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After last weeks piece I spent a while thinking about the weird aching sensation I described being left with after playing What Remains of Edith Finch. It took me a while to figure out why it seemed so familiar about it, but also so unlike the emotions we generally associate with death – you know, fear, existential angst, that good stuff. Eventually I recognized that sensation as one that I feel quite frequently in a much milder form: Nostalgia. Nostalgia is actually something I’ve had on my mind a lot lately, which perhaps primed me to react to the game in this way.

I’ve been thinking about what we mean when we talk about nostalgia, and the parts of our relationship with the past that turn septic and poison us. The word ‘nostalgia’ was originally coined to diagnose acute homesickness – so acute it was described as a cause of death in soldiers abroad. Nowadays we use it to describe a yearning to return to the past, or at least to access some part of it in some way. I don’t know that I, personally, actually desire any sort of return to the past, though – is it possible to yearn for something without actually desiring it? We feel the loss of things that we’re better off without very acutely sometimes. Toxic friendships, depressive binges, dangerous situations, these sometimes have a way of taking on a rosy glow afterwards. When we leave somewhere, whether a palace or a prison, we always leave bits of ourselves behind. It’s hard not to scratch that phantom limb sometimes, not to miss what we had – or what had us.

So that’s what I felt from Edith Finch, and the overriding sensation I get when I think about death and loss: A sensation that things are being lost forever and will never be recovered. Priceless first editions burned. Childhood homes torn down. A dead person leaves a hole in the lives of those who knew them, and it’s not a fear of mortality that makes that hurt, just a sensation that pieces of the world are constantly falling away, out of our reach, and that this trend will continue until we too fall out of reach.

It’s a painful thing to contemplate. Most people avoid doing so. The yearning for these lost pieces is bittersweet, though – even more so when we acknowledge that the things we yearn for were never really quite the way we remember them. When I say that I think about nostalgia a lot, it’s because a large part of the games industry is built on it. Everyone who’s played games for a long time has fond memories, and though many of those memories weren’t really about the games, usually, but about time spent with friends, long Summer nights, carefree days before money woes and health issues, people pretend it was just the games. It’s a nice thing to pretend, because the games are still here. The games can be remade, remastered, replayed: The days cannot.

All this is fine, as long as it’s just a stimulus you feed yourself to remind yourself of the past and enjoy a taste of that sweet yearning. What’s not fine is convincing yourself that these games were your past, that they don’t make them like they used to any more, that your nostalgia was an accurate recall of an experience solely provided by a piece of media, rather than a complex melange of memories and experiences being mediated through a particular work of art. Only a tiny part of those memories came from that cartridge, and it’s terribly sad that many people try so hard convince themselves that those days were contained entirely in that gray plastic box.

The precious part of nostalgia is that it is insatiable. The yearning is impossible to really feed, so it leads us to dream impossible dreams. We want to rebuild empires that never existed, relive lives we never lived, revisit art that was never created. Once in a while I’ll feel nostalgic over a dream – I’ve had many dreams of strange houses, versions of houses I’ve lived in with extra rooms or trees growing through them or, sometimes, less pleasantly, rotted walls and collapsing staircases. I had a recurring dream as a child of wandering somewhere, a field or a beach, and finding a (presumably) magic gauntlet that was the color and pattern of light refracted onto the bottom of a swimming pool. I dream of towers of interconnected white plates suspended in the sky, of familiar places grown strange and new – my point is not that my dreams are especially interesting or amazing, but that the feelings and images my memories instill in me, whether those memories are factual or not, provide the bones to carve my art out of –

But only as long as I acknowledge, with all my heart, that the past is the past. I cannot go back, just try to learn and be inspired by that past to try to shape a future. I can yearn for these things without desiring them – and yet the thought that I can make some version of them, create some sensation of the vast dream inside me within other people, keeps me creating.

What I want, as an artist, is for you someday to feel some part of what I feel now. I can’t tell yet if that’s selfishness or selflessness.

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Death is omnipresent in games, but they mostly don’t like to acknowledge that. Dying in games is just a way of keeping score, a nice easily understandable failure state, something to be avoided, not experienced. In life, death is omnipresent in a different way – not as an obstacle, threatening and concrete, a risk to be managed – but as a patient specter, a cold and solid certainty. Wherever we decide to go in our wild lives, we can be certain of finding at least one thing at the end: The End.

