Zoya is a historian and journalist of games and playful art. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a consultant at Silverstring Media.

There is an urgent need for filmmakers, immersive theatre practitioners, and game designers to work together. 360 video and virtual reality offer promise, but there is still uncertainty about how to fulfill those promises. Many of the filmmakers stepping into the VR space are already anticipating the other side of the hype cycle: “it only has such an impact now because it is novel” said multiple creators at Sheffield Doc/Fest earlier this year. So what happens when this is no longer fresh and new?

Myron Krueger (1972) Videoplace

The imaginary of VR is heavily figured on the idea of immersion. In fact, while immersive art as an aesthetic quality goes all the way back to the 18th-century panorama, the technological notion of immersion that has proliferated in videogames originated in early VR research. Although VR pioneers such as Myron Krueger did not use the word “immersive” as they began building installations in the 1970s, by the time VR developers were meeting for annual conferences in the early 1990s, immersion was a common by-word accompanying discussions about how to make users feel a sense of “presence”.

Immersion for these VR researchers was a product of sensory information: higher-resolution displays, faster framerates, more elaborate surround sound, etc. Games developers added user agency to this list; the more you feel able to impact the world and/or your place within it, the more immersive it is. More immersion meant more presence. More presence meant that perhaps VR could go beyond spectacle, and grow into the dream of cyberspace.

This dream is a distraction. In VR just as in games, “immersion” turned out to be a cloudy idea with little immediate use for refining the work of developers. The promise of “immersion” in VR does not provide much in the way of creative benchmarks or even a meaningful goal. Any VR project can claim to be “immersive”, without stating anything about the intent or creative strategies at work — it’s something we attribute to the technology.

In the past few years, empathy has become another shallow selling point. A number of VR and 360 projects chronicle the experiences of other people, in the hope that the illusion of immersion or presence in a different place will create a stronger sense of being in somebody else’s situation. Like immersion, because empathy means a few different things at once, VR developers can claim to have provoked it simply by virtue of the technical facilities of telepresence. When empathy is not triggered by VR, it’s the tech that’s blamed for not yet being immersive enough, with the empathic tech horizon always one more feature upgrade away.

In fact, the very interactivity that is often thought to increase immersion can get in the way of empathy, as one person found when user-testing a (non-VR) game about poverty: player agency can give the impression that negative situations are a result of personal decisions. Even when empathy is triggered, the results can be counterproductive, leading either to an antisocial desire for retribution on somebody else’s behalf, or to that overwhelming sense of empathic distress, and in turn to a desire to remind oneself that this is all just Somebody Else’s Problem.

Documentary filmmakers working in VR and 360 seemed a little lost at sea at Doc/Fest in Sheffield earlier this summer. Many of the cinematic techniques that they have grown accustomed to using are not workable when the user is experiencing telepresence. Move the camera, and you risk inducing motion sickness. Frame a shot around one object, and the user might still choose to look the other way. And that’s before you even begin to get into room-scale VR such as the HTC Vive, where the user might choose to walk away from the scene entirely. Finally, the viewer may use any interactive abilities they have to disrupt the action deliberately.

To work in VR, filmmakers have to think outside the image-frame, and tell stories through spaces. Click To Tweet

Interventions by architects into film could offer a model for filmmakers moving into spatial media such as VR. Instead of concerning oneself with the frame and the scene, architects such as Steven Jacobs in his study of Alfred Hitchcock films point to an approach that centres on charged objects, familiar spaces made unfamiliar by the uncanniness of a medium, and the juxtaposition of structures arranged near one another.

In My Shoes installed at Union Street coworking space in Sheffield. Photo by Ellie Robinson

Those from the immersive theatre world know a lot more about how to do this: In My Shoes is currently one of the most effective 360 video projects out there, and that’s because it is presented as part of a bigger installation that recreates the tactile and even olfactory sensations experienced by the protagonist of this first-person film. Created by Jane Gauntlett, an artist with experience in immersive theatre, the video is organised not around the framing of shots, but the entrance and exit of characters. In My Shoes makes deliberate use of the minimally-interactive quality of 360 video and the disorienting feeling of wearing a VR headset to foreground a sense of helplessness. You feel that you are in a space that is both familiar and unfamiliar, your body is heavy, and you are running on autopilot.

