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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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
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.