Sunday, February 7, 2016

Valentine's Compilation on Fuck the Polis

Here's the proposition: I want to do a comp for Valentine's Day. Send me a song -- theme of Pop -- by, say, midday on the 14th to be included. Email's uninterpretative at gmail, or you could sendspace or mega it or anything, really.

Here's the history: I spent four years using valentine's day as a way to engage in narcissism and de(con)struction, productivity and process, and it was very important to me. I think I made the right choice ending it when I did. But it's still pretty important to me in a lot of ways, and I haven't really had a way to express or engage that for a while now. This year will be the same amount of years off that I was on that, and I think that's a useful milestone.

I also have a netlabel I do basically nothing with, and I'd like to change that, at least a little. And I have a bunch of cool friends that do cool shit, and maybe I can help inspire that a little? If you want to see what I did, visit the link and look for Celebrity-Mapping: Valentine's Are Over, or go to last dot fm slash music slash Uninterpretative:+no! and check out the four Valentine's Day EPs. I'm not really suggesting you do that, though.

Here's the fuller version: I'm saying theme of Pop because that was my theme -- or more, really, my materials -- throughout. It's loose as you want it to be; you could make some 4/4 I-IV-V-I or some plunderphonics or noise or punk or spoken word or anything. I'm not likely to be super picky. You could talk about the music or you could talk about balloons or regional naming conventions or whatever, if you want to talk at all.

I'm not really expecting this to happen, but hey, it's in one week, so that's a nice little time frame. And also just: thanks! I appreciate it if you even think about it a little. It could be fun.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Distrusting Undertale

To cut the Gordian Knot immediately, my feelings are that Undertale's much-discussed combat mechanic – what folks refer to as the "bullet hell" or "shmup" or "WarioWare" segments, in which you dodge attacks in a 2D space – is good design, poorly executed. The hitbox on your SOUL (the little floating heart) feels, if not terrible, then at least bad. The requirements that are placed on its visual design by the work being done by the game's aesthetic means that it has a hard upper limit on the possibility of difficulty, past which the combination of dexterity and pattern recognition feels like pointless apophenia. The most relevant, though, in terms including what follows, what makes it good, and what makes it poor, is how – even as someone who very much enjoys (being completely terrible at) shmups – it remained completely unengaging throughout my entire time with the game.

The good design element of this seems potentially obvious; the degree to which Undertale incentivizes a 'pacifist' run is hard to overstate, but is also almost entirely done through things like dialogue and information written directly to the player's computer. The incentives for the "no mercy" run are more oblique; it relies on knowledge and expectations built of genre, intuitive mechanical prompts, and a desire to, in Michael Lutz' words, "investigate[] the metaphysics of it all." One might go so far as to argue that Undertale is a direct dramatization of Ludonarrative Dissonance (LND); pressing buttons and strategizing on how better to press those buttons suggests one route, while the words read suggest the opposite. But rather than resulting in a potential incoherence, both of these suggestions are folded into the broader text as complimentary aspects. The longer I sit with Undertale, however, the more I find this kind of reading to be suspect.

* * * * *

I would consider the Michael Lutz essay quoted above, "20 paragraphs on Undertale: a critique," nearly as much of a source text as Undertale itself for this post. His post makes a strong argument; I will quote his 5th paragraph here in full, because I think it is the best encapsulation of the thrust of the argument:
Undertale has three well written stories, but i don’t think these stories hang together. the criticism (for me at least) arises out of an attempt to consider the project as a whole: games are structured like arguments insofar as they make a series of propositions that you-as-player agree or disagree to with an eye to how these things will pay off in the future timeline of gameplay. the game (as a system) offers incentives or disincentives for various choices, and in so doing belies its own (ie, the creators’) commitment to one path over the other. the branching narratives of a game form their own sort of system that belies an argument. in the case of Undertale, the game itself embraces the notion of its various plotlines coexisting (or potentially coexisting) simultaneously as a kind of quantum phenomenon expressed through metafictional gimcrackery. yet in considering all of its possibilites as a whole, the game’s argument tends toward incoherence.
Some unpacking of this, before we get back to Undertale itself; Lutz' critique, in my reading, boils down to an intentional reading of the game as a coherent, more-or-less self-contained text, and the problems that reading it in that way poses for the apparent arguments that it makes at the player. He supports this, crucially, by reading the metafictional elements as binding in this way, which seems to me a very strong reading; the way that Undertale carries decisions across apparently-discrete plays, or refuses to allow the player to undo certain things, and then also reintroduces those refusals into the narrative makes that reading seem nearly inevitable.

