Monthly Archives: March 2015

March 30, 2015

Bit.Trip Runner (2010)

developed by Gaijin Games (Santa Cruz, CA)
first published by Aksys Games, May 14, 2010, for Wii, 800 Wii Points (=$8)
PC version published by Gaijin Games, February 28, 2011, for Windows/Mac, $9.99
[original website, current website]

Played up to level 3-2 (i.e. level 26 of 36) in 5 hours, 3/24/15–3/29/15.

[2-hour video of a guy talking his way through a complete “perfect run”]

Fourth of the seven games in “Humble Indie Bundle 4″ purchased on Tuesday, December 13, 2011.

I don’t entirely hate this game. But it is very irksome.

You’ve heard me complain repeatedly about nostalgia-as-design — or, actually, you’ve heard me make explanation after explanation about how I disapprove of nostalgia on principle but such and such game, despite seeming like a nostalgist offender, actually isn’t for some subtle reason. Well, folks, this one is. This is offensive.

Bit.Trip Runner (and, it would seem, the other six “Bit.Trip” games, but I haven’t played any of those) is full-bore phony “retro.” It’s all affectation, affectation clambering over affectation to make a giant pyramid of affectation. Remember the 80s? Remember Atari? Remember pixels? Remember rainbows? Remember simple? Remember mom and dad? Remember second grade? Remember “awesome?” Remember you?

The game is hipster hooey. The developers are so aggressively convinced that they can tap into something great with their sweet sweet precious memories that they just barely have room to think about anything else. The game itself is a stunted little thing. “Sure, sure, it’s deliberate, a sentimental homage to the days when every game was a stunted little thing but we were devoted to them anyway! Atari 2600, baby! Betamax! Shag carpet and Hi-C! The best, the best, the best!” Argh. Screw you.

After every level, if you earn it, a message pops up saying “BONUS GET!” and there’s a bonus stage meant to look like Pitfall! (1982), done in a totally condescending and reductive way, with a fake “bad video signal” overlay on the graphics. Also, over the course of each level, the protagonist (“Commander Video”) gradually acquires a rainbow trail like the one seen on the cover of Pitfall! and other Activision games of that era. “Commander Video” is drawn to look sort of like the ninja from the Commodore 64 Bruce Lee game, an allusion that becomes explicit when he goes into his flat-on-his-back posture.

I originally wrote the paragraph above with “Screw you” inserted after each item.

The look of the game is an ugly mishmosh of “pixel-inspired” bullshit — note: not pixel art. The game is not a low-resolution game with a fixed pixel grid; it is a high-resolution modern game running in 3D engine where the objects are all… “you know, blocky and awesome.” They aren’t blocky to the same resolution or even in the same style as one another. They’re just various things that variously fit the description “blocky.” It’s as though someone with a kind of fuzzy memory of pixel graphics described them to an artist who’d never seen them, and missed some of the essentials. That is to say, Bit.Trip Runner is to Atari graphics as a medieval European drawing of an elephant is to an elephant.

“Sure, sure, it’s deliberate, it’s a crazy homage to, uh…”

Meanwhile, it’s worth pointing out that because of the lack of anti-aliasing on the ugly blocky 3D objects, it’s entirely possible to see the actual pixels that make up this game’s graphics. We still have them, you know! They’ve just gotten somewhat smaller than they used to be. To me this a perfect metaphor for the philosophical ailment that seems to be everywhere: the game obsesses self-consciously over being “pixelly goodness to the max” so much that it doesn’t pay good attention to the ways in which it is actually made of real live pixels. It’s the grotesquely clueless reification of an abstraction that ultimately usurps the thing itself. (You can say that again!)

(By the way, I want to note here that in all my childhood, I only once was able to get to the point in Bruce Lee seen at 8:04 in the video above, and never further.)

The game is sort of a “platformer,” but one that’s been grated down to the rind, so that you might be tempted to call it a “rhythm game” instead. Basically, the dude runs at a fixed rate from left to right but never moves across the screen; the scenery with its obstacles just slides past him to the left, like a piano roll that he has to play (cf. rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero). The piano roll consists of obstacles that he has to either jump over, spring off of, slide under, kick open, or block with a shield: five different buttons to press, exactly at the right time, when necessitated by the scenery. That’s it! You screw up, you start again. This is all synced to the music so that every successful jump and slide and kick makes a little “boop” that matches the harmony.

I said you might be tempted to call it a rhythm game. If you watched someone else play it, you’d be tempted, because it would seem like playing the game was a kind of satisfying dance to the beat. But that’s an illusion. The music is actually a big red herring. The design is such that the little guy’s jump will take him flying over an obstacle on the beat, which means that the button that makes him launch into the jump had to be pressed some perfect fraction of a second earlier. Do you understand the implication? This is a game where everything happens in a musical rhythm except for the thing that you have to time exactly. Instead of the experience being one of the player’s thumbs dancing to the beat, it’s one of the player stressing out about pulling the strings just before the beat so that Commander Video gets to dance to the beat. The music doesn’t show you the way or help you out; it presses upon you as you rush to anticipate it. It impends.

It’s actually an anti-rhythm game, which is basically the purest form of anxiety: YOU had better stay off of the rhythm, ahead of it, so that everyone else — Commander Video and all the moving mine carts and fish and buildings onscreen — can have a happy dance party and sync up like a joyful Silly Symphony world. YOU are not invited to the party: you have to cater the party like a servant. For god’s sake, use your stoic professionalism to block out the urge to dance; it’s not your place, as you’ll quickly see. And if you drop anything, a slap in the face for you! You ruined it for everyone, you dolt! Now thanks to you, we all have to start again!

If staying in the game’s groove were rewarded and falling out were punished, that could be gratifying; or if you had to establish your own groove for the game to follow. But this is a game where you’re obligated to resist the game’s groove on its behalf, but failing to service it is punished. It’s really very demeaning.

The music also offends as music. The callow use of magical sentimental nostalgic sounds always makes me feel like the pleasure of those sounds is being stolen out from under me. Goddamn it, this might have been something I could have enjoyed if only it weren’t so completely contrived, disingenuous. I used to feel exactly these harmonies, get something out of them, but I can’t because you’re so clearly trying to milk them for, ahem, “all the feels.”

The whole game feels like a nightmare where you want to go home but instead you find that there’s a costume ball going on, where self-serving strangers have dressed up like your family, and they’re really into how great and “authentic” and “old school” they’re being. “Woo-hoo, feel all the feels, dude! Home is where the heart is!” Goddamn it.

(For what it’s worth, I just made that up; that’s not a nightmare that I’ve actually had. Not while I’m asleep anyway.)

This is what people mean when they complain about their favorite band getting too popular, or “selling out,” and why hipsters are so quick-tempered about such things: it’s the sense that other people are being more anxious and self-regarding than they are sincere. Each hipster is hyper-aware of this in others because he/she is lonely and desperate to find someone who isn’t so thoroughly guarded and constructed, with whom connection is possible… but of course from the inside, it feels different. To the person who’s doing it, self-branding feels like a necessary bulwark against the floodwaters of shame. To everyone around them, it looks like a weapon of intimidation or an antisocial suit of armor.

Slogan for the world: Defensiveness and aggression are the same thing! All your enemy’s hostility feels to them like defense. All your defenses appear to others as hostility!

I said of Wes Anderson that I want to choose to focus on what’s delightful about his work and not on the vein of self-regard that tends to draw my anxious attention like a magnet. And I would love to be able to do that for everything, including this music, and including this game. But under the circumstances, I can’t. The circumstances being while playing this game.

It’s really remarkable just how bad playing this game makes me feel.

The essential task here is to reduce the impact of frustration on the body. Each time you screw up and are instantly zipped back to the start of the level to try again — levels which can be several minutes long! — your zen challenge is to find it in yourself to proceed as though for the first time, with full and optimistic attention, and not let the fact that you’ve just been slapped in the face affect your level of strain. This is very, very difficult! I remember noting this at a very early age while playing computer games: that despite acquiring experience as I practiced a difficult challenge over and over, I would in fact perform worse and worse; the first run in a given sitting was almost always the best. This was because I became more and more devoted to an insistent kind of hope, that this time would be the triumphant final time — okay, well, then this time… and this increasingly intricate and superstitious “hope” would start to fill up my brain and blot out the part of me that had any skills at all. I knew this then, but I didn’t know how to stop it; anything I did seemed to make it worse.

What I didn’t know, but know now, is that this so-called “hope” is really just a way of trying to suppress shame, and what it actually does is prevent the shame from being processed. It would cause it to accumulate and accumulate as I failed and failed, until I was completely incapacitated and would have to stop, in a confused state of high agitation.

So now I recognize that difficult video games, being as they are completely inconsequential to anything else in life, are a great opportunity to practice experiencing this shame and learning how to let it run its course and leave my body. Unfortunately this is still very hard because games are designed to trigger this shame. It’s not just frustration that I happen to experience alone; it’s pre-programmed frustration being intentionally delivered upon me.

Last week, the free iPhone app in the iTunes store was 8-Bit Doves (trailer), a very nicely produced game meant to be simple but bracingly frustrating (in the vein of the infamous Flappy Bird). I found myself enjoying it and enjoying that I was now able to let the frustration flow through me and out, rather than clogging me up… and yet that sound they put in when you crash, that harsh chomp sound, sent a little electric jolt through me every single time. I played and played waiting to become inured to it, but I never did. “Well,” I thought, “they did design it that way, after all. This is how it’s meant to affect me.”

I guess I don’t know for sure if that’s true, but it seems like it is. And so that’s how I feel about Bit.Trip Runner. It felt demeaning and infuriating, and I did my best to become like a stream of clear water, but it sure seemed like it genuinely didn’t want me to.

Maybe that’s all in my head. I have to keep experimenting, practicing. But probably with different games.

I declared myself done after spending an hour unsuccessfully trying to get through the outrageously long level 1-11. But then a few days later it occurred to me that I might get closer to enjoying the game if I muted the sound and did something else with my mind. Sure enough, while listening to conversational podcasts and playing the game passively, I was able to make a great deal of progress. It’s not that being distracted by podcasts made me a more accurate player — if anything probably the reverse — it’s just that being distracted by podcasts limited my capacity to hold on to frustration, which meant the level of my performance didn’t fall off over time. After two hours of listening to people talk about poetry and politics and other stuff, I found that I had gotten through the first two thirds of the game. Important principle: not attending to things gives one unlimited endurance!

Probably if I played for a few more hours, I could get to the end. But there’s really nothing there to see — I confirmed as much by watching the end on YouTube. And for the moment I’m out of podcasts. So we’re done here.

The credits:

Alex Neuse: designer
Chris Osborn: engineer
Mike Roush: artist
Danny Johnson: PC/OSX/Linux design
Petrified Productions [Matthew Harwood]: music & sound design

March 28, 2015

Jamestown (2011)

developed by Final Form Games (Philadelphia, PA)
first published June 8, 2011, for Windows, $9.99

Played to completion (plus a bunch of the bonus levels) in 5.5 hours, 3/18/15–3/23/15.

[video of a 30-minute complete playthrough]

Third of the seven games in “Humble Indie Bundle 4” purchased on Tuesday, December 13, 2011.

The only note I took while playing this is the word “exuberant,” which is a pretty good word, but I probably ought to say a little more than that.

This is a vertical shooter, which was once a dominant genre and is now fairly niche — although in our present videogame boom times, even niches can be pretty well-populated. But I’ve just flipped through my list of games to come, and of the nearly 200 games I still have in my sack, there’s only one more vertical shooter. And it’s an old 90s game.

Yet once upon a time, the foil-wrapped look of vertical-scrolling explosion-fests was the quintessential arcade machine sight. If I think back to the 90s and imagine I’m in a college dorm rec room, or a pizza parlor, or a bus station, and there’s an arcade machine, my imagination supplies the screen with the image of a vertical shooter. (You know, like this. That’s chosen at random — anything else on that playlist would do equally well.) Seeing stuff like that I feel like I can smell bus fumes and bad pizza.

I think they’re great; I love the space they inhabit. But only in a sort of abstracted way, where I know I’ll never actually pay direct attention to them, never become an aficionado. In fact I almost don’t need to play them to get my fill; the “attract mode” is plenty. It’s the way I’ve always felt about jazz: I really like it when it’s on and of course I like it better when it’s good, but I don’t think I’ll ever want to obsess over it, the way I do over other things.

Maybe what vertical shooters have in common with jazz is that I experience both of them as a kind of pure texture. When it’s pointed out to me that a piece of jazz has form, or that what’s being done is musically sophisticated, I always feel a kind of irritation. I want to say no, it’s not; it’s just this feeling it’s giving me, and no more. Yes, even when it’s the other half of my own brain doing the pointing out; I still wish it would shut up, because it doesn’t add anything.

