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.

Friday, September 18, 2015

In Praise of Evoland 2

Pastiche is ... the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language[,] ... a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter[,] ... blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs[.] ... This situation evidently determines what the architecture historians call 'historicism,' namely, the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusions, and in general ... the increasing primacy of the 'neo.' (Jameson, Postmodernism 17-8)
Evoland 2 is Final Fantasy with a circumscribed scope, a Zelda set in thriving cities, Earthbound without the pathos. It is Secret of Mana reduced to its ostensible innovation in action, arriving twenty two years too late.

And then, on top of that, it is River City Ransom where punching feels like shit, it is DonPachi with a massive hurtbox, it is Street Fighter II with loose controls, Guitar Hero on a gamepad, Gradius with one gun, Final Fantasy Tactics with incompetent enemies, Magic: The Gathering with no decks and boring cards. It is even briefly, which is to say for an unbearable eternity, a turn-based, match three Puzzle Fighter. And the list goes on. For twenty hours. And these are only the things it explicitly references.

As if to add insult to injury, Evoland 2 is also one other thing: absolutely crucial.

* * * * *
Games, an art form only about 30 years old, has no such canon of great works. Maybe that’s due to the youth of the medium. But let’s say we had such a list: Would we still have easy access to them all? Would they be archived in such a way that we could still play them, or might their platforms, their technology, have aged out of relevance, lost to the winds?
If contemporary games discourse has a trace (in the Derridean sense), then that present absence, the negation that gives it meaning, must be the archive. Not history or institutional knowledge, not curation or preservation or accessibility – though each of these things is, in its own, often deep way, a problem. Neither is it, though the cyclic discussions of games preservation tends to lean in this direction, the corpus. The collection and maintenance of all hitherto existing games, no less than the development of pedagogical norms and the determination of the great works, needs doing, and is not so much ignored as quietly militated against by the very institutions that these projects will all one day be tailored to benefit.

To crib a bit: "By [archive] I do not mean the sum of all the texts that a culture has kept upon its person as documents attesting to its own past, or as evidence of a continuing identity; nor do I mean the institutions, which, in a given society, make it possible to record and preserve those discourses that one wishes to remember and keep in circulation." That is, the archive which is the trace of the discourse isn't the Special Collection in the back of some library, but "that which determines that all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass, nor are they inscribed in an unbroken linearity, nor do they disappear at the mercy of chance external accidents[.] ... [The archive] is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements."*

The archive is, in other words, the condition of possibility of discourse. It is why these cyclic discussions, as of preservation, can happen. Jackson, quoted above, says also that "[g]ames critics seem to have the same arguments, the same discussions every five years or so," while quoting Ian Bogost lamenting the short collective memory of the field. Bogost seems to focus on the churn, while Jackson isolates an interest in history; both, however, take the field's existence, which is to say its ability to capture dispersed rhetoric into an object both coherent and fragmented, for granted.

* * * * *
The assumption implicit in what you're saying is that a work's formal structure isn't as relevant as what it accomplishes. This is a completely valid point of view, but not, I think, all that useful for sorting something into a genre. But I accept that many simply don't care about sorting that way.
The irony of Evoland 2 is that, for all the particular, important ways that its pastiche falls flat, it nails what is perhaps the most important aspect of the broadest genre it cannibalizes. Evoland 2 takes the single unifying affect that is most fundamental and most particular to the class of games that it plays upon and distils it. The result of this distillation is, unfortunately, 100% pure tedium.

Tedium can be, for games, an effective material. Chrono Trigger nearly announces that it is built upon it. Early in the game, prior to any real plot, the player wanders through a festival. One of the available diversions is a relatively easy battle with a singing robot. Fighting the robot gives Silver Points, which can be exchanged for cash, which can be used to buy a sword that is, for at least the next few hours of the game, pretty overpowered. Which is to say: in what is effectively the game's prologue, the player is highly incentivized to engage in what is essentially a mockery of the most mechanics-heavy aspect (the battle system) to the point of reducing it to rote memorization. It's tedious; and so, as a tutorial, incredibly effective. The player will spend the next tens of hours accumulating and exchanging, accumulating and exchanging. Because of that tedium, though, she will notice the particular contours of things that otherwise would not have worked. The particular ways the story shifts, the rapidly-normalized eruptions of whimsy, the subtle reframings of that cycle of accumulation and exchange in all aspects of the game, even the peculiar joy of enacting that cycle: none of these would mean anything without the backdrop.

