The last week or so has been a bit odd as I’ve found myself, at the age of 36, finally getting into Minecraft for the first time. I suppose this is an appropriate time to get started – if we’re all going to be stuck inside all day, we may as well escape to a virtual outdoors (or, as the case may be, a gargantuan virtual mineshaft).

I started playing, naturally enough, because many of my online friends – mostly the community around the now dormant Idle Thumbs podcast – began playing. This all started last week when one of the erstwhile hosts of Idle Thumbs, Nick Breckon, streamed a tour through all of the previous Minecraft worlds, eight in total, created by past members of the Idle Thumbs community. It was strange and beautiful and a little sad touring through these dense and intricate worlds, filled with huge monuments, humble homes, and gratuitous in-jokes – like touring a city after the rapture, suddenly emptied of people but still in pristine condition, like looking at a photograph of a person who was born, who lived, who died, all a long time ago.

I’ve been taken by surprise by how quickly and strongly the experience of playing Minecraft has grabbed me. As with most people who spend their time attempting game development, I seem to seldom find myself able to make time to actually play them – and Minecraft has, somehow, become a big exception. While Minecraft is notorious for being compelling, many games with the same reputation tend to leave me cold – though in all cases having friends to play with helps. As with any instance where I find myself strongly compelled by an experience, though, I have to wonder exactly what need it is fulfilling – after all, when one keeps returning to the well it’s only reasonable to conclude that one is thirsty. There are a few reasons which are obvious and not really worth addressing in depth as they’re so commonplace – a sense of communal participation, a form of steady progress and outlet for creativity, a virtual place to relax where the outside world cannot intrude, much virtual ink has been spilled about these appeals – but obvious traits are the most readily emulated and made available in other similar games, so I’m left to wonder what it is about the community, the progress, the creativity, the relaxation that is unique to Minecraft.

One aspect of creativity in Minecraft that I think subtly creates the compulsion to play for long periods is how ugly and clumsy it actually is. I expect there are many builder games that have tried to follow in its footsteps and allow the player to build things which are more intricate and detailed, which offer more fine-tuned control and more powerful tools – but I don’t actually know of them, because why would one want to play something like that? The more powerful the tools get, the more detailed or realistic their output, the more we become bogged down by our desire to make things correct, to do a good job – and so, instead of focusing on what’s interesting to us and how to go about it, we end up focusing on what we’re doing wrong, and the mere possibility of quality becomes an anchor that drags us down and holds us in place. Minecraft creates a space where it’s possible to make something interesting and attractive, but impossible to make it representational or finely detailed – and, though it’s possible to get into some truly byzantine automation and functional structure, these are usually a means to whatever end the player has dedicated themselves to. I have discovered that I find it surprisingly appealing simply to be able to build at a scale that can be walked through, participated in – the degree of granularity in the 3d world of Minecraft is exactly the largest scale that can still allow for meaningful human-sized interactions. What has always interested me in games is the ability to create a space that a person experiences, create a tiny life for them to live inside their main life, and being able to quickly assemble a space, however crude, gives me a taste of that – one which I don’t have to spend weeks to manifest. Additionally, whatever I create is placed within the context of a greater world – if I spend weeks painstakingly modeling and texturing a convenience store, it’s a convenience store in a black void, but if I spend a few hours creating a convenience store in Minecraft it’s an anomaly, an incongruous white building in a forest or desert, and it takes on additional meaning.

For a game that’s considered ‘addictive’, though, Minecraft doesn’t do most of the things that games described as such usually do. There’s a character leveling system of sorts, but the levels are really more of a currency that you can spend to upgrade items, so in that regard just another resource like gold or iron – and, though finding materials and using them to make and upgrade gear is important, it’s not really the thrust of the game. While a full suit of enchanted diamond armor and tools will help you do things, it’s not much of a goal to be aspired to in and of itself – and, though the server I’m playing on has no consequences for death, under normal circumstances any of these resources could be easily lost by one severe mistake. Whatever I do I do for myself and my friends – not because I was told to do it, informed by the game that it is the goal, the correct way to play. Because I’m not being told what to do, what my goal is, what I should feel rewarded by, I don’t feel manipulated or exploited when playing the game – which is a sadly unusual sensation when playing games. That being said, there’s a newer version of the game which introduces the ‘minecoin’ premium currency for buying special cosmetics, so, uh… I can’t say how universal that freeing experience might be at this point.

