There are two kinds of bad procedural content: The first is the generic kind, made by connecting a bunch of random rooms and hallways together, all technically unique but functionally identical. The second is made by connecting pre-authored pieces together randomly – and, while certainly far more interesting than the first initially, this quickly loses its charm if there aren’t many candidate pieces to place, becoming mere remixes of largely static content. New roguelikes have largely, in lieu of actually solving these problems, found ways to bypass them. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to think of any game that has actually generated an interesting environment in its own right. Spelunky’s worlds are fascinating due to their endlessly volatile and unpredictably interacting elements: Dead Cells’ movement is enjoyable enough that even exploring generic environments holds pleasure: But, when it comes down to it, procedural spaces simply never have the mystery, the awe, or the comfort that an authored space can create.

Why is that? After all, we can haphazardly throw game mechanics together and have them create an interesting mechanical system to explore, why not combine rooms and hallways in the same way? The answer, I suspect, has much to do with the ways we regard game spaces in the first place, even in authored content. The purpose of a room in a game is to be a place where an event happens. This game-purpose supersedes any narrative idea of what function the room is purported to have for the building’s inhabitants, if any is even specified. Walls are there for the player to be blocked by, take cover behind, run on and over, and if they happen to make sense as an object a person would intentionally construct then that’s just gravy. This tight relationship between gameplay intent and physical space is nearly impossible to maintain through procedural scrambling of gameplay or space, though. Absent this connection of intent, game spaces become completely garbled and nonsensical. Thus, procedural spaces in games have largely split into two camps: Either conquering the space is the entire point, and so its specifics are always relevant (as in Spelunky or Noita) or the specific dimensions so unimportant that almost no effort is put into them (as in Hades or The Binding of Isaac).

These are both fine solutions to the problem at hand, but I believe it must be possible to have a game generate a space that’s intrinsically interesting and pleasurable to engage with – however, in order for that to happen, it must have intent. What does that mean? It means a space can’t just be an arbitrary labyrinth for monsters to be scattered in (though frankly even many pre-authored games fail by that metric). Each procedural piece must have purpose and be placed according to that purpose, with logic similar to that a level designer would use to place the same pieces. The algorithm cannot replace the role of level designer, only abstract it, distance it, so that the act of level design still happens through the instructions given to the algorithm.

That works for most rooms, but to make exploration not merely interesting but exciting there must be some chance for anomaly. Say the system is generating a bedroom: 95% of the time it will have one entrance, one bed, one closet, maybe a computer, maybe a TV, and one or two shelves and windows. Some bedrooms are different though: Maybe one has a fridge, or three beds, a balcony, a sword, a trap door, whatever. It’s the contrast between the mundane and the surprising that makes exploration interesting – most of the time we see exactly what we expect, and sometimes we are surprised, and that is where the tension, the humor, the mystery lies.

As long as games treat their environments solely as places where things will happen, rather than places where things have happened or things might happen, places with history and organizing logic, those places will feel mushy and inert. Each place must have a reason to be, or there will be no reason to make it – or to make the script by which it was made.

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What’s interesting about games as a medium is that, as I touched on briefly last week, they aren’t a medium in any substantial sense. Yes, there are certain expectations and technical restraints and conventions, but nothing that can’t be easily ignored or subverted. If we were to compare a huge Hollywood tentpole release film to the most dissimilar example of a film we could find, the artiest of art-house films, we could find interesting differences in content, length, tone, theme, editing choices, framing, and so forth – but nothing like the categorical experiential shift of comparing, say, Call of Duty or Tomb Raider to Baba is You or Doki Doki Literature Club. In what meaningful way are these the same medium when, not only the experience, but the very way it is conveyed is so completely different?

In the past I’ve argued that, in comparison to traditional narrative forms, games represent a sort of meta-narrative form. While you can get a story from a book or a film, you can get a set of closely related stories from a game. Every game is Rashomon, a set of perspectives on the same situation, an open-ended understanding. Just as each game is a meta-narrative, games as a medium comprise a meta-medium. Developers, every time they build a game, an experience, navigate the entire possibility-space of this meta-medium to find the configuration that best suits the experience they desire to convey – and this sub-medium that they devise, or that they discover, is what we call the game’s mechanics.

This is not intended to puff games up or to make them sound more innately powerful or interesting than other media! Restraints breed creativity (just ask Houdini), and this vast possibility space is potentially overwhelming or distracting. It’s no wonder that this meta-medium has largely calcified into a few set sub-media, and these have become what ‘genre’ means in the context of video games. If every game is presumed to be some variation of the third/first person stealth/action shooter/brawler with experience/crafting mechanics, then the space for innovation and differentiation in medium narrows to the point where it resembles something more like film, with small but interesting inventions in lighting, editing, and so forth.

