Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Title

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 The Movie, is not its first cutscene, or its opening stage, but a quick series of cuts of actual the film it is trying to repre

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A Reflection on #altgames, and My Favourites of 2014

I don't think it's very arguable that 2014 was an incredible year for artgames, for small games, for freeware games and the avant-garde. The new artists and gamemakers I met this year (which were a lot), along with those I've been following longer have put out some of their best work.

But perhaps equally as important is that many of those people have been able to sell it. This is mostly what 2014 was able to signify for me. Whereas in 2013, I would have found most of my games on gamejolt, or newgrounds (ugh), personal websites or obscure back ends of the internet, or through, with the help of WarpDoor, I'm now increasingly finding great work on where people are selling their work for money, PWYW and flat fees.

Money for artgames is important not because it can make someone rich, or turn them into a mogul. I think that was what the rhetoric of "Indie," like many rhetorics of the tech start-up culture, began to rely upon. And I think that rheoetric still cotes the subtext of its hegemonic structures and pipelines. What keeps people paying $100 to IGF every year, or spending massive time and energy through the sludge of Greenlight, or trying to market their work to apathetic games jouralists and publicists. What is important for me, is being at a point where making something weird, personal, something that doesn't comform to the standards of industry or mainstream consumption can be a worthwhile venture for anyone who wants to do it. That if you put out something different, you can make a decent amount of money that will justify the work. More than that, you could be assured that people will *play* that work, that you can find an audience willing to support you, who will engage honestly with your work, without you having to appeal to toxic gamer cultures who will demand you prove your work is a game at all. Moreover, and I guess this more of an extra tick I have as a critic, that people will have valuable discussions on that work, that those whose task is to produce discourse will take that work seriously, critique it honestly out of appreciation, not condescension and dismissal.

I think this is what #altgames signfiies to me, more than anything else. I just want the creation of good art to be a little easier, a little less painful, a more fruitful as a process. In that sense, I think 2014 was a good sign.

I played 121 games in 2014. And that's just what's listed in the Playing List. That isn't to toot my horn (although I am quite proud of this I will admit), but I think I'm in a pretty decent place to make some observations about the general sphere of games and art that I engage with on a daily basis. So I'd like to address a few things


I've become increasingly interested in #altgames, as a rhetoric and signifier, as a critical methodology and approach, and as a sensibility. Not really as ideology, though #altgames is very much in the lineage of radical strands of videogame rhetoric, similar to the short lived "Queer Games" rhetoric of 2012 and 2013. It very much takes from certain assumptions, aspirations and assertions from "queer games," "empathy games". Merritt Kopas wrote a really nice manifeso-type thingy that I really like. Merritt was very much part of that "movement," the first piece I read from her being published on Nightmare Mode. So I like this piece not because I agree with everything on it but because it's clear she understands what she wants, what the current Condition necessitates, understanding the successes (?) and mistakes (?) of previous rhetorics, previous movements, or whatever.

I don't think #altgames is a scene, and I don't think I want it to be. And I think communities are overrated. This may be where TJ and I differ, somewhat. What I like about Merritt's post is she's focused on ideas, things which can spread, a sensibility that can permeate many different spheres and spaces. Her rhetoric is facilitating, and I think that's what I want. I want to facilitate alterity, even if that faciliation is ideologically focused (and it probably very much has to be).

I think a backbone of ideology and undersanding of identity politics is what will keep #altgames as something that can facilitate good things. As such, it's probably worth noting that #altgames as an idea was something produced and develeoped mostly by people of color, and queer people. I give my appreciation to Soha for having faith in these ideas, faciliting connections through twitter even when people were giving her flack, deligitmizing her ideas, and shutting her out from the mainstream "radical" canon, permeated with heralded white women. (I'm of course partly refencing the New York Times article on Twine, somewhat, in which she was absent.) So I won't forget when people were shitting on her, and others, about this. The "Alternative Games" twitter was actually inspired by TJ, someone who I'll be working with far more in the next year. He was also universally ignored, this year. But such is the life of a racialized person, it seems.

It's crucial, going into 2015, to understand that Alterity, in art, in method, in sense, is always developed and maintained by people who are not white men. If this truth is doesn't sustain itself, then altgames is bullshit, a lie and a rhetoric full of hot air.

#altgames signifies to me structures as well as ideas. The games I play are usually found on WarpDoor, or Gamejolt, or, or personal websites and the many curating twitters floating around right now. So it's very much rooted in a particular structural network. I know that some people are probably thinking this is all ridiculous: what's the point of making stupid new words? But the truth, is that the stuff I find on the back end of gamejolt, in the Misc. section of Itch, or on WarpDoor and ForestAmbassador is just not the same thing you play on the PSN Indies section or on the App Store. The standards and conditions that produce them are not the same, their context is not the same, and, like I've been arguing this entire fucking year, the critical approach to small games and artgames should absolutely not be the same as how we've been approaching videogames for so long. The Arcade Review has been solid proof of that.

With that, I think it's time to move on to my favourite games of this year! I want to mention that 2014 was a phenomenal year, particualrly for first person narrative games. So many boundaries were pushed there. What makes Walking Simulators, or I guess the style of that so brilliant is they're constantly negotating themselves, working themselves out, as if they don't even understand what they're about more than we do. Walking Sims are in constant conversation, and that's partly why I love them so much. Anyone who tells you they're  mostly boring/pretentious artwank either haven't played any outside of Proteus and Dear Esther or just don't really care about engaging them critically. I also just have a personal love for first person stuff in general. It composes most of the list here.

But here it is! My list of favourites, in no particular order:

Env by Sam Chester

Saturn V by Cosmo D

A Night In the Woods by Amy Dentata

The Pyramid Gate by Strangethink

2:22 AM by Albert Lai

Blitzmaze by dustmyte

Curtain by dreamfeel

900 by Barnaque

Bernband  by Tom

CHYRZA by Kittyhorrorshow

Vernacular by Da Neel

Petrichor by SundaeMonth

Offline by PolClarriou

Thank You for Reading! And Happy New Year!

