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I started this blog in January 2013. This is my 14th post. My primary goal in writing these essays has been to deepen my own engagement with the videogame medium. I also hope that I might have written something useful others. However, it is now time for a change of focus.
I played Dys4ia at some point in early 2012 and it transformed my appreciation of videogames. It was the first time I had seen a game tell a truly human story. What was more, Dys4ia tells most of that story using the interactive vocabulary of 70s arcade games – verbs that have been in circulation for decades but had only every been used as ‘chewing gum for the fingers’. For me, as a player, Dys4ia was a step change in how I thought about games. The last such step change was over a decade before when Deus Ex, particularly, had shown me that games could do immersive narrative, and twisty, intellectual science fiction, better than many of the SF authors I had shared my teens with the decade before that.
I found out about Dys4ia from Rock, Paper, Shotgun and then started paying much closer attention to what was happening at the margins of the videogame medium. I discovered places like www.freeindiegam.es (which now has sadly run its course). I started reading the criticism collated by www.critical-distance.com. I found my way to Howling Dogs, one of my favourite games ever, to one-shot jokes like Room of 1000 Snakes, to concepts like Geoguessr which were utterly simple yet totally innovative, and to strange and tiny experiences like Typing with Hands.
With lots of weird and wonderful interactions rattling around my head, I decided to try my hand at writing a bit about games. I have a fifty minute train journey each morning and evening. I also have a netbook. So I started this blog and had a go.
It turns out writing is quite hard. For each post that ended up on this blog, there are at least couple more that I decided not to put up or that I put up and took down again or that I couldn’t work out how to finish. But I am happy with what I did and I have picked out four essays that I felt deepened my own appreciation of the medium as I wrote them. I have no idea whether they were interesting or useful to anyone else!
Hot Space in Proteus looked at what happens when the expected primary interaction in a game is removed. How much more interesting can the process of inhabiting a game become once it it no longer a straight run to the next objective. It is fascinating to me that Ed Key’s early concepts for the game apparently involved a number of far more traditional game mechanics. During the collaboration with David Kanaga all this ‘gameness’ fell away leaving an interactive experience of tremendous subtlety and beauty.
Power Corrypts looked at the different kinds of empowerment presented by games and the way that a single game can be experienced in many different ways: as an allegory, or a puzzle, or a system, or even a joke – for I was sure at one point Michael Brough was winding us up and that the game was chaotic and insoluble. More than any other, this is the game that has most made me feel what it might be like to learn actual magic.
Landscape in Howling Dogs has been my most widely read piece and it was an unexpected surprise to see it included in Critical Distance’s annual round-up of fifty pieces of criticism from 2013. Porpentine’s interactive literature is one of the most incredible bodies of work I have encountered in recent years. Howling Dogs was the first of her games I played and will remain one of my favourite games ever. The critical and journalistic community spilt tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of words over light-weight sci-fi fluff like Bioshock Infinite; yet why has hardly anyone written about a game like Howling Dogs? A game that is thick with intellectual depth, emotional insight and poetic beauty. I tried to do my bit, looking at the shifting presentations of humankind’s relationship to the natural world through the game’s narrative. But there is so much more in that game, and in Porpentine’s other stuff, to study. I have several more half-finished essays just about Howling Dogs and could easily have written this blog solely about Porpentine’s work.
But I think my favourite essay to write has been LIM: Opening Move. I did my best to capture my personal reaction to the opening of LIM, a game which uses simple, maze-running interactions, and the slow reveal of various mechanics, to look at the relationship between an individual and the society they are dropped into. The opening moment of Merritt Kopas’ game is so delightfully clever, so resonant yet also so simple, that it deserved an essay all of its own.
The essays I found most interesting to write were those that focused on one detail or theme within a game. It is a shame that this approach seems relatively rare in current games criticism. A lot of writing looks at games as cultural artifacts, often in terms of representation and how the games express various social inequalities. I realise that this is important for mainstream games: the entertainment industry should absolutely be judged on its products and held to account.
But lots of games, particularly games from small teams and individuals which are more authorial in nature, deserve more than simply to be judged as a product of a system. I believe that such games deserve to be addressed on their own terms with an appreciation of their details and nuance. The fact that a game does not plug as neatly into a wider discourse around the shape of society, does not mean that there is less to write about. While it is certainly imperative for a critic to hold the mainstream industry to account, there is also room for critics to celebrate the personal and heartfelt games bubbling around the edges of that industry.
I have enjoyed writing this blog over the last year and a half. However, there has been a cost and I have neglected many other activities. My commuting time is precious and I have been packing a lot into it. In addition to writing this blog, I have taught myself to code over the last few years. I have finished four small games which are available on itch.io and gamejolt. They are very minimalist but I have enjoyed making them. These days my commute is also the main time that I have to play games and I do most of my reading on the train as well. So that 50 minutes of time in the morning and evening has been spread very thin.
It is in this context that I have decided to put this blog to bed for now. I have huge piles of books to catch up on. I have a backlog of games I want to play. I have podcasts to listen to. I also want to challenge myself to make some more complicated games this year. It is time to focus on that stuff and – for the moment – to stop pinning up pretentious screeds on the Internet. See you later!