Monthly Archives: February 2016

February 19, 2016

Stacking (2011)

developed by Double Fine (San Francisco, CA)
designed and written by Lee Petty

Third of the three new games I bought in the “Humble Double Fine Bundle” on May 7, 2013.

Almost all 3D games have elaborate menus for adjusting the graphics, but I generally ignore them. At restaurants when asked how I want meat done, I tend to say “however the chef recommends,” and that’s how I feel about graphics options. I come to an artwork to see what someone else has to say, so it seems wrong that I should make any of the aesthetic decisions. The only times I’ve tinkered with graphics options have been when my low-end computer can’t handle the defaults, so I have to dial it all down. If need be, I can make do without high resolution, or fancy reflections, or fog, or being able to see far into the distance. That’s the price I pay for not constantly buying new and expensive computers, and it’s a very fair price. I still get to play the games, right?

Maybe that’s not a rhetorical question. I’m expressing a pretty contradictory attitude here. On one hand, I don’t dare touch my pinky finger to the options because I only want to receive official, canonical aesthetic experiences, straight from the chef. On the other hand I take proletarian pride in being so unpicky as to accept whatever degraded version of the game my crummy old hardware can manage. This despite the fact that graphical degradation has an enormous impact on the “feel” of a game, which, as I’ve said many times before, is the game.

I think the hypocrisy arises from my completely polarized attitudes towards “art” and “life,” attitudes that I would probably do better to reconcile. My instinct has always told me that “art,” being constructed and artificial, can be held to ideals, whereas “life,” in all its slippery irrationality, cannot. The fact that sometimes I have to turn down the graphics quality because I have an old computer seems like a necessity of life, to be accepted with grace; whereas the question of whether I might tamper with the default settings merely to suit my personal taste seems like an issue of art, to be determined by high principle.

Not the healthiest way to go through life or art, I think. Having come to believe that everything in the world is subjective, nothing is objective, I probably could stand to change settings whenever it strikes my fancy; or rather, I could probably could stand to allow myself some fancy in the matter. In this as in anything else.

How this relates to Stacking.

I played Stacking through to the end, and felt a kind of subtle visual uneasiness throughout. The game is populated by matryoshka dolls and takes place in diorama-like sets, with detailing that suggests bits of cardboard, playing cards, crayons, etc. etc. In keeping with this dollhouse aesthetic, the graphics are subjected to a gentle shallow-focus blur effect, to give a miniature impression. While playing, I thought this effect was aesthetically cohesive, admirable in principle, but also a bit alienating or disorienting at some level. Somehow I never felt quite as comfortable in the space as I wanted, and I felt certain it was because of the shallow focus.

Then when I was done with the main story, I went online to browse through discussions about the game, and came across the comment that the PC version, which had been converted from a console original, hadn’t had its default field of view (“FOV“) properly updated. What this means, briefly, is that too narrow a wedge of the world is visible on the screen: the effect is somewhat like looking out through a porthole rather than standing in a field with full peripheral vision.

(The reason this needs to differ between consoles and PCs is because console games are generally played on a TV while sitting across the room on a couch, and thus take up significantly less of the player’s visual field than a computer screen does when one is seated only a couple feet away. Looking out at the game world “through” a TV across the room, it seems spatially correct to be able to see only what’s directly in front of you, whereas looking out “through” a computer screen close at hand, one intuitively expects to be able to take in a lot more of the surrounding world.)

So it turned out that my spatially alienated feeling, which I had attributed to the the “miniature effect,” was actually a settings problem. Sure enough, when I went into the graphics options and widened the field of view, suddenly everything about the space felt friendlier, easier to wrap my head around. But now it’s too late! I already had my experience with this game and developed a feeling about it.

The fact that that feeling turns out to have been based on “settings” rather than “the thing itself” is something I’m uncomfortable with. If I complain about that queasy feeling that was such an important part of my game experience, who is my audience? What kind of communication is that, if it’s about a completely unshared phenomenon? Just me checking in with myself.

But that’s what we all do. That’s certainly what I’m doing here, as always. Am I right folks? (You know you are!) Yeah! Thanks!

Stacking is nice.

(In middle school or thereabouts, I was inculcated with the opinion that the word “nice” ought never to be used because it’s too weak to convey anything. This was, I believe, part of general encouragement toward striving for mots justes when writing, rather than settling for reflexive patterns and cliches. “Nice” was given as a universal counterexample, le mot injuste no matter the occasion. But like so much of my education, this received wisdom is something I’d now love to be rid of. My writerly tastes need to be my own, developed through my long personal sojourn in the kingdom of words. I’ll decide what I think of “nice,” thank you very much. And I’ve decided it has an opportunity to make a real contribution, here and now.)