Friday, 7 November 2014

Expressionism and Sonic Adventure 2

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, "Postdamer Platz" 1914

Mark Fillipowich has a great piece from July about how the game camera is used to abstract the context of narrativized spaces. One of the important implications he makes is that games not only recontextualize spaces through the perception of characters, these spaces become new, abstracted representations that reflect larger perceptions and ideas.

"Regardless of whether the player-character is actually a character or merely a window into the world, a player’s control of vision frames the world and informs the player what they are supposed to take from it. What the player is able to see and the lens they use to explore the world reshape the player’s objectives, their sympathies and so on."

In literature and art it's pretty clear that what is described or portrayed is being filtered through some kind of lens, but it seems less obvious that what we see in videogames is rarely representative of what is actually there. Games can create places with such detail, but that doesn't mean that the character we play, or the author themself isn't betraying our senses by omitting, emphazizing, and rearranging parts of that setting. So this idea that Mark puts up, similar to Lana's writing on Geography and Ideology, and Stephen Beirne piece's on Fatal Frame, is important because it gives us space to think about the ways that games and settings move between abstraction and representation, and how abstraction communicates larger ideas and perspectives about those settings.

One section of art worth looking at is Expressionist Art, a umbrella category that's very much interested in these ideas. Early 20th Century German Expressionism was even more focused towards the spaces and limits of abstration and representative settings.

The first painting that I think is relevant is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Potsdamer Platz (above), finished in 1914 after Kirchner and the Brücke painters moved from Dresden to Berlin. Platz, a representation of pre-war Berlin, has these dead, dreary colours. A sickly green, pale yellow skin tones and a lot of dirty white on the buildings; an ivory with scribbled strokes of black and gray. The people themselves are very snakish, with long legs and black pupils. And the streets themselves are very angular and sharp, with narrowing roads and pointed street corners. So its clear that Kirchner saw Berlin as very dirty, hostile, and unwelcoming, and the people as skeeving and untrustworthy. He even expresses the typical anxiety around sex workers, who serve as the main subject of this work.

Ludwig Meidner, "Apocalyptic City" (1913)
Ludwig Meidner also made paintings of the city. The flashing sparks and colours make Apocalyptic City deceptively festive, but a closer look will show that Meidner's portrait of Berlin leans more towards chaos than it does celebration. The fiery, explosive shapes and colours seem to imply a city that is literally burning, and the giant ray of blue light probably reflects Meidner's "intense involvement"(1) with religious prophecies of Doom and apocalypse, a reference to some higher, all seeing power. His arrangement of buildings present Berlin as a fractured and broken city, lacking any order or coherence.

We that this isn't what Berlin actually looks like, but Postdamer Platz and Apocalyptic City tell us a lot about the issues that could have been facing the city at that time, and the artists' perspectives on those issues.

On Sonic Adventure 2 

As I was playing Sonic Adventure 2's Night City levels for the 800th time, I was compelled to look back at Apocalyptic City. If you pay attention to Sonic Lore (there's no reason why you should do this), you'd know that Sonic Adventure 2 takes place in a city called Central City, a sort of sister city to Station Square from Sonic Adventure. Certain stages, like Radical Highway and Mission Street depict certain areas at nighttime.

Mission Street is mainly characterized by crumbling roads and infrastructure. The main challenge of getting through Mission Street is avoiding gaps in the road, as parts of roads gnaw into each other, and pieces fall apart when you walk over them. Standing in a place for too long can have you fall along with them. In the final section of the stage, a giant piece of highway drops right on top of you, meters before the goal post. And Radical Highway is also a mess of broken parts. Playing through the stage often has Shadow compensating for the Highway's structural impossibilities. Many of its parts just don't connect, and its roads are barricaded with police cars, permeated with G.U.N Mechas, blocked with metal Crates and is constantly receiving air bombings from G.U.N fighter jets. Radical Highway has less of a focus on infrastructure and more on the presence of the G.U.N military organization. But both of these give a lens to the deteriorating state of Central City, a place that seems to be literally falling apart in front of our eyes, and the eyes of Shadow and Tails.

So if we conjecture that this isn't really Central City but rather an "expressionized" perspective, then these stages are giving a vivid and intense portait of the city's worsening situation. It's a place that's becoming increasingly incoherent, unnavigable, dangerous, and of course, "falling apart," aging rapidly and therefore less able to sustain its structures. It's also a city that seems to be suffocating under military interventionism. There are very clear lines drawn between the presence of G.U.N and the increasing hostility of the city. In Radical Highway, the presence of G.U.N puts the city's highways under total arrest.

Sonic Adventure 2 makes numerous implicit criticisms of G.U.N by showing the toll its taken on Central City, and it's pretty easy to see the game as critical of military culture and secrecy. From my account, Eggman isn't really the cause as much as he is the trigger of what always was an old and toxic political stucture. SA2's frequent motif is the uncovering of Old Things. Old structures, old projects and plans, old technology, and old ideals, rising to the surface in an undead state, trying to make themselves realized. From that point, Sonic Adventure 2 starts to make a lot more sense. It's a game that tasks us with making sense of structures that are in collapse. Of navigating the perils and pitfalls of oldness.

Lucio Fontana, “Concetto spaziale, Attese” (1965)

It's really important to recognize the way that certain Sonic game stages, Windy Valley, Radical Highway and Route 101/280, Rail Canyon and Frog Forest, isolate settings in floating space. These places never seem to actually touch the ground. Instead, they lie static and suspended, becoming objects in themselves that are slightly contextualized by the skybox. Radical Highway's spacial isolation allows it to become its own visual essay; a representation of social/material decay under extreme statist militarism. This is something not even the German Expressionists could do. They painted before the modernist abstractionists, abstract expressionists, the color field painters, the Fontanas and Olitskis who would question and complicate what it means for a painting to be bordered. If you were an artist in 1914, it seems that you were bound by the edge, but in 2014, there is no edge!! There is only be a here and a there, an object in space and its context.

