Monthly Archives: June 2019

Art is like clothing: It displays and it conceals at the same time. We open parts of ourselves to the world while closing off other parts, we express our self through artful concealment – projecting our light in certain particular ways; creating shadow puppets.

I often hear writing in particular, and art in general, discussed as an act of radical vulnerability, of pure honesty – opening up to the world in a pure and unfiltered way so that other people can engage most directly with your internal life. They say that to write is to reveal – and I think, like so many creative maxims, there is a bit of truth to it but that, but that it is incomplete. There is much of myself I’m not prepared to talk about in public: I don’t think that inherently makes me a worse writer or artist. There’s parts of my brain that I take care not to expose because the time isn’t right, the place isn’t right, because it makes me uncomfortable or because it’s inappropriate. I think that’s true of everyone to varying degrees, and artistic success is not reserved solely for those who manage to escape that gravity, to become emotional nudists. The aim of art, then, is not full exposure, but the careful decisions of what to expose, how much to expose, when to expose – and, conversely, what to conceal and how to conceal it.

That’s still not right, though, is it? That black and white balance suggests that concealment and exposure of the self are inherently in conflict, that we lift up a piece of our soul and choose to show or hide it based on the compositional needs of the work. I don’t think that’s actually the case. We are faceted – we have many faces. We wear many masks – and every mask serves a dual purpose, it both expresses a persona and conceals the face underneath. The act of choosing to express one aspect of our selves is also the act of choosing to conceal others.

“Write what you know”, they say. “Write with absolute honesty and openness”, they often say as well. Also, “Show, don’t tell”. These pat bits of advice are, again, scraping at a truth, but not wholly representing it. The truth is that absent care and attention it’s easy to end up on auto-pilot, mimicking other art, mindlessly copying styles and scenarios, because these are the things that are closest to the surface when we cast out the fishing lines of our imagination. These are just tricks to force you to Pay Attention. Writing what you know ensures that you have details and nuances at hand to work with, absolute honesty pushes you to access your own personality and opinion with care and attention. Showing, not telling forces you to think about the details of each scene instead of glossing over them* – and all of these work, but are really just ways of making sure that you’re actually thinking about what you’re doing and why, what each word and sentiment actually signifies, and aren’t on auto-pilot.

If your work is dishonest, if it’s misleading, then that’s fine: Mislead for a reason. If it’s truthful, that’s also fine: Decide what truth it is you want to tell. No matter what your intent is, whatever the end product is going to be is probably going to reveal something and conceal something. Art is a lie. Art is the truth. It’s not a contradiction, it’s a necessity of how we see the world, just from one angle at a time when infinite view-points are possible, two-dimensional minds occupying a three-dimensional space.

* As well as working to prevent structural analysis of culture, likely one of the reasons the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was funded by the CIA.


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I always come here to relax, too. The music is so peaceful, but there’s also this sense of loneliness that’s hard to put into words. Surrounded by people but still alone, beloved by all but still abandoned…

Do you know the story? Of the Chime Tree? I’ve seen you come here with your family to hang an offering from the branches, but it seems like no one remembers why we do it any more. We just do it because we’ve done it. And because the music sounds nice.

So: A long time ago, before this was a city, when it was just a port and a village, there was a monster. There used to be a lot more monsters back then. It walked on two legs and was as tall as three men and it was covered in long matted tufts of black hair. Some said it was a man that was left to die in the woods but instead grew there like mold, got bigger and more rotten, more in pain and more in anger. Wherever it came from, every week or two it would wander into town, moving with complete silence, and kill someone and drag them away into the forest. Maybe it ate them, but no bones were ever found. If anyone tried to stop it, with spears or fire, it would kill them too. Hunting parties went out to kill it and came back empty-handed and with fewer hunters with fewer limbs.

It’s remarkable what you can live with. Some towns have rivers where children drown and some have dangerous cliffs and some just have bad luck: We had a monster. Eventually, you just come to accept that you might get snatched by a hellish beast the same way you accept you might get stabbed in a bar fight. No one ever saw it coming, it just appeared from the darkness and grabbed you and took you away. Maybe it was a peaceful way to go. I hope so.

