Hey Dylan PC Games

Spycraft: The Great Game (PC Game) [Open Letter Series] #1

[Note: This is a reply to Dylan’s opening letter]

Hello Dylan,

Lovely to be returning to this after so much time, and so many different life events!

I will start by saying that I didn’t love Hypnospace Outlaw – I know, I know, but for me, the aesthetic and mechanics were extremely grating, even though the story was strong. I had to force myself through it. But as you know, I absolutely got into Her Story, Digital: A Love Story, and I have yet to jump into Telling Lies but I look forward to it. I also come to this with the history of having played Phantasmagoria, the FMV horror game by Roberta Williams, a bunch when I was younger. I can still vividly recall some of the scarier scenes. In my later years, I can say that the great appeal of that game is that I wasn’t allowed to play it. It belonged to a friend’s mother, and we stole it from her home office. But as you know, I absolutely, positutely, *adored* Toonstruck, which was a little like Who Framed Roger Rabbit in terms of how it transitioned from live action to animation. However, the puzzles were admittedly ass, in that you often had to look stuff up, especially towards the end of the game. It has been so long since I’ve booted up Toonstruck that storywise, I can remember only the very beginning and the moment at the halfway point when the big plot twist happens which at the tender age of however young I was the first time I played it, I absolutely did not see coming and was completely floored and excited.  Thus I was pleasantly surprised by Spycraft: The Great Game because unlike Phantasmagoria or Toonstruck, it was a good game — good play, good acting, and even a decent script.

The opening immediately captured my attention. I loved the way they had the cynic giving his tell-all while the actual CIA mission statement played across the screen. I immediately felt like I could trust the developers to deliver an intelligent and compelling story. I also thought the “test mission” to choose which agent will move forward as a mechanic for introducing a tutorial was really cute. I did worry for awhile that I had to take notes, because there was a lot of information, and unlike a point and click adventure, there was no scribbling sound followed by a blinking journal icon to let me know that this was information worth storing and I could find it again in the journal. Oh my god, the first person walk made me so happy too! It just immediately reminded me of The West Wing, so that was squee the second for me (the first was the opening). I didn’t come into this with a bias about FMV games per se, because I really only had good experiences playing them as a kid, but I was wary of one particular aspect that usually gives me trouble in video games: stealth. Fair concern, right? Coz spies have to be stealthy.  But for people who are tired of getting stuck having to race to disable the thingamajig while the big red numbers tick down, the good news is this game is a lot more about information processes and a lot less about the sexy spy thing.  Like you said, more realistic than a James Bond flick. But even with the technology. A film camera with a chip in it that records low res backups is far more believable than any Bond gadget.

And at least part of the reason why it’s more realistic is because it combines actual CIA footage with 35mm film and really makes an effort to disillusion the player, including the ending that you mention. One thing I wonder is whether the plot is as involved as it is in order to portray reality as well. In a movie, I think there would be less people, and less things happening. You mention it’s nonlinear and I agree, but I wonder if it was an attempt to be nonlinear originally or an attempt to to make an unwieldy amount of plot work. Either way, it is engaging and not a downside.

The minigames situation that you refer to was a little annoying for me in the same way that minigames usually are. I am one of those party poopers who hates the arcade game that you can play inside the game you’re playing. Not the interfaces, which I often found charming, but the structure of having to complete this challenge, then “go back” to “the real game” and then repeat. But overall, I also enjoyed this game and the mechanics.

You know, I don’t really understand why it’s so intent on disillusioning the player, but I do feel like that is both what gives it its authenticity and an underlying intention. When I was in graduate school, the CIA came to a job fair and they absolutely struck me the way you describe, ” tool for people who know better than you.” But why would you build a computer game around that idea. In particular, why would you design a computer game that leaves the player particularly unlikely to value the CIA or what it does? Not that I think it’s a bad thing, but it does make me wonder hmmm, who were the developers friends with? Where did the money for this game come from? Because it is, ultimately, a political narrative, even if it’s one I agree with. But I will say I really like that aspect from a literary perspective, it’s really nice to play a spy game as a top spy who is basically forced to be a dead eyed state functionary in all the ways that really mean something and get the fire burning. In short, learning that the everyday person is more likely to have the room for bottom line ethics than a superspy. Kinda neat.


