Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Liar Stephen King

A stomach ache at an old place sent me back to Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, however many years since the last time I read them. I made it through The Gunslinger in just over a night, and one thing in particular stands out. It might be the best known piece of the whole series, and while I can't find the quote, I'm fairly certain even King has talked it up a bunch. It goes like this: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

I spent a good portion of my 2013 in Shit review of King's Joyland talking about how, for me, a lot of what worked about it was how shitty the protagonist was. The novel's frame narrative is of the protagonist all grown up, recalling a spooky coming-of-age story from his past, when he summered as a carnie and some not-quite ghost stuff happened. The protagonist himself, however, couches it in this weird obsession with getting laid and disavowing that he cares about having (not) got laid up to that point. I also talked about how I was relatively unfamiliar with King, having basically only read The Dark Tower prior, and not much has changed in this regard. But then, rereading it now, I realize that it isn't Carrie or The Shining that casts some relief on that character, but that first line of Roland Deschaine's epic.

Because, as those of you who might have read The Dark Tower before might catch, that first line isn't so much a summation of what is to come as a bold lie about what is happening. It doesn't even take very long for Roland to work out what the man in black is doing is anything but flight. And this is notable because King goes to pains to point out that Roland is not particularly quick on the uptake; he's repeatedly compared unfavorably to his classmates in terms of wits and brightness, and even the sort of things that cowboys are expected to do in these sorts of Westerns (like not get surprised by a man resurrected by his enemy while he is eating hamburgers) is pretty much immediately established as beyond his capacity. The things that Roland is good at (shooting, chasing) are explicitly and ostentatiously described in a mechanized fashion. He is, in other words, painted holistically in this light.

So when the man in black finally does appear to Roland and his companion, it is unsurprising that he is, in fact, completely in control of the situation. That the man in black is, in other words, doing the opposite of fleeing. That, in other words, that lauded opening line is a lie.

It seems to me to be entirely sensible that one of King's major tools as a writer would be his capacity to lie. There is the obvious broad version, which is that fiction is a lie, and the narrower one, that horror requires someone willing to lie to the reader in order to maintain the suspense. But Lovecraft was hardly capable of lying -- think of what a shitshow "The Outsider" is in its ending for a perfectly serviceable example, or of how clearly his racism shows through in everything -- and it is well understood the debt King owes him. Having still not read a ton, I don't know that I can say that King's big contribution to the world of letters, genre or otherwise, is in lying, but it seems a small thing worth considering. As (and if) I read through the rest of The Dark Tower, I certainly will be, at least.

Friday, October 21, 2016

#PerformanceMatters: SAG-AFTRA and Hollywood History

With SAG-AFTRA affiliated voice actors having begun their strike today, I thought a quick look at the history of cinema might be in order. Not to draw broad parallels, as many of these comparisons do -- I'm personally often loathe to make the comparison at all -- but to see what it could mean.

In this case, though, the cinema comparison is more industrial than artistic. Throughout the months of discussion of the possibility of the strike, a number of discussion points have circulated throughout the games enthusiast press. Primary among them, related to the union's demand for residuals, has relied on a thought experiment: would the presence or absence of voice actors be a selling point in a game? Are they stars in the same way that Hollywood produces?

We'll start with a quick rundown of the pre-Hollywood years of the movies, with the history largely taken from Roberta Pearson's essays "Early Cinema" and "Transitional Cinema" from The Oxford History of World Cinema. The former covers the years "from the beginnings up to about 1906," while the latter goes "from 1907 to the mid-1910s," or roughly the First World War (13). Pearson says of the early cinema that it was "concerned ... with the individual shot, preserving the spatial aspects of the pro-filmic event (the scene that takes place in front of the camera). ...The camera was kept stationary ... with viewers more interested in the cinema as visual spectacle than as story-teller." (16-7) This "cinema of attractions" was, in the transitional period, contrasted with a "cinema of narrative integration" which, among other things, "increased [the] use of editing ... decreased [the] distance between camera and actors ... [and] moved the actors closer to the camera. ... The decreased distance between action and camera not only enabled identification of the actors and the development of the star system, but also contributed to the increased emphasis upon individualized characters and facial expression." (29) The whole story is significantly more complicated, of course, involving advances that included the technical (cameras, film, etc), business (distribution practices, filmmaking practices) the artistic (shot-framing, editing, etc) and eventually the geopolitical (national subsidization of film, histories of trade, World War I). Broadly speaking, however, there is a very clear moment in which the seeds for cinema stars are born.

