Are Blockbuster Films Better Without Places?

Recently a veritable ‘divine beast’ of games criticism, Ian Bogost, has in his agitation triggered an avalanche of news pieces leaping to reaffirm (or reassess) the standing of videogames within our larger pantheon of media products. How do videogame stories relate to film stories, in terms of quality and style? Should videogames even have stories? What would it mean to embrace or abandon them? Are we winning the war for media supremacy? And so on, essay after essay, tumbling down off Mount Games Criticism like boulders off Mount Hylia. (I bought a Nintendo Switch this month.)

These questions present the dual hidden assumptions that a) a ‘war for media supremacy’ exists and b) it’s desirable for videogames to ‘win’ it. Do we seek conquest, perhaps, over the neighbouring empire of movies: to surpass its achievements, to steal its citizens, to seize its territories and plunder its wealth? Well, yeah. But there’s also the aspect of spectator sport. ‘Videogames’ are the home team! We want there to be championships, and we feel we’ve got a strong contender.

I don’t really care whether movie stories are better than videogame stories. But there’s one thing I’ll say for certain: videogame CGI is in many respects cooler than film CGI.

This is a more important comparison than you might first think. Just consider, for one moment, the sheer human force involved. Each and every Marvel film requires hundreds and hundreds of animators to work really long hours building CGI sets, characters and effects. A great deal of the film’s budget goes towards that. We’re not talking about some incidental production detail; this work threatens to dominate the entire film-making endeavour. In the end, what does all the labour and expense yield? Artfully-composed moving images of the fictional world of Asgard? Well, okay, that’s amazing! But it would be good if, y’know, we could explore the place a little more.

Like Marvel movies, games require hundreds and hundreds of people to work really long hours building CGI. We call this process “Mario time” now? It’s complicated. But anyway: in addition to framing fictional places, videogames are also really good at letting people explore them. Hasn’t it always been very important for works of fiction to provide the sense of a place? It’s a big deal.

Videogames like Kitty Horrorshow’s Anatomy and (to a lesser extent) Zelda: Breath of the Wild are excellent at providing this ‘sense of place’. You can walk up and touch things. You can climb on things. You can never finish the game because you were too scared to descend into the basement. These are all excellent fictional experiences. And so, as more and more of our creative budgets funnel downward through the blackened, gaping maw of CGI asset production, videogames shall continue receiving greater blessings from said maw than any denizen of the silver screen.

It’s a tremendous irony, don’t you think? After decades spent ostensibly in rivalry against the film industry and its formidable storytelling capacities, we discover that Hollywood’s great tent-pole blockbusters have spent those same decades attempting to build makeshift ‘walking simulators’ out of expensive CGI-driven panning shots. Would it be better if these movies simply stopped trying to tell us about places? I don’t think so. They’ve got their own cool, unique thing going on. I suggest we leave them to it!

On Homesickened

I produced this piece for an exhibition called Baby Castles X Arcade Review, in which the famed New York games collective teamed up with my favourite ever games magazine to pair videogames alongside critical essays via the medium of a crazy fucking art installation. AR is now defunct, but you can find its six wonderful issues (including a piece from me!) over at archive.org.

A modern computer display can show you more than 16 million distinct colours. This is nothing short of magical, but by now we’ve come to take such magic for granted. The landscapes we set as our desktop backgrounds look more or less like the ones we see in real life: the same red cliffs, the same blue oceans and the same green leaves.

In 1981 this was not the case. The Atari 2600—a machine designed explicitly for playing videogames—could theoretically show you 128 distinct colours (even though technical restrictions meant you’d see maybe a dozen in any given game). 128 was a lot.

Your parents’ IBM business computer, by contrast, absolutely was not designed for playing videogames. If configured to show only text (which was, after all, its intended purpose) it could display a whopping 16 distinct colours, each carefully selected to provide eye-melting contrast against the others. But if you wanted it to show you graphics—landscapes, characters or really anything else—it could only display about 4.

Of course, game developers could not help themselves. They were going to make videogames for it regardless—hundreds of them, it turned out—and just like musicians can spin pop hits out of only 4 chords, pixel artists could make sprawling fantasy adventures out of only 4 colours.

This is why, in 1981, every desktop computer game was pink.

