those fantasy novels might be set. While this gets significantly closer to describing what it is like to actually play a tabletop roleplaying game, it keeps the drawbacks of assuming that one necessary byproduct of this type of play is actually fundamental to it.

One way to say this is that, for all that SIS opens up, it remains excessively design-focused, conflating play itself with the goals of the creation of a system. The practical consequence of this theory then works against its stated aims: working with the understanding of the SIS leads to an attempt to democratize role of facilitator. But that democratization fails to abolish it, instead generalizing it. When no one has the structural role of the DM the end result is simply a distributed facilitation, not a generalization of play.

The reality is that RPG play has, as its product, social relations. Again, it isn't that the social dynamic is the thing which conditions play and can be accessed through it, as though play were a simple analogue of the unconscious; play itself is productive of social relations, and they modify themselves in accordance with the means by which they were produced (system in Baker's sense) to better reflect those means, and (in doing so) are rapidly outmoded by the development of those means, often to the point of obsolescence or outright antagonism.

The mode of production of RPG play, then, is taken here to be the coordination of the system (the experiential set of mediative technologies which the players have reached consensus on at any given moment) with the social relations (the ways in which players form ad hoc modes of normative social behaviors conditioned by the experience of play). Because both of these aspects are subject to constant performative restatement, there is no concrete way of elaborating them into a totalized system.

Despite the failure of any game to elaborate a totalizing mode of production, the function is the same, even if it remains intensely local. The confluence of system and social relations through play produce hegemonic structures, social relations in which certain subjectivities are privileged and others are not. Because the products themselves are immaterial, and because the means of production themselves are performative and beholden to an exterior (but interpellated) set of social relations, the question of how to engage meaningfully with the means of production without simply recapitulating or generalizing them needs to be asked. My own tentative answer, very much pending reconsideration, is in moving toward (as I lay out in Part I) an understanding of the dialectical structure of this mode of play, and combining that with an understanding of the way play mimics labor.


IV. Bodies at Play


Understanding the dialectical movement fostered by the structure of Dungeons & Dragons is useless without taking account for the way it is enacted by bodies at play.

In theory, D&D takes on a capitalist structure: as the facilitator, the DM's primary responsibility is in controlling the application of the system. In practice, however, she is the primary object of negation; her control of the means of production is exclusively established such that it can be negated in actual play. This negation, as discussed above, is again negated, by the players accidental or purposeful abstention from roleplaying; this itself is the actual play.

If this is all more or less dictated by the structural organization of the game, then fine; but it is not a fully automated process. One can't simply observe any of this by reading a rulebook; the form demands a specific kind of engagement to produce this objective conclusion.

In every instance of the structural movement detailed that produces play, as well as in the specific formulation of the RPG mode of production, what is central is the way that the engagement of the group of people with the current aspect of the process (players and DM alike) develops the system along the dialectical path. This engagement is also known as "people actually playing the game."

The way in which play is analogous to labor, in the case of D&D, is very straightforward; the people playing use the means of production, rented out to them at a price, as a way of creating a product, for which they are compensated. That the product is identical with the compensation is simply a way of saying that this particular form of labor is not alienated; the utopian implications here are both obvious and probably useless in an actual critique of capital.

That this labor isn't alienated does not mean it is morally good; the production of social relations that games like D&D encode are often destructive and violent. This has reasons that are structural both on the game's terms and in terms of the society in which the game exists; there are also innumerable individual, non-structural reasons. None of this is of particular concern to this analysis.

What is important is to identify, broadly speaking, the actions that take place around the table, or in prep activities, which themselves are acts of labor, in order to better understand experiential play given this analysis. This begins before the rules, even, in genre itself.

This first type of work is a sort of topological knowledge; this is essentially the difference between a skilled and an unskilled laborer/player. What is important is not a knowledge of genre goals or conventions as such, but a familiarity with what is actually essential about genre: that it exists as a way to reproduce its own conditions. This knowledge is rarely articulated, of course, and especially rarely in ways that aren't the repetition of established tropes, but the topological knowledge of the genre – for D&D, this is doubly "fantasy" and "roleplaying game" – is the driving force behind the player's ability to work efficiently with its systems toward productive ends.

Knowledge of particular tropes from a specific genre can actually impede play; in the case of D&D, this most clearly takes the form of a particular character opting for the role of the fantasy hero and attempting to mold the game accordingly. But the same situation isn't always destructive; if the player recognizes that this trope isn't necessarily an end in itself, but simply a way of actualizing the Fantasy genre and perpetuating it, and plays it accordingly, the Hero archetype can be a productive member of the group.

