For 2017, I resolved to blog more... and I ended up with 72 posts, which is double the amount of 2016's posts (a mere 36). Compared to social media like Twitter, I've always thought of blogging as a more "formal", slower platform. But to keep up the pace this year, I had to relax my attitudes and write more freely, which I think was ultimately a positive thing.
(You can check out past years' anniversary round-ups here.)
Now let us gather around the radiator, and review the past year's "greatest hits" along with some commentary...
- The Tearoom was the only big game project I managed to finish and release this year. Out of all my games, it has probably gotten the most coverage outside of gamer websites -- it's even gotten me invited to a film festival. It's also a sex game with no actual nudity to speak of, and that's kind of the whole point, to connect the historical persecution of gay expression with the contemporary game industry gestapo.
- Radiator 2 HD Anniversary Edition was motivated mainly by some bug reports that the game was broken, so I decided to fix it, as well as also re-tune the graphics to consume more GPU resources. I'm also fascinated by re-mastering as a game development practice. I think I might even re-master my games every year or two!
- Level With Me. I continued my level design let's play commentary project, playing through the entirety of Half-Life 1, Half-Life 2, and Dear Esther -- while showcasing some smaller indie games with distinctive level design, like Trackless and The Norwood Suite. I'm currently about 1/4 of the way through BioShock 1, and I now have a set of regular viewers each week, so it's been fun trying to figure out this whole streaming thing.
GAME CULTURE AND COMMUNITY
- "Theorizing local game cultures in a post-TIGSource era" partly comes from my own relationship to TIGSource -- its early 2D action game focus meant I never really got into it. While there's no denying its influence on a lot of game devs, it also existed at a time when "indie" was much more homogeneous. Today, "indie" contains multiple valences and attitudes, and no single website or community can claim to serve all that. The future is not one TIGSource, but 100 different TIGSources.
- "A survey of game manifestos" briefly sketches a history of indie design manifestos, and then takes you through some notable manifestos as well as some lesser known manifestos. Much like the TIGSource problem, it's not practical to expect something like the Scratchware Manifesto to resonate with every "indie" dev now, and no single manifesto can do everything for everyone. In fact, such a gesture would probably rob the manifesto of its urgency and demands.
- "Lol we're all poor" got a lot more attention than I intended. Some interpreted the post as an attack on commercial indie devs, while some felt it did not defend the right of fringe artists to try to make a living off their work. Meanwhile, I felt like I was just pointing out some obvious realities: (1) if you make games, and games are art, then you are an artist; (2) most artists are poor and society devalues artistic labor; (3) most game developers are going to be poor and devalued; (4) so for all of us who cannot make a living off selling our games, our sense of self-worth should exist separately from the video game market. Yes, I wish art wasn't devalued, but in the meantime, we still have to survive.
- "Games in public; games as public exhibitions" was about how we show games at games events, and wonders why we don't try to mix up the "100 kiosks crammed in a room" format more often. The post ended up being part of a conversation sparked by Nathalie Lawhead's experiences at Day of the Devs, as well as Holly Gramazio's work with Now Play This.
NEW GENRES / MODDING CULTURE
- "Press Forwards and the pleasing death of agency" is about a special type of Trackmania map called a PF (press forward), where all the player does is to press "forward" on their keyboard. As a result, the track physics lead players' cars to perform amazing stunts and feats. If you didn't know they were just pressing forward the whole time, you'd think the player was some sort of acrobatic genius. It's also a very expressive form of authorship, asserting itself and playfully denying the player.
- "On cs_ppc, school maps, and the politics of remediating / re-mapping real-life places" starts with thinking about "school maps", a type of map usually built by students for LAN parties with other students. The popular sensationalist narrative of sociopaths practicing school shootings in school maps is wrong; if you hated school, you would not voluntarily hangout in it. Maybe it's because we enjoy the uncannyness of recreation, which makes me wonder, is it an attempt to re-assert who "owns" the school? Maybe mapping is a form of appropriation.
