New Game: “Cut from the Classifieds, My Head the Money Machine”

Posted in Uncategorized on January 12, 2015 by mclogenog

shake your head / have ideas / get rich

what is this:
a random phrase generator
a self-portrait from unemployment
an art toy
a digital joke

To try it out, proceed to itch.io.

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A Rant Concerning the Function of Art: Answers or/and Questions

Posted in Uncategorized on September 13, 2014 by mclogenog

We’ve all heard someone say “Art asks more questions than it answers.” This statement suggests a categorization of art into either High Art or low art. Although there are many reductive ways to categorize art, I find it useful to categorize according to the function of either questioning or answering, but this use is not about dismissal. To clarify, I’m using “answers” to mean reinforcement of established values and “questions” to mean rejection or examination.

Some Super-Generalized Art History

Despite the common view that art is about asking question and not giving answers, art as “question” is a recent idea. Even in the late 19th century, art was about providing answers. Representation of people, places, or stories (religious, mythic, or historical) was about meaning, as if to remind the audience. “Life is meaningful,” these works suggested, “because of [religion, or nationalism, or ethnocentrism, or natural beauty, or people].”

Art as a statement of meaning is most apparent in religious works. Whether it’s Christ’s deposition from the cross or the virgin and child, these works remind their audience that Christianity, not the things of the secular world, is the route to heaven. It may ask the audience to reevaluate their lives, but the work supplies the answer to its own question.

The purpose of art changed gradually. The romantics explored new subject matter, introducing doubt to basic assumptions. Their historical works focused on the ugly, irrational, yet passionate moments. Irrational passion became a new answer in some romantic works. But other, less certain works of this movement turned the answer into a question. “Why,” some of these works ask, “do humans act this way?”

Several decades later, impressionists changed the method by which they gave answers in their works, creating new techniques a style. The expressionists, who followed, turned to the inner, emotional world for their subjects, making the “answers” personal. Their works are harder to generalize. An expressionist work may say “I feel [x]” instead of “life is important because [x]” and many continue to imply “why?”

After expressionism, art explodes. Art starts questioning assumptions about race, politics, religion, economics. Art starts questioning assumptions about art! It is all very complicated and impossible to generalize in the way I generalized art prior to the 20th century. The greater trend still holds, however. It is from the gradual acceptance of early 20th century art that many of us now say “art asks more questions than it answers.”

The Problem with Answers

There are some good reasons for rejecting answers. Mainstream art is about answering, whether the creator knows it or not. The unaware creator unwittingly imbeds cultural values (good and bad) into their work. When the creator is aware of imbedding these values in the answers their work provides, they are creating propaganda. Even when a creator means well and is aware of their assumptions, answers often come across condescending, pedantic, and moralizing. Answers, at their worst, are Thomas Kinkade paintings.

Consider recent films as an example: Michael Bay does not have a political agenda with Transformers any more than Christopher Nolan does with Batman, yet their films are still works of art that answer instead of questioning. Their audience leaves the theater with their values reaffirmed. Again, the directors don’t intend to participate in any negotiation of cultural values; their intent is (at best) to make an exciting film or (at worst) to make money. Works that question are usually difficult.

(Side note: most pop-intellectual films such as Inception, A Beautiful Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are still about answers and not questions. They either resolve their challenge—thus resolving the tension the audience feels—by the end of the film, or the challenge was never that complicated to begin with.)

But art is a product of the times. Romanticism followed the French Revolution and the failure of the enlightenment. Impressionism and expressionism followed the industrial revolution and urbanization. The many branches of modernism followed World War I. Since then there were the 50s and 60s and 70s. Answers seem empty in that world of the Vietnam war, the Kennedy assassinations, Watergate, the Cold War, etc. So instead of answering, art questioned, and through these questions, art exposed hypocrisy.

(Disclaimer: of course, as with the works of realists and naturalists in the 19th century, the mainstream art of the 20th and 21st century still fulfills the role of answering instead of questioning. It is incorrect to view this story of art as its only story. History is and always has been complicated.)

The Problem with Questions

The problem with questions is that, although they are effective at dismantling, they are not effective at replacing. Questions, when effective, create a void by displacing answers. Without a replacement, this void spells nihilism and cynicism. This may be clearer by analogy. Sometimes when walking up a staircase I become conscious of the act of walking up the staircase. The act that was automatic becomes manual and clumsy. If I cannot return to the automatic mode, then I might even stumble. Art that questions has a similar effect on assumptions. If I cannot find a substitute answer after displacing the first, then I feel uncomfortable.

So, if art that answers leads to propaganda, and art that questions leads to nihilism, what do we, who are attempting to make art, do?

Two Options

One option is to not worry about it. So long as there is some balance of works of art that question and others that answer, then we can avoid the negative effect of both. The problem with this option is that audiences will form that only engage with works of one type. This also encourages a cultural divide, which we see in the original assumption about art, and the implied division between “high” and “low.”

