They make a desert and call it a game

Discussed in this essay:
  • Homeworld Remastered Collection, Relic Entertainment/Gearbox Software (2015)
  • Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, Blackbird Interactive (2016)

There are games we love, and there are games we want to love. The former category are all those games we were sucked into in the first hours of play, or after careful study revealed something even deeper than we first realized. Our relationships with these games aren’t unlike the relationships with the great loves of our lives: formative, abiding, and fondly remembered for many years, even after you’ve gone your separate ways.

For me, the Homeworld series definitely does not fall into that category. No, the Homeworld games are that really hot person I dated for a few months in graduate school, with whom things didn’t work out because there fundamentally wasn’t anything beyond the first, intense, mutual attraction. You try it anyway for a while – because with a game this sexy, how could you not? – but in the end, you have to admit it was always more about the aesthetic than the game itself.

I will say it now, and I will say it proudly: I am sick to death of pretty games. I don’t want to hear another word about polygon counts, anisotropic filtering, rendering passes, camera techniques, or anything else. What I do want is a game which I can play.

When Gearbox announced that, having acquired the rights to the old Homeworld series,1 they would be tastefully updating it to run on, and take advantage of, modern graphics cards, as well as re-releasing unaltered games for that original look-n-feel, I was pretty pleased. Even though I often rail against the modern tendency to milk the fiscally irresponsible 18–35 demographic’s sense of nostalgia2 instead of creating anything new, I am also nothing if not a sucker, and bought the Remastered Collection on the day of release.

I defend this decision in a couple of ways: first, I knew exactly what I was getting. It was no more or less than promised,3 and for that Gearbox deserve real praise. The twenty-first century needs more carefully-controlled ambitions executed well. My second defence is an art-historical one. By bringing old games to modern platforms and matchmaking services, we pull them out of the damnatio memoriae that so much “new media” suffers at the hand of Moore’s Law and messed-up intellectual property legislation, and back into the light where people can actually interact with them. At a reasonable price point, I consider this a legitimate endeavour.

But playing these games again also reminded me of their problems, and about the difference between a really good real-time strategy game and one that I really wish was better. Part of the problem is that Homeworld (1999) was released before there was any such thing as a “pro” scene, or a lot of talk about a game’s “meta”.4 Like the good old days of Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness or Command and Conquer: Red Alert, really the only thing to do was play campaigns or comp-stomp in skirmish modes. If you could organize a LAN party, awesome, but that wasn’t something people were doing every night of the week.

Homeworld 2 (2003) didn’t really stray far from this template. It was fundamentally still single-player, and although Sierra offered an online matchmaking service for a time, you could tell where all the effort went. The fact that the game included a “pause and give orders”5 mechanic in single-player shows that it was not really designed around effective micro-management of units,6 and the paucity of multiplayer maps (and the relative lack of imagination in that set) didn’t help much.

But lest you think I am all down on these games: Homeworld 2 was a good game. I say that in all seriousness. The series has an impeccable sense of style, even though the writing is almost 100% undiluted cliché. But I’ve been stomaching that my entire game-playing life, and at least the actual gameplay mechanics are fun and different. If every RTS not being as polished as a Blizzard game means that we can have games very different from ones that Blizzard makes, then I accept that. And I accept that deep down, Homeworld and Homeworld 2 come from the “Command and Conquer” side of the RTS centum-satem line. I only wish that in addition to all the cool-as-shit art and the hotkeys that really let you take in the spaceships blasting each other to shit, they had realized what enormous potential a 3D battlescape and the rich mix of units presented for gameplay with a real crunchiness, and pushed that a bit further.

Still, not all art can be great, and sometimes we settle for “good”. And at a certain point, we must let bygones be bygones.

Except we can’t, because now we have a new Homeworld game. For when Relic perished, many of the original Homeworld developers moved on to form Blackbird Interactive, and began working on a “spiritual successor” to their cult-hit franchise, originally called “Hardware: Ship Breakers”. Billed as “Homeworld on the ground”7 they quickly generated some buzz, and then vanished. After talking to Gearbox, who brought them on board for the “remastering” of the classic games, this game emerged as “Homeworld: Ship Breakers”, the prequel to the original Homeworld that it had always intended to be, but for legal reasons Definitely Was Not. Released, finally, as Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (literally last week), I admit that I could not spend my €45 fast enough to get my hands on this game.

Did I think it was a bit overpriced? Yeah, actually. Was I expecting an earth-shatteringly good RTS? No, definitely not. Am I happy with it now, having played the campaign and a bit of skirmish/multiplayer? Ehrm. Hm. I guess not.

The thing is, this is a genuinely different RTS. It is not any of the *-craft games, it is strategic,8 it is fun. I’ve actually had more fun with it than Starcraft 2, which is a more polished game in pretty much every respect (although the writing in both is terrible). It’s also beautiful and atmospheric and revels in the desert landscapes that have been so carefully crafted – but then, Desert Golfing is all those things as well, and for a fraction of the price.

But new game, same flaws, let’s be honest. Multiplayer, despite the fancy matchmaking and possibility of ranked matches, feels like a total afterthought. Two nearly-identical factions, with a lot of the fun/interesting unit abilities switched around and made less cool as compared to single-player, only five maps,9 no way to rebind keys, and region-locked matchmaking that you aren’t notified about.10

The campaign story11 is still vague and handwavy, and the fact that a long time ago in a galaxy far away is populated by “Nathan” and “Rachel” is pretty careless.12

That said, the missions are really fun. In fact, I haven’t had a single player experience I liked this much in a long time: “classic” difficulty was hard. I replayed the last mission on easy just so I could see the ending before having to go to bed late on a Sunday night. (In the event, I should not have bothered: the ending13 consists of “yay the game is over!” and nothing else, which has reportedly confused the hell out of people new to the franchise, and is idiotic when the cool ending is a layup that the previous two games have already cleared your way to the basket for.)

And I will admit, the game has moments when it reaches a metaphorical hand up, and for just one moment, touches the sublime face of the Gaming Diety. Somewhere around Mission 3, when I was defending a wreck site that I had to scan for artifacts, my patrol was pinned down by enemy forces. Air support is called in, and just as my little dudes in their desert jeeps are about to taste the 50-degree gypsum powder for real, the sound of screaming jet engines fills the sky, and a rain of explodey death comes down on the bad guys like that scene in Apocalypse Now. I did that over and over again in the campaign, and you know what? It literally never got old.1415

Why can’t we have more of that? Well, for one, this is an old-school game from an old-school team. The gaming world has moved on in the last thirteen years. Most of my time spent in video games is social, and I hardly ever play games alone. I want to share those “airstrike you back to the stone age” moments with friends, and to sideline that experience and put a triple-A price tag on it is too much to ask. Perhaps there are more content patches incoming, and perhaps Blackbird is really as interested as they claim in fostering a multiplayer community.

Still, I’m not holding my breath. I’ve been through this cycle too many times, and I am perhaps too cynical. I have learned that the real path to happiness is accepting situations for what they are, rather than what you would like them to be. It was never going to work out with that smoking-hot graduate school colleague, and the Homeworld series will probably always be relegated to “cult” status. That’s okay, I guess. But I can’t help but find myself wondering if Warcraft III is on sale.

