Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Critical Compilation - Mental Health/Illness


It took a long time and a lot of work to name it as trauma, and even more work, still ongoing, to understand how I could keep it from destroying my life.
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I want to say people who loved me asked me to get help, or that I had some kind of breakthrough that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life that way, but that’s not what happened. What actually happened is that I played Bioshock Infinite.
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for all the things it gets wrong — and it’s so, so many things — it gets so many things right about trauma.
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Until the core physical experience of trauma — feeling scared stiff, frozen in fear or collapsing and going numb — unwinds and transforms, one remains stuck, a captive of one’s own entwined fear and helplessness. The… perception of seemingly unbearable experiences leads us to avoid and deny them, to tighten up against them and then split off from them. Resorting to these “defenses” is, however, like drinking salt water to quench extreme thirst. Booker’s split comes at a pivotal baptism scene, implied to take place directly after Wounded Knee although with no sign of the battle in sight. It’s here, the game tells us, that one version of Booker decides to become Comstock, washing himself clean of his sins, putting the past behind him, and eventually going on to create the floating white theocracy of Columbia. Yet Booker-as-Comstock is repression, stagnation, Peter Levine’s avoidance and denial; he deals with his trauma by powerfully and absolutely pretending it never happened.
That’s the salvific promise of the game’s understanding of baptismal doctrine; but the past, it goes on to show, cannot be wiped away. Columbia is Comstock’s monument to everything he won’t deal with, a testament to the all-saving power of staying stuck and the bandage on the unbindable wound of his actions. With Columbia he can write a new story about Wounded Knee, about the Boxer Rebellion, about the False Shepherd and the Lamb and the future and himself. With Columbia he can pretend that everything is fine.
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Having a wife and a family could have been the coming back to life Booker needed, but instead, when it ends in tragedy, he turned to the violent, ugly life of the Pinkertons. Peter Levine writes, “Humans… reterrorize themselves out of their (misplaced) fear of their own intense sensations and emotions… [making] the process of exiting immobility fearful and potentially violent.”2 Or, as Comstock tells Booker, “It always ends in blood.” Unlike Comstock, Booker’s efforts are at least kinetic. He dives headfirst into the person he was, trying to solve his problems through the actions that caused them in the first place. Columbia was made for him by him, or another version of him. It is a playground for every one of his maladaptive coping strategies and a place where he can spin his wheels under the guise of getting better while simply rehashing the same old things. It ends in blood because he brings it, because he can’t bring anything else.
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When it does go wrong, Columbia is Booker’s ideal therapy room. In this floating city, everything that wrecks his life on the ground leads to success. Non-Columbia Booker clearly has a drinking problem, but in Columbia drinking makes him healthier. Non-Columbia Booker is pretty broke, if the losing gambling receipts in his room are any indication, but in Columbia people toss their riches in the trash; money is easy to come by and easy to spend. At the Good Time Club in Finkton, a powerful stranger offers Booker the job of head of security and forces him to “audition” for the role, according to the club’s marquee, through a series of increasingly difficult wave battles. To me, this is Booker auditioning for the role of himself, a chance to indulge in all the violent impulses that lived in his heart through Wounded Knee and the Pinkertons and to be lauded and praised for them. His annoyance and his determination to just do the job that brought him to Columbia are all lies. There’s no way he isn’t enjoying it, because it all makes sense; it feeds back in on itself, re-traumatizing him, trapping him in that endless loop. He drags Elizabeth into it too, helping her deal with her dead mother through the same audition format: a series of wave battles with her ghost to prove herself worthy of the dead woman’s love.
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As I played through the end of Infinite and the game made its strange sense of Booker’s story, I understood what I had been doing to myself more clearly than any website or pastel-covered self-help book had been able to point out. I saw how I’d let my past define me, how I constantly ran it over in my mind, refusing to try a new door, a new way, refusing to let anything else in. If people had done bad things to me I couldn’t make them stop by doing bad things to myself. Just as Booker couldn’t end the cycle of bloodshed with more bloodshed. Just as Comstock couldn’t end denial with more denial. Booker’s looping timeline showed me my own and pointed to the thing I seemed to most fear and yet most want: that I’d be dead inside forever, because even though it was terrible, at least I knew it was safe. When Booker decides to step away from that, to let his past drown him at the baptism, to submit fully to the weight of everything that happened… well. We don’t quite know if it breaks the cycle, but at least it’s something new.

§

Mental illness in fiction is often used as a way to strip individuals of their humanity and, in doing so, reflects a cultural fear of what happens when we, too, descend.
The horror of Eternal Darkness therefore lies not in the monsters your character must fight, but in the long-term impact of encountering those monsters.
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While Eternal Darkness explores the descent into madness and casts insanity as something to be avoided at all costs, Psychonauts takes a more comprehensive view.
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the game does not equate “mentally healthy” with being neurotypical in a direct fashion, nor does it tie competency to lack of mental illness or past trauma. Not only does pretty much every camper training to become a Psychonaut have traits that code for a mental illness—two happy campers are plotting suicide in attempt to gain more powers, a boy wears a tinfoil hat to avoid making things explode, and another child has extreme hydrophobia—but so do some of the camp instructors. Even characters that don’t have obvious coding, such as Raz, are shown to be wrestling with a deeper issue of one kind or another. For Raz to “fix” an issue obviously associated with a mental illness or help to resolve feelings over a past trauma, the person must be afflicted by it on some level; he does not assume particular eccentricities are a problem in the absence of related distress.
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If Eternal Darkness is a game that speaks to “normal” people’s fear of going insane, Psychonauts is one that delves deeper into what being mentally healthy actually means. Eternal Darkness assumes it is impossible to see terrible things without going mad; Psychonauts largely assumes you’ve gone through something terrible, but recognizes the impact of that on your psyche is dependent on how you handle it and how your mental landscape looks otherwise.

§

I was taken aback by the idea of having a conversation with someone who my mind immediately identified as another enemy. Another body to add to my ever-increasing count in the game. But instead, here I was, talking and trying to coerce information out of someone who was clearly an intelligent being. This seemingly mundane occurrence of gently subverting the horror genre’s traditional Othering of its enemies into flawed but complex portrayals was one of the many achievements of Troika’s Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
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Games, particularly the ones that rely on having the players commit violent acts, have a poor reputation of stigmatizing mental illnesses through a negative portrayal, often equating people with such illnesses to monsters.
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One common way the horror genre antagonizes those with mental health issues is by depicting them as exhibiting violent, psychopathic behaviour that threatens the safety of the player character. The endangerment of the player’s own well-being in the virtual world is a condition many action-based horror games use in order to justify the violent actions the player is then encouraged to commit towards the disabled bodies.
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However, Othering goes beyond the problematic representation of enemies. Mechanics like sanity meters are commonly used in games like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem to describe the mental state of the player character.  If the meter is filled to its maximum, it would generally result in the player character going “insane” and trigger a fail state. This mechanisation is deeply problematic, as on top of reinforcing existing stereotypes about a group of people, it further deepens the stigma surrounding them by misrepresentation. One of the most common misconceptions perpetuated by the stigmatizing mechanics of horror games is the false notion that mental illnesses lead to criminally violent behaviour.
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By establishing a setting which treats characters with mental illnesses with respect, Bloodlines tries to humanize key Malkavian non-player characters, and communicate empathy to the player.
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Bloodlines is a strange and fascinating game on several levels. This is apparent already in the character creation scene. One of the six possible clans the players can role-play as, the Malkavians, are a group of vampires who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses including hallucination and schizophrenia. However, within Kindred — the colloquial term for the community of Vampires in the game’s universe — they are respected and treated as equals, and are often regarded as seers and oracles. Even within the Camarilla, the ruling body of the Kindred, Malkavians are given an equal seat of power, and thus represented fairly. By establishing a setting which treats characters with mental illnesses with respect, Bloodlines tries to humanize key Malkavian non-player characters, and communicate empathy to the player. Bloodlines consciously avoids this negative stereotyping by carefully portraying every Malkavian NPC you meet during the course of the game as non-aggressive.
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dissociative identity disorder (DID). Bloodlines deals with this issue in an interesting way by utilizing the same approach it does with Malkavians. It treats them as who they are, first and foremost — humans. This can be seen with how the game deals with The Twins.
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Both Therese and Jeanette are respected by other NPCs in the Bloodlines world and it presents an example of the game providing a safe space in its universe to the Malkavians. Seeing the world treat Malkavians like Therese/Jeanette with respect acts as a deterrent for the player to Other them for their mental illnesses. Bloodlines, by adding a personal background to the characters, humanizes them and makes it easier for player to empathize with them. By foregrounding their humanity, Bloodlines allows Therese/Jeanette’s character to evolve without forcing stereotypes pertaining to their condition. However, it doesn’t fully evade the problematic aspects of the representation of Malkavians. By presenting their personality traits as eccentric and mystical, it creates a stereotype which reduces every Malkavian to that specific set of characteristics.
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Bloodlines’ ambition comes to the fore when the you as a player choose a Malkavian character to be your protagonist. Unlike other clans, a Malkavian Player Character (PC) has a largely different script and they often speak in convoluted and vague dialogues to other characters. These dialogues have a vague tone which may be cryptic and opaque to a first-time player. However, what’s interesting to note is that these very dialogues are designed to serve as foreshadowing to a player on a repeat playthrough of the game. Many of them subtly hint at major revelations well before they are actually scripted to occur in the game’s plot.
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By doing that, Bloodlines also implies that while words of someone suffering from mental illnesses are often relegated to ramblings by society, they may contain wisdom that may require a deeper understanding. It still can be seen as a form of Othering, but without much of the negative connotations that stigmatize people with mental illnesses. The kind of understanding, which in the context of the game, that only players who have experienced the game would have.
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while representing Malkavians as non-violent eccentrics subverts expectations established by horror tropes, that does not necessarily make them more relatable. Or do the methods Bloodlines employs fetishize characteristics we associate with people having mental conditions? It’s worth asking if representation in media always runs the risk of objectification on some level, no matter how nuanced it might be.

