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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.

tboiab

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.

globin-comparison

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.

gimpy_plain

…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.

pyrovision

There’s been a great deal of discussion about violence in video games over the last couple of decades, but the conversation usually doesn’t go anywhere interesting because the participants don’t really understand what violence is. What makes a violence isn’t blood or the guts, breaking bones or excruciatingly detailed mutilations – these things, or the artistic depictions thereof, mean nothing by themselves. The essence of violence is the framework that justifies the bloodshed, the story of just war or of vengeance. Violence isn’t the pull of the trigger or the splatter that happens afterwards, it’s the brain justifying the decision, it’s the story we tell ourselves about why it is okay to hurt and kill. At that moment, before it ever happens in reality, a human being is reduced to an object, an enemy, a corpse.

In this way the concern over violence in media like games is revealed as not quite as misguided as we would like to think, though the specific critiques and accusations are often nonsensical and ignorant. The concerning aspect of artistic violence is always, always, who do we decide it is okay to kill – and why? Because a process very much like that is used every day out in the world, and the same calculus that creates a first person shooter may one day create a school shooter.

We have designated villains, ranging from zombies, who are already dead but haven’t noticed it, to criminals, who we have to take the game’s word for that are definitely bad enough dudes that they need to die. Usually the questions that would naturally emerge about why we should kill these guys are short-circuited by the pragmatics of self-defense: It’s not important how we got here, but now that we’re here these guys are trying to kill you and the best (only) solution you have to that problem is to kill them first. As we flesh out games more and more narratively, it gets weirder and weirder that we’re pigeonholed into killing – but, still, the original assumptions made in the structure of the game take primacy, and we go along with it, because we really don’t have a choice. That’s the way the game is played: Kill or be killed.*

But it says something, doesn’t it, that we care more about the blood and guts in our art than the policies and assumptions that bleed and gut our world? It may be that we fight against violence in media, not because it contributes to violence, but because it reminds of of violence. Or it may be that we like fighting against fictional violence because it’s such a smaller and more understandable problem than actual violence. Actual violence doesn’t go away once you clean up the blood – it remains, its damage done, forever.

I am reminded of a Roald Dahl story about a man who invents a powerful listening device, and when he listens through it he can hear the agonized screaming of each rose as his neighbor trims them in her garden.

Empathy is difficult and exhausting.

I guess I understand why we avoid it so much of the time.

*Even though this structure is at its most common in multiplayer competitive games, this environment also lends itself well to hilarious subversion of these assumptions

pong

Pong and other early arcade games feel so primitive to us now in 2017. It seems intuitive to credit technological advances for the massive difference in complexity between the light arcade games of 35 years ago and the many more complex forms of video game we play today, but how much does technology really have to do with that shift? Complexity of input and gameplay systems increased over time, but not nearly in proportion with technological advances. No, the biggest difference between games then and games today is that today’s games are made to be played by ‘gamers’, people who have played other games before and been shaped by the experience.

When Pong succeeded, it did so because it was a game that could be played by anyone. Though many think of Pong as being the first arcade game, many players today would likely prefer to play the actual first arcade game, Computer Space, a game of careful movement and twitch reflex which was released more than five years before Pong – however, it was not especially commercially successful – not the way Pong was – likely because it was too complicated and unintuitive for the mass audience, who were by-and-large not technically inclined and were also slightly inebriated.

With no prior exposure to video games, members of the general population had not built up the dexterity and coordination required to successfully play a multi-button interactive game. “People learned how to play video games as a group over time,” says Bushnell. “I think they could have handled it much better two or three years later.

45 years after Pong, as much as game technology has progressed, game literacy has progressed much further. Most people with any interest in the medium have built up huge specialized skillsets that allow us to appreciate nuanced designs that would be universally mystifying 45 years ago. We have progressed beyond the two-directional wheel, to the four-directional joystick with one button, to controllers with a directional pad and 4 buttons, to controllers with a directional pad, two joysticks, and 10-buttons-plus-you-can-click-the-joysticks-down-like-buttons-too. In the meanwhile, games were developed for PC which had the keyboard as standard equipment, a controller with 50 buttons and nothing else. For a while games tried to use as many keys as possible, but developers eventually realized this was ridiculous and tried to mostly restrict themselves to the left side of the keyboard – particularly as the mouse gained popularity as a standard input mechanism.

Video game complexity increased hand-in-hand with video game literacy until the early 2000s, at which point popular games were intricate or finicky enough that only people who had been playing games for much of their lives understood them. A kind of equilibrium was reached, for a while, where the really complex games mostly went to PC for a smaller but more dedicated audience and gaming consoles got most of the lighter more arcadey fare. However, game companies tried to unify these audiences, and managed in so doing to create games that were still intimidatingly complex to people who had never played games, but at the same time insultingly condescending and easy to people who had been playing games all their lives, thus satisfying exactly no one with the precision only the way the invisible hand of the market can achieve.

