A Tale of Two Walking Simulators (2): Everybody's Gone To The Rapture

YaughtonDear Jed,
In the first part of this blog-letter, I discussed the rise of the walking simulator and the merits and flaws of perhaps the most expensive game of this kind yet made, Firewatch. In this concluding part, it is time to look at what The Chinese Room achieved – and failed to achieve – in their successor to Dear Esther, the science fiction drama Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which you critiqued in August 2015.

I must start by confessing my neutrality to its art style. I am not wowed by so-called photo-realism, which rarely seems impressive to me and I would much rather the beautiful stylised visuals of Firewatch than ‘reality’, which is to say, the jarring unreality of the attempt to look actual. One of the biggest problems with this choice of visuals is that by setting the bar so high, every tiny flaw becomes much more apparent – witness your complaints about the ‘phoniness’ of the pub (it is not a bar, as you claim) and the jarring repetition of props like the paintings. The result is that a trip to the Vale of Yaughton is a literal descent into the Uncanny Valley.

But you misjudge the situation when you attribute this and other such flaws as resulting from The Chinese Room’s disrespect of their audience – almost all of your complaints about repeated content, or the missing character models, or even the game’s issues with ‘sprinting’ (well, walking imperceptibly faster) are attributable to a problem I know all too well from personal experience: developmental constraints. For although it may not be apparent, this game had far a lower budget – and a tighter development schedule – than Firewatch. Where you offer your disdain, I offer my sympathy. You will say, as you have done before, that the critic need not take into account behind-the-scenes issues such as these, and I will continue to disagree. It would be wrong to complain that a stage play was lacking in CGI – not just because it’s not part of the form, but because stage plays are budgeted differently to films. The constraints of form are part of the wider world of artworks. Treating ‘videogames’ as one singular form is a hopeless approach; surely your support of Beeswing entails at the very least an acknowledgement of its low budget? Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture certainly has more resources than that particular artgame, but it is pinched in the uncomfortable space below AAA where players expect everything a big budget offers but which the developer cannot possibly hope deliver. I work primarily in this commercial space – and I love it, too, since the room for creativity on AAA’s is almost negligible – and I am far more appreciative than you of the ways The Chinese Room conserve their budget (for instance, by not animating full characters).

But then, there’s that six hours of gameplay issue. I agree with you here – the game is too long, and this means the resources are stretched even thinner, although given the design choices that were made a lot of the extra space is less expensive than it could have been, I suppose. I am also surprised you do not mention the ‘tuning’ mechanic, where you must tilt the controller to trigger certain key flashbacks. These for me were far and away the biggest aesthetic flaw in the game and I suspect the hand of Sony’s ex-dev department in this, since they are always trying to force motion controls onto devs (it was a requirement of the unprecedented three-game deal Sony struck with thatgamecompany that all three had to feature motion controls). The trouble for me here was that the tutorial clearly shows the controller titled ninety degrees. So that’s what I did every time. But that was the wrong instruction, as I finally discovered only at the very last juncture. It is required to be an analogue action, akin to radio tuning. Without this knowledge I had to seek the one hidden spot where the flashbacks could be triggered at ninety degrees – in one case requiring me to balance precariously upon a bench to trigger one of several poignant scenes that apparently had no impact upon you whatsoever. (From looking into it, I was not the only player to fall prey of this frustration. The root problem? Not enough blind testing. The QA team knew how it worked, so they could never spot there was an issue. The game needed testing by players with no preconceptions, and this does not appear to have been done in this case.)

So to the story. You hate it. I, on the other hand, think Dan’s script is a work of insane brilliance, for despite my expectation that this was to be a game inspired by that most English of sci-fi authors John Wyndham (clearly an influence, mind you...) what this game is truly modelled upon in the longest running soap opera in the world: BBC Radio 4’s The Archers. Now various British reviewers have mentioned this in passing, sometimes as an accusation (I guess because they never liked the show?), but none seem to have really grasped just how great a tribute to the form of that radio soap this script truly is. And given that nobody in their right mind would bankroll a videogame whose x-statement was ‘the Archers meets the apocalypse’, I afford huge credit to Dan for going down this road, and for doing it so well.

There are missteps – the fox anecdote you mention is somewhat overwrought, although I think it still just about lands, and the radio overhear of the air strike in the caravan comes off a little too Planet of the Apes finale – but there are a great many places where it rings true too. Lizzie’s pregnancy is subtly foreshadowed by having her ‘ghost ball’ accompanied by a smaller companion, and here as elsewhere Stephen comes off badly because he is written as a heel. Stephen thinks he is the hero... but he is so lacking in virtue that he brings disaster at every step, a tragic hero of a kind The Archers seldom engages with. And there are moments of great success – the evocation of Kate’s perceived sense of exclusion (because the rural Shropshire community has so little experience of black people she takes their discomfort at her arrival as racism, which it arguably both is and is not) is one of the stronger emotional notes of the story, and makes sense of her character as the architect of everyone’s doom, aided – willingly and unwillingly – by her hopelessly inadequate husband, Stephen, who pushes her into an intellectual affair with the alien visitor.

I think it a great shame that you did not find the same appreciation of these elements of the story as I did. Partly, perhaps, the grounding in the form of The Archers might be necessary for context, but I suspect the larger problem is one you flag but also perhaps misunderstand: the word ‘Rapture’ writes a cheque the game then seems unwilling or unable to cash. You want a spiritual or theological theme to be touched upon, and the developers have no interest in this. In this regard, we come upon this game from opposite directions since I am British and you are from the States. Frankly, I am worn down by decades of British sci-go being prejudiced against Christians (see my 2009 serial Religion in Science Fiction, for detailed discussion) such that your dismissive thankfulness that “a church isn’t used to communicate shallow negativity” lands even more positively in my experiences of the game. I come to every British a sci-fi artwork these days expecting it to excoriate yet another shallow stereotyped portrayal of people from faith traditions. So when I come across a clergy character like Jeremy, who actually has some nuance in his relationships with his parishioners – especially, as you note, with the dogmatic busybody Wendy – it’s more than just a breath of fresh air, it’s a blessed relief.

