Curation and Games: Forking Paths

IIscreenI’ve posted before about common downfalls of major museum exhibitions of videogames, and pretty much my entire Master’s dissertation (and proposed PhD research) is focused on finding effective ways to curate and present games to the public through museums and art spaces. Alongside my writing on this blog, which is an attempt to talk about videogames from an arts perspective alongside the histories of net.art and new media practices, I’ve started a new monthly project that will hopefully offer a place to experiment with these alternative approaches:

Here is the first monthly mini-exhibition on the GROUP SHOW blog!

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Post-cutscene and other ‘post-‘s

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Cutscenes are a contentious aspect of mainstream gaming, past and present. They’re frequently considered a roadbump to gameplay, marginal to the real meat of the game at best, and even evidence of ‘cinema envy’ on the developers’ part. They’re positioned as an intrusion of film into the ‘pure gameplay’ of the medium and a shallow attempt to gain the perceived acceptance and acclaim film as a medium has, and videogames apparently lack. The criticism of cutscenes, not only from this academic perspective but also reviewers and enthusiasts can be extremely harsh. Some go so far as to have hard limits of how long a cutscene should be, regardless of content or function within the story. Looking at games from a formalist perspective focused on the mechanics of gameplay, cutscenes would ideally be unobtrusively brief or non-existent. But the flavor of a game like Metal Gear Solid 3, part of a series frequently criticized for overlong cutscenes, would be completely different if not for the History Channel documentary style exposition that opens it.

Regardless, the pushback against cutscenes has led to a variety of strategies for working around non-interactive cinematics becoming increasingly common in AAA games. Environmental storytelling, in the form of visual details such as graffiti and signs, overheard spoken dialogue from nearby NPCs, and level designs that guide the player through realtime checkpoints serving to reveal plot has been described as post-cutscene game design. However, especially in AAA games, many of these attempts seem embroiled in an anxiety about the inherent intermedia quality of videogames. A videogame is not simply a game in the way that a painting is simply a painting. It’s a complex mix of programming, art, sound design, writing, and often cinematics, or at the very least event pacing, frequently taking cues from the moving image. The supposed integrity of the videogame as a medium that stands alone relies on refusing to engage with these other parts of its material reality, or at least minimizing them in favor of an experience where the player must always be focusing on mechanics. However, like collage, the meaning of games can’t be divorced from their intermedia quality.

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Life After Permadeath

molaDying in a videogame is rarely productive. Usually when it happens, my first thought is a small panic, something like “oh god, how long ago did I save? How much of this stuff am I going to have to just repeat?” These frustrating periods of repetitive, uninspiring play usually seem to function as a punishment for not playing well enough, not making the right choices. In fact, when I started playing Planescape, I didn’t even give myself a chance to die. Out of fear of waking up with none of my cash or equipment, I just reloaded my most recent save the first few times I got myself into a lethal pickle.

For a game that is so unforgiving, where one wrong move like killing a seemingly troublesome NPC or misplacing or selling a fairly nondescript item can completely eliminate the possibility of completing a quest, I was surprised when, the first time I actually gave myself a chance to “die,” that all of my items, money and experience remained intact. Well of course, since the protagonist of Planescape carries the nickname “The Deathless One,” there are few situations that result in you truly losing progress throughout the entire game. Usually you just wake up next to one of the many characters capable of sewing you back up after a particularly bad scrape.

In hindsight, this revelation was overwhelmingly logical, but it was so at odds with how most strategy or RPG games regulate play and progression that it surprised me. I started playing more experimentally after that point, exploring further, taking risks. And likewise, I started progressing through the storyline and sidequests faster, even though I would get “killed” fairly regularly. Of course, these not-quite-deaths are reiterations of the main character’s core problem, and they represent failure in a much different way than game death usually does. Try as he might, he can’t die, and is looking for the answer to how he can end his torturous immortality.

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It’s here! + Some Cutting Room Floor Thoughts on Collage

Yes! Issue four of The Arcade Review is finally out and it’s a beaut. Thanks to generous support from Patreon subscribers and individual buyers, the magazine has reached the completion of its first year, and I’m proud to say my work appears in two of the quarterly volumes. In the second issue, I wrote about the fascinating and productive community surrounding RPGMaker horror titles, and in the current issue I review another title that uses the framework RPGMaker offers in unconventional and fascinating ways.

Gingiva is a spiritual successor to John Clowder’s first game, Middens, which Owen Vince wrote about in the first issue of The Arcade Review. While he examines how Middens defamiliarizes familiar tropes and mechanics of games, my analysis of Gingiva focuses on intersections of themes of gender and capitalism throughout the work, demonstrating how these games are fantastic at opening themselves to rich and varied interpretations.

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Happy New Year! Looking ahead and some brief thoughts on 2014.

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The new year just about marks the first anniversary of me starting this blog. 2014 was really the first year I put my serious writing online as well as other sites and publications on a regular basis. I finished my MSc degree with a dissertation on videogames and art, pitched an essay to and became a regular writer for The Arcade Review, wrote articles for several other blogs and sites related to art and technology, and even made a few goofy Twine games. For myself and pretty much everyone else I know, 2014 was a year marked by a lot of tension and setbacks, but at the same time I’m proud of what I achieved and the interesting things happening in both the art and game worlds despite these issues.

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Needing Room to Breathe: Moving Forward With Game Exhibitions

The Salon of 1767, Paris, France

The first thing that greets you as you walk into the Game Masters exhibition, which opened this week at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, is not so different from what you’d see walking into your average video arcade in the heyday of quarter-per-play gaming. Maybe a bit cleaner, and there’s some space and expository materials between the lined up arcade cabinets, but the noise, flashing color, and of course, players, are all present. Unlike how games are displayed at the MoMA, their original consoles, art, and context ferreted away so that all that remains is a controller and a screen, Game Masters offers a throwback to the original site and context of these arcade cabinets. The arcade era themed section opens up to a vaguely defined “Game Changers” area, and then a lounge-like area where a variety of indie titles are running on both desktop PCs and iPads.

The striking difference between the first area and the second two is partly due to the attempted scope of the exhibition, to cover videogames, as a new cultural form, from end to end. However, one of the major changes in how we play games is the huge transition from loud, hot and crowded arcade, where people perform and watch as much as they play, to a mostly private experience, at home PCs or consoles. Of course, there are still elements of viewing and performance that persist, in Let’s Plays, online multiplayer, occasionally even in-person multiplayer, but in general, private, focused contemplation is how we engage with videogames today.

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Rhizome, Digital Conservation and Adventures in Virtual Machines!

I’ve written about how vital digital conservation is to keeping the visual culture and new media art of the past alive before, and as a practice it often demands creativity and improvisation, since the methods are far from as tried and tested as the ones used in physical or preventive conservation for more traditional art objects. Rhizome’s first Kickstarter is a bold experiment to see how these important projects could potentially be funded and presented to the public in the future, and I encourage everyone to check it out and consider backing! Here’s why it’s important to me:

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“Proof that I was once a Mother”: Meditations on The Boss’ Clevage

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The Boss is one of the most central and fascinating characters in Metal Gear lore. The daughter of a member of the shadowy Philosophers’ group, she went on to help in securing victory for America in World War II with the Cobra Unit which she founded, and developed the iconic CQC system the series is known for alongside the man who would eventually become Big Boss. But the “Mother of Special Forces” is also a literal mother in addition to being the symbolic origin of many of the events in the Metal Gear series.

In the scene before the final battle of Snake Eater, The Boss unzips her sneaking suit to reveal a long scar that extends along her entire torso. It’s meant both as a reference to the snake motif that is brought up throughout the game, as well as evidence of the emergency cesarean she received after being struck by a bullet while storming Normandy in the midst of her pregnancy. Because it’s a Metal Gear Solid game, Boss’ story doesn’t seem far-fetched, but it challenges even the normal suspension of disbelief the Metal Gear series demands to assert that the scar, which stretches vertically up her chest and between her breasts, could be a result of even the sloppiest cesarean. Combining The Boss’ back story with a scar that is both easily displayed in the context of the scene and consistent with other motifs in the game indicates a less than satisfying design compromise that many players, understandably, read as a cheap cleavage shot, a last minute attempt to sex up a female character who has been covered head-to-toe in fatigues and baggy ponchos for the entire game.

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It Never Fails

“When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention!”

Alright, so maybe the recent announcement of the return of Twin Peaks in 2016 and the return of director Swery65, known for Deadly Premonition, with a new project wouldn’t quite meet Special Agent Dale Cooper’s standards for attention-grabbing synchronicity. But I figure it makes for a good context to discuss Swery’s infamous Deadly Premonition, a game which draws heavily on Twin Peaks and has developed a similar cult following of its own.

One of my favorite scenes in the first season of Twin Peaks is the conceptual heart of episode 3, “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer.” In this scene, Cooper wows, or maybe unnerves, the local sheriff’s department by delivering a brief lecture on the political history of Tibet as background information for how he developed an intuition-based investigation method, throwing rocks at a glass bottle as the names of individuals related to the murder victim are read aloud. While the suspicion this exercise cast on Leo Johnson (spoilers) ends up being a complete red herring (/spoilers) Coop’s strategy is beneficial in that it dislodges the place of logic and reason within the investigation, and allows them to pursue unconventional routes.

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Emerging again!

So I may have slightly fallen off the face of the earth in terms of updating this blog regularly, but that’s only because for the months of August and September I was stuck in a smog of final dissertation revisions, job hunting, and anxiously waiting for my dissertation results. While the job hunt rolls on, I am proud to say I achieved PhD progression-worthy marks on my dissertation, and I also have some other cool things going on, which I’ll give a rundown on below!

  • I wrote about Hatoful Boyfriend, dating sims, and the danger of spoilers for Storycade
  • I was offered a spot as a regular review writer at super cool game/art magazine The Arcade Review (check out their Patreon to help them keep expanding!)
  • I plan on releasing my MSc thesis “Videogames in Art Museums: Perspectives on Theory and Practice” (with a snappier title hopefully) as a more screen-friendly and accessible ebook on Gumroad for a donation of $3 (the intro will be free)
  • I have begun storymapping and creating resources for my long-forthcoming hypertext novel Remote Viewing which I plan to write and release as part of NaNoWriMo
  • And, as of about an hour prior to writing this post, I completed my first electronics project!

What I used here was the Technology Will Save Us DIY Synth Kit, which is a nice, no-solder, easily moddable kit to make a simple synth circuit on some breadboard. It’s a great way to get the “guts” of an analog synth right in front of you, and I had a great time making it. I love futzing around with the really intense and weird sounds you can get out of electronic circuits, and while this one only offers  volume, pitch and frequency control it still didn’t disappoint.

Anyway, that’s all for now, but know more is on the way… sooner than two months away, at least.