The option I prefer is to question and answer within the same work. In order for this route to succeed, the answer must be specific to its question and its context. If the answer is too big or too small for the question, then the work faces the same problems. For example, It’s A Wonderful Life poses a question about capitalism, but then answers it with “the love of family and friends (plus the help of god) conquers all!” By the end, the film does more to reaffirm mainstream American values than it does to examine them. Kurosawa’s Ikiru is more successful, although still somewhat saccharine. The protagonist, who is facing death, tries to find meaning in his remaining days, attempting one answer after another. For him, family and friends are inadequate answers, as is the pursuit of pleasure. The film’s answer is specific to that protagonist and his context. Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is even more successful with this question because its answer is grounded in the context of the film. The film’s answer to the question belongs to its protagonist; it is not a universal answer.

(Edit: A third option is for a work to pose multiple answers to the questions it asks. The purpose of the work is then to evaluate the merit of each answer. Bergman’s The Seventh Seal does this with each character representing a different philosophy, and each handling their mortality in different ways. Blow’s Braid also does this, by moving between subjective and objective, artistic and scientific meaning. By exploring multiple answers, works avoid the annoying, moralizing, condescending tone of a single, simple answer.)

So, what about games?

Games

I’m not sure, but I think the ability to apply this thinking to games depends on the genre. The more the game relies on systems, the harder it is for an author to pose simple answers. (Side note: I know people have mocked the way we categorize games according to mechanics instead of subject—rts and fps instead of rom-com and action—but I think it’s more valuable to think of each game “genre” as its own medium. All of the genres of books and movies can exist within each game “genre.”)

Games that focus on systems or simulation inherently allow the player to ask “what if” questions and see how the game answers. These systems are authored, so it is possible for these answers to be incorrect models of reality, intentionally or not. Systems and simulation can be ironic, so long as they are internally consistent. Prison Architect, Theme Hospital, and Sim City all provide answers to their player’s “what if” questions, but what questions they encourage depends on the game, and also on the player. “Objectivity” and “neutrality” are genre conventions of simulations, but as with mainstream film, choosing not to negotiate cultural values is still a form of participation.

At first it seems that interactivity would prevent the author from posing simple answers. Then again, gameplay is capable of saying “love conquers all” or other oversimplified statements. And games are more than gameplay. The non-interactive and the interactive are intermingled. The player may be able to blow up the red barrel, but it is (was) still a red barrel. The player may be able to subvert Grand Theft Auto by obeying traffic laws, but the player is still incapable of starting a punk rock band and posting fliers on telephone poles around town.

That’s all for this rant. If you have any thoughts, agree or disagree, let me know in the comments, or feel free to send me an email. Thanks for reading.

New Game: “Stars Beneath the Sea”

Posted in Digital Games on April 27, 2014 by mclogenog

Download: Windows, .love

Lost Levels Talk Notes

Posted in Article on March 21, 2014 by mclogenog

At Lost Levels I gave a five minute talk titled “What Poetry Can Teach Us About Making & Reading Games.” Below are my notes, including points that I accidentally skipped during the talk. There are also some minor revisions for clarity’s sake. Enjoy!

1. In games we have content and rules. Think of this as a reduction of Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics theory (MDA). That is, there are rules governing what the player can and cannot do, and there is content that fills variables.

2. Poetry has a similar divide between form (what the poet can and cannot do) and content (what fills the constrained variables defined by the form). For example, the form may govern that the poet needs an iamb that rhymes with water. Many words work as content for the rules of the form.

3. Dylan Thomas’s poem Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a good demonstration for how form affects theme. The repetition of the title line and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” create a circularity that is very different from narrative poetry. It is hard to tell a story with a villanelle. Filling in the form with different content would still have this circular quality.

4. This is not the case of most poems. Sonnets and sestinas, which are really strict forms, can be about a ton of things. The form’s thematic constraint has more impact on how it forces the poet to approach the theme.

5. I think of this as a spectrum where on one side we have “no form” (free verse), on the other we have “strict form,” and in the middle we have “invented form.” At both ends, the rules that govern the poet’s choice of content allow for a huge range of thematic expression. In the middle, theme is limited much more by the form. (The villanelle is somewhere between the middle and strict form.)

6. One example of this middle, invented space is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Try using the form of this poem (yes it has internal logic and constraining rules) to talk about any theme other than what Eliot’s poem talks about. It’s like telling a story with a villanelle: really hard!

7. This spectrum also exists, roughly, in games, stretching from “no rules” (“not-games”) to “strict rules” (“game-games”), and a middle of subjective or biased rules (“art-games”). That is to say, on one hand we have “Press X to Win!” On the other we have “Press X” (if even that). And in the middle we have “Press X to win? What does it mean to ‘win’?”

8. As with poetry, this middle space is hard! The extremes of “not-games” and “game-games” are much more open to variation just by varying content. There is a reason why there were and are so many Doom clones. (Their content has changed a lot while their rules have only changed a little, with each new clone deriving from previous clones, leading to the current “diverse” rule sets of modern shooters.)  On the other hand, imagine replacing the trees in Proteus with burning buildings and turning the color palette grey and red. The rules could remain the same, but the content change dramatically affects the themes.