One day, though, one of the village lads got a clever idea into his head, and was stupid enough to be unable to forget this clever idea. He made a little bell, and he set out into the forest. It took him a few days, but eventually he found the monster standing in a clearing, staring off into the distance. It didn’t react, but stood there, making a quiet sound in between a moan and a howl. He was terrified, but as stealthily as he could he came up behind it and tied the bell into its hair. It stayed motionless, and didn’t move an inch even as he ran away as fast as his legs could take him.

Now, at least, there was some warning before the monster could claim someone. It didn’t really matter much, because it could still outrun anyone in the village, but it at least meant the fleet of foot had a chance to divert its attention to easier prey. And, after the young man returned, it became a sort of dare or rite of passage for other youths to tie a bell or chime to the monster. It turned out he needn’t have been stealthy at all: Clumsy youths fell and dropped handfuls of chimes around the monster, people yelled around it, all sorts of youthful chaos and enthusiasm happened around it, and it never reacted, except to keep making its quiet howling moan. A couple of idiots, forgetting what had happened to the hunters, tried to attack it, and they were killed, but the rest knew to let well enough alone – and tied more bells and chimes to it.

Overnight, it seemed, the monster had become a monument. The wind blew the chimes in its hair and made the forest around it seem so peaceful. We laughed and played and made love around it, and over time the attacks slowed down, to every month, to every two months, to once or twice a year… and then they stopped. It stood in the forest, listening to its chimes, and didn’t move an inch. Eventually it took root, and grew into a tree: This tree, the Chime Tree.

Over time, though, people forget. This tree became just another tree in a forest. Few people remembered it was ever there, or that it once stood and walked. There was a sense, particularly in the man who had tied the first bell, who was no longer young, who was older than I am now, of something forgotten, something important, but none could say what. Until, one day, the storm came, suddenly, moaning and howling, the wind ripping people up and away and off the streets. It lasted three days, dozens perished. After the first day, we were certain it would never end, that it was the end of the world. But it did. The old man, who man who tied the first chime, asked us to follow him, and we did, out to the forest, where most of the trees were flattened or stripped of branches except one, a weird twisted black tree, covered in the rusted remnants of bells and chimes, strings and clappers waving in the breeze. He hung his bell once more, and it rang in the wind.

We hang the chimes once a year. Maybe we’re scared of the monster still, somehow, but I think it’s more of a penance. How could we care for something and then abandon it? How could we adopt a monster, dress it in music, and then leave it to be alone again?

Even though the music is beautiful, the wind still moans and howls through the branches. This place is still a little bit sad and a little bit scary. But, like most things, if we care for it properly it will not hurt us.

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Sometimes making art is as natural as breathing or sweating or speaking and you just need to figure out a way to bottle it. Sometimes making art is like trying to hold your mind in the shape of a mold while you pour plaster into it. Sometimes making art is like putting together a puzzle, and each piece you place gives you a clue to where every other piece needs to go. Sometimes making art is like producing a pearl, where something just rubs you the wrong way for too long so you try to wrap it up nicely and present it to the world. Sometimes making art is an accident and sometimes making art is a mistake. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s a burden and sometimes an escape.

The art of making games is chiefly defined by how incredibly long it takes. It’s a marathon, the kind that leaves your pants pissed and your nipples bleeding. It’s carving a new piece of a miniature ship and fitting it into place in a bottle every day, and each piece is its own work of art that is itself sometimes like this, sometimes like that. It’s such a vast task that each day it presents another aspect of itself, and you have to find another way to love it enough to keep working on it. Or to hate it enough. Or to have no other choice.

Sometimes making art is a job that you just have to go to every day, or a spouse that you wake up next to and that you go to sleep next to. It shapes how you engage with the world. Sometimes making art is a country that you travel to. Sometimes making art is a therapist, an architect, an accountant. Fictional lives bleed out into real lives. Fictional characters bleed out on fictional floors, and real tears are cried for them, and something slowly shifts inside, and we walk away different than we were before.

It’s not like we have a choice. We’d be making art whether we want to or not. Ancient peoples crafted pots to piss in, and they didn’t know that they were making future valuable antiques. People cave painted before they had a word for paint. We made art before we made artists. So why should this be so hard, or be so pressing? What shifted that made this easy and natural thing such a struggle, such an imperative?