Let me state this bluntly: no British videogame is ever going to tackle any kind of theological issue, because the only kind of theology practiced in our game developers is the kind of prejudicial atheology premised on childishly simplistic views on God or gods. Yet in the case of The Chinese Room, they treat their ‘Father’ well. Mind you, it’s quite clear that neither Dan nor Jessica are actively part of any Christian tradition, but I’d hazard a guess that at least one of them (I failed to catch up with them last time I was in Brighton to find out whom!) is presumably a ‘lapsed’ Catholic, or otherwise has some familial link to Roman Catholicism. You see, the Church of England (which, given the nature of British parishes, must be the denomination Jeremy belongs to) do not call their vicars ‘Father’, at least not officially.  This is a term used primarily by Roman Catholics, and these churches are never not accompanied by a C of E church in the UK. Yet there is only one church in Yaughton, which cannot therefore by a Catholic church. More tellingly, the concept of ‘the Rapture’ is never touched upon in Church of England sermons as it is wholly a Roman Catholic concept. These are the kind of small details that make it clear that, as ever, the developers are ‘outside looking in’. But at least they are looking in kindly for once.

I write this not to persuade you to change your view but to offer a different way of looking at this game. You complain about the absence of discussion regarding “spiritual and religious themes” in the reviews for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – but then you too neglect to engage in this capacity, instead decrying the ‘secular’ (in this case, I might say ‘positivist’) position of the game’s creators. But since when have you been bound by authorial intent in your reading of a game? Irrespective of Dan and Jessica’s metaphysical positions, the game is still inviting a theological interpretation that is available but offered by no critic so far, including you. For the unanswered question remains: who is the player that is bearing witness to this calamity...? Not one of the ‘victims’ of the Pattern, certainly, for whomever we might be playing, we are still embodied. And the sci-fi intentions of The Chinese Room can’t resolve this question without conceptual gymnastics, whereas a theologian has many choices in interpreting the game. Yaughton might be seen in terms of the Catholic concept of Purgatory (its residents are certainly not at peace, nor yet in any kind of hell, except perhaps for Stephen); the player could be seen as some kind of divine observer, in keeping with a concept of God as an ephemeral being that empathises with human suffering but cannot get involved without betrayal of its own values; or the player may yet be a sign that this catastrophe is not final after all, but that some salvation may yet be possible. It simply doesn’t matter that the game’s creator’s don’t intend any such theological interpretation – it is there to be found by those who seek it, and indeed, it is crying out for such a reading precisely because, as you point out, the title invites it.

Ultimately, my experience of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was caught between two stumps. It was not the sure-footed follow up to Dear Esther I was hoping for, but neither is it the soulless train wreck you accuse it of being. It is, I dare say, a bold experiment in game narrative that cannot quite deliver on all fronts because it has taken on too much and lacked the resources to succeed with its focus thus divided. But I would so much rather play a deeply flawed attempt to transcend the typical like this than another meaningless exercise in corporate monetisation. I’m quite sure the same is true with you, whatever your specific disappointments with this game.

Critics are sometimes rebutted by the ludicrous claim that they have produced nothing and therefore have no right to comment upon the work of those that have. Yet the critic produces something of deep value: a measured response to artworks that opens possible new perspectives on those pieces to others. Your work is at its best for me when you can see in a game what others have overlooked, which is why I always share your positive reviews, and I seldom share anyone’s negative ones. You perhaps cannot change the way you feel about the games you have already played, and even in your most venomous take-downs I find authentic evidence of the work of a critic or, rather, the evidence of the work of an authentic critic. I’m sad that you might be engaging less with games in the future, but I suppose not surprised. We share a general disappointment with the artistic state of the media we call videogames. But how much harder it must be for you when even the interesting titles, like the two walking simulators these letters discuss, leave you unsatisfied! If I am more forgiving of these games than you, it is only perhaps because I am hungrier for even the attempt to break through the stultifying norms of the games industry, and too acutely aware of the terrible limitations that make game development far harder than any player outside it can appreciate.

With unlimited love and respect,

Chris.

A Republic of Bloggers letter written to Jed Pressgrove of Game Bias and Stop the Pressgrove. Feel free to join in with our discourse via comment or blog post.


A Tale of Two Walking Simulators (1): Firewatch

FirewatchDear Jed,
Ever since 2012, I’ve been an instant convert to the ‘walking simulator’, a reclaimed derogatory term (much like ‘queer’) that ill-advisedly reinforces two notions that we would be better off without: firstly, that ‘simulation‘ is the best descriptor for the aesthetic qualities of videogame fiction, and secondly that violent videogames are ‘murder simulators’. We should resist any temptation to go down this line of thinking, but nonetheless ‘walking simulator’ is the term that has stuck, and it is a perfectly serviceable descriptor.

If we put side to side the artgame achievements of the walking simulator, broadly construed, it marks bold new possibilities for the media that share the name ‘videogame’, new paths that in no way invalidate (and indeed, help illuminate) our more familiar player practices. 2005’s The Endless Forest – Tale of Tales’ landmark ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’ – not only led to thatgamecompany’s Journey but revealed new potential for the encounter play that had been inherent in table top-role playing games but had struggled to find expression in any visual form. Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, perhaps my favourite game of this century, turns walking into a magical experience using only the tricks of the nature documentary and a cunning alliance of sound and vision. But it is perhaps The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther that especially helps shed light on contemporary games by being built upon the skeleton of an FPS yet stripped of its guns and violence. It delivers a wondrous ghost story whose thin play seemed to open the door to new narrative possibilities in videogames by denying the necessity of challenge – for which it had to be ostracized as ‘not a game’ by legions of aesthetically conservative players.

