Friday, May 31, 2013

thoughts on Problem Attic

note: this post is spoiler-free. if you're looking for the download link/instructions, they're here.

i swore to god i would never make a fucking puzzle platformer.

2d mechanics-based platforming games are a punchline now. they're the cliche of indie games, best demonstrated by each of the three games covered in Indie Game: The Movie, which all fit very snugly into the category of what my friend Anna (Anthropy) calls "white dudes trying to remake Mario". i love Mario but am personally tired of all Nintendo did to establish games as consumer products marketed at kids and then the subsequent stranglehold Nintendo holds over any and all gamer "nostalgia". it strikes me as a disrespectful, abusive, parasitic relationship to have with the loyal fans of your (often really neat, admittedly) games.

i still felt like there was some interesting territory to explore with a 2d platformer, but it's been mined so heavily by so many games that i felt like other avenues needed to be explored so much more and i didn't want to touch it any time soon. honestly, it just felt a little boring and pedestrian of a way to present a game. i feel like the short era of the dominant indie puzzle platformer is, if not dead, at least on life support - and i am fine with that, honestly.

i would like to say i had some divine change of heart that led me to working on a 2d platformer, but that's not true at all. i've been trying to phase out of indie game stuff and into some sort of music career because i'm finding the environment of indie games as one that has many serious holes in terms social or artistic or human enrichment for me. and i say that having met a wonderful support network through people involved in games, and having met several wonderful, talented people who are taking things in the right direction. but i'm tired of seeing of people go apeshit about the supposed deep meaning in things like Bioshock Infinite, or even supposed socially progressive crap like A Closed World. i understand that making a socially aware game is at least one step in the right direction in a culture that's so hostile to it, but i think we could do so much better. and that's what motivates me to keep trying.

making anything vaguely larger-scale was not something i had any plans of doing. i made a game with my friend Andi McClure for last ludum dare called Responsibilities that i liked, but it never went anywhere after that weekend. i have so many friends who make games, and i knew i had interesting ideas and could do it, i was just anxious about learning the tools. it felt kind of insurmountable. and i've made levels and stupid little small games, so i'm not inexperienced. i wanted to prove to myself that i could make a game all by myself for ludum dare, and that was really it. i started to learn stencyl and quickly discovered the thing i could do the most effectively was a platformer, so i went with that - and it ended up fitting in well with the idea i had for an art style from some random ms paint sketches i'd made.

when i started out i had a fair deal of disdain for the "clever mechanics" style of design and knew that i wasn't going to have time to come up with puzzles that would make sense anyway, so i decided to focus more on the environments and the feel of the game. it ballooned up into something much bigger than i expected, but it ended up fairly self-contained thing that i was pretty pleased with, given the time constraints. 

after ludum dare was done i decided i wasn't really happy with how the game ended up. it felt a bit shallow. sort of like you were getting a nibble on little pieces of candy, but i wasn't providing enough nutrients to anchor the experience. i initially decided to make a "lost levels" version where i just took a figurative dump all over the carefully constructed mood of the previous levels, but then realized that it would make complete sense to make them part of the same game. and, one very long month later, i managed to finish it in time to submit to the IndieCade deadline today. i am very pleased with this, given the time constraints and everything else.


i feel like a lot of us go through our lives pushing all the fear and negative emotions we experience back into a very dark corner of our consciousness, like old junk we want to forget about collecting dust in the attic. those things might not be in our immediate field of view, but they're always there coloring our experiences. this is a game about exploring those spaces. 

the game has a lot of puzzle elements, but it's in some ways what i'd like to characterize as an anti-puzzle platformer. the puzzles make sense in an overarching narrative context, but not necessarily outside of that. and that's the point.

i don't want to say much more about the themes of the game, because the game is really about the experience you have playing it. i'm tired of the culture of endless talk and i don't really like that we expect people to talk at length about why their game is meaningful to get people to even be interested in it. i will say that issues of gender roles, rape culture, and the destruction of the environment, among other things, are very important to me and therefore a part of the game.

