I probably will not have time to finish Quadrilateral Cowboy, which makes me a bit sad, so I decided to post on it before my memories of the game fade. It was released in 2016 by Blendo Games, and feels like a beautiful blend of an alternate cyberpunk universe, the one that Gibson might have written post Pattern Recognition.
My thoughts on it follow:
- The game is 2D, sort of, and these screen shots show, and I have not played a game where my avatar looks so unusual. Blendo Games, which is really just Brendan Chung, has developed some off-the-wall shtuff, but this one has an aesthetic that is about as close to what I imagine the dataverse looked like to those of us who survived cyberpunk in the 1980s as is possible. The game goes out of his way to show the player-character when at least I was least suspecting it, through blocky shadows and sudden reflections in mirrors.
- The game’s landscape also felt very dataversian in its complete lack of other people, except for those in your hacker hangout. I robbed houses, stole courier packets from trains, and entered ventilation ducts, and all the time I saw no one. When I died, I was killed by a stationary sentry gun set in the ceiling, or by running out of air on one mission in space.
- Even the houses of the folks whose stuff I took were clean, corporately-sterile, with no sign of habitation aside from furniture that looked as if it could still be in its plastic wrap.
- Even though the player can die, there is no other violence. I was excited to get a gun, even if I couldn’t pick it up and shoot it like a hand cannon, only to find out that it shot bean bags that could be used to trip levers. Damn – no body count here.
- Chung has said in interviews (consult the wikipedia page for direct sources) that he wanted to make a game that helped people understand what it takes to be a hacker without having to code. I picked up on that, and I found that I had to think about the puzzles in very different ways than other games required me to think. I don’t usually enjoy puzzle solving games, but this one had me hooked because the puzzles were ingenious but somehow useful.
- Perhaps they felt useful because we as hackers got paid. By who was never made clear.
- I did feel a bit off put by the linearity of the narrative. The game is absolutely not a sandbox – there’s no place to go, a function I am guessing of both the lack of programmers to add more space and an adherence to the dataverse, full of heavily protected data in the cyberpunk ecosystem.
- This linearity reminded me a bit of the game I’m trying to finish now, What Remains of Edith Finch, which is just as linear from a narrative standpoint but restricted in different ways.
- At some point I will need to think about what these sorts of borderless boundaries mean for game worlds…
- As a fan of the Sprawl trilogy, I enjoyed how this game invoked the Gibsonian conception of cyberspace. It felt intensively machine-drawn, with clean shadows and no dirt whatsoever (even in the air ducts the player crawls around in).
- Again, it felt all very intentionally machine-drawn, a beautiful contrast to the nastiness of the outside world in Gibson’s Sprawl. It almost felt as if the machines that drew it were trying to either make humans feel comfortable or ignoring them completely.
- The only messy spaces were ones players share with their fellow hackers, all of whom look vaguely Japanese and none of whom really interacted with the player-character.
- And the player-character is definitely in the machine – you simply appear and disappear as if you hooked a ride in a Star Trek transporter.
- Unfortunately, there were no malevolent AIs. Even the corporations we rob didn’t seem evil, just sort of negligent for leaving all these holes in their security. I’m not sure what styles of security the game is designed to present for circumvention – it’s clearly set in 1980, as a banner tells us early on, but there are space stations that we have to hack as well.
- The aesthetic also felt vaguely as if I was an analog remnant of an increasingly digital world, but that might be other work of mine bleeding into this one.
Reading this article from Game Studies forced me to think about rules, and the game that I have played recently that seemed most obsessed with rules from a narrative standpoint is The Detail. I won’t go into all the caveats I already discussed about the game sort of sucks (just recall that it wasn’t finished because the developers lost funding), but I hope that one piece of the narrative that definitely would have changed was the ending, which was rushed beyond belief.
Perhaps the biggest impact that The Wire as a series had on me was its willingness to show how everyone is compromised – the police and city government and those who are supposed to be righteous as well as those who are taking advantage of the demand around them in order to improve their own socio-economic standing. The feeling of injustice that happens at the end of the first season when one Barksdale is given a reduced sentence and the police and city council get their pictures in the paper with news of a huge drug bust that we as viewers know was compromised and much less than it could have been felt devastating, as did the union boss’s death at the end of the second season. There is no true justice is an important part of the message of the best of these types of detective fictions.
The Crime Board – know your rules
Rules happen within games, too, and part of the dismay I felt about watching The Detail run off the rails happened when the detectives stumble upon a torture scene. That attempt to make the criminals look less than human was too obvious, too clearly set within a rule set that says that bad guys must do really bad things. This sort of easy moralizing was something that The Wire intentionally avoided.
Gaming Globally (edited by Nina B. Huntemann and Ben Aslinger) was recommended to me by a friend after I expressed interest in better understanding the increase in game developers in Latin America and Africa, and it was well worth the read. It will serve, I am guessing as a baseline for the kind of research and development that lots of game developers are interested in promulgating.
- The editors make clear that they do not assume that all readers believe that gaming is global – they argue that games are transnational as well as multi-platform, media, etc. Making the argument to me feels necessary, not just because game discussion is almost entirely north- and west-based, but also because making the argument in this fashion helps match the urgency that developers in countries outside of the U.S., Europe, and Japan feel.
- They note that Japanization is as powerful as Americanization in the global game market. I was reminded of this phenomenon this morning when a former student liked something I tweeted, and upon looking at his timeline I discovered that since graduation he has discovered anime.
- The format of this book is a bit different, as they offer the standard academic essays but add what they call snapshots, three-four page looks at very specific times or places based on themes.
- The amount of research in this is staggering. Once again I am reminded of my inability to speak another language, let alone read it an academic level.
- Among the many chapters one that struck me was one that talked about game development and programming under the old Iron Curtain. My fascination with 80s anti-fascist and anti-Soviet eastern Europeans and Latin Americans continues…
Moretti is a Cal Berkeley economist who studies the ways that labor markets develop (and move) across different geographical regions. The New Geography of Jobs is loaded with economic breakdowns of the forces that have caused American cities to either prosper or falter economically.
- Moretti is way smarter than I am, and is very comfortable with the macro-economic analyses that have a lot to say about the ways in which American labor markets move and grow. His holistic overviews make sense, and at a very high level his analysis says a lot about the ways that some communities have continued to attract talent.
- His emphasis on the power of innovation makes sense, especially as currently configured our economy cannot compete with cheaper manufacturing costs. He also makes a point of showing how these sorts of innovation industries (not his phrase, and not a great one) can support a lot of other folks, especially those who are not necessarily innovative themselves.
- He also speaks convincingly about how difficult making the transition for other cities might be – Detroit and Cleveland, for instance, might struggle with developing economies around innovation.
- I struggled throughout this though with the sense that he was making this all sound too easy. That’s not fair – he’s not working with details – but macroeconomic analyses to me often seem so bloodless…
- I am also not sure what to do about rural areas in this configuration. These tend to get relegated to resource extraction/farming areas anyway, and innovation definitely removes jobs.
- Discussions about this sort of look at the future seems especially odd when they do not odd take a larger look at how we pay for things. I struggled trying not to read this discussion through a very specific lens – guaranteed wage, keeping people interested and motivated, and so on…
Part of the attraction from my perspective to Kentucky Route Zero is the sly nods it makes to technological history, especially computer technology of the late seventies up until the ascension of the PC. A couple of quick thoughts on how this all works:
- While these are not necessarily direct comparisons, I see comparisons between the set up of KRZ and the token ring networks of the 70s and 80s. Token ring briefly looked like the next big thing, at least until ethernet technology became perfected and standardized in 1983, and the way that token ring works can be mapped onto the narrative (and hell ludology) of this game I think.
- Token ring is a system of based analog signals. Analog signals, unlike digital, can fade, get noise attached to them (shielded wire can help, but only so far), and thus have been replaced by digital, despite holdouts like Steve Albini. In KRZ, the fading of the orange letters of the cathode ray tube terminal, the in-and-out of signals, and the constant sort of low buzz of technological activity screams an analog universe.
- Token ring was an attempt to create a system that enabled a mainframe to communicate with more than one dumb terminal per port. Before systems like token ring were invented, the mainframe communicated with each terminal via one direct line, a direct line that required a port in the mainframe. Token ring was designed to allow multiple terminals to be on one port. KRZ celebrates that sort of brilliant technical innovation, *especially* when those brilliant technical innovations were quickly passed by other brilliant technical innovations.
- The connections to communication and how we relate to each other are clear, I think, and I’ll puzzle them out as I proceed…
- Token ring was designed to avoid collisions as packets got passed. KRZ can and does have a lot to say about this – the characters who don’t really collide with each other, for instance. The system also sort worked like a shipping network that sent small ships into each port to investigate whether or not the port (terminal) needed data in the packet that was currently waiting. KRZ is full of these packets of data, in delivery trucks and on actual ferry boats, and they are constantly in motion – in fact, the delivery truck has to roll to a stop, obeying the laws of physics (inertia).
As you can imagine, I can do this all day…at this point, I am not sure how useful this connection will be. A potential lack of usefulness does not make the connection not worth observing and documenting.
That’s a high-falutin’ title for a very simple, quick post, but I have been trying to piece this shtuff together today, and had a couple of thoughts:?
- If the digital age gives us the illusion that answers are easy, an illusion propped up by the talking heads on our teevees and the twitters and the facebooks, then why shouldn’t those of us who know nothing about all kinds of things – the lived experiences of those who have far different lives than us, the reality on the ground in far away places – be confident giving these people advice? After all, as those wise people tell us, the answers are right there…
- If we combine this easy access to all the world’s wisdom with what seems to be a code specific to American men – that we must fix things, and can – then the possibilities for a dysfunctional relationship with reality are clear. American men are supposed to make things better, for a whole host of issues, and they often think that they can solve problems that they actually cannot. The ease by which those on teevee and social media do this fits neatly in their own way of thinking.
Is there a solution? Hah – see what I did there? I don’t know, but I am guessing that it starts with what might seem impossible to my generation – embracing teamwork, and collaboration, and borg-like efforts to put many brains on complex problems. We will fail, but we will need to use those failures to keep trying, tweaking gradually, embracing partial solutions and many voices.
I didn’t say it would be easy.
About this article found here…
A couple of thoughts…
- the essay (by James Miller) builds on Judith Butler’s anger at being chosen for a bad writing award, as expressed in an op-ed piece she wrote for the New York Times. She argues (clearly, or as Miller puts it, “defiantly lucid”) for the power of difficult prose as a radical challenge to standard prose forms, among other points.
- Miller uses Butler’s point (and her citing of Adorno’s Minima Moralia) as a jumping off point to look at the twin poles of the argument on political writing on the left. Adorno argues specifically for the use of technical terms and complicated prose that might not be understandable by the lay person as means to challenge capitalist orthodoxies, while Orwell believed in the use of facts as a means of countering political and economic oppression.
- Miller goes through the strengths and weaknesses of each argument, fairly I think, although he comes down on Orwell’s side at the end by noting the long-lasting impact of some of Orwell’s language – hatecrime being perhaps the best example.
- This essay caught my attention because it seems a particularly salient point that comes from a discussion that doesn’t seem to end. I caught it again in this article from the Awl (and if you’re not reading the Awl you should be). And this debate keeps happening in academia, and I keep thinking about as I wonder whether to send students to academic journals, and wonder which ones to read myself.
- The question, of course, is about the specialization of the field, but it also highlights the difficulty in my mind of justifying intellectual work that does not have direct, meaningful impact on people’s lives. I understand the need to be creative and challenging, but the immense privilege of simply being able to think for a living is one that I think points to a position perhaps outside of both Adorno and Orwell (and shows the difficulty of the binary, I think, in that it characterizes political activity or lack thereof in a very limited light).
- If we become this highly specialized, then we must be providing some sort of analysis of the sort that cannot be done elsewhere.
The analysis, I’m hoping, is where we in the humanities become important. Communicating the findings that we come up with, clearly, cogently, challengingly, will be the next part of that battle…