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Playing games is largely a process of exploration. Often this is in a very literal sense, where you’re given a simulated physical space and part of the challenge is learning the ins and outs of it, but just as often the heart of the game lies in exploring the the edges of the game’s design or of its story. What actually is exploration though? What separates exploring a world from merely experiencing it? How can we support exploration, make it fun and interesting? Or, perhaps more saliently, how can we avoid undermining exploration without meaning to?

There’s two parts to exploring: Methodology and results. Methodology is what separates the process from pure random trial and error – even if you feel that you are wandering aimlessly and finding things as you go, you’re still building up an understanding of the environment in your head and applying that towards your movements. At the very least, you avoid exploring areas you’ve already been through in favor of finding new areas. Results are whatever you get using your method of approach. So, when we’re designing for explorability, we must have both a world that is consistent and predictable, so there can be method to measuring it, and a world that contains interesting things worth discovering. There is also a prerequisite to exploration: In order for something to be revealed, in must first be concealed. In order for it to be discovered, it must first be covered, so the world must also have parts of it which are not immediately obvious.

If you lack consistency of world, then surprises come randomly and without justification, and the player tends to meander interminably before finding anything of interest. If you lack anything worth discovering, that’s obviously even worse, and if everything is already obvious then there’s nothing to find. As an example, if you create a world that’s continuously being randomly generated, it might be an interesting experience but there’s no way to effectively explore it: methodology is useless, the discoveries pointless, and you could never expect to have any more knowledge of the world than one had first coming to it, meaning a world completely uniform in its inscrutability, an open book containing nothing but nonsense. This conflict between randomness and exploration is one reason why games attempting fusion of the randomized worlds of roguelikes with the exploration-heavy worlds of metroidvania tend to succeed far more as roguelikes than they do as metroidvanias.

In creating a simulated physical space to explore, using these concepts of methodology, result, and concealment is a pretty straightforward task to grasp. First, make it so your world has some logical spatial relationship – most games are like this by default, since they’re built on modeling a 3d space, though some like text adventures struggle a bit and map transitions can always throw a wrench in the works. Note that this is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t have weird and impossible architecture, just to note that the more confusing and counterintuitive it becomes the harder it becomes to effectively explore the space, which may or may not be something you want. Second, make the world also have things worth discovering: In purely spatial terms, this would just be an interesting location such as a cave or grove, but more practically this is where the ‘physical’ space of the game starts to overlap into the design and narrative spaces, since most actual interesting locations in games are interesting either because they contain gameplay advantages such as powerups or tactical positioning or because they contain narrative content such as historical information or new characters to meet. Third, make it so it isn’t immediately evident where these points of interest are – this is why having things like minimaps, fast travel, and x-ray vision can work against the sensation of exploration, since providing this information directly often works directly against concealment. Too much information is provided for free, so there’s no real room for method to beget discovery.

So, carrying these concepts over from the spatial realm to the game’s design, if we want to have an explorable design space it must be, first, consistent: This, like spatial consistency, tends to come for free in a highly systemic game but become scarcer the more separate systems or special exceptions exist. If every game element exists within a consistent system, people can devise and improvise interactions, can plan out experiments and log their results. They have a territory to map. Second, the game’s design must have things worth discovering – understanding the bounds of the design is usually a core part of what it means to become better at a game, so this is covered as long as the game’s challenge isn’t trivial. This is part of what difficulty offers us, is a system worth exploring. Third, the system must not be obvious, must conceal parts of itself: This is one that a lot of modern games struggle with. There’s a tendency to clip off surprising and unexpected parts of a game’s design, to ensure that the experience always feels ‘fair’, to set the boundaries of the design strictly at those of the developer’s imagination. It seldom works completely, but to the extent which it works it impoverishes the game.

Narratively, the tenets of explorability tend to resemble a great deal of existing storytelling advice. Avoid plot holes and give characters motivations to create a consistent narrative reality, include drama, jokes, and surprises to generate interest, and don’t lean on cliche and trope so much the entire arc is obvious from the first moment.

As mentioned earlier, these spaces all overlap. The surprises you discover in the spatial layer may have implications for the design, the techniques you discover in the design layer may have implications in the narrative, the story you uncover in the narrative may lead you to new places in the spatial. These aspects are all woven together, and the ability to uncover them collectively is one of the greatest things games can offer as a medium.

