Kitty Horrorshow’s Pontefract and Shakespeare as author-medium

Pontefract is a 2012 Twine Gothic horror game by Kitty Horrorshow.  In this blog post I will talk about the game generally, but specifically my aim is to tentatively theorize how Horrorshow’s game makes use of Shakespearean allusion, what affordances its buys her as a creator, with the overall goal of opening up questions of what this might mean for us (me and my cohort) as Shakespearean  and early modern scholars.

In Pontefract, the player takes on the role of an unnamed character, perhaps a knight, in a Gothic fantasyscape.  You work your way through several rooms of a semi-abandoned castle, populated only by apparently undead humans.  Primarily how the games works is this: you enter a room.  The room is described, sometimes with occasional observable details (for instance, when entering the kitchen, instead of directly confronting the cook you can check out what she’s boiling in her cauldrons).  If there is an NPC in this room, they will ignore you, instead carrying out routines (praying, cooking, being eaten by a floating horse’s head) that bespeak either their undead qualities (ie, they are zombies, not fully human, and only carry out certain deeply wired routines) or their artificiality (they are, in the most literal sense, videogame NPCs, written only to carry out certain limited, repetitive behaviors).

You can choose to interact with these characters, at which point you are presented with two options.  The first is always “friendly” — you either attempt to get the NPC’s attention, or help them if they seem to be in trouble.  The second is always hostile, and involves drawing your sword to kill the NPC.  For three NPCs you meet — a priest, a stablehand, and a cook — choosing the friendly option will result in your character’s death.

Progression in the game involves killing these NPCs.  After being slain they leave you with keys which will unlock the door to the castle dungeon.  You know you want to do this — apart from the fact that a locked door in a videogame always implies the goal is to open it — due to an encounter with the fourth NPC in this section of the game, the so-called “Pale King,” who sits eyeless and presumably also undead in the castle’s throne room.

This is the only NPC with whom you have no options for interaction.  Instead, when meeting him he speaks “into your thoughts [with] a hundred clamorous voices”:

HAVE I NO FRIEND WILL RID ME OF THIS LIVING FEAR? I WOULD THOU WERT THE MAN THAT WOULD DIVORCE THIS TERROR FROM MY HEART.

Somehow, you understand that the ‘terror’ of which the pale king speaks is locked away within the castle dungeon.

You take knee before the king and vow to rid him of that which grieves him so, before standing and turning to descend the stairs back to the great hall.

The line spoken by the Pale King is from Shakespeare’s Richard II, very close to the end of the play, and is curious enough in and of itself.  Henry Bolingbroke has recently deposed and imprisoned the rightful king, Richard II, and named himself Henry IV; in Act V, scene 3, Henry uncovers a plot against him by some nobles loyal to Richard and has most of the conspirators put to death.  In the next scene (V.4), a nobleman named Exton enters with his servant.  The scene is brief, so I will reproduce it here in full for you to see just how odd it is:

Exton
Didst thou not mark the king, what words he spake,
‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’
Was it not so?
Servant
These were his very words.
Exton
‘Have I no friend?’ quoth he: he spake it twice,
And urged it twice together, did he not?
Servant
He did.
Exton
And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me,
And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man’
That would divorce this terror from my heart;’
Meaning the king at Pomfret. Come, let’s go:
I am the king’s friend, and will rid his foe.
Exeunt

So Horrorshow’s Pale King quotes Henry IV, but only as he himself is quoted by Exton.  The scene to which Exton refers, in which the king speaks these lines, is not one we ourselves are allowed to see: the previous scene where Henry uncovers the plot against him contains nothing close to the statements that Exton attributes to him.  In fact, going thoroughly from the text, Exton hasn’t even shown up prior to this point in the play.

This scene seems to pointedly highlight the lengths to which the ambitious Exton is willfully misinterpreting the situation, if not in what Henry is referring to, at least in the fact that Henry is personally addressing the order to him: “And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me, / And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man'[.]”  (Compare Horrorshow’s: “Somehow, you understand that the ‘terror’ of which the pale king speaks is locked away within the castle dungeon.”)

Indeed, the play ends with Exton presenting Henry with Richard’s corpse and Henry, horrified at what has been carried out in his name, disavows himself of Exton and the act committed for his benefit (though, of course, he does benefit).

In Horrorshow’s game the command is given directly and unambiguously, placing us in the shoes of a character who is and is not Exton.  It should come as no surprise to a player familiar with Shakespeare that when you venture down into the dungeon what you find is a weakened, miserable figure “you” immediately recognize as the “rightful king.”

Again you are presented with a choice: to peacefully beg forgiveness from the rightful king, or to kill him.  As before, the peaceful option proves ineffectual,  but this time, not because it kills you.  Rather:

You attempt to kneel before the rightful king, ready to apologize for your wrongful deeds and vow yourself to his cause, but your body resists you. The castle shudders and the walls begin to wail, and your head is filled with the lurching, ragged language of the stones.

NO. KILL HIM.

At this point you again have the same choice, and the only way to move forward is to kill the king.  The game ends immediately after: you die as the castle collapses around you, but almost immediately you find yourself once again in the woods outside the castle gates, preparing to enter.  The implication, perhaps, is that you are no different than the creatures that trace their endless, undying routines within the castle walls: as a player, you are finally robbed of the agency the game has dangled in front of you at every turn with its false choices, and you are at last subsumed into the machinery of the Gothic landscape.

