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A few nights ago I was wedged between my bed and the shelves I was trying to cram into my closet. I was soaked in sweat, and resting my head against the flimsy particle board backing of the shelves, which was becoming increasingly flimsy the more I tried to push them into place against the evidenced will of the laws of space and physics. Everything I owned was piled up around the room, and for each new other angle I tried to fit the shelves into the closet I had to move everything around again, each thing blocking where the next thing needed to go, or getting caught on every other thing, or tipping over and scattering things everywhere. So many things. Each action had prerequisite actions, every object a series of locations it had to be shuffled to before it could go where it was supposed to, and at the end, when I was forced to give up, the stacks of possessions piled up behind that stoppage like a train jam, and I felt despair out of any proportion to the problem of fitting a set of crappy Ikea shelves in a closet.

Of course, while the shelf situation was frustrating, it wasn’t the source of despair. The despair that was waiting to raise to the surface was over the chain of prerequisites, the stack of laundry that had to go on the bed so I could open the closet, the boxes that had to go on my computer chair so I could remove the old shelf, the whole room becoming chaotic and unusable just to clear a path, and the path in the end being useless – but then the car I needed to borrow as well, the money I needed to spend as well, the time I needed to make, the projects I needed to plan, as well, as well, as well.

When we speak of the belief that all things are connected, we speak of it as though it ought to make things easier somehow. As though there’s a difference between a web and a tangle when either one can make you drown.

A belief in a the vast interconnectedness of all things is not a cure for anxiety.

It feels like Sokoban, a game of pushing boxes into place, where each box requires pushing other boxes requires pushing other boxes before anything can go where it actually needs to go. It should seem repellent in this aftermath, but Sokoban seems so appealing to me as a game right now because it would be nice to know what the actual boxes are, where the bounds of the arena where they can be moved lie, and to be certain that the posed problem can in fact be solved. Games promise self-contained problems, problems that don’t connect to anything outside of themselves and that you can therefore give yourself wholly to solving without constantly worrying about whether you have to do something else outside of them first. They promise not to be approachable – not necessarily easy, but quantifiably difficult. They promise to have a beginning and an end, to have boundaries instead of the constant hell of shifting walls that the vast sloppy systems of the outside world offers.

They did, anyway. Now games are a service, with boundaries that shift, with ‘new’ services on offer that may in fact just be keyed doors in front of the parts of the game you originally wanted to play. We have gleefully broken down the boundaries of the game that offered such comfort in the naive belief that to have no boundaries is to be free and that to be free is to be unbound. These games are just a symptom of a deeper rot of disruption, naturally. Why have boundaries between work and leisure when you can do both at once? Why have boundaries between work and entertainment when you can do both at once? Why not just have a little bit of work happening all the time, every day, forever? Be a bit more productive whenever you’re idle so you can feel good about yourself? How else could you possibly feel good about yourself?

And before you know it, everything in your life is just a box needing to be shoved into place so everything else can fit. Your chair and bed are boxes to be moved into place. Your friends and family are boxes to be moved into place. It’s all Sokoban now, and what is vitally important is that everything be moved into place, and it’s all interconnected, a puzzle of unverifiable size and complexity and of inescapable urgency.

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I finished my playthrough of Sekiro a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve had some time to sit and reflect on the experience. If you aren’t familiar with Sekiro, it’s the newest game by From Software, developers of the Dark Souls series, and it’s a continuation of that style of design as well as a spiritual successor of Tenchu, a beloved stealth game which I’ve never played and know very little about. Since I know nothing about Tenchu, I’m going to be talking a lot more about where Sekiro lies as a successor to Dark Souls than as a successor to Tenchu.

The original Dark Souls is still a powerful experience – dark and foreboding and inscrutable, Dark Souls offers many approaches to surmounting its various obstacles but obscures much of its narrative and mechanical breadth behind cryptic clues and interfaces. Sekiro is somewhat different in this regard: While it still maintains several of the mechanics and elements of exploration established by the Souls series, it does not shroud itself in mystery in terms of either its systems or its narrative and it provides relatively few ways to approach any given obstacle. Although I’ve been disappointed by the recent Souls games’ tendency towards simplicity, towards always funneling you into the same approach both in terms of movement through the world and tactics in combat, I enjoyed Sekiro’s even more streamlined approach. Sekiro’s commitment to this style takes simplicity and turns it into refinement.