Lutz also cites Jake Muncy's "Undertale's Not As Peaceful As It Pretends," which is largely concerned with the way that Undertale communicates its own arguments. For Muncy, the communication breakdown is largely mechanical; he asserts that he is the sort of player who "tr[ies] to play games the way they seem to want to be played," and that Undertale's mechanical obfuscations lead him to be able to understand the game's desire but be unable to act upon it. Muncy himself cites Aevee Bee's "The Tyranny of Choice," which, at least in my reading, is completely incongruous with Muncy's broader argument. I feel that I should say, before continuing, that I consider Muncy's article very good, regardless of this.

In "The Tyranny of Choice," Bee argues that systems as such are monological, no matter how much (or little) they produce or represent dialogue. In her words:
I believe systems are statements. Not always restrictive or exploitative of hateful, but always statements. Statements about what choices are allowed. Statements about the limits of freedom. Statements about what categories exist, and what it means to belong to them.
Bee intentionally conflates two uses of the word "systems" throughout the latter half of her article. Both refer to an abstraction that might be called rules: on one hand are the "systems" of videogames, which (I interpret as) a sort of fractal version of the jargon "mechanics," meaning either an individual action allowed to the player or a collection of the same (at any level), and on the other are the "systems" of social being, or the particular ways in which living in the world are organized according to the logics and requirements of the (to shift to my own interpretive frame, which I cannot claim she shares) mode of production. The conflation serves to allow Bee to explore a common quality to both: what might be called their capacity to enunciate, or, in her words, their status as statements.

Had Muncy's article continued with the analysis suggested by its opening line – "It was about an hour into Undertale when I lost my ability to trust it" – the use of Bee's "The Tyranny of Choice" would have made, to me at least, significantly more sense. If we assume that the "systems" Bee is discussing sit at the broadest level – an assumption made (perhaps too) easy by the conflation with societal systems – then the inability to trust Undertale should be a fundamental aspect of it as a statement, rather than a grievance to be aired. And this is a reading that I can see the merit of: Undertale is a game that does not trust its players, after all, that deems it necessary to regularly remind the player that it is skulking behind their back, and that constantly "subverts expectations," requiring the player to continually re-examine what they trust they know. This is largely viewed as a good thing, an argument for its freshness and importance and joy.

Undertale's lack of trust, or its untrustworthiness, is an aspect of its statement. This is why, or reflected in, how the bounding box in the battle defense sequence will occasionally mutate or bring new affordances. It is reflected in the ultimate ending, in the emergence of "chara" who Lutz calls the "real villain" and "radically evil" in a world where both of those things are constantly denied.

This is, I think, where I differ from Lutz' argument; his claim that "games are structured like arguments insofar as they make a series of propositions that you-as-player agree or disagree to with an eye to how these things will pay off in the future timeline of gameplay" is meant to underscore how he approaches "the project as a whole," but this seems to me to be an approach to the (to return to Bee's terminology) statement as a whole. That is, Bee sees the system itself as monological, but affords space for the act of play (and interpretation and so on) as dialogical. As I read it, Lutz, much like Muncy, takes issue with the system as dialogue. I tend more toward how I read Bee's essay: a game itself, for purposes of interpretation at least, can be polyvocal, but it can never be anything but a monologue. And I would go even further: as a monologue, a game cannot contradict itself, at least insofar as a contradiction is conceived of as an endpoint; it can only modulate itself in ways that reveal or obscure its character.

* * * * *

The argument that posits Undertale as an expression of LND – an argument that, I should be clear, I have not encountered (to the best of my knowledge) but that I was at one point inclined to make – brings up a host of issues, all of which I find it difficult to address. The main one, though, is linked to the question of trust; if Undertale is fundamentally claiming its own untrustworthiness, then what would LND even look like?