  1. Well, to the two games developed by Relic anyway. Apparently Cataclysm was a different set of intellectual property imaginary objects, and has thus been consigned to the dustbin of history, despite having a reputation as a rather good improvement over the original game. [back]

  2. Although as of this writing, Homeworld 2 is just over twelve years old. Can we reflect on how psychopathically short the cultural attention span has become when we are “reviving” works from just the last decade as if they were lost treasures? [back]

  3. Well, minus the as-yet-to-arrive bug fixes. [back]

  4. Starcraft (1998) was released the year before and really created that space, but not overnight. And anyway, Sierra’s online matchmaking was nowhere near as sophisticated as even the late-90s More than good RTSes, Blizzard made a truly excellent online service, and that is what is responsible for its success. [back]

  5. Which I confess I did not know about until literally yesterday, when people were moaning in a comment thread somewhere about how this feature was missing from Deserts of Kharak[back]

  6. To paraphrase Larkin, “micromanagement began / or at least it did for me / in the year 2003 / with the end of the sodomy ban / and release of Warcraft III”. Micro was pretty much codified in gameplay mechanics by Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002), and then instantly gave birth to the MOBA, which has outstripped all the RTSes put together in terms of attention. [back]

  7. Or, as I originally thought of it, “finally, Homeworld with some fucking terrain”. [back]

  8. Although I keep seeing it billed as a “tactical RTS”, and I have no idea what that means. What RTS isn’t tactical? [back]

  9. Seriously. Five. As in “I can count all of the multiplayer maps on one hand”. More have been promised, and for free rather than as DLC, but I mean Jesus H Christ. Are we so obsessed with “ship early ship often” that we can’t even try a little? [back]

  10. These games were never popular enough to warrant region-locking the multiplayer. As it is, logging in from Europe and Asia you are present with, er, one or two game lobbies. That everyone is switching their Steam download servers to the US to find games only makes the problem worse. [back]

  11. As a supplement to the “sick of pretty games” comment, let me add: I do not care about your Bible/Tolkein/Asimov rip-off of a story, or your crappy world building. Give me a game that I can play[back]

  12. All the more since at no point in the other games do people have the names of perky Californians. [back]

  13. Don’t you dare bitch about spoilers in a prequel[back]

  14. That is, until you unlock the cruise missle ability on the Mothership, er Pride of Hiigara, I mean the Galactica, uh, your main ship. Remember the first time you launched a tactical nuke in Starcraft? Yeah, it is that much fun. Repeatedly. BOOOOOM[back]

  15. The game also has (thankfully very rare) moments when the whole “everything is basically a tank” schtick descends into something like “Parking Simulator with guns”. Both the macro and the micro AI is servicable but not fantastic. [back]

An oral history of the Nintendo “Game Counselors”

“They rented every limo in western Washington. They thought they’d get around it by having the party on a Sunday night, which always kind of sucked. Most people made arrangements and didn’t have to work the next day. They had limos to and from for everybody. It was nice to be treated like that, at that age, and having all this great fun, but also be treated in a way that I’ve rarely seen since then, as far as corporate stuff. While there was still that political stuff within the ranks, the upper management – to me at least – was very fair.”

These violent delights

Discussed in this essay:
  • Tinder (2012, InterActiveCorp)

Like so many of the much-hyped AAA classics of recent years, IAC’s 2012 game Tinder is not so much an innovation as it is a careful, progressive refinement of an existing genre. Although much simpler, of course, it is sort of what World of Warcraft is to Everquest, Ultima, and the ur-RPG Dungeons and Dragons. In both cases, the secret seems to be removing everything that is unnecessary, until what is left is a single core mechanic that draws the user in with a Flappy Bird-level single-mindedness.

Until Tinder the so-called “online dating” category of MMOs was largely restricted to more verbose web-based games like OkCupid (2004, Chris Coyne et al.) and PlentyOfFish (2003, Markus Frind). Despite trying hard to distance themselves from the swords-and-sorcery roleplays that dominated multiplayer gaming until that point1, both games require the player to create lengthy character sheets and fill out lots of stats for their prospective toon. OkCupid catered to the more min/max oriented player, with its statistical “matching algortithm” and developer-sponsored theory blogs. But the interface was still very much browser-bounded (think Japanese dating sim meets Trade Wars), and although IAC has since acquired OkCupid and introduced elements similar to features in Tinder (as well as providing graphcial updates and generally simplifying the interface to make it less complex), the core gameplay remains the same.

Tinder, on the other hand, presents the user with a much simpler interface and a vastly abbreviated (and almost entirely optional) character-creation process. Although originally billed as a “straight people’s Grindr” (a niche entry in the genre which pioneered may features but never caught on with the gaming community at large2), it ends up being enough of an innovation to almost be a genre in and of itself.

The pseudo-realistic elements are quite interesting. Unlike OkCupid, which allows the player to create their character from scratch, Tinder derives the initial information from a Facebook account. Although you have the ability to curate the photos a little, and provide your own text-only character bio (as sparse as any EVE Online pilot profile), you can’t change the options much more than this. After that, you’re dropped into the main game interface, which is just a stack of profile cards of “people around you” which you can swipe right or left, depending on whether you “like” them or not, respectively. If two players3 “like” each other, they can start a conversation, encouraged by the game’s narrator.4

Ostensibly, the point of the game is what happens next: two players get to talking (still in character of course), and arrange to meet. This is the point where the Silicon Valley slickness and claim to “innovation” become a bit tired, since despite all of their claims to creativity, it becomes a classic foam-armor-and-beer-in-the-park LARP session at this point. Obviously the scenario you choose to run with your newfound party member depends on what you decide together, but the choices are limited (especially since literal foam-armor LARPing seems to be too much RPG-within-RPG for most players), especially considering the huge number of people who roll “19 year-old creative”.5

I have to confess, though – I’ve been playing these sorts of games since at least 2011 (not as long as many, I admit), and all of the supposely-revoutionary elements of Tinder aren’t so much. Early versions of it existed (minus the IRL elements) on the internet as far back as I can remember, and although games like OkCupid require more effort from the player, the result is a more interesting world, and more fun groups. The Facebook-linkup feature is interesting (especially when other players claim to have the same “friends” that you do, which is sort of neat, since it adds a certain reputation malus potential in that game as well), but that’s about the only novel thing, and the restrictions on your character creation aren’t really worth it. (Who wants to roll the same class in every MMO?)

But maybe I’m the wrong target demographic here. My go-to character is the sort of lawful-good, cynical alcoholic, and that seems to play about as well as the sex-hungry night elf who doesn’t realize he isn’t in Silvermoon. Espcially since re-rolling on the Berlin server recently, I’ve found the player-base a bit samey, the quests predictable, and writing poor. What I do find myself enjoying still is the swiping. There’s something zen and Desert Golfing-like about swiping for the sake of it;6 like watching people walk by outside a café window on the Left Bank, observing how all the little neuroses of a single individual are distilled to a few earnest images that try to present the most interesting and most attractive person possible. If there is one thing the player base is good at, it is capturing the desperate desire of a young person to be approved of, and thought interesting above all else.

I have thought about deleting my account, but then, like EVE Online, I always seem to come back every few months to see if, somehow, the game whose core mechanics I believe in has gotten more interesting. It never has, of course, but one holds out hope.

  1. Except FetLife, of course, which always embraced the Wagnerian roots of gaming. [back]

  2. Although I haven’t played it myself, friends who have report a much more immediate and local-area focussed game, with heavy reliance on the augmented-reality aspects, sort of like Ingress[back]

  3. It’s not clear if each profile you encounter is an actual person or not. Although IAC hasn’t always made their stance on botting as clear as, say, Blizzard, the additional Turing-test aspect of starting any conversation certainly adds an interesting dimension, although it doesn’t really fit with the overall mood of the game. More often, though, are the humans role-playing as animals or inanimate objects, which can lead to hilarity. [back]

  4. Unlike a lot of games, the narrator doesn’t act as a vehicle for exposition so much as to encourage interaction, either with a new match, or to bug you to keep using the app if you haven’t recently. Think Navi as your aunt at Christmas who is always asking you if you have a girlfriend yet. [back]

  5. Class imbalance is worse than any other MMO I’ve ever played, and seems to be implicity encouraged by the game designers, for reasons I don’t quite understand. Although free-to-play, you can unlock extra features for a monthly fee, which is more expensive the older your character roll. Unlike OkCupid, the “early-40s cougar” class seems deeply unpopular, which is annoying if, like me, you prefer to run balanced raids. [back]

  6. Especially since I haven’t paid to unlock the premium features, so there is no undo. Once you swipe left, “Gina” and her three friends in that photo are gone forever. [back]

Ithaca and Durotar

The last time I found myself back in Nashville, in the back of my mind, the whole time, I knew what I really wanted was to be somewhere else – anywhere, in fact, but home.

