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.


Humanities & Social Thought Non-Fiction Uncategorized

The Administration of Identity Vs. The Experience of Identity (A Series, Part 3 of 4)

Image result for define "trigger warning"

Triggering: Preventing normal function by causing a person to relive past trauma.

I have been engaging in the ongoing debate around trigger warnings in a very limited way for a straightforward, if judgmental reason: I do not think the debate is being had on behalf of the ideas it tries to claim jurisdiction over (yes, I know, I really like using the word “jurisdiction.” Mainly because it has the word “dick” in the middle). There is a simple solution to the question of trigger warnings, and the fact that we have not embraced it seems to me to suggest that we’re in this thing for the wrong reasons to begin with. Let’s take a look.

The question is, purportedly, whether or not we should institutionalize the use of trigger warnings by creating a policy at the institutional level that promotes their use in the classroom. We will start with the assumption that there is nothing inherently wrong with trigger warnings, because the people who argue that the world is simply an unsafe place and folks need to learn how to live in an unsafe world are obviously correct, but are not really saying anything about trigger warnings. Some people drink tea as a coping mechanism and you don’t hear anyone saying that people do not deserve to drink tea because they should just get used to an unsafe world.  The fact of the unsafe world is the premise for the trigger warnings, not the argument against them.

The argument allegedly for trigger warning policy cannot be pinned down because the various strands contradict each other:
– Some supporters claim that trigger warnings are a coping mechanism for people who experience PTSD, and are only legitimate within the context of a psychiatric diagnosis. In this case,  in order to be entitled to trigger warnings, you also need what is essentially a ‘doctor’s note.’ Moreover, it is understood that the trigger warning allows the student to engage with the material in a different way that is better for him or her, but does not excuse the student from engaging with the material.
– Some supporters claim that teachers or professors should ask at the beginning of the semester for students to provide introductory information, including what, if any trigger warnings they would like.  Detractors assert that students should not feel obligated to reveal any of their past traumas to teachers/professors. It is not clear whether or not, in this case, students should be allowed to  simply not engage with the material.  The definition of what is a trauma, and what constitutes coping with it is entirely decided by the teacher and the student in this case.
– Finally, I have seen a few arguments that support trigger warnings for the express purpose of allowing students to avoid engaging with material they might find triggering. It should be noted again that “triggering” does not mean “uncomfortable” or “upsetting,” but rather, “preventing a person from normal function.”

The argument allegedly against trigger warning policy is that any policy which encouraged trigger warnings would have to have a definition of what constitutes “triggering,” and gives easy rise to institutional bias or discrimination.  Also, frequently, the “unsafe world, get over it” argument that I rejected above. There is something to be said for the fact that universities are explicitly places for freedom of ideas, including offensive ones, but not much — we live in a time when pursuing education past high school is mandatory for many people, and it’s plain silly to say that people who have to be there have to be traumatized. This argument carries into the individual classroom as well: either students have total authority over deciding which content they will or will not engage in on the basis of their own past traumas, they have a doctor’s note, or the teacher ends up having to make a call about what is “legitimately” traumatic.

The trouble across all these arguments for and against is that it is difficult to design a system for the administration of trigger warnings, less than whether or not trigger warnings are in and of themselves worthwhile. The solution to this problem strikes me as pretty obvious. Simply create a policy which requires annotated syllabi. Providing small summaries of what to expect in the media that students are required to engage with can only help them contextualize their work for the purposes of the class. And, by default, such a syllabus would also solve the problem of “trigger warnings” by offering short summaries of the content the class will be working with. Not to mention, a good percentage of my professors would have been better professors if they’d visualized the class well enough in advance to know what we were going to be reading (GUYS COME ON THAT IS [PART OF] YOUR JOB). Given the straightforwardness of this solution, one wonders why it’s still an argument at all. There shouldn’t be anything fundamentally controversial about summarizing. Yawn.

