Notes on IndieCade

I attended IndieCade for the first time this year!

My friend ceMelusine and I had grown tired of watching all our twitter friends have fun at game conferences without us. And so, right after missing GDC last March (for the twenty-fifth consecutive year) we resolved to fly down from Vancouver and see what IndieCade was about.

I didn’t get everything I hoped to from LA, as is usually the case when my surroundings require me to schmooze; I am often shy, cold and awkward around new people. Nonetheless, I am pleased to report that the conference yielded many memorable moments and a few resonant themes. I thought I would document them here as a sort of travelogue through the great state of small videogames.

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March of the Pigs

#GamerGate believes it is winning.

For those of us on the wrong side of the endless media shit barrage, this is a difficult statement to parse. Who, exactly, is winning? Who for that matter is losing, and what shall they lose? What does anyone stand to gain from this fiasco? If we chose to ‘surrender’, what would be the terms?

The language of ‘culture war’, it turns out, is indistinguishable from the language of actual war. We imagine battles fought, moves made, territory gained and lost; a coherent narrative of the sort we’d see in a military history book. Yet as we gaze into the abyss of Gamer Gate (and as the abyss gazes menacingly into us) there is no through line to be found. There is no organized military following a strict chain of command, no unified strategic objective. Instead we encounter a sort of militia in which any given member might be an activist, an agitator, a sadist or a profiteer. This lot is too diverse (in the sense that the audience to a public execution might be ‘diverse’) to condense its will into a unified whole. Instead it spreads itself everywhere at once, a rolling cloud of excrement whose form is impossible to discern.

One of the hashtag’s innumerable undulating faces insists Gamer Gate is about “ethics”, though not in any specific sense of the term. Another is preoccupied with locating women on the internet and calling them “cunts” over and over again. Gamer Gate appears to be unconcerned by the fact that its expressed goals contradict as often as they overlap. Its denizens seem perfectly content to deny, to shift blame, to escalate and so on. Howsoever they might differ, their sole point of agreement remains: They believe Gamer Gate should never end. Enamoured by its lawlessness, its savagery and its stupidity (which manifest, as Noam Chomsky is fond of saying, in that precise order) the Gaters rage on into September, unfocused as ever. What can we say is the true purpose of Gamer Gate anymore, save for the prolonging of Gamer Gate? How should we describe a supposed theatre of ‘culture war’ in which the only apparent strategic objective is to roam about in perpetuity setting fire to the flammable? This is no ‘war’ we see before us. It’s a hockey riot, sanctioned tacitly by social media companies and the great state of videogames. All it lacks is police.

Like any good riot, Gamer Gate has its share of anonymous militants using other people’s faces as their shield. As The Art of War reminds us, anonymity represents the ultimate defensive formation: It presents no angle of attack even as it permits all manner of atrocities against one’s target. The militants sneak about using shitty words like ‘doxxing’ to rationalize their monstrous and criminal abuse of the marginalized. Meanwhile, conscientious activists stand in the foreground preaching about “ethics”. The militants hide behind the preachers as the preachers blithely ignore the presence of the militants; both groups, united under the banner of ‘gamer’, stand distinct yet indistinct, free (by their estimation) to avow or disavow whichever actions help their cause.

The effects of this implicit partnership are as horrific as they are disorienting. The cultural construct of the ‘gamer’, a figure shared by preacher and militant alike, flails this way and that as if affected by a debilitating psychosis. “How dare you use ad hominem attacks against us” shouts one ‘gamer’ as a second speculates about the odour of their victims’ genitals. “How dare you accuse us of perpetuating rape culture” yowls a third ‘gamer’ as a fourth threatens rape survivors with sexual assault. “How dare you accuse us of violence”, bellows a fifth ‘gamer’ as a sixth inflicts violence on a woman as revenge for critiquing the degree of violence present in videogames. “This is about ethics!”

A rigorous grasp of “ethics” in the philosophical sense of the term would, of course, compel our preachers to consider the possibility that every gain they claim on behalf of Gamer Gate resulted predominantly from militant harassment campaigns (and, furthermore, that these campaigns actually pre-date Gamer Gate by many years). Yet I do not see this concern reflected in the voices of the congregation. Shall I conclude that the people calling for ethics only seek fair treatment for themselves, and that they do so by any available means? Are we no longer discussing ethics in any capacity, having fallen back upon its duplicitous cousin tyranny? It is difficult to say when so many voices cry in unison at cross purposes from one another. Indeed, it is difficult to say anything at all.

