A game is a collection of symbols and rules for how those symbols can interact with one another. I described these as being obstacles and tools, one of which defines the parameters of success and the other of which are used to navigate through those parameters – but the division between the two isn’t necessarily as harsh as I implied. Sometimes obstacles and tools are the same – that is, sometimes you can use one obstacle to navigate another.

There are a number of interesting examples of this – you could jump off of an opponent’s head to reach a higher platform or, inversely, you could jump to a higher platform to cut off an opponent’s pursuit. You could lead a group of enemies from one faction to encounter a group of enemies from another faction so they start fighting each other, or you might reposition a trap to activate another trap safely. You might even intentionally jump on an exploding trap to boost yourself to a normally unreachable rooftop. In addition to obstacles sometimes behaving like tools, on occasion a tool will take on the characteristics of an obstacle. The most common example that we encounter in games is probably the hand grenade, which is both an extremely potent weapon and also a convenient way to quickly separate the component parts of your bloody carcass.

There’s no reason for tools and obstacles to be different at all, in fact, when they all just boil down to being a set of physical properties and behaviors. There’s no reason for an object to know what its purpose is, only for it to behave in accordance with a set of instructions. In Spelunky, for example, you can pick up and throw almost everything in the game – rocks, pots, laser turrets, unconscious yeti – and, once an object has been thrown, it affects the environment in pretty much the same way no matter what it happens to be – well, unless it happens to be explosive, in which case its effects will be more dramatic. It’s actually fairly commonplace to throw a rock to set off an explosive only to have the rock blasted back in your face by the explosion and hit you… into a yeti who throws you onto a collapsing platform which falls on top of a mine which blasts you into a pit.

When items are agnostic of their origins and purpose, surprisingly intricate interactions become possible. In many other games, rocks would only be useful for hurting opponents or for setting off traps – in many other games mines would only be activated by the player, enemy bodies would be inert, explosions would only affect things which could be damaged. It’s fascinating what can be achieved when we allow items to be exactly what they are, instead of design them specifically to fit a particular role in the game.

Another interesting example is Phantom Brave, a tactical RPG from Nippon Ichi Software: In this game, the main character Marona is the only living character you control, with all of your teammates being ghosts she has befriended and which she can summon to help. The catch is, to summon a ghost she has to have something to summon them into, which can be something as ordinary as an everyday bush or rock or as ornate as a cursed sword. Whatever they get summoned into, they gain properties of that object so, for instance, if you summon someone into a tree they’ll probably be more vulnerable to fire damage. The other catch is that literally any object on the battlefield, including other characters, can be picked up and used as a weapon. These systems, interacting with others such as a system where every item comes with a stat-modifying adjective before it, enable some really strange and intriguing strategies. Sometimes it’s necessary to pick up one of your characters and toss them across a pit, pick up an enemy and beat up his teammate with his body, or summon a weak character holding a really nice rock you’ve found and have them drop it there for you to summon a more important fighter into. Later in the game some enemies are even scripted to start picking up and throwing powerful items off of the stage to keep you from summoning allies into them.

In some ways, this functional agnosticism of game objects is the default – when I say a game is a collection of symbols and rules, I’m not just speaking conceptually, but also in terms of how games are made, what the internal programming logic that goes into their operation is. So, one might ask, if this is the natural state of the game, and if this creates so many interesting and emergent situations, why do so few designers allow their games this kind of leeway? Unfortunately, when you increase the possibility space in a game this way, you also increase the odds of something going haywire, of an uncontrolled feedback loop or absurd dominant strategy that completely undermines the intended game design. Part of why this openness was possible in Spelunky and Phantom Brave is that these are very tightly controlled designs – Spelunky through having a small set of game elements with only a couple of methods of interaction and a straightforward and minimal progress path, and Phantom Brave through presenting a restrained and traditional tactical RPG interface. For a look at what this ends up looking like without this sort of restraint, take a look at Dwarf Fortress – which is an important and fascinating game, to be sure, but is not easily accessible to most audiences and results in scenarios which, though they are amazing stories, frequently represent bizarre and illogical breakdowns of the symbolic logic as the system recursively interacts with itself.