Homesickened  (which you can play FOR FREE on itch.io) constructs a 3d environment of the sort we’re used to seeing in today’s videogames, but then presents it to us through the filter of IBM’s old cyan-and-magenta colour palette. It has us wander the streets of the sad little town where our protagonist grew up. We gather they moved away as soon as they were able; we gather they are unhappy to have been forced to return. It’s fitting that we should imagine this place as some relic we half-remember from thirty years ago, since for the protagonist that’s precisely what it is.

Homesickened, we immediately notice, is more faithful to its ‘retro’ source material than the vast majority of its contemporaries. Many games strive to look, say, Atari-ish on the surface even as they incorporate a host of modern conveniences: moving more smoothly, using extra colours and so on. Homesickened does the opposite of this. We do not slide smoothly through the space, like the floating camera people we control in today’s shooter games. We move like it’s 1981: One, really, long, and, slow, frame, at, a, time.

This is a very intentional artistic choice. The computer could go two hundred times faster if the game’s author, Snapman, allowed it to. Picture a golden retriever with a milkbone balanced on its nose: That’s how badly the computer wants to speed things up, and training it to do otherwise requires devotion.

At first we are inclined to sympathize with the dog rather than the author. Research tells us that a delay of even one tenth of a second between pressing a button and seeing a response is enough to cause us a sort of physical pain, and Homesickened leans into this hard. It feels dysphoric when our computer refuses to let us take the action we’ve already decided we wish to take; as we watch the frames scan by, one or two per second, a nauseous feeling rises from our gut. The game’s cyan-coloured townspeople await us way off in the distance, inviting us to speak with them. We are impatient to know what they will say: what our new instructions shall be. We feel a little annoyed and a little bored. As players we so seldom want to wait.

Yet eventually we may notice a magic hiding in that space between the frames. It stretches out our sense of time, making it feel like years are passing with every step we take. It makes the town into a discontinuous space, occupying a discontinuous timeline. It mirrors the shape of our memories: distorted and fragmentary.

If we make it past our initial burst of nausea—if we demonstrate the patience and wonder we had for our parent’s old IBM—we discover a patchwork of compelling personal stories. There was a picnic, the protagonist tells us, in which they took food from another family’s plate because they mistakenly believed it was pot luck. They felt this family glare at them (in the way only bad memories can glare); they then ran crying into the woods.

These stories serve to silhouette the reasons why our protagonist moved away rather than attempting to enumerate them outright. Were they hungry because their own family could not afford food? Did social isolation make them fragile against embarrassment? Did this family at the picnic look down on them (or did the protagonist believe this to be the case)? We don’t find out, but we don’t really need to. It is obvious, somehow, why a person would want to leave this place. It is present in the space between the frames: a sickness that pervades everything. And as we tromp back and forth over these sad, slow streets, the computer tells us all we need to know.

Venice, Persia and VIRTUA BLINDS

VIRTUA BLINDS is a vaporware by Daffodil that you can play on itch.io.

We call our blinds ‘Venetian’ for no particularly good reason. We’re pretty sure they were invented in Iran, which is a place we’ve often called ‘Persia’ due to an Ancient Greek mistranslation of its actual name. Playing this game makes me wonder about the history of these two powers. When Leonidas stood at Thermopylae and declared that “Tonight we dine in Hades!” did he foresee he’d be fighting to steal credit from his opponents for the invention of horizontally-slatted windowshades? If we’d shown him the suburbia his wars helped create—thirty million identical houses, all glimpsed lawn to lawn through cracks in Venetian blinds—would he even still have fought?

In Daffodil’s words VIRTUA BLINDS represents “the future of gaming”, which is a conclusion I’m prepared to accept. This is an industry in which our chief signifiers of quality include A) actually-flushing toilets and B) ‘god rays’ scattered everywhere EXCEPT for the inside of our actually-flushing toilets. We are not ‘immersed’—the situation is not ‘realistic’ enough—unless we can flush a toilet in which we didn’t actually pee and view brightly-illuminated dust particles in settings they would not actually illuminate. Why haven’t we been bothered by the absence of actually-slatted blinds, which go up and down and furl and unfurl and are ‘Venetian’? This is what the blinds in VIRTUA BLINDS do, and it is glorious. It sets a new gold standard for immersion and realism. It demands a response from gamers, from developers, from publishers and streamers. Here, it declares, is the future for which Leonidas died. Here, everywhere and always, is the future.