Combat in Sekiro is usually a duel: Getting up in someone’s face and staying there, answering their every motion, call and response, until the heat gets too much and you need to retreat. While the overall sensation of move in, do damage, move out, is frequently the same as in a Souls, you no longer have the stamina system enforcing that behavior and thus you have much more leeway to keep pressing the attack – and are even encouraged to stay up close and personal for as long as possible before retreating by the game’s posture system, a mechanic of trying to push enemies off-balance through constant pressure so you can deliver a single lethal blow.

However, because there’s no longer nearly as much flexibility in how you approach obstacles – no bows, no bombs, no spells, no shields – the game is rather less forgiving than Dark Souls if you have a hard time engaging with the core mechanic of approach, deflect, counter, and various permutations on same. The game does offer numerous ‘shinobi tools’, such as shuriken, firecrackers, and a flamethrower, to give you these sorts of advantages – but, in the end, they’re all quite limited, and while they will help you they’re not so much an alternate path to victory as a way to gain an initial advantage on the same fight you’d be doing anyway.

Like the Souls games before it, Sekiro is a game about immortality: This thematic element makes a lot of sense as a way to integrate gameplay largely about getting the shit kicked out of you over and over again into a larger narrative. Most games, particularly before the Souls series arrived at prominence, simply narratively discarded any part of your gameplay that didn’t result in success. You reloaded, you rewinded, it never happened, forget about it. What having a game about immortality allows the developers to do is integrate every attempt, every failure, into the player’s story, a story of defeating death itself to right wrongs, of being a ghost or revenant set out to achieve one last vital task. It integrated the video game meta-narrative of undoing failures into an explicit narrative of fighting through them.

(Here’s where I get into the specifics of these games’ narrative. This is what would be considered spoilers for the Dark Souls series and Sekiro, so if you haven’t played these games and want to come to them fresh then you may want to stop here.)

While the immortality of Sekiro and of Dark Souls is treated nearly the same way mechanically, they’re treated quite differently by the narratives of each game. The story of Dark Souls is a story about systems of power and authority, and the existence of immortality within that context is evidence of how those systems have begun to fail – the powers of life and death have started to collapse, and the ancient undifferentiated stasis that held sway before gods and humans has started to take hold. Those who hold the reigns of power try to con those who suffer from this curse – you the player, as well as implicitly a huge number of other undead including all others who may have played the game – into sacrificing themselves in a ‘heroic’ quest to prop up this authoritarian system of divinity… Until it collapses again, presumably, at some point in the future, which the sequels imply happens many many times with each successive iteration becoming more corrupt and exhausted. Alternately, you can choose to subvert the system of divine authority and usher in a new age of dark – which sounds quite foreboding, but is presented more as an age of human self-determination in the absence of the divine than as something eldritch or unholy as standard video game symbolism might have such a name imply. In Dark Souls, ‘Dark’ isn’t so much evil as it is empty, the gaping nothingness we are confronted with when we seek for grand meanings and symbols, terrifying and comforting in equal measure, the pupil at the center of the iris.

However, Sekiro is almost aggressively unconcerned with the systems of power and what immortality might mean within these systems. Sekiro’s story is about what immortality might mean to individuals – old men faced with the decline of their bodies, young men who feel compelled to tackle tasks that are beyond the capacity of any single person, and the children whose youth and boundless potential these men covet and seek to exploit. It’s a game about dropping the ultimate gift of undeath into a world like our own and the strife and desire and bloodlust that would inevitably bubble up around it – in short, a game about greed.

In the story of Sekiro, your first priority is to ensure the safety of your master, the young lord Kuro, a child who has the power to give immortality. Others also want this power, most notably Genichiro who wants it to save the kingdom of Ashina where the game takes place. Along the way other objectives emerge, since Kuro himself decides that this power of immortality is going to keep causing trouble as long as it exists he dedicates himself, and therefore you, to the task of ending immortality, of letting humanity be merely human. Yet, though you are set this grand task, the top priority of the story is generally on protecting Kuro, and you are in the end mostly on this quest because he asks it of you.

