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 finished watching Mad Men. One thing that has always struck me about the show is the way that it uses verticality. It opens with the slow moving cartoon image of a man falling out of the window of a high-rise building decorated with aspirational advertising images. The show then proceeds to illustrate at least one narrative point per episode with a shot of people in an elevator, facing toward the camera, maintaining perfect composure as they ascend up to a workplace or conspicuously beautiful apartment.

The elevator has cinematographic value, as a cheap-to-produce set that allows all characters present to face the camera. It creates a shot that’s like a dollshouse: a cutaway view of a complete room. I like to imagine when I’m watching those scenes that I’m peering inside an intricate model building where the show is being acted out in miniature and a thousand things are happening at once, a different drama happening in the mind of every character who never gets a speaking role. The building is a system within a system that keeps some people on the ground floor and elevates others to the top.

Project Highrise office illustration
Finishing Mad Men reminded me of a game project that I learned about earlier this year. Somasim, an indie studio founded by social gaming veterans, is building a high-rise simulator. Project Highrise will task players with building and managing a lofty mid-century skyscraper, populating it with their desired kind of tenant, keeping track of who is renting space where, preparing office space, getting people into the building, keeping occupants happy by managing noise level and flow, and keeping everything functioning.

This is a game about designing interlocking systems of prestige. Click To Tweet

Following their launch of gold rush simulator 1849, this next project looks to be a historical system simulator a few steps above what Somasim has achieved before. It’s not yet playable, but Claris Cyarron and I got the chance to look at Somasim’s beautiful concept art and learn about their plans at GDC earlier this year.

“We wanted to make this before 1849,” said programmer Robert Zubek. “The design is larger: 1849 could be made in 12 months. After completing that project, we looked through our design folders. We moved to Chicago, saw the skyline, and wanted to go back to that original idea.”

Buildings as systems

Designer Matthew Viglione explained that high-rise buildings would not be the only possible strategy for players, but will often emerge from the system as the most efficient solution to a problem. “We’re concentrating more on the economical simulation than the physical building construction. The distribution of services forces your hand into certain directions as a designer — office buildings need more elevators, for example.”

The team has been inspired visually by not just the high-modern visual style of Chicago, but Chicago’s politics of land use and zoning restrictions. Part of Viglione’s work as a game designer has been interpreting urban planning concerns into challenges for players to work with creatively.

“We’re thinking things like air rights. If you have a certain amount of air rights, how do you build? The city might say you have to have setbacks, or to have open space. In Chicago you can only have 15x the sqft of your lot, but if you have open public space it increases to 18x the sqft of the lot. We’re designing the sandbox first and then build the scenarios off that: thinking about San Francisco, where they’re obsessed with shadows you can’t build a building that will set a shadow on a park. Encoding different city planning rules.”

“Instead of saying ‘here’s what you have to accomplish’ we say ‘here are the limitations.’” Click To Tweet

“A huge part of the fun of a simulation game is building a mental model of how the thing works,” says Zubek, who used to be a lead programmer at Zynga. This systemic approach to a game about architecture can lead you to look at the architecture in the world around you differently: aesthetics are not just stylistic choices, but part of an attempt to get particular results from complex social systems.

At present, Project Highrise seems likely to focus on rectlinear forms in its architecture. Like Tiny Tower before it, Project Highrise will primarily display its buildings through the dollshouse-style cutaway view. The cutaway drawing has its own aesthetic heritage as a means of giving insight into a complex system, for technical drawings or educational books. In game design, it’s a performance boon that allows a developer to make the system being simulated more complex in exchange for keeping the graphics two-dimensional.
Project Highrise cutaway blueprint

Utopian visions

Claris reflected, “the international style is a particular period of time where there’s an obsession with a building that can contain a person’s entire life. How do you feel coming at this architectural style as a simulation that has the same baggage around being obsessed with control and understanding?”

“I think it fits perfectly,” responded Viglione. “It is the era of talking about the giant building as a machine, and simulation games are machines with little levers that you pull and see what happens. The idea that we could build our way to the future and we could build this thing and everyone could live inside it and the happy in it. There was a utopian vision and an optimism. What translates down is the pessimism of ‘oh it didn’t work’ but what we’ve lost is that optimistic vision.”