§

As a therapist, I’d like to say that every group session I’ve done with young people goes great. Unfortunately, the truth is that some sessions are marked less by epiphanies and more by blank stares, fighting, and crayon-eating. The main difference? Whether the day’s topic actually resonates with the group.
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Instead of tearing up the floorboards and replacing all of our current analogies with gaming references, I suggest that we recognise video games as a font for cases where kids have already encountered (and often triumphed over) real-world issues. Mario Kart wasn’t just a thing that those kids knew — it was a place where they felt anger and betrayal. It confronted them with the fact that their friends don’t always support them. For those kids, a reference to Mario Kart was an acknowledgement of these complex experiences.
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There was a pause as the boys mulled these questions over. One boy disagreed. He started to tell me how the situations were nothing alike, when another boy leapt to his feet. “I’m stuck, and I don’t know what to do,” he proclaimed. “But there could be something, I just haven’t thought of it. There’s no CPS wiki. But there could be.” That’s the power of gaming analogies. I didn’t have to sell them on changing their perspective or altering their behaviors. They found their own way in, using examples that were relevant in a context that was meaningful to them. Minecraft provided real experiences of being stuck and having to wait. Minecraft provided real alternatives to “think of all the people you’d like to threaten.” The boys had already encountered their current problem. What’s more, they’d already triumphed.

§

tension between the potential freedom afforded by games and the baggage that cannot be outrun is especially pronounced in games about anxiety and depression. How do you try on new identities when an emotional condition tinges everything? Is anxiety one of the things players leave behind or a part of real life that bleeds into games?
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There is no shortage of games about anxiety and depression. The past year and a half has seen an explosion of small, personal games, all of which sought to address this subject in their own way.
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I don’t want to be happier. I’d gladly settle for that, but it’s not a real goal. Instead, I only wish for a bit more perspective, just enough to get through the day with a minimum of fuss. The same is needed from videogames: A little more perspective on what they can and cannot tell us about others or ourselves. As in other media forms, anxiety and depression aren’t signs of artistic seriousness—you can be a serious artist or author without these afflictions—but they are challenges that should be taken seriously. We now have enough games to form a group therapy session and hope some greater context comes of the exercise. That context is needed—it is one of the few areas in which I am confident of not being alone.

§

One 2013 review from the American Psychological Association found that strategy videogames enhanced problem-solving skills in young children, and had the potential to increase “emotional resilience” in daily life. In-game failures aren’t a dead end for children, the report argues; rather, when presented with a conflict, young players create coping mechanisms that help them advance through the game. In real life, investing energy into everyday life can be an overwhelming experience for gamers with mood disorders. The sheer abundance of negative thoughts and feelings from depression can make the outside world feel too complex to handle. However, videogames are designed with a solution in mind for the player to achieve. They present an interactive space for the player to overcome conflicts without any real world consequences for failing. In gaming, we tend to believe, there’s no such thing as a permanent loss — just restarting.
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XCOM also lets players choose Easy or Normal difficulty options for a much more manageable experience. In most situations, in-game risk has been diminished to the point where players simply have to use cover and prioritize enemy targets in order to win missions. So as the player learns the game’s mechanics at their own pace, they can also become more confident in their abilities to succeed, and subsequently move onto the harder difficulty levels. This is particularly important for players with depression or anxiety, who might have a low threshold for in-game challenge. Afterwards, they can take on the harder difficulty levels.
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Take one article review published in the American Journal of Play, “Video Games: Play That Can Do Serious Good.” According to the authors, action, puzzle, and strategy videogames enhanced logical and visual information processing capabilities for their players. Extended time playing the strategy game Rise of Nations, for instance, improved “task switching, working memory, and abstract reasoning” among individuals suffering from age-related cognitive declines. Likewise, action and puzzle videogames improved players’ ability to prioritize decisions and quickly switch between tasks. Alongside cognitive therapy, videogames help the brain operate more efficiently while observing and understanding information. Hard data also shows that videogames can improve cognitive functioning, diminish the effects of depression and anxiety disorders, and can even be designed for therapeutic purposes. According to TIME, the cognitive behavioral therapy videogame SPARX successfully helped 44% of players completely overcome their depression, with 66% experiencing decreased depression symptoms after playing the game. Likewise, in a recent study at Michigan State University, researchers found that their shape-identification videogame “improved concentration and lessened anxiety for the anxious participants [who played the game].” Associate professor of psychology Dr. Jason Moser even concluded there was a potential to open a new market specifically for videogame therapy.
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However, videogames are not a saving grace from mental illnesses. Overuse presents real barriers for behavioral therapy, and relying on a videogame for personal happiness can develop addictive habits in players. Without healthy boundaries and proper health care, mental illnesses can fester under gaming addictions.

§

The spinning blades are no more nonsensical than the chainsaw wielding maniac. Neither belongs in a mental institution,but they do belong in a campy/creepy game environment. The fact that the place purports to be some kind of madhouse probably won’t matter very much to what little narrative there might be. It’s wallpaper to act as a backdrop for bludgeoning and butchery. It could as easily be a carnival full of insane clowns or an abandoned hotel full of insane bellboys, or an insurance office full of insane filing clerks.
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Earlier today, I had a peculiar reaction to the footage of The Evil Within that oozed through the clogged pipes of the interweb from the Eurogamer Expo and directly onto my screen. As Craig pointed out, the spinny-blade room is so daft that it’s immediately rendered non-threatening. Finding such a machine in a mental institution raises logistical questions rather than the hairs on the back of my neck.
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at their best, games can implicate us in ways that traditionally observed media cannot and turn the screw an extra few degrees. However, games can also fill their corridors and torture chambers with the mad, and make otherness and illness things to defeat or to hide from rather than to engage with. That’s much less imaginative, much less empathic and, most damning of all in a creative industry, much less interesting.

§

This, we are made to understand, is how you become a heroine, a tomb raider. Our lead characters have to be hard, and while we accept a male hero with a five o'clock shadow and a bad attitude generally unquestioned, a woman seems to need a reason to be hard. Something had to have been done to her.
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When you want to make a woman into a hero, you hurt her first. When you want to make a man into a hero, you hurt… also a woman first.
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"Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong." Further, we seem to have problematic ideas of how women become Strong -- men break them, we assume.
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Abstracted ideas about post-traumatic stress disorder or the catch-all "mental health issues" are common in games -- apparently the logic is if we're trying to advance narratives in action games, we need to find nuanced rationales for why we're killing so many people with aplomb.

§

The mentally ill make for good villains, across all media in fact. You see, we just don't stop, we don't know how. We can't listen to reason, so the question of the appropriateness of force is taken away from you, the protagonist. We make things easy as well, because ultimately, we want to die. Not the clean, pure death urge of the hero either, who stakes his life on the promise of a better world; we just want to be put out of our misery.
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We need to be able to show the difference between madness and malice, because ideologies spread in a way that madness doesn't.

§

This is why Depression Quest is not simply an “empathy game” that MAKES you understand depression, and why it is something more valuable.

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Errant Signal - Actual Sunlight + Depression Quest (Spoilers)

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I wanted to start from one simple word, one that is used by marketing departments and journalists alike; it pervades reviews, previews, the lexicon of indie games and it trickled down to gamers themselves. The word ‘addictive’. Gaming is, as far as I know, the only community in which the word addictive is considered a positive.
[This piece is really personal and hit home for me, even if my story with depression is quite different and has made me play less and not more games for the last ten years (but before that, yep, had me playing Baldur's Gate 2 constantly for three months).
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A visual novel about a group therapy session for final girls.

Brendan Vance on form, content, ideology and appropriation in modern media - a series in three parts

For a Twiney interactive context of the three texts in question, check out Brendans website dedicated to the three texts.