Riots like this one are but one of the many perils to which we can look forward so long as we live under a monoculture of ‘gamers’. In a more pluralistic domain each individual might enjoy the liberty to produce and consume as they see fit, building unique and valid identities around these modes of self-expression. Under ‘gamers’, however, taste is a matter of public interest and, therefore, subject to public inquisition. The monoculture holds consensus to be a foregone conclusion: For every game there exists one objective review score, tangible and knowable, as real and true as the plastic in the disc. Each ‘gamer’ believes their own values to be the culture’s common values. Each believes their own review score to be the correct one. Each looks upon disagreement as delusional at best and heretical at worst. Their belonging in the culture rests upon how closely they manage to fit the local weighted average.

Seeking to eliminate dissent and, therefore, to defend the status quo, the monoculture successfully obscures all the processes by which the games industry actually manipulates it. The preachers of Gamer Gate do not complain about the marketing practices by which AAA’s target demographic honed itself to a fine point; they excuse the publishing practices by which a loose confederation of ambitious game studios congealed into a handful of annualized franchise mills; they celebrate the development practices by which accommodating the cultural mean became a matter of religious fervour. In a culture that has made them poorer in every respect they remain content to punch down at whichever outliers they can find, punishing a disempowered few for regarding them as violent and misogynistic monsters rather than the wealthy giants who made them that way.

Those of us who make videogames (and writing that pertains to videogames) have little stake in the ‘gamer’ monoculture; many of us would prefer to abandon it. Yet what we’ve learned from Gamer Gate is that one cannot simply secede from ‘gamer’ culture without incident. (Arguably, it was our determination to do so that sparked this riot in the first place.) ‘Gamers’ depend on us, and we on them, in the exact same sense that a narcissistic partner is codependent with the victim of his abuse. ‘Gamers’ demand an unending stream of products with which to reify their cultural identity while we require funding and must often seek it near or within mainstream circles (no matter how abusive we find these circles to be). The videogame scene’s avant garde is, in no uncertain terms, a colony of the ‘gamer’ empire. Like an imperial power, ‘gamers’ demand control over everything we produce. Under their rule developers must make only what ‘gamers’ will like; writers must produce reviews only for these ‘objectively’ good products; and, most importantly, every single one of these reviews must contain nothing except a replication of the same ‘objective’ score. Where games like Depression Quest manage to obtain broader cultural appeal the ‘gamer’ appropriates this, seizing all the benefits of the situation while simultaneously disenfranchising their creators. “Games are art!” cries a seventh ‘gamer’ while an eighth hurls slurs at Zoe Quinn for daring to produce something other than mere entertainment.

Existing as no more than a whirling storm of tuples in the databases of online retailers and dwelling solely amongst images and AstroTurf, ‘gamer’ culture cannot imagine a world made from anything except these things. Where it observes human friendship it imagines vast conspiracies, unable to comprehend a culture connected by individuals rather than brands and corporations. Where it encounters the flesh and blood experiences of Anita Sarkeesian it seeks to combat them with the pixels and ideology of Vivian James. (It is, in fact, incapable of discerning a difference between the two entities.) When people dispute its rule it assumes they serve a rival empire from the distant continent of ‘Social Justice’, come to steal its wealth and territory. It cannot imagine a reality without consensus, where different people and ideas coexist. Instead it drives its dissidents to revolt as an excuse to further marginalize them.

The ‘gamer’ empire, like all empires, wages a campaign of perpetual violence against its discontents. It threatens to eject them yet never permits them to leave. It goads them into attacking it so it might justify harassing them continuously. It makes impossible demands of them so it might punish them for failing to satisfy it. This is the never ending dialectic by which the powers of industry process creative people into pig feed: Exit the trough and you must answer to the animals.

Green Dragon

Green Dragon is a videogame by me that you can read about and play (for free!) on this very website. Presently it comes in Windows, OSX and Linux versions. I made this game for Ludum Dare’s 48 hour Compo, where it placed 55th out of nearly 1500 entries.

home

One night in university I experienced a fever dream that I still think about every day. In the dream I was an adolescent who’d spent his life stargazing through a telescope. I’d been trying the whole time to discover the location of one particular celestial body: A giant, dead green dragon floating somewhere in deep space. Its existence was rumoured, but never confirmed.

On the night of the dream I finally found it. Through the telescope I could see only fragments: a leg, a wing, a neck. Its corpse was disintegrating gracefully out there, scales trailing off into blackness as they blinked in the starlight. I felt I had to go find the thing; to touch it, to commune with it. This was a task of spiritual importance. In my dream the dragon was everything. It was me; the real me. Somehow I assembled a group of vague companions resembling the cast of a late-’90s Final Fantasy game. We departed from our home planet in search of the dragon, a flock of human forms drifting upwards from the Earth.