Saying something specific is much harder than saying just anything. Maybe we’re searching for the right words to say the things that need to be said, and it’s really not certain whether those words have been invented yet. Maybe it’s just hard because it feels like time is running out, that we’re sinking, and that we need to make a monument so that someday we could be rediscovered. And I know now that art isn’t actually immortality, that even the longest-lasting work on Earth will probably die with our species sooner or later, hopefully later, probably sooner. What else can we do, but try to leave a death rattle that echoes as long as possible?

Sometimes making art is as natural as breathing. You cannot stop, until one day you must.

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Game design is a trust exercise. The player has to be able to trust that the game designer’s decisions make sense, that when they take an action within the system the resultant reaction will make sense and be predictable. “Predictable” might sound overly constraining, but there’s a lot of room in between a “technically possible to predict” result and an “immediately obvious” result – that is, as long as the player can still generate a mental map of how state A became state B the system as a whole will seem trustworthy, even if they never in a million years could have predicted that state B would have been the result.

A good example of technically predictable design is Spelunky: Every object in the game interacts with every other object in mostly very simple ways. For instance, a rock, flung through the air, will damage anything in its path. While each interaction is, individually, very easy to understand, in aggregate, they become wildly unpredictable (while still being technically possible to predict). The rock might only fly through the air and do damage, but in so doing it might also knock out the yeti who falls on the landmine which blasts the rock back up into the sky which knocks down the UFO which falls on you and explodes and kills you. There’s a certain kind of satisfaction to dying to something so wildly improbable and byzantine but completely mechanically predictable.

If the player loses trust in the game design, though, everything in the game becomes suspect. A hilarious fluke may instead start to seem like a dirty trick. Goals no longer seem worth striving for because they could be snatched away. Failure seems arbitrary and no longer worth actively avoiding. The game becomes a gamble, with unknown odds and random payout.

I’ve recently been playing through an extensive Dark Souls mod called Daughters of Ash. There are a number of really interesting ideas contained within the mod, but it’s difficult to trust the decision-making behind it. Part of what made Dark Souls such a valuable experience when it came out was that it flouted a lot of the conventional rules of ‘good game design’ – sometimes it wasn’t clear what the game expected of you, movement was heavy and clumsy, and the story was distant and confusing, requiring careful attention to piece together. However, it established its own set of rules to replace these, rules which you learned through hard experience: Caution and exploration were rewarded, if you can see a place you can go there’s usually a worthwhile reason to go there, and if you pay careful attention then you can usually avoid traps and ambushes.

Unfortunately, while Daughters of Ash correctly perceives that Dark Souls broke many rules, it had little appreciation for the new rules created to replace them. Invisible traps, baffling cause and effect, huge detours and difficult acrobatics to get useless items – in the first place it’s harder to trust a mod than the game it was based on, and each decision like these just makes it even harder.

Trust isn’t uniquely important in the medium of games though. Trust is important in all forms of art. You have to be able to trust the painter for long enough to see the painting properly, to appreciate the forms and structure. You have to be able to trust a movie or TV series to be going somewhere, to have some sort of structure of intent and planned payoff. The recent wave of disappointment in the conclusion of the Game of Thrones series is an interesting example of what happens when you start to lose that trust. Retroactively, people start to regard earlier episodes less well, knowing that they don’t like where they end up, and decisions that people might otherwise be forgiving of are judged harshly knowing that there’s no longer any possibility of a long distant future payoff.

I find myself having a hard time trusting most media these days. There’s a few reasons for this. One is technique: There’s a lot of similarity of approach in most popular entertainment, and once you get acclimated to this you tend to see where each scene is going as soon as it starts. It’s hard to trust the artist to take you anywhere interesting when each step along the way seems rote. The other difficulty comes from my increased critical awareness of the tacit implications and arguments forwarded, often unconsciously, by popular art. The weight of the stories that center around a person who is usually some combination of lone genius, borderline abusive, incredibly wealthy, white, and male becomes crushing, the myth-making of a society that has become overtly and obviously cruel and unjust, creating heroes in the mold that coincidentally resembles those who benefit most from that society.

