Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Evil Was Born

|||.......a little boy went out to play. when he opened his door, he saw the world. as he passed through the doorway, he caused a reflection. evil was born. evil was born, and followed the boy.......|||

let's talk about a videogame called Zelda...

sometimes, you'll find yourself in a small village. as you exit the village, the sun sets and a wolf howls in the distance.

soon, the bubbly theme music is gone. there is only quiet, and the quiet leaves a night filled with danger. there's a plague on the land. evil lingers there, and its creatures will turn suddenly into crazed, bloodthirsty monsters. their souls are possessed by a deeper, darker force. the sword must be used, but the sword doesn't solve the problem, merely lets you navigate through it for a little longer. the evil is beyond any one creature's will. the evil is some kind of disembodied force, much larger than the bad guy. it's built into the program.

then the tinkling theme of the sun song starts hesitantly, and the darkness recedes as quickly as it began, retreating back into the shadows for now. the land is slowly begins its cycle anew once more. another day. hope and happiness. and then you wander through the fields and into a bubbling town, with all kinds of irritating noises and people chatting. the people are weird grotesque lego creatures and you don't really understand what they're on about all the time, but you still appreciate them for what they are. but then, exit the town and you find a temple sits above it all, knowingly. the serenity of the temple sits in dark contrast to the town just one screen over. it's the true source beyond the bustling. it shrouds the land in mystery. the temple is the fourth wall - it's the guiding spirit that leads you through the game. the temple is the home of the game designer.

the land is sick. you're not sure what kind of illness. but you can feel it lingering. you know that soon time will run its cruel machinery over the landscape until it's tilled bone dry. you know the bustling masks suffering. you know evil will overtake the land. it's already fated to happen.

there are some spiritual guardians (mostly women) who see it too, and they want to help you. some of them are more consciously aware of it than others. their spirit of generosity is infinite, but they lack the power to deal with the kind of evil that will soon ravage the land. their power is easily stomped over by this new kind of evil.

this evil - black magic. a mysterious, powerful new technology. industrialization. colonialism. a harmful, dispassionate occupying force. one which the constant fallout from is built into the fabric of Eastern culture. constantly living in the dark shadow of occupation.

to restore the land, you must fully understand the land. to understand the land, you must become a scientist. you must feel the land's pain. you must feel what it is to be inside of a dying tree. you must feel what it's like to be inside the belly of a creature. all creatures have a temple inside of them, even if it's sometimes a really weird one.

and then, when you step through the door. when you remove your weapon and prove you're ready. when you're wandering the dangerous, merciless wasteland. you'll see the true form, the thingness of things. you'll see their deep sadness, and it will be overwhelming. but if you can fix your gaze longer, you'll see straight through their pain down into their biological inner-workings, and you can watch all the strange life that lives within them. and view their arcane scriptures, expressed in a way no human (or whatever you are) is meant to understand. you'll see the full scope of it all. and you'll need all kinds of new tools to comprehend it and penetrate through it.

and your shadow is born.


Link is a restless figure, one without parents. he's always very far away from home. his is a story of destiny, of endless searching, of finding a larger purpose. Link is mute, but we are meant to express our desires onto him. we want him to be somebody.

while Link's journey is fraught with danger, he's being heavily guided through it - by us, by the characters in the story (many of whom are women) who are protecting him, and by the designers. we want Link to succeed and not come to any serious harm. and so, if we're successful, he ultimately will.

the darkness. of breaking the landscape into easily parsed chunks. one part embodies one idea, another another one idea. enrich yourself with the knowledge gained from all of them until you're complete. your path is predetermined from the beginning. you know exactly what to expect, even when you don't. this is what we call The Hero's Journey, and its tendrils are covering every kind of mass entertainment imaginable - but especially videogames.

which begs the question - does Link save the land or is he only led to believe he saved the land, because that's what we want him to have done? did all those puzzles all meet their perfect solutions with all the tools he just happened to have found scattered about? were all those hookshot targets all conveniently placed so he could navigate easily over the deadly spike pits placed below? did he really understand what the hell was going on before marching into yet another race of creatures' holy temple with his sword unsheathed, looking for a fight? the game certainly gives us very little indication that he does.

it's okay. the settings are all just a playground for him. a sometimes dangerous playground, but one that is highly navigable. they ultimately lead us to feeling he's accomplished something deep and substantial - and that's because they're set up that way. the game is not about the world of Hyrule, the game is about Link, the Hero - and us. it's Link's world, made specifically for him to navigate through. it's not about some random bystander NPC who gets in the way. they're just a prop to his journey.

