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Narrative Design

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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A work of art is both a single object and a collection of individual choices – sentences in a novel, assets in a game, instrumental parts in a piece of music, each of these is added and shaped with intent to achieve the overall goal of the piece. This is pretty self-evident, but often is not explicitly thought about by the creator during the creation. In some ways, it’s better not to think about it – for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

You have the theme or message or whatever of the work: Sometimes you know exactly what this is, sometimes you have to hone in on it carefully in the process of working on the piece. With each new stroke you add to the composition, you can choose to support this theme, to add to its message by echoing it; you can contrast with this theme, to push against it and by so doing ground and emphasize it; or to layer new elements onto the theme, add details that seem completely disconnected but add complexity.

Say you have a picture of a gigantic statue: To support how gigantic this statue is, you could add comparatively tiny human figure to show how it dwarfs the scale of humanity; to contrast, you could add a field of stars behind it or pull the viewpoint back, to show how even the greatest creations of humanity are minuscule in the greater scale of the universe; or you could add something different, a mural or a small scene between characters or some strange creature, to show that the story of this statue and the world it lives in is more complex than we might at first imagine.

Naive artists will, given the choice, always pick the first of these. I have been this kind of naive, and still often discover this kind of naivete in myself. It makes sense: I’m an artist, I know the impression I want to create, I should use everything I have in my toolbox to create the feeling I’m going for. And yet, most of the time, this kind of approach leads to something which feels flat, manipulative, and obvious. All bombast, all sorrow, all silliness, with no leavening by contrasting or diverging emotion, will inevitably feel flat and numbing.

This is why I said it’s probably better that most artists don’t think explicitly about their high-level intent and how to achieve it most of the time: The mindset of trying to achieve a specific emotional impact is difficult to separate from the mindset of how to most effectively bolster that tone in each particular instance. Much better to take freely from the chaos of the mind, to harness opportunities to create threads that flow alongside, flow against, or flow perpendicular to the main thread of the narrative as they occur to us.

However, for those of us who have a hard time not thinking about intent, have a hard time getting out of our heads and have a hard time not hammering the same points home with each individual component of a work, it might be worth it to keep these three thoughts in mind: Support, Contrast, Layer.

A tapestry is not woven out of only threads in parallel.

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I’ve been watching old videos of the original The Binding of Isaac, and it’s strange looking back. As many huge improvements as Rebirth, the remake that came out a couple of years after, made to the base game, still it feels like something was lost in translation. Several things, actually…

Maybe it would be best to start with talking about all the reasons people generally regard Rebirth as categorically superior to the original. The first game had notorious framerate issues, many items didn’t work properly with each other, and it was built using technology that made it impossible to expand – many people say it reached the limits of Flash, Adobe’s multimedia tool, but Isaac was actually not just built in Flash, but built using Actionscript 2, the version of Flash’s scripting language that was deprecated in 2007. Since I’m building my own game in Flash (technically AIR, the standalone equivalent), this is a narrative that I feel compelled to correct whenever it comes up. Rebirth could have easily been built in Flash. But I digress: The point being, Rebirth fixes all these issues, so when viewed entirely within the scope of the shortcomings of the original it definitely seems like a superior game.

Looking back though, something seems off with what we have now – and it’s interesting to examine why that is. There are aspects of the design, art, and music that just fail to click in quite the same way.

The least contentious of these is the music. Nearly everyone preferred the music from the original game, composed by Danny Baranowsky, to that in Rebirth, composed by Ridiculon (Matthias Bossi and Jon Evans). The new soundtrack actually does some cool stuff, with music layers that fade in and out based on what’s currently happening in the gameplay – but this actually undermines part of what made Danny B’s score so amazing. With parts fading in and out, it becomes necessary to create a consistent base track for these to play on top of, which makes it impossible to construct an overall narrative flow to the music. Consequentially, Ridiculon’s music is background music in the truest sense, just providing accompaniment to the experience of the game, whereas Danny B’s score actually defines the tone of the game and creates its own narrative high and low points which interplay with the gameplay highs and lows to create a more complex experience. Combined with a generally more melancholy and creepy tone, it makes the overall musical experience of playing Rebirth rather lacking comparatively.

