Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Talk of Magicians

today marks the 5th anniversary of the first release of Braid. i was going to write a eulogy of sorts, but it came at a bad time and i decided that Braid has already been picked apart so endlessly that i didn't feel a particular desire to contribute any more to it. then it occurred to me i already had an unpublished but article from early March of this year with some added edits i made today that delved into some of the issues i was planning on bringing up in the Braid post in a strange, roundabout way. it seemed oddly apt, and i don't quite know why this article never made it online anyway. so... without further ado, here you go:

(be warned, there are some spoilers for Corrypt!)


The Talk Of Magicians

"If Corrypt had more-polished graphics and sound, and were a bit longer, 100X-1000X as many people would play it...and it would make a good living for the developer"
Braid developer Jon Blow tweeted. Other commercially-successful game devs followed suit: Hundreds developer Greg Wohlwend said in the same twitter conversation that he and Spelltower developer Zach Gage "agree(d) with jon" and that if Corrypt dev Michael Brough “worked on the visuals, the game would then be more accessible to outsiders". Blow, Wohlwend, and Gage then laid out advice for Brough on how to sell his game. Brough had for some reason set the original price on the app store at 1.00, which he changed to 2 dollars shortly after. "Part of it is building a name for yourself. these designs are good enough that you could build a base of people who would pay $10/$20 for whatever you do..." Blow said. Wohlwend agreed, and emphasized that by setting the price higher he'll "grow a following that will pay for (his) quality game design."

A few weeks prior, New Zealand-born, UK-based game developer Michael Brough posted on his blog re: his future prospects of full-time game development: "I expect to keep going for another year or two and then have to give up and get a real job". Indeed - according to his post, the only thing that brought Brough much money in 2012 was his game Vertex Despenser, which was a part of an Indie Royale Bundle that just happened to contain a pack of several titles from the commercially successful Serious Sam franchise in it. Still, 2012 was a productive year for Brough: he had four of his games in the app store: O, Glitch Tank, Zaga 33, and Corrypt. Shortly after making this post, his game Vesper.5 was nominated for a Nuovo award at this year's IGF. Brough's recent shout-outs for Corrypt from more high profile game devs like Blow, Canabalt creator Adam Atomic, and NYU Game Center director Frank Lantz (in an app store review) have also no doubt helped him get some more exposure since then. He even has been profiled recently in an issue of Wired.

But the value of this kind of social currency is becoming increasingly vague and hard to parse. A month after Brough's post, UK game developer Sophie Houlden, in a post reviewing her past few years as a full-time indie, wrote "I have enough money left to eat for a month, maybe two". Her situation is not particularly unique among indies. Brough's lack of app store success shows how difficult it can be to make any degree of living off selling one's games on distribution services. And Steam Greenlight, a supposed help for users to vote for lesser-known developers to get sold on the popular digital distribution service Steam, is not exactly what one might call a friendly venue for slightly offbeat developers like Brough or Houlden either. Putting aside the controversy surrounding the 100 dollar entry fee, one look at the list of Greenlit games and you'll see a very conservative cross-section of the "indie" community. Many even appear to be unfinished (On Greenlight, Houlden tweeted: "Greenlight is great, how else would unfinished games get a steam deal instead of hundreds of finished games!"). If it's much of a surprise to anyone that these are the games the Steam community would choose to put on the distribution service, they haven't been paying very much attention. But it does certainly dispel the oft-repeated cliche that the best or most interesting ideas eventually rise to the top.


Walking into the world of a Michael Brough game feels like stepping inside of a machine that has existed for a very long time before you ever entered into it. His obsession with hyper-intricate backgrounds with interlocking networks of symbols, like these circuit board-style designs for his game Helix feel like occupying the nervous system of a living being - which makes no concessions to you, nor does it make any effort to translate its logic into human language. There's a constant tension between this alienness and your in-game character, of just being in the environment and then having to manipulate it to serve your own ends and progress in the game.

Brough's games are also particularly notable in the way they have no seeming desire to make concessions to players while still being somewhat approachable and "game-like" in terms of mechanics. He does all the visuals and sound in his games - and largely because of this consistency, across genres and styles they all feel like self-contained worlds. These worlds can be cryptic and unfriendly, often hostile to many players. The Wired article (somewhat bafflingly) describes them in its title as "ugly".

This "ugliness" is actually a highly-refined, organic style of Brough's that somehow manages to feel both coarse and delicate. Brough has been using this style across a majority of his games, but Corrypt addresses the possible intent behind the aesthetics by encoding strong environmental overtones into it. In Corrypt, your character awkwardly shuffles through and pushes a series of boxes and manipulates the environment to complete side quests and collect mushrooms and gems and keys. After your character pushes enough boxes to collect enough items, he has the power to spend them as currency to buy magic from a magician (which other NPCs in the game warn him to stay away from). Buying magic allows the player to completely alter the fabric of the environment, permanently destroying and warping it in all kinds of maddeningly unpredictable ways, in order to gain every last gem. This process enacts a lot of fear and anxiety in the player, especially as he or she moves further along, from seeing what her or his actions have wrought.

It's hard not to see the magic in the game as some sort of allegory on human beings' never-ending thirst for more resources, and the irreparable damage it enacts on the environment. It suggests, especially taken with his other works like Vesper.5, that environments are delicate spaces that need to be accepted on their own terms in order to really be understood at a deeper level.