So the question I have is why are we still arguing about this? And the answer that I come up with is: People are arguing about experience of identity, instead of the administration of identity. It doesn’t matter what you personally think a traumatic experience should or should not be and it doesn’t matter what you personally think feeling safe should or should not be like. I mean — it matters — but not to this debate and not to questions about categories of identity. We can all agree that no one should be subject to whatever it is they experience as trauma or lack of safety. We can also probably mostly agree that the fact that no one should doesn’t ever mean no one will. Therefore, there is no actual debate about the worth of trigger warnings, because even if they’re only effective a small percentage of the time, that’s still a small percentage of a problem we all recognize being solved. But when we argue about the experience of identity, it becomes a lot more personal: suddenly it’s about who gets to call their own experiences legitimate, which is not an okay position to be put in or to put someone else in, at all, ever.



The Child at the Wordletting

Preparing for an event of this size was an ongoing effort and was a key part of how they kept unemployment down in Kioskope. Accommodating a global audience required specific kinds of architectural engineering, of course, but there was also a lot of necessary unskilled labor. Andrew Sartrovsky spent most of his time at the factory that made the small cushions for the seats. Andrew managed the stuffing of the cushions. The cushions themselves were an integral part of the ritual.

When the Wordletting was originally decreed a state mandated holiday, there were protests, of course. In the famous case of Alberg V. United Earth Confederacy, it was held that requiring ritual performance did not violate the Precepts of Freedom so long as no person was asked to commit to any shared set of ideals. In fact, the judges determined that the Wordletting played an important role in civic wellbeing: through this outlet, the good people of the world could dispose of the irrational anxiety that there was some kind of larger, inherent structure which threatened Freedom. State scientists had shown long ago that in fact, the individual and his property were the necessary entities of the only naturally arising social order that could be objectively understood as Free. From those studies came the realization that in order to capitalize on that knowledge, and produce a conglomerate that represented the Precepts of Freedom, some kind of intervention would be required to counteract the evolutionary glitch which lent the illusion that emancipation could be achieved communally. This was a social construct, the sociologists explained, that was used to justify particular kinds of governance, including laws that were not fundamentally about simple safety, but instead focused on some kind of sumtotal object. Such an object was strenuously objected to by articulate statesmen, as it required both a type of identification with and contribution to a system that was not entirely within the domain of the individual: it was an obvious threat to the Precepts of Freedom. An intervention to deconstruct the illusion of society was designed by a committee of experts, and the fiftieth anniversary of the first Wordletting was fast approaching.

And that was why Sartrovsky’s job was so important. Of course one of the basic necessities of the ritual was the “soft seat,” a feature to induce a particular mood. It was discovered through psychological testing that soft seating promoted the act of sharing, through verbal discourse, the porous state of one’s proper domain. Of course, outside the Wordletting, this was an act of treason, and that is why there was only one factory for seat cushions, which worked year round to create enough cushions for the event. It was also important that every material used in the creation of the cushions be biodegradable. Ownership of seat cushions was known to be a danger to the individual, and so the post ceremony cushion burial was also within the purview of Sartrovsky’s employer.  Sartrovsky’s closest ally, Nicholas Thurt, worked one factory over where a certain amount of specialized skill was required to make instruments for producing musical tones which had been revealed by both hard and soft sciences to also help induce Expressions of Porousness.
Sartrovsky and Thurt had been best allies for a few years, ever since their numbers had come up together for the Practice of Continuity. Each month, by lottery, a certain number of men were called to equip the scientists with the necessary means for reproducing the individual. This, referred to as the Practice of Continuity, was a civic duty that was understood as both proper and tedious. Egg extraction, which women were obligated to participate in, was a far more invasive procedure and was thus only done once every three years, and the gap was widening as scientists began to develop storage that could keep the harvested eggs productive for longer periods of time. Nine months later, as mandated by the State, Sartrovsky and Thurt returned to the scientists. Both Sartrovsky and Thurt received a female child. Thurt’s was called Yani and Sartrovsky’s was called Anna. The children were pre-named and randomly assigned within the cohort of men. For the first six years of their life, they were kept away from women, as it had been shown that interaction with women at a young age can result in a tendency towards Expressions of Porousness. The women had a far more important role. At the end of those six incubatory years, it was the women who taught the children how to bleed their bodies, and how to do this with the stoicism the procedure required.