Appropriately enough, Horrorshow’s hypertext game seems to adapt and extend Gérard Genette’s pre-Internet idea of hypertextuality as “any relationship uniting a text B (which I shall call the hypertext) to an earlier text A (I shall, of course, call it the hypotext), upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary” (Palimpsest: Literature in the Second Degree 5).  Rather than a simple allusiveness, or even a dense and methodical rewriting (eg, as between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses), Horrorshow’s references to Shakespeare are more like the hypertextual apparatus of Twine itself: links that send us outside the text, or into another text, or a different part of the same text, but which do not do so to make a claim about Shakespeare or Richard II.  Rather, both texts become hypertexts, existing in tandem or parallel, creating a space for thematic echos and reader (re)orientation.

Exton makes a choice; we do not.  Exton must interpret what he will do; we must interpret what we have done, if we have done anything. It is Exton who allows the play its end, and despite his abjection, the consequences of his actions haunt the rest of Henry IV’s reign.  Our actions have, perhaps, no lasting effect in the larger context of the game’s endlessly looping plot, as we are simultaneously trapped within and enabled by the haunted house that is the game’s architecture.  Apart from Shakespeare, then, I would say Horrorshow’s game is commenting on the heroic power fantasy of videogames and the exhausted narratives of aggressive but ultimately impotent of bloodshed they often foster.

As a matter of fact, Horrorshow’s original post about the game makes no mention of Shakespeare at all, and so it’s possible many who played through it did not note the allusions if they had no foreknowledge.  The game is deeply allusive, but the allusions only “activate” for a player quite attuned to Shakespeare’s play — and nevertheless, the allusiveness is not present in any way that would seem to lessen the enjoyment of a player who didn’t know Shakespeare but who was very familiar with the Diablo game franchise, text adventures, or someone who wanted to poke around a haunted castle.

Overall, the game draws deeply from Shakespeare while also meticulously managing the impact of its Shakespearean connections through a variety of tactics, including letting its allusiveness go unspoken, choosing its allusions obscurely, or interweaving its allusions with formal misdirection.  Indeed, the “living fear” Exton says Henry decries is interpreted as the deposed king imprisoned at Pomfret — Shakespeare’s name for Pontefract, the actual castle where the historical Richard II was held captive until his execution.  Thus the games title is itself an allusion that displaces Shakespeare as a central, authoritative voice of historical record, underscoring the gap in terminology between our understanding of history and his.

Furthermore, Richard II is not a play that looms large in the popular consciousness, or at least, not large enough for Shakespearean capital to immediately pay off in a gaming environment as it does, say, when the text at hand is Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet.  Indeed, the lines from Richard II in Pontefract are not the most memorable of Shakespeare’s lines; they’re not even the most famous lines from Richard II.  Nevertheless, Horrorshow puts her obscure citations to work.

After beheading the rightful king, the castle appears to collapse and you hear the severed head whisper to you the game’s second direct lift from Shakespeare: “Grief boundeth where it falls.”  This is not, as it happens, anything spoken by Richard, but rather a comment made by the Duchess of  Gloucester near the very beginning of the play (I.2) when she is urging John of Gaunt to stand up for her husband (whose death she believes Richard sponsored), and implicitly foretelling the whiplash of political instability that will come to shadow the reign of Henry IV.

In Pontefract the player is primed for this line differently, as you descend to the dungeon and the game tells you,

The castle whispers to you.

Dost thou at ev’ry hail draw out thy sword?

From whither comes this eagerness to slay?

Thy lust for blood and anguish sees thee curs’t

These three lines of blank verse generically meld with the Shakespearean quotations, though they are not themselves Shakespeare (as far as I can tell, they are original).  Thus, any player not explicitly looking for Shakespearean allusions might be inclined to read the actual quotations from Shakespeare — if they seemed somehow stylistically distinct from the game’s narrative voice — as of a piece with this verse.  The final word in the quote above is a hyperlink, which takes us to a closing line:

ttO suffERRr EverR thISSs accuRRSSedd dDAyy

The styling of the text here — breaking with typographical convention to suggest the words are being spoken/thought in a hiss, or by an inhuman voice — recurs not only in her original post about the game (“P0ntteEFFraccctTTt”) but in the game’s code, where Horrorshow has named several passages after direct quotes from Shakespeare’s play in the same style:

R2
Click through for a larger image. Highlighted areas show where passages in Twine have been named with Shakespearean quotes.  This is only a section of these instances.

It was not until the game was re-collated in a directory page that the author’s note made the Shakespeare connection clear, “inspired by” Richard II, which provides the reader with an introductory signpost for the allusions.  I don’t meant to imply that Horrorshow is somehow “coming clean” about her allusions, but rather, the broad and subtle nature of the game’s allusiveness indicates a way of approaching Shakespeare that makes productive use of his corpus while insisting it is not the only corpus that matters.

Horrorshow’s Shakespeare is not an impeachable paragon of literature and humanity; he is the writer of Richard II as well as Hamlet, and also the author of dozens of less than memorable lines, dozens of less than memorable images.  Neither is Horrorshow’s Shakespeare an academic Shakespeare, a layered site where the machinations of cultural poetics are put on display if we perform an anatomy with right critical tool.

However, there is indeed something here of the Foucauldian author-function.  As Marjorie Garber has argued regarding the great dearth of personal and biographical information we have on Shakespeare, it is possibly exactly this dearth that makes Shakespeare such a literary powerhouse: “Freed from the trammels of a knowable ‘authorial intention,’ the author paradoxically gains power rather than losing it, assuming a different kind of kind of authority that renders him in effect his own ghost” (Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers 15).