Stacking is nice. It feels like playing with toys, which is surely the intention. The dolls make the proper clacking sound as they toddle around. The low level of investment demanded and the very mild-mannered puzzles — each of which has many possible solutions — keeps alive a sense that one is just goofing around, lying on the floor. The basic gameplay conceit, that the smallest doll can temporarily possess the shells of the larger dolls so as to benefit from their particular traits, comes immediately and intuitively, and the storytelling is silly enough that one doesn’t need to ask any of the questions about how this world works (i.e. why am I the only one who has this ability). It’s just so.

Playing with toys always had the Buzz Lightyear existential threat hanging over it: what if these little guys notice that they’re on a living room rug and over there is a mind-bogglingly enormous wall? Why in fact wouldn’t they notice immediately? To play with toys one had to be comfortable with the uncertainty. This game, despite taking up 6 hours of your attention, remains cheerfully vague about what any of this could possibly be or mean. It’s very simple: you’re that little doll and these are the other dolls you can jump inside. You’re trying to save your family. Done.

Part of what I mean when I say the game is like playing with toys is, specifically, that it offers that hovering existential uncertainty, which for me brings back warm memories of spending many floating childhood hours on the wobbly shore where imagination laps against reality.

When you’re, say, “on a boat” in this game — a real full-fledged 3D game space, with a sky and waves and stairs and rooms and different decks that you spend a while bopping around in — there is, for me, a heady, humming feeling of impossibility. Where does this boat full of dolls possibly come from or go? Where the hell am I really? My gut knows something is very wrong here. But it’s also fine and friendly. That’s a basic and desirable kind of disorientation, the disorientation of dreams.

Gripes include:

1. Hyperemphasis on meta-play: collecting, completing, doing everything all five different ways, exhausting each area, and building up a meaningless trophy case. Though I suppose it’s less meta- than it might be, since the main storyline doesn’t carry as much weight and priority as in most adventures. These are simply some other suggested forms of play, with this toy. But still.

2. Less than professional writing. There’s a flippancy to it all that at times feels like actual flippancy rather than artful lightheartedness. For example, there is, rather conspicuously, an awful lot of stinky farting in this game. Far from seeming like pandering to children, it seems like the designers sincerely amusing themselves, at a primitive level that to them feels “mischievous,” which doesn’t match the inherent sophistication of the toybox world as a whole. Similarly, the “old-timey” dialogue is written with too amateurish and superficial a grasp of the idiom.

3. The interstitial scenes all run about four times longer than the player wants.

4. Etc. Perhaps this is all best summed up by noting that this is a game designed and written by an art director. It plays and reads and feels that way. Visual artists have their characteristic strong suits and blind spots, and the product here is more or less in keeping with my stereotype.

It’s nice though. The shining painted wood and the clacking noise are really at the heart of what’s being offered, and they are spot on. The rest hangs off of that.

(Yes, and I also played the DLC. It too was nice. Better than the last level of the real game, in fact.)

Charm can’t be achieved by force; it must simply happen to be so. This game obviously intends to be charming and that does tend to weaken its charm. But perhaps that’s for the best, since actually being a child and playing with one’s toys isn’t at all like being “charmed” by them. How effete and adult the whole concept is. “Playing” means honestly taking part in whatever is there in front of you. There’s no judgment involved, no “appreciation.”

Video games have that going for them: you’re forced to get your hands dirty and actually play with them.

Engaging with the world is far preferable to evaluating it, and in a way they’re mutually exclusive — one has to do deliberate mental work to generate “opinions” about things that one has actually done. It takes a certain bending of the mind. I think I’m attracted to talking about video games because I’m still attracted to trickiness, the particular hardness of the work involved in generating words from such a fundamentally wordless place.

But I know better than that now, and god knows I’m tired from constantly over-bending my mind. So maybe I’ll stop and just play my games in honest wordlessness. It’s been a year of these entries and I don’t feel I’ve particularly carved anything out for myself, by repeatedly taking on this tricky work. I just accrue more pointless collectibles for my pointless trophy case. Whereas actually playing the games has been rewarding in odd inner ways that my entries here can’t remotely capture. So maybe enough.

Maybe. I’ll think about it.

February 11, 2016

Costume Quest (2010)

developed by Double Fine (San Francisco, CA)
project led by Tasha Harris
designed by David Gardner, Tasha Harris, Gabe Miller, and Elliott Roberts
written by Elliott Roberts and Tim Schafer

Second of the three new games I bought in the “Humble Double Fine Bundle” on May 7, 2013.