so the game is not up front about its intentions like Cart Life or Unmanned (winners of this past year's IGF and Indiecade, respectively), but it's not meant to be taken as completely weird, crazy randomness. it may not look like the image many have of a "meaningful game", but it is still a game about humans - just in a more abstract, ambiguous, videogame-like format. the most conscious inspirations are probably the films of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch (particularly The Shining and Inland Empire). both of those filmmakers are excellent at structuring scenes where the viewer has to interrogate what's being shown to them onscreen virtually every second in order to form their own sort of narrative understanding of what's going on. this is a thing i barely, if ever, see in games, but want to strongly encourage players to do with this game. hence the pun in the title (on the word "problematic"), which hopefully provokes some people to question what they're seeing in the game.

the more videogamey inspirations were the strange otherworldly platforming of Jill of the Jungle, the exploration horror and huge geometric environments of Yume Nikki (my favorite game, and one of the few examples of a game that's story is buried under the surface in abstract environments), and the puzzles of Braid. the visual feel of Problem Attic is partly inspired by cryptic atari/c64 games and glitch art.

i'm not sure if people will find the game insightful or dumb or pretentious or whatever. i just released the game and am already feeling weird about the fact that i inadvertently made the kind of game i'm trying to push against (2d platformers), but i at least got an opportunity to make fun of some of the cliches of the genre while still making a fairly artistically ambitious game. i am also very happy that several of my friends really seemed to dig it. i don't know how well it'll be understood, or if it will permeate beyond my immediate sphere, or if people really want to care about another fucking puzzle platformer (i wouldn't blame them for that at all). either way, i'm glad at least some people are getting something meaningful out of the experience.

thanks for playing!

- liz

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Problem Attic

Problem Attic is a game about prisons, both real and imaginary. it was originally for ludum dare #26, then i took the idea a lot further. you can play it HERE MIRROR HERE (the mirror is recommended esp if you're getting super slow downloads). if you're only seeing a purple screen for awhile when you open the file it's because stencyl is dumb - but rest assured, the game is loading.

it's a 2d platformer made in flash (with stencyl) and takes 1-2 hours to complete (OR MUCH LONGER DEPENDING ON HOW LONG YOU TAKE I DUNNO). it runs in your web browser. the game will save your progress, but it will start you off at the title screen each time.

note: if you reach a screen that you think is the ending but you're not sure, you're not at the end. you haven't reached the ending until the game literally tells you it's the "end" =)


arrow keys to move
UPDATED 6/30: z or up to jump
r to ??
x to start

if you played the original ludum dare version, note that this game is kind of a different beast now and a lot of the control issues have been fixed.

the soundtrack will be forthcoming on my bandcamp page in the next few weeks. in the meantime, you can help me out and show your appreciation by getting my album SCRAPS, which is pay what you want.


- liz

Thursday, May 16, 2013

SCRAPS: an album of bits and pieces and pits and bieces

a couple days ago, on a whim i decided to put together a bunch of old bits and pieces of old music projects i had floating around on my hard drive for years into some sort of cryptic, grabbag-type format. i named it SCRAPS. for more details and discussion on why i chose to do this, see my tweets here:

i've been extremely frustrated and creatively congested for many many years, musically. i've felt like it was all building up to something, but i've put so much pressure on myself that it's never happened. hopefully doing this will alleviate some of that pressure. feel free to send to signal boost and send it friends and stuff, because it would really help me to get more exposure for this.

the album is 43 tracks and 67 minutes long. there are no guarantees of quality or consistency, but that's just part of the experience. things range from back in 2002 to stuff i literally just added yesterday. some are arrangements of videogame music from my ocremix days. there are also things in here with my pre-transition singing voice that i am very uncomfortable with, but i'm dealing with it.

the track titles are somewhat cryptic bits of ascii art i made to fit my feelings about the music in them in one way or another. possibly the best way to listen is to click on ones at random - then it becomes a sort of an exploration game. i even have been thinking of making a twine game for this album that better encapsulates this concept, but we'll see how that goes.

on the periphery of this is also my Actual Old Songs album Live Active Cultures, which i've hated for many years...but might be coming back around to these days. give it some of your love too, if you can - it desperately needs it.

the album is pay what you want, and i would really appreciate anything anyone can contribute.

i'll give you all a starting point into the cryptic world of SCRAPS. here's a cleaned-up version of an old arrangement of "terra" and "awakening" from Final Fantasy 6:

please share & enjoy!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

an in-depth response to darius kazemi's "fuck videogames"

Darius Kazemi's recent piece "Fuck Videogames" talks about how videogames are not necessarily a medium suited for expressing all the sorts of things we'd like to use them for. Ian Bogost summarizes the aim of this piece in his short response:

  1. It's not necessarily more "noble" or whatever to express something in videogame form, particularly if it's not working for you.
  2. Often expressing something with videogames primarily serves a meta-rhetorical purpose or benefit ("Look, X made a game about Y"), which might actually detract from or even reverse the desired expression.
  3. Often the desire to express something with videogames is really just a desire to gain approval from a particular audience associated with videogames (he uses Twine games as an example), which may or may not be a valid goal but it's wrong to bind it to videogame expression.

an issue that i see underlying the whole piece that is never really expressed explicitly - it's the case with many "gamers" and techies in general that so many who have constructed their lives and identities through videogames often have a hard time accepting that there are other valid means of expressing or legitimizing their own emotions outside of technology. the world of technology is, after all, what they know. they want to make personal videogames because they understand how videogames work (having played them a lot) and that they can express deep emotions through play, but they don't have the kind corresponding experience with other forms of art to understand how those work. this lack of understanding combined with videogames' newness means they get raised to the top of the pantheon as the all-encompassing, clearly superior, art-form-to-end-all-art-forms.

and that defines conversations among people passionate about games more than anything else - a spirit of "we can do anything with games". one that can take on a socially progressive angle, but is often really driven by the same ultra-capitalist, highly fascist idea of tech culture's that humankind can overcome any kind of obstacles facing it through better technological products - or building more "perfect" systems.

but let's talk about points 2 & 3 of Bogost's summary in more detail. here's a direct quote from Kazemi's piece:

"Some people make games because games are cool, or sexy...if you write a blog post about your cat, probably nobody will care. But if you make a GAME about your cat, it’ll get covered on a blog or something!"

i love Twine. it has plenty of issues, but it is a very accessible tool that has allowed many to make games who would otherwise not have the patience or understanding for it. this is a good thing. i have mostly avoided doing my own Twine games, though, because if i usually feel like if i want to write something personal, i'd rather just do it here on my blog - instead of presenting players with some vaguely game-like, and ultimately not very meaningful set of choices. plenty Twine games don't do this - but it's always a danger of making games in that (or any other) format.

making a Twine game does not divorce you from all of the trappings of videogame culture and substitute it with something more pure, and it certainly doesn't absolve you of artistic responsibility as the creator. using a Twine game as a way to write about your own personal experiences doesn't absolve you of artistic responsibility, either. a game, like any piece of art, is a subjective window to reality - not reality itself. presentation is always the key, and it always defines how others will interpret and respond to your experience.

a lot of people also make Twine games as a social activity, and to have their experiences accepted and legitimized by others. and that's alright, but i find it highly peculiar that it seems to be treated as a somehow more momentous or more deep medium to express one's own emotions.

we are a culture that defines itself through words. the "important works of art" we're exposed to in school are novels, and maybe poetry. we inherently value words as way more deeper and insightful signifiers of meaning than images or sounds. anything that doesn't fit into that way of thinking is either treated with suspicion, or seen as vague, or strange, or manipulative, or incomprehensible, or frivolous. and i think this is a toxic idea. it is very easy to wrap oneself up in a cloud of words, or to build a tower out of them, convinced their ultimate rightness and trueness. but there is nothing inherently more right and true about words - in fact, they often serve to obscure meanings much more intuitively communicated through images or sounds.

Twine games - and "personal" games in general, of course, can be a great avenue for fostering empathy, and letting us explore aspects of ourselves and others we couldn't otherwise. but they're only one avenue.

i worry that we're more used to connecting with systems in videogames than with people. we tend to have trouble understanding how to make choices unless they are presented in a game-like manner. so we're using these games as a way to better understand ourselves and others through a way that we can connect with. and that's not necessarily a bad thing at all. but games are often not the best mirrors, either - particularly when creators aren't very thoughtful about the choices they provide their players. it's easy to misrepresent personal experiences in all kinds of awkward and manipulative ways and undermine your ultimate goals.

i have to admit - "personal" games have been a real thorn in my side. i did the music for Dys4ia, a game i love by a game designer (and human being) i love that has done many wonderful things for many people. but i don't know if critics would've understood at all what the game was communicating if the text wasn't there to tell them exactly what each little minigame was about. and maybe that's underestimating their intelligence, but i haven't given much reason to suspect that most critics have any ability or desire to comprehend subtlety in the thing they're experiencing either.