Thus I have become suspicious. I have lost trust. It sort of sucks, because it means that I can often only enjoy movies on a second viewing, only once I know there’s something worthwhile there. It means I avoid watching television or playing new games a lot because the sheer energy output it takes for me to enjoy things is so much higher now.

I don’t mind, though. I prefer this to naiveté. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing correctly – even if it’s harder to enjoy things, I can enjoy things in more different ways, on more different levels, now. It’s better to be aware, even if it’s more difficult. It’s not like trust is impossible, I just can no longer give it by default. The benefit of the doubt has eroded.

Perhaps trust was always meant to be precious. Do your best to earn it, and do your best to bestow it where it is deserved.

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Every day that passes, the events in our lives create for us a unique blend of experiences and emotions. Most of the time these aren’t very interesting, but every once in a while it creates something incredible, a moment of transcendence, joy, elation, wonder. Then it passes. That’s just how things happen. Some of us, though, just can’t let it go. We try to capture the moment. Crystallize it. Preserve it. That’s how art is born.

Those emotions and experiences that we try to preserve, though, don’t exist in a void. What creates the moment is the moments that came before it, and it becomes a pressing question: How much of this experience can we carry away from the preceding experiences? How can we separate it from the whole? We can’t completely: That’s why we tell stories instead of moments, why we build to crescendos instead of constantly playing at maximum volume. There’s a desire in inexperienced artists to be at maximum intensity at all times, without really acknowledging that things can only feel intense if there’s a corresponding calmness, lack of intensity, to contrast against.

That’s pretty elementary though. Most artists figure it out pretty fast. Contrast is the foundation of art. However, if you’re trying to create a particular emotional experience, that raises a lot of questions about what that balance ought to look like. How much time should an experience about triumph spend in despair to make the triumph taste sweet? How much time should an experience about love spend in loneliness and disaffection? There’s different ways to answer this, different balances to strike, but over time a set of formulas emerge. The most popular of these is probably the hero’s journey formula, which many set out as the archetypal formula which all stories are cut from – this is an absurd pronouncement that requires many increasingly tenuous analogies to make fit, but it is nevertheless a common argument.

Regardless, the hero’s journey is a useful formula for creating a certain kind of story (the kind where there’s a hero and they journey). Many games, being stories where there’s a hero and a journey, seek to adhere to this formula, but in this medium we have fairly limited control over the exact narrative arc of the experiences we create: Though we might set out to tell a story about a call to action, an ordeal, a boon, and so forth, just as often we create an experience of getting stuck on the first boss for 3 infuriating hours then getting a magic sword and easily murdering the lord of darkness. The dynamic nature of games makes it even harder to create a consistent emotional response, makes it even harder to stick to a formula that strikes the exact balance of sensations we might desire – and, correspondingly, makes it harder for the hero’s journey to be crafted into a game narrative, as gamey as that narrative might at first sound in the abstract.

These are, in short, the two main ways that video game stories suck. Either they try to create a consistent experience of the same emotion – such as, say, empowerment – or they try to recreate a tried and true narrative formula such as the hero’s journey within a dynamic framework that cannot accommodate it. The first is completely untenable, since feelings can only be meaningfully experienced in relation to each other. The second is… difficult, but not actually impossible.

Many game designers would then take that as the challenge: How to systematize the hero’s journey. How to create a narrative-making machine, a myth-making machine, something that takes in player inputs and spits out a grand epic tale. I don’t think that’s a particularly worthwhile goal. The most interesting stories that games spit out right now aren’t imitations of the hero’s journey or some other hackneyed formula, but startling stories of systems gone rampant, results that make sense but are utterly surprising, with the all the perverse interconnectedness and none of the post-hoc narrativization of real history.

Rather than this, we should seek to understand how game systems can lead to emotional outcomes, both in terms of the primary emotion we seek to elicit and the secondary emotions, its opposites, which we seek to define it by. If a game system has an understanding of how it can create frustration and elation, confusion and understanding, joy and sorrow, power and weakness, then it can balance these against each other into a satisfying complete experience. Perhaps this is a more challenging goal than creating a systematization of the hero’s journey, but I believe it is one far more worth striving towards.

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