Johnnemann Nordhagen on Sup Holmes? talking about defining “

A really great explanation of edge cases and boundary policing that really makes you wonder why it’s all that important to bother when you could be thinking or doing literally anything else.

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Lorne Lanning’s Anticapitalism

Lorne Lanning developed the Oddworld games many Mudokon-hand moons ago, and they’ve been running through my head since the first time I played Abe’s Oddysee. That game hasn’t really left me, either, and I can trace a lot of my youth-then-adult feelings about capitalism’s excesses and the industry of animal murder that lives within it.

oddword

Lanning just did a longform interview with James Brightman at Gamesindustry that has gotten some attention, and I’m wholly in agreement with him: videogames exist at the edge of speculative economics combined with good old fashioned investment, and the excesses of the industry itself has meant that deals for workers (and the development companies that are made up of workers) get a raw deal when it comes to the development of larger prestige titles (there’s a reason why vertical integration is so widespread in the industry).

A section from the middle of the interview stuck out to me:

The growth model that drives most companies in a capitalistic society is not going to do game makers any favors. For Lanning, what developers and game companies need to be focused on is simply having sustainability. “So what is a sustainable model? Well, don’t have investors. Don’t have an IPO. Don’t go public. Then maybe there might be a sustainable model. But can you focus on niches instead of blockbusters? If you’re going to continue focusing on blockbusters, then you’re going to be competing against the big boys. Now you’re half a billion dollars into development… just like the movies. So who can afford to play? But when we talk to indies today, I used to be like, well, if I sell a million and a half units, we’re going to be a loser. But today, if we sell 150,000 units we’re in the black,” he said.

Lanning is pitching sustainability as keeping a low overhead, keeping it personal, and making sure that a vision (in this case his and his company’s) can continue and have a life over time.

But I also wonder about metasustainability. In a world where sustaining, where creating companies that will not perish, is of the highest importance, it makes just as much sense to “become the man.” That means that there has to be some kind of value beyond that, beyond mere persistence, that would drive the creation of the company. There’s a world where Lorne Lanning could release the Oddworld games continually for new platforms and make some kind of living through the rest of his life. However, there’s something more, some community-mindedness or job-creator-drive that ensures his participation in the game development industry as a corporation.

Anyway, the interview is excellent and draws on a lot of tensions between participating in the demon heart of the capitalist games industry while despising the system itself, and so it is worth reading for that alone.

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On “Liquor, Bond, Dark”

Cara Ellison and Irene Koh just created a new short comic called “Liquor, Bond, Dark” that takes Joanna Dark and James Bond and drives them forward into the future. They’re the videogame versions of themselves, divorced from that existence but aware of it, and there’s a bit of anxiety about replacement that happens. It’s short, so go read it.

liquor bond

What struck me about the comic is that it exists as a kind of modernist thieves’ cant. The comic operates almost completely along the lines of a secret language. It’s poetic how it gets put together–the comic deals with sex and memory. Sex requires secret language; talking about the past is always about talking through secret doors and windows.

There’s something mystical about creating a fractured story about videogames from the past. I’ve decried “gamer memory” before, a kind of shared nostalgia, but I’ve also been open to how it operates on us and allows for really strange and beautiful things to happen. “Liquor, Bond, Dark” is one of those beautiful things–you can’t decode it without having access to a particular era, a particular longing, and a particular understanding of a historical betrayal.

“Liquor, Bond, Dark” is a simulation of whispering a secret.

Go read it here.

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Tom Sparrow’s “Plastic Bodies” is Out!

I’m super excited about this book and it is free so go check it out. The blurb:

Sensation is a concept with a conflicted philosophical history. It has found as many allies as enemies in nearly every camp from empiricism to poststructuralism. Polyvalent, with an uncertain referent, and often overshadowed by intuition, perception, or cognition, sensation invites as much metaphysical speculation as it does dismissive criticism.

