I am tired of video game protagonists. There’s a specific character that gets created over and over again when a video game designer asks themselves “what kind of person would only ever interact with the world through the barrel of a gun?” and it’s a pretty boring character. The worst part of these characters is the ways they try to soften them, to make them ultimately the good guy in a world of bad guys, to make them tortured and conflicted, to make them sad and sympathetic.

The problem isn’t that they try to humanize a character who does violence, it’s the attempt to somehow square the demands of a sympathetic character with the sheer scope of violence that these characters enact over the course of a game. A video game protagonist frequently kills hundreds of people, along with devastating their surroundings in many other ways. This obligatory massacre gets monotonous sooner rather than later, but the attempts to convince us that the concerns of a person who is living this life would have anything in common with the concerns of any actual existing human being are downright insulting.

I don’t mind the violence, but I detest the way it’s justified. Violence can be interesting and fun to explore in art, and it frequently is, but if we’re going to be mowing down swathes of people then let’s at least admit that that’s a choice, that we are reveling in something wicked. If we’re going to be monstrous, then make us monsters. This is one reason why I found Hotline Miami such a breath of fresh air – there is no justification for the kind of violence that the game wallows in, and it at least has the decency to acknowledge that. There’s no grand anti-violence message in the game, as much as people have tried to project that aspect onto it, there’s just the violence itself, unadorned, and how we feel when confronted with that.

The worlds portrayed, in an effort to make violent gameplay seem natural, take on an aspect of propaganda. It is a popular political and sales strategy to make people scared so they are more pliable, to terrify them with outside threats so they’ll open their hearts and their wallets. The ways games portray their worlds as full of militant threats just waiting for an opportunity to strike is eerily similar to the way politicians like to portray borders. Even games that try to have progressive messages often fall into the trap of portraying the world as fundamentally cruel and predatory just so the player is justified in fighting back against it. Of course, bad things happen in the world – but there’s a big difference between portraying the world as a place where cruelty and evil happens versus portraying cruelty and evil as a natural law which dictates everything that must happen.

Games that offer “non-lethal” solutions are often even worse, though. Playing through a game like Dishonored without killing means leaving behind a swathe of injured and very angry people who have already demonstrated themselves to be brutally violent when frustrated or bored, so not only are you still beating the shit out of them, you’re leaving them to continue whatever cruel and oppressive practices they were in the middle of when you non-lethally choked them, non-lethally threw them through a shop window, or non-lethally bashed their faces into the pavement. What’s even worse is that these “non-lethal” approaches are presented as peaceful, as leading to a less chaotic world with less violence at the end.

But non-lethal is not non-violent, and this conflation tells us a great deal about the views of the developers. You have only to look at how the so-called “less-than-lethal” measures made available to law enforcement are frequently used – to intimidate, to torture, or sometimes even just as a joke – to see how creepy and shallow the myths of non-lethality we make use of in games really are. If we introduced, today, the “sweet dreams cannon”, a weapon capable of instantly and comfortably putting someone to sleep and having them wake up refreshed and happy, it would shortly thereafter be used to silence legitimate protests, evict inconvenient tenants, and abduct people going about their business who look suspicious – as well as, of course, many extralegal applications that may be even worse. There is no such thing as a completely benign ability to disable a human being, and the more we try to disguise such inventions as benevolent the more cavalierly they will be deployed. The only situations where non-lethal disabling force is warranted are those situations where lethal disabling force was already warranted, and the role of “less-than-lethal” weapons should primarily be to reduce casualty rates when these situations arise – not to serve as warning shots.

The question raised by any game that presents violence as the solution to a problem, though, is what comes next? Do we use our power to kill and subdue to restore the previous society, even if the systemic issues of that society will inevitably give rise to the same problems? Or do we work to preserve whatever the most amenable power structure exists in the new world? Or do we seek to tear down all unjust systems so that something new might rise in their place? Or do we merely revel in the chaos we can sow, unbounded by society? Most games barely acknowledge these as decisions: In Dishonored, we seek to become re-honored, and that implies rebuilding the collapsing society. In most modern Fallouts, we just pick whatever faction seems least objectionable and back them, whereas in Fallout 76 I guess we just throw around nukes because we can. One of the few games that addresses what comes after the violence in an interesting way is Fallout: New Vegas. While you’re still picking the most amenable of several factions, each fairly closely aligns with one of these options: You can go back to the old world that the NCR represents, back Mr House’s vision of an independent Vegas, join up with Caesar’s Legion if you’re an asshole, or strike out on your own with your new personal army to see if you can make something better.