i am extremely skeptical that making an on-the-surface "personal" game is an inherently more valid or emotionally honest way to express oneself. i have seen too many times where clueless critics only construct meaning of works of artists as either a form of political protest or some kind of evocation of personal demons. these are the two pre-baked avenues allowed artists in a society that doesn't really understand or value artistic expression very highly.

in an effort to expand the expressive and empathetic range of the medium i feel like we've made a mistake in what we've chosen to highlight the most. to put it another way: i am tired of the lazy way we talk about these games. i'm starting to feel like i won't be taken seriously unless i make a game that is viewed as "serious" or as "personal". i am starting to feel like unless i say my game is "about rape" or "about transphobia" or "about misogyny" (three things i know a lot about) and clearly articulate why this is the case, that i won't be taken seriously. i must be trying to achieve some kind of articulable political goal, and/or the things featured in the game must be "my" experiences. otherwise, i'm just making another stupid cartoony videogame.

"Buying into the idea that validation can/should/will come from a given culture is way more nourishing to that culture than it is to you."

let's not beat around the bush: the culture around "indie" games is classist and racist as hell. yes, i said it. those who have the most access have the time and money get to control the distribution and the conversation for everyone else. they also get to run the events and choose what gets talked about at those events. we may try to do all we can to fight against this and subvert it, but they're still controlling the outlets for discussion in the end. major events happen in places like the SF bay area, or NYC, or LA, etc etc - these are where the real connections are made and relationships are built. if you're not around at events like GDC networking and meeting new people (because, let's say, you can't afford them), then you probably won't be taken very seriously or have access to many resources.

people trust people they know. i know this because i've experienced it firsthand. any degree of success or exposure i've had has been a direct result of the people i've surrounded myself with after moving to the bay area. and i'm privileged for that.

the more i've gone to events and met new people, the more i've begun to realize that everyone in this community knows everyone else. and i find that incredibly disturbing. why? because it means we, as participants in this culture lack the ability to be critical of ourselves - because we don't want to hurt our friends' feelings. once you start to greatly prioritize their needs above the needs of people you don't know, you stop becoming critical of yourself and the people around you. and this leads to cliques and increasingly greater and greater conflicts of interest.

one high-profile example that most people know about: Brandon Boyer, chairman of the IGF is friends with Phil Fish, whose game Fez won the overall award in the IGF in 2012, despite having already won an award back in 2008. and yes, i have interacted with Brandon a bit and have seen that he is a swell guy in many ways who cares about a lot of important stuff. and Brandon is no means the only person in this position. i've seen many journalists become close friends with their subjects. but with a lot of power comes a lot of responsibility. being a nice person doesn't mean that he has the ability to take on his friends to do what is needed in that situation. because he hasn't shown that he does.

and yes, i understand that artists tend to connect with like-minded artists. the internet assists greatly in bringing us all together. and the world around "indie" games and thereabouts is a small one as it is. i know that it's inevitable that many of us will make friends with each other. but i don't think it's a desirable situation for everyone to be friends with everyone else. why? because i don't think there are any adequate incentives for people to be critical of their own friends.

i certainly don't need to be friends with everyone. i already feel like i'm stretching myself thin a lot of the time, and i constantly worry about hurting other people's feelings with my opinions. the bay area is a wonderful place in many ways, but i don't think everyone should move here either.

i want to see all kinds of people who are not in positions of privilege, who are poor and non-white, who live nowhere near the power centers of this world do vastly more insightful and interesting things than anything i or my friends could come up with. i know this is very possible, or at the very least, is desperately needed. a vaster breadth of culture would certainly help save us from the increasingly narrow western frontier of highlighting expressive innovations in games built around new mechanics and novel subjects. we're not really respecting these games, as it is. they're ultimately treated as objects for us to feel better about ourselves as self-respecting educated white people who like videogames. they're monuments to a medium we still think of as ultimately stupid and immature.