The idea here is that cozy Halloween trick-or-treat nostalgia is the perfect subject for a video game: it’s a ritual process with role-playing, and prizes, and delicious menace and mystery. And huge sentimental significance. This is a good insight! It’s true. In fact it’s so true that even with gameplay as bland and rudimentary as it has, Costume Quest still manages somehow to seem fun. The fact that it’s so manifestly a great idea for a game carries the player along.

Well, for a little while, anyway. Then its arms get tired and it sets the player back down. To play a bland and rudimentary game. Luckily, by the six-hour mark, the point when it finally dawned on me that I ought to stop playing Brütal Legend, I was at the end of Costume Quest. Saved by the bell.

Basically: another exceedingly well-meaning production from the exceedingly well-meaning people at Double Fine.

The game is in three sections, each of which took me about an hour and a half to get through. I found the first section quite charming, despite recognizing that as game design it was shallow and monotonous. The important thing was that it felt right; it invited the same attention I would cheerfully bring to a middling network Halloween special, and rewarded it with the same kind of vague carpeted comforts. I was willing to disregard what I was actually doing (namely: almost exclusively busywork and padding) and just roll with it for its sweet naturedness and exemplary Holiday Branding Compliance. I got at least an hour of that kind of satisfaction, for real, which is to say at least two half-hour TV Specials’ worth. Not bad!

The problem, for me, was that the subsequent second and third sections were — quite unabashedly — just recapitulations of the first section. Liked trick-or-treating in the suburbs? How about trick-or-treating some more at the mall? And now how about trick-or-treating some more in a rustic village? Yeah… okay, I guess.

It’s the economy approach to game design. I can respect taking an economy approach to production — I certainly respect Double Fine for scaling down their ambitions and putting out something modest and cute. I just wish they had allocated more of their little budget towards refining the design until they honestly believed it merited six hours of play. I would gladly have given up a few animations and map areas for that.

Despite its relative brevity, this game still felt like a slog. But let’s acknowledge that sometimes slogs are games. For example, I recently witnessed Beth playing all the way through “Slog Sandwich: The Game” (my gift to her!). I can absolutely respect a slog every now and then. On the other hand, Beth’s game was about building an actual skill — the things she was doing as a player on her last day would have seemed outlandishly difficult on her first day. That’s a process that inevitably takes time and practice and patience, and offers real rewards for it. (Yes, real rewards: I strongly believe that genuinely learning something new is an inherently healthful experience — especially when the thing learned has the purity of being utterly useless and burdened by no social significance. It’s like roughage; it keeps your mind regular, present to the world.)

Whereas Costume Quest is an RPG, a genre I have always considered philosophically dubious, because (as I’ve complained before) it’s all about phony skill-acquisition: you are told that you’ve “leveled up,” but of course so have your enemies, so what you’re doing remains exactly the same, just measured in larger numbers. The player needs no skill or understanding at the end that isn’t already available at the beginning. The only difference is, essentially, how much Halloween candy you’ve gathered in between. Since in the context of the game, that’s a completely make-believe task, there’s no good reason why it ought to be a repetitive six-hour slog.

(Well, except for the obvious reason: that game purchasers are really purchasing invented obligations, to delay the necessity of returning to their own unpleasant feelings, so the more invented obligations per purchase the better. Any slog is a good slog.)

Anyway, whether -advertently or in-, this game is sloggish. You’ll notice that they punch the word “Collect!” in the preview. Yup! There sure is a lot of collecting to be done.

After finishing the game, naturally, I immediately played the DLC (“DownLoadable Content”) despite its being none other than: one more area in which to do all the same stuff again. I guess I didn’t want to return to my own unpleasant feelings yet. I’m not embarrassed to say it.

DLC is an awkward fit for the notion that games are an “art form,” because long after the window of time in which selling DLC for a given game is good business, the DLC continues to live on as a weird satellite to the game itself, occupying some formal gray area. Is it part of the work or is it not? Usually it gets lumped in to a “Complete Edition” (or, as has hilariously become industry standard, a “Game Of The Year Edition” or “GOTY,” basically the video game equivalent of “World Famous Pizza”) such that the form of the game that heads off into posterity is one with a barnacle or two clinging to it. The main menu always has to ask: do you want to play “The Game Itself” or “Inconsequential Cash-In, Previously Sold Under The Title ‘The Unmissable Final Chapter Of The Game Itself'”?

In this case I played it. I knew I would get through it one sitting and I did.