There is, again, nothing wrong with this approach – there is, however, with assuming this is the approach, the only one that makes sense or matters, the only serious way to approach game design – which is basically where AAA design is now, and where it likely will stay for some time to come for reasons both creative and fiscal.

“But”, you may be asking, “why does this matter? Isn’t figuring out whether genre or medium or sub-medium is the more appropriate description just a matter of semantics?” Yes, of course it is, and like most semantic matters it’s important because it shapes our understanding. If we acknowledge that each genre is a medium, and each medium a message, then we acknowledge that every game mechanic is in essence an argument towards a worldview – regardless of the surrounding content. If we regard genres as sub-media we suddenly see how absurd it is to rate and evaluate games across genres as though these comparisons have meaning. Finally, if we understand each game as a potential medium unto itself, shaped by its mechanics, we begin to understand the full scope of the worlds we have denied ourselves by assuming we know what a game must be.

At the end of this, you have to wonder how many worlds, altogether, that we’ve denied ourselves under the assumption that we know the what shape the world must take.

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I recently read this article decrying the famous trolley problem’s newfound fame and ubiquity. While I may have quibbles regarding some of its arguments, I still found it a very interesting and thought-provoking piece. I’d like to, for the moment, set aside the question of the trolley problem’s pedagogical benefits to instead focus on the idea forwarded that its framing is morally hazardous. In case you don’t feel like reading the article (though I do recommend doing so), it argues that the framing of the trolley problem as a dilemma, with only two solutions, is one in which we are discouraged from thinking about why things are as they are, and what that state of affairs might imply. We must, in the world of the trolley problem and other similar hypotheticals, only navigate our own individualistic moral route through the world as it is declared to be and as it must always be, devoid of context.

This understanding of morality as something that one person does to try to make the world better or worse is a trendy one now. Through this lens, plastics pollution is the fault of those who do not recycle – despite most ‘recycled’ plastics being burned or shredded and left in landfills, and despite most plastics pollution being discarded fishing gear or unrecyclable single use plastics. Through this lens, the solutions to poverty and homelessness are individual acts of charity rather than societal attempts to eliminate the causes of poverty and homelessness or providing centralized services to rectify these issues as they emerge. Through this lens, the only meaningful way to achieve change is to vote for the right person and if you don’t then you have no right to complain – though it’s far from guaranteed that there will be a ‘right person’ on the ballot. Don’t get me wrong – recycling, charity, and voting are all good things to do, and if everyone did them we’d likely be in a better place than we are now – they just shouldn’t define the extents of your moral vision. Confining our understanding to individual actions is an effective way to prevent the idea of working to create systemic change from ever even occurring as an idea to someone, much less being actively pursued by them.

I am reminded once again of the CIA’s funding of the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop, from which emerged the edict to “show, don’t tell.” Similarly to the immediacy of the moral hypothetical, the writer is constrained to tell what is happening in the moment – without ever examining in detail why things are the way they are. Hypothetical problems like these state arguments via the very premises they’re built on, and we don’t have the same defenses against this kind of axiomatic structural rhetoric that we do against more formal arguments. Teachers forcing us to take absurd premises seriously serves to make us more vulnerable. We can mostly spot a loaded question – we are far less prepared to defend against loaded hypothetical premises.

These sorts of gross false dilemmas are omnipresent in political discourse. “You don’t like us bombing (country)? What, you want us to just do nothing while the people suffer?” and so forth. These formulations of the conflict eliminate any ability to interrogate the underlying power structures outside of the declared bounds of problem-solving. To even suggest such an idea is to be considered childish, idealistic, unrealistic.

The more that I think about it, the more ubiquitous this structure of do-or-do-not starts to seem. Taking games as an example, they do not allow meaningful interrogations of their structure – that is, because the structure of the game cannot be modified outside of cheating or special modification tools (which are increasingly rare and discouraged by developers), the player is only given the choice of whether to be a hero or a casualty in whichever virtual war they’re conscripted into. Even games which are more interested in providing a wider range of choices are still constrained by the imaginations of their creators and the consequent flexibility of their systems, and end up arguing a worldview through these structures, intentionally or not.

If the medium is the message, perhaps every game is best understood as a separate medium, rather than ‘games’ being a medium unto itself. Every game has its own unquestionable axioms and premises, which the player must accept in order to be able to effectively play it. Perhaps this is another reason why AAA games are so conservative in their design – when you’re on top of the world, it’s no longer to your benefit to encourage your audience to see other ways in which that globe might rotate.

