Thursday, June 2, 2016

Reading Games: One Personal Look at Games Crit's (Mostly) Recent History on Storify

I spent a few days going through games writing that has been super important to me, and then I put it together into a single place, with some elaboration. Take a look!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

4 Books that will Inspire You to Fight Fascists in the Streets



We all feel it right now: the news carousel revolves between articles about Trump's ascendancy and the developing organizations of the alt right/white nationalist movement. It's a deep freeze kind of moment in the realm of political action. But somewhere in the back of your mind, Howard Zinn's accounts of the workers soviet of St. Louis in The People's History of the United States, or of Assata Shakur's life in the underground in Assata: An Autobiography hold a spark.

And who knows: maybe you'll be needing to kindle that spark in the near future. There are a lot of theories about how to best combat fascism, but the only one that's truly time tested is a good old fashioned street fight. From the British Battle of Cable Street to present day Olympia, Washington, nothing stops the goons like letting them know they aren't welcome.

The books in this list aren't guides or even all triumphant. Sometimes you just need some images to bounce around in your head. So join us in closing that carousel for a little while, and gathering some kindling for that spark.


1. Botchan by Natsume Sōseki




Sōseki's turn of the century novel about a schoolmaster might seem like a strange pick, as it basically reads like a YA Catcher in the Rye with a schoolteacher for a narrator. As long as you don't identify with the narrator, though, it's a brilliant look at the kind of rebellions that will be necessary, if not sufficient, in the coming years. And, as a bonus, it doesn't shy away from how these moments will be explosive, impulsive, and co-opted.

The climactic scene of Botchan sees the students brawling in the street, and the titular asshole Math teacher gets involved. It only takes a few thrown rocks to rout him. If you take it as a lesson, it's about street fights being effective but also easily co-opted; if you take it for literature, it's a fun scene about an asshole getting his due. Either way, it's good preparation.


2. 2 Henry VI by Shakespeare




The fourth act of Henry VI, Part 2 is all kinds of messy. Suffolk, who just had Gloster murdered in the previous scene, gets beheaded right off. Then enters Jack Cade, who makes up the story that he is the son of a lost twin of the Earl of March and makes proclamations like "And henceforward all things shall be in common" and that "there shall not a maid be married but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it." He's, well, a character.

A rapidfire series of scenes later, Cade and his army are in London, murdering anyone who can read or write or who call him the wrong name and burning all legal records. Just as he seems to be winning the city, two envoys of the king offer pardons to all who abandon Cade. Everyone takes them.

Shakespeare's political plays offer themselves up for complex readings of politics; they were largely produced for royalty, but it's not hard to see that they embed strong criticisms of the ruling class in their characters. Cade's rebellion might not be something to be directly emulated, or about opposing modern fascists, but it's a good reminder of the varieties of power that come to play in the streets, and just how fickle the lynchpin moments can seem.


3. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling




The novel that (lamentably) brought us the Steampunk genre gets credit for that, a very weird ending, and little else. What people seem to forget is that it has a second act villain of a 19th century analogue for Guy Debord in Captain Swing. With London in the grips of the Stink, our villain does what he must: propagandizes and foments revolution. And then, of course, he dies.

If Steampunk's the rosy revisionist counterpart to cyberpunk, then at least it has old Captain Swing in its DNA. Plenty of aesthetic cogs mask little more than a desire for an uncomplicated politics that couples well with the Good Old Days of the proper fash. Don't let them have that, though: know that for every picture they paint with sepia, there's an antifa ready to smash a camera.


4. Toppamono by Manabu Miyazaki




With a full title of Toppamono: Outlaw. Radical. Suspect. My Life in Japan's Underworld, this autobiography by Manabu Miyazaki has plenty of fighting to offer. From his childhood on the periphery of the Yakuza because of family ties to his construction company to his being charged in a massive corporate kidnapping case, Miyazaki paints himself as a scrappy dude. It's his time spent in the Japanese New Left that gets his book on this list, though.

In a chapter straight up called "Street Fights and Das Kapital," Miyazaki delves into the development of his own political education. It's the most basic lesson, in some ways: theory and praxis go hand in hand, and sometimes that praxis is as simple as fighting tooth and nail in the streets.

There's even something aspirational about Toppamono: strong factionalism lead a number of New Left organizations to end up fighting not just fascists, but other kinds of socialists on the street. Maybe once the coming fights are won, that luxury of the fabled Leftist Infighting can get a little space to stretch its legs.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Washed Up Rockstar Dogwhistles Fascists While Employer is Bought Out by Neonazis

It's straight up @TwoHeadlines, except the comedy is that they haven't been juxtaposed. So here's how it reads:
Washed Up Rockstar Dogwhistles Fascists While Employer Is Bought Out By Neonazis
Something like that, you know. I'd send it to somebody in the copy room to punch up, but that's not really in the cards. Which are subject to change, if you catch my drift.