The second type is another form of knowledge, which is particularized in the DM, as familiarity with the system. Part III of this essay deals with the ways in which this apparently structurally resembles not labor, but capital, and why that structural resemblance is not the case in practice.

The third type is establishing the initial abstraction. This overlaps the second type, but is typified in the game's "prep" work. In reality, this is a type of prestidigitation; the DM (generally speaking) performs work outside of the physical context of the game ostensibly in order to, as wisdom has it, facilitate her ability to tell a story. Really what the DM does is to establish the pretense of having labored (which often leads to actually performing the expected labor). This is a way of establishing the abstract authority held by the DM in a concrete way; the player's "know" that the DM has "put in work" ahead of time, and so, striving to honor that, will then put work in themselves. The players, as the negation, will necessarily void this work; the DM then pretends that this negation never happened.

The fourth type is establishing the negation. This is also called character creation. Generally this is the first moment that play takes place. However, it doesn't simply cease after the character sheet has been filled out; any time during play that the player makes a decision as or for their character (whether it is altering the character's motivations based on newly discovered facts within the fiction, or standing up after having been knocked prone during battle), this particular form of labor is being done. So while the archetype of this might be character creation, it could equally be called roleplay itself.

The fifth type of labor is the negation of the negation. This is the product of the game, its social relations, as exemplified by metagaming.

Establishing that these five actions are types of labor, and how they are exemplified, is crucial to understanding the dynamics of the actual dialectical movement of the game. If we persist under the idea that the work of playing a roleplaying game is parasitical upon the play, we fundamentally mischaracterize the game itself.


V. Workers at Play


Labor under capitalism is an abstraction; the quantity which translates time into money. The worker sells her labor time to the capitalist, and the capitalist invests according to perceived productive capacity. The capitalist mode of production structures social relations according to relations of production; to live socially is to bring your productive capacity to bear on time.

But play is not profit, no matter what good intentions child psychologists have when they metaphorize. It is, of course, one of the premiere components of reproductive labor, which itself is at least as crucial to the functioning of capital in both the short and long term as its more identifiable counterpart; and is, itself, irresistibly drawn back into the flow of capital, in the form of either new or (in the case of play) rejuvenated bodies. To argue for play alone, then, is to argue for reproduction of capitalist systems, whether that argument takes the form of play-as-escape or play-as-enriching-experience.

The worker at play is a clause that doubles itself; it can be read either as the Worker, who is at play; or as the one who works at playing. In the former case, the category of worker is figured as a stable identity. This could be diachronically speaking, but is more probably synchronic, using a discrete temporal frame to nominalize an action into an identity, and referring then to an action taken while inhabiting this identity. In the latter, the play is the subject, the fixed thing, and the 'worker at' is a description of the kind of action being taken upon it.

For capitalism to function as a mode of production, the former interpretation is a, if not the, crucial component of short-term, day to day reproductive labor. The worker works, primarily, but not exhaustively; because the worker, no matter that labor is an abstraction, refers always to a body, and the body's productive capacity (at least in terms of generating products as well as surplus value) is limited. The worker must also sleep, and shit; and increasingly, as the mode progresses, play.

It is the latter interpretation which fits the dialectical mode of play exemplified by games like Dungeons & Dragons, however, and this interpretation, while not necessarily disruptive of capital nor unsubsumable by it, nevertheless does not reproduce it, at least not in the same way. It reproduces the mode of production's social relations only, and imperfectly.

While "to work at playing" could very easily be appropriated as a propagandistic term for, say, the environmental blurring of a workplace like Google or a videogame studio, it is always only ever a figure of speech, or an elision. To invest the form of labor into the act of play is to reproduce labor, of course, both in the act of bodily rehabilitation and as an abstraction; but it also refuses commoditization, and the logic of surplus value.

As ideological reproduction, there is a crucial gap in the form and the action. Baker's notion of Reward System is useful in illustrating how it is the work of the designer, above all else, to obscure or bridge this gap, providing (as he says) the basis of an answer to the question of how play functions as its own reward by recourse to the highest possible repeated system that (to return to my own language) justifies the reproduction of the abstraction of labor in the context of a leisure activity.


VI. Conclusion


All of which returns us to the necessary basic assumption: that the DM is not the storyteller, but the reader. Whether from the perspective of the reproduction of labor or from the development of a campaign, this assumption, along with an analysis of the mode of production, leads to a way of approaching and enacting D&D that is broadly overlooked.

When the play-structure of D&D is altered, while preserving the structure of production (facilitators working from purchasable rulebooks), any theorization that does not account for this assumption begins to exhibit deformations between the theory and the praxis. This is why a game like The Quiet Year -- for all its positives (there are a lot of positives and you should absolutely play it) -- has a sense of stasis to it beyond the movement of the mechanics. The stunted dialectic persists as an absence.