Clint Hocking originally formulated LND in terms of two contracts: the "ludic contract" and the "narrative contract," and used it to critique not just how Bioshock (could) read differently than it played, but how its ultimate twist glossed over that difference in a way he found insulting of the player's trust in the game. In his words:
[Bioshock] openly mocks us for having willingly suspended our disbelief in order to enjoy it.

The feeling is reminiscent of the Ikea commercial where we are mocked for feeling sorry for the lamp. But instead of being tricked by a quirky 60 second ad, we are mocked after a 20 hour commitment for having sympathy for the limitations of a medium. The ‘twist’ in the plot is a dues ex machina built upon the very weaknesses of game stories that we – as players – agree to accept in order to have some sort of narrative framework to flavor our fiddling about with mechanics. To mock us for accepting the weaknesses of the medium not only insults the player, but it’s really kind of ‘out of bounds’ (except as comedy or as a meta element – of which it appears to be neither).
His parenthetical feels almost prescient; what could be dissonant in Undertale is charming, rather than 'out of bounds,' largely because it is metafictional and/or comedic. The language of contracts – and "willingly" and "tricked" and "agree" and "accept" – is revealing. Even LND, that headiest of jargon, a concept that I think primarily concerns craft rather than interpretation, is predicated on trust and dialogue.

To make, quickly, a Derridean aside: in positing a binary, LND as a concept is fundamentally concerned with unity. It makes no sense without the trace of holism, without the presupposition that not only is the text itself singular, but that each of its constituents elements are as well, and that they can be extricated and examined in their relation to the core unity. This is why I think of it in terms of craft: it is an aspect that can be workshopped, rather than one that speaks to the world, the reader, the mode of production, and so on. "Systems as statements," on the other hand, in explicitly excluding the possibility of reading a system itself as dialogical, seems to me to suggest the very possibility of that kind of speaking.

I find the LND reading of Undertale suspect because I agree with Lutz' reading of its metafiction, and because I find Muncy's problems with the game absolutely accurate. This is why I can claim the shmup segments of Undertale are well designed, while still refusing the argument that they are somehow morally righteous (or even engaged) or that they can be defended by claiming one need only 'get good.' They work because they are a breach of trust, because Undertale itself neither trusts you nor wishes to be trusted, no matter how much it wishes to convey its message of friendship. Were the game fundamentally a dramatization of LND, it would be not only a game described in terms of craft, trust would be a simple prerequisite, and nothing more.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Short on Games: November 2015

Crypt Worlds


In the tunnels that house Mart Donald's, a Detective Joe hides in the corner of a room. In the back is a computer that tells you that you have no messages or friends. The front of the room has a few posters on the walls, a couch, a billiards table, and a jukebox.

The billiards table has ten balls – nine 8s, one cue – but there is no stick. The player can take a moment away from their quest to return the five Goddess Relics to the Goddess Moronia to click the cue ball and let physics take over. The couch is non-interactive, but the jukebox can be switched on and off. It only has one song; a noisy, industrial banger, on loop.

In the two years since I first played Crypt Worlds: Your Darkest Desire, Come True!, that billiards table, with the song on blast, came to symbolize the whole; it was my own internal metonymy. At the time, I was probably trying to break the billiards table, and enjoying the aggressive dimensionality of the sound from the jukebox. I've only ever played Crypt Worlds with headphones in, and any movement in space is reflected heavily in how the loop pans, and fades.

In playing Crypt Worlds, this room has two functions that I know; the computer that insults you is involved in the P.O.R.P. sidequest to obtain a cyborg body, and the Detective Joe can be pissed on daily to receive six gold bars. Gold is important as one of five ordinary collectibles, alongside Seeds, Meat, Crumbs and Bones. There are also Gold Bugs and Tears of God, Goddess Relics and Piss and, in a weird way, Days.

* * * * *

Crypt Worlds is a game in which the player opts either to save the world, plunge it into chaos, or shirk your responsibility entirely. As a being awoken by the Goddess Moronia to stop the evil Dendygar from destroying the Crypt Planes, your allegiance is clear. The threat of the Chaos God, whose tears are spread across cities accessible only by having archeologists unearth ruins below your house, is less obvious.

