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Life in the Machine

As I both create and consume art it’s often striking just how much successions of considered changes and details, mountains of very specific decisions, leave only the vaguest impressions in the mind of the audience. I’m probably a more detail oriented audience than most, but even for me I think the majority of the lasting impressions I take away from a work have more to do with the general tone it sets, and emotional state it invokes, than with any specific content.

However, even if what we remember is mostly vague fragments of tone and atmosphere, if the artist focuses on tone to the exception of content and structure then that tone isn’t conveyed: What people remember then is just the maudlin piece of mediocrity a work without structure or detail inevitably devolves towards. What people take away from an experience is vague, the seeds of nostalgia, but what plants those seeds is often intensely structured and specific.

It’s strange and kind of disappointing the way all the details in a work become ‘it was detailed’ in the aftermath, all the research boils down to ‘well-researched’, all the jokes to ‘funny’ and all the tragedies to ‘sad’. Every work of art gets chewed up and swallowed and digested, and it’s sometimes painful for the artist to see that happen, to witness the process of destruction and digestion that is experiencing art. It’s hard not to feel like our beautiful work is being unmade, unappreciated, turned to shapeless and incoherent mush, by the very process of its consumption.

When you eat a steak, though, even as you chew it up it still matters that it was once whole. The fibers and greases, composed in this particular way, create a specific experience – and, even if what you remember is merely ‘delicious’, something else is encoded in that experience as well. As you live your life and eat different meals, the details that go into them start to cohere, beyond the specifics of a single meal, into a generalized understanding of what food is and can be, and what that means to you. To create food, to create anything, is to resign yourself to the eventual act of consumption and digestion – and to believe that, as the experience you worked so hard on fades away, everything you put into it still will be worthwhile, even if it is now only a memory.

Each new work of art, each novel or game, may not leave its specific thumbprint on each person who consumes it – they may not remember every detail, or even the general plot or structure – but the details, the craftsmanship, those still matter. When we digest each new work it subtly modifies our ideas of what art is and can be, and through that what the world is – or can be. We can nourish with beauty and provide nutrition with new ideas – and, even if we know no idea is ever truly transmitted completely, can still revel that the seeds we plant may one day bring forth surprising fruit.

product_ut_metaton_poster_designview_1024x1024

We are all artists, with our masterpiece being ourselves. Every gesture, every word, is a work of performance, crafted through habit, from the day we are born. We shape ourselves based on audience polling: It’s not quite an applause meter, but we’re a social species and we tend to fairly quickly get a sense for how other people react to the things we say and do. We calibrate, adjust, we become, without ever explicitly thinking about it.

This might sound dismissive. Perhaps it sounds like I am accusing all humanity of being terribly superficial – but these performances go deeper than the skin. Who we believe ourselves to be is, in large part, who we are – or very soon becomes so. That’s one of the ways that brainwashing works: If you can convince someone to perform compliance, it’s often only a matter of time before they become compliant.

Our identities are malleable. This is a strength and a weakness. The art of self-improvement is thus the art of self-persuasion. They say that confidence is attractive – in much the same way that playing wrong notes on the piano confidently sounds more like music than playing correct notes hesitantly, physical beauty is just as much skill as it is shape. Sit just so, keep your chin at this angle, make sure the eye meets you in just such a way, smile just enough but not too much – each tiny aspect of posture and motion calibrated to present oneself in a particular way.

Of course performing physical attractiveness is just one option. We shut ourselves off, open ourselves up, play smart and play dumb, fill ourselves with passion or hold our hearts in reserve. We keep wardrobes of personae and choose whichever one suits the occasion. Masks crafted from habits and nervous tics, personality profiles written in muscle memory rather than words. We call it body language, and maybe there’s more to that phrase than we usually think about. Language isn’t just a means of communicating with others, but also shapes the way we see and engage with the world.

These identities sometimes become prisons. Our histories constrain us. Once you declare you love or hate something, you feel a pressure to live up to your love or hate, an obligation to feel the way you said you feel. How valuable it is, then, to have a way to become someone else, to take on the habits and beliefs of another, even for a short time. How precious it is, then, to have art, to have the simulation of the mile walked in another’s shoes: To feel, for a brief moment, what it is to be other than what you are, to believe in other than what you believe, to be unbound by your history, and to feel the gentle breeze of something unknown, and more deeply a part of you than the self you perceive, urging you towards a new way of being.

a_small_cup_of_coffee

Right around the time I was writing last week’s post I felt a suspicious itch in my nose that meant I was maybe getting sick. Then I got sick. I was pleased at how accurate my nasal observations had been, but overall I would have been fine with being wrong.

We can skip over the next few days. They were mostly very tedious and tiring. Afterwards, though, there were a couple of days where my sense of smell was recovered and I could think properly, but my sinuses were still packed with residual mucus, so 80% of what I smelled at each moment was the rancid remnants of the cold. Things which were once delicious stopped tasting good: Coffee became flavorless and bitter, and when I ate grilled vegetables I could only taste the grill. This was interesting, because other than that I felt fine. If I hadn’t recently been sick and didn’t understand this to be an effect of that cause, I would just think this was what these things tasted like. If my head just always smelled of disease, everything except for the simplest sweetest foods would seem unappealing.

It’s always so strange when the physical world affects the things we think of as being entirely psychological and intrinsic to our identity. We argue about matters of taste, justify why the things we like are good and the things we dislike are bad, without even considering whether we’re discussing the same thing, without accounting for how the tastes we cherish are shaped by our personal topography.

Games, and particularly computer games, externalize this issue. Every player’s experience of the game is mediated through their own gaming setup, so a transcendental experience for one player can be a framey mess for one who has different video card drivers. Then, another layer down, a fun-filled romp for one player may be a humiliating frustration for a player coping with disability. And now, as I reflect on it, another layer down, a game that tells a story of great import and meaning to one player may just be retelling the same boring demeaning claptrap another player has had to wade through for their entire life. If you go down enough layers, these external factors stop being external, start being part of who we fundamentally are, the shape of our skull, the networks of our neurons, the smell of our snot. It becomes impossible to separate the things which color our experience from the experience itself.

When I see so many people who seem to care nothing for art, who seem to care nothing for anything at all, who seem to exist only to take and accumulate and crave, I have to wonder how they are calibrated. Can they see at all what I see, feel at all what I feel? Maybe what makes them so hungry is they never learned to taste the things that they really needed to survive, so they just consume, like I kept drinking coffee that tasted like ashes, in the hopes that later it might help me to wake up.

pong

Pong and other early arcade games feel so primitive to us now in 2017. It seems intuitive to credit technological advances for the massive difference in complexity between the light arcade games of 35 years ago and the many more complex forms of video game we play today, but how much does technology really have to do with that shift? Complexity of input and gameplay systems increased over time, but not nearly in proportion with technological advances. No, the biggest difference between games then and games today is that today’s games are made to be played by ‘gamers’, people who have played other games before and been shaped by the experience.

When Pong succeeded, it did so because it was a game that could be played by anyone. Though many think of Pong as being the first arcade game, many players today would likely prefer to play the actual first arcade game, Computer Space, a game of careful movement and twitch reflex which was released more than five years before Pong – however, it was not especially commercially successful – not the way Pong was – likely because it was too complicated and unintuitive for the mass audience, who were by-and-large not technically inclined and were also slightly inebriated.

With no prior exposure to video games, members of the general population had not built up the dexterity and coordination required to successfully play a multi-button interactive game. “People learned how to play video games as a group over time,” says Bushnell. “I think they could have handled it much better two or three years later.

