Dedication is all you need

There’s a good post over at ‘…and what will be left of them?’ by Phil Knight that talks about Gurdjieff’s concept of “sexual energy”, which is similar to Freud’s concept of the libido. Like Freud, Gurdjieff thought sexual energy could be used to pursue non-sexual goals (Freud called this process displacement and the result sublimation). What Gurdjieff considered an abuse of sexual energy was using it to fuel the activities of the “thinking centre” (philosophy, science, politics etc), the “emotional centre” (religion, abstinence, asceticism etc) or the “movement centre” (sport and other planned physical activity along with a tendency to “create various records”). When sexual energy was used to fuel these activities it created “a certain particular vehemence, and together with it, the USELESSNESS of the work in question. Neither the thinking nor the emotional nor the moving centres can ever create anything USEFUL with the energy of the sex centre. This is an example of the ‘abuse of sex’”. Knight humourously uses the truly useless Guinness Book of World Records as the perfect example of this.

Last night I was trying to complete some of the trials on Lords of Shadow. Some are pretty easy, but others are enragingly difficult; working against the clock, one false move and you’ve failed, that sort of thing. It’s very easy to see the desire – the need, it feels like – to complete this kind of challenge as being fuelled by sexual energy.

It’s also very easy to see the uselessness of it. Not the simplistic dismissal of reading books, watching movies, listening to music, playing sports or playing videogames as a “waste of time”, but useless in that it is undertaken stubbornly and for nothing. It’s difficult and not pleasurable and the reward is next to nil. It almost feels like we try to complete these aggravating tasks in videogames just because we’ve already started.

Really the only reason – apart from “because it’s there” – is to get on the high score list, or make every achievement thumbnail visible. This is exactly the same impulse behind gaining the record for “Largest collection of ‘Do Not Disturb’ hotel signs” or “Heaviest weight pulled with eye sockets”. It’s painful and pointless but you did it! and that’s it.

What is interesting about The Guinness Book of World Records – and Knight points this out in his post – is that it was founded and maintained by the McWhirter twins, who held right-wing Libertarian ideals. (As the Guardian obituary for Norris puts it, “He was also a fighter for ‘personal freedom’ causes – which almost always turned out to favour the political right.”) It’s a neat fit: an ideology that emphasises individual freedom and achievement, no matter how destructive or self-defeating, and a book that could stand as a monument to such things.

It almost sounds like I’m about to blame my inability to complete videogame challenges on them being too “right-wing”! Of course personal goals are valuable, despite how much that sounds like management-speak. The problem with the sort of tricky videogame challenges I’m talking about (the game version of “Okay, now do it using your eye sockets”) is that they aren’t fun or interesting; they make me angry and that anger is useless, impotent. At least North Korean gymnasts are working themselves to death for the pleasure of their “glorious leader”. Who or what do we do it for?


Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

3D Castlevania games have a bad reputation, so to persuade people to buy it, the makers of Lords of Shadow insist that this new 3D Castlevania is a “reboot”. Creatively, this reboot comes in the form of an arch pastiche. There is not one original idea in this entire game. Often the game feels like a parody, the type that makes jokes merely by explicit references to other art works, Scary Movie style. The dialogue is a case in point. Big name actors phone-in choice lines such as “You are the one” and “We are one and the same, you and I”. Certain boss fights are shamelessly stolen from a much better game (Shadow of the Colossus); there’s a child vampire straight out of Anne Rice; goblins and trolls from The Lord of the Rings and so on and on. The only elements that allows it to stand out come from the twentysomething year old Castlevania source, which, seeing as this only became a Castlevania game in mid-development, isn’t saying much.

It’s not all bad, though. When its not getting too new-age pretty, the scenery is very nice. The early levels have definitely been cribbed from Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, but this time the appropriation is done well and feels more like the Lord of the Rings of Peter Greenaway’s Water Wrackets than Peter Jackson’s plodding, chromophobic gloom. While I have a soft spot for ancient bogs, ruined castles and the like, there’s no denying that the art style is straight out of the most clichéd high-fantasy schlock. And because of the beefcake heroes, the violence and the general “bigger is better” mentality, the whole thing has the slick, dazzling veneer of the 1980s.