Still, it’s worth considering: How am I restraining this object, making it behave in a more constrained way than it has to – and a less interesting way than it could? How would it affect the overall design if these constraints were to just, maybe… disappear?


My energy ebbs and flows. I have good days, bad days, and runs of each which last weeks and sometimes months. Every time I have a few good days or a few bad days in a row I feel like I’ve figured a bit more out about how I work, how to optimize and improve, and perhaps gradually approach a better version of my life by trial and error. I’ve also been thinking about studies with giving animals rewards on a random schedule, and the weird random irrational behaviors they began to exhibit as they tried to determine how the reward was ‘earned’. How much of self-improvement boils down to superstition, to trying to behave the way you did that one time you felt good instead of the way you did that time you felt crappy? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between wearing a lucky t-shirt and getting 8 hours of sleep. They’re both supposed to help, and proponents have a way of writing it off when they don’t.

Okay, yeah, I suppose this is what science is for, analyzing empirical evidence while accounting for secondary factors, but that’s really only helpful for analyzing trends across a population. When it comes to what works for me, what makes me feel better or worse, what makes me more or less productive and satisfied, I have a sample size of one with an unknown time delay between input and output. There’s a lot of noise in my signal, and it takes a lot of samples before I can be satisfied that I feel shitty and tired because of something I ate, something I did, something I failed to do – any and all of that may be just background noise on top of a signal which may just indicate that maybe I just feel bad sometimes.

Trying to debug a system that you live in is difficult. It’s difficult when it’s your body and it’s difficult when it’s your culture. Everything you change changes you, and everything that changes you changes your capacity to observe the system. It’s easy to get discouraged. The only advantage we have is the depth and quality of information we receive: We don’t have to wait for something to break, we can just tell when something feels wrong. In some ways that really sucks, because it means we spend a lot of the time feeling something is wrong without knowing what. Sometimes we’re afraid it’s nothing – sometimes it is nothing. Usually, though, if we feel there’s something wrong, there’s something wrong.

Many people prioritize the logical over the emotional, deriding those who would say that something just ‘feels’ wrong. A lot feels wrong at this point – another thing making the systems we live in difficult to analyze. But telling people to ignore these feelings is as shortsighted as telling them to ignore any other pain – pain is an indication that something is cut or broken, and even if we sometimes experience it for no good reason there’s never a good reason to ignore it.

Just because there is noise does not mean there is no signal.

Your lips are intriguing, a sheath for your teeth,
a curled pearl snarl or wrap around rocks,
singing a song or intoning a poem,
bent up in symbols known only to you.

Cheeks rising with lips and eclipsing the eyes,
similar shapes shared in joy and dismay,
skull sockets packed with radial muscles,
and dark skin draped eyelids to hold in the ball.

Brows beetling and bristling make facial creases,
rising in surprise and bowing with frowns,
indicating which way your day is now going,
an arrow pointing up or one pointing down.

Your nose in repose stays smooth as breath flows,
sides flare with your temper, your bridge draws together,
in anger and sadness, over troubled waters,
sorrows salty like seas and easier to drown in.

Lines define the edge of the mouth,
up to the nose, lips out like a bell,
then around down the sides and under the chin
sometimes invisible, but seen when you yell.

Skeletons and paintings can't choose when to smile,
but you do,
these lines can't choose to lie,
but you can.


I thought of a piece to write but I realized I didn’t have much to say about it. I was going to discuss the texture of canvas and brush and how they work to create texture in a painting, how that becomes part of the painted scene, standing in for the pebbling of goosebumps or the rough surface of a stone – I was going to compare that to the texture created by pixels and polygons and how these can work to sell interesting visual illusions. Maybe someday I’ll have something to say about it, but in order for it to be any good I’d need lots of visual examples. I definitely didn’t feel up to that tonight.