and so we see that Ganon is maybe not as much a shadow of Ganondorf, who is barely established in the story, as he is a shadow of Link.

by the end, the darkness has finally receded. we've become scientists and mastered all the elements of the land, and have used those abilities to vanquish the ultimate darkness. we're pretty fucking badass by this point and it seems like we must know how we got to be that way, but we really don't. we do know we've delivered the final blow. we've traveled through unendingly hostile systems of torture and suffering. we've fixed our eyes into them deeply, and it was terrifying, but we made our way through them bravely, albeit with many scars. and now the plague over the land is receding. and we should be overjoyed, but the sadness remains. and it is immense.

Link must return to childhood, back to innocence, to finish what he started. and so that's what we'll see, because that's what we want to see. but it's not true, because he can't anymore. the door has already been opened. his shadow is now already out wandering the countryside, looking for women to fuck. it can't be put back in anymore.

we've never moved out of childhood, yet we can't return.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Into (and Out Of) The Belly of the Beast

you know, i'm a strong woman. i'm realizing this more and more every day. i don't care what anyone else might have to say to me about it.

i'm a woman. whatever objective definition may or may not exist of that word doesn't matter at this point, because that's how i'm seen now. that's the role i embody. and i actually feel a lot more comfortable with it, as arbitrary as it might seem at times. and now i'm standing in the middle of a swanky apartment in SF holding a rum and coke in a room full of women (and some non-binary people) who work in the game industry or connected fields, wondering what the hell this is all about. i only got into this party because i was in the right place at the right time the night before - and the guy at the front didn't even see my name on the list, but he let me in anyway, saying "i'm just out here as a formality, honey" warmly and laughing. up until a couple years or so ago, i'd never felt like i'd been at the right place at the right time for anything.

i spend so much time and energy just trying to stay human, and yet i usually feel like the token alien lifeform in any given group of people. the whole week of GDC 2014 i'm occupied with thoughts of my impending homelessness at the end of the week. it seemed like a bit of a cruel joke, with more potential offers for money and work coming my way than ever before. everything was falling apart, but something new was also coming together. i feel so hopelessly inept at living my life in so many ways, yet so extremely confident in others. and now, suddenly i'm a part of a community. suddenly everyone seems really nice to me and tells me they respect my work. suddenly i feel much less guarded towards them, and, for the first time, believe they're being sincere. and yet i still don't know where i'm going to sleep at the end of the week.

i'm spending the week incessantly handing out my obnoxious business cards to everyone i meet, advertising my obnoxious game - the game no one's supposed to like. a game about upsetting shit a lot of people never want to think about. i was secretly hoping that i'd push some of them away or offend them. and nearly everyone is saying "wow, this is so cool!" i doubt they'd feel that way if they spent serious time actually playing the game, of course. just yesterday Cara Ellison told me "your games make me feel really bad" in (presumably) the most flattering way she could muster. it's a hard thing to hear from anyone, but it's what i've gotten used to hearing.

being a woman - defining and reevaluating myself as a woman, leaves me in uncertain territory. there are less examples for me to look to. buildings previously built up by all the things i've looked to in the past crumble, and now i see how flimsy they were in the first place. i struggle to feel i'm really occupying the same space as these women, but i'm definitely feeling a positive vibe i didn't expect to feel from them. maybe it's that women in games are so intensely targeted and marginalized, they couldn't help but emotionally support each other and try and birth something new and interesting. not that those women aren't often equally lethal towards each other - a reality i'd became increasingly acquainted with all too well in the past year. or maybe this is just how things really work in creative communities - that just because i'd never really heard many stories of women in male-dominated worlds didn't mean they hadn't existed all over the place.

presumably i'm some sort of Game Designer or Game Thinker or whatever, but i don't pretend like there isn't a lot i don't know about games. so i go to heavily praised talks like The Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC and i see boys with toys. i talk to highly educated, articulate academics who've spent their careers studying videogames and i see boys with toys. i see boys with toys everywhere. i see them skimming along the surface, endlessly posturing. and i just can't get myself to care. but a lot of people seem to love to throw money at them. so i guess i should care. a few of the younger men - ones i've met before who seemed nice enough, if naive, are being hit with walls of paranoia and depression from all the unexpected attention directed at them from their massive commercial successes. they don't seem particularly wise or powerful, they just seem like insecure young people. and there's nothing wrong with that. but because of that, they don't have psychological mechanisms for dealing with the increased scrutiny placed on them as newly successful 'indie game' celebrities. they seem guarded, and not in good emotional places despite their new-found wealth. meanwhile others who i might respect, who are used to relative marginalization or obscurity next to these celebrities shrug their shoulders and continue doing what they do. no amount of demographic breakdowns and marketing analysis can mask the fact that it's all so deeply arbitrary, and more people seem to be realizing it.

