Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Look Back at Perfect Dark, the Next Big Thing of 2000

I was 17 years old when I first played Perfect Dark. A few months ago, at age 35, I finally finished it. Perfect Dark occupies a strange place in the pantheon of games. Some people swear by its greatness. I could never help but feel mostly disappointed.

Developed by Rare and released for the aging Nintendo 64 in May of 2000, Perfect Dark was a massively hyped game in the years leading up to its completion. I remember following that hype. Rare, a well-regarded U.K. studio, had already made a string of hits on Nintendo's third home console, ranging from quirky 3D platformers to quirky cart racers to a quirky game about demolishing buildings.

Perhaps their greatest N64 hit, however, was GoldenEye 007, a breakthrough first-person shooter (FPS) based on the 1995 James Bond film. It wasn't overly quirky. Lauded not only as one of the few good games from that era based on a film license, GoldenEye marked a huge step forward for the console-based FPS when it arrived in 1997. Here was a game that seemed to have a semi-coherent control scheme—thanks in part to the N64 controller's analog thumb stick—that also offered, quite unexpectedly, a fresh new take on the entire genre.

The Rein of Bond

Unlike most movie tie-in games, GoldenEye 007 was no rush job or paint-by-numbers DOOM clone slapped together with a few James Bond art assets and character skins. This was a game built from the ground up, one that actually revolved around the concept of being a super spy. You had to sneakily infiltrate hostile areas, complete tricky mission objectives like disabling security cameras and stealing computer data, as well as fight your way out of sticky situations when you were eventually compromised. There was an actual stealth component to the moving and shooting, as in you needed to move and shoot either very quickly or very cautiously, so as not to alert other nearby guards and be swarmed with gunfire. It was the first game I remember playing that let me pick up a sniper rifle—in the first level, no less—and pick off unsuspecting guards from a ridiculous distance. Oh, the twisted pleasure of instant-kill headshots!

And while the game (out of necessity) added a number of story beats that departed from the film, it also went out of its way to faithfully replicate other parts of the source material. I remember going back at one point and watching the beginning of the GoldenEye film when it aired on TV and being delighted when I recognized the exact level design from the game's second mission, "Facility," right there within the film's intro sequence.

Despite all of that, however, the game's most lasting legacy was not its single-player campaign (we didn't actually use that term back then) but rather its split-screen multiplayer component. If you didn't grow up in the 1990s and never experienced staying up all night with a group of friends playing GoldenEye on some crappy old-school television set, you missed out on a small piece of video game history. (It's OK if you did. I've missed out on more of these moments than I care to count.) Whereas the game offered a handful of play modes that mixed up the rules and weapon selections, the beauty of the game was its absolute simplicity. You and three of your buddies would run around a level and shoot at anyone else you encountered. The person with the most kills at the end of a round was the winner. The game even awarded each player at the end with range of both flattering and embarrassing titles, like "Most Cowardly" for people who ran away from gunfights or "Most Professional," the latter perhaps for the player with the most accurate shooting.

It's not like GoldenEye was ever a perfect game. Some of the ideas it played with didn't always pan out. There were funky ways to fail a given mission, like accidentally placing an explosive or a gadget on the wrong target. Instead of letting you pick up that object to try again, it was an instant fail for the entire mission. It seemed to me that the single-player game was really only so fun and interesting up to a certain point. As a part of its constant need to mix things up in terms of setting and scenario, some of its ideas just fell a bit flat. I remember a terrible escort mission that saw you trying to prevent an A.I.-controlled non-player character from being killed by a hail of bullets, as well as one mission set at night with a bunch of shipping containers where the enemies were hard to see.

When word got out that Rare was working on a spiritual successor to GoldenEye, it got a lot of people's attention—mine included. While on the one hand it was sad to see the developer abandoning the 007 license for the follow-up game, the prospect of an original IP was exciting in its own right. I think the title of the game was announced from the get go, as was the name and identity of the game's protagonist, Joanna Dark. She was presented as a Bond-like spy character in her own right, but the game was set to take place in more of a futuristic, sci-fi universe. Some of the promotional screenshots hinted at something of a cyberpunk theme. This was enough to get anyone excited.

I don't know all that much about the game's development history, but it was clear the team was aiming high in terms of technical innovation. And the game did push the Nintendo 64 hardware to its limits. In order to play the single-player campaign, players had to get their hands on a Nintendo 64 Expansion Pak, which was used to double the console's memory capacity from 2 MB to 4 MB. It was something that had been previously bundled in one of Rare's prior games, Donkey Kong 64, but it was also sold separately. At one point, there was a planned feature that would have allowed players to scan in their own faces by way of the Game Boy Camera accessory and slap them onto the in-game character models. You'd be able to shoot your friends face's in the game, an intriguing idea that immediately triggered some ethical questions, which may explain that feature's ultimate cancellation.

It's hard to go back in time and remember exactly what I was thinking and feeling at the time of its eventual release. I was a junior in high school, and I think I managed to have my mom pick me up a copy of the game on the day of its release—if not shortly thereafter. In those days I was always on the lookout for something new and amazing that I could play with my friends—something that wasn't GoldenEye 007. As much as I had enjoyed the reign of Bond, what I really wanted was to impress my small group of friends with something even better.

It wasn't an easy task. I had tried to accomplish the same feat two year's earlier with my purchase of Turok 2: Seeds of Evil, a game that—according to the review I read on IGN—was supposed to have dethroned GoldenEye's status as the premiere N64 FPS multiplayer game. We played it once at my friend's house, and everyone else thought it sucked. Back to GoldenEye.

Into The Dark Age

With the release of Perfect Dark, I had hoped once again that we would finally have a game that would recapture that GoldenEye magic from years before. How could you even argue against the fact that this was an objectively better game? It looked and controlled almost exactly like its spiritual predecessor. It had some of the very same levels available in the multiplayer mode. The aforementioned "Facility" level was reintroduced with a new coat of paint and cutely renamed "Felicity." And there was so much more. More new levels. More new weapons, like a gun that could see and shoot through walls! You could add AI-controlled bots into the multiplayer matches. You could customize your own game modes down to the finest details. In fact, the multiplayer mode was no longer called a multiplayer mode; it was part of the "Combat Simulator" mode.

Once again, my friends didn't care. They didn't like it. The characters looked stupid. The opening menu was needlessly cinematic. They didn't understand what the new weapons were about. Setting up a game was too time-consuming, and the overabundance of customization options was actually unappealing—nothing at all like the quick-and-easy Goldeneye setup! It was another non-starter.

Because of that, I would have to enjoy Perfect Dark on my own if I was to enjoy it at all. And for a little while I did have fun replicating the multiplayer experience by playing against the AI bots. But it was kind of an empty thrill. I tried playing through the game's Challenge mode—basically a series of pre-set Combat Simulator scenarios. But I soon got stuck on Challenge 18, which pits the player against a bunch of tiny grey aliens that were too quick and too small (as in you couldn't you couldn't target them in your crosshairs without aiming downward) for me to kill.