Garber argues it is precisely Shakespeare’s ghostly nature that allows him to “possess” writers as distinct as Marx, Freud, and Derrida, whose use of his texts as examples for their theories means those theories forever thereafter exhibit the marks of a Shakespearean ghost-writing process.  But I do not think we can say the same about Horrorshow’s game: her allusiveness is never to Shakespeare-as-such, not like, for instance, the way Freud “uses” Hamlet to explain his thesis of repression.

I would like to suggest, then, that Horrorshow and Shakespeare work collaboratively.  What I mean is Shakespeare becomes not so much an author-function but an author-medium.  By “medium” here I mean something akin to what Marshall McLuhan means when she says “All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience in new forms” (Understanding Media 85).  This is similar to the way in which Garber argues Shakespeare ghost-writes Freud, Marx, and Derrida — there are things these writers wish to articulate, and Shakespeare provides the vocabulary for doing so.

But it is always Shakespeare’s vocabulary.  The authors work to preserve a whole and bounded idea of “Shakespeare” outside their own texts.  Horrorshow’s Shakespeare, however, becomes an active but epehemeral metaphor for the experience of authorship and creation.  Is Shakespeare ghost-writing Pontefract, or is Horrorshow ghost-writing Shakespeare?

Her textual use of Shakespeare blurs the boundaries between her in 2012 and him in 1595.  His blank verse appears alongside hers; shreds and patches of his words appear in the very underlying structure of of the game, rewritten in Horrorshow’s own typographical idiolect, meaning nothing in situ, hidden from the player, but serving as the connective tissue between the blocks of the story.

In the end, the game is not “based on” Richard II or an adaptation, but “inspired by.”  Horrorshow makes use of Shakespeare as one part of an available arsenal as a creator and — perhaps, disclosing now that my interpretation of Pontefract is as precarious as any one might offer — to express her interests and concerns regarding games and the stories of power and responsibility they can dramatize for us.

Epanalepsis, frames of reference, and the riddle of narrative

I wrote about Cameron Kunzelman’s game Catachresis on this blog before.  Last week his new game, a sort of thematic sequel, Epanalepsis, was released.

Needless to say, what follows constitutes spoilers, insofar as spoilers is a concept that applies to this game.

I made the caveat above because there is, frankly, a good chance I can tell you everything that happens in the game and it would not terribly impact your experience while playing it.  The criticism the game has received has been for its obtuseness, the way its narrative simultaneously points somewhere while insistently seeming to go nowhere.

Let’s talk about that.

Epanalepsis takes place across three time periods: 1993, 2013, and 2033.  In each you play, for approximately 15-20 minutes, a character from that time: a pioneering gentrifier and slacker named Rachel, a listless hacker named Anthony who lives in Rachel’s old apartment in a now-trendy neighborhood, and in the corporate dystopian future, a robotic drone that tends to humans in some sort of cryosleep in a converted apartment building.  Gameplay is simple: you walk among the rooms in the apartment, look at objects or people, and receive a bit of information or dialogue.

The game is short, giving you snapshots of these characters’ lives, and it fills in background details through the oddly performative player-character frame of a point-and-click adventure game: you click on a piece of furniture and the character launches into a brief soliloquy regarding what they think of it, where it came from, and where they hope it will be in the future.  In stripping out the normal complex puzzles, Kunzelman has created a minimalist adventure game that at times almost reads like a parody of the form.

In fact, the third chapter threatens to devolve into self-parody: you are a robot, a literal drone, that apparently putters back and forth in a single room all day, tending to human beings submerged in cryosleep and, it is suggested, virtual realities not at all dissimilar to more traditionally exciting videogames.  You, the drone, are compromised by a group of rebel hackers who are going to use you to blow up the city-block by sending you on a suicide mission.  They may or may not also be aiming to steal or destroy something called “the Von Lessinger equipment” which may or may not be some sort of time travel technology.  This is never explained to you, as the humans don’t bother to explain their goals to the drone, of course, and so you putter between them and try to report their contraband (they have cut off your connections to the network for just this reason).  You are supposedly diegetically controlled by a character known only as “the Inventor.”

This is a critique of the gaming format up to this point — you are reduced to a literal cog in the game’s extended machinery, tending to it, tirelessly clicking the appropriate things to help it run its course on your computer, beholden to the whims of the designer behind it — but it is also a commentary on the narrative of the game itself.  Just as the drone is used by humans, the humans are being used by others for their own purposes, and these entities don’t see any imperative to explain themselves.

For, in place of the mechanical puzzles, Kunzelman serves up a narrative puzzle, one that may be intentionally broken.  At the end of the first chapter, Rachel meets a stranger, a woman calling herself Tony, who makes odd intimations about time, the future, and the nature of the cosmos.  These intimations are similar to ones Rachel received earlier, from a red-cloaked man in a dream, who left her with an object he calls “the Burden,” which appears to be some sort of book or paper — unreadable to Rachel — that morphs into a blinking eye just before she wakes up.  When Tony has said her piece, she disappears and Rachel is left with a choice. After making the choice, the chapter immediately ends.  In the next chapter, you play as a man named Anthony (an odd coincidence!) who also meets the cloaked man (Pasus) and a cloaked woman (Cascabel),  the latter of whom may or may not be Tony from the previous chapter.

At about this moment in my first playthrough I began to detect the influence of Gene Wolfe, who writes in a similarly elliptical way, suggesting that characters you meet are and are not who they say they are, or who they appear to be.  But a difference arises: Wolfe writes narratives that are seemingly inscrutable riddles but which always have solutions.  There may be several and divergent interpretations, but Wolfe, late modernist that he is, gives you always enough tools to build an interpretation.