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Dreaming at the Full Indie Summit

One summer in 2008 we dreamt there was money in “indie games”.

It was a consensual hallucination experienced by thousands; a capricious belief, born from the resounding commercial success of games like Braid as juxtaposed against the dismal realities of AAA development work. Back then I counted myself amongst the dreamers.

I was born twenty years beforehand, in December ’88. As a shy middle class white boy growing up in Greater Vancouver, all I wanted to do was play with the computers my parents brought home. Yet where the previous generation, people like Richard Garriott and John Carmack, had spent their formative years hoping to become astronauts I spent them hoping to become Garriott or Carmack: A paragon of nerdness, an auteur of sorts, a so-called “game god”. This was the image I found in magazines and internalized; it was how I saw my future self whenever my daydreams pivoted towards optimism. (Sometimes I still catch it bubbling up from my id.)

A cover of PC Gamer magazine featuring a photo shoot with John Carmack, Sid Meier and Richard Garriott smiling warmly at the camera

Pictured: My subconscious, circa September ’99

By the time I entered high school, however, the magazine cover had changed: The picture grew darker as it became more concrete. Teams of less than ten had become greater than two hundred. Origin was now EA. DOOM was now DOOM 3. The axis of technology and capital had run amok, ‘maturing’ the videogame industry into an abject monstrosity; grown bloated and stiff, its body had begun to stink. I became increasingly aware that the future I sought, which I could not help but seek, was likely to consist of spending 12 hours per day modelling shin pads for EA Sports’ NHL franchise.

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Form and its Usurpers

What is the value of a phantom limb?

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan published a book called Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. It’s sort of like a religious text for media theorists, though it leans more towards apocrypha than canon. McLuhan was a bit of a heretic. He’s most famous for claiming it’s the form of a medium, rather than the messages we send through it, that has the biggest impact on society; not the violence we watch on television, for example, but the structural properties of television itself. Media change the world by changing its users on a fundamental level; by extending our bodies. The printing press is like a bionic mouth that lets us speak to a million people at once even centuries after our death. The internet is like a second face, a new partial self whose disembodied and digital form can both listen and speak to others of its kind. When I adopt a new medium it alters how I experience the world and what I can do to it, as if I had grown a new appendage. Even my Twitter persona, for example, represents a new facet of my body. At the same time, however, Twitter is a web service; a business run by people I can’t trust, yet with whom I nonetheless share ownership of my shiny new-grown limb. If they wanted to they could cut it off and sell it.

I develop videogames for a living, but I spent last year really hating videogames. I questioned how it was I could consume 60 hours of ‘content’ for Assassin’s Creed 3 yet feel utterly unsatisfied by my act of consumption. I questioned what it was I had consumed, other than my own time. I questioned what it was I sought from the game in the first place. I questioned the nature of the ‘content’ it claimed to offer me; privately I began to suspect it might not even exist. The games I was making and playing seemed more and more to me like empty forms: Puzzle boxes within puzzle boxes, each layer promising ‘content’ underneath it yet in the end yielding an empty centre. I became too tired and bored to care about games anymore. I could no longer see the point in it. I felt as if some enormous detritus had gathered upon my career and favourite hobby; that I could no longer reach through this detritus to claim the enjoyment I had once found underneath.

I awoke from my yearlong stupor the night I encountered a game called Problem Attic by a person named Liz Ryerson. It was like nothing I’d seen before. Rather than a puzzle box, it was more of a sculpture. Its ‘content’ was not buried behind teaching, gating or a thousand tiresome transactions; it was simply present, exposed, beautiful anywhere I cared to look. Ryerson had not designed the game to be consumed so much as authored it to contain ideas. We cannot consume an idea. We cannot lock and unlock it; we cannot buy and sell it; we cannot bundle it with an Xbox 360 at GameStop. We cannot possess ideas. But I learned from Attic that ideas can possess us. Attic made kindling of the detritus through which I’d been stumbling, lighting a bright yet tiny fire in the back of my brain. The more I thought about the game the more it changed the way I thought: About videogames, about Marshall McLuhan, about my job, about everything. As I put my thoughts into writing the fire spread, and the detritus began to burn away.

