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I always come here to relax, too. The music is so peaceful, but there’s also this sense of loneliness that’s hard to put into words. Surrounded by people but still alone, beloved by all but still abandoned…

Do you know the story? Of the Chime Tree? I’ve seen you come here with your family to hang an offering from the branches, but it seems like no one remembers why we do it any more. We just do it because we’ve done it. And because the music sounds nice.

So: A long time ago, before this was a city, when it was just a port and a village, there was a monster. There used to be a lot more monsters back then. It walked on two legs and was as tall as three men and it was covered in long matted tufts of black hair. Some said it was a man that was left to die in the woods but instead grew there like mold, got bigger and more rotten, more in pain and more in anger. Wherever it came from, every week or two it would wander into town, moving with complete silence, and kill someone and drag them away into the forest. Maybe it ate them, but no bones were ever found. If anyone tried to stop it, with spears or fire, it would kill them too. Hunting parties went out to kill it and came back empty-handed and with fewer hunters with fewer limbs.

It’s remarkable what you can live with. Some towns have rivers where children drown and some have dangerous cliffs and some just have bad luck: We had a monster. Eventually, you just come to accept that you might get snatched by a hellish beast the same way you accept you might get stabbed in a bar fight. No one ever saw it coming, it just appeared from the darkness and grabbed you and took you away. Maybe it was a peaceful way to go. I hope so.

One day, though, one of the village lads got a clever idea into his head, and was stupid enough to be unable to forget this clever idea. He made a little bell, and he set out into the forest. It took him a few days, but eventually he found the monster standing in a clearing, staring off into the distance. It didn’t react, but stood there, making a quiet sound in between a moan and a howl. He was terrified, but as stealthily as he could he came up behind it and tied the bell into its hair. It stayed motionless, and didn’t move an inch even as he ran away as fast as his legs could take him.

Now, at least, there was some warning before the monster could claim someone. It didn’t really matter much, because it could still outrun anyone in the village, but it at least meant the fleet of foot had a chance to divert its attention to easier prey. And, after the young man returned, it became a sort of dare or rite of passage for other youths to tie a bell or chime to the monster. It turned out he needn’t have been stealthy at all: Clumsy youths fell and dropped handfuls of chimes around the monster, people yelled around it, all sorts of youthful chaos and enthusiasm happened around it, and it never reacted, except to keep making its quiet howling moan. A couple of idiots, forgetting what had happened to the hunters, tried to attack it, and they were killed, but the rest knew to let well enough alone – and tied more bells and chimes to it.

Overnight, it seemed, the monster had become a monument. The wind blew the chimes in its hair and made the forest around it seem so peaceful. We laughed and played and made love around it, and over time the attacks slowed down, to every month, to every two months, to once or twice a year… and then they stopped. It stood in the forest, listening to its chimes, and didn’t move an inch. Eventually it took root, and grew into a tree: This tree, the Chime Tree.

Over time, though, people forget. This tree became just another tree in a forest. Few people remembered it was ever there, or that it once stood and walked. There was a sense, particularly in the man who had tied the first bell, who was no longer young, who was older than I am now, of something forgotten, something important, but none could say what. Until, one day, the storm came, suddenly, moaning and howling, the wind ripping people up and away and off the streets. It lasted three days, dozens perished. After the first day, we were certain it would never end, that it was the end of the world. But it did. The old man, who man who tied the first chime, asked us to follow him, and we did, out to the forest, where most of the trees were flattened or stripped of branches except one, a weird twisted black tree, covered in the rusted remnants of bells and chimes, strings and clappers waving in the breeze. He hung his bell once more, and it rang in the wind.

We hang the chimes once a year. Maybe we’re scared of the monster still, somehow, but I think it’s more of a penance. How could we care for something and then abandon it? How could we adopt a monster, dress it in music, and then leave it to be alone again?

Even though the music is beautiful, the wind still moans and howls through the branches. This place is still a little bit sad and a little bit scary. But, like most things, if we care for it properly it will not hurt us.

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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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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.

It’s been a little while since I posted. Once habits are broken they can be difficult to mend, but since circumstances always eventually substantiate to break them, learning how to reestablish a good habit becomes a necessary skill. Creativity isn’t like an engine that you can just start up again whenever it stops, though: It’s not really repeatable, because with each new created work the process mutates. The reasons why I wanted to write six years ago when I started this blog are not the reasons I want to write now, but as long as habit has stuck me to my course I haven’t had to worry about those reasons.