The promise of sensation has certainly not been lost on the phenomenologists who have sought to ‘rehabilitate’ the concept. In Plastic Bodies, Tom Sparrow argues that the phenomenologists have not gone far enough, however. Alongside close readings of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, he digs into an array of ancient, modern, and contemporary texts in search of the resources needed to rebuild the concept of sensation after phenomenology. He begins to assemble a speculative aesthetics that is at once a realist theory of sensation and a philosophy of embodiment that breaks the form of the ‘lived’ body. Maintaining that the body is fundamentally plastic and that corporeal identity is constituted by a conspiracy of sensations, he pursues the question of how the body fits into/fails to fit into its aesthetic environment and what must be done to increase the body’s power to act and exist.

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Grand Theft Auto III and Gamer Memory

A transcript/just a script that I read:

Grand Theft Auto 3 looms large over the past fifteen years of gaming. It sold itself on the idea that you can do everything, and it broke the concept of “open world” into the common imagination, a feat matched only by Farmville clones and match three games today. It presented itself as a hyperviolent crime drama that ripped off cinema’s finest tropes and stereotypes from the latter half of the twentieth century, and history has mostly been kind to it. It lives on in fond memories as a distant relative of contemporary well-loved games like Assassin’s Creed or Shadow of Mordor. But it is just that for most of us–a memory–and it exists like a fossil in a museum that no one goes to. We’re content in the knowledge that it merely exists in a crate somewhere hidden down in the gaming history depths with Zork and Adventure in that giant room from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I’ve been guilty of this veneration as much as anyone else. When Grand Theft Auto 5 came out, I lambasted it for being less successful than Grand Theft Auto 3 had been in the realm of satire. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so confident of that. Or, rather, I know exactly why I was confident–GTAIII’s legacy is as burned into my head as it is in everyone else’s–but I’m not sure why I was so uncritical in my reflection.

Gamer memory is a collective memory. It allows us to have complex group dynamics around a shared love and frustration for Super Mario Bros. It connects people who seemingly have nothing in common. The fact that mentioning Oregon Trail can make a group of strangers into a group of comrades means something, and when gamer memory is evoked in positive ways it feels like something close to magic.

Gamer memory is also a poison. It makes us celebrate games and experiences that are borderline punishment. It allows us to create hierarchies of taste, of skill, of ability, and of privilege and to root them in the very heart of our enjoyment. Gamer memory papers over problems in favor of a mock universalism that deifies Metal Gear Solid or Metroid or Final Fantasy at the cost of not taking hidden object games, or Farmville clones, or celebrity simulators, or most popular contemporary genres very seriously. It puts certain nostalgia-laced experiences at the very top of our collective ranking of importance and has very little room for new additions.

Grand Theft Auto III is as clumsy in its application of satire as the newest game in the series, but gamer memory obscured that fact. In my head, supported by the opinions of lots of other people, it was a beautiful experience that struck a balance between gameplay and social commentary. What I didn’t remember was the chat radio station that lampoons concerned Leftists for being afraid of telephones and treats Conservatives as if they’re all pro-gun, pro-child beating hillbillies. What I didn’t remember is a protagonist killing the woman he saves in the final mission because she’s too annoying. What I didn’t remember was the brutally hard difficulty that seems less like purposeful design and more like arbitrary difficulty spiking to keep players from completing the game too quickly.

Gamer memory kept me from remembering. Tinged with nostalgia, fueled by my own tween memories and those of everyone around me, I forgot all the mistakes and only remembered the strengths of Grand Theft Auto III.

I don’t want to suggest that we should throw Grand Theft Auto III under the bus. It is undeniably historically significant, and on the whole it is an excellent game that laid the groundwork for some of the most important and entertaining developments in blockbuster games. I don’t think that’s even arguable.

Rather, I think we should take the time to vigorously interrogate gamer memory. We currently have unprecedented access to videogame history through Playstation classics, the Nintendo virtual console, PC releases through GoG or Steam, and emulation of all sorts. Gamer memory is fueled by group nostalgia, and I want to crack through it to find something different. I want to make new memories with forgotten classics instead of retreading the experiences that provide the fodder for top-ten games of all time lists. I want to see those top-ten lists implode with the realization that the games of our sliding-scale youth weren’t as great as so many of us seem to remember them being. And to do that, to interrupt collective gamer memory, we need to play these games again.

Take a break from the newest Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty. Go back, play a game from your childhood, or your teenage years, or from before you were born. Form an opinion of it. See if it holds up to the image that gamer memory has created for you.

