• "So is it worth reading dusty IF history? Well, I haven't read it yet. But I can say that the book really represents a tour through the past ten years of the IF community's thinking. Some of the essays are from 2001; some have been revised for this edition; some are brand-new. Many have been published in other forms, so if you've been devouring our blog posts and essays for the past few years, you will see few surprises. But if your awareness of IF dates from the last century — or if you've been following us only casually — I think this book has something to offer."
  • "NOTE: This is a demake of the third level of Irem’s 1987 arcade game R-Type, retold as an interactive story. You'll need a dice to make rolls and something to write down your armaments (and points if you wish)." Brilliant.
  • "To apply the same point to videogames, ‘we’ are exceptionally good at the analytic mode and extremely poor at the rhetorical persuasion. As a cohort, we’re remarkably analytical. There are not many writers, bloggers, critics, etc of videogames who are either committed to the persuasive communication of the veracity of their feelings, moods, and strange hunches about videogames, but there sure is a lot of people willing to point out the textual or dramaturgical features of XYZ latest game." This, many, many times over. It's one reason I tire of so much wordy criticism at the moment: it is exhaustive, but lacks direction. (This, for me, was the gap between my first years at university and my final year: finding the courage to make my own arguments, rather than just synthesizing everything around me).

Everyone’s doing it, so let’s get this out of the way.

1. Games Literacy

Almost certainly top of the list: this topic has been bugging me for a long while now, and I’m slowly finding ways to express what I mean by it. In a nutshell:

The standard of literacy around/about games is pretty bad. By which I mean: the understanding of games as games. What does that cover? It covers the understanding of them not as “movies with choices” (although they may have a narrative or plot), but as things in their own right, built around systems and players, and the interactions thereof. This isn’t about raising the standard of capital-C Criticism, as seen in magazines and papers and countless blogs around the internet; it’s about making lower-case-c criticism more prevalent, better understood, and even possible.

Also: there’s something about Alan Kay’s explanation of literacy, namely, the ability to read and write in a medium. Read-literacy is better than ever when it comes to games; write-literacy is perhaps worse than ever. How do you go about solving that?

In a nutshell: what does literacy for a systemic medium look like, and how do you go about improving it or educating it? How can we claim to be literate when we still need to remind professional games developers that “Theme Is Not Meaning“?

(I cut a vast chunk of exposition and further analysis here, and I’ll put it together in another post shortly).

2. Asymmetric systems and games

I talked a bit about Waldschattenspiel (video here) at Wonderlab, and it left me thinking a lot about asymmetric games and systems that, whilst asymmetric are, nevertheless, fair. To keep using games as an example, for now: games that offer the players different (though sometimes complementary) skill-sets, sometimes differing in capability, sometimes in power – and yet manage to be fair, well-balanced systems.

There’s something delightful in discovering the power in what initially felt like an inherently weak position. There’s something lovely about affording all the players different capabilities, that slowly turn out to be useful. It’s very easy to make a balanced system by simply mirroring capabilities – and it’s a very easy system to “read”. But I think the more satisfying ones are asymmetric, where series of rules interact with each other, and more delightful to be part of.

I’m trying to work out how that applies to systems that aren’t games.

3. Text Adventures / Interactive Fiction

I’m a self-confessed IF fan, even if I’m not as up-to-date as I was. When Peter asked me for a quick tour of the genre, I ended up playing a whole pile of adventures again and got sucked in. There’s so much invention and great writing buried in this genre, and it’s a real joy to find its gems. And, of course, it got me thinking about what I could do with the genre…

…which is why I now appear to be writing a text adventure. Or rather: before I can write the one I’d like to, I’m writing one about tidying my flat, purely as a learning exercise. It’s turning out to be surprisingly challenging but also great fun – in part because Inform 7 is a surreal joy to write. Here’s some sample code so far:

The bedroom window is north of the bedroom. It is scenery, a door and open.

Instead of examining the bedroom window:
  if the bedroom window is open, say "The bedroom window is open. [first time] A gentle breeze wafts through the bedroom. [only] Through the glass, you can see [description of the neighbouring gardens]" in sentence case;
  if the bedroom window is closed, say "The bedroom window is closed tight. Through the glass, you can see [description of the neighbouring gardens]" in sentence case.

Marvellous.

