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What is good art? We are constantly declaring various books and movies and games to be good or bad – we get in arguments about these classifications, have entire professions dedicated to evangelizing them. We go to great lengths to highlight the good points of one thing or the bad points of another, and we rarely bother to define what we mean when we say that it’s good or that it’s bad. Does it just mean that we enjoyed it? No, because sometimes we say things that are harrowing or awkward or unpleasant are good. Does it just mean that we found value in the time we spent with it? No, because if that’s all it was then we wouldn’t get into arguments over it, since there’s no point in trying to convince someone they actually did or didn’t enjoy something (not that that stops anyone from trying).

I don’t think good/bad judgments mean much of anything in the absence of more specificity. Art isn’t good or bad, it’s good at or bad at – good at making you understand the internal conflict of a character, for instance, or bad at presenting a physically convincing reality. These artistic traits may or may not be something you personally are interested in , but they’re something you can make a convincing argument about when debating the nature of a work and what it accomplishes.

Yet it obviously means something when we say that a given work is good. There’s some nebulous but shared set of standards that, when a work excels at them, defines it as good. So we end up with weird splittings-of-hairs – “Oh, it’s not a good movie, but it’s a good action movie,” “I don’t think it’s a bad book but it’s deeply misogynist” – where these standards for what we expect and how we measure quality butt up against one another.

When we say “good” we are secretly saying “good at“, with the ‘at’ standing in for a whole host of assumed criteria for quality: It has to have convincing characters and effects, it has to have reasonably but not excessively attractive people, it has to have an epic or emotionally moving score, it has to be between 80 and 160 minutes, the motion of the plot and systems have to be completely transparent at all moments, to be sexy but not sexual, to deal with pain and violence and sadness and serious things, and it is judged bad if it fails to live up to these standards – regardless of whether these standards were even attempted, whether the artists cared at all in the first place.

Conflicts emerge between our personal style and standards and those metrics of quality that all art is measured against. We may deeply love a work, or merely enjoy it, while the standards of art proclaim that it is shlock, garbage, meritless. We call these “guilty pleasures”: That which lives up to our own personal standards of quality, that we find personally enjoyable, but which doesn’t adhere to the cultural standard, or possibly even attempt to. Yet sometimes, rather than declaim the guilt of our pleasures, we will call something “schlocky” good – not in support of these principles, but in defiance of them. Saying that art which does not adhere to these standards is still good is drawing a line in the sand and saying no, your criteria for quality are wrong and don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes if enough people recognize something the standards will shift: When the game Demon’s Souls came out a decade ago, many players immediately rejected it as confusing, clunky, and punishing. By most of the game design standards of the time, these traits were regarded by many as a sign of bad game design; any developer who put them into a game was assumed to be incompetent, whether or not it was done with intent or artistry. Yet enough people understood and appreciated the intent of the game that the loosely cohesive Souls-like series of followups has gained a massive and dedicated following. Demon’s Souls is still a fairly conventional game in most ways, though: For every Demon’s Souls, there’s hundreds of unconventional masterpieces that never find an audience.

However, as art becomes homogenized towards the Disney manual of style, audiences may come to see anything that deviates from the standards set by mega-corporations as artless, clumsy – not as an experiment in a different style, but as an amateurish bungling of what everyone knows is the correct way to make art. These fears may seem alarmist, but they’re already coming to pass: The scope of what’s considered a valid film, book, or game is vastly narrower now than it was even thirty years ago, and it’s hard not to see a correlation with the consolidation of most mass-media power, which unilaterally declares the standards of artistic merit, into a few wealthy white grasping hands.

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There’s a desire, when making something, to have the creation be somehow new and unprecedented, unique, unlike anything that has come before. This can create issues – while ideally every work should offer something new, it is not necessary or even desirable that the entire piece be founded on novelty. The search for perfect uniqueness is similar to the search for perfect anything in that it is an ass-backwards waste of time.

I’ve been thinking about the ways this impulse holds me back. I’m not sure how many ideas I drop in their nascent phases because I’ve already written about them or read something similar – likely it happens to many ideas before I even think of them as ideas. Sometimes it probably isn’t even a topic I’ve written or read about, just something I’ve thought about enough times that I feel like I must have, which makes it a really unfortunate idea to discard – though if I’ve thought about it so much then I suppose I’ll probably think about it again before too long. Probably. Sometimes an idea discarded because I’ve already used it might have branched away and turned into another idea, a whole new way of building out from a common foundation, if I’d only bothered to think about it a little bit longer.