And these vertical scrolling games feel the same way. They unfurl like a great dream carpet into infinity. Yeah, everything might be all choreographed and predictable, but I don’t choose to predict it. I wouldn’t really want to be attentive enough to get good at one of these games. I like that it’s just a world sliding downward forever and throwing up new artifacts of the imagination as it plows onward. Spaceships spewing gemlike bullets, or whatever, that make their theatrical entrances, are induced to go kablooey, and then make way for whatever’s next. It’s a parade, and when the parade is going by you just take it to be a way things can be, not a specific and finite phenomenon.

Or it’s like a David Lynch dream vaudeville without end. “And the next act is; and the next act is; and the next act is…”

The emphasis in these games is always on sensual values: does each explosion feel like the perfect first bite into a cookie? Do the things that blow up look like little toys, and do they do fancy tricks before crumpling impeccably? In a word, is it all tasty?

That tastiness sometimes goes hand in hand with a cosmic anxiety. If the enemy spaceships are even a little bit creepy, the whole endless cavalcade becomes extremely ominous. Not to mention the vertigo of traveling into infinity while watching nebulae and blasted planetoid surfaces and pure void drift by, ad infinitum. Sometimes I feel it philosophically in the pit of my stomach when a game starts with a little anime dude putting on a helmet and getting in a spaceship “for great justice” or whatever, then followed by hours of a tiny spaceship icon on a completely dehumanized cosmic explosion parade in deep space. How overwhelmingly lonely and grim! What must the dude be thinking while all this is happening? Is he still thinking? What happened to his soul, when the game started?

Sort of like when 2001 goes off the rails and before we know what’s happening, we find we’ve lost contact with Dave as a mortal with mortal concerns. Kubrick knew that would unsettle and it does. Well, it happens in pretty much every video game.

That’s an apt reference, because that forward-hurtling stargate sequence is the direct aesthetic precursor to so much of what goes on in video games. Everything I’ve said here about what I like (and fear) in vertical shooters applies to that sequence, too.

Jamestown has been attentively designed so as to be 100% tasty. It’s actually quite a short game, but each inch of it has been polished ’til it shines like the top of a chunky pixelated Chrysler building. Nothing on screen feels obligatory; it’s all there out of love. It’s got an exuberance to it, there’s the word.

Yes, the 90s pixel style is clearly a slavish imitation of yesteryear — they’ve even gone so far as to put in slightly wonky, unsteady scrolling in the opening animation, faithful to a fault. But the imitation is so fervent and utter that it doesn’t really feel like an affectation. It’s too slavish for that. They don’t seem to be trying to get credit in the present day for their “retro”-ness or their sentimental memories; they just seem to be devoting themselves to an old ideal that they’ve managed to carry with them, intact.

Interestingly, they advertise the game as “a neo-classical top-down shooter,” which is the only place I’ve ever seen the term “neo-classical” applied to modern videogames. It feels good to me, much better-intentioned than “retro.” I called Jasper’s Journeys “anachronistic” because it genuinely felt divorced from concerns about the present day. Jamestown isn’t quite so serene as to be anachronistic — it knows very well that it’s doing something the hipsters will eat up — but it still feels pretty firmly grounded in its 20-year-old milieu. In any case, it never made me feel queasy about fashion and history and all that; it just felt cohesive, I played it as it stood, and I enjoyed myself. I take that as significant.

Jamestown falls into a vertical-shooter subgenre known as “bullet hell,” where the screen can sometimes fill up with literally hundreds of deadly projectiles at a time, spinning outward from enemies in mandala formations that seem impossible to avoid, but in fact can be snaked through if you’re precise. When these attacks burst on the screen, they can give a truly alarming sensation, like being in the ocean and seeing a wave coming that is much much too big for safety. But that can be a thrilling sensation if one does in fact survive.

I’d never played one of these “bullet hell” games before — I’d only seen images that made them look completely masochistic and unappealing — but having played this one I now understand what makes the genre work: unlike most video games, your hitbox (i.e. the area that the program checks to determine whether you’ve been hit) is not the size and shape of the ship as seen on screen, but is in fact much smaller. Only the very center of the player character is actually vulnerable. This means that you are actually much safer than you feel; when a mess of bullets is coming at you, you actually stand a moderate chance of surviving just by luck. But it doesn’t look like it!

This dynamic — where the game feels more dangerous and difficult than it is — seems to me a wonderful thing. It means that the feeling of exhilarating, significant success can be yours at a much lower cost in real-world time and tension than in other games.

The other thing I hadn’t fully taken in about the “bullet hell” games is that when a good deal of the game consists of threading your way through geometric radial blooms of bullets, the dream-parade quality I’m talking about gets supplemented by some downright psychedelic investment in awed abstraction. When you get to the boss at the end of each level, what you’re looking at is not infrequently exactly like a “go to sleeeeeep” hypnosis spiral. (I am reminded of the notorious Super Hexagon.)

I guess this is becoming a recurring theme here: video games are one of the most overtly hypnotic of cultural forms, and I like that about them.

The premise of the game is: colonial America on Mars. This is deliberately gonzo tongue-in-cheek (I think!), but it sort of revealed the underlying sense of steampunk to me, something I’ve been hunting for a long time. To me, “the Jamestown colony” is the quintessential public school “Social Studies” subject. I’m pretty sure my first “research paper,” in 4th grade, was on Jamestown. (Bibliography: “Jamestown,” Encyclopedia Americana, 1967.) And I think this is the key to steampunk: it is the exhilarating juxtaposition of the authoritarian world of Social Studies with the private world of comic books and video games. That is to say, the essential thing is not that it combines 19th (or 18th, or 17th)-century realities with fantasy technology; it’s that it combines stuff that grown-ups insist on with stuff that you like, thus ostensibly reclaiming Social Studies for the impish forces of vitality and happiness, but actually premised on a subconscious belief in the absolute impossibility of such a thing ever really happening.

My theory is, effectively, that Steampunk is a symptom of the alienation of American anti-intellectualism. It is a flaunting of supposed affection for “old-timey” stuff that reveals an underlying disinterest in its essential content. The only real affection is for its status as “old-timey,” which is to say as dry and inaccessible, official, imposed by the hollow public school authority of which one’s classmates are so suspicious, but for which one is seeking gold-star credit for one’s relative intellectualism. As long as the stuff satisfies this profile, it fits the bill, and all “old-timey” stuff becomes effectively alike.

There’s something revealingly tin-eared about steampunk’s supposedly loving evocation of 19th-century ideals. It’s as though someone said they OMG looooooved French language and literature, Mallarmé! Flaubert!, and then demonstrated it by doing a gobbledygook doubletalk impression of French (“Ah je je les vous? Ah vous sais vous le mais jeux?”).

The laboriously antiquated multipartite titles of the levels in this game (“Chapter II: JOURNEY THROUGH THE DARK SECTOR in which RALEIGH IS PURSUED by The VIGILANT SPANISH BORDER GUARD and The AWFUL TRUTH stands REVEALED”) are typical. They know there’s definitely a thing you’re supposed to do that has to do with unpredictable capitalization and the phrase “in which.” Beyond that, who cares? That’s certainly attentive enough to put them into “good student” “nerd” territory, and that’s the only real goal. The point is that from there, the leap into the videogame stuff they actually care about becomes literate, witty, fringe, creditable, rather than junky, self-indulgent, mainstream. Kid-tested and mom-approved.

This is something I harp on because it’s become a much broader and more insidious issue (consider the prevalence of “Well played, sir”), but also because I feel like phony sympathy for 200-year-old ideals obscures the potential for real sympathy for 200-year-old ideals, and that saddens me. “Creative misreading” is all well and good but when it begins to be so habitual that it gets in the way of “reading,” that seems wrong.

But that’s all very much a digression. This is a shooter videogame with giant monsters. If they want it to be about Sir Walter Raleigh on Mars, obviously that’s fine.

The music is sort of the musical equivalent of steampunk: an “epic” “classical orchestra” “cinematic” soundtrack. But again, this is a vertical shooter, an extremely spaced-out thing, so I have no real problem with that. In fact, I thought the score was very well done, for one of those, with a real sense of craft. Here’s the final boss battle music, which seems to me to be a lot classier than most final boss music.

A nice thing about this genre of game is that progression through each level is pretty much on a fixed timer, so the music can be made to sync up with the game events and actually accompany them. This score takes advantage of that on several occasions, to very good effect, like in level 2, when it starts to rain and then the lost colony of Roanoke is revealed.

Yes, it’s ridiculous.

Jamestown is noted for having very satisfying co-operative play, for up to four people. But I don’t do that so I can’t comment.

Final word: this is a very attractive and polished piece of work. I enjoyed that it was short enough that I got to see it all, hard enough that I had to work at it, easy enough that 5 hours did the trick. Of course, there are more bonus challenges and higher difficulty levels if I want to go back some day and keep upping the ante on myself. Sure, maybe! But maybe not! I appreciate the way it’s all been packaged so that, having seen the ending and the credits, I don’t feel I’m leaving it incomplete, even though there’s plenty more to do if I want there to be. There is, for example, no big “57% completion” display in the main menu, to make sure you feel that you have more to do until you’ve OCDed it to death. I don’t have more to do. I had fun, I’m moving on, and Jamestown is comfortable with that. Like a true friend!

I feel that I here have something worth well more then $0.71. Since I got nothing out of the previous game, I’ll say that I spent $1.42 all on this. Still a good deal!

Before we go: I’ve just been checking out various infamous “bullet hell” sequences on Youtube. Get a load of this one. Good god! Doesn’t the very existence of this make you feel like the entire nation of Japan could use some therapy? Some quiet time? The patterns are beautiful, but the construct is tiny vulnerable you vs. overwhelming cruel cosmic beauty, a flea crushed by a galaxy of awe.

Yeah yeah, I know, there’s a sexual reading to be had too, but they’re actually one and the same.

Basically, submissives and dominants are exactly the same people: the people who carry around a sub/dom dichotomy in their minds. Which side they choose to embody and which one they choose to project is immaterial. The people who make these games — effectively, the people who are spewing out the bullets — are the same people who identify with the player who has to dodge them. Too much deferent investment in the vital importance of authority structures can make you go crazy. That’s a video of what it feels like!

Jamestown was made by three guys in Philadelphia, with help. The main credits as they appear in the game:

Timothy Ambrogi: design, engine, chieftain
Michael Ambrogi: design, art, soldier
Halsted Larsson: design, gameplay, shaman
Francesco ‘Foco’ Cerda: music

March 27, 2015

Gratuitous Space Battles (2009)

I’m not going to include the cover and title screenshot like I usually do, because that would give the false impression that I played this game for more than 17 minutes.

Here’s the standard data and links though:

developed by Positech Games (Lightwater, Surrey, UK)
first published November 17, 2009, for Windows, $22.99

Played for 17 minutes in utter dismay, 3/17/15.

On Tuesday, December 13, 2011, at 2:40 PM I get an email alerting me to the launch of “Humble Indie Bundle 4,” containing seven games, and at 11:14 PM that night, I buy in for $5 = $0.71 per game.

Among the seven games are Cave Story+ and NightSky, both of which I’ve already completed and needn’t revisit. Then there are BIT.TRIP RUNNER and Super Meat Boy, each of which I played for several hours some years ago, but didn’t come close to completing; I’ll be revisiting those at least briefly to see whether they deserve more of my time, because I don’t remember. And then there are Gratuitous Space Battles, Jamestown, and Shank, which I haven’t touched before.

For a long time my pride was “throw anything at me and I will manage to consider it the way it wants to be considered.” That’s the subtext of a lot of this blog. It’s what drove me to start the Western Canon reading project back in 2006; I thought I was ready to read everything because I was ready to be any possible reader.

Now I see that my pride ought to be “throw anything at me and I will manage to consider it as myself.” This is actually the harder task, and far more rewarding.

Molding oneself into the ideal audience member for a given work is a social adjustment, and social adjustment can only give you social rewards. Whereas asocial, existential adjustment gives you the world; you just have to be ready to accept that sometimes it means friction and alienation in relation to things (and people). At least temporarily. In the long run, though, it means your relationships improve, because you’re really in them.

I had learned to will myself to pay attention to any possible book because it felt like it was the skill that would get any possible book to pay attention to me. But it doesn’t work that way. The Western Canon, History, The Hall of Fame, might seem like they demand from us a perfectly agreeable malleability, but actually they just welcome our company, and they’ll be fine if they don’t get it. They never say it out loud, but the invitation is “Come as you are.”

That goes for all culture, high, low, and otherwise.

I am me and I do not want to play Gratuitous Space Battles, not one little bit.