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It’s very frustrating, sometimes, being an artist who is both terrible at and temperamentally disinclined from all forms of self-promotion. There’s a yearning to make people look and listen paired with an absolute aversion to the actions that could actually make that happen. However, as much as that bothers me sometimes, I’ve been thinking more and more about what success would look like to me, and what would come with it, and I have to admit that some of the things that might accompany it are worrying to me – and perhaps not the sort of things one might expect.

I think the part that scares me, and this probably explains a lot about why I’m so bad at self-promotion, is that if people are actually listening to you then you need to be extremely careful about what you say. I don’t mean this in a “oh boy you can’t say anything without offending anybody these days” way. I mean it in the sense that, when people are listening to your words your words become, effectively, actions. If you have an audience of millions any little thing you say might, potentially, have life and death consequences. The fact is, I don’t think I could continue to write the way I write now and feel ethically okay with it: When maybe 20 people read my blog a day, I can throw my thoughts at the wall and see what sticks. I’m sure that if I went back through my archives now I’d find many of my old posts naive or ignorant or completely idiotic – and, for me, that’s okay, because what I’m primarily interested in here on Problem Machine is just posing questions that interest me at the moment in a hopefully thought-provoking way. But if thousands of people were hanging on my word? Tens of thousands? Millions? I wouldn’t be able to do it. Any random thought could justify any unconnected action. I’d be pouring something into the ideological makeup of the world without having any idea of what effect it might have, dumping mysterious glowing goo into the water supply just to see what happens.

The point of which is to say that the ethics of art creation don’t necessarily scale. You can create a lot of art as a small creator with a small audience that you really can’t if and when that audience grows, and this constantly trips up small creators. In many ways, staying small is in your best interest if you care at all about creating ethically – just as the spider men say, with great power comes great responsibility, and thus if you feel unprepared to shoulder that responsibility without causing harm your best bet is to avoid great power.

And yet, we have so many incentives to become bigger. Not only are we told that success for an artist looks like having a big audience, it’s also, for most of us, a prerequisite for being able to survive while creating. If you can’t find a patron (or spouse) to support you while you work, you have to build a fan base large enough that you can float off of their contributions or page views – if you want to work full-time as an artist, anyway. This is why we keep seeing the pattern repeat itself of some small-time entertainer becoming hugely popular through Youtube or whatever and then saying something stupid and reckless which makes everyone mad at them: The kind of personality it takes to rise by force of personality from a small-time celebrity to a big-time celebrity is largely incompatible with the awareness it takes to actually be responsible with the power that reach confers.

The strip of available space to work in is narrow: The art you’re capable of making, the art you want to make, that art which is ethical to make, the art you are comfortable making, each of these shape the space of the art you can actually make – and the context of your place in the world changes the range of each of these. I don’t think it’s rare at all for this narrow strip of fertile ground to completely disappear as peoples lives change, as they run out of time or emotional space to express themselves. The time and context we have available to us to freely create is, over the course of our lives, potentially extremely limited.

No matter how much you might wish to, you will never know for sure your work is harmless. If it makes you feel any better, you’ll also never know that anything else you do is harmless. It’s all guesswork, of hope and leaps of faith that maybe we won’t do too much harm without meaning to. So, what, are we to sit in place and molder? Are we to always be paralyzed by a sea of choices with consequences with consequences with consequences?

But we do not essay forth into a void. There are already people creating, and many of them creating irresponsibly. Even having some awareness that you might have great power and, if so, it ought come with great responsibility puts you ahead of the game.

It’s better to go into it with eyes open. It’s better to worry about whether you’re relevant than to be loudly irrelevant, to worry about being unethical rather than being violently unethical. Even if it makes it harder to create, narrows the range of what we can create, it also opens up new possibilities and helps us better evaluate the real quality of our work. When you observe the world, you see a few people who are brilliant and many people who spout bullshit with unearned senses of self confidence. It’s easy to cast yourself as one or the other in your imagination, and to never end up saying anything out of fear of being unable to live up to the ideal of brilliance, or fear of unintentionally becoming another bullshit peddler. However, even as the world is full of vapid braying, the world is also full of people who never say anything because they’re not sure if what they have to offer is valuable, and the world is also full of people who try to be heard and cannot because the level of noise is too high, and all of them have so much more of value to offer than those buffoons who usually hog the spotlight, who are certain beyond question that it’s worth everyone’s while to listen to what they have to say.