The funny things are that: Corgan is a bad, boring musician; his transparent performance of 'the reasonable man' in an interview with Alex Jones; his earlier protestations that he was to be the savior of professional wrestling who went to the barricades against the PC Police (perhaps those were not his words, precisely); that what might still be considered the 2nd biggest wrestling promotion in the USA, one that tried to recapitulate the Monday Night Wars by going head-to-head against Monday Night Raw at one time, is in danger of being taken over due to late payments to a production company; that professional wrestlers perform as independent contractors no matter who they do business with despite absurd amounts of control over their place, style, and amount of work by single individuals/corporate groups; &c.

What's really funny, of course, is that once every three years someone writes an op ed about how WWE hasn't had a black champion (except The Rock, who is Black and Samoan and (is) mainly identifie(s/d) with the Samoan heritage) and the wrestling media pats itself on the back as the message boards throw little shit fits that quickly die down. The back patting is of the "we have started a conversation" variety, of course, and thus it ends. Maybe someone notes that Class of 2016 WWE Hall of Famer and WWE employee -- which is to say, not wrestler -- used the N-word in reference to a current WWE contractor only a few years ago. Maybe they note that he made the Paula Deen defence, except that it somehow worked. Probably they don't tie it to the firing of Alberto Del Rio (contractor) for slapping some stooge (employee) over racist remarks, because Del Rio is now back with the company. Maybe Triple H vs. Booker T gets brought up, or Vince McMahon using the N-word during a pay-per-view in Two Thousand and Fucking Five. If David Shoemaker's around, maybe Sputnik Monroe's name will even come up.

What the headlines reinforce is that the quicksand in which these discussions always get caught -- the culture of an institution, the history of a genre, the particular merits of any individual counterargument -- all die on the vine, because they sprout from no place of truth or even inquiry. The only desire is that the arguments find themselves a centrifugal force, to be spun around until they cease to amuse. It's why even those who oppose the Defenders of the WWE will not levy their own case against them; from the newest-minted smark to the oldest, most grizzled veteran in shoot interviews or in shiny WWE-produced documentaries, everyone argues that the defining factor of WWE is that the buck stops with Vince MacMahon. He is responsible for all storylines, and for all decisions about contractors; except he has no responsibility for racial dynamics, which are much more amenable to historical analysis of drawing power and whatever else.

Which isn't even to say that the "MacMahon should take the blame for the lack of black champions, as he claims to do for everything" argument is even one I would necessarily stump for; only that these intracultural wars are such pageants that even that mild an offense is clearly off limits. Your arguments that center history and culture are important in their ability to illuminate, not as some structural, teleological truth. The question of power as it operates and is assumed is central.

If you want to rely on the history of wrestling to explain why Hayes' racism is swept under the rug while he is celebrated, then it is only because the environment -- of wrestling co-existing with boxing in both adjudication and media for much of its early history, which allowed wrestling to be juxtaposed against boxing as the white sport; of a significant legacy of modern wrestling arising from the Jim Crow South; of the particular figures that have since become metonyms for the periods, like Bill Watts and well, Hulk Hogan -- had material effects on the contemporary moment. That is, history isn't something to look at and throw up your hands, but to see how it is that only people who hold these views could have gained the experience necessary to be in these positions in the present. That's why two jobbers with lightning bolt SS tattoos on their biceps can be in a position to take over what you might still call a major promotion. All they had to do was be part of a production company, and because there are so few folks who have the applied knowledge to fund and run a professional wrestling show, they could slip in regardless of their political affiliations. Regardless because this is just about the only political affiliation you could have that is uncontroversially going to paint a company in a negative light. Unless you're Alex Jones, I suppose.

Which brings it back to Corgan, who self describes in some video as a muttered jumble that definitely includes the words "free market" "libertarian" "capitalist" and the phrase "the market will correct itself." His is the beautiful faith of the Liberal. In wrestling, he has found his church, where he can become the avatar of the most miserable business practices. Corgan is the holy voice of the 1099. Because this is where the culture argument does come into play; given enough cachet, and enough ideological correctness, even the rich and inexperienced can be folded into the faith.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Short on Games: January/February 2016

Tap My Katamari


TapMyKatamari


I've never been a huge fan of the "Katamari is an indictment of consumerism" crowd, even if it does include Keita Takahashi, the series' creator. Any critique of "consumerism" is likely to set my eyes rolling, because it never amounts to much more than moralizing. Imagine my surprise, then, when the latest installment – coming long after Takahashi divested himself of the series – presented the most compelling form and rhetoric of that criticism yet, and has so become one of my favorite Katamari games ever. The form is of a tapper, or clicker, or idle or incremental game; the genre is still confused enough to not have a unified name. The rhetoric is physical. The game's argument takes place in your wrist, and it was compelling enough that I spent the week of Global Game Jam in a wrist guard, fearing the onset of an RSI.