Something I love about movies is that at first you’re just living your life, not watching them, and then they start, and they have to make their case from there. There are titles, and a first image, and first words, and you just sit there with these things in front of you and think whatever you happen to think. Movies have been designed such that by doing no more than this, in time you will end up caring about them, freely and involuntarily. This is a wonderful gift!

A few years ago I was at a bar and a fairly drunk acquaintance of mine, a pinball aficionado, was waxing to me about the particular pinball machine at the back of this bar. He gestured to it, with all its lights and ramps and mechanical gizmos, and said, “It’s a gift, you know? It’s a gift that this exists.”

That’s what all culture is. It’s for you.

So when you get nothing out of it, you’re still doing it right.

In case you didn’t watch the trailer, the gist of Gratuitous Space Battles is: you set up a bunch of spaceships to face off against a bunch of bad-guy spaceships, and then you press “fight” and the battle plays out automatically, and you sit back and watch it and see if you won. So the gameplay is all contained within “you set up a bunch of spaceships.” It basically entails designing the ships by putting weapons and shields and engines and things on them, arranging them on the battlefield, and giving them each elaborate orders. Everything is extensively configurable, and everything comes with lots of “stats” that need to be taken into account. It all comes out of a big ol’ catalog of make-believe technology, and, naturally, it all costs money and must be fit within a budget.

In some ways this is like Frozen Synapse: do intricate prep, and then hit “go” and find out how well you did. But in Frozen Synapse, there are really only a couple options for each soldier, and they all correspond to intuitive real-life stuff: move, stand still, aim, duck: the intricacy arises only from your own anxious effort to find some way of covering all the bases. Also, you’re stuck with the soldiers the game gives you, and have to work with what you got. Here, there are lots and lots of things you can do, a whole catalog’s worth plus lots of pop-up option windows, and they’re all make-believe, and they all cost money, and it’s entirely up to you to pick which ones you want.

Well, I don’t care about that stuff! I’ll play a game, or I’ll watch a story, but I certainly don’t actually personally care which ships I have, or what lasers they have, or how many distance units from the enemy cruisers they should be before firing weapons of however many hit points at whatever fire interval requiring whatever number of crew. That stuff is all just data to me. I don’t actually care about data! I would only suffer through learning it all in order to get to some goal, some kind of locus of human or aesthetic interest.

But right there in the title, the developer is telling us outright: there’s nothing else to care about. There’s just this data for you to assimilate through trial and error; that’s it. The title is a joke, and the joke is: “We all know that it doesn’t really matter what any of this stuff means, so it will be nerd-droll of me to admit it openly. For there to be a ‘point’ would be an insult to your intelligence, am I right?”

In other words, he expects me to see spaceships shooting lasers, and look at this catalog of spaceship add-ons and just start to salivate.

The battles look more or less like Star Trek cut scenes (2D-ified), and the music sounds pretty overtly like the Star Wars prequel soundtracks, and obviously all the jargon of “ion pulse cannons” and whatnot draws on those same traditions. So there are some allusions to a wider world of cultural investment there. But that’s really all you get; that’s the full extent of the game’s sell, its seduction. That stuff is apparently expected to trigger a response so strong that we look at the title and chuckle, “Yeah, ‘gratuitous’ according to respectable rules of culture, but not according to our shared compulsions, we the nerdy few! Ha ha ha: guilty pleasure, decadent inguldence, brain candy, FTW, am I right?”

To that I say, Shut up, lady! I don’t want no part in your stupid repressions.

Is there another kind of person who might have given Gratuitous Space Battles more of a chance and ended up loving it? OBVIOUSLY YES!

If I chose to, could I contort my soul to resemble such a person, and consider the game the way they would? YES, I COULD.

Would I then sound thoughtful and open-minded? SURE, MAYBE, SUPERFICIALLY.

So do I choose to do this? NOT ANYMORE I DON’T!

I started it up, played the tutorial levels for 17 minutes, and knew it was time to go. That’s one of those things you just know, when you’re you.

So that $0.71 was a bust.

But dissatisfaction is the price of freedom. I’ll take it!

March 22, 2015

Jasper’s Journeys (1997/2008)

developed by Lexaloffle Games (Wellington, New Zealand)
original DOS version released 1997
present version first published February 14, 2008, for Windows/Mac, $19.95
[play the entire game in your browser!]
~30 MB

Played to completion in 7.5 hours, 3/11/15–3/18/15.

[30-minute video of the first half of the game. (The only complete playthrough on YouTube is this 2.5-hour one in three parts, which has oppressively heavy player babble throughout.)]

Fifth of the seven games in the “Humble Voxatron Debut,” purchased November 9, 2011.

Everything about this game comes out of the past, but I’m not sure it can be called nostalgia. It seems to have been made in a spirit of genuine anachronism, which suits me fine.

Jasper’s Journeys overtly resembles games from the early 90s, games that I played, but it doesn’t actually depend on the player tapping into those memories; it just creates the same effect those games did. If you visit the same place 20 years apart, you aren’t taking a trip into the past. The place is continuously in the present.

This was another theme covered in that videogame book I drafted: games live eternally and don’t age, so they frustrate nostalgia even as they court it. Boot up Super Mario Bros. and you will see exactly the same thing you saw 30 years ago, which is to say you will not see the passage of time, or yourself, or anything else that’s necessary to sustain a sense of loss. Mario is responding to what you are doing only in this moment, always. Even movies leave more room for dreaming about one’s past viewings, because they go all by themselves. Games don’t; for them to work we need to be in them, which is why we can’t also be in our memories.

When Jasper’s Journeys was first made (by teenagers) in 1996 or so, it was imitative of trends from a few years earlier, as so many amateur productions are. We don’t tend to call that “retro.” When it was revamped in 2008, none of the essential aesthetic choices from the original were changed, because the designer’s tastes hadn’t changed. Since more cultural time has passed, it now becomes “retro” (and he advertises it as such), but really it’s the same thing it always was.

A lot of my fond memories of computer games from my childhood revolve around their eerie selfhood-erasing atmosphere, somewhere between hypnosis and fun. From our present vantage point, it’s tempting to look back at those games and say that a lot of that atmosphere was inadvertent, that it arose from technological limitations and naive aesthetic choices; after all, most of them were designed by technicians rather than artists. But I think that’s wrong. Pop culture in the 80s was full of surreal, somnambulistic stuff; think of all those spacey synthesizers in the pop music of the era. Games that induced a mild spooky trance knew exactly what they were doing, I say. (Hm. This was yet another whole chapter of my book, which again I’d rather not completely repeat/give away here.)

My point is that this game knows what it’s doing, and I put it to you that it’s exactly the same thing its forebears were doing. So it’s like a game from 1992, except a little softer and more polished in some ways.

The very sparse use of music creates an excellent effect, calling attention to the pregnant possibilities of silence. The general absence of music becomes dreamy and ominous. This effect does indeed remind me of Commodore 64 days — but only because I haven’t seen it used since then, not because it is somehow anchored to the 80s or to my childhood. I like it now too. More developers should take note!

To belabor this point further: this is not nostalgia; just the opposite. Nostalgia is an excuse to not learn from the past, because it’s so wrapped up in its pastness. Actually resembling the past means erasing the difference between now and then, which for some psychologies is undesirable. “Retro” fashions are almost always fueled by a smug sense of superiority over the past from which they borrow — undeserved, of course. The idea that we do not actually have any real leg up on the people of the past — that they were not “adorable, but wrong about a lot of things” but were, in fact just like us — can be a hard pill to swallow for a lot of people. I’m actually not sure why. Perhaps because the people of the past are dead, so we’re afraid to see ourselves sitting next to them in the Haunted Mansion mirror?

Anyway, I’m saying that this game has some of that magical subterraneanity I mentioned a few entries ago. This time I’m certain it’s deliberate, and I admire that. I also appreciate that the level design — which really is the soul of most games — has been done with care so that everything counts: secret passages to huge underground chambers; roundabout secondary routes; glimpses of treasure rooms on the very edges of the screen, out of reach; hidden worlds in the clouds directly above the place where you start but accessible only after obtaining the high-jump potion from far away. Large spaces that make the frame of the screen feel like a small bubble against the wide world; a constant sense of pushing outward, exploring, earning new information.

So in terms of feel, spirit, and space, this was something quite charming. And yet there was also a thinness to it, as though it wasn’t really a real game, just someone’s project. Chocolate Castle, by the same developer, had a very similar anachronistic look and feel, but it was also made up of new and excellent puzzles. Jasper’s Journeys is just made up of the stuff it looks like. It’s like the gameplay itself is just another part of this exercise in evoking certain mysterious feelings. And it does evoke those feelings; it just doesn’t do anything much as a game.

The game refuses to be given too much attention. The plot is that you’re an elf or something, and a witch kidnapped your cat. That’s it. At the end the final boss is the witch on a broomstick; otherwise it’s just a bunch of platformer worlds and platformer enemies: jump, get coins, get “fruit,” don’t touch monsters. This constitutes a kind of intentional, affectionate emptiness, which is quaint but also genuinely empty. So there’s a limit on how much I can get out of a thing like this. This is sort of a homey poem, so it ought to be short like a poem. I would have liked to spend about 3 hours with this game rather than 7. It probably didn’t need to be 15 levels long and brimming-full of “secrets” that seemed to need discovering.

But ultimately, even that was okay. The game had the great virtues of being gentle-hearted and, to borrow a word that another site used to describe this developer, earnest. That’s an apt description of the impression the game makes: it is a watery trifle, but made by someone who really cares about watery trifles and has thought a lot about their value.

I’m a big fan of earnestness, which is different from seriousness.

Somehow, this 30 MB game has been packed into a 2 MB zip file for distribution. The main data file is packed at a 92% compression ratio. I’ve never seen such a thing before and have no idea how it was done.

Credits as they appear in the game:

Joseph White: Code, Music
John White: Graphics, Map Design
Tomas Pettersson: Sound

March 17, 2015

Best Original Screenplay 1947: The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer


Winner in the category of WRITING (Original Screenplay) at the 20th Academy Awards, presented Saturday March 20, 1948 at Shrine Civic Auditorium.

The other nominees were:
Body and Soul — Abraham Polonsky
A Double Life — Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin
Monsieur Verdoux — Charles Chaplin
Shoe-Shine — Sergio Amidei, Adolfo Franci, C. G. Viola, Cesare Zavattini

Screen Play
Sidney Sheldon



1MED. SHOT – SHOOTING FROM curb TOWARD Judge Turner’s house.

The house is neither tremendous nor over-elaborate; it is a pleasant one and a half story structure, neat and trim, with a flower bed and a gently sloping green lawn. As the CAMERA TRUCKS UP the walk, the MUSIC follows it in rhythm in a motif of musical footprints that takes us right to the front door. As we reach the front door,



2MED. SHOT – SHOOTING TOWARD kitchen door.

Bessie, an attractive, young negro is setting a dish on the table. CAMERA PANS Bessie as she sets the dish on the table and the electric clock begins tinkling the stroke of eight. When she hears the clock, CAMERA PANS with her as she hurries out of the dining room and starts toward the stairs. CAMERA TRUCKS with Bessie as she reaches the lower step of the short flight leading to the bedroom corridor. CAMERA HOLDS as she continues up the steps.

First line in film:

– Miss Susan!

ADAM Everyone in that movie was more charming than I thought they were going to be. I thought Shirley Temple was going to be sort of a dope, but actually she seemed to be more sophisticated than I gave her credit for. Bravo, Shirley Temple.

BETH Well, you know, she’s been in show business since the age of three, so she knows what to do.

ADAM She reminded me of Justin Bieber.

BROOM You know who she reminded me of.

BETH Yes, we do. It was really witty, I thought.

ADAM Yeah, wittier than I thought it was going to be when it started.

BETH When it started, it felt like a Disney cartoon, where the music was doing all of the work.

BROOM When four different windows got “funny window-opening music.” I think that was standard for opening cues, in a lot of these movies, where the composer felt like, “I’m going to explain what kind of movie this is, at the outset.”

ADAM And then the black maid was like, “Good mornin’, Miss Susan!” and was grinning from ear to ear, and I was like, “What’s going on.”

BROOM You didn’t realize that was going to be her only scene. You thought we were gonna see a lot of her.

ADAM She was like when Lucille Ball has her name written on the soles of her shoes, when she plays the corpse.

BROOM I don’t know what that refers to.

ADAM It’s a scene from I Love Lucy where Lucy Ricardo has a scene in a movie. She’s determined to make the most of it; she’s going to play a corpse. So she writes her name on the bottom of her shoes.

BROOM I just meant that they gave such attention to the maid at the beginning that you thought, “Oh, the maid’s going to be her confidante; she’s going to be privy to all the comic goings-on.” But she just disappeared after she woke the characters up.