February 9, 2016

Proposed definition for “game”

A “game” is any cultural system that includes its own dissolution as one of its precepts. That is, the unwritten rule of every game is “the participants eventually deliberately stop adhering to this system.” This is the only way in which games are distinguished from “cultures,” of which they are a subset.

Just throwing this out there without having subjected it to stress testing. Thoughts?

February 7, 2016

Brütal Legend (2009)

developed by Double Fine (San Francisco, CA)
written and directed by Tim Schafer

[I don’t know why it’s not showing the thumbnail. The video works fine.]

May 7, 2013: I “beat the average” on the “Humble Double Fine Bundle,” which gets me three games from a studio to which — based on their satisfying Psychonauts and, especially, their behind-the-scenes documentaries I’ve been watching since December 2012 — I feel a sentimental loyalty. I had already been interested in playing all three games, which is why I’m comfortable immediately putting down a full $10.

It is thus with genuine dismay that I come to you today and report that I am abandoning Brütal Legend, after 6 hours of increasingly unsatisfying play. I seem to be only about halfway through the story.

I really wanted to see it out. I feel great good will toward this game for its enthusiasm, eccentricity, and ambition. In attitude and aesthetic, it’s a true original; how rare that is in this medium. But it dawned on me just now that my relationship with the game had gone entirely from one where it gave me entertainment to one where I gave it charity. And having recognized this, I knew it was right to stop, because the game, being insensate, cannot benefit from my charity. My good will is actually for the people behind the game. They already got my $10. So I can stop playing.

Part of what’s so wonderful about video games is that playing them is an almost entirely intuitive process — by which I mean “governed by the intuition,” not (necessarily) “conducive to being intuited.” When a video game is working, it’s passing a satisfying form of communication back and forth subconsciously with the player, which it would require some self-investigative effort consciously to name. When a game isn’t working, it’s failing to meet the player at the same subconscious level. This is a level on which things can be felt to be “clicking” or “not clicking” constantly throughout our waking life, most of which information we strategically disregard. Why? On behalf of social incentives, governed by acquired systems we call “culture.” These, in turn, are constantly affecting and influencing our intuitions.

In trying to get one’s parents (and other pre-cultural peoples) to try video games, one is forced to confront all the myriad ways that video games are not actually intrinsically intuitive (“What do you mean, ‘the little guy is you‘?”). But they can become genuinely intuitive after an enculturation process. This is true of the form as a whole, but it’s true of every new game, too. Every new game has some degree of its own unique culture; every new game has its own responsibility to stake out a way of operating in intuition-space. And the player has to be willing to wander out blindly into that darkness, to be met there.

The upshot is, it can take a surprisingly long time to consciously recognize that something isn’t working. I played Brütal Legend with a continuous sensation of actively “figuring it out,” which is to say of being not yet met where I was. I am accustomed to a certain amount of that sensation; I recognize it as the price of enculturation, which is a price I’ve come to trust is worth paying. But that trust is itself subconscious, and it can easily be abused. After six hours it was with a sense of waking to a submerged truth that I realized I had never stopped paying the entry fee; I was still paying it. I wasn’t being scammed; just unmet.

The game makes sense from the outside in — it has its big vision pretty well in order, just not its operative, in-practice reality. I’m sympathetic to the idea that this is a way to make worthwhile things. I guess I’m even willing to believe that this game is a worthwhile thing in some abstract artistic sense. (The idea of taking heavy metal album cover fantasy art literally, as physical space, is a wonderful and stimulating one.) But because of the interactive component, visionary video games are harder to actually put across than visionary books or movies. You can’t just passively humor them and let them insinuate themselves into your subconscious; humoring them means swimming with them, conversing with them, tangling with them.

Maybe I’ll watch the rest of the game being played on Youtube, which conveniently converts interactivity into passivity — letting you, for example, watch long interviews with people you couldn’t personally stand to talk to.

Adding on to that last thought: it’s perfectly possible to be visionary about interactivity itself, about how you’re going to engage with other people. That’s the best kind of artistic vision. But that’s not the kind of vision that drives this game.

Well, better put: this game does have a big vision about audience engagement, but unlike the aesthetic vision it’s a fervently primitive one. This game’s social vision felt like the fantasies of “delighting everybody” that I had as a young child: “everyone will come see the thing I made and it will put them in a great, great mood!” Then I’d eventually have to face the fact that it didn’t have any effect on them.