PS:  I was looking at reviews of this game on Steam and check out this quote: “I remember this game like it was yesterday. This is how I first applied to the Agency, using this game. I was one of the first recruits to be digitally recruited using the internet.” I can’t think this is remotely true, especially because it ends with him getting hired by the Wizards at Langley, but I found it hilarious nonetheless.

Media Non-Fiction

Walking With The Wounded


And you used to speak so easy

I have been listening to “Wounded” by Third Eye Blind and considering what would happen if that song came out now. A group of white men recorded a song about how the speaker would like to be intimate with a survivor, and how he wishes she could come back from the dark place she is in. The feminist critiques that spring to mind are numerous, but all revolve around the same principle – centering the white male gaze in the story of a woman who has been the victim of sexual abuse. Is it fair to say that’s what the song is about? Is that even the right question, is it fair.. does this explanation meet the guidelines of what the normative imaginary finds comfortable? Is that how you ask, “what does this song mean?”

I found this big nerd when I was looking up the lyrics to the song (because it sucks when you write a whole long thing on the basis of lyrics you completely misheard, right?), and he argues that we can expand this notion of relating to a victim to relating to the victim aspect in all people, up to and including the ways in which we are victimized or even victimize ourselves.


You’re afraid to talk to me.

Mirroring this rejection of acceptability politics (whatever the fuck) is a different, more fragile idea. I have an instinctive feeling that despite the elegance of the argument about the white male gaze, there is something fundamentally dishonest about dismissing the experience of being proximal to pain. Not only because of the emotional labor that a person does in the presence of pain, but rather because we are all in pain, and near as we are to each other, we are nearest to ourselves.

It seems to me that we live with two contradictory truths. The first is that pain is a temporary handicap that quarantines a person from serious personhood for its duration. We accommodate people in pain until they are “on their feet again,” and in return we know that when we are suffering, we have that same network to fall back on.

The second truth is that there’s nothing temporary, nor selective about living with pain; we are all doing it all of the time.  We must consider people seriously even as we accommodate them without any end point in sight, outside of death itself.

The confusing tangle this contradiction makes of what we think we might be, and the relationship of that to what we claim to be, is at the center of being in the world. I have a feeling you know what I mean, that like me, you have at least some dim awareness that there may be parts of us that we ourselves have to meet. Call it the divine notion of a soul, call it the Kantian idea of things as-they-are vs. things-as-we-see-them, call it marketing psychology, call it individuation. We try calling it a lot of things, but there’s something lost in the systematization of self-encounter.

Specifically, in the quest for the freest will, a kind of control that is naturally beyond the scope of what we are capable, but which we are assured is our right and the thing most worth fighting for, we lose the ability to recognize pain we do not want because its very presence indicates a lack of control. Perhaps it’s better to say, we refuse to recognize pain we did not make. Perhaps it’s best to say we are afraid to face reflective pain – the existential pain that reflects back from the plain of our souls, like sunshine on snow.



It’s like walking with the wounded

The point is precisely that it is a matter of course, of every day happening, that we meet each other and ourselves amidst pain. It is difficult to countenance and yet brutally true that even the best public dialog has an obscuring property, something that is left in the dark in order to highlight something else. Right now our society is dominated by conversations about power and equality and these are important ideas. What they obscure, by definition, is the socially indiscriminate — those phenomena which do not privilege anyone, cannot have anything to do with political equality or anything man made at all. Existential pain is one such thing, there is no human structure that can prevent it, and no institution that can ensure it is doled out equally.

When confronted with public debates about political privilege, I fail myself and everyone else when I do not raise the point that to not take into consideration the pain that is not created by us is to fail all of us. I don’t bring it up in part because it’s difficult to say without sounding like an utter cliche. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”


Carrying that weight way too far, concrete pulled you down so hard

It seems as though a significant percentage of Americans in post-X generations take as an assumption that political justice speaks to or solves the personal struggle of being in an unjust world. To which we have to face two different and difficult truths: the first is that the injustice in experience — when something bad happens to you or something feels bad for reasons that are not or mostly not your fault — cannot be solved by just systems, because the injustice is endemic to nature. Justice is a human notion. Older religions seemed to acknowledge this: they valued people who were clever, or survivors, over the virtuous and the kind.  It may even be true that religious notions which downplay these traits were originally politically motivated to engender subservience.  That is, not that some divine will wants people to be subservient, but rather the political machinations of man made religious institutions might want that. Either way, this leads to the second, more devastating truth: whatever conditions are responsible for the logic that social justice is the same as personal well being deprive us of what leads to genuine well being, human connection. Let me be clear: the logic of social justice works against the emotional sense of homecoming and home-being that arises from feeling close to other people.  It’s not necessarily intentional because the work of social justice often involves the deconstruction of comfort, but it can be intentional. To wit, any time anyone suggests that you should endeavor to remain actively angry all of the time, that is a rather obvious incitement to be unhappy.

That isn’t to say that social justice is meaningless or that working towards a more just society is futile, or will make everyone unhappy. Rather, it is to say that the work towards social justice is not the same as the work towards feeling at home in yourself and the world. The latter is accomplished through the familiar human connection of companionship and camaraderie. Acts of friendship as opposed to activism. If you try to turn your own personal struggles into the structures of social justice, you will do yourself a grave injustice. Give yourself permission to love across the boundaries of partisanship. I specifically mention friendship here because it is the most universal kind of love that is still particular in each instance — no two friendships are the same, and people who are very different from each other can develop close friendships. Friendship is to homecoming what partisanship is to representing.  Right? So your political views speak to what you represent, and your friendships speak to the home you build yourself in the society where you are.

It’s easy to silo this distinction — we get personal satisfaction from friends and societal well being from politics — and call it a day, but that is to overlook an extremely important point, which is that existential pain is mixed up in both struggles, the one for belonging and the one for justice. It might seem like it should follow that a just society relieves existential pain by literally making it easier to exist. But ease is not the axis upon which we tend to value our existential being. How we do measure that value is complex but what is unquestionably true is that it it is bound up with the feeling that we are, personally, recognized — that we are known — and simultaneously that we can recognize, that we can know others. This kind of personal connection cannot be replaced with political solidarity, and when we try to do so, we build into the fabric of our society a tendency towards carrying pain around that we are not allowed to claim because it would be “unjust.”

For example, it is unjust for the speaker in “Wounded” to center his own desire to be close to a woman who has been victimized instead of centering her needs. That is the political read, the personal one will seem intuitively obvious to us: he was close to someone who was hurt badly and whose relationship with him has been hurt as a result, and that sucks for him, too. Both of these reads highlight something important about experience, both are methods for approaching pain. It seems as though it is taken as an assumption that personal happiness is secondary to, or less important than, social justice. This view offers us a false dichotomy, it is not one or the other, it cannot be. Achieving justice is important. Achieving happiness, where happiness is defined as a sense of belonging and comfort with oneself, is not the same thing and often requires us to see past narratives of political privilege and power, to validate the battle each person is fighting.


Out there with the wounded, we’re missing you.

Having established, I hope, that it’s okay to be in pain, it’s okay to recognize that pain, and it’s okay to recognize each other’s pain, regardless of any kind of question of justice, I think there is something offered here that can be taken as a comfort. I mention this because I understand that stepping back and saying, hey hold on a minute, this pain of being is endemic to my experience, it is not going to go away when we achieve political equality, is, in a way, a little bit crap. Maybe it’s not ideal that pain is something we carry around all the time, and maybe it sucks that it turns out the answer isn’t solidarity, or worse, that there may not be an “answer.” Not countering, but possibly altering our perspective on the notion of unavoidable, unending pain — that is a condition of existential being — is an idea I have that we naturally seek and share our existential concerns as a way of building intimacy between each other. Even though there is an aspect of homecoming that is coming home to the pain that perhaps was obfuscated or avoided via the rhetoric of politics, that same pain can be the catalyst to its opposite, the feeling that you are, without a doubt, exactly where you’re supposed to be.

It resonates with my experiences and understanding of the world to say that there is a way in which covering up or not acknowledging that kind of personal pain not only makes you lonelier but actually contributes to a general sense of fragmentation among the people you come into contact with. To wit, when you first realize that there are certain things you can’t say or believe, certain ways you cannot be, if you want to be loved in any situation, it’s going to be alienating. Sometimes that’s unavoidable, because every person really does have their boundaries, of course, but there’s a particular interaction in which it is clear that one person has bought into a set of ideas that he or she is repping — not a case of personal discomfort but rather a form of apologetics, “I refuse to meet you where you are because I have to justify my political ideology.” This moment is fraught intellectually as the focal question arises: why are we attempting to replace the personal experience of homecoming with the political experience of solidarity? But it’s also fraught in the basic, emotional way that a rejection is always fraught: “you can’t come in, you’re not welcome here” is a message that leaves the people who receive it more alone in their battles. Again, sometimes this rejection is necessary, and when that is the case, it is ultimately for the good, but where it is because we are rejecting emotional honesty as a whole, it only creates more fragmentation, more alienation, more loneliness. And we notice, whether we realize it or not, and we miss those potential connections that never had a chance to be.


Well I never claimed to understand what happens after dark
But my fingers catch the sparks at the thought of touching you
When you’re wounded

We are all in the dark, we are all wounded, we are all reaching for each other.

Hey Dylan Media

Podcast Pondering (Is this Part 4? I think so)

Hi Dylan!
Let me start with a quick PSA: there have been many a technology issue as of late. We were fine playing “Salt,” but then video chat (which seems relevant) took a dump on us. So there’s an outstanding question of whether we can do a podcast. Caveats include the fact that I now have access to a separate space in Manhattan, because as of this weekend, Neal (who I’m not sure I’ve ever formally introduced on this blog, but who is my boyfriend of 7 months) will have a place in Kips Bay with a home office and that we haven’t tested a wired connection on my end yet. That said, I will proceed with this post as if it is happening for sure, and answer your questions about content.

In addition to your outlined areas, which were current events and media, I think we can add “topics that Dylan and Joanna talk about a lot,” such as the relationship between social technology and social relationships, Reasons why All of Our Friends Are Wrong About Politics, Where Did All The Good Journalism Go, etc.  From an organizational perspective, having discrete, ordered ideas for each episode (episode?) is probably good practice, but I don’t think we necessarily need to be extremely formal in presentation, we can transition however seems easiest as we go.  I do like the idea of episodic themes, but themes that run the gambit from, say, “topics that start with the letter ‘A,'” to say, “mortality and transition.” Which is to say, I don’t think we need a theme for the themes.

I think lists are a good example of editorial content and more of that would be fun — an unsolicited advice section, a “mail” section, perhaps we can finish off with a playlist of three songs put together by you (this is really more your cup of tea than mine) each episode. One thing is upon occasion I think it would be fun to feature our friends and guests as they relate to things we are excited about.

I think the main challenge is going to be coming up with a back end structure. Do we, for example, want to have many possible modules, and do five of them or three of them per episode? Do we want to make sure to have exactly the same modules? I’m using “module” here to refer to a type of section. So “lists” would be one module. Is it: Intro > Module 1 > Module 2 > Every Episode Thing > Module 3 > Playlist, or some variant thereof?

Titles are hard, but we came up with one related to our tech frustrations recently that I liked a lot, but now can’t remember. Do you remember it?

Please forgive the lateness of this post, things have been crazy and I caught a breather today due to an unexpected snow day. I expect them to slow down in April after I get back from Chicago, because Neal being in the city means that my entire weekend isn’t automatically swallowed every week.

At any rate, I will see you in the usual place at the usual time, and we can sail around a bit.

Yours in Podcasting,


Film and TV Media

A Wrinkle in Time [Film]

[SPOILERS for A Wrinkle in Time, if you haven’t read the book already]

Meg, the protagonist in “A Wrinkle in Time.”

A Wrinkle in Time, the film adaptation of the novel by the same name, suffered in a few ways that are normally fatal: the dialogue hit viewers right over the head – it was plain awful by any adult standards; there was a love interest who was entirely useless except for the fact of his being a love interest; there was even the occasional overacting. Yet, I love this movie. Not only that, but the more time that passes, the more I love it.

Other authors have suggested that folks like me, who read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle at the appropriate age would feel a kinship with this movie that would confuse others. This is certainly true – children’s fiction of that era dealt with notions of good and evil in a particular, recognizable way that is comforting in these troubling times. Yet, this does not account for the whole of it by a long shot.

There was another element to that movie that not only was common among children’s literature of the time but also true of people – a way of talking about feelings that did not need any larger justification beyond their own existence to be recognized. The protagonist, Meg, is angry and sad because her father disappeared four years ago. She causes a lot of problems for the people who love her, because she is unhappy with herself and unhappy with her life. But while we recognize the reasons why she is mean and uncooperative, her actions are not depicted as sympathetic. In fact from a purely sympathetic perspective, her brother Charles Wallace and her mother appear in a much better light: their missteps, even when they make them, are always in service to others, they’re always clear attempts at doing the right thing. Not so with Meg.

Yet Meg is unapologetic. She doesn’t claim (and the movie doesn’t claim on her behalf) legitimacy within any sort of political context. She doesn’t “get to be” angry because she’s black, or a girl, or from a “broken home.” She gets to be angry because she’s angry. That’s it. Get over it. As a protagonist in a children’s movie fighting evil, Meg is an antihero. She’s not in this thing to save the universe.

In another climate, this might be unremarkable or perhaps — as I found the book when I read it as a kid — even disappointing. But as it stands there is something unusual about the emotional honesty in this movie, and that honesty carries the film. I take the motto, “be a warrior,” to be more than just “be the change you want to see in the world,” I see it as also “be the antihero you need to be in the world.” Don’t put any effort into justifying who and what you are via some social-moral principle. Redirect that energy into settling into yourself. Not, it turns out, an easy task. Beyond the difficulty in the effort itself, there’s the difficulty in defending the effort, because people who cannot sit well with themselves cannot let other people sit well with themselves either. I think this is how emotional self-deception is propagated, and this is the reason why. As soon as we say “it’s okay to have the feelings you have just because you have them,” the administration of peoples’ insides falls apart as a structure, leaving in its rubble people who aren’t ready to advocate for themselves on the basis of themselves.

“I give you the gift of your faults.” Perhaps the most relevant quote from the movie, A Wrinkle in Time gives viewers permission to remember what it is like to have jurisdiction over their insides. See this one, and don’t be too judgmental because you need to remember. We all do.


Building a New Podcast, Part 2: A Reflection on Everyone Else

Hey Dylan,

Very much appreciated your thoughts, in particular:

“In my mind, this podcast will not just be a window into our friendship, but a celebration of friendship writ large. American society is weirdly myopic when it comes to human relations; we care a lot about who is having sex with whom, and care about blood relations, but give little weight to friendships (for proof of this, open up People or any of its knockoffs and see how many of the stories are about celebrity friends vs. celebrity lovers). I think we agree that this is a shame, and I hope our banter will inspire an appreciation of just how wonderful a good friend can be.”

I think when we do talk about friendship, it tends to be in extremes- “there for me when I experienced the world as a terrible place,” in some way or another. Yet so much of how we live is not dramatic. Most days are not deaths, cancer diagnoses, break ups, war.  Maybe some other conditions: hunger, anxiety, microbetrayals of ourselves and others. If you ask me, we might need friendship to get through the tough times, but that’s not why we like friendship — I mean no one likes going through a rough patch, friends not withstanding.

The butterflies associated with romance are also arbiters of unpredictable moments, like Pan or the Trickster, they can only be trusted in a very abstract way- the conviction that butterflies are good for a person, in the long run. Friendship is not this way, it is reliable, it has the precious property of premising itself on the recognition of one another for no magazine reason, simply for the value of it in itself.

A podcast about friendship highlights the best parts of friendship: the easy camaraderie, the time before it becomes a reference, a signifier but rather while it is still happening. Live Action Friendship. Replayable LAF. Humor in its moment, not bogged down by what it all means. The experience of closeness, as opposed to the signaling of closeness.

This is actually a tall order. Most podcasts don’t get it right, even some of the most popular ones. Most of these talk podcasts kinda sound like Charming Chads Chatting, which is okay for about a minute. And how do we present JP as both the ludicrous thing that it is and also the sheer wonderfulness of it?

How does a podcast stay loyal to its truth? Not easily. That is our challenge.

Thinkin’ thinky things,

PS: What the eff are we gonna call it, anyway?

Media Non-Fiction

Twitter, Speech, and Flame War

Lately, as many of you who follow me on the Facebox are aware, I have been spending a lot of time with the alt right on Twitter. I made an alt account just to chill with them for awhile and see what the what is. I’m learning a lot, but one of the things I’m learning that is unrelated to political content is that Twitter is actually design for flame wars more than anything else.

In the first place, they don’t ban IP addresses. One user I came across is on his 245th (yeah, two hundred and fourty fifth) account because he doxes people (in retaliation, he claims).

In the second place, it’s possible to read the tweets of someone you blocked. That is, you can block a particular user and still follow them, but only by visiting their personal twitter timeline (not on your feed). I imagine Twitter’s line of thought was if, say, you’re being doxed or otherwise harassed, you might want to block the person but still be able to see what they’re planning/doing for safety purposes. But this lends itself perfectly to spying and it can turn into an obsession pretty easily if you’re at all fragile, which we must assume that people blocking other people already might be.

In the third place, Twitter instituted a 12 hour suspension rule, where it tells you that you have a have a 12 hour countdown which will begin after you delete the tweets it points out to you as violating policy. This rule is designed for people who break Twitter’s posting policy with one or two tweets but not as an account generally. However, the paternalistic ritual of making users delete their tweets is bound to humiliate a statistically significant percentage of folks and they’ll come back 12 hours later angrier than they left.

In the fourth place, and maybe this is so obvious, it gets overlooked: when you limit a post to 140 characters, you limit the possible depth of the conversation.

The combination of these things: permabans that can be gotten around easily, blocks that aren’t two-way, hand slapping with temporary suspensions, and the extreme limit on length makes it perfect for jabbing, and provides the incentive to jab, too.

It’s the perfect flame war machine. It’s beautiful in a sadistic way.

Hey Dylan PC Games

Bernband (PC Game) [Open Letter Series] #2

[This is the third letter in a four part series about the PC game Bernband.
1) My first letter.
2) Dylan’s reply.
3) This post.
4) Dylan’s final reply, finishing the series.

Hey Dylan,

I think there are a couple of reasons going in that I felt like there might be some reaction from the NPCs, which is notably different than interaction. The first is that voyeurism, as an activity in the world generally, is almost entirely dependent on the observed reacting to their surroundings and each other. Without those features, it is exactly like the Bernband experience – like watching a computer program repeat processes over and over.

The second is that while obviously a lot higher budget than Bernband, there are indeed plenty of games that feature NPCs with a higher reaction level to the in-game world than the NPCs in Bernband. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of all sorts of multiplayer voyeurism games (and I don’t mean that in the dirty sense, although obviously that is also a possibility).  But as a single player game, I think the production value would be too high for the niche market it served. I  think it’s literally possible to make an interesting one,  I just don’t think the industry would support it.

I can completely understand the mapping nostalgia. However, probably unsurprisingly, I had no love for it the first time around and I have no real interest in it now. I think mapping is fun in a weird literary way, never in a literal “figure out the map of this level” way, though.