i don't have any respect for the videogame industry as an entity. i have no respect for its labor practices, nor its artistic aims, nor the imagery it worships, nor its treatment of women or other minorities, nor the parasitic relationship it has with its consumers. i think it's disgusting and abhorrent. so i can't say that i respect GDC, as a business conference that stands to represent the values of the videogame industry. nor do i support the IGF, in its endless hype and favoritism, nor in its aim to award 'indie' games with (for the most part) already the highest levels of cultural exposure. but individuals often start to change, even when the worlds they occupy remain as stubborn and stagnant as ever. i appreciate when Brandon Boyer says onstage in the IGF awards that he supports people involved in games fragmenting off and pushing in whatever directions they want to push in, even if he doesn't understand it. i appreciate it when i can have an honest conversation with a deeply professional woman who's spent much of her life in the game industry, even if she might not ever really understand what i'm trying to do with a thing like Problem Attic.

a small one-day conference called Critical Proximity, the day before GDC, mostly made up of young people, seems to be much more interesting and relevant than nearly anything at GDC - despite the appearance of a "videogame criticism" conference sounding like a comically narrow focus from the outside. there was a lot of talk about how to maintain supportive communities, yet in the final talk Ian Bogost (or "Old Man Bogost" as i've come to call him) still seemed intent on breaking up any kind of delusions of community love that might have been held over the course of the conference, or anything that distracts videogame critics from doing the thing videogame critics are presumably supposed to be doing. and fair enough - maybe there is no community. maybe we don't want community. others, like Samantha Allen, made this point too. maybe things will continue to shift and fall apart unpredictably. but even if there is no community, there is a lot of genuine sincerity, and genuine desire to support other people - and that's a thing that doesn't just materialize out of thin air.

then - walking into Moscone Center for the third year in a row, i knew enough to know what i was going to get this time around. i knew the way places like the Bay Area or LA or NYC like to mythologize themselves. i knew that the interesting stuff is most often happening outside of these events, and outside those cities. that is, unless maybe you're David Kanaga or Pippin Barr and you're doing genuinely exciting, genuinely cutting-edge experiments at the intersection of performance art and games. and then, a lot of people are probably either very confused by or very indifferent to you. or if your name is Tale of Tales, and your sustained visibility over the years hasn't done much of anything to move you out of a strange, liminal, heavily marginalized space between the overly stagnant, overly stuffy art world and the overly commercial, overly nasty game world.

i don't know what will happen with videogames in the next ten years. i don't know to be excited about what will happen in them or not. i almost don't care. so much ground is gained, so much ground is lost. so many things have been changing surprisingly quickly, so many stay the same and show no signs of ever being different. i still don't understand why people who make videogames need to separate themselves out from other creative communities creating other forms of digital media, and justify why videogames are more exceptional than them. nor do i understand why those other worlds continually seem to fail to seriously engage with videogames. either way, a lot of people who make videogames are certainly here, and certainly don't seem to be going anywhere any time soon. and neither am i - nor am i homeless anymore, by the way. thank you, patreon!

i'm a woman and a human being who wants to make art. i never saw this as being particularly controversial. nor do i see my need to not limit myself to one medium as being particularly unusual, in an age of easy access to a plethora of different digital tools. and so i'm always shocked to see how much confusion seems to come from that. either i'm overextending myself, or i'm ruining my chance at a establishing a real career by going too far up my own ass. but here i am, still strong as ever. now able to pay rent. and i'm not changing, nor am i going anywhere. and whether or not my need to feel human makes me an alien to others, i'm happy to receive all the support and love i have from this community - strange as it may be, nonexistent as it may or may not be.

and so i say this sincerely, from the bottom of my heart: we might not always understand each other or be on the same page (or even in the same book!) as each other. i might find game culture endlessly infuriating and puzzling. but i know your support is genuine. and i'm really, really flattered. thank you so much, everyone. =)