07 November 2010

Game Theories: A Practical Guide To Game Writing

Gamasutra published another article of mine about a month back. In "A Practical Guide to Game Writing" I teach interested, dedicated game developers how to get the most out of their writers. Check it out.

06 August 2010

Game Theories: The Deaths of Game Narrative

An article I wrote for Gamasutra is up. Called "The Deaths of Game Narrative", it's a whimsical look at death, design, and storytelling in the digital world. An excerpt:

It's been quite a year for epic, narrative-driven games -- titles vast in scope, grand in ambition, and gorgeous in execution -- and I have fought my way through a few of the best.

In recent months I have transformed into an exiled Florentine nobleman thirsty for vengeance in Renaissance Italy; I masqueraded as a continent-hopping, chiseled chunk of vainglorious derring-do in search of lost treasure; and I traveled the western wilds of the United States as a battle-scarred loner fighting to restore his dignity and return to his family.

To the ear of an outsider, this might sound like a pretty diverse scrapbook of experiences, and I'd say this was half right. But there's one element that draws all these titles together under a cozy umbrella. In each game, the protagonist -- my avatar -- is a mass murderer...

30 July 2010

Mark Hollis, Come Back

Today, a friend reminded me to take my monthly Mark Hollis. I rarely forget, and fall ill when I do.

28 July 2010

Andy Warhol

I first began to appreciate Andy Warhol the moment I lost interest in his artwork. The man Andy was the thing to watch. He was the worthwhile object of all inquiry. The milieu he created was his canvas and all the art objects he produced were mere souveniers of a specific node in spacetime. If you didn't buy the t-shirt while you were there, don't bother looking for one now. What else should we think about a man who called his workshop The Factory? Could he have stated his intentions with any more clarity?

Yes, Andy's single important contribution to the world was himself. He generated the aura that Walter Benjamin worried art had lost forever in the age of mechanical reproduction. Andy spun magic scenester ju-ju so hard that he fooled people into thinking art production was actually a glamorous endeavor. Imagine! Soon people wanted to try this art thing themselves, but not because they adored the process of making it. Only because they adored themselves, and Andy, and the way it felt to participate without having to labor.

It's tempting to watch this and see nothing but a flippant hipster (a flipster!) disavowing any responsibility to indulge in polite conversation with an obtuse press; tempting because it's true, obviously. But it's also safe to take Andy at his word. His methods were easier ... he says exactly same thing about film a few years later: Film cameras are great, he argues, Because you just turn them on and walk away. After a short while, you've got a movie.

So while Andy traipses around carving himself out of ethereal clay, the work he sells to keep him afloat us is not a final product in the old sense, nor is he selling the sluggish thrill of "the process" to his admirers. No, he has perfected the intoxicating thrill of the "Have Done". Everyone knows this feeling. Everyone yearns for it at some point. "All writers want to have written" goes the old saying, and Andy offered an analogous experience to all in his orbit: simply by being around him, they had done things. Everyone was a filmmaker, everyone was a painter, everyone was in a band; everyone was everything around Andy Warhol. If he had written a novel, I'm sure he would have charged people for the privilage of looking over his shoulder as he scribbled ... or over the shoulder of whomever was writing it for him. It might even have sounded something like this:

15 July 2010

Game Theories: Object Innuendo

Here's a small recipe to spice up a dull party:

Name three objects found in a grocery or drugstore which, when purchased together, give your cashier the impression that the strangest night of your life is about to commence.

A cucumber, a jar of patroleum jelly, a disposable camera.

I codified the rules for this one about 5 years ago and have played it numerous times since. Players typically dive right into the risqué stuff first, but after the first few rounds the combinations tend to get more subtle and strange. Some people even take the shocking step of avoiding sexual innuendo altogether. Weird, right? But it works.

17 June 2010

A Film By Any Other Name...

Via Ta-Nehisi Coates, a shock-trailer for a film from the 60s titled "My Baby Is Black!"

Originally titled "Les Laches Vivent d'Espoir" (does this translate to "The Fearful Live In Hope"?), "My Baby..." was a French production with a bit more attempted integrity than the American rubric can possibly allow. Having never seen the film, I am unprepared to judge whether or not it has suffered unjustly from this swap, or if it is still a piece of garbage, but the original French title seems to imply some attempt at sensitivity.

This sort of targeted rebranding is still quite common, of course, and rarely capricious; there's always a profit motive to these alterations. Catherine Breillat's 2001 film "A Ma Soeur" -- literally "With My Sister" -- was renamed, for our amusment, "Fat Girl". This is a rather blunt take on a quietly disturbing film about the destructive tendancies of male sexual desire on maturing girls.