Before The Wheel

One thing you learn after a few years of professional creative work is this: money loves certainty. Not just any kind of certainty, mind you. Not the kind we produce in science labs through decades of careful experiments; not the kind that comes down from the mountain on the lips of old philosophers. It’s the feeling, the sensation of certainty: that wild glow behind a gambling addict’s eyes that compels them to bet their savings on roulette.

This should not be especially surprising; what is creative commerce, after all, if not an exercise in risk? We gamble the money of our financiers (and, often, our own livelihoods) on outcomes no honest person could predict. Will we complete our project on schedule, if indeed we complete it at all? How many people will like the thing we make; how many will pay money for it, tell their friends about it, come back to us for more? How many people will even hear that it exists?

If you are a creative executive—someone tasked with determining how much money to spend on which idea—you must attempt to predict these very outcomes, honestly or otherwise. You sit on a pile of money your bosses ordered you to spend very carefully. Your job, as we’ve established, is to gamble it; yet if you said so out loud you’d be tossed from the building and replaced with whomever had the good sense not to speak. Instead you must convince many rooms full of high-powered biz people (most of whom privately want to strangle each other) that something, anything is a sure thing: that the money they entrust to you will turn like magic into more money, and later into more money still. This is all money ever wants to hear.

What follows is a story about the ways creative people can and cannot be certain. It’s a story of gamblers, crafters, hucksters and true believers. Mostly it’s a story about the age-old gulf between artists and business folk, which only seems to widen as we cram ourselves into smaller and smaller rooms. If we read this story together, and we read it with sympathy, I think we can make it across.

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Fixing The Bugs

In university I’d spend lazy afternoons picking through videogame-related internet forums. It made me feel connected to a community of fellow enthusiasts: helped me digest the latest industry gossip, and develop with grave diligence all my best Videogame Opinions.

People there would often bemoan the presence of ‘bugs’ in the games they purchased. ‘How can the developers get away with this garbage?’ someone would exclaim in mock bewilderment. ‘Do they not bug test their games at all? It’s inexcusable! It’s as if they spent all their time on the graphics, which are shitty anyway,’ and so on. It’s become an undercurrent in videogameland: a wellspring of populist outrage, fit to spice up any review, Let’s Play or livestream.

Back then I would have typed up a furious, factual defence of the game developer I hoped one day to become: first filling up the little ‘quick reply’ box, then copying-and-pasting my growing manuscript into a full-blown Word document. Today, however, I’ve learned these posters’ questions were a sort of rhetorical Trojan Horse. In debating whether some otherwise-perfect game experience has been marred by a shifty behind-the-scenes computer programmer, I’d already accepted two bad assumptions: first that the ‘perfect game experience’ can objectively exist, second that I might purchase that experience in a store. And though the conversation always cloaked itself in fact—this particular game developer, that particular variety of computer glitch—it was never really about facts. Instead it was about feelings, and about status. It was about persuading people that they’d lost something (that, in fact, someone had stolen it from them) when in truth they’d never had it to begin with. It was about all the things advertisers manipulate when they transmute ‘wants’ into ‘needs’.

To understand why videogames contain so many bugs—and why people find this so upsetting—it helps to think about the gradual extermination of all life on the planet Earth.

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The Weeknd In The Wasteland

Originally published on December 4, 2015, available at http://www.unwinnable.com. All rights reserved.

Anyone who reads a lot of criticism must learn to deal with friends who accuse them of ‘over-analyzing’ stuff. Granted, there are people in the world who’d love to hear me expound on the hidden meanings behind The Shining’s conspicuously-placed Calumet Baking Powder cans; many others, however, would find it tedious. I think it’s polite to read the room a bit before opening my mouth.

The Shining is one of those ‘complicated’ films, full of dark corners in which to build dense essays and hour-long YouTube analyses. I like complicated films! But I also appreciate those ‘CliffsNotes’ kinds of films: equally-great works that place their themes right out in the open. You rarely need an essay for those ones. Sometimes all it takes is one sentence. For example: I think the sled in Citizen Kane represents the protagonist’s childhood innocence. It’s not the most exciting thesis, but it’s concise, and it’s relatable, and that’s nice!

In the land of videogame criticism—which is my country of origin—we tend to get the worst of both worlds. While Kane spends its runtime showing us snowglobes and sleds, the time I’ve spent with Fallout 4 consists mostly of digging medical syringes out of garbage cans so I can use them to magically heal bullet wounds. It’s hard to decide what I think the garbage cans represent. I’m pretty sure it’s not my character’s childhood innocence.