Aside from keeping me from writing certain pieces, this tendency may also make some of my pieces worse. I avoid covering ground I think people will already be familiar with, even if it’s necessary to understanding the thrust of my point. I rush through, assuming everyone’s familiar enough with my line of logic to follow, and am often unconcerned with whether everyone even started on the same page as I did.

I have a concept of the most perfect form of every piece as being that which strips out the most unnecessary elements, that which is most precise and concise, like a polished gemstone. This concept of perfection, too, is useless: Sometimes less is better, sometimes more is better, it is entirely conditional, entirely a matter of what the extraneous adds or detracts. The details add up, and can either accentuate or clutter. Longer words are sometimes better than shorter synonyms because they feel more satisfying to say and paint a better image. With every piece, there’s a core, a kernel, and the details wrapped around it, the aesthetic and expressive choices used to give voice to that core idea. Repetition can be mere redundancy or it can be rhythm. And, the same way that seeds and eggs must provide their own nutrients to themselves before they can become self-sufficient, there must be a certain amount of ‘extraneous’ text for the ideas to grow.

If you just say something once, no matter how eloquently you state it, people are likely to forget it soon. Even if you find the perfect phrasing of an idea, if you fail to ever repeat or restate it your audience won’t retain it. No matter how well an argument is framed, it won’t stick the first time it’s read.

Yet laying this groundwork can be just as treacherous as omitting it, at least when it comes to imparting the ideas I want to impart. Whenever one of my pieces gets boosted and more widely read, I inevitably get responses either taking issue with or inspiration from whatever the first idea presented in my essay was, even if it wasn’t the idea I was trying to get to or found interesting. Often it’s not even an idea I would take credit for, just a relatively commonplace concept, that many other writers have argued for far better than I am prepared to, that I was using as a stepping stone to get to another idea. When you place ideas in sequence, it’s little surprise when many people don’t make it through the entire sequence. If they have seen less far, it’s because the shoulders of giants keep blocking their vision.

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I always had trouble identifying with the parts of kids’ cartoons where the main character wishes they were normal. I think that this is partially an indication of privilege: I’ve never really had to suffer much for being a weirdo. I mostly kept to myself and, always having been on the big side, was never a very attractive target for bullying. Maybe that’s why I never found ‘normal’ a very appealing thing to be. Perhaps this means that I really internalized those cartoons’ lessons about how it’s okay to be different, that everyone is unique and contributes something of their own, but as time has gone on, as I’ve found myself isolated and struggling, I’ve come more and more to see the appeal of normalcy.

There’s probably some sort of difference between opting out and being unable to fit in. I’ve always strenuously avoided having to think too hard about which, exactly, I’m doing at any given time.

I don’t really believe that any existing human being is not, deep down, a huge weirdo. We are a fundamentally neurotic species, overloaded with crossed wires, beliefs connected to anxieties connected to fetishes connected to fears, all of it coated in a vague post-hoc rationalization we call a personality. Normal is a set of behaviors, a standardized interface between you and society that you can fit on top of your natural impulses, and some people have an easier time of making that fit than others. Normal is a thing that you do and that is done to you rather than a thing that you fundamentally are – a distinction far too fine for me to grasp as a child, or for these children’s cartoons to attempt to impart.

And this allergy to normality might sound like a good trait to have as an artist – I sure thought it would be! But art is communication, and communication gets a lot more difficult when you have semi-intentionally disconnected yourself from the standardized interface of your culture. What I mean when I say this is that the most generic, uninspired, boilerplate boring design-by-committee extra-smooth-applesauce piece of art has a huge advantage relative to anything I create, no matter how careful or inspired or well-thought-out my work may be: People know what it is, how to engage with it, and what it means.