Everything in the game is a means to an end, but it’s up to the player to decide what that end ought to be. Eventually, enthusiasm will wane. Eventually all of us playing the game now will lose interest, the server will be abandoned, and the remains will be preserved – and it will be, rather than a place we spend hours every day, just another dead Idle Thumbs Minecraft world. This, too, I believe is part of the appeal: There’s a lie I like to tell myself some days, that the things I build might outlast me, might reach further than I can comprehend and last longer than I can imagine. Just another reason to strive for perfection. Just another reason to create the very best I am capable of. There’s freedom in knowing that nothing here will really last – and that knowing that what I make, I only make because it’s what I want to make – not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself.

At a certain point, one has to become comfortable with the idea of reaching an end.

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Well, it seems as though we’re going to be stuck inside for a while. The situation is pretty scary, but moment-to-moment this frankly doesn’t represent much of a change in my life. However, like the clouds of smoke that wash down from the burning hills during Summer it is both a problem in its own right and a harbinger of greater problems to come. COVID-19 is going to kill a lot of people – it already has quite a few, but more so. No use beating around that bush. What’s scary to me, though, is what comes after – or during.

There’s an optimistic vision of the future here: We survive the immediate threat (except for those of us who don’t); we learn a harsh lesson in investing in the public good and invest in medicare for all and other forms of social welfare; we observe how much healthier the environment has been without ceaseless and mindless capitalistic consumerism scouring it, how the working class is really who keeps things running, how redundant the aristocracy of wealth is to an actual functioning society, and we restructure things for the better. It’s a lovely vision which is plausible only as long as you believe no one is actively working against it, which would require ignoring essentially everything that’s happened since at least the Reagan presidency, starting before I was born.

It could go any way of course, and I imagine it will be impossible to predict the real form of our absurd and stupid future, but here’s what I see right now: We survive the immediate threat (except for many of us who don’t). Popular support for medicare for all explodes – which has already been happening, but is accelerated. However, the democratic party still derides the idea as unserious with deficit scaremongering and drags their heels, regardless of whether or not they win the presidency, and frustration with and resentment of the party grows. Republicans come out with a medicare for all plan, one which excludes anyone who can’t meet whatever requirements they deem necessary to be a proper citizen – in effect, medicare for all whites. This is not a new idea: Last time we called it national socialism. We observe how much healthier the environment has been without so many people out and about, and conclude that people were the problem all along leading to a campaign of agitation for strict population control with an implicit focus on the global south. The continued disenfranchisement of the working class is, as is now traditional, blamed on immigrants – or, if that’s no longer trendy, on some other approved local enemy such as socialists or Jews – though, actually, at the moment, it seems most likely to target those of Chinese descent next, which with the pin-point precision of most forms of racism means it will probably actually target anyone who looks East Asian.

Whatever. I can’t do much about all that one way or the other except to play Cassandra and tell you one way it could go, which I’ve just done. I just wanted to plant this idea in your head so that you understand what the stakes are and why my jaw hurts from clenching it all the time.

Meanwhile there’s folks out here telling us all the cool shit that Shakespeare wrote while he was hiding away from a different pandemic. The implication is that we should take this opportunity to become great, that this is just another chance to Be Productive. I would implore you to, rather than consider what you can do for your art, instead consider what your art can do for you. Creation is expression, creation is comfort, creation is a way to prove your existence to yourself – these things are more important to your life than the opportunity to become a Great Artist. Art is an opportunity to create beauty, joy, thoughtfulness, and relief: If you can use your skills to help others or yourself get through this, then do that. That’s what’s important here, not writing the next King Lear.

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Where We Were

A little bit more than a year ago – actually, almost a year and a half ago – I decided to put EverEnding on hiatus in favor of working on a series of monthly projects. This worked out for a while, but before too long I was having a harder and harder time building anything significant up by the end of the month, a harder and harder time staying motivated when it seemed like I just kept finding new ways to not make anything substantial. I quietly dropped the monthly project component of the Patreon shortly after completing the album last year – I figured it was better to not promise than to be unable to deliver.