I have an uncertain relationship with the concept of “home.” There are, I think, reasons for that – I lived in the same house, from the earliest period in my life I can remember, until I left for college at the age of eighteen. Nor was it a sudden, clean break, setting off for a country three thousand miles away, never to return except at Christmases: rather, my adult existence has proceeded in fits and starts, sometimes feeling like a kind of half-maturity, inhibited by the occasional realization that there are times and seasons in my life when I lack a certain critical resolve, and have found my course bending homeward again, back to Nashville, for a few months, or a year or so. But, of course, in time I always rediscovered that necessary strength, and left again. And it helped that every time, Nashville felt a little less like home.

It is the curious feature of time spent away – which we forget, lulled as we are by the closing of conceptual distance by the jet engine and the automobile – that places continue to change even after we are gone. They change while we’re there, too, of course, in ways both welcome and unwelcome. I am not a big fan of change, especially of the unnecessary sort, as anybody who was there for my childhood will attest, but at least when we’re present for those changes, they feel gradual, and can be incorporated into our internal histories of the places we inhabit. But the changes which accumulate while we are away will always seem to have happened suddenly, and to possess an alien quality, because we were not there to witness them unfold. The house down the street is torn down, or repainted. A new building goes up downtown. The menu changes at your favorite coffee shop, and now the staff are all different, and they don’t know what your usual order is anymore.

And these things might seem small, and it might seem only the peevishness of the stubborn mind, intent on finding flaws in the universe where none really exist, to harp on them, and to find in them small traces of a deep and illimitable sadness. But I do, and it is not peevishness, nor stubbornness, nor merely a penchant for melancholic moods (though I admit I possess all three at times, and not rarely together). But we write the psychohistory of our lives in the places that we know; and in that way, we map our selves to the spaces we have inhabited for years at a time, so surely, I think, that the paths and places where we played as children become for us a metonomy of our childhood as a whole: the creek behind the house, the backyard, the floppy-eared dog, the cracked sidewalks, and everything else. And human memory is a notoriously unsatisfactory device: memories fade with time, are lost, and shift in emphasis as we remember them. So how wonderful it is to turn a corner, or visit a favorite spot, or see a familiar face in one’s hometown, and by the physical sensation find oneself confronted with memories suddenly fresh, suddenly new again, and pieces of a life we had thought lost forever returned to us, even if only for a little while. It helps, of course, if the memories are good ones. As for me, I had what seemed unremarkable at the time, but was in retrospect a very happy childhood. And for that reason, maybe, I especially hate to go home.

With time, of course, the city where I was born, and where I spent the vast majority of the first eighteen years of my life, feels less and less like home. My parents are divorced; a strange man lives in my mother’s house where I grew up. The last time I returned, the house had been rearranged, and my room no longer felt like the little sanctuary I had spent years carefully building for myself. Nashville is now a rather alien place, the city of a Capgras delusion, very like (but not the same as) my home. And the city where I have lived, on and off since, feels more and more like mine, even though I don’t hold the local citizenship, can’t vote in the elections, and have a funny accent. Any place you stay long enough will become inhabited with new memories, just like the places you grew up, and I have been lucky in my adulthood, as I was in my childhood, in that many of them are very good ones.

Tonight, at about three AM, because I couldn’t sleep, I reinstalled World of Warcraft. I’m not sure what exactly my motivation was. The new expansion, of course, is being talked about, and the occasional post bubbling up into my awareness on Reddit. When I really can’t sleep, when I feel my thoughts going endlessly in circles, what I want more than anything is to be taken out of myself, and into another world. RPGs are good for that. So I found myself back in Azeroth, for the first time in, I think, about two and a half years. My Tauren druid, level 85, was standing right where I had left him, in a hut in Orgrimmar, a staff slung over his shoulder, in a motley of armor picked up from various dungeons and quests. The sensation of returning to an avatar I had spent a couple of years inhabiting, in a world I knew as well as my own, was not a little pleasant. Aha, I thought; yes, I remember how this goes. The muscle memory of the hotkeys came back quickly enough, and no sooner had the desire formed in my mind, but I had transformed into a hawk and was again soaring through the sky.

And yet, what’s true for Nashville is true for Kalimdor. Out of curiosity, I clicked around on the various social windows World of Warcraft offers. Out of what was once an active membership of a couple dozen people, only five characters still had the guild tag. None of them, save Ekhan of course, had been online in years. Half of my friends list was missing entirely, their names replaced by an ominous “UNKNOWN”; even the long list of people I had permanently /ignored over the years was now two-thirds “unknown” entries. Orgrimmar was functionally deserted (of course, the fact that a new expansion had been released, and that it was the small hours of the morning, probably contributed to that). For curiosity’s sake, I later looked up the server’s entry on Wowpedia; of the top-rated Horde and Alliance guilds listed on that page, all of which had been active when the Path was in its heyday, most did not even have their websites up anymore. Ten million people are subscribed to World of Warcraft – just not, apparently, anybody I know.

And it goes deeper than that. I think in a lot of ways, despite its phenomenal success, World of Warcraft is an object lesson in how not to build a good MMORPG. There are a couple reasons for that. Not the absurdity of the stories it tells, or its penchant for scenery-chewing melodrama – I love that about World of Warcraft. But its theme-park nature, its grindy gameplay, the inability of the players to meaningfully create their own stories in the world, all stand against the strong lessons games like Minecraft – or even EVE Online – have taught us since. World of Warcraft isn’t a tool for players to create with, like good virtual worlds are, and it certainly doesn’t have that alive-sense that the best have. It is, at best, a carefully curated set of dioramas and theme parks, and thus has to be driven by continuous content-heavy expansions, which, when they fail to appear regularly, tend to result in precipitous drops in the subscription rate. What this means, in real terms, I think, is that if you log in for the first time in six months, you feel out of the loop; if you log in for the first time in two years, you feel you have landed on another planet. Old features, like reputation factions from previous expansions, or endgame content rendered meaningless by a raised level cap, sits there, orphaned and abandoned. That’s not all bad: you might have very fond memories associated with those dungeons. But it’s strange – like coming home and seeing the house next door has been abandoned.

Cataclysm in many ways was a serious error on Blizzard’s part. There were things about that expansion that I loved, but it is not a coincidence that it was in the middle of Cataclysm that we wound down the guild. The stories Cataclysm told were fantastic – Chris Metzen has refined melodrama into, well, not a high art exactly, but certainly something I consume with relish, especially where the dynamics of the Horde and the Alliance, and Lovecraftian gods and mad dragons are concerned. But in changing the world so thoroughly, for those of us who inhabited Azeroth for years beforehand, a great deal was lost. I have no strong memories associated with Orgrimmar now, or the Barrens, or Azshara. Those are all zones which, in their previous incarnations (red cliff canyons, endless sere grasslands, high autumnal hills and ancient ruins), I spent an embarassing quantity of time, mostly just running around, and which I knew like the back of my hand. Tonight, though, when I returned to them – well, it’s like coming home, and finding the house next door is now a parking lot.

