A short post this evening just to note that I did indeed release The Artist Is Present out into the wild today. I make it almost exactly one month in development time, maybe a little less, given that I started it pretty hot on the heels of releasing Safety Instructions. So now it exists on the internet for people to actually see – though I am in no way expecting it to garner quite the loving reaction that Safety Instructions did. For one thing, that game was actually kind of fun, and for another it was at the very least not obtuse and abusive.
Anyway, how do I feel about The Artist Is Present being out, I ask myself?
Well, I do feel some low level nausea associated with having put myself in “harm’s way” in terms of the game turning out to be a pile of shit. Visions of clipping errors and a million unforeseen bugs crowd my peripheral vision along with the faceless horrors of maybe having forgetting to uncomment some bit of code that was needed for the game’s “authentic” time management stuff. So yes, definitely a lot of anxiety associated with having the game “playable” but not really played yet (other than by my noble testers – thanks to you all!).
I’m also feeling some low-level humiliation that it took me so very long to put together. As is my habit, I started out thinking that implementing such a simple concept would take about a week. Then I sensible told myself, “but double that… you never know”, so it became two weeks. But it actually took four-and-a-bit weeks. I feel like there’s something wrong with that because it’s just not a complex idea and I lost so very much time to poor coding practices, poor implementation ideas, and poor everything else. The only thing that went smoothly was the art, which I felt totally comfortable with. As someone with a computer science Ph.D. and no art degree or training at all, that kind of depresses me.
However, I do also feel proud of the thing (let’s just assume it works and does its job for now). And I do think that, conceptually, there are some good things happening in the game, a bunch of things actually. Things which I don’t really feel like writing about now, and which I wonder about still counting as good/interesting in the context of a game that is, in some ways, unplayable. Still, in my calmer moments I basically think that it’s a good game and that it was worth making, and that’s the main thing.
At any rate, these are all the immediate feelings right now. The negative ones will burn away and hopefully I’ll just be left feeling a lightly warming pride.
On to the next game! (Which I figure will only take a week, right…)
(Oh… and obviously you can play The Artist Is Present on my games page, the link for which is at the top of this page, unless something bizarre has happened, in which case I’m sorry.)
Happened to start playing GIRP again this evening and randomly something clicked in my mind and I went shooting up the wall further than I’d managed back when I was playing it a week or so ago. There was a definite sense of some internalised ability to get the “GIRP-dude” (as Rilla calls him) swinging to a good rhythm and when to reach for a grip and so on.
Anyway, I made it to one of the two really epic moments in the game. You climb up the left side of the cliff, then into the centre, but then you have to drop a few meters from that hold to one further below so that you can continue on up the right side. It’s a moment of kind of pure helplessness as you dangle there, looking at the gap between the grip you have in your virtual hand, and the one you need. The contrast between security and risk is so beautifully poised in that moment. You know you have to let go and let yourself fall so you can catch the other grip, but you desperately don’t want to – to this point the absolute core message of the game has been “always make sure you’re holding on to something”.
I don’t feel like you get these moments often in games, moments that actually give you literal pause. Particularly where you know what you’re going to have to do (and it’s no moral quandry), but you’re simply reluctant to “let go” and do it. I suppose the save-and-reload approach most games have now eliminates the sense of risk and so on. In GIRP you know you’ll have to put in the work of climbing all the way up again. But you can’t hold on to safety forever, so I let go…
… and desperately held the key for the grip below. And fell… and fell… and fell past the grip another 50 meters to the water. Splish splash. GIRP-man respawned at the bottom and I let out a strangled cry of despair and clutched my face. (for the technical GIRPers out there, I forgot that he would reach with his other hand and imagined him catch with the same hand he’d released with. Oops.) It was a genuinely great gaming moment and now, separated from the horror of it by enough minutes, I’m really glad that I missed that grip.
Because when I started again, I simply flew back to the same position in the game as if it were nothing (in reality I suppose it took maybe ten minutes or less). The challenge of the path to that important drop had suddenly vanished – I’m not entirely sure why, but I suppose a combination of knowing how and knowing I could. The second time around I made the drop and catch, but it wasn’t nearly as exciting as that first moment of not knowing.
As it happens, I continued from there all the way to the last few grips where there’s the second very challenging move where you have to swing across a (very small) gap and, again, let go for a moment before you catch the next grip. I spent a long time trying to get the swing just so as I dangled beneath the very end of the game. Then I released and, yes, fell all the way down to the bottom. It was kind of intense, but not so much… I know I can get back there easily enough at this point, though it’s pretty punishing to think that I have to get all the way there just to practice that final swinging move.