It was determined by state scientists to be only natural, in the way of eating and breathing, that there should be a regular practice for limiting the porousness of individuals and preserving and defending the Precepts of Freedom. Early on, scattered experiments indicated that brief physical pain produced a certain chemical reaction which could replace the treasonous act of the verbal Expression of Porousness. Studies like these had to spend a long time in committee of course, but eventually it was decisively concluded that small cuts made with fine blades in the morning, evening and as necessary, significantly reduced the likelihood of verbal Expressions of Porousness. Among the children, the cutting was something that had to be learned. Crying was, of course, strictly prohibited, except at the Wordletting, but children under six were not considered subject to that law. After the age of six, they went to the women for training, and those few who were unable to learn the proper passivity necessary were taken care of in a quick and painless manner by the same scientists who had produced them. Over time, certain traits were discovered among the specimens that produced anti-passive neurological disorders.

Yani had one such disorder, and had been disposed of in this manner prescribed. Sartrovsky knew that Thurt was a good man and therefore would hardly be bothered by this. Yet at the Wordletting last year, Sartrovsky couldn’t help but notice that Thurt had cried when the children had passed them during the procession into the Soft Seats. Obviously, crying was allowed at the Wordletting, but it was inadvisable to focus tears on any specific topic, as that sometimes seemed to induce anti-passivity behavior in the coming year. Still, Sartrovsky had seen with satisfaction that his best ally Thurt had completed another year with a perfect Cutting record and no citations for or warnings to do with porousness at all. On the evening of the fiftieth Wordletting, Sartrovsky remained confident in his choice of best ally.

There is a room with cushions and soft light. Music flows from reed instruments that do not have long lifespans and voices sing as if they have been waiting for release.  The room is beautiful, but Anna doesn’t know the word beautiful, so she calls it overflowing. This is her first Wordletting, now that she’s seven, now that she’s graduated top of her class in Cutting.  Everyone is happy with her and she doesn’t tell anyone that at night she thinks of her friend Yani and cries. Once she saw Thurt cry, too, but she doesn’t tell anyone that, either.

Anna has a memory in this room of Yani singing a song, when they were small. The song made her feel like she was overflowing, but now it makes her feel like she is drowning. For a while, she expected to see Yani in some places, but they were empty places now. Sartrovsky had explained to her that expectation was not real, it was better to use predictability. Sartrovsky said that he could predict for sure that Yani wasn’t coming back.

The music gets softer as the women and men in robes and masks come in, line up across the front of the room, and face the United Global Confederacy. Everyone is there. Nothing is televised, nothing is recorded. Everyone in the whole world is in Kioskope today.

The people settle into their soft seats, and the ritual begins.

“We are here now,” sing the masked performers.
“We are here together,” respond the people. Anna feels as though strings of lights are turning on inside her, from her toes, up up up!
And then in a low voice, the chanting:

I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely I am lonely

The chanting grows louder and louder and when the cacophony is so loud that no individual can be heard within it, the lights go up bright, and the people begin to wordlet. Anna hears people talk about their feelings in rushed whispers:
“The room at home is cold, and the food is meager, and I don’t always want to get up in the morning.”
“I remember a poem my grandmother wrote.”
“I have seen the sunlight through the window and thought about ephemeral things.”
“Sometimes I want to be touched.”
“I practice hugging my pillow, so I don’t forget. How to hug.”
“The best joke I heard this year goes like this: why did the chicken cross the road? Don’t call it a road, we’ve never built anything together.” Anna thinks this is a strange joke and looks over. She is surprised to see that it is Thurt. He isn’t talking about his feelings, and Anna guesses this is because he is like her, he wordlets in his pillow at night, when he can’t take it anymore. Anna guesses this because she knows that Thurt misses Yani as much as she does, she knows that Thurt is the only person who knew Yani like she did. Thurt looks at Anna, Anna is overcome by a strange sensation and she awkwardly wraps her arms around Thurt. Thurt looks surprised – he knows that no one has taught Anna how to hug. Then he realizes that the room is watching them. They are in trouble. Thurt closes his eyes, and decides not to make the same mistake twice. He puts his arms around the girl Anna and whispers, “it’s okay. I miss her too.” The confessions have stopped. The chanting dies down. Everyone is looking at the man and the child. Sartrovsky thinks about wringing his hands and decides it’s too dangerous. There is utter silence. Somewhere, some official person with an official title attempts to reinstate discipline, pulls a plug, and the lights go out. It is in this total darkness, where no can see, that certain things become clear. People begin to reach for each other.