9. But if you’re in the middle, at this intersection of content and rules, the designers have to reinvent the wheel each time. For example, it’s tempting to make a Papers, Please-like (especially after all of the awards it received), or a Braid-like. We know that combination of rules and content are successful. But without stripping their rules down, there is a limited space for thematic expression. A content swap doesn’t work so well here! Without reduction, the rules of Papers, Please are inescapably about bureaucracy. It’s hard to even imagine a content alternative.

10. Conclusion: I don’t have any problem with “not-games” and I have no problems–in theory–with “game-games.” I just want us to be aware of the difficulties we face when we say “I’d like to make something kind of like Luxuria Superbia” (as one example). If that’s what you’re trying for, you’ll have a hard time escaping the original source. Anyway, I hope that next time you sit down to ask yourself “What kind of game should I make?” this talk helps you realize the spaces we can explore and the special difficulties of the middle.

(My fallback plan was to read Jack Gilbert’s “The Rooster.” I recommend that you look the poem up if you get a chance.)

New Game: “A Fire in Winter”

Posted in Digital Games on February 26, 2014 by mclogenog


Download: Windows

New Game: “Stepwise Memory”

Posted in Digital Games on November 28, 2013 by mclogenog

screenshot_06

Download: Windows

Stepwise Memory is a minimalist rogue-like in the style of Michael Brough. Find your way to the exit, but be careful: your turns are limited.

Some Thoughts on RPG Stories

Posted in Article on September 28, 2013 by mclogenog

In Dungeons and Dragons, there is a set of expectations that together create an optimistic experience. The challenges the party faces will be appropriately difficult, and they will be rewarded with loot and experience for overcoming. If the party is inexperienced, death is unlikely, so long as the dungeon master is good; rerolling characters or forcing friends to sit out isn’t fun, even if it’s the consequence of a “fair” game. Similar grace is given in digital role playing games with the ability to reload saves, and sometimes features likes automated difficulty scaling. Given these rules, the experience is one of growth and accomplishment, yet the genre is also known for its story telling. Often the worlds are bleak, and the party or lone player character must overcome some looming threat and save the world. It’s serious business.

The problem is that these two things—gameplay about growth and story about the end of the world—don’t line up. If we want to tell a story of some bleak post-apocalypse, or pseudo-medieval feudalism, the player needs to have different expectations. It’s easy to imagine an alternative game: accomplishing the quest may have no effect on the greater problem, the dungeon may be a trap, the party or player character may suffer permanent wounds, and the only loot may be rusted beyond value. That could still be a role playing game, but those rules create a different experience. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games and—to a lesser extent—Dark Souls are close examples. Because those games’ rules create a bleak experience, the narrative fits.

On the other side are games like Skyrim. Due to the way external rules (such as saving and automated difficulty scaling) combine with the internal rules of experience and skill trees, the game creates an enjoyable experience. The player knows that if an encounter is too difficult, by spending some time gaining experience elsewhere, anything will become possible. Short of a level limit, the player’s potential power exceeds that of any non-playable character or monster, making the player a hero in the mythic sense.

This choice of rules in Elder Scrolls games is not a problem on its own until these games try to tell an epic story. Dragons may be returning, or gates to oblivion opening, or gods reincarnating, but none of these threats are real within their game’s rules. By the time the player faces the final enemy, the player character is so strong that the whole conflict becomes a joke, and the non-playable characters telling you to hurry clearly don’t understand the way the world works. There was never a serious risk; the end of the world will wait until the player is ready.

Now, there are exceptions. Although I would include Bioware games (from Baldur’s Gate onward) in this category of optimistic role playing games due to their design, the drama of their stories feels somewhat more honest because their worlds have more consequence. Characters can, and often do, die. Mass Effect 3 created such a strong sense of narrative urgency, I ignored almost all of the side quests. That said, there is still a limit on this when dialogue is separate from the role-playing gameplay about growth and power. The same story might be told more powerfully, or more honestly, with the structure of a game like The Walking Dead.

That said, most fantasy games try to imitate Tolkien, Jordan, or Martin. To various extents, all of them wrote bleak stories that thrive on uncertainty. At their lightest, they suggest the existence of some positive force of fate that will make things right. At their darkest, “good” and “evil” become indistinguishable, and the triumph of one over the other becomes meaningless. Unlike a player character in a role playing game, these heroes suffer wounds, age, and die. At best, their power over time follows a parabola. If role playing games want to tell these stories, their rules need to change.

There is another alternative though. I like the playful optimism allowed by many role playing games. There is an agency in those worlds that extends to my view of reality; I feel happy knowing that it only takes practice to become better at programming or writing or so on. The world is not always as bleak as the stories we write about it. Instead of changing the rules of these optimistic games, we could change the stories. They could emulate mythology or embrace child-like absurdity. The rules of Skyrim’s world have more in common with Adventure Time than Middle Earth, so why not treat it that way? In short, many of our games are already optimistic and silly by design; if we want their stories to improve, we should either accept the honesty of their silliness, or change the games themselves.