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Evaluating art is difficult. Or, to be more precise, while the evaluation happens quite easily and naturally as we look back on our experiences with the work and judge the impressions they left upon us, what’s actually difficult is trying to share those evaluations with others – in other words, to be a critic, to find some way of describing the work in a way that will let other people guess at what their personal experience may be like, to encode something essential about the art into words.

It’s not really possible to make a definitive statement on the quality of a piece of art. In order to argue that a work of art is good, we are actually forwarding two separate arguments for each point we make. The first argument we make is that this work of art has some particular noteworthy aspect. Observations in this vein might include; element A is harmonious (or disharmonious) with element B in a particular way; this aspect of the work expresses (or fails to express) something important about the world we live in in; this work is similar to (or dissimilar to) this other particular work in some particular respect. However, none of these map to ‘good’ (or bad). We can say we like them, we can make claims about the benefits of the insight they offer, but that doesn’t make them ‘good’ per se.

Thus, once we present the argument that this work has this noteworthy aspect, if we want to argue that the work itself is good or bad we have to then argue that the aforementioned noteworthy aspect is good or bad. Most critical works omit the second step. Consumer reviews skip this step by way of having implicit assumptions about what comprises a good work; more artistic criticisms bypass this step via a common understanding that the reader may decide whether they value a given aspect or not.

For instance, most game reviews tend to omit any argument as to whether a noted aspect is actually desirable or not: they tend to assume that an aspect is good if it adheres to the mark set by a previous game that was generally considered to be good. Or, often, they don’t even draw a connection to a real game, just invoke a sort of unspoken platonic ideal of gamehood – the ideal gaming experience, like living within a story, where everything seems completely real and everything you might imagine happening happens just as you’d imagine it would. To the extent which games approach this ideal, they largely manage to do so, not by expanding the possibilities of game creation, but by constraining the imagination that shapes these expectations.

For those of us who chose long ago to reject the idea of a single ideal game, it can be difficult to formulate criticisms that still feel weighty and meaningful without using the implicit assumptions most game reviews are built off of. Nevertheless, if we want to push people towards interesting experiences – and why are we here, if not for interesting experiences? – then we have to formulate these arguments.

And, when I say ‘we’, I don’t mean professional critics, or even more generally those who write about art. I mean anyone who ever wants to get their friend to play a game they loved, anyone who wants to lead horses to water in the manner most likely to get them to drink. Learning how to express what we love about something is a skill that is tested for all of us eventually, one way or another – so it can be helpful to think about how these arguments are made, and just how much usually goes unsaid, assumed and uninterrogated, in the process of describing what we love about the things we love.

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

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

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

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

It’s hard to be critical without becoming a curmudgeon. There’s a natural process that occurs: I have an opinion about a game or other work. Someone disagrees with that opinion. To defend my opinion, I restate it in new terms, I build on it, I elucidate it and iterate upon it. Two results arise from this: One, my opinion slowly develops into a well-practiced rant; two, when I uncan this rant, over and over, to make my case, I steadily build up a negative association with the thing I was ranting about.

Opinions, restated, grow bigger and broader. “I liked it but it had flaws” becomes “It had serious problems” becomes “I hate that stupid bullshit game”, by a process that’s hard to fight once it begins. This is not solely the domain of negative opinions: If you like a game enough to defend it when other people are attacking it, that, too, makes it take on an outsized significance as something good and precious, far beyond the work’s original impact. The effort spent arguing and justifying a viewpoint melts into time spent attacking or defending a work – and, after all, why would you spend all your time defending it if it wasn’t wonderful? Why would you spend all of your time attacking it if it wasn’t terrible?

All of which circles the drain of the big idea, which is this: You can’t criticize an experience you have had without changing that experience. The same way casting enough light on an experiment to see its outcome might change that outcome, examining an experience closely, dissecting what works for you and what doesn’t, putting that into words, these all leave a mark. The very act of remembering, of interpreting your past, reshapes that memory like fingerprints on a wax cylinder.