Aesthetically, I have a bone to pick with the game similar to that regarding the defamation of Flash. When they announced that Rebirth was going to have a “16-bit” art style, I thought that was a peculiar choice, but was willing to see what they came up with. What they came up with was, unfortunately, kind of a pathetic excuse – which seems harsh, but I promise I have a reason for saying that.

First, let’s talk about the art in the original. Isaac used vector art, a specialty of Flash: Vector art is a style of rendering that stores images and a set of drawing instructions, a list of lines and colors. This is a powerful tool because these instructions can be easily rotated, scaled, color-shifted, and so forth with no loss of quality, but it pays for this in making detailed art very processor intensive. Rebirth, conversely, uses raster images for its assets: Raster images are what we’re generally used to working with in photoshop and other editors, just a grid of colors which can look realistic at its native resolution but looks notably blocky at lower resolutions. 16-bit games used raster images at a set low resolution to create a crunchy but vibrant look that is still beloved today. However, the entire design of Isaac was based around arbitrarily scaling and coloring assets which, as mentioned, works a lot better with vector images than raster images. However, for whatever reason the Rebirth team didn’t want to work with vector images, so to conceal the shortcomings of scaled, rotated, or otherwise processed raster images they used super low-resolution raster images and called the resulting look “16-bit”.

This is kind of insulting. There’s no coherence to the resolution – even when the pixels align along the grid the objects that own the pixels move with subpixel accuracy, creating a smoothness that’s impossible in a true 16-bit environment, and as game objects scale up or down in accordance with the mechanics they turn into grotesque pixellated bullshit. Also, because they use such low-res assets, there’s no room for detail in any of the enemies: The original enemy designs, though crude, have an expressiveness to their lines that makes them creepier and more compelling. While pixel art has a great deal of expressiveness in its own right, within the context of Rebirth that expressiveness is curtailed by being constantly squashed and stretched, one of the ugliest things you can do to pixel art.

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The design issues with the game snuck up on me. In general, the gameplay choices made in Rebirth are very smart, limiting boring and overpowered tactics in favor of more interesting and aggressive ones, expanding the possibility space for encounters by adding lots of new items and enemies and rooms, and generally spicing thing up by adding new interactions. However, something weird started to happen as more and more items were added. I first noticed it with the item “Gimpy”, which is… exactly what it sounds like.

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…And this comes to a fairly fine point about what Isaac is and is not. The Binding of Isaac has a lot of kind of gross and shocking content, but all of it is contextualized by the understanding that this is a child’s conception of the world, and all the weird gross things in it are exactly the sorts of weird gross things that kids tend to develop obsessions with – bodily functions, deformities, and so forth. Up until Rebirth, Isaac items tended to fit one of three themes: Everyday objects granted extraordinary significance, religious symbols, or video game references. These make total sense from the perspective of a weird shut-in kid who only knows his toys, the random things he finds, and the creepy religious stories his family tells him. But once you add S&M gear to the mix, it no longer becomes about expressing Isaac’s character, about life in the mind of an isolated and possibly abused child, but just about being weird and gross for the sake of weird and gross. By itself Gimpy is just one item, but it indicates an overall trend away from being expressive and meaningful and towards adding stuff to the game just for the sake of having it there.

In the end, Rebirth’s flaws are covered up by the simple expedient of repetition. Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t care that the music lacks narrative flare, you don’t even hear it any more. Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t notice that everything is in a different resolution – the game just looks the way the game looks, why would it look any different? Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t see a gimp mask, you see a way to restore health in difficult situations. You see the frame rate stable at 60 frames per second, you see the hundreds of weird and interesting item interactions. It may have made total sense to prioritize the things they did in developing the game: In so doing they’ve made a game that people who love Isaac can play for thousands of hours and still enjoy.