But... what happens next? It is a matter of some importance to me whether we are talking about a few momentary blips in the otherwise predictable flight plan for videogames, or the start of a movement, style, or genre that would stake a claim for the new, or else regress into familiar territory. Gone Home, despite its popularity, had disappointed me both by resorting to puzzle-solving (and thus defaulting back to well-worn adventure game territory) and by being more interested in its bait-and-switch twist than in its characters, relying on political posturing rather than following the story where it led.

Such is the prologue to this two-part letter I have wanted to write to you for quite a while. August 2015 saw the release of The Chinese Room’s follow up to Dear Esther, which I will discuss in the second half of this missive. For now, let us fast forward six months to February 2016, and the release of Firewatch, the most hyped walking simulator to date, soaring on the back of the popularity of Telltale’s The Walking Dead by virtue of inheriting part of that company’s writing team. You pretty comprehensively slated Firewatch in your review in October 2016, so you could be forgiven for assuming I wish to defend it – and I suppose in part that I do – but not, on this occasion, because I disagree with anything you say. Rather, I feel there is merit to the game beyond its rather shocking array of flaws.

The biggest surprise for me in Firewatch is that it was made by people with a background in game development, since playing it I would have sworn that at least one Hollywood screenwriter was involved in the writing process. From top to bottom, almost every design decision seems to flow from that shallow perception of the merit of games shared by most screenwriters, namely an array of choices presented to the player, none of which express any tangible agency at all. The player’s greatest option for self-expression is which cap to wear next – and since these are encountered one at a time, the answer is of course ‘all of them, as you find them’. It is very much that kind of game: the team know everything the player is going to do in advance, except which photos will be taken on the disposable camera, which of course has no effect upon anything. Even deciding where to watch the sunset in a GTA game feels more involved.

Alas, I cannot disagree with your assessment of the story overall, which seems to attempt the same sort of bait-and-switch as Gone Home, except in Firewatch the illusion of an absurdly implausible conspiracy is revealed to be an even more ludicrous situation that strains credibility far more than the game story can hope to bear. Despite this, the dialogue (as you admit) is actually rather good, and the voice talent delivers it well, even if the ‘choices’ offered are largely meaningless throughout. Add to this an attempt at a genuinely mature theme, namely the horrifying situation facing someone whose spouse develops early-onset dementia, and I would defend Firewatch in spite of its abundant weaknesses as a genuine attempt to escape the infantile storytelling standards of videogames where ‘mature’ is typically a phrase used to warn about the kind of humour that amuses teenage boys. That it falls below the standards we would expect in literature, theatre, or film ought to be weighed against the very possibility that such a comparison could be entertained, however fallaciously. Hitchcock it certainly isn’t. But at least it aspires to be more than a recycled action movie.

The most disappointing aspect of Firewatch is also something remarked upon in your critique: that it purports to offer you hiking in the wilderness, yet our character is entirely incapable of doing more than walking along pre-prescribed pathways. I found myself endlessly galled at the thought that someone who has chosen a life outdoors would be unwilling, much less unable, to scale rock faces even my youngest son would find unchallenging. No, out of some mistaken commitment to a concept of immersion rooted solely in animation fidelity, the game constantly uproots its plausibility by making the player climb the same rock objects again and again rather than let them for one moment experience the wilderness as something wild. And yet my experience of national parks in the US has often been of this kind of ‘packaged nature’: pre-prescribed paths in a ring-fenced theme park for nature. Hiking on trails outside such spaces offers a wildly different and far more rewarding experience, but in selling us the shrink-wrapped version of the natural world, Firewatch is only echoing the conceit that lies behind a great many such places in the United States, entailing the same kind of lie about humanity’s relationship with the world around it. It is unfortunate that the game does so in earnest, and thus can make no deeper point about the artificiality of these stage-managed encounters with the wild.

Yet despite this glaring and saddening failure to offer any freedom to the player, or any authentic experience of hiking, there is something astonishing about Firewatch that does not even warrant a mention in your discussion: this world is beautiful. Lighting and colour is used throughout to create breathtaking vistas that almost make the player forget (or perhaps, fail to notice) the unnecessary constraints imprisoning all movement to the official pathways. If we let ourselves exist in these manicured spaces solely through our eyes and ears, if we ignore all the pretensions of the story, if we set aside our gall at two female ‘characters’ whose primary purpose appears to be to titillate male players with their overemphasised yet unseen nudity, if we just enjoy the sights and sounds of the forest presented to us, Firewatch is triumphantly beautiful. To not mention this – or perhaps, to fail to suspend critical judgement long enough to allow yourself to enjoy this – is something akin to a critical failure. Thus while you avoid the traps of other reviewers in your insightful and accurate criticism of the game’s failings, I think perhaps that you also fail to appreciate why the walking simulator can be so powerful an aesthetic experience. I do not doubt you have an explanation, a reason this aspect of the game does not work for you – yet I fear at heart it is simply that you have not allowed yourself to engage with this game in a way that would make this appreciation possible. You are so perceptive about the myriad failures of artistry in the media we call videogames, I wonder sometimes if your critical insight is also blocking you from appreciating some of our greatest successes too.

It is a theme I also wish to pursue in the second half of this letter.

Next week: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

A Republic of Bloggers letter written to Jed Pressgrove of Game Bias and Stop the Pressgrove. Feel free to join in with our discourse via comment or blog post.


Chris Billows on Nostalgia

Chris Billows (AKA Doc Surge) has replied to the earlier A Hundred Cyborgs piece on Vintage Collectibles with his own reflections on nostalgia. Here’s an extract:

Nostalgia is a chemical mixture that blends complimentary and contradictory ingredients. For it to work, it needs to be readily accessible or relatable, provide a sense of comfort, and provide a contradictory sense of fantasy. One cannot entertain adventure unless emotionally ready for it and it is readily available.

You can read the entirety of Nostalgia: The Chemicals Between Us over at From the Journals of Doc Surge.