Whenever I hear of this kind of artistic gerrymandering, I can't help but wonder if the people responsible have done so on the basis of a lot of careful scheming or out of sheer fear. Is the potential audience for a film titled "Fat Girl" larger than the audience for "With My Sister"? Are they they completely different audiences, and if so, is one substantially larger than the other? Will the "Fat Girl" hopefuls leave the film disappointed after merely having seen "With My Sister"? Managing expectaions is the name of this ugly game, but perhaps it works to the artist's benefit more often than not.

A few nights ago I watched Leos Carax's 1986 film "Mauvais Sang" - "Bad Blood" - and was surprised to find under the film's title-card the subtitle "The Night Is Young". This title appeared nowhere on the DVD case or in any of the menus however - both advertised the original French. But again I was made to wonder, did "Bad Blood" first appear on these shores as "The Night Is Young"? This would be 1986, you see - the middle of the first decade the AIDS epidemic, which the film makes numerous allusions to. Was this the reason behind the change; the fear that the vague reference to "Bad Blood" might transmit the wrong impression. What sort of mind bubbles with this sort of skittishness, I wonder? And can you make a good living this way?

09 June 2010

Musical Literacy

Bobby McFerrin coaxes the pentatonic scale out of some rather delighted victims:

I've had a few casual, barely informed conversations over the years about the idea of "musical literacy", and more specifically regarding the extent of our innate understanding and feeling for musical forms and ideas and their possible origins -- but i've never bothered to follow through and actually read anything extensive on the subject. It's probably time to change this. Should I start with Oliver Sacks? Something else? Maybe I'll watch more Bobby McFerrin videos first.

04 June 2010

Game Theories: The Last Express

I will always be indebted to Jordan Mechner's 1997 game The Last Express for providing me with the first hard evidence that videogames could look and act as seriously as any film or novel. While the game's presentation is rather clunky by today's standards, the art direction, the real-time conceit, and the quality of the writing all deserve a huge measure of admiration.

While searching for images of this game to accompany a small article I've been writing about the role of narrative in videogames, I came across Mr. Mechner's Vimeo page. It contains this little gem:

Passively watching The Last Express is no substitute for actually playing it, but for posterity's sake this is a nice little memorial to a fantastic and overlooked milestone.

25 May 2010

Images: "Seemann..."

Dispatch from the previous century:

11 May 2010

Henry Thomas Sings the Texas Blues!

I'll let this link speak for itself: Recordings of Henry Thomas singing 19th century folk, blues, ragtime and more.

Born in Big Sandy, Texas in 1874, Henry Thomas was one of the oldest black musician who ever recorded for the phonograph companies of the 1920′s and his music represents a rare opportunity to hear what american black folk music must have sounded like in the last decade of the 19th century.
Download now and enjoy.

08 May 2010

Review: Rimini Protokoll's "Best Before"

Reposted from On The Boards, a loose review of Rimini Protokoll's show Best Before. I was curious to know if I had made any sense whatsoever, so I asked OTB to name the review for me....


In 1990, philosopher Peter Suber offered this observation: “If law making is a game, then it is a game in which changing the rules is a move.” Suber was not merely coining an axiom for the sake of his tenure; he was introducing a game he had invented called Nomic, in which passing, amending, and repealing the game’s own set of rules was its purpose. This was self-reflexivity at its most complex, and the creative intellectual destruction that accompanied each game was a wonder to experience. But like any laudably open and free set of laws, Nomic’s rules contained the seeds of its own potential dismantling. A system of rules designed to permit free and open action, can, even with the best of intentions, destroy itself. True freedom gives us full leeway to abandon it altogether.

Sitting through Rimini Protokoll’s delightfully cozy adventure, Best Before, Peter Suber’s quote stuck with me, and the idea that I might be partly responsible for the destruction of the very show I was experiencing was never far from my mind … or minds I should say. Throughout the duration of Best Before, I was always in two places at once – there was the physical me, sitting in my chair amongst my fellows of flesh and blood; and the digital me, the bullet-shaped avatar I navigated around a large on-stage screen using a generic game controller. It was the same for everyone there on Friday night: two hundred puppet masters sitting in the dark maneuvering their virtual surrogates around BestLand. We watched and cheered as our avatars got their bearings, made decisions about the future of our civilization, gained rank and stature, mated, and even voted for a president, all for the sake of keeping our collective civilization afloat.

28 April 2010

Labor of Love of Labor

It occurred to me while watching the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop, that labor is one of the only qualities an artist cannot insert artificially into her work. Invested time cannot be faked on the cellular level, the level of the art's effect on the artist. Labor is not a quality that appears in any measurable sense in a finished work, or course, but it does, I think, have a permanent developmental effect on the creator. The transformative power of extensive personal effort is an ineffable but vital component of most interesting pieces. For one, investing a huge chunk of your life in something is the surest way of developing a style that combines the best qualities of intellect and instinct. One artist's style can be faked by another of course, but this is beside the point. I am only interested in what is happening to the artist in the process of laboring to earn that style.