4. A history of music through preset sounds

Talking to Pat and Momus at Wonderlab last week, I hit briefly on the idea of a history of music through preset sounds: the default timbres built into electronic instruments, before they become edited or overwritten by musicians. This is mainly a product of the digital era, when preset memory became possible, but it has a nice: from original Mellotron tapes, through default disks with early samplers like the Fairlight or Synclavier, into the 80s and the FM synthesizers (and all those DX7 presets – the pianos, the basses), and then into the PCM era.

But, of course, there’s a separate history: one of the original sounds being sampled by musicians who couldn’t afford the real instrument; one of entire records being sampled, presets from one era burnt into the music of another; one of software and hardware being capable enough not to sample but actually model or emulate the instruments in question; and right up to the restoration and repair of old instruments – or the way circuit-bending takes old presets and makes them eternally new.

Mainly, though, I was thinking of a history of music seen through the TR-909 hi-hat – which is a sample, not analogue, a cymbal played in a studio somewhere in the world and reproduced across music for thirty years – or Fairlight Orchestra Hit 5, echoing across music and soundtracks for generations.

5. Driving

This year, I completed my New Year’s Resolution for 2006 (and, frankly, 2009-present) by passing my driving test. I now own a small car and have become a driver.

And it’s really reshaped the way I see the world. The country is now a different shape, for starters: it used to be pinched around train stations, between which I could travel quickly, but then was reliant on cabs and lifts and walking. All of a sudden, places that were surprisingly tricky to get to are now trivial. And also: places that were quick to get to can now be slow, should I choose. (Thanks, Old Kent Road).

My requirements for the road system are now different: I now care more about the A-roads I might have to take than when really, the only roads I needed fixed were in Southwark, making my bus rides bumpy. My requirements of the economy are different: I don’t feel great owning a petrol-powered car in 2010, especially as I watch two oil spills on opposite sides of the world, but I recognise the convenience I’m buying at a cost. I love trains (when they’re on time), because I like the views, and I work surprisingly well on them. I can’t work in the car, but I gain agency and a strange kind of relaxation.

And, of course, the systems return. It took driving alone to understand it: driving isn’t an action you perform, it’s a system you join. Traffic is lots of people driving all at once, and as long as they all roughly conform, not much bad happens. Driving’s frightening at first, because it feels like everything is on you: you have to be perfect all the time. But in fact: everyone else is juggling that responsibility as well, and we all make up for other deficiencies, and a system slowly emerges. The point of the driving test is not to assess perfection: it’s to assess if you’re good enough to be part of the system. And then the system takes over, and you fit in with everybody else.

As Jeff Noon pointed out in Pollen, the cars are the map. It took learning to drive, and doing it, to realise what that really meant.


And that’s my list, I think. A bit long, but definitely what’s on my brain right now, and a rough glance at what thinking about it feels like to me.

(Yes, there are no comments on this post. Feel free to email me, or link to this, or talk about it in your own space. These are very unformed thoughts that require further thought. I’m interested in discussion, but as a furthering exercise, not footnotes)

  • "More primal and immediate than any of the previously mentioned examples, it was couch cushion architecture that established the basic building blocks of our design logic. Unrepresented and ignored for too long in the architectural industry, today’s post pays respect to the wonders of couch cushion architecture. We’ve rounded up a (mostly) admirable collection of projects, taken from a randomly conducted search on the internet. Join us as we take a critical analysis of the architecture, methods and design philosophies of living room furniture re-appropriation." Charming, and generous, too.
  • Joe Moran on Daniel Miller's "The Comfort Of Things", which has gone straight onto my wishlist.
  • "For instance, when a film critic with a Twitter account says that video games are not art, the natural followup becomes, "Well then… what is art?" And suddenly we're in some goddamn flourescent-lit student lounge, sitting on a nine-dollar couch across from a dude whose shirt is self-consciously spattered with daubs of encaustic, hip-to-hip with the girl who stamped each page of a copy of The Feminine Mystique with an ink print of her own labia, hearing the guy over our shoulder mention Duchamp for the sixth time this week, and it all just needs to stop right now." Well said, Steve.

bioshock2-doll.jpg

There is an ongoing argument about whether games can be considered as literature, and this one presents by far the most compelling case yet for "yes".

A quotation from the Guardian review of Bioshock 2. It’s a cracking example of a style of games writing that I hate.

