Released: Welcome to the Dress-Up of the Real

zss1

If you’re a frequent reader of this blog you know that I have a healthy fascination with Slavoj Žižek, the famed Slovenian philosopher whose work on Hegel, Lacan, and contemporary capitalism has spread across the world and the internet like wildfire over the past twenty years. You might also know that I love to make silly games.

I have combined both of those interests into my new game Welcome To the Dress-Up Of the Real. Drawn by amazing artist James Wragg and scored by Chris Hunt, it is a game about dressing up Slavoj Žižek. Did you know that he loves movies? This game allows you to see how much he really loves them.

You dress him up in clothes from movies.

Click here to play the game.

Additional infos:

1. You can click this link to go to an itch.io page where you can pay what you want for a desktop copy of the game for PC, Mac, and Linux. This will help us to make more weird stuff like this in the future.

2. Clicking the SAVE button in the top right corner will give you a nice, clean PNG of whatever clothes arrangement you have. Right now this works best in Chrome.

Posted in A Game I Made, Video Games | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

On Bluebeard

Bluebeard(Vonnegut)

I first read Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard in middle school when I ripped through all of his books that I could get my hands on in a whirlwind from Hocus Pocus to Slapstick to Deadeye Dick and beyond. I found them in rural bookstores, at flea markets, at “trade day,” and they always delivered something new and weird to me. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention his supposed masterworks, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five, in that list, and that’s because I didn’t read them until a few years later. My introduction to Vonnegut were what are considered to be the misfires or the duds.

I picked up Bluebeard on a whim. I remembered the plot–old Armenian man tells his life before revealing his masterwork–but not the specifics, and so I grabbed it off the shelf.

The novel tells the story of Rabo Karebekian, the son of Armenian immigrants. His parents survived a genocide before moving to the United States, and they press the American dream into Rabo at every opportunity. To pursue this dream, his sends a letter to Dan Gregory, a fictional version of American representational masters like Norman Rockwell. Through this letter, Rabo enters into a friendship with Gregory’s wife Marilee. He moves to New York, begins to learn from Gregory, and eventually goes to and returns from the second World War. Postwar, he becomes an important member in the Abstract Expressionist school of painters, alongside real painter Jackson Pollock and fictional painter Terry Kitchen. Time goes on. These painters die off, often through suicide. Eventually, Rabo is an old man with a home that contains the most extensive and expensive collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings in the world. His wife passes away, and out of grief he paints a massive scene of the final moments of World War II–a giant valley full of people released from camps, armies, and the European countryside. Then, at the behest of a widow from down the beach named Circe Berman, he begins to write his autobiography.

That’s an incredibly long summary, but it gives a sense of how the novel sprawls through time, location, and medium. It is a novel about Turkey, the United States, Europe, painting, the genre of autobiography, and the various artistic and cultural revolutions of the 20th century. It just keeps going and even though it ends after the big reveal of Rabo’s masterpiece, it doesn’t really end. It merely stops.

The reason I’m writing this piece about the novel is that I spent the entire time I was reading it awe-struck by the intimacy of it all. Vonnegut’s strength as a writer was in his ironic distance from a horrible subjects, a kind of sing-song affect to the most awful things that humans can do to themselves and others. That same kind of sardonic posture is definitely in Bluebeard, but it also drops away in strange moments, giving us a sincerity in Rabo Karabekian that is missing from a lot of Vonnegut protagonists, especially when he’s thinking about his friend Terry Kitchen.

There’s a tenderness to Rabo’s writing about Kitchen, and despite the fact that I came away from the novel feeling this so strongly, I only marked two places in the novel for reference. The first:

What he would do to his father six years later, in the front yard of Kitchen’s shack about six miles from here, was take a shot at him with a pistol. Kitchen was drunk then, as he often was, and his father had come for the umpteenth time to beg him to get treatment for his alcoholism. It can never be proved, but that shot had to be intended as a gesture.

When Kitchen saw that he had actually gunned down his father, with a bullet in the should, it turned out, nothing would do but that Kitchen put the pistol barrel in his own mouth and kill himself.

It was an accident.

And much earlier in the novel:

Birth and death were even on that old piece of beaverboard Terry Kitchen sprayed seemingly at random so long ago. I don’t know how he got them in there, and neither did he.

The work of the Abstract Expressionists, or the work of their work, is at the heart of Bluebeard. In some sense, they were attempting to deal with a massive wound, a schism and time and experience ripped in the fabric of the social by two back-to-back world wars. Vonnegut is attempting to capture this general affect through Rabo’s descriptions of his painterly friends, especially Terry Kitchen. It isn’t a leap to read the passages above as particular kinds of metaphors–a man who wounds his father and purposefully self-destructs because of it, but not before capturing a little bit of life and death on a cold canvas.