For me, alienation is not an issue one way or another. It’s not a lack of interaction – that is, it’s not that I can’t interact with the NPCs, it’s that the NPCs are not convincingly reacting to their surroundings. Moreover, it is the very notion that the people the voyeur watches have agency that makes voyeurism so interesting. The better AI gets, the less it seems like a program is controlling it, right? However, the idea of Bernband is still very strong, and the cute moments the game offers are not to be missed. I would call Bernband “heartwarming,” if not necessarily super engaging from a voyeuristic perspective.


Hey Dylan PC Games

Bernband (PC Game) [Open Letter Series] #1

Hey Dylan,
Bernband was a short, interesting exploratory game. For readers who don’t know, it’s a short game by Tom that drops you into an alien world (they’re called the Pff, so good) where you can run around and watch aliens be aliens. That’s the whole game. I will say upfront that there were some perspective issues for me (motion sickness), and once or twice, I ended up in places I couldn’t find my way out of.

This is the closest thing to a literal walking simulator I’ve ever played, and as such, I spent a chunk of time determining the limits — I jumped on tables aliens were sitting at, I jumped in front of cars, I jumped up on the bar, etc. The aliens ignored me entirely. I think “ghost simulator” might be the better label.

I am a voyeur at heart, I could watch forever. But a distinct advantage to real life watching is that it’s less algorithmic. While I love the idea behind Bernband, and even the name, I think this is the variety of game that would be almost impossible to do well: it would have to be high budget for a very niche audience. It makes up for the fatal flaw of being rather obviously computational by being both short and free (or, I guess, exactly as long as you want it to be).  I notice the game developer comments that it’s family friendly, and I like to think children would have a different experience than I did, one in which the Pff really seemed quite alien.

Nonetheless, the game is ambitious both in terms of “what is art/what is a game” and also in terms of world building. I’m glad I played.


[This is the first in a four part series:
Dylan’s reply to this letter.
My reply to Dylan.
Dylan’s reply, finishing the series.]

Hey Dylan PC Games

Longest Night and Lost Constellation (PC Games) [Open Letter Series] #2

Hey Dylan,
A libguide, blog post, or other resource that compiled and categorized a list of high quality, free to play games would be an excellent resource for the public and also for other librarians! That sounds like a great project, if you ever find the time for it. I feel like Facebook has been on the front lines of taking legitimate media (news, games) and turning them into illegitimate media (fake news, “free to play” games). This would indicate that there is something about marrying social relationships and technology that produces one dimensional experiences.

Anyhow, to get back to the games, I do agree that ambiguous, less trope-tastic dialog is certainly more realistic. I also often prefer ambiguous spaces to ones where the agenda (moral or otherwise) is obvious. However, I personally don’t use the word “warm” to describe “ambiguity,” (my word) or  “comfort in discomfort,” (your words). I notice a contrast in these games, where the graphics and interface tend to be warm, there is a warm aesthetic, and this serves to highlight the dialog’s unusual ambiguity even more. But that’s not a bad thing, it gives the game some character.

I understand and agree completely with your commentary on AAA games. I also think they’re just not even trying to reach the same narrative level that indie games depend on. Their audience doesn’t expect it. Someone recently told me that Lin Manuel-Miranda, the writer and star of the popular Broadway show “Hamilton,” once told a reporter that he found himself in an unsavory neighborhood in Miami, and used knowledge he gained from hours of playing GTA to navigate his way out. Regardless of all the ways in which the whole statement might be a problem, it indicates that someone who is very interested in creating interesting narrative experiences for audiences is also very interested in consuming uninteresting narrative experiences. It may be that the AAA games are actually filling a niche and not only for a specific type of gamer, but for the multifaceted gamer that likes both kinds of games.