I thought about another piece about how difficult I find it to ask for anything, how my usual strategy is just to do my thing quietly in a corner and hope that things work out. I didn’t want to write this piece because I feel that it’s a rather self-pitying topic and one that I’ve touched on already a few times recently. Yes, everyone knows that men are terrible about asking for directions, and no it’s not really that interesting that this toxic stoicism has a tendency to derail other parts of one’s life when taken too far. This is probably a helpful topic for me to remind myself of every so often, but not so much an interesting topic to write about more often than perhaps once every six months or so.

I thought about another piece about the habits of skepticism and what a pain in the ass they make me to be around. Most people don’t like being questioned all the time: Maybe this is part of the reason I’m enjoying watching Columbo so much. I sometimes feel like I’m a pain in the ass in very similar ways to those in which he is a pain in the ass – though, unfortunately, I don’t get to arrest so many rich people. I do value questions I think more than I value answers – I trust questions more than I trust answers, since they’re more rarely lies. Maybe not much more rarely, as it’s actually easy for a question to be a lie, or at least extremely misleading – but a bit less easy than it is for an answer.

Then I started writing down all of my aborted ideas for a piece, and maybe they became something new. Sitting under a grating where bits of jigsaw puzzle fall through every once in a while by happenstance, trying to assemble a picture that makes sense out of pieces that were never meant to go together. The second two fit together okay – asking and questions are thematically similar. But the first… I guess the message is that the thing we make isn’t a product of the choices we make, but also the context they’re made in. Sometimes, a bunch of disparate ideas can be thrown together and create something worthwhile. And, sometimes, they can’t.

Just gotta keep jamming those suckers together to see how they look.

Fictional lies pose an interesting challenge. With the (many) lies we encounter in our daily lives, we understand that there is a reality that these lies are purposefully misrepresenting – that, even if we don’t know the truth, there is a truth to be known. However, when the entire reality of the thing is made-up, when even the truth of the world we are participating in is a lie, lies that happen within the fiction of that world become strangely insidious. Sherlock Holmes says that once you have eliminated the impossible then whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be true – Sherlock Holmes also solved a mystery where a man drank a de-evolution serum and turned into an ape-like creature to murder the victim, so I feel his claims should be taken with a grain of salt. Within the world of Sherlock Holmes the impossible is quite possible, because he is a character in a book and the only guarantee we have against impossibility is the discretion of the author.

It’s particularly difficult to convey lies in games. In novels and movies the audience doesn’t need to worry about what to do next, so they don’t actually need to worry about whether something a character says is true or not – it might be fun and interesting to think about, but determining falsehood won’t factor into what happens next at all. A lie in a game, however, can have consequences for how the player experiences that game, possibly leading them on a wild-goose chase or towards a decision which will turn out to be disastrous. Also, since people don’t expect to encounter lies in games, they tend to regard any information which doesn’t pan out and isn’t explicitly revealed as a lie to be a mistake or, at best, a vestige of cut content. For instance, the villagers in Castlevania 2 may have been lying or the game may have been poorly translated – as best as I can tell from a cursory look online it appears to have been both – but when players were misled they read that not as thematic but as accidental, and blamed the developers for slipshod work.

Because of this, certain conventions have arisen in games when it comes to falsehood, and these are rarely betrayed. Lies are almost always constrained to the narrative of the game, while rarely affecting the actual gameplay. That is, being lied to by your commander has become such a common game trope that it’s surprising on the rare occasions that you’re not betrayed, but since being lied to or not makes absolutely zero difference in how you approach the problems presented by the game it doesn’t matter. It’s just fluff.