Driving this home even further is Rabo’s own work, created with colored tape and a paint called Sateen Dura-Luxe, which eventually falls off of any canvas it is applied to. Thus, halfway through his career, Rabo’s works all fall apart, rendering him into a mere footnote in art history. More interesting than that very Vonnegut scenario is how those initial paintings are described–fields of color with the colored tape arranged on them. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, the narrator lets us in on a secret: while the tape was supposed to be abstract, it really was not. Each strip was meant to represent a soul, and each painting was a story.

This drives the postwar narrative home even more explicitly: the field of color, of affect, that these souls rested on literally disintegrated. There is no ground, and disenfranchised, they fell to the ground as discarded trash. Terribly disconcerting as a metaphor, for sure.

Bluebeard indirectly sums itself up through a minor character–a novelist named Paul Slazinger. He experiences a mental breakdown during the latter quarter of the novel and largely disappears from the proceedings, but not before elucidating his theory of revolution in a book titled The Only Way to Have a Successful Revolution in Any Field of Human Activity. We’re not granted any insight into this particular volume, but there’s intimations into what Slazinger thinks is necessary for those revolutions to take hold:

Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.

Although this is pretty strange for Vonnegut, Slazinger’s “successful revolution” requires a metaphysical turn. The “mind-opening team” that we’re supposed to identify in the text is the Abstract Expressionists themselves. Inside of that team, we can most easily identify with Rabo Karebekian and Terry Kitchen. The only one we get any kind of interiority of is Rabo, of course.

So, as quickly as possible, the two metaphysical statements that structured the Abstract Expressionists in Bluebeard.

The first is Karebekian’s idea of the soul in his paintings. These random assortments of tape and paint were stories, and those stories have meaning for an observer, but they ultimately degrade into nothing. In this model, the “mind-operating team” can show you the slow slipping away of the universe. There are things, and those things are beautiful for a while, but nothing can stay.

The second is Terry Kitchen’s absolute ungrounded being. He sprays paint on canvas and he drinks. There is no rhyme or reason to it. There are no stories. There’s nothing beautiful right beyond the surface if you would only look for it, and because of that it is eternal. The roiling void will make an infinite number of Terry Kitchen; every Rabo Karebekian will be ground to dust by time.

Paul Slazinger again:

“And what is literature, Rabo,” he said, “but an insider’s newsletter about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the universe but a few molecules who have a disease called ‘thought.’ “

Terry Kitchen:

It was an accident.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

On Timesplitters 2

A little while ago I wrote about Timesplitters, the Playstation heir to the design minds and concepts that delivered the ultimate party game of the end of history (the 1990s), Goldeneye. Now, based on some voting from my Patreon users, I’m taking you down the garden path into the world of Timesplitters 2.

TS2

1.
Timesplitters 2 begins in medias res, in a moment critical to the Timesplitters War. The Timesplitters, a strange species of monster, travel back and forth in time to eliminate humans and disrupt critical moments. They find crucial, small achievements and make the bad guys win, eliminating their enemies in the future. They decimate humans by controlling the time stream, and so we see two science fiction heroes coming to save the day. They take over a time portal.  A bald man jumps into a big blue circle. We’re off into a game where you appear in a time period, taking the body of a “universal hero” sort, and you achieve some provincial mission of theirs before retrieving the time crystal and hopping on to the next time period.

2. Siberia 1990
In stark contrast to Timesplitters, there is a cinematic opening to each of the levels in T2. You get a small bit of plot, a little setup that bumps you on down the road in order to help you understand why you’re living this strange life. In Siberia, you merely pop out of a portal in a new body. Time travel involves possession.

Each level of the game is focused on a particular kind of story, with the idea that all of these kinds of stories are synthesized into the human experience. Thus, Siberia in 1990 is a strange collection of tropes that lean into zombie films, the mysteries of Russia, The Thing, and the HIND from Metal Gear Solid. You experience all of this in a first person shooter frame. Timesplitters 2 is a weird, experimental game.

3. Chicago 1932
You take to the streets of Chicago and you walk through those streets listening for phones to ring. Gangsters attack you. Informants scuttle in front of you, protected by your bullets, before they hide inside of the newsstand. Every junction is a crossroads that looks like something out of a Tim Burton film. Everyone looks too chunky, and when the speakeasy opens to let you into the backroom club, you murder the villain you’ve been after the whole time. With very few exceptions, Chicago 1932 works the same as every other level in T2. It’s structure reigns monolithic throughout the game, but that structure is a wonderful container that gets filled with a lot of strange content. Siberia 1990 foregrounded the synthetic side of T2, and Chicago 1932 presents us with the dialectical opposite. Siberia was chaotic; Chicago is ordered.