At the time, I thought I just had to learn more psychological strategy, learn to anticipate people more accurately; this is what “growing up” came to mean, for me. Now I think the lesson ought to have been the opposite: spend less mental energy fantasizing about effects and you’ll end up bringing more sensitivity, and thus value, to the thing itself. The reason a kid’s drawing doesn’t “put everyone in a great, great mood!” isn’t actually because of what the kid doesn’t know about people and moods; it’s because of all the inborn humanity the kid hasn’t yet allowed to manifest itself in his craft, which instead is, in fact, manifesting in this social fantasy.

This is the great counter-intuitive artistic idea I’ve arrived at in my adulthood. If you want to communicate effectively, you cannot afford to allocate any of your spiritual resources to the task of anticipating your effectiveness. Not even when it feels “constructive.” That feeling is always backward.

It’s a very tough intuition to flip.

This is to say that while Brütal Legend might seem to have failed the player because it didn’t take the player’s experience enough into account, I think it’s actually because it was too preoccupied with the audience, too set on “delighting everybody!” Too intent on having some effect instead of being some thing. It’s almost overwhelming how much this game sincerely wants to delight and amuse. That’s not the same as being delightful and amusing. Insofar as it eats up real estate that could have been put to better use, it’s the opposite.

As a player, I know exactly what the intended effect of this game is. But I don’t know what the game is. I don’t think anyone does.

Good will all around! Good will right back atcha! Thanks, Jack Black! Thanks, famous rock-and-rollers! (RIP Lemmy Kilmister!) Thanks, artists! Thanks, Tim Schafer and Double Fine! Thanks everyone for so very clearly wanting to put me in a great, great mood — that’s sweet of you!

Onward I go to your next game! With trepidation.

February 3, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 10. Judgment Night


directed by John Brahm
written by Rod Serling
starring Nehemiah Persoff
with Deirdre Owen, Patrick Macnee, Ben Wright, Leslie Bradley, Kendrick Huxham, Hugh Sanders, Richard Peel, Donald Journeaux, Barry Bernard, and James Franciscus

Friday, December 4, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

This is The Twilight Zone at its very clunkiest: a single simplistic notion, gracelessly drawn out to length. No story, just a situation. And a situation, at that, whose only justification is: “imagine if God had magically instituted this situation.”

This is highly schematic stuff — one pictures Rod Serling slamming this one out on a pack of cigarettes and no sleep, writer’s block be damned — and I’d like to dispense with it quickly.

The pre-twist unease, such as it is, has to do with one’s sense of place in the world, one’s self-narrative in social life. Having amnesia, or being arbitrarily inserted into a situation that isn’t properly yours, is not so very different a nightmare from something more overtly supernatural like Where Is Everybody? Being socially grounded doesn’t just mean having pleasant or welcoming people around; they have to be the right people. One cannot truly be part of society if one doesn’t feel internally that there is a match between the inner and outer narratives. Mr. Lanser seems to be in the wrong story, which is uneasy-making because it denies him (and us) any natural action. What are his sympathies? What is his agenda? He can’t have one, because he’s been stripped of the basics of social selfhood.

Unfortunately for the viewer, the ultimate nature of Mr. Lanser’s predicament is such that the episode can’t afford for him to make any real headway in dealing with this feeling of social mismatch, so as food for thought, his situation isn’t very rewarding. Mostly he just sits around, waiting for the other shoe to drop, staring into space as though he’s trying to find something between his teeth with his tongue.

The post-war game of pretending to exercise how far conventional sympathies can stretch is, from today’s point of view, awfully dull. (“My god, the Germans were people too?”) Feigning as though such questions were hard and eye-opening and salutary was surely pretty thin soup for even the most propaganda-committed Americans. Watching a straw German undergo this exercise is one degree less absurd, but only just (“Mein gott, ze Allies vere people too?”). Rod seems to understand that this is a nonstarter as a tale of moral growth, and he leaves Lanser’s degree of eventual enlightenment ambiguous. After all, the eternal punishment would start to seem like the work of an evil God, rather than merely a brutal one, if we saw that every night of his endless torment, Lanser learns a lesson of compassion and takes it to heart. So he doesn’t. Nothing happens. And that nothing happens over and over again.

Fear of ultimate eternal punishment by an ultimate authority is about the most psychologically retrograde of devices for creating horror. “What if God, the universe, were a being of infinite malice — and what if that malice were just?” Such hellfire fantasies always strike me as distasteful and inhumane, because as long as we are quaking in our boots contemplating this scenario, we are also endorsing the malice within ourselves. If eternal torment seems in any way like apt “poetic justice” to you, you are carrying the spirit of vengeance in your own heart. The idea that this story is not the pungent fancy of a traumatized veteran’s imagination but, in fact, God’s holy and correct “Judgment Night,” is the flimsiest of all facades to excuse our own indulging ourselves some cruelty. It would have been much healthier to be honest about where these images were coming from.