Last night I played What Remains of Edith Finch, a first person narrative around the same length as a feature film, wherein we explore the tragic history of Edith Finch’s possibly cursed family, of which she is the sole surviving member. As you explore her weird convoluted family home, you find documents and artifacts showing how each family member died – and, more often than not, experience their final moments from their perspective. Or some version of their final moments, from some version of their perspective: Who knows? The knowledge of what part of these stories was true has passed from the world long before we got there. Much is unknowable, and the stories are as much family mythology as family history.

This game is charmingly surreal and macabre, which I had expected, but also left me with a piercing sorrow, which I had not. It’s a sensation that I never get from games; it’s a sensation I rarely get from art of any sort. It’s the sensation of death as we know death to be but prefer not to acknowledge, something which we inherited at birth and will pass on to any descendants we may have, the sensation of every joy we have being borrowed against a future sorrow. I think what makes the difference in how mortality feels in Edith Finch is that every character we play as is, we know from the start, doomed. We are them, and we are about to die, and we have no choice but to step closer and closer to that destiny – and this may be a fairy tail retelling, but we’re all taking steps towards our own far less whimsical doom. Building up a mythology of our own deaths is perhaps the only sane way to keep moving forward – though it’s not like we have a choice. We’re all on the train track, all on the conveyor belt, and there’s only one way to go from here, whether we want to go or don’t.

Death that feels anything like real death is for the most part scrupulously scrubbed out of video games. I got a whiff of it from The Walking Dead, Season 1, particularly near the end, where the stakes and sacrifices became more clear. There were the barest remnants of it in the famous post-nuke death scene in Call of Duty 4, though the developers tried to strip out, as they always do, any sense of actual death, any sense of the friends and family left behind, dreams left unfulfilled. The realities of death are largely incompatible with enjoying war on a conceptual level. This is how we relate to death in art, usually: The dying are plot devices, not people. Dying Person is a role that requires an unfortunate to play it, a character written to be a heroic sacrifice or the hapless victim, to show the act of violence rather than its consequences. We care more about killers than die-ers, usually.

What Remains of Edith Finch made me uncomfortable in a way I usually forget I can feel, in a way I usually put away in a drawer for later to forget about. It’s a sensation I mostly only get from dreams nowadays, dreams of death and of loss. A shard of ice buried under the chest and over the belly, and difficult to forget once remembered. It pierces the lungs, makes us breathless, and an ancient yell or groan bubbles up, a word born before language. I want to yell for things lost that will never be found again once they’re gone, even though they are not yet lost. I want to yell to expel the cold I already feel setting in. I want to yell to reject how comfortable the cold is, a welcoming linen pillow or a slab of stone, what dreams may come.

We were built around this yell. Someday every artifice and edifice will slough away. Under hot soft flesh is cold hard bone. We might fly, for a while, but we cannot escape gravity. There is nothing to be done, except to live a life of love and pride and happiness.

It is difficult.

I was in Los Angeles and I saw Candide. It had Kelsey Grammar and was generally a great show, but I’ve always had a bit of a hard time warming up to Candide conceptually. I may actually have a hard time with satire generally speaking – there’s an extremely fine line between highlighting the absurdities of a worldview and creating a straw man to represent it, and the genre frequently runs afoul of it.

If you’re unfamiliar with Candide, it’s a novella written by Voltaire, of “I may not agree with what you say but would die to defend your right to say it” fame – he may never have said it, but many will nevertheless die for the right to declare that he did. It was written primarily to lampoon the theory of ‘optimism’ proposed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a theory that suggests that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Of course, a million awful things happen in this stupid world every minute, so Voltaire understandably considered this to be a tough pill to swallow and wrote a story about infinity terrible things happening to some happy-go-lucky kid and everyone around him to illustrate that point.

The thing is, optimism was a proposed solution to a pretty tricky pickle of a problem: How can an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent god allow all the shitty things that happen to happen? Optimism is just the proposal that “well, maybe we don’t understand the entirety of the problem, and God, who we must assume does, is optimizing (or has optimized) the system that is the universe in the best possible way – which is unfortunately still not that great, at least for us, at least much of the time.”