I just am so tired, not of violence in art, but of the incredible regressive tedium of the narrative violence proffered by most big-budget games. There are so many interesting and powerful questions these games could ask – but it seems they would prefer that we just don’t ask any questions at all.

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Everything in a game is there for a reason – whether that reason is because it’s necessary for the player to progress, because of aesthetic appeal, or because of an oversight on the part of the developers, there’s some history behind every bump and nook and crevice of the world. Much of the time, this history is merely of idle curiosity – the sort of stuff that’s interesting in developer commentaries but doesn’t really get talked about elsewhere.

Frequent players of games, though, tend to notice the patterns of this history. If two objects have a particular spatial relationship to each other – say, they’re just close enough to jump from one to the other – then we start to infer the intent behind the placement. This is particularly noticeable when solving puzzles in games. When the developer has created the environment to be navigated in one specific way, everything about the structure and layout of that environment becomes significant. It’s like a cryptogram: there’s a meaning behind this arrangement of elements which is directly being communicated to us, but the meaning hides behind a layer of obfuscation. And, like a cryptogram, solving the puzzle is mostly just a process of sorting all the information available to us properly: Once you know what every element’s role is, the solution becomes obvious. This is, more often than not, why people see twists coming in a story as well – not because the thing that happens next is likely, but because all of the pieces of the story moving to set up the twist lack subtlety and too clearly show the aims of the author. As with games, every part of a book was written for a reason, and if you’re good at seeing what that reason is then the shape of the story will start to take form long before it is read. Writers who are invested in creating a sense of surprise and discovery often need to find newer and more subtle ways to create surprise as we get better and better at reading their intent. We could view this as a sort of game itself: The artist’s attempt to create a surprise vs the reader’s ability to decode their intent prematurely.

Real spaces, too, have a history that is shaped by cause and effect. Places where people walk become trails and trails become roads – spaces not made to create puzzles, but merely to be traversed and lived in. The ability to infer the history of a space, whether virtual or real, can be a useful skill. It is not, however, a generalized problem-solving skill. That is to say, if you’re very good at solving puzzles, that doesn’t necessarily make you very good at solving problems. The problems we encounter in the world aren’t very much like the problems that games propose to us. They are not bounded or discrete, their elements are not carefully placed to be used. They are inconvenient and messy, and it’s not always clear when one has found a solution – or what other new problems that solution may pose. Problems may not even be solvable at all. The obstacles that games present may be useful for keeping your mind sharp, but the amount of transferable skill between the tiny constrained problems offered by a game and the huge incomprehensible problems proffered by day-to-day life is minimal.

While the skills games teach may, at times, have utility, that utility is rarely anything like the way those skills are represented in-game – that is to say, while the manual dexterity and tactical thinking needed to become a martial arts master in Street Fighter may have other applications, it won’t help you win many actual street fights. It’s sometimes difficult to accept that the skills don’t transfer, though, because to accept this is, some feel, to denigrate their validity as skills. Beating Dark Souls doesn’t mean you can fight a horse, but it does mean you’re capable of a certain degree of patience and care and precision. Doing something that’s difficult doesn’t necessarily mean you can do anything else that’s difficult, but it does mean you have the capability to face and overcome a difficult problem, if perhaps a very constrained one.

It may be obvious that playing video games isn’t generally good training for real life problems, but it’s worth restating because we tend to believe in the idea of generalized mental capability, in a sort of hierarchy of intelligence, to believe that if you can do one difficult thing that smart people do you can probably do other difficult smart-people things. What lets people do difficult things, though, isn’t some sort of abstract intelligence, some numerical value that makes them better at brain stuff than other people. It’s skill and it’s practice. We have a very easy time with this idea when it comes to athletic pursuits, to the idea that the abilities that make a person great at one sport probably don’t lend themselves to making them great at another sport, but have a harder time with it when it comes to mental skills.