“That German bad guy only got what he deserved, after all!” A remorseful German “good guy” is dropped in at the end like a kewpie doll to try to wring some sense of moral ambivalence out of an audience already assumed to tacitly approve of eternal torment. But of course he doesn’t show up on the time-loop ghost ship. Unclear what The Twilight Zone had in store for him.

There’s something transparently arbitrary about the fact that the underlying sin is not that Lanser was a Nazi, per se, but that he… didn’t give his victims warning. This is just a technicality with a vaguely “ethical” ring to it, clutched at in attempt to paper over the open secret that war is war and all its victims, by definition, are treated inhumanely.

Rod Serling was in heavy combat in World War II and was scarred by seeing his companions die. Wanting to work those feelings out is only natural, and sharing that process with the rest of the traumatized country, through his TV show, seems a perfectly honorable thing to do. But there’s a big difference between “justice” and “anger,” and you can’t properly work out anger if you insist that it’s actually justice. An episode like this finds Rod (and many Americans like him, no doubt) muddled by his own embarrassment, trying to turn his pain and fury into something neater and more orderly: a system of right and wrong.

That’s a common project, but it never works out. Someone like me, on the outside, with no ax to grind, can see immediately that an equation is being proposed with no solution. Rod is the good German and the bad German and all the victims on the ship and the god whose Inferno this is, and the only way to reconcile it all is through his pain, which is not itself on the table.

To watch this as pure Twilight Zone episode, the audience has to do the work that Rod didn’t manage to do, and connect the dots into something that resembles a well-formed story:

This cold-hearted man doomed the innocent, but there’s no escaping Fate, which thus inflicts that same doom back on him… albeit in a ghostly state of half-awareness. As it must be; such moral inversions can only play out on an inner stage of purely subjective reality. The life of a ghost is necessarily one of constant dream-disorientation, an asocial existence still haunted by the memory of people, and it is that very force, the memory of people, that is having its revenge on him in a state beyond death.

There, see, I understand it all fine. (It’s the same skeleton as Time Enough at Last, in fact.) The show just had to give the slightest indications and the rest was second nature. We’re all eager and ready to dismiss all the stuff that’s extraneous or contradictory. The audience is very practiced at working in tandem with the author to feed itself the nightmares it’s already accustomed to having, overcoming, and then having again. We’re all in this together. Every night. Forever.

Music is stock. Most of it is from Bernard Herrmann’s “Outer Space” and “Western” suites of library music. Sturdy stuff.

February 2, 2016

The Witness (2016)

developed by Thekla (San Francisco, CA)
designed by Jonathan Blow

Occasionally I do still play computer games when they’re new. Not often, but occasionally.

This entry is here to mark that I played this one, which was very good. As with Portal 2, telling you much about it would be to its detriment. It’s a game designed to be inhabited and gradually discovered, and there’s no value in pre-empting any of that. The ideal way to experience it, I think, would be to encounter it with absolutely no foreknowledge — not even having seen, say, the trailer above. That’s how I first encountered Myst in 1993, on one of the demonstration computers at Learningsmith: completely fresh. The impact of that encounter is still vivid. The Witness is founded in that shared cultural memory, I suppose. But it’s not a nostalgia piece at all.

Games are places, and games that deliberately act like places tend to be the most rewarding. This game acts very conscientiously like a place, attending with great care to the things that matter about places: light, sound, texture.

What goes on in the place is always secondary, and despite being stuff I spent nearly 30 hours doing, it’s secondary here too. But again, it’s conscientious, and that’s what really counts. Knowing that everything around you is the product of care and taste is a tremendously luxurious experience, such that “luxurious” is hardly the word. Games like this transform ordinary architectural experience into something supernaturally enveloping, something that coats the whole sensorium, like a heavy fall of snow.

There are reservations to be had, I suppose, around the edges of this game, where its “ideas” and “premise” live, but I feel no need to withhold any degree of approval. This is a generous and thoughtful game and those are overwhelmingly sympathetic qualities. I’m willing to ride along with its eccentricities.

For the time being I’m a little sad that 1) I zoomed through the whole thing while I was sick, and now I’ve more or less exhausted the game but I’m still sick; and 2) I currently associate the beautiful environment of this game with being sick, which is a shame.

But I’m sure there will be time to revise that association. I have every expectation of watching other people play this, and/or returning and playing through it again some day.