The question is not whether you can be brilliant or a buffoon, but whether you can speak out at all. As long as you approach your words with care and thoughtfulness, they will always be worthwhile in a world where so many words are produced without thought, without care.

For those who may be unfamiliar with The Return of the Obra Dinn, it’s a first-person adventure game by Lucas Pope (the developer of Papers, Please – a game which I keep intending to play but putting off, probably at least in part because it seems incredibly bleak). Obra Dinn itself is hardly un-bleak: In it, you play as an insurance assessor sent out to the titular Obra Dinn, a recently recovered wreck of a ghost ship. You are sent to deduce the fate of all those aboard, and deduce appropriate deductions for the insurance company to make. In order to achieve this task, you are given the “Memento Mortem”, a pocket watch which, when presented with the remains of a once-living creature, can take you back to the moment that creature died. Once in these memories, you can find other remains and follow them back further, and move from the moment this person or animal died to the moments leading up to it, following the chain of disaster back to its inception.

The style of the game is eye-catching, and along with the reputation of Papers, Please drove a lot of the initial interest in the title. Everything is rendered in a pixelated black and white style – or a dark color and a light color, the specifics of which can vary, but in each case is styled after a classic computer system. This is an interesting choice, since the style is unusual and the classic computer systems it harkens back to don’t really have anything to do with the plot of the game, but it creates an overall sensation of being unstuck in time. Here you sit, playing the game in the modern day on your modern machine, rendering in a style reminiscent of several decades ago, exploring a ship from hundreds of years ago, exploring memories of sailors who died several decades before. It expresses a chain of time very well, and reminds us that these weird chains of causality, of death to life to death to life, are all around us, and dictate the flow of our lives to this day.

Something that struck me about Obra Dinn was how unusual it was to have a game where death is commonplace, but is still treated with respect. There’s two molds that games usually, broadly, fall into: Either death is avoided strenuously, or it’s so commonplace as to be meaningless. Either you’re a gentle spirit wandering the world and trying to achieve your goals without confrontation, or you’re a murderous monster leaving a trail of hewn body parts behind you. While you do, in Obra Dinn, fit into the gentle spirit mold, the world you are trying to navigate is one of blood, desperation, and violence. It neither avoids death nor glories in it, merely tests its boundaries and affirms, for those of us who might ever forget, that each death is unique, that each death comes from a seed of causality and can be tracked to its roots. No one is unimportant. No one is indispensible.

A naive reading of the design of Obra Dinn might believe that there’s little actual “gameplay” in the game – that is, the majority of the actions the player takes are walking to the next cutscene trigger, activating it, and occasionally marking down one of a few options in the big book of names that you begin the game with. We’re not accustomed to thinking of things like the shape of a character’s face, their accent, who their friends are, what their job description is, as components of gameplay – but each of these becomes important in Obra Dinn. Understanding the relationships underpinning the tragedy of the ship, understanding why characters choose to do the things they do, is necessary to unravel the mystery that brought the Obra Dinn to its current fate. So often the concept of ‘gameplay’ is pitted against concepts of ‘narrative’ and ‘graphics’, as though these are all completely discrete components that have nothing to do with one another, as though pouring more resources into one might steal resources away from another. One might consider this to be most literally true in a game like The Return of the Obra Dinn, made by a lone developer, where time he spends on one aspect is time he cannot possibly spend on another. Perhaps it’s because it was made by a solo developer, though, that these aspects work so closely together – the graphics are exactly what they need to be to support the narrative, the narrative is exactly what it needs to be to support the gameplay. No, even ‘support’ seems incorrect: These facets of the game aren’t separable. What seems most remarkable to me about Obra Dinn is how all of these components we regard as discrete combine together and become one complete work – the graphics are the narrative is the gameplay.

I’ve played games that have had more emotional impact, games that have interested me more intellectually, games that have amazed me more, games that spoke to me more, games I felt were more meaningful – but Obra Dinn is still something special in a different way. It’s finely crafted, like a pocketwatch, and I think though the details of the tragic voyage will fade, the Obra Dinn will stick with me for a long time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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