Another thing worth noting is that if we take this premise, then unlike pre-war Berlin, we'll never actually know what Central City looks like. What makes fictional settings weird is that what we see is what we get, there is no "real" Central City to compare this expressionized Central City to. So abstration is a freakish tool that creates a flow for powerful ideas but also hides so much from us. We have all these ideas, and yet there's so much space, maybe too much space, for our minds to wander.



1: Quoted from Norbert Wolf's "Expressionism," which you can buy here. It's very good!

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Notes on 900, and The Image

I was playing Barnaque's 900 for a second time today, and I thought about how Barnaque games have engaged with "image" as a device, and the spaces they create with it. I made a tweet not long ago about the different kinds of spaces and 'scapes' we find in videogames, in parallel with the "soundscape" identified with music, and I guess I'd say that Barnaque games make me think about "imagespace," the way in which images, specfically the sprite, is used to create a sense of space, proximity, and embodiment. 

Images in Barnaque games are often low quality, with a low number of frames that cycle quickly in animations. There's a question of staticism in how these sprites don't seem like moving images, but a collection of static pictures that shift and stutter erratically. But what Barnaque games do that's most interesting to me is they reveal their images as images. Many 2D games design sprites and images to meld together, to communicate a unified whole and pass as credible setting, a "real place" where players can easily embody themselves. But Barnaque games are spaces where the individual parts are clearly discernable, and in disharmony. 900, then, is somewhere close to collage, where its presentation of figure and ground, of image and its context, is in continuous conflict and disarray. 900 may seem craftsy, but it isn't the same as King-Spooner, who uses drawings, photos and clay to create depth in his settings, literal spacial depth, and subtext in his fiction. In a space where images appear tacked on, making contour a strong, visible thing, the sense of layer and depth that mediates objects in a space are in constant negotiation. And unlike King-Spooner, the sense of material is ambiguous and difficult to parse, bringing 900 closer to Polansky's SUPERMOONS than the group of clay-craft RPGMaker games.

900 is a radial scroll shooter where you use a rotating laser-like to clear or "absorb" other galaxies, and allow your own galaxy-self to grow in size, though I'm not completely sure if they're actually galaxies or just freakish space objects. When you touch another galaxy, you trigger a lose-state, and a number displaying your 'size' will show on the screen. 

Improvisation Klamm by Wasily Kadinsky, 1914

What makes 900 different in its depiction of space is how it aggressively resists the universalism of landscape. It's sort of an Anti-Destiny. There's no balcony for us to perch on, or hill to mount that would give us a romantic vista, an assembled frame of strategically placed planets, stars and structures to please our eyes, and calm the shooter impulse. 900 uses a very warped sense of perspective. It's not clear if we're looking downwards, upwards or toward this centered object. We don't know it comes from or what its base traits are, since the sprite is constantly changing. What we do know, perhaps the only thing we know about 900, is that there is a Thing, and that this Thing is getting larger. The screen rattles as it grows, like a bacteria. It's feels both microscopic, through the game's depth of field, and cosmic in its increasing scale. With freakish contradictions and spacial conflicts, the disarming beauty of typical space is replaced with a space that's ugly and aggressive, an unpleasant space that cycles without a sense of context.

The game is very uncomfortable. It's abrasive, it's anxiety-inducing, and it's actually quite difficult. Clearing 360 degrees of approaching objects feels like a multitask, and you become uneasy dealing with an radial area with the knowledge that you're neglecting another. That sense of neglect, the back knowledge that something is there or that something is coming and that I'm going to have to engage with it, is how 900 reveals an anxious unconcious in our play. 900, then, is a game of looming. Its imagespace is a combination of images that look very detached and awkward, and the distribution of these images that makes the screen feel incredibly dense. Like a glass box filled filled with tiny insects, 900 at once feels crowded and peculiar. But it's not the same as being crowded in a hallway, or crowded in a small room like in Resident Evil 2. We're being crowded in a space we can't manage to parse. There's this vague sense that we're being surrounded by something and yet we can't seem to comprehend the ways in which this is happening, how objects are moving and acting in relation to us. 900 is technically 2D, but its messy use of images, as well as its depth of field effets, its animations and its very harsh approach to color (reminding me a bit of Solaris), allow it to transend typical 2Dness or the tired 2.5D spaces. It makes playing the game disorienting and stress-inducing. As I allow the galaxy-thing to grow larger, and get closer to reaching the 900 score, I don't feel more relived or excited but increasingly nervous. Everything just seems to be getting more intense and after a few tries, I stop the game. 

So 900 does this incredible thing, of obscuring and dulling the senses we use to understand our context, then bombarding us with weirdness, contradiction, and incredible amounts of energy. Barnque have always done interesting things with their cropped-up, low-res images, their moody soundspaces, and  but here they do a really good job concentrating their "style" into something straightfoward and succint. It really chalenges what we expect a 2D space to feel like, and how we conceptualize that space. 

900 is a huge accomplishment. It's my favourite Barnaque game so far, and I'm excited to play whatever the group comes up with next.


1: While thinking about 900, I was inclined to look through my book of expressionist paintings, and I found this really good one by Kadinsky that I think does a good job illustrating what Barnaque does with image. I always appreciated how Kadinsky challenges our sense of shape and depth. Like 900, it's not easy to tell what kind of space we're operating in. And again, through the strong sense of contour, this painting puts layer, depth, and shape into negotation, making for a really cool experience, like 900!

2: I'd also say 900 is a lot better than Nuelle Part, which felt a bit overextended, and had that same weirdness dissapate quite early, through very dull areas and a muted tone that was lacking in energy. Huge webs of brownish caves and very low-mood synth tracks that were creepy and off-putting, but very repetitive. 