1.

Any designed work can be decomposed into two different kinds of features: Intrinsic features and extrinsic features. An intrinsic feature is something we judge to be a non-reducible atom of actual value that the audience wants and the work provides—that is, the work’s purpose—while an extrinsic feature is anything that exists solely to realize that purpose, providing no actual value in itself.
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The intrinsic features of Art media like literature or film, unlike those of hammers and map APIs, are not easily reducible into language. Whereas to design a hammer involves finding ways of realizing features whose value is readily apparent, to make Art is to search for value lying beyond the edges of our understanding: To capture something we know is important to us even though we cannot quite say why.
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Videogames inherit a little from Art but mostly from product design, which has been kind of a problem for us. As an industry we put faith in the idea that there is intrinsic value in the games we develop, although we don’t think very expansively about what that could be; instead we abstract it, using ugly words like “content” as placeholders for value without ever proving that it truly exists. We then set about designing incredible machines that shuttle players towards these placeholders with extremely high efficiency, which as designers is really what we’re good at. We make the interface as usable as we can because players need it in order to learn the rules. We teach the rules very carefully because players need them in order to grok the dynamics. We shape our dynamics strategically because enacting them is what will stimulate players to feel the aesthetics. Somewhere at the core of all this, we suppose, lives the “content” players are attempting to access: That which we have abstracted away so that we could hurry towards doing safe, understandable product design rather than risky, unfathomable Art.
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Problem Attic is an unfashionable game. It does not aspire to resemble that which currently exists but with a cool twist, nor to stuff all its value into the margins of a popular genre format.  It is authored, rather than just designed; its intrinsic features take the form of complex and multifaceted statements that it realizes at all levels of the modern videogame, from core systems all the way up to the user interface. It is messy and, therefore, alive.
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Everything we see is built from colourful, patterned tiles. Although there are perhaps twenty or thirty different kinds, most are not mechanically distinct from one another; all space is partitioned into two contiguous parts, ‘wall’ versus ‘not-wall’, with each patterned tile corresponding to one of the two. Our first instinct is to label this a poor design choice because its affordances are unclear. (Why should the player have to learn through physical experience which tiles can be traversed and which cannot when it could be made visually obvious?) This, however, would be a mistake. Conventional thinking conditions us to believe clear affordances are unequivocally good because we view videogame design as an exercise in catapulting people towards the mythical content unicorn lying beneath all of our systems; this belief becomes invalid, however, when unclear affordances better support some other intrinsic purpose lying elsewhere in the structure of the work, and that is the case here. The environment of Problem Attic models the mind of the protagonist, and the walls represent the tangled mess of every habit and belief he has ever internalized. Each person possesses such walls; they are the reason why we act against our own best interests, making the same mistakes over and over again.
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Here is another unfashionable choice. Punishing us for touching the Cross Guys even though that is exactly what we must do to proceed reeks of poor affordances; it seems to place the design at cross purposes, obfuscating the rules of the system and causing us to form an inaccurate cognitive model of how the game works. Again, however, Attic demonstrates that clear affordances are not unequivocally good. This game is about human beings, who result not from mythical content unicorns but from a roiling maelstrom of culture and fraying DNA. The Cross Guys are characters, not mechanics, and the game characterizes them as simple-minded horndogs who give no consideration to the protagonist’s goals and, in fact, seek solely to gratify themselves at his expense. In their role as the protagonist’s jailers they must usually be avoided; in their role as the wielders of power, however, it is occasionally necessary to exploit them even when this does us harm. (The mechanics deceive, in other words, because they model deceptive power structures.) That the world forces some among us to use the ugliest of personal traits to their advantage would, in any other context, be considered a thoughtful bit of hard-won wisdom that speaks to the human condition. In videogames we are, for many discomforting reasons, unaccustomed to receiving such wisdom.
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We may not confront the Cross directly; it cannot be destroyed or pacified. We must instead discover a circuitous route through a maze of nearly-invisible wall tiles, the room’s muddy platforming permitting us to feel the protagonist’s paralysing fear. Interestingly, pressing the magical ‘R’ key here does not reset the stage as it normally would, but instead fades the world to black before casting us out to the attic’s entry point. This particular stage, I hereby surmise, is not a place for trial and error, to learn or to grow; it is more like a wound that won’t heal, a nightmare to which the protagonist returns nightly.
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Problem Attic changed the way I think about videogames. I am now convinced that the virtues of clarity and craft, to which I had subscribed absolutely as a matter of course, impose significant limitations on our expressive potential that can be difficult to see until you play something like this.



2.

DOET [Design of Everyday Things] judges the user’s needs most important, and her perspective most valuable. It is about the apotheosis of the user; it makes her into God, and with holy might it strikes the fear of Her into objects and those who make them.

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DOET, alongside all the important research around it, culminated in something called User Centered Design, a philosophy in which “user error” does not exist and programmers are sad.
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This school teaches that if it’s not fun (or at the very least quick and painless) to be taught about some feature, we shouldn’t include it; that clarity is better than complexity; that elegance is better than messiness; that one button is better than two. It teaches that the purpose of a game is to explain itself to you, and that somewhere in the act of explaining lies that game’s intrinsic value. We have thereby converted the scariest, most contentious question of all (what should this thing be?) from an artistic decision into a design decision.
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Our belief in clarity and elegance, though it has yielded spectacular results, is not the very best way to make videogames; it may not even be a particularly good way. We suffer from the bar we’ve set for ourselves and the burdens we place upon designers. We are wrongly convinced, even in the critical community, that works like Problem Attic are unworthy of attention solely because they prioritize different features and challenge players in a way we deem to be unfashionable.
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I plan on thinking much harder about how I evaluate potential game features. “Because then the user doesn’t have to think” or “but how do we teach that?” should not be trump cards in every single argument about whether to include stuff. It’s easy to turn everything into a neat little design decision, but making a few more artistic ones would be better in the long term for users and for my sanity



3.