4. Notre Dame 1895
“The rivermen talk of a crazed madman leading a cult of undead followers,” the intro says, and we come to life in the basement of the cathedral with the played mission of rescuing some maidens tied up around the building. Sometimes zombies will spawn in the corners of your vision and make their way directly for the maidens, killing them before you even reach them. If the maidens die, the level doesn’t automatically fail. It just tells you that you’ve failed your mission and cannot proceed. You could live in that basement with all those corpses forever if you wanted.

5. Cybertokyo 2019
This is the strangest mission in Timesplitters 2. You track a hacker through cyberstreets and follow her into a cybervault before disabling a machine that’s converting a Timesplitter into some kind of strange cyberSplitter. The wonder of the level is based on the tracking itself — you have to keep her in sight while peeking around corners. You have to avoid cameras, avoid breaking windows, and make sure that there’s no one around to give you up. I don’t often see it in lists of “noncombat” first-person shooter levels (because there’s combat, but only at the end) but I strongly suggest that people take a look at it.

TS22

6. Little Prospect 1853
Two beautiful things that need to be replicated from this level of the game:

- Playing this level in co-op story mode means that the second player starts in a jail cell. They need to be rescued by the other player, who has to player the first quarter of the level solo. I’ve never encountered another game that tries this.

- To break the second character out of jail, you need to pick up a barrel of gunpowder and draw a line between an explosive cart and a lantern. Then you use your six shooter to knock the lantern off the wall in order to set the trail on fire which blows up the cart. This mechanic is never used again in the entire game, and there are no hints to help you know how to solve this puzzle. It is one of the most brilliant and infuriating things I’ve ever seen in a game.

7. Atom Smasher 1972
This is a James Bond level. I hate it. Its only redeeming quality is that you can fail the mission in the last 30 seconds by aggressively killing the last couple enemies of the level. You see, there’s a mechanic that requires you to save some nerdy scientists so that they will disarm some bombs for you. The last bomb has two separate scientists standing around to disarm it, but if you kill the last couple enemies in the level with grenades, you can accidentally murder those scientists too. Cue a restart and spending 20 minutes running through the level again. Do that, you know, three separate times.

8. Aztec Ruins 1920
The first enemy of note in this level is a wood golem that cannot be harmed with any of your traditional weapons. It chases you around until you figure out that you need to equip a crossbow and light its tip on a wall sconce. Then you shoot the golem and it dies, screaming. I have a lot of complicated emotions about all of this.

9. Spacestation 2401
It ends here, with the death of a woman and a difficult time trial to escape the space station. Everything blows up. The time crystals are reclaimed from the Timesplitters and we hope that things will be okay. You solves several small puzzles, you shoot a lot of enemies, and you reach a goal on time. You travel through linear time; most levels end with you finding a time portal and traveling back to the mission selection screen. You hop out of sequence in order to repeat the ludic process over again. The final level presents you with an authentic out–it isn’t about doing all of this again but rather making sure that you don’t even have to. The only way to escape is to blow it all up.

 

Posted in Video Games | Tagged , ,

Rosi Braidotti on the future

TVWhat makes the project of the nomadic programmatic, or utopian?

Rosi Braidotti: Let’s call it programmatic; maybe that’s a better term than utopian here. I call to actively embrace this ethic of affirmation. We need to borrow the energy from the future to overturn the conditions of the present. It’s called love of the world. We do it all the time, not perhaps in philosophy but in our daily lives. Picture what you don’t have yet; anticipate what we want to become. We need to empower people to will, to want, to desire, a different world, to extract – to reterritorialize, indeed – from the misery of the present joyful, positive, affirmative relations and practices. Ethics will guide affirmative politics.

Borrowed Energy

Posted in Theory | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Released: Marginalia

For some reason I forgot to post this over here, but Connor Sherlock and I recently released a Dear Esther-like horror game about temporality, longing, and loss called Marginalia. Also, some real creepy feelings (but no jump scares!)

marginalia2

There are two different “plots” that you can follow, and I wrote it in a way that (I think) really delivers a special kind of world. I hope that we can return to the world of Kestlebrook, or at least of these characters, in the future.

You can purchase Marginalia for PC, Mac, and Linux on itch.io for $5.