And now that the habit has been broken, I do have to worry about those reasons.

Why do I want to write? Partially it’s that thoughts once you’ve had them are like produce once you’ve bought it. You can put those thoughts away in the fridge for a while, but eventually if you don’t do anything with them they’ll go bad, take up space, and start stinking up the joint. Once in a while you have to clean those thoughts out. Writing is helpful that way. Partially, as well, it’s that this blog is one of the things I’ve achieved that I can be most uncomplicatedly proud of: I’ve never had a ton of readership, but a few people usually see the things I’ve written every week and if a few people out of those few people find interest or enjoyment from my work then I’m happy. I’ve worked at it for the better part of a decade now, creating work almost every week, and written what amounts to a few novels worth of words on many different topics. As I’ve done so, I’ve noticed certain themes reemerging, a certain shape of an underlying work being silhouetted, and I recognize it as a self-portrait taking shape.

What I think I’m coming to recognize, though, is while each new piece here adds to that portrait, adds new details or expands it at the edges, makes the overall idea more expansive and complete, there’s a limit to working that way. Eventually there’s not going to be anything more to write of whatever this is that I’ve been working on. I hesitate to return to habit with too much enthusiasm because it may be, in the end, that whatever Problem Machine is has actually already been completed, and I’m just overworking the canvas now.

Well, obviously I don’t think that, or I wouldn’t have written the words you’re reading now. How will I know when it has been completed? I probably won’t. I think, eventually, I’m just going to try to take everything I’ve written and boil it down, to distill it – to take this big sloppy self-portrait and refine it, frame it, and hang it. Once I do that, what then? Do I stop writing, or change my style, or do something else? I don’t know, but whatever it is I’ll need some way to flush those stagnant thoughts out of my head, so I’ll probably make something like this again.

Nothing is ever complete. There’s always more to be written.

It’s very frustrating, sometimes, being an artist who is both terrible at and temperamentally disinclined from all forms of self-promotion. There’s a yearning to make people look and listen paired with an absolute aversion to the actions that could actually make that happen. However, as much as that bothers me sometimes, I’ve been thinking more and more about what success would look like to me, and what would come with it, and I have to admit that some of the things that might accompany it are worrying to me – and perhaps not the sort of things one might expect.

I think the part that scares me, and this probably explains a lot about why I’m so bad at self-promotion, is that if people are actually listening to you then you need to be extremely careful about what you say. I don’t mean this in a “oh boy you can’t say anything without offending anybody these days” way. I mean it in the sense that, when people are listening to your words your words become, effectively, actions. If you have an audience of millions any little thing you say might, potentially, have life and death consequences. The fact is, I don’t think I could continue to write the way I write now and feel ethically okay with it: When maybe 20 people read my blog a day, I can throw my thoughts at the wall and see what sticks. I’m sure that if I went back through my archives now I’d find many of my old posts naive or ignorant or completely idiotic – and, for me, that’s okay, because what I’m primarily interested in here on Problem Machine is just posing questions that interest me at the moment in a hopefully thought-provoking way. But if thousands of people were hanging on my word? Tens of thousands? Millions? I wouldn’t be able to do it. Any random thought could justify any unconnected action. I’d be pouring something into the ideological makeup of the world without having any idea of what effect it might have, dumping mysterious glowing goo into the water supply just to see what happens.

The point of which is to say that the ethics of art creation don’t necessarily scale. You can create a lot of art as a small creator with a small audience that you really can’t if and when that audience grows, and this constantly trips up small creators. In many ways, staying small is in your best interest if you care at all about creating ethically – just as the spider men say, with great power comes great responsibility, and thus if you feel unprepared to shoulder that responsibility without causing harm your best bet is to avoid great power.

And yet, we have so many incentives to become bigger. Not only are we told that success for an artist looks like having a big audience, it’s also, for most of us, a prerequisite for being able to survive while creating. If you can’t find a patron (or spouse) to support you while you work, you have to build a fan base large enough that you can float off of their contributions or page views – if you want to work full-time as an artist, anyway. This is why we keep seeing the pattern repeat itself of some small-time entertainer becoming hugely popular through Youtube or whatever and then saying something stupid and reckless which makes everyone mad at them: The kind of personality it takes to rise by force of personality from a small-time celebrity to a big-time celebrity is largely incompatible with the awareness it takes to actually be responsible with the power that reach confers.