In Epanalepsis, solving the riddle in a Wolfean fashion is frankly impossible.  I received Kunzelman’s notes on the game as a reward for the tier at which I backed the Kickstarter.  Reading through them after my playthroughs, I confirmed my suspicion of Wolfe’s small influence, and in reading through Cameron’s notes, I discovered some information that would have “solved” the game’s riddle, had it been included.  But to what degree do these notes, always referring to an in-process creation, sometimes obviously diverging wildly from the product itself, really explain what happens?  Does such information, since it is not contained in the normal course of gameplay, even count toward an interpretation? I here belie my own formative immersion in New Criticism, and my own feelings as a creator: everything I put in a game is there for a reason, everything I leave out I leave out for a reason.  Who’s to say the same about Kunzelman?  Or am I just, again, in a different way, scooped up by the Inventor’s guiding hand, tossed back and forth from one frame of reference to another, looking for the continuity that will bring them together, reveal them as commensurate, and make my puttering back and forth cogent and meaningful?

I cannot tell you what I thought the game was about before I read the notes, now, because my knowledge is hopelessly inflected.  I did not write down what I thought in a coherent fashion before I read them, and so I can’t honestly provide my account of what the game looked like from the inside, because now I know what it could look like from the outside.

Before reading the notes, I did do my best to squeeze what I could out of the game itself.  I played through several times and plotted characters on a sheet of scrap paper, searching for anything that might crack the narrative code, but found none.  The closest I got was the beginning of Anthony’s chapter, which is presented as an MMO, a game-within-a-game.

Anthony hopes to make a boss-run, but his friends are not logged in, so he courts randos outside the boss’s lair.  A player agrees to help if Anthony will help him collect mushrooms, and so of course he does.  During this segment you pass in  front of the door to the boss’s lair, what the contextual label of the game calls a BAWSS GATE.  Behind the gate and its wall, you can see a high tower with a single light on.

Unless it’s a bug, there’s no information about this gate or this castle.  It is simply a BAWSS GATE, and there is something sitting beyond it, something in that tower, waiting for you.  But no matter how much you click, no matter how many mushrooms you collect, you never receive any sort of flavor text.  Anthony has no reflections, fears, hopes about this thing — as far as I know, it’s the only object like this in the game.

This is Epanalepsis writ small, by way of Kafka’s parable about the gate and the Law: the Boss resides here,  beyond this gate, high in its tower.  It is the endpoint, the goal, the summation, the thing that traditionally marks progress or an endpoint to a game.  It is what we like to think would make the game cohere, and in Epanalepsis it is something about which we will forever remain ignorant.  So the Boss toils on in its work, just as Cascabel and the cloaked man, Pasus, toil on, as well as the cursed old man Abhar Lama in the forgotten-or-yet-to-come reign of Emperor Eskar Lekkak, writing in a book that waits to be read, all of them meeting (as they say) our player characters again and again, watching them make choices that sometimes change, sometimes do not, and which nevertheless do not seem to free any of them from the mobius strip of the game’s narrative: a mobius strip we are told exists, but whose curves we never actually see…

…unless, of course, like Pasus and Cascabel, we slip through the walls of that narrative, step outside of it, and read a book, a certain book, and glimpse more broadly the bends and folds of time, development, and choice.  And yet, even then, again like Pasus and Cascabel — who are lost, apparently, who say they are searching for someone they cannot reach, a figure they call their teacher — we are unable to pin ourselves and others down in a narrative that resolves in a way we’d like, knowing but not omniscient.

Digital Humanities and the Digital Classroom

The following is the text of a brief talk I was invited to deliver as part of the opening graduate student roundtable at the Indiana University Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference on March 26, 2015.  The conference theme was Breaking Futures: Imaginative (Re)visions of Time, while the roundtable theme was “Digital Humanities in Practice.”  I was joined by Lydia Wilkes, Mary Borgo, Whitney Sperrazza, and Erika Jenns, whose talks provided grounding for a rich dialogue for the many overlapping “digital” futures of the humanities, both in the classroom and in research.  It was a wonderful experience, if you want to see more from the conference, trawl the hasthtag #IUIC15 on twitter to see the archive of live-tweets.

schola

“Are you available for in-person office hours?” is a question I receive, in various forms, at least once a week.

For the past ten months or so I’ve been working with Lydia Wilkes and Justin Hodgson to build and implement an online version of English W-131, the intro to composition course most of the graduate students in here in the English department teach or will teach at some point.  This semester has seen the three of us piloting the course, personalizing it based on the framework we built collaboratively.  It’s my first time teaching online and, as such, has given me a reason to stop and reflect on what it means to practice digital humanities in the classroom; here, for me, the issue of the digital humanities necessarily emerges in the space of the online humanities classroom, since it raises questions about the technologies we use to facilitate education not only in face-to-face interactions, but how those technologies necessarily do or can reconfigure facilitation across greater spatial and temporal boundaries.

I’m not sure if before this semester I would have called myself a “digital humanist.”  Frankly, I’m still not sure that’s a label that I’d embrace.  Part of this is because – to put in it in the pithy and cynical way I developed when I was an undergrad – what will happen with the digital humanities is exactly what happened to the cellular phone: just as the latter became simply a phone, so too, I think, technological and computational creep will eventually become par for the course for doing any sort of work in the humanities.

Despite my suspicion that something about this still holds true, I now recognize that my too-cool-for-this-English-major-senior-capstone bon mot enacts a form of what Mark Sample last year called “facile thinking” about the digital humanities.  Though he uses this phrase to refer to the strawmen arguments of many DH alarmists and skeptics, I think it could also characterize the tacit way in which I rendered myself and the field unto the DH geist.