I develop videogames for a living, but I spent last year really hating videogames. I questioned how it was I could consume 60 hours of ‘content’ for Assassin’s Creed 3 yet feel utterly unsatisfied by my act of consumption. I questioned what it was I had consumed, other than my own time. I questioned what it was I sought from the game in the first place. I questioned the nature of the ‘content’ it claimed to offer me; privately I began to suspect it might not even exist.
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I awoke from my yearlong stupor the night I encountered a game called Problem Attic by a person named Liz Ryerson.
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This is a story about how Steam, Twitter and the App Store came to exist. It’s about how these services present themselves as our friends while behaving as our enemies.
 It’s about how they stole the internet from us, creating a place where everything is ‘free’ but liberty remains unavailable. Before I can reclaim my lost appendages we must first reclaim something more fundamental: Our language, the medium through which we think. Consider the power inherent in the words ‘form’ and ‘content’. ‘Form’ describes what the things we make are; thus they who define form decide what things can be. ‘Content’ is more powerful still because it defines what we want; they who define content decide what is and is not valuable. Like all powerful words, ‘form’ and ‘content’ have a political history.
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To Hegel what we want from our media is not merely a convenient way to waste 60 hours of our lives: What we want is access to universal truths.
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When we consider Art in Hegelian terms its purpose is not mysterious or difficult to grasp. For him Art is simply one of three different kinds of form (the other two being philosophy and religion) through which humans access the same content: Geist, the omnipresent mind and spirit of living ideas.
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Hegel once declared, famously and obliquely, that ‘art is dead’. Scholars do not agree on precisely what he meant by this, but my preferred interpretation suggests the art we fully understand is, by definition, already in the past. Art of the present must be alien, unfathomable and difficult to identify because it is of young mind/spirit. It is the bleeding edge of truth, reaching beyond what is achievable through discursive means to seize something new and untamed. Spelunky has a spirit I can feel as I play it. I need not feel anxious about whether its procedurally-generated elements (its Rogue-like parts) permit some kind of ‘meaningful artistic statement’. Rather, it is through enacting and observing the movement of these elements that its spirit, the Spelunkengeist, shall gradually come to life.
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I believe our intrepid capitalists of yesteryear used newspapers, and other forms of mass publication, to introduce a new politics of form and content to the world. Where Hegel used these terms to distinguish ‘the work itself’ (form) from ‘the ideas behind it’ (content), the newspaper uses them to distinguish ‘the machine that aggregates/distributes’ from ‘the writing that fuels this machine’. What once was called ‘form’ is now ‘content’, and what Hegel would call content can no longer be described; it has fallen so far into obscurity that I must resurrect a 19th century German term just to communicate it in English.
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The concept of ‘replay value’, so critical to today’s hottest newspaper-likes, stems directly from this formula: Since we evaluate ‘content’ quantitatively it follows that a publication or videogame could increase the value of its ‘content’ either by improving yield or reducing the cost of production. We have hereby come to prefer our ‘content’ the same way we prefer our pig feed: Smooth tasting, from an Ikea-branded trough. Think about how a 19th century philosopher like Hegel might regard the concept of ‘replay value’. Would he commiserate with us about how the mind/spirit of romanticism just doesn’t make for large enough murals? Or would we have to pull out a bunch of obscure 21st century English words just to explain to him what the hell we were talking about? It’s important to realize that ‘replay value’ is not some timeless virtue sought by all media for all of history. It is a political viewpoint wrapped in a sales pitch perpetuated by people trying to improve the market position of their mass-produced entertainment products. By appropriating the word ‘content’, which denotes what we want, our intrepid capitalist marketers have steered us away from the conceptual, spiritual and artistic content Hegel envisions. All we want now is more stuff for a lower price.
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As a multicast medium the internet is not a seller’s market; it is, in fact, the greatest buyer’s market of all time. The writer’s predicament no longer involves convincing some corporation to make copies of her words; that part is practically free. Her predicament now involves capturing the attention of an audience with virtually limitless options available to it, then somehow converting this hard-won attention into half of a living wage (presumably through a pagan ritual like crowdfunding).
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our intrepid capitalists sought to appropriate the concept of freeness while appending a commercial twist: They planned for web services to become free as in gratis, turning “do it yourself” into “here, let me publish that for you in exchange for the right to profit from it and oh, by the way, have a look at this Chevy ad”. In the span of three or four years everything about the internet changed: The do-it-yourself, Geocities-like, weird internet of the mid ’90s became the professional, social networked, boring internet we have today. We retroactively labelled this movement ‘Web 2.0’, a term describing the set of technologies and design/business axioms that on the surface intend to anoint the user as a free (libre) contributor rather than powerless consumer while on the underside exploiting her contributions as freely given (gratis) ‘content’ to be sold as a commodity. The idea was to craft a sales pitch around the prospect of creating Hegelian content, content as libre, while simultaneously converting readers’ contributions into ‘content’ as gratis to fill the paper’s pages. They no longer intended to act as gatekeepers between producer and consumer; all consumers would now become producers, multicasting ‘content’ back and forth to one another through the ‘form’ of the all-in-one medium/product/town hall/marketplace the newspaper would soon become.
/.../
Where the newspaper transfixed the reader by telling her what happened recently the web service would tell her what’s happening right now. Where the newspaper monetized its audience through crude instruments like subscriptions and broadly-focused mass advertising the web service would seek to monetize everything: The user’s personal relationships, her attention, her demographic data, her politics, her labour, her secrets, her entire life. Our beleaguered dreamers would finally get their wish. The user would no longer be a powerless consumer. Instead she would become something much worse. She’d become ‘content’ itself, a person qua commodity whose only real power lies in her potential to be consumed. She would be a human AA battery, in other words, digested one limb at a time by the hundreds of giant software systems now descending upon her.
/.../
Gone is the HTML/CSS with which we contended in the MySpace era; gone is the bloated wall of features we encounter every time we open Facebook. Just like a videogame the Tweet is easy to learn, difficult to master and punctual with its feedback. (Twitter has excellent game feel.)
/.../
When we encounter a situation like Sarkeesian’s, something outside the parameters of the sales pitch, our typical response is to blame it on some hostile other (‘the trolls’) or some fundamental defect in the internet. Though we may chide Twitter for failing to develop effective anti-harassment policies we reason the blame must lie ultimately with us users; after all, the sales pitch convinces us that Twitter makes us free as in libre, and ‘a few (hundred thousand) bad apples’ may therefore choose freely to do harm. We neglect to consider the possibility that Twitter did not fail at anything; that preventing harassment has never been Twitter’s goal because the service has far more to gain from permitting this sort of bullying than it does from preventing it (new and more interesting ‘content’, increasing entrenchment in its role as town square, more investment from users, etc…). As far as Twitter is concerned the ideal anti-harassment policy is just effective enough to prevent Sarkeesian from leaving while simultaneously permitting thousands of people to enjoy harassing her every day. In this way Twitter doesn’t need to engage directly in the Charles Foster Kane-style yellow journalism of its predecessors; it reaps the same rewards (while incurring very few of the risks) by allowing users to do so on its behalf. So long as we continue holding Twitter solely to the standard of its sales pitch the service remains free (as in libre) to preside as a ‘neutral third party’ over the very culture wars it facilitates, dropping a Promoted Tweet or two into our timelines between all the vicious bile.
/.../
We ought to regard the Tweet suspiciously, as a glorified status update tuned more towards Twitter’s data mining business than to our ostensibly free expression. We ought to insist Twitter shape itself around our work rather than shaping our work eagerly into Twitter’s business model (and thanking it for the privilege). We ought at least to demand Twitter use some of its extraordinarily lucrative data mining expertise to fight the harassment of our peers rather than tacitly affording it. Instead we fixate on the libre hand dangling a new social appendage in front of us while the gratis hand converts all our ‘freely given’ energy into its own money and power.
/.../
The ‘form’ of Twitter, like that of the newspaper, demands a constant stream of new things to bury all the old ones. It wants there to be cases in which we miss things so we’ll adopt the underlying assumption that work should shoot past us like a copy of The New York Times rather than stand in permanence like the Bible, awaiting our approach. The bell curve we see is not the inevitable product of posting work on the internet; it’s the product of routing our work through a host of different web services designed to consume the new and then discard it. We chide Twitter for how ineffectual its search functions are, how challenging it is to obtain any legible historical record of our contributions to the free dialog its sales pitch claims is taking place. We ignore the implicit acknowledgement that Twitter does not want us to remember this history; that in fact, Twitter wants us to forget. It wants us to depend on new ‘content’ rather than dwelling in the old. It wants us to have a presence to maintain rather than construct. It wants us to forget the name of the author we just read but remember to Tweet it at all our friends no more than two or three times. It wants to be a windswept desert made from a billion atoms of homogeneous and disassociated ‘content’, ‘freeing’ us to build castles in the sand. The libre hand promises us an oasis while the gratis hand c converts the whole internet into a desert.
/.../
As developers our game can be good or bad; we can self-promote or be totally obscure; we can spend a year in development or three days. All these variables are completely non-predictive. Nobody knows how success on the App Store actually works and no one ever has; hiring some ex-Apple consultant to help us would be about as effective as ritualistically slaughtering a goat. The App Store is a madhouse in which success is entirely arbitrary. Usually when we find ourselves participating in an arbitrary selection process granting invariably low odds of success we don’t call that ‘egalitarian’; we call it buying a lottery ticket. Every game theorist knows lottery tickets are a waste of our time and money. The mistake we make when dealing with the App Store is, once again, watching only the libre hand as it offers us the chance of a generous reward for our hard work; we ignore the gratis hand tossing our name into a hat. This is why, looking upon the madhouse, our response is to assume there is some defect in the service, perhaps poor ‘discoverability’ or a lack of curation. We neglect to realize that from Apple’s perspective these are not defects. Apple presides, as a ‘neutral third party’ of course, over a lottery that generates ~30% royalties regardless of who wins. They have no reason to ‘curate’ or to make our apps ‘discoverable’. Their goal is to do just enough to keep players and developers imprisoned in the ‘ecosystem’, locking everyone inside a horrific Thunderdome of their creation (oops, I mean a ‘walled garden’) while charging admission for the privilege. When we observe today’s class of small, broke, powerless game studios subsisting from tiny mobile project to tiny mobile project, we typically attribute their existence to an apathetic audience and/or soulless business executives. We neglect to notice how convenient our ‘neutral third parties’ might find it that these developers are incapable of renegotiating the royalties they pay or, say, founding a new ‘ecosystem’ of their own. Today we see Valve travelling in the same direction as Apple, and we wonder whether Gabe Newell can ‘fix’ the madhouse. If you’re Gabe Newell the madhouse is not broken.
/.../
Consider, most damningly of all, the ways in which the web service makes our work interchangeable. We approach Twitter, Steam and the App Store with the newspaper-like mentality that wider distribution is always better. We neglect to realize the internet is a buyer’s market: Maximum distribution means maximum competition between ‘content creators’ alongside minimum risk for the marketplace itself. Not only does this make it difficult for developers to carve out an audience; it also creates tremendous downward pressure on the value of our work. Anyone intending to charge money for their videogame faces an army of competitors willing to give theirs away for less, or for free. The audience sees little difference between one piece of work or another; it wants what the medium tells it to want, so what it wants is ‘content’.
/.../
We do indeed face an existential threat. Our wallets, however, are the only place we shouldn’t look. We fail to realize the closer we get to ‘free’ the higher the hidden cost, and the more our intrepid usurpers profit from the ruin of everything around them.
/.../
the change I want must resemble the form of Attic itself: A tiny fire in a mound of corporate detritus, growing a little at a time.
/.../
For years beforehand my thinking had actually been fairly pro-capitalist; I often espoused the myriad benefits of currency and commerce. What I never did was consider the problem in terms of consumption versus communion. I realize now I had fallen for the sales pitch. This is not to say, however, that I currently advocate some bloody communist revolt circa 1917. Instead I believe in sublation as Hegel describes it. The internet is not some idyllic communist utopia ruined forever by capitalist invaders; that is not the whole truth. Without capital the internet would be a weird intellectual ghetto; without community it would be a hopeless corporate nightmare. It was the coalescence of these forces that gave the internet its mind/spirit and created the Information Age. Neither force is capable of simply erasing the other; thus, the whole truth must result from both of them. The only way forward is to let them merge together into something completely new. The heart of my complaint, then, is not merely that predatory corporations exist on the internet. It’s that we don’t recognize them for what they are. It’s time to accept what ‘free’ really means, and to demand an equitable share of the proceeds our labour generates.
/.../
The most important tool you have against capitalist hegemony is understanding the whole nature of the transactions you perform. Remember you are not merely a ‘content creator’ if you don’t want to be. You don’t have to alienate the form of your work from its content, shaving all the edges off so it can exist as a grain of sand in someone else’s desert. Make the work YOU want to make and shove it down the internet’s throat. We who Twitter views as ‘content creators’ now live in a world where, paradoxically, the most anti-capitalist measure we could take is to charge money for things. I believe we need to do this whenever possible.
/.../
Recall that Hegel models ideas as fundamentally historical: Free structures of thought whose lineage stretches all the way back into antiquity, guided forward by the recollection of past mistakes. Yet in the capitalist dystopia we are quickly coming to inhabit there are no ‘ideas’ anymore. There is no form, no content and no libre; we live in a world where ‘free’ means gratis, ‘form’ means Twitter and ‘content’ means Tweets. Recall that appropriation is what capitalists do best. The goal of appropriation is to erase history entirely: To focus solely on the eternal now, divorced from all context, leaving us no basis on which to make choices.
/.../
Your latest project does not need to exist solely as two weeks’ worth of viral bait in someone else’s ‘ecosystem’. The projects you’ve done in the past do not need to languish as half-eaten corpses somewhere in a forgotten database. Create a history for your work by interconnecting it in meaningful and permanent ways (not just in Twitter mentions). Provide paths from the new to the old. Connect it permanently to other people and ideas so that these ideas can grow. Your work is not a commodity; it’s alive. Build a home for it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Me and horror