At any rate, GIRP is a terrific game for the ways it causes us to relate to the avatar on multiple levels. The most obvious and wonderfully achieved aspect is our physical connection to the act of rock climbing, our fingers clambering over the keyboard, trying to coordinate out momentum and so on. But there’s also the fleeting affective connection of that failed release and catch – the moment where you’re truly at one with the avatar’s imagined doubt and fear about letting go.
Count yourself lucky if you fall – it’s better that way.
I played a little snippet of Modern Warfare 2 this afternoon while I was killing a bit of time. I’ve played through the campaign mode twice now, the second time purely out of “nothing better to do” motivations.
As happens with these games and, really, all shooting games, I’ve become utterly desensitised to all the shooting and killing you have to do throughout the game. I move, I shoot, blood comes out of the bad guys’ heads, they stop shooting me, fall down, I move on.
This relationship to the bad guys in the game makes me think in three directions, all of which deserve more thought than I’m going to give them here.
First of all, there’s the classic lack of any reason to give a shit about almost every person you ever kill in a video game. By and large they’re nameless, and so generic that they tend to look and behave literally identically to one another. A soulless clone army. There’s no poignant scene, ala Austin Powers, where a distraught wife weepily says “they never think how things will affect the family of a henchman.” These henchmen have no family and no value outside their ability to shoot and be shot.
Second, there’s the inevitable progression (regression?) from game as fictional world to game as system. In shooters, particularly fast-paced, twitchy ones, there’s a steady movement from viewing the game as a world you’re acting in to an almost symbolic representation of a system you’re trying to beat. The spaces become battle geometries and the enemies become targets rather than people. That is, not only is there no “family” for these henchmen, but they’re not even henchmen, they’re just “things I shoot” in an almost purely abstract way.
Finally, in Modern Warfare 2 particularly, there’s the strange dissociation between actions and consequences in, well, modern warfare. I get the sense that there’s an “honesty” or “truth” to the passionless pulling of a trigger and the puff of blood that rises from the target’s head as they fall. This is particular true of very long range shots – there’s a deep feeling of the almost imaginary nature of the action. You click this button and someone over there falls down, and the two events are simultaneously directly connected, and also irrelevant and meaningless. I find this particularly affecting right at the beginning of the game when you find yourself shooting across a reservoir or something along those lines. Distant targets go down, but they’re so far that you don’t hear or see much expect that they stop fighting. Deactivated. Nothing personal.
What all these three aspects of “desensitisation” have in common is just that – we stop feeling anything about our actions, if we ever did. While that leads to exciting and proficient “symbolic play”, it leaves just about everything worth experiencing behind, from my perspective. Modern warfare becomes the faintest tang of a context for clicking the mouse on the things I’m meant to click the mouse on.
If I’m going to kill people, I’d at least like them to be beautiful and unique snowflakes, you know?
I finally got around to playing some of Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer today. “Finally” because it’s one of those games I’ve felt like I ought to have played, since it’s an RPG-like thing about sadists and torture. Unconventional subject matter, and a relatively serious approach to it to boot.
So I jumped into the world of sadism and learned about the basic tenets of how you should torture someone “just enough” so that they feel really, really awful (in both body and mind!) but then escape. I think. I’m not entirely 100% on the sadist’s code just yet.
A lot of the game is rather well done, particularly the selection of your victim. You go to a busy street and then talk creepily to people about their lives, trying to befriend them enough that they’ll come back to your place so you can drug and then torture them on film. That process of trying to gain important information about a person (the better to torture them with – fear of water? Water torture!) and trying to be their friend… that’s a kind of disturbing experience. Ordinarily conversation systems in games are about getting information for the good of the galaxy, or for reading amusing comments and jokes. Here it’s very unpleasant, it makes you feel like a creep.
But then, once you actually get them home to the torture place, the game loses its edge rather a lot for me. Your dungeon is like a little maze and the idea is that you set various torture “traps” that affect the person as they try to escape. You can strip their clothes off (psychologically damaging), cut them with razors (bad for their health), tie them up, and so on. There are also action-based things where, for instance, you trap them in a water tank and then frantically press “1″ and “2″ in alternation in order to drown them more and more. A sadist’s Track and Field, in other words. But you have to make sure you don’t drown them too much or too little or they’ll die or escape and have you arrested. So it’s largely about laying out your torture arsenal in ways that lead to the “best” torture session.