I quietly picked EverEnding back up and started working on it around six months ago, but this time rebuilding the project in Unity. I resisted this change for a long time, mostly because when I started this project Unity’s support for 2d graphics and flexibility seemed to be insufficient for what I had in mind, seemed to present obstacles that I would struggle with and be distracted from the main work of completing the project. This was, in retrospect, the wrong choice – though I certainly would have had to struggle with Unity, the fact was I had to struggle with Flash/AIR a lot too, probably a lot more, and for less impressive results.

I’m not sure why I felt so strongly about these bad decisions, why I didn’t take a week long ago to explore what I could do in Unity and how it would compare to what I was doing already. Perhaps it was fear of having wasted my time – the result of which being, naturally, that I’ve wasted far more time. The fact is, though, that the Flash/AIR version was never what I wanted the game to be. Even before making significant progress, I had dreams of an HD version that used sprites much nicer than the inept pixel art I was forced into due to the limitations of Flash/AIR – or perhaps the limitations of my understanding, but limitations in either case.

So it’s happened. I’m remaking the game, redoing massive amounts of work, throwing away even more. It’s somewhat upsetting. It still feels like I’m stuck in slow motion, and that the shape of the project barely changes from week to week because there’s still so much work to do, but there’s one crucial difference: The game that is getting made now actually looks like what I imagined when I envisioned it.

I also walked away from the monthly project experience knowing that, though I may struggle much of the time, I can sometimes create substantial works within a month-long window. While I’d always broken the game up into chapters, I’m now considering each chapter to be a month-long (or, in some cases, 2-month or 3-month-long) project – eventually. Right now I’m still working on getting basic functionality and character animations into place, working on constructing a foundation to build off of.

If I were a stranger reading what I was writing now, I’d be rolling my eyes a bit. Of course – this time it will be different! It won’t be like last time I said I had a plan, last time I said I had deadlines to hit and last time I said I would work to have chapter 1 finished by the end of the year. I can’t help but notice, putting together the samples for this post, the long line of old samples, old components and demos, stretching all the way back to 2012 when I started it. Almost 8 years ago, now, that I’ve been working on this project. What the fuck? There’s clearly something wrong with my approach. Each year passes and I get no closer, and I repeat myself, and I repeat myself repeating myself. What can I do? How do I know this time will be different? How do I know I’ll do better, get closer, move faster?

I don’t. I can’t. I’m just doing my best, trying different angles, testing approaches, seeing what works, and hopefully getting a bit better every time. I want to finish this project – not merely to have it done, but also to feel okay about moving on to other projects. The only way to do that is to move forward, one step at a time.

Where We Are

Rather than dwell on all the things I haven’t done, or the things I’ve done incompletely or still need to do, let’s talk about some of the things I’ve done since I restarted the project. I’ve been focusing on getting foundations and special effects done so I don’t have to worry about them later: Foundations I’ve completed include collision, which I had to basically redo from the ground up because Unity’s default colliders weren’t suitable and I was no longer working off of the tile system that a lot of the old collision system was premised on, player movement which I could mostly copy from the previous project with minor tweaks, and the camera system which I was able to quickly use Unity’s Cinemachine package to make a decent version of.

Additionally, and this was the most significant challenge, I found Unity’s default animation tool MecAnim to be unsuitable for 2d animations, since the tools that provide smooth transition between different 3d animations were useless and the transitions didn’t provide a lot of the tools I was used to having from my custom animation tools from the earlier version of the project – so I built a new animation system. That is to say, I built a new system on top of Unity’s system to handle the conditional logic for playing 2d animations. The difficult part of this was learning how to modify editor windows in Unity, which uses a completely different paradigm than I was used to from working in Flash and which I had to learn a more complicated approach to than most available sample projects online use. There’s still some bugs in this tool, and probably a few features to be added, but once I complete it I will probably add it to the Unity asset store, since I expect it to be useful to others as well – though I’m not really sure yet how to make it discoverable to those who might make use of it.

These are all things that needed to be done before any significant progress in developing the game can happen. In addition, I’m still working on creating the fundamental movement animation set – those animations which will let me see the character move around in the environment and play-test in a somewhat finished way. These probably don’t technically need to be done before I can start building out the in-game environments, but if I want to pursue this series-of-vertical-slices approach to building the game they are an obvious starting point.