As with most god stuff, this just raises further questions. For instance, we assume that god is benevolent, but how much are we actually covered under his benevolence? The Christian deity is generally considered to be a big fan of humanity in general, but he still may have a lot else on the go such that he occasionally has to put our well-being on the back-burner. As an analogy, is the most benevolent boss the one who treats you individually best, the one who treats all the employees best, or the one who ensures the future stability of the company?

Trick question, the most benevolent boss is no boss, which is why capitalism is bad and I’m an atheist. This neatly sidesteps the question of how a kind and loving god allows bad things to happen to good people, since I believe that god is neither kind nor loving nor existent. I also have my doubts about good people – bad things I retain faith in.

In a sense, though, we do live in at least one of the best of all possible worlds – we live on a planet that sustains us, for now, in a universe that has mostly consistent laws of physical reality that we can be born and prosper in. It seems normal to us because we live here, but it really is astoundingly unlikely. However, being a creature with the capacity to observe the miracle of existence has a one-hundred-percent correlation with being in a place that can precipitate that existence – so, something that is galactically very unlikely is, from our perspective, rooted in a world that must be able to create and sustain the brain that houses that perspective, a certainty.

Similarly, the characters in Candide survive, improbably, over and over. They survive because Voltaire, a just and benevolent author, has decided in His infinite wisdom that they must, because otherwise they wouldn’t be around to deliver the moral at the end about the evils of moralizing when there’s manual labor to be done.

I’ve been playing Cuphead. If you’ve somehow managed not to hear about this game, Cuphead is a 2D platformer styled after the cartoons of the 1930’s – although I frankly think it manages to realize that aesthetic far better than most of the source material it pulls from. It’s also punishingly difficult. Cuphead is impressive both how good it is and how much worse it would be if it was any less beautiful than it is – I have never seen a game rely on aesthetic quality to this extent, and it is fascinating to me that it does, and that it does so so effectively.

These aspects, beauty and difficulty, lean on each other like a pair of cards, prop each other up to create an incredible experience. This super-hard game would actually just not work if it wasn’t so incredibly beautiful in every respect, visually and aurally – the losses and restarts, the trial and error, cheap shots and bullet hells, would quickly become tedious. Some people would still enjoy it on those merits, but it certainly wouldn’t have found the huge audience it has now. At the same time, if the beauty was all there was, if there wasn’t this sort of punishing difficulty, the game would feel like fluff, would show up and disappear in an instant and would leave no lasting impression – though, of course, this version of the game, too, would find its own following. However, because the game is so brutal, you’re forced to really look at it, really closely look at everything that’s happening on-screen, lest you be caught off-guard – and, because you’re forced to look at something so damn lovely, it’s hard to actually be mad at what happens next – which is usually that you get your ass kicked by a medusa or a bird or something.

I find that idea, that sheer aesthetic beauty can be a core component of a game’s design, very interesting, because that’s not how we tend to think about the audio-visual component of games. There’s a lot of discussion over exactly how and how much the narrative and the design of games are discrete from each other, but it’s largely taken for granted that the aesthetic quality of the experience can be evaluated more-or-less on its own merits.

When we discuss the cross-section of aesthetic and game design, it’s usually about how the art style of the game realizes the core goals of the game’s design – not about how the game’s design enables the core goals of the game’s aesthetic, or in how the sheer quality of that aesthetic presentation can make the design goals click. Despite being a tremendously conservative game in many ways, Cuphead has thus exposed a huge gap in how we talk about the intersection of visual and mechanical design in games – or, at least, a huge gap in the way I’ve seen people talk about them – as, rather than a gaming experience enabled by an aesthetic layer, being an aesthetic experience enabled by a gaming layer. It’s an inversion of the way we usually think about what a game is.

I am curious to see what sort of impact this game has, a few years down the line – on video games in general, but also on the way I think about games. It’s strange to me how a game so straightforward could contain such revelatory implications.

I have been spending the last 10 days or so playing way too much Slay the Spire. They say write what you know, and right now my brain knows nothing but the pleasures of building a badass deck to kill monsters with in a video game, so here we are.

