RIP Ursula K. Le Guin

“We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.”

A Drug Dealer in Mantua

There’s something about his person that suggests he is waiting to die. Perhaps he is not aware that he is, specifically, waiting; by now, he swims so deeply in his drugged haze that any impending mortality is just a tint, a faint color on the edges of his life, a dark current that seems to move under his feet; it’s rather that the subtle murmurings of his wares occupy his mind, which struggles as it focuses on empty air, all his thoughts turned inward. Does the addling potency of his salves and poisons extend its power beyond the bottles, enseaming the air around him, rerouting his thoughts, tethering him to his trade? Or does his confusion come from another place – that his father, also in the business, was more practiced than him and understood more of the ancient art, bequeathing his knowledge and his books to a less skilled son, who apes and imitates, brewing the old formulas with exactitude, but remaining dimly aware that the deepest he plunges into the mysteries of these potions is shallow indeed? The workings of his mind immure themselves in this labyrinth of discovery. They are hostile to other notions, which are dead ends in the twisted maze of his purpose. He does not think of the future, which is uncertain (if not a fiction).

In a few moments, he will confront an apparition – young and strong, but in despair: another man at an extremity of human life. This one is charismatic and important. He has both a future and a past (a beginning and an end). He can change himself: he was once a lover, but is now just a mourner, which is what every lover becomes eventually. This sometime lover’s writhing, live flesh, contorted by grief, his manic, frenetic desperation, and his compulsion of want all make an alarming vision for the drug peddler, on whom a starving frailness and fragile cargo enforce a grave slowness. The dealer takes care not to disturb the bottles that clink in hidden places on his person. In some pocket of the stained leather apron, or in a vial that hides in his pants hem (scratching his bare feet), or in the left pants pocket, or in the right, or in the folds of his robe, there is the worst poison, the draught that, once drunk, gives the drinker no more time to live than if he’d pulled the trigger of a gun aimed at his head. Indeed, this is precisely what this living spectre, a picture of grief whose name is Romeo, has asked for:

Hold, there is forty ducats: let me have
A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear
As will disperse itself through all the veins
That the life-weary taker may fall dead
And that the trunk may be discharged of breath
As violently as hasty powder fired
Doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb.

Marveling, the audience observes what the apothecary in his drug haze has failed to notice: Romeo in his seach for a lethal instrument has neglected completely the knife that hangs at his side. Could there be an easier and more expedient way to loose life from one’s body? Rather than trying to convince this wretch, who stubbornly refuses to commit a capital crime even at the threshold of starvation, Romeo could already be on his way home to the mausoleum where Juliet lies, the instrument of suicide echoing his trembling heart as it jostles in its bonds there strapped against his thigh. Maybe he lacks resolve. After all, taking a drink is casual and completely ordinary, and its mundanity provides an easy mean of death to any one who can forget for an instant the nature of what’s in the bottle. But plunging a blade into your abdomen is forbidden by all kinds of instinctual resistances. Another possibility is that Romeo isn’t carefully considering what that moment will be like in Juliet’s tomb. In fact, most of the plan is improvised from the very start:

Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.
Let’s see for means – O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!
I do remember an apothecary, —

In the moment of searching, as Romeo’s brain racks itself for the particular passage that will convey him from life, a multitude of other past events align in his head, and they offer their details and circumstances to his cause. He remembers the countless hours spent alone in his room with the shades drawn, where the deprivation of his senses soothed his ravening desire. He remembers the circuitous walks around the public areas of the city, avoiding the streets where an errant word could ignite some duel of swords and emotions. He remembers Mercutio’s death and the agony of anger and loss. Blasted by grief, orderly thoughts leave Romeo’s brain to the ready improvisation of desperation. More appealing to the wild tumble in Romeo’s head is the promise of death provided by an apothecary’s euthanasia than an instrument of bloody murder. It’s useful to think of that choice as the result of the huge anger that Romeo used to destroy Tybalt, who was the best swordfighter in Verona until two days prior. In the lover’s single experience with fighting, arriving at the death of a dear friend, he learned that the violence of knives is an awful, intense proof of life until (and unless) in a moment of combat the last breath escapes one’s body. Fighting innervates the muscles and quickens one’s heartbeat. It spills blood. In a pattern of tension and relaxation of the body’s instruments, it makes the full electric sensation of life – for Romeo in that instant, chiefly grief – live in every channel of the body. It is the wellspring of thousands of individual sensations, and each one is a compelling witness of the body’s animus. Mercutio, for one, might have been desperate for that confirmation. He turned a manufactured argument into his own youthful, passionate suicide, a sexually-charged climax in dirt and sweat. Tybalt was a one that sought similar things; he came running back from safety to be speared on Romeo’s point (no less sexually than Mercutio, perhaps). The others (Sampson and Abram, Balthasar and Gregory) dare one another to ignite the brawl that they are desperate for but lack the courage to start themselves. The ‘lord’ Capulet’s fingers itch to bruise his wife and his daughter and (we suspect) have already shaken an infant or two to death. Do they long to die? Hard to claim, yet they seem to recognize in deadly violence some concentrated sensation of vitality, a precipice where feet and limbs are dangled continually and ever more precariously to arouse that feeling of bodily awareness that comes from great danger. In this manner, Romeo in his final hours does not seem to want to die at all, but only to be dead.