ADAM So there was no Woman of the Year-style wink, at all, to the fact that Margaret Turner is a judge.

BROOM Absolutely there was, in the opening, when the maid says, “If you don’t wake up, I’m gonna get the judge,” and then she goes to wake up the judge, whose head you can’t see because of a lampshade…

ADAM I understand that they play with your expectations that it’s not going to be a woman, but there’s no actual discussion of the fact that Margaret Turner is a judge: how she got to be a judge…

BROOM She got to be a judge because her uncle was a judge, or she came from a family of attorneys, or whatever…

ADAM I understand how she got there, but it played it pretty cool about the fact that she was a lady judge. Which I liked. She did remind me of Judge [REDACTED].

BETH I couldn’t tell if that was a sarcastic comment or not, when you made it.

ADAM No, actually; she does kind of remind me of Judge [REDACTED]. You can blank that out in the transcript. You can just say Judge…

BROOM Reinhold.

ADAM That birthday sequence obviously was the best.

BROOM The director and the screenwriter were clearly, like, “We’re going to earn this scene where everything goes crazy.” Farce!

ADAM A lot of it was fun. When Cary Grant pretends to be a juvenile to try to lose Susan’s affection, it’s pretty funny. When Susan is using the elevated vocabulary, that’s pretty funny.

BROOM Was he doing that to lose her affections? The slang and the costume?

ADAM Yeah, I thought he was trying to reverse-psychologize her.

BROOM I thought it was just a kind of, like…

BETH Giving a middle finger to the whole situation.

BROOM Yeah. “You want me to play the role, then here you go.” Because she actually was into it. She was having a great time that day.

BETH I think his whole objective was to make her not like him, and he was just trying anything he could think of.

ADAM As you might.

BROOM As you might under these rather unusual circumstances. I thought this was strikingly, like, serenely divorced from any conception of reality. Early on, I had a few thoughts… The movies that have won for screenplay seem to be things that have good repartee but are sloppy about other things; like here when the bellboy’s like, “I’ll help you, I’m fifteen.” “I’m seventeen.” “Well, I like older women.” And then he gets up to the apartment with her and immediately says, “Well I have work to do, goodbye.” I thought, “What a terrible line. You could have gotten rid of that character any way you wanted, and this is so stupid and unmotivated.” But then a few minutes later, I started to understand that the whole movie was just a series of events, and that was okay.

ADAM It certainly accelerated toward the end. In the first fifteen minutes, I was like, “What? What are we watching? What is this nonsense?”

BROOM True nonsense.

ADAM But then it got better.

BROOM I know this is a little after the era of the true “screwball,” but this was essentially a screwball comedy. It was just loopy-loo.

BETH It was great.

ADAM I don’t think I’ve ever seen Myrna Loy in anything. But she was super funny, and pretty, and engaging. She deserves to be famous.

BROOM You should see the Thin Man movies. She was hotter then.

ADAM She’s Nora Charles?


BETH Yeah, when I first saw her here I thought, “Oh, I thought you were sexier,” but it was ten years later.

ADAM She was pretty sexy, actually.

BROOM She was sexy for “an ice-cold judge.”

ADAM Is this the first time a lady judge has been featured in American popular culture?

BROOM I don’t know; maybe. Do you want to look that up under the “Female Judges in Popular Culture” category page on Wikipedia?

ADAM You know the only Wikipedia page I ever created was for America’s first female district court judge, Burnita Shelton Matthews.

BROOM Did you have an “In Popular Culture” section?

ADAM She became a federal judge right around this time, actually.

BROOM Do you want me to redact the name of the article?

ADAM No, of course not.

BROOM You want me to link to it.

[ADAM shows off the Burnita Shelton Matthews article]

ADAM She became a district court judge in 1949.

BROOM Maybe inspired by this movie.

BETH So you do have a connection, ADAM.

ADAM So there may have been state court judges before this…

BETH You have two connections: one to the lady judge, and one to dating a much older person in high school.

BROOM So this movie was a fantasy, of a thing that had never happened, like a movie with a female president.

ADAM I’m saying, Burnita Shelton Matthews was a federal court judge; there were probably state court judges before that. But probably not a lot; it was probably single digits.

BETH Maybe the war had brought them in, somehow.

ADAM And they certainly didn’t look like Myrna Loy.

BROOM I don’t know; her Wikipedia picture looks a little like Myrna Loy.

ADAM I liked Myrna Loy’s suit. I liked her hair. I liked her eyebrows.

BROOM Sure. She’s got a very distinctive nose. No other actress has had that nose.

ADAM Yes, her nose and her chin were, like, the same. I liked when uncle Thaddeus got angry about all the door-slamming.

BROOM And threw the chess pieces.

ADAM I liked the name of the other couple that had the birthday. I liked the fact that the angry couple got their cake delivered in the middle of the argument.

BETH That was a great scene.

BROOM I laughed hard during that scene; I laughed out loud for real, not a charity stupid movie laugh.

ADAM I liked the timeworn gag of “My patient thinks he’s the assistant district attorney.” Spoiler alert.

BROOM Yeah, that’s always a great one!

ADAM I liked the repeated repartee of “You remind me of a man.” “What man?” It was stupid, but…

BROOM Is this the source of that?

ADAM I didn’t know it was a “that.” Is that a “that”?

BROOM Because if it’s not a “that,” when it’s introduced it’s extremely strange. And I know it from Labyrinth, where David Bowie used it in a song he sings. Clearly there as a reference to something from an old movie. I guess this is the old movie, but in the context of the movie it sure seems like it’s supposed to be a pre-existing routine.

BETH I bet it’s a reference even in this movie.

BROOM Yeah, it’s like it’s being presented as “the kind of doggerel that the kids of the 40s are saying.”

ADAM What is it? [googling]

BROOM “You remind me of a man.” “What man?” “The man with the power…”

ADAM That goes directly to “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.”

BROOM So it was coined for this movie, huh?

ADAM Yeah. The first five links are all to The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.

BROOM OHHH, so the reference in Labyrinth is that he’s an older man and she’s a teenage girl, and he’s sort of courting her in a dream world. Except he says “You remind me of the babe.

[reads from the Wikipedia article on Bachelor under “Influence“]

BROOM It’s a very strange bit of patter, because it’s in the context of him using a lot of slang and being a teenager, and Susan immediately latches on to it and does the other part perfectly. So I thought it was supposed to be that this is a thing that contemporary kids say to each other.

BETH Which it might have been.

BROOM Well, not according to Wikipedia, which you’d think would know.

BETH Well, it could have been a thing that was in Hollywood culture… some kind of teen culture. This felt like the first movie about teenagers. Where, you know, she was such a teenager.

BROOM I think there were always movies about teenagers, but we don’t watch them anymore because they were junk.

ADAM I don’t know. This was certainly the first one in our catalogue.

BROOM You mean teenagers as we think of teenagers now.

BETH Yeah.

ADAM “Golly gee!”

BETH Like All the Cats Join In, like I said during the movie. It felt like the exact same era. They go to a juke joint and it looks just like the cartoon. And they get in the car like in the cartoon. That kid, Jerry, looks just like the cartoon version of Jerry.

BROOM They also go to Family Fun Night, or whatever that was.

ADAM If Shirley Temple knows that they’re in Jerry’s car, then what good is that? That’s why I assumed that he was putting on this ridiculous persona to try to lose her: because he intentionally takes the worst car.

BETH Right. I think he wants to make a bad impression on everyone, so they’ll all encourage her…

ADAM He rolls up his pant leg in an asymmetrical way. I don’t have a lot of deep thoughts about this movie, but I did enjoy it.

BETH I did too.

BROOM As did I.

ADAM If it was on AMC I would unreservedly recommend watching it.

BETH It felt jubilant in a post-war way. It felt like, “We’re free!”

ADAM “Dere ain’t no Nazis in dis movie!”

BROOM Yeah, I mean, the joke where Jerry wants pity because he’s gotten drafted, and Susan says, “The war’s over, Jerry,” and he says, “Well, I might fall on my bayonet.” I thought, “Wow, that’s really indicative of a new mood.” You know, nowadays, we’d…

ADAM “Is this how you treat a veteran?”

BROOM Well, we’d feel like, “Is this how you treat your veterans, by putting such a joke in your movie?” About how there’s nothing dangerous anymore. But that was exactly the attitude after World War II: yes, there’s nothing dangerous anymore or ever again. That all happened last year.

BETH It’s so over.

BROOM “We can totally make jokes about how being drafted is a nothing.” But that felt like a strange beat to me.

ADAM I think probably people were less solemn because their feelings were less out in the open, in the forties. Maybe this is just my pop psychologizing, but it seemed like veterans who returned from the war, instead of talking about it ad infinitum as they would now, they not-talked about it, which was better form. I mean, not in an absolute sense, but in the sense at the time. You know, they didn’t talk about it until fifty years later, when Saving Private Ryan came out. But at this point, everyone was just, like, “Gee whiz! Let’s move on!”

BROOM I have noted — I probably brought this up during the Disney project but that’s so many years ago now, that we were watching movies from this era! — that when I put together these playlists on Spotify of the top Billboard-charting songs from each decade, I think I took 20 from each year, I was really struck in going through those that in the immediate post-war years, the late 40s-early 50s, very suddenly all this completely infantile garbage was popular. Like, not true innocence but a put-on baby-talk innocence. Like, “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” is the best of these songs. That was like a number one hit!

ADAM Avoidance as opposed to wallowing.

BROOM Yeah, a kind of avoidance. Which then became that 50s thing, of institutional “Everything is Great!!!” Denial really seemed to be the primary form of postwar celebration in the mass culture.

ADAM Well, they seemed to live in a sunny California that had no relation to any political or social trend of any kind. I mean, he was an artist, but he didn’t actually produce or interact with any art of any kind, at all. And he had no evidence of having been in the war, even though he was 35. So, yeah, it seemed willfully pleasant.

BETH How old was he really? He looked older than that, didn’t he?

BROOM I think he was older than that.

ADAM How old was she? Was she 35? Because if so that makes me feel terrible about myself.

BROOM The actress?

ADAM No, the judge.

BROOM The character, or Myrna Loy?

ADAM The character.

BROOM There’s no way of knowing how old the character was!

ADAM Well, Shirley Temple said, “When I’m 42, he’ll be 60,” and we know she’s 17.

BROOM Yes, that’s how we determine how old he was, but there’s no way of knowing how old she was.

ADAM But the judge must have been younger, because it would be inconceivable for an older woman to be with a younger man in a Hollywood movie.

BROOM But she was a judge!

BETH [has looked it up] Myrna Loy was 37. No wait, she was more than that, I’m sorry.

BROOM [looks it up] She was 42.

ADAM She was 42 in that role?

BETH Cary Grant was 43, playing 35.

[we read various tidbits about Myrna on Wikipedia]

BROOM Here’s what’s actually interesting to read on Wikipedia. The person who won an Academy Award for this movie, that we’re ostensibly celebrating here, is Sidney Sheldon, born Schechtel, who is the Sidney Sheldon.

ADAM The romance writer? ‘Cause when that flashed on the screen, I was like, “Really??”

[we read from his Wikipedia page, noting that in addition to writing this movie and his many bestselling novels, he also created The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie]

ADAM Well, this definitely seemed to have a cousinship with The Patty Duke Show. She seemed like she “loves to rock and roll, a hot dog makes her lose control; what a wild duet.”

BROOM I never watched The Patty Duke Show. Did she speak in highflown language like Shirley Temple does here?

BETH Well there’s two.

ADAM “Our Cathy adores a minuet, the Ballets Russes, and crêpe Suzette; our Patty loves to rock and roll, a hot dog—”

BROOM Uh-huh, yeah, I got it. So you’re saying she was like Patty?

ADAM Well, she was like Patty but she also had touches of Cathy. At the beginning, I forget all the things she said in highfalutin’ tones, but…

BROOM She had one line that was so highfalutin’ that I couldn’t follow it.

ADAM Yeah, this seemed to have almost nothing to say about social trends or anything. But maybe that’s the point. Certainly nothing about race or gender, particularly. Even though a movie about a woman judge really should have something to say about gender, and it didn’t. Other than that a lady judge also looks pretty in a dress.

BROOM [reading from the Sidney Sheldon article:] “Most of his readers were women. Asked why this was the case he said: ‘I like to write about women who are talented and capable, but most important, retain their femininity. Women have tremendous power — their femininity, because men can’t do without it.’

ADAM “Hubba, hubba!” Well Beth, let that be a lesson. To everyone.

BROOM I guess. He’s the one who invented the female judge, as you point out.

BETH Should we find the review? I don’t have anything else to say.

