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I finally got new glasses, after a couple of years of financially-induced nakedfacing. It’s kind of amazing being able to see again. It feels like a superpower. It feels like, within the constraints of a couple of inches of glass in front of me, I can see everything. It’s actually a little bit disturbing to think that all of this was going on all along, there in front of me, like invisible bacteria covering a freshly washed dish.

It’s strange the way we don’t notice how our capabilities shape our perception until those capabilities change. As I became able to clearly perceive things more than 10 feet away from me, my sense of peripheral space became less acute, I began to be surprised when I noticed people and objects to my right and left, things that I previously would have noticed much earlier. Because I am so used to myopia, my relationship to space has become one of vague motions, a worldview of information constructed by inferring the relationships between things I cannot perceive clearly. There’s the classic concept of the blind person who has their other senses enhanced as they are forced to depend solely upon them, and I think the same thing happens to all of us, based on our capabilities and capacities, to lesser or greater degrees.

Our limitations define our aptitudes, and become foundational points of our identities. When I play games, I tend to be the one who notices things – and, lest it sound like I’m bragging, I should note that this is distinct from the one who makes good decisions based on that information, the one who successfully infers what things signify or, even, the one who cares about the things that he notices. What I want to convey, though, is the idea that in this case my lack of long-range focus means that I have a sort of diffuse form of attention which makes it somewhat more likely that I will perceive things that aren’t directly in front of me.

Within this context, I start to wonder about my resentment of time, whether it stems from a conceptual antipathy to things which are distant. I wonder about whether my inability to focus my mind on a single task for very long is conceptually related to my inability to focus on an object very far away. I wonder how much the symbolic logic of focus, distance, attention, periphery, have shaped the way in which I conceive of and understand the world, if this correlation of traits means something, if and how much of my identity has been subtly and subconsciously shaped around this relatively minor, fun and quirky disability.

I wonder, then, if so, what does it mean to put on a pair of glasses, and why accompanying exhilaration and joy at my newfound abilities there is an undercurrent of discomfort. Will it help me look past today and into tomorrow? Do I want to perceive that kind of distance?

We shall see.

I don’t like making recommendations.

Other people seem to be very comfortable with it. For many, the calculation seems quite straightforward: “I enjoyed it, so I recommend it. I didn’t enjoy it, so I don’t recommend it”. I envy the simplicity of this approach; merely contemplating it fills me with anxiety.

Here is a partial sampling of the things I worry about when I am considering recommending something:

  1. Did I enjoy it?

  2. Does the fact that I enjoyed it imply a likelihood that this person I’d recommend it to would enjoy it?

  3. Do I think my enjoyment reflects well on me?

  4. If they don’t enjoy it as much as I did, will I resent them for it?

  5. If they don’t enjoy it as much as I did, will they lose respect for me for recommending something bad?

  6. If they do enjoy it as much as I did, will they never shut up to me about it?

  7. Will they enjoy it for the wrong reasons and I’ll have to pretend to agree with them?

  8. If I recommend it to them, will they resent the implicit pressure to engage with that recommendation and never actually check it out when otherwise they might have done so independently?

  9. If I recommend it to them, will I make them feel so pressured that, when they eventually do check it out, it becomes a joyless exercise?

And so on.

Maybe the issue is that I don’t really believe in mass communication. All communication ultimately boils down to a connection between two people: One, encoding a thought process into words and gesture, the other interpreting that through their understanding of verbal and body language. It is so personal: How can a general statement like “You should check out this awesome game” make any sense if it isn’t tailored for one specific person? How can we declare that something is good or worthwhile without taking into account specific tastes?

Most often we just don’t. Critics talk about their personal experience, what worked for them or didn’t work for them, trusting the reader to measure that described experience against their own preferences to decide whether this seems like a worthwhile experience. However, the audience for video games criticism is notoriously hostile towards these sorts of personal experiential statements, which puts game critics in quite a pickle since it’s really the only way to actually evaluate anything in a way that makes sense.

All of this might seem like splitting hairs. It might seem like I’m willing to take every step that one would associate with a recommendation or endorsement – the enthusiastic and specific praise, the testimonial, the frequent mention of interesting and unique features – but detest taking the final step of saying “you should go play/read/see/eat that game/book/movie/pasta.”

God help me if I ever get popular enough to acquire some kind of sponsored monetary backing – my anxious honesty will be my undoing. Actually, my anxious honesty may already be largely responsible for my lack of being done in the first place.

Anyway Hollow Knight is a good game, Colossal is a good movie, 1Q84 is a good book and basically all pasta is good.