All that was left was the single-player campaign (or "Solo Mode" as the game called it), the part of the game that—as far as I'm concerned, both then and now—had the greatest opportunity to shine.

Even by the time Perfect Dark hit store shelves, no one really had much of a clue as to what the game's story was about. This was the pre-YouTube era, when there was no such thing as a "launch trailer" or "Let's Play" video. The N64 was a cartridge-based system, so there were no demo disks for Perfect Dark. If you didn't outright buy or rent the game, you would have probably relied on whatever vague plot summaries you could read from an online or magazine review. It was basically a learn-the-story-as-you-play kind of experience.

To try and explain the plot is probably a waste of time—believe me, I've been typing and deleting a lot of ridiculous paragraphs. Suffice to say, it has to do with an alien conspiracy involving a sinister technology corporation, a kidnapped U.S. president, warring extraterrestrial factions, and the hunt for an underwater superweapon. The story culminates with you assassinating a warmongering religious reptile king on a distant planet.

I don't know if that sounds cool or fun to you, but it's really just a hot mess. None of it really resonates. The animation in cutscenes—while fine for conveying action—is too clumsy for emoting, and the voice acting is amateur at best. The story itself is too ludicrous to be taken seriously but not funny enough to be camp.

That said, the game actually starts out fairly strong. The first mission has you infiltrating the headquarters of what turns out to be an evil technology corporation in order to extract a captive scientist who has sent out a distress signal to your employing organization, the Carrington Institute. After landing on the rooftop of an urban skyscraper, you have to make your way downward through a series of offices and stairwells all the way down to the underground research and development labs—killing lots of guards along the way. The environments are sleek, bright, and it plays like a fairly straightforward James Bond spiritual sequel. After a combination of sneaking and (mostly) blasting your way through the building's security, you eventually reach the room where your target is being held.

In a short cinematic cutscene, the captive scientist is revealed to be an AI construct, embodied in what appears to be a drone-flying laptop computer—a big pair of eyes textured over the display screen. It greets you in a goofy British accent. The game pulls off almost the exact same stunt a few levels later when you rescue a short gray alien (who goes by the name Elvis) inside Area 51, and his voice sounds like Grover from Sesame Street.

Meanwhile, as you can probably ascertain from the above descriptions, the game keeps hightailing it from one tonally distinct sci-fi setting to another. One mission you're running through what looks like a private Mediterranean villa, the next mission you're on the streets of a Blade Runner-inspired downtown Chicago. One mission has you sneaking aboard Air Force One; a couple story beats later you're on a heavily-guarded deep-sea submarine. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The GoldenEye missions followed their own mishmash trajectory, and even the recent Call of Duty games seem to be built around a similar pattern of haphazard, globetrotting missions where the story is constructed to serve the action and not the other way around. The problem, I suppose, is that there's never any clear sense of progression or perceivable direction. Each change of scenery is accompanied by a jarring plot twist that feels as if it had little to nothing to do with anything that came before.

Perfect Dark also has the unfortunate tendency of saving its most unappealing levels and environments to its latter half. Again, the idea is always better than the execution, such as with the game's penultimate level that begins with Joanna Dark being taken captive by the bad alien faction and stolen aboard a giant space cruiser. Fighting your way from jail cell to command bridge of said space cruiser may sound great on paper, but with the limited capabilities of the Nintendo 64 hardware, the resulting experience was less than stellar. The spaceship itself was a maze of bland corridors and a few open arenas, all of them plastered over with dark green, muddy surface textures—a real eyesore.

My point in all of this isn't to needlessly lambast an 18-year-old game for its 18-year-old graphics, nor is it to measure Perfect Dark against a set of 2018 standards. But these were all part and parcel of the things that disappointed my 17-year-old self at the time of its release as well.

But it was neither the graphics nor the lame story that prevented me from finishing the game. It was also just really, really hard—at least on the most difficult "Perfect Agent" setting. One botched gunfight encounter on a mission run can wreck the entire attempt. Maybe you slightly miss your target, but your target doesn't miss you. You're suddenly knocked down from full health to a measly 25 percent, barely enough to sustain even a few errant gunshots for the rest of the level. Oh yeah, there's no way to regain your lost health mid-level, and also no mid-level saves or checkpoints. Some levels are just tough as nails, and all you can do is try again and again and again until you basically memorize a path that best gets you through the level geometry and the scripted (and sometimes slightly randomized) enemy encounters while completing the necessary objectives. But even when you figure out a path that seems to work, you still have to get lucky or skilled enough to make it through without dying at any number of challenging choke points.

The good news is that you can still play the game on either of the two lower difficulty settings. The bad news is that it ends up being a lesser experience overall, because you don't get to take part in all of the mission objectives—all those little things that give the game its high-tech spy thriller flavor. The easiest difficulty is frankly too easy, little more than a bland, breezy shoot 'em up with just the most basic objectives or occasional requirement to go fetch something within the level or press some button to activate a door. You don't get to, say, shoot down an attack hover-copter in the third mission with a rocket launcher.

Try as I might, back in the day I could never get past the fifth or sixth mission, which was an Area 51 infiltration level. There was always a point near the very end where—if I was even lucky enough to have made it that far—I would open some kind of elevator door and immediately die by the hands of a suiciding enemy soldier who would immediately use his machine gun as a proximity mine. At least that's what seemed to be the cause of death. It was always so sudden and confusing.

I did breeze my way through the majority of the easy mode, but it was so dull and nonsensical that by the time I hit a roadblock and couldn’t figure out how to complete the main objectives in one of the final levels, I didn't even bother to look up the solution. I didn't care. And so it lingered in my personal catalog of games that were started but never finished.

A Rare Replay

Then, in 2010, a number of years after being acquired by Microsoft, Rare released a remastered version of the game, one developed by 4J Studios for Xbox 360. That same version was later bundled alongside 29 other games in the 2015 Rare Replay compilation for Xbox One. It's a very nice remaster that improves upon the original by introducing much sharper graphical textures, improved control options (which take advantage of dual analog control sticks), as well as a crisp and steady 60-frames-per-second refresh rate.

Seeing as my Xbox One came bundled with Rare Replay when I purchased the new console a few years ago, I was soon burdened with the nagging feeling that I should give Perfect Dark another try. So I did. And it was even harder than I remembered. In my mind, I knew I had to finish the game on "Perfect Agent" or not at all. The first mission, it turns out, wasn't too bad. The second mission was a pain in the butt, not so much because the moment-to-moment shooting was overly difficult but because it took so long to manage all of the confusing objectives, which if you went about them wrong could result in instant failure. And one failed attempt for that particular mission could be more than 15 or 20 minutes in the making.

It was the third mission, however, that really made me question my ability to see the game through. While it takes place in the same space as the first level, the one where you have to infiltrate a corporate building from the top-floor downward, this time you must escape from the basement up—only everywhere you go there are barricades and security guards who are already alert to your presence. In addition to all of the regular gunfight challenges, the mission contains a couple of heightened challenges toward the end of the mission. The first challenge comes in the form of the aforementioned hover-copter that flies in a strafing pattern around the building and shoots a stream of bullets whenever you happen to be in its line of sight. While the copter's individual gunfire hits don't necessarily cause a lot of damage in their own right, it's just one other thing that contributes to the steady attrition of health that makes the final confrontation so much harder to survive. The only way to successfully complete the level is to destroy the flying vehicle, and the most logical way to do that is to use a rocket launcher set up on one of the top floors and take it out with one direct hit. I don't know how many times I had a good run going, only to botch and miss the rocket shot, but it might easily have tallied higher than the number of digits I have on both hands.