The form of the idle game is important because in it is an embedded critique. The story goes like this: Ian Bogost, having been subject to a speech by Zynga's president at the Game Developer's Choice Award, decided to make a critique of the then-dominant genre of social games that Zynga had made a fortune with on Facebook. Bogost deconstructed these with a game called Cow Clicker, in which the player clicked a cow once every six hours to accrue currency. The game's popularity made it more than an academic exercise, and the ultimate consequence was the popularization of the idler genre. In these games, the player rarely does more than click (or tap) to accrue currency. This currency is, generally, used to purchase upgrades that have two purposes: allow the player to click less, and accrue currency faster. As Jeff Gerstmann is fond of saying, the appeal is simple: "The numbers just keep going up."

Gerstmann, who is possibly (Bogost included) the foremost critical authority on idle games, is not making an idle observation. The numbers going up is one of the more visible aspects of videogames design practices. It surfaces just how reliant videogames are on the reward loop, over and above its ostensible function as only a motivator for execution or skill. From its origin as a critique of predatory practices and poor design that turned out to be uniquely compelling to its current status as a genre-without-a-name, the idle game is uniquely suited to be a critical vehicle with teeth.

The year before Bogost sat through the Zynga president's presentation, Keita Takahashi told attendees of the Game Developer's Conference that, "I think I successfully expressed my cynical stance towards the consumption society by making Katamari - but still I felt empty when the objects were gone." In the six years between Katamari Damacy's release and Takahashi's talk, I remember hearing people float that theory around, between jokes about How High Would You Have To Be To Make This, and finding it uncompelling. Beyond even the formal category of games of complicity – your Spec Ops: The Lines and Trains and The Beginner's Guides and so on – which attempt to clarify a reading of engagement or interactivity along a moral line, reading Katamari Damacy as a polemic against consumerism makes it, at best, along the lines of the arguments that situate JRPGs as nothing more than capitalist productivity simulators with even less of a leg to stand on. Takahashi's own affective response to his game is striking, but as analysis it suggests no path other than a tired Louis CK or Jonathan Franzen bit. We live in a fallen society, it claims, and the blame lies on its inhabitants, not its architects.

* * * * *


If videogames are unique, then they are unique insofar as they can ruin your hands. The zenith of 'interactivity' is Mew2King refusing to see a doctor as his career slowly implodes. "Passive entertainment" can't compete with that. There is no phenomenology of film that can make you aware of just how often your wrists are required in daily life.

Tap My Katamari – Endless Cosmic Clicker's mechanics are simple. You tap to roll the katamari a specific distance, and every amount of that distance holds an object which it rolls up. These objects also spit out coins; one at first, and eventually more. With coins, you can buy upgrades to the Prince, or cousins who will roll the katamari without your input. Every tenth object is a gating mechanism, a "Time Attack Challenge," after which you advance to the next level. After certain levels you gain a Star Token, which can be used to buy Presents. These are functionally permanent powerups, as opposed to everything else which gets lost when you turn your katamari into a star, which requires upgrading the Prince to level 600. The strategy, roughly, is to play the game for a couple of hours until the cousins are powerful enough to generate sufficient coins to keep the whole thing going at a clip, and then check in every few hours. You do this less and less until you get to the point where you need more presents, and start it all again.

The most economical way to get coins, of course, involves tapping as fast as possible for a brief period of time. Whether you get this by the King of All Cosmos gifting you with the Royal Touch (for the nominal fee of watching an ad) or through the Coin Soul powerup that refreshes once an hour, rapid tapping becomes central to overcoming the stickier gates. The most effective way is to place both hands to either side of your phone and tap with each finger consecutively on both hands; doing this requires a very odd angle of your wrists.

This demand – that the body mutate to the desires of the software – is still not an analysis, but it is at least a reflection that does not demand a moralism. If the consumer society is unique, then it is unique in its demands on bodies; not to produce, but to watch the numbers keep going up.

Anatomy


Anatomy


The influences that Anatomy wears on its sleeve range from Videodrome to Gone Home, The Haunting of Hill House to House of Leaves. Its tension is created by rifling through a very dark house, but its horror is pure theory. Anatomy is a modest Cyclonopedia with as much, if not more, to offer.