New posts are being rescheduled to 10am Mondays. I’ve been slowly hemorrhaging readers over the last couple of years, and I never had that many to start with. I think there are a few possible explanations for this:

  1. Maybe my work is getting worse. I don’t think is the case but there’s not really any way to rule it out.
  2. Maybe my newer posts don’t have the same readership appeal. Earlier posts were mostly about specific game design issues and new ways to approach problems: Newer posts are much more about how we generally interact with art and its impact on us as human beings. I think these are both interesting, but one is a harder sell to new readers, stymieing the word-of-mouth that has bolstered previous posts
  3. Maybe Saturday at noon is a bad time to post. It made sense to me at first, since those are peak leisure hours so people would have lots of free time for reading. On further reflection, I don’t think many people are interested in thought-provoking mini-essays during peak leisure hours – they want to spend that time pursuing their own interests. I think many more people are interested in this sort of article-reading when they’re on break or procrastinating at work. The numbers on when new posts are successful seem to bear this out.

So yes. Mondays at 10am PST. I’m also going to be blocking more writing time into my schedule, which may result in longer pieces, though we’ll see how that shakes out in practice.

In any case, I don’t say this enough but this seems like a prime opportunity: If you read my work, thank you. Even while I put only a few hours per week of dedicated work time into this blog, it’s one of the rocks I anchor myself to in my life. I only hope that, in return for the attention, I can provide some sort of insight to those of you who choose to visit Problem Machine.

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.

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

cornucopia

Thanksgiving was a couple of days ago, but I’m still feeling the holiday spirit, such as it is.

Thanksgiving is a good holiday wrapped in a bad holiday. It’s a time for coming together and taking stock of the many good things that we are lucky enough to have, wrapped in a horrific lie about a dinner party with the people we murdered and enslaved. America is weird. Maybe it’s that every country likes to lie about itself but our lies are still fresh enough to be clearly disproven and false, I don’t know. We couldn’t bury the lie, it’s still cracking out of the ground like a telltale heart, and that’s where we are now.

Anyway.

Things have been strange, and bad, and promising to get stranger and worse. It’s a good time for gratitude. It’s a good time to be happy to be alive and able to live a fairly fulfilling life, and I wish more people could do so, and I get furious thinking about all the ways in which they can’t, and it just keeps on coming up once you see it, the magic eye trick doesn’t go away, the 3d picture comes right out of the page and grabs you by the neck. Every nice thing you see, you can’t stop wondering how much blood went into it, and whose, and when. Everything has become so diffuse – we act not just as people but as part of an economy, and when that economy plunders we are culpable.

The problem with seeing more threads is its so easy to imagine your hands tied. All I want is to make interesting and beautiful, albeit perhaps sometimes disturbing, things. To paint a path to another world, to show the silhouettes of our flaws and aspirations.

I’ve never been one of those people who takes objects apart to see how they work – I’ve always been the sort who wants to make interesting things happen, and only care about the inner workings of objects insofar as that leads into the interesting things those objects do. However, when your artistic medium is one as technical as video games, that means looking at how things work, or fail to work, a lot. And it’s a hard habit to turn off. To design a game is to tie two systems together – one, a mechanical system that is predictable and quantifiable but quite complex, and the other is a system of incentives and desires, a system of which the player is the center piece, which is unquantifiable and much much more complex. If you play enough with a critical eye, you see where systems break down and stop working, where challenges stop being fair, where lazy strategies dominate.

I can’t look anywhere now without seeing broken systems. A world of paintings hung slightly askew. The problem, the big meta-problem, is that there’s no clear way to fix these systems. You could perfectly identify what was going wrong and an optimal solution, create a plan that would definitely and demonstrably work to fix the issue, and end up no closer to actually solving the problem. That’s politics, baby.

There’s a good reason it works that way. Imagine you have absolute power. Whoops, you just divided by 0, the world crashed. Fuckin owned, scrub. We make sure lots of other people have a chance to look at the systems that are created, get their own say, and that the whole thing has to go through a process designed to weed out more bad ideas than produce good ones, just because we don’t want to see another crash.

That’s what it’s designed to do, anyway. Design, like intent, is not magic, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions, which turn out to be exceptionally easy on the soles of bad people. We’ve got a memory leak – the memories of past crashes leak right out of our heads, and things fall apart, the center puts us on hold, and we all join the Cassandra Club.

Still, I’m grateful, really. I’m still around to look at the mess, and I can be one of the billions of hands on the steering wheel, even if it feels too late to swerve. I can still make art. I can still survive. It’s something. For a while it may be everything.

lex_luthor_president

President Trump.

President Donald fucking Trump.

The last few days have been strange. There was a kind of trick we played on each other as kids, where we’d hold one fist on the other person’s head, hit it lightly with the other hand, and trickle our fingers down across their hair, telling them we just broke an egg on their head. If you had the right touch, it could be an effective illusion. And that’s kind of what it felt like – a shock, too light to hurt exactly but unignorable, followed by a creeping feeling as the egg that wasn’t there slid down the scalp, the neck, slimy.

That slimy creepy feeling is still there, placed in honor of a slimy creep. Every day when I wake up I have to remind myself of the way my country has chosen to self-mutilate. President-elect Donald; Donny P; King Trumplefuckle, first of his name. That feeling has mostly subsided now, the numbness as mostly faded.