Beyond Choice in Game Narrative

Over on ihobo today, an open letter to Caroline Marchal and John Yorke responding to their talk at Develop: Brighton. Here’s the most inflammatory paragraph to whet your appetite:

There are, I think, two main problems with game writing today. The first is that too many of the people working on stories in games have a great appreciation for the toolkit of game design but too little an appreciation for the vast toolkit for narrative… To have experimented with short stories, or plays, or novels, is not a wasted effort for a game writer, but an opportunity to learn vital skills in story construction. The second problem is that there are rather too many ‘carpetbaggers’ (if you’ll forgive the allusion), which is to say, screenwriters who think that the problem with game stories is something that can only be solved by writers with experience in film and TV. Of the two, the latter might be more dangerous to games as an artistic medium, since someone who is game-literate can learn conventional narrative relatively easily (by attending your talk, for instance) but a screenwriter who believes that games must adapt to the conventions of screenplays is undertaking a certain kind of violence against the radical potential of game narrative.

You can read the entirety of Beyond Choice in Game Narrative over at ihobo.com.


The Journey Towards Trans Liberty

An open letter replying to Branwen at Branwen.me as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!

Obaid.Traces of LibertyDear Branwen,

I write to you at this time as my closest friend in the trans community, among which I have made a great many friends over the past twenty years, and all of whom I hold dear. I write with great concern, because social media advocates for the trans community are currently engaged in actions that are extremely likely to hurt the trans community, the lesbian community, and women in general. And I also write with considerable difficulty: precisely because I dearly wish for liberty for the trans community, and indeed for everyone else, I feel great anxiety when the path that leads there has become obscured by a series of intersecting forms of hatred manifesting in the dark corners of these communities.

A short while ago, I consented to having my name added to an open letter addressed the University of Bristol asking them to ensure the freedom of speech of the British organisation, A Women’s Place. This group has been accused of a great many things by the trans community, including that they are espousing violence against trans folks and that they are TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). I can find no specific evidence to support the former claim, and have no particular interest in assessing the latter since ‘TERF’ is fast becoming the political equivalent of an ethnic slur (as with terms such as ‘libtard’ or ‘Remoaner’) and that seems as offensive to me as (say) purposefully deadnaming a trans person. I find both these situations offensive, but neither is illegal and, I would further suggest, neither should be.

A question I hear more often than I should these days is whether there should be limits to freedom of speech, which is otherwise taken to be a fundamental right. It seems to me that freedom of speech should not be curtailed, or else this right means nothing. Nonetheless, there is always an associated responsibility to take into account the outcomes of what someone says, and this mean that some forms of speech can be judged illegal, irrespective of freedom of speech. For instance, when Lawrence Burns was arrested in the UK for inciting racial hatred it was because such incitement was itself illegal. Indeed, inciting violence is illegal in the civil law of the vast majority of nations, and because of this it greatly matters what we construe as ‘violence’, a point I shall return to shortly.

As a historical matter, the very notion of ‘rights’ is grounded on the idea that the limits which should apply to everyone are those that serve to collectively defend everyone’s freedom. In his discussion of these issues in The Free Development of Each, Allen Wood lays out the conception of rights as they existed in the German philosophical tradition from which they originated. The German philosophical term ‘Recht’, meaning roughly ‘the condition of right’ or ‘rightful conditions’, entails having the freedom from having your choices constrained by the choices of others, such that everyone can experience freedom equally. In the centuries since Kant’s time, we have switched from talking about ‘the condition of right’ (Recht) and started talking about ‘rights’ instead, but the same considerations still apply. The manner chosen for addressing the condition of right at the moment is a set of legal statutes, agreed internationally (although not currently endorsed by all nations) and often modified nationally. It is these that we call ‘rights’, like the right to free speech, which (as for any such right) applies to everyone equally.

The problem we are now facing is that the trans community’s freedom from having their choices constrained by the choices of others has now come into conflict with other communities equivalent demands for freedom. These kind of disputes are an unavoidable consequence of trying to build a system of laws that sets as its goal equal liberty, since different conceptions of both equality and liberty must inevitably conflict as the attempt is made to balance the needs and demands of one group against another. Whenever this happens, there must be discussion about how to resolve the conflict – and no single party can expect its demands to be given precedence against anyone else’s as such disagreements are being resolved. The danger at the moment is that this necessary conversation is being obstructed by political pressure being applied by some trans advocates… and that’s a potential disaster for everyone’s liberty.

In the UK, these disputes have hit an impasse over a proposed modification to an existing law known as the Gender Recognition Act. Part of the proposed change would remove the current system of application for a Gender Recognition Certificate as a required step before legally permitting people to present themselves as a different gender to that officially recorded for them. I am not a supporter of the Gender Recognition Certificate process… it places a medicalised step into a system where it is not clear it is required, and where it can certainly be distressing. But I am unsure whether I support the currently proposed revisions to the Gender Recognition Act or not… that would depend upon how the new law impacts everyone, and not just the trans community. To establish that requires discussion – and it is this discussion that is currently being obstructed by certain trans advocates who are campaigning against groups such as A Woman’s Place who seek to participate in that debate.

It seems to me that a lot of the furore that has been directed at A Woman’s Place revolves around discussion of what is called the Gender Critical view. I can find no evidence that this particular organisation is committed to the ‘gender critical’ view, although it is certainly the case that some of the people involved with it do hold gender critical beliefs. I would like to provide a definition here of what ‘gender critical’ means, but any attempt to do so will be inadequate as a great deal is collected under this banner, not all of it accurately ascribable to those who hold this view. Broadly, however, being ‘gender critical’ entails firstly viewing gender primarily as a social construct, and secondly interpreting the female gender as relating to a specific model of power relations founded on control of the assumed innate reproductive qualities of female bodies. This viewpoint has become problematic in part because disbelieving gender also entails undermining trans people’s claims about their gender.  