Upon completing Attic I resolved to write a brief close reading, so I sat down one evening hoping to produce 500 words. I stood up the next morning with 4000. Those words became Fashion, Emptiness and Problem Attic. But even as I published that piece I knew I was not finished. I’d learned Attic is a game about prisons of belief and behaviour: It’s not about looking at the path ahead, it’s about looking at the walls. Thus it was not enough to explain what Attic makes present that other videogames leave absent. I needed to understand the forces around me that created this absence in the first place. Another 4000 words later I’d concluded it was the values I internalized as a student of user-centered design (chief among them clarity and craft) that made me champion products I’d now come to hate. These words became The Cult of the Peacock. I liked that piece a lot, but still my work felt incomplete. I had yet to express the entirety of the thinking I’d been doing; columns of flaming detritus still swirled through my head. I’d learned Attic is not just a game about prisons; it’s also a game about jailers. It was not enough to criticize the shape of the prison in which my work was confined. I had to learn who built its walls.

McLuhan, if he were still alive, could tell us all about walls. He would say walls are a medium. By placing them in the world we form a new space that tells us where we can and can’t go, what we can and can’t do. In this particular sense McLuhan might also say that media, all our various technological appendages, function exactly like walls. When using media we tend to focus only on the messages we choose to send and receive through the paths laid out before us. But if we really want to know who has true power in the world we should seek the people designing the path; those who construct, own and operate the media through which we live our lives.

This is a story about how Steam, Twitter and the App Store came to exist. It’s about how these services present themselves as our friends while behaving as our enemies. It’s about how they stole the internet from us, creating a place where everything is ‘free’ but liberty remains unavailable. It’s about how their forebears stole our very language from us, creating a lexicon in which we have no means of even describing that which cannot be possessed and consumed. It’s about how they filled my head with detritus — with garbage — and sold all my new appendages to the highest bidder. Today I come to reclaim them.

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Blowjobs, Loneliness and Glitchhikers

Glitchhikers is a game by ceMelusine, Lucas J.W. Johnson and Andrew Grant Wilson that you can read about and play (for free!) on their website.

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In Glitchhikers we follow our protagonist, the Driver, down some lost highway late at night. We may use the keyboard to change lanes, to accelerate or decelerate, and to look out the side windows. These mechanics provide no ‘utility’ in the sense we typically associate with videogames. They do not advance the player towards victory or defeat, nor do they compel her to spend money via microtransactions. They provide no gratifying feedback; there are no excruciatingly-rendered speed lines that spew onto the screen as the Driver accelerates to 120, nor does some down-pitched ‘whoosh’ effect from The Matrix fart out of the speakers every time she slows to 90. She is not competing against some artificial intelligence to snag the most victory tokens from the highway’s three lanes. There are no conspicuous resource crates scattered about for her to collect, no thousand-headed hydra of  ‘mission objectives’ snapping at her from the corner of the screen. It is impossible to crash the car.

There is a school of thought in game criticism, which I have labelled The Cult of the Peacock, that doesn’t know what to do with Glitchhikers‘ game mechanics. It looks upon them with a screwed up face and, before making any other comment, utters something to the effect of “the driving controls don’t do anything!” It considers this to be a useful and valid criticism because it regards videogames as designed works whose purpose lies in some distant and mysterious dimension we call ‘fun’. It judges that since these mechanics do not immediately dispense ‘fun’ nor teach the player some skill with which to acquire ‘fun’ they must be superfluous, implicating their designers in the commission of some cardinal design sin. It insists these mechanics will make players confused and disoriented; that any cause not immediately followed by a gratifying and explicative effect is an act of heresy that must be purged from the product in service of clarity and craft. The customers have come to have ‘fun’, it believes, and so it seeks as its righteous purpose to deliver them unit after unit of fungible, systematized, thoroughly user-tested gratification. In other words, this school of thought believes that the purpose of a videogame is to perfect and perform ad infinitum the world’s most prolonged and least eventful blowjob.

Glitchhikers, for its part, is not particularly interested in exchanging gratification for money. It does not regard the player as a ‘John’ the way certain videogames do (either in the sense of “a prostitute’s client” or “a vessel for excrement”). Instead it regards her as one of many tiny inhabitants in its surreal virtual cosmos, imploring her to observe rather than affect; to interact rather than subjugate; to hold a memorable conversation with the world rather than merely ejaculate into it. The game does so, of course, through the very mechanics I’ve been describing, which far from being superfluous are essential to the form of the work.

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Elegant Editor-Only Script Execution in Unity3d

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of Unity programming. I love how easy it is to develop editor tools for my designers and how seamlessly these tools tend to integrate with the runtime environment. My favourite feature is the [ExecuteInEditMode] attribute because it lets me write all kinds of funky real-time level generation tools. (Like extruding 3D meshes from 2D primitives!) But what this attribute sorely lacks is the ability to have code execute ONLY in edit mode, where performance isn’t such a big deal. By default code placed in the Update() method will execute both when the scene changes in edit mode AND during every frame of play mode, making it unwieldy for expensive operations like realtime mesh generation (or even a large number of tiny operations, like setting a renderer’s sorting layer).