Documentaries rooted in film traditions, such as Clouds Over Sidra, take a different approach, placing a 360 camera at the site of the documentary and then giving viewers the illusion of being there as a passive observer. The feeling alternates between a dreamlike sense of being present but unseen, and suddenly being aware that a passer-by is staring at you — no, not you, the ball of cameras that had been suddenly brought into their environment.

360 video arranged for Google Cardboard

These projects reflect different understandings of what empathy is and how it is achieved. In My Shoes, as the title implies, is about experiencing a slice of somebody else’s life. Clouds Over Sidra is about temporarily feeling that you are there with someone, as they narrate to you what their life is like. In both, I was left with a sense of powerlessness; In My Shoes implied that the powerlessness belonged to the narrator, but in Clouds Over Sidra this feeling is more troubling: I know that an unprecedented number of people are braving life in refugee camps, and I have increased admiration for the resilience of Syrian refugees, but I don’t know how this knowledge will change my behaviour or political activities.

“Immersion” and “empathy” alone don’t give me tools that translate into the rest of my life. Click To Tweet

Attempts to insert some kind of agency through interactive elements are limited, and are complicated by the social politics surrounding documentary and even theatre. Nobody wants to be accused of making a videogame: some filmmakers speaking on panels at Doc/Fest even headed the accusation off before it reached them. “People asked me if I was going to make a videogame and I said of course not, haha”. Any form of interactivity in documentary media has to balance meaningful agency against the need to display the formal and stylistic trappings of a informative media. I get the impression that if one was to step too far into playfulness one risks losing status as a true documentarian.

A concrete example of this is currently touring the UK. Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness is an interactive 360 experience that accompanies the excellent movie Notes on Blindness. Both use audio from the diaries and memoirs of the late theologian John Hull to explore questions about how we experience the world around us and how we cope with the distance between us and the people who we love. The directors have said that their intention with the interactive element was to give people the opportunity to experience more of the diaries than they were able to fit into the film, and I imagined being able to spatially explore a representation of a world without sight, being surprised by the audio recordings that I find along the way. The experience is actually much more static; a predetermined set of recordings are played as digital animations are displayed in various locations, and sometimes I am instructed to stare intently at one of the animations in order for the scene to continue. Imagine a point-and-click adventure, but with only one clickable object on screen at any given time, and no ability to move from room to room. I had no sense that I was unearthing knowledge independently: it was being presented to me, and I was being scolded if I didn’t look at it hard enough.

To make the documentary interactive might require leaning into the feeling of exploring a space as an outsider, rather than always aiming for the up-close personal encounter with a single person’s experience. Owen Vince has offered a model for this in an essay for this publication, forcing game spaces to “disintegrate” in order to better understand them. I can imagine documentaries that give users the ability to see their impact on the environment, and feel their own responsibility for it — rather than simply being an inert camera-head as in Clouds Over Sidra. If giving users the ability to impact an environment through their interactions seems contrary to the need for documentary to present things as they are, consider that any system of interaction is a simulation that necessarily makes an argument about how a space comes to be. In the same way that a highly-interactive simulation of town planning reifies the power of the planner over the agency of local people, a 360 video that makes you feel present in Syria but erases your impact on the local area can actually downplay our global interconnectedness, by reifying the position of the neutral observer.

It would be reductive to say that the answer to all of VR documentary’s problems is game design. Goodness knows, videogames have their own problems to contend with, within and without the VR space. But when filmmakers ask questions such as “how do we guide the viewer to look in one place in particular without having a fixed frame of view?” or “how do we allow people to explore a wealth of information at their own pace?” then the architectural techniques developed for games seem to offer some solutions. The Doc/Fest alternate realities exhibition featured a fantastic example in Tracy Fullerton’s Walden, a 3D videogame in which the player explores an environment to unearth fragments of poetry. Walden is not VR, but it is an immersive experience that recreates how nature is known to those who have dedicated their life to giving it their full attention. It combines the active participation of game design with a sense of peacefully witnessing a part of literary history.

More people in games could take on the challenge undertaken in Walden of helping players to navigate documentary sources. Likewise, more people working in VR documentary could learn spatial storytelling from videogames.

