• This is a great reading of Insomnia; I loved Skjoldbjærg's original from the moment I saw it, and this review really neatly encapsulates why I hated the Christopher Nolan remake so much. It becomes about fundamentally different things, and they're not as interesting as watching Skarsgard fall quite so low and never really recover. Also: I'll take Norway over Alaska any day.
  • "This is not to say that real human interactions are not ritualized to the point of mechanic in some ways, but that procedural rhetoric about human life nearly always makes a specific argument: life works this way, life works that way. Counter to this, Gone Home eschews systems; in particular, it avoids systemizing anything about its characters. Instead of portraying the characters themselves, or providing a set of interactions with those characters, it presents instead a series of artifacts from the characters’ lives without trying to build mechanics around them. The family is only present through those artifacts, the shapes and shadows each member leaves behind. In a certain sense, you could say that the game sets its sights low. But it also hits its mark extremely well– and by doing so achieves something greater than a reductive mechanical take on those same characters ever could. Gone Home is not intended from the top down to be “a game about life”, as some ham-handed experiments have been– instead, it simply represents or evokes certain lives very well (and therefore naturally becomes about life). The game allows its characters to exist on a plane that we usually reserve for ourselves." This is a fine paragraph from a very astute take on Gone Home; for someone who talks so much about games as systemic media, it's good to be reminded so eloquently of all their other qualities I'm prone to forgetting.
  • "Design critique is not a place to be mean, but it’s also not the place to be kind. You’re not critiquing to make friends. Kind designers don’t say what they mean. ‘Kind’ is not about the work, and design critique exists to make us better, but mostly, it’s to make the work better." Mark Boulton talks about the value of crits. I was introduced to the vocabulary and tone of the design/art-school crit at Berg, and find it useful, though I daren't think what 18-year-old me would have made of it. Stressing that it's not personal, it's about the work, and that that is contained within a magic circle, is really difficult, and it's really important.
  • "There’s still a smell of bullshit to almost every videogame story I read, even as it’s advanced to a very high level being in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. To me it derives from this politeness about the thing that’s experienced. In literary criticism there are really cutting deconstructions of things that are inadequate—Nabokov talking about what a fraud and charlatan Faulkner was—but there’s this really intelligent, but painfully milquetoast, quality to the way we appreciate games. It’s a reflection of how partially engaged we are with each one. We consider games primarily as ideas, rather than actual evolving relationships that we’ve had over time." Yeah, that. I enjoyed this discussion: I'm pretty sure you don't have to finish games to review them. Then again: I also think writing about games six months after they came out is way more interesting than trying to hammer through something to fit into a review cycle.
  • Oooh, the Shruthi got an upgrade: not just white PCBs, but an interesting new filter board. Seriously tempted by one of these.
  • "When another scholar worries that if one begins with data, one can “go anywhere,” Ramsay makes it clear that going anywhere is exactly what he wants to encourage. The critical acts he values are not directed at achieving closure by arriving at a meaning; they are, he says, “ludic” and they are “distinguished … by a refusal to declare meaning in any form.” The right question to propose “is not ‘What does the text mean?’ but, rather, ‘How do we ensure that it keeps on meaning’ — how … can we ensure that our engagement with the text is deep, multifaceted, and prolonged?”" Which is interesting, as is the whole article – the author is not convinced by the 'digital humanities', but he still links to some very interesting stuff about algorithmic criticism.
  • "Certainly as delivered through mobile devices, contemporary AR imposes significant limits on your ability to derive information from the flow of streetlife. It’s not just the “I must look like a dork” implications of walking down the street with a mobile held visor-like before you, though those are surely present and significant. It’s that the city is already trying to tell you things, most of which are likely to be highly, even existentially salient to your experience of place. I can’t help but think that what you’re being offered through the tunnel vision of AR is starkly impoverished by comparison — and that’s even before we entertain the very high likelihood of that information’s being inaccurate, outdated, or commercial or otherwise exploitative in nature."
  • GameMaker-like tool for OSX and Windows – that outputs Flash games, built out of Flixel and Box2D. Niiice.
  • "Cole Phelps has no health bar, no ammo count, and no inventory. He doesn't write journal entries, and has no safe house or property. He doesn't eat, doesn't sleep, doesn't smoke or drink or sleep around or go out with his friends. I have seen nothing of his wife and children, his passions, his hates or his desires. He walks into a crime scene and barks his introductions like a dog, rude and abrasive; petulant and bullying. He carries himself like a child playing dress-up, weak-chinned, pale, and aimlessly angry. Cole Phelps is kind of a prick.

    But when I look at what's going on around him, I can't really blame him. What to make of this Truman Show-esque existence, this vast, toothless city? If I were trapped in such a purgatorial nightmare, I'd probably behave badly, too." This is good, and expresses in poetic and critical terms one of the many reasons I just don't care about LA Noire.

  • "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.


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)