What’s left is rage.

Anger’s not that interesting to talk about, but god damn I feel it. It twists my guts up. And I’m trying now to figure out how to let it stray far enough away that I can think straight while still keeping it on a leash to make sure I never lose it. We’re going to need anger and outrage. Anger at injustice is the lattice that holds hope together, that affects change, that can protect and sustain us through what is likely to be one of the most dangerous eras in American history.

There’s a part of me that wants blood and violence, that wants to scour the country with fire until the cancer of white supremacy is burned to ash. I won’t say that violence is categorically unjustifiable, especially in a confrontation against those who believe that lynchings are an acceptable tactic. However, these are the minority of the opposition. We won’t defeat them by crushing them. We will defeat them by discrediting them. This work was begun but never finished: We must make the concept of white supremacy as disgusting nation-wide as it always should have been. We must make the very idea of race entitling you to a better life, making you mentally or physically superior, as a sick fantasy, masturbated to in dim light briefly before the curtain of shame falls.

So, yeah, normally I like to talk about video games here. I will, again, soon. The world carries on, and art is still important – terrifyingly so. Our culture has gotten away from us, has founded itself in lazy reinforcements of stereotypes rather than new stories that teach new ways of being and seeing. We’ve chewed up and regurgitated tropes that have lasted for far too long, colonialism and racism and sexism dressed in new clothes so we could pretend that’s not what they were any more, so that we could do things the easy way, so we could just hide behind paying tribute to the classics, so that we could make art that just reinforced the same ancient and lazy thoughts that have motivated the worst violence of the past centuries.

That’s what I have to say to the artists. Do good, and do better, and try to ease pain and light a way to a better place. Also endeavor to spread diversity both through the work you do and the work you boost. It makes everything more varied and vital and interesting, and maybe if people will be a bit less cavalier with voting for xenophobia if their favorite musician or artist or whatever will be hurt by it. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

However. Good art isn’t enough to fix this, which is a huge disappointment since that’s the field I tend to be most interested in.

First and foremost, we need to talk about harm reduction. Protect and take care of yourself. Survival is protest. Once you’ve made yourself as safe and comfortable as you feel you need to, protect and care for your friends and family. And so forth, it echoes outwards, together creating the most safety we can for each other, to our friends, to their friends, to strangers on the street and on the bus. Solidarity. We must come closer together. We all have our differences, and someday will probably need to negotiate those, but now we have a lot more in common and a much bigger problem that needs solving. These communities may be needed if the police fail to function, which is quite possible when they’re compromised at the state level – especially since, even before that became a concern, they often failed to actually serve the communities they were assigned to.

I won’t say things are going to be okay, but we have the power to make things more okay than they would otherwise be.

After that, we need to do everything we can to keep the ground we have gained over the past century. Obstruct, obstruct, obstruct: Fortunately we’ve had a good example set for us over the past 8 years by the GOP. Don’t let them do a fucking thing. Bury them in yellow tape, make sure not a single change goes by uncontested for four years. Our lawmakers have to be told that this is what we want. It’s fine: Democrats have a proven track record of getting nothing done, so they should be up to the job.

If things are going to get anywhere near as bad as I think they will, there are going to be deaths. Actually, there already have been: Several suicides on the night of the election and day after. But the full damage remains to be seen. When it manifests, we must do everything we can to tell the story. We must draw the line from the human suffering effect to its root cause in policy and rhetoric. Avoid accusation, but make the conclusion obvious and unescapable: The voice of guilt must come from within.

America has made many mistakes, and Americans know it, even if they don’t like to say so. Much of what went wrong with this election was a lack of a narrative, but this provides us with a powerful narrative for the next election: Redemption. “Everything has gone wrong, everything is fucked up, but it’s not too late: Together we can fix this”. It’s a powerful message, but for it to be effective we need to have a wide consensus that things are fucked. Obviously, with Trump in charge they will be, but that’s not the same as getting everyone to agree that they are – if we’re not careful, the Trump Empire will become the new normal. That’s why the story of the human suffering created must be told, told again, retold, until it becomes widely understood that things are broken.

Of course, selling the brokenness is only half the battle. We will also need a plan to put things back together. We’ve needed such a plan for a very long time. The lack of such a plan lost this election. Perhaps something like basic income will be the only effective strategy to combat the extinction of manufacturing and mining jobs: I don’t know. In two years we must be ready with a plan and candidates who are behind that plan.

Perhaps most vitally, we must stop letting our opposite define the terms of the conflict. We let them define our defense of our human dignity as ‘political correctness’, and let them make it a virtue to flout that common decency. We let them pretend that the imaginary transgressions of our candidate were comparable to the many monstrous grotesqueries of their candidate. We let them call themselves patriots while they worked to undermine the constitution and everything this country has ever stood for. Maybe we’re getting smarter about these things, slowly, but we have let far too much slide. So I will say this: If we are ‘Social Justice Warriors’, then let this be the Social Justice War. I, for one, intend to win it.