These greater themes seem to be absent in the little critical writing that does exist about his games - they're not mentioned anywhere in the Wired article, nor in this detailed critical reading, which focuses solely on the mechanical aspects of his games. The strangeness and beauty of the environments become a marginalized backdrop to a game seen as only remarkable from a design perspective - something the game even seems to mock with its flat looking aesthetics and its big, square block pushing and its few mock-JRPG miniquests in the beginning.

Not only have Blow and other well-known devs failed to understand that these subtle aesthetic choices are actually an integral part of the experience of playing Corrypt - they've actually completely missed what the game is trying to communicate in the first place. The more I think about it, the more the gap in perspective and intentions between designers of "polished games" like Blow and more self-expressive, experimental types Brough seems to widen. Maybe this also explains Brough's seeming indifference about how he priced Corrypt in the app store.

Many commercially-focused indie devs might like to say that they intend to use their games to create a deep, thoughtful space through the design. But it's hard to skirt the reality that those devs are often just aiming to create smaller-scale, slightly off-beat versions of already commercially successful formulas. And when they aren't, the focus on polish and polish and on this somewhat impossible goal of reaching a mass audience - in a way that becomes oddly prescriptive and cynical and self-limiting about content, and erasing of the circumstances of those like Brough who maybe don't have the time or money or interest to endlessly "polish" one game. Like Blow et al aren't aware that making something which might not be accessible, or at least their conception of accessible, to a large audience could be anything but a lazy and self-defeating artistic choice in the end. Like they're almost offended that Brough refuses being their protege or following the same career path as them. The message to Brough in Blow's and others' tweets seems clear: either play by the rules or don't expect to make any sort of living off what you're doing.


Still, Brough is lucky. His struggles reaching a wider audience were just recently profiled in more detail in the previously mentioned Wired article. It remains to be seen whether this exposure will let him keep making games full-time - but in private conversation, he told me "I want to be clear... I don't want to be using the image of poverty to get attention" and that him and his wife are comfortable for now. He also acknowledges his privilege in a recent blog post: "If I'm any good at what I'm doing now, it's only through having had the chance to devote an incredible amount of time to it. I'm fortunate. Being able to put years of unpaid full-time work into something before seeing anything back from it is an incredible privilege."

If we know anything about games, we know that the people who make and sell games will need to find ways to make their games resonate with larger audiences outside of "gamers"  if they want a higher degree of cultural penetration. What this might mean, though, no one can really say. Successful indies are, after all, a privileged minority. I strongly suspect that a small percentage of games in the App Store (things like Spelltower, Hundreds, or Canabalt by previously-mentioned devs) make a vast majority of the money, but without anything concrete to prove it, it's still not a particularly rewarding path for most developers to take (to put it lightly). "Indie games" as we know them are barely now five years old, but the idea of a freak, Canabalt-type success now seems all but impossible now, let alone a Minecraft-level one. But the narrative that gets endlessly picked apart and reiterated and grossly fetishized by the press and by vulture-like indie devs is the one of the commercial success stories like Minecraft or Braid or Super Meat Boy - even though Sophie Houlden's (or thousands of less well-known developers') experiences are much more typical.

To Blow or Wohlwend, a talented designer accepting that his or her artistic choices aren't going to make she or he a lot of money might sound like bad a move. But then, the idea that any self-identifying artist finds this to be a not sane or valid perspective to have about his or her art just shows how insane and money-fueled the current climate of videogames, indie or not, is.

It shouldn't be so revolutionary to suggest that the world of a Michael Brough game might be giving players something meaningful - not just mechanically, but aesthetically, that commercially-focused devs like Blow or Wohlwend's games are not. In a world where a majority of indie games aren't known at all outside a relatively small group of insiders, his search for depth, both mechanical and aesthetic, certainly shows a much greater respect towards the works of very un-techie factions of the visual art and music world than his aesthetic's detractors' do.

The excitement that veils something much more sinister - the odd obsession with an unobtainable systemic perfection, often fueled by unrelated emotional pain or longing fostered by society - the thirst for money masked in frenzied experiments to remodel human behavior - an utter cluelessness and indifference to different modes of values or anything and anyone not in the room. This is the language of tech culture of the early 21st century, and the language implicitly embraced by Braid (even if it tries and fails to be critical of this from within). It's a language that just serves as another sad mirror, another small subset of what we are enacting on the earth and all the pain it causes - social, spiritual, environmental. It's a language that Corrypt, in all its seemingly insubstantial, clunky, box-pushing glory, is acutely aware of. It's a language that Corrypt is very critical of in both its aesthetics and design, in a way that Braid misses the boat on.

Conventional wisdom says that in the current market for indie/mobile/social games, players will eventually reach a point when they become so turned off by the absolute oversaturation of  disposable mass-market dross flooding distribution services. Talk is cheap, and talk, in the end, usually fails to account for people's changing needs and values. Then, we can hope, they'll start to actively seek out things which are more mechanically and aesthetically rich. But this could also be false optimism. Maybe the culture of games is so deeply channeled towards the most surface, dumbed-down communication in that the only hope for the future is the freaks coming in from the outside and trying create an entirely new model. Thankfully, Michael Brough is happy to oblige.

Whatever happens, let's pray to God the shovelware market suffocates itself sooner than later - because right now, Brough's games are some the few that offer any sort of real, untainted route out of the unending waves of shallow, manipulative entertainment. Maybe we'll even reach a point in the future where all the highly calculated programmers and businessmen with seemingly unending confidence and resources who make games - or, as Corrypt would call them: magicians, come face to face with a reality they can't undo anymore.