In addition, I’ve built a couple of special effects that are probably going to feature heavily in the project, especially early on. I’ve created a particle effect for grass blowing in the wind and a special set of shaders for a 2d water effect that will be necessary for developing the first areas of the game (examples of both of these are viewable if you click the preceding text).

Where We’re Going

In the immediate future, for the first vertical slice, I’ll need to:

  1. Player Animations:

    1. Crouching left/right
    2. Standing left/right
    3. Stopping (after run) left/right
    4. Turning left/right
    5. Rolling left/right (maybe)
  2. Version of the first area (visible in the screenshot at the top of this post) that’s not a single background image and actually contains multiple elements that can move independently of one another.

  3. Chop up the tree component and rig the branches up as kinematic springs, so that they can sway to breeze or other movement

  4. Particle effect for the surrounding chunks of stone during the intro

  5. Sound Effects:

    1. Grass footsteps

    2. Grass landing/jump

    3. Earthquake

  6. Basic menu system

    1. Volume settings music/sound
    1. Rendering settings template

    2. Control rebinding placeholder

    3. Quit game

  7. Simple music playback behavior

  8. System for displaying timed text during the intro

  9. Intro text

  10. Record VO to accompany text (maybe?)

I was going to follow this up by including a breakdown of what’s necessary for the next vertical slice of the game, being approximately 1/3rd of the first chapters of the game, but it ended up being far too much information to conveniently include here. Suffice to say the second of these vertical slices is going to be the real obstacle, and is probably best approached as a three-month project in itself – and even that’s optimistic. That being said, it’s probably the biggest hurdle and the single biggest component of the project, so future vertical slices should go faster if I can get it done. I may end up attempting to vertically slice this vertical slice to try to get it down to one or two months.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to be trying to get this list complete by the end of the month, and hope it all adds up to something close to what I’m imagining. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll release these as playable builds to patrons or just make gameplay videos or perhaps some staggered deployment of both – still considering how to actually put this project out into the world. This is all daunting to keep in mind, but I’ve at least caught the tail of what I’m trying to achieve.

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When we first wish to become artists, it’s usually because we are inspired by the art of others. We see, play, read, and a spark is ignited, and we want more – not just more of the world they have provided us, but more of the process that created that world, to touch the infinite manifold of alternate universes that they passed over to arrive at the one they created, curated, presented. We want to be the one to ignite that spark for someone else, to be links in the chain that hold up the worlds of imagination.

In this regard, envy is a helpful tool for beginning the artistic journey, but becomes increasingly less so for continuing it. The further we progress under our own power, the more we come to understand our own strengths and weaknesses, the less benefit we can derive from wishing we had the strengths of others – after all, if it was just that easy for us we’d probably already be there. If, after years of thought and practice, you’re still very far from a certain style of creation, it’s probably not that you’re incompetent or that they’re years beyond you in skill, but just that this style of creation is not one that comes nearly as easily to you. This is going to be the case for a lot of things, sadly: Sometimes the kind of art we find most interesting is not the kind that we create most readily.

This wall is not unclimbable. If it’s important to you, really important to you, you can figure out a way to create in another person’s style – or at least a near enough approximation to provide some degree of creative satisfaction. Learning this whole new approach, though, takes time and energy – time and energy you could be spending on something else, on developing your own style further, on finding art that’s closer to your own expressive style to build off of, or in just working faster and without worry on your own projects.

I wonder why I keep finding myself in this position of wanting to make others work my own. I wonder why I’m not enough for me, and must keep hungering for more outside. It’s wise to understand that there’s more that can be done than you are doing, but this need to take, to conquer, to consume, is disrespectful both to myself and to those whom I envy – to myself because it diminishes the validity of my own aesthetic and sense of art, to others because it imagines their capacity for creation to be separable from their being in a way that it is not. That which we make is inseparable from that which we are.