You contend to me that espousing the gender critical view is violence against the trans community… this is a serious allegation, since under the system of rights that evolved from Kant’s philosophy, the State is justified in intervening against those who conduct violence against others, in order to preserve rightful condition. But it matters here whether we are talking about literal violence – the use of physical force or power against someone – or whether we are talking about figurative violence, which would be protected by the right of free speech unless it incited literal violence. The twenty eight members of the trans community in the US killed in 2017 were tragic victims of violence – and distressingly this figure has been climbing each year recently. The ‘corrective’ rape of Mvuleni Fana, and scores of other lesbians like her in South Africa is grotesque violence. The beating of transwoman Jayla Ware in Charlotte, NC, earlier this year was violence. The punching of sixty year old Maria MacLachlan at Speaker’s Corner in the UK last year because she had been branded a TERF was violence.

I assume the reason that you and others want to hold gender critical views as (figurative) violence against the trans-community is because such beliefs dissolve the concept of gender entirely and instead focus solely upon biological sex, in some cases leading to a denial that a transwoman is a woman or a transman is a man. The threat here is thus one of erasure, since if this view were to be widespread it would entirely eliminate even the possibility of being a transgender person. Believe me, I know how upsetting such situations can be, as I have already experienced a situation where others were espousing views that entailed the erasure of an important part of my identity, namely my religions.

When Richard Dawkins began to talk about parents who were raising their children within a religious tradition as tantamount to child abuse, I was incensed. This amounted in my case to a literal accusation against my own parents that they abused me, which was factually inaccurate and deeply upsetting. Furthermore, if Dawkins’ logic had become sufficiently widespread, it would ultimately have amounted to the erasure of religious children – which I take as entailing a complete nullification of who I am, since who I am depends upon who I have been. I felt such anger at this horrific view. Even at my furthest point from wanting to identify as religious, even when I held my most hostile attitude towards fundamentalist Christianity, I still accepted the positive role my parents’ Christianity had in shaping me. Dawkins polemic was figurative violence against me. And I was ultimately forced to accept that this was protected by free speech. You might be resistant to this analogy, but for me this is directly parallel to the relationship between certain gender critical views and the trans community, right up to the invocation of ‘science’ or ‘rationalism’ as justifications.

We accept severe disagreements between people from different religious traditions because we acknowledge that different metaphysical (i.e. untestable) claims are entailed in each tradition. We are going to need at some point to accept that this is also true of sex and gender: there are facts about sex and gender, but none of them eliminate a need for individuals and communities to form their own metaphysical understanding of the meaning of those facts. This freedom of belief is crucial to liberty in general, and even extends to some degree to the facts themselves (if it did not, the sciences would be stagnant because there would be no room for new understandings to overturn old dogmas).

I share with you a commitment to the claim that ‘transwomen are women’ and ‘transmen are men’. But we cannot compel others to share those beliefs and still claim to be in support of equal liberty for all people. I share with gender critical feminists the view that gender is a social construct, just like other important things such as money, nations, personal identity, and human rights. I cannot share the view that a specific understanding of power relations entails denying trans folks the freedom to establish their own identities, since this seems against the commitment to equality and freedom that feminism was founded upon. But I cannot compel such feminists to give up those beliefs, even in such cases as they are hurtful to the trans community. I can and will oppose incitement to violence against trans folks, and every other human being. But figurative violence, no matter how distasteful, is protected by freedom of speech and must not be infringed, or the cause of liberty is hopelessly undermined.

I am astounded and impressed by the political power now wielded by trans allies as a result in large part of the connectivity of the internet. But I am horrified to find this power being wielded to bully and silence women and prevent conversations about the implications of a change in UK law with serious implications for all women, not just transwomen. When the cause of trans advocates risks encouraging organisations to bully their own staff because their beliefs do not align with a dogmatically enforced metaphysical status quo, the cause of liberty for all has run amok. When the trans community think it acceptable to advocate violence against women, as happens when people support concepts such as ‘punch a TERF’, we have gone far from redressing inequality and into a dark and distressing place where a desire for hateful vengeance is occluding the struggle for equality. That hatred and bullying can be found in the unpleasant corners of many political groups today, including feminists and radical feminists… but it is never justified in the pursuit of liberty.

The journey towards trans liberty has been difficult, and will continue to be so, but it is only a part of the greater journey towards equal freedom for all envisioned by Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers such as the British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft understood that the condition of right necessitated a change in the status of women, and argued persuasively for this to happen. In her 1792 text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she wrote:

…if women are educated for dependence, that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop? Are they to be considered as viceregents, allowed to reign over a small domain, and answerable for their conduct to a higher tribunal, liable to error?

It will not be difficult to prove, that such delegates will act like men subjected by fear, and make their children and servants endure their tyrannical oppression. As they submit without reason, they will, having no fixed rules to square their conduct by, be kind or cruel, just as the whim of the moment directs; and we ought not to wonder if sometimes, galled by their heavy yoke, they take a malignant pleasure in resting it on weaker shoulders.

This caution applies to both the trans community and the feminist community, and to women and humans of all kinds, and holds a wisdom desperately needed at a time when social media technology is all too frequently undermining the cause of liberty for all. I worry whenever I see communities set into conflict that ought to be working together to support the common cause of freedom and justice for all, especially at a time when the entire notion of rights is under threat, if it has not already been irrevocably impaired. I am afraid, for everyone, when we lose sight of the path to liberty for all... but I never lose my hope that we will find our way back to it.

You will always have my love and respect, and I shall always strive to be worthy of yours.

With unlimited love,

Chris.

The opening image is Traces of Liberty by Omar Obaid which I found here at omarobaid.com. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


The Utility Game

An open letter to Jesper Juul as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

Jesper-juulDear Jesper,

It was my great pleasure to read the draft of your paper from this year's DiGRA UK, “The Aesthetics of the Aesthetics of the Aesthetics of Video Games”, which expands nicely upon what you presented at MediaCity. Your playful regress commences from conventional videogames that have no perceived utility but which are experientially obsessed with the play of utility (level 1, the aesthetics of videogames). At the next level, you draw out a sense that these conventional videogames are anti-aesthetic and anti-playful because of the strong goal-directed nature of their play experiences (level 2, the aesthetics of the aesthetics of videogames). Then, finally, you use examples of games I have championed under the label ‘artgame’ such as Dear Esther and Proteus to recognise a new aesthetic trend to reject the goal-oriented play of conventional videogames and abandon utility-seeking (level 3, the aesthetics of the aesthetics of the aesthetics of videogames).