ADAM I don’t have a lot to say either.

[we read the New York Times review]

ADAM Maybe having a woman judge in this movie was like having a black woman judge on TV in the 90s, on Law and Order. [reads:] “Florence Allen became both the first woman to be elected to the positions of general jurisdiction court in 1920 and the first female state appellate judge through her election to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1922. She later became the first female federal appellate judge, appointed to the 6th Circuit in 1933.” So actually she was on the bench 10 years before Burnita Shelton Matthews.

BROOM Going into this, I thought the whole idea of making a movie on this premise was going to be sleazy. “I know, the man and the teenage girl will be forced into compromising situations, and we’ll come up with some excuse to put it onscreen by having everyone keep saying it’s a bad idea.” But the movie was genuinely so bizarre that…

BETH It wasn’t salacious in any way.

BROOM It really managed to put me at my ease. I genuinely couldn’t imagine any Hollywood producer having a secret salacious reason for putting this together.

ADAM Even when she wakes up in his apartment?

BROOM She’s remarkably sexless, for a pretty teenage girl.

BETH That’s what I was about to say. Think about 17-year-old girls now, and how much they would come on to someone, to the equivalent of Cary Grant. George Clooney. If you made this movie today with George Clooney and some hot 17-year-old.

BROOM Well, you’d cast Ellie Kemper, naturally. I mean, of course now she’s 34 years old, or whatever she is.

BETH But she’s also the sexless equivalent. She has made herself in that image.

BROOM Yes, I know. She is exactly the same as teenage Shirley Temple.

ADAM It would be Selena Gomez.

BROOM She’s not sexless, though; doesn’t she date Justin Bieber?

ADAM I know, I know.

BROOM Who do we have? We don’t really have bright-eyed youth, anymore. That’s how Ellie found her niche, but now she’s too old.

ADAM Dora the Explorer.

BETH I’m sure there’s someone from the Disney Channel.

BROOM There’s Jane The Virgin. She’s a virgin, I gather.

ADAM Or Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap.

BETH Sure, but she was like 13 in that movie.

BROOM How old was Shirley here, actually? This was one of her last movies. [we look it up:] 18 or 19.

[we then read more about Shirley Temple and Myrna Loy and the conversation drifts pretty far afield, but then comes around to:]

ADAM I mean, why do we think Cary Grant wouldn’t have liked having this girl have a crush on him?

BROOM That’s why you’d make a remake: you’d just make him gay.

ADAM But then who’s he into?

BROOM The judge is a man!

ADAM That sort of fore-ordains the ending.

BROOM So did this! I mean, you could change it around. You could have him be into the school principal or something. But had he been gay, it would have been…

ADAM Just as plausible.

BROOM Well, the central situation would be more plausible. It would have been very cleanly, like, “She has a crush on you, and you need to learn to take other people’s feelings seriously.” Because why wasn’t he at all interested in her?

BETH Because he’s Cary Grant! It really was playing on the fact that he was Cary Grant.

BROOM I enjoyed the line “I wouldn’t say this to many people, but I’m old enough to be your father.” On the one hand, the joke is, the people have to be young enough for him to say that to them, but on the other hand, the joke is, most young girls coming on to him, he wouldn’t be inclined to stop.

BETH Yeah, so it’s something about her. The two personas, and how they conflict.

BROOM Do you think she was really editor of the school paper?

ADAM Probably. If she was in high school in 1947, that means she would be 80-something today.

BROOM Weren’t you going to find out what happened to Jimmy?

[we read about the life of Johnny Sands… then debate whether to skip 1948 because no “best original screenplay” was awarded… we decide not to skip the year; stay tuned for details]

Last lines in film:

– You remind me of a man.
– What man?
– The man with the power.
– What power?
– The power of hoodoo.
– Who do?
– You do.
– Do what?
– Remind me of a man.
– What man?
– The man with the power. Give up?
– Give up. Let’s go.


I believe this is the first year in a while for which I absolutely cannot find the Academy Awards ceremony radio broadcast, which dismays me. I don’t see it listed in any OTR (“Old Time Radio”) resources, so I wonder if it’s simply not available outside of the Academy library. If anyone reading this wants to point me toward a copy online, that would be appreciated. Here’s the only available clip that I can find: the best supporting actor presentation.

Furthermore, the rather spotty speech database contains several speeches from the ceremony, but not this category. Phooey!

Here’s what there is: newsreel footage of highlights from the ceremony.

March 15, 2015

Gish (2004)

developed by Chronic Logic (Santa Cruz, CA)
first published May 4, 2004, for Windows, $19.95
[original website, current website]
~175 MB

Played through first two (of five) zones, got fed up in 3-1, in 2 hours, 3/8/15—3/12/15.

Fourth of the seven games in the “Humble Voxatron Debut,” purchased November 9, 2011.

I’ve said before that I don’t much care for “physics” as a feature attraction — it just exposes how limited and artificial our control schemes are. Gish doesn’t go the full QWOP, but it does basically consist of wrangling with the controls. Want to make the blob jump and stick to the wall? Great, but can you? Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.

Dexterity puzzles have always been a touchy business. They’re designed to be used a certain way, but they’re also designed to be frustratingly hard to use that way, which goes against the spirit of “design.” What constitutes a well-designed frustration and what constitutes frustratingly poor design? It’s in the eye of the beholder, naturally. But it does help that marble labyrinths and the like are physical, so our struggles with them are genuinely part of our lifelong struggles with physical existence. Video games can’t claim that.

I suppose all platform games are dexterity puzzles of a sort — want to get Mario across the gap? great, but can you? — but to the player there’s a big difference between a game where the challenge seems to be in the character’s environment and one where the challenge seems to be in the controls. I guess that’s really just a measure of how fluent the player is in the controls. Perhaps with enough time, QWOP would really feel trivial, since there are no actual impediments to be overcome. (Actually not true — if you get good enough in it, I’m led to understand that there are hurdles somewhere way down the track.)

But this is the process of learning anything: what is at first a challenge gradually becomes a method, for addressing oneself to the next challenge. Mastery creates transparency. A kid has considerable trouble staying upright on a bicycle, but cycling competitions are not about facility at staying upright. Cycling competitions are based on having completely forgotten that it was ever a discrete task at all.

I try to remind myself of this when I come up against something difficult while playing the piano: yes, it is difficult for me right now and I aspire for it to be easy in the future, but it’s important to envision that properly. The goal is not some kind of glorious triumph over the difficulty; the goal is for the thing itself to have ceased to be a discrete “thing,” such that I am once again only aware of music.

This is what “leveling up” in games is supposed to represent, and why it fails. Real leveling up, in life, feels like always being on the ground floor; difficulty rolls out of existence beneath you while your experience stays center. I aspire to play the piano with such effortless facility that I am unaware of that facility as even constituting a phenomenon, and the only object is the music itself.

What happens to a video game when one gets this good at it, so good that one can always simply do whatever one wants, effortlessly and without awareness of the possibility of “difficulty”? Does the game disappear? I say no, because there is content in video games, and it’s this content that interests me in the first place. But to many people it seems the answer is yes, which is why we have all these “achievements” and “speedruns” and high score competitions: things to do after you’re too fluent for the game to exist as such. The idea there is: without resistance there is no being. I disagree.

Let me respond directly to this video by the guy who (probably) put Gish in the Humble Bundles in the first place — this is the same guy who made a similar video extolling the control scheme of Hammerfight, if you remember that one.

He talks about “shallow controls” vs. “deep controls,” which probably wouldn’t irk me as terminology if I agreed that “deep” controls were inevitably superior, but I don’t. In his words: “Gish has deep controls, because they work at a level below what you explicitly intend to do.” The implication is that this makes them more rewarding, because when one engages with something at this subintentional/subconscious level, the experience becomes more full. The problem here, as I see it, is that the subrational mind is a very slow learner and requires much greater time investment to find its footing — an investment for which most games aren’t ready to take responsibility. They are after all just games. It’s akin to saying that Swahili is “deep” where a cryptogram is “shallow.” Absolutely it is, but that’s exactly why I wouldn’t learn Swahili for fun while I’m eating breakfast. It’s better as a language and much worse as a puzzle. Which is Gish?

More of his words: “In most games you have a ‘use’ button, and if you press it while near a switch, you flip it. However, in Gish, you have to physically move it from one position to another. This is more work, but it’s fun because there’s so many different ways to do it. You can stick to it and pull it, or become heavy and push it, or knock an object into it.” My words: Why is ‘different ways to do something’ fun? We have all those same options in relation to real switches — do you have fun flipping them? In fact, we have all those options in relation to real everything — do you have fun doing everything?

If so, great! I’d like to have fun doing everything.

His words: “The physics-based controls are almost impossible to master, so they’re great for multiplayer.”

My words: Yeah, that’s probably so; struggling to cope with the same arbitrary system can bring people closer together. That’s also exactly why they’re not great for single player vs. computer world, which is how I was playing.

So what is the content of Gish? It’s recognizably an Edmund McMillen game — the eager adolescent juxtaposition of cuteness and brutality — and also very clearly an earlier effort. Things feel a little diffuse and repetitive, and the design isn’t tight or polished. It feels like “Yeah dude, we made a game!” 2004 was, I think, right at the beginning of the rise of small independent game development as a mainstream cultural force, sort of like the late 80s were for movies (the Sex, Lies and Videotape era). This game has some remnants of the previous, less self-respecting era, when there were no “indie” games in a hip sense, just amateur games, underground games. This is sort of a grunge game.

Listen to the music: doesn’t it sound like the game is probably from 1993? Maybe it’s just that that’s the era when I was made aware of Mr. Bungle, whose sound this is.

Anyway, as far as meaning goes, I didn’t believe that I was really supposed to care about Gish the blob of tar and his human girlfriend — certainly I wasn’t supposed to care about them as much as I did about the gameplay. It all seemed deliberately like something that someone doodles and then explains in retrospect. Don’t get me wrong; I love that kind of creativity, and some of the best games have been just that! But it means the “story” and the “setting” were meant to be secondary. And as I said, the content is generally what interests me in the first place. Not a lot to see here: just physics and a goofy attitude. So, with no ill will at all, I think that means I’m done.

If I had spent more time with it, might I have gotten more fluent? Well, sure! Same with Swahili, but it hasn’t happened yet. There has to be a reason, you see?

Here’s a postmortem article; always sort of interesting even when I don’t care much about the game.

The basic credits are:

Edmund McMillen: design, art
Alex Austin, Josiah Pisciotta: design, programming
Game Audio Magic (Tim Smolens & Jeff Attridge): sound, music

Plus a few.

March 14, 2015

The Binding of Isaac (2011)

developed by Edmund McMillen (Santa Cruz, CA) and Florian Himsl (Innsbruck, Austria)
first released September 28, 2011, for Windows/Mac (November 1, 2011, for Linux), $4.99
[online demo]
~310 MB

Played to 63 deaths, but still haven’t reached “Mom” once, in 11 hours, 3/6/15–3/14/15.

[Video of the game intro. And then, well, here are the first 200 of one guy’s 980 video playthroughs; that oughta get you started.]

Third of the seven games in the “Humble Voxatron Debut,” purchased November 9, 2011.

My comments here tend toward the psychoanalytical… but this game cries out so noisily and self-consciously to be psychoanalyzed that I don’t wanna. But I’ll probably end up anyway.

The Binding of Isaac is a dead-baby-joke alienation test from the designer:

“You’re going to think I’m a sick freak, and abandon me, when I show you this!!! or this!!! Yeah, because this is the kind of dark stuff that only the right kind of people, wounded weirdos like me, will ever really understand. Sickens you, doesn’t it? Well that’s what life is like for me, so just think about that, as you run away in disgust.”

That’s the script. But in fact this game turned out to be incredibly popular with a wide audience. Which just goes to show: the script is the damage.

At the same time, all those people who’ve played this game for hundreds of hours despite all its blood and piss and shit and maggots and aborted fetuses are being drawn subtly into its circle of gleeful woundedness, where desensitization is a badge of honor. “Yeah yeah, it’s gross, but that’s the point. The game is actually kind of awesome.” Over the 11 hours I logged with this thing, I got there too. “Yeah yeah.”

Part of the reason the game failed to fail as it was intended to is because this stuff is done from a very genuine place of woundedness, so it doesn’t actually feel resentful or particularly confrontational. It’s just distasteful in a simple, direct way, which isn’t that challenging a thing.

Having seen Indie Game: The Movie (streaming on Netflix!) I have a very clear sense of what type Edmund McMillen is. His “freak flag” alienation impulse is genuine and open-hearted and a little mushy; all his cute and cuddly cartoons of neotenous maggots and intestinal heaps come from a part of himself that he holds sacred, and that sweet sentimentality comes through. The game is as real and undiluted as a stapled zine.