Slay the Spire is one of the newer games of the roguelike-like-like-like-etc set, still in Early Access, which uses a card game for all of the combat. Go through a dungeon, which is set up as a series of nodes with various type of encounters, fight enemies, and pick one of three cards after each battle. Along the way there are potions, which are helpful one-shot boosts that can get you out of a tight spot, and relics, which provide powerful passive benefits. Usually, from your first few cards and relics, some sort of theme begins to emerge which will define the rest of your run, whether it’s intentionally damaging yourself to become more powerful, drawing a bunch of cards and using something to play all or most of them, or stacking up huge amounts of defense and either letting your enemies beat themselves to death against your defense. Or something else! I’ve beaten the game 7 times now, and each run still feels extremely different from all the others, based on its own synergies exploiting different game mechanics.

Currently there are two character classes, with a third to be added, and each character class has a unique pool of cards to draw from which the other cannot use. Unlike other card games with a similar class system, like Hearthstone, the main purpose to the classes beyond theming is to firewall off cards which would have game-breaking synergies together while pooling together those which have more moderate synergy. This greatly increases the consistency of each individual run, ensuring you mostly get cards that play well together, keeping the overall experience from degenerating into just finding one killer synergy to break the game.

The connected-node map reminds me a great deal of FTL, another rogueish-like-ish game, and I think there’s some basis for comparison – not just in the map, but in the multiple-choice encounters and in trying to scrape together the components needed to build something powerful enough to last until the end. However, in FTL I very frequently felt there was only one path to victory with minor variants – many offensive options became useless against late-game defenses, and certain defensive options were almost strictly necessary in order to stand a chance against late-game offenses. In Slay the Spire, everything is far more contextual, and I’ve had cards that would have been borderline worthless in one deck become completely game-breaking in another. I’m sure that once in a while, by random chance, there is the occasional run that is essentially unwinnable, but these occurrences are far rarer than they were in FTL – in every run I’ve lost so far, I can point to some poor decision, some key overreach, that precipitated my failure. Usually choosing to fight an elite enemy instead of resting, because I’m greedy like that.

On successive playthroughs you get points, based on how far you got, which contribute towards a bar that unlocks new cards and relics. I’m not a huge fan of this particular implementation, since it feels a bit grindy, but the unlocks themselves are very interesting, the cards usually themed towards some particular game mechanic which opens up new types of decks to experiment with. In this way its structure is similar to The Binding of Isaac, where each playthrough unlocked new items, enemies, and encounters, gradually opening up the design from something fairly simple and straightforward to something bigger, weirder, and more complex. Though, unlike Binding of Isaac, all of the unlocks are things you probably want to have, they also increase the odds of making a misplay as it becomes more difficult to consider all the available strategies. Something I’d like to see the developers approach, as it comes out of Early Access, is both unlocking these things in a more organic way, through special encounters and achievements rather than a grindy EXP bar, and increasing the range of things that can be unlocked to include new enemies and random encounters. Still, despite the less varied nature of these unlocks, in some ways their impact is more notable than in Isaac, since they open up entirely new ways of playing the game.

Because you construct a deck with a series of discrete decisions, each run feels much more something that belongs to the player, that was constructed with found parts, rather than something that the player just uncovers by happenstance. While each Isaac run feels unique, very little of the way the run develops, past mere survival and getting into the treasure room, is in the hands of the player. With every card you take and relic you find the context of the game shifts, and influences every future decision you make along the way. Perhaps it’s because of this that I regret having to give up my deck, the deck I fought for and with for two or three hours, when I succeed on a run. It doesn’t feel right for this beautiful machine I’ve constructed to just fade away and be forgotten. Maybe, though, that’s what keeps me coming back: I have nothing to keep, so the only thing left is to build another beautiful machine and let that, too, fade away. There’s probably some sort of life lesson there. There usually is.

Most of all I appreciate that Slay the Spire demands I pay attention to what I’m doing, in how even when I know the game well it’s easy to make a huge misplay that kills my run, just by carelessly playing cards in the wrong order or forgetting to use a potion. I have little patience any more for games that demand nothing from me. I don’t want to do things anyone could do without paying attention, in doing busy-work, in grinding away. Art that demands nothing gives nothing, and when nothing pushes back against my touch I can’t feel anything. It feels like there’s more room for that now than there was ten or twenty years ago, more room for art that demands attention rather than merely eye contact, but maybe it’s just that I seek it out more now.