But what truly caps off a frustrating mission is the final gunfight that immediately follows the taking down of the gun copter. As you make your way up the final stairwell to the building rooftop, you're thrust into a partial cutscene that shows you ambushed by one of the game's primary villains and her entourage of shotgun-toting bodyguards. Again, I can't tell you how many times I got to this point only to fail miserably and near instantaneously. The only thing that seemed to give me anything more than a Hail Mary's chance of surviving involved taking advantage of a quirky secret whereby you have to kill all of the level's first 10 guards in night-vision mode before the building lights come back on. Doing so, which takes a little bit of skill in itself, spawns a later guard who drops a keycard that gives you access to a special locked office that has a single grenade on a desk. That grenade, in turn, would buy me a little extra space and time during the final ambush.

Unfortunately, the missions only got harder, and I still had a bit of work to do just to get back to the same spot where I'd gotten stuck almost 18 years earlier on my Nintendo 64. It was only when I managed to beat that infamous Area 51 level that I even let myself believe it was possible to make it all the way through, but I still had much tougher obstacles to overcome.

The hardest level, for my money, is a mission called "Carrington Institute: Defense." It's the third to the last of the non-bonus missions, and it takes place in the headquarters of the organization that Joanna Dark works for. It's a relatively brief mission, but that's only because you essentially have to speed-run the entire darn thing, particularly the first minute. If you don't immediately rush down to the basement of the level and activate a series of gun sentry turrets, you'll immediately lose the mission when the invading enemies start spawning and kill off one of the essential non-player characters. In order to get around quickly enough, however, you can't even rely on the normal method of movement. Normal movement is too slow. You actually have to learn how to move your character in a slightly skewed, diagonally-facing orientation, which is just ridiculous, but it does get you around faster. And maybe you don't "have to" do it this way, but because there is almost zero margin of error I found it practically essential for completing the first objective and avoiding as many enemy encounters as humanly possible. Avoiding encounters is important, because the enemies in this mission are among the deadliest in the game, protected as they are by energy shields that require almost a full clip of ammo to pierce through. And they carry guns that can easily kill you with just a few rapid-fire hits. There are plenty of difficult games that still get made these days, but rarely is a game difficult in the same way as this—such that it feels like it was never properly playtested on an outside audience.

The Carrington Institute mission on Perfect Agent difficulty is very much a thread-the-needle type of challenge, much like I described in my previous post—only in this case I can't really say it was all that pleasurable. It was a chore, a real test of patience and endurance, and that goes for much of the game. I'm happy it's over.

In the end, there's actually a lot to admire about Perfect Dark. It still boasts some of the finest reactive animations you'll ever see. Far from being mere bullet sponges who unflinching soak up your ammunition until they die, enemies behave more like actual human beings. Shoot an enemy in his gun-toting hand and he's likely to drop the weapon and grab the wound with his other while crying out in pain. It's fairly convincing, both in 2000 and today.

Whereas most modern shooters are fairly homogenous experiences from beginning to end, I appreciate Perfect Dark for its variety and experimentation. Different levels emphasize different challenges, such as killing a multitude of guards before they can set off nearby alarms in the submarine level or dealing with cloaked enemies in another. Some levels take on a puzzle-like quality as you learn to devise the most efficient and practical order of operations in how you tackle the different objectives.

To this day, it feels like an aberration, a first-person shooter that forged its own path in a promising direction that other games (aside from a 2005 sequel that I'm not going to get into here) never followed.

A Tale of Two Shooters

Here's the thing. Perfect Dark arrived at a very interesting point in the timeline of first-person shooters. For starters, this was less than two years after Sierra Studios first published Valve's seminal Half-Life for the PC. That was a game that, while impossible to replicate on concurrent home consoles, proved what careful attention to methodical pacing and detailed environmental storytelling could accomplish.

Less than two years after Perfect Dark, Bungie set the new standard for console-based first-person shooters with Halo: Combat Evolved, a game that weaved a more tightly-focused sci-fi tale against the backdrop of a captivating alien world that was—at times—as open and expansive as it was easy on the eyes. It was essentially an on-rails, down-the-corridor experience, but it hid that linearity with its careful placement of tense, scripted firefights.

This, however, is one of the most interesting timeline details, at least as it relates to my own gaming history: Perfect Dark hit North American store shelves on May 22, 2000. Less than four weeks later, on June 17, Deus Ex from developer Ion Storm released for the PC. That game would—by strange chance—quickly become one of my favorite games of all time and forever change my perception of the medium and its possibilities.

To be fair, Deus Ex is a much different beast than Perfect Dark. Perfect Dark is essentially an arcade, action adventure with a real emphasis on speed and efficiency. Each level ends with a screen that displays, among other things, your time of completion, number of kills, and shooting accuracy percentage. Deus Ex isn't about any of that. It has just as much dialogue as it does combat, and it can technically be completed without the player killing anyone whatsoever. Many to this day consider Deus Ex to be more role-playing game than standard first-person shooter, and I agree.

So why compare the two games at all? Only because, to me, they represented two radically different trajectories in the FPS timeline that nevertheless shared some interesting points of commonality in terms of story and setting, not to mention their close proximity in age. Both games take place in a dystopian, vaguely cyberpunk future and revolve around aliens, A.I., and classic conspiracy theories. They both have levels that take place in Area 51.

But whereas the story in Perfect Dark was largely forgettable, Deus Ex felt deeply clever and entangling. This dichotomy was most clearly felt while replaying the Chicago level of Perfect Dark, and all the pangs of disappointment I had felt as an 11th grader 18 years prior came flooding back like an emotional déjà vu. The level, which starts out in a grimy alley and features civilian non-player characters who walk around and greet the player, gives off a very enticing first impression. It's the kind of place you want to quietly explore and take in. Being another stealth mission, you get the idea that you're supposed to be keeping a low profile. But that's not the case at all. Mere seconds into the level, the moment you turn a narrow corner and onto one of the main streets, one of the non-player characters immediately recognizes you as a threat and attacks. And for the rest of the mission you're more or less just slaughtering waves of street cops who shoot on sight. From a world-building perspective, it's almost completely immersion breaking. It feels like just another brainless arcade experience.

