It’s interesting what you say about the (lack of) critiques – I didn’t know much coming into this other than that Spiritfarer was generally liked and that it was a gentle game about dying. But I quickly found the narrative to be nearly nonexistent, a byproduct of the mechanics which were dumbed down on purpose. Now if they hadn’t been, I probably wouldn’t have been able to play it at all. I know I said earlier that I thought the game should either be better written or more mechanically normal (a platformer for people who like platformers) and that I suspected it would be easier to make a good platformer that has some reflection on death than a well written game about death with some simple platformer mechanics. To put it even more succinctly, the game doesn’t work for me as a narrative one, and there are two main reasons why.
The first is that the writing is spotty — some of it is good, some of it is moving, and most of it ranged from okay to not so great. There is nothing that makes up for bad writing in a narrative game, even if it was the most visually stunning game to ever exist, it would still be tough to sit through. This was intended to be a narrative game and doesn’t have another basis on which to think about it really — it obviously shouldn’t be measured as a platformer. That said, I feel like if you made an exceptionally good platformer about death and took out most of the platforming, this is exactly what you would have left. My dad used to say that he wished scifi tv shows didn’t use camaraderie as a set up for an emergency interruption, he wanted whole shows of spaceship crews just hanging out with each other. But if those tv shows actually did that (rather than writing new shows), they would suddenly seem extremely flat, like spiritfarer does for me — its missing at least half of itself.
The second reason is that the game isn’t really about death, it’s about regret, but it doesn’t know that. When the characters of this game talk about death, and being ready for death, they talk about all the things they meant to do or be, that they didn’t accomplish or didn’t have time for. But death is more than just a finish line on your endeavors, it’s the end of consciousness as we know it, without any hard evidence to suggest that there is something afterward. What it means to deal with death is not just letting go of your life’s work, and it isn’t just about letting go of the physical act of living, it is about ceasing to be. This game doesn’t really know what it means to consider the gravity of death and death’s inevitability. That suggests to me that the writers are either literally young or young-in-experience.
But the game does offer a reflection on what it means both to outlive someone else and to let go of an identity or idea of self. This game is strongest when the answers aren’t satisfying, which happens most often at the end of each character’s time with the player, when they’re getting ready to cross over and thinking back. Most of the time, their conclusions are not definitive, they’re uncertain. The only character who speaks with moral clarity in the game is Stanley, and his is the moral clarity of a child, very recognizable and a rare example of good writing in Spiritfarer. I also love the sound design in the game, even the repeat sound bites like Albert’s laugh. As I said earlier, I especially love all the sounds associated with the snake, who I believe is named Summer.
The premise for this game is really strong, but the narrative is lacking because the character development is lacking. The character development is lacking — in my opinion — because as it stands, this is a platformer with the platforming removed, and not a narrative game, not really. That’s why the minigames don’t connect to the narrative core; there is no narrative core, there’s just a great premise. In Stardew Valley, the narrative core is really strong; it isn’t just about the character’s stories and the relationship building, it’s also about this idea that you were working in a cubicle and you gave it all up for a plot of land. It’s about how you contribute to the town and how the characters respond to your contribution. The narrative is tied in directly to the management; the way you manage your resources affects the whole community and even many of the mods reflect that theme of connecting your own management with the larger story of Stardew Valley (the community). But not many people would call Stardew Valley a narrative game, they’d call it what you do — “a fleshing of the world.” But of course it is narrative elements that flesh the world, and the mechanics of the game give the player the opportunity to find those narrative elements in a way that feels mostly organic.
I wish I had better things to say about Spiritfarer, but ultimately it didn’t live up to my expectations. I’m curious to know if there are any games you’ve ever played that have said something interesting about death, because exploring death philosophically in gaming remains a very intriguing premise.
I was optimistic about Spiritfarer because it seemed like something I should love: a deep subject and easy mechanics. Spiritfarer, if our intrepid readers do not know, is a game by Thunder Lotus Games that came out last August, about death and letting go. It has rave reviews that, unfortunately, I must disagree with.
The game is very sweet and simple, but the writing is rarely good and the play quickly begins to feel like a chore. There were some standout moments: Stanley’s play, Atul’s character in general, Gustav’s comment about art on his way out. I wanted to love it, and indeed, the final scenes are lovely, but the game itself fell flat for me.