“[F]acile thinking strives to eliminate complexity,” Sample writes in his blog post on the subject, “both the complexity of different points of view and the complexity of inconvenient facts.”  By contrast, he says, the digital humanities and writing on them needs to evince more “difficult thinking,” a mixture of “evidentiary-based reasoning” and acknowledgment of divergent perspectives that adds up to what he calls a “rational empathy.”  In other words, by consigning to an inevitable digital ascent and assimilation, I primed myself to overlook the oddities and complications encountered in this transition.  For my students especially, the emotional and material stakes of education are far weightier than smartphones.

writing

So, then, back to my opening, which by this point you may have forgotten: “Are you available for in-person office hours?”

I commute into Bloomington irregularly.  In this way, teaching online has been something of a relief for me, so my office hours are usually also online.  However, because occasionally I do have to be in Bloomington, and because the students in these pilot courses are all on campus, sometimes my office hours are in-person.  What I discovered, however, is that my students want to meet me in person far more frequently than, first of all, they actually can, and second of all, than I have ever experienced in my time teaching in a face-to-face classroom.

I assumed students who were okay with taking an online course that met once a week via videoconference would be okay with having office hours in a similar format.  One has to imagine, at least, that they feel comfortable enough with technology to take the plunge on the online course, anyway.  What I discovered, however, is that digital office hours are the most unpopular type of office hours I have ever had.  In fact, the only times students have met me in digital office hours are when I have explained to them that I wasn’t going to be on campus any time soon.

Indeed, another thing I have discovered is that the students in my online course are far more anxious about technology in general.  If an assignment or module posts with a typo or misdirected link, within an hour I’ll receive at least three emails – usually sounding mildly panicked – asking me for clarification and guidance.  When students take online quizzes and browser issues or an accidental page reload wipes or otherwise malforms their work, I receive lamentations explaining what happened, hoping I’ll be merciful.  The stakes in these instances are relatively small – a pietá over, at most, two or three points in a class scored out of 1000 – but the students’ frustration with the system is often palpable.  The obvious thing that has happened is that the technology has become more central in the students’ experience.  Rather than supplement my in-class lectures, the LMS is now the primary way of completing work.  When the tool fails, the student’s immediate fear is that, from my perspective as an instructor, this is also their failure.  These classroom technologies become more conspicuous as things that separate the students from the class and what I suspect they understand as the “real” me.

To provide evidence for this last assertion: the desire for in-person office hours is often framed by my students as a need to find out what “you” really want.  This is familiar rhetoric: I’ve heard it before in meatspace classes.  But I’ve heard it more frequently, and with a stronger valence of confusion, with this online course.  One student told me she wanted to know about what she called “your ideals,” and explicitly stated she felt like the online nature of the course had kept her from finding out what I wanted on our assignments.  Again, this is not a complaint unique to online coursework, but I think it’s important that in this scenario, technology can and does take the fall.

pictura

In the preface to his 1659 translation of the Czech pedagogue John Comenius’s Orbis sensualim pictus, one of the first illustrated textbooks, English humanist Charles Hoole explains how the innovation of adding pictures to the book, alongside parallel vernacular and Latin captions, will allow students to pick up Latin much more easily and quickly than ever before.  The reason for this, he argues, is that the sensual quality of the illustration and a preexisting knowledge of vernacular English allow the student to ground the Latin in a personal, experiential reality inaccessible when one is simply laying out grammatical rules.  This is incredibly important for Hoole, as he writes it is “the very Basis of our Profession, to search into the way of Childrens taking hold by little and little of what we teach them, that so we may apply our selves to their reach” (sig b1v).

What strikes me is Hoole’s commitment to the needs and limits of his students, based on a generalized sense of their day-to-day experiences.  The basis of our profession, he says, is to “apply ourselves to their reach” – to meet them halfway, and then move further along together.  I am reminded, actually, of Lisa Spiro’s argument that what defines the digital humanities is not necessarily the computational analysis of texts, but rather “collaboration, openness, and experimentation” as it is afforded by new technologies (“This Is Why We Fight”).  I am not arguing that the digital humanities will allow us to rediscover some forgotten or lost element of humanistic education.  But I would like to suggest that in his bid to defend the utility of the picture book, Hoole is engaging in precisely the “difficult thinking” Sample advocates, though his humanities are analog: he considers the perspectives and needs of his students and then does his best to search out technologies that will help him meet those needs, developing what Sample calls “rational empathy.”  Difficult thinking about DH, at least for me, has likewise foregrounded the importance of the interactions I have with my students as they are maintained and facilitated by our classroom technologies, and how this often seems to put my students at what they feel is a disadvantage.  For Hoole, studying what he calls the “representations” in the picture book is an intuitive activity, in that it is more or less the same as seeing or imagining the things themselves.  The technologies at work in my online teaching, however, seem to throw into question precisely the gaps between what my students see or read, what I write on our wiki pages, and what they hear me say in our videoconferences.

liber

I plan on disseminating a survey to my students before the end of the semester, in which I’ll ask some particularly pointed questions about their experience in the class, and try to deduce a more evidentiary basis for what is right now a hunch.  What I suspect happened is something that supports the old platitude, you don’t really know what you have until it’s gone.  That is, certainly my students had expectations for what an online course would be and how it would function.  Maybe some of them even relished the idea of never having to see me face to face.  Maybe some of them thought it would be easier than a normal course, precisely because it was technologically mediated – we must keep in mind that our students may be as prone to facile thinking about the digital as we are.  But on the other hand, I recognize that I myself am an intuitive and a familiar piece of classroom technology that seems to have malfunctioned: from a student’s perspective, the online instructor is like a volume that is always checked out of the library, and can only be read in 15 page chunks on Google Books.  As I continue to the end of this semester, then, I know I must work in new ways to identify my students’ reach and apply myself to it, and to keep in mind the difficult thinking we all must do – students and instructors alike – in the weeks and years to come.