Movies and television like to use a visual shorthand to show that a person is smart, so that we know to respect whatever they’re about to say. They show them playing smart-person games like chess or playing smart-person instruments like violins, have them wear smart-person glasses and speak in smart-person voices. And, of course, we know that wearing glasses or playing chess don’t necessarily make you smart – but we still believe there must be such a thing as smart, and that there must be a certain set of pursuits and attributes that belong to this class of smart people.

Pursuing skill in any endeavor is admirable in its own right, but it won’t somehow train up your intelligence score. You can’t grind your stats. All you can do is get better at doing a thing, and sometimes that will also be helpful for doing other things. Even then, there’s many ways to get better at a thing – for instance, if you want to play the piano, you could improve at sight-reading music or at improvisation, you could improve at jazz or classical music, you could improve your ability to play quick phrases or to make big jumps across octaves on the keyboard. These are all related but distinct skills, and together they can make you “good at the piano” – but what does “good” mean to you, then?

It takes a whole other skill, a whole other kind of dedication, to be able to face a problem of unknown size and indefinite scope, and slowly pick away at it bit by bit, unable to know when or how it might be solved. That’s one I think we’re all still trying to get the hang of.

Eh well the December project didn’t really go anywhere. I can at least put some screenshots of how far I got before I decided I’d kind of messed up:

I spent a week or two planning this building layout, figuring out Pro Builder (a tool for constructing 3d objects within Unity), and picking up the basics of other tools, such as Unity’s terrain system. In the end, I was… dissatisfied. I felt like I had just the very edges of what could be an interesting environment, but Pro Builder was becoming increasingly unfriendly the more I worked on it, and small issues with the geometry got harder and harder to fix – leaving me unable to make important changes, such as adding more windows.

I then decided that I needed to be able to work on this in a more full-featured 3d environment. I don’t know whether this was a good or a bad decision, but it was definitely the beginning of the end for this project. Originally, I’d hoped to just export the model from Pro Builder into Blender, a free and very full-featured 3d editing software. Unfortunately, all of the work I’d done in texturing and detailing the environment in Pro Builder came to work against me, with every separately textured subsurface of the object exporting as a separate element. I’d hoped to just drop my old work into Blender and immediately start work again, but this proved to be unfeasible. Over the next few days I studied the basics of Blender, and I began to reconstruct the building – but it is, after all, very difficult to be enthusiastic about doing the same work twice, and my capacity for enthusiasm is inconsistent at the best of times.

At this point we were pretty close to Christmas anyway, and my attention went away from getting game work done and towards all of the preparations that came with that. After Christmas I was mostly focused on cleaning and thinking about what the next year is going to look like. I’m still thinking a lot about those things, but it’s time to start a new project…

Well, close to it anyway! I’m actually not quite done with holiday stuff, and will be traveling for the next several days. Once that’s past I’ll have all month free, and hopefully by the time I get back home I’ll have a solid idea of what I want to work on. I do have a general plan of approach, though, for what I want the next several projects to be, based on the skills I want to pick up and practice:

January: Wizard Jam. The Idle Thumbs community runs a semiannual game jam where people spend a couple of weeks making a game, usually based on the title of one of the podcasts. This community has been a great source of support for me over the last couple of years, and though I’ve participated in the Jam a couple of times I’d like to put some work into something I can really be proud of this time. I’d also like to collaborate with at least one other person.

February: 2d Platformer. I would like to spend a month putting together a simple but complete 2d platformer. The purpose of this is twofold: First, to create a game simple enough that I can focus on creating content for it, and second to gain an understanding of how 2d works in Unity. The latter is important because it’s going to determine if, when I return to work on EverEnding, I continue that project in Flash or reimplement it in Unity. Probably the former, but I want to be open to the latter.

March: Album. I miss writing music, and though these other projects will probably provide opportunity to do so I’d really like to make it the focus of my efforts for a while. There’s a slight chance I might swap this one to February, since I’d prefer to dedicate fewer days to it and more to the 2d game, all else being equal.

April: EverEnding, Chapter 1, Part 1. I think if I really focus for a month, I can create the introductory areas of EverEnding to a degree that is, if not finished quality, at least close enough that I can finish most of the rest of the game before I take another quality pass. If I hit this milestone, I’ll start regularly setting up work months like this. I really don’t want to abandon this project! But I don’t want to be okay with it taking forever either.

