13

We’ve been talking a bit on the Electron Dance comments about Edmund McMillen–spurred on by a lot of us finding Super Meat Boy a little too childishly gross to play. Opinions on his other games are mixed, but in thinking about it, his aesthetic is too distinctive to completely dismiss.

I will say that McMillen came off the best in Indie Game: The Commercial–that was certainly very deliberate on the filmmakers’ part, but he really does seem to be an exciteable, overgrown kid who’s made it big drawing funny characters in his notebook, and after all that’s what any of us want out of life, really. He and his (wife?/girlfriend?) remind me of so many people I hung out with in high school and college, and to a lesser extent now, while I don’t really click to his aesthetic, it’s at least an honest and unpretentious one.

I mean, there’s something to be said–one of my songwriting techniques, sometimes, is to imagine myself at 15 years old, where I was a freshman en route for the coveted Most Likely To Be Shoved Against A Locker And Punched In The Stomach By A Wrestler While A Teacher Looks On And Shakes His Head at Morris Catholic High School, angry and confused and hurt and slightly suicidal, and I get on the bus, and I sit, sliding my ass so it’s leaning against the edge of the seat, my torso at a 45 degree angle, my shoulders wedged against the back of the seat, my knees buttressing the whole thing on the back of the seat in front of me, and I take out my CD player, and I put on my headphones, and I hit play. I want to write songs that make that guy okay–that tell him, no, life isn’t shit, these people are shit, and you’re gonna be okay one of these days. I know it’s not trendy to give a shit about teenage boys–we’re being bullied into a slow hatred of them–but I was that guy.

And McMillen was that guy, and IG:TM makes that very clear. Let’s not fool ourselves–we’re all dudes around here, right? I spent my middle school years hanging around AOL and downloading all sorts of weird-ass games, a lot of ZZT stuff, some text adventures, weird BASIC shit–anyone want to start a BASIC revival with me, by the way, because I could probably easily relearn to program in it–and chatting with other lonely, frustrated 13-year-olds, and I don’t know–I don’t think you grow up to hang out in a place like Electron Dance without having spent a good portion of your time in a dark room with a monitor flickering against your glasses.

You know, I’ve just flipped on McMillen’s stuff because, you know, I ultimately think it’s healthy. I’m thinking of the prevailing sentiments in identity politics games or Zinester games or queer games or whatever–I’m not interested in talking much about this any more, because I’ve said ultimately what i need to say about them and I am beginning to find the aesthetic so reprehensible that it should be given as little attention as possible, but I’m beginning to get really sick of games which end with the sentiment “it’s all bullshit”. You’re going to be hated wherever you go, the world will never understand you, you’ll die alone–because I’ve *been* there, maaaaan, we’ve all been there, and that kind of bleak perspective, that “the world is against me” thing is so–well, maybe that’s the real puerile attitude.

I’m tired of well-received, much-discussed, attention-getting works which bemoan how little people will understand the authors, of authors being widely quoted as saying they have no voice and how they’re invisible. I’m goddamn tired of works which have no point beyond, oh poor me. Last night I saw Blake Schwarzenbach of Jawbreaker give a solo performance. Jawbreaker has never been the happiest band, but I love them for Schwarzenbach’s treatment of loneliness and alienation as feelings that are possible to be transcended. The title track of Bivouac has lyrics about isolation and abandonment, and yet it ends in a soaring epic guitar solo. The show last night was all dirges and awkward rambling and, when someone shouted for him to play some fucking music, hostility. I left.

I guess I can’t responsibly look at the world and say that it’s bullshit. Dan Savage’s It Gets Better is really the motto of a lot of the work that I like and create myself. I often say that a lot of works lack perspective; when I read an article by a writer who’s financially independent and yet bitching about Mommy Issues, I get turned off because, come on, you’re *past* that. Look at the shit you *have*. Stop fucking romanticizing depression and get some fucking help. I’m tired of works which are a pornography of self-pity and self-regard. I was once at a poetry reading where a girl read a poem she’d written about how she needed to focus less on herself (irony), and there was one line I particularly liked: “I already live in his head 24 hours a day”–meaning, she’s got an unrestricted, all-access pass to herself and can check in with her thoughts at any time. Focusing so much on herself in her writing and conversation, she seemed to feel, was out of fear that she’d miss something or lose herself. But that was stupid: The hour she spent writing about something outside herself wouldn’t take anything away, and would, frankly, connect her to the larger world. To other people.

So yeah–that’s who McMillen is making games for, the current generation of teenage boys sitting by the glow of their monitors. That is, after all, what Newgrounds is, isn’t it? McMillen was that weird kid sitting by himself, or maybe with one other isolated guy, in the corner of the playground at recess drawing monsters in his notebook, making cool drawings that his parents and teachers would worry about if they saw, not doing well in school because it was all so boring, picked on by the other boys and teased by the girls. He is one of those people whose success suggests that the standard plaudit of “be yourself” might not actually be complete bullshit.