I believe the problem stems from the fact that the dialog was supposed to be functional and reflective simultaneously. It was “here, do this task,” and “thinking about what I need to do before I go forever,” at the same time — it didn’t work. The tasks themselves, with just a couple exceptions, were equally bland for me.
Rather than dwell on the overall disappointment of the game, I will mention a few of the best things.
1) Stanley’s play, as I mentioned earlier is a delight – it was extremely believable that a little boy would want to put on a play for the grownups and that the play would reflect his hopes and fears in a very straightforward way. The guests for me were Atul and Gustav, which were frankly perfect.
2) Atul’s final dinner, followed by the way he goes, both spoke to me. It felt to me exactly how he would explain his idea of the perfect way to go if he were alive and telling his family and friends at a party.
3) For some reason, I absolutely loved the sound effects associated with the character Summer- I loved her voice, and the tune she played to make the plants grow.
4) Albert’s jokes!
I also noticed and appreciated the fact that nobody leaves fully certain. Spiritfarer as a game is about helping the dead accomplish what they need to in order to move on. But when they do move on, none of them are sure that they have accomplished it; they only know it’s time to go.
Absolute certainty, especially moral certainty, is almost always a product of delusion or something even more nefarious – even scientists will tell you that science is in the business of evidence, not proof. The fact that this uncertainty is true of every character makes me think it’s intentional on the part of the writers.
The art is lovely, and I think this game would have been better as a game if it were a true platformer, even though I would have a hard time playing it. It seems like it would be easier for this dev team to make a good platformer than it would be for them to write complex characters (not a jab – plenty of excellent games have approached heavy topics through game mechanics instead of writing). But if they wanted, they could go in the other direction and substantially limit the “task” mechanic and instead, spend more time on character interaction and development. Either way, this game needs to choose a path.
As I’m sure you know, not every game is gonna be a winner for me. I would have played this one with or without games club, too; it just seemed like an obvious pick since we were both picking it up.
A game that also takes on endings and death that I love, love, love is The First Tree. It’s much shorter and simpler in design, but the play and the text are very well connected. I would love to hear what you thought about them in comparison — maybe I can convince you to play The First Tree after you’re settled around the corner from me :).
PS: were you a completionist that went and got Buck? Or did you skip the lighthouse spirit?
A strange thing has been happening in the last month, maybe two months that I go back and forth on writing about. I think that right now, there’s a great need to perform politics online that is, despite the fact of 2020, unprecedented. I mention this because — and I really didn’t think I could be surprised anymore — TheNew York Times has recently fired veteran journalists, who have done astonishingly good work, for not-even-really-all-that-bad tweets that became the latest subject of outrage culture. Then Cade Metz, for the NYT, doxed the guy who runs Slate Star Codex – a blog that is known for antipolitical rationalism – for no apparent reason other than looking good politically. Carrying around an idea that it’s actually possible that enough people have become so invested in political performance that in fact, the world has gone genuinely bonkers, isn’t easy. It isn’t easy because it’s the trope in too much mediocre science fiction, because it’s absurd, because it’s lonely, because almost everyone around me all of the time seems to think it is obviously fine and normal. But it isn’t. It really isn’t.
When someone says trans rights aren’t politics, for example, the answer should always be: all rights are politics. A “right” is a political term. Rights are not a natural occurrence. When someone says trans rights aren’t politics, what they mean when they say “politics” is “stuff we can disagree on without it being a comment on your character.” Whether or not you particularly like Game of Thrones is politics, because it’s okay if you do and it’s okay if you don’t. Pineapple on pizza? politics. Foreign policy? A matter of character.
How did we get here? Should I write about this?
In the first place, it’s not going to help. Even if the whole world read this blog post, it would be up against too big of a mass to make any headway. It might reach one or two people and those people will henceforth also being extremely uncomfortable. Not exactly a win. Also, it does need saying that this post itself is making claims in a similar tone to trans rights aren’t politics. I am indignant, judgmental, and uninterested in space for another point of view.
But anyway, this thing — I think we all know what I mean regardless of how we think about what it is — has been happening for way more than two months and thus, is not the strang thing to which I referred above. Hell, at this point it aint even strange — I don’t know who’s going to get fired next for not having views Twitter agrees with, but I know that it will be somebody. I’m getting used to the reality TV of life.