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I love single-player games. Don’t get me wrong, I like all sorts of multiplayer games as well, and I enjoy cooperation and competition as much as anyone, but what really excites me about the medium of games is the possibility to craft a whole freestanding experience, a place to be explored, full of mystery and art, character and sound. I love the idea of building worlds, places that can be lived in and moved around in, like a dream given form and shared with the world.

However, I end up thinking a lot about what the assumptions are that we commonly make in this solitary format. I think about the tiny slice these games are of what they might be, and what these preconceptions of what a game experience must be end up conveying. We assume games have to be challenging – while this is an assumption that has had some pushback over the last decade or so, it is still predominant, and games which buck this trend are still frequently considered ‘not real games’. Every game must have a challenge. Every challenge must solve a problem. Every problem must therefore be solvable within the mechanical constraints of the game. Because of these assumptions, game worlds are primarily engaged with as a list of problems for the player to solve. Most problems outside of games are not particularly solvable – and almost all of them are unsolvable through the actions of a single individual. However, to create a satisfying story, to make the player the main character, we strive to construct problems just so, that the right person in the right place can do the right thing and unravel the whole knot.

At its worst, and with distressing frequency, this creates worlds where every problem can be solved by a bullet to the brain, or many bullets to many brains. This fixation on violent solutions is one that I and many others have discussed a great deal, but even moving past this particular weird aspect of video games we find another assumption: The player must be able to solve every problem they are faced with. This makes a certain degree of Chekhov’s Gun-style sense. Players will get confused between unsolvable problems and intentional challenges if they’re presented within the same context, so to conserve effort and add clarity we make all problems encountered something for the player to deal with – quests, if you will. In this way, we shrink our conception of what problems are and how they are solved. There are many problems in this world, and few of them are entirely intractable, but almost every problem becomes unsolvable when seen from a viewpoint which can only conceive of individualist action.

If you come to internalize this system of atomizing logic, you begin to see a world where the only actions you can take are those which are small and quantifiable – by a weird coincidence, these usually line up fairly well with those tasks which businesses enjoy having people available to do, especially when those people are disinclined from asking larger structural questions. Eventually, these seemingly intractable problems cease to be seen as problems at all, and come to be seen as rules, as simply ‘how the world works’.

What am I actually arguing here? This could be seen as an argument against creating any experiences meant for individual players, but I actually feel that the real issue is in this conflation of mechanical challenges and game-world problems. Some problems cannot be solved by us, or cannot be solved completely by an individual, but are still issues which we need to figure out a way to engage with and push against. To pretend that a fictional world can ever wholly represent the reality of war or revolution is as foolish as to believe that it can wholly represent the reality of love or creation – and, of course, few developers would claim to be building a perfectly realistic model of real-world problems. However, the act of boiling such an issue down into something simple enough that one actor can control its outcome presents an idea of what a problem is and how it can be solved that is insidiously misleading. We know it isn’t reality, but it comes to shape the way we see reality, and see our own role in it – and when we become accustomed to this lens, and are faced with problems too great to fix under our own power, it creates a sense of learned helplessness.

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The past is a dead end.

In 1975 the movie Jaws was released. It is now considered one of the greatest films ever made. On the off chance you don’t know about it, the premise is that a great white shark begins attacking and killing people at a resort town, and the heroes team up to hunt it down and kill it. Jaws was a critical and financial blockbuster. After its release, thousands of sharks were killed in shark-fishing tournaments, and relatively few people now are interested in the preservation of a species they now view as a movie monster.

This was one movie.

This is one data point.

Now, consider alongside this one data point all the movies, games, TV shows you’ve probably seen where the only black people on screen are servants or criminals. Consider alongside this one data point all the movies, games, TV shows where all police are heroes by definition, and are shown to always do collective good in their community, to be ready and waiting to prevent crime. Consider how your worldview has been manufactured, whether intentionally or by happenstance, and who it serves, who it protects, to frame things this way.

It is seldom considered controversial to suggest that Jaws has impacted the way we view and react to sharks. Suggesting the same when it comes to the way we regard human beings, though, tends to produce a lot of people saying that obviously they know the difference between fantasy and reality. Knowing the difference between real events and what is a fictional ones, though, is very different from knowing the difference between the world as we believe it ought to function and the world as it does function – and, while we may know that the events portrayed in art didn’t literally happen, that doesn’t mean that we believe they are implausible. What art does is shape what we view as rare or common, aberration or expectation – even as stories are made to highlight the extraordinary, they can only manage this by giving them a context of the ordinary, and by so doing they form subtle arguments about what our world is and how it behaves.

