A Game of Wire and String?

Pavillion Philips

(Image: Pavillon Philips, exposition internationale de 1958, Bruxelles, Belgique, 1958. Model in wire and string by Le Corbusier.)

Just finished reading The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus the other day and am still flailing around trying to think about what I read. It was on my reading list both because it’s discussed a bit in Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology and because it appears on a list of “great books” I’ve been roughly trying to get through. It’s a book that is somehow simultaneously totally alienating (at least in my experience I in some sense didn’t understand anything I read) and strange normal and reassuring (I still read all the words and felt that I was reading something that “made sense”). The book uses ordinary words in strange, disorienting ways, using proper names like Carl or Albert to refer (as far as I can tell) to ecological scale phenomena, rituals, places – who knows? It’s like this with all kinds of words. Birds are not birds, wire is not wire, weather is not weather, grass is not grass. Or are they? I can’t actually tell.

Books like this naturally give me (and probably others) a sense of inferiority at some level – why don’t I “get it”? It’s quite possible there’s some way to decipher the stories’ strange uses of language, but the larger part of me really enjoyed the sensation of both reading and not-reading, getting and not-getting, seeing and not-seeing. It didn’t feel like a conflict somehow, more like flowing along a river. I didn’t know what was happening, but it felt natural. As you can tell, it’s hard to explain – maybe you should just try out the book itself.

The upshot of this, though, it that it makes me wonder about how one would make a game with this same sort of disregard for a recognisable language and world. In the case of a game I suppose the ‘language’ in question would need to be the visual language of representation, as well as the audio and, perhaps most importantly, the language of interaction? Could you make some or all of these things twisted and foreign but still maintain the sense that the book gives of an ease and naturalness? Or would the nature of agency mean that the strangeness felt uncomfortable and to strange to bear?

Abstract games perhaps do some level of this alien nature. SoundSelf does some of this by positioning the game almost as an alien entity that responds to you in ways you don’t really control so much as trigger. But in the case of an abstract game like that we’re not really seeing a repurposing/reconfiguring of things that would otherwise be familiar. David Kanaga’s upcoming Oikospielen Opera is a whirling disorientation perhaps more in tune with The Age of Wire and String in that it does present us with things from our world (and our game worlds) that ought to be familiar but which are behaving unexpectedly, and yet seemingly with a hidden or obscured coherence. As I write that, I feel like it might be the best comparison we have for the moment.

Importantly, David’s game is exhilarating to play (if that’s the right verb), which suggests to me that seeking out this way of making the known unknown and defamiliarising our conventions of language and design is a great direction. I suspect you need to be a bit of a genius like Ben Marcus or David Kanaga to pull it off, but I hope more of you geniuses out there give it a go…

10 February 2017
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