Now we’re at an interesting point: Because games can be readily developed at many different team sizes and price points, we have something of a reemergence of the console/PC paradigm but with a softer barrier: Very simple games like Super Hexagon mostly find their way to mobile platforms as primary targets, and very complex games like XCOM mostly find their way to PC and, to a lesser degree, consoles as primary targets, but both also find themselves frequently ported to each other’s dominant platform. We’re finally beginning to establish, however haphazardly, a curriculum of game design, by which new players can discover how to engage with a vast and expanding medium

It’s strange now to look back and realize that no game experience is really self-contained. Each game teaches us to play itself and, as game developers learn by playing games, the many clashing ideas of what a game is or can be propagates through them memetically. Every game you have played before contributes to the experience of the game you are playing now, for good or ill, by shaping the vocabulary you use to explore it. And like that we build a bridge into the future, trying to construct a path to the experience we imagine a game can one day make manifest.

nick-and-ornstein-and-smough

There’s this guy who watches these Dark Souls streams called Problem Machine, and he occasionally gives me shit like: “He’s not going to do it this time,” you know, just like “This is going to be a bad podcast,” “he’s completely gone, look at him, he’s got no mental acuity, this is pointless, he should just go to bed.” And I was like okay this is the run I’m going to prove to this guy that I can do this.

I’ve been watching Nick Breckon of Idle Thumbs stream his playthrough of Dark Souls, and been trying to give advice in chat as to what to do next, where to go, how to approach problems, and so forth. This is a contentious act: Many people, myself among them, believe Dark Souls is an experience best approached as a puzzle to be solved, and that offering guidance undermines that experience. Still, when someone wants information on where to go next, I’m pleased to offer it for basically the reason that I will always love talking about Dark Souls.

And now I’m getting defamed on podcasts. What a betrayal!

To clarify: I said almost none of those, and if I did say any of them they were in a desperate attempt to get someone who was hammering on a boss fight at 1am before recording a podcast the next day to go to sleep. As it turns out he eventually did go to sleep and beat the boss in three tries the next day.

I’m not too big a man to say “I told you so”.

Anyway: It’s something that will always be surprising and interesting to me, how two people can both participate in the same conversation and come away with a completely different understanding of that conversation. I see myself as a helpful guide through the world of Dark Souls, and apparently Nick sees me as some kind of unpleasable Dark Souls chat dad.

But it also makes me think about why I’m so invested in his adventure. And maybe there’s something cathartic, right now, at this point in time, at yelling advice out from the crowd and having it be taken one time out of a hundred – because as frustrating as that is sometimes, it’s still a hell of a lot better a ratio than the one I manage in my day-to-day.

Everyone I know is feeling pretty powerless right now. In the same way that playing video games can be a fun way to play with empowerment, playing Cassandra to a hapless Nick Breckon can be a fun way to play with helplessness, trying to steer a train as it goes off a cliff. I guess, then, that I can’t be entirely blameless for whatever comes of it.

wolfman

Halloween keeps growing. More and more over time, this act of pretending, and of naked greed for candy, has defined who we are. It’s expanded, taken over the entire month. October is Halloween now. It’s a couple of days before the 31st, and here’s a Halloween-themed blog post. Case in point

It’s strange thinking about the rise of Halloween and what it might mean. I’m beginning to feel as though we may, gradually, be coming to be more comfortable in each others’ skins. We’ve all become actors. We play games where we are something else. We become monsters for candy.

We use pretending to be something else to find ourselves.

We learn to play our first part so young, learning to act as children are expected to act – Not very well, at first, but learning very quickly, until our very ideas of what we can be are circumscribed by the roles described to us. Eventually we get to grow out of the extremely narrow role of ‘child’, but often those available to us aren’t much more desirable: Good student, bad student, nerd, jock, thug, boy, girl, worker, wife – further narrowed by our appearance and background, until often we find ourselves typecast into just one identity. Some people actually come to believe those identities accurately represent themselves, are the whole of what they are. Some people become incredibly angry at the suggestion that there might be something beyond these roles.

Being able to transcend that for a day, or a month, is precious. Being able to break out of the skin and become something else, perhaps even something disgusting and terrifying, is what lets us discover new ways of being.

We put on other skins. In games, creating the textures for in-game objects is called, grotesquely, skinning. It’s like we hunted polygons, small game but so satisfying. We skin ourselves and reskin our selves as we learn to do it better, each layer of our identity painted on over the last, and sometimes a bit gets scraped off and you find a version of you that you forgot ever existed.

It gets easier every time, and we start trying out new identities for fun. Mostly games are the simplest version of this, simple badass power fantasies, but they still allow us to express some inkling of identity through them, to pick a hat or a shirt without any risk of looking like a guy wearing a stupid hat or ugly shirt, to bust a sweet move even when we are not comfortable with our bodies in motion, even if that move has the side effect of kicking a demon’s face off. We became heroes in private, defined ourselves by overcoming impossible challenges that were actually easy, took the mantle of a champion without ever winning a real championship.

But isn’t it strange how Halloween’s huge upswing in popularity coincides with the emergence of a medium that is all about Pretending to Be. Isn’t it interesting, and a bit hopeful, that more people than ever are able and content to pretend to be exactly what they are, without fear of repercussion. This kind of creative being and becoming wasn’t just now invented, but it’s spread so far, taken over this entire month, taken over this entire medium, and this wave is so powerful and exciting, even if, in practice, so much of this pretending amounts to playing with murder and power fantasy. It’s all just Halloween. All just red food coloring and corn starch, a way to pretend at monstrosity to define humanity.

These identities grew around us so gradually, we didn’t notice them rise over our heads and put us in their shadows. We grew up making user names and secret passwords, making masks and playing secret roles, became spies, the identities piled up around us, each a tiny shard of who we were.

the_screaming_oak

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.