The design of the gameplay is similarly heartfelt, a lovingly simple recreation of the dungeons from The Legend of Zelda, populated with an endless catalog of giddy gross-out nightmares. It’s all integrated tightly and works the way it’s supposed to; you can feel a deep intuition for video games behind it. It’s a very fully-realized personal vision from a guy whose foundational life-image is of being a kid sitting in the basement exploring the mysteries of Nintendo worlds, feeling the terror of fathomless social alienation swirling around him in the shadows. There’s a whole generation of such people; I knew plenty of them growing up. And I can of course relate in part, though my personal brand of alienation was that I didn’t trust such people, whose fears ruled them and clouded their eyes. People who, in this very way, resembled me.

Perhaps it really all just came down to the fact that I didn’t have a Nintendo and listened to music that truly nobody else I knew listened to, so even the idea of a community united under some existing freak flag wasn’t available to me. But the defining thing about those communities seemed always, as here, to be outsiderdom itself, and I never liked the idea that my pain was what would unite me with others. Victimhood had no appeal to me as a secret handshake, and still doesn’t. Happiness should be the secret handshake!

I get that below the surface, that’s what’s being offered here too: “Regardless of what the normals say, we know that it doesn’t matter if you play a game where you shoot tears at maggots that spit blood! It doesn’t matter if the goal in the game is to kill your mom before she murders you! We’re free from taboo here! We know that it doesn’t matter, because life is actually good and the universe is actually merciful.” Right, good for you and the Marquis de Sade that you found your way there through the pile of shit you’re obsessed with. I don’t want to take that away from anyone who needs it. But I can’t help wishing I wasn’t surrounded by people who needed it.

This is by far the most “The Aristocrats”-style gross-out game I can think of, but it’s characteristic of a broad wounded-adolescent strain in “indie” game culture (and “indie” comedy too, and probably other things). “Indie” tends to mean “misunderstood”/”the little guy”/”the outsider,” with all the attendant baggage. I wish it didn’t. Independence is freedom! Independence is power!

The Binding of Isaac is definitely compelling, but only within a mindset completely devoid of freedom and power. You get hooked on it only in that zone that floats between content and form. The content is willfully distasteful, and the form is bare bones: what’s left to care about is only the unhealthy stuff, the compulsion, the addiction. My first two minutes of play were a big shrug: “This seems like a dumb little mini-game, just a gonzo riff on Zelda without anything else to offer.” The remaining eleven hours were a stepping back from the attentiveness of that shrug. One becomes numbly eager to unlock, progress, endlessly see it on through to whatever fate it decrees.

Basically, this game is a construct entirely of the stuff I have complained about in previous entries: catalogs and upgrades and leveling up and collectibles and achievements. That stuff is the heart of the game, and it has all been crafted with love by a guy who does love it.

This thinks of itself as a player-loving game, a generous game, a gamer’s game, but it’s only speaking to a certain psychology, and not the healthy one. Talk about a Skinner box! You are literally trapped like a rat in a series of boxes, doing the same things over and over and getting prizes, at unpredictable intervals. Is there a coin in this pile of poop? No. In this one? No. In this one? No. In this one? No. In this one? Yes!

The game is pure conditioning. The way it works is, each time you start it up, the ‘dungeon’ and its contents are randomly generated, and you win or lose within about half an hour (usually lose). Then the journey can only start again, completely from scratch. But the more you play and the further you manage to get, the more goodies get thrown into the pot of elements that might show up. The game itself “levels up” as your devotion deepens. But it never stops being random, unpredictable, circular, endless, truly Sisyphean.

We tend to think of the scientist having contempt for his poor rats, but what if he loves them and is trying to show them a good time? What if he’s a rat himself? When that rat in the box grows up, still carrying the conditioning with it, it will have fond memories and want to offer that precious experience to others. “Here, my child, into the box! You’re gonna love this; I know I did.”

Edmund McMillen wants us all to have the same magical experiences of discovery, frustration, exploration, and achievement that he remembers having as a kid, so he’s built this awesome box. See link above for the YouTube guy with 980 videos (1345 and counting if you include the remade version from last year). I’m not sure it’s possible to have a genuine cultural experience 980 times; anything you do that many times is more like a bodily function.

I absolutely fell for it and felt the magical tug of the slot machine that pays off just often enough — hell, this one even pays off a little more than that! (There are in fact such slot machines depicted inside the game. The first time you encounter one, it gives you a string of good luck to get you hooked. After that the odds drop off. The designer thinks this is cruel and funny, but he also thinks it’s genuine fun. What’s the difference, right?)

I am able to walk away now in great part because I’m just not very good at the core mechanic of this game: moving around in four directions while shooting in four directions. I bump into stuff all the time and don’t react accurately under pressure. I don’t have reliable instincts, even after 11 hours of play. My impression from the achievement stats on Steam is that most people who’ve played as long as I have have seen the end at least once. So, great, I think that means I can stop.

Leftover meanderings:

The empty embrace of “sick” stuff can really piss me off. People are distressingly happy to buy and sell “burning kinky resentment of conformity” as a conformist commodity. In the long run, that’s just more repression they’re buying into. Little though we want to accept it, nonconformity will never feel socially-approved. It’s the opposite by definition. The real thing will necessarily always feel lonely and dangerous and there’s no way of doing an end run around that. So embracing a readymade “freak” identity is always going to be counterproductive. All the more your resentment will burn and your kinks will kink further… and all the more you’ll think you’re exactly in the market for the next package of “think different.” It’s a vicious cycle.

Is there anybody who doesn’t absolutely revile those “Just the right amount of wrong” casino ads? What does “wrong” mean, here? A girl dancing? People kissing in the elevator? What are you talking about? The slogan should be “Exactly as inhibited as you.” Yeah, baby! There’s nothing hotter than reinforcing one’s own inhibitions. Mm, I’ve been such a naughty, naughty human being. Only virgins know how dirty sex is; only the poor know how filthy it is to be rich. Only the repressed know how titillatingly glamorous agency is. Ooh-la-la!

I have never played “Cards Against Humanity” but everything about it makes me angry. “A party game for horrible people.” “Ha ha oh man this is perfect for sick fucks like us!” Hey, “sick fuck,” the cards are pre-printed with those punchlines, and the game is incredibly popular, so how cheeky and deviant are you really? TGIF, you wild and crazy guy, you!

Plus the interchangeable “sick” punchlines are all designed to play to standard Sarah Silverman mock-inverted liberalism, which isn’t actually any sort of freethinking, but actually a force for puritanical PC. “Ha ha ha, oh man, abuse racism sexism rape privilege, good times, good times!” and then everyone laughs a nervous laugh and crosses themselves.

Basically this is an Edmund McMillen joint, programmed by Florian Himsl. (This post-mortem by McMillen is somewhat interesting.)

The credits as they appear in the game:

A game by: Edmund McMillen (Art Stuff), Florian Himsl (Programer) [sic]
Music by: Danny Baranowsky!
Sound FX by: Jordan Fehr
Voiced by: Matthias Bossi

March 11, 2015

Blocks That Matter (2011)


developed by Swing Swing Submarine (Montpellier, France)
first published May 12, 2011, for Xbox 360, 240MSP (Microsoft Points) (=$3)
PC version first published August 19, 2011 for Windows/Mac (October 11, 2011 for Linux), $4.99
[Xbox trailer, better PC trailer]

Played to completion of the story and then some, in 12.5 hours, 3/1/15—3/5/15.

(i.e.: Completed all 40 story levels; got the “Blocks that matter” in 39 levels (the last one is an infuriating split-second-timing thing that I got sick of trying); got the gold star in 18 levels; unlocked 13 of the 20 “bonus levels,” completed 11; completed all 10 of the “chocolate” levels.)

I have now played my way entirely through the 9/30/11 purchase. Chronicle of my purchasing history continues:

On 10/31/11, I get an email announcing a new Humble Bundle: the “Humble Voxatron Debut,” initially containing only Voxatron. I don’t bite. Then the next day it’s updated: now it also features Blocks That Matter and The Binding of Isaac. Still don’t bite. Then a week later, 11/9/11, there’s a second update, adding four more games, one of which is Chocolate Castle, an obscure title that I had previously read about somewhere as a must-play game for puzzle aficionados and had considered buying, but had been turned off by the full price. So this was my chance. At 10:20 PM I bought the bundle of seven games for $5.50 (to beat an average price that had apparently gone above $5), which comes to $0.79 per game.

Three of the games (Voxatron, Chocolate Castle, and Zen Puzzle Garden) I played sufficiently at the time that I don’t need to return now. (I did in fact finish Chocolate Castle, which lived up to the recommendation.) The other four have remained untouched and it is now my project to touch them. Beginning with Blocks That Matter.

This game pleased me deeply and I don’t think the reason can be put into words, but here are some words.

It had that magic that I always want to find in games, where the music, the graphics, the sounds, and the interactivity all cohere into a single aesthetic murmance. While playing, I consistently fell into that state of mind where, in every element of experience, more seems implicit. Some unknown, ineffable more. What is behind this “room”? What is just beyond the edge of the screen? What texture would I see if I could look at these blocks up close, if I were really inside this space, contained by it? It’s not so much that I specifically ask myself these questions; it’s that my mind enters a state where such questions become fundamental. I am parsing the experience in feeling.

My current philosophy is that entering this rewarding, humming state of mind needn’t be a matter of waiting for the right “triggers”; it’s something I can learn to will (or at least learn to allow at times when I might previously have resisted). And I’m learning. But there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the benefits of triggering stimuli when one comes across them.

What are they in particular, here? I don’t know! I only know what I feel.

What I feel is that first and foremost the music taps into that place very assuredly. The whole soundtrack exudes a feeling of enclosed space, that special underground quality that video games can have. It’s in the easy steadiness of the compositions, but particularly in all those muted back-of-the-head sounds: I somehow feel the music in the nape of my neck. A few years ago I wrote a draft of a book-length essay on related topics, and maybe I’ll return to it someday, so I guess that’s enough on that for now.

Then somehow blending with that impression is the visual style. The lines are somehow too thick to be “cool,” too straight to be “cute,” too inaccurate to be “clean.” They make the space feel alive the way my own doodles feel alive to me, the doodler. It’s not that the images are particularly good; it’s that they’re themselves and not selling anything else, a quality they share exactly with an eraser on your desk, when your eye comes to rest on it and you fall into a dream.

Then little touches: the whole screen has been vignetted, with the periphery falling gently into shadow. The little robot bounces back off things just so. The pit-pit of his feet meshes with the dink-dink of the music. And then of course the Minecraft-style chop-chop-chop effect, where cubes of matter are simultaneously destroyed and acquired, is somehow profoundly satisfying (which may well be what has fueled Minecraft‘s ridiculous empire).

(Are you one of the non-game-playing people in my life reading this, and are you telling me you don’t know about Minecraft? This one is a significant phenomenon in the world today, so educate yourselves.)

Many game designers would love to have created the sort of subtle mental effect I’m talking about. So does that mean I think these guys were exceptionally good at it? No, not really; I think it just happened to work out that way. It’s very particular to me that this game had this effect on me, and I’m not sure they specifically had exactly the experience I’m describing in mind, just like they didn’t specifically have me in mind. In fact I think a lot of the alchemy I’m talking about is always going to be mostly luck. It exists a bit beyond the human ability to calculate.

What gave this game a special feeling is that none of these things I’m talking about felt very tight or impressive; it all felt genuinely casual, leaving some mental space undeclared. Room for that mysterious more.

The nostalgia issue. Like I’ve said, I’m wary of nostalgia-based game design and this game would certainly seem to be guilty. And yet here I am waxing about the wonderful trance of present awareness it created. How do I reconcile these two attitudes?

Well, first of all, I don’t. 1a) I contain multitudes and all that. 1b) I’m not sure those two things are in any real conflict.

Second of all, I can make a distinction between nostalgia and tradition. Some things are built out of stuff from the past because of an ideology of self-abnegation, but other things contain the past simply and honestly because they descend from it. This game falls right on the line.

The developers had this idea of “a Tetris platformer” — which is a conceptualized innovation rather than an intuited one, but still not necessarily nostalgic — and the first thing they did with it was to make a mini-game that was explicitly referential, a post-modern iteration on 30-year-old icons. This is exactly the kind of thing that bugs me: video game culture constantly feeling the impulse to demonstrate that it is a culture — with a heritage — by obsessively “celebrating” that heritage. Which conveniently happens to align with nostalgizing the lost youths of the developers. And with reflexive nerd cred-strutting. “Hey man, remember Super Mario Bros.? That shit is like the ABCs to me!” has become an institution, or an addiction. To me it tends to feel very small-spirited, secretly desperate.