By the time I got my hands on Deus Ex just a few weeks after the release of Perfect Dark, it was … well, perfect timing. Up to that point I'd always been a console gamer, with some occasional diversions into the world of adventure games on our family's (usually out-of-date) Macintosh computers. That summer, as I turned 18 and entered my final year of high school, I was ready for something more sophisticated and mature. It just so happened that my dad purchased a PC computer, an event that opened up for me a whole new catalog of games just in time for summer. Deus Ex was one of the first new games I got my hands on, and I couldn't have picked a better title (finally a glowing IGN review that didn't disappoint). It was a gripping cyberpunk adventure built entirely around the kind of concept I had only imagined from the first promising seconds of that Chicago mission in Perfect Dark, one that relied on story and exploration punctuated by sequences of combat rather than the other way around. Perfect Dark was the game I had long waited for only to quickly put aside. Deus Ex was the game that came out of nowhere and stuck with me. It's also the one that made a more lasting impact on the video game landscape.

Future Perfect

As this year's E3 approached, I kept wondering about the possibility that we might see the announcement of another game in Rare's Perfect Dark universe—a proper follow-up to the disappointing Perfect Dark Zero of 2005. (I haven't actually played beyond the first mission of Perfect Dark Zero, and I don't plan to venture further anytime soon) With Microsoft desperately in need of more big-name console exclusives to compete with Sony and Nintendo's crushing first-party output, this is one pre-existing IP in their stable of properties that could potentially generate interest for the Xbox platform once again. Despite my own mixed feelings, it's hard to shake the feeling that the series still has potential to do something really special if given another chance.

But what would a modern-day Perfect Dark game even look like? Would it keep to the same three-tier-difficulty formula dating back to GoldenEye 007 or scrap it for something more akin to other shooters? Would it aim for a more grounded story? Would today's Rare even have the resources and expertise needed to develop a blockbuster FPS, or would it need the support of a more experienced development team?

These and many other questions would undoubtedly surface in the wake of such a hypothetical announcement, but as we all know now, there is no such announcement—at least not this year. Instead, there's the promised resurgence of a different Rare property; a new Battletoads game is in the works. And honestly, that makes a lot more sense. It's probably a much cheaper undertaking to make an old-school beat 'em up game than a first-person shooter. I don't expect the new game to be anything more than a kind of basic side-scrolling nostalgia fest. It'll probably be difficult but nothing like the Nintendo original.

I've always had a hard time getting over unfinished experiences, whether they're books, games, or songs on the car stereo that you have to pause midway through when you arrive at your destination. For a long time, Perfect Dark was near the top of my list of regretful unfinished games. Rare's Banjo Kazooie was another one, despite being only a one-time rental back in early high school and not a game I actually owned. So I'm very happy that Rare Replay and 4J Studio's excellent remastered versions of both games gave me a chance to revisit both without having to dig my old Nintendo 64 out of storage.

But I'm even more grateful for the chance to look back and realize how far the medium has progressed. Where once it was commonplace for developers like Rare to push the available technology to its outer limits—dreaming and building at a scale and pace that the existing hardware couldn't really support—it seems today's problems are of a different sort. With powerful PCs—and consoles not too far behind—it's as if developers have arrived in an age where anything is technically achievable. It's more the massive quantities of time, budget, and human resources required to make those grand ideas a functional reality that limit a triple-A game's potential these days.

Clearly, some things don't change. The industry is still driven largely by hype and constant heightened expectations for the next big thing. This year's E3 will probably go down as the year we all started to get really excited for Cyberpunk 2077. But if you want to go back and see what the next big thing looked like almost two decades ago, go ahead and revisit Perfect Dark. Turns out they really don't make 'em like they used to.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Transcendent Pleasure of Lines and Doors in Jonathan Blow's The Witness

It seems like it wasn't that long ago when a lot of people were grappling with the question of what constitutes intrinsic versus extrinsic value. How do we create games with a greater measure of intrinsic value, games that reward players with feelings of satisfaction and gratification through the mere act of playing the game? And how do we—at the same time—avoid the ethical pitfalls of extrinsic motivation as it relates to psychological or behavioral manipulation?

It's a topic that a lot of much smarter people than I (as well as, I assume, a few amateurs and pretenders) pondered and theorized about in books, blog posts, and maybe a few TED Talks. It also coincided, strangely enough, with a corresponding movement in business culture, as major companies were beginning to hire game design and "gamification" experts in the hopes of creating new tools and methods by which to capture audience attention and engagement for their products and services. It turned out there was money to be made not just in games but in their DNA.

This is all based on my own outsider impressions. Just some vague recollections of a time when the field of game studies seemed to be gaining newfound momentum, shifting in the direction of a more enlightened territory of understanding and public appreciation. I'm sure these types of discussions are still being had in their various spheres and corners of the internet and the academic world at large, but it feels like a lot has changed in just a few short years. Maybe the great Gamergate dumpster fire of 2014 caused the game luminaries to retreat from the public spotlight. Maybe cultural criticism all but suffocated our collective appetite for other forms of discourse. Maybe nothing so drastic changed at all, and I just stopped following the right people on Twitter.

Whatever the case, I find it a little bit unfortunate that The Witness came out in 2016, because I think it's a game that feels so ripe for examination in terms of those fundamental questions of what actually compels us to play games at all.

Best known as the follow-up to Braid, the highly influential 2D puzzle platformer developed by Jonathan Blow (one of the primary subjects of the popular Indie Game: The Movie), it was a game that came with high expectations. Many people were curious to see if Blow would live up to his reputation—deserved or not—as one of gaming's most thoughtful and introspective figures. Admire him or hate him, it was hard to deny Braid's status as a landmark title.

I myself was neither all that hot nor cold in my reception to Braid when I played it in 2012, a good chunk of time after its initial 2008 release on the Xbox 360. At times it felt like a somewhat clumsy mashup of experimental game mechanics and ill-conceived narrative framework, the latter of which manifested in a series of prose snippets that players could read in between levels. While they seemed to convey a narrative of sorts, it was a purposefully opaque one, intended (it seems) to color the player's interpretation of the game's ultimate meaning, as well as the meaning of its various elements.

I found that part of the game—the quasi-narrative part—too cryptic and uninteresting to really care. And the rest of Braid? It was OK. The ideas were certainly impressive, but it felt at times like a chore to collect all of the various puzzle pieces that would unlock the final stages. Some of the puzzles I solved through brute force tactics—weaving the player character through slightly different patterns of movement until the solution clicked—leaving me with only a partial understanding of how I had managed to spring the lock. I did a lot of thinking and experimenting without necessarily feeling as if I'd learned anything worthwhile in the end.

As such, I came to The Witness at the end of 2017 not with great hopes or anticipation but simply out of curiosity. Similar to a lot of high-profile games, it enjoyed a pretty warm and favorable reception upon its initial release, later tempered by a greater volume of more sober and critical takes after the fact. Having recently finished the main game, I find it to be something quite special indeed. But it's a game that didn't hook me right away.

I enjoyed the first few hours, managing to solve a few sets of puzzles as I poked my way around the game's open-world setting. That setting was intriguing with its winding paths and grand architecture but also cold and intimidating with its abundance of gated-off sections, locked away behind so many inscrutable puzzles. For every puzzle I managed to solve, I probably stumbled on three or four others bearing symbols or solutions that made no apparent sense.