Aeris' death doesn't matter unless you've been bored out of your skull – in a very specific way – first. The original Evoland's parody of this moment drove that home; for Final Fantasy to work, the mere existence of its identifiable signifiers is nowhere near enough. The game has to be sufficiently tedious and, crucially, requires that the tedium be the basis on which the impressive scope of the game is founded.

* * * * *
The only difference now is that the material grounding no longer leaves the possession of the corporations who sell the immaterial work, and when it is no longer financially profitable for them to maintain access the work, they will take it away again. It is curatorship by capitalism, preservation by profit, and it is turning the history of videogames into a scorched earth.
Claiming the archive as trace is a way of saying that games discourse, no matter how critical of the technological fetishism of the industry it might be, is trapped in a dead model of history. The "scorched earth" of video game history, which at this point is a little more like a pockmarked map, is at this point still as fundamentally a progressive history as any succession of console generations or scientific clarification.

The dispersion of statements – not even to mention the peculiarity of their enunciation, their status as events – and, more crucially, the means by which they are brought to bear upon each other, how these statements that are events are not just keys in a narrative but moments that transform others and themselves along certain lines of knowledge; this is the anxiety that underpins the ways in which games are discussed.

* * * * *

Evoland 2 is all tedium, no transformation. It is the sort of game that begins to surprise you because it can't possibly be so unsurprising at such a constant clip. You first wonder why it is that you are bothering seeking out some useless collectible; not long after that, you wonder why it is you are bothering with a story with even less weight than an item literally called a "Collectible Star." In the case that "you" is "me, the writer of this," then you circle back around; you 100% the game even though it takes the developer over a week to patch out a bug preventing the completion of the (awful) card game. You do this out of spite, but also because you grind the Lode Sword out of Gato. Because you have enough history with these games to know that tedious repetition is sometimes sufficient as synecdoche.

But the synecdoche needs the scope, needs the desolation or the pathos or the whimsy. Tedium is not a suitable grounding for the play of random stylistic allusions, at least not insofar as these themselves are meant to allow for play. The first (commercial) Evoland dug a hole and lay in it, petulantly refusing to do any more; Evoland 2 never stops digging.

All of which is a way of saying that, in the most infuriating possible way, Evoland 2 gets it right. And right, crucially, in a way that can't or won't be conveyed in the discourse, as long as it remains written. Evoland 2 is its own archive, an experience of the condition of possibility that, beyond genre or developer or publisher or mechanics, conditions the possibility of a diversity of statements – games – to become legible as a discourse. An experience that breeds only resentment.

* Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 128-30.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Short on Games: August 2015

Frail Shells

From Smiling's Frail Shells is a playable thesis statement. It's one that's strongly stated, and no less so for being relatively common. To say there's much subtlety involved would be to misunderstand what it is about the game that makes it worth playing.

The horizon of videogame thought is psychology. All major advancements in the form are encased in a theory of the brain. Artificial Intelligence and graphical fidelity are two sides of the same coin. We're the vending machine: insert coin, get back a corresponding degree of recognition of the brain-patterns with which you are familiar. Metagamers and min-maxers think like the machine because they are trying to meet it halfway; PC irony-fascists and console warriors do the same. Jack Thompson called them a cause, Zimmerman claims they're a century where "the lines will become increasingly blurred between game players and game designers." He also calls them beautiful and specifically references their aesthetics; luckily this is in the gutter of the manifesto, where sentiment and melodrama overpower motive. Ebert said that art was authored; every hack cried that what better authorship is there than that which makes your neurons fire fast in response?

A note; a theory of the brain is a choice. It is not a theory of the mind. Frail Shells supports two possible readings, which happen to split cleanly along the lines of the ludonarrative. In one, it is about the loquacity of games, what they allow you to say, in the other about post-traumatic stress, the effects of undergoing and enacting violence seeping in to the moments where it is no longer present. The ludo is linguistic, a representation of actions boiled to mechanics that develops its irony as a function of the intervening brain. The narrative is that it's an #altwargame.