When I’m in art classes, teachers frequently tell me that I needn’t try to be so representational, that I don’t have to get every color and proportion perfectly accurate – which is, of course, true, but is also unnecessary advice. I know how to not do the obvious thing. What I need to learn is how to be expected, predictable, how to meet people where they are at. Maybe this leads me to overcompensate, but I figure practice is the best time to fixate on technique. Everyone is probably going to come at this challenge from one side of the divide or the other: Every artist is going to either find it relatively easy to make generic art that everyone can appreciate but is soon forgotten, or to make weird art that few people enjoy but is extremely distinctive and perhaps offers something difficult to find elsewhere. For passionate creators, they’re probably going to start pursuing whichever one they perceive themselves to lack.

As hard as I work now to pursue an understanding of shared language, cultural norms, realism, and ‘polish’, others are surely working just as hard to define a unique voice, a look and sound, a bit of grit and identity. Perhaps we are working towards the same thing from different directions, some searching for a truth occluded while others for words to speak a truth perceived.

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Art is like clothing: It displays and it conceals at the same time. We open parts of ourselves to the world while closing off other parts, we express our self through artful concealment – projecting our light in certain particular ways; creating shadow puppets.

I often hear writing in particular, and art in general, discussed as an act of radical vulnerability, of pure honesty – opening up to the world in a pure and unfiltered way so that other people can engage most directly with your internal life. They say that to write is to reveal – and I think, like so many creative maxims, there is a bit of truth to it but that, but that it is incomplete. There is much of myself I’m not prepared to talk about in public: I don’t think that inherently makes me a worse writer or artist. There’s parts of my brain that I take care not to expose because the time isn’t right, the place isn’t right, because it makes me uncomfortable or because it’s inappropriate. I think that’s true of everyone to varying degrees, and artistic success is not reserved solely for those who manage to escape that gravity, to become emotional nudists. The aim of art, then, is not full exposure, but the careful decisions of what to expose, how much to expose, when to expose – and, conversely, what to conceal and how to conceal it.

That’s still not right, though, is it? That black and white balance suggests that concealment and exposure of the self are inherently in conflict, that we lift up a piece of our soul and choose to show or hide it based on the compositional needs of the work. I don’t think that’s actually the case. We are faceted – we have many faces. We wear many masks – and every mask serves a dual purpose, it both expresses a persona and conceals the face underneath. The act of choosing to express one aspect of our selves is also the act of choosing to conceal others.

“Write what you know”, they say. “Write with absolute honesty and openness”, they often say as well. Also, “Show, don’t tell”. These pat bits of advice are, again, scraping at a truth, but not wholly representing it. The truth is that absent care and attention it’s easy to end up on auto-pilot, mimicking other art, mindlessly copying styles and scenarios, because these are the things that are closest to the surface when we cast out the fishing lines of our imagination. These are just tricks to force you to Pay Attention. Writing what you know ensures that you have details and nuances at hand to work with, absolute honesty pushes you to access your own personality and opinion with care and attention. Showing, not telling forces you to think about the details of each scene instead of glossing over them* – and all of these work, but are really just ways of making sure that you’re actually thinking about what you’re doing and why, what each word and sentiment actually signifies, and aren’t on auto-pilot.

If your work is dishonest, if it’s misleading, then that’s fine: Mislead for a reason. If it’s truthful, that’s also fine: Decide what truth it is you want to tell. No matter what your intent is, whatever the end product is going to be is probably going to reveal something and conceal something. Art is a lie. Art is the truth. It’s not a contradiction, it’s a necessity of how we see the world, just from one angle at a time when infinite view-points are possible, two-dimensional minds occupying a three-dimensional space.

* As well as working to prevent structural analysis of culture, likely one of the reasons the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was funded by the CIA.

 

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Game design is a trust exercise. The player has to be able to trust that the game designer’s decisions make sense, that when they take an action within the system the resultant reaction will make sense and be predictable. “Predictable” might sound overly constraining, but there’s a lot of room in between a “technically possible to predict” result and an “immediately obvious” result – that is, as long as the player can still generate a mental map of how state A became state B the system as a whole will seem trustworthy, even if they never in a million years could have predicted that state B would have been the result.