To collect the Goddess Relics, and so receive the "Good End" in which Dendygar is defeated, the player mostly has to learn the rhythms of the world in order to maximize their income ahead of the correct days. There is also some light platforming involved. Summoning the Chaos God requires slightly more platforming; letting Dendygar win requires nothing but sleeping and occasional self care.

The draw of Crypt Worlds is its aesthetic. Textures stretched over blocky geometry, heavy use of "billboarded" 2D sprites, and a conservative use of particle effects makes the game recall the Playstation era visually, in a way that turns what was once a testament to money spent into a conscious choice. The other draw is that of the verbs included ('move' with WASD, 'jump' with space, 'interact' with left click, and 'choose,' situationally, with 1-5) a full fifth of those available (by way of using the right click) is dedicated to piss.

Pissing in Crypt Worlds is somewhere between an alternative interact and a resource. Like the various currencies it is something that must be accumulated and spent; like the more ordinary interact button, it largely serves to progress through space and provide new dialogue. The way that Crypt Worlds splits that difference is really fascinating: it makes pissing, as both resource and interaction, a catalyst for physics.

* * * * *

In my most recent playthrough, I finally succeeded in breaking the billiards table. The cue ball clipped through the edges and found its way off the table and all around the tunnels into the Mart Donald's dining area.

My best guess is that the ball itself has its gravity box unchecked, because no matter where the floor was in relation to it the ball floated along at the same height. It got stuck behind the jukebox first, and I kept accidentally flipping off the loop and flipping it back on. When I finally bounced it out, it was weird to have that ball and not the tune. I had thought, before, that the billiards was what drew me in; the game itself, and its aesthetic especially, rely on an understanding of stasis. Sure, you can piss on the 3D-modeled characters to move them or knock them over, but that movement is half the comedy itself. People and things in worlds like this don't move; that is how you learn them, and how you then establish a routine of accumulation around them.

Clicking the ball and having it move was a tacit admission of this stasis. The only way to introduce dynamism is to clothe it in the garb of another genre, a dynamic game within a static game. I think that's still right, to some extent; but it is only partial. Watching the cue ball, with its cartoon-style thick black outline, float over the heads of the Mart Donald's consumers was a reminder of the tenuous connection between game objects and game spaces, and the labor that is strengthening that connection. Absent those bursts of static that stood in for percussion, though, it felt like an empty epiphany.

* * * * *

Crypt Worlds continues to succeed, for me, precisely in how it lives in those tenuous connection, in representation. The game's aesthetic allow it to move through nostalgia and comedy, to arrive at a juxtaposition of labor and alienation. In its currencies and its dialogue, in its topos and its verbs, in its assets and its soundtrack, Crypt Worlds returns constantly to work, both representatively and mechanically, and to alienation.

This is the other half of the comedy about making things move in a static world; it is the forceful assimilation of the abject into the space of abstraction. Pissing particles on polygons that consume, and on sprites that labor.

And to get to do that while an industrial riff ping pongs around your head; well, that's a lot of fun.

Monday, November 2, 2015

On the 40th Anniversary of Pasolini's Death

Today is the 40th anniversary of the death of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a director whose work – in particular, his film Teorema -- has meant a lot to me as both as a person who learned to watch films intentionally largely on my own, and as a person whose political thinking required a heavy amount of mediation in the form of arts prior to engaging in any form of action.

I came to Pasolini through Teorema, which I heard of from a friend in relation to Takashi Miike, who remade the film (in a way, at least) as his own Visitor Q. I barely remember my own reaction to Q, in all the subsequent years of talking about it as a "shocking" film. Miike is, perhaps, for another day.

Pasolini seems, at least in what I see talked about, best remembered for his Salò, an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom which set it in the dying moments of fascist Italy. Pasolini may have been the only director in history who could adapt de Sade's novel in a way that would be remotely interesting. I remember it being only that, though, the one time I managed to see it.

Pasolini's other work – his Gospel According to St. Matthew, and Oedipus Rex, perhaps most of all – have stuck with me in moments, and in images and in particular textures of ambiguity and emptiness. It is his Teorema, though, that holds sway over my imagination, that continues to teach me how to see films and how to live in the world.