45 years after Pong, as much as game technology has progressed, game literacy has progressed much further. Most people with any interest in the medium have built up huge specialized skillsets that allow us to appreciate nuanced designs that would be universally mystifying 45 years ago. We have progressed beyond the two-directional wheel, to the four-directional joystick with one button, to controllers with a directional pad and 4 buttons, to controllers with a directional pad, two joysticks, and 10-buttons-plus-you-can-click-the-joysticks-down-like-buttons-too. In the meanwhile, games were developed for PC which had the keyboard as standard equipment, a controller with 50 buttons and nothing else. For a while games tried to use as many keys as possible, but developers eventually realized this was ridiculous and tried to mostly restrict themselves to the left side of the keyboard – particularly as the mouse gained popularity as a standard input mechanism.

Video game complexity increased hand-in-hand with video game literacy until the early 2000s, at which point popular games were intricate or finicky enough that only people who had been playing games for much of their lives understood them. A kind of equilibrium was reached, for a while, where the really complex games mostly went to PC for a smaller but more dedicated audience and gaming consoles got most of the lighter more arcadey fare. However, game companies tried to unify these audiences, and managed in so doing to create games that were still intimidatingly complex to people who had never played games, but at the same time insultingly condescending and easy to people who had been playing games all their lives, thus satisfying exactly no one with the precision only the way the invisible hand of the market can achieve.

Now we’re at an interesting point: Because games can be readily developed at many different team sizes and price points, we have something of a reemergence of the console/PC paradigm but with a softer barrier: Very simple games like Super Hexagon mostly find their way to mobile platforms as primary targets, and very complex games like XCOM mostly find their way to PC and, to a lesser degree, consoles as primary targets, but both also find themselves frequently ported to each other’s dominant platform. We’re finally beginning to establish, however haphazardly, a curriculum of game design, by which new players can discover how to engage with a vast and expanding medium

It’s strange now to look back and realize that no game experience is really self-contained. Each game teaches us to play itself and, as game developers learn by playing games, the many clashing ideas of what a game is or can be propagates through them memetically. Every game you have played before contributes to the experience of the game you are playing now, for good or ill, by shaping the vocabulary you use to explore it. And like that we build a bridge into the future, trying to construct a path to the experience we imagine a game can one day make manifest.

Man once they finish those sleeves they're going to get really bored. Until the devil starts playing with them I guess.

The first lesson I was taught about drawing was: Don’t draw what you know to be there, draw what you see. We know the hand has four fingers and a thumb, but sometimes fingers hide behind each other, sometimes the thumb clutches into a fist. And, sometimes, that which you know to be there is not: Some hands have fewer than four fingers.

Some hands have more.

I find this to be an approach with many applications. It’s kind of like critical thought: Never assume that something has to be a certain way just because that’s the way things are. Never let yourself see what isn’t there.

Each week I try to write something new, here, for Problem Machine. Ideally I’d like it to be interesting and insightful, and nearly every time I end up with something where I’m unsure whether what I write about is just painfully obvious and trite or is actually incisive and insightful. I’m starting to think that this may, in fact, be a good sign: Insight is often is a matter of saying the obvious, of not seeing that which isn’t there, and sometimes seeing what is. The things we never see are just as often those under our eyes as those over the horizon.

And this, too, seems at once obvious and insightful. The emperor still has no clothes.

There are a few ways this manifests strangely. One of them is that we tend to regard with contempt those truths which are repeated too frequently. We became sick and tired of love and peace. If everyone knows that kindness and gentleness are beneficial, then those who deny kindness and gentleness feel that they have access to a new knowledge of the world, that they are wolves among sheeple.

Trading knowledge for ignorance can feel a lot like learning. It can be hard to tell the difference between forbidden fruit and rotten fruit.

Another odd manifestation is that it becomes extremely easy to sound insightful just by echoing the consensus, whether it’s true or not, whether it’s overlooked or not. Many people become very wealthy on the lecture circuit telling people exactly what they want to hear. It can be hard to tell the difference, then, between what we want to hear and what is true, between what is insightful and what is vapid.

