Varieties of Animal Experience (or, 動物クロス Postmodern)

So PBS Idea Channel did a bit about Animal Crossing tying it into Hiroki Azuma's theory of otaku as narrativelessness. I was shocked and not sure how to respond to someone who says Animal Crossing has an "absence of narrative". Or makes the base critical mistake that "the point" of a work is merely one thing that happens in the work. So I snarked and then this happened, and I really don't know how to respond to someone who thinks writing YouTube comments - and therefore reading YouTube comments - is a good use of anyone's time.

But I still feel I owe a response of more than 140 characters, because I think this is a serious issue on a couple axes. It goes beyond just Animal Crossing and into more fundamental issues of what games do and how we talk about them.

Animal Crossing has a narrative. It even has a canonical "story," just not a three-act plot. Everything else in the video falls apart at that one fact. But even ignoring that the analysis is shallow.

Collecting is a thing you can do in Animal Crossing, yes. But while "collecting" is semantically broadened to near-meaninglessness in the video, that still ignores dancing with friends and designing clothes and planning roads and writing letters and rocking out and appreciating artwork and appreciating fake artwork and glitching your way into the river and watching TV and sitting on a stump and just enjoying the 2AM music. And still I wouldn't call any of these things "the point" of the game. (I'm not ready to stake out any claim on that yet.)

Why I am trying to "collect" a villager's picture before they move out? Why am I filling my back room with musical instruments for jamming when friends come over? It's because of the memories of the time I spent in the game and a desire to make more - the narrative - not in spite of it.

I don't want to tell you how Animal Crossing should be played! I just don't want you telling people how it should be played. I will tell you what I get out of playing it, and I want you to tell me what you get out of playing it. This is the difference between the basis of pseudo-science and critical discourse. A personal account is missing from Rugnetta's video and offering an analysis of the play experience sans reference to real player is one of the few wrong ways to do it.1

So the best long-form response I can muster is to continue to document my own experience with the game, and read a diversity of others' experiences. Unlike Rugnetta I'm not universalizing or essentializing mine - it is mine, real but one of many. (I am also not getting paid via YouTube hits.)

Partway through composing this, Gamasutra posted this series of letters between its authors which saves me the effort of writing the second half. There's no better way to highlight the variety of experience - and the shallowness of the one offered by Rugnetta - than an actual discussion around it. Here's what approaching the game with "otaku citizenship" gets you, from Mike Rose:

I was hooked on collecting things and being part of something, and now that that feeling has died off, I can't really see why I was playing it in the first place.

And here's what other approaches get you, from Kris Ligman:

As we become more urbanized and these natural and small-town spaces disappear, we escape to a sort of virtual outdoors out of comfort. In fact, I love how Animal Crossing also serves as a critique of the encroach of modernity...

Or Christian Nutt:

In the end what I am left with is this: how long can this go on? I don't see an obvious end to it. I'm sure it'll taper down and down, but for right now, I've forged a real emotional connection to my game, and I can still see uncharted territory, too.

There's nothing wrong with jumping at collection or stopping a game after two weeks (though like Mike, you might realize in retrospect it was a poor choice). There is something wrong with saying that since you stopped after two weeks, that's all there is to the game. Try actually engaging with it; if you can't do that, don't tell other people what they're doing.

PBS Idea Channel is often social media garbage, more thinkfluencing than thinking.2 So why bother responding? Because it's also getting more attention than, like, any of the other critical writing about Animal Crossing I've linked to. When Warren Spector (or other big-mouthed-dev-of-the-week) says there's no quality mainstream games criticism, this is why. Lazy nerd pop culture callbacks get tens of thousands of views and big branding - more than twice as many as Leigh Alexander's Kotaku post of about the same age, and everything else is on sites much smaller than Kotaku. Thoughtful analysis is buried.

  1. This is a vast oversimplification driven by not wanting to drag in the whole discussion of games-centered criticism vs. player-centered criticism. All I mean here is that if PBSIC wants to do the player-centered approach they're trying to do, they can't ignore the player. 

  2. No better example of this than tip-toeing around offending climate change denialists at the end of the same video. Very "fair and balanced," not at all the PBS science broadcasting I grew up with. 

I played: Problem Attic

I played Liz Ryerson's Problem Attic (play online, direct download, soundtrack, other good music). It's an exploratory platformer and will take most players at least a couple hours to finish. It demands relatively high skill to play. (More than most modern platformers, less than Super Mario Bros.)

It made my laptop draw a lot of power and run very hot. This is probably some issue with Stencyl.

A screenshot of Problem Attic's first level hub

I feel like the game works to defy writing / talking about its contents. Very little is representational. It doesn't offer any text in-game to describe its elements (beyond, for a couple rooms, a pair of letters). Its contents generate descriptors like "the horizontally-controllable crosses" or "the striped alternative foreground" which are meaningless unless you play it, and then you don't need them anyway. It is comfortable being a videogame and uncomfortable being a rules sheet or essay.

Accordingly it asks, but also rewards, a high degree of videogame literacy as you parse out the contents yourself.

There were a few levels that reminded me of other games. One scene in particular dredged up a strong memory of Braid. Several moments were reminiscent of VVVVVV. The game is radically unlike either of these, though.

I think this is an indescribably important game.

Liz Ryerson says the game is "about prisons," which I see, but there was a more personal touchstone for me.1 I have recurring nightmares of forms and queues and a general fear - not just "dislike" but something more visceral - of bureaucracy. Think of the anxiety you get when walking near the edge of a tall cliff; that's a reasonable comparison to how I feel engaging relatively mundane bureaucratic arms like a post office or bank teller.

In Problem Attic I felt less jailed than lost, in the same way I do in those dreams. The environments hinted at an underlying structure / design / purpose which layers of accreted details and incidentals obscured or broke. Navigating something that at first blush looks like unstructured garbage (or worse, parsing out a structure that turned out incorrect), vomitus of numbers and symbols that withdraw while simultaneously demanding engagement. It was the same feeling I got trying to prepare my taxes or my health insurance forms - a fear of being lost in a system just outside my mental grasp.

As a trivial, early, and easily explicable example: Riding the "enemies" that chase you and shake the screen and play discordant noise is key to solving many of the rooms. The only way to succeed is to engage the system despite your ignorance and its apparent hostility.

  1. Which comes with the acknowledgment that the closest I've come to a physical prison is a US CBP waiting room at EWR. If you've never been in either it's probably closer than you think, but still leagues apart. 

The Labelle Litanizer

I made the Labelle Litanizer, a program which generates random Animal Crossing: New Leaf outfits.

Latour litanies confront us with objects in a way that defies our usual methods of grouping or reduction. In a similar way the Labelle Litanizer asks us to consider the possible rather than merely the desirable or expected.

I was surprised at the tonal bluntness sometimes - a hint of disgust in Have you considered a bathrobe?, a winking flirt in Have you considered a pink wet suit, gas mask, and timer? The in-game text often captures this effect too, the "mere" substitution of objects changing the sentence's meaning in ways beyond simple reference. (Take that, positivism!)

Along with the variety it does suggest it's worth noting what the constraints prevent. In Animal Crossing you are forbidden from holding a balloon and an ice cream; a false nose and glasses; two different shoes. Tools (shovels, axes) and toys (balloons, tweeters) are indistinguishable. Eventually every player asks whether Animal Crossing is real play or fake work; this ontography only contributes to blurring that line.

The point of such things is that they mostly speak for themselves, so that's all I'm going to say for now.

Animal Crossing and Living Spaces

I'm playing a ton of Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I don't have a lot to say holistically about it. I'll leave that to Christian Nutt at Gamasutra, and some further insight about what it means for Nintendo vs. what it means for humans from Anna Anthropy's essay at Tiny Cartridge. It's a good game, and a nice game, and cuts broad and deep and expressive, and if you can afford a Nintendo 3DS and the game and you think you might like it, you probably will and should get it.

Like many players I've been rushing to upgrade my house. My main room is at maximum size, as is my second floor, and my left and back rooms have been upgraded. This house is bigger than any I will ever actually own. The rooms all have themes - the left is doubling-down on balloons for HHA points; the back is a music studio full of instruments; the basement is a display for my mask collection.

But actually, the room I've spent the most time organizing is my right-side room, and it's still 4x4.

A blond-haired boy sitting at a go board in a small room

For a game with a reputation for being laid-back and rustic Animal Crossing play is often rushed and concerned with growing, expanding, filling, saturating. This room is a slight push-back against that. It's as small as it can be and the pieces in it, though carefully curated, are also haphazard. The desk is "rococo" but the room lacks ostentation; the lamp "regal" but most of the furnishings are cheap; the stools "modern" but there's no sign of the machined lines and precision bevels we associate with a modern aesthetic.

Despite this mixture the room remains cohesive, cozy, and my main design goal, fictionally functional.

The same boy; a chair is now in front of the small table containing a feather quill and inkpot

Many rooms in New Leaf are designed as set-pieces. Christian's 7-Eleven is a good example here. I don't want to denigrate this kind of design in any way - I'm working on rooms like this myself! - but there's also something about it that rubs me the wrong way. Do you really want an orchestra in your house, or a dinosaur, or a 7-Eleven? What's the role-play going on here - you're playing a fictional character opening a 7-Eleven? You're playing a fictional character playing at running a fake, toy 7-Eleven? The character is "you" playing at running a fake 7-Eleven? All the answers I have bring forward awkward inconsistencies; does the consistency matter at all?1 Even the rooms that are not "play rooms" look more like an IKEA catalog than a lived-in space.

I don't have an answer. I still enjoy doing it at the same time I wonder what, if anything, the play is doing to me.

Again the same room, this time the chairs around the small table with a teapot

This room rejects that view of what an Animal Crossing room "should" be. You can do things in it, not in the sense of "it has lots of interactable objects," but in the sense that you can invite someone in for tea, or a game of go; you can turn on the lamp and pull out the chair and write a letter at night. The game's surface promise of a "virtual life" can occur in this room. It's imbued with the purpose of human living, not theater or bragging. Its composition is dense, suboptimal, and ad hoc.

The same room, the boy standing in the middle; an hourglass rests on the table

Plainly though, that's a lie. It's just as considered and unnatural as any of the other rooms. The "human living" that happens is still only theater when your "human" has no material or psychological needs. The honest natural state of an Animal Crossing room is a pile of fish and bugs and twelve kinds of chairs you're worried you won't be able to reorder later.

But no one - not the HHA, not other villagers, not us - is comfortable with that, either.

  1. This also stands in contrast to a lot of the clothing I see, which are designs the people who make them would love to make and wear in real life, if they had the resources. 

Open Letter to XSEED: Rune Factory 4's Homophobia and Transphobia

At E3 this year you (XSEED) announced a North American release of Rune Factory 4.

Rune Factory and the Harvest Moon series in general has been depressingly heteronormative in most of its entries.1 Marriage is a common element in the games, but it's almost always between a man and a woman. Unlike previous entries in the Rune Factory series RF4 allows you to play as a young woman in addition to a young man. And yet despite this step forward, in this version they've managed to design something even more offensive than just ignorance and erasure.

After you beat the game, you can play as a character of the same nominal gender you played before but with any character model regardless of gender. This means if you want a gay or lesbian relationship, first you need to play through the game as the other gender. Then you can play as the gender you want, while everyone in the game constantly misgenders you.

If there's a mainstream game with a better analogue for how our culture treats transgender and genderqueer people, I've yet to play it. Except it's being sold as a norm-reinforcing funny bonus "feature" rather than an analysis of how awful that is.

XSEED, you've still got a chance to make this right. Throw that out. Let both player characters romance and marry any of the bachelor/bachelorettes. Write dialogue that works for gender-neutral relationships. It's twenty-fucking-thirteen. I'm playing AAA games with gay relationships. I'm playing AAA games with gender sliders. Don't pretend you can roll that back ten years and aren't making a political - and offensive, dehumanizing - statement in doing so.

  1. The two exceptions are Magical Melody where one character, ambiguously gendered, is available for the male and female player characters to marry, and Harvest Moon DS Cute where the mandatory female player character may marry a female character - a welcome change, but also one that felt more like diffusing any concerns a male player might have of "being gay" than a legitimate nod towards alternative relationships. Also, in Save the Homeland and Innocent Life, the mandatory male player can't marry anyone. 

(Some) Writing is Hard (But I'll Keep Trying)

Last month I read this exchange on Twitter between Merritt Kopas, John Brindle, and Porpentine:

I'm under no illusion that they're talking about me - most likely they are not aware of my existence - but writing about the sort of games they make, both to help surface them on my parts of the Internet and to process my experience playing them, was a major impetus for me starting this blog. Many times in my life I've written privately about games that have affected me and I wanted to make some of that public; to improve my own skills and to give what little publicity I could to important yet mostly-invisible games.

So far I've failed. I wrote a lot about Monster Hunter, exactly the kind of game that doesn't need more writing. And I've got a dozen "I played" posts about small games half-written but they're not coming together.

BioShock, and all AAA games, have a glut of symbols outstripping their actual meaning. They are thematically and semantically shallow and that leaves their unanchored signs floundering near the surface for any dumbass critic to come along and write a 10k word middlebrow essay. It's the same problem that plagues their mechanical design - the games are decorated with "content" and "systems," little of which is worth intaking or interacting with; they glitter with references and designators but few point to any objects or events worth noting.

In contrast games like Kopas's A Synchronous Ritual and Porpentine's How to Speak Atlantean are critically difficult. There's precious little visible surface and things are buried deep, but everything you do find is affecting and challenging. Even when the games are lavish - a word I would use to describe about half of Porpentine's games including Atlantean - the lavishness acts like a "here there be dragons" treasure map - Dig at the X, way down. There's gold, I promise, but it's going to take you a while. Oh, and in the same place I've also buried your most erotic fear.