At the time I thought it might be a game I would tackle in short bursts over a longer span of time, something I could come back to in between other games. But then I sort of ignored it. The prospect of playing and not making progress made it something of a nonstarter. That was the case for quite a few months until I talked my wife into playing it. Much in the same way as I had done, she wandered around for a couple hours, managed to turn on one of the game's 11 laser beams, but then got completely turned off after stumbling across a handful of hidden audio logs and video clips. I think she had begun to sense a rotten ethos at the core of The Witness, that the game was being pretentious and manipulative in its conveyance of pseudo-spiritual/philosophical ideas. More on that later.

It's not easy to talk about The Witness without—to some extent—spoiling a portion of the experience. The moment you start playing, you start learning. If you know anything about it, you probably recall it as that game where you walk around a pretty island and draw lines on touchscreens to solve puzzles. And that would be an accurate description.

It all takes place on a small island, densely packed with various biomes, buildings, and landmarks. There's a town, a desert, a bamboo jungle to name just a few of the locales. There are sculptures, trees, gardens, buildings, and … touchscreen maze puzzles throughout. Each location is littered with sets of daisy-chained touch panels that, when activated and solved, typically grant access to new areas altogether.

Most of these maze puzzles take the form of a rectangular line grid, with one starting location (denoted by a circle) and one ending point. The most basic rule is that the line you draw cannot intersect itself. It must instead run its course in serpentine fashion from beginning to end. But it's usually not enough to simply draw any line from start to end. The puzzle is only solved by drawing the correct path. And that path can only be determined either by deciphering a series of symbols denoted on the screen itself or by finding other clues contained within the surrounding environment. It all depends on the particular puzzle.

It's an unusual mechanic for a 3D open-world game, and its one that Blow manages to stretch out and explore in so many different ways. There are puzzles with multiple starting points and multiple ending points. Puzzles that use multiple sets of symbols that create new combinations of rules to untangle. Puzzles that rely on sound and color. Puzzles that abandon the grids and squares altogether in favor of other visual motifs. Puzzles that must be activated by traversing weight-sensitive walkways. The conceptual mileage is extensive.

What constitutes a rule or solution in one puzzle, however, may not be true in the very next iteration. It may require a new type of discovery. And that's where a lot of people probably lose patience, because the pattern of having to learn new rules and patterns never really ends.

But whereas some people encounter those obstacles and project a sense of unfairness or cruelty onto the part of Blow, I don't really see it that way myself. I never really viewed the relationship between Blow (the designer) and me (the player) as being hostile or antagonistic. The reason I say that is because I've played enough games that do feel cruel and unfair, but even then it typically has more to do with a lack of polish and attention to detail than with sinister motives on behalf of the developers. I'm thinking of games like old 2D platformers with their stubborn, weighty controls and their limited numbers of lives and continues—both of those things being products of their time. Or old point-and-click adventure games that hide their interactive components amid a clutter of pixels on the screen. They both can feel "unfair" at times, but really—I would argue—they mostly just lack a level of sophistication that justifies their difficulty, be it mental, physical, or otherwise.

Everything in The Witness exudes such a staggering level of care and intention, a stark contrast to most open-world games that feel sprawling and populated with cookie-cutter art assets and building types. The clarity of the art direction ensures that there is always enough visual information (sometimes just enough information) made available to the player. If a symbol on a panel doesn't make sense, there's a place on the island where it provides you a basic tutorial. If the puzzle's solution is based on observation, the perspective you require is always in the immediate vicinity. Even the trickiest or most eye-straining puzzle can be ironed out with a little bit of trial and error. I guess what I'm saying is The Witness is not as cruel as it seems, even if the frustration is by design.

On the contrary, my experience with playing through The Witness was one of growing trust and confidence in the game's design (and its designer). As I began to make steady progress on my to-do list of activating the 11 scattered laser beams—any seven of which are required to unlock the game's final endgame sequence—I felt a sense of momentum and empowerment foreign to so many of the triple-A games we so often refer to as "power fantasies." As challenging as the task might be, I knew in my person that I would be able to solve the puzzle eventually. And that confidence proved true.

About as soon as my wife all but swore off the game entirely, I decided to jump back in. And this time I was addicted. Having activated two of the 11 lasers during my first couple of play sessions, I spent about a weekend straight making my way through the rest of the main game. As slow and painstaking as it felt to work through the individual puzzles on the micro level, it felt like I was blazing through the game at the macro level. Another laser activated here. Another one here. Then another one. And another one.

All the while, each of those micro moments felt like a small triumph. If you had an audio recording of my entire playing experience, my most common recurring utterance would probably be: "This is impossible." Because even once you have learned the language of a new symbol type—an incredible "Eureka!" moment in its own right—it still doesn't detract from the challenge that comes with using your knowledge to solve the game's individual puzzles. It still takes an incredible amount of mental gymnastics, and at times it feels like building a bridge out of spare parts. It's like that sequence from Apollo 13 where the astronauts have to use a limited supply of junk and electric capacity to return their spaceship to planet Earth. Only in this case there's a guaranteed solution.

The best video game analog I can think of is 2010's Super Meat Boy. It's the only other game in recent memory that imparted such a similar feeling of overcoming the impossible time and again, of threading the needle through a series of increasingly labyrinthine puzzles. In Super Meat Boy, it was a feeling made manifest in a pattern of death and repetition, each failed attempt getting me steadily closer to achieving victory. The challenge in Super Meat Boy, of course, was one of reflex, timing, and physical dexterity. In The Witness, the challenge is based on logic and observation. Nonetheless, each failed attempt was like its own death, but with a penalty no harsher than the simple visual/auditory feedback that let me know I had not given the correct input. (Yes, there are a small handful of puzzles that require you to redo the previous puzzle upon failure, but these are very limited and usually meant to wean you away from your reliance on brute-force techniques.)

The reality is that, like with Super Meat Boy, there's probably a certain threshold that is going to limit a player's individual progress. It's twofold really. Some people simply don't have the patience to keep trying and failing. Other people may be at a different disadvantage. Just as Super Meat Boy's Dark World levels may as well be inaccessible to senior citizens or people with certain physical handicaps, I can only assume The Witness is not the friendliest game for people with color blindness or other visual impairments. Not to mention some people are just quicker at solving puzzles than other people. Are these things problematic? It probably depends on who you ask.

But let's go back, for a moment, to that idea of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. In certain interviews, Blow readily admits his game is lacking in the kinds of flashy rewards that typically come with a lot of other games—the music and fireworks, say, of completing a level in a mobile puzzle game. I think what he's implying is that The Witness relies on that sense of intrinsic motivation that comes with solving puzzles for its own sake.

First off, I'm not totally convinced this is entirely the case. There are environmental rewards that come with solving puzzles in The Witness. It's in the cable glowing with fluorescent light that leads to the next activated puzzle screen. It's in the rusty, mechanical stirring of a motorized bridge that springs to life, the laser device that slowly emerges from its encased metal box at the conclusion of a long series of puzzles. These are all visual/auditory rewards that the game doles out at specific moments, and to me they offer far more satisfaction than the three-star completion of a level in Angry Birds. It's as if the world itself slowly bows in recognition to your ingenuity, tantalizes you with new views and vantages to its intricate, secret spaces. So there's that. But even these moments only reinforce what's already there.