The videogame industry would hate for you to ‘over-analyze’ these elements. Its spokespeople would have us believe that said elements don’t mean anything. They’d claim these elements exist simply to gratify: to be fun and exciting, rather than enlightening in any particular way.  Playing a videogame, by this mode of thinking, is essentially like receiving an impersonal blowjob from your computer. You’re there to be stimulated; you don’t much care for the company.

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Kafka In The Friend Zone

In The Friend Zone is a Twine game by me that you can play (for free!) on itch.io.

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My work on Friend Zone began with the game’s ending: a sort of prolonged joke riffing on a parable called “Before The Law” by a writer named Franz Kafka. Here are the parable’s opening lines:

Before The Law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper, and requests admittance to The Law. But the doorkeeper says that he can’t grant him admittance now. The man thinks it over and then asks if he’ll be allowed to enter later. “It’s possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not now.”

The man might overpower the doorkeeper if he wanted to, but behind this doorkeeper is another; behind that one is yet another, and so on. Each, if you believe what the doorkeeper says, is more powerful than the last. The man tries for years to talk his way in. He begs, he pleads; he bribes the doorkeeper with everything he owns. Nothing works.

Eventually the man is old and dying, and still he has not seen The Law. Then, as his death approaches, blinding light shoots from the doorway. He experiences an epiphany. All his thoughts and memories coalesce into a single shining question, which he puts forth to the doorkeeper: “Everyone strives to reach The Law,” says the man. “How does it happen, then, that in all these years no one but me has requested admittance?”

The doorkeeper tells him that no one else could have passed through this door. This door was made only for him.

I think the parable is about mistaking the subjective for the universal. The man imagined The Law within his own mind, so vividly that he mistook it for something outside himself: something tangible, something real. He further mistook it for something after which everyone strove, when in truth only he could strive after that which only he had imagined. The man desired something to seek, and not to feel alone in seeking it; and so, like a dog chasing its own tail, this man came to chase The Law.

My joke—what would become the conclusion of my Twine game—plays off the very same mistakes, though replacing “The Law” with “The Sex”. Before The Sex sits a casual acquaintance. A man from Reddit comes to this acquaintance and asks to gain admission to The Sex. He believes that as a man he must pursue some universal ideal of manhood: that this is his purpose and birthright, sought by him and all men like him. In truth he is more like a dog; though he hopes chasing tail will bring meaning to his life, the only tail he really chases is his own.

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Form and its Discontents

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A year and a half ago I was commissioned to write a piece for a cool new alternative games publication called Arcade Review. I was halfway down a rhetorical spiral that kicked off with my Problem Attic piece; a followup, called Cult of the Peacock, became the first thing I’d ever written to garner more than ten thousand readers. The AR piece was supposed to conclude my little games crit trilogy, solving once and for all the problem of ‘form’, ‘content’ and videogames! (lol.)

I made it five thousand words in before realizing I would never hit my deadline. I then decided to split the thing in two, sending the first part to AR and resolving to work the rest out later. I called this piece “Form and its Discontents”. It goes something like this:

At great cost it is possible to draw players along a trail of breadcrumbs through the labyrinthine structure of a videogame. Yet what beauty will they find in there with their eyes fixed so firmly upon the ground before them? What will they think of you when they step past the final crumb and look up, at last, to discover nothing but an unskippable twenty minute credits screen?

If you read me very often, you might know what became of part two. Yet part one has now become available—free as in gratis—on AR’s website! It’s about how a film form is ‘exposed’ while game form is ‘subterranean’: how popular attitudes around spoilers and consumption do not apply consistently to both media, forcing game critics to approach each one differently. You can find the piece here, alongside all manner of truly excellent words about videogames:

Arcade Review Issue #2

PREVIEW: Uncharted 7

I was very surprised, upon visiting Uncharted developer Naughty Dog’s new downtown office, to discover that the walls were all stained yellow. It’s a bold choice, coming from a developer known for its games’ exceptional polish. Their Production Lead, who identified themself only as K, smiled oddly as they led me down the tunnel to what they called the studio’s ‘testing apparatus’. Uncharted 7 will make use of an exciting new haptic technology, they explained, to really immerse you in the vibrant world of Nathan Drake. When they first showed me the apparatus, I admit I was skeptical; the upfront cost of 270 motorized syringes would price most gamers out of the market, never mind the ongoing expense of fluid cartridges. I asked K if there would be an option to play the final game WITHOUT strapping into the needle machine, but their PR person told me there are no details about that at this time.