The strip of available space to work in is narrow: The art you’re capable of making, the art you want to make, that art which is ethical to make, the art you are comfortable making, each of these shape the space of the art you can actually make – and the context of your place in the world changes the range of each of these. I don’t think it’s rare at all for this narrow strip of fertile ground to completely disappear as peoples lives change, as they run out of time or emotional space to express themselves. The time and context we have available to us to freely create is, over the course of our lives, potentially extremely limited.

No matter how much you might wish to, you will never know for sure your work is harmless. If it makes you feel any better, you’ll also never know that anything else you do is harmless. It’s all guesswork, of hope and leaps of faith that maybe we won’t do too much harm without meaning to. So, what, are we to sit in place and molder? Are we to always be paralyzed by a sea of choices with consequences with consequences with consequences?

But we do not essay forth into a void. There are already people creating, and many of them creating irresponsibly. Even having some awareness that you might have great power and, if so, it ought come with great responsibility puts you ahead of the game.

It’s better to go into it with eyes open. It’s better to worry about whether you’re relevant than to be loudly irrelevant, to worry about being unethical rather than being violently unethical. Even if it makes it harder to create, narrows the range of what we can create, it also opens up new possibilities and helps us better evaluate the real quality of our work. When you observe the world, you see a few people who are brilliant and many people who spout bullshit with unearned senses of self confidence. It’s easy to cast yourself as one or the other in your imagination, and to never end up saying anything out of fear of being unable to live up to the ideal of brilliance, or fear of unintentionally becoming another bullshit peddler. However, even as the world is full of vapid braying, the world is also full of people who never say anything because they’re not sure if what they have to offer is valuable, and the world is also full of people who try to be heard and cannot because the level of noise is too high, and all of them have so much more of value to offer than those buffoons who usually hog the spotlight, who are certain beyond question that it’s worth everyone’s while to listen to what they have to say.

The question is not whether you can be brilliant or a buffoon, but whether you can speak out at all. As long as you approach your words with care and thoughtfulness, they will always be worthwhile in a world where so many words are produced without thought, without care.

In art, characters are designed and presented – every aspect of the character’s design was considered at some point along the way, and most have some sort of significance. Even in live-action films and theater, people are cast to embody the traits of their character: Thus, every line, every curve, every bulge, every tone of skin and voice has Significance. Every dimple, every freckle, is a Chekhov’s gun. This causes problems, though: We learn things from art, inevitably, and in most ways people’s bodies have very little to do with who they are – or, at least, have a far more complex relationship with their personality than the simple stereotypes usually mined by character artists and directors.

Much has been written about the impacts this has. The way people with more fat are frequently portrayed as unhealthy and lazy, the way darker people are frequently portrayed as criminal and unambitious, the way more feminine people are portrayed as deceptive or as hapless victims, and so forth. But even though fat people aren’t unhealthy or lazy by constitution, the dismissive inattention of doctors gives them worse health outcomes and saps their energy: Even though darker skins don’t lead to criminality, they do lead to loss of opportunities in a bigoted system, sometimes leaving crime as the only option for those whose ambition refuses to die: Even though femininity isn’t deceptive or weak, those who show it frequently have their feelings dismissed and their vulnerabilities preyed upon, so they eventually have deceit and victimhood thrust upon them. These embodied character traits end up having a cruel backhanded truth to them: The systemic disadvantages people with these bodies encounter in their lives come to become wholly aligned with their fictional representation.

So just ignore all that stuff, right? Color-blind casting, age-blind casting, body-type-blind casting, gender-blind casting, and so forth, just make everyone draw their character names from a hat. And yet, if we do that, we lose the entire visual channel of communication about who a character is, where they’re from, and what they do – because these things do affect our bodies in certain ways. If we do that, we sacrifice the ability to have conversations about how our society treats different bodies and different backgrounds, sacrifice any real discussion of our real world in favor of making every world an aspirational one where there is no background, no history, no context, only the melting pot.