Resources

Christopher Goetz (2015) “Stepping Outside the Virtual World Paradigm” in Memory Insufficient
Oliver Grau, “Immersion” essay at Media Art Net
Jamie Madigan (2010) “The psychology of immersion in games” at The Psychology of Games
Steven Jacobs (2013) The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock
Owen Vince (2016) “Games Criticism as Architectural Disintegration” at Memory Insufficient
Owen Vince (2015) “The Death and Life of Simulated Cities” at Memory Insufficient

We have explored this idea of an “imaginary” of VR before in a piece by Christopher Goetz:

This article demonstrates the common slippage between the novel experience of three-dimensional graphics and the fantasy of immersive virtual reality. There is an important difference between “immersion” in the general sense of any engaging or engrossing activity—certainly many or most games fall into this category—and “immersion” as a narrative “mode of address,” which occludes the space of spectatorships (hidden behind a “fourth wall”) and offers a window onto diegesis, the world of the story.

Christopher Goetz (2015) “Stepping Out of the Virtual World Paradigm” at Memory Insufficient

Surprisingly, participants in the virtual reality scenarios (which used graphics rather than filming) had less empathy for the victim than in a normal video.

The researchers weren’t 100 per cent sure which elements of virtual reality led to the lower empathy levels, but they hypothesise that we relate strongly to things that look “real”, as opposed to virtual scenarios which simply have a 360-degree purview. Therefore, they write, “findings here suggest that photorealistic graphics should be used in VR simulations to evoke empathy”.

Barbara Speed (2016) “How Virtual Reality Could Combat Compassion Fatigue” in The New Statesman

[…] the empathy effects were cancelled out by the effects of feeling personal agency. Even more troubling is the fact that the game actually lead to more negative attitudes when the participants were low in meritocracy beliefs (and likely to feel positively toward the poor). Playing the game convinced them that poverty was personally controllable, turning their positivity into negativity.

Gina Roussos (2015) “When Good Intentions Go Awry” in Psychology Today

Empathic distress is the feeling of intolerable pain triggered by seeing somebody else’s suffering. While the ability to experience empathic distress is highly valued, it can prevent someone from acting to aid the other person and hastens burnout in care workers.

Somebody else’s problem (also known as someone else’s problem or SEP) is a psychological effect where people choose to dissociate themselves from an issue that may be in critical need of recognition. Such issues may be of large concern to the population as a whole but can easily be a choice of ignorance by an individual. Author Douglas Adams’ comedic description of the condition, which he ascribes to a physical “SEP field,” has helped make it a generally recognized phenomenon.

Wikipedia article

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Images copyright nai010 2013, from DesignBoom

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Images copyright Owen Vince 2016, from Memory Insufficient

For more on this, see Owen Vince:

A city needs real people, but also needs institutions and infrastructure. Placemaking is about how to achieve these things without hurting the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed. It’s about enabling space for transgressive uses, the unexpected, the daring. These are cities many, many miles away from the cities of Sim City. They are more like the city of City Life v.3 (a game), or of Occupy (a movement), or of the E15 Mothers group in London’s Stratford (a community protest). It is about rejecting the idealism of the zoned Radiant City, and of the neo-liberalism and vapid gentrification of the New Urbanism. It is something that cannot currently be found in city simulations, whether as games or software for town planners. Consistently, the city’s other is displaced by a normative profile of its ideal citizen, a rubric so broad – so general – as to embody both everybody and nobody (the citizen as sim).

Owen Vince (2015) “The Death and Life of Simulated Cities” in Memory Insufficient


Zoya is a historian and journalist of games and playful art. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a consultant at Silverstring Media.

I recently had the honour of starting a new job as Senior Curator of games criticism curation site Critical Distance. Part of my role involves creating regular digests for other publications, featuring a small selection of the links that we have distributed in our full-length weekly round-ups. With so much good writing happening on games and history across the web, Memory Insufficient is like an ideal place to host a similar digest. From now on, around once a month I’ll be posting a roundups from Critical Distance focusing on the history of design and craft as they relate to games.

Remembering

“We are so used to it we might not notice, but Chess is a very modern game in some regards. Instead of fighting to the death or strangulation like in most abstracts, the win condition is the capture of a single, practically unarmed piece. This is huge! It enables a wide range of plays and the threat of the game ending in a single move introduces a lot of fun and tension. And the pieces? They are all a bit strange. The Bishops move diagonally despite the game being vertically-bound. The Knight can move through other pieces but doing so makes it alternate between white and black squares. Pawns form the backbone of the army yet are barely capable of harming each other. There are a lot of curve balls in Chess that makes it feel fresh and exciting.”

Representing

“Despite the fact that game-maker Navid Khonsari is suspected of spying by the Iranian government, the primary takeaway from playing 1979 Revolution is a feeling of complicated affection, not angry bitterness. There’s another side to what we in the West know about Iran, and playing this game is a good way to start learning about it.”

Recording

“This tale, I think, goes some distance towards explaining why so much new media art is mired in nostalgic reverie, despite its patina of geekish futurism. Cultural history suggests that “the look of now” tends to age badly. This is no less true in technology than in fashion and hairstyles. Any new style or medium runs the risk of being obsolete tomorrow, discarded and bulldozed under”

Critical Distance is community supported. You can help by donating money on Patreon or by sending in recommendations.


An archaeologist with a background in Russian literature and culture, Owen Vince's current research and writing interests are in; urbanism, architecture, video games, and capitalism (and, often, the interrelationships between these).

In September 2001, William Basinski began a project that would later become known as ‘the disintegration loops’. The avant-garde composer accumulated a number of earlier recordings that had been made on magnetic tape, and began the process of transferring them to a digital format. The tape, however, had already begun to disintegrate; as it passed through the tape head, the ferrite began to erode and fall apart. Basinski played the tapes, on repeat, allowing them to deteriorate over time, with each repeated playing. This introduced gaps, distortions, truncations, adding new and unexpected textures to the original composition.

But he could not have predicted the significance of the September 11th morning on which he finished the project. On that day, Basinski completed the recording and went to his rooftop, from where he watched the dual masses of the World Trade Center buildings disappear in smoke, and eventually collapse. It seems, from a gloomy and removed perspective, that the collapse was not by any means a single event, but a collapsing that set in motion other collapsings. It defined the trajectory of a generation, pre-determining everything from defence spending and European Union immigration quotas to public road signage and TV commissions. And these echoes of construction through disintegration (albeit, a kind of negative construction) came to a head.

Over the past year, gaming has attempted to drag itself from the barbaric shadow of Gamergate, in which colleagues and friends were sent into hiding, where the submersion of paranoia into everyday society had become so total that an entrenched community – under a false flag of ethics – aggressively defended the indefensible position of rejecting the creation of new and different games, and denied all attempts at their historicisation. I watched all of this unfold from Turkey. I watched as fighter jets tore across the immersive blue sky. I saw trunk roads that, plunging toward Syria, bore no traffic. In a store they said “you can’t buy Aleppo soap any longer”. The soap vats are empty. I saw two towers collapsing; an industry tear itself to shreds.

I wondered if it was any good attempting to grasp something of this crisis, this “rhizomatic” modernity where “any point” of the rhizome, of this complicated and self-involved structure, “can be connected to any other, and must be”. This intensification of crisis and commodification has given, somehow, new life to the creating of new “weird” games, as Zolani Stewart has argued. So how do we write about them, and how do we inject that writing and thinking into our present, and cast it toward our futures in an epoch of sustained crisis and uncertainty?

William Basinski handles magnetic tape
Photograph 0f William Basinski by Peter J Kierzkowski

1

If “weird” games celebrate their own lack of finality, their own brokenness, should we break our writing too? These games, and our playing of them, are a kind of expressive, emotive spectacle which doesn’t shut down when we press “quit”. It isn’t separated from our writing. Reviews create false dichotomies (game : text, experience : reflection). So how do we break (away from) and re-integrate them, as a kind of process?

Disintegration implies the unexpected transformation of a base compound, of a once-coherent unit, into a newly emergent form. That form might be toxic (decaying elements produce radiation), or positive. For Basinski, the fact of the tapes’ decay generated a sweeping and mournfully beautiful repositioning of them. It was unexpected, and added to the original object while taking away from it. But, as a loop,  it also always came back to it.