Parking lots are good. You need somewhere to park your car. But no parking lot in the world is a special place.

None of this is meant as specific criticims of World of Warcraft with my video-game-critic hat on; that’s not what I’m interested in at the moment. I really just want to talk about familiar places, and the passage of time.

I have a problem with time – a beef, a fundamental personal disagreement. It has a bigger, more existential component, but only when I spend too much time reading about astronomy on Wikipedia (don’t ask), but the core of this disagreement is simple, and personal. I don’t like it when things change. I don’t like it when things change, because I don’t like to lose people. I don’t mean death (although yes, I have a problem with that too, obviously). I mean in the most mundane, unremarkable sense of loss; I don’t like to lose people. It is partly, but not only pragmatic – I don’t make friends easily, and it’s a pain to make new ones. But more than that, it’s just sad, a little stab of grief, to look up one day and remember that you have not spoken to someone who used to be a good friend in weeks, months, years – that you have no idea what they’re doing or what they’re like now. Or worse, in the age of Facebook, you know exactly what they’re doing: but it’s like looking into their life through glass, because you have no connection to it anymore. You could send them an email, or write them a letter – but what would you say?

I have this problem with time, because it seems unbearably cruel to me that we should live in a world where even the happiest thing it is possible to have in this world, the bright bond of friendship, is subject to the same slow death as every other entropic process in the universe; and crueler still, that the physical matrix in which the memories of such things are embedded should likewise be subject ot the same decay. Time, that old son of a bitch, can keep his mitts off neither Nashville nor Azeroth; and one day, when I have moved away to some other city, with less soul-destroying winters and less rain, and I return to Dublin to visit, I do not think he will have had the courtesy to refrain from meddling in my adopted hometown as well.

And just as it is true that all things are subject to decay, it is true that such decay is never permanent. You do make new friends. You do fill a new place with new memories. There are always more adventures to be had, a little down the road, even if everything that has gone before is in some sense lost. But ain’t it a bitch all the same? For even if unending future joys should wait for us, a little ways further down the line, there is always sorrow behind. It does not crush; it does not overwhelm. But it accumulates in a slow drift beneath us, like the subduction of a tectonic plate, and carries us along.

I do not know if there is a place in this world which will ever feel like home, in the way the place you are born does, when you are a child. For me, it is not Nashville, nor can it ever be again. It isn’t Dublin, not really. In my mind’s eye, it might be a place a little like my brother’s neighborhood in Berlin, with wide, tree-lined streets, flanked by handsome old buildings. And if it were really home, my heart of hearts whispers, it would always be early autumn in a place like that, with a fragrant breeze and the midday sun; and you would know, that maybe not next door, but not far away – just down this street, or that, maybe a couple blocks over – was every friend you had ever had, and every companion you had ever missed. You might see them often, or rarely; but if suddenly one evening the urge struck you, to while away a few hours with someone you had not spoken to in years, you would know just what door to knock on, and there they would be, beloved, and familiar, and glad. It would be a place without partings, sweet or sorrowful, and there, time would have no power to wound or mar our hearts, because however far we went away, we would return safe in the knowledge this was where we were meant to be all along.

The Simple Art of Murder

Discussed in this essay:
  • Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream/David Cage 2010)

I need to lampshade something at the beginning. Here at Democritus the Third, we review every video game, consciously or un, by comparing it to Deus Ex, the cyberpunk RPG shooter-or-nonshooter from the year 2000. There are some rational and some irrational reasons for this, and going back through the archives of our internal communications, it appears I’ve been as guilty of the irrational ones as anyone. The worst of these moments was an invocation of it in describing Skyrim, which made an initially very positive impression but turned out to be junk by the end: a fair comparison might have been “omg, it’s juuust like Deus Ex if JC Denton hadn’t been able to hack it in his first UNATCO assignment and had been laid off and had to get a job as a driver for FedEx. And then got assigned a delivery route on a bullshit medieval fantasy island.” That’s the irrational talking, the part of me that thinks that Warren Spector is the only RPG developer to have seen the face of god. In the realm of the rational, Deus Ex figures heavily in my discussion of Heavy Rain because they both have similar ambitions in terms of giving the player agency to shape the story, are both generally successful in these ambitions, but have very different approaches to and definitions of things like agency and choice. They are also games which while ultimately very good exhibit a number of shocking, jarring flaws – sometimes even the same ones – such that I think it’s pretty constructive to consider them side-by-side a lot of the time. I’ve also embarked on a playthrough of Deus Ex for the first time in about four years which ran parallel to my playing Heavy Rain, so both have been swirling around in my mind for a while.

For all their similarities, Deus Ex and Heavy Rain come from different sides of the fundamental divide in video games, best expressed in ultimate archetypes: there are Pongs, and there are Froggers. Froggers, a category that includes Frogger but also things like Super Hexagon, or even hide and seek, are deterministic systems through which the player moves using play and game elements, but which only reach their end states through player success. Failure is an option: you can fall in the water, get run over, etc., but this doesn’t produce an outcome. It halts the system, which is then run again and again until the end is reached without the interruption of failure. Pongs are the category that includes games in the larger sense that spans all of human history: Pong is one, but so are chess, soccer, and Candyland. These games all move toward a definite end state (eleven points; checkmate; 90 minutes; hyperglycemia) which produces an outcome, and one of the outcomes for any given player is failure. Deus Ex is a Frogger, but Heavy Rain is a Pong.

Player agency in Heavy Rain works like this: no matter what you do in any given scene, the game continues on to the next one. Completion of or failure to complete the game sequences in the scene will have consequences – sometimes fatal ones – for whichever of the four player characters is the focus of the scene. If you get someone killed, the game continues toward its end state without them or any of the subsequent scenes they would have appeared in. Failure also might not have any immediate consequences, but it might get someone else killed further down the line. There is also ‘failure’ in the sense of refusing to even attempt something that has been laid at your feet: you can get up and walk away, and the game goes on anyway. The implications of this are tremendous, and I need to revisit them when I talk about controls a bit further on. Contrast that with Deus Ex: as many paths as there might be through one warehouse, and as little killing as many of them may involve, there is only one path through the game and the only way to walk it is without JC Denton getting killed. Here, it’s almost (but not quite) the reverse: Heavy Rain doesn’t grant you this decisional sovereignty all the time or in every scene, and some outcomes are scripted to the point where you can push buttons frantically or just put down the controller to cover your innocent stuffed hippo’s eyes from the violence unfolding in front of you and the outcome will be the same. It also micromanages the environment to an absolutely infuriating degree: you can only interact with objects when they have the controller-button halo over them, and not at all when they don’t. This is applied with stunning condescension: searching a room for clues, I can open a closet door because the halo has appeared over the knobs, but once I’ve opened it and my character has seen that it’s empty, the halo disappears and I can’t open it again. In perhaps the most maddening example, the game permitted me, walking down the hallway in a nursing home, to stop and look at some flowers. Since this wasn’t my first video game, I knew I would need them later, but I wasn’t permitted to pick them up until I had walked all the way down the hall, run through a bunch of conversation options with the dialogue holding my hand, and then only after the visit from Captain Obvious was I allowed to walk all the way back down the hall, pick them up, and bring them all the way back – which, by the way, I had to do, Frogger-style, if the scene was going to advance. For a game that lets you choose, ultimately, whether all of the people with speaking parts live or die and which is brave enough to painstakingly construct whole scenes and chapters that never see the light of day because every choice excludes some later alternatives, this kind of railroading is supremely annoying. But it’s hard to say which is more condescending: not being able to pick up the flowers until my cue or permitting me to think that some difference will be made by having a body count of 0 versus 1200 when really I’ve been on a monorail to Area 51 since I landed on Liberty Island and the only choice with any significant consequences for posterity is the one between doors number one, two, or three at the very very end. (It was in many ways more intellectually honest for the end of Deus Ex: Human Resources to be just a big ol’ gleaming console with a red button and a blue button on it.)

