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Life in the Machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A few nights ago I was wedged between my bed and the shelves I was trying to cram into my closet. I was soaked in sweat, and resting my head against the flimsy particle board backing of the shelves, which was becoming increasingly flimsy the more I tried to push them into place against the evidenced will of the laws of space and physics. Everything I owned was piled up around the room, and for each new other angle I tried to fit the shelves into the closet I had to move everything around again, each thing blocking where the next thing needed to go, or getting caught on every other thing, or tipping over and scattering things everywhere. So many things. Each action had prerequisite actions, every object a series of locations it had to be shuffled to before it could go where it was supposed to, and at the end, when I was forced to give up, the stacks of possessions piled up behind that stoppage like a train jam, and I felt despair out of any proportion to the problem of fitting a set of crappy Ikea shelves in a closet.

Of course, while the shelf situation was frustrating, it wasn’t the source of despair. The despair that was waiting to raise to the surface was over the chain of prerequisites, the stack of laundry that had to go on the bed so I could open the closet, the boxes that had to go on my computer chair so I could remove the old shelf, the whole room becoming chaotic and unusable just to clear a path, and the path in the end being useless – but then the car I needed to borrow as well, the money I needed to spend as well, the time I needed to make, the projects I needed to plan, as well, as well, as well.

When we speak of the belief that all things are connected, we speak of it as though it ought to make things easier somehow. As though there’s a difference between a web and a tangle when either one can make you drown.

A belief in a the vast interconnectedness of all things is not a cure for anxiety.

It feels like Sokoban, a game of pushing boxes into place, where each box requires pushing other boxes requires pushing other boxes before anything can go where it actually needs to go. It should seem repellent in this aftermath, but Sokoban seems so appealing to me as a game right now because it would be nice to know what the actual boxes are, where the bounds of the arena where they can be moved lie, and to be certain that the posed problem can in fact be solved. Games promise self-contained problems, problems that don’t connect to anything outside of themselves and that you can therefore give yourself wholly to solving without constantly worrying about whether you have to do something else outside of them first. They promise not to be approachable – not necessarily easy, but quantifiably difficult. They promise to have a beginning and an end, to have boundaries instead of the constant hell of shifting walls that the vast sloppy systems of the outside world offers.

They did, anyway. Now games are a service, with boundaries that shift, with ‘new’ services on offer that may in fact just be keyed doors in front of the parts of the game you originally wanted to play. We have gleefully broken down the boundaries of the game that offered such comfort in the naive belief that to have no boundaries is to be free and that to be free is to be unbound. These games are just a symptom of a deeper rot of disruption, naturally. Why have boundaries between work and leisure when you can do both at once? Why have boundaries between work and entertainment when you can do both at once? Why not just have a little bit of work happening all the time, every day, forever? Be a bit more productive whenever you’re idle so you can feel good about yourself? How else could you possibly feel good about yourself?

And before you know it, everything in your life is just a box needing to be shoved into place so everything else can fit. Your chair and bed are boxes to be moved into place. Your friends and family are boxes to be moved into place. It’s all Sokoban now, and what is vitally important is that everything be moved into place, and it’s all interconnected, a puzzle of unverifiable size and complexity and of inescapable urgency.

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Well I’ve finally gone and done it. I finally made myself a Patreon. Largely this is because they were about to change their payment structure in an unfavorable way and I wanted to sneak in before that deadline, but this is something I’ve wanted to try for a long time. I wrote a bit about the reasons why on the Patreon page. The fact of the matter is, I’ve put an awful lot of time and energy into this blog over the years and been extremely broke for pretty much all that time, so it feels worthwhile to see whether I can use fact A to resolve fact B.

But, more than that, I wanted to take this step because it’s very easy to stop taking steps and stand in place. It’s very easy to just not make something like a Patreon page, to never ask for anything, to never presume your work is worth anything, if you can survive without doing so. To me that has been the path of least resistance for a long time, to just quietly do work and ask for nothing, not even acknowledgement, in return, and to quietly hope that perhaps it will be of value to someone somewhere. Eventually, though, if you have something to say you have to start saying it loudly. Whispering gets so tiresome. If you’ve enjoyed my work here, I hope you’ll consider supporting me on this new endeavor.

For the most part, though, things are going to stay basically the same here: one post a week on various game and art-related topics. The only real difference is there’s now going to be a week’s delay between when I write new posts and when they come up here, since I’m giving each new micro-essay one week of exclusivity on the Patreon before it gets posted on the blog. Over time, as I get feedback and new ideas percolate, maybe I’ll make more changes. Who knows what the future will bring? As long as it’s something different than what the present is bringing.

It’s been a little while since I posted. Once habits are broken they can be difficult to mend, but since circumstances always eventually substantiate to break them, learning how to reestablish a good habit becomes a necessary skill. Creativity isn’t like an engine that you can just start up again whenever it stops, though: It’s not really repeatable, because with each new created work the process mutates. The reasons why I wanted to write six years ago when I started this blog are not the reasons I want to write now, but as long as habit has stuck me to my course I haven’t had to worry about those reasons.