Romeo is in a frenzy, banging on the set, stomping his feet, and calling out for this peddler he needs: “What ho! a-po-the-car-eeeeee!” Often enough the performance is a bit showy, if only because this theater is small and we know the apothecary is right there, watching just out of sight behind the curtain. However, one sometimes-underappreciated geometry of acting is that when someone onstage is calling for someone offstage, the unseen actor has the power to wait as long as he wants before entering. Sometimes when cues are forgotten and these kinds of mistakes happen by accident, which isn’t so rare in fringe theaters, the audience is treated to a moment of somewhat barer truth than any of the planned scenes elsewhere in the play. Especially when it comes right after this display of extreme want, some voice (if not the audience) silently asks the stranded performer: “That’s great. What else have you got?” In response, Romeo will often demur and just keep calling, louder and louder, pleading for his scene partner to come on, afraid to derail from the track on which all his actions run. Occasionally, however, in this interstice, a present and alive actor will find himself dangling off the same precipice that Romeo and the other Verona youth do when they fight, hanging with completely embodied life, the immediate moment totally unplanned. The actor looks around, waiting for the next beat (of the play, of his heart), and he sees a theater, expectant faces, the audience. All present hear his heavy breaths. The audience looks back at him. They share his fear and they relish it, and as long as Romeo stays Romeo, scared and alone in the dark, and does not become an embarrassed actor, the audience doesn’t become embarrassed either. The rapt audience is dangled too, and they notice their aliveness. In this performance, as a spot-lit actor and Romeo simultaneously in one body peer into the darkness, a gaunt and dirty face materializes in the light’s margin, and speaks.

Who calls so loud?

“Who is it making all this noise?” but also, “What sort of person can cry with such strength in the world of silence?” We hear the second question in the first because by waiting, the apothecary has isolated and distilled Romeo’s vitality; he has bottled it inside the transparent walls of the stage, like one of the distillments on his person. By asserting a structural power in the flow of this performance, which is the absolute power of advancing the story, he defines all qualities of the scene moving forward: place, time, the air, the properties of the univese. Time does not pass except through his inevitable entrance. The apothecary appears as a rasping voice and a thin face all, a stooped figure with sunken eyes and trembling hands, a skin sack half-full of bones animated only by the convulsions of sickness and cancer. His abominable health cannot be over-emphasized in his manner and features, because the more deathly a companion it is to Romeo’s easy vigor, the more stark and isolated will Romeo’s pulsating body be. The audience is exhilarated when Romeo astonishes at the contempt and beggary that hangeth upon his back, the need and oppression that starveth in his eyes. They shares Romeo’s revulsion and his fear. It’s the same fear that causes us to distance ourselves from the decrepit and deformed in our daily lives. By asking for a poison that will instantly relieve him from life and its attendant sensations, Romeo actually asks to bypass the inevitable bodily decay that is the fate of all who die of age or sickness, and which the young cannot imagine suffering. The possibility of feeling even briefly these specific sensations of wasting and ebbing, as for example in one bleeding to death, are intolerable to Romeo. If the romance of the young lovers is marked by immaturity, it is the immaturity of being unable to accept pain.

Romeo and Juliet was first published in the first quarto of 1597, and was therefore likely performed for the first time in the years just prior; Shakespeare was known to be in London by 1592, and the theaters were closed for plague from 1592-1593, ending a run of Henry IV. A quarter of London’s population had been lost to plague some thirty years earlier, and it recurred periodically until the Great Plague of London in the next century. 10,675 deaths were recorded in the 1592 outbreak, in a city of some 200,000. Everyone in attendance at a performance of Romeo and Juliet knew someone who had died from the disease. The play conjures repeated vigorous lives cut short by violence to manifest in only moments the destruction of families that the plague brought; in this way, its performance in Elizabethan times constituted a bringing to light and collective witnessing of an omnipresent grief.

Business is slow. When his father was alive, there was always a customer being served in the shop, plus one or two others waiting among drying herbs, disembowelled creatures, and colored powders. Ten years ago, the time when his dad finally became the memory of a funeral rather than the memory of a man, the stream of customers had slowed to a trickle, with at most two or three per day. Now, customers are even less frequent. Eight in a month is very good business, one or two is bad. How did he find himself here? The concoctions seem as powerful. Has general interest in these arcane tools waned? Has he specialized too far, too concerned with poisons and with mind-alteration? He could still cure a headache or a case of boils, he thinks. If he were to be asked.