So for these developers, Blocks That Matter is clearly a step in the right direction, toward taking authentic ownership of their own ideas. It takes the same “Tetris platformer” idea but tries to actually build it in its own right, rather than just offer it up as mere riffing on hallowed greats.

But then, as if to compensate for their hubris in having made their own game, they absolutely loaded the trunk with humility-nostalgia-“shoulders of giants, man!” adulation cred. The little protagonist robot, we are told by the game, has been created by two game developer characters named Alexey (after Pajitnov of Tetris) and Markus (after Persson of Minecraft), who have been drawn to somewhat resemble their namesakes. This genuinely embarrasses me, especially after seeing the YouTube comments on the initial trailer for the game, to the effect of “Cool, they worked on this game?” “No, you’re missing the point, to us they are untouchable golden gods so this is our ‘tribute’ to them.” “So, wait, they didn’t work on this game?”

And then above and beyond that, the bonus “Blocks That Matter” to be collected in each level turn out to be shout-outs to other block-based games, past and present. Portal, Super Mario Bros., Boulder Dash, Ilomilo, Minecraft, Lode Runner, etc. etc. etc., one for each of the 40 levels. It’s like a built-in bibliography, or a litany on the anxiety of influence.

On one hand, I like games with cubes as much as anyone and I appreciated being tipped off to some games I’d never heard of (e.g. Ilomilo). As collectibles go, this one is less inane than most.

On the other hand, the whole thing is small-minded. In any other medium, this “40 tips of the hat to all our amazing progenitors” thing would feel distinctly childish, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t it here? Can you imagine if a novel had each chapter named after a beloved novel that had come before and OMG influenced the writer? i.e. Chapter 1: Great Expectations. Chapter 2: Moby-Dick. Chapter 3: The Hunger Games. Chapter 4: The Great Gatsby. Chapter 5: 2666. Chapter 6: The BFG. I think everyone would feel that as incredibly immature humblebragging, or at least a completely parochial idea of cultured humility. For god’s sake, don’t show me all the gold star stickers on your library card, just write your book! You’re allowed!

My point is, we should hold video games to no less a standard. Yeah, even games by a couple of French kids. Come on, French kids, you’re allowed! Everyone’s eager to have a culture, but shoutouts are the opposite of a culture. Take the reins and just be what you are.

(I have always been exceedingly touchy about “these are a few of my favorite things”-ism. I know this is all overkill.)

The music presents a different twist on these same issues. It is full of “chiptune” sounds and ideas, meant to evoke the now-antiquated technology of a prior generation’s games (I’m the prior generation, here). But that’s exactly why it’s not nostalgic: the composer wasn’t born until 1986. By the time he was 8 years old, nothing was using these kinds of sounds by necessity anymore. His affection for them must be aesthetic rather than sentimental/ideological, and I think it shows, in his artistry.

That, or his nostalgia is for a time in his earliest childhood, early enough to resist over-conceptualization. Why else would he be such a weirdo?

In any case, it’s undeniable that there is a legitimate aesthetic world to explore in those old videogamey sounds. This particular exploration feels to me like it’s in good faith, looking forward to the new creation rather than backward to the cachet of the reference.

As an actual puzzle-platform game: it’s okay. It’s fine. The imposition that one must place four blocks at a time, tetromino-wise, is the core of the game, but it also never quite stops feeling high-concept, never quite jells into a necessary reality. I think this is so because the game arose from an initial “what if Tetris were a platformer? concept, rather than a dream.

Then again sometimes I do dream the Tetris pieces. They’re very charismatic.

The charm of the game’s aesthetic embrace passed over into my impression of the levels too; stuff like figuring out how to get up onto a certain ledge while still carrying 8 blocks (or whatever) ended up seeming worthwhile and rewarding. In retrospect, in the abstract, it usually wasn’t that meaningful a challenge — rarely that deep kind of art that puzzles can be at their best. But a game isn’t played “in retrospect” or “in the abstract.” Its charm was real, and making my way through its garden of levels one after another became part of that charm. It’s not a construction of any great rigor or insight, just a pleasant garden.

Anyway, I had a very good time with it, but that doesn’t mean I’m recommending it to anyone else. I just happened to have this private experience and I’m just reporting that it happened.

Four young French guys: two who met working at Ubisoft, plus two collaborators. Montpellier looks like it’s probably a nice place to live. Credits as they appear in the game:

Guillaume Martin: Programming & Tears
William David: Ingame art & Level design
Géraud Soulié: Character design & Illustrations
Yann Van der Cruyssen: Sound effects & Music

March 6, 2015

SpaceChem (2011)

developed by Zachtronics (Redmond, WA)
first published January 1, 2011, for Windows/Mac/Linux, $20
[trailer 1, trailer 2 (explanatory, worth watching)]
[original website, current website]
~280 MB

Have played up to, but have not yet completed, the final puzzle in level 7 (of 9), in 13 hours, 2/26/15–3/3/15. Plan to continue to the end, eventually.

[It’s a design-your-own-solution game, so it doesn’t really lend itself to being watched passively on YouTube — pure solution videos go by too quickly to make sense to a non-player, and realtime play session videos are all about the player’s thought process rather than the game content. But if you search you’ll find plenty of both. Here, here’s a guy’s solutions to the first half of the game, with some videos where he talks through trying to build a more efficient solution; I guess any of that will do to give a sense.]

Okay, I’ve decided that posting placeholder entries is needless even by my standards, so I’ll just put it here: there’s one further not-quite-game from the Frozenbyte set, but I’m skipping over it until I regain access to a computer with a 3D card that can handle it, unlike the lower-end machine I’m using at present.

That brings us to the end of the games in the Humble Frozen Synapse Bundle at time of purchase on 9/30/11. However, on 10/5/11, one last game was retroactively added: SpaceChem.

I really love computer puzzle games. I have, in the back of my mind, a semi-serious case I could make for why their special potential for elegance and depth merits their being considered not just as a genre of game but as a distinct artform to be considered alongside traditional artforms. For the present I am not going to make that case; just mentioning it as evidence of my enthusiasm.

The puzzles I have in mind, though, are all puzzles with unique or tightly limited solutions. Then there’s a whole other category of puzzle game, to which Crayon Physics and SpaceChem belong, where the puzzles do not have unique solutions. They’re really just assignments, made non-trivial by constraints. These are not actually puzzle games to my enthusiastic taste. They are rather what I would call “engineering games,” the crucial spiritual difference being that in such games, responsibility for elegance and depth is on you, the player.

(That said, I am still basically okay with calling these “puzzle games,” because they have discrete pre-designed problems in them. I absolutely do not condone the now-standard usage of “Puzzle” as the category name for any post-Tetris abstract solitaire. Bejeweled and its ilk are clearly not puzzle games, despite what the iTunes store might say. That genre should properly be called “Procedural.” I guess that doesn’t sound very appealing. But people could learn to love it, just like they did with cop shows.)

Being good at engineering and being good at puzzles with unique solutions are two very different things. Interest in design is not the same as interest in necessity.

I’ve never been very good at design because I’ve always feared the absence of authority implicit in its freedoms. That’s a psychoanalysis, of course; what I thought was going on was that I was seeking an elegance that eluded me. But I had confused elegance with necessity. There’s boundless opportunity for elegance in all problem-solving, but you have to accept that the problem won’t be its source; you will. That can be hard to accept.

The premise of Oulipo (the constrained writing movement) seems to be the appeasement of a psychology that fears freedom. Necessity is a drug and we’re all addicts; if we get our fix, it stabilizes us enough to be creative again. Yes, but wouldn’t a cure be better? Schoenberg came up with the twelve-tone system for the same reason: actual freedom terrified him, so rather than bearing that fear until it subsided, he decided he needed to be straitjacketed so that he could go back to finding freedom appealing again. So he made up an Oulipean straitjacket system and started writing Oulipean straitjacket music, and then eventually the straitjacket was mass-produced because there was so much demand.

“Necessity is the mother of invention” is, I think, not actually true; just look at all the splendiferation of unnecessary stuff that litters the internet. Glorious surplus! It turns out that people are actually much more inspired to create when it comes to useless stuff that nobody asked for. You’re the man now, dog!

The reason necessity seems to be the mother of invention is that when an invention happens to meet a general necessity, it goes on to fame and ubiquity and takes up a lot of our mental space. It sure seems like the telephone got invented because we needed a telephone, but actually it just got famous because we needed a telephone. It got invented for the same reason that everything else happens: that’s just what people do.

This is the same distinction as one must make in understanding evolution: nature doesn’t “come up with solutions to problems,” it “constantly does random crap”; when some of it happens to solve a problem, it ends up persisting as a result. “Selection pressures” do not create life; they kill it. But all the same life, uh, finds a way. Remembering this difference is important when it comes to trying to motivate ourselves. Necessity is in fact the scourge of invention. But we’re so inventive, we get by anyway.

Anyway, I dipped my toe in SpaceChem a few years ago but I felt the old chill right away. “Oh dear,” I thought. “I’m going to have to freely make things up?” I only made it through two or three puzzles before the sense that I was somehow an idiot became overwhelming and I had to stop.

But this time it went differently. Realizing that necessity isn’t a necessity is a big one for me, and I felt like my success with SpaceChem this time around represented my having gotten over a big one.

Basically, the game gives you some raw materials and tells you how they need to end up, and then you build a machine that will turn the input into the output. The premise is that the materials are molecules, and you’re doing chemical conversions, but that’s just a skin — beyond being named after the elements and being bondable to one another, the pieces aren’t anything like atoms, and what you do to them has nothing to do with chemistry. They’re essentially just abstract game pieces; your job is to construct a system that will shuttle them around and pull them apart/stick them together as needed. It’s a programming game. Here are the available resources, here’s the program specification, here’s the language: write something that works.

The pride of the programmer is a special kind of pride, combining the pride of satisfying authority (the superhuman authority of the computer’s needs) with the pride of having willed something as an authority. To many, this dual pride is the ideal pride. And perhaps something like it can be for me now, too. Finally.

When I was younger I could not find any pleasure in programming. I managed to pass untouched through a lot of “but you really seem like you’d be into this” encouragement. Programming wasn’t authoritative enough to offer me a gold star of correctness (there was no “right answer”), but it was far too needy to gratify my pent-up desire for freedom from authority. If I want the pleasure of making things up, why would I seek it in this hyper-demanding anal-retentive robot?

And yet in the abstract, thinking about myself from the outside, it does seem like I ought to have been attracted to exactly what it offered, the balance of doing both at once, of being simultaneously authority and subject to authority.

I think the bottom line was that my loss of hope that I could ever put real trust in any new authorities (i.e. from beyond the safe zone of my parents) happened very early. By the time I was supposed to learn to program, I was already a skeptic in my heart, and the tutorializers who were trying to step me through initializing arrays and declaring variables seemed as suspect as my teachers at school. Why should I have to “declare” anything, and have to decide in advance whether it’s likely to be “floating point” or not, just to add x+y? That sure doesn’t sound like something I’d do! It all seemed to fall into the same category as the tedious and manifestly meaningless pro forma homework assignments that were my official occupation at the time.

Furthermore, the idea that I could do anything really cool with programming seemed intuitively impossible. Yes, maybe some faraway other people had figured out how, and had somehow made the games I played, but of course they had all those many and enormous advantages that seemed to inhere in otherness and farawayness. Whereas when I went dutifully to try to learn programming, it was clearly a different story, and that was the story I needed to work within. It was more like: “Suppose you have a shoe store and you want to keep a database of all shoes sold, and their prices. You’d use an array.” This was a real example in the book I more than once tried to push through. That’s all I could see from where I sat.

I won’t lie: I do still carry with me a subtle feeling that SpaceChem is actually for “natural programmers” who “feel at home with this stuff” and that I am “just somehow managing to stumble through it, but not the way you’re supposed to.” But that feeling is understandable, because these things die hard; or more accurately, these things don’t die, they just grow or shrink. And there’s no question that this one has shrunk since a few years ago when I couldn’t even wrap my head around the third puzzle in the game because I felt so completely overwhelmed. Now I just feel a little sheepish occasionally: for example, after I make an elaborate plan and spend 20 minutes building it piece by piece, and finally set it going, and only then realize that it’s all premised on a weird dream-logic oversight in my assessment of the situation, and doesn’t accomplish anything remotely like what it’s supposed to, and that I have to start from scratch. Stuff like that makes me feel a little red. But not beet red, not red-alert stop-the-game red. Good news!

And the compensation is, when you build a thing and it does what it’s supposed to: there it is! You get to watch it go zoop, vip, zoop zoop, wait, wait, zoop zoop, ding! And then back to the beginning to run again. Is it elegant? Usually no. But anything that goes without stopping tends to feel right. The extreme busyness of inefficiency can actually enhance that effect.