No, the strange thing I want to talk about is what I see when I meditate. I meditate a lot — it used to be 20 minutes a day, now it’s every few days for an hour or so, and also most nights in bed. I don’t count my breaths because defying centuries of tradition, I have decided that counting my breaths is dumb. Instead, I put meditative music on and I pay attention to the feelings that I am currently experiencing. I lean into them and images float up. The feeling is much the same as dreaming. Sometimes they’re memories. Sometimes they’re many fragments of memories one after another, all connected by something usually thematic or even literary. But sometimes they’re images of what I think are things that I am aware of peripherally, though I may not remember ever seeing it directly. (When I write it out, it sounds so mystical — but it really isn’t. I am aware of thinking, and the awareness is unusual, and is meditation. But the actual process — the images, the associations, etc — I believe that is what most of us are doing most of the time. It’s the popular concept of thinking, just what’s bopping around in our heads at any given moment, to be distinguished from the intellectual concept of thought which is not relevant to this conversation.)
Lately, the images are:
An overweight woman in her forties in a cubicle that has been decorated seasonally. She has been in her administrative position for years and everyone knows her. She’s married with children and serves on the PTO board. She is the one tasked with organizing office celebrations and potlucks. She knows everyone’s birthday.
Halloween trick or treating, school dances, a child losing a tooth.
Someone in a family has cancer, and neighbors are taking turns making meals.
The way the street light looks in the rain on the street out a living room window at night.
Fantasy novels for young girls.
the memory of the fall festival at the local arboretum that I went to with my family many years.
Bath and body works products and school lockers.
You get the idea, maybe. Some of these images are memories, some of them aren’t. What sticks out is that the emotion that swells in me and brings these images top of mind is grief.
There are many plausible explanations – the first is that for me, these images relate to the particular kind of home I had before my dad died. This is the first explanation any time grief is on the table. In particular the security in the fat family lady, the neighbors bringing dinner, the warm friendship embodied in the picture of a Tamora Pierce novel, and so on, may be the security that I felt when my dad was around, because he was around.
This is an explanation I am inclined to believe, I think it’s true. But I don’t think it’s the whole truth. I don’t think my dad was the only source of that security.
There are two other things missing entirely from these images when they surface – The first is smartphones. There are no smartphones.
The second is not a material thing, but a perception thing. There is no sense of a political self. These images don’t have explicit association with myself as white, or Jewish, or a woman. Some of the images have struggles, but they’re not political, they’re deeply personal, they feel entirely outside of politics. Hurt feelings, because someone did or said something hurtful. Cancer, the disease and the people who love someone with it. There is something about that — that lack of political awareness – that even as I type now stirs grief, deep grief, within me.
I know that if these words were to ever see the light of day, some articulate person on twitter would coin the term “White Grief,” but until that happens, I get to sit in this moment and think about why these images resist politicization. I get to hold the thought that maybe, it isn’t because of something someone else can tell just from looking at me.
Dungeons and Dragons and the people who play it have taught me something. Taught is the wrong word, but reminded is also the wrong word. Re-discovered, illuminated the same truth in a different way, understood something that I have known as a child but not yet as an adult — and onward.
The point of Dungeons and Dragons is certainly one thing and one thing only: to form a tight knit group and slay monsters. This is something we have to do whether we play D&D or not, and it is something we have to learn how to do. For this reason the DM has to be agnostic: he cannot be against the player, indeed he can even be for the player – as in rooting for the player, but he cannot give the player the win. You are not slaying a monster if you cannot be slain by the monster. This is what taking D&D seriously is about and it is serious.
Learning how to do it is hard, and therefore easy to not even try to do. You can play whole campaigns and never begin to think about it in these terms, and it is astonishingly easy — almost embarrassingly so — to analogize the way people understand D&D to the way they relate to collaboration in general. It is easy to read into the way they talk about what happened, and who did what, how they feel about being in the world, necessarily connected to other people. I wish it wasn’t, or perhaps I should say, often I wish I weren’t –
One thing I like about it, though. Two things, actually. The first is that there are people I would have dismissed outright for their political one-dimensionalism that I get to see in better contexts. They’re snobby or pushy or blunt or sweet or goofy, you wouldn’t know that. The second is the rule the DM made in this campaign that we can’t make dirty jokes (I don’t know why) and the weird way that has affected the humor. I do like dirty humor, and dark humor, and mean humor
but I also like goofy humor, sweet humor.