He hears the knocking first. Someone hammers on his door, then yells out for him by the name of his trade, then claps repeatedly and loudly. The stranger knocks again. The noise cracks fissures in the apothecary’s mind and blows his thoughts into a rough chaos, a house of cards defeated completely by a draft. As the calls of this unnamed person build, so does the intensity of the apothecary’s vision of him. The caller’s eyes, yet unseen, already bore past his frail walls. In a suffusion of terror and anger, the apothecary appears and demands the identity of the hidden roars. For the first time in many years, he is scrutinized. Romeo finds in this man’s obvious poverty the means to argue for what he wants, which is to trade his earthly wealth for that most precious distillment:

Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,
And fear’st to die? famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back;
The world is not thy friend nor the world’s law
The world affords no law to make thee rich
Then be not poor, but break it and take this.

The drug peddler steps away to retrieve the poison, but he doesn’t look on the shelves or in the medicine chest. He is looting his person for bottles: an amber one in the left pocket of his leather apron, a black flask wrapped in tattered papers in the right. A thin jar of clear glass with a dark sludge inside leans out of the pocket of his shirt. They are all wrong. He finds a vial with a tiny cork in the hem of his pants, but returns it to its place after peering at it closely for a long moment. He “finds” the amber bottle again and moves it to a different hiding place. He knows what he is looking for. He remembers the black day when he precipitated it and could not find the courage to throw it away. Finally he senses an unseen weight in one of the hidden folds of his rags, and pulls out a small, chipped flacon stoppered with wood and wax. He holds it to the light. The powder inside has dusted the interior, and it filters the stage light like a dusty window does a sunbeam. He already knows it is the right one.

Put this in any liquid thing you will,
And drink it off; and, if you had the strength
Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.

Each actor in a play has not only complete knowledge of how a story will end, but also a detailed knowledge of both the events for which his character is not a witness and the mechanisms by which they are staged. Unfortunately for actors, theater thrives when it is suffused with possibility: the surprise of not knowing what is coming next, or how events will thereafter unfold. Executing a compelling performance is in large part a process of un-knowing what is known; of emptying the mind of all preparation and expectation so that when a line is said or a sword is swung, one must look to one’s brain for a reaction the way a person does in ordinary life, and then choose the correct one because rehearsal has identified and made specific that possibility among the many changing and less-defined other ones that some scenario might generate. When the apothecary takes out his vial of poison, his desire to tell Romeo of its terrible power manifests spontaneously in Shakespeare’s lines even as he sells it. But the actor, too, remembers a line he heard earlier in the play, as he wandered backstage, a line cried out in grief, reaching out unwittingly toward Romeo:

Some twenty of them fought in this black strife,
And all those twenty could but kill one life.

Romeo alone killed the most precise and practiced swordsmen of Verona’s street brawls. Tybalt was known to a pitiless fighter with perfect form, who spent at least as much time refining his swordsmanship as Romeo did wandering forlornly in the streets after dark. How did he lose to Romeo? Does some extreme quantity of fury and grief compensate for a lack of skill? Does intensity of passion and depth of feeling matter most? Or was Tybalt’s ability overblown, just part of Mercutio’s elaborate mockery of him? The actor playing the apothecary wonders these things. When he speaks, he sees a wild lover already unravelled by sorrow, and his actor’s outside vantage point furnishes him with an additional, supernatural knowledge of Tybalt’s killer, which the apothecary only knows as the frail boy before him. He speaks of the overwhelming power of his drugs using an idle phrase – don’t worry, you could be twenty times greater than you are and this would still kill you instantly – that acquires a double meaning through this rememberance of overhearing Lady’s Capulet’s line. The repeated words are both mundane, and they simultaneously conjure, deride, and deny the possibility that Romeo’s strength, his vitality, is in any way extraordinary – that although we might allow the protagonist to cheat death for narrative convenience once or a thousand times, or that he might fake it masterfully at Juliet’s tomb so that he can then be revived to tell his story several times a week for a month-long run, what is inside the bottle cannot be evaded by anyone. Of this the apothecary is certain.

The never-ending cycle of time and wordly events is instead for him a spiral. Last week (or was it a month ago?) when he met Romeo, his starvation wasn’t so advanced that the feasts of bread, meat, and fruit he buys with his newfound wealth should have failed to revive his body, and yet. And yet. Some invisible barrier exists between his blood and the very real nourishment that he consumes. The food tastes rich, it gives him energy, but still his life-force (a soul?) is tugged gently and persistently away from his body, rank disease having already made his organs too weak a vessel to carry health. He does think of the future now, which manifests as a seemingly-perpetual cloudiness of the sky, where tendrils of distant storms or wide, slate-gray plains are drawn into an abyssal gyre above his head. This central eye he does not look at, although he knows that it is a private vision of the blackness that he will encounter, soon, and hug in his arms.

(These are the thoughts that occur to me, night after night, as I wait in the wings, about to meet the lover Romeo who seeks the poison that will end his life.)

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.

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]