Within a game, this utopian vision works. “You can’t do that with society.” Click To Tweet

Simulation games allow you to have that optimism again for a little while. Games that are set in our own world play on our understanding of how the world works, letting us hang our strategies as players off our own pre-existing ideas and then recalibrate those assumptions in response to the simulation’s behaviour.”
Project Highrise residence concept art

Alternative history

“There is a bad side to learning from games,” say the Somasim team. If all of your knowledge of city planning comes from SimCity, that necessarily brings along a set of biases, because the game is designed to feel optimistic. The problems associated with the SimCity system are not made visible, because the simulation has no room for them. This might mean that a simulation game can only use history as a touchstone, rather than aiming at perfect accuracy.

“We don’t want to be limited by how offices worked in the 1960s” said Viglione, citing things like not having a Starbucks in every building, and not having computers. “What if Dieter Rams designed a computer?” is the sort of question that informs their design decisions. Eschewing the goal of perfect historical accuracy also allows Somasim to make their game’s optimistic fantasy more inclusive — instead of reproducing the gender politics of the mid-twentieth century, with ladies on typewriters and men in conference rooms, they plan to have gender be randomly assigned.

Mad Men was in part a TV show concerned with how people respond to being put in different positions in a system that benefits some people more than others: it was at times a resolutely pessimistic show. To simply enjoy the modernist aesthetic and appreciate the attempt to build something great, requires a self-consciously optimistic, radical reimagining of the historical context of mid-century modernism.

We have a post coming soon about the optimistic urban planning of SimCity. To make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe to our mailing list.


John Jurgensen (2015) “What Floor? Elevator Scenes on ‘Mad Men'”, Wall Street Journal

Mad Men elevator scenes

From the Wall Street Journal


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.

Living in constant contact with a machine changes the things that a body is required to do Click To Tweet

A machine can encourage new patterns of behaviour, building different postures and muscle groups. Historically this has been most clearly understood in relation to factory labour; the industrial revolution transformed people’s lives; public health was devastated by pollution, long working hours, and cramped living conditions. At around the same time, the bourgeoisie was deliberately using machines to change their bodies through the development of exercise machines: technology used for leisure often stands as a direct, although perverted, reflection of technology used for work.

The dot com boom of the late 1990s had lasting effects on culture. Even after the financial bubble burst, the growing role of network-connected computers in both working life and leisure was undeniable. Meanwhile, bodies were themselves becoming more malleable and adaptable, through a rapid rise in the uptake of plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures; 1999 saw a 66% increase on the previous year, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. In technologically-advanced, capitalist countries, the body was changing in relevance, with a decline of manufacturing and an expansion of the service industries. Increasingly, the human body was a display object meant to do emotional work.

Have you ever watched the video for Linkin Park’s “In The End” and thought that it looked a bit like a post-Playstation Final Fantasy game? Weirdly, “Holler” by the Spice Girls seemed to be set in the same game. The urban fantasy computer-generated city in Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” also seems to be replicated in a Spice Girls video. Whatever this may tell us about the Spice Girls aside, this suggests that the image of the digital playground transcended genres.

A game world is a liminal space: a world of leisure and symbolism separate to daily life. The prevailing design ethos at the time was that gameworlds, by necessity, must feature conflict, or danger, or just an endless supply of disorder that the player can busy themself trying to resolve. When music videos looked videogamey, they looked current, but they also looked beset by some problem or another.

From factories to selfies, we have a long history of imagining how machines may be changing our bodies. Click To Tweet

We can look to turn-of-the-millennium music videos’ use of conspicuous computer graphics to understand some of the worries that people had about the effects of new technologies on the body. Music videos’ use of computer graphics to depict bodies often seemed to describe contemporary problems with the changing media landscape — in some of the most interesting music videos from this time, bodies are being digitally altered in videogamey computer-generated worlds.

TLC, “Unpretty”

TLC’s “Unpretty” shows a woman being pressured by a man (maybe her boyfriend) to have plastic surgery: their discussion about the ideal body is shown visually through a wireframe model being transformed with breasts shifting in size. Computer-generated objects inserted into the space around her suggest that the pressure doesn’t just come from the men in her life, or from the mere fact that the technology to change her body exists, but from an ever-present critical gaze, represented by a flying camera drone that follows her everywhere. The same drone is shown in the scenes featuring the band members themselves, who sit in lotus posture in what looks like a computer-generated ashram: here the machine’s shell is closed around the camera, as if in this peaceful state there is an end to the self-conscious vigilance whereby one imagines how one is seen by others.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Mary Douglas argued that the body has special symbolic significance in helping us to understand a society as a whole, that we should “see in the body a symbol of society, and to see the powers and dangers credited to social structure reproduced in small on the human body.”