2014, or: What Is Even Happening Anymore

2014, it turns out, was a big weird year of a lot of awful stuff and a few very cool, not so awful things.  Here’s what it looked like for me, as a list of highlights mostly pertaining to this blog.

In January, I did a reflection on my relationship to HP Lovecraft and his fiction in light of his racism.  I also wrote some brief remarks on an assorted collection of music videos.

A few months later, in April, I released a quiet little Twine game called Patrick.  That same month I published a brief academic piece about replayability at First Person Scholar.

In May I began reading for my PhD qualifying exams, providing a little reading of some 16th century translations of Ovid and the peculiarly alienating effect the poem’s structure seems to have on certain elements of everyday life.

This was followed in June by more quals reading, with a reflection on the meaning of the figure of Guy Fawkes.

In July I went back in time and republished the first piece of fiction I ever sold, a horror story about zombies.

August saw the end of my exams reading and a loose, baggy monster of a post about the affective experience of gameplay as Ngai’s “stuplimity,” an incredibly important development for me that’s still influencing the way I’m theorizing games.  At the end of August, a very awful thing happened in the world of videogames.

In September, I wrote about that very awful thing in a way that branched from my earlier piece on games and affect.  I also passed my PhD qualifying exams, and since then have been chewing my nails off over the prospectus, which I will turn in this coming semester.

In October, I released a massive Twine game called The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo.  The response to it was more than what I was prepared for, and certainly more than what I was expecting.  I was incredibly fortunate to have Kim Parker on board for the art, and in the end we were covered in Kotaku, Polygon, Rock Paper Shotgun, Wired, The Sydney Morning Herald (?), and very recently named Paste’s #1 Indie Game of the Year.  I think I can honestly speak for Kim when I say we were both floored by the incredible reception of this game, and I’ve been deeply moved by all the people who’ve contacted me personally to let me know what the game meant for them.

In November, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo bit me in the ass.  Or rather, Amazon’s cloud services did.  Because of the increased traffic to my hosting, I had to move some of the sound files to Amazon’s S3 service, which did not notify me when I went well above and beyond the basic bandwidth caps for the month.  However, people were again spectacular in ways I did not anticipate — and generously donated the funds necessary to help me pay my rent that month, while JayIsGames kindly took over hosting duties.  UWWFN continued to exert its pull, as I guested on the wonderful podcast Justice Points to discuss the project and general social justice issues in gaming.

In December, First Person Scholar posted the transcript of a scholarly roundtable on the GamerGate fiasco in which I participated.  I also made a Twine ghost story for you.  And then I wrote this post.

Looking back over all that stuff, I realize I had a fairly productive year, despite feeling like I rarely get anything done and the fact that I go entire months without posting on this blog.  What seems particularly intriguing to me, in retrospect, is how it clearly highlights the divergent professional and scholarly interests that are increasingly coming to define my work and my presence — Renaissance drama, the study of literature and culture, the study of games and contemporary digital media, and the production of artifacts in those media that, in strange ways, reflect my attempts to bridge the gaps of the discourses I am constantly trying to navigate.

It was not a year I expected, but I don’t this was a year anyone expected, or hoped for.  But I was incredibly fortunate to receive the attention and support of so many people, and I hope to pay that forward as we approach 2015.

And finally, I have to say I would not be here without the love and support of my partner, who remains steadfastly by my side even when I quote Zizek while making dinner, even when I make comparisons between her family dynamics and Shakespearean tragedies, even when I stay up until two in the morning tearing my hair out over Twine code, and even when I plowed her new car into a yellow caution pole in a parking garage in August.  Without her grace and good humor I don’t know what would become of me.

 

 

the bones picked clean and the clean bones gone

Happy holidays!  In the finest English Yuletide tradition, here’s a Twine ghost story for you, “the bones picked clean and the clean bones gone.”

It should take 20-30 minutes to read through, has two endings, and uses sound on the first page, as well as a few others.  It was sent a few days early to folks who played The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo and either paid what they wanted over itch.io, purchased the game’s Horse Armor DLC, or participated in the Amazon Horse Armor Extravaganza Cross-Promotional Event, and their names are listed in the credits.  They are very cool folks.

It has been a weird and pretty incredible year and I am thankful so many people experienced and enjoyed my art!!!

 

On Marginalia

Since life circumstances dictate otherwise, I can’t do a Halloween story this year, but in lieu of that, I’m going to provide you with a review of a game that came out this week, Marginalia by Connor Sherlock and Cameron Kunzelman.

There will be extensive spoilers for the game, which you should purchase and play beforehand if you want a totally “fresh experience.”  Got that?  Okay.

Marginalia is a horror game, or rather more accurately a “creepy” game or a “spooky” game, as by the end of the story it’s not quite clear if what’s happened (or what is still happening) is horrific in the precise sense we normally understand that term.

The narrative, such as it is, is delivered in Dear Esther-like voiceovers from the person into whose shoes you appear to have stepped.  You find out that the narrator’s boyfriend, Eric, has disappeared.  Eric seems to have been a historian, or perhaps an art historian; the narrator references his papers, which chart a particular fascination with late medieval and Renaissance art (especially as it was related to the occultist trends of that era) in parallel with the history of a region known as Kestlebrook.