I don’t know if every artist feels this way. Is it more common among men, those who are taught that their calling is to take and to conquer? Is it more common within colonial nations, those who are taught that resources in the hands of others are by definition being misused and must be appropriated? Or is the grass just always greener for everyone, no matter how green it gets or how seasoned we become? This perspective may be harmful in other ways – to seek conquest and control when instead I can be passive, seeing and perceiving without need for complete understanding. I can, rather than seeking to acquire some essence, regard everything I observe of other peoples creations as an expansion of the possibility space – not an edict, not something which must be done, but a suggestion, an idea, something that could be done if the need arises. A new component, a new word in my vocabulary, a new possibility…

My frustration is perhaps exacerbated because I’m actually terrible at intentionally copying the style of others. I can integrate small elements, bits of ideas and aesthetic here and there, but the end result is completely different. This is actually a relief in many ways, since it means even if I shamelessly steal the end result is usually unrecognizable – but it also means that, if my goal is emulation, it will remain forever out of my reach. It may be time to embrace that. It may be wise to make a home on the mountain rather than try to climb it forever, to seek to do what I do best to the greatest extent of my ability – rather than to aspire to somehow attach what other people do to what I do and combine them into something bigger, something bolder, something more important, something more forever.

The problem is the belief that more and more correct is achievable and desirable – the belief that, if I can take someone else’s approach and unify it with my own, I will have achieved something greater than either. I’m not actually sure that it can work that way. There’s always a line being walked: The line between wishing you were making and wishing to have made, wishing you were doing and wishing to have done, the line between wishing you could see and wishing to be seen. The process of creation lies upon that line, held taut in place between conflicting yearning. I want to be free to create, free from the tyranny of standards and judgment I inflict upon myself. I want to be free to aspire, unbound by the limits of my capability, of what I know I can do. These wants hold me upright, pull me, push me, hurt me, and let me work. The uncertainty and discomfort is where the artists live, the impossible and unbreathable vacuum between what is and what might yet be.

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As mentioned in the previous post, I spent the last month working on a side project. For most of this time, this project was really the only thing on my plate: Every day, I had one thing to do, and that was to work on my game jam game. This, it turns out, sucks: For some reasons I knew but forgot about, and for some reasons which I only discovered over the course of the month.

I have a lot of work habits I’ve acquired over the years, mostly to enforce some degree of work-life balance in a life that doesn’t have a lot of hard time or space boundaries. I don’t have an office to go to, I don’t have many obligations, I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything at any particular time – so, in that context, it’s very easy to be constantly stressed out about what I ought to be doing. All existence becomes subservient to the work I could be doing, and whenever I’m not actively working I feel like I’m fucking up – and all this stress leaves me too tired to actually put in work, creating a feedback loop. And so on, and so forth, which is why I try now to dedicate blocks of my day to different things, and to set some hard barriers about when I’m allowed to work, so that I’m not constantly ashamed of everything I’m not doing instead of excited about what I am doing.

That’s why, though I am satisfied with the result, I think my approach to this game jam sucked. But enough about that.

The roughest part was the week leading up to and out of the game jam deadline, when I still couldn’t really abandon the project but it also didn’t really feel complete, and I had no real feedback for how it was being received. Time spent on minor tweaks, on fixing pressing issues, on debugging and testing – this is always a huge part of game development, but it’s tremendously demoralizing. Not only is the work itself stressful and often tedious, but there’s a huge difference between the experience of producing something which could turn out to be anything and the process of improving something by increasingly narrow degrees when you already know exactly what it is. There is no more discovery, only maintenance. There is no more creation, only refinement. The process itself isn’t terrible except for there is an accompanying sense of loss, a sense of potential removed and never to be rediscovered – a sense that everything you’ve made is egregiously outweighed by everything you haven’t, a sense of a backlash as the infinite possibilities of an idea collapse into the singular reality of whatever you’ve made of it, no matter what it happens to be.

I’m over it. I’m feeling good now. It was a pretty lousy week, though, and I have to think about what it’s going to be like when I finish a bigger project. What’s it going to be like when I finish EverEnding? What’s it going to be like to part ways with something I’ve spent so much time with, with something that’s defined my life? Will it not feel a bit like murder as much as birth to reduce the manifold potential in my imagination down to a singular product, a piece which can be experienced, a game which can be bought and sold?