Neither of these games (Longest Night or Lost Constellation) were deeply immersive for me personally,  so I found myself waiting a lot,  but that is not unusual for me with video games. It is the rare game that I play for hours without noticing. As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that I am able to accommodate fewer and fewer kinds of clumsiness in media. There are books I read when I was younger that I loved and still love due to who I was at the time that I read them, but that I would not be able to read now.  There are books that are coming out now that are like those books and I can read maybe one in ten of them. Games, however, are moving in the opposite direction. As time goes by, there are more and more games that meet the higher standards I have for media consumption.

Re pics – the software which periodically takes screencaps automatically sounds ideal. Definitely let’s figure that out!


[This is the third in a four part series, as follows:
 1) Dylan’s opening letter.
2) My reply to Dylan’s first letter.
3) Dylan’s reply
4) This post, finishing the series.


Hey Dylan PC Games

Longest Night and Lost Constellation (PC Games) [Open Letter Series] #1

[Author’s note: this is the second post in a four-part series. This is in reply to Dylan’s letter. You can see his response to this post here, and my final reply, finishing the series, here.]

Longest Night and Lost Constellation are both games by Infinite Fall.

Hey Dylan,

I definitely agree with you that there is a layered mythological story here. At almost every access point (story, aesthetic, interface), there seems to be a one dimensional surface that is representative of a lot of stuff going on beneath it, which is true of myth.  One of the roles of myth, both in these games, and generally, I think, is to be just this side of comfortable. That is, to be familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. That’s what stuck out about these games for me, the side scroller interrupted by alarming discussions of mortality that are actually inside a bedtime story for a child that is explicitly anti-sentimentality. You ask, “and what is it about these games that makes them feel so…warm-hearted in an often cold, mechanistic medium?” I am not sure either is true in my own experience — these games do not strike me as warm-hearted, nor do I find the medium particularly cold (although mechanistic, certainly).  What makes these games unique, I think, is the way they resist tropes. Another series of games that has done this is The Longest Journey/Dreamfall/Dreamfall Chapters. In both cases, the games fit a certain type of expectation: heavy on narrative containing recognizable human themes. But they also go sideways when you think they’re going to go forward. They’re ambiguous and in my own opinion, more real than likable, more nuanced than warm-hearted.

To get into each game:
The conversation in Longest Night was interesting to me, but I admit I did have a little bit of that “walking simulator” (obviously not with actual walking, but “playing” a game that’s really watching a game) feel. I think for me, it was about re-configuring my expectation. Omniscience is totally a playable possibility, but I have a certain anxiety if I’m waiting to be asked to do something, and it took me a while to realize that wasn’t super happening. I completely agree the dialog was believable. Above all, what made it feel most authentic is that we were simultaneously omniscient, and yet not, the inside jokes remaining inside. And this is how we are, really: very good at developing processes for probing the outsides, very hard to really get into the insides of so many phenomena. That translates really well into a conversation between teenagers, because adolescence is really all about that, how to process insides.

Lost Constellation was a lot more game-y, and it was also beautiful. A petty complaint of mine is that the dialog system is too time consuming. I am a fast reader and prefer an interface that matches my natural mental speed, or at least can adapt to it. I’m really coming to appreciate the side scroller though, in terms of being simple upfront but capable of producing many layers of narrative. Counter-intuitively, fancier games like Skyrim, for example, sometimes lack narrative layers simply because of the fancier interface. That isn’t to say the fancier games are worse or are not doing something right, but rather it’s a thing I’ve come to appreciate about side scrollers, and I’m a person who isn’t super into platformers, as you know. I thought the death preamble (pre-woods) was a little too long, but otherwise, I found the story very compelling. I’m curious to know how you found the pacing in Lost Constellation. 

Lastly, just a quick note to say that I really appreciated your contextualization of this game within the “free, distributed, indie game” culture, if just because we so often think of free-to-play games as being poorly designed at best, and scams at worst. But as we recently discussed, there does seem to me to be a niche for a kind of making and sharing of content that is unrelated to money, and more related to something like street art: the sharing of complicated experience via media but not in any kind of tradition so much as for the human by the human. Approachable art, perhaps.


PS: I don’t usually take pic caps in story games because it destroys the immersion for me. In this case, I didn’t go back and take any because time was too short.