And now that the habit has been broken, I do have to worry about those reasons.

Why do I want to write? Partially it’s that thoughts once you’ve had them are like produce once you’ve bought it. You can put those thoughts away in the fridge for a while, but eventually if you don’t do anything with them they’ll go bad, take up space, and start stinking up the joint. Once in a while you have to clean those thoughts out. Writing is helpful that way. Partially, as well, it’s that this blog is one of the things I’ve achieved that I can be most uncomplicatedly proud of: I’ve never had a ton of readership, but a few people usually see the things I’ve written every week and if a few people out of those few people find interest or enjoyment from my work then I’m happy. I’ve worked at it for the better part of a decade now, creating work almost every week, and written what amounts to a few novels worth of words on many different topics. As I’ve done so, I’ve noticed certain themes reemerging, a certain shape of an underlying work being silhouetted, and I recognize it as a self-portrait taking shape.

What I think I’m coming to recognize, though, is while each new piece here adds to that portrait, adds new details or expands it at the edges, makes the overall idea more expansive and complete, there’s a limit to working that way. Eventually there’s not going to be anything more to write of whatever this is that I’ve been working on. I hesitate to return to habit with too much enthusiasm because it may be, in the end, that whatever Problem Machine is has actually already been completed, and I’m just overworking the canvas now.

Well, obviously I don’t think that, or I wouldn’t have written the words you’re reading now. How will I know when it has been completed? I probably won’t. I think, eventually, I’m just going to try to take everything I’ve written and boil it down, to distill it – to take this big sloppy self-portrait and refine it, frame it, and hang it. Once I do that, what then? Do I stop writing, or change my style, or do something else? I don’t know, but whatever it is I’ll need some way to flush those stagnant thoughts out of my head, so I’ll probably make something like this again.

Nothing is ever complete. There’s always more to be written.

Well, it’s been a busy month. That’s putting it somewhat mildly – the last week or so has been possibly the hardest I’ve ever worked on a project, putting in anywhere from 8-12 hours every day and culminating in one last completely brutal 14 hour day on the first of February to wrap the project up. It’s still not perfect, I could definitely find plenty to do if I wanted to spend a week or so on polish and fixes, but for now I really just need to let this one go, because I’m exhausted and I want to move on to something else.

For January, I participated in Wizard Jam, the Idle Thumbs community game jam. The premise of the jam is to create a game based on the title of an Idle Thumbs network podcast, and since many of those titles tend to be weird and imaginative to start with there’s plenty to work with. I picked The Convergence Compulsion, and then later when I found out that someone else was interested in using the same title, appended the subtitle “The Satisfaction of a Job Well Done”, another podcast title. My very early conception of a game to go with this title was a fast-paced 2d puzzle game in the vein of a match-3 or Tetris where you tried to get different laser beams to line up, but the idea that eventually captured my imagination was a game where you build machines out of elements that emit power, manipulate it, and then turn it into some sort of work. Along the way, it shifted away from the idea of building complex machines and towards figuring out a solution to a puzzle made out of a few components and a number of simple humanoids, kind of like the games The Incredible Machine and Lemmings. At the end it came out pretty close to that, except most of the humanoid behavior had to be cut/simplified.

The concept of Convergence Compulsion is that you work for The Convergence Corporation installing hardware in different locations. The hardware usually consists of at least one power orb, which emits power particles, and at least one converger, which attracts them, and then using these and some other devices which focus, reflect, or split these particles you need to power different machinery. This ended up being kind of a finicky concept – Sometimes machinery ends up getting accidentally powered on just due to random chance, sometimes it takes a while to get the equipment specifically where it needs to be to focus particles, sometimes solutions I didn’t anticipate work and sometimes solutions that should work fail to because I didn’t script the levels to account for them. For the most part, though, I think I’ve managed to achieve the game I had in mind.

Here it is:

Convergence Compulsion: The Satisfaction of a Job Well Done

 

In addition to this, Wizard Jam 8 participants created a number of other great games, many of which I commend to your attention. A few standouts among those I’ve played or seen played thus far:

I’m exhausted but generally pleased with what I accomplished during January, which brings us to February. Now, I had originally planned on making another game this month, a 2d platformer project so I could better understand the capabilities and methodologies of Unity 2d development, but right now I’m really ready to just not work in Unity for a while. Thus, the 2d platformer project is getting pushed back one month to March, and for February I’m going to be focused on writing music, ideally with the end-goal of making another album. I have a few tracks floating around already, so it will really only take maybe 5 or so more to have enough for an album, but we’ll see where I end up. Even if I don’t end up having enough it’s fine, I just want to spend this month making as much music as I can and definitely not programming.

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.