It is in this context – which is to say the whole context of thinking about videogames as it exists – that the thesis statement exists. This is the context where a game that opens full Medal of Honor only to (medium) hard shift to domesticity and labor can function as a reasonable critique of the culture. It would be impossible to give a shit about the paucity of verbs in a shooting game were the concern the mind. In a culture where the concern is the brain, however, it is the only thing worth caring about.

After the Credits

There's no shortage of games that call out the lack of verbs in shooting games, of course. Acid Wizard Studio's After the Credits straight rips Contra sprites and sounds to make the same point; once the bros save the universe, what's next?

The joke is the juxtaposition, of course; Contra Bill moves right and shoots, so how would he deal at a desk job? This is the common narrative element between Frail Shells and After the Credits; the heroic warrior gets a desk job. A nonspecific one, to be sure, but with heavy implications of something along the lines of data entry, although perhaps more lucrative. Mindless and repetitive, only unable to be completed by shooting.

If the joke is the juxtaposition, though, the fantasy is the non-transferability. A utopian reading of the "action games lacking verbs" genre goes like this:

Power relies on violence, but is not reducible to it. Those who enact violence are not, often, those who have power, only those who serve it. Nevertheless.

Those who enact violence – especially over a long period of time, doubly so in a focused campaign – are, when push comes to shove, those who find themselves in a position to engage with other aspects of power. They, almost inevitably, network with capitalists. Especially, again, when they are on a campaign like Contra Bill was.

The utopian fantasy of these stories is that violence itself is, ultimately, laughable, especially in the "power fantasy" style. It's of no place because it only exists in a world without, say, PMCs. Contra Bill doesn't work a desk job; he's a "consultant." The flip side of that is, of course, the utopian idea that these men have jobs at all. Veteran houselessness might be political capital, but it's also real as shit.


There are deconstructions of other genre as well, of course. Shiro Games sort of subtitled their Evoland "A short story of adventure video games evolution," which is to say it's a pastiche of The Legend of Zelda games (up through Ocarina of Time) with a hearty amount of Final Fantasy VII mixed in, and one bit that riffs on Diablo. It started as a jam game, just like the other two here, but got expanded to a full thing; there's even a sequel now, as of a couple days ago.

The early joke of Evoland is the same as of After the Credits; the first thing you do is move right to touch a treasure chest that allows you the ability to move left, then in 2D, and so on. Your name defaults to Clink, and once you move from action RPG to turn based you get a partner named Kaeris. She gets killed by Zephyros.

The full version kind of sucks, as a game; it's overlong, and the actual jokes are things like getting a "Diamond Necklace of Shiny Bling" which has the flavor text "[y]ou just became the first Gangsta Fantasy Hero." The initial conceit wears out quickly, and the game never deigns to let up on it; the rhythms of the two canons it draws from can't be established when they're constantly being flipped between, so the exploration of a Zelda is missed just as much as the repetitious scope of a Final Fantasy. Even the collectibles – stars and cards for a Triple Triad clone – ultimately come up short.

It's that final word in the pseudo-subtitle, the one that lends the prefix to the title, that makes the game so interesting and infuriating. Evoland can't be a deconstruction, because it exists within the cultural context of games. Like a brain, it can only chronicle evolution.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Short on Games: July 2015

Grassfires of Veldstar

Porpentine's Grassfires of Veldstar (that's a direct download link) is an action puzzler, a series of suggestions of stealth with a rude timer, a crystal hunter masquerading as an avoidance simulation. It's really fun, in that immediate reset upon death, you're really just memorizing (intelligently constructed) arbitrary bullshit, goddamn this is cute kind of way.

I can expand on that bit that seems less than enthusiastic here: it's only arbitrary bullshit insofar as I consider all puzzles arbitrary bullshit. What Veldstar does is make each "life" last ten seconds; you start a level, the clock starts to count down. Your moves are entirely based on cues: the fire starts at the top of the level, so you run down. The bombers' shadows enter house left and move horizontally, so you do as well, vertical movement to avoid the shadows that become dropped bombs. The tiles themselves are relatively clear as to whether or not they are impassable, and if there is a lack of clarity you test them and die and reset and try something different.