Posted in General Features | Tagged , , ,

Announcing: Micromolar

micromolarlogo

I’m incredibly pleased to announce Micromolar.

Micromolar is a collaborative media creation unit comprised of HNT/KNZLMN.

We make interactive art, video art, music, and other forms of contemporary “oh wow” kind of stuff.

You can see our first piece, Ovis Baggi, here.

You can follow Micromolar on twitter @micromolarity.

Posted in A Game I Made, Video Games | Tagged , , ,

Destiny’s Raid Is Interesting Because It Is A Game

I was reading this phenomenal (really, just great) interview that Kirk Hamilton did with Luke Smith, a designer on Destiny‘s Vault of Glass raid, and I was struck by the following questions and answers:

It’s funny, there are fourteen unique ways to fail in the raid, but there are also fourteen ways to succeed! It feels really cool when you figure out this new way to succeed, so there are two sides of that. Watching people play, do you get a sense of, “Oh, okay, we could get away with this sort of thing in the main game”?

Well, you’re giving us an awful lot of credit. Look at the raid versus the structure of the rest of the game. The raids are linear in a way that a given suite of missions [isn’t]. From encounter to encounter, in the raid, we’re able to build your knowledge base and teach you more in a very predictable way. And I feel like sometimes we can’t assure [that] organically in sort of a more linear campaign. We had this really good advantage of freedom, flexibility and the knowledge of how you’re going to be able to constrain players.

Yeah, that progression to the final boss Atheon, how you go through the time gates, and you learn how those work, and you learn how the relic works, and then you have to put it all together. It’s this constant progression.

We’re really happy with how the Atheon encounter turned out. For us, it really feels like the culmination of the raid, in terms of all the things we’re teaching you over the course of that experience, we’re trying to introduce you to different verbs, and the natural extension of that as you get further into the raid is to ask you to combine all of those verbs together over the final culminating battle.

Overall, Destiny has a lot of problems (I’ve written about the narrative and competitive multiplayer), and yet I’ve spent a lot of time in its weird embrace. It scratches the same itch that World of Warcraft does–these developers have used the most advanced techniques to ascertain what gets someone hooked into a game. Fundamentally, it is about loops and how good they feel when you make a cycle.

For example, I play a Strike for fifteen minutes. It is incredibly easy, and I walk through it. At the end, I am granted some Engrams, which have to be taken to the Tower in order to be turned into items (which are then converted to materials).

What is happening there is not as important as how it feels: I go full-on zen autopilot for fifteen minutes, items pop out of the enemies that I shoot in their clearly-marked heads, and I run to gather the glowing objects. I slide into them. I dodge the enemies, and it is thrilling not because it is hard but because it is like a ballet that I’ve practiced over and over (every mission, every moment is a movement in this dance number). The credits role, some circles fill up with experience points, and more items appear. I go to Orbit, go the the Cryptarch, watch more circles fill up, and repeat it again. I feel like a machine, and being a machine feels good. Every day of my life is spent thinking, and Destiny is a strange reprieve from that.

destiny2

Put another way: playing Destiny is like living in the film Groundhog Day, and it feels amazing and horrible all at once.

When Smith describes the raids as “linear,” which allows the developers to “build on your knowledgebase,” he’s really describing something profound in the context of Destiny: the Vault of Glass is a game, where Destiny overall is merely a series of loops.

Gambling is a loop. Going running is a loop. Reading John Grisham novels is a loop. Eating is a loop. You do a thing, you get a reward, and the mechanical process between each instance of each loop maps onto the next cycle. Loops happen over and over and over again, and they’re made to be that way. If the loop is especially grand, you never make it out of it.

At the core, Smith’s description of the Vault of Glass’ uniqueness in Destiny is merely a version of Anna Anthropy’s excellent “to the right, hold on tight” argument. The raid requires experimentation (on a group scale rather than an individual one), failure, and synthesis of those two things in order to beat it. The Vault requires the same kind of experiential moves as most other games, but the raid itself becomes unique in contrast to the ludic wasteland of the rest of the game. This isn’t to minimize the impact of the Vault–from my understanding, it is truly a wonder of modern game design and implementation. But the design principles are standard, and the fact that those principles weren’t used for the rest of the game is telling about Bungie’s priorities in the development of Destiny.

The Vault of Glass is a game. Destiny is an addiction machine.

A remainder question: Would the Vault of Glass be worth playing if it were divorced from the rest of Destiny?

***

You can sign up for a newsletter that updates you on upcoming projects here. You can support this blog on Patreon here.

Posted in Video Games | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment