Tuesday, 18 August 2015

After Icarus

I don’t remember how I found the Princess’ Slide secret level in Mario 64. It’s something like seventeen and a half years since I did. I don’t remember specifically my first time going down the slide, either, but only because the thousands of rides I took all blur together a bit. I can’t quite remember every twitch of the way down anymore, but I rode that slide a lot.

On Marble Blast Gold, years later, there were two levels that started you off on a steep slope, and carried on straight down. Stopping was not possible. I played those levels a lot, too. There, there was the added advantage of an odd physics simulation that meant that at high speed, if you clipped an edge you went bouncing all over the place, faster than the eye could track.

There’s something similar in some of the set pieces in the 2D Sonic games, preprepared paths that move you fast enough to leave the camera trailing behind, that let you move in a way that feels effective but still chaotic. It’s like moshing – you can’t control where you go, but you have to do something, you have to be active, to participate.

In fact, the closest experience I’ve had in real life to the experience I’m poking at here was on a dance floor, back in the days when I wasn’t so elbow-conscious. Something loud and embarrassingly teenage, probably by Linkin Park or Disturbed, came on along with the strobe and suddenly the whole dancefloor was an indistinct mess of limbs. It was too dark to tell which way was up, or where anyone was coming from. There was movement and a sense of urgency, without any room for analysis or anxiety.

I feel like that hasn’t been available so much in more recent video games. Even when games are about movement, they tend to be about movement as mastery of a space, with the penalty for bad movement being death. You see this in games like Super Meat Boy, Escape Goat 2 and even something as simple as Geometry Dash. Staying in control is essential; these games won’t do anything for you the way Sonic used to, and their tracks don’t have walls like that Mario slide.

These are games that you practice. They reward the development of a particular skill on a very even curve. They’re a manifestation of what Austin Walker called ‘the new power fantasy’, mastery not by cheat or shortcut but mastery earned as a benefit of a just world. Harsh as the games often seem, they come with an idea of fairness that’s completely at odds with reality, completely artificial.

It’s a fairness we’d like to believe in[1]. It’s also an idea that flatters our egos as players and manipulates our behaviour as consumers[2]. And I would argue that it harms us directly, as well as manipulating us and squashing our experiences. Hegemonic culture – toxic masculinity, white supremacy, gender binarism and ableism – is built centrally on an idea of mastery. It is the idea that one should be master of oneself in a particular repressive way.

I’ve written at length before on the harm this has done to me, and I’m much more a perpetrator than a victim. Hegemonic culture thrives on the idea that everything that cannot be quantified must be controlled and suppressed, which slides quickly into the totalising idea that every weakness, no matter how transient, is failure.

And those of us who enact and sustain hegemonic culture are fragile for this reason. When something challenges our conception of ourselves as masters, as paragons, we descend quickly through snappish retort and into outright violence, both in rhetoric and often physically. The mere hint of a failing is enough to crack us open and let bursts of toxicity splatter everything we touch.

None of which is new, all of which has been articulated better by cleverer people than me. But the more I think about it in the context of my relationship to video games, the more troubled I become by the latter. Games seldom tolerate failure; it is the bookend of the experience, not a phenomenon to be investigated in and of itself.

Failure is bound up with ideas of blame and responsibility. So, too, is conventional thought about moral choice – but not in video games. In games, we think of choice and action as things without responsibility, their consequences sealed away within the magic circle of the virtual. In video games, failure is about frustration and fairness, and (in at least my case) the occasional flight of a controller across a room.

There is a disconnect there. I say this not to make a moral or sociological claim about games – though I realise I’ve flirted with both. I say it to define an area of interest, to make a statement of intent. I want to make games that address responsibility, that create and explore failure without frustration, that do away with concerns of fairness altogether[3].

There’s an element of meditation in this, too, or maybe self-directed therapy. The problem with fragility is that it makes us dangerous to those who step up to shake us out of our obliviousness. We need to find ways to address our own blind spots before we can open up enough to others to be safe for them to even try to help.

Social relationships are the epitome of what cannot be mastered. You can’t, in the sense I’m talking about here, perfect your control of another human. There are no speed runs for people, no perfects, no Big Boss Ranks. Intimacy requires something that might be called cooperation, or concession, or submission – I’m not sure what the best term is, it’s something I’m very bad at.

I don’t want to blame games for that, though I think they may not have helped. I want to believe they can help, though.

I am starting with a game of falling. This is not a subtle subversion – if a quintessential moment in video games is Mario jumping over a pit, where jump and pit are precisely calibrated to match, falling down the pit is a quintessential failure.

So my game is called After Icarus:

It’s going to be another month or two before I can release (depending when I’m able to get some music recorded), but it should be ready by winter. In the meantime, please follow @everaftericarus and I’ll try to provide at least occasional updates (of course, if I fail I guess I can at least claim thematic consistency…).

[1] Please support Jackson

[2] Please support Lana Polansky

[3] Which is not to say that I want to make unfair games. ‘Fairness’ is neither a neutral nor an objective concept. The rhetoric of fairness in games often serves the most toxic elements of the community, those who demand inaccessibility and pour scorn on those denied access by it. I want to make games that no-one even tries to assess the fairness of.

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