A good example of technically predictable design is Spelunky: Every object in the game interacts with every other object in mostly very simple ways. For instance, a rock, flung through the air, will damage anything in its path. While each interaction is, individually, very easy to understand, in aggregate, they become wildly unpredictable (while still being technically possible to predict). The rock might only fly through the air and do damage, but in so doing it might also knock out the yeti who falls on the landmine which blasts the rock back up into the sky which knocks down the UFO which falls on you and explodes and kills you. There’s a certain kind of satisfaction to dying to something so wildly improbable and byzantine but completely mechanically predictable.

If the player loses trust in the game design, though, everything in the game becomes suspect. A hilarious fluke may instead start to seem like a dirty trick. Goals no longer seem worth striving for because they could be snatched away. Failure seems arbitrary and no longer worth actively avoiding. The game becomes a gamble, with unknown odds and random payout.

I’ve recently been playing through an extensive Dark Souls mod called Daughters of Ash. There are a number of really interesting ideas contained within the mod, but it’s difficult to trust the decision-making behind it. Part of what made Dark Souls such a valuable experience when it came out was that it flouted a lot of the conventional rules of ‘good game design’ – sometimes it wasn’t clear what the game expected of you, movement was heavy and clumsy, and the story was distant and confusing, requiring careful attention to piece together. However, it established its own set of rules to replace these, rules which you learned through hard experience: Caution and exploration were rewarded, if you can see a place you can go there’s usually a worthwhile reason to go there, and if you pay careful attention then you can usually avoid traps and ambushes.

Unfortunately, while Daughters of Ash correctly perceives that Dark Souls broke many rules, it had little appreciation for the new rules created to replace them. Invisible traps, baffling cause and effect, huge detours and difficult acrobatics to get useless items – in the first place it’s harder to trust a mod than the game it was based on, and each decision like these just makes it even harder.

Trust isn’t uniquely important in the medium of games though. Trust is important in all forms of art. You have to be able to trust the painter for long enough to see the painting properly, to appreciate the forms and structure. You have to be able to trust a movie or TV series to be going somewhere, to have some sort of structure of intent and planned payoff. The recent wave of disappointment in the conclusion of the Game of Thrones series is an interesting example of what happens when you start to lose that trust. Retroactively, people start to regard earlier episodes less well, knowing that they don’t like where they end up, and decisions that people might otherwise be forgiving of are judged harshly knowing that there’s no longer any possibility of a long distant future payoff.

I find myself having a hard time trusting most media these days. There’s a few reasons for this. One is technique: There’s a lot of similarity of approach in most popular entertainment, and once you get acclimated to this you tend to see where each scene is going as soon as it starts. It’s hard to trust the artist to take you anywhere interesting when each step along the way seems rote. The other difficulty comes from my increased critical awareness of the tacit implications and arguments forwarded, often unconsciously, by popular art. The weight of the stories that center around a person who is usually some combination of lone genius, borderline abusive, incredibly wealthy, white, and male becomes crushing, the myth-making of a society that has become overtly and obviously cruel and unjust, creating heroes in the mold that coincidentally resembles those who benefit most from that society.

Thus I have become suspicious. I have lost trust. It sort of sucks, because it means that I can often only enjoy movies on a second viewing, only once I know there’s something worthwhile there. It means I avoid watching television or playing new games a lot because the sheer energy output it takes for me to enjoy things is so much higher now.

I don’t mind, though. I prefer this to naiveté. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing correctly – even if it’s harder to enjoy things, I can enjoy things in more different ways, on more different levels, now. It’s better to be aware, even if it’s more difficult. It’s not like trust is impossible, I just can no longer give it by default. The benefit of the doubt has eroded.

Perhaps trust was always meant to be precious. Do your best to earn it, and do your best to bestow it where it is deserved.

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Every day that passes, the events in our lives create for us a unique blend of experiences and emotions. Most of the time these aren’t very interesting, but every once in a while it creates something incredible, a moment of transcendence, joy, elation, wonder. Then it passes. That’s just how things happen. Some of us, though, just can’t let it go. We try to capture the moment. Crystallize it. Preserve it. That’s how art is born.

Those emotions and experiences that we try to preserve, though, don’t exist in a void. What creates the moment is the moments that came before it, and it becomes a pressing question: How much of this experience can we carry away from the preceding experiences? How can we separate it from the whole? We can’t completely: That’s why we tell stories instead of moments, why we build to crescendos instead of constantly playing at maximum volume. There’s a desire in inexperienced artists to be at maximum intensity at all times, without really acknowledging that things can only feel intense if there’s a corresponding calmness, lack of intensity, to contrast against.