However, they’ve also made it so the chill I felt when I first played the game, the genuine sense of visceral discomfort and confusion and striving understanding, are now obscured behind a layer of generic video game.

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The mechanics of a game shape our perception of its characters. Samus, of the Metroid series, was perceived as stoic and resourceful, largely because the design of Metroid demanded resourcefulness of its players and had no real way to express personality or character. When Other M came out, an entry in the series that focused more on plot and less on scavenging in a hostile world, many people felt that Samus was out of character – particularly outside of Japan, where supplemental materials like comics had built additional characterization that made the adjustment less jarring.

It’s an inversion of role-playing, where the role gets built around play rather than the play built around the role. The way the character moves, accelerates, jumps – or the way the character interacts with NPCs, rescues or threatens or kills – or the way the character solves puzzles, pushes blocks or finds secret passages – these come to define the character, much the same as the ways the character chooses to dress or speak. Because these mechanics themselves emerge from the personality of the designers, the level designers and gameplay programmers and artists and musicians, the thumbprint is unique and difficult to replicate. Each game has a unique personality, and to a substantial degree the personality of the protagonist is just the personality of the game, anthropomorphized, in a way that no amount of supplemental storytelling materials or promotional tie-ins can mitigate.

It raises an interesting question: How do we express character within games, and is it possible to change the way a game plays while leaving the personality of its protagonist intact? The difficulty this hints at, the intimate tie between the a way a game can be experienced and the protagonist who is expressed, may hint at why so many adapted properties, games-of-movies and games-of-tv-shows and games-of-comics, feel so unsatisfying. And perhaps, as well, this is why it feels so strange when the sequel to a game doesn’t adhere closely to the design of its predecessor: A feeling, when playing, that not only is this game not quite the game you played before, but neither is this character the character that you thought you knew.

It’s not necessarily a problem. With the current trend of rebooting old series, the characterization brought in by new mechanics can be exciting and invigorating in its own right. In the original Prince of Persia games, there’s very little explicit characterization – however, because of the realistic action and animation and the extremely lethal gameplay, the protagonist ends up mostly coming off as a hapless victim to be guided to safety by the player. Conversely, in the ‘Sands of Time’ reboot, the newfound focus on beautiful acrobatic maneuvers and on negating the lethality of mistakes through more forgiving game design dovetailed into the character of a relaxed, affable, and confident prince. However, when the sequel to that game decided to focus more on combat, the prince became less affable and more angry – in each case, the characterization was clearly led by game design decisions, but came to manifest as a character the player could relate to, as the obstacles and achievements of the player were manifested through those the protagonist faced within the story.

Your character is a character long before she begins to look like one – before design, before graphics, before sound or writing, when she’s just a cube or capsule sliding around in a testing environment, even then she begins to take form as a personality, just by the little numeric changes you make to define her motion.

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As games have become larger and more complicated, development teams have grown bigger – and, as development teams have grown bigger, we break down the work that needs to be performed on a game into smaller and more specific categories so that each person on this now-gigantic team knows precisely what they’re supposed to be doing. Pragmatically, this is a very effective way to make sure a game actually gets made. Unfortunately, it also creates a flawed mindset about what a game is and is made of. When we experience a game, we don’t experience it as its game design plus its art plus its music, we experience it as the totality of these things filtered through the particular lens of our input. That is to say, regarding the game’s design, its story, its art, as separate aspects is extremely limiting. All of these, even if they are manifested very differently, affect each other.

Yeah okay maybe this sounds like 101 baby bullshit, but it can be surprising how often this discrete-field attitude manifests. It used to be that even review scores were broken down in this nonsense way, scoring audio and graphics and ‘fun factor’ separately. It’s a prevalent attitude because it makes it easier to think about the game when you can think about little bits of it at a time. You can’t really separate the design from the art from the story from the audio, though. They all affect each other – often in surprising ways.