“The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious. The body is a complex structure. The functions of its different parts and their relation afford a source of symbols for other complex structures.”

The body, like any institution, is not just personal, but also systemic. Click To Tweet

The media gaze wasn’t just an assault on the body personal, but on other social institutions too. A 2010 Adam Curtis mini-documentary drew a link between how the media spectacle came — particularly since the 1990s — to distort the public’s perception of their society, and how it distorted their perception of their own body: through hypervigilance, paranoia, and confusion. As journalism’s access to easy good vs. evil narratives collapsed after the end of the cold war, its reach and remit were expanded by 24-hour news and on-demand information over the internet. Under these conditions, everything became a target for scrutiny and a possible source of corruption, from the highest echelons of power to the unknown internal processes of the body itself.

The era of 24-hour news was also an era of 24-hour music. Teens in the 1990s listened to 4 times more music than teens in the 1970s. The availability of niche TV channels meant that for the first time, music videos could be played for hours on end. This era of pop was about availability not just to the ears, but to the eyes and minds of target demographic groups as part of a perpetually-moving marketing machine.

Robbie Williams, “Rock DJ”

Robbie Williams’s “Rock DJ” was released in 2000, an (admittedly terrible) track on an album called Sing When You’re Winning. The video used a combination of stage makeup and cutting-edge computer graphics to depict Williams taking off his clothing, skin and muscles in order to get a DJ’s attention. The story is partly couched in a heteronormative “boy tries to get the girl” narrative, but another valid reading is that the video is about the quest for fame. The body becomes the central playground in a game for attention. Williams is stood in the centre of a roller derby rink, with women zooming around him, moving too fast to pay much notice to what he is doing until he makes a spectacle of his own self-destruction — a spectacle gory enough to disrupt the flow of play, as they literally consume him.

“Robbie Williams, the deity of levity, is the combustible core of contemporary masculinity,” wrote Tara Brabazon in the International Journal of Culture Studies in 2002, in an article that establishes in clear terms that one of the things that made Williams interesting as a media personality was the way he played with image and pride.

“He has been prepared to not only age in public, but to discuss the crevices and cracks in the facade… surfing the simulacra, he is prepared to reveal paranoia, weakness, and confusion. He strips, smokes, plays football, wears interesting underwear and drinks too much.”

The level of gore in this video as the body is taken apart by a digital gaze is comparable to the way the body’s gruesome innards are made visible and public in Mortal Kombat. This use of the flesh made visible itself recalls Michel Foucault’s interpretation of public executions as the state making a spectacle of its control over bodies, as Amsel von Spreckelsen argued in a previous issue of Memory Insufficient:

“The body of the condemned is the site of justice and the justice takes the form of the state, or the individual whose power constitutes the state, taking ownership of that body and submitting it to their will. There is a side effect in that any torture or deprivation has a public element, a pageantry to it, that might discourage other potential criminals from their criminal acts, but the core of it is in the violent assertion of ownership. The public execution is not about showing to others what  might happen to their bodies should they transgress, but about reiterating that the state has the right to do this to its subjects, as well as enacting and so giving a purpose to that right.”

The public’s demand for information pushes the digital body to expose itself completely Click To Tweet

The “Rock DJ” video worked in part because it came from an artist who had been famous since the age of 16, and had been in the tabloids a great deal, as the press made news stories out of his struggles with substance abuse and depression. And the computer-generated human sacrifice is also, as Brabazon points out, an exercise in the futility of trying to render the white male dominant body into an object of desire: there is nothing interesting about Williams’s striptease until the skin is stripped away and the performance of celebrity draws its first blood.

Kylie Minogue, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”

Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” — a Kraftwerk-inspired video for a heavily Kraftwerk-influenced record — depicts an entourage of cyborg backing dancers who, while not themselves computer-generated, dance machine-like in a world that is established in computer-generated opening shots as being unreal and distant. “Even when the location is rendered abstract or uncertain, it is nevertheless always and unambiguously not a natural environment,” wrote Diane Railton and Paul Watson in their analysis of how this video frames Kylie Minogue’s sexuality as clean, controlled, and sterile.