At which point I found myself struggling to properly distinguish between Dungeoneer and my current love, Game Dev Story. Basically, you find yourself in a game of maximising particular properties, whether it’s someone’s anguish and torment or your virtual game in development’s “Fun” and “Creativity” ratings. You start to do things to influence the numbers and can all too easily lose sight of what it is you’re theoretically “really doing”. Torture and game development turn out to be rather similar, and both mystifyingly difficult.
This reminds me of one of the great ludological arguments back in the day that the aesthetic layers of games were in some sense irrelevant – the game was underneath that and it didn’t matter what it looked like. A game is a set of rules and changing values and so on, not a picture of Lara Croft running down a hallway. In general I, like most I assume, find that argument laughable – but it doesn’t seem quite as laughable in the context of Dungeoneer. There’s a very real sense (and it’s increased by the game having been made in a “game making” tool called RPG Maker) in which you could “reskin” Dungeoneer in all sorts of ways while completely retaining the entire underlying mechanics. A lion taming game, say, or a game about the revolution in Egypt.
But of course these moments where a game’s mechanics become so unmoored from their aesthetics that we forget what the hell we’re actually doing are a bit problematic. Games in which we tend to be “just” manipulating numbers are perhaps more problematic than most – although FPS games are largely the same thing with different pictures and stories, it’s still true that “shooting” is an evocative mechanic with many affective applications. Tweaking numbers has less of that, so when we’re trying to make an evocative game about torture (which I think Dungeoneer makes some very impressive moves toward), it may be that number crunching is simply too emotionless a platform from which to work.
Still, I’ll head back down to the dungeon and work on my technique, still haven’t managed to break anyone’s body and spirit in quite the right “beautiful” way yet…
Alright, so my permadeath (is it an official term with an official usage?) playing Metro 2033 came to an end the other day. I’ve taken a couple of days to reflect on it to see whether anything more came of it as an experience, but… not really. (See also: Gordon Calleja’s blog, where he’ll no doubt relate his own experience with the same scenario.)
The playthrough involved starting up the game, setting it on “Normal” difficulty, and then getting down to the tough work of killing mutant dog things and being depressed by the sad state of humanity. And doing that until I died. I was pretty confident it wouldn’t take me too long to die, since I’m no hotshot with shooters generally, and even less so on a console. True to form, I did die soon enough.
Perhaps the most paradoxically disappointing thing about the permadeath effect is that it was so very predictable. Yes, indeed, I agonised over which gun to buy because I’d need it to protect me. I was indeed very scared when I was out of the “civilised” bits of the game world and thus open to attack from the things out there. The firefights were super intense because I really didn’t want to die. Only one life to live and all that.
But that’s all exactly what you’d anticipate a permadeath playing would be like. A more intense version of the normal game because you have a greater aversion to your death. And of course this means that your levels of affect are probably more in keeping with the action transpiring in the game itself. When you know you can “really” die, you take getting shot, mauled, and surprised very seriously, you treasure your moments of comparative safety and so on. Just like a good post-apocalyptic citizen would.
Which is all to say that playing these games with a permadeath mindset feels like it gets you closer to the “true” experience of the game world, and that’s very nice, but it didn’t feel terribly revealing, at least to me. The one really notable “bright spot” for me was my actual death. Naturally the very event of dying was invested with a heightened intensity because that’s the end of the line, but the nature of the death was, I think, special.
Specifically, I died because a surge of mutant dog things attacked me . None of them killed me directly, though. Instead, in the course of the fight – which was extremely terrifying – one of them broke my gas mask. I killed the last dog and then, with a broken mask, started to choke to death in the poisonous air of the “top side” street level of the city. I stumbled out into the open, onto a broken street, under a grim grey sky, completely alone. And then, helplessly, I collapsed to the ground.
The game asked me if I wanted to restore from a previous checkpoint, and I said “no.” That moment of aloneness in an uncaring world felt special and real in a way that most action-packed moments don’t in video games. Further, the pathetic nature of choking to death on a deserted street had that level of poignancy I treasure in playing a game. It wasn’t a traditionally brave or heroic or “fierce” way to go – it seems to me more like the way that people really die in these settings. For want of a gas mask.
Permadeath gave me the chance to “sit with” that moment, rather than hastily restore to an earlier point in time. In that sense, it restored a kind of dignity to video game death that I think is valuable. There are the obvious corollaries that we value our video game life more sincerely, but I think that the chance to value our own death is even better.
I think the Buddha might even approve.