A black, stone walkway leads forward towards a fractured wall made of floating cubes, silhouetted against a sky at dawn
Img 1: Screen from Connor Sherlock’s Sanctuary

Recently, Stephen Bierne suggested that games criticism is rarely understood as a craft in its own right. That it receives a ‘bad press’, and that its detractors – there are many – argue that it ‘ruins’ games, or that (perhaps worse), it is irrelevant. Designers might argue that critics understand poorly how games are actually made (the, ‘how can you judge art if you can’t paint?’ argument). Others suggest that it has projected unrealistic social and political commentary onto the surface of the games, or that it has injected too much personal anecdote into its practice. I’m not going to address and criticise these complaints point by point. I think they’re quite dull, and unenlightening. But I want to suggest that games criticism – in tearing apart games, in performing deconstruction, in addressing and anatomising – is a productive, albeit destructive, act. It locates games in their critical, social, and aesthetic milieux. It says: culture is extended by having engaging, often difficult, conversations about artistic form and practice. It is GPS. It is a smoke signal – a flare among the ice.

But I want to go further. I want to say that the destruction of the source material is usually only rhetorical. We don’t actually jigsaw, melt, or decay the base compound away from its original size, or form, or identity, but we could do that, and it may be equally revealing, even if problematic. Maybe it would help us better understand what a game might be doing, and how it might be doing this, in a time of growth and ambivalence in the games community, and at a moment of intense historical anxiety for us as a whole.

2

I keep a scrapbook of architectural collages. My hope is that a few years down the line, I’ll actually be an accredited urban designer in the real world. For now, I get a lot of insight and inspiration from taking photographs of buildings, film stills of architecture, screenshots of buildings in games, and collaging them together. I use a broadly ‘constructivist’ method, as used by Italian architect and illustrator, Aldo Rossi, among many others (see gallery above). It is a humble sort of scrappy practice. I enjoy it.

Recently, something unusual happened. I was using my partner’s cheap HP 301 printer, and was running off a series of screengrabs from freeware games. I was doing it in a hurry, because we were heading out. The printer was running dry of colour. After a few false starts I put the image, from Connor Sherlock’s Sanctuary (Img. 1) through the printer, and what came out (Img. 2), was disarming. In an attempt to reproduce the image as well as possible, the printer had inverted, inaccurately, the image’s colours. What was looming, coherent and black came out in a dusty, powdered turquoise-blue. Its outline, once a shimmering, necrotic band, was a deeper waving line of green. The background, rather than being ominous, was calm, even placid. Like raspberry juice spilt in a glass of milk. It was not the original image. It was different, beautiful, and more importantly, accidental. In the process of extracting, or in Bierne’s term, “deferring” the game away from itself, I had created something unexpected that, regardless, still referred back to it.

This isn’t simply an aesthetic consideration – it doesn’t just look good. I think it offers two things; (a) a commentary on what exactly (or beautifully inexactly) games criticism is doing and; (b) a unique artistic practice that enables us, as critics, as ‘responders’, to extend the kinds of forms that we use to respond to games. It is to locate ‘games criticism’ outside of writerly practice, to annexe other arts that can influence, invest, and reimagine it. But we’ll always have writing. After all, that’s what I’m doing here, in order to frame the work.

new4Img 2: The distorted print-out

So how does my unexpected, disintegrated image refer back to the original game?

Sanctuary is an ominous, architecturally interesting, and very affective piece of design. I already knew, before the disintegrated image was made, that Sanctuary was about finding security and protection within a hostile environment. It conveys this using the architecture of the actual sanctuary building, a sort of church-like dark assembly that is lateral more than vertical, and squats beneath the big, dangerous sky. But I hadn’t yet thought about how particular emotional and affective responses were generated by that contrast between danger and safety. It’s a walking simulator/horror, so already we know that it’s going to put us in this kind of strange place, and it’s going to be like Suspiria (shown below) and Italian horror film. It’s also about encountering buildings – architectural forms – in a landscape.

The atmospheric and environmental emergence of the central built form, as it appears from behind the dark forest, has an alluring inevitability to it. Despite the gyrating terror of the experience, with its whip cracks of thunder, we can imagine an arc of inevitable and flexible progression by which we will ultimately end up, safely, within the sanctuary. This is quite an optimistic idea, but I hadn’t thought about how that relief was articulated, and how it plays on the psychological shock that what is protective is also necessarily ominous, and shares its qualities.

