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?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Out of the utopia, into the Problem Attic

I think I've been as guilty as anyone when it comes to projecting a kind of utopian ideal onto the world of games. Whether consciously or otherwise, I feel as if I've sometimes indulged in the hopeful fantasy that I've been living in the dawn of a golden age of video games—evidenced in no small part by the emergence of a (seemingly) thriving independent games subculture. Games, as we know them, I want to tell myself, are progressing—pushing old boundaries and exploring new territory in terms of technical innovation, design sophistication, and even artistic depth.

Of course, when I actually write it out like that, it sounds like total garbage—particularly in the third area. What does it even mean for a game to have artistic depth? The AAA games industry is still as infatuated with expressions of ultra-violent male power fantasy as ever. And even the expanded market for smaller games has become kind of a dull, saturated landscape that tends to pump out plenty of content that keeps us all fairly well engaged and amused but rarely offers anything deeply meaningful or intellectually challenging.

I can't help but feel that the recently announced semi-closure of Irrational Games in Boston will be one of the more significant events from this current decade in games—at least on a psychological level. Because it's more than just another studio experiencing some potential financial struggles. For many people, BioShock Infinite was supposed to be the great redeeming hope for AAA video games, and thereby all video games. It would prove to the world that a massively ambitious, story-driven, first-person shooter could in fact bridge the gap between violent interactive spectacle and grand artistic vision. It was as if that magnificent floating city of Columbia was the digital embodiment of those very hopes and dreams.

Of course it was naïve, because—again—what does that even mean? On the one hand, I think BioShock Infinite does represent a grand artistic vision, but not a very focused, articulated, sophisticated, or transcendent one. If anything, BioShock Infinite proved yet again that a well-funded PR campaign can still—if temporarily—bring the great gaming press machine into a state of awe-full, blissful worship.

But where does the industry go from here? Do we fool ourselves once again into thinking that the vast exploitation and corporate shepherding of a large creative team might lead to something other than an incoherent interactive experience with decent to impressive graphical polish. Do we move on and invest our hope and faith in some new messiah, or is creative director Ken Levine's move to the world of smaller games a telling indicator that the dream is truly dead?

Over the past two years since I started this blog, my focus and general thinking about games has been tossed and blown around so many times, influenced by so many competing manifestos both for games and games criticism—frankly, I feel dizzy. It's hard for me to know how to express anything worthwhile, particularly on a macro level. I find it all the more remarkable, therefore, when I come across the work of other writers and critics who manage to distill the so-called "state of games" so eloquently and persuasively. I get excited when I stumble upon a train of thought that seems so imperatively on to something.

One of the most refreshing voices I've encountered of late is Liz Ryerson—a blogger, musical artist, game designer, and probably plenty of other things as well. I've enjoyed reading Ryerson's work over the past few months, because it really has challenged me to reexamine any remaining utopian notions I may have had—in part by pointing out how the cultural worship of the elegant systems of games goes hand-in-hand with our present dystopian reality, whereby the pervasiveness of similar elegant systems (i.e. social media) threatens to drown out our humanity.

Consider this passage from her recent "Re: Fuck Videogames" talk:

within the current culture, there is a heavy emphasis of sort of clean, readable, egalitarian systems that are meant to make information more accessible and approachable and make their ideas easier to sell to a market. But they also serve as a kind of mundane filter to mask the messy, chaotic, subjective reality underneath. we may be living tremendously complicated and colorful lives, but all of those emotions and experiences are colored over by the overarching blandness in the presentation of the systems. for people whose lives are lived on much different terms and in much different places than the well-off Silicon Valley programmers maintaining these systems, the effect is much more drastic. and so, these serve as another institution – one we're being rapidly 'normalized' to, as in Foucalt's concept of 'normalization'. we like to hope they aren't having this kind of effect on us, but they are.
to what degree are we, as game developers, game critics, and game educators, reinforcing this normalization, and to what degree are we challenging it?

I think the entire essay serves as an excellent starting point for delving into Ryerson's work. It's also an incredible companion piece to her 2013 Flash game Problem Attic, which you can experience here.

There isn't a whole lot written about Problem Attic that I've been able to locate, but there is one extremely well-written analysis by Brendan Vance. He certainly articulates many similar thoughts and interpretations that came to me while playing the game, but he also widens the discussion, using Problem Attic as a means to expose the startling absence of intrinsic value at the core of modern commercial game development (he also wrote a followup piece talking about current unsustainable trends in game design—namely its overemphasis on transparent user experiences). It's so carefully laid out, it almost risks being regarded as a kind of definitive statement—something I wouldn't wish on any piece of criticism.

To borrow from Ryerson's own words, Problem Attic is a game about prisons, "both real and imagined," which I take to mean as either physical or psychological, imposed on the imprisoned both by outside forces and by the self. Ryerson represents these conceptual prisons in the form of abstract 2D environments, which the player explores in the guise of a simple avatar sprite.

And one of the first things I notice while playing Problem Attic is the representation of this avatar. It's a curious stick-figure shape—vaguely humanoid but almost like an E.T. character (which, strangely enough, recalls those dreaded vertical pits from the infamous Atari cartridge from the 1980s). Aside from the black body, there is a single red pixel that suggests an eye or a face, as well as a single gray pixel in the location of the sex organs. Already the game hints at themes of uncertain identity.