Kylie speeds down a freeway in a sports car, heading deeper and deeper into a cold, grey, unreal city. Buildings pass by her, looking like low-polygon placeholders for where an actual city would be, the pace of their movement uneven as though some buildings were flickering in and out of existence.

The music video seemed to be aware that its purpose was to create fame. Click To Tweet

An overwrought use of lens flare in this video suggests that you are watching Kylie through a camera. She goes through wardrobe changes, from red driving gloves to white ones, to a strange one-piece white garment that accentuates her dance moves while making her body look unnaturally long and stiff (“the fluidity of the dress merely confirms the flesh’s rigidity,” wrote Railton and Watson). Her final costume change introduces a dress that looks as though it is made of metal, suggesting that she has shifted from driving a machine to becoming machine-like herself. All the while, the throbbing beat of the song and its lyrics push the listener into a dispossessed, inhuman fixation on a product as Kylie sings “set me free!”

Media scholar Lee Barron, writing in 2008, explicitly interpreted Kylie’s work through Roger Caillois’s theories of play. He quotes Caillois, “all play presupposes the temporary acceptance, … of a closed … imaginary universe” — music videos are playful objects of make-believe, especially for an artist like Kylie Minogue who takes on different identities at different times, making everything seem like play and leaving nothing stable. For Barron, the “artifice and simulation” at work in her music videos from this era are strongly connected to notions of play and mimicry.

This play and mimicry, acted out in an imaginary universe made to look conspicuously unreal, spoke to problems that were then emerging in the physical, social world. The gaze of the media was ever harder to escape, like the floating drone camera in “Unpretty”. It was aggressive and demanding of its subjects, pulling them apart like the digital meat of Rock DJ. These videos exploited the uncanny valley to speak to how a technologically mediated gaze distorted its subjects and the world around them — all while fulfilling the commercial demand for pop music to provide a spectacle that looked exciting and new.

Digital bodies cover-1
Zoya Street is today publishing a book with Silverstring media called Digital Bodies. It is a collection of essays and articles that he has written over the past few years, covering themes such as digital craft and sexualised bodies. If you like this article, you might like the articles in that book.


Tara Brabazon (2002) “Robbie Williams: a better man?” International Journal of Culture Studies, 5 (1)
Amsel Von Spreckelsen (2015) “The body of the condemned: martial discipline.” Memory Insufficient, 2 (9)
Adam Curtis (2010) “Paranoia.” Newswipe S2E4



Gustaf Zander’s Passive Abdominal Exerciser, c. 1892 Photograph

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.

Dave Gilbert has been independently making adventure games since 2001, and founded indie studio Wadjet Eye Games in 2006. Wadjet Eye creates beautiful, reflective, compassionate stories with diverse characters and a strong sense of emotional authenticity.

Dave Gilbert excels at using supernatural events to speak to something truthful. Click To Tweet

Zoya and Claris caught up with him at GDC and asked him about storytelling, game design and the nature of genre fiction.

How has your craft changed since you started making games?

I was living in New York when the towers went down. That was when I started making games. I was between jobs, took my laptop to a cafe and made a game, and decided I didn’t want to do anything else.

My games were shorter and smaller in scope then. I just wanted to get them done, and I couldn’t hire contractors and I knew that would be necessary [if I was to make them bigger]. I had to make a lot of concessions in the beginning. As time went on and we got more money coming in, I was able to relax more and think more about the craft of things and spend more time editing and changing.

We never used Kickstarter, it didn’t exist back then and we don’t do it now. It’s all self-funded and that gives me a lot of freedom. But also, I do have a family and I have to make compromises.

Do you find yourself drawn to a particular kind of subject matter?

Yes. Blackwell was an urban fantasy. My fans wanted me to make a sci-fi game and I felt I should do it, but it just wasn’t in me. I wanted to go back and do more urban fantasy. That’s what appeals to me: I’m a big fan of Dresden and Buffy. Ordinary people going through extraordinary things appeals to me, and urban fantasy is a good setting for that. It allows me to tell a more personal story, I live in a city and it feels close to home. I want to take what I learned from Blackwell and do something bigger and better.