There’s a pervasive darkness in the real world, what it lacks in literal manifestation it makes up for in anxiety and terror. When I think of the people in the campaign I play — the first I’ve ever played — I wish them success in slaying their monsters, friends to help them do it, and a nice celebratory dinner with the same friends in a warm and welcoming pub afterward. They are unexpectedly sweet people, but it may be that
the people you slay monsters with always turn out to be unexpectedly sweet.
I am doing the 40 day sigil challenge with the chaos magicians. I like them. “40 days of ooga booga,” as my friend Rocks called it.
Today was the first day of the sigil challenge. A sigil is a symbol that you create and charge (or activate). The standard form of charging is masturbation, so you can see why it might appeal to a lot of people. There’s something charming about chaos magicians, I promise. The guy who runs the server where we hang out has a youtube video where he talks about what to do when you’re down, he says (a paraphrasing) “think about the fact that maybe you haven’t even seen your favorite movie or read your favorite book yet.”
Every day you make one sigil. You may also make a robofish. A robofish is a sigil that says something which is already definitely true such as “I have a cat.” The best method for activating sigils is to do multiple at a time — because your conscious mind will not be able to remember what every sigil is and thus theoretically your subconscious has easier access to it — these groups of sigils are called shoals. I didn’t even know the word shoal, but it turns out it means “a large number of fish swimming together.” Shoaling is the act of charging or activating multiple sigils at once. Robofish are there as guides for the subconscious. The general idea is that if the subconscious takes the regular sigils in the same vein as the robofish sigils, the sigils will work by manifesting the results the way the robofish are already manifested: as a given.
I doubt you will be surprised to learn that another way to activate a sigil is through attention. If you were to, for example, reply to a viral Twitter thread with a jpg of your sigil, or put a sticker of your sigil on a lamp post, then by definition the random passerby, even if he did recognize it as a sigil, would not be able to discern what it was a sigil for. Thus it goes straight to the subconscious skipping the layer of conscious meaning. Tens, hundreds or thousands of people looking at your sigil is a significant charge — and truly, there are probably a lot of people who would prefer the attention of a thousand people to a thousand orgasms even without a sigil. A “hypersigil,” is a sigil, often in the form of a work like a comic book or piece of music, that gets consumed by many people.
Making a sigil is fun. And — it’s ridiculous that I know this — but Austin Osman Spare, an (quite probably random but then it is chaos magic) occultist from England whose work forms a lot of the basis for the original chaos magicians, felt that the best way to start a sigil was “THIS MY WILL TO”
THIS MY WILL TO HAVE MORE PIZZA IN MY LIFE
is okay, but you want to be reasonably specific.
THIS MY WILL TO RECEIVE TWO PIZZAS FOR FREE THIS MONTH
then you want to get rid of repeat letters and spaces.
Then you draw a sigil in which each of these letters is present, and you should give it a border — a circle, triangle, square, etc — to contain it or give it structure.
I really don’t want to draw a pizza sigil, but here’s an example of a sigil I found on the internet just now that’ll do great for demonstration:
The letters are all there – note that there isn’t a technical correctness necessary here. there are no closed circles, so the “o” is just most of an “o,” and “a” and “h” are in roughly the same place. There’s a very common sigil’d “m” there, on the left (with the top of the “m” facing to the left), and also an “E” in the same place (where the left of the E is the left of the sigil as well). You could interpret a lower case “e” encompassing almost the entire sigil, and you can see the Q, the circle that is around the entire sigil, and the downward curve creating the little line coming out of the bottom right of the Q. I won’t do all the letters, but if you look, you can trace some semblance of all of them. This of course is the opposite of charging a sigil, it is deconstructing one. When you create a sigil, put it away for a little while before you charge it — so that each individual letter you’ve incorporated won’t jump out at you when you get it goin’. Conscious deconstruction is not what the subconscious thrives off of (but we’ve agreed not to discuss that).
And you can create yourself a sigil alphabet, by for example, creating a sigil component for THIS MY WILL TO to reuse in every sigil.
Lastly, you can instead use automatic drawing to create a sigil or sigil segment. For example, think “THIS MY WILL TO” with your eyes closed while you free roam with a pencil on the paper. When you feel you are done, you simplify whatever scribbles you’ve come up with into a shape, and that shape become your sigil segment for THIS MY WILL TO.