the worst part is that we secretly don't even like them that much anyway. we say we love Cart Life but we don't actually want to play it. it's just there to make us feel good. we'd much rather sink our teeth into some flashy, mass-marketed sludge by an egomaniacal dilettante.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Bioshock Infinite: A Completely Sincere, Not At All Manipulative or Self-Aggrandizing Journey Inward

i've posted this on twitter and elsewhere, but here is my deeply insightful commentary of parts of CliffyB's wonderful sleeper hit of this year, Bioshock Infinite:

it was originally done for an event organized by Jake Elliott, designer of Kentucky Route Zero (among other games). the video was fairly inspired by Jim Munroe's semi-famous GTA3 machinima "My Trip To Liberty City", which was the impetus for the whole event.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

it's okay to like games

this post is somewhat inspired by me being very confused and frankly kind of disturbed after reading about this man's experiences quitting the internet for a year. he seems in many ways like the perfect portrait of a clueless, aimless white middle-class 20-something. with that in mind:

it's okay to like videogames. yes, the culture is bad. the culture is very bad. i'm not making any excuses for it.

there's an undertone of shame to a great percentage of writing i read about games. the tone is of "i'm a pathetic human being who can't live a normal and healthy life and that's why i play videogames". from there one either attempts to exorcise that shame in a cathartic burst of words to connect with an audience of similarly-minded shame-feelers or defends it in all kinds of silly and childish ways and grasps at straws and greatly inflates particular experiences with games in an attempt to prove to the greater culture supposedly oppressive towards games that the experiences are legitimate and meaningful. either way says much more about the writer than it does about the game itself. games, like any other medium have absolutely no need to prove they are legitimate in the first place. they exist, therefore they are legitimate.

videogames are addicting, sure, but all entertainment is addicting. it's plenty easy to get lost into the worlds of tv shows or films too. addiction is a personal compulsion. it's not an excuse to say that a videogame is causing addicting behavior, though many commercial games certainly have tried to feed off that as best they can.

your feelings are valid. you are not a victim. entertainment is making you feel like you're missing out, like you're a loser for not participating in this imaginary cultural image of what people in their 20's in 30's are supposed to be doing. this is not real. culture is preying on you. stop being a victim, and stop feeling sorry for yourself.

if you feel passionate about games, it's almost certainly because you've had enjoyable and meaningful experiences with them in the past. sure, maybe they were an escape from a stressful or lonely or depressive or abusive external life, but there's more to it than that. there's a joy there from experiencing and exploring a digital space, just as anyone would feel joy from exploring a non-digital space. don't try to devalue that. it is perfectly genuine, as are any other of your experiences outside the digital realm. it's just one other way to interact with the world.

do you have friends? you should call up a friend and hang out. just spending time around other people in the same room as you is nice. even if you're playing videogames - at least talk to each other. don't spend your time staring at your phone or computer. you don't have to escape into the woods and meditate for 12 hours every day in order to live life and feel okay about yourself. games are not a substitute for human interaction, nor should they be. games are not destroying human interaction either. they are what they are and they do what they do, no more or no less than that.

movies and and books and music and visual art are not inherently more or less valid than games. they're just another aspect of the human experience. they do, however, have a lot more breadth because of existing as a medium for much longer. being aware of them is a good way to open up to a lot of things you will certainly miss playing videogames. but you shouldn't feel shamed into consuming them, or that you are a lesser person for not being aware of one thing or another. nor are they there as a "pretentious" exercises in manipulation or making you feel bad. art is there to enrich and be enjoyed, not score social points. fuck anyone who treats it the latter way. the impulse to make art is a basic human one, not an attempt to make oneself feel superior to others.

i'm tired of feeling like i'm writing to 17 year olds when i write about games. if we can't accept a base level of validity to the thing we're talking about without having to constantly feel shame and prove and defend its existence, then i'm not interested in participating in discussions surrounding games. it's stupid and boring to have so much of the talk be constantly channeled through that. who cares what Roger Ebert or whoever else who never played a videogame thinks or has thought. games are games and they can do good or bad things depending on how they're used. they're only just one tool.

so yes, turn off your computer once in awhile and watch a good movie or read a book. or go walk around in the park and cook your own food or all of that. those are important parts of the human experience. but don't do it as an exercise in shame. and don't do it thinking it will make you a perfect person, and therefore cure you of the dirty vice of games. and definitely don't expect it to provide you with same kind of experience as a game does. a videogame is not meant to give you a life. when it does, it's usually a pretty poor one. it is just one tiny window in a vast ocean of human experience. it's a pretty neat window sometimes, but that's all it is. to acknowledge this also opens up the possibility of being a somewhat happy, empathetic, socially aware person who can still enjoy games for what they are - and no more or no less than that.