I've always enjoyed horror. It's part of who I am. I love horror. But do I, really? I used to love the exhileration of running home from a friends after having watched a horror movie because I was so scared of what might be out there. I even enjoyed the fact that I had to run with my hands in front of my face because I thought someone had maybe strung a line of some sort to cut my face up in my path home. It becomes more bizarre still -- I actually cherished the nightmares I had because they were such a creative outlet and inspiration and seemed so much more real than my waking life in some sense. And so I've always loved horror. But those nightmares are long gone, and I don't run home from friends apartments anymore, and if I do hurry on my bicycle, it's because I''m afraid actual people might hurt me, and not Chucky the doll or a Terminator . And that's no fun -- that's no fun at all. There is a difference. But I do still love feeling alive, and I do love the bizarre and surreal.

I've come to the conclusion that I don't enjoy traditional horror anymore, but that I do enjoy horror tropes, existential horror and some form of cozy horror. You know, the eerie conversations between characters that take place in Silent Hill 3 to the sound of triphop beats. I feel that Kentucky Route Zero at times is the Silent Hill game I've been waiting for. It is a different beast altogether in many ways, but it has that surreal nightmare quality over it that I associate with Silent Hill as well. I loved Pathologic as a horror game, but don't think I at any time during it felt I had to take a break because I was too scared. And that's a good thing, it made it possible for me to enjoy the horrific qualities of it all the more. The darkness of Undertale isn't visceral but sublime. The horror of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories isn't visceral, but realizational. Slow-paced. It's the same with Kitty Horrorshows, David Szymanskis, Sherlock Connors and Cameron Kunzelmans horror games. They all have a long tail and haunt me after I've stopped interacting with them, because they bring something else to the table than a good scare. I'm not afraid of Chucky running after me in the dark anymore, but I still love how good horror experiences can get under my skin.

In theory, I adore the horror design of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It's pure genius that you can't look directly at the horrors that haunt you, and that you must hide in darkness from them - the very place where your sanity is depleted. But an hour or two in and I just don't care anymore, even if I try to follow the story that takes places in the notes found. I thoroughly enjoy reading Thomas Grips blogposts about video game horror design and the philosophy by which Soma was created, but I need more than good horror mechanics to be interested, and if something's too scary, well, then even the parts that are "more than just good horror mechanics" become fuzzy enough to be blocked out. And fuzzy isn't cozy nor existential.

I can't wait to play Until Dawn with friends!

Focus: Three horrific and Lovecraftian game devs in the walking simulator genre

Connor Sherlock
“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming."Recommended game: Marginalia, made together with Cameron Kunzelman who also made the awesome horror game Catachresis and the quite funny Slavoj Žižek Makes A Twine Game. (Kunzelman has an interesting blog as well.)

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Kitty Horrorshow

"I still like telling stories, but I want to make environments to contain the stories, so that people can walk around and feel present and be absorbed and crane their necks up at things.”
Recommended game: Chyrza. No frights, just chills down my spine, all the way down. Exactly the way I like my horror.

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David
Szymanski
That’s kind of the underlying theme of The Moon Sliver: the horror of uncertainty and the yearning that maybe there’s ultimately something better than this. I don’t think it’s specifically a Christian game, because I think everyone struggles with these questions. It’s portraying life as I see it. A lot of confusion, but there’s this deep almost instinctive knowledge that something isn’t right, and there’s more than just this. - See more at: http://www.relyonhorror.com/in-depth/david-szymanski-interview-the-journey-to-horror-via-story-faith-and-impressionism/#sthash.YzHZfC6F.dpuf
That’s kind of the underlying theme of The Moon Sliver: the horror of uncertainty and the yearning that maybe there’s ultimately something better than this. I don’t think it’s specifically a Christian game, because I think everyone struggles with these questions. It’s portraying life as I see it. A lot of confusion, but there’s this deep almost instinctive knowledge that something isn’t right, and there’s more than just this. - See more at: http://www.relyonhorror.com/in-depth/david-szymanski-interview-the-journey-to-horror-via-story-faith-and-impressionism/#sthash.YzHZfC6F.dpuf
I’ve dealt (and still deal) with a lot of questions and uncertainties. That’s kind of the underlying theme of The Moon Sliver: the horror of uncertainty and the yearning that maybe there’s ultimately something better than this. I don’t think it’s specifically a Christian game, because I think everyone struggles with these questions. It’s portraying life as I see it. A lot of confusion, but there’s this deep almost instinctive knowledge that something isn’t right, and there’s more than just this - See more at: http://www.relyonhorror.com/in-depth/david-szymanski-interview-the-journey-to-horror-via-story-faith-and-impressionism/#sthash.VHvUGoxC.dpuf
I’ve dealt (and still deal) with a lot of questions and uncertainties. That’s kind of the underlying theme of The Moon Sliver: the horror of uncertainty and the yearning that maybe there’s ultimately something better than this. I don’t think it’s specifically a Christian game, because I think everyone struggles with these questions. It’s portraying life as I see it. A lot of confusion, but there’s this deep almost instinctive knowledge that something isn’t right, and there’s more than just this - See more at: http://www.relyonhorror.com/in-depth/david-szymanski-interview-the-journey-to-horror-via-story-faith-and-impressionism/#sthash.VHvUGoxC.dpuf
"I’ve dealt (and still deal) with a lot of questions and uncertainties. That’s kind of the underlying theme of The Moon Sliver: the horror of uncertainty and the yearning that maybe there’s ultimately something better than this. I don’t think it’s specifically a Christian game, because I think everyone struggles with these questions. It’s portraying life as I see it. A lot of confusion, but there’s this deep almost instinctive knowledge that something isn’t right, and there’s more than just this."
Recommended games: The Moon Sliver and The Music Machine, and not because of their tangential story connection, but because they affected me the most. The have the best characterization of hir four games and explore hir relationship to faith most succinctly.