3: I highly recommend that you click that header image for the full size, and try staring into it. I think you'll understand what I mean when I say how game looks and feels uncomfortable.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Four Freeware Games I enjoyed in June

In June, I wrote a piece that was meant to be a roundup of recent small/freeware games for a website. It was meant for an audience of people interested in the arts but unfamilliar with videogames, and I wrote it hoping I could perhaps bridge those two "camps", by demonstrating to people interested in arts, politics and culture how videogames are relevant, meaningful and very interesting! Unfortunately though, it never got published, and I was later informed that it wouldn't be at all. So I figured I may as well put this little slice of writing on my blog. Please Enjoy!

The World The Children Made - James Earl Cox III

I first came across James Earl Cox III when I found I’m a little teapot lingering on the gamejolt newly addeds. In the game, you hold a teapot with a stitched on mouth and eyes, and pour out tea until the room is filled. When you pour, the teapot starts to scream maniacally, amongst a loud and messy choir-chant of the children’s song. The game is jarring and somewhat uncomfortable, yet this is exactly how it succeeds in being funny and fun to interact with.  With games like Potato or Big Minta Bronson: A Vegetable Love Story, Toilet World, and “Snot City,” Cox is able to craft a particular form of absurdist comedy, that twists and muddles familiar imagery to create surreality in its settings.

But occasionally, James Earl Cox will create a “serious” work, or something that isn’t as eccentric but has more weight to its tone. In “The World The Children Made,” Cox portrays a vintage- futurist setting where we play as a housewife in a stereotypical nuclear family. They’ve just moved into a new house, and the husband has a new job, so the wife is left to stay at home and do what the social division of labour pusjedi women to do in the mid-20th Century. Now this isn’t exactly new ground, I would even say that the game’s very typical portrayal of gender and the family obscures important identity politics (mainly that this is a mostly white-American, suburban image of the family), but I’m interested in how well the game communicates the mundanity and misery of this woman’s life. Every day, we see her go through the same process of cooking meals, cleaning rooms and dealing with her children, most of which are done by the house itself (it’s a future house, see), but it’s also the weightlessness of these interactions, how trite and inconsequential they feel, as they’re actions done through instant one-button prompts.  Only the “nursery,” a simulation room meant for the children to play in, provides a small moment of escape and excitement for her, and it serves as the most visually flamboyant moments of the game.

As the weeks go by, the same tune plays over again. We see her grow distasteful of the house, as shown with her nighttime interactions with her husband (the only time they really get the chance to talk), but they don’t materialize for a long time. The World The Children Made is very slowly paced, but it manages to find a thematic core that makes it a worthwhile play, and it’s a welcome change of pace from James Earl Cox III.

The Pyramid Gate - Strangethink

I’ve been very into StrangeThink’s works lately. I first came across his games when I played Endless Crimes at the Cyberpunk Jam that a few months ago. There’s a very consistent style and tone that he crafts: a palette of energetic cyans and pinks, dronish ambient soundtracks, and very straightforward geometries that emphasize monuments and ominous singular structures.

 StrangeThink introduces “The Pyramid Gate” as trying to turn the player into “a superstitious pigeon.” There’s a hint of truth here; he uses strange, grating 3D sound clips to lure us into certain areas of the space, although very cautiously.  The Pyramid Gate really takes advantage of its low-resolution rendering, creating a space that feels unfamiliar, open but with a lurking hostility. The intense pixelation gives fluidity to the image, as pixels and colours swirl across the screen hypnotically, like a stream of water. While playing, I sat entranced, watching how the large pixels flashing on the top of the screen would flow downwards, forming more detail on the bottom half. The game's creation of an abstract horizon line between these forms of detail is important because it’s how the Pyramid Gate disorients the player. These structures become ominous and threatening from their resistance to visual clarity.

There are apparently puzzles to solve—codes that you enter into the pyramids that will make them shoot a laser light into the lava lamp sky. I'm not particularly sure if they're 'solvable'; even when it's implicated that they've been entered wrong, the game still progresses to its conclusion, and what registers as a 'wrong' sequence seems to change with every playthrough. But I'm more amused by this if anything. I've always enjoyed games that reject the impulse to manipulate systems to achieve winstates, in favour of something more abstract. By the end of my experience, I came our very impressed with The Pyramid Gate, and I'm excited for what StrangeThink brings to his future games.  

Car Park Dream – Rylie James Thomas

Car Park Dream stays close to a particular style found in very low-production freeware games that are made in the Unity Engine. Destroy Your Home, SKATEBOAR, One Duck, and the Box Simulator games hit a very particular comedic tone… how can I explain it? The thing about these games is they reject many of the presumptions of how a 3D game is supposed to perform on a technical level. They have messy and difficult physics, their sound mixing is off, and their graphical quality is incredibly low, with off-kilter shadows and low-polygon models. Yet this is what allows these games to create such interesting experiences! They’re messy and unpredictable, they carry an awkward energy, and there’s something funny about the odd, goofy nature of their worlds. By their very nature, they debunk and satirize the ideology of production value that dominates and moves discourse in mainstream videogame culture (Box Simulator is particular in this, as the game is an anti-comedy, rejecting the concept of the entertainment stimulant in general).

Car Park Dream, made for the Ludum Dare Jam with the theme “Beneath The Surface,” has us riding around in a toy car, or at least I believe it’s a toy car as I can’t actually tell from of the game’s lighting. Anyways, we ride around in these vast sand landscapes with large surrounding walls that blur the difference between feeling like you’re underground and feeling like you’re outside. I was thrown off by the sheer surreality of the game’s architectures; as I went further into these depths, I found the sand dunes harder to parse and maneuver.  I was reminded by the ShiverGaming title Dreamscape and Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic in how we start to feel trapped and isolated, as the environment becomes more difficult to understand. This all sounds quite ominous, but Car Park Dream, being true to the style, covers all of this with the title track of the 1991 arcade racing game OutRun, twisting the whole experience into an awkward, funny and exhilarating mess of tone and energy.

