84 – Eveline

(So fair warning, I’m gonna spoil the shit out of Pippin Barr’s “Eveline” as well as a bunch of James Joyce’s Dubliners. Play the first and come back–it’ll take you about five-ten minutes–and read the latter in your spare time if you want something draining and kind of depressing to read.)

Oh boy did I do the High Modernism thing in college: I’ve read every one of Virginia Woolf’s novels, I can speak fluently about Katherine Mansfield, and oh God, I’ve read Ulysses. I was that asshole. My advisor, itching for an excuse to reread it, offered to read Finnegans Wake with me and count it as my master’s thesis, and while I ultimately chickened out, I seriously considered and vaguely regret not taking her up on the offer.

So, oh hell yes was Pippin Barr’s “Eveline” Definitely My Jam. You’re cast as an aspiring writer who’s finally going to do it: You’re going to spend three hours every morning writing, and when you complete that short story that’s bursting to get out, you’re going to call a literary agent and start your career. And so you sit down at the typewriter, and you the player bang on the keys like an infinite number of monkeys and a story appears. You can distract yourself–looking out the window, reading a copy of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, gazing at a plant–but the focus is on the story you’re typing up.

And I must admit that it took an embarrassingly long time to realize that the story you’re typing up is “Eveline” by James Joyce. I mean, it’s there in the title, right? What, at first glance, appeared to me, since I wasn’t really reading it, to be a hilariously laser-sharp parody of bad, self-conscious literary fiction turned out to be, you know, one of my favorites of Joyce’s stories.

“Eveline” comes to us from Dubliners, which is the first of Joyce’s four major works and his most accessible work. Instead of the ridiculous heights that his language eventually would achieve–making up words based on puns in four different languages, depicting thoughts in rambling, pages-long paragraphs, structuring chapters like catechisms–Dubliners is written in fairly straightforward prose. In many ways, its influence is so widespread that its innovations are taken as standard today. Writers like Joyce and Woolf, inspired in part by the advent of psychology, shifted the focus of their novels from descriptions of the external to portrayals of the interior self.

That focus on the inner worlds of characters was fairly revolutionary in the early part of the 20th century, but seems pretty natural, even slightly boring if you’re reading it today. Dubliners has one theme, hit over and over: Dublin is a city of losers, is a city that has beaten down these people so much that they don’t even realize that they’re losers. It’s, as you can imagine, a heartbreakingly sad work about broken people trapped in their situations and unable to take the steps necessary to get out, or even to imagine the ways in which they can.

My favorite, “A Painful Case”, is a perfect example: A lonely man meets a woman who’s in a loveless marriage–the kind where there isn’t even enough passion between them to have feelings of hostility. The two are kindred spirits: they bond over art and music and politics, and begin to spend a lot of time together, something her husband actively encourages. (Essentially, the romantic side of their relationship is so nonexistent that he’s simply happy that she’s found a friend.) When she indicates a desire to move their relationship to a deeper level, however, the man freaks out–over What People Will Think if he has an affair with a married woman, over his own morality, over his own stupid fears of what it might mean–and cuts off contact with her. Years later, he finds out that she reacted to that by turning to drink, and ultimately walked into the path of a train–and of course it’s ambiguous and irrelevant whether or not it was an accident or suicide. The man realizes what he did to her, and the happiness that both of them would have had had he been bold enough to pursue the relationship, and that he threw away the one person who ever loved him for the stupidest of reasons.

It’s that kind of book.

And so Joyce’s “Eveline”, the story you’re typing up in Pippin Barr’s game, is also about missing that chance, this time focusing on a young woman or not to run away with her sailor boyfriend and get on the boat that’s going to Take Her Away From All This–All This in her case being her sickly, alcoholic, abusive, asshole father, her rundown apartment, her crappy job. It’s a dramatic scene–the boat about to leave, her terror at leaving matched only by her terror at staying–and ultimately she decides not to go: She promised her dying mother she’d keep the family together, after all, and her father was nice to her once or twice, and she just can’t let him rot by himself, and who will take care of the little ones? She will be stuck in this life.

And yet Eveline is in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation, because, well, it doesn’t look that great for her and her boyfriend, really. “I know these sailor chaps,” her father says when he forbids the relationship–and there’s a strong implication that this is a case of a rotten husband smelling his own kind. Her boyfriend’s plan is to take her to his apartment in Buenos Aires, where they’ll live, but he’ll be off at sea and leave her alone to take care of the house and the inevitable children, and when the passion cools, there frankly isn’t that much to stop him from simply abandoning her when he’s done. That Eveline isn’t the only girl he’s done this with is certainly on the table.