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Rough, discontinuous edges; looming architectural masses; bulging swathes of colour—all of them luminous, or cast in shadow. These are just some of the effects you encounter in the growing genre of freeware horror and landscape games, spearheaded by the likes of ceMelusine, Kitty Horrorshow, and Connor Sherlock. Together, they constitute a glitch art known for its lethargic smearing-together of retro graphics with dreamlike and impossible aesthetics.
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Dialogue and thought texts appear where the speaker or thinker would have been standing. The pop-ups thus work like stage directions overlaid onto a 3D environment, adding another layer of interpretation to the scene: Not only are you piecing together the flow of conversation, but the flow of movement as well. This gives the empty, dead, and lonely world a surprising dynamism and life that makes the story feel more immediate, more in-the-moment.
/.../
The Moon Sliver
is all about interpretation and misinterpretation and reinterpretation, and the presentation of its story forces us to live in that same state of confusion as its characters.
/.../
So when we do find the titular Moon Sliver, that holy document of prophecy, and we hear of its concrete morality and its precise blessings, the simplicity and straightforwardness of its divination becomes very attractive. Precise prophecy is so much more comforting than the vagaries of life. It’s no wonder these people worshiped The Moon Sliver. It offers understanding.
But now The Moon Sliver is gone, and we too feel the oppressive confusion that consumes the remaining islanders. Is its prophecy true? Are its blessings real? Who are we without it to guide us? Who are we in general?
/.../
The text never prioritizes one point of view, preventing us from forming a sympathetic bias towards the protagonist. Or rather, we’re allowed to form a sympathetic bias towards each character since any one of them could be the protagonist, could be “us”. 
/.../
The game combines past and present, purposefully trying to confuse us about identity and time because it knows both of those things add context to a scene that change its meaning, and The Moon Sliver wants us to be aware of this change.
/.../
The Moon Sliver is a story of four worlds, one belonging to each character. Each of us constructs our own world through our own experiences, and when those experiences aren’t enough, we may or may not turn to others to fill in the blanks. It’s tempting to live in our world only, but The Moon Sliver forces us to live outside of our own head, showing us a drama from every perspective.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Crit Links 28/12

Games are primarily conceptual / performance art; games are culture; it's more important to witness a game than to play it.
/.../
Invoke other games or cultural phenomena; your game is a piece of interconnected culture, not a walled garden.
/.../
We often think of game development as a technical discipline, but so much of a video game has nothing to do with code or technology. You don't have to release a software patch to update a game; all you have to do is to change how people think about it and interact with it. To totally murder this metaphor: your voice is the most powerful auto-update utility ever.

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Chapter One introduces a bunch of theory and argues that how the participatory nature of videogames does not render them immune to textual analysis.
/.../
Chapter Four makes the argument that ‘action’ is too reductively considered when we talk about videogames and that ‘looking’ and ‘listening’ are acting in their own right. To say a play ‘does nothing’ during a cut-scene greatly misunderstands how bodies engage with moving images.

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Propaganda Games: Sesame Credit - The True Danger of Gamification - Extra Credits

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The Arcade Review #2

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"I was surprised how many people watched my rather strange film. At the same time, looking at the stats, I was even more surprised how few of the viewers actually watched the entire movie to the end. There is a lot of scrubbing going on. I somehow thought I'm the only one who jumps around on the timeline of internet videos, but it's everybody." His reaction was to produce a new short film, which eventually would become a short computer game, called Plug & Play. The idea was to give the viewers, who are all so eager to jump around the narrative, more control over his movie. At the same time he wanted to have more control over the way the audience experiences the film by not allowing to skip the narrative without interacting with it and therefore become part of it.

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It’s a time when we’re increasingly within reach of each other, unbounded by physical distances due to digital technology, yet the overwhelming volume of information and possible number of connections to be made leaves us … where? Through Plug & Play‘s black-and-white binary world of male and female electronics—the plug and the socket—Frei seems to propose that we have become obsessed with fitting in with each other. The tragedy, it is suggested, is that we find it to be a difficult desire to fulfill.
/.../
The duration required for us to reject one another has been decreased substantially through these digital roulette wheels. And yet the time and effort required to actually connect with one another, to become friends or lovers, has not lessened at all.

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motherhood is often kept out of the creation, consumption, and conceptualization of popular culture. A society ruled by the Kingdom of Fathers, as Rich describes, relies on the devaluing of motherhood while also simultaneously tasking motherhood with the most invaluable work on the planet. A mother’s reward for breeding humanity is exclusion, marginalization, and disregard. At most, motherhood appears in popular culture as a concept: a perfect, selfless mirage or a horrid, selfish monster. Her story is never told in full: from her exclusion in something as silly as #dadbods, to the continued absence of significant maternal stories in mainstream videogames, TV shows, and films, patriarchy puts the mother in opposition to pop culture—after all there’s no quicker way to kill a trend than to see your mom do it, right? However, 2015 revealed glimpses of the mother’s elusive profile.
/.../
While mothers are busy getting refrigerated, there’s no shortage of videogame dads who capture the multiplicity of a three dimensional human being. The dadification of games took place long before fatherhood became the focus of a few “gritty” big-budget titles. As an echo of our culture, the paternal mentality has defined videogames for most (if not all) of the medium’s existence: from Space Invaders to Pac-Man, the notion of protecting your territory, conquering death through iteration, and measuring success through monetary gain birthed the medium, and continues to dominate game design to this day.
/.../
So we return to the million dollar question: what would a truly maternal videogame look like? There’s no doubt that Toby Fox’s Undertale relies on the inhumanly selfless portrait of motherhood, but it does so with a purpose.
/.../
Most players kill Toriel on their first playthrough, even if they’re aware of the game’s morality system. But this choice, rather than serving as a reflection of the player’s lack of moral fiber, instead holds the mirror up to videogames themselves. This, Undertale says, is the kind of player patriarchal game design produces: impatient, quick to quit, and more than willing to sacrifice their own mother and humanity in the name of…what, even? Progress? A positive feedback loop? This vague and arguably meaningless concept of “leveling up” through “experience points”—whatever the fuck that even means in this context? As games like Undertale show, maternal game design isn’t just about telling worthwhile yet disregarded stories. The popularity of paternal game design is indicative of deeper issues, ranging from how we as a society measure success and who and what our laws protect.
/.../
After decades of paternal game design, I am eager to unleash the potential of videogames born of woman. Motherhood deserves more than a cursory glance, and play deserves the benefits of creation instead of destruction. If and when that will happen, no one can say. But in 2015, we captured a glimpse of what fruit it can bear.

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The only visible measure in Orchids to Dusk is the oxygen level on the left of the screen (and there’s no way to refill it).
/.../
It’s like directing your own funeral.

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The beautiful terror of Year Walk is that in it, your deepest fears and anxieties are based on the truth. In a deranged twist of events, what I am experiencing is essentially a love story.
/.../
My deepest fear is to have her eyes burn through mine and see her mouth the words, “I don’t love you anymore.”

At the end of the jump scares, ominous soundtracks, and haunting creatures, the fear of loss and betrayal is what lingers the longest in my Year Walk. We give ourselves entirely in seeking the truth and yearning for love to the point of a physical and emotional breakdown. Perhaps this journey is the most accurate description of love and heartbreak: a series of signs and symbols we have to decode, and we receive either the answers that provide us warmth, or remain lost in the freezing woods until we are freed to walk again.

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As an adult, how does one learn to play electronic games? With no older sibling or friend down the block to teach, no community of mates to check in with, no memory of games from childhood, how does one begin, how does one progress?
/.../
I really think this could be easier. Can’t someone create a graduated list of games for adult-onset players, a series of games to take on, in sequence, that would build familiarity and component skills and even attitudes, in a conscious way? Most players I know have only the blurriest memories of how one learns this stuff, little sense of the parts that make up the whole: sorting it out might be an interesting project.

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“The journey is more important than…the other thing,” muses one of your passengers, too enraptured by the pure alcohol of the drive to bother to complete philosophical cliches. And in a sense, that’s Glitchhikers. The emotion is more important than what the emotion might mean. Just being in the game matters more than…the other thing. The antithesis of other videogames, where making me feel something, some specific and preferably unclaimed by another developer emotion is the only and final goal, Glitchhikers allows me to ruminate, to imbibe, to simply “be”.

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[Three Fourths Home]
the dream of climbing the social ladder puts emphasis on the economic costs and benefits of ‘making it’, but ignores the more immaterial costs, such as separation from one’s family and loved ones. That narrative does not factor in those costs because they are not part of its implied values.

the family is almost entirely dependent on a medical corporation, possibly a health insurance company.

another effect of the family’s limited options and urgent needs is that they are hoping Kelly becomes a part of that same oppressive structure, which is very twisted if you think about it, but it’s a consideration that they cannot afford to do.

People don’t fight back against the powerful abusing their power, they beg them.

in CL [Cart Life] there is a sense that one may very well hold on and live another day, if they try hard enough, if they know their way around the city, if they balance everything just right. And even that is a slightly more optimistic perspective than Three Fourths Home has to offer, because systems can be read, can become not scary but familiar, and they can be manipulated. TFH offers nothing but a one-way street, with an emphasis on the emotional resonance of that mechanic, but also on its inevitability: there are no choices to be made, the dialogue options offer only superficial alternatives. The player has no power to shape the story, because the Meyers have no power to shape their story, like they have no power over the tornado that is approaching their house.

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Is Language a Virus? Starring Punished "Venom" Snake | Idea Channel | PBS Digital Studios

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So, let's talk sex games.

