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.