Teorema is a film about small, wide open spaces; a bourgeois mansion, a church garden, a factory floor. It is slow, but everyone runs everywhere, though they haven't very far to go. It begins with its ending, and nearly ends with the same; images of class struggle and revolutionary overthrow without the agents of history, being recuperated by the media. Teorema is a religious film, unafraid of abstractions, that cuts to the desert to stand in for sex and sets its bourgeois father there in climax, where the penitent servant performs miracles, and the son holds forth on theories of art that instrumentalize his own incompetence.

It is also a film that refuses that other kind of abstraction, that would remove it from the struggle of factory floors, even as it demands its own ambivalence to that struggle in its particularity.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Short on Games: October 2015

A slight departure; this month's Short on Games will focus briefly on a number of games that I played at, or found through, Indiecade and QGCon Local.

Tribal & Error


Tribal & Error is a game about language built to be playable regardless of the language(s) the player knows. The player controls a little tape player sent back in time to the ice age, to help 'cavemen' survive. The player discovers that there is a sort of language among them, and uses it to aid the humans in their troubles. The demo was short – you can also find it here – but interesting. The core mechanical conceit is a rich way of combining accessibility with expression, which is worthy of praise. The narrative conceit rubs up against a pet peeve of mine: the "cavemen with capitalist familial organization" trope, though that isn't necessarily the story. I'd be pretty hype if it didn't devolve into that.


Uni is a Twine game about a nonbinary unicorn lady's first day at college. Probably the most interesting things about it for me personally are fairly tied together. I want to describe Uni's tone as "mixed," but that isn't quite right. It finds some amount of balance between the 'personal' tone that a lot of Twine employs, and a more oppositional tone that a lot of other Twine employs. I liked that mixture, even though the two rarely appeared immediately juxtaposed. The only possible exception is when the player attempts to apologize. The other aspect is slightly more (videogame) formal. Uni looks very much like it was built in Twine 2.0, and it does a thing that I don't remember seeing much in Twine games: it assumes the use of the built in back buttons. There are certain paths that branch to an end and yet are still written like they mean for the player to continue onwards. I found this incredibly baffling at first, and not in a bad way. That oppositional tone mixes with the game's design choice to use the UI in a neat way, I think, especially since so much of the tone (this is a shitty word; I am using it in a literary criticism sense) is directed at the player for things like invading the privacy of the character.


Engare is a line-drawing puzzle game by Mahdi Bahrami. It has something of an oleomingus aesthetic and the interactions reminded me, at least somewhat, of the work of Talha Kaya. I was really bad at it, but it was pretty and seemed neat.
Gathering Sky


Gathering Sky is a painterly birdflocking sim. I have no idea if it does anything other than drops you into a painting as a bird and asks you to figure out how to move and gather birds; if it does, that's a shame. As you fly around, lines will appear that will guide you. Touching or getting near other birds will have them join you. Sometimes other little lines will appear that you can touch and eventually they pop and maybe ding against a crystal and that's nice. Sometimes you fly through big cloud banks.
Blush or Burn


Blush or Burn is a Visual Novel where you competitively flirt with another player on the same keyboard. I played it alone, so I was mostly trying to figure out if it was just rock paper scissors with the three options each player had or something less straightforward. I really failed to determine whether it was because it was cute and I was too distracted.
60 Seconds!


60 Seconds! is a timed 3D dash-and-grab and survival Visual Novel. The dash-and-grab is neat since you are looting your own home. It kind of controls like a PSX Rugrats videogame. That's not a bad thing, I think. The survival game that it leads into seems to be the bulk of the game, and involves resource management based on the things got during the dash-and-grab. There's wandering around and little cute storytelling bits there. That part seemed okay.