Is it for everyone? Is it for you? I would say it’s for everyone to start. Only some will finish. That’s fine. I never finished games when I was a kid, when they meant most to me.

While we’re on the subject, I should acknowledge that I’ve played a couple of other games, in the past couple months, that weren’t actually off my backlog.

• On December 8, I played Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist. Which is more like a skit in the guise of a game than a real game. But an amusing and well-delivered skit. I was charmed. This was free and lasted 15 minutes, so hardly an offense against my backlog.

• The next day, inspired by the fact that I had so enjoyed a short free game on a whim, I looked around to see what other games were free on Steam, and ended up playing through You Have to Win the Game, a nostalgia-styled platform game in a similar vein to VVVVVV. Another hit! Well thought out, just the right length, not an offense against my time or intelligence. 2 hours and 0$ well spent.

• Then a couple weeks later, on December 21, I returned to the same source. Let’s see what else is free on Steam! The Plan seems to be free and basically well-liked; let’s play this! Oops. The Plan was stupid faux-art with no content or point of view. 10 minutes ill spent.

• And finally, on January 11, somehow suckered by online hype and my own weird late-night mood, I put down a small amount of actual money to buy and play the ostensible game of the moment, Pony Island, which purports to be a weird indie sardonic fourth-wall-breaking mindbender. This was also a bust. Maybe not a total bust, but close. This is just the 2016 “Made with Unity” version of the same old dinky Commodore 64 “fourth-wall-breaking” gags of 30 years ago. It felt chintzy and amateurish, and I felt like I’d been had. Lesson: reviewer enthusiasm and “buzz,” in the internet era, are not good reasons to buy anything. You’d think I’d have learned that by now.

Now I have that good thorough feeling again.

February 1, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 9. Perchance to Dream


directed by Robert Florey
written by Charles Beaumont
starring Richard Conte
also starring John Larch
and featuring Suzanne Lloyd
music by Van Cleave

Friday, November 27, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

This one has a distinctly different texture and spirit. Probably this can be attributed to the three creatives making their Twilight Zone debut: Charles Beaumont, Robert Florey, and Nathan Van Cleave. We may be still stuck inside the head of a neurotic, but the concerns aren’t those of Rod Serling. The fears being plumbed here are more mysterious, wetter. The high expressionist, quasi-surreal style isn’t within Rod’s reach as a writer, I don’t think. It takes a certain daring, a certain social disregard, to put stuff like this to paper. This episode gives a clear sense of a less conventional personality at work.

I was reminded throughout this episode of the unforgettably scary diner scene from Mulholland Drive, where the guy summons his nightmare into reality by recounting it. (If you haven’t seen it before, fair warning: I’m not kidding!) That scene works so well because it correctly captures that in a dream, there is no difference between the feeling of dread and the thing that is dreaded: they are both manifestations of the same swell of emotion. Watching the scene, we understand subconsciously from our own dream experiences that we’re being subjected to a cresting wave of fear that cannot be averted, that must be endured. The idea that one could rid oneself of that kind of fear by “confronting it” is an illusion — there is nothing external about it, so there’s nothing to confront. This is the mistake made by the guy in the scene; his quest to exorcise the godawful feeling is what forces the fear to manifest itself bodily and, at least in the context of the scene, kill him. (More likely, he simply wakes up.)

The car crash sequence in “Perchance to Dream” is the very same scene, even though it’s framed somewhat differently (as a flashback, and explicitly as a case of the mind playing tricks on itself). Every time I watch it I feel dread that the Mulholland Drive monster is going to slide into view in the mirror. (The actual dissolve to mysterious eyes is blessedly gentle.) And the whole episode is an exploration of the same kind of fear: fear of fear itself.

Fear is of course a manifestation of the irrational, subjective side of the mind. So we’re really dealing with the same subject matter as in every other episode, but here the emphasis is shifted. Previously the threat has been: what goes on inside your head might cut you off from society. Here the threat is: what goes on inside your head might kill you, and society won’t be able to get in there to save you.

“Maya the Cat Girl” is Hall’s own irrational self, which he nervously imagines as having attributes relating to sex and to the animal kingdom, and dwelling in a sleazy, mysterious underworld that simultaneously entices and frightens him. All pretty standard stuff, says Dr. Freud. As he moves toward this projected self in his dream, half his fear manifests in “him,” as a sense of impending doom, and half manifests in “her,” as a malicious desire to bring about his doom. She becomes the supposed “source” of his fear — the one who, as the guy in Mulholland Drive says, “is doing it.”