Everything inside your argument is academically perfect, your use of Huizinga and Caillois shows a rare appreciation for their work, you support your case with numerous insightful references, and the prose flows with a jaunty joyousness that is so very rare in game studies it can only be admired. That you have pictures of a child playing with food – and this serves a key role in your discussion – is a clear sign of the skill that lies behind your work, which is justly admired by games studies scholars. And yet there is, as I intimated in the Q&A at MediaCity, an issue with your use of ‘utility’ that warrants further analysis, and this is not so much a flaw in your argument as the unseen foundation of it. I should like to draw this out. Additionally, I want to interrogate your claim that this level 3 aesthetic aligns with the practices of (say) novels or gallery art and is not as such a move towards the playful, but rather an assertion of authorial intent. This point, it seems to me, might be only half-right.

Let us start at the end and work backwards. The statement of yours from the paper that I must disagree with is this one:

The third layer, the aesthetics of aesthetics of aesthetics is not, as we might first think, about going back to play, about letting players be creative in an open universe. It is the reverse: it is about keeping almost all of game structure, keeping goals and “winning”, but removing the playful element of games, removing the element of games where players improve their skills, or where they improvise creatively, where they play.

Here, you are asserting a very specific concept of play, one that aligns with your book The Art of Failure, the crown jewel of MIT’s Playful Thinking series, which you co-edit. And in both that book and in your paper, you are asserting your aesthetic values for play and games, which is what we all do whenever we apply these terms in a specific sense (as per my argument in Implicit Game Aesthetics). You suggest that Proteus “does not give players many tools for interacting with the game world” but such a claim rests on the concept of utility that frames your paper, and which is my ultimate target in engaging with it here. Proteus, which is my favourite game of this century, is rife with play – what it is devoid of is the play of utility. Bees, frogs, squirrels, sunsets, shamanic figures all provide ample playful elements where the player has ways to assert their agency within the distinct and definite authorial intent, not to mention (since the landscape is a soundscape) the playful expression of an audio journey to match the Zhuangzi-inspired hiking play that lies at the core of Ed Key and David Kanaga’s masterwork.

It might be significant that both Proteus and Dear Esther are collaborations between programmers and musicians. Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck produced in Dear Esther a less playful space than Proteus, but mainly because it is more overtly narrative – and explicit narrative always produces a tension with play, as you are acutely aware. However, I deny your claim that Dear Esther is not playful, which once again is an argument framed by the concept of utility. The play of this game can be found both in the freedom to engage with the experience of the landscape (in parallel with Proteus) and also in its subversion of well-established player practices (in accord with your remarks about authorial intent – “developer expression” in your paper).

These points are extremely significant, and even more so once you add Tale of Tales to the brew – which you do. But if I go down that delightful rabbit hole with you we will never make it back to the crux of my claims. The important point is that I deny your claim that recent artgames maintain goal-orientation but dispatch creative play. On the contrary, they weaken goal-orientation to the point of window dressing because they reject the utility you rightfully align with conventional videogames. Proteus and Dear Esther, after all, have a ‘goal’ only in the same sense that a novel has the ‘goal’ to finish reading, and this does not condition the play of either. It is precisely this absence of ‘goals’ (and thus challenge) that meant certain players had to reject them as qualifying as games at all.

I am honour bound at this point to mention Mel Croucher’s 1984 Deus Ex Machina, a game so far from conventional 1980s videogame aesthetics that British magazine reviewers declined to give it a review score. Not, I should stress, as an aesthetic hissy hit like the aforementioned “that’s not even a game!” malarkey, but out of genuine respect for something so far outside of the bounds of convention as to deny the applicability of scoring it in numbers. And it may be significant that games at this time – 1984 to 1985 – were at their peak of inventiveness, as exemplified by British games such as Paradroid and Elite (influences upon Grand Theft Auto and thus open world games in general) and Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight (which inspired Ed Key in making Proteus). The iron clad rule of utility-in-games had not yet asserted itself to the fullest extent at this time, even if its presence could, even then, be felt gathering its strength.

The question it is worth asking here is how did we get to this situation whereby conventional videogames are intimately caught up with utility (level 1 and 2 of your argument)? To answer this, we ought to question this whole notion of ‘utility’ in the first place. As José Zagal challenged at MediaCity, if the videogame entertains, is this not utility (contra your level 1)? But even this response doesn’t go far enough, because we have to wonder about this whole issue of utility, and how it can be that both you and José (and me, for that matter!) have so successfully internalised the notion of ‘utility’ that we can wield it as part of quite complex aesthetic arguments.

We get ‘utility’ from the Scottish philosopher David Hume in the 18th century, who invents it as part of his sceptical philosophical arguments (along, it must be said, with a great many other things...). He goes on to influence Kant and the Enlightenment, not to mention the utilitarians Bentham and Mill, and thus the entirety of the contemporary moral order. Indeed, Hume’s influence is so great that in the 19th century James Hutchison Stirling remarks: “Hume is our Politics, Hume is our Trade, Hume is our Philosophy, Hume is our Religion.” But alas, it is not Hume-the-person with this influence (Hume’s love of a good ‘debauch’ is nowhere to be found...) but a particular strand of thought inspired by Hume’s writings, a thread I fear Hume himself would have repudiated had he seen what was to become of his philosophy.