I’m starting to think that part of the personality of a programmer is really just attraction to things that go without stopping, things that go zoop, vip, zoop zoop, wait, wait, zoop zoop, ding!, regardless of what that “ding!” represents. I guess I am such a person — I certainly like marble runs, factory tours, and Rube Goldberg machines. It’s really just that connecting that attraction to the constraint of meeting specified goals is still very new for me, still a very rickety rope bridge. The circumstances need to be just right for me to dare cross it. That was my cranky complaint about Crayon Physics: you didn’t put me in the damn mood!

SpaceChem did a lot better. Unlike Crayon Physics, its system is tight and 100% reliable. Unlike Crayon Physics, it is not trying to sell me a bill of nostalgia. And most importantly, it goes zoop, vip, zoop etc., where Crayon Physics kind of just went murrrrrrrhhh. I’m not talking about sound effects, just general feel. We think we’re in it for the problem-solving, but we’re really in it for the zoops. SpaceChem has an extremely barebones nerdy left-brain design sense, but the actual actions of the mechanisms are sufficiently zoopy.

Though I do think it would have further calmed my embarrassment had it all been a little tastier and more tactile. That aesthetic whiff of MIT — or in this case, of Redmond, WA — always puts me into a certain cagey place, socially: bracing myself to be both outsmarted and outdumbed. It’s an old cage, and one that I have had some good experiences while inside, but I’d like to put it behind me. Neither being outsmarted nor being outdumbed ought to require me to brace myself.

It struck me as a clever innovation that the game has “boss battles” which take place on a time scale where your designs are running at hundreds of cycles per second. This of course is how programming works in the real world, but I think it’s the first time I’ve seen that kind of timescale-stratification built into a game.

The presence of “bosses” in a puzzle game is justified by a kooky bureaucracy-plus-horror story that gets doled out in dry vignettes between levels, which I guess added a little bit to the atmosphere of the gameplay, though not much. Telling a slight story while people are solving puzzles is a good idea in theory, but is also inherently a goofy thing to do, and this was fairly goofy. I will undoubtedly have opportunity to talk about this general issue again in future games, and this entry’s already awfully long, so enough about that.

The game has a “cinematic” soundtrack, where “cinematic” is in quotes because what it sounds like is the adjective “cinematic,” rather than like actual movies. (Well, not like good ones, anyway. I guess a lot of movies do feel pretty “cinematic” these days.) It’s full of “drama” and “sweep” and mostly feels nothing at all like sitting for a long time solving one of these puzzles. There are also some peculiar horror-movie effects in there, I guess inspired by the peculiar horror-movie touches in the storyline. I could imagine that the designer said: “Since the game is so cerebral and nerdy, probably the music should help counter that by being dramatic and cinematic.” But that’s silly; the music needs to support what’s actually going on. I don’t like to turn off music in games, but in this case I had to turn it off.

This game is very hard. Most people who start it do not finish! I would like to finish it and think I can. But I also started the next game to give me something easier to do at the same time, and I’ve already finished that one, so the time had come to post. If the game has a really really great ending I’ll come back and say so between these next two lines.

“Zachtronics” means basically Zach Barth made this, with help. Turns out his wife wrote the story. The entire credits as they appear in the game (with joke intact):

Design and Production: Zach Barth
Programming: Collin Arnold
Anti Programming: Keith Holman
Visuals: Ryan Sumo
Music: Evan Le Ny
Sound: Ken Bowen
Narrative: Hillary Field

March 3, 2015

Splot (2014)

developed by Frozenbyte (Helsinki, Finland)
first published October 23, 2014, for iOS, $3.99
[trailer 1, trailer 2]
~630 MB

Played to completion of “bronze” mode (and exhaustive completion of “Farm” level) in 1 hour, 2/27/15—2/28/15.

The first of two bonus not-quite-games in the “Humble Frozenbyte Bundle” as included within the “Humble Frozen Synapse Bundle” that I bought on September 30, 2011.

At the time, this was called a “preorder” of a game still in development, the implication being that the finished game would be showing up for Windows, Mac, and Linux alike within a matter of months, at which time I would own it. Until then, I could download and play a work-in-progress version. I never did; here’s video of what it apparently looked like.

The finished game, however, did not show up any time soon. Frozenbyte proceeded to work on Splot for three more years, during which time it metamorphosed from being a Trine-like physics platforming game to being a cute-bomb iPhone ka-ching-ka-ching game. These things happen.

Despite no longer having any intention of releasing the game for anything but iOS, they were nonetheless obligated to honor the hundreds of thousands of computer “preorders” sold three years earlier, so they very quietly made a Windows version available to Humble Bundle purchasers, identifying it as a “beta.” As far as I can tell, it is completely identical to the finished iPhone version, and is called “beta” only because they want to be clear that they know it’s not a viable product in this form. “Hey guys, we’re giving this to you only as a way of nominally keeping our promise, which we should never have made. Just please understand: it’s no fun. Nobody wants to sit at a computer with a mouse and play a ka-ching-ka-ching iPhone touchscreen game.”

But I did, for an hour. Because I swore I would. Wait, did I swear I would? Actually I think I didn’t swear anything. So maybe this was unnecessary.

Dammit. I always screw up free will. I get it backwards a lot. Oh, FREE will! Gotcha, gotcha. Okay, next time for sure.

The biggest difference between an iPhone game and a computer game is a difference in the level of attention to self. (I’m using “iPhone” like “Kleenex,” as a generic. “Smartphone” is stupid.)

An iPhone game is usually designed for people who are hoping to take some of the edge (which is to say some of the substance) off of being alive and conscious. This is what “casual game” really means; “casual” as opposed to “present and aware.” If you don’t want to play a game “for real,” you just want to play “casually,” what you’re saying is that the game is valuable to you primarily as something to water down your awareness of your actual concerns, even as they remain your actual concerns. It’s negative space to help keep the positive space from taking over.

It probably sounds like I’m knocking that. I’m not at all! I’m just saying that a game that functions as cultural/cognitive negative space is different from one that functions as positive space. A game like Machinarium is decidedly “figure” where Splot is more or less “ground.”

In a bigger-picture sense, maybe I am knocking it a little. It’s much healthier to completely detach from stress, by committing yourself positively to a fantasy, than it is to stay plugged into the stress but flood your mind with jangly “distraction” to temporarily numb the pain.

I guess technically Splot is a platforming/racing game, but that’s incidental. It’s really just pure reward-stimulus nonsense. Jonathan Blow (the guy who made Braid) has been saying for a while now that all the standard ka-ching-ka-ching game mechanics are “Skinnerian” and should be seen as bad for humanity. That’s a noble position to take and one that has made an impression on me — though I’m a bit more ambivalent about the ethical status of such things, for consumer and purveyor alike.

Splot is definitely such things. Achievements, upgrades, puzzle pieces, collectible skins, and the constant blup blup blup of pellet-devouring: the works! Do essentially nothing and be continuously rewarded. But is that so bad? That’s the heart of a healthy childhood, after all: you are good and things are happening! Up on the refrigerator with your latest! Why shouldn’t I, as an adult, be able to get some of that kind of warmly inclusive encouragement? And why not from Splot?

In theory that sounds fine. But in practice, the manifest valuelessness of the “achievements” is dispiriting, at least to me. One can scroll down and see that there are hundreds of them, enough to be doled out steadily for hours and hours and hours, and many of them don’t correspond to things that could ever possibly be experienced with real pride. “Played for 10 minutes! +50XP!” One wants to feel achievement, even if ever so faintly, in the moment that one is being praised for next to nothing. All games are false achievements, after all, but we want to fall for it in good faith, not just by dulling ourselves and listening for the ka-ching.

Playing this game at my computer felt like having a dream of being a researcher watching video of myself sleeping and having that dream. “Yes, I do sometimes will myself into hypnotic submission to this kind of thing and I suppose I’m in that state right now… but I’m also aware of visiting it from the outside, wondering what I think of it.” The state does not itself have thoughts about itself. Ka-ching! Ka-ching!

This is the first game in my current gaming streak that belongs to the happy cutesy-poo Miyamoto school. I approve of such stuff, at least at face value. In fact it cheers me that it’s so ubiquitous. It’s good that this kind of clean, sunlit imagination space is in wide circulation, good that the common culture has room for this set of clean, sunlit archetypes: stories of easily saving the baby chicks from being eaten by the buffoonish blob villain who huffs and puffs each time he’s bested again. Silly rabbit. It’s good that we all still know what this is and don’t have to fight for it: it’s right here.

But I had to qualify that with “at least at face value,” because it doesn’t feel like it’s content to just be itself; it doth protest too much. Such things so often doth. There’s almost always something oversold about cuteitude that makes me feel sad, because it suggests that they don’t really believe in it. Things like Bubble Bobble and Hello Kitty tend to make me feel sad for Japanese people. Why not real, lived innocence? Am I the only one who feels this as full of suppressed pathos? It’s always given me this urge to cry out “it doesn’t have to be this way!”

Now a digression about a different game.

I played a game a few years ago (from a later Humble Bundle) called Little Inferno, which is essentially a satire of all such mind-numbing nonsense as described above (catalogs! upgrades! achievements!). The game of Little Inferno is: there’s a fireplace on screen, you light things on fire in it, and when they’re all burned up, some money comes out, and then you buy more things and light them on fire. That’s pretty much it — done up with a ridiculous array of catalogs! upgrades! achievements! unlocks! It’s obviously a critique, and while I was playing it felt sort of like hypocritical and sour one at that, since after all it is this game, and you are playing it.

But then at the end, after a couple hours of such gameplay, there’s a surprise. Spoilers follow! Eventually, you manage to burn down the whole house, and, in a sort of “allegory of the cave” moment, we suddenly see the person we’ve been “playing as” all this time, a stunned-looking little guy, who stumbles out into the creepy, snowy, empty, Tim Burton-y world around him that he’s been ignoring. He makes his way to the headquarters of the Big Company that sells the fireplaces and issues the catalogs and has been managing this whole mind-numbing, time-wasting endeavor, and then heads up to the top floor to meet the mastermind behind it. Here’s where the commentary becomes interesting. All along, the face of the company has been presented as this tremendously cheerful and bubbly woman, “Miss Nancy.” Then at the end, when you finally see who’s really been in charge all along… Surprise!! There is no conspiracy: it’s just Miss Nancy in the flesh, exactly as depicted, completely sincere and tremendously cheerful. She tells you she hopes you loved your fireplace, and she also hopes you explore the world and enjoy everything there is to enjoy in life. She blasts off in a rocketship to further adventures, and the game ends with your character heading off in a balloon to see the world — snowy and empty though it may be.

I took this to mean: yes, it’s generally better to turn away from such mindless things as this game and open yourself up to the world, but the things themselves aren’t inherently bad, nor are the people who offer them up. They are trying to make the world a better place by making things for people! There is no enemy; there is no error. Little Inferno, in my reading, ended by saying, “Yes, it turns out this game was a legitimate way of spending your time; so are other games; so is everything! It’s up to you to decide how to live!” I appreciated that, and it felt like a meaningful twist at the end of what had seemed to be a bitter satire: the transcendence of of the satirical impulse.

(That said, I still have pretty mixed feelings about Little Inferno as a whole — exactly because I’m glad I saw the ending, in fact! If I completely regretted the whole experience, it would be easy to recognize that it was, after all, my free choice to play it, as per the game’s message. But I’m actually glad I played it, which becomes the framework for being annoyed with it for spending so much time deliberately wasting my time.)

Anyway, that’s basically the attitude I take toward all this ka-ching-ka-ching stuff. Just because it has the potential to be addictive doesn’t make it evil. It is what it is and we’re all free to enjoy it if we can; it’s up to us to know the world and know ourselves.

Knowing ourselves is hard, but that’s not Splot‘s fault!

Interesting to consider this as the output of the same small office space in Helsinki as Shadowgrounds and Trine. While they might well share technical components, they don’t seem to have vision in common — in fact I’d say what they share is a reluctance to engage with the problem of having vision at all. Each one is really just an archetypal exercise. I think that’s the biggest thing keeping videogames from getting truly mature as an artform: the overwhelming predominance of archetypal thinking over humanist thinking. I already said it here seven years ago, but apparently I have to say it again, because has anyone done anything about it?

I had a bunch of notes for other things to write about but I don’t need to. It’s just Splot and I’m tired.

The credits are just a list of names. I can’t even tell who wrote the music.

Tero Rickström, Lauri Hyvärinen, Antti Alkkiomäki, Teemu Laine, Sami Martiskainen, Sauli Lehtinen, Alexei Alander, Samuli Raivio, Tuukka Pensala

And then more.