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.

The Ghosts of Bioshock

This article is also available in audiobook form over at Sufficiently Human!

chief-big-foot-croppedSpotted Elk, a man known later in life as Chief Big Foot, lived in a place we now call South Dakota from ~1825 until December 1890. Though he was a notable figure in life, today the United States remembers him mostly for his death. He remains famous there, by sight if not by name, because a Chicago newspaper published a photograph of his corpse lying bent up in the snows of Wounded Knee Creek following the massacre that bears its name. Archivists preserved this photograph through the intervening century so that it now adorns many a textbook and webpage. When I look at it I’m tempted to see a sensational primary document depicting the death throes of the Lakota people, the Great Sioux Nation to which they belonged and, in a larger sense, the final defeat of First Nations civilization at the hands of European expansionism.

But then I consider the ways in which this image is deceptive. As I understand it the photographers posed Spotted Elk’s body posthumously, propping him up for the camera before they took the shot. I wonder whether they shovelled that snow onto his thigh to connote the passing of the Sioux into the land, never to be seen again. I wonder if they wretched at the sight of the bullet wound in his neck while working to hide it from view; or perhaps they did not flinch, having already grown accustomed to articulating dead bodies. The most famous version of the photograph, the one you see above, crops out the United States soldiers mulling about in the aftermath of the massacre; it excludes the hundreds of dead Sioux surrounding Spotted Elk in the snow, and the mass grave into which the soldiers shovelled their bodies. It frames the victim rather than his attackers, suggesting he was taken by some disembodied force instead of a soldier’s Winchester rifle. The serene expression on his face makes him seem like some spirit vanishing quietly from the world rather than a sixty-five year old man who was just shredded to pieces in a hail of gunfire. The photograph does not reveal the fact that Spotted Elk died right in front of his twelve year old grandson; it can only hint at the fact that the child miraculously escaped.

What we see in this photograph is not the Sioux as they truly were in 1890. It is the Sioux as Chicago wanted them to be: Tragically and conveniently eradicated. Wounded Knee was to become the curtain call for what whites dubbed “the Indian Wars”; the mighty engine of Manifest Destiny was to be at last decommissioned, victorious in its quest to colonize the continent, and the times of trouble were supposed to be over. In the 1870s, when white settlers still surged into Sioux territory, newspapers might have painted Sioux as wanton rapists and pillagers. Yet as their capacity for resistance gradually waned and they ceased to pose a threat, a gentler image came into fashion: That of the noble savage, a piteous being driven to extinction not by human beings but by the spirit of ‘historical progress’. In truth, of course, the Sioux were never wanton rapists and pillagers nor did they ever go extinct. They are still here, no matter how hard the US government tries to ignore them, and Wounded Knee Creek has remained a battleground (both literally and figuratively) for over a century. Spotted Elk’s family survives to this very day; you can find some of them on Twitter.

I came to study the Wounded Knee Massacre via the unlikeliest of tangents: I heard about it in Bioshock Infinite, a big-budget videogame in which the racist inhabitants of a floating city named Columbia present an astonishingly ‘1870s’ view of the event:

Here we see Wounded Knee as a Disneyland exhibit, were the theme park run (as Columbia is) by the unrepentant perpetrators of the massacre. Inside we find more photographs; more painstakingly articulated corpses, their photographers hoping to sell us a story about the people who killed Spotted Elk that day at the creek. The photographs are nested within one another, each showing conflicting perspectives. On one level we see the perpetrators hoping to erase their guilt from history; on another we see the creators of Infinite seeking to highlight this attempt at historical revisionism. It speaks once again to how images mutate over time. In Chicago 1890 they mourned the noble savage; in Boston 2013 we reconsider who is most guilty of savagery.

The Bioshock franchise purports to tell us ghost stories in a multiverse with three constants: There’s always “a Man, a Lighthouse and a City”. These, however, are not the constants that interest me. When I look at Infinite I see hundreds upon hundreds of photographs, along with the corpses those photos depict. Among these number cardboard Sioux warriors, as we’ve discussed; beside them are cardboard rebels from the Boxers of North China; lastly there are American frontier people, personified by residents of Columbia and the various incarnations of ‘1870s Doomguy’ Booker DeWitt. Recently we’ve all gotten the chance to photograph the corpse of Irrational Games itself, which closed its doors in the aftermath of Infinite’s perilous production and complicated reception. (This article constitutes another such photograph.) I’ve come to believe that in the histories we write about our world there are only two salient constants: There’s always a corpse, and there’s always a camera.

