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Life in the Machine

Most games only give us weapons. Yes, some also give us a button for talking, and a handful allow us to guide a conversation but, more often than not, all we can do is shoot or cut. Our only windows into the worlds of these games, then – worlds of love and loss, myth and legend, tragedy and comedy – are the holes we carve into them for ourselves. Our perspectives of violence shape these worlds, and our experiences within them, but a world far vaster and more meaningful than our small, mean, and violent place within them can still be implied. Even if a vast cathedral becomes just set dressing for a gunfight, even if it has nothing to do with us at all, it still implies a religion, still implies builders, still implies history.

It’s impossible not to feel a little out of place, even if this church is made explicitly to have a gunfight happen in it. We are still intruders against the spirit of what this place might once have been.

Game designers have started acknowledging the strangeness and off-puttingness of this innate violence more explicitly in their designs. Yet, despite knowing that these constructs will always seem weird and artificial, we are still loath to pass beyond the types of games we once loved. We still want to fight nazis and zombies, dragons and aliens – but now, perhaps, we’re more interested in having a good reason to do so. It becomes difficult to ignore the suggestion that every enemy must once have been a person like us – and, if so, what does it mean about them, and about us, if we kill them? Even when it’s all make-believe, it still has to make a certain amount of sense – and what’s implied when you think about it too much, or think about it at all, was all to often very ugly.

So now we play ghosts, terrifying beyond comprehension, imbued only with the power to deal death. Revenants, returned from the grave to right wrongs. The last few games I’ve played, Dark Souls and Axiom Verge and Hollow Knight, feature a protagonist who stands at the boundary of life and death. These characters return from beyond the clutch of the grave to fix the world that wouldn’t allow them rest. We, as players, occupy these border characters, avatars of the boundary separating life from death, and fight to bring peace – even if it’s the peace of a shared grave. We are recontextualized from a murderous opponent into a kind of shaman, helping long-restless spirits find peace at last.

As I develop my game, write out its story and characters, I find myself walking this same path, creating this same archetype. The framing is different but, still, my protagonist stands at the boundary of life and death with the others, poised to guide misplaced souls from one side to another.

This might not seem new. After all, heroes have brushes with death all the time: “No one could have survived that” is a cliché for a reason. What’s changed is there’s an explicit acknowledgment that even if we fight for the right reasons, even if there really was no other way, we are still beyond the pale. We have no place in the world we are fighting for. We are remnants of the trauma that made us. At the end of the ghost story, the ghost is laid to rest, the haunting past uncovered and resolved.

Perhaps, as time moves forward, we will create games more comfortable with non-violence. Perhaps, as well, we’ll find new and interesting ways to contextualize our violence into a world and story in ways that don’t seem crass and tone-deaf. If so this may be a discrete generation of games we can look back to: The twilit years of Dark Souls, where we all stood on the boundary of the afterlife and judged who might live and who must die.

 

Evaluating art is difficult. Or, to be more precise, while the evaluation happens quite easily and naturally as we look back on our experiences with the work and judge the impressions they left upon us, what’s actually difficult is trying to share those evaluations with others – in other words, to be a critic, to find some way of describing the work in a way that will let other people guess at what their personal experience may be like, to encode something essential about the art into words.

It’s not really possible to make a definitive statement on the quality of a piece of art. In order to argue that a work of art is good, we are actually forwarding two separate arguments for each point we make. The first argument we make is that this work of art has some particular noteworthy aspect. Observations in this vein might include; element A is harmonious (or disharmonious) with element B in a particular way; this aspect of the work expresses (or fails to express) something important about the world we live in in; this work is similar to (or dissimilar to) this other particular work in some particular respect. However, none of these map to ‘good’ (or bad). We can say we like them, we can make claims about the benefits of the insight they offer, but that doesn’t make them ‘good’ per se.

Thus, once we present the argument that this work has this noteworthy aspect, if we want to argue that the work itself is good or bad we have to then argue that the aforementioned noteworthy aspect is good or bad. Most critical works omit the second step. Consumer reviews skip this step by way of having implicit assumptions about what comprises a good work; more artistic criticisms bypass this step via a common understanding that the reader may decide whether they value a given aspect or not.