Why don’t I like this kind of writing? Because it never addresses the gameness of a game; it breaks it down into component parts – story, graphics, sounds – that feel familiar from other disciplines, and are inevitably criticised as such. “Gameplay” – a catch-all term describing rules, mechanics, the systems present in a work that is inherently systematic – is separated out from these other elements. This review simply disguises its formulaic, old-fashioned style with some breathless hyperbole and purple prose – “some of the best combat dynamics in the business” is simply a tarted-up version of the meaningless “the gameplay is really good“. This is usually – I say usually, having dipped into this style myself – an attempt to make the writing seem more “worthwhile” to a mainstream audience, perhaps even a non-games audience. But Nicky Woolf’s writing, despite its ambition, is a far cry from my favourite “mainstream” games writer: John Lanchester in the LRB. Though I don’t always agree with him, Lanchester’s writing is smart, informed, and never once defensive.

But what really, really ticks me off is that this article doesn’t deliver on its message: why is it that ‘story’ is considered the key element of games’ “maturity”? After all, story isn’t the only thing that contributes to game-ness. Bioshock 2 is a shooter – a very good shooter, sure, with some tactical elements harking back to Halo‘s balance of left-hand/right-hand, direct/indirect – but it’s still a game where you spend most of your time shooting monsters in the face.

And it is difficult to explain how such a (relatively) generic style of gameplay contributes to a “compelling case” for this “being literature“. After all, playing – or should be – the majority of what you do in a game.

I am not complaining: “involving shooting” does not make a game bad; it does not even necessarily make it immature – and I’d rather be shooting monsters in the rich, well-realized, faded-deco world of Rapture than as another identikit Space Marine. Rather, there’s a much simpler issue at stake:

I don’t want my games to be literature.

I want them to be games. I want to know why a game is good as a game, not as an alternative to reading a book or watching a movie. When I want to read a book, I will, because I like books and I like them for things only they can do. When I want to watch a movie, I will, because I like movies, and I like them for things only they can do.

When I want to play a game, I will, because I like them for things only they can do. I do not want games to become literature, just as I do not want them to become cinema. I expect Woolf’s use of the word literature was meant to be a statement of quality, rather than of medium – but I think the fact that Woolf uses it qualitatively is telling, and perhaps even defensive. And that’s why I bang on like this: there’s no need to be defensive of a medium in the criticism of an artefact. You won’t have to reach for the thesaurus quite so much, or remind the reader that the medium might be worthwhile, if you celebrate things as themselves, on their own merits. Celebrate game-ness.

  • "Use and create Delicious bookmarks from the Safari web browser" – with a single keyboard shortcut. My main reason for sticking with Firefox was its Delicious integration, but if this is any cop, I think I'm save from terrible memory leaks for the future.
  • "I tend to see them as having much more in common with the approach of an architect or landscape designer in terms of shaping and creating flows, confluences and possibilities for enjoyment… As a result I really do think that critical appreciation and commentary from the world of architecture and design could be illuminating and progressive." Jones on the lack of perception – outside games criticism – of games as design objects (rather than media objects). It is excellent; I agree with it all.
  • Card-based dungeon-crawling game. Basically: card-driven roguelike. Should print it out and take a squint sometime.
  • "Taps is a temporary web service you run on a server that has access to the database you want to export. You can then run the client to connect to that service and pull data out of it in chunks. It works through firewalls, doesn’t require a direct ssh connection, and – best of all – it’s database independent. So you can export from a MySQL database and import to PostgreSQL, or vice versa."
  • Vast, detailed CHUD article on an older treatment Cameron wrote for Avatar, which does sound more interesting than the version we got; sadly, it also sounds very sprawling – there's even more world-building going on. Still, some elements cut from it – notably, Hegner – seem like a real shame to have lost.

Dave Eggers on “keeping shit real”:

Because, in the end, no one will ever give a shit who has kept shit ‘real’ except the two or three people, sitting in their apartments, bitter and self-devouring, who take it upon themselves to wonder about such things. The keeping real of shit matters to some people, but it does not matter to me. It’s fashion, and I don’t like fashion, because fashion does not matter.

What matters is that you do good work. What matters is that you produce things that are true and will stand. What matters is that the Flaming Lips’s new album is ravishing and I’ve listened to it a thousand times already, sometimes for days on end, and it enriches me and makes me want to save people. What matters is that it will stand forever, long after any narrow-hearted curmudgeons have forgotten their appearance on goddamn 90210. What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who’s up and who’s down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

The whole article is great.