- "From modders to mimics: a people's history of the prop hunt genre" is about tracing the best mechanic in the excellent AAA sci-fi horror shooter Prey (2017) to its more humble origins as a design experiment in the modding community -- specifically, a Quake 2 mod from 1998 called "CrateDM." I think it's important to document this stuff, to counter the narrative that AAA is a fount of innovation and that small mods / hacks are insignificant just because they failed to commercialize it. (Although, you could also argue that Prey failed to commercialize it as well...)
- "First person one-roomers vs grass games" is me comparing my design output -- games where you stand in one small room the whole time -- to what's actually popular these days, large landscape games where you stare at grass all the time. Part of it is a production problem, but part of it is also my total lack of interest in grass. There's only so much a grass game can say.
- "Behold the bildungsspiel: the coming-of-age game" was a post about coming of age games that did not get the attention it deserved! There, I said it! I thought I was making an interesting analysis by comparing 5 different games' approach to portraying adolescence, specifically a young woman's adolescence, but I guess the internet didn't care. At the very least, please just go play Butterfly Soup, OK?
- "Lighting theory in games, part 5: the rise and fall of the cult of hard shadows" is the long-awaited fifth installment of my lighting in games series. It focuses on our infatuation with projected shadows, specifically the 2001-2011 infatuation with very crisp, very sharp, high-contrast shadows. It's also a great opportunity for me to shit on Doom 3, which is a game I utterly despise with every cell of my body.
- "Consider the chair" was an article I wrote for the game architecture zine Heterotopias, issue 002. It's not actually published on this blog, but it represents the sort of thing I normally post here -- comparing the real-life decorative arts / design history of chairs to their use in games as set dressing / environmental props. I look mostly at Half-Life 2's chairs, because they (still) basically have the best chair curation in games.
- "Bevels in video games" pinpoints a very specific practice in AAA game environment art: building a "trim sheet" so that the edges in your games can seem more beveled and detailed. The main advantage to this method, over modeling out the bevel, is the ability to swap out different materials and thus different bevels based on the normal map. To me, it's also a great example of our fixation on fidelity in our game worlds.
- "Open world level design: spatial composition and flow in Breath of the Wild" happened because I wanted to assign a Twitter thread as a reading, but I also did not want to inflict the pain of reading a Twitter thread upon my students -- so I decided to summarize the Twitter thread as a post. Turns out, a lot of people agreed that threads are awful.
- "The destruction / extinction of digital brutalism" thinks about brutalism as an approach instead of an aesthetic. If brutalism was about materials, why should we care about concrete in a digital space, where unadorned concrete actually becomes a form of ornament? Or maybe brutalism, like a lot of modernist theory, was always a sort of hypocritical lie.
REVIEWS / CRITICISM
- "Pylons are my penis": a phenomenology of building in Offworld Trading Company and other strategy games is a critique of Offworld Trading Company and how it failed to give me what I like most about RTS games -- the feeling of embodying yourself through base-building. I'd also link this thinking back to a post I wrote in 2012 about the "RTS player character" and skeuomorphic narratives of RTS games. When we play RTS games, are we embodying the troops, the general, or an abstract idea of a military? This anxiety is in a lot of strategy games -- Command and Conquer / Starcraft campaigns making sure to address you directly as a silent character, or Civilization requiring you to embody a head of state.
- "On FeministWhorePurna and the Ludo-material Politics of Gendered Damage Power-ups in Open-World RPG Video Games" is an abridged version of the book chapter I wrote for Queer Game Studies, on the Feminist Whore misogyny scandal surrounding the game Dead Island. One crucial detail that often gets overlooked is that the actual internal codename wasn't just "Feminist Whore", but rather "FeministWhorePurna" -- it is a epithet specifically assigned to the Purna character, a dark-skinned woman of color.
- "The melancholy of screen space" focuses on one of Stephen "increpare" Lavelle's lesser known games, A Universal History of Light and it's treatment of a game engine's screen space. In general, I'm annoyed by how a lot of gamer culture fails to make any meaningful sense of Lavelle's challenging work, and just settles for labels like "insane dog simulator" or "drug simulator" or whatever. I guess you have to write the takes you want to see in the world?
- "Bleeding between alternate realities" looks at the continuity of open world games, focusing on a specific mission from Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. I'm fascinated by the idea of multi-modal worlds, that MGS5's Afghanistan can exist in both "mission mode" and "exploration mode" and players reconcile the dissonance between different "instances" easily. We usually think of games as these consistent systems, but here I'm proposing it's much messier with that, and there's some sense of "bleeding" involved.