Molleindustria – To Build a Better Mousetrap

Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini is probably one of the most openly radical game developers in the social sphere you would call the “indie scene.” Creating situations concerning labour, corporatism, class and interventionism, his games carry themes that are deep in touch with a far-leftist politics. Now, Molleindustria games certainly aren’t the only ones interested in the toll that late capitalism has taken on our culture. Critics like Lana Polansky and myself have long argued there has been a trend of indie, freeware “art-games” that depict the social alienation that has been pervasive under neoliberal society, through depression, anxiety, and a general sense of disembodiment and malaise. But Pedercini is a lot more obvious about it. Perhaps too obvious, as he can fall into typicality and a generic depiction of work and life, failing to make any insightful or revelatory conclusions (I would say that Every Day The Same Dream applies here). But his games are still unique in their materialism, as they focus primarily on the ways we're implicated within production and labour. They're systemic critiques.

In To Build a Better Mousetrap, we’re put into the role of the capitalist-producer. Playing as a plain mouse with the privilege of the cat’s head, we buy labour power and then we extract that labour power to fulfill the sad toil of endless accumulation. Labour is split into physical manufacturing and “research and development,” and you can change how many workers you want in these sectors by drag and dropping the metaphorical mice around the trap. The physical workers create products and the R&D mice will tap attentively at their computers, creating knowledge that you can use to improve your product or automate your workforce. While playing, I tried to act as closely to a real producer-capitalist as I thought I could: I kept wages as low as possible, loading the majority of work responsibility to few and never responding to the mice's woes for higher pay. But of course, if the mice are dissatisfied they will either make faulty products or stop working all together, at which point I could either replace them with one of the desperate unemployed, give in to their wage demands, or replace them with automated workers (machines). Automation is usually the best option, but from my numerous attempts I can say that full automation is almost impossible, as the number of unemployed mice on the bottom is constantly growing, and when ignored they will bang on their ceiling like a tenant demanding you turn down your music--a piercing clap of hard metal. And as more of them become upset, you will lose the game to "insurrection," or worker revolt.

Now in a more expanded scenario we would see that this predicament is what the function of state violence is for, specifically the police state to intimidate or harm workers and the legislative state to justify such violence and keep dissents to minimum. And with "insurrection" being such a frequent failure state, and the State entity itself being omitted, we can argue that the game portrays workers/unions as the main hindrance to capitalist production, instead of revealing that the production process itself is contradictory and self-destructive. Yet this is what makes A Better Mousetrap so interesting to me, as we’re compelled to think about and consider the numerous ways we’re implicated and exploited in these large, seemingly endless structures. This makes the game sound cynical, but its presentation is friendly and its tone seems more interested in educating and enlightening, than making one feel powerless. In that way, I consider To Build a Better Mousetrap to be an important game, and along with the drone-themed drama Unmanned, to be one of Pedercini’s best.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

What Is a Racing Game? On Wave Race 64

When I stream my emulated ROM of Wave Race 64, I always take a moment to state that I think Wave Race is a “beautiful game.” I say this seriously, not only because I think Wave Race is beautiful, but because Wave Race is a game that is concerned with the notion of beauty and the sublime. In this sense, the game is very romantic, but not hopelessly so. Instead, Wave Race's sense of beauty is displayed though a fascination and curiosity to its own settings. There’s a sense of wonder from the game itself as the camera makes slow, careful pans and tilts across its own lakes and beaches. 

These sorts of moments will happen in the intro sections of a race, where the game is foreshadowing the setting to us, and where we get to develop an idea of what kind of track we’ll be racing in.  Many racing games use these sections to flip through glamorous track shots before locking the camera to the player-character, but Wave Race takes a lot of time here, more than actually needed to communicate the basic nature of the track. So we can argue that Wave Race's intro section is somewhat 'useless'. In the sense of Polansky's understanding of the useless, it extends, perhaps even rejects intrinsic functionality, and instead takes the time to display beauty for its own sake.  Wave Race gains character, and consequently becomes 'alive' when it shows self-interest, when it inquires into concerns that extend beyond the needs of the player-audience. 

Weight of the Pan

Wave Race 64 uncovers a simple and poignant relationship within time, weight, and the image. We can make the simple observation that the longer an image is shown to us, the deeper our capacity to appreciate its 'beauty', which would be whatever appealing intricacies within the image that we can find when engaging with it. Videogames often create opportunities within the space for this kind of engagement. AAA games with notable vistas for example, like Bioshock Infinite or Mass Effect 2 or DmC will have ledges and balconies where we can stare into the outer borders of the world area, free from the high-stress play we're forced to work through when we move back into their core sections. By allowing me to engage with the beauty of these vistas for as long as I want without interruption, this spaces stretch the game’s sense of time to an infinite length.

Another example of this I think is very important is during Wave Race's play sections, specifically what happens when we make sharp turns. Along with the game's introductions, I'd say this is also a pillar and crucial part of Wave Race. When we make a rotating turn, we see the camera make a gradual pan, slowly increasing in speed during until we make a corner, at which the camera beings to slow down. This gradual, linear (or possibly exponential) increase of speed is different from the consistent, static relationship between the camera speed and the movement on our joystick, where the speed goes to 0 to X in ~0s. This use of the camera is closer to something like Flower than a competitive racing game. And yet, this small device gives Wave Race an immense sense of weight. The act of moving itself feels powerful and physically affecting. Wave Race creates a moment of sublime in the very act of turning, where our attention becomes suspended, or what Kilhefer would probably note as a "combination of attention, orientation and balance". Here, in this tiny slit of time we would call the "sublime", time becomes stretched to infinite planes, our sense of the temporal and the structural dissolves, and we are once again opened full-heartedly to the image that we are engaged with. We are now in the moment to engage with beauty uninterrupted. 