To some this conflict might seem intractable. It’s very simple, though: Your characters do not have to be statistically representative samples of their respective populations. Your characters have the freedom to be from any race, body type, age, preference, and still pursue their ambitions and hobbies, and these things will have an effect on their bodies that will modify their appearance. A blacksmith will probably have strong arms regardless of sex or weight. A bicycle courier will probably have strong legs. Someone who performs a desk job all day might put on a lot of weight – then again, they might not. Someone who hikes over mountains as a hobby might be very slender – then again, they might not. All it takes to make a character design that doesn’t propagate shitty ideas about who can be what and how is to separate the improbable from the impossible. Aren’t improbable characters more interesting, anyway? Most of the things we often tend to think of as improbable really aren’t very unlikely at all, anyway, especially at the level of serendipity fiction tends to operate at.

Even a character who’s a realistic embodiment of a societal ill, though, would be far better than what we get right now: Punchlines and cardboard cutouts, characters whose only role in the story is to be exactly what we expect them to be. If you still want to make one of these archetypal characters, at that point you have a duty to at least pay some attention to the systems that make them what they are. The cruelest villains and most pitiful victims don’t emerge from nothing, but from the societies of their worlds, their oversights and acceptable losses and untouchable elites.

Today I was buying groceries along with my mom – she has a working car and I do not. After leaving her for a bit to find something I missed in the last aisle, I started heading back to where I last saw her when a woman of about the same height, build, and coloration wearing similar clothes turned the corner, and before noticing the difference (I am a bit nearsighted) I said “I found it!”

The woman was confused. I was mildly embarrassed, but just kept on walking like I hadn’t done anything unusual. Maybe she eventually convinced herself I was talking into a bluetooth headset or something. That part’s not important. I started thinking, though, about how our narrative of a situation shapes our perceptions. This woman would ordinarily not have been noteworthy to me, and I don’t think I would usually make the mistake I did – the resemblance was really not that strong – except for it would have made all the sense in the world for it to have been my mom turning that corner. I had no reason to question it. It’s such an echo of childhood, of getting lost in a store and finding the Wrong Mom just because a woman nearby happened to be approximately the correct shape and color.

Preconceptions shape everything we see before we ever see it – not only how we interpret the things we see, but whether we actually notice certain things at all. Those things which fit our expectations we never question until the point where they no longer line up – that is, either our understanding changes or they change to no longer fit our expectations. The mystery woman is deputized mom until further notice, usually approximately the time she turns around to notice a strange child clinging to her.

This whole thing reminded me, as really far too many things do, of the experience of playing Spy in Team Fortress 2. As the spy, if the enemy team ever suspects what you are they can usually kill you quite easily. Much of success as the spy, then, is in never being suspected. It requires knowing what people expect to see at any given moment, and being that for just long enough to achieve whatever mischief you can. I like to say that if they even have the chance to wonder if you might be a spy, you’ve already failed. It’s not a matter of blending in to your surroundings, it’s a matter of blending into your opponent’s ongoing narrative about their surroundings. Or, anyway, that’s what it is ideally, under optimal circumstances. Pragmatically it’s just as often about waltzing in when there’s too much bullshit going on for anyone to pay attention.

We have two blind spots. One, we cannot see anything that fails to fit into our world-view. Two, we can never question anything that fits too perfectly into our world-view. Both of these are indescribable anomalies to us until we make adjustments in our understanding to accommodate them. There are things we don’t see because they’re not what we expect: There are things we never question because they’re exactly what we expect.

So you have to wonder: How much of the big picture am I not seeing? How much of the world around me is invisible because it exceeds my expectation, cannot be heard because it’s outside of the audible spectrum? How much of it is unquestioned just because we’re used to it, sunk into our lungs like oxygen? This question seems more and more relevant, as the injustices that founded our history accrue interest.

To us artists, it presents a conundrum. All of our art, to the audience, is seen in the context of all the art they’ve seen before. If we depart too much from the vocabulary of that art, our creation starts to seem like gibberish: No matter what clarity of thought we put into it, they simply do not have the tools to interpret it – no, not even the tools necessary to want to interpret it. At the same time, if we hew too closely to that vocabulary, we lose the words to say anything for ourselves, anything different than what has already been said. We doom ourselves to become propagandists.

It’s a tricky needle to thread. The better part of art is learning how to be seen – and, as someone so habitually drawn to invisibility, someone who always preferred to play Spy in Team Fortress 2, that doesn’t necessarily come easily to me.