Slay the Spire is a great game, which is especially exciting when it’s not finished and there’s still room for interesting things to be added. Aside from the things mentioned, there’s one other thing I’d love to see added: Some sort of hall of fame for winning decks. Even just being able to look back on your winning decks would be cool, but why stop there? What about some endless gauntlet challenge mode to play those decks in? Or a PvP mode for winning decks? A boss rush? New Game+? The idea of the game being not just an end unto itself but a method of building decks that could then be used for other purposes seems like something that could be explored in many interesting ways.

Anyway. Slay the Spire is currently $16 on Steam. If any of this sounded good you should go check it out.

When I was a child it was popular to tell kids they could grow up to be anything. I think it was, anyway, I vaguely recall that being a thing that was said, but I might be thinking of something I saw on television. Regardless, I hope it’s gone out of vogue by now – it’s really a cruel thing to tell a child, even if it’s technically true. You can become anything, in the same way an unknown seed could grow to be anything, but what that thing will be has likely already become set by circumstance and inclination. Or, perhaps, more in the way that rolled die could show any face, but choosing which is outside of anyone’s control – except for inveterate cheaters, who I think would represent inherited wealth in this metaphor.

Regardless of how prominent this message was, I don’t think I ever wanted to be anything. I think I always wanted to be everything. Failing that, the next best option as I saw it was to be some sort of artist, someone who makes worlds – if not to actually be everything, then to contain some version of everything, to control it, portray it, master it. Even that wasn’t enough everything, apparently, because of all the forms of artist to be I decided I wanted to make games, since they require me to do a little bit of everything (a lot of everything, actually). And then I wanted to make them alone, because I wasn’t willing to give up even a tiny bit of everything.

I’m coming to gradually recognize the greed that has shaped me. I am never content. I am never enough for myself because I am never everything, but I also rarely want to give any of myself up. People don’t notice this greed usually, I think, because it doesn’t look like what we think greed looks like. I don’t want many things beyond the things I need to work towards my goals, which mostly boil down food, shelter, and a functional computer with a few specialized peripherals. I don’t mind being mostly broke, except when it means I get distracted by things outside of my control, such as needing to scrape together for food, shelter, or a functional computer with a few specialized peripherals. I’ve learned how to mostly do the things I need to do to take care of myself, but I don’t reach out beyond myself often. I am my own planet in my own solar system. Family, a few friends, no other social contact – greedy like gravity, I hold this much in my orbit forever, steady in the trajectory set by my past.

In trying to be everything I frequently lose track of who I am. I’m not sure what my personality is outside of the things I create. When I’m not making things or distracting myself I have a poor sense of what my personality is. I don’t know if this is abnormal. Many people feel unmoored from themselves when they’re away from their work, I suppose. At least I don’t have to rely on anyone else in order to feel like myself, at least I can’t get fired from being an artist – though I can certainly not get paid for it. I’ve definitely proven myself capable of that.

What am I? A shape that leaves an imprint, a tiny fingerprint on the mind of each person I meet. I hope that by making things I can spread around more imprints, make more of a mark, but that mark I am making is only a tiny part of me. Some people exist so intimately in each others’ lives that their imprints go deep and numerous, that even when they are absent each other they can still feel their shapes in the marks they left behind. I can’t leave any marks like that. I hold too much of myself back. All pictures of me are incomplete, and the true shape remains unknown. It could be anything.

I recently played through Alpha Protocol, which is an experience I don’t know whether or not to recommend. It is not a good stealth game, but it is a hilarious stealth game: Once you actually level up your character the gameplay largely consists of turning invisible and jogging around punching guys in the throat while they stand next to you yelling “where did he go!?”

Anyway.

Alpha Protocol’s most notable features aside from that are its branching narrative and timed dialogue system, both of which went on to inspire Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and thereby basically every game made by Telltale since, as they’ve adopted that model as just the way they make games now. There’s one huge difference between the two dialogue systems, though: In The Walking Dead, the default dialogue option is always to just remain silent and let the conversation go on without you, and in Alpha Protocol the default option is always to say… something. I’m not sure how much of this is an intended effect, but combined with the way the main character of Alpha Protocol is written – an obnoxious jerk – the end effect is that Alpha Protocol’s weird dialogue system ends up really effectively conveying the experience of being an impulsive idiot. It is incredibly easy to end up saying something crass and ignorant or accidentally hitting on someone or just going ahead and making out with a coworker just because the timer for dialogue is so short and some of the choices are labeled extremely ambiguously – and, with a bit of distance from the momentary frustration caused by accidentally doing the wrong thing, I can appreciate the characterization created by these systems.