When Huizinga and Caillois lament the decline of the play element in culture during the mid-twentieth century, it is the continuing rise of utility as the measure of all things that is tied to this trend (without being reduced to it). Thus when we get to the role of utility in the play of contemporary videogames (level 2 of your argument), what we are encountering is not so much a special property of the many different videogame media as it is a reflection of the utility-obsession of the last two centuries, a circumstance that has continued to intensify far beyond the concerns Huizinga and Caillois raised. The play element has not only been evicted from culture, as they feared, it is danger of being evicted from play itself.

Around the time Caillois is working on Les Jeux et Les Hommes, Heidegger is presenting “The Question Concerning Technology”. His interest is not so much technology-as-tools as it is to challenge the mindset that comes with our technology, an enframing of the world that reduces all things to what he calls ‘standing reserve’, that is, resources to be exploited. As I have remarked previously, Heidegger’s ‘essence of technology’ is the fundamental design principle of contemporary videogames and you – correctly, in my view – give this the name ‘utility’.

This analysis is built upon the history of philosophy because philosophy has, and continues to possess, a key role in our conceptual understanding of anything and everything. But the points I am trying to emphasise here are independent of the philosophical references I am drawing against. Commercial videogames thrive upon the play of utility because, as Caillois successfully analysed, our cultures have enshrined competition as their social basis. Once winning in competition (which has become linked, as Caillois saw clearly, with winning by chance) comes to dominate culture, free play as such is doomed. Utility – as a measure that reduces all things to use-value – is allied to this flattening of culture. It is the ineluctable ‘must’ that makes thinking in any other way impossible because we can only reason in terms of the efficiency of means and have lost the capacity to think about our ends at all – an accusation Einstein levelled against the twentieth century that is just as true today.

In your Art of Failure you brilliantly capture a way of playing and the related class of games that are fundamentally about winning and, as such, about competition – even accepting that this is often framed indirectly. But behind and beyond this regime of challenge is the possibility of playing together that is not about, and cannot be reduced to, utility, standing reserve, or our obsession with victory. Games such as Proteus, Dear Esther, and the entirety of Tale of Tales remarkable catalogue resist this flattening of the world. If we cannot see within them the possibility that these games are engaged in play, the fault lies in us. Our addiction to utility blinds us to other possibilities. Your analysis is correct... but it is also caught up in the enframing that risks blinding us to the very problem Huizinga, Caillois, Heidegger, and Einstein had fought in vain against.

With deep and abiding respect for your work and achievements,

Chris.


The War on Game

Over on ihobo today, an open letter to Raph Koster following up an earlier comment he kindly left me. Here's an extract:

What is the true definition of 'game'? No, don't answer that. We both know why that question cannot possibly be resolved as long as it has that particular wording. But what if there was another way? What if there was something that could be truly and validly asserted about our definitions of 'game'? If that were so, perhaps the war on 'games' that has so hurt our not-so-little community of players over the last decade could actually be ended, and peace restored.

 

You can read the entirety of The War on Game over at ihobo.com.


Ecologies of Play

Over on ihobo today, an extended comment replying to some very interesting challenges raised by Bart Stewart in connection with Are Videogames Made of Rules? Here’s an extract:

For a tabletop game, the rulebook this set of practices eventually becomes can be seen as a static snapshot of the player practices of the design team in respect of the game, discussing how their game is played. That each group of players will inevitably vary those player practices is one of the reasons I am suggesting we treat player practices as constitutive of games rather than rules, because the rules as written remain the same but the games being played with those rules can be quite diverse – even if all you take into account is the differences in interpretation and not greater variations like house rules. I don’t think any two groups of players engaging with a Fantasy Flight game are playing the same way, as the rules often leave open a certain number of ambiguous points that the players have to negotiate and settle on their own.

You can read the entirety of Ecologies of Play over at ihobo.com, although if you haven’t already read Are Videogames Made of Rules? you probably ought to begin with that.


The Language of Games

A reply to Chris Billow’s New Theory of Play: Playstates as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

MC Escher.Plane FillingII.1957Dear Chris,

Our disagreements about language are not something to be dismissed as ‘mere opinion’, but a valuable context in which we reveal our aesthetic judgements. Such was my argument in Implicit Game Aesthetics back in 2012, and this way of understanding our arguments about both ‘games’ and ‘art’ has served me well. This does not mean, however, that frameworks for delineating terms and concepts like your playstates theory, have no value. On the contrary: laying out clearly defined frameworks can be very helpful for having clarifying discussions.

In academic circles, this kind of constructed language is invaluable, and it also serves important roles in various practical domains. In both film production and film studies, a common language has been constructed that makes the ties between the academy and its associated industry in this case stronger, and helps ensure that everyone is talking about the same thing. How I wish the same were true of the games industry! We do have some common terminology – but almost all of this what we inherit from the tabletop game development scene of the 1970s and 1980s such as NPCs, scenario, campaign, with a few terms from the arcade like lives, levels, and high scores. The only more recent cases of terminology creeping in has been via hugely successful videogames: World of Warcraft gave us tank, kite, and (regrettably, in my view) mob.

Why has game development not formed a common language? There are several answers to this, but in the broadest strokes it all rests on the nature of the grassroots games industry. Even from the very beginning, film was a medium that required a significant investment of resources. This meant that the practices developed in an industrial context, and this facilitated a rapid and highly successful crossover into the academic world. As a result, the film industry and film studies developed a common lexicon that rapidly converged, and was then being taught to the new apprentices, regardless of how they were brought in. Theatre, as a pre-industrial form, had a classical form of apprenticeship, newcomers learning from the old hands: again, the practices could converge and then be passed on.

Games have had nothing of the kind. Whether we look at the commercial boardgames of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century, or the bedroom coders of the 8-bit era of videogames – or for that matter today’s Kickstarter boardgame community and indie developer scene – there has been no venue for apprenticeship, no basis for a common lexicon, no firm alliance between industry and academia. We invent the wheel and we reinvent it over and over again. To make matters worse, as the nerdiest medium thus far devised, game developers are obsessed with taking everything apart and putting it back together ‘right’, which is to say ‘in their own image’. We just don’t co-operate like other folks… although that doesn’t mean we can’t work together.