All in all, it’s hard to be upset with how this month went. I’m disappointed that the project didn’t turn into anything, but I’m hoping I can keep up the momentum I started in learning these 3d tools, which have generally been a weakness of mine for a long time. I learned a bit more about the danger of trying to do things the ‘right way’ as well – this has been a vulnerability of mine for a long time, of feeling bound to execute whatever I feel to be the ‘proper’ way of doing something. The proper approach, though, is the one that creates a game, and so far that seems to elude me.

Hopefully, in a month, this space will describe my new Wizard Jam game – or games? Until then, hopefully I can also manage to keep up on Problem Machine blog posts a little bit better than I’ve been managing the last couple of weeks.

Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to get better at art – in the specific sense of visual art, that is – drawing and painting and, most frequently, digital art. I think I’ve succeeded at the goal of getting better, though I still fall short of what I want to be able to achieve. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to understand 3d art – in this case trying to construct an environment that’s visually interesting and feels reasonably natural to exist in. Most of my abortive forays into 3d work haven’t really concerned themselves at all with scale or natural placement or trying to set a scene – at best I’ve learned the basics, and now that I’m learning the basics again I suspect I didn’t actually learn them very well the first time.

It’s a strange sensation, sometimes, trying to extrapolate the things I’ve learned from 2d art into 3d art. When I’m doing a painting, I compose the view and then decide where the light is and, as I flesh the piece out, I try to remain true to those decisions. When I’m working in 3d, I have to position the entrance to the room and position the lighting to create the ‘composition’ the player actually encounters in the world, and the specifics of how that light gets rendered are handled by the 3d program. I’m still far short of where I want to be in this field, as well, but because it’s a newer skill to me I at least feel like I’m quickly improving.

The more I work at it, though, the more I notice there’s something missing. If I were to sit down in a drawing workshop and draw a model, then move my chair and draw them again, and do that several times, those drawings together would comprise something like a 3d interpretation of the model. Even if I did a very good job of those drawings, though, there would be discontinuities – part of the process of drawing would be to make decisions, exaggerations, corrections… there’s no such thing as perfect representation, because the lines we use to draw are largely conceptual, whereas the model is a person with a physical presence. Each drawing goes through its own artistic process, interpreting what I am able to see through my flawed eyes and converting it into a linear and shaded approximation. In 3d art, though, I just create the environment and leave that visual interpretation, what would be my drawing in this analogy, entirely up to the renderer. The gap, the thing that’s missing, is the 2d artist whose place is being taken by the computer – or, to be more precise, in this case the artist’s place is taken by Unity’s default rendering pipeline.

This isn’t to decry 3d art as in some way being less ‘real’ art, but to bring up the idea of the many kinds of art that it could be but currently is not. In our quest for consistency, for realism, we’ve left behind much of the power of 2d art – the ability to exaggerate, to portray the impossible and cartoonish. A good example of this would be the video game adaptations of cartoons like The Simpsons: In these shows, characters rarely face towards the camera because the style of the show usually only holds when they’re in 3/4 profile view. The particular cartoon squiggles that comprise the mouths and eyes only really make sense in that perspective, so whenever the script calls for a character to be seen from a different angle it looks off, weird and confusing and sometimes downright unrecognizable. The 3d game adaptations, however, require the characters to be viewable from every angle – so the style is collapsed into 3d models that makes approximate sense from every angle but also never really look like the cartoon original. Even the most elegant and well-executed cel-shaded outline shader can’t fix the issue that 3d rendering will, at the end of the day, be a faithful and uncreative depiction of the model data.