This is a solution, of sorts, but it also removes most of the narrative power and interest from falsehood. Another solution might lie in informing players that they will be lied to and that it’s on them to believe or disbelieve what they’re being told, but this results in its own set of problems – asking players to determine whether someone is lying is a core mechanic of LA Noire, but in reality every actor whose performance was captured for the game was, in fact, lying. They’re actors, that’s the job. So it’s a matter of determining which lie was the more convincing looking lie – which is really a shit way of determining when someone’s lying, since accomplished liars are much better at being convincing than people who are unaccustomed to lying, even when the latter are actually being completely truthful.

I suspect that the only way to integrate falsehood into gameplay in a way that’s satisfying is to leave traditional failure states behind completely. If we refocus the game’s design around exploring a story, rather than ‘winning’ at it, then the player is free to believe or disbelieve what characters say based on what they think is the most interesting to the story or on where they’d like to see it go next. This also opens the door for playing a character role, where the character can be trusting or cynical, rather than analyze the scenario for optimal play.

Even then, something is lost, because this makes the deception stakes low for the player. Is there a way to satisfyingly integrate falsehood into a single-player game, when the systems of the game and its narrative are being conveyed through the same channels? How can the player know what to trust, without the game being scrupulously honest at all times?

Not too long ago, and for a lot of the history of video games, the visual quality of a game has been decided entirely on how ‘realistic’ the graphics are. Using photo textures, true-to-life lighting models, and increasingly sophisticated shading systems, we tried to – and, indeed, continue to try to – create rendered images that are completely indistinguishable from a photograph. On the one hand this makes a lot of sense – I mean, photorealism is often regarded, rightly or wrongly, as the height of technical mastery for a painter, so shouldn’t game graphics aspire to the same thing? On the other hand, what a tedious aspiration this is, for a medium that could do literally anything, portray any kind of weird and wild reality.

Fortunately this is no longer the aspiration for most games. This may have as much to do with the problems inherent in trying to produce to this quality of fidelity on a budget as with any shift in aesthetic priority, but the end effect is that realism is no longer the universal standard of quality – in most games, that is.

It’s interesting and a bit dismaying to look at the games where ‘realism’ is still prized. War games, mostly, and particular first-person shooters. These games are mechanically some of the most distant from their source material – wars full of permanent death, permanent destruction, permanent loss, portrayed in a manner where everything can be redone, remade, regained, with a quick checkpoint reload in single-player or starting the next round in multi-player. Sure, the same can be said of most games, which usually have dramatic stakes and some sort of loading/reloading system, but rarely does real and tragic loss sit quite so closely to quick and easy consequence-free gameplay. There’s something exceptional and grotesque about using real wars, some quite recent, as set-dressing for your shooty game, and selling that illusion with state-of-the-art graphics.

The reason why realistic graphics have become less popular, aside from budgetary reasons, is that we’ve realized that graphical style can communicate something about the nature of the game and the world it takes place in. The reason why it’s odd that realism is still the art style of choice for military-themed shoot-em-ups is that what this art style conveys is: “this is reality, this is what war is like, it’s gritty and bloody – and also painless and fun and inconsequential!”

Perhaps they’re pressured to adopt this realistic style by market forces – it is, after all, easy to appreciate realism because we know what reality looks like. It also makes them appear faithful and respectful to the realities of war in a certain way, since they study real war to make sure they can replicate its aesthetic, and perhaps the desire to use a realistic style is in some way a response to the massive narrative and mechanical disconnect noted earlier. They keep pushing this aesthetic harder, and though they still shy short of presenting the screams of agony, the begging for mercy, the child casualties, how long before they wear this, too, as aesthetic? How long before the fans defend these choices, as well, as being ‘realistic’ to the war portrayed, when realism is the furthest thing from the mechanics of the game experience?

Maybe this all seems very alarmist, but the reason why this bothers me is how often people who advocate real actual war position themselves as being realists, as just being pragmatic, when they talk about the necessity of armed conflict. The way we frame discussions of war as being willing to do what’s necessary, willing to see a hard thing through, it seems similar to the way we smear dirt and blood over things to make them seem real and true, wearing the aesthetic of sacrifice instead of trying to understand what is lost. And, to be clear – this isn’t just games. We wear blood and suffering as a costume, while quietly shuffling past all the actual blood and suffering, in all sorts of media.