In reality, since she is him, the deadly fear she seems to be inflicting on him is none other than the fear that he is already experiencing, siphoning around in a vicious circle. The roller-coaster ride gets wilder the more frightened he gets; the fear is making it go.

Even before the “twist” reveal that he’s been asleep the whole time, Hall’s ultimate dream-death is already depicted as a perverse suicide — he leaps out the window exactly because he so dreads that he will. He continues to seek relief from terror by “confronting” it.

I can relate to this perverse impulse, which is the impulse of anxiety. But I want to outgrow it. Whereas a piece of art like this episode just reinforces the pattern.

It’s important to note that this twist ending, which might seem particularly gothic, is just as regressive and conservative as always. The “dangerous truth” at the heart of the episode is (as usual) that the world one experiences is inside one’s head and thus isn’t necessarily shared by anyone else. But a full embrace of this truth would actually grant Hall a redemptive ending: because unbeknownst to him, he lives on; because his fear is not permanent or ultimate, even though it has been, in his dream of the moment, all-consuming. Instead, we get the supposedly-spooky reveal that, having died in his own reality, he has also died in the doctor’s reality. Far from being spooky, this actually reinforces the conventional intuition that different people’s realities do in fact correspond, and that the social consensus is superior to any individual subjectivity. More truly spooky would be for Hall — and the viewer — to have to accept that he “really” did jump out the window, and also, subsequently, “really” didn’t. But the episode flattens any such paradox.

It is, however, not generally a timid episode. I really enjoy how close to true surrealism it wanders, even in sequences that aren’t overtly dreamlike. In the very opening moments, perhaps there’s some trite “symbolic” explanation for all the attention given to the revolving door — I haven’t really tried to puzzle one out — but I certainly enjoy it on its surface, simply as a kind of bubbling up of the irrational into the ordinary. The music and the visual style begin to suggest the subterranean capacity of anything to be revealed as mere impersonal pattern and sensation. This is the essence of a very basic kind of “creepiness.”

Usually I would here point out that it needn’t be creepy, if one isn’t afraid of the irrational; that the impersonal pattern of the living world is actually something to revel in. But in this context, where one expects the streamlined storytelling conventions of prime-time TV, it is absolutely creepy. Those conventions form a synthetic psychology, which the viewer assumes while watching. As such, as a “watcher of TV,” I find the interruptions of pure surface into this episode to be splendidly eerie.

“Did you ever look at this picture? I mean really look at it.” That question, and the shot of the dull painting seen over Hall’s shoulder, gave me a special thrill. Hall has become unmoored from the ordinary constraints that govern TV behavior and has chosen to stare at an arbitrary piece of set dressing, forcing the camera — not usually inclined to such silliness — to do the same. This is, to me, a beautiful way of suggesting the dizzying freedom of being an individual. Even in the context of the dream that is The Twilight Zone itself, Hall is worryingly free.

• The episode has a screwy structure. No particular element is essential to any of the others. It just works as a feeling driving itself around in circles. But the feeling is the one being described by the story, which gives a fine form to it — a spiraling dream about spiraling dreams.

• “Marbles can be found, Mr. Hall.” Not true! The false promises of the outside world. In actuality, there were never any marbles to begin with. So there is no antidote to fear of having lost them.

• He blows cigarette smoke right in the doctor’s face. Is this how it was in those days?

• “The mind is everything. If you think you’ve got a pain in your arm, and there’s no physical reason for it, it hurts just the same, doesn’t it?” Well said! That could serve as the motto for the series.

• I think Robert Florey knew very well that he was depicting a conversation between the two halves of the mind when he shot the central exchange between Edward and Maya as between two extreme close-ups of alternating tilt. I feel like I’ve been through a similar dream exchange with myself many times. “You are afraid.” / “Only because this isn’t happening. This is a dream. I’m not here, I’m at home, asleep. And you’re part of that dream!” / “I know that.” / “You do?” / “Of course.”

The music in this episode is excellent! [Nathan] Van Cleave is hardly known at all these days, but this is really top-notch work, and it raises the whole episode up. This is, really, as good a job of horror scoring as any I can think of. (It reminds me a little of parts of Rosemary’s Baby, which is right up there for me.) Listening to the roller coaster cue on its own is plenty unnerving.

According to those who know, the “dream” instrument used throughout that sounds like a theremin is actually just a solo violin with some kind of studio effect applied. There does however seem to be some kind of synthesizing organ in there making bloops and blats, possibly a Novachord.

Van Cleave will be back for a number of subsequent Twilight Zone episodes, so we’ll get some sense of his range.