High-angle shot of a white, black and red room with a striking abstract mural on the ground. A person with white skin and long brown hair wearing a pink dressing gown appears to be running into the room from a forked stairway.
Screencap from Suspiria (1977) Director Dario Argento

We realise that the looming bleak form of the sanctuary building is simultaneously protective, but also worrying. Its mass, scale, and darkness are threatening because we cannot make it out against the storm. But the disintegrated image, in blurring the cube shapes (outside of the sanctuary) into the building’s framework/body (that which surrounds and protects you), makes you realise that actually they exist on the same plane, and are made of the same surface texture. It neutralises the cubes. We realise that our relief stems from this manipulation of perspective by which we find safety and comfort in a building that is exactly the same as the cubes. Our relief is in the act of neutralisation, that we can move our ‘body’ and perspective in the game so as to disappear and reappear the cubes. We can create and diminish them by how we stand, within the sanctuary, and look out onto the storm.

This is even more important because, to ‘end’ the game, you actually have to interact with a sort of ‘Alpha cube’ – boss cube – that normalises the world. That cube is contained inside a dark building. It is part of it, and to ‘resolve’ the game – to reach its end state – you have to interact with it. The earlier perspective-shift of cubes + sanctuary building had alluded to this. It was the architecture telling us what to do, what to anticipate.

Without the disintegrated image, I would not have understood how the interrelationship between ‘place of safety’ and ‘objects of fear’ produces our relief – how it structures it, and how it is manifested, and made real, through our gaze. The attractive way the image turned out also confirmed how dependent a game’s atmospherics are on its arrangement of architectural space, and the kinds of lenses and gazes that it affords us to perceive and encounter them. This felt, in a very small way, like the maturation of an industry that I first came into contact with when I was still a child.

But playing a game is always already a mesh of responses and reactions which defer away from the object, before coming back to it. You don’t have to be an ‘art critic’ to appreciate that. It is inherent to the playing process. Sure, some games are more likely to activate a greater number of points of reference, contrast, and connection, but the art critic doesn’t have some inherently privileged capacity that a non-critic does not. For Michael Benson (and he’s talking about abstract expressionism), “these responses mobilize the past in the present and, by so doing, open lost or buried currents or constellations to investigation and narration”. More than this, it isn’t just about re-recovering, but also emergent generation: about creating entirely new responses to that encounter. Maybe a realisation about architectural perspective (as above), or an idea for a photograph, a design reference for furniture, or a sketch that you might want to undertake. Thinking about games also spawns new games – it creates at least the potential for cascade, for influence.

So I followed that thread. I’m not Basinski, or Connor Sherlock. But I wanted to run with that disintegration a little longer. I started to unpackage and extend my thoughts beyond play.

A games criticism that takes a hard look at itself in the mirror, creating and demanding new things. Click To Tweet

3

With my responses to Sanctuary, I tried to pursue a strategy of accident and continuity. The initial image remains the focal point, but I also wanted to radiate outwards from that original, the ‘accident’, toward forms and images that sprung to me as a result of that initial realisation. An aggregate of response through which I was continually trying to work out what ‘sanctuary’ means, and how buildings and design make us ‘feel’.

Everything I was doing was to recreate those conditions of the relationship between chaos and serenity which Sanctuary itself embodies. I wanted to explore some of the relationships between form, light, line, and mass; to examine shadow and the visual trick by which cube-material becomes coincident (made safe) with sanctuary-material. So I made a negative collage (Img. 3); an amalgam of cutaway and negative fragments, shorn remnants, of the process of creating the actual positive collage, because, Sanctuary works by appealing to the cutaway, and to how negative and positive spaces shape how we visually encounter masses in the (game) world. It helps us to stop treating “graphics” as something that, in a two dimensional way, simply “looks good”. We want to ask why, and treat the designer as a designer, an artist, an architect.

An angular, layered construction of white paper
Img 3: Collage of collages

A lot of my thinking about Sanctuary was architectural; as in, how space and form are organised in the level design. These aren’t just aesthetic considerations, but formal ones; the creation of a sanctuary is enabled by the security of a built form that covers you, but also the kind of ‘dissolving perspective’ that you have, from inside the sanctuary, which enables you to manage your gaze of the ominous cubes.