Step 1: Execute Only In Edit Mode

Various hacks around the internet purport to solve this problem. Some suggest using conditional compilation directives like #if UNITY_EDITOR. This is helpful for platform-specific builds, but unfortunately code placed within these directives will still execute in the editor’s play mode (which is, of course, where 98% of testing happens). Another approach involves checking a global variable like Application.isPlaying before doing anything editor-specific, but this is less than ideal should you have hundreds of active scripts in your scene (the performance cost of calling Update() on that many components, even if that function contains only one boolean comparison, can add up surprisingly fast). I’ve also found, although I haven’t verified it experimentally, that isPlaying becomes rather unreliable when it mixes with big scenes, custom inspectors and ExecuteInEditMode scripts.

I now use a solution that makes use of both conditional compile tags and a little-known global variable in the EditorApplication class:

[ExecuteInEditMode]
public class CurveGenerator : MonoBehaviour {

#if UNITY_EDITOR
	void Update () {
		if(UnityEditor.EditorApplication.isPlayingOrWillChangePlaymode) {
			this.enabled = false;
		} else {
			// editor code here!
		}
	}
	#endif
#endif

}

Here’s how this works. In edit mode, isPlayingOrWillChangePlaymode will always return false; thus, the editor-only code located within that else statement will execute every time Update() is called (generally every time the scene changes). In play mode isPlayingOrWillChangePlaymode will always return true, causing the MonoBehaviour to disable itself on the very first Update() and cease hogging performance beyond the first frame. (This is especially helpful when you’re trying to use the profiler to isolate script bottlenecks.) In compiled versions of the game the Update() method won’t even exist, saving us the trouble of having to disable it. The result of all this is that you can run horrifyingly-expensive setup code in edit mode that costs virtually no performance during play, which arguably is the entire point of an IDE like Unity.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: ‘Why not do away with all this ExecuteInEditMode voodoo and simply write a custom inspector? It will never run in play mode and you can use SerializedProperties and GUILayout and all that magic.’ Well, here’s the thing: Custom inspectors act only on currently-selected Unity object(s). Suppose you had a bunch of prefab instances, some of which had overridden properties, and you wanted every single one of them to regenerate their content each time you modified the parent prefab? What if some of your generator scripts modify other generator scripts, and you needed those ones to be responsible for their own regeneration even when not a single one of them is selected (and therefore their custom inspector code is completely unloaded)? What if those scripts used prefabs? ExecuteInEditMode provides an understandable, reliable, and relatively efficient way to let scripts respond to any change in state from anywhere in the IDE. Inspectors will never do that for you.

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Lord Bafford’s Manor

Saturday night  3 AM. I’ve been feeling an irrational urge to play the new Thief. I could not tell you why. I’ve heard that the level design is very good. Sadly, I’ve also heard that the rest of it is a bland, soggy porridge of directionless conspiracy film tropes and cloying AAA panache; caught in the middle, in other words, its various stakeholders unable to decide whether to seek the tone of its predecessors or ape whatever marketing trends were big back when the project hit preproduction. I’ve seen first hand how this happens: The masters of coveted IPs are often better at policing the surface elements of a project (the plot; the art direction; the marketing) than they are at policing the videogame stuff. Thus as a developer you become fixated on pushing a reasonable game design through even if you’ve been ordered to make Garrett into a Vengeance-Driven™ Cool Videogame Anti-Hero™ with a Dead Girlfriend™ standing resolute against a Plague-Ridden Cityscape™. I confess my urge to Twitter in hopes someone will convince me not to buy the thing; @fengxii mistakenly assumes I was talking about my desire to play the original Thief, and implores me to give in. Hmm. That sounds like a better idea.

I’ve played Deadly Shadows before, but never The Dark Project. Its age doesn’t faze me. I pride myself on my ability to jump headlong into ancient videogames, and 1998 is hardly as far back as our medium goes. 800×600 on a high-res 16:10 monitor? Fine. Glaring mouse lag? Okay. Muddy late ’90s textures mapped onto Quake-era BSP trees? Perfect. I could fix all of these things if I wanted to, but that would destroy the original context. I find myself enamoured by Dark Project’s chunky walls, which feel more solid than the elaborate trickery we use today. Here there are no invisible collision volumes warding us away from some bit of twenty-thousand polygon street junk, placed more to afford realistic screenshots than to produce an actual physical environment. There are no normal maps to create the illusion of depth along its brick walls even if, in truth, they are flat. Dark Project’s walls are walls. You can touch them.

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