The birth of Hollywood itself can be explained in a relatively uncomplicated manner: Edison and other produces in 1908 banded together to create the Motion Picture Patents Company, whose business model relied on licensing fees for films and equipment for which the members held patents. By attempting to monopolize the showing of films, they created enemies who, only a year later, founded the Independent Moving Picture Company that distributed films to exhibitors who were not licensed by the MPPC. A court ruling MPPC illegal and a failure to stranglehold the market later, the IMPC became Universal and the lack of unions and the climate and abundance of locations around Hollywood made for the beginning of modern cinema history as it still continues today.

And that history is largely the history of the feature film. We're just over a century into it (depending on where you place the origin at, of course) at this point, and only a bit more background is necessary. This bit is largely from Douglas Gomery's "The Hollywood Studio System," also from The Oxford History of World Cinema. Gomery says it more or less right out: "Hollywood centred its promotional efforts on the star system. ... Stars provided an effective means of differentiating feature films ... Mary Pickford saw her salary increase from $100 a week in 1909 to $10,000 per week in 1917, ... the stars were quick to realize that, if they were so important to the studios, they had bargaining power of their own. Although many remained tied to exploitative contracts, some of the most successful broke loose from the system." (46) Pickford joined Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith in founding United Artists, an early alternative to the vertically-integrated Hollywood studio system which had already begun to dominate.

The development of the feature film also caused developments in business models; "as the demand for narrative films increased, speacialists were trained to assist the director," including painters for scenery and writers for plot and fashion designers, and eventually continuity editors and scriptwriters. Gomery is careful to note that "The Hollywood production system was not invented, but evolved in response to a number of felt imperatives, of which the most important was the need for regular and consistent profit." (48) That evolution did not take place solely on the side of production. Hollywood also ran distribution and, eventually, exhibition of films, cutting out any third parties possible. It didn't even take decades for the only real holdouts to be anemic governmental responses (think the Canadian Broadcasting rules that still apply today) or consequences of geopolitics (Japan's being closed to trade, the Soviet Union, etc).

There are some obvious potential parallels between this history and that of the videogames industry; the early lack of a defined division of labor (from MIT laboratories through, lets say, the NES), proceeding from novelty to narrative (Pong to Space Invaders to Wizardry to Final Fantasy), and the consolidation of industrial and marketing practices near-simultaneously (Console Wars with Mario and Sonic, studio association with directors or intellectual properties, etc). Zooming in on any one aspect involves a multiplication of discontinuities, of course, because the material conditions of a century ago are different in any number of ways from where they are now.

What's instructive here, though, isn't the parallels: it's the possibilities. Looking at early cinema makes it very clear that the century of history we have under the Hollywood system may have been the winner, and was certainly compelled by the profit motive most successfully, but that it came about due to a huge confluence of factors. Many of these are cloaked in a quasi-objectivity; scientific advancements in film production and audience interest in particular kinds of films especially. But the Hollywood takeover of exhibition was an intentional move, especially designed to move cinema into the world of the middle class rather than the proletarians it had been popular with initially. The star system was very much in line with that: once technical and artistic decisions had been made to centralize the actor/character, the humanist impulses of the middle class could be exploited by making celebrities of the actors who in turn would expend more of their income to continue seeing them.

And, even more than that, the cinema itself was not somehow objectively a place for stars. It took decades of industrial production to get to the point that individual actors were even of interest to producers or audiences. And it wasn't some coordinated effort on the parts of audiences to make that foundational to how we learned to watch movies, but a huge confluence of factors that included the mechanical, the artistic, and the economic, some intentional, some not.

SAG-AFTRA's reasons for striking are hardly even a quarter of a step towards making something like a move toward the development of a proper star system in videogames. Minor residuals certainly change the story significantly, in certain ways -- especially for those for whom the other aspects, like vocal strain and MoCap oversight, go less well -- and have the potential to open the door for themselves and others. That this is a union action, rather than the decree of executives responding to (and shaping) market forces, puts an emphasis on the "and others" there, as well.

More than anything, though, the outcome of this strike necessarily shifts the direction of the video game industry in one way or the other. Even with the possibilities of doors opening aside, it casts relief onto the particular decisions that have been made, and in so doing highlights those that will be. Whether your concerns are related to the construction of the gamer demographic or the production costs of high-budget titles, the potential of lost history or the representation of historically underrepresented groups in the creation or text of games -- or just about anything else -- this strike will shape the future history of those concerns. Because no matter how focused cinema seems now to necessarily be on the strength of individuals, especially in performance, it didn't have to be that way. And the same goes for games.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Reading ARGs

I've been thinking about how to read games for a while now, and so I figured I would write up a little thing that moves again in that direction. ARGs seem to me to exist very prominently among the many under-theorized types of games, so maybe setting some provisional rules down might help.

1) The ARG as text can only be read through whatever the most-final version of the most prominent, collective fan theory exists, in a relatively concluded state.