I only have to think back to the years I spent trying to fight for ‘cRPG’ instead of ‘CRPG’ – an utterly futile endeavour whichever way you look at it, and yet this mattered enormously to me at one point in my life. That may seem insane – it does to me these days! – but in my mind I was defending the priority of the tabletop role-playing game and its practices. There were, undoubtedly, better ways to do this. But for some queer reason this battleground became one of many I took upon myself. (I also, incidentally, fought hard for the use of the third person singular gender neutral ‘they’, long before this had become a point of political correctness – and indeed went to war with the QA department on Discworld Noir over this very topic.)

Your playstates model strikes me as very much the same kind of tilting at windmills, although it is much better formed than many of my own quixotic pursuits. As I mentioned to you previously in this regard, your model stands or falls upon whether the person encountering it holds the same aesthetic values about ‘game’ that drive you to characterise games in terms of measurement. I personally find this a fascinating perspective, particularly because I have not encountered this before. But of course, that suggests that you won’t be winning over converts very easily… not least because, nerd-windmills being what they are, every person who is likely to care this much about ‘game’ has their own definition, and their own reasons why they understanding it as ‘the right one’.

If this sounds negative, it shouldn’t – there are several things that I particularly admire about your playstates approach. First and foremost, that it is a trait-based theory and not a typology (as I mentioned to you previously), since this immediately hurdles the most fatal problems with definitions of ‘game’ that we usually encounter. Chris Crawford’s logic gates are at the opposite extreme here, and I find it fascinating that this is an influence behind your thought here. Secondly, that your model draws attention to the experience of make-believe as a playstate (Role-plays). As I have all too frequently complained, the game studies crowd is deeply committed to fiction denial, and constantly push systems (your Games) as much more important than fiction and imagining. I believe this is another example of aesthetic values drawing people into a particular way of seeing the world.

I fear many will part company with you at the point you distinguish ‘game’ from ‘video game’ (I so want to type ‘videogame’ here… another battle I have vainly fought, and I’m so glad Ian Bogost converged with me on this one.) Thus you can identify, say, Dear Esther as a ‘video game’  but say too that it is ‘not a game’ (because characteristic of your technical term ‘game’ is measurement). I too part company with you here, but in the opposite direction. Although your position is internally consistent, I can find no reason to restrict ‘game’ as a concept to measurement when every child in every English-language country says they are playing a game when they enter into a Role-play playstate. I feel, as I have mentioned to you before, there might have been an argument for replacing your technical term ‘game’ with another word.

But of course you didn’t. You couldn’t. Because deep in your aesthetic appreciation for games (whether as ‘games’ or as ‘role-plays’ or, I’ll wager, as ‘sports’) is the importance of the measurement element of the play experience. I think the systems crowd would be sympathetic, if it wasn’t for the fact that every single one of them wants to put down their own definitions and boundary conditions because… nerds.

You have to love the nerds, or I do at the very least, not least because I have been one all my life and see neither shame nor insult in claiming the term. It is just like the gay community successfully claiming ‘queer’ – the cleverest PR stunt in my lifetime! And oh how I chuckled when the aesthetic insult ‘walking simulator’, levelled at titles like Dear Esther and those other games that move much less confidently in the same direction, was similarly claimed by fans of the form as a badge of honour. Here is a valuable lesson in language. You don’t change language by laying out a new map of the territory. You change language through a game of aikido-like legerdemain, where the rival move is turned against itself. I wonder: is that game part of your playstate of ‘sport’, or is there a whole other playstate missing from your model…?

With unlimited love,

Chris.

Any and all replies and commentaries, through blog-comments, blog-posts, twitter etc. are welcome! The opening image is MC Escher’s 1957 lithograph Plane Filling II. No copyright infringement is intended.


Cyberg Applications

Network globeOver on the Journals of Doc Surge, Chris Billows has some additional thoughts about cybergs, the networks of technology and humans that are a definitive feature of our time. He suggests that literacy, toys, telephone networks, and vision correction technology also comprise cybergs.

While there are certainly technological networks around these four things, only two of them are strictly cybergs in my sense, since the term assumes “we must be dealing with a network that spans its entire breadth with some kind of active relation, even if merely one of potential.” I should note, however, that this isn’t really a criteria of exclusion: all technology forms a network of connections at some scale; the discussion of megacybergs and gigacybergs merely set a criterion for what to count together.

Literacy meets this large-network criteria, because the exchange of written media through all the available channels flows in every direction. Indeed, the advent of writing methods was a significant turning point in human thought. This might even be the second largest cyberg after money.

Toys do not meet the criteria directly, which is to say, traditional toys (like hammers) do not form large networks, but only small networks of productions. However, with most of the toy industry now intimately caught up with film and television (go to a toy superstore and see how many unbranded toys you can find!) this is all-but subsumed in the movie and television cybergs.

Telephone networks meet the criteria, even if it is merely the potential for global communication that elevates this to he big leagues. As, for that matter, does the global mail services – which was the cyberg that made the original Republic of Letters possible!

Finally, vision correction technology like glasses and contact lenses do not obviously meet the large-network criteria, since their networks are all relatively small (national scale). There is no connection to my knowledge (even of potential) between, say, French contact lenses and US contact lenses. That said, most contact lenses are manufactured by large multinational corporations such as Johnson & Johnson or Novartis – and in that sense they are part of megacybergs. But it would be the corporation, more than these specific tools, that would be the obvious network to point to.

What’s interesting about these four examples, and about the cyberg concept in general, is that thinking in this way about technology immediately draws us into a different point of view on tools. I had not really thought about toys as a technology before (despite defining them as a ‘tool for play’ in 21st Century Game Design), and putting the into this framework really does emphasise the way play is conditioned by existing media property. There’s something faintly disturbing about that.

Many thanks to Chris for sharing his perspective on this! I’d also like to thank him for his helpful feedback on the manuscript for The Virtuous Cyborg, not to mention his continued friendship and support!