We are particularly vulnerable to stories about our glorious past, whether these stories are nostalgic throwbacks or are classics of the era. We pretend that every ugly problem we face now is new, even as they lurked just out of frame in every shot of our glory days. Nostalgia is doing us dirty. Things seemed to be better in the past, but that was only because we have always prioritized short term gains over long-term consequence, and over time the cracks just get bigger. If you want a return to normalcy, remember that normalcy was the state that brought us here. If you want people to stop causing problems, remember that each problem is the consequence of a preceding state, that some problems only exist to prompt solutions.

The dysfunction is growing. The system works for the benefit of fewer and fewer people, and it feeds back in on itself, growing stronger and more monstrous over time. Minor reforms are like trying to push the river away with a paddle. Only fundamentally rebuilding these murderous structures can save us now.

The past is a dead end.

If you’re looking to make a positive difference, consider being active in anti-racist and anti-capitalist community organizing and/or donating to bail funds or one of many mutual aid funds.

The last week or so has been a bit odd as I’ve found myself, at the age of 36, finally getting into Minecraft for the first time. I suppose this is an appropriate time to get started – if we’re all going to be stuck inside all day, we may as well escape to a virtual outdoors (or, as the case may be, a gargantuan virtual mineshaft).

I started playing, naturally enough, because many of my online friends – mostly the community around the now dormant Idle Thumbs podcast – began playing. This all started last week when one of the erstwhile hosts of Idle Thumbs, Nick Breckon, streamed a tour through all of the previous Minecraft worlds, eight in total, created by past members of the Idle Thumbs community. It was strange and beautiful and a little sad touring through these dense and intricate worlds, filled with huge monuments, humble homes, and gratuitous in-jokes – like touring a city after the rapture, suddenly emptied of people but still in pristine condition, like looking at a photograph of a person who was born, who lived, who died, all a long time ago.

I’ve been taken by surprise by how quickly and strongly the experience of playing Minecraft has grabbed me. As with most people who spend their time attempting game development, I seem to seldom find myself able to make time to actually play them – and Minecraft has, somehow, become a big exception. While Minecraft is notorious for being compelling, many games with the same reputation tend to leave me cold – though in all cases having friends to play with helps. As with any instance where I find myself strongly compelled by an experience, though, I have to wonder exactly what need it is fulfilling – after all, when one keeps returning to the well it’s only reasonable to conclude that one is thirsty. There are a few reasons which are obvious and not really worth addressing in depth as they’re so commonplace – a sense of communal participation, a form of steady progress and outlet for creativity, a virtual place to relax where the outside world cannot intrude, much virtual ink has been spilled about these appeals – but obvious traits are the most readily emulated and made available in other similar games, so I’m left to wonder what it is about the community, the progress, the creativity, the relaxation that is unique to Minecraft.

One aspect of creativity in Minecraft that I think subtly creates the compulsion to play for long periods is how ugly and clumsy it actually is. I expect there are many builder games that have tried to follow in its footsteps and allow the player to build things which are more intricate and detailed, which offer more fine-tuned control and more powerful tools – but I don’t actually know of them, because why would one want to play something like that? The more powerful the tools get, the more detailed or realistic their output, the more we become bogged down by our desire to make things correct, to do a good job – and so, instead of focusing on what’s interesting to us and how to go about it, we end up focusing on what we’re doing wrong, and the mere possibility of quality becomes an anchor that drags us down and holds us in place. Minecraft creates a space where it’s possible to make something interesting and attractive, but impossible to make it representational or finely detailed – and, though it’s possible to get into some truly byzantine automation and functional structure, these are usually a means to whatever end the player has dedicated themselves to. I have discovered that I find it surprisingly appealing simply to be able to build at a scale that can be walked through, participated in – the degree of granularity in the 3d world of Minecraft is exactly the largest scale that can still allow for meaningful human-sized interactions. What has always interested me in games is the ability to create a space that a person experiences, create a tiny life for them to live inside their main life, and being able to quickly assemble a space, however crude, gives me a taste of that – one which I don’t have to spend weeks to manifest. Additionally, whatever I create is placed within the context of a greater world – if I spend weeks painstakingly modeling and texturing a convenience store, it’s a convenience store in a black void, but if I spend a few hours creating a convenience store in Minecraft it’s an anomaly, an incongruous white building in a forest or desert, and it takes on additional meaning.

For a game that’s considered ‘addictive’, though, Minecraft doesn’t do most of the things that games described as such usually do. There’s a character leveling system of sorts, but the levels are really more of a currency that you can spend to upgrade items, so in that regard just another resource like gold or iron – and, though finding materials and using them to make and upgrade gear is important, it’s not really the thrust of the game. While a full suit of enchanted diamond armor and tools will help you do things, it’s not much of a goal to be aspired to in and of itself – and, though the server I’m playing on has no consequences for death, under normal circumstances any of these resources could be easily lost by one severe mistake. Whatever I do I do for myself and my friends – not because I was told to do it, informed by the game that it is the goal, the correct way to play. Because I’m not being told what to do, what my goal is, what I should feel rewarded by, I don’t feel manipulated or exploited when playing the game – which is a sadly unusual sensation when playing games. That being said, there’s a newer version of the game which introduces the ‘minecoin’ premium currency for buying special cosmetics, so, uh… I can’t say how universal that freeing experience might be at this point.