In a way, it’s an odd choice for Barr to have as the centerpiece of his game. There is, perhaps, a bit of a fuck-you involved in it: Until a couple of years ago, Joyce material was under copyright and jealously maintained by his grandson Stephen, whose death legions of literature students will cheer. Joyce’s works are in the public domain now, however: Barr’s “Eveline” could technically not have been legally made a few years ago. Any use of Joyce in so extensive a fashion has a bit of that resonance.

But Barr’s writer protagonist–aren’t they kind of faced with a Joycean epiphanic challenge too? Here they are, ready to make the transition from amateur to Real Writer. A schedule: A goal: A plan. A lot is riding on this short story: It is the key to their future.

That the inevitable punchline is the literary agent telling you not to ever call again because you submitted a hundred-year-old James Joyce story as your own–well isn’t that a sign that this character’s unable to break out of their life? The desire is there, but the talent and creativity isn’t.

I’m getting to a point in my own writing where I’m beginning to make those first vague steps to cross the boundary from barista-with-a-journal to an actual honest-to-Goodness writer. Stephen King says that you become a successful writer when you send something in to someone, they give you money for it, and that money pays the light bill, and that literally started happening to me this year. I’ll still need a day job–I’ll probably always need a day job, because let’s be honest with ourselves, none of us are going to earn a real living on game development or criticism because the money ain’t there–but shit, it’s a nice boundary to have crossed.

But, like, I’ve been the character in Barr’s “Eveline” so many times myself. I think every writer gets to that point: You decide to set aside a time and schedule to write, you’re going to be serious, you bang out your story, and it turns out to be derivative and boring and unpublishable. No, I’m not a *hugely* successful writer–yet?–but I’ve bought myself food, pot, and a couple videogames from my writing, and that’s pretty nice.

See, what keeps Dubliners from being a whole total drain of a book–story after story about losers condemned to loserdom–is the final story, “The Dead”, which is usually considered not only one of Joyce’s finest moment but one of literature‘s. We follow a man named Gabriel as he attends his family’s Christmas party and silently judges everybody; in the end, his wife tells him a story about an old boyfriend that he never heard before and slowly begins to realize that he’s kind of a douchebag: He’s a pompous ass who’s detached from Ireland and family, whose visions of himself don’t match up to reality–but who’s still married to a loving woman, who has a healthy and alive family, and who just needs to pull his head out of his ass and be a better person. What happens to Gabriel Conroy isn’t nearly as dramatic as what happens to Ebeneezer Scrooge, but then again, his sins aren’t nearly as grandiose–he’s not cruel or heartless, he’s just kind of a self-involved buffoon. In general, the stories in Dubliners are structured with the characters representing various stages of life–early stories are about children, then progress to stories about teenagers and youth, then into adulthood and middle age. The affirmations of life at the end of The Dead certainly suggest that, as many people who are crushed and defeated by Dublin, there are those that it strengthens and who manage to transcend it.

And so, your wannabe writer protagonist in Barr’s “Eveline” will not be so easily dissuaded by one rejection. Why, maybe the problem was that you weren’t thinking big enough! Now that you’ve got a short story under your belt, a novel will be easy. And so you go back to the typewriter, and while I expected to bang out something about a moocow or stately plump Buck Mulligan or even the riverrun past Eve and Adam’s, what your writer protag decides to write, as the game fades to black: “Call me Ishamael.”

I doubt I need to point out the resonances in having “your” novel be about a man who destroys himself and nearly everybody around him in pursuit of an obsession.

I guess the note I want to end on is that–okay. Barr’s work gets kind of academic, very gamey, which is one of the reasons I love his stuff–generally there’s a lot of deconstruction of mechanics and all of this stuff I only vaguely understand, and there’s probably some of that going on here too. All of these themes I’m picking up on, the affinities with Joyce’s work–you know, that’s part of the point of the game. But, like so many of Barr’s other games, I can’t stress how fucking funny I found “Eveline”. You see its punchlines coming from a mile away, and yet Barr’s comic timing means that builds up anticipation for the joke. If the joke is built on a foundation of literary resonances, well, I think that just makes the joke better.

Like–Finnegans Wake, right? Most people consider it incomprehensible, and the papers written around it, like most academia, often represent a weird kind of pissing contest where people desperately want to prove to each other that they actually read the damn thing. Joyce himself joked that he put enough stuff in the novel to keep professors busy for “centuries”. There are people who consider the entire novel to be an elaborate prank, that it’s a meaningless pile of half-words, that the emperor has no clothes–an equal, death-of-the-authory school of thought that doesn’t care whether it’s a joke or not because there’s meaning to be gotten from it.

As for me? Finnegans Wake took ten years to write, and there’s a running gag in lit departments that it takes ten years to read. Certainly you’ve got to either get an advanced literature degree or do the equivalent amount of reading on your own to be able to have a hope in hell of making sense of its many allusions. It helps to know a shitload about Irish history and mythology. And if you’ve got a few languages under your belt, so much the better.