I don’t have an answer to the challenges this poses.

All you can do is keep looking, and try to see what is actually there for yourself.

ex-machina

It feels, now, so naive to believe that higher resolutions, faster framerates, and more polygons could ever lead to something which appears truly real. Every step we take toward making things look realer becomes a step into the uncanny valley: The more realistic the texture and motion, the faker the seams start to seem, unraveled at the edges. When we film in high resolution, it can’t fail to become more obvious that we’re building sets and canning dialogue instead of recording a reality – when we render at 60 frames a second, the visual gaps between our animations and the motion of muscle and bone become stark.

In the long run, I don’t believe that we can approximate reality by means of picture quality or polygon pushing – or, even, by means of technique and artistry.

This relates to what I wrote about last week. The first stroke of creation still matters deeply, and determines the final form of the piece in an inescapable manner. The more we try to hew to reality through artificial means, the more the gaps between reality and our representation of reality will begin to show.

As we seek reality, if we continue long enough, our methodology will begin to drift away from mimicry and towards emulation – that is to say, it will no longer be sufficient to create a model, texture, and animation that looks like a creature in motion, but will become necessary to create a simulated creature operating under the rules of reality. Follow the thread long enough and realism becomes simulation, inevitably. There’s no bridge across the uncanny valley, just art on one side and reality on the other – one, a representation of something external to itself; the other a system no longer beholden to aesthetics.

If your standards for realism come high enough, the only way to fulfill them is to create reality. So, the question is, what is it we actually want when we say we want things to look better, to look realer? Do we really want Turing machines running virtual flesh bodies, ensuring each motion is motivated by an actor with real wants and needs, each muscle jiggling and snapping as limbs flex? Or is what we want, not reality, but the same old fake worlds with more pores, with higher thread counts, where everything is just a little bit shinier and we can pretend that reality is what we make of it?

paintedworldbridge

The scariest thing about art to me now is not the tyranny of the blank page, but the certainty when I begin that I have no real idea where I’m going.

I have meticulously planned out every moment of my game, and right now the version of it in my head is good but I don’t think it’s great. This is scary to me, because this is a huge chunk of my life to spend on something if I’m not going to be satisfied with the result – I suppose that’s true for a lot of game development, but since I’m not sharing the development with a team all that weight falls squarely on my head. However, what I know about art and what I know about game development is that the magic isn’t in the plan, it’s in the moment of creation, in the poignant details and pivotal moments.

Nevertheless, as Eisenhower said, plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable. Every decision I make now is still going to be important, just not important in the ways I expect. There’s a butterfly’s lifetime worth of hurricanes between here and there, and my control over how this plays out is simultaneously absolute and negligible.

Right now, I have the blueprints for a bridge, but I don’t know where I’m going to be building it or what I’m going to be building it out of. With what I have now, I know that – depending on what comes next – it could either collapse or it could create a pathway to someplace no one has ever been before, and which of those happens depends partially on me, my expertise and artistic instinct, but just as much on chance and happenstance.

And I have to build it. This is how the job is done. This is how art is made.

We walk by falling forwards into each new step, over and over again*. To expect to be ready for the fall, to be certain of the recovery, is too much to ask, so each step we take forward is a tiny leap of faith. We keep doing it because to do otherwise is to stand in place, and any room can be purgatory if you stand there long enough, and with each moment you wait to take a step your legs will just get heavier.

So what I’m saying is that this is scary, and I think my game could be bad, but it’s also necessary, and I think my game could be great – and that I expect to always feel this way, forever, even after EverEnding, and that if I ever lose this feeling then something has gone wrong, and I will find that all of a sudden I am standing in place – and, even if the scenery looks like it’s moving, it’s just the flickering of a screen that someone forgot to turn off. Then it’s time to walk, or fall, again.

*Thanks Laurie Anderson