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.

3

The liner notes to Treasure Adventure Game state, simply, that it’s a love letter to the games that developer Stephen Orlando played as a kid and “the countless hours of joy” that they brought him.

Holy shit. Joy, eh? That’s a word we rarely see. Right!, we say. This shit used to be fun! A comment left by Aaron Jean on Electron Dance says it well: 

I’ve been struck lately by just how dark gaming is at the moment….Why can’t we have more genuinely pleasant worlds in our games?..I do wish there were more worlds I felt like saving.

This is Blue Sky In Games stuff, and it’s true: Indie games can be depressing as shit. The existence of Depression Quest–released on Valentine’s Day, for fuck’s sake, and we say the scene doesn’t romanticize depression!–seems like it’s almost satirical, like the sad indie hipster equivalent of a sitcom kid pining for Super Murder Death Kill 3000 IV.

I’d extend this a little further to not just be videogames–there’s a general view out there that sad shit is deeper than happy shit. Let’s face it: When I was 17 I was listening to Nirvana and Alice in Chains while classmates were listening to Britney Spears and N’Sync. The associations of depression with introspection and intelligence, and bliss as a condition of ignorance–they’ve been associations I’ve never been able to quite slough off. Most of us can’t.

Things are somewhat different now than when Blue Sky was written–the rise of pixel games had yet to occur, and gaming was in a funny spot where it desperately wanted to avoid any perception that it was “kiddie” in any way. What can I say: I guess we all wanted to appear more mature so we made everything brown and violent.

Games are uncomfortable with themselves: Whether we’re deconstructing mechanics by calling them stupid while at the same time making a game about them a la Bioshock or The Line, or adding interaction to self-excoriating prose poems in order to attempt to say something profound, I feel we’re very reticent to let games be Games.

Look at Mass Effect 2: It’s one of my favorite games because it does not see anything shameful in telling a blockbuster starship captain story. You have a group of characters, all with their own shady pasts; an evil enemy, with a dark secret; some great pew pew shootemup action–Mass Effect 2 does not think that a videogame is a bad thing to be, and so instead of trying–and failing–to be Art (and by the way, one thing we all seem to miss about Games As Art is that “Art” is an expression of intent, rather than of quality…), Mass Effect 2 succeeds in being a Great Videogame.

Treasure Adventure Game sees nothing wrong with being a fun challenging platformer; the couple hours I’ve spent with it are demonstrating that by attempting to be a great version of something simple, it almost transcends its genre.

It’s really nice to play a game made in a state of joy.

1

Since I turned 30 it’s like a switch has been flipped or something: I had the typical 20s night owl schedule, preferring to go to bed around dawn and waking up around noon, but for whatever reason, every day I wake up around 6-630. It’s extending to days off and weekends now.

But I’ve made the best of it, and it’s actually becoming a very valued part of my morning routine to wake up, grab a cup of coffee, and play a videogame for a while. Yes, yes, Dusty, a little lovin’ does definitely beat that, but we do what we can with what we have, and what we have are videogames.

I got Bit Trip Runner in one of the Humble Bundles, I believe–I’d played and mildly enjoyed Bit Trip Beat and played but did not enjoy Bit Trip Core, so I’d been familiar with the series, but only gave Runner about 10-15 minutes of playtime when I got it. About three weeks ago I picked up the game again, for some reason, and have been mainlining it pretty much every morning. While it’s not my favorite game I’ve played this year, it’s the one I’ve given the most time and attention to. I’ve certainly given it the most care: It’s the kind of game where there were multiple levels that I was stuck on for three, four days, stubbornly playing certain stages dozens of times until I finished them. I finally managed to beat the game yesterday.

At its heart, Bit Trip Runner is Canabalt attached to a rhythm game. It’s nothing particularly special–the music isn’t my style and isn’t that distinctive; the graphics are Bit Trip’s usual garish pixel art, fine to look at but, you know, whatever. It’s an entry in a series I more appreciate than like in a genre that’s all but dead.

I am curious about why I stuck with the game when games like this usually leave me cold very quickly.

As far as most people are concerned–sites like Hardcore Gaming 101 go into exhaustive histories of things like Bemani, but we’re gonna limit our discussion to the fads I’ve noticed–rhythm games are either Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero. They’re less games and more somewhere in between performance and activity: During the peak of both, I could find a TV with at least one set up at every party I went to.

Guitar Hero ramped up towards its apex–I’d say the exact moment it died was when Seth Scheisel histrionically called Beatles Rock Band the “most important game of all time” ($7.99 on Amazon)–during the same period of time I was active in the band King Chef. The very first time I played the game was on one of our usual trips to Best Buy–what can I say? It was Jersey. You go and figure out something to do there.

There was a demo kiosk, and the three of us were looking at it, and since I was the guitarist I went first, and I loaded Heart Shaped Box, which is a song I’ve known how to play since I was 15, and I squeaked out a barely-passing version of it. Perhaps, we decided, because I played guitar, there was some kind of uncanny valley thing going on: The muscle memory I had for the song was contrary to what was going on in the game. But then my drummer tried and failed out, and my bassist did only slightly better. Perhaps, we decided, because I played guitar, I’d developed the necessary dexterity a little better. Certainly–I would find this out after I eventually bought the game and practiced some–there were some skills I’d developed from playing guitar which helped me. I attempted, time and time again, to explain hammerons to my non-musician friends, who would nod blankly and still spastically twiddle the strum switch during bits I played in a more flowing manner.

A thing I began to notice: I eventually got good enough at Guitar Hero to surpass my actual guitar skills. Where I was still a clunky pop punk guitarist, I was learning to shred at Guitar Hero.

Guitar Hero is an asymmetrical experience in the context of a party, and in that context it’s not completely dissimilar to what it feels like to be on stage, when you’re only sort of aware of what’s going on and you’re focusing more on what your fingers are doing. Even beyond hamming it up and dancing around while you play, everything but the notes in the game–your avatar choice, the club you’re playing in, the cuts and camera angles–is for the spectator’s benefit. Paying attention to what’s going on in the club is the easiest way to get distracted, and so the vast, vast majority of what’s on the screen gets ignored in favor of focusing on the portion of the screen where the notes are listed.

Something like Bit Trip Runner isn’t performance-focused: I played it on my laptop in my bedroom, which is barely larger than my bed–this wasn’t one which made it to my living room TV, wasn’t one I expected anyone to be interested in watching. I find it a more absorbing game; you are directly controlling the action rather than the action happening parallel to the game.

This is hard to explain: Moreso than Guitar Hero, Bit Trip Runner feels a lot like playing music.

I guess it’s like this: Music is a very physical thing to perform; when you’re with your band and you are locked into a groove, the music isn’t forming the soundtrack to the world as it does in Guitar Hero–the music is the world. That everything in Bit Trip is timed to the beats help this; camera angles and such in Guitar Hero just kind of happens.

But here’s a thought, and perhaps the entire point of this exercise: Playing Bit Trip runner is so much like playing music–not, you know, playing your own song, but somewhere in between drilling scales and playing along to an album.

My question to myself is: Can you imagine if you’d woken up and drilled scales for an hour every morning? Or hell, practiced singing, or worked out your core, or even just cleaned or something?

Lesson unlearned, though: The final game in the Bit Trip series, Void, was on sale for $2.50 on Steam, and I bought it. I played it for fifteen minutes and loaded up Runner again.

Seriously, dude, you could even just fucking sleep for another hour, you know?