If we're being honest, the whole notion of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation might be little more than a reskinning of the nature versus nurture debate. You probably just have to accept the fact that there's no easy way to distinguish between the two. We obviously have genes that predispose us toward certain kinds of enjoyment, and there are things and systems and other humans in the world that move us to act on those predispositions.

At the very least, I do appreciate how The Witness trusts enough in the value of its puzzle solving that it isn't compelled to shoehorn in those other bells and whistles—not even a traditional narrative!—that you're likely to see in other modern games. 

I'll begin the long conclusion of this essay by confessing that I have no idea how The Witness derives its name. I was so caught up (obsessed, you could say) with just "finishing" the game that I paid very little attention to the deeper layer of puzzles that littered the virtual landscape. As soon as I had activated the 11th laser beam, I made my way to the top of the mountain where the lasers all converged. In my naivety, I had hoped the work was finished. In reality, it was simply yet another case of puzzles unlocking even more puzzles.

The endgame challenges proved to be just as exasperating as anything else—arguably more so in a few spots. It was here more than anywhere else where it felt like Blow was resorting to some fairly cheap tactics to make the puzzles a bit more challenging. My head hurt when I went to bed late Sunday night, only one last series of puzzles to go (although I didn't realize it until the next day). It could just as easily have been the result of staring at a TV screen all weekend as the mental exercise I'd been engaging in, but the feeling was undeniable. I had binged on the game too hard.

Having now completed what I consider to be the main game, I can still recall at least five touchscreen puzzles I encountered that have yet to be solved. Those are tangible items I could add to my completion checklist if I so choose to pursue more within the game. Then there's a whole load of puzzles of another sort altogether that I know are out there as well. After jumping online and reading more about the game, I see hints of a post-endgame puzzle series referred to as "The Challenge." Maybe it's the puzzle equivalent to Super Meat Boy's Dark World levels, or the anti-cube puzzles in Fez. Yes, it's all intriguing, but I don't think I'll be ready to dive back in for a while.

The thing is, I'm sure there's even more to this game than meets the eye. Exploring that layer of meaning, however, is just as optional as anything else in the game. I described earlier how my wife got turned off by the aforementioned audio and video clips. I told her it was possible to completely ignore that stuff and still enjoy the game. It was true for me. Maybe it's not the case for her.

I have a feeling there is some deeper narrative at the heart of The Witness and that there are hints to be found within the environment, maybe within the puzzles I've yet to solve. I'm not convinced it's worth my time to try and investigate. At the end of the day, my suspicion is that Jonathan Blow is still a more capable game designer than storyteller.

Are the intellectual musings found in the audio and video clips reflective of a worldview that Blow is espousing to the player, or are they rather the imagined philosophies of a fictional character? Just who is the architect of this strange, sterile island anyway? Is it all a simulation?

Part of the reason why I don't concern myself too deeply with these questions is that there's a perfectly satisfying real-world explanation for all of that. There is an architect of the island, and it is Jonathan Blow himself, along with his team of engineers, artists, architects, and designers. The experience was made for us. The same goes for every mysterious video game world in existence, from the multidimensional universe of Fez to the sinister and ridiculous puzzle mansions of Resident Evil. It's one of the beauties of video games—that these fantastically envisioned places can become tangible experiences at all! And if you think of The Witness as one elaborate, virtual installation piece (and there's really no good reason not to), it should only heighten your appreciation of the game's artistic merit.

Regardless of whatever narrative or philosophical meaning can be construed from the world of The Witness, the mere puzzle-solving experience does make it worth the time investment. For people like me who don't have much of an outlet in their daily lives for certain types of left-brain activity—processes that rely more heavily on logic, mathematics, and linear thinking—there is a lot of enjoyment to be had in playing The Witness. At the same time, there is plenty in the game that depends just as much on one's right-brain faculties, those more associated with intuition, holistic thinking, and nonverbal cues.

If anything, this seems to speak to one of the game's central tenets. If there are deep answers to be found in the universe in which we reside, we can't simply depend on one methodology alone. Our existence is informed by the tension and trajectory of facts and intuitions alike. We ignore one or the other at our own peril—or at least our own ignorance.

It's hard to say what the general consensus of The Witness will be in 10 or 30 years' time. There's little doubt there will be a lot more games competing for our attention, fighting for their inclusion in the proverbial canon. But I wouldn't be surprised if this is a game whose value appreciates over time.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

My Amazing Couch Companion

One of the things my wife and I used to do when we first started hanging out was play Halo together. It was one of our common interests—that and classic literature, watching Fellini films, and a few other things.

Our play sessions were exclusively one-on-one competitive matches, and the only maps we really played were "Beaver Creek," "Hang Em High," and maybe a little bit of "Chill Out." Of course, anyone who's opinion actually matters will agree that "Hang Em High" is the greatest Halo map of all time, and it's where we staged our most competitive battles. So many places to hide it out. So many opportunities to pistol snipe from opposite ends of the map. It always seemed like holding down the top of the main platform area provided the most advantageous position—easier to defend from above than to challenge from below.

At any rate, I remember what must have been our first "Hang Em High" match when we played at her apartment, and it was an intense one. She was pretty ruthless with a shotgun and invisibility cloak. I barely won that game by a score of 50 to 49.

I tried to get her interested in playing some cooperative games with me, so when she gave me a copy of Lego Star Wars II for Christmas I thought we could take it for a spin together. I must have gotten a little greedy on one of the early levels, however, rushing off to a distant area of the map to collect some errant blocks while she lingered behind. Unfortunately, this not being a split-screen game, I inadvertently caused her to get screen stuck in some hazard area where she proceeded to die and respawn in continuous succession. She did not find it amusing, and it would be a while before she would agree to play any game cooperatively with me again.

Tomorrow marks our fifth-year wedding anniversary, and while I don't mean to boil our marriage down to being all about video games, this is a video game blog and — once again — we're in the final hours of the last day of the month.

My wife eventually did play more games with me, and we've shared some good times. We bopped our way back to Coney Island while playing through the brilliant Rockstar adaptation of The Warriors—particularly fitting, seeing as she introduced me to the film a couple years prior. We trudged and blasted our way through the entirety of Borderlands 2 and its four DLC chapters. Talk about a long and repetitive game, that one, but with a couch companion it was actually a lot of fun and not a bad way to pass the time together. More recently we shot up enough robots to populate a small country in Shoot Many Robots, and we've acted as each other's wingman (or wingwoman) while playing through each of the hectic campaigns in Left 4 Dead and its sequel. There have been other games as well. It's pretty easy to feel kind of dead inside whenever you binge away the precious hours of your life sitting solitary in front of a TV screen with a controller in your hand, but I never feel that way when I'm spending it with her.

I don't take it for granted that I managed to marry someone who is not only smart, beautiful, and funny but who also likes to play video games with me. I mean, come on! How awesome is that?

So here's to five years of marriage to my lovely companion—fellow vault hunter, space marine buddy, and apocalypse survivor. May we continue to love and cherish one another, enjoy one another's company, and embark on many new adventures both real and virtual.