From the player's starting location—a kind of partitioned or compartmentalized over-world screen (the titular "Problem Attic," I assume)—the player moves through a series of abstract chambers, the goal being to find each hidden exit and move on.

As I suggested before, I more or less agree with a lot of Vance's own interpretations—including his insights regarding the complicated nature of the pursuing cross figures, which inflict a kind of visual and auditory "pain" whenever they come into contact with the player avatar. I also agree there's a definite turning point that happens within the sixth room of the opening act of the game. It's in this room—a hellish environment using background textures reminiscent of DOOM—where the player avatar encounters a lone, sinister cross figure. More than any other "enemy" previously encountered, the speed and directness of this particular figure evokes a much more predatory motive. The fact that the tiled walls in this room are also semi-transparent gives the player the chilling sensation of being watched or taunted. It all gives the impression of a traumatic memory or event.

This interpretation is reinforced during the next prison section, in which the screen is superimposed with a line of text reading "i can't remember it was," followed by a random number ranging from 1 to 4. What is the "it" that can't be remembered? Is it an age or year that something happened? Is it the number of times that something happened? Obviously, we can't be sure. But the avatar's appearance is transforming, losing both its shape and axis of balance as it struggles to make sense of something.

It's after this that the second act begins. The player returns to the familiar over world screen, only the landscape of the attic is changing, filling in with new tiles and obstacles. And, of course, the gravity of the world has inverted. The sensation of movement in this part of the game recalls some of the joyous leaping I talked about in my writeup of VVVVVV, only in this case there's really nothing joyful about it. Instead, this falling sensation feels cruel and frustrating. All the player can hope to do is slowly crawl along the perimeter of the attic rooms, looking for anywhere that will grant entry or acceptance.

Ryerson reintroduces many of the former prison rooms, only now the typical mode of escape is to find the glitched-out areas that allow the player avatar to clip into the very walls of the room. From here, the player quickly grows accustomed to navigating at the margins of the very playing fields they inhabit. Are these the experiences of a marginalized individual in a hostile society? Is it a representation of circumventing old, uncomfortable memories?

One of the final prisons during this second of three acts stands out for a different reason in that it's actually kind of fun. It involves a kind of collecting mechanic, in which the player navigates the maze-like environment collecting these oddly shaped A.I. characters—who seem to symbolize fellow victims. To me this particular prison iteration plays out like a rescue mission of sorts, whereby the player makes use of a collectible power-up that allows for short teleports through the solid tiles. It's the one stage of the game where the player seems more focused on the wellbeing of others. But it's a short-lived segment that segues into the third and final act of the game, which plays out like the sad, sometimes anxious wanderings of a very hurt and psychologically troubled individual—culminating in a moment of transformation and acceptance.

The difficulty with all of this is that many players probably will not make it very far into the game. The first time I played Problem Attic, I had to throw in the towel early, because the game was giving me motion sickness from all of the jostling, forced encounters with the aforementioned cross figures. I was literally too nauseated to continue, something that has happened plenty of times while playing old first-person shooters on an empty stomach but never while playing a 2D platformer. Fortunately, I was invested enough to restart my play through the next day. I saw the game to its conclusion, and I've since gone through the entire experience again.

I don't dwell on this point as a matter of self-congratulation, or to suggest some quality of saintlike forbearance on my part for putting up with the game's nauseating aesthetics and frustrating design choices. In a Q&A interview with her and Robert Yang, Ryerson actually balks at the question of whether she ought to compromise her design choices—even a little—in order to make the game more accessible to players. And good on her, I say!

We're dealing, after all, with a game about imprisonment—and not some purely representational notion of imprisonment, or imprisonment as a clever gameplay mechanic. It's a game that communicates its theme not so much by challenging our reflexes or our logical thinking skills. Problem Attic hits us at a gut level, asking much more of our interpretive capabilities than the typical playing experience. Many of its design choices are certainly unorthodox but also essential to communicating its ideas.

I finished playing the game Braid last year, and during my time with it I kept coming back to a nagging question. From its puzzles to its cryptic text portions to its interesting choices in art direction, how are we to evaluate whether or not this game is actually good or just—as many have certainly argued—pretentious? I don't think Braid is merely pretentious, but I do have a difficult time deciding just how good it actually is. If the vast majority of games are like prose, then Braid and Problem Attic are more like gaming poetry. And I don't think we're very well accustomed to evaluating gaming poetry—at least not yet. Then again, this whole preoccupation with "good" is part of the problem to begin with, and it's not just confined to the world of games.

I think the danger of utopian ideals is that we latch onto the impossible notion that a perfect form exists, and that it's ours to obtain—if only we can chip away and pare down until only the perfection remains. And yet it seems as if the world of game development has become infected with a similar idea. You can see it in the present-day obsession with playtesting and polish. We must have pure, undiluted, perfect play! And it's not like that's a bad goal, in and of itself.

But to suggest this is the only way is not only dogmatic, it's potentially dangerous. The experience of play becomes yet another drug that fuels our desire for a kind of fluid and intuitive progress through the world that we rarely get to experience outside of games. And to pursue those ideals above all else risks to block out other types of play that might actually resonate with and inform what our inner and outer lives actually reflect.