86

I should try to update this fucking thing more, so here’s a little of what I’ve been up to:

1.  Hatred: Or, The Last Temptation of Richard Goodness, a new game which I released something like two months ago. Sorry I didn’t tell you.

I’m happy and proud of this one; writing-wise, it’s kind of the culmination of Zest, The Richard Goodness Trilogy, and Sam And Leo Go To The Bodega (all of which come with Hatred as extras!); my boyfriend Mat did the art and some insane CSS stuff, and I even recorded a soundtrack. So spend a smoky Saturday evening enjoying it if you like!

2. With Trekabout, we’re beginning Season 3 of Voyager; with Tuning In, we’re starting Season 3 of The X-Files. So far I’m liking X-Files more. Voyager is occasional good episodes with a lot of dire shit.

3. I’ve been working on a remake of TOMBs of Reschette–Mat is going to be illustrating the thing, and I’ve written a new ending and done a little redesign. I’m going to be compiling that along with a piece I’m calling Faeiriey Tailes Off Olde Reschette–right now it looks like that’s going to be a small fiction anthology with maybe some light interactive elements. Ultimately I’m looking to expand Reschette into a full series–I’ve got four major installments in mind for it. What can I say, I’m in an epic mood.

4. I can’t say I’ve played anything life-changing since Persona 5. Supposedly Grimoire is really really really really going to come out in two days. I guess I’ve got to blog the hell out of that one if it does.

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83 – Dropsy

A woman named Kim Davis, a government clerk in Kentucky, is currently in the news for her legal troubles surrounding her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples following the United States Supreme Court’s decision that people can’t be denied marriage licenses just because they’re not heterosexual. This is, of course, about as divisive a topic as you can get: Davis cites her religion as the reason for her stance, which plenty–myself included–see as simple bigotry. Davis and her supporters see her as a hero–much to the band Survivor’s dismay, “Eye of the Tiger” was used at a rally for her–who is standing up for the rights of poor, battered Christians forced to uphold immoral laws. As everyone knows, gay folks are sinners and kind of gross.

It’s hard not to treat Davis as monstrous–there’s a reason that the most popular, memetic photo of her that’s going around is of her looking particularly unattractive, looking like she’s screaming–the fat ugly bitch jokes write themselves. I’ve made a few myself. To a very real degree, she represents a strain of thought which is monstrous. If the Christian Right thinks that gay marriage will lead to dog-fucking, I can’t be blamed for thinking that her attitude leads to beating people up, tying them to fences, and leaving them to die.

In the middle of all of this, the game Dropsy the Clown was released.

The kneejerk reaction to Dropsy, as exemplified by Kotaku, is that it’s a “messed up game” about a “disturbing clown”; as of the time of this writing, the single news story in my Steam library page is a PC Gamer article with a similar sentiment. At some point, coulrophobia became trendy–and so you’ve got plenty of grown adults talking about how scary they find clowns and how scary Dropsy himself is.

A very, very slight bit of research–a simple visit to the game’s front page, frankly–is that such is the point of the game. The setup is that Dropsy’s circus burned down some years ago, that he’s been blamed for it, and that he’s looking for redemption. One of the main gimmicks in the game is a hug button, and many of the puzzles involve solving characters’ problems so that they feel comfortable enough to return the hug.

And so the main theme of Dropsy becomes fairly obvious: Dropsy may be gross, but he’s got a heart of gold underneath the distastefulness, and the game becomes about showing people love and kindness in order to earn their love.

Adam Cadre talks about what he calls the “redemption of the ludicrous“–taking a silly pulp story and treating it seriously. Citing the examples of Watchmen and the film Ed Wood, redemption of the ludicrous essentially gives dignity to characters that most people took to be jokes. Dropsy takes a similar theme, one after my own heart–it’s essentially the plot of Zest and my upcoming IFComp game–which I call “redemption of the gross”.

See, when I started following the indie scene, particularly the Twine branch of it, a few years ago, I found it inextricably latched with Jon Ronson’s shaming and callout culture. A major element of queer gaming culture that I’ve always found horrifying is its willingness to ostracize–to cite oppression as a reason to utterly dismiss people that might not necessarily be oppressive. White, heterosexual, cisgender men are synonymous with power, power is synonymous with oppression, and as long as one is queer–queer games defined facilely as “like, a game where it’s not a straight, white male doing things“, a definition which simultaneously refuses to understand both the history of queerness and the history of games–then one can never be an oppressor. What I’ve always understood queer to truly be is that it’s an attempt to break down hierarchies rather than simply flipping them. What I found in the queer Twine scene was that practice of simple flipping–rather than a blur, I see a simple “white cisgender men are bad and gross“. A refusal to explore other perspectives. A willingness to label anyone who disagreed as “gross” and shut them out of the conversation forever. A monolithic view of groups along with a brush painting them as moral or immoral.