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On Interview With The Vampire

interview-with-a-vampire

I finished reading Interview With The Vampire the other night and I just wanted to take a second to reflect on it.

I grew up loving weird interactions with Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. I never read Interview or the following few books, but I loved the film (and I have a deep, strange love of Queen of the Damned and its very-dated official soundtrack). My cousin read them all over and over again, and he would tell me about the plots and connections. He explained who all these weird vampires were and why they acted the way they did.

I eventually read some of them. I wandered through Pandora and suffered Vittorio and had an excellent time with a vaguely familiar character in Blood and Gold. These were stories about weird times I hadn’t really read about (I was in middle school) combined with a lot of Very Adult Content to which I quickly adapted.

Reading Interview With The Vampire brought all of that back to me, or at least brought it back to the forefront of my mind. I can see the roots of my beliefs about homosexuality in the love-based relationships of the vampires. I can see early versions of my own thoughts about religion in the vampires’ ultimate confusion about whether there is or is not a divine presence.

What I mean by all of this is that Anne Rice’s vampires (along with a thousand other cultural objects) set me on a path that was open to kinds of lives and experiences that I could never experience in the rural South. The language that she uses for vampiricism–the constant refrain that life for them is wholly unlike human life–did not and does not dull me to empathizing with them, for feeling with them, and for having a strange, awe-like respect for the characters.

I have to say that this is a particularly weird place for me to be in after finishing the book. I spent the couple weeks it took me to read it actively decrying the writing, the characters, and the plot. It seemed to go nowhere. There are interminable scenes of how Louis feels without really presenting any stakes for those feelings other than a modulation of his intense interiority. I spent weeks reading the novel and thinking I was superior to it.

To begin with, that’s a shitty way to read a novel. Following from that, it allowed the novel to do something quite dramatic. No matter how I was framing Louis’ emotions, I was still reading them. When he described his relationship with Lestat, I was following along. And when Louis, deprived of emotion and dead on the inside, felt nothing and Lestat begged him to return and love him again, I teared up.

The stakes were precisely in the buildup of those emotions. It was about the superiority-transformed-to-sympathy. When the modulation of that interiority happened, when the character whose only trait was his feeling was unable to feel, it hit me super hard.

It is that layering of affect that shows Rice’s mastery in this novel. It isn’t in the writing or the storytelling. It is setting up a powerful emotional trap that’s fueled by confidence. To bring it back around to my middle school encounters with Rice’s work: this is how I encountered all of these ideas and accidentally had them stick with me. She paints it all on thick, layers of layers of emotion, and by the time you begin to organize them into real feelings you’ve forgotten about the primer layers. Then, years later, you peel away a covering and see that they were down there the whole time.

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On Pancho and Lefty

I think I discovered “Pancho and Lefty” when I was twelve or thirteen. It was the Willie and Merle version, the pop transformation of the lilting, crooked ramble that Townes Van Zandt pulled from nowhere.

I’m certain that my dad was listening to it. He was barely out of diapers when it was originally written, but was some kind of teenager when it dominated the airwaves in the early 1980s. I don’t know how he heard it, if he ever had some kind of strange personal moment with it, but as soon as I could I stole whatever mix CD he was listening to and hoarded it in my room.

I listened to it when no one was around. There was a strange double embarrassment of listening to some “old” country music that my dad listened to, betraying my own then-current tastes of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Outkast. There was also the emotional factor: listening to the words, I would well up with this sublime something that couldn’t quite land anywhere sensible. And so I listened to it over and over again for a long time.

I had forgotten about it until this past weekend. I heard it mentioned, looked it up, and fell down the hole again. There’s not many songs that do this to me–that pick me up, carry me away, fail to let me go: Neil Young’s “Thrasher“; Daughter’s “Candles“; John K. Samson’s “Letter In Icelandic From the Ninette San.”

I can say that all of these songs are haunting in the proper sense of that term. They refuse to leave. They mill about. They pass through and yet remain. That’s something unique to music for me. No film, no tv show, no game manages to linger with me like a haunting song will. A song can infect you with melancholy, using its earworm nature to keep you spinning in its grasp.

Haunting games? Haunting films? Some refuse to leave me, but they don’t weigh on me like a song does.

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