I mean, I don’t know about you, but that’s one of the funniest jokes I’ve ever heard.

73 – #altgames and Fear of Twine

I wrote Zest with the help of lectronice and PaperBlurt and released it under the name Fear of Twine. We wanted to release under a band name of sorts, and after a few failed attempts decided that the potential confusion would be funny: Fear of Twine was the name of a Twine exhibition I curated last year. We talked about the idea of expanding it into a sort of loose collective, about other projects we could do together under the name–and if those went nowhere, it’s because we all got distracted by shiner projects.

(That we were releasing Zest in the Interactive Fiction Competition, which has a fairly complex relationship with Twine, was part of the impetus for the name: Never let it be said that Blurt, lectro and I aren’t cheeky.)

lectro and Blurt were the first people I noticed to use the hashtag #altgames to talk about their stuff. It’s a logical term: Indie and Alternative, in music, are two ways of talking about roughly the same aesthetic, and while genre scholars will certainly weigh in on the formal differences between the two–a conversation that, as a musician, I’ve had many, many times in smoky basements and will again until the day I die–for our purposes, they’re just different decades’ words for the same thing. #altgames comes with the understanding, as well, that Indie has become meaningless–it covers both Double Fine and bedroom games. There’s even a tinge of success that Indie implies–that, even if you’re not exactly making your rent payments, you’ve got enough Patreon subscribers to help you afford to go to GDC where you show off your game to people who are interested in it.

One of my big challenges has been keeping my eyes on my own paper; I don’t know if this is a universal thing, although I suspect it might be, but it’s certainly something I have in common with most of my friends. It seems everyone I know is either bitter or naive, or, hell, both. I don’t know anyone who’s making a Minecraft clone but I see so many of them in Early Access on Steam and I can completely imagine their mindset: This is popular, I can make a better one and make even more money–and, inevitably, Why am I not as successful as notch, that piece of shit in his goddamn mansion.

I mean, can I point out that most of my friends are Twine devs or otherwise working in extremely niche forms? There is no money to be made in niche game forms. And every single one of us is bitter: About the lack of attention, about our relative successes, about the fact that we aren’t satisfied with what we’re doing. And that you’re a heretic if you express doubt. I remember I said, at IndieCade 2013, that “there’s no money in indie games” and three devs I’d been having a pleasant beer with suddenly snapped: What about Minecraft? What about Braid? What about Fez? It’s considered almost offensive to question the premise that anyone can be a successful game dev. But it’s a lie. Anyone can form a band, but you’re probably not going to be even a minor rock star. How many of us with creative writing degrees sold that novel? How many famous actors do you know? How many high school football players play professionally?

Indie games feels like a club we’re not allowed into. And we are tired of seeing the same people insist, time and time again, that it’s not a clique; of hearing people with dozens more followers than us talk in interview after interview about the lack of attention paid them–and when you consider how unusual notch’s case is, that even the most successful #altgames devs aren’t making much money at all, you can’t blame them for feeling like they’ve been sold a bill of goods even as they’re selling it right back to the next tier. Let’s stop bullshitting ourselves and fucking admit it, cards on the table: No one in indie games is happy or satisfied or having a good time.

I mean, really: Are you?

The arguments about #altgames that I woke up to this morning on my twitter feed: What I am hearing are the sounds of yet another meaningless pissing contest–Game scene politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low. My understanding is we’re arguing about people arguing about whether or not they’re #alt enough, about the money that you can or can not make in #altgames, about who has the right to use the term. To take a cue from Orange is the New Black, we’re trying to strangle people so we can sell mascara in prison.

I’m thirty two fucking years old and I could not find this funnier. Over the past few years  I’ve meditated a lot, smoked a lot of grass, gotten a prescription for antidepressants, dropped acid and yelled at my reflection in the mirror, made some new friends–it’s been a lot of work to get even this much perspective, and I still find it remarkable how awful I feel when I think about stuff like GDC or whatever. I don’t have it in me to do the con circuit, I don’t even want to do it, if being a game developer means doing that shit all the time then I’m taking my ball and I’m going home.

Here’s the secret: Everybody feels left out. Nobody is happy. I’m friends with a bunch of people at different levels of success, guys making Twines in their bedrooms, people whose games have won awards–and they’re all lonely. Maybe it’s inherent to the game developer experience. There’s an alienation to developers that a lot of musicians have too–that most artists have. You don’t get good at playing guitar unless you spend a lot of time practicing. Hell, if I had been the type of person who wanted to go to parties and who got invited to them, I wouldn’t have had the time to learn to play. If you love games enough that you want to make them–and that your games are idiosyncratic and niche–then it’s not unlikely that you spend a lot of time alone, playing or writing. That’s what I do.