And I promise I will try harder not to get stupid mad and frustrated when I die.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Playing with UN EP Cycles

In the beginning was an empty playing field, a blank rectangular void split down the middle by a one-dimensional boundary marker. All was silence.

With my cursor I made a mark, and the mark became a pattern that expanded outward and repeated itself, infinitely. At each moment as the mark crossed the middle of the playing field—from either direction—a musical piano note sounded from somewhere beyond the darkness, into my headphones.

This was good.

I made other marks of different shape, size, and speed of gesture. Swift long lines scratched across the screen in rapid succession and quickly faded. I drew short circles that became enormous, swelling spirals. A rich musical tapestry began to cover the empty space.

I wrote out my name in cursive in the bottom corner of the screen. It appeared again and again—right side up, then upside down, then on its side, and back to right side up. Slowly but steadily it grew beyond its corner of origin, until finally—several minutes later—it began to cross the threshold and contribute to the spontaneous musical event.

The musical abstraction swelled and receded as I at turns drew and listened, drew and listened. I looked at the weird shapes and images that were coming into focus and thought to myself, 'Hey, this is pretty good.'


Saturday, May 31, 2014

Being the Protagonist in Dishonored

(WARNING: The following post contains spoilers pertaining to the game Dishonored and its DLC episodes.)

There comes a moment at the end of the game Dishonored—or, more accurately, at the end of the DLC episode The Witches of Brigmore—when the player uncovers a nefarious plot involving a powerful witch named Delilah and her attempt to usurp the imperial throne. By way of some arcane ritual, Delilah has discovered a way to transform any painted canvas into a kind of magical portal, allowing her to possess the physical form of its real-life subject—in this case, the young Empress Emily Kaldwin. By assuming control of the empress (think of it as a bloodless coup in which no one, save for the members of her loyal coven, will ever be the wiser of it ever occurring) she will direct the fate of the empire.

The added significance of this event has to do with the fact that Emily's mother, the former Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, has recently died at the hands of the deadly assassin known as Daud—who also happens to be the player character for this particular episode. Thus, by saving the daughter from a fate perhaps as grim as death, Daud has a chance to find a measure of redemption for murdering the mother.

At first I was kind of impressed by the game's mysterious turn of events. It seemed like both a clever and unexpected way in which to expand upon the story of the main game (in which the player assumes the role of an entirely different character), delving further into the saga of Dunwall—a place where even the lowliest members of society may be scheming and conspiring to "reign in hell," so to speak.

Then, after I gave the whole thing slightly more thought, I realized it was also kind of preposterous.

First of all, how the hell does something like that actually work? I'm talking about a magic ritual that lets you turn an ordinary painting into your very own John Malkovich possession tunnel. Does the painting have to be any good for the ritual to work? What happens to the consciousness of the possessed victim? Is the soul of the victim essentially banished or does it coexist with the usurper, helpless to enact its own will at the hands of their new puppet master? What happens to the possessor when the targeted victim dies?

I could generate an endless list of questions and it wouldn't really matter, because these aren't the sorts of questions the game intends to answer. This magic ritual exists not so much for the purpose of metaphorical insight—nor to be explored in any matter of depth as a hypothetical reality. It exists primarily because the game says it does, because it makes for an exciting, high-stakes finale. If it comes off as brilliant writing, it's because its brilliance lies in the fact that it so deftly obscures its own imaginative effortlessness. You forget the writer is literally making up whatever flimsy rules they can think of in order to wrap up some neat little plot. It's the same type of storytelling that makes an episode of Dr. Who so mindlessly enjoyable. The fictionalized universe becomes a never-ending Mary Poppins bag full of narrative tricks and pseudo-scientific non-explanations for the way things work.

Then I had another thought. Despite all of this, isn't it nevertheless interesting how the player already mimics what the character Delilah is attempting to do? Consider a few of the written passages from the game, including this brief excerpt from one of Delilah's hand-written notes:
"Once young Emily assumes the throne I'll already be looking out of those brown eyes."
And here's this partial entry from Delilah's journal:
"Now that the painting is finished, I will sit in young Emily's skin and wear her face like a mummer's mask. Havelock and his lickspittles will put the child on the throne, but it is ME they will be crowning. Delilah."
In a sense, isn't this the same kind of virtual immersion the player is intended to feel by the very act of playing Dishonored—or any other number of first-person perspective games? Only instead of an enchanted painting to make this immersion possible, we have a computer simulation. Instead of inhabiting the flesh of the targeted individual and peering directly through their eye sockets, we rely on the mediation of a game controller and television monitor. It's not really Corvo (the protagonist of the main game) or Daud wandering through the fictional city of Dunwall. It's us—or at least some hybrid creation of us and the simulated other. Whether Corvo dons his mechanical mask or not, whether he's mingling with a bunch of aristocrats at a masquerade ball or sharing drinks with his fellow co-conspirators at The Hounds Pit Pub, this is perhaps the greatest trick and conspiracy of all.

At any rate, this is about where my train of thought hits a dead end.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Listening to FEZ OST

It's been a number of months since I finished playing FEZ, but the game still manages to occupy a fair chunk of real estate in my brain space, thanks largely to its soundtrack, composed by "Disasterpeace" Rich Vreeland.

I've never really been one to go hunting down a movie soundtrack or game score as a standalone piece of listening material, but this one really got me interested after I heard some of the tracks on my headphones last year. I'd like to say I bought the album like a good patron off of Vreeland's Bandcamp page, but instead I paid a paltry $2 donation for it and a bunch of other game soundtracks when they were included in some online music bundle.

Anyway, I wrote about FEZ about a year ago, and I'm actually pretty happy with how the piece turned out. One thing I didn't bring up at the time, however, was the score, which was really an oversight on my part, particularly because the music plays such a fundamental role in establishing—along with designer Phil Fish's imaginative pixel art—the overall aesthetic of the game. The sound and visuals compliment one other extremely well, and it's kind of crazy to think about how differently the game might have felt under the musical direction of another artist.

So what is it that makes the Disasterpeace score so good? I think a part of it has to do with how each piece tends to evoke a sense of place and atmosphere rather than movement or action, which is very much in keeping with the mystical, meditative, and observational nature of how the game plays. Beats are used very sparingly, and only in accompaniment with the levels that emphasize a more rhythmic type of progression.

A lot of people have been quick to emphasize the chiptune quality of the music, and it's certainly fair to point out. With his high-pitched synth melodies and zealous use of bitcrushing, Vreeland is clearly embracing the fact that this is a video game soundtrack for a video game world. But I think the music has almost as much in common with ambient electronic music as it does with the classic 8-bit tunes of the Nintendo era.

As a standalone album, it's a surprisingly listenable, cohesive, and transportive experience, with individual tracks built on layers of musical texture—from swelling noises to miniature arpeggios that drift in and out of focus. Take a track like "Beyond," for example, where you have this thick current of throbbing bass that sounds like some hovering alien spacecraft, slowly painted over with a soft, mysterious synth melody. It could be an alternate score to the ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I'm also a huge fan of the next song, "Progress," which is this really buoyant and surreal track filled with layer after layer of pleasant sound that rises and brims over into a state of blissful crescendo. I imagine this is what utopian industrial music would sound like—a musical theme for some bustling, steampunk city in the clouds.