Heavy Rain has one of the strongest, most vivid, tightest – both in the sense of coherent and of constricting – atmospheres of any game I’ve ever played. Just as Deus Ex evokes the dystopian cyberpunk horror of Neuromancer and the nighttime, somehow both shadowy and alive with electric possibility, of The Man Who Was Thursday, so Heavy Rain is what would happen if Michael Haneke and Raymond Chandler decided to make a movie together. It has the bitter bleakness, the intensity of suffering, and the chamber-orchestra scale of Funny Games, but the moral grounding, the noir tropes, and the noble punching-bag protagonist of The Long Goodbye. It is not a world-building game – it won’t even name the city it’s in, though connoisseurs will recognize Philadelphia – and the plot is dramatic, not epic. Even as it involves the police, poverty, income inequality, and social exclusion, it is not a Brechtian vehicle for the discussion of these things; they serve to shape and display the emotions and fates of the characters rather than the other way around. And the rain – good god, the rain. It is both plot and atmospheric element, the relentless background to everything, the fundament of the whole story. It is a small wonder that Heavy Rain manages such intensity without ever tipping over into monotony.1 Similarly, the music is instrumental (as opposed to synthesized), vivid, and school-of-John-Adams, gripping the player’s emotions in a very American way by urgently flinging about the same broad, high major harmonies found all over the works of people like Adams and Copland, the kind that have always made me Feel Something even as they blocked my mind’s eye’s field of vision with the same silvery glint given off by quarters. You will have the urge, after playing this game for hours, to towel off your rain-soaked head and warm up with a cup of tea. It works utterly.

This has the effect of making the game’s glaring flaws and oversights all the more maddening. Let’s start with an old saw from the Deus Ex days: where do they find these voice actors? Deus Ex was made on a too-quick timetable and a too-small budget by people in Texas who might, under the most generous possible construal of things, be forgiven for not being able to locate a Cantonese voice actress in Austin at short notice. But I watched the credits for Heavy Rain, which was a multimillion-dollar production with the full backing of Sony, who paid for the game to be dubbed completely into at least four languages, and they nevertheless expect me to believe that French actors doing transparently awful American accents are the best they can do? Let me give you some advice, Quantic Dream and or Sony Computer Entertainment Incorporated: If you are going to develop a triple-A video game whose showpiece villain is called the “Origami Killer”, it may be wise to point your voice actors in the direction of the correct pronunciation of these words, because your hard-boiled Philadelphia police detective becomes a ridiculous figure every time he shouts about finding “origammy” at the crime scene. Have you people ever actually been to America? Come to think of it, I don’t think they have. Emergency exit and fire-safety signs conform to European, not US, standards in the richly detailed environments; a scene in a hospital prominently shows British electrical outlets (go figure), and every light switch without exception from start to finish is of a make and model never before seen between Canada and Mexico. Their Frenchness shines through at other utterly preventable points as well, such as the cemetery: it is French practice to print surnames in all caps in official and technical contexts, something never done in the US, and so you can be forgiven for wondering why, when it shows the grave of Scott SHELBY,2 he was taken all the way to Paris to be buried. This is the kind of immersion-breaking stuff that is as sloppy as it is preventable, and it’s even a little dangerous: by flagging the narrative eye as that of an outsider – there’s a lot of hand-holding or deliberately leading camera work in Heavy Rain, often in ways that exacerbate the problems with railroading controls described above – the director invites his gaze to be examined on other levels as well.

Doing that, in turn, highlights the most unsavory male gaze of the camera, even – uh, especially, actually – in the chapters where the protagonist player character is a woman. Heavy Rain fails all but the first of the three elements of the Bechdel test, and does so no matter which choices you make. Think about that: an elaborate array of choices, whole branches on a plot tree, fate thrown open, and in none of these parallel universes do two women speak to one another directly – the closest one comes is a mother hearing her infant daughter cry in the next room. The woman among the four main characters spends her entire introductory scene taking a shower and then running around in a bra and panties. Every bit of progress she makes in her sleuthing is bought by bringing some degree of sexual satisfaction to a man, be it the Ethan Mars protagonist of protagonists or one of a panoply of gross villains. The androcentric dramatis personae is not itself problematic given that it’s a game about a serial killer with daddy issues who puts his victims and their fathers through Funny Games- or Saw-like challenges as a kind of sadistic test, but the masturbation material really doesn’t add anything beyond putting another straw onto the back of the camel that has to carry #gamergate around. The only thing I can find to say in the director’s defense here is that the male protagonist, Ethan Mars, is subject to the same voyeuristic camera-fucking more than once, but even if you were to argue that sexuality was tied to his having to prove his heroic manly fatherness to proceed, it’s a little bit more abstract and certainly more dignity-preserving than if he were to have to do a little dance and nearly get his cock out to get to the next level, which is the interrogation method that our Nancy Drew is forced to employ. Here, too, player decision is involved. You actually get an achievement for managing to conk out the smarmy sub-villain before you actually have to expose anything, but there’s no player choice – and therefore no choice on the part of the character, Madison – about whether or not he gets to put his hands on your ass first. Spoiler alert: he does.

And here’s where I get to have the interesting discussion about controls. Giving the player meaningful choice, of course, also gives the player a degree of moral responsibility for the consequences of the choice. I don’t feel morally conflicted about killing Gunther Herrmann in Paris because it’s justified by necessity: not only is it him or me, but I also know in advance what choice the game requires me to make, and you can’t get past that scene until you do the killing, justified or not. But there is more blood on your hands when a killing is avoidable and when it is perfectly possible to progress without doing it, and especially so when instead of just pressing X to shoot, you have to, as a player, issue a much more complex set of instructions or make a much more conscious decision to omit. Quick-time events, a controversial aspect of PS3 control heuristics, are applied to great effect here. Playing as the FBI agent, you must literally react instantly to a suspect swiftly pulling a blurry black object out of his back pocket and raising it toward your colleague. Scott the private detective can save himself from drowning with or without untying the other person in the car, and to untie her, you push and hold a series of buttons and move the controller back and forth, jerking it outwards and away from you to kick out the glass of the car window, allowing you to escape. If an action is performed using the stick, the speed and roughness with which you do it as the character correspond to how you treat the controller as the player. And all these converge in the infamous Lizard scene, where Ethan Mars must3 cut off his own finger. This is not done by clicking a mouse. It is done by holding down a button combination that requires you to move your hand over the PS3 controller into the same shape you would use to hold scissors (as Ethan is doing onscreen) and then, when you have gripped the tool correctly, jerk sharply downward with the whole controller to accomplish the cutting. The effect is a nearly holodeck-like sensation of cutting off your own finger, and I had to force myself to do it against the reflexive recoil of my whole body: the controller vibrated sharply as the scissors impacted the flesh, and stopped when they had cut through. It is the most horrible thing I have yet had to do in a video game. The more intimate mind-machine interface, even though it is a primitive boosting of intimacy, draws the player both physically and morally into the choices he has to make – consider the implications of this given that the Origami Killer, it transpires toward the end, has been one of the player characters all along–, and though a lot of things are murky in the world of Heavy Rain, one thing is clear: nothing comes about in this universe for which you, as the player, are not in some way responsible, from the tragedy that sets the game in motion to its bloody end. JC Denton is a stooge; the real conspiracy runs through the fourth wall.