If this analysis is "for" anyone then, and this separates me wildly from the Forge theorists/designers discussed, then it is for the player, rather than the designer. Instead of attempting to offer a better model by which to design and sell these games, in other words, I would like for this to, if it is to be applied to any aspect of the process of these games, be available to those who play them intentionally. Against the critic as pet and quality assurance; but simultaneously against the player as needing to be pandered to.

Above all, an assertion that if Edwards' contention that System Does Matter holds any weight, which I believe it does, then the corollary contention, that Structure Does Matter, must no longer be ignored.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 in Shit: Wrap-Up

Twenty three thousand words over twenty three total posts. Largely unread, but goals were met. Here's the rundown.

Fox Drum Bebop by Gene Oishi
[Fox Drum Bebop] is necessarily a political novel, of course. But there aren't, to my knowledge, many discussions of things like the radicalization of young, interned Japanese Americans.
The Midnight After by Fruit Chan
Fuck this movie.
Boss Fight Books Season One
Baumann's Earthbound was a perfect book; it set my expectations low, and the editors from then on did their best to never jostle them too strongly.
American Hustle
What a bad, bad movie.
Crows : Explode by Toshiyaki Toyoda
The first day is now host to a ritualized "first fight" type thing, a bit of an open call for the student closest to taking over the top to tangle with whoever (although it very much seems like a number one contender sort of deal). As the movie goes on, this is hinted at more broadly; there are official rankings maintained by what must be some sort of third party group, that sort of thing. Basically, in the month since Takiya vacated the throne, a sort of Vegas atmosphere has developed, or a boxing/MMA contendership structure, or something
For No Good Reason
For No Good Reason is a documentary about Ralph Steadman, who you better know as the illustrator affiliated with Hunter S. Thompson, or else this movie doesn't give a shit about you. Which, really, is fine, because it's an awful movie that you shouldn't give a shit about.
Birdman by Alexander González Iñárritu
Reading Birdman as a film that is not just an attempt at a technical feat of filmmaking as such, but one which is meant to evoke the experience of the theater which it portrays, would seem to only underscore its position on the thematic argument. But by embedding that argument in the structure of the film, the question of genre (Hollywood vs Broadway, again, which is a slightly different use of the term than I usually prefer but which I think is nevertheless apt) is less something declaimed upon and more constitutive. And I do like thinking about genre, especially as a constitutive factor.
Joe by David Gordon Green
Cage plays an alcoholic struggling with anger issues who becomes a sort of surrogate dad for Sheridan, whose real father, played (often incredibly) by Gary Poulter, is a drifter and a drunk. There's a scene where Poulter murders another homeless man for a bottle of liquor, but that's one of the only moments where Joe becomes the sort of movie that you might expect it would be.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya by Isao Takahata
[M]ore than anything else Princess Kaguya had to teach me how to watch it move. ... [I]t does this beautifully, letting the early scenes linger, giving the viewer ample time to learn to see the hinges and then to see past them well enough to forget they are there.
Hercules by Brett Ratner
Also I think The Rock back body dropped a horse? It might've been a belly to belly suplex. Good stuff. The whole movie wasn't The Rock fighting animals though. I promise.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami
(I hate writing about Murakami. Everything I've read about him has been garbage. Everything I write feels the same. I wish I could do some justice to his work. I cannot.)
Short Peace
Drone stuff maybe. I dunno. The whole anthology was kind of a let down.
I, Frankenstein
I feel like there's a genealogy to this movie that exists just outside of my knowledge and taste, and that using it would be the only way I could get a foothold into the movie. I suspect it is something like the Blade films and Blade Runner. Except that I've never seen the former and don't give the remotest shit about the latter. But maybe someone could use that.
Under the Skin
It's a particularly dull kind of criticism that sees its tools translated into its object and uses that translation as a means to valorize that object, though. Which is to say: I don't really care much for movies that do what I like claiming movies do.
Why Don't You Play in Hell? by Sion Sono
I kinda just want people to watch it. So maybe do! I think it's neat.
Non-Stop
[T]here's kind of this weird thread of action films in the last few years whose whole premise is that the villains are right wing extremists.
Maleficent
Maleficent's central argument is that everyone in the Disney Animated (Princess) Universe relies on a very rigid set of narrative tropes in order to justify to themselves why they have ended up where they have.
Godzilla
The point is: Godzilla kind of suckered me.
Noah by Darren Aronofsky
I wrote about Noah and authorship and money and pedagogy back in May, and I don't have much of anything to add to that post.
The Babadook
I just like reading a lot I guess. It's neat and I think about it a lot and do it even more and I would like more things to think about it and work on that. Especially things like weird breakout horror films, which is a genre that is basically entirely predicated on cultivating and exploiting intelligent reading practices. It's a good movie though, you'll probably dig it.
Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-Ho
I suppose, had I had a different experience -- like, say, expecting Snowpiercer to be some brilliant Marxist polemic, rather than a film from a director I respected and was excited to see getting to work in a new environment -- I might have also been somewhat disappointed in it.
The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki
I had dreams of writing a big defense of The Wind Rises.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Shit: The Wind Rises

I had dreams of writing a big defense of The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki's maybe-it's-real-this-time retirement film about the designer of the Zero fighter aircraft that Imperial Japan employed extensively throughout the Pacific War. I thought I would have the time to dedicate and the energy to follow through in a way that didn't end up coming off as an apology for Japanese imperialism. I don't have either. I'll try, to a certain extent, but the best takeaway I can give is this: The Wind Rises is one of Miyazaki's most gorgeous films, and is significantly more complicated and ambivalent than even its greatest defenders have given it credit for.

Here's the thing: it isn't untrue that The Wind Rises is ultimately difficult to disentangle from mainstream right wing rhetoric and political action in contemporary Japan. There is a reason that Miyazaki had to write an Op Ed decrying the prime minister (and many others) plans to revise Article 9, the piece of the Japanese Constitution that forbids the country from having a standing military. There's nothing directly in the movie that condemns the consequences of the actions of its hero. There is, in fact, a number of arguments made that are clearly attempts to dissociate those consequences from the story being told. Which, at least as long as we're here, I don't think is entirely unfair, given how many of the condemnations of the valorization of Jiro Horikoshi seem like they border on the sort of tactical ahistoricity that they are accusing the film of*. Horikoshi's actions contributed to many horrific things, but saying that the movie is bad because of that is ignoring the conditions that lead to the rise of Japanese Imperialism and allowed for his work in the first place. Which is all to say, I suppose, in a roundabout way: what has been completely absent from the various discourses around The Wind Rises is that Horikoshi couldn't have done what he did without the material conditions permitting it, and those material conditions were ascendant imperialism and military dominance in a then-recently industrialized nation that was undergoing all the social upheaval that goes with those things, and that this all happened at a historical moment coinciding with the rapid development of the technology of airflight. So Miyazaki's "he didn't really mean to/he was a genius used for evil" tack is bullshit because a "genius" for aircraft design is only recognized when the conditions are there for it to be used (and created).

The point, though, is that talking about the designer of these planes should allow us to talk about the conditions under which he designed them, whether or not the dialogue in the movie is amenable to that conversation. Perhaps especially if not. The Western conversation around Japanese Imperialism in the 20th century is still so nasty and useless; so much of it reads like a "but yes look over here," an implicit denial of white supremacy, yet another way to frame the nation as Weird Japan without doing so quite so explicitly. Any discussion of Japanese Imperialism without a discussion of the resistance to it is fetishizing.

And yeah, I think that means The Wind Rises is a fetishizing movie as well. The other evidence for that: the real big narrative about it was that Miyazaki was retiring after this one. It's hard to tell whether that's stuck, but there is a lot about the movie that makes it feel like it is meant to be a retirement film. Not the least of that is how much the narrative of Horikoshi is transformed into a "noble artist working in a compromised medium, but still forging ahead." It's hard not to see the parallel to the man who still insists on the hand drawn animation technique that has been dead or dying for decades in the industry which he leads. So much of the film is an elegy for artistry, and, as gross as that sounds, it can be incredibly touching. There are moments where it feels like Miyazaki knew he had to pull out all the stops, and others where it seems like he just always wanted an excuse to animate a particular thing, so he shoehorned it in to be able to. The meet-cute during an earthquake certainly reads this way to me, and it is easily one of the most effective moments of the film.

But then, that's also how I read the film's end, with the Zero planes ascending into the heavens. Others have taken this as evidence that Miyazaki is intentionally turning a blind eye to the real effects of imperialism, seeing it as a valedictory ascendance, a happy ending for the man who designed the deaths and enslavement of many. Maybe I simply remember it wrong, but I have trouble seeing that argument at all. From my memory, it was bittersweet at best; the final refusal of Horikoshi to come to grips with what he had had a hand in. It was a moment of the artist, final giving up the fight, cedes the meaning of his creation to history, knowing -- no matter how strongly he will deny it -- that the verdict will not be in his favor.

Which is what I mean, also, by saying that The Wind Rises is fetishizing. It is a catalogue of absences, a contorting of what's there into an object that can only ever represent what isn't. And it is beautiful, in a way that means something. Someday I will find the words to say what.




*I'm not including any criticism of the film from South Korea, for obvious reasons.