Much like the recurring Tetris pieces that feature so prominently as the building blocks of Fish's visual environments, Vreeland presents a continuous soundscape where the individual parts are forever falling into place. This is most evident on the song "Glitch," which borrows small musical samples from previous tracks like "Puzzle," distorting them and rearranging them to fit with a new beat and tempo.

There's a lot more I could try and say about the album — I'm thinking about the sparse atmospheric tracks ("Age" and "Memory") and the wonderfully appropriate Chopin arrangements ("Nocturne" and "Continuum") from the album's second half — but it's probably better if you just go and listen to it for yourself. I'm pretty sure you can sample the whole thing for free.

I'll end by throwing out one final suggestion. If there is any game soundtrack that deserves to get the vinyl treatment, this one gets my vote. It's the perfect kind of readymade double LP, and it already has a great album cover to boot. Press that baby onto white vinyl. Keep it at a nice limited run of 3,000 or so copies. Sell it for $30 a pop. Somebody, please (I know it won't ever happen) make this happen!

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Slip of the Hand

The patient is stable and unconscious on the gurney. The skin that normally covers the chest cavity has been carefully removed to make way for this routine heart transplant. And here I am overlooking the scene, a pudgy hand hanging suspended over the recipient.

To my right and my left there are two hospital tray tables adorned with various tools and objects. Pens. Beakers. Scalpels. Tweezers. Bone saw. Handsaw. Hammer. Power drill. The replacement heart sits ready in a closed container.

A monitor beeps steadily, rhythmically. Everything is in order. Everything awaits.

I use my physical right hand to move my physical computer mouse, which in turn moves my on-screen hand in the corresponding direction. It hovers over the bone saw on the right-hand tray. I click the left mouse button and the hand lowers, smashes into the careful arrangement of objects, causing them to scatter. The hand jerks around like a crashed automobile under the influence of a drunk driver, and I do my best to realign the surgeon's palm in the correct orientation. With my real left hand at my physical keyboard, I arrange the fingers in such a way that they mimic the arrangement of fingertips on my virtual hand. I press the five keys all at once, The hand becomes a fist, and within its clumsy grip—loosely, miraculously—the mechanical bone saw whirs to life. The operation is about to begin.

Now stop right there for a moment.

Stop and forget about all the gruesome, bloody humor. Put aside the unscientific ridiculousness of it all, the absurd lack of protocol and procedure. The hilarious images of shattered bone fragments falling by the wayside as you tear into the ribcage. Memories of ripping out the patient's left lung with your bare hand and flinging it with abandon over the patient's head—just as your digital wristwatch accidentally unclasps itself and falls into the fleshy void.

Maybe I have a tendency to read too far into things. I over analyze. I draw connections where none reasonably exist. But there's something about this stupid game that's just too deadly serious. Something about it just resonates.

Notice how the game starts off in a reception area. It's the same pudgy hand suspended in midair, only instead of hovering over a soon-to-be cadaver there is a mouse, keyboard, computer monitor, notebook, binders, telephone. All the familiar, tangible minutiae of the daily office grind. Everything is once again so neatly arranged like a fresh day of work yet to begin its course. And then you try to pick something up and it all falls apart.

If I had to offer a purely functional description for Surgeon Simulator 2013, I would say it's like an elaborate crane game with an ironic motif. But for me it's something more.

For me, Surgeon Simulator is a meditation on life in the digital age. It's a study of dreadful incompetence. Just like that fumbling hand (I imagine it all clammy with sweat) I reflect upon my own failure to grasp at the meaning of things, my inability to control my circumstances. I'm reminded of all the things that seem to elude me—the satisfaction of work, the motivation to write, stable finances, and meaningful relationships with the people around me. There's a running Easter egg subplot in the game involving a woman named Trisha, with scattered post-it notes directing the player to call her. And yet her phone number is scattered and hidden away in clues I haven't managed to locate, adding yet another thematic layer of frustration, confusion, and—if I had to guess—romantic turmoil.

When you think about it, Surgeon Simulator invites us to embody a digital persona in one of the most deliberately representational ways imaginable. If we really wanted to, we could use our real-life hand to direct that real-life computer mouse to make that representational hand pick up and start clicking at that representational computer mouse. (As a side note, think about all the grandmothers out there who never learned the muscle memory required to do the first part of that activity! Remember my own self as a 6-year-old using our new family computer for the first time, playing a game with the mouse that was teaching me how to click on icons. I was born again, as they say—in a transhuman manner of speaking! Those were my baby steps into a new kind of machine-body hybrid identity, and I didn't even know it.)

The physical clumsiness is just a metaphor, a clever stand-in for the incompetence (be it spiritual, psychological, sexual, etc.) of the real-life player. The surgery aspect is an illustrative backdrop, a funny stage and canvas for letting that incompetence play out. Successfully complete all of the available operations in order, and you will eventually unlock the ability to perform those same operations in space, where all of your tools and objects float around in zero gravity. That's what we call taking a metaphor to its most surreal and extreme limits.

I suppose this is as good a time as any to list off just a few of the struggles and setbacks that have been fighting to take over my life—and my wife's—for the past four months or so. There's a cat slowly succumbing to feline AIDS and mounting vet bills. A vehicle that broke down that was too expensive to either repair or replace—leaving us without a car for the foreseeable future. There was water damage to our rented condo and an extended construction period that left our living space in utter shambles for over a month. We've been dealing with all of these things and more while simultaneously going about at our regular jobs, trying not to fuck up our daily expected routines.

But here's the coup de grâce—the peak of bitter irony. Normally I would be composing this monthly blog post on my laptop computer. Instead I'm fumbling around with the touch-screen word processor app on my cell phone.

Why? Because just as I'm finishing tonight's dinner and sitting down at the dining room table to start writing—just as I'm booting up the game to make note of some last-minute observations, my right hand accidentally brushes into contact with a half-full bottle of soda. The bottle falls over and spills directly onto my keyboard.

One careless, errant swipe. Betrayed by my own flesh-and-blood hand.


I don't yet know if my laptop is ruined or not. If so, tally it up as yet another $1,000+ financial setback that I can't do anything to remedy for the time being. All I can do now is give it a few days to dry out and see what happens when I turn it back on. Focusing on this blog post is the only thing that's keeping me from losing my shit.

Believe it or not, today was shaping up to be a good day. I actually managed to make progress on my writing at work. And toward the end of the day, I even had a few spare minutes to jot down some ideas for this blog entry that had been germinating in my head. Everything was in order! All that was missing was my hands over the mouse and keyboard to begin the work. Then disaster.

I don't know if this writing amounts to anything or not. It's just the best I could manage with the situation that transpired, because sometimes your scalpel gets lodged in the patient's kidney. Sometimes all your standard instruments go falling out the back of the moving ambulance and you have to improvise with whatever is left. Sure it's less than ideal, but the patient is still worth saving, right?