I wonder for how many artists this has become a trap. I wonder how many set themselves projects that can never be completed simply to avoid the post-partum pains of crystallizing infinite potential into finite creation. I wonder if this might not be part of why my game jam project was a meditation on being caught between the future and the past, of the person you were yesterday and the person you might be tomorrow. I can see a future where I’m caught up in a ceaseless present, groundhog day over and over, pushing a stone up a hill so it can roll down, and I think I must make plans to avoid it.

How do you work with an eye towards completion? How can you take joy in the process but still steer towards a goal, and not trip over it when you get there? Perhaps the loss of completion is something you just have to get used to, in the way you get used to your other little tragedies and lost loves, through pain.

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One cannot observe without affecting that which is observed – this is true in physics, where even the bouncing of photons necessary for observation affects the outcome, but also more generally true of human beings than we often care to admit. Merely being seen tends to affect us sooner rather than later – and the act of seeing can change who and what we are as well. Observation has consequence.

This affects how characters in stories manifest. There’s no way to portray the experience of an unseen individual, to describe a wholly internalized moment. In order to be described it must be put into words, in order to be shown in must be given shape, and these experiences that rest outside the bounds of word and shape fall through the cracks. We can describe the cat that rests in the sunbeam and the rise and fall of the breathing fur, we can describe the purr, we can describe the collar and the name and the history, but we can never know what it is to be the cat – and we can never tell what it is to be us, who know and cherish the cat, either. When we try, we find ourselves back at describing the beam and the collar and the breath, the moment to moment concrete specifics, or we grasp at cardboard abstract terms such as contentment or anger or love – which describe barely anything at all.

The internal is inexpressible. We can suggest its presence by the contact points it shares with the external world – and this is how we craft compelling characters, by cunningly crafting these supposed contact points that map to their internal world – but it’s just a simulacrum, a mask, and just as masks are false exteriors given their shape by the face, and the face is given its shape by bone and muscle, these personae are false exteriors given their shape by a mind, and the mind is given its shape by internal and inexpressible memory and emotion. They can look real. They can look like a person, like a mind – but it’s all papier-mâché.

Because the internal cannot be seen, we have characters who constantly externalize, who are constantly being watched, under surveillance. Who we are and how we are seen, to us, are two separate things – but, for created characters, they are equivalent. These characters are comprised entirely by their exterior.

I’ve been playing around with streaming various games on and off over the last few years and, though my viewership is mostly restrained to a few online friends and acquaintances, the experience of streaming a game is still so curiously different from the experience of merely playing it. I become observed, and to make that observation interesting I must externalize my internal experience of the game. This is both valuable and burdensome – oftentimes I find myself being more harshly critical than I would otherwise be just because, when you’re searching for something to talk about, picking at minor inconsistencies, flaws, or other noteworthy features tends to be the easiest solution. At the same time, since I’m more busy verbalizing my reactions to the more obvious things, it’s easy to miss subtle things, to miss bits of story or mechanical information, and thereby make things harder on myself. For everything I miss or misrepresent, though, there’s the tradeoff of also having other people around who can offer feedback, offer corrections or additions or agreement. The process of playing the game, of consuming the art, gains additional steps – instead of the experience being between the art and me, it goes from the art to me out into the world through an unknown number of other people and back into me, more messy and complicated than before.

I keep wondering if it’s the right way to experience art, as though there could be such a thing, as though that’s even a question that makes sense. The acts of observation and presentation change the experience, and though the experience may be every bit as valid, I can still never access that completely internalized experience of art again absent the context of our shared experience. The situation comes to mirror the tradeoffs of spoilers and spoiler warnings – though we may enjoy a story more knowing how it turns out already, the experience of being surprised by how it turns out is rarer than that of seeing how it comes together with that foreknowledge. Similarly, though communally experiencing a game might be a more valuable experience, the act of internally and individually experiencing it will no longer be available to me.

It seems like quite a conundrum at times, but that doesn’t blind me to the fact that this whole dichotomy is actually a pile of specious horseshit. All experience is contextual and fleeting. No experience can survive beyond the moment, and there’s no perfect way to experience anything. Yet, still, I have this urge to preserve it all, to never let any moment go. I have a desire for eternity, to always be able to return to the moment I experienced something and revisit that, to observe, to understand. I tend to favor forms of art that last, recordings and objects, discrete creations, rather than fleeting experiences like performances – but they’re all still more or less the same because, no matter how lasting the piece is, that physical object isn’t where the artistic experience lies. No matter what it is, a sculpture or film or speech or concert, the point of artistic experience lies within your perception of the art, not within the art itself.