I know that you could affect the geometry of the model with a shader as well, but I haven’t seen it applied towards this problem – unsurprising since I expect I’m the only person who considers it a problem. Whether because of the constraints of technology or because of our worship of ‘realism’, the idea of making models that don’t appear the same from every angle doesn’t seem to have ever really taken hold. Every game establishes its own language, so in the end objects in a game can look like basically anything and the game continues to work. Just like playing make-believe as a child, a stick can be a sword if we agree it is a sword, a bush can be a dragon, the floor can be lava. If we can push things this far, why don’t we? I mean, we sometimes do, but usually only in the context of relatively low-tech ‘retro’ experiences, either using simple pixel art or low-poly 3d styles. We have yet to unleash most of the power on our disposal on the challenges of surrealism, impressionism, cubism – and, on the rare occasions when we begin to push in these directions, it’s usually only to try to emulate the most well-known 2d visual aspects of that style, rather than making any attempt to interpret how these might translate into a 3d space.

In general, the aesthetics of games fall into two R’s: Realistic and Retro. Recently there’s been a bit of leeway around ‘realism’, but it’s still the broad category AAA games fall into. While games like Dishonored and Breath of the Wild may not be attempting to appear real, they still try to emulate a version of reality, a world that is consistent in its rules and its appearance, a world where even if the particular appearance of a thing is stylized it still has the essential properties expected of a real object. Retro games, conversely, are willing to be weird, to be inconsistent, to be arbitrary and unreal – if they emulate the exact forms of inconsistency and arbitrary unreality that were the hallmarks of the nostalgic history of video games.

Any one of those quirks that are typical of retro games, though, could be harnessed now, and recontextualized into a modern space. The tendency for sprites to receive erroneous memory addresses and replace parts of an important game character with text or another character was caused by the specific implementation of pixel graphics used in old games, and has been used narratively in interesting ways by games like Undertale, but there’s no reason that must be married to a retro style – we could just as easily have a scene where parts of a 3d model flicker and are replaced with parts of another 3d model. It wouldn’t have the same contextual meaning as it does with sprites, where it comes to stand in for the concepts of corruption and elemental chaos – but that wouldn’t keep it from being visually interesting! Or, another artifact of retro games is pixelation – pixelation is still called back to in 3d contexts, sometimes, but only by creating low-resolution textures or occasionally creating 3d equivalents, voxels. However, that’s an interpretation rooted in a visual rather than a systemic understanding of what pixels were – what about an art style where all vertices of a 3d object snapped to a grid? What about an art style where models are rendered to a texture and then crunched down into a sprite and projected back into the world?

I bring up retro art, though, just because it’s the most understandable entry point into non-representation (or at least less-representation). Retro is the only area in game design where looking anything besides beautiful, anything besides representational, gets much allowance from potential players. We are prepared to accept retro because we know what it’s trying to be. We must be prepared to accept more, to accept the weird and ugly and inexplicable.

I understand why it has been necessary to attempt ‘realism’ for so long. Picasso drew a lot of normal very pretty paintings before he started painting blue shit and weird cube people. Eventually, we need to accept that we’ve got this reality thing down pretty well, and be willing to push outwards. We have the power to make worlds – why do we keep trying to just make this one, over and over and over again, with just slight thematic variations?

The first of what will hopefully be many monthly projects is complete! This ended up being a little bit more along the lines of a prototype than a complete game, but I expect that most of them will – and it’s still quite playable for what it is, I think. Click this text or the above picture to download the game.

I learned a lot about how Unity works doing this. Starting from the incredibly basic Roll-A-Ball tutorial provided by the Unity team, I added a jump (which didn’t make it into the release version, but which I am quite pleased with nevertheless – if I end up creating a more complete and sellable version of the game it may find its way back in), then added an advanced camera and gravity beam. Most of the development time went into implementing and tweaking these effects, and I’m very pleased with the overall feel of it now, though certain aspects, such as the simple “X” beam cursor and the occasionally clumsy camera, could use improvement. The game is unfortunately still rather unoptimized – I’m unused to 3d optimization in general, and also more specifically unused to optimization in Unity, and also most of the few things I do know about optimization have to do with ensuring that the game doesn’t render things the player doesn’t need to see – which, in this game, is honestly not very many things, since movement speed can be so fast and can change very quickly the player really needs to be aware of where all the platforms are at all times. That’s one reason I wanted to make the player character reflective, so that you have some idea what’s around you even if you’re not looking in that direction. Unfortunately, because the character is reflective that means even the parts of the level you’re not looking at need to be rendered, so it really does affect the performance.