This is the simplest way. But there are people who create picture symbols instead — that don’t start with language — artists who use colors and different media. There can be music sigils. I bought a hypersigil from an artist I found, a sigil for “grieving your lost futures,” in the form of a pin. I put it on the bulletin board facing my bed. Grief is a familiar feeling, in grief I find the shape of what we are losing.
Now I submit that creating a sigil is like zentangling – not that I would know, nobody sensible would zentagle. But it enters you into a flow state very easily, it’s relaxing even if you can’t draw and it’s also engaging. Time will slip away in great quantities, so settle in. It’s a little bit like mindfulness because your sigil cannot simply be any forming of the letters into a shape, it has to feel right.
[the following paragraph has mention of actual animal abuse that occurred in real life, but it does have a happy ending]
Today I found out that somebody shot my friend’s cat, the bullet lodged in his spine and he lost the use of his back legs but dragged himself through the rain to my friend’s porch, where she found him. She took him to the emergency vet where they performed a 3 hour surgery, and he’s going to be okay. The surgery cost ten thousand dollars. She set up a gofundme and I donated. I was quite distressed by the story and I told my friend Rocks — and I told him about the 40 days of ooga booga and I said I’m gonna hex that fucker who shot Yugi. Rocks said, “that’s bad juju – just give me the gofundme link.”
Rocks reminds me of those places in stories that appear out of nowhere, where you go in and the chef or shop owner or whoever it is, is very down to earth and not at all wooey but when you leave something that was troubling you is better or a good transition has been made. I believe in messages from Rocks. So I am not hexing anyone, instead I am doing a sigil of protection for the vulnerable, and a sigil of protection for all animals against abuse. I am also doing one to see lots of new birds and take their pictures. Sometimes you just need some levity, and my mom got me a really nice pair of binoculars for my birthday.
I just realized it’s pretty funny that dungeons and dragons inspired a moral panic that people would get into occult stuff, and here I am playing my first ever campaign of D&D and also hanging out with chaos magicians. Anyway, the thing is, there’s something that D&D and sigils and fat family ladies and bath & body works products in the Winter all have in common. If you can see what I mean, then maybe you can begin to see what I’m trying to draw the shape of here. I’m not trying to be coy. I cannot take you there. I would if I could. But there’s no escorts allowed and it is as far as I have ever known, the only way forward, the only way in, and the only way out.
I cannot write about it. I can only show it. Then if you can see it, you will see that you know this geography, that it isn’t Atlantis; it’s home.
Can I confess something? I’m gonna confess something. During Dungeons and Dragons, I wrote a poem out of the player dialog. I would like to tell you there’s a high brow/low brow interchange that delights my intellect and that I am constantly engaging in connecting the small with the divine. But actually, what happened is Gorthog was like “Do we we feel things here?” and I was like “this is gonna be a great poem” and that’s where it started and ended.
Do we feel things here?
I think we need to get rid of these vultures.
Which one do you want?
Third level bless.
Plus I’m gonna smite.
This one is in range.
One thing I have a lot of problems with is Adorno’s line about how there can be no poetry after the holocaust. I think about it actually quite often — for what reason, after all Adorno was wrong about a lot of things (he didn’t like Jazz) (I SAID HE DIDN’T LIKE JAZZ), so why should this bother me?
Poetry is subtext, and when it isn’t subtext, something really terrible is happening. That’s why it was easier to cook (having never cooked before) than it was to write poems in this pandemic. In this pandemic particularly because there was so much fear that was not the virus but played upon the virus – namely, the fear that the isolation of the quarantine wasn’t just the obvious consequence of a viral pandemic but the confirmation of our fears that we are alone and will never not be alone again. A natural manifestation of an already present truth. That was the feeling.
A lot of people put it down to the Trump presidency, some people put it down to social media. Now I am biased because I really don’t like to do things quickly, but I think it’s a pacing problem, personally.
The gravity of this cannot be overstated: meaning — all of it — rises from the chaos via attention. Attention is necessarily tied to time. The more attention you give something, the more meaning it will reveal. The measurement of “more” where meaning is concerned is depth. The meaning becomes deeper. The less attention you give something, the less it means – regardless of how you label it. That is to say, theexistence and depth of meaning is dependent on the length of your attention span. Right, that might seem trite but give it a second to settle in. The existence of meaning. That’s a pretty big deal; at least I think it would feel like a pretty big deal if there was no meaning anymore.