Again I think there's an analogy with the traditional meaning of "difficult games" (e.g. Dark Souls). In a difficult game the player and game negotiate détente. The game promises itself but only once the player offers up part of themselves as well - a piece of procedural memory, a bruised thumb. In a critically difficult game the game reveals itself but the player-critic can't emerge uncritiqued themselves - an acknowledgment of limited personal experience, limited imagination, internalized bigotry, complicity in dangerous systems. (In a, let's call it critically casual game, the player-critic still emerges changed, but in a way that reinforces whatever views they had going in.)

The first essay I wrote intending to publish here (which I still have not done) is about Micha Cárdenas's A Survivor is #Reborn. I have essentially rewritten it three times now and each time one section of it grows: This game is (correctly) calling me out on my blindness to sexism - how can I critique something that has already so effectively criticized me?

So writing about these games is super-hard! At every step you're critiquing yourself and your critique as much as the work in question. That's not a reason to not do it, though. Rather the opposite - it's why we must do it, because this is change we need. We are all starving, and we need to learn to prepare food other than AAA capitalism candy.

I played: Fear Less!

I played Fear Less! by Innomin and atpalicis. It's an endless runner that takes probably 10-60 minutes to "complete" depending on your skill. It deals with nightmares about dying.

I love the visual style. The desaturated palette with big pixels but still relatively high resolution reminds me of Game Boy Color games. The high detail with the simulated pixel grid makes it feel unreal and dream-like.1 The look on the character's face captures exactly a feeling which starts as fear and progresses into defiance without ever needing to change.

There's all sorts of small ways the game puts forward descriptions of fear. The specificity of the skulls with ribbons as passive reminders of your previous attempts. Losing ground by tripping over tombstones, fear of failure leading to failure. Later in the game pacifism is available as a tool of the strong and able compared to violence as a tool for the weak and afraid.

Many games have started including F2P-style "upgrades," usually to a frustrating end - Ridiculous Fishing being a recent high-profile game I thought suffered from its unnecessary slow pacing. This is the first game I recall that uses that upgrade process to tell a story rather than just eat time. (Again, compare Ridiculous Fishing which has a story but upgrades exist only to trigger rather than reinforce it.)

Unfortunately it still has some parts which only exist to eat time. To reach the ending you need to unlock all the medals (achievements) and some of those require failing in specific ways or passing milestones that feel arbitrary. I think it would benefit from removing the achievements and replacing the ending trigger with simply having all upgrades. Flawless running could provide a coin multiplier or speed increase rather than a binary on/off trigger.

  1. A similar effect was used to similar ends in the exploration/horror game Dawning


I made an Emacs mode for editing Pelican blog posts. It can automatically insert the default Pelican headers, update dates, and build and update sites.

Technical Illusions's augmented reality glasses

I can't get excited about Google Glass. The public privacy concerns are too great. The platform is too closed, the software too crappy. The company making it has too patchy a history of support and too disgusting a commercial mandate.

I can't get excited about Oculus Rift. The issues I want to see more game designs tackle right now are ones it makes worse. It's a device that cuts out everyone around you, that makes 25% of people motion sick, that seems basically purpose-built to re-sell the same first-person action games and designs in an era where the usual rasterization improvements have hit diminishing returns. Its backers crow about immersion, but videogame immersion is bullshit. On a purely technical level I care more about color-accurate and high-DPI displays and it's a big step backwards for both these things.

But yesterday Sean Hollister at The Verge interviewed Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson and demoed some new AR glasses from Technical Illusions, a company being described as "spin-off," but sounds more like a cast-off, of Valve.

This is what I want. They don't take pictures. They don't tell me where to go. They don't encourage me to come back to Doom, Team Fortress, or other designs that worked perfectly well on traditional displays. Instead they show me something new; they let me interact in new kinds of spaces with other people; they let people who are not plugged in spectate.

It's actually all in the name, right? They augment my experience. They don't replace it, they don't virtualize it, and they certainly don't "smooth," "simplify," or "filter" it.

Fathers, Daughters, and ROMs

Rachel Weil at Femicom wrote an incisive article about female agency and female-inclusive NES ROM hacks:

I would suggest that the recent popularization of these harassment stories has created a sort of anxiety around men's culpability in these scenarios, and that these pieces on "daddy hackers" aim to relieve this anxiety. They are heartwarming stories that present men as problem solvers rather than problem creators. These men use the technical knowledge that only they seem to possess in order to, as PC Mag reports, "empower female gamers."

It's really cool that these hacks are happening. It's not cool how they're being framed - as an afeminist, male-driven pursuit; a way to defuse concerns about women in nerd culture while still ignoring them. It immediately reminded me of when male progressives in the US talk about issues affecting "our wives, daughters, mothers" - women are liminally present, but they're never the ones speaking and never the ones spoken to.

So here's a list of games hacked to have more women, without any of that commentary, from Pauli Kohberger.

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