  1. The only exception to the rain motif is the glorious, sunny, bloom-effect-soaked introductory scene, a children’s birthday party in a gorgeous architect’s home. Sitting down to write this, I initially thought “man, there should be one of those untranslatable German words for exquisite beauty that everyone knows is about to be shattered by horrible tragedy but oh my god isn’t it gorgeous right now, let’s not try to think about the sadness”, and then I realized that the word for this is actually just “beauty”, which only ever exists in a transient state at the cliff’s edge of waste and decay, and now I’m in a really bad mood. [back]

  2. This is not a spoiler because the overwhelming odds are that he will not die when you play the game; there are sixteen different endings. [back]

  3. You don’t have to. You can put the scissors and or knife down, get up, and walk away, and the game accounts for this choice and carries on in a different direction. [back]

Precepts of the Hyper Hexagonist

The player experiences Super Hexagon as a series of errors that separates them from contact with perfection. At the moment of failure, the reason – the specific flaw in one’s ability – is immediately obvious. There are hundreds. Each error supplies its own meditation.

1. Error: the narrow margin in which one obstacle was avoided was sufficiently distracting to make the next obstacle unavoidable. “I didn’t think I would make it, but I did, and then I lost.”

Therefore, it is necessary to play Super Hexagon in the future, living under the assumption that every obstacle has already been defeated. In this way, the game that plays out in the mind is the idealized form of the game that is about to exist.

Paradox occurs when failure finally arrives because the player is living under an assumption that is now false. This moment of juxtaposition, of two unresolvable opposites existing within the mind simultaneously, is an alpha and omega, an urge to create in a moment of impossibility or to exist in empty space. It is an apprehension of god grasped between thumb and forefinger.

2. Error: the player mistook one obstacle sentence for another, and as a result moved in a direction opposite from what was required, a left when only right would suffice.

Self-aware confidence in one’s mastery of the game, including any attempt to catalogue and memorize the entire library of obstacle sentences that constitute one level, is to futilely attempt to reduce a system that lives in complexities to a collection of simple principles insufficient to describe the whole. But in kenosis a player can not only prepare for whatever sentence may appear next, but also become sensitive to the revelations about the game and mind that are found in every sequence.

These revelations include the small positional advantages and artful playfulness that exist in the margins of obstacle sequences in the most difficult levels of the game, including the improvisational, chimeric interactions in the final seventh stage.

This error is the First Error and the gateway to understanding all future errors.

3. Error: the player hears the voice of the game announce how much time has elapsed or passage into the next stage of difficulty, and comprehension of long the player has so far succeeded causes the player to fail.

The voice that commands the player to “Begin!” and announces the “GAME OVER” actually describes the beginning and end of the player’s sensory contact with the game. The game itself, however, has no beginning and no end. Like a torus generated from an infinitely large circle, every possible game state exists as a cross-section of an object that exists in time in its entirety, and any given instance of the game only signifies some infinitesimal arc whose length is determined by the number of seconds the player survives.

This error persists because the player has falsely assumed that they have reached an advanced game state through some minimum investment of time; however, enough experience with the game reveals that if the game state correlates to some position on an axis of time, then subsequent game states occupy positions variously before and after that position on the axis.

That is why the music does not begin at a fixed point. It is only a pattern, like a checkerboard or stripes, that marks some regularly-proportioned distance in a continuous object.

4. Error: the player moves in the correct direction, but moves for an incorrect amount of time, falling too short of or overtaking the safe space in an obstacle.

All games exist as environments in a player’s mind that are updated by and checked against the perception of an external system that appears to operate outside the mental hierarchy of the player. However, the completeness of the mental environment is enforced unequally across different games. For example, in a strategy game, failure to notice or correctly interpret one part of the game space within some window of time will not arrest the flow of the game or disrupt the player’s apprehension of other parts of the board; it may merely disadvantage the player.

The minimal margin of error provided a hexagonist (and the fact that the only possible game error is always critical and always immanent) ensures that the game will only continue if the player’s mental model of the game matches the external system within rigorous tolerances. Therefore, the faculty that this error corrects in the player is the ability to navigate a mental environment with a high degree of specificity. This ability is enforced in a test of the hands.

5. Error: the camera rotates too rapidly to keep track of the game state, and the player makes an input mistake.

An avatar is an instrument that represents a localized application of force by the player in the game environment. It exists either as the point at which the player may exert force or as the object from which player forces originate, and it engages in ludological dialectic with the remainder of objects in the game environment, which exist as experiences of an nth+1 order, where n is the order of the avatar experience.

In Super Hexagon’s one-dimensional game space (the triangle exists only as the change in φ in a polar coordinate system), the distinction between player and environment is blurred. From the reference frame of the space, the triangle is manipulated around a central object. However, from the reference frame of the triangle, the space is manipulated, a perspective that, if achieved, disassociates the player from avatar. Extended contact with a game system makes this experimentation in perspective inevitable.

The movement of the camera intercedes on avatar’s behalf and makes viewing the space from the reference frame of the obstacle plane impossible. Short bursts of violent disassociation when the camera spins too fast for the eye to follow are necessary to make that hierarchy absolute.

This hierarchy is never destroyed, but when a sufficient level of mastery is achieved, the game reveals itself for what it is: a cipher for the more essential and abstracted mental game, which transcends the avatar-environment relationship.

6. Error: provided with two possible paths to reach the next gap in the obstacle, the player chooses the long (impossible) path and is crushed by the obstacle.

The moment of rest that occurs when the player passes through the gap in an obstacle is the realization of the microcosm of the human breath impulse. Both are suspension in a moment of equilibrium between corrective actions. The derivative of the path of time in both moments is zero.

However, both moments are polar. Both possess the apprehension of an immediate future position that exists as the intersection of not to do and to do. Therefore the player takes an action generated by the pressure of a body in the continuity of atoms. A hexagonist experiences this pressure as an obstacle sentence that has been read but will be navigated and therefore operates according to past information and future necessity. To neglect either bit of information creates this error.

The ultimate transcendence of the error occurs when the player experiences the entire game space as a quantum where past and future actions are part of a single unalterable path. When that happens the game is not breathing but the beat of a heart in a digital chest.

7. Error: the player avoids an obstacle but then moves to navigate the next one before the first has completely passed and becomes crushed by a danger that has already been escaped.

Awareness of external judgement during any impulse-based action is poison to the mechanism of genesis because it adopts the action into a pre-existing hierarchy that does not know how to nourish the inchoate thought. Judgement is value-assigning, and all environments where judgement is the primary psychological motivator (the office workplace, for example) have a second-order relationship to the evaluation of the usefulness of tasks since actions are beholden first to the value hierarchy and second to the efficiency of the system. These systems seek to mediate the perception of any action through conformity with the hierarchy, and the degree to which an action conforms determines its value.

Once the ability to accrue social wealth through actions is in this way instituted by the system, the player is compelled always to complete tasks as fast as possible in order to begin the next task and thereby maximize value generated per unit of time. Waiting, or inaction, deprecates the value of the player according to the artificial laws of the system.

The hexagonist does not generate wealth but instead celebrates the exhilaration of living in the narrow margin of sensory existence. That is why the game ceases to verbally mark the passage of time after the sixtieth second, and the words “awesome” and “excellent”, which at first appear to commend the player for passing advanced temporal milestones, merely celebrate existence in the present moment. That moment contains the joy of life in the smallest possible unit of time, with no space left to contemplate the sorrow that the chain of moments that constitute the game will soon pass into nothingness.

8. Error: the player waits too long after passing an obstacle, and the next action fails for not being afforded enough time to reach completion.