This is where The Atlantic or The New Yorker branches off into a conversation about how capitalism benefits not only from our attention (the new product) but in particular from splitting it into brief episodes. If you never look at something, you won’t buy it. If you spend too long looking at something, you won’t buy it. You get the idea. But this isn’t a think piece about late stage capitalism. It’s a think piece about why the parallel meaning between there can be no poetry after the holocaust and never again bothers me so much.
What I come back to is the inevitable truth that there is a time for not poetry. A pandemic or a holocaust. But not all bad times are bad for poems; many of them are well served by poetry. The time for non-poetry is when the poem rises from the subtext and becomes the pretext. An elegance that cannot endure the complexity of humanity. A virus is elegant, fascism is elegant. Poetry is the perfect, clear lens on complexity, but the measure of a good poem is how well it reveals the simplicity from which complexity is built. This is the challenge, even right now the desire to shape what I’m talking about weighs on me with an urgency. Don’t you see? Poetry — the art of poetry — is the art of seeing the complex as if it were simple, no — the art of revealing that the complex is simple. It is revealer. But this function must necessarily live in the subtext of our lives, all attempts — natural or man made — to enforce a perfect, elegant and clear system on top of humanity is necessarily tragedy.
To reveal, via top-down administration, the gutting simplicity of the beautifully complex, is the method of the concentration camp. To discern, from the subtext of our lives, the way the complex distills into the simple, is the method of the poem.
Adorno was onto something. It troubles me. It troubles me that the poem as a governing structure is fascist. I love poetry. I love slowness. I love meaning, especially the elegance of it. What can it mean that this is not the rule by which to govern people? This is what the critical theorists must have struggled with. From this, the idea that governing is to point at every passing policy and yell “this sucks!” From this, the idea not to reveal elegance but cacophony, a mess. An uncertainty, an inefficiency, a confusion that forces us to pause, indeed to get entirely turned around sometimes. In the midst of the governing mess, though, we have the subtext, and in the subtext the poem’s redemption arc.
What an idea! What an idea! No, I think it has come up before — something about the journey being more important than the destination, but I don’t think we ever read that and thought “ah yes, it is only through inefficiency, meandering, mistakes and messiness that we can arrive at the poem instead of the concentration camp.”
But there it is. Take your time. Try not to succeed too quickly or too well. Celebrate the disheveled, absurd state of your life for what it is: the poem garden.
It has been noted by many an obnoxious person that what makes a person happy and what makes her comfortable may be two different things. You can be comfortable with something that makes you unhappy, which is why you don’t change it; you’re used to what you have. This is – if not common knowledge – commonly admonished.
But on the other side of that admonishment is that happiness, in that context, isn’t what anybody is quite thinking of when they talk about a happy life. Most of the time, they mean a comfortable life. They mean a comfortable life that isn’t replicating harmful patterns. The mode of comfort is replication, the opposite of change.
Marx introduced the idea of social reproduction, that the way a social group outlives the lifespan of a single generation is the replication of ideas. But the self is also an idea, and it also exists via replication. Most of our identities are ideas, even the stuff that isn’t overtly political – like being a cheese lover or a book nerd. To become happier, you have to change the replication that is the self.
This is what the admonishers don’t tell you – likely because the only thing they can definitely identify about your situation is that some or all of is existential and haven’t fully realized the implications of what they’re saying – choosing happiness is a violence on the self. It is not only saying “this situation is not good enough for me,” it is in fact also, and mostly saying, “I am not good enough. A different me is necessary.”
The narrative is that because you are not good enough for you, that this is good for your character and not abuse. But there’s a lot of overlap and I don’t know why we don’t hold this truth when we talk about people who could be happy but make the same bad decisions over and over. There is a way in which this act, too, is one of self love, though it may not be the right act.
In experience, we (everyone who is capable of thinking about the meaning of experience) know this. Perhaps it isn’t articulated a such, but I do think everyone understands this, understands that the effort to make change seem graceful, like some kind of pokemon evolve, is beautiful, beautiful garbage. It’s helpful to say it. It’s helpful for our own recognition of ourselves.