Anatomy begins with the player in a house, which she wanders through. Doors either open or rattle when clicked, until the player finds a tape and player. When played, someone who gives the vibe of a clinical psychologist begins speaking of a theory of houses. At each segment's end, a bit of text informs the player of the location of the next tape in the house. After finding a number of tapes, and hearing the elaboration of the theory of the house as metaphorical organism, the game quits itself out.

At this point, the rattling is worth noting. As much as it is the darkness that produces the tension, and eventually the narration that develops the horror, it is the doors that don't open that develop the creepiness. The sound is a doorknob rattling in a way that is pitch perfect for someone trying to escape or break in, except it only occurs when you intentionally interact with a door. It is creepy not just because of its associations and possibilities, but because it requires a return to the fundamental question of your place within this world. As cliché as it sounds, the simple sound effect is making it clear that what's to be afraid of isn't a monster closet bursting out and spooking you, but the possibility that you are the monster in the closet from the start. In the unzipped folder that hosts Anatomy's .exe is a text file titled "SPOILERS - PLAY BEFORE READING." It is the obvious next step after the game quits, as there's hardly anything to spoil; you may wonder if there's not more game in here, or at least an explication of some kind. Read, the spoiler is simple: relaunch the game. It takes multiple playthroughs to experience in full.

It takes a couple more launches and automatic quits for the player to experience a Kitty Horrorshow environment, and its inclusion is deeply weird. The worlds of Dust City and Chyrza and Rain, House, Eternity are powerful in part because of their decontextualization. Situated explicitly as an outside, what should by all accounts be very familiar in its weird, unsettling imagery becomes, well, defamiliarized. That's a strange thing to say!

Before we get to the house itself, some words about how the game incorporates quitting and launching as a mechanic. It is a historical peculiarity of games that any state which signifies an end to progress – especially a temporary end, from which it is possible to return nearly immediately – is elided into the concept of death. While Anatomy never makes this elision explicit, it is felt. Incorporating paratextual elements into the text has been a signature of Horrorshow's since at least Dust City, and the way Anatomy does this is both recognizable and innovative. Innovative in the sense that it subtly engages with critiques of the walking simulator, especially those that claim to be about gamey credentials but are really fixated on the absence of fail states. Failing – dying – is integral to the experience of Anatomy, and not in a narrative way; but, more importantly, not in the sense of an arbitrary skill check, either. Your floating camera dies without dying, allowing the house, which already exhibits its own agency, to rearrange itself in relation to you.

Which brings us to the most important part, and what makes Anatomy possibly my favorite game made by one of my favorite game makers currently going. Because Anatomy understands that the horror of the house is not the things it hides, or what it represents, or (least of all) how it may be breached, but the theory of the house itself. Because the house is both material and symbolic in absolutely immediate ways, any attempt at taking either of these aspects alone will inevitably get mired in the other's absence.

I've been beating this drum for years, but: ghosts are space. Particularly its becoming-linguistic. And Anatomy, more than possibly anything else I have ever encountered, gets that. What's to fear aren't historical events but the deformations that they leave on a place, and the possibility that the accumulation of those deformations might make it such that the place itself learns to speak. And in learning to speak, it would learn to negate. Anatomy's finale is literally a narration of that. It is incredible.

The theory of houses espoused in Anatomy is of the house as body. The tapes tell the story of living room as heart, bathroom as digestive tract, bedroom as mind, and basement as subconscious. The metaphors are questioned even as they are stated, though; both visually and audibly. The tape that tells the story of the bedroom as mind is in a master bedroom on whose walls are many pictures of teeth. The house as body is only a half-step to the game's ultimate conclusion: that, given enough time, the whole house might become a mouth. The visceral terror there is of the teeth that grind. The horror is of the tongue that lulls, that tells you its theories and asks you for favors, that misdirects and negates. Because dying is just part of the vernacular, so trivial as to be named when it has consequence. But when the space can speak, the space that is the image of the family, of the site of reproduction, of capital and its bubbles; even if it only speaks to tell you that it has a mouth, that is horror.

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.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Short on Games of the Year


10. Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival


AmiiboFestival

Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival is the perfect videogame. Perfect, at least, in its simulations. It's a board (video)game, which means that it is a boring slog, a barebones structure by which to stimulate sociality. The vulgar materialism of Amiibo lines up perfectly with the parodic Stalk Market and the fan infatuation with the Villain Tom Nook, rentier capitalist. The simulations are of systems as much as economies; so much pretends to skill. Amiibo Festival dares you to engage, knowing it won't satisfy. The secret's that it wants you to engage with each other, not it.