For instance, I have spent way too much time playing Team Fortress 2, and much of that playing Spy. As the spy, you need to be able to infiltrate the enemy team and get close to them without being noticed in order to do most of your work, whether that’s destroying equipment or assassinating vital team members. In order to infiltrate, you must rely on distractions and otherwise concealing your motion. Under these circumstances, a lot of the game’s art and audio design become incredibly important to you: How noisy a weapon is determines how easily you can sneak up on an enemy using that weapon, how long a gun is determines whether you can hide behind a corner while holding it, and if you happen to disguise yourself as the man wearing an elaborate hat that shoots sparks and cost him a hundred bucks he’ll probably notice you running by wearing it.

In other games, a particularly common example of aesthetics affecting gameplay arises as visual obfuscation. Tall grass and foliage often act as soft cover in action games, allowing players to conceal certain moves from each other, and the particular lighting of a room has separate concurrent effects on the gameplay, the narrative, and the aesthetic of the room. Trying to adapt the soundtrack to the current action has the interesting side-effect of informing the player of what the game believes the current action to be – that is, if there’s a combat music that plays when one or more living enemies are around, the player might know that an area that looks cleared out still harbors enemies, since the combat music hasn’t stopped yet.

The interplay of aesthetic and design becomes particularly relevant when regarding issues of accessibility. If a particular aesthetic aspect of the game becomes core to the design, and certain players of the game are unable to partake of that aspect due to disability, the design may just quietly break, leaving the game subtly unplayable. The most common example of this is probably the puzzle game with vital audio cues being played to an unhearing player – these cues, unaccompanied by any visual change, are not only possible to miss but are possible to miss without having any clue you missed them. This affects players not only on the basis of physical capability, but on the particular hardware they’re playing on as well – as a child, I got stuck on a particular dungeon in Final Fantasy 6 for months because, as it turned out, the television I was playing on was so dark that the switches I needed to press to progress were invisible to me.

The core design of the game is something which can only be expressed through the aesthetic choices that form the representative layer of the game. These cannot truly be separated, even if approaching them as separate disciplines makes it easier to develop the project.

Perhaps this is yet another reason that Dark Souls has resonated so much with people. In a world full of games where code and design drive the combat with animations and effects merely added afterwards to describe the action, the Souls approach of having each weapon’s animation directly influence its attack pattern, of having each swing be, not just a nice animation applied to a hit volume, but having the most important property of every attack be the motion which it attacks with, is refreshingly consistent. And it’s worth wondering, now, whether that kind of cohesion is possible when you have a designer and an artist and a musician each doing their own work, in separate rooms, in separate cities, hoping that in the end one and one and one will, after all, turn out to be four.

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There’s a narrow line that games have to walk when it comes to story. On one side, we have a story that seems not to acknowledge that it’s kind of stupid that you spend most of the time in it shooting everyone in the face and grabbing anything that’s the slightest bit valuable. On the other, we have a story about how stories don’t matter and you’re just here to shoot things and grab stuff. I find both of these deeply unsatisfying.

“Well,” you might say, “then why don’t we just make games that aren’t just mechanically motivated by shooting and looting?” Which is a real good question but let’s look past that for now because, you know, even if we make a lot of those, the ol’ rooty tooty shoot’n’looty is still an appealing formula and we’re probably going to want to keep on making them. Sometimes I want to shoot something in the head or buy a magic sword. However, I don’t need or want the game to pretend that this makes me the god among men who is the real cool hero no matter what the kids at school say; at the same time, I also don’t want the game to make stupid jokes about all of the EPIC LOOTZ I will find when I go into this HILARIOUSLY contrived situation because games r dum, right? I would like the game to provide a premise wherein I have a reason to want a sweet fucking magic sword, a situation where finding that sword is possible, and let me go. I don’t need to be told I’m the chosen one, I don’t need to save the world, I just need to be able to exist in a situation where I could plausibly want to defeat an opponent or find an interesting item for something beyond its own sake.