I can’t say how much of this was intentional on the part of the designers, but it’s intriguing how different the Alpha Protocol and The Walking Dead dialogue systems end up feeling, all while being essentially identical. A relaxed timer, letting a natural amount of time elapse between dialogue beats before prompting response, simulates the pressure to keep up a discussion, while the faster timer suggests a pressure to say something ANYTHING the very moment the person you’re talking to stops talking for even one moment. The addition of the option of saying nothing, along with generally more generous timers, sell the idea of Lee, the protagonist of The Walking Dead, as a calm and thoughtful person being overtaken by events outside of his control – while Alpha Protocol’s Mike Thorton inevitably ends up coming across as a walking HR complaint waiting to happen.

This raises the question of how else dialogue systems can express the personality of the speaking character – that is, how character is expressed by the way we choose what to say, as distinct from what is actually said. The timing and defaults of The Walking Dead express someone pensive and reserved while systems of Alpha Protocol express someone reckless and boorish, so what do other dialogue systems suggest? Most adventure game dialogue systems, such as that used in the Monkey Island series, suggest alternately either a clever character backed by a team of writers, selecting the choicest rejoinders, or an inspector with some sort of predetermined checklist to get through. RPGs like Fallout are similar, except the choiceness of those rejoinders and number of inspection points tend to vary based on your character’s stats.

Though these dialogue systems became a bit rote after a while, you occasionally get flashes of how they could be used much more expressively – even if these expressions usually come in the form of one-off gags in the Monkey Island games. In the first game, when one of your mutinous crew asks if the word ‘keelhaul’ means anything to you, you have the dialogue choice of either saying “I see your point” or of reciting the dictionary definition: Whichever one you choose, the main character says “I see your point” and the conversation ends. In the second game, in one scene you have a choice between four dialogue options, pictured below:

Differing from each other only in emphasis in a moment of impotent anger. And, in the third game, you have a clearly unwise dialogue choice in a conversation with a reformed cannibal, and if you hover your mouse over it a secondary dialogue pops up next to it saying “not that one, it will be the death of you!” and other similar warnings – only for it to be essentially ignored by the character you’re talking to if you actually say it, since they’re off on their own tangent by then.

All of those are amusing and expressive moments, but they all involve making you unable to do something – unable to say what you want or be heard when you say something stupid. This is kind of the opposite of the problem that Mike Thorton has, of saying stupid bullshit given a moment’s opportunity, and well-expresses the more nebbish personality of Guybrush Threepwood. A similar approach is used to much less humorous effect in the game Depression Quest, where the deeper you fall into depression the more productive and healthy choices are locked off to you. Even at the beginning of the game, where you’re still feeling mostly okay, the most sociable and lively choices are unavailable – which is certainly something I can appreciate as someone constitutionally unsuitable towards being the life of a party. Not only is Depression Quest’s approach to conveying depression similar to the techniques Monkey Island uses for jokes, but those specific jokes could easily be repurposed towards more such dramatic ends. Having whatever you try to say come out differently than intended; only being able to express yourself with emphasis while being stuck saying essentially the same rote thing; being unable to stop intrusive second thoughts when thinking of something to say, and then being ignored when you finally do speak – all of these are things that real people experience all the time, frequently to a painful degree.

There are other ways we might tweak existing dialogue systems to express character, or even do so dynamically. The Alpha Protocol system could be leveraged in a game like The Walking Dead, where as a conversation gets more heated the timer begins to shorten and more neutral options start to disappear – perhaps Telltale has explored this already, I haven’t kept up on their games. Or maybe dialogue options could change over time, so the player is pushed to balance between a rushed and imperfect line or a more thought-out line that is perhaps said too late. It may seem absurd, but perhaps dialogue could even be a mini-game, a frantic scrabble to, in an emotional moment, dig the right words out of a pit of brusque idiocy and callous vapidity.

For now, we mostly just go through the check list – and, though this expresses a character, maybe it’s not the character we’re actually trying to create.