For me, queer is a blurring of the boundaries between people, one which sees the very divisions between people as the methods in which power oppresses. Queer is very linked with that redemption of the ludicrous, redemption of the gross–it’s a method by which all people are allowed to attain dignity and understanding. I remember the big insight I had in college, which, like any insight made by a 20 year old is simplistic and not always applicable to the real world, but which I think has a little bit of merit still: Everyone’s kind of queer. “Heteronormativity”–which, sorry to say, does not simply mean “white, heterosexual, cisgender male”–is an illusion, a goal which doesn’t exist. It is an ideal that nobody quite matches with 100%. Everybody–Kim Davis included–has some sexual practice, some aspect of their gender identity, some part of their being–which deviates from the invisible ideal.

I find that, for all its obsession with empathy and understanding, the queer indie gaming scene doesn’t often have any–and given its focus on hierarchies, on its two-legs-bad-four-legs-good denigration of anyone not like it, anyone not willing to step in line with its orthodoxies, it’s not surprising that queer gaming wants to talk without listening. Believes that no one can truly understand each other.

I don’t have a high opinion of activism. A few years ago, I found myself randomly living in an Occupy house a couple years after Occupy itself ceased to be relevant and powerful and had devolved into a bunch of confused kids who were passionate and committed but not particularly organized or focused. My roommate was Cecily McMillan–a formidably smart woman who exemplified the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom stats–someone whose drive and ambition ran hot, chaotic, and ineffective instead of cold, rational, and efficient.

I remember one conversation at a party at the house–she was having an argument about feminist issues with an older guy, an African-American man who I think might have been a professor of hers. I judged him to have been a little too young to have been directly active in the civil rights movement of the 60s, but not by much–he was probably in his mid-20s at some point during the 1970s and had, based on his conversations, had direct family members involved. “You can’t understand what it’s like to be a woman,” Cecily was saying.

“Maybe not directly,” he said, “but I’ve got a mother. I have sisters. I have aunts. I’ve heard their stories. I have an idea.”

“You can’t understand,” Cecily repeated. “I can’t understand what it’s like to be black in this country!”

He laughed at this. “You can. You can listen to my stories, you can compare that to your own life.”

“No,” Cecily said. “I can’t.” He gave up soon after.

Divisions between people. Boundaries. A failure of empathy. A sense that one’s personal feelings trump everything else.

It is fairly obvious, when playing Dropsy for even a few minutes, that Dropsy is cuddly and lovable, just misunderstood. Most people are picking up on that, and I’m glad of that. I’m glad that we have an indie game which is based on the redemption of the gross rather than the rejection of it; in this light, Dropsy is one of the queerest queer games to be released in a very long time. But what’s striking me about the game is that it’s not simply about Dropsy letting the world know that he’s okay–it’s about Dropsy finding the okayness in everyone else, in understanding their lives and their needs, in helping them into a state of dignity.

Dropsy, see, has no compunctions about who he interacts with–he wants to hug everybody. He wants to love and be loved by everyone he meets on the journey. No one is too gross or distasteful for him. There are people that it’s certainly easier to love in the game–the little girl mourning a dead flower, the two bored young women sitting on the steps, the cool bouncer in front of the club. But the game is about loving the freaks and the losers. One of the most touching moments in the game is a troglodytic, hungry, homeless old woman in an alleyway; her puzzle involves giving her a sandwich. Returning later, you find her asleep and content, a smiling caricature of Dropsy now graffiti’d on the wall, one of the most touching moments in the game so far. Going into the church, seats empty except for two guys who seem more interested in the free food and who are explicitly annoyed by the preaching, you find a woman ranting about the sins of the world, a fire and brimstone preacher that Kim Davis would probably love to listen to. Go to the playground at night and you see her smoking a cigarette, depressed, and worried about the lack of attendance. She may play the role of a ranting preacher by day, but at night she’s as alone and sad as anyone in the game.

See, a lot has been written about how kind of sociopathic adventure game characters are. Looking at the whole of the genre, a lot of puzzles are about tricking characters. About seeing NPCs as obstacles. As an adventure game player, I’ve poisoned guards doing their jobs, swindled money and goods from countless stores, killed animals that were simply protecting their homes. Any other game would see the preacher lady as an obstacle, as a bad person that it’s okay to trick. Dropsy sees her as a human being that’s no less deserving of love and happiness.