Mainstream video games as interactive storytelling experiences have degraded in recent times into virtual tourism. The symptoms of this disease can be identified from afar by reading in reviews the supposed merits of various {codified tropical game-like relationship}-systems: combat systems, ability systems, levelling systems, exploration systems. The unwinding of unitary ludological experiences into these discrete and lifeless fibers as a means of delivering quantifiable yet empty rewards (“achievements,” for example, a word used to describe exactly what they are not) is a reflection of consumerist ideology, in which players exchange value units for ultimately meretricious goods in a futile attempt to construct an identity within the oppressive paradigms of capitalism.

Psychologically, this tendency trains the player to admire immediate past successes in a game as evidence of their personal worth, ability, and capacity. The language of player ability in games then becomes tied to specific intellectual properties, a perverse attempt to relate the chimerical nature of existence to meaningless and imaginary constructions. Games are tools that shape the mind through the intermediary of the body. When a house is built, evidence of its solidity cannot be extracted from the hammer.

9. Error: the player plays Super Hexagon on a new device, and unfamiliarity with a different mode of input introduces moments of lag into the mind-hand-instrument-game chain that increase the frequency of error.

The mediation of a uniform rule set through dissimilar technological devices, as Super Hexagon played on phone, tablet, and computer, creates the opportunity for a player to experiment with different epistemologies of the ludic world. By presenting game elements on a spatial plane that is constantly viewed from different angles and by using avatar as the mode of interaction, the game relates meaningful ludological moves to the player’s body, giving the player agency in the virtual space that is connected to rigorously-defined muscle action in the real space.

Super Hexagon is therefore one manifestation of the “mind-machine interface.” It distinguishes itself from the futurisms of superficially applied technologies such as can be found in, for example, laser tag, by reduplicating the technologically-born experience in the mental and virtual space rather than simply using technology to more rigorously define and mediate an activity in the real space (laser tag is an existing game, tag, with an advanced tagging mechanism). Whereas laser tag is a game of coordination and mild athletics that cultivates player skills broadly applicable in the real space, Super Hexagon constrains the abilities learned while playing it to senses that are primarily useful in a specific kind of accelerated virtual world, and by orienting all decisions and actions in a one-dimensional space (see above), restricts even that small category to a single facet of one branch of that body of skill.

That the game is genuinely difficult means the skill of playing that is developed is true; that the skill is true and is completely (but not only) manifested in the virtual space means that Super Hexagon is not itself an epistemological exploration of experience mediated by technology (called cyberpunk when in novel form), but an actual manifestation of the mediating device, the operating system of a cyberpunk story pulled out of the imagined future and inserted into the present.

Ways in which a game of Super Hexagon is like a human life

  1. It is difficult, brief, and ends in death.
  2. No matter how good you are at it, death is the only possible ending.
  3. Immediately after one ends, another begins. They’re all kind of interchangeable.
  4. It’s especially easy to forget the short ones in which nothing much happens.
  5. Not everything that looks like a lesson is a lesson.
  6. It’s very easy to end it all with one poor choice.
  7. Praise is distracting, often fatally so.
  8. If you escape the jaws of death, don’t rest on your laurels: it’s coming for another bite.
  9. One fatal mistake is not excused by any amount of perfect performance up to that point.
  10. Some things are valuable lessons even if they don’t look like it.
  11. Authoritative female voices shout at you a lot more frequently during the early phase.
  12. In many ways, the music is the best part.
  13. If you make it to 60, well, that’s not too shabby, but it doesn’t make you king of anything. 
  14. After 60, the pressure to perform kind of ebbs.
  15. Everyone plays on hard mode.

In the driver’s seat

Unlike the the leash-led RPGs and adventure games that predated it, Mass Effect was about letting you respond honestly to the events that happen around you and then holding you responsible for your actions. Nowhere is this better expressed or emphasized than the moment you have control again after each post-mission cut scene: you advisors’ chairs empty, the next thing you do (take a step forward, go release the apocryphal zerg-Eve into the wild, whatever) is under your control, and you’ll take the blame for it too. This screenshot depicts what may be a watershed moment in designing storytelling games.

Playing English Country Tune

The larvae are weightless. They simulate gravity as a camouflage technique.
English Country Tune
If I could go back in time, I would probably have told myself to not make the game, to wait and try to think of something that I’m really passionate about to work on, rather than something as conventional as English Country Tune.
— Stephen Lavelle1
I had a night in which everything was revealed to me. How can I sleep again?
— Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis2

I. Space

Probably the worst thing we can imagine about most puzzle games is that they don’t allow us to inhabit anywhere.3 Often one turns up on Level One as some kind of garish signifier in a world forfeit of sense (if our presence in the game world is manifested at all), and we stalk among rigid, computational flat shapes and arcs, all relevant game information abstracted into an advanced digital doodle. Or we’re a hero who lives in a world where everything we see – candles, crates, and doors, maybe – are just relevant puzzle elements that have been painted over with the veneer of the recognizeable, which turns out to be disassociating anyway. And if the mechanical-aesthetic palette of the game commits to anything less than that, then the game is merely a distraction, a glittering jigsaw puzzle.

Not so with English Country Tune. Nothing about where we are is nonspecific or illusory in that way. We are a thin square “ship” that moves about a geometric asteroid afloat in an immense, pale void that’s suffused with an ambient light and sound appropriate for an extremity of scale, something on the order of the microscopic or the galactic. We rest on the surface of a mote in the ether, or we’ve been sucked into the gravitational well of an interstellar body. The arrangement of these worlds is called the “universe”, but the spatial menu that we use to select the next puzzle could as easily be the structure of a molecule. Indeed, the unusual forces at play in each puzzle could be what imagination makes of the universe’s rules when they operate at the level of atoms. The background of this space is blemished with particulates in exactly the same way as a microscope slide, as suitable here as anywhere we train ourselves to examine minute movements and details. In a parallel dimension, we could be freed from this gravity, and be a TIE Fighter pilot in an old LucasArts space combat game or the aquatic worm in flOw. That’s how infinite and weightless our game container is. No direction is up: the gravity of our tinny square and the bodies that surround it is dependent on perspective and the logistics of pulling, whacking, and nudging that are the scope of our movements.

What of it? This game was made by increpare, who is Stephen Lavelle: the same man who manages a prodigious output of small games year-round on his weird, off-putting website. For every humorous or pithy design that he produces (salome, Puppy Shelter), there is also a game that plumbs disassociation, violence, cruelty, alienation, and despair (The Terrible Whiteness of Appalachian Nights, Oiche Mhaith, Cities of Day and Night), and another game that features an ingenious mechanic polished to the lustre of a diamond (MMMMMM, his riff on Cavanagh’s VVVVVV; The Rose Garden). An attentive player starts to notice that Lavelle has a startling knack for the uncanny, and that in his hands, video games can demand an uncomfortable level of uncertainty, exploration, and violence from their players. It’s for that reason, perhaps, that the ambient ringing in the background of English Country Tune is supplanted in one level by the roar of a jet engine and in another by a quiet choir. His brain-stretching game is not one of those dementia-warding exercise for the aging adult. From the start we suspect that something else is at play, even if we’ll spend our waking ours away from the game only wondering at what it is. It also could be why he can credibly call certain cubes in his game “whales” in need of freedom, or he can address moveable, luminous spheres as “larvae” whose function in the puzzle world is equally convincingly ascribed to some ephemeral personal intent (see the first item in this article’s epigram). Our subtext as the only active participant here is brought out by these surrealist details, where we have the suspicion of a synesthete: this or that seemingly abstract arrangment of forms has a personality, or, more properly, an agenda. Much like the rest of his games, English Country Tune isn’t openly sinister, and it doesn’t really mine the tropical symbols of malevolence. Yet, in the isolation of a barren expanse, we often find a kind of danger-malice or an uneasiness or an internal tension that populates both the rendered world and our own mental landscape as it submerges itself in the game. Living in and solving these puzzles requires much more emotional commitment than the crossword puzzle in the Sunday Times. The stakes are high. What more could we expect from the mind that made The Good Sister? That game found violence within us using incredibly spare tools, moreso far than whatever multi-million-dollar first-person killing-gun escape fantasy you care to name right now. This game too is looking for something inside our hidden places. Sitting down to play English Country Tune is like taking a step in a direction orthagonal to reality. It surrounds us with new rules that force patterns on our actions, drawing out something that its lurking alien brain can affix with its own awful eye of scrutiny.