 Rhythm in Structure in Racing

What is a racing game? Or rather, what do we do in racing games? These are important questions to ask, I think, if we want to get at the core of the experience of Wave Race 64

While searching for writing on similar topics, I found a post written several years ago by Justin Bailey, who was discussing Out Run, the arcade racing game. In the piece, they argue that OutRun isn't actually a racing game at all, because it spends more energy on its settings than it does on its racing physics, and appears more concerned with depicting a general experience of driving than it is with any competitive progression or strategy. Here is what Bailey says:

"Out Run is about driving, not racing. It is not about tense competition or white-knuckle action, though it does demand skill and precision. It is not about compiling good lap times or practicing the best line on a sequence of curves. What it is about, as the Wikipedia article so deftly puts it, is "luxury and relaxation.""


"part of Out Run's appeal is that as you play the game, you continually open up new areas, you see new, novel things on your way to your ultimate destination--and reaching that destination is your main objective, more so than achieving a high score."

And lastly:

"You're racing against a clock, and the game is pretty challenging, but from the start the clear implication is that you're doing this for the enjoyment of it all, the simple thrill of speed and the open highway."

Out Run was part of a series of racing games designed by Yu Suzuki in the late 80s that fit into a style that's being discussed here: racing games that seem more concerned with stylizing and depicting the experience of driving more than designing competitive systems. One of these games is Hang-On for the Sega Master System, a game that I'm particularly a fan of, and one that I've streamed in the past. Now, Hang-On still has you avoiding other cycles and racing against the clock using a three-gear motorcycle, so it's not entirely devoid of a competitive and progressionist impulse; it's obvious that the act of racing in this context is going to involve some level of this intuition. But these conditions act mostly as a surrounding supportive structure. Hang-On pushes us towards this kind of thinking in moderation, as a means to reach a more meaningful kind of racing experience. It's thrilling not only to jolt into high speeds at a gear switch, but also to make semi-sharp turns that scratch the edge of the road, to barely make it through a group of surrounding cycles with swift turns and changes of the gear. It's staring into the soothing stretches of road that expand swiftly and sharply, interrupted with sudden calls of intense and intimate precision, that permeated my experience with Hang-On. This revolving cycle.  

Here, we see that Hang-On, like Wave Race 64, is also concerned with a sublime that we can find within this kind of play. So when we come back to Bailey, who claims that these aspects of OutRun demote its status as a racing game, I think it's safe for us to say this is a misguided claim, probably false, and one that isn't as useful to us. Rather the opposite would seem more fruitful, that this idea of racing for the feeling of racing itself is the core of what we call a "racing game, that racing games are concerned with depicting a peculiar kind of physical experience that we find when games like Hang-On reach their peak. 

There are lots of benefits to this view! One of them is that it expands the horizon of what we can consider a racing game. From this perspective, games like Mirror's Edge or Sonic The Hedgehog can also be considered racing games. Is Tony Hawk: Pro Skater a racing game, or GiDon Donut? What about Audiosurf or Nights into Dreams? What this does is it complicates how we conceptualize the act of racing itself. The possibilities of what racing can mean starts to open up, and then becomes more interesting than 'get-in-first' and 'finish-the-laps'. Expanding in this way is how we can open our minds to the possibilities of experimentation in the 'genre', which may be needed; I've had conversations with critics about whether racing games as a formal genre are stagnant in design and concept (a conversation for another time). 

So what is this elusive "experience of racing" ? I try to avoid making big theory statements as much as I can and stick to textual analysis, but I will say that racing is about moving and it's about being close to things. What this means is that moving is an act that matters; there's intricacy and depth in moving. And moving exists for more than just getting from one point to the other, rather moving is an act we perform onto itself. So in a racing game, we move for the sake of moving. We move because it feels good to move, because it's exciting and interesting to move, and of course therefore we tend to want to keep moving. This is what I'm getting at when I talk about the "sublime." Just as Wave Race 64 displays beauty for the sake of beauty, we see how the racing game at its core is also interested in this self-necessitating act, that's arguably useless, but ironically, most pleasurable when existing for itself. This is a good parallel to Polansky's assertion of the useless as erotic and sensual. Racing seems to aspire towards the sublime through focusing onto this "useless" act. 

Racing games are the only games I can think of where moving in a straight-ish line for a long period of time isn't necessarily bad. The straight line is usually the place where the racing game attempts to reach the sublime, of movement for movement's sake.  But of course, there are limits to how long I can do this before the game starts to feel mundane. Racing games are interested in this pleasurable act but they also interrupt the process constantly, through the turn of the track and the danger of borders (proximity). So there's a push and pull here, between the freedom of moving, and its sudden interruption by the call for precision and concentration. There's a crucial musicality to this performance. This is a rhythmic performance, a rhythmic back and forth between these two processes that we can then call the "experience of racing."

On Wave Race 64

What is it like to move in Wave Race 64? In the game, you race three laps against three computers through red and yellow buoys that signal directions. A red buoy is for right and a yellow buoy is for left, and you must go right or left of the matching buoy, or you lose all your speedpower. Every buoy you go through correctly gives you one speedpower point out of five. So Wave Race imposes what Matsunaga notes as "norms." The Buoy imposes ways of moving that our "permissable," with consequences for going beyond those norms. The challenge of Wave Race, then, arises from easy but pointed turns coupled with the impulse to go through the right buoys. 

Wave Race 64 uses the buoys, a soft restriction, to create a sense of rhythym to its movement, in areas that would normally be straight lines. There's a rhythym to the cycle of swerving between buoys, catching strings of waves, and racing on flat water to the lap. The waves themselves are also very rhythmic, more traditionally so as they come in patterns and jump us into the air for consistent lengths. But there's also a gradualism similar to how I described the camera pan. When we're launched into the air, we slow down as we reach our height, at which point we feel suspended for a fraction of a second. It's hard to explain, it's as if you're on the top of a rollercoaster about to go down. And somewhat like a rollercoaster, there's an incredible sense of weight that pushes on us, albeit one that's more subtle. 