The other day I noticed Dropsy designer Jay Tholen tweeting about some Christian movie and about his disappointment with that genre itself–in a nutshell, he finds a lot of Christian media to be exploitative, to take the trappings of the faith but not the message. To be about Christian superiority. To be about shutting out anyone who doesn’t talk the talk. Dropsy is a subtly Christian game–there are crosses scattered here and there, not just in the church but as devotional knickknacks. There’s one in Dropsy’s tent owned by his fellow clown. After solving the puzzle of the dead flower, the little girl joyfully emotes a cross–dialogue in the game is rendered entirely in pictograms–suggesting that she believes she’s been the recipient of a tiny miracle. (Frankly, she has.) If Dropsy isn’t quite a standin for Jesus, he’s a suggestion of the hard path of Christianity. It’s not the vengeful God of Kim Davis who judges who is worthy, who is gross, but the compassionate God that recognizes that faith that can move mountains is utterly useless if I have not love. In addition to being extremely queer, Dropsy is also profoundly, deeply spiritual. It’s not preachy–it’s not Alum, which is an awesome game in its own right–and it’s not theological. But it is concerned with the here and now, in using faith as a path to love and a path to seeing the dignity in everyone.

It’s hard to love Kim Davis when she finds it so hard to love people like me,  just like it’s hard to love Dropsy and many of the people in his world. But it’s important to try at least. Before playing the game, the mentions of the dedicated “hug button” in previews made it seem to me like a meaningless thing that you could do to any character in the game no matter what–that it was just a little bit of flavor. But most of the people refuse to hug you unless you’ve solved their puzzle–unless you’ve managed to understand them and make that moment of connection. Loving and being loved is hard, Dropsy says. But god damn is it worth it.

74 – Come to Bag by PaperBlurt

I totally dropped the ball about writing about this because I’m a lazy fuck, but PaperBlurt–who was responsible for the visual design of TWEEZER and Zest–has released a new work called Come to Bag.

Come to Bag is a “cacaphony”–it’s a collection of a bunch of short pieces. If you know Blurt’s style, they’re all of a piece and show off his range–there’s some really nicely eerie stuff, some shaggy dog stories, some experiments–16 stories in all. My particular dog in this race was the writing of the story A Big Fuck You, which is based on a joke my dad made up when I was a little kid.

If you’re interested in some of Blurt’s other work, and I hope you are, I think Capsule is one of his more popular works (and for good reason!), but my personal favorite is The Sadness of Rocky Barbato. I’ve never been able to get the latter’s final image out of my head; I think it might qualify one of the best endings in Twine.

While I’ve got you here–I’m working on a digital boardgame and I’m scouting a team. If you’re an artist who can help me make a game that looks like the team behind Fantastic Planet doing a movie based on a Dr. Seuss screenplay, or you’re interested in helping design the ruleset for a digital board game with ties to Talisman or Suspended, then come at me, bro. I’m looking for people in the same boat as myself–who’ve made a couple of minor things and are looking for a bigger project that we can sell for a buck or two and get the cred we need in order to be able to Kickstart the *next* project.

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?

67 – Zest

I’m lazy; Zest has been out for months, as part of the Interactive Fiction competition, which has been over for a few weeks now, and I’ve been able to talk about it, but I’ve just let that time go by.

Well anyway! My game Zest, which I worked on with lectronice and PaperBlurt, is now out, and you can go play it here. The reaction was as mixed as I expected; some people really got it, some didn’t, but I think it touched the people it was supposed to touch and pissed off the people it was supposed to piss off, and that’s all I feel like saying about it right now. I hope you enjoy it.

66 – Dysthymia

Capture

Writing Zest is a little bit of a struggle, so to kind of recharge the batteries, I wrote a new game. It’s called Dysthymia. Using a computer is recommended–it does not play at all well with mobile browsers.

Dysthymia is intended to be a continuous, uninterrupted artistic experience. It contains no save state. Please set aside 40 seconds to play through the game, as well as an hour for quiet contemplation afterwards. Turning the lights off and wearing earplugs are also recommended, as is having a degree in comparative literature.

64 – Zest trailer released!

Capture

 

This is exciting! As many of you know, I’ve been working on a Twine called Zest along with PaperBlurt and lectronice. We’re about a month from release–expect it to come out in late August–and in preparation, we’ve put together a short trailer, which you can find here.

Please note that the trailer contains a lot of blinking text, if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, and as of now there’s some fonty macroey issues which mean that it doesn’t play nicely with the likes of Firefox and Internet Explorer–we recommend Chrome. (The browser on your iPhone will display everything fine except for the title screen at the end, if you’re on the go.)

And with that, I think Crunch Season officially begins.