So, what did I learn from this project? What went right and what went wrong? About halfway through, I was imagining a game with approximately the same gameplay but set inside a giant office or other mundane room. This would have been difficult to do, because I have very little experience creating a realistic 3d space, so eventually I decided to make a more abstract “cyberspace” world. This helped me create a simple level quickly, since I could really just throw together whatever geometry seemed interesting without any concern as to creating textures or ensuring everything was to scale, and also allowed me to create a very open space where the player could do almost anything with the gravity beams. I knew early on that I wanted the player to be a glass sphere which shattered on hard impacts, partially inspired by Marble Madness. It took me quite a while to figure out how to create the shattering effect – I eventually found code to create something along the lines of what I needed, but had to modify it slightly but significantly to suit my purposes. I’m pleased with the final shattering effect, though it sometimes renders in ways I don’t expect.

I tend to think of music creation as coming fairly quickly and easily to me, but it was actually difficult under the time pressure of the last few days of the project. While I like the track I came up with well enough, it’s shorter and simpler and has less production work than I usually like to put into my musical work. I think it’s well suited to the game though, and I haven’t gotten tired of listening to it yet which is a good sign. The sound effects were mostly pulled from freesound.org, though I modified many of them quite significantly, mostly to make the glass sound a bit more musical when it struck or rolled.

All in all, I’m quite satisfied. It might not be the most ambitious project, it might not have a ton of content, but I do feel it offers something unique and that I have executed it to a reasonable level of quality. I may revisit this project sometime next year and try to develop it into a complete game, which would involve adding a bunch of new levels, leaderboards, and ideally some sort of head-to-head racing mode.

For December, I’d like to try to patch up a weakness of mine: The same way as P1aySpace ZER0 was an opportunity to learn Unity, I would like to take this opportunity to learn to create the kind of realistic 3d space I opted out of making for this project. I’m not sure yet what kind of game I would be setting in that environment, though I have a few ideas — first I want to plan out and construct this space, then I can see how much time I have left, during this very busy month, to build a game into it. Hopefully I will be as pleased with that project as I was with this one.

Oh, before I forget, since this game turned out quite a bit more difficult than I had initially expected it to, here are a few tips:

  1. Use the repulsor beam. Though going fast is fun and satisfying, you will almost certainly destroy yourself if you don’t use the repulsor to slow yourself down sometimes.
  2. Don’t worry if you miss a gate. Until you get down to the last couple of gates, missing one usually sets you on a trajectory to hit another. Every missed platform is an opportunity to swing around and fly in a different direction.
  3. Rapidfire the beam to climb. Once you’re holding yourself close to an edge with the beam it’s usually possible to climb or swing up, but getting there in the first place requires you to pull yourself up with the beam.

Happy rolling!

An ugly trait of our society is that we tend to see people’s value primarily in terms of the goods they might produce. We even tend to see ourselves this way, to want to maximize our productivity, to be able to demonstrate ourselves as worthy. As I’ve come to notice this ugliness more and more, though, this has raised a dilemma for me: I know that this worldview is shitty and exploitative and dehumanizing, but I also deeply value art and believe that it’s worth spending time to make it.

Everything that human society has produced it has done at the cost of some portion of a person’s life. People trade pieces of their lives with each other to make each other’s lives more enjoyable, whether directly by means of friendships and other relationships or by spending time on producing goods and services which they trade with each other. Money hypothetically facilitates this exchange, provides a layer of abstraction which makes it easier for large groups of people to exchange pieces of their life in ways which are valuable to each other. In the abstract that’s wonderful, but in practice this leads to Problems: It leads to stockpiling – people hoarding away money and goods, keeping away chips that each represent seconds and minutes and hours of another person’s life, and offering no benefit to anyone. It leads to exploitation, someone with relatively more resources taking labor from a person with relatively few in exchange for the abstracted, liquefied version. It becomes an end in and of itself, a method of power and class rather than of helping people exchange their time in beneficial ways.

A person’s time can be used to create things that are beneficial for others, and that’s beautiful. Unfortunately, rather than us giving ourselves, we are being taken. Rather than nursing, we are being milked. The entire apparatus of creativity becomes implicated in a monstrous crime.