Everything in the game is a means to an end, but it’s up to the player to decide what that end ought to be. Eventually, enthusiasm will wane. Eventually all of us playing the game now will lose interest, the server will be abandoned, and the remains will be preserved – and it will be, rather than a place we spend hours every day, just another dead Idle Thumbs Minecraft world. This, too, I believe is part of the appeal: There’s a lie I like to tell myself some days, that the things I build might outlast me, might reach further than I can comprehend and last longer than I can imagine. Just another reason to strive for perfection. Just another reason to create the very best I am capable of. There’s freedom in knowing that nothing here will really last – and that knowing that what I make, I only make because it’s what I want to make – not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself.

At a certain point, one has to become comfortable with the idea of reaching an end.

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The conceit of strategy games is an interesting one. Most strategy games place you as the general of an army, or some other authority figure, and tasks you with managing an army or other complex system and directing it towards victory. This makes sense as a sort of high level abstraction, but also makes it so abstract that aren’t playing so much as a leader but as a living embodiment of the army (or town, or empire) that you are meant to be managing. Giving orders is not a matter of communication with your officers or of drawing up plans, but of pressing buttons and relocating objects directly – and these orders have a narrow scope of what they can be (usually constrained to moving somewhere, building something, or attacking something), and are instantaneous, and are never misinterpreted or disobeyed.

This is a conception of what leadership looks like that is particularly interesting because it is highly erroneous. Of course, armies aren’t controlled by individuals, they are controlled by a chain of command, which has decisions made at every level, with each decision interpreted with varying levels of creativity, and communication channels that are not always reliable. Games are seldom interested in these sorts of leadership challenges, though, preferring to present players with the unsullied challenge of acquiring and allocating resources. However, this tendency extends beyond games: We seldom think of leadership in general this way, of a distant and easily-misinterpreted voice yelling from a rooftop – we instead tend to think of the leader as being in some way the heart of the system they are meant to command, to being the source of all its successes and its failures, and this is the understanding of leadership we’ve crystallized into our strategy games.

The outcome of a complex system seldom comes down to the actions of one individual. While leadership is a real skill with real consequences, the success of a system comes down to how well that system functions as a whole, not down to how well it’s managed at the top. Some more recent strategy games have a degree of awareness of this: You might have to manage individual leaders with individual personality traits, or balance a relationship with your labor force – but these are only treated as volatile resources for you, the leader, to manipulate into position, rather than actors in the system with their own approach and agenda.

These implicit assumptions about how things must work end up skewing the worlds depicted. There’s always a tendency in games to reify the idea of meritocracy, to attempt construction of a world where the most ‘worthy’ players, who understand and can execute on the systems, are rewarded with the most success. This assumption lands very differently, though, in games which portray one-time incidents with protagonists in unique situations, as in adventure or action games, than it does in games which span large number of people, such as city planning or military strategy.

We have a set of axioms that we call good game design: The player must be in ultimate control of their fate, the outcome of an action must be predictable before the action is undertaken, and there should be no options that are always the best or always useless. However, all of these are toxic as an implied model of functional reality: Individuals are seldom in ultimate control of their destiny, the outcome of our actions is never easy to predict, and there are many options that are clearly useless or obviously optimal. The reason why I say toxic, rather than merely inaccurate, is because this does start to hew rather closely to the right-wing conception of the world – where all negative consequences are due to individual failing, where if anything bad happens after someone’s actions they clearly deserved it because they ought to have known better, and where the ends can justify the most atrocious of means – after all, if you add the tactical decisions of ‘enhanced interrogation’, execution of dissidents, or even genocide to your game for historical or simulational reasons, you are then obliged to make them viable decisions for reasons of ‘game balance’.

This is one of the reasons why the idea of ’empathy games’, games designed to engender empathy for those who are systemically disadvantaged by putting you into their shoes, has never succeeded – because, in order to turn these challenges into a game, you must make them quantifiable and surmountable, which then leads the player to an even less empathetic, more right-wing mindset. To even create a simulation in the first place, you are required to systematize, in concrete terms, decisions and entities which have debatable actual effects in the world – that is, whatever our real opinions on militarized police and the carceral state, in a video game about city management adding a police station will reduce crime and reduced crime will make people happier – and it’s as simple as that. Nuance and complexity are lost because these are inimical to the fairness and clarity required by good game design as we understand it.