- "Go West young Slime Rancher, and grow up with the country" is about how cute farming games like Slime Rancher focus on a romantic pioneer aesthetic, but to me, that's just meant to distract you from what you're actually doing as a player: huge hypercapitalist land grabs and mass industrialization of the environment. It's a fantasy of industrial agriculture where byproducts and pollutants are actually "good" things that you sell for money, which makes the cuteness seem all the more insidious.
- "Toward an honesty of pixels" critiques the art in the Final Fantasy XII HD remaster. I feel like some readers misunderstood my allusion to "honesty" as well as Quake 3 Arena -- my point isn't that Quake 3 was ugly (although it kinda was! on purpose!) and I wasn't saying modernist notions of material honesty are still perfect virtues -- but my goal was to show how inconsistent the resulting remaster was, with 2 different art styles fighting each other in every single screen.
- I tried to constructively critique Tacoma, a first person sci-fi narrative theater game that's well-crafted but unfortunately did not really resonate with me. It seemed to enjoy a lot of critical praise, which put me in the awkward position of how to word my disagreement. Unfortunately it also arrives at a time when the current indie game zeitgeist focuses on commercial despair.
- "The second death of the immersive sim (2007-2017) and a dark prophecy for a third-wave immersive sim" starts with talking about how Dishonored 2X: Death of the Outsider is probably the best Dishonored game of them all, because it feels like they've finally distilled the tropes and patterns into a shorter simpler package. Unfortunately, it looks like gamers don't like immersive sims enough, even though Arkane Studios is basically the closest successor to the Looking Glass Studios tradition.
- "The joy of learning how to freeze to death" tells the story of my very short-lived first run on the single player survival sim The Long Dark. If immersive sims are dying / being distilled into "purer" sub-genres as Harvey Smith argues, then I'd say this game takes the huge hostile environments of STALKER and combines it with the compulsive looting of BioShock 1 / Fallout 3, to produce a weird phenomenology of coldness. The game world feels cold, but the game systems are absolutely frigid too.
VIRTUAL REALITY THEORY / MEDIA POLITICS
- "Take ecstasy with me: a manifesto for Gay VR" is still a theory that I'm working on putting into practice. The basic idea is that the conservative heteronormative nazi gamers who regularly poison media cultures would avoid VR, if using VR implied that they were gay. Thus, one possible strategy for insulating VR from toxic gamers is to flood it with so much sexy popular gay content that they will run from it, screaming.
- "The war in heaven" comes from my experiences at VR conferences, where I found it very difficult to talk to VR people from film or tech. I began to wonder why there were so many communication barriers when we're all supposedly working in the same medium, and I decided that maybe it was because we all have very different assumptions and expectations of VR. To this day, film / tech / games are still these self-segregated sub-fields that don't really collaborate on VR projects.
- "If you walk in someone else's shoes, then you've taken their shoes": empathy machines as appropriation machines is the piece I didn't want to write, but no one else was going to do it, so I did it. Now I have to talk to journalists all the time about it. It's annoying to be painted as a spokesperson of the "anti-empathy" movement, when such a movement doesn't actually exist except to serve some "both sides" rhetoric deemed necessary just to say "wow, what the fuck is wrong with the tech industry?"
- "Some recent conversation on cultural appropriation" came from a lot of people wanting to learn more about cultural appropriation, and I didn't have any real resources to point them towards, so I made this. The conversation was also very timely, parallel to a lot of controversy in the art world, with older generations of artists vs younger generations, and US-based artists vs European-based artists. I decided to try to unpack a big complicated Artforum roundtable and decode the artspeak to make it more accessible. It's also important to remember that in games and tech, the industry is so fucking basic that the moral / ethical issues are very clear and obvious -- but once you leave basic land and go to another field, there's more adults in the room, and the debate and history gets much more complicated and nuanced.
Phew. That took a while. I wrote a lot in 2017.
Well, here's to a hopefully productive 2018!... See you next year.
(You can also check out past years' anniversary round-ups here.)