Put succinctly, Dark Souls is a game about systems and Sekiro is a game about people, and this affects every aspect of both games. Combat in Dark Souls is largely against huge monsters, creatures who if they ever were human have long since lost contact with that humanity. It is a matter of distance and timing, dashing between gigantic legs or away from gigantic claws to deliver a strike or two and eventually putting the poor thing out of its misery. Sekiro is mostly about fighting people, opponents who move and act very much like you do, who one could easily imagine playing as with only minor tweaks to the control scheme. It’s about pushing up against them, engaging with their every move, answering each motion with a motion of your own, almost collaborative, almost a dance. There’s an intimacy to it, very different in tone to the cold calculation of Dark Souls combat.

The priorities of Sekiro’s story, as well, lie with individuals, not systems: It is a journey to save Kuro and to help him in the gargantuan task he has set for himself. You don’t set out to change the world, only to help Kuro, but circumstances demand that in order for that to happen the world must first be changed. Structures mean nothing without the people that inhabit them.

Genichiro fights to save Ashina, and is willing to sacrifice his people, himself, and his humanity to achieve that – so what is he actually fighting to preserve? An empty name? A ghost kingdom? The battle to save Ashina has gone on so long that the land is deeply scarred, its animals have picked up weapons and learned to fight. The best thing for it would be to let it go. To give up, and see what comes next. The biggest difference between Dark Souls and Sekiro is how they portray giving up. In Dark Souls, to give up is to lose yourself, to become hollow, a shell. In Sekiro, giving up is presented as sometimes the only reasonable option: Lord Isshin, who saved Ashina from a bloodthirsty despot, sits alone in his besieged fortress (aside from occasional outings), content to die while his grandson Genichiro goes to extraordinary measures to save Ashina because he knows there’s nothing there left to fight for. As the player dies over and over, refusing to give up, unleashes a sickness called dragonrot on the world, poisoning all of the people you meet along the way, it raises the question: Is what I’m doing for the best? Or am I just doing my duty, even if it does harm?

Perhaps one of the reasons From Software’s games have done so well is because there’s a certain thematic resonance between their stories and the daily tolls of our lives. Being conned into propping up deeply cruel and unjust systems, feeling hollow but persevering, being caught between an old prosperous generation and a young one full of potential but being pushed into a deeply fucked up world, it’s all a very millennial experience. It doesn’t offer any answers, but there’s something reassuring about believing that at least, somewhere on the other side, there’s something else – an escape, a change of state, or merely progression, perhaps no better than the world we have now, but at least it’s one step away from where we stand.

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Well I’ve finally gone and done it. I finally made myself a Patreon. Largely this is because they were about to change their payment structure in an unfavorable way and I wanted to sneak in before that deadline, but this is something I’ve wanted to try for a long time. I wrote a bit about the reasons why on the Patreon page. The fact of the matter is, I’ve put an awful lot of time and energy into this blog over the years and been extremely broke for pretty much all that time, so it feels worthwhile to see whether I can use fact A to resolve fact B.

But, more than that, I wanted to take this step because it’s very easy to stop taking steps and stand in place. It’s very easy to just not make something like a Patreon page, to never ask for anything, to never presume your work is worth anything, if you can survive without doing so. To me that has been the path of least resistance for a long time, to just quietly do work and ask for nothing, not even acknowledgement, in return, and to quietly hope that perhaps it will be of value to someone somewhere. Eventually, though, if you have something to say you have to start saying it loudly. Whispering gets so tiresome. If you’ve enjoyed my work here, I hope you’ll consider supporting me on this new endeavor.

For the most part, though, things are going to stay basically the same here: one post a week on various game and art-related topics. The only real difference is there’s now going to be a week’s delay between when I write new posts and when they come up here, since I’m giving each new micro-essay one week of exclusivity on the Patreon before it gets posted on the blog. Over time, as I get feedback and new ideas percolate, maybe I’ll make more changes. Who knows what the future will bring? As long as it’s something different than what the present is bringing.

It’s been a little while since I posted. Once habits are broken they can be difficult to mend, but since circumstances always eventually substantiate to break them, learning how to reestablish a good habit becomes a necessary skill. Creativity isn’t like an engine that you can just start up again whenever it stops, though: It’s not really repeatable, because with each new created work the process mutates. The reasons why I wanted to write six years ago when I started this blog are not the reasons I want to write now, but as long as habit has stuck me to my course I haven’t had to worry about those reasons.

And now that the habit has been broken, I do have to worry about those reasons.