What might be a better model of leadership, then? It is frankly difficult to imagine one in the context of a single-player game. If we expand out to multiplayer, though, we can imagine one that is simultaneously co-operative and competitive – as so many real-life situations tend to be. One where the players are working towards the same goal, but have vastly different priorities as to how that goal is achieved. For instance, we could have a game where the players jointly control a factory: One, the CEO, tries to maximize the corporation’s monetary output at all costs, while the other, the worker, attempts to gain enough pay to survive on while expending the minimum possible cost to their time and well-being. Neither one is particularly interested in the well-being of the other, but both are interested in keeping the factory running smoothly. We could add other players, such as a spouse who has to manage the worker’s resources, a customer who tries to purchase goods as cheap as possible, or a manager who has to be the intermediary between the CEO and the worker, to create a fuller and more interesting simulation Of course, one could ask why the worker needs the CEO at all. Regardless, another version of this might be the general and the soldier, where the general needs to take a tactical objective at any cost, but the soldier’s goal is to stay alive. One might wonder why taking that objective is worth the soldier dying for. Nevertheless.

The problem, really, is that fairness is treated as an axiom of game design, but as exasperated mothers everywhere like to say the world isn’t fair. This rock and this hard place keep butting up against each other, and slowly the tenets of game design start to give way – and we become more willing to explore the territory of unfairness, through the random territory of roguelikes to the volatile war zone of battles royale.

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I’m still processing the end of Twin Peaks: The Return.

When I was a kid I was fixated for a while on the importance of the number two. Two, I reasoned, was the number that was the building block of all other numbers: Any number could be expressed as a combination of twos, of doublings and divisions and so forth. This probably prefigured my destiny as someone who works with computers, and while there was some degree of naivete at play I do think I was onto something, some part of a big idea. Two is the number that represents the concept that there can be more than one of the same thing – Which, while one might assume it to be a property of nature, is a human invention. The conception of a creature or object as a discrete unit, and the idea that there then could be more of them, is the beginning of the mathematical system of abstraction, which eventually leads to such wild concepts of the idea of there being 0 of those units or, nonsensically, absurdly, a negative number of them.

Two, as a number, contains the implicit concept of boundary, of demarcation, of this and that. I’d say division but that means something else in math. I’d say differentiation but that also means something else in math.

All of which, by a long and roundabout path, brings me back to Twin Peaks. This show is many things, but one of them is an extended rumination on this idea of duality – at first through the fairly straightforward lens of places and people that are beautiful and friendly on the outside but troubled with deep darkness within, then refracted through increasingly surreal and abstract versions. Contrasts of light and dark, love and hate, future and past, and how we get locked into these patterns with no way out. The name itself alludes to this idea, that there are two extremes – but that the residents of Twin Peaks, that all of us, spend most of our time somewhere in between.

The symbolism and causality of Twin Peaks are not clear cut, and I’d hardly venture to suggest I have any definitive answers as to what happens or why. All I’d like to do here is explore some of the impressions and ideas imparted by the show. Some spoilers will be discussed from this point on. You should watch the show first if you have any intention of doing so.

There are locations in Twin Peaks that seem to exist outside of the world, but my impression is that these don’t so much represent an opposite extreme, a dark world to our light world, as they do a pivot point, a place in between. This is the place through which change happens, through which human impulses are laundered and warped. It is timeless because it is the meeting of past and future, in the same way that the gravity of two masses cancels out directly in between them, in the same way that the center of a spinning fan is stationary, and because this is the point of equivalence this is where people freely change places with their opposite-but-equal doppelgangers.

What if you woke up tomorrow and were someone else? Someone with all the same memories, but a different perspective on what they meant, what they signified? How would you know the difference? Isn’t that just what happens, by degrees, every time we wake up? What if you became the worst version of yourself, everything you feared you might be? What if you were certain this had already happened? It’s never clear how Bob ‘possesses’ people, inspires them to hurt and kill those they love, but it seems like evil goes where evil’s wanted. There’s always a seed of the hurt he wants to put out into the world before he gets there.

It’s never really clear what Bob gets from it, whether he lives out his desire to kill through his victims or merely foments their own murderous lusts and intents – but perhaps desire is the wrong framework, and he’s more of a force of nature than a malicious entity, more of a personification of desire than a person with desires. But he grants power… in the way that a contract with a demon might – or in the way mere determination and disregard for the lives of others might. As strong as Bob might make those under his thrall, we see others find the same sort of strength through other forms of selfishness. In strange, petty, trivial ways, poor half-blind Nadine finds her way into incredible strength – and then, perhaps, back out of it, when she learns how to see through other people’s eyes.