For instance, most game reviews tend to omit any argument as to whether a noted aspect is actually desirable or not: they tend to assume that an aspect is good if it adheres to the mark set by a previous game that was generally considered to be good. Or, often, they don’t even draw a connection to a real game, just invoke a sort of unspoken platonic ideal of gamehood – the ideal gaming experience, like living within a story, where everything seems completely real and everything you might imagine happening happens just as you’d imagine it would. To the extent which games approach this ideal, they largely manage to do so, not by expanding the possibilities of game creation, but by constraining the imagination that shapes these expectations.

For those of us who chose long ago to reject the idea of a single ideal game, it can be difficult to formulate criticisms that still feel weighty and meaningful without using the implicit assumptions most game reviews are built off of. Nevertheless, if we want to push people towards interesting experiences – and why are we here, if not for interesting experiences? – then we have to formulate these arguments.

And, when I say ‘we’, I don’t mean professional critics, or even more generally those who write about art. I mean anyone who ever wants to get their friend to play a game they loved, anyone who wants to lead horses to water in the manner most likely to get them to drink. Learning how to express what we love about something is a skill that is tested for all of us eventually, one way or another – so it can be helpful to think about how these arguments are made, and just how much usually goes unsaid, assumed and uninterrogated, in the process of describing what we love about the things we love.

As someone who likes games, I find the vocabulary that people use to describe games that they didn’t like, or that they found frustrating and infuriating, quite interesting. When you describe a game as mean-spirited, unfair, or disrespectful of your time, you probably mean something different than if you were to use similar terms to describe a written narrative like a book or film. We ascribe malice to the designer, call the game sadistic or cruel or condescending, based on the challenges it presents to us.

This is particularly curious because one of the main reasons we come to these games is to be presented with challenges – and yet, when the challenges prove to be, well, challenging, there’s a common reaction of declaring those challenges invalid. At the extreme end, those challenges may be declared unfair or the game may be accused of cheating – but, just as often, saying that a particular challenge is poorly designed or that the player isn’t given adequate tools to prepare for it.

The common thread through most complaints, extreme and minor, is usually that of fairness. And what we consider to be fair in game design is something that has shifted a lot over time. In the 80s, as the scope of game design rapidly exploded, anything went. People got frustrated, sure, but because their expectations were largely unformed by other games and they were approaching each game largely as a new experience they didn’t feel especially put upon. As the language of game design established itself and came to be understood by its audience, people grew angry when games would disregard those established conventions of game design. Then, on into the end of the 2000’s and beginning of the 2010’s, it started to become clear that a lot of what we had considered ‘good game design’ was really just the most facilely approachable style, that we’d created an industry of the interactive equivalent of children’s books, made with large type and short words to be simple and enjoyable – and there was a backlash.

It is, perhaps, helpful here to distinguish between fairness and game balance. Game balance is not so much a concession to the player, to make sure that they don’t feel put upon, as it is a way to ensure that the different aspects of the game work well with each other, that the player isn’t encouraged to just always pick a dominant strategy and stick with it. The clearest difference is in the intent behind them: The intent of fairness is to avoid frustrating player, while the intent behind balance is to ensure that the player is encouraged to explore the design thoroughly.

A game like Dark Souls, would have been considered fair and fun if it was introduced in 1991, unfair if it was introduced in 2001, and was considered largely fair again when it was actually released in 2011 – though the consensus there is far from complete. Demon’s Souls, its predecessor, came out just a couple of years earlier – and, while people were starting to get on board with what the series could offer, at the time many people still regarded it as little better than an arbitrary and cruelly punishing curiosity.

Thus, while I tend to dislike the approach of selling Dark Souls as the most difficult game ever, as with the ‘Prepare to Die’ edition of the first game, this presentation does serve a purpose. While it may mislead the player as to what’s actually good and interesting about the game, this cues the player to modify their expectations regarding what to perceive as fair. What’s we expect in a fantasy action RPG and what we expect in a fantasy action RPG that says “Prepare to Die” on the cover are vastly different: for one thing, we are prepared to die. Within this framework, we can expect that much of the constraint that many developers take on in the quest for fairness will be lacking. The irony is that in a post-Dark Souls world this kind of signaling is no longer quite so necessary, since these games have redefined genre norms to an extent where, as long as you communicate some degree of reflex challenge and obtuseness of systems in the game’s description, people will largely be on-board with what you’re selling – especially once word-of-mouth about a new Souls-like game spreads to the eternally hungering fan base of the series. If Dark Souls were released now, it probably wouldn’t have such a ham-fisted subtitle – but that ham-fisted subtitle is part of what it allowed it to have the success that now obviates the need for a ham-fisted subtitle.