This is where you are.  Kestlebrook.  Horror games very often operate through claustrophobia but Marginalia boasts a rather expansive Unity-made open world that, nota bene, made my laptop chug quite a few times in its attempts to render the numerous trees and vast mountainsides upon which you find yourself.

“The porter drew a map for me on the back of a brochure. In smudged pencil he showed me where to turn from the main road onto a dirt road and then where to leave the road entirely. I left the streetlights behind me and traveled into the dark.”

This narration is, to an extent, a little disingenuous.  You’ve left civilization behind, like Eric before you, but here in the wilderness you are struck by the sudden appearance of something unnatural — no, not in the horrific sense, but literally, manmade: a streetlight, a light post, a lamp.

It stands before you glowing red.  Is this an intentional quotation of Narnia?  Perhaps.

Finding the lamps rewards you with context and exposition delivered by the narrator.   Finding one means you can peer into the near distance and, more than likely, locate the warm glow of another.  The game inverts the normal claustrophobia of horror with this dynamic.

A world stretches out around you, but the lamp is a place to go, something to do.  You cling to these extrusions from the landscape — never mind that it becomes increasingly unclear why they are here, why there are so many, why they are all lit — because they are familiar.  They are not the wilderness.  Here at the margins of civilization they promise you won’t get lost, they are a sign that your path has a purpose and an end: someone was here before you, someone made a path for you.

You wander from point to point, triggering voiceover clips that inform you of the narrator’s history and through which he informs you that this deserted valley — devoid of human life, devoid of animal life — is historically the site of anomalous occurrences and sad accidents.

If you look carefully you will find other lights: low purple-blue torches which trigger different voiceover clips.  These purple lights are harder to see in the darkness, lower to the ground, and harder to follow; I’m not sure if I’ve found them all.  I don’t know if doing so impacts what happens later.

The procession of lights evokes, to me, certain aspects of the Fatal Frame series: wandering an empty space littered with the forgotten votives of an abandoned ritual.  The lamps morph into lanterns strung among the trees.  Festivity, or something like it.

But the lights disappear, and your landmarks — the things that draw you on and on — become rocks.  Obelisks.  Standing stones.   Primitive, and more insistently nonhuman, less comforting.

Some of them are carved with runes, which glow red.

Suddenly most of them are carved with — not simply runes — but lines, glowing red lines that visibly run from one outcropping to another.  Yet soon the lines come unmoored from the rocks, are freestanding beams of glowing red that sprout fibrously around you, flashing in arcs over your head.

The sound becomes frantic, the narrator irate, he calls this stuff machinery — built by whom, I wonder, and is it technology or art, utilitarian or aesthetic, are these ruins or are they perfectly preserved or newly built, and I remember the narrator related to me Eric’s passing mention of a figure who stepped out of a painting and disappeared into the throng of human life.  The game grows musical, electronic organ beating in time to the flashes of light, and it is unclear if I hear this music as a player for atmosphere or if this place is singing to me.

There is a doorway, or something like it.  You go through it, of course.

You thought you were on the margins of civilization and clinging to safe familiarity, but this has led you into something else entirely.  These are not the margins of our civilization and the wilderness around it, but the margins of our world.

the uncle who works for nintendo, aftermath

So I definitely did not expect what happened last week.  By which I mean I did not expect The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo to get quite the attention it did, starting with a link from Cameron Kunzelman, which apparently tossed the game to Kotaku and after that Polygon, slamming my hosting to death and necessitating me taking the game down for about five hours while I rewrote the code to stream the sound files from a CDN.  Shortly after, however, we were covered in The Verge, Wired, and Joystiq. Wow.  Wow wow wow.

In addition to all the links and brief write-ups, the piece has so far warranted at least two longer pieces of criticism, the first being Emily Short’s and the second Alex Pieschel’s (the same Alex, by the way, who wrote the article on glitch aesthetics that heavily influenced the game itself).

I did my own write-up over on Tumblr, in response to a player’s question about my use of gender in the game, which also gives some insight into my design process, my intentions, and the way these things often go awry outside a creator’s purview.  As I promise there, I’ll be updating the game sometime in the future to iron out some typos, implement a new sound macro, and hopefully rebalance it to encourage choosing a female friend more often.

This will happen sometime after I get a head start on my prospectus.  I kinda let that slide a bit.

I’d like to thank everyone who’s played so far, all those who have passed around links, all those who’ve commented here, on tumblr, and on twitter, or those who’ve sent emails.  It’s a rather strange feeling to have something that is so offbeat and personal be praised by so many people.   Here I’ll also publicly thank my partner, who was incredibly understanding when I spent last Wednesday night hurriedly rewriting my game’s code instead of eating dinner with her, and who’s been supportive throughout this process.

I’d also very much like to thank those people who paid for their horse armor unlockable content via Paypal.  I don’t make much money as a grad student, and it’s kind of nice to get some gas money out of a weird text adventure I made.

the uncle who works for nintendo

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My new Twine game, the uncle who works for nintendo, is now available for all to play.  It will take some time to get through one game, maybe 15 to 20 minutes at its shortest.  It has five possible endings.

The original commissioned artwork (some glimpsed in the above thumbnail) was made by the talented Kimberly Parker, who was absolutely amazing to work with.

The abstract artwork was made in the program Icosa by Andi McClure.