II. Time

Flipping the little square “ship” around these levels is stupidly joyous. The camera tracks so evenly and the landscape is so interesting that we often feel like an acrobat whose decades spent mastering his technique now allow him to fly endlessly among the trapezes. A good testament to how fun this really is lies in how awesome a version of English Country Tune would be where puzzles didn’t exist in isolation, but were just barriers of access to further and more remote reaches of an infinite playing space (with guns, maybe, to take advantage of the ability to switch perspectives and side of an object so quickly (it’s a good thing we don’t design video games)).4

Accompanying the manipulation of this world by our shiny, flat avatar are a multitude of beeps, scratches, pops, and thumps that give solving the puzzles a rare texture in their expression of movement. However, as the levels get bigger and harder and we are afforded more space, these small symphonies become divided into two parts. The dominant melody of the first movement is only the rhythmic thumping of the square against the surface of the asteroid. A particularly baffling puzzle means more time to move about, trying here and there the small hypotheses that may eventually lead us to a solution. After a while, we start to hear something from that tinny smack of square hitting cube that’s like a cross between a bass drum and a heart’s beat. Thum thum thum thum. Thum. Thum thum thum. There’s a maximum speed at which the square can travel, and that speed is more or less exactly how fast a human being can think through a puzzle he already knows how to do, if the player were sitting down to the game for the third or fourth time and just diligently putting the world in order. In English Country Tune, certainty has a particular tempo. If someone had sat with me in the room while I played the game for the first time, and if that someone were unable to see the screen, they’d hear a series of sets of thumps as I explored the level. Then would come an irregular series of thumps as different experiments were tried, cut short where I hit a dead end and lengthened when I repeated already-solved areas. Sometimes the thump would cease for whole minutes, with only the distant ringing of the ambient soundtrack in the background. Eventually, there’s epiphany, and the thump gathers speed and confidence as it pulses to its climax, which is the moment when a chirp recognizes success and brings the player back to the larger constellation of problems.

There’s no traditional timer counting up or down in English Country Tune, and there are no condescending tips delivered after the player flounders helplessly for some predetermined length of time. The tempo of the music never quickens in impatience. These affectations are the neuroses of a game that only has so much time to waste playing here with you before it has to leave to make it down the road before the bars close. Yet still we race to find solutions. Our minds work overtime asleep and awake on bits of puzzles. Where does this haste come from? Urgency in English Country Tune is the result of not wanting to be moored in the oppressive drone of the space, which is the rhythmless void of not knowing. The act of sitting still, with ever more time elapsing since the pulse of movement last escaped your headphones (play this game with headphones), gradually presses the weight and scale of the void around the level onto the mind of the player. The thum thum thum releases the burden. In this way, English Country Tune is a flight from the loneliness of ignorance, and therefore is the first puzzle game we’ve played with the real risk of meaningful failure. Consider that, and consider also that the game features infinite use of the undo key and allows infinite retries. You can even undo a retry. Tension persists because knowledge isn’t an accident; it’s a beautiful construction whose forms are joined by careful, tested action.

III. Light

The player’s ship is held fast to the cubes, only able to occupy one of their exposed faces. Therefore, the “skeleton” of each level – a given arrangement of cubes stripped of obstacles and puzzle pieces – is both a discrete volume and a map that charts everywhere in space your ship is capable of being. It also therefore charts where in space your ship can interact with a game piece. The cubic whales, each with six infinite columns of light shining from their six faces that we push to position them remotely, may be manipulated so long as exactly two of their three axes corresponds to a reachable position on the map (if all three, the whale sits in your way; they may not be moved by direct contact). Larvae must occupy some position on the map to be moved (that’s all three axes corresponding with a map position). In the world of “Freezer”, the player can prevent the manipulation of larvae and whales and thereby turn them into part of the map, which is functionally switching between two maps that are mutable via larva and whale placement. In others, such as “Cutting” and “Portrait”, the player must take care to enter some part of the map in a particular way, and he learns to use the map to not only interpret his position, but also orientation (the vector of our movement across the map) and polarity (the square flips; one side or the other may be visible).

The attention to space and time that Lavelle has given his game allows us to think about these things in unconscious terms. Much like the theater, where actors make physical decisions yet experience their inner lives, English Country Tune allows us to make mechanical choices that have an emotional impact on the narrative we’re living. A whale is a stubborn cube, a mind that desires freedom but that we use as a tool to move about. A larva is a shiny bauble that shifts uneasily within its globe. The practice in “Cutting” of moving over nodules that puncture the ship, changing its shape, is self-violence; first grievous, and later in “Portrait”, reflective and healing. When we select a level, it’s initially only a bright silhouette floating in a chain of circles. Then we drop in and find that the silhouette describes something huge that fills us with fear, wonder, and something else in the heart. It’s imposing like a monument or an alien temple; a haughtiness looks down over these angular peaks, as if to say, “we know you struggle for understanding.” After each triumph, ever stranger mechanics confront us with impossibility after apparent impossibility. We endure an ordeal: some rite where our narrative is abolished so that a new one may begin. We ask ourselves continually, “Why is this world” – of smooth surfaces and ambient tones (no thorns or abrasions here) – “working so hard against me?” Why do we continue on? Is the designer motivated perversely to frustrate and rebuke us? Does he know? Lavelle himself, once asked why he makes his games (if not for excitement, passion, or fun, all three of which he disavows as reasons), responded only that “There are some things that I am unable to put name to.” Is our desire, like his, similarly nameless? The game never absolves us of our failures for making the effort. There is no coddling in the early stages, only trial-by-fire lessons about the fundamental nature of wherever it is we are. ECT dares us to attempt this journey, and it dares us to complete it.

At times, its opposition is overwhelming. In one level, the game presents us with a wireframe drafting area, and demands (without explanation – even this must be figured out) that we design the puzzle that we are to solve. To find even one plausible answer to that question was for us preposterously difficult, to say nothing of finding the most elegant or compact design. That feeling recurs throughout the game. To have apparent madness thrust upon oneself, and to be able to unravel the strands and find an answer through one’s own deducing will produces a feeling sometimes even of triumphant anger and exaltation that is delicious in its clarity. It is an emotion so rare in video games as to be practically unique. So we play on, we stay awake, we pile our epiphanies high like a tower to find the end.

  1. See this interview [back]

  2. I put the Sarah Kane quote in there because in the first place, it’s relevant (you’ll see) and because in the second place, it tickles me, in an article about Stephen Lavelle’s major opus, to quote another queer Brit who’s obsessed with alienation, destitution, and destruction. [back]

  3. Enigmo 2 came pretty close. Do they have it on a system whose screen is larger than a pack of cigarettes yet? If yes, play it. [back]

  4. In fact, after writing that, I found this in an interview with Lavelle while doing research for this article:

    “I wanted for a time to have a large continuous world with the puzzles being self contained but still seamlessly connected to some adventuring space, perhaps giving room for a meta-game. However, this was before I started designing levels in earnest. Once I got into making levels properly, all of the levels I could come up with were these super-compact affairs, requiring total isolation, the exact opposite of what I had hoped for.” [back]