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.

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