So perhaps it’s just market forces that make it so every game that’s about being a person, about real and painful loss, looks like a cartoon – while every game about getting to be a cartoon, about being Itchy and Scratchy killing each other over and over again, looks like footage from a war zone. Perhaps I’m just worried about where the market is forcing us, and what will happen when we get there.

“How am I so confident?” She rubbed her lips, I think imagining another version of herself taking a cool film noir drag on a cigarette. “Am I? No, no I’m just good at not acting, uh, unconfident? Nervous. Whatever. I’m good at looking like, like I belong wherever I am. Looking like you belong is usually what decides whether or not you belong. I can feel lost and stupid and confused as long as I don’t act like it, as long as I pretend to be cool.”

“It’s mostly just a sense of… is there a word for like contempt but nice? Familiarity? There’s that saying, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, but maybe familiarity is just a nice friendly toothless form of contempt. You know that self-help thing where uh, where you, when you’re talking, like, giving a speech or a presentation – and you imagine everyone there is naked? If you live for 20, 30, 40 years, and you pay any attention, everyone’s naked all the time. What I mean is everyone’s an idiot, I know I am and sorry but you are not an exception either, and knowing that it’s like: What have I got to prove to these idiots? It’s – the emperor has no clothes. And when I look out there everyone looks like a shitty little naked emperor. So I guess the trick is to act like an emperor even when you know you’re naked.”

She rubs her lips again. Steam puffs away with each breath and it doesn’t take much imagine for either of us to see it as a cool puff of smoke. Balancing good health and being cool is a rough gig.

“It’s like being a baby, like no object permanence. You know how, when you’re a baby, and something leaves your view – like peek-a-boo, like your mom just hid a toy or like your dad just walked out of the room for a moment – when you’re a baby, to you it’s like it just disappeared. Because you haven’t learned that when something leaves your sight, that doesn’t mean it’s gone. And then you grow up a little bit and you learn that the hidden toy is under the blanket and your dad’s just in the next room watching the game. And it’s fine, everything’s fine. And recently, what with one thing and another, I think I’ve been having to unlearn that.” She rubs her face. I don’t think she’s imagining looking cool now.

“It’s a curve – a pair of curves. One is how much we believe in object permanence, and one is how permanent objects are. The first curve, it goes up over the first few years of our lives, as we get used to being a baby, get used to being alive. The second curve – well that one goes all over the place, up and down like a roller coaster or a seismograph, and if we’re lucky we’re born with it pretty high, but as time passes it tends to trend… downwards. And as that happens the first curve also crawls down.”

“I don’t think we’re talking about what you asked about any more. But. I’ve gotten kind of used to the idea that whenever I look away from something it might not be there the next time I look, and I’ve gotten kind of used to the idea that when someone walks out of the room they might not ever walk back in.”

“I guess what I’m trying to say that what I have is a kind of relative confidence. It’s not that I’ve gained such faith in myself, but that I’ve – well I don’t want to say lost faith in everything else, but more like, uh, gained faith in everyone and everything being as shitty and unreliable and stupid and nonsensical as I am. So it’s fine – it’s fine as long as I act like it’s fine. And, I mean, other things are beautiful sometimes, right? Sunsets, art, love, truth, I dunno, you know the stuff. So maybe I’ve got that too, some of that raw elemental core of beauty, even if I can’t see it. I have to assume so. What are the odds I wouldn’t, if all of these stupid naked baby emperors around still manage to have moments of beauty and grace? So I just try to act like that version of me, the coolest baby, the greatest common denominator.”

“Anyway,” she says, fingers dangling over the railing, twitching slightly, “what else can I do?” as an unseen flake of ash falls down to the invisible street below.