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4

A Zen monk named Phil Fish is rumored to have attained enlightenment, and so the other monks surround him with questions. What’s it like now that you’ve attained enlightenment? And Fish looks up from his work–he is, grain by grain, creating a sand mandala which appears to be a group of tetrads forming the universal om, a mandala which Jonathan Blow and Jason Rohrer will solemnly sweep away later that evening while droqen and Richard Hofmeier nasally chant–and says, casually, I’m just as miserable as ever.

I’ve always found myself extraordinarily perplexed by people who say, about Fez, that it’s such a pretty and beautiful and calming game. I know a lot of people who play it to relax. Look: All games are meditative to me, all games are commentaries on Nirvana (for once I’m talking about the theological concept, not the band), and it’s very easy to see Fez as that, but what I’m struck by is how much, in the world of Fez, enlightenment destroys the enlightened.

Basically, the plot of Fez is that Gomez experiences an encounter with the Divine and brings it back to his village, and his fellow villagers only vaguely believe him at best. The experience with the Divine is not a good one: It causes the symbolic destruction of the universe. Pieces of reality begin falling away and Gomez finds himself desperately journeying everywhere he can to find whatever tiny crumbs of God he still can. This is kind of standard myth-of-the-cave stuff, many videogames have done this, but rarely have I seen such a continued sense of crumbling. Realizing that we’re just made of molecules, that the world is an illusion–I find that Fez is less about saving its world, because its world isn’t real, and more about Revelation Addiction. Gomez is a guy who dropped acid, saw God, and now trips as often as he can in an attempt to get back there.

I find myself wondering what the conversation would be like if Fish and I compared notes on drug experiences.

When I met Amanda Lange at IndieCade East earlier this year, we started talking about Fez, and, feeling clever, I mentioned a certain puzzle I’d head about, considered to be one of the most difficult in the game. Some message board–don’t remember if it was an official Fez one or like a GameFAQs board or something–essentially systematically crowdsourced the solution. Given that there’d been some fourth-wall breaking things in the game–a puzzle solved by scanning a QR code, for example–I had almost wondered if that was intentional. Certainly there’s something kind of poetic about needing to connect with others to attain enlightenment–but probably given where I was in my personal trip through the Eightfold Path, I didn’t exactly want to do that. I didn’t want to join a community just because I wanted to play a videogame–I’ve usually found myself unwilling to participate in online communities.

Oh, she said. I know the puzzle you’re talking about, and actually, if you just look at the clues, you don’t need to crowdsource it, they basically brute-forced it, you can just–and she launched into a brief explanation, culminating with an exhortation to read Flatland–a book I’ve always found to be daunting–and an analysis of Fez as an extended metaphor for a tesseract. From time to time you have a conversation with someone that’s so pleasant and unassuming that it isn’t until you think about it, weeks later, that you realize that this person is not only terrifyingly smart, but they’re also generously smart and that you’ve probably learned a lot from it.

Fish is well known for being dramatic and antagonistic; frankly, I adore his online persona, and his tortured “if I don’t make this game I’m gonna kill myself” pronouncements in Indie Game: The Movie were one of the few things that made it worth watching. Yes, people might rightfully call Fish a drama queen–but you know what? I’m a musician, rock and roll is lousy with tortured, antagonistic drama queens. (Case in point: I’m listening to Nirvana, the band, right now; a man, who killed himself a year later, is commanding me in a raspy scream to rape him.) They’re what makes music awesome, and if there’s one thing indie gaming needs, it’s more rock stars.

Hell: Play the game. Say what you want about it–and I don’t even think I like the game–it’s a disturbingly brilliant work. I’ve always had trouble connecting to Fez–I don’t think like it does. And yet it’s obvious that the game is an intensely, intensely personal work–it’s one of those works which is a clear snapshot of its creator. Whether Fish is talking about God, whether the thing is an explanation of a difficult scientific concept, or whether he simply wanted to make an intensely sophisticated and abstruse game, it’s clear that he’s trying to explain something to us.

There’s a bit from Neil Gaiman about Gene Wolf that always sticks in my head:

There are two kinds of clever writer. The ones that point out how clever they are, and the ones who see no need to point out how clever they are. Gene Wolfe is of the second kind, and the intelligence is less important than the tale. He is not smart to make you feel stupid. He is smart to make you smart as well.

And oh God is Fish in the first group. Tell me he’s not. The entire work, the entire persona, have the mark of someone with a chip on his shoulder, and you know, I can completely understand that. Some creators create because they want to please an audience, but Fish creates because he has something to prove, I think. It makes Fez an extraordinarily unpleasant work for me, and I wonder if that’s just because I’m not one of the people he has to prove himself to. But at the same time, I find Fez to be a very wounded and very human work.

Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s why I find the game so difficult to love. It’s a very hostile game, and each time you peel off a layer it gets even more hostile. And each time you peel off a layer, you get closer to the core, to who Fish is, and you’re met with even more hostility and resistance. There’s a paradoxical compulsion to show off the Self, but also a huge terror of showing the Self.

Fez is a heart wrapped in barbed wire.