With that, I think it's worth talking some of Wave Race's little qualities. I love the click that pervades the game's interface, and the soothing tune of its options menu. I also like the background cutscene of its main menu, and the announcer voice, who approaches players with a striking gentleness, and with an encouraging diction:

"Sorry, you didn't get enough points to move on to the next round."

"Aww, nice try!"

"Come back! Try again!"

Every part of Wave Race 64 is stylized into a romantic framing. It's what I think makes the game so appealing to look at and listen to. For a 18-year old low-polygon title filled with 2D textures and low anti-aliasing, Wave Race 64 is still a game I can confidently say is beautiful. Watching the sun set while you make a sharp turn in restless waters, or seeing a seagull flush past you as you race through dense fog are moments that are still striking and awe-inducing. Perhaps its style and form create something that surpasses age.

Wave Race 64 was also one of the first games I ever played as a kid. You have the option to name the racers and back when I owned an N64 (my first console), I named one after myself and another after my older brother, Edmund. In all my copies of the game, my Wii VC version and my PC version, the names are still there. 

In conclusion, Wave Race 64 is a good game! I highly recommend it. It's also game I have a long emotional history with. And it's a game that I think, along with Sega's Hang-On, powerfully encapsulates what lies at the heart of racing and moving.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

On Mortal Kombat 4

Mortal Kombat as a series is often framed through a tone of lament within enthusiast fighting game communities. The narrative of Mortal Kombat in those spaces is mostly that of loss, a tragic state of decline after UMK3 that ends though the release of Mortal Kombat 9, where the series goes "back to its roots" in a glorious redemption. The PS2-era Mortal Kombat games, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Mortal Kombat: Deception, and Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, as well as the Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe spin-off on the 360, act as the Dark Horses of the series--metaphorical scars  from a depressive period from which MK9 signals its departure. This means that within discussions about Mortal Kombat, the PS2-era titles receive little attention.

Fighting games, much more than games in other genres, are mostly evaluated by their ability to be played competitively. There's a focus on design, but a very cold part of design that aims for "balance" and focuses on the optimization process, rather than the ideas and feelings design communicates and the experience it molds. So there isn't much attention put to what fighting games do artistically. And with these current expectations we seem to have for fighting games, it isn't too surprising that the PS2-era games were generally seen as sub-par [1]. But when we look at the Mortal Kombat games from a different perspective, we see that they do have considerable value and are in fact quite interesting as games and as fighting games. Deadly Alliance, Deception and Armageddon represent their own focused, mostly homogeneous sub-series in the same way that MK3, UKM3 and MK: Trilogy do, or MK1 and MK2. We can split up the Mortal Kombat games into these kinds "packs" of smaller sub-series, each with their own visual style, tone and interpretation of the universe.

Mortal Kombat 4 represents the state of transition between the SNES MK games and the PS2-era titles. Yet it fits in neither camp; the game imposes systems that reflect both eras and presents a visual style similar to neither. MK4 also reveals the series' identity crisis during the late 90s, a certain confusion and stumbling that was seen from several sequels trying to refocalize SNES inspirations through the 3D aesthetic. And yet, Mortal Kombat 4 was the first game in the series to feel like it had real creative direction. It has a strong character, and its various elements are densely layered and focused to communicate a heavy tone, that's only occasionally betrayed by its occasional narrative stumbles. This is is pretty typical for an artistic work, but new for Mortal Kombat, which for the first four titles were mostly flat gore-fests with a very messy 90s arcade style [2]. Mortal Kombat 4 showed an attempt to communicate something beyond the shock and gore that was characteristic of the series, and it paved the way for a group of PS2 games that took themselves just a little more seriously.


Most of the accepted conventions and tropes of fighting games come from their long and deep historical relationship with the arcade environment. Console based fighting games don't necessarily need timers, or continue screens or ladder style progression structures, but they're elements that have become characteristic of the genre, and fighting game enthusiasts are mostly used to them.  Remember that the "death of arcades" is more prevalent in the US and Canada than it is in places like Japan, parts of Europe and South-East Asian countries. So Mortal Kombat, Injustice and other games developed at the Netherealm studios in Chicago, have always had an easier time disconnecting from the arcade convention than games like Street Fighter, King of Fighters and Tekken.

The most prevalent arcade convention is the communication of the spectacle. Most fighting games are focalized through the frame of the event spectator. Many stages are settings where crowds watch and cheer, sometimes in large stadiums and settings that imply the fight as an organized spectated event, a prizefight or a tournament match. Most settings are also either outdoors, during the daytime, or set regions of the world that are known to have dense populations.

One of the most significant things about Mortal Kombat 4 is how it de-prioritizes the spectacle event, as it doesn't communicate spectacle but solitude. No one is watching you in Mortal Kombat 4. There are no signs of other people. Most of its settings are strictly indoors and badly-lit, empty and low on objects that move or make noise. The small exceptions would be "Ice Pit," which is featured outside in the daytime but closed off by large walls that block its horizon point, and "Snake", which seems to feature people, but they're presented as shadows of tortured figures who are burning alive in a green fire while chained to walls, so I don't know if that counts. The point is that these stages imply themselves as places that people just don't go to, and figures of dead bodies and active torture communicate these places as actively hostile to people and to life in general. And this is completely antithetical to how fighting games normally use setting! They do this because they want to inject a life into the setting and an overall energy to the tone of the game. Even Darkstalkers 3 has a life to its stages, but Mortal Kombat 4 is isolation to a point I haven't seen passed in fighting games.