I used folded paper on a white paper surface; the ‘architecture’ was made of negative cutaways made from the original collaging. They were accidental structures, which I used to create baked shadow (the soft-edged, dissolving kind you see below), so as to understand how shadow and form can interrelate and inform one another. It just struck me that the game was all about these ‘impossible architectures’, these peculiar and deranged shapes which – regardless of their aggressiveness (they are blade-shaped) – create more comforting profiles in terms of how shadow is cast, and light interrupted. By creating architectures that stem from the game’s architectures, I was trying to map the game and its effects into a kind of practice. Bringing it into my hands.

new3
Img. 4: Re-Sanctuary 2 – baked shadow forms (light)

 

new2
Img. 5: Re-Sanctuary 3 – baked shadow form (dark)

The final manipulation (Img. 6) involved a more straightforward manipulation of gradient, contrast and brightness. I decayed the image by ramping up the contrast, so as to ‘cloud’ and rough the forms and their appearances in space. This softening, or contortion, dispels the more cuboid and organised assemblies of the original level design, but also hints at its verticality and organisation. My white-line triangles were intended to convey the shaping of perspective that looking at the ominous outside, from within the sanctuary, entails. Our gaze is drawn upwards, making the most of what its perspective disappears and reveals. Again, it enables another visual clue that the ‘solution’ to the environment is actually to be found in the cubes, because our sense of architectural sanctuary is coincident, materially, with it. Just as we have power to see and unsee the cubes using the architecture, we can also control the activity of the cubes in the game world. To prevent the disaster that threatens to destroy it. It demonstrated the idea that we have a “gaze” inside of a game, and that space plays a crucial and complex way in which we “feel” within particular areas. It breaks the game away from feelings of action and reward toward something actually more human, more embodied.

new6
Img. 6: Re-Sanctuary 4 – contrast form w/ perspective

 

I’m not claiming that my interpretations of the game’s design and aesthetic are definitive or should supplant the original (!). I’m saying that it’s good to think about, and that deconstructive or disintegrative responses to artworks such as games can push our minds in unexpected, explorative directions, and reconnect us with the fact that games are always enjoyment and reflection, always personal. Doing this kind of disintegration work helped me to think about atmosphere, architectural narrative, and formal level organisation in the game. Of how these are generated and sustained in both the act of play and the resulting process of thinking about that play. My work helped me to blur the line between experience and form, and to think beyond the tropes of “Graphics”, “Story”, “Mechanics”, “Sound”. They helped me to understand the kind of artificial embodiment which happens in playing a game, and how space doesn’t just imply where we can and cannot “go”, but how we feel about being there in the first place. It reinserted the person, and evacuated the “Player”.

4

Basinski’s loops extend across four CDs, and hours of content. I doubt I have fully listened to all of it, because I have not always listened with an open ear. I retrace the loops and explore them, but that’s okay. In fact, that’s probably the point, because this transposition is exactly what gave first breath to the composition that later became known as The Disintegration Tapes.

Disintegration explains the idea that art criticism and, in this case, games criticism, presents a kind of explorative data-bending in which the ‘object’ is received both into a culture and by individual who constitutes a part of that culture. Disintegration is what happens when the magnetic tape of the object’s composition – its basic state – wraps around and through a played experience. “Deferral” implies a looking away, or a passing on of responsibility. In fact, isn’t it better understood as a kind of absorption? The object is transformed, either rhetorically or literally, and so dispersed. Like I said above, a lot of this comes from the refusal of traditional writing modes to fully implicate themselves, messily, in the contexts and complexities from which games emerge, politically, emotionally, aesthetically.

We saw this position angrily rejected during Gamergate, as we have seen the hype and commercialization of the industry at large. Fear of context and fear of close, messy reading alike, and fear of diverse gaming communities, mean that most review writing treads water in the same stale categories. Locating criticism outside of this framework necessarily entails risk and ambivalence, but we should be okay with this; okay with it because this can be generative in its own right. It can create and establish new connections. Spark new thoughts. Without that printer malfunction and my subsequent screwing about with the images, I wouldn’t have come to certain conclusions about how space works in the Sanctuary.

By annexing the game and your response to it into the same, ambivalent space, you’re doing something quite radical. It frees both the game and the response from commodification and potentially oppressive, reductive frameworks. Surely this is a better way to think about writing and responding, and helps us – like the mass of contextualised, personal, engaging writing regularly curated by Critical Distance, for example – to begin to escape the false ideology of a commercial and anti-personal, anti-historical lens through which we “engage” with games. Not afraid to be clever; not afraid to say “I don’t know”. Not afraid to refuse to give a game a score. Capitalism is crisis; so writing in capitalism necessitates that crisis is transformed into construction. Into the uncertain certain of grabbing writing and thinking back from its jaws.