Uncharted 7 will be the first Naughty Dog game to run at a solid 500 frames per second. They can do this, K explained, because the game contains no computer graphics whatsoever. Instead the forthcoming adventure will be rendered directly onto the player’s back using the aforementioned motorized syringe array! That’s right: every second, 500 needles will inject differently-mixed pain fluids beneath the surface of the player’s skin, communicating all the action directly via their central nervous system. K said there is far less latency than a traditional computer setup, but I was in shock for most of it so I can’t confirm this firsthand.

It was a little weird, in retrospect, that there was no sign above the studio’s front entrance. And that K’s PR person had talons instead of a face. Oh well. Uncharted 7 is coming to all needle-based gaming platforms on the Eve of Dar’ghul’s Awakening, which I assume is like Fall 2018? Stay tuned for our obligatory 5-star review and, hopefully, some much-needed skin grafts.

The Abject Emptiness of ‘Everything’

The philosopher Slavoj Zizek is distressingly fond of a rhetorical trick we’ll call Confirmation By Negation. The idea is that by searching carefully through seemingly contradictory notions we arrive at some fundamental truth. You tell me you want to drink this latte, but what if the opposite were true!? You may want to hold the latte, to sip from the latte, but never would you want to finish it! Never would you desire to grow fat from its milk and sugar, or to suffer the negative effects of its caffeine! In this notion of the dairy-free, sugar-free, caffeine-free latte we discover the truest ideals of postmodernity! And so on.

So it is with many of today’s open world videogames. They seek to let you do anything, which of course means there is nothing to do!  Their attempts to regulate your rise to power flatten them to an exercise in exchanging meaningless junk for the means to accrue more meaningless junk, and their deluge of tiny consequences for all your tiny actions of course renders them consequence-free. Their unique storyworlds—immersion in which is supposed to be the entire point of playing—somehow become completely external to them, since of course every ‘open world’ from Middle Earth to Mad Max manages to be exactly the same. You say you want an open world, but my god, don’t you actually want the opposite!?

We can view these games as a sequence of empty gestures designed to mediate our experience of the dreadful Other who lurks on the opposite side of their ending cinematics. We climb many instances of essentially the same tower to reveal wide swathes of essentially the same territory, in which we perform essentially the same regimen of busywork. We do this so that many instances of the same Orwellian super-presence will pass ‘control’ over this territory from itself unto us. In Assassin’s Creed we transact with the evil and mysterious Templars; in Batman it’s the evil and mysterious Arkham Knight. In The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, perhaps most tellingly of all, we transact with hell itself. The game opens scores of its Oblivion Gates—all of which are essentially the same Oblivion Gate—and invites us to close them one at a time. By investing many hours of our labour, we sew shut the bursting seams of eternity! What better way to relieve ourselves of boredom?

What is boredom, if not fear of our inevitable death?

Within each of these games we pilot the same walking contradiction: something that is at once us, and not us. Where our real world body cannot have very much of what it wants, our open world body can have everything that is available, which of course is many instances of the same thing. But you see, it is also more! Confirmation By Negation tells us that ‘possession’ is predicated both on what we have and what we can’t have. When there is nothing in the universe we can’t have, the idea of ‘possession’ does not meaningfully exist; there is, in fact, nothing to possess. Thus when Fable II’s Orwellian super-presence permits us to transact from it marriage with every character in the world (each of whom is essentially the same character and thus a non-character), we discover little point in marrying anyone in particular. We discover the very essence of the open world system: a machine permitting us to learn, by manipulating it, precisely how and why manipulating it can have no effect.

The ‘open world’ is a mirror through which we can view, indirectly, the abject emptiness lying beyond our realm of experience. Within its reams upon reams of collectible things, we recognize and find comfort in the absence of any particular thing; we enact the ritual of collecting junk until there is no more junk to collect, at which time we discover triumphantly that we have succeeded in gathering the pure, distilled essence of nothing. We hold it in our hands, we add it to our gamer score, then we reach for a second world that is in truth another instance of the first. Here is Zizek’s dairy-free, sugar-free, caffeine-free, never-ending latte! Drink as long as you please, for your stomach can never fill.