This is not a bullet you can dodge. This is not a problem you can solve. This is what it means to have a memory and to form an opinion; this is what it means to discuss art with others. And it is, more often than not, beneficial: Making and hearing critical arguments can bring parts of the work that seemed extraneous and limp suddenly to life, to awaken with meaning. Even the harshest criticism cannot be made without implying the existence of a better way, and this too can help us appreciate art in new ways.

Still, there’s a part that always wants to go back. We might wish for a purer experience, one that belongs to us wholly alone. We may miss, sometimes, being the person we used to be, being carefree or naive or even foolish, and the way that that allowed us to experience life. But the you who misses that now is the same you who sees things differently now; were you to go back, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the fulfillment of the longing you now feel, it would merely be just the way things are for you, and probably the way you would then always expect them to be.

Critical insight becomes part of us. Once you learn how to play piano, you can’t listen to a sonata the same way again. Once you learn how games are made, you won’t be able to play a game the same way again. Every time you learn something new, you become a new person, angled by degrees away from the trajectory you once occupied.

It hurts. Growth tends to.

It’s helpful, though, to be aware of your critical process. To witness your opinion forming, to construct your arguments with intent, to be aware of your justifications calcifying. To forge ahead without this insight is to allow your beliefs to be shaped not by what you find good or beautiful or just, but merely by how strenuously those beliefs are opposed by others.

As I both create and consume art it’s often striking just how much successions of considered changes and details, mountains of very specific decisions, leave only the vaguest impressions in the mind of the audience. I’m probably a more detail oriented audience than most, but even for me I think the majority of the lasting impressions I take away from a work have more to do with the general tone it sets, and emotional state it invokes, than with any specific content.

However, even if what we remember is mostly vague fragments of tone and atmosphere, if the artist focuses on tone to the exception of content and structure then that tone isn’t conveyed: What people remember then is just the maudlin piece of mediocrity a work without structure or detail inevitably devolves towards. What people take away from an experience is vague, the seeds of nostalgia, but what plants those seeds is often intensely structured and specific.

It’s strange and kind of disappointing the way all the details in a work become ‘it was detailed’ in the aftermath, all the research boils down to ‘well-researched’, all the jokes to ‘funny’ and all the tragedies to ‘sad’. Every work of art gets chewed up and swallowed and digested, and it’s sometimes painful for the artist to see that happen, to witness the process of destruction and digestion that is experiencing art. It’s hard not to feel like our beautiful work is being unmade, unappreciated, turned to shapeless and incoherent mush, by the very process of its consumption.

When you eat a steak, though, even as you chew it up it still matters that it was once whole. The fibers and greases, composed in this particular way, create a specific experience – and, even if what you remember is merely ‘delicious’, something else is encoded in that experience as well. As you live your life and eat different meals, the details that go into them start to cohere, beyond the specifics of a single meal, into a generalized understanding of what food is and can be, and what that means to you. To create food, to create anything, is to resign yourself to the eventual act of consumption and digestion – and to believe that, as the experience you worked so hard on fades away, everything you put into it still will be worthwhile, even if it is now only a memory.

Each new work of art, each novel or game, may not leave its specific thumbprint on each person who consumes it – they may not remember every detail, or even the general plot or structure – but the details, the craftsmanship, those still matter. When we digest each new work it subtly modifies our ideas of what art is and can be, and through that what the world is – or can be. We can nourish with beauty and provide nutrition with new ideas – and, even if we know no idea is ever truly transmitted completely, can still revel that the seeds we plant may one day bring forth surprising fruit.

atsnail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man once they finish those sleeves they're going to get really bored. Until the devil starts playing with them I guess.

The first lesson I was taught about drawing was: Don’t draw what you know to be there, draw what you see. We know the hand has four fingers and a thumb, but sometimes fingers hide behind each other, sometimes the thumb clutches into a fist. And, sometimes, that which you know to be there is not: Some hands have fewer than four fingers.