Of course, I’m not arguing for some superposition in which all criticism is reduced to a point of utter subjectivity – an “anything goes” scenario. I think there are stable, and more coherent, lenses and arguments which you can read through a game – especially when those games are thought about within their social and political contexts. We can talk about the formal arrangement and effects of level design; we can talk about game mechanics; we can talk about dissonance and story and politics; we can talk about the presence and “presencing” of the body; we can talk about gender and its articulation; we can talk about oppression; we can talk about reward and reward systems. (And so on.  I don’t want to disappear down the rabbit hole. My practice depends on not falling down the rabbit hole. There’s always got to be a promise that we can surface again.)

What this kind of disintegration does is deepen and expand the possible reactions and responses that we have to art objects, to games. It creates a manifold of new arrangements and lenses by which we can peer at, criticise, applaud, challenge, and reimagine a particular object; mediating how we receive it into our culture(s). After all, writing isn’t an inherent practice. It isn’t neutral.

I believe we can both say and do things – writing and collage, for example – that interact with one another in ways that ‘pull apart’ a work of art so as to see it more clearly and more coherently. Messy play with paper and digital manipulation helped me to better understand how mass, perspective, light and architectural narrative were serving the more atmospheric and ‘metaphysical’ arguments that Sanctuary, as a game, is making. But they also create practices and new objects that can of themselves be quite cool to look at and think about.

At the end of the day, after the critical work is done, the game is still there. Still whole. Click To Tweet

5

An article by Steven Cottingham recently described the idea that art criticism is maybe one hundred years behind its practice, and that the convention of mass art criticism – the jargonistic, posturing, and ultimately hollow language we’ve become used to sprayed in Helvetica on gallery walls – is tied so absolutely to Late Capitalism as to make it self-eating. Games criticism has its own bugbears, and has had its own peculiar, concentrated evolution – a lot of the best games writing is a rejection of the formula of review writing that is focused on aggregate scoring and commercial viability. It’s writing being done about race, gender, landscape, and narrative (etc!) on platforms like Twitter, wrapped up and read-over through useful things like Storify.

When disaffected arts writers shit-talk the domination of “artspeak”, you can also say that a lot of games writers are also disaffected, and have been doing a lot to break the mould, to be representative, and to think about producing a new writing and curation of games responses. Aren’t Let’s Plays a kind of conceptual approach that blasts apart the muck of wordage and revision and editing which refines writing, and opens it out into the concentrated albeit expansive moment of speech? LPs locate games ‘writing’ ahead of language, and prioritise effect. It fulfills just something of what Jane Rendell has called a “site-writing”, as an arts criticism that “puts the sites of engagement with art first”, above the act of writing. Acts like this.

I’m still an arts critic. I still want to write, for a vast number of personal and social reasons. But I also want to make a space for disintegration – the transformative action on an object – to occupy a distinct edge to my practice as a writer, and to let it reflect back onto it. I think that collage practice and print-art can offer a way (for me) to think about scenography and architecture, about how games and level design generate particular effects on us. If nothing else, they provide prompts for thinking, and avenues for pursuing otherwise hazy ideas. Games writing – as curatorial sites such as Critical Distance evidence – is becoming increasingly diverse, but the freeware and diverse games we celebrate, and the alternative perspectives and readings around AAA games that we attempt to assert, have been at risk as we come to realise simply how big and complex is the games industry – ranging from elite vulgar apartments to the small, cold, rented rooms I’ve so often found myself playing from. Between vulgarity and precariousness. So we create, and play, and talk about play, in ways that are sensitive to that fragmentation, to that ambivalence.

Resources

Beirne, Stephen. ‘How Game Criticism is Like Cooking a Roast Chicken Dinner’ Normally Rascal, 2015
Quick, Genevieve. ‘Art Writing’Temporary Art Review, 31 March 2014
Brenson, Michael. Acts of Engagement: writings on art, criticism, and institutions, 1993 – 2002. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004
Rendell, Jane. Site-Writing: the architecture of art criticism. I.B. Taurus, 2010