16 April 2010

Napoleonic Apocrypha

"Pumpernickel" -- it's a fun word to say, and that alone should ensure its longevity. In our earliest days of idle chatter, my brother and I made a habit of teasing out the strange sounds of certain words or phrases. "Crush" was a particular favorite of his, especially when fronted by the word "Orange". Every time he said it he'd slosh the words around in his mouth like a cold slush of flavored ice. I was always partial to "tapioca" after Shel Silverstein's dapper lion Lafcadio pointed out its virtues along with "marshmallow". Tapioca, tapioca. It pops and clucks at the right speed, just like a spoonful of pudding in your mouth.

As is the case with a number of strange words, Pumpernickel has an interesting etymology -- and would have more than one, if it were possible for all the rumors to be true. I'm going to ignore all of them except the one LEAST likely to be true, just because I love the story so much.

29 March 2010

Nostalgia I

October 2001. I'm in Leipzig staying with Andrea, a recently discovered "friend of a friend", exploring the city before I head for my final destination, Prague. Leipzig is an invigorated little onion - ornate Englightement center, brick and mortar Socialist middle, glittering glass capitalist outskirts. Of all the cities I have ever visited, its history is the most overt, written in its expanding strata like geological layers. Andrea is a fine and enthusiastic guide through it all. She's fairly new to the city too, so we explore together.

One evening we return to her place and she offers to cook dinner for the both of us. Three months prior, she'd been in Italy studying the language and absorbing the cuisine. Now she knows the recipe for a good marinara. When she conjures up all the necessary ingredients she holds up a fine ruddy tomato and says, "It's hard to make good marinara with the tomatoes in America. You can't taste the sun in them."

26 March 2010

Axiomatic I

Art is the revenge we take on our senses....

23 March 2010

A Raymond Chandler Evening....

Having just finished two of Raymond Chandler's novels - Playback and The Big Sleep - and a fantastic collection of early shorts called Killer in the Rain, I have concluded that all of his detective characters are imaginary portraits of frustrated artists procrastinating their way through a series of daydreams in which their Art takes a back seat to their Attitude. It's much easier to "feel" than it is to sit down and "do." I think most of us have known this impulse at one time or another. What is the old saying? That most writers hate writing; they just want to have written. This is Philip Marlowe in a nutshell ... strands of crackling, scintillating poetry shoot from his mouth five times a minute like sequined rubber bands. He doesn't have to work at being a smart ass, it just comes naturally - the secret dream of all writers.

According to wise Wikipedia, critics apparently feel Playback is his worst novel, which made me eager to read it immediately after finishing The Big Sleep, if only to form a basis of comparison - to plant the poles, so to speak. And I loved it. It meandered into strange places only tangentially related to the plot, it allowed minor characters to dominate entire chapters with their own voice, and in the end the book's central mystery wasn't so much a mystery as a misunderstanding. It's as if Chandler was retiring the genre altogether, with Marlowe slipping away into a sustained fantasy. The woman calls, the music swells, the whiskey is wet and it burns on the way down. Last time, with feeling.

16 March 2010

Tale of A Part-Time Supplemental Extra, Part VII

Opening night, at last. The theater is bustling from the box office to the bar, teeming with subscribers in their in their Wednesday’s best. I dress more quickly than usual and bolt into the lobby, sinking into a desperately demure stance the first time my eyes meet a real patron. It’s an involuntary reaction, a sort of shy restlessness on my part. I am simultaneously brimming with desire to pull off the gag and almost totally convinced that everyone is already in on the joke. It’s hard not to feel that I am giving off some obvious signal, spoiling the joke before I’ve told it. Am I glowing, or blinking, or grinning too broadly? What?
I loiter for as long as possible tonight before tiptoeing down to B9, having been told a few nights before by a Rep staffer that I “was an obvious plant” because I was one of the first people seated, and sitting alone to boot. It’s an unnecessary precaution today, though. People have taken their seats early.

Tale of A Part-Time Supplemental Extra, Part VI

The preview shows run smoothly. I begin to notice a pattern in the audience’s reactions to my exit and Thom’s subsequent tirade. They come in two basic flavors, a camaraderie that strengthens or dissipates when Todd let’s the French fly. Each time I rise from my seat, I imagine a few hundred stomachs flipping in unison, and for those first few seconds I’m the biggest asshole in the room. But once the audience hears that invective—“Au Revoir, Cunt!”—there are only two basic reactions: Guffaws or Gasps, the behaviorist equivalent to a Yea or Nay vote.