This comes in a variety of forms: the archived/mostly dead message board, the mostly dead subreddit or or 4chan's /x/ (or whatever) thread, or, most commonly at this point, the locked Google Docs file. Any attempt at reading an ARG should, of course, attempt as much of a playthrough as is possible/feasible. Using the playthrough as a basis of reading is not enough, however. What remains of the ARG is the combination of its viewable/playable artifacts and its active interpretive community over the course of its creation.

2) Any estimation of an ARG must read it through its capacity to engage with the paranoid reading.

With The Lost Experience ARG as the genre's only canonical example, the interpretive standards of the ARG community were set nearly a decade ago. This has had some consequences. Most obvious among these are that 'viral' marketing ARGs, like The Lost Experience or Halo 2's "I Love Bees" campaign, are aesthetically indistinguishable from non-marketing ARGs like the Jadusable/BEN DROWNED/Haunted Cartridge ARG. On a technical level this is fairly obvious: all forms use a mixture of the same tools, such as websites and accounts on established platforms like email or social media. Many use similar techniques as well, such as burying pertinent information in non-UI aspects of these accounts. This includes password-protection of pages that need to be derived from, say, accompanying video as well as parsing the page's code for clues. The more important aspect is that it has defined the shape of interpretive possibility.

Every, or nearly every, ARG that I have experienced (mostly second hand) has produced one of two (or, more often, both) interpretations, both of which I would classify under Sedgwick's idea of paranoid reading. These are:

a) Conspiratorial Interpretation: the ARG is best explained by reference to some set of conditions in the world -- usually assumed to be some sort of secondary world -- that are predicated on conspiracy. Whether explained through apocalyptic change, an abnormal acting of time (travel, split, &c), or the sudden empirical demonstration of the supernatural, these theories develop an interpretation of the gathered evidence that relies on some sort of potent, shadowy force (often something within the government or an especially shadowy, powerful private corporation) that is causing events to unfold as they are.
b) Psychological Interpretation: the ARG is best explained by reference to some (set of) psychological conditions experienced by the characters portrayed within it. These interpretations are -- in addition to being (near?) universally ableist as fuck -- premised on an understanding of the 'unreliable narrator' that still assumes the existence of objective information within the text. These are primarily non-secondary world theories, though not exclusively, and are often used to explain apparently supernatural or inexplicable behavior or phenomena through colloquial understandings of non-neurotypical experiences.

This mixture of history and technique have lead to these two being what I would consider the baseline of work for ARGs interpretive communities. Any reading of an ARG would therefore be required to explain not that these exist, but in what way they manifest or are explored beyond the most basic versions. A successful ARG might undermine these readings in exciting ways, or it might develop them perfectly.

This proposal, to be clear, is in the same spirit of suggesting that we might judge a novel by the believability of the motivations of its characters, or a film by the clarity of its story. There isn't an answer here, or a demand that things must be made in certain ways; it is obvious to me that this sort of proposal is immediately meant to be undermined. The difference, of course, is that ARGs don't have, as yet, any sort of explicit set of rules for reading, which means instead of breaking them they simply abide by those implicit.

3) ARGs should be read alongside creepypasta, fantheory/fanfiction, New Media projects, and alternative games as well as alongside marketing rhetoric.

Some crossover in these categories is already obvious; I Love Bees and The Lost Experience are explicitly creations of marketing departments, while Jadusable is an ARG that spawned out of one of the most popular creepypasta. Many ARGs make use of New Media/alternative games ideas and creators to develop their properties, and, if we allow for (1), any ARG is incomplete without the explicit involvement of something like fantheorists. The point in making this explicit is to say that not only do they share material linkages, but aesthetic techniques that can be explored by a reader.

In addition to sharing real, material labor (as in, people who have sold their labor time and expertise to (become the) creator of the piece in question), all of these forms are in some sense beholden to the labor of valorizing the internet as a medium. Creepypasta is already colloquially understood as "campfire stories for the internet," fantheories produce engaged affective communities around (mostly) corporate owned intellectual property on (mostly) corporate owned platforms, New Media is ideologically bound to the understanding that artistic practices are advanced using (mostly proprietary) technologies, alternative games are fundamentally tied to distribution platforms that develop through the internet. Marketing is the beating heart of the internet, from AdSense to Adblockers.

Those who want to read ARGs, either in this capacity, or as potential creators or simply as interested consumers, need to know at least a little bit about how the internet's campfire stories are constructed to teeter on the edge of realism, which is as reliant on platforms as on aesthetic techniques. They need to think also about how platforms and distribution models differ within the context of the internet, and about how production around intellectual property is navigated within fan spaces. And, of course, they need to think about how all of this is made, and funded; at least I think they do.

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


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.



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; Muncy asserts that she 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 are such that Muncy is be able to understand the game's desire but be unable to act upon it. Muncy 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.

9/16; minor changes

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