Stages like Well and Lair are interesting. The first 'image' you see in Well is the 'front' side: a giant decorative burning furnace, and behind the camera lies a large pitch black hallway that doesn't show where it leads. Lair takes place in an underground tomb layered with stone walls. There are four wide openings, and the space is partially lighted with two torches at opposite ends. The openings reveal four deeper openings with corner torches, which is identical to the structure of the room you fight in, implying the larger space as labyrinthian, endless and isolated. Elder is similar to Lair in structure but carries a different sense of material. The room appears to be made out of stone but is also decorative, and the stone appears finely cut. But instead of openings, its four rectangular walls show huge blue faces with glowing white eyes and that make the same two silent expressions: large eyes with a gaping open mouth, and a scrunched face of anger--they cycle between these. So we see how Mortal Kombat 4 communicates a solitude but also a surreality, a cold material aesthetic, a dry sense of isolation and a moody, dead spaciality in its setting. And it's constructions are varied and clever in their subtlety.


Mortal Kombat 4 still carries a furious energy. Its responses feel immediate in that inputs will always trigger a low-frame animation; a quick jab or a run motion that doesn't appear moved *into*, but keyed in right after a standing frame (Now this isn't true, but it's fast enough to make you think it is). Movement feels quick, and attacks appear as a jumpy staccato--they cut into each other so quickly, much more than similar frame systems like Street Fighter/Guilty Gear.

Fighting games have a particular aesthetic of frames[3], as in, the frames of moves are structured to be predictable and measurable, which means that the moves themselves will also be predictable and measurable when presented on the screen. So in a way, I can "see" the frames in a fighting game; I get an intuitive sense of the temporality of the moves I use. Their consistency is what makes them competitive.  When I play Street Fighter, I can get a estimable sense of how long every move will last, which allows me to make decisions. I'm weighting my semantic knowledge of frames, damage sets, and combos with my intuitive sense of frames and my situation within the space.

Mortal Kombat disregards the aesthetic of frames common in fighting games for something more informal and free-form, thereby losing its competitive nature. Through a formalist lens that prizes "good design" above other forms of expression, Mortal Kombat 4 would be seen as simplistic and unsatisfying in its disregard for balance, but it gains a key expressive element. Everything in Mortal Kombat 4 is so fast, and there's so little variation in its frames across movesets and characters. I find this incapacity for nuance in its play to be intriguing, because it communicates a blind aggressiveness and a drone-like approach to hyperviolence.

This is supported by MK4's score, which separates itself from the other games in the series through its heavy use of drums and percussion, and its haunting voice chords. Mortal Kombat 4 is unique in that it cuts out the focus on the cheesy 90s electric guitar riffs and focuses on a more effective and better designed sense of mood and atmosphere.

In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant, an affect theorist describes her interpretation of word impasse: "a time of dithering from which someone or some situation cannot move forward," or, in more detail, "a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance". Mortal Kombat 4 is a construction similar to the impasse. The game presents these stages that are solitary, closed in spaces that block any meaningful view of the outer setting. In this way, the stages erase all context of the setting, and instead hyperfocus into themselves, concentrating every aesthetic element into the space, giving it an intensity. These are impasse-like in the way that they block off the outer world to place pure focus on a specific situational scene. The second characteristic is in the stages themselves, where the processes of hyperaggressivity (the fighting) are so constant and simplistic that they imply a sort of blind rage, similar to Berlant's "hypervigilance". To top it all off, structurally the games are fighting games, which mean technically they do situations where you can't move forward. A lot of games do that, but Mortal Kombat 4 seems to purposely structure itself towards the point.

In Conclusion!...

Mortal Kombat 4 is one of the most interesting fighting games I've ever played. It's the most interesting Mortal Komabt game I've ever played, it's the most tonally consistent, powerful and affecting game in the series.

When I discuss Mortal Kombat 4, people tend to bring up the dumb cutscene with Jax and Jerek. MK4 does have its missteps, most of which involve its tie-ins to the larger franchise. It still has some of its vague sexism in terms of the clothing of Tanya and its racist depictions of Kai, the "African warrior," with his white face paint, albeit these things aren't emphasized to cringe-worthy heights. The endings, which represent game's attempts to make an explicit story are also pretty awful. The exception is the starting cutscene where Raiden introduces the narrative context, which I found to be an effective introduction *because* of its lack of plot detail that the endings fail to replicate.

To be honest, I feel like the weirdest thing about Mortal Kombat 4 is that it's a Mortal Kombat game at all. I played MK4 when I was much under 10 years old, and liked the characters, especially Sub-Zero because he represented a strong masculine figure but also implied a smart and morally righteous nature that I aspired to. But playing them now, they feel so out of place. These settings and contexts are so aesthetically complex, but these characters feel so cartoonish and simplistic. The way that Jax lifts his arms like he's in a stadium instead of a torture room, or the bizzare Johnny Cage ending where he makes an appearance to a crowd of his fans who start to boo and throw objects at him without reason. There's a disconnect between the people in MK4 and the things that happen around them. They seem tragically unaware.

These are the little contrasts that make Mortal Kombat 4 so interesting and important. The contrast between its aggressivity and its subtle creepiness, between the representation of its characters and the reality of their context. It's a good game, and deserves more recognition within fighting games. I highly recommend it.



1: There's a significant split between the historical view of Mortal Kombat of enthusiasts and average gamers. Among mainstream critics, Deadly Alliance was seen as a triumphant revival, while the previous Mortal Kombat 4 was the trump. No doubt that console "generations" and the prioritizing of competitive elements had something to do with that.

2: I sort of generalize the SNES era Mortal Kombat games. UKM3 and MK3 are flat goofiness, but you do see some interesting moody elements in Mortal Komat II.

3: When I say "aesthetic of frames," I just mean that there is an aesthetic to how games present frames, or movement along frames. If we had a sheet that told us the frame count of every animation in a game, and compared them to each other, what conclusions can we make about the overall structure of its frames? More importantly, what does it feel like to maneuver a space with this kind of frame structure. What kind of experience does it create and what does that experience communicate? We can understand this by dissecting the aesthetics of "movement" and "motion," within games.