I don’t want to stay in my comfort zone. I want to make it darker. Click To Tweet

Less Law and Order, less offices. Less spaces as backdrops, more places you can actually explore. More Dresden, more Hellblazer, more World of Darkness, or Vampire: Bloodlines.

Another tradition of “unusual & uncanny things happening to ordinary people,” comes from Lovecraft’s work. Interestingly, those stories usually feature rural settings. How does an urban setting change it?

I don’t think one is better than the other, but I’m writing from my own experience. People resonate more with a game that I put a lot of myself into, dig some things up from my past and put them into the light. A lot of Blackwell [draws on] issues that I was dealing with in my own life and expressing those things in these other voices. If something comes from the heart … anyone who lives can tell a story like that.

Is your work informed by a sense of nostalgia?

Not really. I mean, I can’t avoid being inspired by older adventure games, and we do have pixel art. But that’s not nostalgia, it’s about budget.

It’s very backward to always rely on nostalgia. Click To Tweet

It is a factor in those games but it’s more about how we remember them than how they were. That’s why I don’t go back to play them for inspiration. There’s this narrative that “adventure games are coming back”, but I’ve been hearing that since The Longest Journey in 1999. Adventure games haven’t gone anywhere. People still make them, they’ve been making them [all this time].

You can’t think of [adventure games] as one thing. Every medium has its own genres. You have to think about what works for the story you want to tell, not what works for an adventure game. And the way we consume games has changed so much since the 1990s that it doesn’t make sense to try and do the same thing.

How do adventure games relate to traditional literary and filmic genres?

What adventure games do very well is putting you in the shoes of someone else: you are driving the events of the story, or the events are happening to you. That is where they excel really well. You’re not reliant on mechanics; there are cinematic games where you’re a fighter and you make things happen by smashing someone in the face, [whereas] adventure games allow you to explore things in other ways.

How have technical changes in the past decade affected your work?

We consume so much now; it’s so easy to consume. If I need a book for a flight it’s not even a problem, I just get my phone out and have a book five minutes later. We consume things so fast now. If you don’t get someone’s attention right away they will move onto something else.

You’re only stuck on a puzzle in an adventure game if you want to be, because you can look things up on the internet. I struggled for hours on a puzzle in King’s Quest in the 1980s, now I wouldn’t last ten minutes [before looking it up].

If you have to go outside of the game to enjoy my game, I’ve failed. So I don’t like [overwrought] puzzles. If the player has to leave to look something up, it’s not fun, it’s just busy work. I focus more on making it immersive and enjoyable. [The question is] how to make this fun, rather than what kind of puzzle can I throw in here because it needs a puzzle.

A recent topic we’ve been discussing at Silverstring is the difficulty of designing branching narrative. How has this come up in your own work?

I love branching stuff, but it’s really hard to design. I want to do that with my next project. The problem with it is… as a writer you have a story in your head, and there’s always the real one that you have in your head, how it’s really supposed to go, but we’re including these other ones because [we value] branching stories.

If you have multiple endings, there’s always one that’s the canon one for you as the writer. Click To Tweet

You’re telling this story for a reason, there’s a point you’re making, and if you branch it has to be true to that. That’s the danger of branching narrative — if you have an ending where lots of bad things happen, for one person that’s the ending they get — is it true to the rest of the story?

How do you stay focused on these ideas that you want to keep at the centre of a project?

Blackwell was a story about urban isolation, the characters and the people that are affected in different ways by that. You can’t get too specific with a theme. Epiphanies’s theme was, what if your personal realisation could be manufactured? It was about realising that it’s okay to try and fail. Everything comes from that core. I remember that this is what it’s about, and if I deviate from that — if a character doesn’t have an epiphany — I haven’t told the story the way I wanted to. If you’re exploring a certain theme you’re going to deviate and go around corners as you explore it. Sometimes I look at my notes and remember that I wanted to do one set of things, and it just morphed as I worked on it and it changed, and that’s just how it works.

Editorial note

The brackets here indicate that this word was changed to be brought in line with our house style guide as regards ableist language. This decision came after much deliberation, and with the original spirit of the speaker’s statements in mind. In future we will notify interviewees in advance that some terms which are in common vernacular usage may be edited in this way. We’ve updated our style guide to reflect this policy.