And then there’s the Belmont, wearing what looks like a clay wig on his head. He really doesn’t look good at all; his bulky armour gives him the silhouette of a fat man in a dressing gown. Above all else he’s a bore. I don’t care about him, his quest, his dead wife or his stubble. What might have been more interesting would have been to make Pan the player character. Pan is a variation on the god, taking here the form of a large yak on it’s hind legs. He’s only occasionally in the game, helping Belmont every now and then and transforming into large animals, but I was far more interested in him than the same broody player character from every game ever. He looks more interesting, he’s better designed – his bulkiness is far more convincing – and the concept of a warrior yak sorcerer fighting Dracula sells itself.

Oh yeah, Dracula. He’s in this game isn’t he? Yes and no. Without spoiling it – although anyone who cares enough about the storyline by the end would have to be the kind of person who is impressed by a light switch – the whole game is a prologue to the next one, the real Castlevania game.

Overall, changing the baroque anime style of the Metroidvania 2D platformers was a good idea, but merely swapping it for the same old high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings is a let down. The chain whip “combat cross” thing makes the fighting passably entertaining, but the real enjoyment comes from exploring the environments. The camera is controlled by the game, which is sometimes irritating, but this means that the game can hide things from you, making the discovery of hidden areas all the more satisfying. If you can ignore the “Did somebody order A LARGE HAM?” voice acting, the mind-numbingly unoriginal plot, the unattractive character models and one unforgivably dire Portal reference, then you might want to spend some time with this. It’s probably the best 3D Castlevania game, but a 3D Castlevania minus Castlevania.

Perversion of videogames

The ‘broken’ game. A commonplace phrase of games journalism. It sounds both childish (“it’s broken, Mummy!”) and strict (the idea that difference is a fault – a fault that causes the game to be useless).

What is broken in a ‘broken’ game? Usually the controls, it seems. Which is a fair complaint; if the player can’t manoeuvre the player character properly and if this causes progression through the game to be very difficult or impossible, then the player might feel that the game can’t be played and is therefore broken. But ‘broken’ is also used to describe videogames that use control systems that the player is unfamiliar with, along with other potential frustrations arising from narrative, dialogue, style, etc. What is central though, is that if a game can’t be beaten then it’s broken.

Snatches from other media: “… for he has always been like that, even as a child, during games: not exactly serious, but so committed to the game that, in the midst of battle, he would be overcome by a sort of stupor at the moment he should have won, when he had outmanoeuvred everyone else, and would find himself beaten when he was the real victor. He would then walk off on his own, apparently quite pleased and, leaning against a tree, gaze into space.” (Philippe Sollers, The Park) Once we’ve topped the leader board, what next? A zen-like contemplation? A hazy high? Post-orgasmic depression? When we set all meaning to the simplicity of winning/losing, is it surprising that we feel extreme frustration when we fail and listless when we succeed?

If the fixed videogame is where everything works towards facilitating competition, the broken videogame might be where competition doesn’t work. It would be a perversion of videogames to play for nothing, not even for the vanity of score or completion. To play with playing itself.

Film and fiction have central conflict theory and the three-act structure, music verse/chorus/verse and the orchestra. Videogames have the technobabble of ‘broken’, as if the videogame is a circuit that won’t work if all the plot points aren’t connected or if the controls are unusual. Getting frustrated with the movie/novel/song/game is always thought of as bad.

But frustration is a necessary part of learning and flirts with satisfaction. “If we want to talk of a right to pursue happiness there needs to be a prior right, as it were, to feel frustration; to be able to bear and to bear with a sense of what is lacking in one’s life. And not simply because frustration makes satisfaction possible in the way that hunger can make a meal delicious. But because frustration and satisfaction do not only or always have a logical, a causal, a pragmatic relationship with one another.” (Adam Phillips)

To pervert the dominant logic of videogames – whether as players or designers – is to allow for videogames to spread out, to gloop over even more areas of life. It’s already happened and happening, of course. Videogames took us by the hand and ran at an exhilarating speed, ran to places we’d never thought of, places from which everything looks different. This speed was like the speed of childhood, when an hour feels like an unbearably long time to wait, when everything changes in a year and every year. Now the speed is that of late adolescence, when everything is painful and boring at the same time, when everything matters, a time when suddenly you realise what and where you are and question that realisation at the same time.

So what we might need is videogames of a particular type of difficulty and frustration; not difficult in the sense of precise, learned-by-rote movements, but difficult for being outside of what we expect, frustrating for not being fixed. The common dismissal of difference as a mistake is the largest obstacle to this. A perversion of winning and pianola performances opens the way for weird, wrong, broken videogames.

Frantic illumination

In many ways we live in the flashing lights of the world of the videogame arcade; a blitz of colour and bleeps saturated with boredom. Nothing ever happens in an arcade, there’s only the electric gloss to distract your eyes, ears and mind from the emptiness of it all. It’s a world for teenagers, but now it’s not only teenagers who have nowhere to go and nothing meaningful to do. For adults, the noise and lights decorate the boredom of their homes. The more boring and more meaningless things get, the louder and flashier the special FX must become. TV, film, videogames – all could be accused of administering this sort of spectacular anaesthetic. But it’s videogames we notice now as being the numbing agent that helps us forget, the murky lake we immerse ourselves in to forget about Real Life.

Unlike videogames, TV and film have their classics and exceptions to prove they aren’t merely forms of social control. Of course there are outstanding videogames that rival art in any other media, but none have yet become part of acceptable culture, part of a canon. The call of late has been for a videogame canon, either made up of existing games or to be embarked upon after a future game scales the supposed peaks of that quintessentially canonical work of cinema; Citizen Kane.

But this begs the question – what good has come out of cinema in the last 20-odd years (the years of home consoles and PCs, of post-arcade videogames)? Like in videogames, there have been a small number of notable exceptions hidden amongst a trash vortex of the unremarkable. The majority of the canonical classics of cinema came about before the videogame crash of 1983.

TV is different, though. I’ve been interested in television recently. Older stuff, inevitably. Programmes shown on TV right now seem to be about office work more than anything else and that doesn’t appeal to me. The structure of almost every ‘reality’ programme puts contestants/workers under a small group of evaluating managers. These managers – ‘experts’ – set gruelling tasks with vague directions and demand individuals work as a team while simultaneously competing against and undermining each other. Oh and they have to win over the audience as well. The other form of ‘reality’ on TV is rolling news, which spends most of its time veering between the aesthetics of boredom and the aesthetics of rabid paranoia.

Paul Virilio talks about television “flattening all forms of representation, thanks to its abrupt use of presentation, whereby real time definitely outclasses the real space of major artworks, whether literature or the major arts.” So rather than being interested in television that flattens with “real time” – either by being recorded and/or broadcasted now – the programmes I’ve been interested in are almost all avi files or youtube videos downloaded from the internet. In fact, one can’t really call them ‘programmes’ or ‘shows’ as the time that they were programmed to be shown is often long in the past.

Managing exist in both “real time” and timeless internet (infinite) reruns, quality TV is known to reside on the US subscription channel HBO. HBO makes good, worthwhile TV programmes (or so I’m told – to be honest I’ve never seen a complete set of any of their shows as they tend to go on forever, though I catch the odd episode or series) that don’t constantly insult the viewers’ intelligence or attention span. Much of it is like an American version of the stuff the BBC used to make, before it developed its own submissive ‘special relationship’ with the culture of that country. Unafraid to be slow-paced, thoughtful and troubling, this sort of television is notable for being so easy to watch episodes of it back to back for hours on end. I would be loath to watch a three-hour film, but not three episodes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (replace with HBO show of your liking). Videogames can have the same effect, quickly eating up time at a lugubrious tempo.

What is interesting is that much of the canonical films and TV were either made in the past or by state-subsidised institutions (Europe) / subscription channels (US). To be thought of as commercially viable, TV/film/videogames have to be exciting in one way only; to work like the audio/visual equivalent of a sugar rush or a line of cocaine. To exist without this requirement needs alternative sources of funding. Videogames have come of age in a time of massive cut-backs to the welfare state, to a dismantling of the infrastructures that subsidise culture and the arts. Left to its own devices, the market throws up more and more of the same. Videogame development is expensive and when profits are your only metric of success then artistic risk-taking is not an option.

This doesn’t mean that the pace of a box-set doesn’t exist in videogames. There are overload-style games, but the big ones right now – the sandboxes especially – have as a mean tempo one of cautious calm punctuated by occasional action. They are large, long and slow. But they’re also often quite dull. Red Dead Redemption has the dignified pace of a quality box-set, but says nothing. Games like this are large in order to give players ‘value for money’. They are slow because it takes too long and costs too much to make enough stuff to fill them with. Unlike Mad Men – which is loved for the clothes and the smoking and the period references, but also for the way it explores modern feelings about advertising, propaganda, consumerism, health, sex and sexism – Red Dead is for the most part an uncanny-valley pastiche for the sake of it. The question is, if we want more than that, do we have to do more than just pay for it?

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.

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.