The thing I want to preserve cannot be preserved. The attempt necessarily externalizes my otherwise indescribable experiences, forces me to verbalize and make concrete my fleeting moments. My reasons for wanting to do this are stupid, quixotic – a naive ambition for eternity and immortality. Yet this attempt still takes me somewhere worth being. Externalizing, expressing, evaluating, understanding the game while I play it, understanding the life while I live it, and trying to put that understanding into words, I attempt to engage with an experience beyond the internal, a shared moment – but these things cannot actually be captured recordings or writing. The missing internal experience, between the game and myself, between the world and myself, is replaced with a new internality, that of me presenting, me outward-facing, me broadcasting the best approximation I can manage of what I am and what my experience is out to any observers.

Every observation affects me.

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I’ve been drawing for a while now, and the mindset of art has changed the way I understand human beauty. I find it strange now that people can admire the beauty of a body as a whole without really noticing the shape and movement of the limbs, the folds of nose and eyelid, the manner of the fingertips, the position they take, the way they hold steady or fidget or tremble. It’s strange that people can love the beauty that’s skin deep without really seeing the muscles and fat underneath that skin, how they slide over under one another and give that skin shape, the bones they attach to creating levers and joints to move that skin, give it ways to touch the world and interact with the world with purpose, with meaning. And below the fat and muscle and tendon and bone is the brain and other assorted organs, keeping it all moving, giving it all intent and life. How odd to only feel the exterior of that system is the beautiful part. The exterior is the part we see, the exterior is the part I draw, but every part of how that exterior is shaped and positioned is a symptom of and consequence of these underlying structures – what makes it beautiful is this relationship, this system of causes and effects, this machine that we call human.

It’s not actually drawing that made me feel this way, though. I’ve always solved problems by tracing backwards, to determining, once I find an end-state, what must have occurred to bring it about. I’ve always observed the reverse to revere the obverse, understanding things from both ends, conflating the effects and their causes: What is effect and what is cause is mostly a matter of perspective. It’s how a lot of humor works: Show the audience a situation that is, at first, inexplicable, and then connect it just tenuously enough to its antecedents to give them the delightful sensation of discovering the explanation for the inexplicable.

When we tell stories, if we tell them well, every moment leads to the next in a way that seems inevitable. We create not just a series of moments, a set of scenes, but also a set of connections between those scenes. A moment in the story may be exciting and beautiful, but what gives it meaning isn’t just that moment, it’s the moments that made the moment happen. There’s the whole ‘butterfly effect’ idea, of how a butterfly flaps its wings and down the line by the by eventually causes a great storm – but it’s never just one butterfly, it’s the breeze of a million insect wings, heartbeats, falling leaves, that somehow coalesce into a great consequence. There’s nothing special about the butterfly or its breath, and the great consequences could descend from any sufficiently long chain of insignificant events, moving the world by weight of a sufficiently long lever and place to stand.

You can’t be so blinded by the beauty of the system at play that you cease to care about results though. Every system is equal if you stop caring about results – death and life, sickness and health, liberty and fascism, these all may emerge from systems of beauty and elegance, but some are far less agreeable than others to those of us doomed to live in these systems. There’s no difference between the accidental systems of natural happenstance and the (supposedly) carefully cultivated systems of human society – except that (again, supposedly) the systems of human society provide results more congruent to the purposes of living a comfortable human life.

There’s a sense of inevitability when you look at the moving gears, at the anatomy of the world. But there’s no reason why the gears need to be where they are. There’s no reason for us not to move them as needed. We may, in fact, only be a tiny part of the system. It may, in fact, only be guesswork what will happen when we move things around, when we seek to change the system. And yeah, occasionally our spasms will cause earthquakes and our wings will cause hurricanes… but earthquakes and hurricanes happen anyway. We’ve lived in a system long enough to have some idea, some idea of what might lead to what. We can move. We can change. And though we will be attended by disasters and though harm will be caused, the world will change with us, and we will create more than we destroy, and we can slowly tune the heartbeat of the world into harmony.

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