There’s a temptation when faced with this evil to discard its fruits entirely. This is probably the proper approach on a greater structural level, but less so when it comes to specific objects – that is, yes, the exploitation needs to be stopped, but the goods themselves still represent slivers of a person’s life, and that should be treated with respect. The things we make are important. The things we make are still part of us, even if the method of their making is contemptible.

The old promise of automation was that it would save us by reducing how much of a person’s life they had to spend making each individual object. The bulk of the time could be offloaded to the machines, leaving the person to manage the work using a fraction of the time. In practice, of course, this resulted in people simply being let go, and made even more vulnerable to exploitation, driving the trade value of human time, of human life, down. Not down far enough, though: Companies started building factories where human time and life were even cheaper, and then automating those factories so each individual put into them could produce even more. The low price of these goods directly reflects the contempt in which we hold the people who actually produce them, though that contempt is negotiated through the corporations themselves so that we seldom have to acknowledge it directly. We are incentivized to create poverty and suffering so that human life is worth less in some places and we can make affordable trinkets. The old twist about a machine being powered by lost souls has come true, but it’s every machine, brought into existence by sacrificing a small but significant piece of another human being’s life.


Yesterday, at the time of this writing, was Thanksgiving, a holiday about gratitude – a sentiment I can largely get behind, at least in the abstract. When I was taught about Thanksgiving in schools, we learned the story of how the kind native Americans taught the Pilgrims to survive, and so this day became a day of feasting and gratitude. This was, again, an abstract gratitude, and in no way impeded the progress of the subsequent genocide. We mostly eat turkey on this holiday so have a tradition now of the president pardoning a turkey, which is a funny joke about not killing a bird except – was the turkey supposed to have committed a crime? Why are we pardoning a creature to excuse the crimes we intended to commit against it? Surely we should be begging the turkey’s pardon. It’s funny the way crimes and punishments tend to fuse together and cipher for one another.

Today, at the time of this writing, we have another holiday called Black Friday: A holiday about buying things, consuming those fragments of human life that have been shaved off into technological marvels. Mostly, when we talk about being thankful during Thanksgiving, the American version of gratitude is being thankful to be an American, thankful to be here and not in one of those countries where human life isn’t worth so much, and where they make the electronics we buy on Black Friday. Thus we can more efficiently reap the benefits of making other countries worse.

They’re an interesting pair of holidays: Having what you need, and then desperately wanting more.


As an artist, how can I produce in this context, without feeling that I am exploiting or being exploited? The first and, perhaps, most difficult lesson is learning what my creative resources actually are. What can I put into my art? Not just in terms of skill and talent, but in terms of how much time and energy I can capably invest into my work. We’ve been trained to think that eight hours of work makes a complete day of work, but that’s quite a lot. You might be able to put that much in, but maybe you can get more done by putting in 3 and then putting 3 into something else that needs to get done; or maybe by putting in an hour or two here and there; or by going on creative binges that last a few days but leave you exhausted once a month. I’m still trying to discover what my personal alchemy is. The goal is to find what I can produce readily and calibrate my work to that. Once I’ve done this, I can at least and at last know when I am working and when I am not working – I constantly felt like I was always half-working, not really putting my all in but not really able to relax. If you try to put more of yourself than you have to give into something, you start burning yourself, like burning books to stay warm or burning muscle to keep from starving, you’re consuming parts of yourself that weren’t meant to be used this way, and that will have consequences, sooner or later.

Finding a way forward is a matter of balance – of putting the time and energy I have in the places where they do the most good, of finding the art where it’s lying most ready to be found instead of wasting resources trying to hunt it down.

Allocating time that isn’t time for work and then not just spending it sitting around doing nothing is still hard, though, because I have no idea what I want to do with myself beyond make things. I feel isolated in a way that sometimes bothers me, feel a need to make new connections with people, but also simultaneously have a loathing of all the baggage of unfamiliar social situations and potential conflict that comes with meeting people. Even more than working on art, it can be difficult to cut off from spending extra time and energy on a social contact once you’ve already reached your capacity for putting in that sort of effort – and, unlike art, the damage caused by doing so clumsily can have deep ramifications.