With no evidence except experience and instinct, I suspect that the violence in change is natural — as in inherent to the natural world, not something that we choose. I stand before a forest of ideas here, so dense and so absorbing that it’s almost painful. For example, what if we’ve been reading Hobbes and Locke wrong this entire time? What if the noble warrior and the savage are the intellectual exploration of the process of change, from the two-sides-of-the-same-coin perspectives of good for your character and violence on the self. (Granted, by we, I mean my high school criminal civil law class from 2004).
Another example: if we have decided that the violence committed to the self on behalf of the self carries the same weight and properties as violence committed against you by others, can violence committed against you be reclaimed for self improvement? What pops into my head is that Taylor Swift has a pond in her living room with coy fish in it, an image of happiness that belies the story of how she used to push her unpopular classmates on the stairs in high school. Why does this pop into my head? Two reasons: one, if Taylor Swift wanted to be happy, she would throw herself down the stairs. At the bottom she would have crossed the line, the one that holds us from each other. Two, a question (not loaded, a question): can violence be transmuted? If Taylor Swift pushes you down the stairs, can that violence be the same violence that provokes your change? A change you want? Or do you have to throw yourself?
And we are still left with the question of what the coy fish pond is, being that it is beautiful, relaxing, even spiritual — but perhaps none of those things. This is is thicket we must make our way through, it’s not easy but part of of trying to understand this is to say, if the coy fish pond is not happiness, what is it? And how is it different from what happens at the bottom of the stairs?
The coy fish pond can be bought. For a stupid amount of money, of course, money which after a certain point does seem to reproduce by itself. It’s part of a system, and I don’t think capitalism covers it. I don’t think it’s only a question of various entities creating false expectations about how wealth will make you happy. My line of thought always comes back to bigger questions about systems that were not made by man. Right? What if capitalism, in one of its modes, acts as a way for everyone, including the rich, to commit a group self harm by replicating an entire system of “happiness” that is also an act of group self love, a way of avoiding the violent destruction of the people we know as ourselves.
You start in to a forest like this and each tree can stop you dead in your tracks, it really can. There’s just so much here. Because when you start to talk to about — oh here’s another question that just popped into my head — when Jesus tells people to “turn the other cheek,” what does that mean in this new context of violence to the self as necessary in any self improvement process, and how could the new testament compare to the old, much more violent, testament?
Is this why animals don’t have the same kind of consciousness? Are they capable of the kind of self harm necessary for happiness? Is the bar on what an animal can be the degree to which he can overcome reflex and comfort to destroy himself? Or rather, his self? My god my god my god, you see? you see?
You can lose the forest for the trees and the forest is (the forest always is) the thing that is bigger than people, whatever that thing is. That’s what you’re looking for. In this case, it’s tricky because it’s clothed in very individual language, but it is, in fact, about the human condition.
It is not only saying “this situation is not good enough for me,” it is in fact also, and mostly saying, “I am not good enough. A different me is necessary.”
I actually think about what a fun spy game would be like a fair amount, in part because I think you could play a really exceptional one using social media. One of the things that I think doesn’t get talked about a lot in terms of the lack of sexiness that is spying for the state, is that state secrets aren’t very interesting, except to conspiracy theorists. The few conspiracy theorists I know very much enjoy talking about color revolutions, but frankly nobody else cares too much – if anything, state secrets are embarrassing. But secrets in general sure aren’t boring.
So what would a good spy game look like? I think the first requirement is that the player’s character shouldn’t be working for a state agency. Whether it be big tech, or personal intrigue, or a more cerebral concept, like a game where you follow one piece of information and watch as it gets shaped and molded into different narratives, the days of revealing how state affairs that seem interesting and sexy are actually institutional and boring are probably behind us. I think we’ve all kind of figured that out.
If it were me, I would probably attempt to design the game that I think Will Wright is always attempting to design: the one that transcends fiction and integrates with the real. Because spying is about information – and because we are producing information at such an incredible rate that we now have books about information anxiety – it should be possible to create a game about spying using real world, real-time information. Rather than trying to get information that is locked up or classified, the player would be trying to find public information that is obfuscated, connect clues and uncover narratives.