This last is, in practice, what the game actually consists of; you see the fire above, you run down. A wall below, you try left, it's blocked you die, you start over, do the same but go right, the timer runs out just before the crystal, you don't run down quite as far this time, make it to the crystal, repeat. The gamey hook is those frustrations, but also how you are holding up right as time runs out and you let go but the inputs have a bit of lag so you respawn and immediately, unbidden, rush directly into the fire and die again and push through.

More complicated obstacles are introduced as well, hidden bombs and laser pylons, the latter of which provide a fantastic little set piece. Mostly it's just fun to die again and again and work through these microfrustrations. Also it's really cute.


I'm pretty garbage at all of Michael Brough's games, though none I've played more so than Helix. It's where you're an almost Osirian eye who circles other things which pops them, which gives you points. You don't want them to touch you. If they do you lose all your points and have to start over.

The catch, of course, being that this is an iOS game, is that to move you must trace little circles on your tablet or phone. As the game opens, it shows a finger in the bottom right corner and suggests that you touch anywhere to begin. Once you do, an indicator shows up, some arrow letting you know something is coming from offscreen right there. It does, you dodge it, and a little line appears. If you fill the line around, it pops. It's the kind of game that's perfectly great to while away with, but that also hints at it's own existence within an oeuvre.

Given that the game is legitimately gated by skill -- though I feel compelled similarly to say that the joy of it is immediately apparent -- I can make no particular claims as to how it progresses or where it might resolve. Helix does feel, however, very much as fascinated with abstraction and space as the other of Brough's games I've played (namely 868-Hack and Corrypt. All three use touch controls in abstracted ways; where the latter two are tile-based, however, the subject at hand is fluid. The circle motion seems, in certain ways, a natural progression of the "flick a direction wherever" input methodology of a game like Corrypt. If any part of the device can emulate a button or a joystick or a pointer, why not let it? And, more importantly, if the fundamental input method is going to be one of emulating, of recapitulating former control schemes, why not run with that in ways that incorporate the abstraction of the collapsing of the visual and tactile space?

Which is also why that visual space must be metonymized. The little arrow that signals the first enemy once your finger touches the screen is a suggestion. The black background with its patterns is unchanging, but it is also in (a) space, part of a larger whole. But then, too, the boss(es) problematize this even farther, materializing as static that fades in to the screen without movement. There is movement from the outside in, which also passes through, but there is also movement inside. Static movement, in a sense; the metaphoric incursion of another dimensional plane into the two in which this is played.

All of which gels, in a way, with, especially, Corrypt, which (seemingly) functions at least partially as the clef to his work. Without knowing much about how the game goes past the first boss, it's hard to say whether Helix is in a way "about" that hidden space or that extra dimension, but it very much seems to be. Or, at least, that is a read based on the impressions I have given that assumption.

Chain Blaster

In Chain Blaster, you fight the same six or so waves of enemies repeatedly, each time through making them slightly faster, adding a few bullets. It's an hour of attrition to get to the minutes where the points even matter. For a vertical shmup, this is one (facet of the) Truth; the faster the scrolling, the more apparent the lie, the stasis.

It's a series of fifteen minute chunks, repeated mindlessly until it isn't and then it's over. And then another hour or more if you were close enough. The aesthetics are the blandest of cyber, the frustrations macro. Everything, even death, wiped out by persistence, until persistence is the cause, and then an hour fifteen and you aren't even on the board. I love it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Short on Games: June 2015


Winterstrike is a text adventure by Yoon Ha Lee in the Storynexus engine/universe. Like her Moonlit Tower (and much of her fiction), it trades on certain broad images – snow, mechanical birds, cities – to create a sense of space which is lived in by what I have, in the past, called fantastical materialism. It's never quite just that the magical or sfnal aspects have a material base within Lee's fictions, but that they are tropes treated as technologies. The grounded spaceships in the world of Winterstrike signify that the game takes place in the long conversation that is pulp/genre/science fiction, but that signification, the literary technique of it all, remains in tension with how it is reified.

