Amon26 interview

Tired and jet-lagged, with my suitcase resting on my leg, I waited for Amon26 to arrive. He still hadn’t told me his real name, but I knew what he looked like from photos on his website. A goth, basically.
I stared into every car that drove up, hoping to see in the driving seat a pale face with dark eye make-up. I wondered how I would address him when he arrived. I hoped he wouldn’t expect me to say the numbers in his name.
Half an hour passed when a tall, thin young man dressed mostly in black stepped out of an old brown and battered car and walked over to me. “Amon26”, he said and shook my hand. “You must be voorface”.
We drove for a long time, Amon26 playing industrial music at a high volume. The sun was going down and I slept for much of the journey.

The car stopped and the music was off. We were in front of a white suburban house. It was dark outside. We were here.

“I’m glad you got some sleep” said Amon26, “because we have some work to do”.
He went to the car boot and pulled out my suitcase and carried it through the front door of the house. I followed him upstairs. The house was what I imagined a normal American suburban home looked like; photos on the walls, large rooms, a framed cross-stitch saying “GOD BLESS THIS HOUSE”.
He chucked my suitcase into one of the upstairs bedrooms. “That’s your room” he said, brushing past me, “but we have to go to my room now. We should get started”. We went into his room, the walls were painted bright red. The ceiling was black. Amon26 reached into his pocket and pulled out some twigs. “Do you have any string?” he asked. I said I hadn’t, but I was suddenly aware of something in my mouth. I felt inside and slowly pulled out a long piece of string that was covered in my saliva. I handed it to Amon26. “Good” he muttered, and started tying up the twigs with the wet string. When he was done he pulled out a large carving knife that was stuck in the wall and began to stab the bundle of twigs. It started to bleed heavily. He let the blood fill his hands until some of it dripped out onto the floor, then he rubbed the blood onto his face and then onto mine.

We were in the woods and the sky was red. My face felt sticky. I looked around and saw Amon26 burning the bundle of twigs. There was a large, old fashioned synthesizer set up behind him, black wires trailing out of it. A naked girl was playing slow spooky notes on it. “What is this?” I asked. Neither of them replied. I noticed a mangy white goat was tied to a nearby tree. The girl started singing in a low voice.

When she stopped I asked Amon26 if I could interview him. He agreed.

voorface: Do you like ice cream?

Amon26: Yes, yes I do.

I looked past Amon26 to the dilapidated ruin of the old house behind him. The girl had left her synth and was collecting scraps of paper blowing about the foundations of the building.

voorface: How tall are you?

Amon26 (not smiling): 6′ 2”, 7 feet in heels

voorface: Is code real?

Amon26: Only her cipher knows for sure.

I had asked the question on a whim. Is it the girl? I felt wrong.

voorface (smiling): What colour is Thursday?

Amon26 (smiling): A neutral earth-tone. Casual colors aren’t until Friday.

voorface: Are you a cat person or a dog person?

The goat bleated.

Amon26: Depends, are they fried or baked?

voorface: If blood tastes of iron, does that mean it is made of metal?

A cluster of branches lined up to spell out an answer, but I couldn’t read it. I looked at the brand logo on my shoe and found I couldn’t read that either – it was like the letters had grown into each other.

voorface: What is your favourite hair colour?

Amon26: Grey.

I tried to think of serious questions, but I could hear myself laughing.

voorface: What do you think abut the crisis of capitalism?

Amon26: Why did you design this game?

voorface: Dream therapy.

I didn’t say that.

voorface: What is your star sign?

Amon26: Virgo.

voorface: What is your blood type?

Amon26: Metallic, almost iron-y

He sat down. The girl had glued the last of the papers onto a half ruined angle of the house. I noticed she had also glued some of the notes down on the synthesizer. This explained the tremendous drone.

voorface: Why are you laughing?

I said this without thinking. Amon26 was burying his legs in a pile of leaves.

voorface: What do you keep in your fridge?

Amon26: Lots and lots of plastic. And D batteries.

voorface: What is that circle flashing red in the sky?

Amon26: I don’t know but if I were you I’d trust the promises it makes.

He said it like a joke, but the sight of the circle flashing black and red in the sky seemed to be full of meaning. Looking at it felt like seeing a deep drone.

voorface: How do red pixels become blood?

He paused as if he was thinking, then stood up and said nothing. The girl was gone.

voorface: Are we dead?

Amon26: Not us. Not us.

A huge, flashing red ball hung in the sky which was now black. We were sullen and silent. It was obvious that the interview was over. The shadows became longer and the giant red circle was strobing rapidly. I didn’t want to look at it, but even if I closed my eyes it flickered on my eyelids. I felt like I was staring at it, getting closer. I was standing up and in the air feeling the woods get smaller at my feet, then everything was flashing red and black so fast that both colours were happening at the same time. I was aware of my body going into it and I didn’t feel myself anymore.

I woke up cold and wet in the forest clearing. The sky was grey and a dead fire was smoking. I was alone.

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Do you ever think you’re a chess piece?

My article on immersion was republished on Kotaku yesterday and again people had problems with my use of the Matrix as a metaphor. When I was writing the post, the main idea I wanted to get across is that suspension of disbelief only goes so far, that the idea that the player should feel like she’s literally inside the game puts unnecessary limits on what videogames can do and how we approach them. So let’s abandon the Matrix and talk about something else.
The Red King from Through the Looking-Glass, sleeping
Chess is, along with Go, the game that represents all games, as well as other social relationships from love to war. It is played and has been played by millions and countless metaphors have come from it.
Chess is made up of what today we might call characters; the queen, the king, the knights, the bishops, the rooks and the pawns. We could say, in this vein, that chess is a battle between two warring kingdoms – kingdoms controlled by powerful queens.
But do we ever identify with these characters? No. You might say the reason for that is because they are too vague, too minimally drawn and too much like ciphers to be called characters. But even if that is true, does this lack of player identification – of never feeling like the game is real – stop us becoming deeply involved in the movements of the game? I don’t think it does. Chess is essentially minimalistic and abstract and yet one could spend the rest of one’s life exploring its intricacies, being fascinated by the possibilities of movement, following the chess metaphors strewn throughout the history of art and seeing chess as a metaphor for life itself.
We could also look at a less abstract board game: Cluedo. Do you ever feel like you’re Professor Plum, wandering through the mansion and looking for clues? Probably not. Does that mean that playing Cluedo is not exciting, that it is impossible to enjoy the intricacies of the mystery? Game movements have meaning, but they needn’t have a one-to-one relationship to reality, not to mention a one-to-one relationship to the player’s subjective reality. Put simply, we can get swept up in a pulp crime story or even a Maths textbook without ever forgeting that we’re holding a book in our hands, that our eyes are scanning over text. I think the confusion comes from representations of human beings featuring in various art works. Perhaps we are meant to identify with these figures, but the feeling of having a close connection to the world of the book/film/videogame/music needn’t have anything to do with that identification, as the same feeling can come from totally abstract works.
René Magritte - The Human Condition (1933)
There’s an interesting scene in Inception where the adept Cobb and the novice Ariadne are discussing the structures of dreams while sitting in a pavement café. Cobb describes how one never really remembers getting to a place in a dream, one just starts there. Ariadne agrees. Leaning in, Cobb then quietly asks Ariadne if she can remember exactly how they got to the café – and when she can’t, the truth that they are inside a dream dawns on her. At this moment the stability of the dream world is called into question and starts to fall apart as glasses, fruit and paving stones explode in slow motion around them. Ariadne’s mind is blown the moment she discovers that the world is not real.
Isn’t that something like the way we view videogames? The visual design of a videogame world can be so impressive precisely because it is not real. A video of Florence is somehow not as impressive as the explorable Florence of Assassin’s Creed 2. They are both representations, but the video is created by putting a camera in front of the real city. It’s not true that the camera never lies, but we trust a video more than a videogame because with videogames the world in the screen was built inside the illusion of the medium. With video the illusion is created by the camera recording light bouncing off real objects – by capturing what is already there, outside.
So, the documentary element of video/film is what gives it its power. This element can be played with – and other elements are important as well – but what makes film so unique is its ability to record/represent reality. In contrast, the power of the videogame comes from it being fake; an abstract construction from top to bottom.
(This is what is so underwhelming about Hollywood CGI and why it is unfair when films like Avatar get unfavourably compared to videogames. The constructed nature of computer graphics is what makes them so pleasing to explore in a videogame, but in film the documentary element is lost and the audience’s imagination has nowhere to move.)
You cannot put a videogame engine in front of Florence and expect to get anything. In this way videogames are more like writing. The pen and paper (or screen and keyboard) don’t need to be anywhere near the real world that the writer is writing about. Indeed, the writing needn’t have any direct relationship to the real world at all. We often call this sort of writing fiction. (Of course, representations of the real world can exist in fiction and fictional elements can exist in journalism, as boundaries between forms of writing are always fluid) Like a historical novel and today’s news, the Florence of the renaissance and the Florence of today have to both be constructed in exactly the same way in a videogame. They are as unreal as each other.
me too
The idea that one should get lost in art – in a particular, illusionary way – is very common, I’d say it’s almost a consensus view. It is a strange idea, though. If there is anything to be got from the cultural activities we call art, then it would seem odd if the focus of art should be to make itself invisible. “Breaking the forth wall” is thought to be a postmodern phenomenon, but it goes back a long way, to Shandy and Shakespeare and Chaucer and all the rest. In fact it began with storytelling itself (or myth or religion or ritual or whatever). Being aware that something isn’t real doesn’t stop it from effecting us.
The call for videogames (and other media) to bypass the consciousness is part of the idea that art should be invisible. But it misses how we really interact with art forms, especially media that needs to be consciously paid attention to, like videogames and text. Music can get into us insidiously, without our knowing or wanting it. We can even be tortured by music. It is difficult to imagine being tortured by videogames.
Reading, playing videogames – these activities require a high bandwidth of consciousness. So to suggest that to make videogames better we must suspend the consciousness, or that the videogame must make our minds wander away from the consciousness process, seems counter-productive. It’s also one of the reasons why the Holodeck would be something other than a videogame, and would instead be something more like sport. Activities involving physical movement do not require the high bandwidth of consciousness that reading and videogaming do. Ask any sportsperson; if you think – consciously – about throwing the ball into the basket then you’ll miss.
So, why am I against immersion? Because it implies that all the various levels of engagement and enjoyment in videogames come from one type of representational reality (realism), because it is used as marketing justification for ever more ridiculous hardware gimmicks, because it implies that we mustn’t be conscious of the way we see and play the game, because it encourages creative stagnation in all areas of videogames (but especially graphics and story) and finally because if you want to be immersed in a narrative then you’d do better by sitting back and watching a film. Videogames require the audience to be a player, so you have to keep your eyes on the ball.