Abzû lets you be in a school of fish and ride a manta ray. I've been playing Aquanaut's Holiday a lot lately so I got kind of excited about this. Aquanaut's Holiday is more my speed, but Abzû seemed neat too. The game is gorgeous, and it controls in a way that might be called swimmy. Moving around in the world is neat. I played it passing off the controller with someone who wasn't super familiar with the Dualshock controller, and she was clearly struggling, but not in a necessarily negative way. The big concern I have about Abzû after the demo is, presumably, going to be its selling point. The game seems like it is going to be the sort of thing that is advertised according to its Emotional Narrative and Emergent Gameplay. If they don't do that – if they allow it to exist on the strength of its awkwardness and beauty – I still won't play it because I don't have a Playstation 4, but I'd be much more disappointed in missing it.
Seven Day Band


Seven Day Band is a 7 Day Roguelike in the style of Angband. The gimmick is that you develop the game as you play it. As you wander around the ASCII world and discover things, they can be changed; you name the enemy initially, and determine how strong they are and so on. The person manning the booth – who I'm fairly certain was the developer – explained to me that his motivation was his assumption that when most people say they want to make a game, what they mean is that they want to change the content on an existing structure. Then I played it and he spent the whole time arguing about evolution and voluntary human extinction with some randos? That was weird. The idea behind the game is incredibly neat though, although I don't know how much I dug the implementation, no matter how much Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup I've been playing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

24 Theses on The Beginner's Guide

A suggestion: aside from the obvious way of reading, these theses may be read as three separate essays. The top of each section as one, the middle as another, and the bottom as the third (so, e.g., thesis seven follows from thesis four follows from thesis one; nine follows from six follows from three). This is not mimetic.

  1. Everything worth attending to in The Beginner's Guide is handled better in Problem Attic.

  2. Complicity is a hollow eggshell. A thin protective layer around a pocket of air.

  3. My Let's Play.

  4. * * * * *

  5. Cara Ellison names Return of the Sunfish and How Do You Do It? and Twine and Kojima; Brendan Keogh names Papers, Please and This War of Mine and Alien Isolation; Kris Ligman names Braid; Jed Pressgrove names Off-Peak; Emily Short names The Magic Circle and Anna Anthropy and Stephen Lavelle (Increpare) and Michael Brough and Pippin Barr and Robert Yang and Porpentine and Tale of Tales; Austin Walker names Counter-Strike and Mario Maker; Carolyn Michelle names Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Inquisition; Tyler Wilde names Her Story; Hayden Dingman names Ken Levine and Sid Meier and Tim Schafer and Cliff Bleszinski; Bob Mackey names Sunset and Undertale; Christopher Byrd names The Old City: Leviathan; Cameron Kunzelman names Kitty Horrorshow and Brendon Chung; Jeffrey Matulef names Journey and Rez and El-Shaddai. In no sense is this exhaustive.

  6. The pocket of air the eggshell protects is the flimsy, worthless theorization that bubbles up words like "immersion" and "interactivity."

  7. I call (3) a critical Let's Play because I made it in conversation with criticism surrounding The Beginner's Guide, and because it owes its existence to the work being done in the field by folks like Lana Polansky, Heather Alexandra, Liz Ryerson, and Zolani Stewart. The main difference being that the bulk of critical Let's Play work is done by adding the creator's voice to provide context and interpretation, whereas my own is an attempt of removing a voice or two to provide the same.

  8. * * * * *

  9. The most obvious connection between Problem Attic and The Beginner's Guide is that the former is "a game about prisons, both real and imaginary" (the creator's description) while The Beginner's Guide is a game about a designer who makes games about prisons (at least some of the time) that are aggressively interpreted at the player as both real and imaginary.

  10. I am using "complicity" in this context as an affect, a reaction to primarily narrative elements that is written onto the body. That the narrative elements are primary does not mean they are foundational, however; the fundamental experience of complicity in this sense is tied to an understanding of the medium of videogames as one that privileges interactivity.

  11. The initial point is, ultimately, so obvious as to be dubiously useful. The first video begins with my own navigation of the start menu. I set up the gamepad that I will use for the bulk of the play; I then go into the Audio submenu, and use the given option to turn off the Narration. This element, which is absolutely central to every single interpretation of the game so far, also happens to be an optional element.

  12. * * * * *

  13. Kris Ligman's reading of The Beginner's Guide's similarities to Braid evokes Ryerson's postmortem of Problem Attic, "The Other Side of Braid." Ryerson writes (in the third person): "If Braid was from the perspective of a white man with a lot of power and resources, her game, Problem Attic, was supposed to be from the perspective of a protagonist with no power, with very little ability to escape or make sense of their situation."

  14. The privileging of interactivity is productive of affects other than complicity, of course. Frustration, triumph and boredom stand at the center. Reflection and disassociation. Complicity is unique only insofar as it is the affect that is just as tied to formal properties, but requires that it be narrativized to be explicitly enacted.

  15. Playing The Beginner's Guide without narration brings about few surprises. The curation frame is more limited, but still obviously present in the intertitle cards/loading screens; any time the narrator would offer to do something, it no longer happens, but other 'changes' remain intact. You must crawl up the stairs and wait in the prison, but the lampposts are still where they were and the housekeeping still ends when it did.

  16. * * * * *

  17. Criticism of The Beginner's Guide occasionally takes an aside to note that certain aspects of the game, and specifically its reception, benefit from material privileges in both broad and narrow social senses. This is not an aside.

  18. Interactivity is already a constellation of ideas and practices. Quoting Brendan Keogh quoting Espen Aarseth: "[Aarseth] notes that 'interactive' is a weasel word that 'connotes various vague ideas of computer screens, user freedom, and personalized media, while denoting nothing… To declare a system interactive is to endorse it with a magic power.'"

    In a more generous reading, interactivity is shorthand for these things, alongside manual dexterity and skill, granted and stolen powers of expression and obedience, a certain influence over the universal temporality of a text, and a(n ideological) real material influence that is mostly seen in cultural reflections like mod scenes. In short, complicity.

  19. The one real surprise, though, was that the narrator's ending of Whisper was excised entirely; the player does not experience the "death" animation in the beam; only the floating.

  20. * * * * *

  21. Problem Attic feels, at times, uncomfortably mimetic of precisely the privileging of interactivity. There is a constant sliding back towards a reading of the game that centers its ludothematic harmony; how its punishing mechanics are extensions of or reflections on its difficult themes. This isn't untrue of the game, but it also largely does not matter, except insofar as that argument might be a rhetorical tool to bring the game into conversations that require their interactive shibboleth for entry.

  22. Despite its synthetic qualities – what one might decide is its unique polyvocality, if one were being incredibly generous – interactivity is largely a useless rubric in thinking about, playing, or otherwise doing anything with videogames. It erases approaches to them as texts, per Keogh, and as situated within history equally.

  23. The implication of this lacking animation is fairly obvious: by turning the narrator off, the experience of playing The Beginner's Guide is significantly closer, if not totally identical, to the "original" games created.

  24. * * * * *

  25. Jed Pressgrove castigates The Beginner's Guide as being "a sob-story expansion of [Mattie] Brice's 'Death of the Player' essay," while a number of other critics reach for their Barthes. Strangely, none bring up Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation," which seems particularly appropriate. According to Sontag, "[t]he interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really - or, really means - A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?" The Beginner's Guide's narrator is a masterclass in this particular style. Didn't you know that prisons mean depression? That machines mean depression? That questions mean depression? The game's dramatic irony is that it is flipped onto his character, of course, in the end; the interpreter forgot to know thyself, and in doing so committed some reprehensible acts. The historical conditions that Sontag identified have finally been personified, in a nicely metatextual videogame.

  26. Interactivity distills all potential affect down to the feeling that an argument has been lost.

  27. Which itself does little more than to shuffle the narrative pieces. Perhaps Coda's accusation that the narrator kept inserting lampposts wasn't literal, but was in accordance with the reading the narrator had given of them to begin with. Coda, in other words, might not have been referring to the in-game objects, but to interpretation as such, per (19).

  28. * * * * *

  29. The impulse that drives (16) is interpretive. Which is to say: despite interactivity's erasures, it is no more against interpretation than the conspiracist. The validity of (1) rests not within metaphor, but execution.

  30. The Bioshocks and the Spec Ops' didn't suck out the yolk; they simply pointed to the shell.

  31. "The only way to win is to stop playing" is only because interactivity is feeling complicit.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Short on Games: September 2015

Mystery Tapes

The return of Strangethink is cause for celebration, for me at least; the style of game that first brought me wholly in to the (eventually-christened) #altgames scene was very much embodied in his own Abstract Ritual, along with others like Cicada Marionette's Crypt Worlds and Kitty Horrorshow's Dust City.