That’s pretty elementary though. Most artists figure it out pretty fast. Contrast is the foundation of art. However, if you’re trying to create a particular emotional experience, that raises a lot of questions about what that balance ought to look like. How much time should an experience about triumph spend in despair to make the triumph taste sweet? How much time should an experience about love spend in loneliness and disaffection? There’s different ways to answer this, different balances to strike, but over time a set of formulas emerge. The most popular of these is probably the hero’s journey formula, which many set out as the archetypal formula which all stories are cut from – this is an absurd pronouncement that requires many increasingly tenuous analogies to make fit, but it is nevertheless a common argument.

Regardless, the hero’s journey is a useful formula for creating a certain kind of story (the kind where there’s a hero and they journey). Many games, being stories where there’s a hero and a journey, seek to adhere to this formula, but in this medium we have fairly limited control over the exact narrative arc of the experiences we create: Though we might set out to tell a story about a call to action, an ordeal, a boon, and so forth, just as often we create an experience of getting stuck on the first boss for 3 infuriating hours then getting a magic sword and easily murdering the lord of darkness. The dynamic nature of games makes it even harder to create a consistent emotional response, makes it even harder to stick to a formula that strikes the exact balance of sensations we might desire – and, correspondingly, makes it harder for the hero’s journey to be crafted into a game narrative, as gamey as that narrative might at first sound in the abstract.

These are, in short, the two main ways that video game stories suck. Either they try to create a consistent experience of the same emotion – such as, say, empowerment – or they try to recreate a tried and true narrative formula such as the hero’s journey within a dynamic framework that cannot accommodate it. The first is completely untenable, since feelings can only be meaningfully experienced in relation to each other. The second is… difficult, but not actually impossible.

Many game designers would then take that as the challenge: How to systematize the hero’s journey. How to create a narrative-making machine, a myth-making machine, something that takes in player inputs and spits out a grand epic tale. I don’t think that’s a particularly worthwhile goal. The most interesting stories that games spit out right now aren’t imitations of the hero’s journey or some other hackneyed formula, but startling stories of systems gone rampant, results that make sense but are utterly surprising, with the all the perverse interconnectedness and none of the post-hoc narrativization of real history.

Rather than this, we should seek to understand how game systems can lead to emotional outcomes, both in terms of the primary emotion we seek to elicit and the secondary emotions, its opposites, which we seek to define it by. If a game system has an understanding of how it can create frustration and elation, confusion and understanding, joy and sorrow, power and weakness, then it can balance these against each other into a satisfying complete experience. Perhaps this is a more challenging goal than creating a systematization of the hero’s journey, but I believe it is one far more worth striving towards.

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Well I’ve finally gone and done it. I finally made myself a Patreon. Largely this is because they were about to change their payment structure in an unfavorable way and I wanted to sneak in before that deadline, but this is something I’ve wanted to try for a long time. I wrote a bit about the reasons why on the Patreon page. The fact of the matter is, I’ve put an awful lot of time and energy into this blog over the years and been extremely broke for pretty much all that time, so it feels worthwhile to see whether I can use fact A to resolve fact B.

But, more than that, I wanted to take this step because it’s very easy to stop taking steps and stand in place. It’s very easy to just not make something like a Patreon page, to never ask for anything, to never presume your work is worth anything, if you can survive without doing so. To me that has been the path of least resistance for a long time, to just quietly do work and ask for nothing, not even acknowledgement, in return, and to quietly hope that perhaps it will be of value to someone somewhere. Eventually, though, if you have something to say you have to start saying it loudly. Whispering gets so tiresome. If you’ve enjoyed my work here, I hope you’ll consider supporting me on this new endeavor.

For the most part, though, things are going to stay basically the same here: one post a week on various game and art-related topics. The only real difference is there’s now going to be a week’s delay between when I write new posts and when they come up here, since I’m giving each new micro-essay one week of exclusivity on the Patreon before it gets posted on the blog. Over time, as I get feedback and new ideas percolate, maybe I’ll make more changes. Who knows what the future will bring? As long as it’s something different than what the present is bringing.