Even if my in-game motivation is solely greed, solely my character wanting to have a luxurious retirement in a nice castle somewhere, that still a reasonable and relatable motivation – one that makes a lot more sense than that of most game characters, at that. I would very much like to be rich right now myself. And yet even these flimsy justifications rarely get used, tossed aside either for grand stakes that are completely unrelatable (The end of the world at a minimum – usually the end of the universe) or for nudges and chuckles about how it’s all about the lootz and the sweet 360 no-scopes and jesus fucking christ just kill me already.

So many games give every impression that they hate games. They would either rather ignore everything game-like about themselves and try to be very important and serious (please ignore how absurd the actions you’re taking are whenever a cutscene isn’t playing), or present everything about themselves as a joke (haha you’re an idiot for caring about this world and therefore spending any time in it), than engage with what they are. I can’t help but feel that a big unspoken reason for the success of the Souls games is that they present what’s going on as significant without pandering to the player’s sense of self-importance. Sure, you’re the ‘chosen one’… but it turns out there’s been plenty of chosen ones before you and most of them just went crazy down in a hole.

Yeah, I know, it’s also annoying that every essay keeps turning into a rant about how Dark Souls gets everything right. Don’t think I’m not also frustrated. I’ve been frustrated for a long time.

I never really recovered from my disappointment with Left 4 Dead 2. Even its protagonists didn’t take it seriously, couldn’t treat the death of everything they’d ever known as anything but a fun zombie-themed vacation. It’s a Video Game Sequel: Everything becomes bigger and more explosive and more ‘awesome’, at the cost of complexity and nuance. Because, yeah, Left 4 Dead was an action-packed shoot-fest, but it also had tiny moments of genuine horror and sorrow. Apparently, judging by the fan reaction, I was one of the only ones to miss those when they were gone.

It’s just easier to make a game a caricature of games, make it all about shooting zombies and blowing things up. Because, hey, if everything is maximum stupidity, then it all fits together, right? So much for ludonarrative dissonance.

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I’ve been taking the opportunity of finally getting kind of burned out on Dark Souls to go back through my massive Steam backlog and try out some of those games acquired over the last decade but never actually installed or played. Currently I’m exploring Sunless Sea, a spinoff of the browser-game Fallen London, in which London for no apparent reason sank underground and is now part of a hellish surreal underworld (more so). In Sunless Sea, you play a captain exploring the underground ocean London now rests in, finding your way from island to island and scraping together the resources to keep your voyage going by doing favors for the powers that be.

In practice, it’s largely a simple naval combat game strapped to an anthology of choose-your-own-adventure short stories. Perhaps a reductive description, but it gives an idea as to the experience. I could dig into a critique here, but I’m not going to because I’d like to talk about something more specific.

I’d like to talk about Pigmote Isle.

Sometimes you find something that just doesn’t seem to fit. Most games nowadays are group efforts, and Sunless Sea employs many illustrators and writers who seem to have been largely left to their own devices, given the smattering of diverse art and prose styles. However, Pigmote Isle’s story just didn’t seem to be on the same page as the rest of the game. To start with, the prose style shifted so abruptly, into a past-tense chronicle style with chapter headings and everything, that for a while I believed I was supposed to be reading someone elses journal rather than experiencing the events for myself. I encountered two envoys, one of a group of talking guinea pigs and the other a group of talking rats, on the eve of a war they were about to have. They each gave me some back story about why the conflict was happening, and then demanded I pick sides. I sided with the rats since they seemed rather downtrodden, and with my help they won the war, though I convinced them to show mercy to their fallen foe.