What follows, then, is a ghost story from me. It’s about what happened to the Boxers and the Sioux, whose stories bear an uncanny resemblance to one another despite their separation by an ocean. It’s about what happened to the spirit of Columbia, who was a real world national myth before she became a fictional sky city. Lastly it’s about what always happens to men like Booker DeWitt: The stories they steal from their victims, the messianic cults they fashion for themselves and their ultimate fate lying dead in the very same grave they dug for their enemies. This story begins, once again, in the Dakotas.

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Hard in the Hinterlands

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a very large, very long videogame. We in the business of producing such things use special lingo to express this: We say it features a great deal of ‘content’. We believe this to be a good thing. Unlike the film industry, wherein reviewers complain with equal frequency that this movie is too long or that one too short, the game industry is all about high volume for a low price. The formula is as follows:


Just as we assess duration differently from the film industry, so too do we have a unique way of assessing quality. We tend not to care all that much about character, or plot, or tone, or Shakespeare’s 5 act structure. Videogames are about ‘gameplay’, yes? They’re about ‘fun’. We in the videogame business seek a compelling ‘core loop’ to which players will gladly return over and over (and over and over) again. In plainer language we might say we seek some series of rituals for the player to perform that never ceases to gratify her so long as we freshen it up every so often; something we can augment in subtle ways, say by changing the setting in which she performs it or the circumstances compelling her to do so. Dragon Age: Inquisition is about a few different things, but mostly it’s about murder. This is no surprise: Killing people is a popular component in ‘core loops’ all around the game industry on account of its versatility. You can kill them on a plain. You can kill them in the rain. You can kill them in a coup; you can kill them with a shoe.

This is how our ‘content’ avoids becoming tangled like the elements of an intricate plot often do, where nothing can move an inch without the whole thing collapsing. Our ‘content’ is a modular, fungible commodity. We can add or subtract it as we require and players can consume as much or as little as they please. It’s how we make 90 hours of near-identical media images feel novel and gratifying the whole way through. The Hollywood film industry does not operate in quite this way; I find it very interesting, however, to reflect on the fact that the porn industry is almost perfectly analogous.

The most common strain of pornography you can find on the internet features one female actor cast as the ‘star’ alongside one male performer cast as a sort of ‘cipher’ through which the viewer vicariously obtains access to this star. The ideological objective of these films is to render the star’s body and mind into a quantity of ‘content’ for the viewer to consume (vicariously, via the cipher) over the course of the next half-hour or so. To this end, the actors simulate a series of rituals by which the cipher gains access first to the star’s attention, then her company, then her clothed body, then her naked body and so on. The film’s dramatic climax (what people in my biz call a ‘boss fight’) depicts the cipher’s orgasm in excruciating detail; the narrative heralds this as the ultimate ritual by which the cipher/viewer finishes consuming the star’s ‘content’, signalling that she has supremely and comprehensively gratified them in that peculiar capitalist way familiar to anyone who has ever bought and completed a large videogame (which is to say ‘they had fun’). This is the ‘core loop’ of pornography; change up the actors, the venue and/or the wardrobe and you’ve got ‘content’ for days.

Yet here is where my problem begins. I once heard a former porn star compare the sensation of having sex on set to massaging one’s back teeth with one’s own forefinger. For her there was no libidinal aspect to it; it was just arbitrary physical exercise. I’ve also watched documentaries in which male actors describe the difficulty involved in obtaining and sustaining an erection on command; often they come to rely on erectile dysfunction medications to help them. I must therefore conclude that porn actors get to have sex all day in the same way QA testers get to play videogames all day, which is to say they don’t really get to do so at all. The actors do not truly gratify one another in the way these films suggest the characters do; the sexual component of their interaction is, of course, the product of a dramatic performance.

This all leads to a funny moment near the end of the video, just as the cipher is on the verge of performing his orgasm. The star is usually in the midst of pantomiming whatever sex act the director chose for the climax, panting in the way pop stars do after they’ve been singing and dancing on stage all night. Then suddenly the cipher shoos her away from his genitals so he can focus on the task all by himself. You see, a good cipher is a reliable cipher: He must deliver his performance regardless of who his partner is or what they’re doing. As such, he has learned which precise sequence of mental, physical and chemical auto-stimulation he must now perform. The star needn’t know anything about this; her contract does not require her to assist her partner with his erection and no one expects her to do so. In truth, her presence makes no actual contribution towards the orgasm about to take place. Yet there she is, feigning enjoyment in very close proximity to her partner while being careful to avoid distracting him. And there he is, blithely ignoring the presence of the partner who in the plot represents the bestower of and sole impetus for his orgasm. What brilliant irony!