Some hands have more.

I find this to be an approach with many applications. It’s kind of like critical thought: Never assume that something has to be a certain way just because that’s the way things are. Never let yourself see what isn’t there.

Each week I try to write something new, here, for Problem Machine. Ideally I’d like it to be interesting and insightful, and nearly every time I end up with something where I’m unsure whether what I write about is just painfully obvious and trite or is actually incisive and insightful. I’m starting to think that this may, in fact, be a good sign: Insight is often is a matter of saying the obvious, of not seeing that which isn’t there, and sometimes seeing what is. The things we never see are just as often those under our eyes as those over the horizon.

And this, too, seems at once obvious and insightful. The emperor still has no clothes.

There are a few ways this manifests strangely. One of them is that we tend to regard with contempt those truths which are repeated too frequently. We became sick and tired of love and peace. If everyone knows that kindness and gentleness are beneficial, then those who deny kindness and gentleness feel that they have access to a new knowledge of the world, that they are wolves among sheeple.

Trading knowledge for ignorance can feel a lot like learning. It can be hard to tell the difference between forbidden fruit and rotten fruit.

Another odd manifestation is that it becomes extremely easy to sound insightful just by echoing the consensus, whether it’s true or not, whether it’s overlooked or not. Many people become very wealthy on the lecture circuit telling people exactly what they want to hear. It can be hard to tell the difference, then, between what we want to hear and what is true, between what is insightful and what is vapid.

I don’t have an answer to the challenges this poses.

All you can do is keep looking, and try to see what is actually there for yourself.

simpsons3d

How is a number like a hero? How is an equation like a tragedy?

First: The world as we perceive is not the world as it is. As we perceive the world we live in, through our sense of sight and sound and touch, we break everything down into symbols that our brain can comprehend and work with. Because those symbols are internally consistent, we can still interact with the world as though we are part of it – which, of course, we are. Our minds are always at one level removed: The brain sees the world, converts it into a symbolic understanding, and then operates on those symbols to decide what to do next, sending instructions to the body which thereby affects the world, and so forth.

This symbolic system is unique from person to person, comprised by the specific tissues and issues of each brain. Therefore, we create an other symbol system, language, to translate between these. It’s kind of like the same OS running on different kinds of hardware: The programs are the same, but the metal that interprets them is different, and sometimes this causes problems. Realistically, the languages we use are prone to a lot more error than actual programming languages, relying a lot more on abstractions and inferences. Much gets lost in communication. It remains to be seen whether this aspect of language is feature or bug.

We have another language we created, one that’s not prone to losing information: Mathematics. The only thing that makes mathematics useful and relevant is that it’s possible to convert real world systems to mathematical systems, operate on them as mathematical systems, and then convert back to real-world systems and have the effects translate perfectly.

Couldn’t we do that with any internally consistent system? Actually, we have: Geometry is a discipline separate from mathematics, though they are often used together, and itself represents an internally consistent system. Perhaps the different instruction sets of computer hardware could be regarded as such, though they are so mathematically grounded and implemented that it is difficult to separate them from the field of mathematics. It’s scary to think, though, that maybe we missed one. Maybe there’s an internally consistent system of symbols that, if we were to use it, could completely open up a whole new fields of thought. Maybe there are an infinite number of such systems, each one boundless in its applications and implications.

It’s interesting how, viewed through this lens of internally consistent simulations built of symbols, the mathematics we use start to resemble the stories we tell. We craft a reality that operates on its own internally consistent rules (build the world), operate on it (tell the story), and then translate that back to our own world (find the message/moral). Mathematical problem solving is a form of very specific parable for solving very quantifiable problems.

And now we have the video game, which exists with one foot in each world; built on mathematics, scripted by storytellers, a literal world of possibilities waiting to be expanded. What could we discover, as we did with storytelling, as we did by math and geometry, with the parables these worlds could tell us?