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Sex games, part 1: sex as bodies

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Sex games, part 2: sex as gesture / sex as poking

Critical Compilation - Cibele

§CIBELE
One of the reasons why confessional storytelling is so rare in games might be because of the way it puts a lie to one of our most commonly held assumptions about players and the characters they control. We generally imagine that, when you play as someone, you are becoming them—adventuring as Lara Croft, saving the human race as the Master Chief, etc., etc. Confessional narratives shatter that illusion with experiences so specific and so tied to their creator that the distance between the player and the character is always present. When we see Freeman’s pictures and hear her voice, her personhood is inescapable.
/.../
For a few years as a teenager, I imagined myself living a double life, an awkward teenage boy in one world and a creative, vibrant young man somewhere beyond the bounds of an LCD monitor. Playing Cibele highlighted the dissonance of my young identities and the way I used technology to shape them. I was neither; I was both.
/.../
Even if you can’t relate, Cibele still insists on a personal response. If anything, my tendency to distrust Ichi made every moment with him feel all the more intrusive and significant. I wanted to see myself in his relationship with Freeman. Or maybe I wanted to see what she saw.

This is a game about that drive to connect, to see others and yourself clearly. It’s an experiment in how a creator might put themselves into a work and make a game that speaks honestly about their real life to the people who play it.

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I often think about the fact we don't really have 'online lives' any more.
/.../
online is real life now.
/.../
Nina Freeman's Cibele is a gentle but involving callback to a youth when the realm of internet chat—here, visualized quite literally through an online fantasy game—could be an all-consuming, furtive repository for everything fraught and unexpressed in our real lives.
/.../
There will always be stories of young love, and people probably meet online now more than ever, perfunctorily, but it fascinates me that these stories will never again happen in exactly this way.
/.../
Virtual communication is no longer magic. It's no longer rare and risky, and as time passes, more and more of us will be much the same person "here" as we are "there." Lots of us today spend more time on devices than we do off them. Friends and colleagues report being overwhelmed, not intrigued, by Reddit threads, Twitter replies, Tinder messages, Facebook notifications, Google Calendar invites, iMessages and texts. Now, for me, meeting someone in a club late at night who has read my articles actually recalls that old sinking feeling of finding out someone in your internet roleplay group actually goes to your school—they've accidentally found the real-life me, the secret me. The script has reversed: nowadays, in the age of remote working and Real Name Policies, some corners of real life feel more forbidden, more secret, than the internet does or perhaps ever will again.
/.../
Games like Cibele and Emily is Away are not just memoirs; they're memorials. When today's young people want to whisper their secret longing and loneliness into the night in search of others, will they still put it online? If not, then where?


§

This is a game about a young woman’s experience, fundamentally; it is her role you adopt, after all, her eyes through which you see. But Ichi (voice acted expertly by Justin Briner) also emerges with nearly equal vulnerability, showing a side of young men that is only ever ruthlessly mocked if it is portrayed at all. He is initially presented as that most loathsome figure in MMO gaming: the tough-talking, foul mouthed, exacting raid leader who sees himself cursed to be surrounded by idiots. But as you play, you see that he is, in certain ways, Nina’s mirror; MMOs afford her the opportunity to thrive socially in a world where she is not judged for being a nerd who cheerfully describes her aesthetic as mahou shoujo, and they afford for Ichi the opportunity to socialize without getting too close to people.

§

exhibitionism and a confessional style of video game seems appropriate in this case, given the game’s thematic interest in adolescent infatuation.
/.../
It’s a clever game, told in a clever way, that produces a very authentic representation of a fairly universal experience, but it feels like that in presenting the story in as raw a form as Freeman has that events here haven’t yet been considered with any maturity, only idealism.
/.../
The game knows how to express itself well enough, but the reason that it doesn’t really enlighten us in any way seems to be because there is no sense of transformation of the character of Nina herself.
/.../
Nina at the beginning was a girl infatuated with presenting a certain idealized image of herself and her world, and Nina at the end is a young woman that still seems infatuated with presenting a certain idealized image of herself and her world.
/.../
Maybe, though, Cibele is simply intended as a fable or allegory. It’s just disappointing to me because it initially seems to promise an investigation of identity and exhibitionism that might uncover something a bit richer, perhaps, more oracular, than those genres typically allow for.

§

There’s only so much you can read into the game as a broader commentary on the intimacy of play and on formation of sexuality in the digital age. It’s not as didactic as one might expect, to the point where I occasionally found myself tempted to read straight past the game into the phenomenon it portrays.
/.../
For all its shortcomings, which should not be either ignored or overstated, Cibele has remarkable fidelity as a communication of a personal experience, and that makes it an exciting and successful piece of autobiography.

Every playthrough is equal, some playthroughs are more equal than others

I've now written three texts about games (Planescape Torment, Undertale, Life Is Strange) where the way I played them and the outcomes of those playthroughs affected my understanding of them1. And in all three cases there are other ways of playing the game which if one took into account all the possible playthroughs for ones understanding of the game and tried to stack them on top of each-other, one would have to alter ones conclusions drawn. Because how can one be an asshole to ones companions yet still regain ones mortality in Planescape Torment? How does all the themes of acceptance in Life Is Strange fit in with the ending where one decides on saving Chloe? Do those alternative (to mine) endings contradict my conclusions simply because my conclusions were wrong to begin with? I don't think that's the case, and I don't necessarily believe that games should be only understood in the context of all possible states that they might finalize in (or indeed be understood primarily based on their final states).

All playthroughs of games are worlds in themselves and can be regarded as consistent and perfect. That doesn't mean that there isn't anything to gain from going through a videogame with a different playstyle or thematic predisposition compared to ones older playthroughs in order to inform ones understanding of the universe that is a specific game as a whole. Perhaps I'm wary of going down that path in part because it takes more artistic genius to make all paths point in the same general direction or at least give tools for satisfying meaning-making in all paths. Then there's also the question of my choosing the path which makes the more sense for me. It's not weird that other paths don't seem as well-made – they weren't made for me.

 
 
1To be completely honest I did make it seem as if the actions I took in Planescape Torment were necessary to reach the best ending at all, but most of them really weren't. That's different from how ones experience of Undertale might vary according to the path taken, because in Undertale my interpretation might still hold in a no-mercy run – the game is very different but it's not essentially different or dissonant with the Undertale of a pacifist run.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Life Is Strange

Music.
 
"Do you read minds as well, or did you travel back through time and know I stole the chair?"
"It's the power of best friendship. I know how you roll."


Max Caulfield has a super power – time traveling. But more importantly, zie has another super power – mind traveling (mentalization/theory of mind/vibratory telepathy1). This power is the power which makes us all potential "Everyday Heroes", potentially "super", potentially to the max. It is the power with which Max reads the minds of the people in Arcadia Bay, but also the power zie uses to understand all the possibilities that is hirself. It is the power we as players use to understand Max and all the possibilities surrounding the gamespace of Life Is Strange – the power the developers utilized when they filled the world of Arcadia with clues as to what the focal point of the story, a scene, or an exchange should be. It is the power of imagination, introspection, prediction, questioning, of what-ifs, maybies, chance, compassion, empathy, and with it we travel both through space and time. It is the power that enables Max and us to reach out to others, the power which enables Max and us to treasure and value friendship and love and ultimately to form bonds that go beyond death itself. This power is an ability that, like family, binds both ways, and it is what allows my existential tethering to the strange lives of Max and Chloe, and enables your traveling here, dear reader.

At the destination that is Life Is Strange, photography has a prominent and multifaceted role. There, people use photography as a means of expression, and it's a means for us as players to understand the characters, gain insight into the world and its inhabitants and their relationships to one another. It is a means through which we might come to understand others better in some ways than they do themselves, and it is a way through which people express things which they otherwise would not be able to or know how to express. Max's diary was filled with drawings, pictures and words which helped me to take hir perspective and mantle the role of Max Caulfield, photography student. It was the painting through which I could frame Max and the choices zie made, or I made through hir – playing is a two-way mirror. Through me, Max's introspection changed both the (meaning of the) past and the future.
 
Through photography we find out different sides to people, see them in a new angle, or just in hindsight see something which we missed the first time around, making us go "I should have fucking suspected there was something wrong with that guy, just look at his photographs", but then realizing that we didn't in fact blink twice because that shit's just the way things are – both in the world of Life Is Strange and ours.
Photographs are also something which we might remember people by.