What struck me most about the season as a whole was how much it knew what viewers wanted to see and steadfastly kept it away from them. We wanted to see Cooper, we wanted to see problems solved, we wanted to know what happened next, we wanted an ending. We wanted more Twin Peaks. There is no more, there can be no more, of what Twin Peaks was though. You cannot, as I said last week, recreate the experience of experiencing something for the first time. We can’t keep ourselves from trying, though. We’re locked in the middle, immobile, between the future and the past, where everything seems stuck in place and where time has no meaning, where we’re not sure if the person who woke up in our bed is the person who went to sleep in it. There’s not going to be an ending, there’s not going to be a wiki with definitive answers. There’s a gap in the center, a hollowness, where gravity can’t reach. The place in-between.

This is the water, and this is the well. Drink full, and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes, and dark within.

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In August of 1993, Magic: The Gathering was released. I was 10 at the time, and it was a year or so later that I was introduced to the game, I believe somewhere in between the release of the Antiquities and Legends expansion sets. Magic was obviously a huge hit, though it didn’t reach its peak of popularity until a while later. The experience of a kid discovering it then, though, when it was relatively niche, was rather different I suspect from how most people encounter it now.

Magic is a complex game – and was in some ways even more so at the time, since they’ve found a few ways to streamline the rules in the meanwhile. Every box of cards came with a tiny dense little instruction booklet, and while it was fine for understanding the basic flow of play and most common interactions, edge cases and peculiarities were resolved by vigorous debate about what made the most sense. At times it was difficult to sort out the differences between what cards did and what they seemed they ought to do – it takes quite a while for a child to wholly internalize the idea that even though the Frozen Shade is clearly flying in its illustration, it still doesn’t have the flying ability.

There was, then, a sense of magic – so to speak. A feeling of imagination and wonder imbued the cards, and the illustrations, which were often crude by the standards of more recent cards, still spoke tantalizingly of an exciting fantasy narrative behind the game. In the decades since, they’ve released novels and reams of lore fleshing out this fantasy narrative, which I guess is fine too. It probably would have excited me at the time, but isn’t interesting to me now. As well, in the decades since, the mechanics have been thoroughly explored, dissected, and optimized. There’s general consensus now what the good cards and bad cards are, how to best use them, how to construct a deck, how to win. This is great, it’s fun to see a game I once loved have such a long and varied life, but it is completely different now from the game that I once played.

Magic is a game of seemingly infinite possibilities. The cards are so many and so intricate that it seems that you can build anything, build fantastic impractical contraptions or lean hard tournament-winning decks, can go wherever your imagination can take you – if you have the money. Every card has to be bought, and the more useful it is the more it will cost you. It’s a pay-to-win game in a very literal sense, and people probably would dismiss it as such if it were released now in the same format. However, at the time it was the first of its kind, and in so being it paved the way for the modern mobile game as well as every other title that sells itself in bits and pieces, components of a satisfying experience instead of a creation unto itself. Even the biggest AAA titles now have elements of Magic in their DNA.

It is a legacy one hesitates to admire, but the mark has been made.

Computer game versions of Magic have since been released, along with competing games like Hearthstone. Hearthstone has much simpler rules, but more importantly those rules are all formalized by the programming of the game. There is no room for debate, there’s no opportunity to call in judges, the game works in the way the game is made – which, again, probably removes some of the mystique, but makes it far more approachable for beginners.

All of this brings me to Slay the Spire, which I’ve gained renewed enthusiasm for after taking a long hiatus from playing. This is, first of all, not a perfect comparison – Slay the Spire is a dedicated single-player experience instead of a head-to-head dueling game, and the rules are substantially simpler, though the interactions can become extremely complex. While Magic aspires to a sort of free-market egalitarianism, Slay the Spire is overtly unfair. In Magic, it’s impossible to create a perfect deck that never loses because the rules constrain it from being possible – in Slay the Spire, it’s (nearly) impossible to create a perfect deck that never loses because you don’t know what you’re going to be given to build it. Some Slay the Spire runs are cake walks; some are walking on thin ice. Because you’re improvising with what you find, though, there’s an opportunity to discover weird edge case interactions you never would have found if you were building something with specific intent – and, indeed, there must certainly some wild and undiscovered interactions between the vast library of Magic cards released, over 10,000 separate cards, that will remain unfound indefinitely because no one ever has cause to use most of those cards.

A similar work-with-what-you-find ethic can be found in some special draft formats of Magic, where players break up a box of new cards and take turns pulling the cards they want and try to build the best deck they can out of what they get – and though this is an expensive way to play in its own right this at least helps eliminate the pay-to-win factor. When money is eliminated as a factor, the playing field is relatively level, and the game is deemed fair once more.