Left to my own devices, I might spend forever happily tinkering with my own projects, existing in stasis – but the world keeps moving. Sooner or later, something I rely on is going to break, there’s going to be some sort of disaster that throws me off balance, and if I don’t expand outwards to discover a world beyond myself before that point it’s just going to be that much worse. I feel myself becoming isolated by degrees, and I’m reminded of Edmund McMillen’s game Aether. Aether is a short game where you play a child flying around space on an octopus-like monster. As you visit different planets, there are creatures there with simple problems which you can solve, and as you do the planet blooms. However, each time you do, when you come back to Earth it’s slightly smaller. The game ends after you solve every planet’s problems and come back, and the Earth is smaller than you are, and crumbles when you touch it. It’s a metaphor for getting lost in creativity that I keep coming back to, because I do feel like my connection to the world is very tenuous in some ways, anchored by just a few people and places.

I’m reaching out and trying to touch these two ideas at the same time, of creating things of worth and beauty and of building connections to new people and places. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m at least getting better at making things without completely losing myself to that process. Perhaps once I get really good at that it will make it easier for me to expand outwards. The challenge then will be learning to want to.


We’re all burning our resources and trying to do it the best way we can, to make the best life we can for however long it lasts. If we must burn up, let us at least warm each other in the process. It’s up to you to find out the way you burn brightest, and longest, and kindest.

I always love hearing about the points in game development where a big decision was made not to do something. Every game has moments like that – cut features, changes in design focus, unused assets – and they’re always fascinating, because they show a vision of what the game could have been, what it almost was. Sometimes whatever it is sounds more appealing than what we got – and, just as often, it sounds like it would have been a disaster, and a bullet was dodged.

It’s not just games that undergo this process, this cycle of growth and pruning, though it tends to be far more visible in games because it takes so long to make a game and the process leaves more behind in the form of demo footage and unused content. Every creation is the sum of countless decisions, decisions so small and subtle that in the moment of creation we don’t even notice we’ve made them. Every choice folds in on itself, and builds outwards, in such a way that a single slightly different choice made early on might butterfly effect out and completely change the whole project.

Then again, it might not. Because a decision made early on has so many later decisions stacked up after it, it is in some ways less important than a decision made later on in the creative process. For example, so many artists set out to create something new, to break their creative habits, and set out a sketch in a bold new style – only to find that, as they fill it out and polish it, it begins to look more and more like their previous work, the many intervening tiny choices of detail acting together to overwhelm the few big bold choices they meant to define the piece.

With all this in mind, it becomes increasingly difficult to see whether a given decision in the process is a good or a bad one, because what determines whether an artistic choice work or not work is entirely whether the future choices built on top of it make it work. So, what I’m saying is that every choice you make early on in building a work of art is simultaneously incredibly important and defines everything about what it will be – and also completely irrelevant because it will be outweighed by every future choice you make.

Okay. How does that make any sense?

Because art, and the decisions that go into it, are context. Every creative action you can take is only within your vocabulary because of the context of the life you live and have lived, and every choice you put into a work of art only has meaning in the context of its relationship to the preceding and succeeding choices. The specific analogy that comes to mind is, once again, playing a game of XCOM – because I’ve been playing so much XCOM and watching so much more that these analogies are coming to me very readily right now. When you move your units around the map, the early moves don’t directly bring you victory or disaster, but they do affect how likely your later moves are to be useful. The beginning of the combat is both incredibly important, because it sets the stage for all your other moves, but also largely irrelevant, since under most circumstances you have ample opportunity to course correct. Every decision matters, but even in a difficult encounter there are usually many potential paths to victory: As long as the moves you take still are contained somewhere within that victory possibility-space, you’re doing okay. This is actually all pretty much true of any tactical game, so if it makes more sense to you then feel free to substitute Chess or Go in the preceding analogy.

The point of all this is that there’s no benefit or reason to stressing over early decisions. The point of all this is that if you’re waiting to figure out where to start before you begin a project, you’re wasting your time. Begin anywhere. You can get anywhere from anywhere. Yes, I’ve made a blog post arguing pretty much the exact opposite of this as well, and yes I actually still agree with that blog post too. The first choice you make will define everything about your project, but so will all the other choices. Everything matters, but nothing matters so much, in art, that it’s worth being scared about. Just keep making choices. Just don’t run away. Eventually, somehow, you’ll have something worth being proud of.