I’m not sure whether I brought this up in the first letter, but another thing that sticks out about this game is the kind of serious that it is. It has a sort of tangential relationship to Kentucky Route Zero in that I think it’s trying to do something subtle to reveal a complex condition. In the present time, that can be very comforting or it can feel like work, because either it is nice to be reminded that thoughtful people produce work that defies rhetoric, or it feels like the work many of us must do now to breach the very real rhetoric around us. Like my mom says about The Sims – why would I spend hours pretending to live when I have to actually live? Still, bringing that seriousness to the game (which is already very present in the opening which as you mentioned, and I mention, I love) is ambitious, and I have a lot of respect for it.
Overall, I wouldn’t recommend the game to players who don’t already have a particular love of playing old games. Unlike Grim Fandango, for example, I think Spycraft: The Great Game is not the kind of cult classic that will charm you immediately or will hold your attention. The audience for the game is really people who enjoy the aesthetic of older games and the population of people, which seems to me is likely to be small, whose interested in thinking about complex stuff spans all types of media. Most people I know who game don’t do so in order to think philosophically, although I do know many people who enjoy thinking philosophically who game – they just tend to separate the activities.
As for me, Games Club allows me to experience games I would otherwise never pick up or never finish, and this is one example. I would like to be the kind of person who would finish this game because of its novelty and thoughtfulness without the extrinsic motivation, but I can tell you that the mini games feature is difficult for me to stick with when I’m only playing for my own entertainment.
The ambitions of earlier game developers, particularly where narrative is concerned, often amaze me. When I think of some of the Infocom games, The Longest Journey, this game, and more – and when I think of the narratives of games coming out more recently that are modeled on the old games, like Broken Age – I can see sustained effort that often goes unrecognized. I am not talking about the “Are games art” debate or even “can games be serious,” and not “can games show you the experiences of people unlike you,” but I think, rather, “do games have roots in the examination of the human condition?” I think the answer is yes. As happens with books and films too, it sometimes feels like work just because of that fact, and that was the case with this game for me.
Looking forward to the next game, Spiritfarer, which is somehow about mortality and death and still a much lighter game – ha!
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.
-Joanna 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.
Look, said Noah, I said choose the one you love.
It’s not my fault you misunderstood. It’s not my fault
you have to fuck your sister. You should have known,
when I said the sacred words: choose the girl. There can be just one.
What do you mean you aren’t going to fuck her? Have you lost your–
well the whole point is to continue, or why the hell get on the boat?
You think what, we enjoy sailing around in this cramped thing
in a world with nowhere left to hold our ground?
You are a disgrace. The world will wash away your history.
Not even a memory of the shape of you will survive.
You should have known what kind of love I meant.
This poem is inspired by a beautiful drive across the Brooklyn Bridge, a foreign friend’s Facebook thread about the dirt and grime of NYC, and a Saturday morning commute to work.
Lonely at 1st Ave. & E. 24th St.
I remember on my birthday
I talked about the Brooklyn bridge
because it stands out in a dirty city.
I have a friend who hates it here and
he’s right, which just goes to show
being right doesn’t mean much.
Now it’s early Saturday morning,
I’m on my way to the library where
I will help people, mostly people
who didn’t keep up. The light in this city
has a relationship with dirt that you’ll never understand unless you spend mornings walking to the subway.
Saturdays at the library there are children,
a proud moment when a small girl says, “Miss Joanna, I used a metaphor,” and then a second later, “or maybe it was a simile.” And I Google it because I can never remember the difference either.
The library is small and the neighborhood is trying, a sixteen years old honors student was shot to death last week and I knew him. The violence in this city has a relationship with a small girl’s metaphor maybe simile that you’ll never understand unless you try, which I don’t quite trust you will.
This morning I’m thinking I had better
find some people who know what I mean when I say, most things that mean something to me are covered in dirt.
My co-worker texts she’s missed her train-
the kind of co-worker who only eats fast food, and loves spicy but hates peas and can’t stand pizza anymore because she ate it every Friday night for too many years on Long Island with her family,
who did not appreciate when she moved in with her fiancee before the wedding but got over it.
Although if they knew how kinky the sex was, they would probably at least complain about it loudly to their co-workers. I text back, “sugar honey iced tea,” which is something she says a lot and I picture her, at ass o’clock in the morning at a commuter train station in Long Island watching the back of her train as it leaves her behind and then she sees my text and she smiles anyway and I wonder,
what have we been worshipping this whole time?