What interests me about the relationship between a card game released in the 90s and a card game released now, though, is how our perception of fairness has changed over time. With the popularity of Slay the Spire specifically and roguelikes, a genre where vast swathes of the gameplay experience is left to brutal chance, in general – and the explosive popularity of the battle royale genre, a genre where circumstances as much as skill determine your chances of success – it appears that the modern understanding of fairness is shifting. The belief that underpin Magic as a game is that every player should be equal in the eyes of the rules – if not necessarily economically equal. It’s a meritocracy, as long as we assume merit to equal money… And that’s usually what we mean when we say meritocracy. There’s random chance, but it usually gets ironed out for the most part by keen strategizing and the law of large numbers. However, modern games are much more willing to cede that not everyone starts on a level playing field, that some people are born dead, screwed from the start, and pose the challenge of how to do the best that you can under the worst possible circumstances.

I would hesitate to infer too much from this shift. These axioms could come from a belief that the world is unjust and that the human struggle is one of creating justice. These axioms could just as easily come from a belief that anyone can succeed no matter where they come from, the old American Dream – as opposed to the new one, where anyone might not merely succeed but become wildly wealthy. It is a fascinating shift in the way we talk about and think about games, though: Fairness is, as a tenet of game design, becoming rather passe.

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When we experience art, we never experience it completely, just the parts of it we notice and that we engage with – merely a slice, and often a narrow one, of the whole. This is why we have so many enthusiastic consumers of overtly political art decrying the presence of politics in art, never noticing a contradiction. It’s easy to be contemptuous of those who ‘miss the point’, but seldom do any of us entirely get the point – even the creator usually has blind spots, and often accidentally ends up implying things they never meant to say or omitting things that might have added clarity. Even something very straightforward can be misinterpreted – or alternately interpreted, or malinterpreted, reinterpreted, deinterpreted. We can enjoy watching the same film or reading the same novel over and over again because each time this slice of interpretation is slightly different – and at no point is it complete. As these interpretations are context dependent, we’ll never be able to encompass all of them as individuals, but we can discuss the work to further our understand of, not just the work itself, but the many ways it can be viewed, the many ways it can be experienced.

This is not to make excuses for those who miss extremely overt themes and elements of works they love – and who often have very motivated reasoning to do so – but just to say that, to greater or lesser degree, this is something we all do. All interpretation of art is fragmented. All understanding is incomplete.

For every art there is a set of sub-arts, of interpretations – a set of viewings, each a distinct perspective. Depending on what mindset you approach a work with, the interpretation you come away with will be different. For instance, if you approach a work through a critical lens, a lens which examines its flaws and themes in much the same way as you would if you were constructing the work yourself, you will come away with a very different understanding than if you just approach it as a consumer who’s there for the ride. However, because the critical lens is in many ways similar to the creator’s lens, as the culture of creation shifts so does the culture of criticism.

After my reviews last week, I had a discussion about how it seemed like there was a cultural change in the way things were criticized, that they were evaluated more politically than before – my initial response to this was to essentially say that politics that you’ve internalized tend to be invisible, so things were still, in the past, being judged through a political lens but without the acknowledgement of those politics. However, I think something else has shifted apart from but related to these mores: I think that artists now are much more concerned with how to make the world an, if not a better place, than at least one no worse than it was before they created, and that this mindset of “first do no harm” extends to the critical mindset as well.

Once you accept the premise that art can do good you accept the premise that art can do harm. Thus, one of the criteria on which we evaluate art should be, as it is when we evaluate almost everything else in existence, whether it does more good than harm. Of course, this is impossible to know – because everyone has a different experience with and interpretation of a work, it also impacts them in completely different ways. Thus the overall impact of art is distant and unpredictable, and even the most admirable of works can have unfortunate side effects, and even the most vile garbage can have beneficial effects. You can’t treat art as a moral act in the same way you would treat passing legislation – but can you treat it the same way as you would giving a speech, a form of art itself? How overt do the messages of art need to be before it becomes equivalent to a piece of purely argumentative prose, a force of pure rhetoric? Propaganda is real, but how do you measure its effects in an environment when everyone’s interpretations can be so radically different?

You probably can’t. For every interpretation of art as anodyne or incendiary, there’s another interpretation, albeit perhaps a much rarer one, that sees the opposite. This collaborative work of interpretation is part of what makes art so powerful – the ideas that are imparted are as much your own as the creator’s, an act of collaboration potentially covering vast distances of time and space, divides of class and culture. The feature is also a bug, and the message so important that the artist dedicated a chunk of their life to craft a work around it can be wholly lost, twisted, undermined.

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