There is, in some sense, a greater ease with which this is done in the context of a game rather than a story or novel; a game object has to be an object as well as a vessel for meaning. From the code through to the act of play: it is defined, it is interacted with productively or nonproductively, in accordance with that definition.

The Storynexus engine operates by offering the player a set of cards. At the bottom are the "pinned" cards, your (semi-)permanent hand. At the top a deck, face down. Clicking the deck fills the middle row, where cards with non-critical path options go. Playing these allows the player to advance stats, explore the world, and retrieve items. Once those have been done, the player uses the "pinned" cards to advance further along the story. The engine has recently removed much of the in game requirements that require real world currency.

Where The Moonlit Tower showed its production seams -- the small setting, the surprise of more than almost no action options -- Winterstrike seems more built around them. The engine means that the bulk of actions function as repeatable, optional vignettes; I found myself inciting riots over smokewater multiple times, but also quelling them or stealing the object to spite them, all to build up stats for reasons I didn't yet then understand. It's a strange way to engage the worlds Lee builds, but not one without merits. The gamey way that interaction is always only ever a means is a rich vein of fantastical materialist possibility, although perhaps not an especially accessible one.

You, Me, and the Cubes

You, Me, and the Cubes is the last "proper" game Kenji Eno ever made, as far as I can tell. A downloadable WiiWare physics puzzle game, it trades on the subtext of that system in a way that is, among other things, genuinely cute.

The two player version of the game is obviously the one that is at its core, where both players use Wiimotes to generate Fallos (little gendered folks) to fling onto a cube. You populate the Wiimote with them with the *jerk off motion*, then throw them by holding the Wiimote vertically and snapping your wrist. Between these actions, you each point your Wiimote at a place on the cube and click the A button to choose where they will land.

The idea is that the Fallos will (de)stabilize these transparent cubes floating in the void. Throw in synch with your partner and they have a few seconds of invulnerability when they land; out of synch and one or both are likely fucked. If the weight shifts too far, whether through poor throws or by the whims of the wandering Fallos, they might fall down and slowly slide off the cube. When one falls, it emits a keening cartoon scream, and occasionally a bit of text pops up. They say things like "WHY ME" as they struggle at the edge, only to turn into a streak of color against the empty void and then nothing.

You, Me, and the Cubes is a puzzle game where reproductive futurism is an object of mockery and futility. Where, also, of course, because it is a game, it is about mastery. Where the child is meant to be swallowed into the void, and where that swallowing is the most immediately gratifying moment of the whole endeavor. Where the puzzle itself is the social, the means by which reproduction is encouraged and undertaken. It's a game about coming together to fling children into the world, and laughing at, and about, and with, that act.

Line Crossing

Aeryne Wright's Line Crossing is a stylish, horizontal ascent into the afterlife (which, in the case of this game, is to say: into life).

The player character wakes up into a train car, wheels rumbling and text scrolling. It is suddenly night, and Afra is worried. She leaves her car, and the game begins.

Clicking on objects interacts with them, while the directional keys on the keyboard move the character. Up goes into the various cars on the increasingly abstracted train, down leaves them. Afra can speak to a number of the tall, avian beings; some with cow skull heads, others more traditionally hawklike. Many of them will offer Afra an item; once three are collected, the player can walk all the way off the train to encounter the Fates that will provide a new life.

Line Crossing is a wholly horizontal game, with progression to the left. This makes sense as a journey through and out of death, in the grammar of games. Right is forward, left back, and so Afra moves forward by going backward. The game's real draw is its art; the avian beings are cast into relief against bulbous trees and cracked, thickly abstracted creeping vines, the train itself a blocky presence on top of slow spinning, carriage-like, clattering wheels. Even the font, appearing in RPG-style white-bordered blue rectangles, is stylized to the point of obfuscation.

That this all coalesces is admirable; that it does so in service of a little tale with subtle emphasis on process even more so. A strange thing, that a pretty game with an invisible inventory is enough of a story, but it is.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Short on Games: May 2015


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 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.