Tale of A Part-Time Supplemental Extra, Part V

On the evening of the first official preview, the audience is made up primarily of college students and friends of the cast and crew. Most of the students have come from Cornish, a local art college, and they’ve scattered themselves evenly throughout the theater, but none happen to be sitting in my row. Smooth sailing tonight, but there will be no foils to my hidden performance either—no witnesses to my ruse unless I attempt something bolder, with more visual flair. As soon as I am settled, I stir up a melodramatic fatigue that consists of me repeatedly dropping my head forward in drowsy, stuttering steps, before snapping suddenly awake. Yawn and repeat. But no matter how dedicated I am tonight, it borders on vanity to believe that someone is actually watching me closely enough to elicit anything from me other than passing amusement. It’s a strange feeling to be a qualified nobody with the largest secret in the room, acutely aware that in just fifteen minutes I’ll be the center of some unsavory attention. Like some horrible accident I have been warned about, but cannot avoid, my destiny is not open for debate and of no interest to anyone.

Tale of A Part-Time Supplemental Extra, Part IV

Over the next couple nights my rehearsals are rote, while those performing real jobs barely have time to stand still before some tumult pushes them forward again. I tell no one of my pre-show fluffing scheme to subtly grease this drama’s wheels before the curtain rises. Whenever I see Todd backstage, I am compelled by a fear of silences to ask him some banal procedural question: am I leaving the theater too quickly? Too slowly? Too late or too early? Todd dismisses every worry with a slight wave and a grin. By the time Wednesday rolls around we’re exactly a week from opening and a single day before our first official preview. But when I arrive I find the lobby teeming with two dozen well-dressed yuppies clutching programs and brimming cups of beer and wine. This, I learn from the house manager, is ‘The Crew’, a boozy cadre of wealthy twenty- and thirty-somethings who pay a fee to slip into the theater prior to the first preview run. My stomach flutters at the sight of them. I hadn’t expected an audience until tomorrow. Tonight will be my first official performance.

15 March 2010

Tale of A Part-Time Supplemental Extra, Part III

Monday. It’s my first day of work, and just ten days from opening. Tonight I meet Todd Jefferson Moore, the man playing Thom Pain. It’s clear the role is in capable hands. At first glance, Todd is an unassuming human creature. Crumbling into middle age, he is slender with the rough bronze patina of a Rodin sculpture. There is an underlying gentleness to him, in the measured lilt of his talk, and his barefoot loping to and fro across the stage. All this subtlety disarms any notion that he contains the oceanic undercurrent of rage that Jerry is determined to tap for this production.

After our initial introduction, Jerry dives back into his work. Lighting cues are still being fussed over, blocking isn’t solid, and Todd’s modish suit hasn’t been wrinkled correctly. Jerry sends his stage manager, Amy, to speak to the costume department. “I want crumpled trousers,” he clarifies. “Crumpled but not violently creased.”

14 March 2010

Tale of A Part-Time Supplemental Extra, Part II

A few days later I’m backstage at the Rep, clomping down a long hallway of concrete and countless metal doors. Every footfall reverberates like a beer cracking open in a cathedral. A woman wearing a limp ribbon of measuring tape around her neck appears from somewhere behind me and scurries past, an emerald green priest’s vestment flapping over her forearm. I follow her to an open door labeled “Wardrobe”, enter, and pause to scan the grid of sewing machine stations filling the room before knocking on the doorframe. By the rear wall, seated at a desk cluttered with pins, papers and bobbins, a young blonde woman in a bright blue jacket and skirt waves and moves to greet me, her grin unwavering. I step into the room to meet her halfway and introduce myself as “The Thom Pain Plant”. She welcomes me, says her name is Shannin, and clarifies my job description: “Technically, you’re a Supplemental Extra,” she says. “It’s an Equity thing.” The redundancy of the phrase is both amusing and deflating.

12 March 2010

Tale of A Part-Time Supplemental Extra, Part I

Fading awake and bleary-brained, I’m on the phone with theater director Jerry Manning and halfway through a yawn when he offers me a part in the new play he’s directing for the Seattle Repertory Theater. Will Eno is the scribe and Thom Pain is the drama, a fresh work just a few years into the wild. Stunning runs in Edinburgh and New York have stirred so much buzz that the west coast wants a shot. Jerry wastes no time selling me his predicament: the show opens in twelve days and he’s man short.

“It’s a rambling seventy minute monologue, basically,” he explains. “A one-man show….”

That’s easy math. I’m one man. But this feels like a set-up. I’m thirty-one and haven’t acted on a stage since the eleventh grade, ticking and stuttering my way through one of the lead roles in a forgettable nineteen-forties parlor farce. What misprint on fortune’s call-sheet has dumped this honor on me? But Jerry insists: “You’re perfect for this.”

Hello World

Here I hide things in plain sight.
Here I hide things in plain site.