My inspirations are listed in the credits game itself, but I think it is appropriate to repeat them here:

Lights Out, Please by Porpentine, Vicky He, John R., Meghan, Jericho Bull, Ashley, Carli Velocci, Kitty Horroshow, Stephen Wilds, Aisley, Cathleen Macdonald, Sarah, and Kira, and the original story by Kaitlin Tremblay that preceded the collated anthology

Her Pound of Flesh by Liz England

You Were Made for Loneliness by Tsukareta

The Yahwg by Emily Carroll and Damian Sommer

History Lesson by withoutpillow

“Glitches: A Kind of History” in Arcade Review #3 by Alex Pieschel

My game uses a horror framework to think about misogyny and emotional abuse and manipulation, as it was (is) fostered particularly among children in the broader culture of videogames.  If you follow games culture at all, there are some resonances with current events here, and given that, I think it would be remiss not also to point you toward Liz Ryerson’s blog, which hosts not only excellent games writing, but some of the most incisive commentary on our recent troubles.

Special thanks goes, as always, to my beta-testers: Spam, Matt, Jeremy, Dan, Ivy, Alex, Harrison, and Victor.

Conspiracy and ‘False Activity’ for the Gamers

I do not have the time, desire, or stomach to completely recapitulate for you the queasy mess that is the ongoing clusterfuck called “GamerGate.”  Here’s an overview.  Additionally, I will defer to two of the finest critical voices on games I’ve encountered, Liz Ryerson and Daniel Joseph, who between them explain quite well the dynamics of the whole thing.

On Twitter, Jason Hawreliak observed that while the hubbub seems to have died down significantly since Zoe Quinn laid out some harsh justice, the fact remains that many die-hards still populate the hashtag, harassing devs and writers (including, still, Quinn herself), and generally hoping to either weather the storm of their disgrace or somehow effect a resurgence in the misplaced anger that fueled this particular hate machine to begin with.  While you’re at it, read Zoe on Cracked about her experiences.

As Jason noted, one thing this means is that the conspiracies born amid the earlier stages of the debacle have become increasingly elaborate and abstruse.  This makes sense, as I say in my reply to him: conspiracy theories aren’t made to be disproved but actually revised and reincorporated into an overarching mythology of conspiracies, providing the thinker with any number of ways to “explain” particular facets of the world.

John Brindle observed how the logic of the conspiracies, the searching, sorting, and winnowing of evidence, has seemed to dovetail almost effortlessly with the logic of playing a videogame.

As I say in my response to Jason’s tweet, I tend to conceive of this conspiracy-weaving through a psychoanalytic lens, and in particular through the idea of “false activity,” which I fork from Zizek.  Conspiracies are a method of constantly delaying “action” because there is always more to the situation then at first seemed apparent: we cannot do anything yet, because we haven’t sounded the depth of our imagined rabbit hole.  And this is particularly important since, in pursuing the bugbears of conspiracy theories (unscrupulous women game developers, or fluoride in your house’s tap water) you ignore more pressing, institutional issues: the fact that mainstream ‘games journalism’ has always been figuratively in bed with AAA developers, or that your civil liberties are being daily eroded by militarized police and an oligarchic government without any help at all from mind control agents in your kitchen sink.

False activity is a necessary corollary to “interpassivity,” an idea which Zizek himself forks from philosopher Robert Pfaller.  To contrast with the more acknowledged idea of “interactivity,” interpassivity is when objects begin to do things for us, in our place, rather than at our behest (this latter condition being the ideal of ‘interactivity’).  Zizek’s go-to example is the laugh track in a sitcom: the show itself laughs at its own jokes, so we don’t have to, and thus some of the heavy burden of paying strict attention is alleviated.  We are in fact allowed to “unwind” or relax.

For Zizek, then, “false activity” is the point at which the subject (sometimes willfully) misrecognizes an interpassive relationship for an interactive one, and vigorously attempts to treat it like one, but in so doing really prevents any action from taking place:

people not only act in order to change something, they can also act in order to prevent something from happening, so that nothing will change. Therein resides the typical strategy of the obsessional neurotic: he is frantically active in order to prevent the real thing from happening.

Here we arrive at my overall point: that “GamerGaters” or whatever we want to call them, are precisely in this position.  As mostly men, cisgender and heteronormative and white, the rise of socially conscious game developers, writers, queer folks, and women and PoC in gaming threatens them into a position where they feel “passive” in the arena of life where they have most often felt “active” (recall, here, points made by Ryerson and Joseph).

The result is the generally false activity of #GamerGate, of spinning wheels and ginning up controversy in the hopes that, by doing all this, absolutely nothing will happen, absolutely nothing will change.

This structure of activity is, I would further allege, one derived from (or at least strongly reinforced by) videogames themselves.  As I’ve increasingly thought and argued in my work on games, they are often profoundly tedious despite being marketed as endless fun.  As some of the voices of #GamerGate cry, reviewers often score the “fun” of a game subjectively, but rather than understanding that enjoyment is obstinately subjective, the Gaters call for more objectivity, as if the marketing copy of games (endless fun for you, forever!) could in fact be true.

Here we see the interpassive face of a medium whose primary selling point is its claim to interactivity.  To choose a rather unfavorable analogy, it seems that games have partly worked by indoctrination.  “I told you I was fun,” the game says, “the commercials said I was fun! So you definitely must be having fun!” And for a thousandth time your space marine is shot in the head by a shrieking 14-year-old on the other side of a continent.

So the “gamer” response is not to call for better games (that is, to interact with the medium and its industry, as many indie developers and writers are in fact doing — interaction with others at all has fallen under suspicion of ‘corruption’ for GGers) but rather a demand to materialize a sublime-impossible artifact of videogame advertising, and to that extent not so the industry can change, but so it can finally be what they thought it was all along: a boys-only playground.  Upon fulfillment of the above conditions these people, in their vociferous cries for action, can in fact remain the passive consumers they have always been, and always wanted to be.