There was a bunch of all of that going around when I did the Fear of Twine exhibition–an element of I’m gonna throw my own party and it’ll have better music and a dog. I’m a little heartbroken at everyone who feels left out of the indie scene, of #altgames, of Twine, and I see how upset everyone is that the indie scene, that #altgames, that Twine completely ignores them.

So the only way I can think of to clean up my street corner is to basically open up my house and pray no one breaks my TV or anything. I’ve got this Fear of Twine name and I want to do something with it. I want to see if I can turn Fear of Twine into that loose collective in a way which is inclusive. I think there could be some basic guidelines about how to credit things and stuff like that, but beyond that, if you want to declare your game as a Fear of Twine game, you can.

In terms of intent, I’d like this to be a club in which membership is entirely self-determined. I don’t want people to be arguing over whether someone’s game is FoTty enough or whether they’re really a member–fuck that. I want this to be something that you almost agree to a certain behavioral standard–in other words, if another Fear of Twine member gives you the secret handshake, you’re friends.

This is, of course, utterly impossible, and is either going to fail from not enough people being interested or from too many people doing it and this going the way of all groups–as Carlin says, after a while groups of people formed around a common purpose start to get these nifty hats and armbands. I reserve the right to shut this down when it gets to the armband phase. It’s an experiment.

What I’m thinking in terms of guidelines are something like this:

–It’ll have to be in Twine. Naturally. Whatever that means is up to you, I don’t care about version or genre or anything, but it’s just got to have been created with Twine at some point and running in an .html file at the end.

–I’d like to restrict this to unreleased works, just because that makes more sense to me logistically; if you’re expanding or rereleasing something, we can talk.

Now I will be making an exception for Zest, since that was released under the name. I’m going back and forth about whether I want to include the games from the FoT exhibition or keep that as a separate thing; I might also want to talk to Blurt and lectro and see if they want to include some of their stuff…I guess basically I’m saying that initially there will be some exceptions to this rule–I’d like to start with a few works in the catalog so it doesn’t look empty, frankly–but it’s my house and I’m allowed to do that and you probably won’t be one of them. We can still be friends.

–If you want to put a game under the name, drop me an email. I’ll be putting up a main page on fearoftwine.com that’ll list all the games, maybe give them a catalog number so it’ll seem fancy, maybe put up a description, I’m a little fuzzy on this right now but I’ll come up with some general info.

–I don’t want to host anything but I’ll link to it. Drop me a line if you change where it’s being hosted.

–I don’t care if this is something you’re releasing for free in a Dropbox link or if it’s something you’re selling on Itch. I will, of course, not take any money you make.

–I’ll work on the language, but there will be need to be something along the lines of “Fear of Twine presents…” or “by Fear of Twine” on the title page or first screen, and authors credited separately. I would like there to be an About page with a link to the fearoftwine.com site, but this is all boilerplate that we can figure out later.

–If you’re a Tweeter, I’d probably like you to use the #FoT hashtag as much as humanly possible.

–I’m serious about the secret handshake, though. I know a lot of people on Twitter and in the community feel very–uncomfortable around strangers, let’s say. People worry about randos in their mentions, people worry they’re not good enough to talk to other people–it’s stupid and understandable. So I guess I’m gonna be open to anyone who approaches me, and I want it to really feel like if you’ve got a game in Fear of Twine, that you can talk to anyone else who does. Maybe it’s as simple as “you both know me, now play nice”. Consider it a letter of introduction.

–I’m not going to be curating this in any way beyond updating the list. I don’t want to be in the business of deciding what does and does not belong on the list. Listen: If you’re sending something in, make it a serious entry, don’t be an asshole or an idiot, just be an adult. You know how you’re supposed to act and so do I. So let’s act like that, I guess.

–Showing a version of this to a couple people, the idea of a forum was floated around, as well as some kind of moderation.

Like I said, I don’t want to be in the business of gatekeeping, but at the same time I can totally get that we don’t want troll entries (at the same time as I realize that the concept of a “troll entry” is a nebulous term and that while I think there’s a sniff test for them, I’m not sure if that’s enough). I know I full stop don’t want to do something like “well we can have the members vote on it!” because, well, you know, and I *really* don’t want to do something like finding a subsection of people to make these decisions, because that’s falling headfirst into the problems we’re trying to avoid. Any thoughts?

A forum will be easier–if there’s enough interest, I’d be happy to look into one. There’s a few options: We could do an entirely private forum limited to people who have Twines in the collection; we could do one limiting FoT people to post but which is open for people to read; we could have a completely public forum, a public forum with a FoT section–there’s basically a lot of options; either way I would probably assume this would be something for the future–nothing worse than a forum no one posts in–but it’s something I want to keep in the back burner.

 

That’s basically where my head is at on this. Don’t take any of this as set in stone or anything, but is this the kind of thing any of you readers would be interested in? Do you have any ideas, or spot any potential problems I can’t?