Bringing a report of this back to the admiralty, the reaction seemed to be that I was bringing them some outlandish nonsense. This would make sense if this game wasn’t set in an insane dreamscape where the existence of talking rats was already well-established, amongst many other far stranger creatures. Why they should pick this particular strange event to balk at, when I was regularly transporting crates of souls and sentient clay men across an underground ocean full of malicious icebergs, I couldn’t say.

From this point on, I was in the position of making crucial choices about the future of this colony. Here’s where it lost me. Every story we tell holds a belief system about cause-and-effect: That this situation would cause a character with this background to act in such-and-such way, would lead to this chain of events, would create this story. Each story contains a world-view, and though this aspect isn’t very important or noticeable when you’re dealing with a tale of a few individuals, when you expand it out to an entire society, posit that this event would create this outcome, the burden of plausibility becomes greater. When you slot that into a choose-your-own-adventure scenario, and make the map between cause and outcome so clear and close to the surface, you really have to show your work – if you don’t, it becomes a tale of how you believe the ideal society should be run rather than that of a struggling colony making hard choices.

I got a chance to make two choices before the colony was destroyed.

In the first, there were rumors of a monster in the forest preying upon the rats, rumors which had them hiding in their homes instead of doing productive work. I had the choice to either burn the forest or conduct a hunt. The hunt had a chance of failure: If the hunt failed, I envisioned severe morale issues – and there was no guarantee the creature even existed. I chose to burn down the forest, on the premise that it would DEFINITELY solve the problem, the existence of the creature would be proven or disproven, and we could move on.

There’s a few odd parts to this scenario. One, again, monsters are extremely commonplace in this world. Am I supposed to interpret this as superstition when the most likely explanation for the rumors of a monster in the forest are, in fact, a monster in the forest? Especially when, two, these are rats, so how monstrous does a monster have to actually be here? A cougar? A wolf? A fair number of forests are full of animals that could gobble up a rat without a trace just by default, even in a world without ‘monsters’.

Anyway. The result of burning down the forest was that the rats became stronger militarily but became less civilized – in fact, rather uncivilized. I’m not sure whether that was because of the ecological setback or because we gave credence to ‘wild rumors’.

My second and last decision: A rat was caught stealing bread, which he claimed was to feed his family. A classic. I had three choices: Advocate mercy, execute him, or brutally and spectacularly execute him. I advocated mercy. This apparently meant letting him off completely scot free, not doing anything about the underlying problem, and continuing to allow other rats to steal without getting punished indefinitely, leading to the collapse of civilization on Pigmote Isle.

Reading the wiki now, I see that having him publicly drawn and quartered would have increased the civilization of Pigmote Isle. Perhaps the issue is that the game and I are operating on very different definitions of civilization – though, I must admit, their definition seems to enjoy a great deal of popularity, historically.

So, now. The game is forwarding a hypothesis about what allows the world to work, about how society functions and the role of justice within that society. If I disagree with the game, civilization collapses. The future of Pigmote Isle depends on my ability to interpret the cultural values of the game’s writer, and to moreover submit myself to agreeing with them.

But I don’t agree. I don’t agree that punishing those trying to survive by giving them death is necessary for society. I don’t agree that mercy erodes order. If this was a game premised on these kinds of societal decisions, I would expect to have to buy into assumptions like these, but instead it’s been put inside of a very different kind of game.

It’s not so much a matter of suspension of disbelief as it is of suspension of disagreement. Every game has things that we feel to be incorrect, either for reasons of abstraction or of fun or just of different viewpoints – the way stat systems work doesn’t often map very well to real-life aptitudes, for instance, or the economic systems are grossly oversimplified. We go in expecting to make certain allowances for things that seem wrong to us – however, an abrupt genre switch takes us outside of those boundaries, into a territory where maybe we’re not so on-board with those premises.

The worst part for me, though, is that the thing I did buy into with Sunless Sea was that I would be emotionally open to this world and its characters. Even if I disagree with nearly everything about its creation, I still feel protective of Pigmote Isle.

And I still think my way should have worked.