Why do I want to write? Partially it’s that thoughts once you’ve had them are like produce once you’ve bought it. You can put those thoughts away in the fridge for a while, but eventually if you don’t do anything with them they’ll go bad, take up space, and start stinking up the joint. Once in a while you have to clean those thoughts out. Writing is helpful that way. Partially, as well, it’s that this blog is one of the things I’ve achieved that I can be most uncomplicatedly proud of: I’ve never had a ton of readership, but a few people usually see the things I’ve written every week and if a few people out of those few people find interest or enjoyment from my work then I’m happy. I’ve worked at it for the better part of a decade now, creating work almost every week, and written what amounts to a few novels worth of words on many different topics. As I’ve done so, I’ve noticed certain themes reemerging, a certain shape of an underlying work being silhouetted, and I recognize it as a self-portrait taking shape.

What I think I’m coming to recognize, though, is while each new piece here adds to that portrait, adds new details or expands it at the edges, makes the overall idea more expansive and complete, there’s a limit to working that way. Eventually there’s not going to be anything more to write of whatever this is that I’ve been working on. I hesitate to return to habit with too much enthusiasm because it may be, in the end, that whatever Problem Machine is has actually already been completed, and I’m just overworking the canvas now.

Well, obviously I don’t think that, or I wouldn’t have written the words you’re reading now. How will I know when it has been completed? I probably won’t. I think, eventually, I’m just going to try to take everything I’ve written and boil it down, to distill it – to take this big sloppy self-portrait and refine it, frame it, and hang it. Once I do that, what then? Do I stop writing, or change my style, or do something else? I don’t know, but whatever it is I’ll need some way to flush those stagnant thoughts out of my head, so I’ll probably make something like this again.

Nothing is ever complete. There’s always more to be written.

Habits are helpful. Habit is a place to nail down the flapping edges of your behavior, to train consistency in yourself. But as with all points of stability, every habit rests on something else, and those things can be shaken loose. A home, a person, a job, any one of these may seem rock-solid only to roll away, and that’s when habits tend to slip. I’ve been letting habits I’m really quite fond of slip mostly from being distracted, by projects, novelties, and significant life changes both good and bad. I haven’t been writing blog posts – I’m going to be trying to do better on that score, since I think it’s good for my brain to get those thoughts out there and these posts are also the most consistent creative work I’ve produced in my life.

But okay, what about last month’s monthly project? By which I mean the month before last’s monthly project, which then expanded to become a 2-month project? It has, I guess, now further expanded to become a ?-month project.

I should probably talk a bit about what the project is before talking about how it went/is going. I decided going in that it was going to be a 2d platformer, and that for the first time I was going to seek out collaborators instead of trying to go it alone. With input from other people interested in the project it shifted into a 2d stealth platformer with some environmental interaction – think of, perhaps, a cross between the N series of games and Spelunky. Many of these elements are still, ah, a little rough around the edges, but I think the idea still has a lot of merit.

It was and is going well, but I got kind of burned out working on it — part of the idea behind these one-month projects in the first place was that they would be projects I could work full-force on and then complete and put down right around the time my enthusiasm might start to wane. This is the first such project I’ve tried to work with other people on, and I wasn’t prepared either for how that would affect this dynamic or for how busy I would be during that time period. Everyone has their own way of working, and on a freeware-type project like this everyone has a dramatically different scope of time they can bring to bear on the work.

So, right now, I don’t see any reason to rush this project to completion. I’ll be taking the next month or two to work on other monthly projects, while picking away at the most urgent tasks on the platformer as they become necessary, and then revisit the project in a couple of months to try to wrap things up.

In the meanwhile, for this month’s project I’m going to work on creating a vector drawing tool for Unity. This is something I came up against while I was building the lighting system for the 2d platformer project: Unity has very few tools for vector drawing, and those that exist are either no longer supported or aren’t very good yet. I’d like to take this opportunity to try to create a tool for creating vector graphics based off of the Flash graphics class. I’m not sure how far I want to take that approach, how full-featured it will be or what other capabilities it will encompass, but I at least have Flash (and OpenFL, the open source Flash-inspired game dev tool) to refer to for ideas and inspiration. Next month I’ll probably return to EverEnding… sort of! I’m going to try to basically port all the work I’ve done on the project into Unity and see if I can effectively use that to streamline and improve the quality of the work. It’s mostly a feasibility study/experiment. Either way, hopefully having this vector tool available will help in that process as well!