9. Bellular Hexatosis


BellularHexatosis

Porpentine and Neotenomie's 3D Twine game Bellular Hexatosis feels as though it could be an experiment or a zenith; the marriage of Myst-style point and click with Twine is pleasingly odd, but it's hard to tell where it goes from here. With Kitty Horrorshow's increasing adoption of in world text, though, the possibility is certainly there.

The story itself crests slowly and is somewhat underwhelming in its brevity, but Porpentine's mastery over the intentional misfires of moment-to-moment prose is on full display. The hub area is also a good touch; you move in circles to begin, which gives both space and momentum. Touch mushrooms and talk to eyes, it's good.

8. Way to Go


WayToGo

Way to Go is an interactive experience, shot on 360° video, and funded by the National Film Board of Canada. The experience is of moving through space with an avatar. The space is a real forest that becomes abstracted over the course of the experience; the movement is of walking or running or flying along a track, or of stopping and watching.

The way Rez looms over on-rails games highlights their affinity with visual abstraction; Way to Go's triumph is leveraging that in a way that combines it with a reflective experience that doesn't bow to flow.

7. Splatoon


Splatoon

The danger of Walking Simulators is that their laying bare of the mechanisms of spatial abstraction in videogames becomes tied to their affect. Per Austin Howe (interpreting Zolani Stewart), the Walking Sim is characterized by "drama, dread, and loneliness." I agree, especially with the dread. What, then, is the consequence of this yoking?

My hope, at least, is that it doesn't refuse us the possibility of acknowledging Splatoon's contribution to our understanding of spatial abstraction. Not just in its appeal – shooting the space instead of the people – but in its design from the ground up. From fashion to level and weapon design to absenting voice chat, Splatoon is an expression of the joy of virtual space.

6. Obéissance


Obéissance

If merritt kopas' graphical games can be crystallized into one thing, it would be the use of the down arrow key. Shattered out, it becomes her manifesto of late last year or her Soft Chambers work throughout this one.

Obéissance, specifically, is about navigating a small environment repeatedly while reading the words of Simone Weil on consenting to obedience to God. I've called attention to her animations before, but Obéissance might have my favorite (the toe tapping!). It would be easy to praise the thematic resonance, but, like wrestling, what sets it apart are the little things.

5. Super Mario Maker


MarioMaker

I've developed a bit of a morning ritual, where I play/watch Automatic Mario levels as I eat breakfast. There's a nice rhythm to juggling the Wii U Gamepad and a plate of food, as Mario skillfully avoids dangers and hits sound cues. That Super Mario Maker also lets me engage in pseudo-Situationist praxis is, in some way, all I've ever wanted.

4. Trigger


Trigger

If you make two choices a certain way, the ending scene of Trigger includes an extra snippet of internal monologue, where Wendy removes a key from her hand and reminds herself that she will likely never know what it is for. I read this as a kindness, given the choices made.

There are aspects of Trigger that I suspect might not work, but moments like with the key bring it into focus. As a story about people, Trigger is a minor masterpiece.

3. Downwell


Downwell

If there's one aspect of videogames I'm going to wax poetic about some day, it is their axes. Horizontality is the fundament; verticality I find endlessly interesting. Downwell, then, has an obvious hook. That I've probably spent more time in 2015 playing Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup than anything else also helps. That waxing can wait for another day, though; Downwell is still about the satisfaction of chaining combos for now, and it's incredible for that alone.

2. Stick Shift


StickShift

It seems impossible to overstate the work Robert Yang has done over the course of 2015, and Stick Shift stands partially in the stead of Succulent and Cobra Club and Rinse & Repeat, all incredible. If anything, the post-mortem seals Stick Shift's importance; it is political in a way that games have refused to admit themselves to be.

There is also a certain awkwardness to Stick Shift, in its representation of action – that is, its controls – that endears it to me especially. It's an awkwardness that makes stroking the shifter feel particularly good.

That, and ACAB.

1. We Know the Devil


WeKnowTheDevil

In my review of We Know the Devil, I tried to highlight how the Christian Summer Camp Horror Visual Novel is properly Brechtian in its popularity and realism (see p2). I don't know that I sold many people on it. That's okay, but I also would like everyone to play it.

Even if I feel like "videogame writing" is the easy mark, We Know the Devil shows just how often it fails; not as craft, but in its capacity to universalize important political knowledges. I later said that its collectivity is one of the more important videogame things ever. I stand behind that, and the fact that We Know the Devil is a superbly crafted story only adds to it.