In Life Is Strange, the photography is not only something which is looked upon, but something which is used for understanding and presenting oneself, a way of conceptualizing and framing oneself in a broader, social context. Max is shy, insecure, and uses hir powers to gain social leverage – at least I did in my playthrough and that playthrough is my phenomenological reality of Life Is Strange. What kind of pictures does Max take? Self-portraits, or "selfies". One might say that Max hides in plain sight, and zie certainly isn't the only one, being a teenager and all. Max is the typical overly socially conscious high-school kid who knows very well the potential of photography and how it might be used for an array of means – why else would zie take up the study of photography? That pictures can be used for both good and evil is an especially poignant point in the context of what happened in Episode 2 of Life Is Strange to Kate who was drugged and filmed for the whole world to see on the internet, girls-gone-wild-style. In a world where that kind of social stigma can be resurrected with a lazy click of a received link it becomes all the more important to at all times be prepared for the flash, and never forgetting to strike a pose. Then again, if one has the power to turn back time, one might have other ways to deal with embarrassment and a different way of grounding it in ones personal and social narratives.
For my Max it was very important for things to go just the way zie wanted to, exploring different timelines as one might explore different clothing styles, making it second nature to appear more savvy than zie really was. Chloe (hir old-new best friend) on the other hand seemed to live life without regrets, was notoriously reckless and managed to get hirself killed in all five episodes. Incidentally, Chloe is also a total wreck and doesn't even attend Blackwell High after having been kicked out of there. What of hir pictures? They are basically just missing posters of Rachel, the Laura Palmer of the story, of whom we learn more as we see pictures of hir with the most varied of people in contexts we couldn't imagine when starting out, forcing us to constantly re-frame what we think of hir and the people who zie appears with in pictures. Like the Prescott family, Rachel seems to tie in with every aspect of the local community, as zie does with the other events which Life Is Strange centers around and seem to be collapsing upon – The Vortex Club and the End of the World Party, Max's time traveling powers (symbolized by a spiral), the viral video of a drugged Kate gone-wild on the web, the visions of a tornado which destroys Arcadia Bay (the actual end of the world?), and the Everyday Hero Photography contest (its promotional poster has a clear sky in it).
Being a (super) hero is no easy task with all of these things superimposed on top of each-other. It might even become an ordeal to be regular and fit in, or just recognizing and being oneself at all. Things get out of hand soon enough, and in order for Max to get hir happy ending we are forced to expand the scope of our powers and not just settling for rewinding time 30 seconds or so. Eventually Max learns that zie can go back years in time by focusing on the polaroids zie's taken with hir instant camera. Through these we travel to little time pockets of regret, but also to scenes where we share no blame but Max now thinks zie with hir new-found powers has responsibility to correct, such as the case of Chloe's dad dying in a car crash. Accompanying our mastery of time-traveling are more frequent nosebleeds and more intrusive visions of the end of the world, and so we start to suspect that perhaps we can't have our perfect ending after all. We start noticing small cracks that go back to the very first scene in Episode 1 where we are chastised by the popular girl Victoria for not being able to answer a question put forth by the teacher about "the derregiere process". We discover our powers, rewind time, and the very first lesson from this very first rewind is that we get shit anyway, because this time around Victoria thinks we're a know-it-all and has no qualms saying so. Because Life isn't perfect, it's strange, and its inhabitants are too. Even fate seems to have a sense of irony...
 
§
   
There is a lighthouse at the end of the world. It stands erect on a hill overlooking all of Arcadia Bay, in the eye of the tornado which is prognosticated to destroy the world. As such, it is the scene for the bird's eye view, but also the position for the mind's (third) eye. It is the site for self-examination and revelation – for brainstorms. It takes a while for Max to reach there, but zie does. On hir way there, zie goes through a nightmarish vision quest full of different scenarios that are all about assembling data and courage for the gathering storm and the final sacrifice that must be made there. In that vision quest, Max solves puzzles by narrowing data points and focusing on what's important by looking in mirrors, rummaging through the internalized voices of all the residents of Arcadia Bay, hiding from some of them, and getting to see hir and Chloe's friendship's defining moments. Before doing what needs to be done – letting hir best friend die.

Important decisions concerning Max's coming of age besides the final one. It is when out of time-traveling juice that we talk down Kate from jumping off the school roof. And we do. We manage to save Kate as well as the fabric of the universe through non-supernatural means – by knowing when to kick up dust with destiny, and when not to. We didn't win the Everyday Hero competition, in fact we were too busy saving lives. We were too busy doing everyday good deeds for Kate (such as erasing the link to “Kate's video” written on the mirror in the girls bathroom) and others, in a way preparing for the potential tragedy of Kate taking hir own life. Our Max Factor was communication, the power of having shown a big enough interest in people in our vicinity so that we might give solace to them when they need it.
 
The pacing of decision-making in Life Is Strange is out of time as well, and not timed as in similar games, because it's all about deliberation and taking ones time in the sense of preparing. About laying the groundwork. About moments of decision as photographs and echoes of future choices. And perhaps we weren't able to rescue everyone that we wanted to, but our bonds with them were saved by our having shared something special. And through our super powers of mind traveling, we might even ask ourselves just what those we didn't save might be saying to us right now if they were here. We just might even have photographs, or psychometric traces2, of those special moments which we can go back to in time and remember them by. Because the Psychometric Tracer can not only leave impressions of emotions, history and knowledge, the user of this ability contains a smaller, imperfect echo of the entire universe, enabling them to search out paths through probability to any desired future, effectively making it a form of “time-traveling”.

Max gets a plant from hir parents, and it survives to the end only if you water is just enough – not too much, not too little. Some things you can't save no matter how much you water them, and your watering just becomes fuel for a storm of some kind. Sometimes you never even get to see the consequences of your actions, as with Alyssa, the kid you save from incoming projectiles of different kinds in every episode. And that's part of life as well. The more Max time-travels, the more hir power expands the scope of hir vision, the more zie realizes that there are things that zie can't solve. The more real and imagined conflicting perspectives zie tries to take into account, the less zie feels like the master of hir own destiny. It's like power on that kind of a level seems to be constant, and no matter how great your ambition or scope, it all comes back to the lowest level of actions – those in the present. We use our capabilities of prediction to understand others, but there are no certainties as to what the outcome may be. In some time-lines and playthroughs, Kate didn't even survive and what I would have taken away from Life Is Strange would be quite different. But in my world Kate did survive, and afterward zie acknowledges us being both not perfect and good: "You're such a good person, Max. Even if you're full of crap. But I'll come with you... You're my friend." In a way, we are not only Kate's friend but also hir guardian Angel, and Kate is not only our friend but also our guardian Angel for reminding us of this wisdom.
 

§
 
"Goodbye to the children we'll never meet, and the children we left behind".
 
Chloe is the driving force behind the main quest in the Life Is Strange. Max has the powers, but always uses them to protect Chloe and further Chloe's goals. Who gave Max powers? Rachel? The Prescotts? Some old Gods? Arcadia Bay itself? It doesn't matter, all that intellectualizing draws our attention away from the heart of the matter and what really hurts – the fact that we left our best friend and came back to find out that zie had had a really tough time while we were gone. The fact that we promised each-other that we'd always be there for each-other yet weren't. The fact that in our absence Chloe had somehow managed to lose hir childhood but never found out how to grow up.
 
Faced with all of this pain, we did the seemingly responsible thing and tried to make it all up to Chloe, to protect hir. But that decision in the end was grounded in the immature spectrum of emotions, born from pain, as a symptom of denial. Again and again we tried saving Chloe, both from destiny and hirself. Because we wanted to assuage our guilt, because we wanted to make things right. Because we suffered the magical thinking of a child, taking responsibility for everything bad in Chloe's life after we moved out of Arcadia Bay. But we can't take responsibility for the actions of others, that doesn't make us masters of our own destiny. The signs have been everywhere, practically screaming at us, and we know now that we have to leave our best friend – again.
 
In Life Is Strange, people are always-already diary entries – approaching them, they become objects of interaction with their becoming outlined in the style of our notepad sketches. All of the world is already out of time as they are objects in Max's subjectivity, but they are also out of time because everything that takes place has already taken place, making all of Life Is Strange a memento mori. Nor Chloe's nor Max's quest was about saving lives, but about saying goodbyes. For Max, it was about having one final, awesome week as authority-defying teenagers flying in the face of fate itself with our best childhood friend. About getting a short moment as grown-ups together at the lighthouse, immortalized in our being brave in the face of death and inevitability. And in the end when the storm has blown over and our time traveling capabilities are dust in the wind, there are no illusions of grand gestures left, only of the power of friendship, and the reality of both grief and hope in the aftermath of acceptance. And though we've lost something precious to us, we still have the world and all of the people there who we can travel to and with. We still have our mind traveling, and that's hella super.
 
§
    



§



1Vibratory Telepathy: "By transmitting invisible vibrations through the very air itself, two users of this ability can share thoughts. As a result, Vibratory Telepaths can form emotional bonds much deeper than those possible to other primates." (http://lesswrong.com/lw/ve/mundane_magic/) Mentalization (psychology): the ability to understand the mental state, of oneself or others, that underlies overt behaviour.
2http://lesswrong.com/lw/ve/mundane_magic/