Another trend away from fairness and towards unpredictability was enabled by the modernized incarnations of the classic ‘Roguelike’ genre. With Spelunky and its ilk, because the game environments were no longer created by the designer but by an algorithm players quickly came to accept that some situations would be unfair and regarded them as opportunities for clever inventiveness rather than frustration. Any challenge was allowed as long as it wasn’t literally impossible to solve. However, some designs realize this more effectively than others: Whereas in Spelunky a challenging level generation is brutally difficult and dangerous in a way that is exciting to overcome, in The Binding of Isaac it’s merely slow and tedious, forcing the player to slowly chip away at opponents a few points at a time for potentially a couple of hours – one of the few flies in the ointment of an otherwise very exciting and interesting game design.

While it may seem obviously desirable for a game experience to be as fair as possible to the player, trying to always present a fair experience will inevitably tie the designer’s hands. A world with no unpleasant surprises, where all choices are equally valid, where nothing is ever out of reach and every problem has an immediate and obvious solution, sounds like a paradise. However, in the context of a medium that thrives on presenting its audience with interesting problems to solve, it more often than not creates a flat, dead, world, so painfully blandly sweet it rots the teeth from your jaw.

Not only does it remove life and spirit from the experience, it also sends a kind of weird mixed message. The plots of video games are frequently about a loner, outnumbered and outgunned, fighting for what’s right – and yet the mechanics of these games are tortuously dedicated to fairness, to making sure the player never actually feels endangered and alone the way their character does. To put it in the words of dads everywhere: Life Isn’t Fair. Creating games whose main purpose is to create worlds that are merely fair, at the expense of creating worlds that are challenging or interesting, is one of the least rewarding ways to use the resources we have as designers.

It’s hard to be critical without becoming a curmudgeon. There’s a natural process that occurs: I have an opinion about a game or other work. Someone disagrees with that opinion. To defend my opinion, I restate it in new terms, I build on it, I elucidate it and iterate upon it. Two results arise from this: One, my opinion slowly develops into a well-practiced rant; two, when I uncan this rant, over and over, to make my case, I steadily build up a negative association with the thing I was ranting about.

Opinions, restated, grow bigger and broader. “I liked it but it had flaws” becomes “It had serious problems” becomes “I hate that stupid bullshit game”, by a process that’s hard to fight once it begins. This is not solely the domain of negative opinions: If you like a game enough to defend it when other people are attacking it, that, too, makes it take on an outsized significance as something good and precious, far beyond the work’s original impact. The effort spent arguing and justifying a viewpoint melts into time spent attacking or defending a work – and, after all, why would you spend all your time defending it if it wasn’t wonderful? Why would you spend all of your time attacking it if it wasn’t terrible?

All of which circles the drain of the big idea, which is this: You can’t criticize an experience you have had without changing that experience. The same way casting enough light on an experiment to see its outcome might change that outcome, examining an experience closely, dissecting what works for you and what doesn’t, putting that into words, these all leave a mark. The very act of remembering, of interpreting your past, reshapes that memory like fingerprints on a wax cylinder.

This is not a bullet you can dodge. This is not a problem you can solve. This is what it means to have a memory and to form an opinion; this is what it means to discuss art with others. And it is, more often than not, beneficial: Making and hearing critical arguments can bring parts of the work that seemed extraneous and limp suddenly to life, to awaken with meaning. Even the harshest criticism cannot be made without implying the existence of a better way, and this too can help us appreciate art in new ways.

Still, there’s a part that always wants to go back. We might wish for a purer experience, one that belongs to us wholly alone. We may miss, sometimes, being the person we used to be, being carefree or naive or even foolish, and the way that that allowed us to experience life. But the you who misses that now is the same you who sees things differently now; were you to go back, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the fulfillment of the longing you now feel, it would merely be just the way things are for you, and probably the way you would then always expect them to be.

Critical insight becomes part of us. Once you learn how to play piano, you can’t listen to a sonata the same way again. Once you learn how games are made, you won’t be able to play a game the same way again. Every time you learn something new, you become a new person, angled by degrees away from the trajectory you once occupied.

It hurts. Growth tends to.

It’s helpful, though, to be aware of your critical process. To witness your opinion forming, to construct your arguments with intent, to be aware of your justifications calcifying. To forge ahead without this insight is to allow your beliefs to be shaped not by what you find good or beautiful or just, but merely by how strenuously those beliefs are opposed by others.

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.

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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.

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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.