I need only consult Gamasutra’s blog section to confirm that the most notable difference between videogames and other media (such as hardcore pornography) is the fact that games are interactive. I have read over and over again that this unique quality changes everything about how we should approach our little medium. Well, okay: Let us then claim that games like Dragon Age: Inquisition are distinct from porn in that they cast me, the player, as both viewer and cipher simultaneously! Not only is it my job as viewer to become gratified by consuming the game’s ninety hours of ‘content’; as cipher I must also perform the rituals by which my character shall obtain the power they require to save the fictional realm of Thedas. I’ve noticed the game’s boss fights are ironic in the same sense as the money shots I just described. There I am, perched over Dragon Age: Inquisition with controller in hand, furiously repeating the combination of magic spells and deadly swordplay I know will gradually reduce the boss’ life to zero. And there is Dragon Age: Inquisition, doing its best not to distract me with any of its extravagant voice acting or lavish scenery. In truth the boss does not even resist my efforts to kill them, as the plot suggests they should; instead they strive to provide a strenuous yet ‘fun’ encounter, tacitly assisting me in my epic quest to perform the same repetitive hand movements over and over again until they are dead.

A question, reader: Were you weirded out just there, or in any of my preceding paragraphs, by the casual association of sexual favours with acts of murder? If so, I might cautiously infer you either haven’t played a lot of large videogames or you’ve played far too many. Nowhere is our culture’s bizarre conflation of sex and violent conquest more apparent than here in videogameland. Consider that as developers we intend for our games to foster collaboration between the player and her computer; indeed, we spend boundless energy ensuring that as a performer she feels comfortable and unconfused while as a viewer she experiences the gratification we promised her in our marketing materials. Suppose for a moment that I am an uninitiated observer. Should I not have every right to expect software whose stated purpose is ‘fun’ to have far more to do with sex than violence? (Is this not why Gamasutra, our foremost industry trade site, thought to name itself after a manual for sexual endeavour?) Why, then, does the plot overlaying my frantic hand gestures concern itself so deeply with violence (combat, war and diplomacy) instead of collaboration (sex, friendship and trust)? This is the fundamental problem we encounter whenever we attempt to borrow the viewer/cipher/star dynamic from other media: While in movies I might only observe a violent encounter between human and Abyssal High Dragon, in videogames I must simultaneously don the silly motion capture suit and perform before a greenscreen. In games, as on stage, I sense the virtual dragon waiting politely for me to finish.

I believe it is for these reasons that I enjoy Inquisition most whenever sex, friendship and trust advance to the foreground; when I’m shooting the shit with Bull and his mercenaries, or wandering the wilderness listening to Sera embarrass all our mutual acquaintances. These are the performances I wish to deliver on behalf of the game’s protagonist, and so I am put off each time it insists my primary purpose within it is to pantomime murder over and over again. I resent the market forces that drove Bioware to inlay my favourite scenes between swathes of banal violence stretching beyond the horizon. I resent the quantification of all things into obstacles to crush and spoils to obtain in the name of a vain and transparent ‘core loop’ whose underlying ideology I find toxic. If there is to be room in my life for huge videogames I must ask them to do more than incrementally enhance the resolution and scope at which I view and simultaneously pantomime the penetration of my character’s enemies. They must stop attempting to gratify me in this way; frankly, I’d be thrilled if they sought to do literally anything else.

Revisiting Problem Attic

I told Liz Ryerson I’d try to get a Let’s Play together for her videogame Problem Attic (a videogame you can read about and play for free on her website) way back in January of 2014. I needed to take care of a few things first, however. Most pressingly I needed a reasonable microphone, which was simple enough to acquire. But secondly I wanted to try correcting the frontal lisp that has embarrassed me since childhood. A frontal lisp happens when your tongue sticks through your teeth as you pronounce an English ‘S’; the word ‘spin’ becomes ‘thpin’, for example, or the name ‘Liz Ryerson’ becomes ‘Lith Ryerthon’. This was unacceptable.

One day last August I resolved to go cold turkey; I would simply refuse to allow my tongue through my teeth unless performing the English ‘th’ (a sound present in few other languages, perhaps because of how utterly bizarre it sounds and how badly it links with other consonants). The first week or two my tongue would slam into my gums every time I tried to talk; the ensuing months gave me jaw cramps from clenching it all day long. By the time I recorded voiceover for this video I’d gotten a passable handle on my new way of speech; when I listen back to the recordings, however, I cringe at every single bad ‘S’ (of which there are many). Having read these two paragraphs, dear viewer, you now get to do the same!

What follows is a Let’s Play of Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic from beginning to end, with voiceover recorded after the playthrough. I made it exactly one year after publishing Fashion, Emptiness and Problem Attic on this very website; my perspective on the game has changed quite a bit since then, but I’m still fairly happy with my work.

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.

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, Andrew Grant Wilson and Claris Cyarron that you can read about and play (for free!) on their website.


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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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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