Strangethink's latest -- and his first game since he purged the rest from the internet -- is called Mystery Tapes, and it is a delightful procedural poetry generator. It opens into what appears at first to be an empty infinity, with the only objects three floating televisions surrounding a massive circular pile of VHS tapes. Just because there are no walls doesn't mean you can go anywhere, of course; you walk to the tapes, and read their titles, and stick them in the televisions, and that's about it.

Except that loading the VHS tapes into the TV's built-in VCR doesn't play them on the TV; it transforms the whole world around you. As Lana Polansky put it, that transformation is into a space with "Escher-like impossible architecture, luminously gradated pastel palettes and eldritch, moody thematic undertones." It wouldn't be good music journalism to say the game's score is similarly luminously gradated pastel, but it doesn't feel wrong.

What's most striking about Mystery Tapes, though, is the words. Each VHS tape has two or three words written on its spine, in what looks like procedural fashion. It isn't hard to immediately get apophenic about it; see what all three-word tapes do, given most are two and there are three televisions, aren't there? Or notice that one tape among the stack has Kimberly as one of its words; why the proper noun? Are there others? And speaking of which, why three televisions? You start off where the fourth would be, and while you can kick around tapes by walking through them, whose to say that you aren't the fourth television all along?

That apophenia leads to its own poetry. Once the impulse to parse through in purely positivist terms passes, you might find yourself leaning into literary technique. Maybe more beautiful worlds will be birthed out of alliteration? How will the entity within the orb react to a line of iambic trimeter? Which entity, of course, is the strange center.

Much the way that Abstract Ritual's spaces were awesome, but its mean spirited, procedurally generated prose anchored its character, Mystery Tapes is an estranged engagement with word formation. And it's the more beautiful for it.

Art Game

Pippin Barr has a strange aesthetic. His pixel art mostly looks like it was produced to be functional and that's it, but the character animations are often bursting with personality; his games themselves read at first blush like dashed off jokes with a mechanics wrapper. And very often, I think, they read that way after the fact, as well.

Art Game has the player(s) choose the artist(s) they which to play as, and create works for an exhibition in the MoMA. Pick one and you paint, pick the other and you sculpt, or pick the third make video art with a friend.

The painter plays Snake, the sculptor Tetris. Except that both games are stripped of points and progression; once the artist hits the game they are playing's fail state, the piece is complete. Title it and keep it, or discard it and try again. Once the player has a couple of pieces ready, they call the curator, and she comes by and (apparently randomly) decides whether the works are worthy of inclusion in the MoMA exhibition. After a certain amount of time, the exhibition starts, and the player can see people alternately praise and condemn their work, and the work of others, with airy, lofty words.

I've gone back and forth on the game's framing innumerable times since its release. What allows that, though, is significantly more interesting, even if it is also strikingly simple; that the production is the fail state.

Most of my thinking around videogames as creative tools revolves around their ability to function as processes of creation rather than objects. This is generally true of what I care about with dedicated tools as well, of course; I make bad music because I prefer the process of making the music to the process of constructing the finished piece (or rather that is one reason I am incapable of making good music, in addition to the fact that I have a shit ear and no grounding). Games specifically designed as creative tools, whether Electroplankton or Great Artist, hold less appeal to me than the possibility of making shit in, say, Castle Doctrine (it is bad for this, I gave up like immediately, a waste of money).

But an output is still required, and the implications of that being the fail state are interesting. Are they that interesting? I don't know.


Ritual is a cooperative painting tool by Lana Polansky, developer of the earlier featured Supermoons.

Ritual is played by two people, each with a half of a keyboard to themselves. Each controls one of three brushes at a time and can swap between them, and move them along a 2D space in front of one of two backgrounds. The brushes are little sprites that trail fixed colors and textures, though different movement patterns will produce different strokes.

The metaphor isn't perfect, of course; the brushes are more like physics objects, controlling a bit like a much-slowed space ship from Asteroid. You can't pick them up and place them where you want, but you can have them gain some momentum and then release the key. The trail will stop but the brush will continue; the next time you press, the line will be broken.

I like Ritual for almost the exact opposite reason that I like Art Game; it is the sort of thing I can enjoy playing around in without worrying about the end result. Per the name, I suppose, but also per the aesthetic. It is really lovely.