Is There a Community Outside This Text?

Let’s establish some groundwork.  The Beginner’s Guide is a short art game by Davey Wreden that was named as a hot new IP for the year in a list at Destructoid.  The author of the list, Laura Kate Dale, made a very weird move of first, recommending the game, then, recommending the reader complete the game quickly in order to get a refund:

The Beginner’s Guide is a weird game, in that it caused a huge splash upon launch, with many reviewers hesitant to say anything at all about it. People were affected by it, not always positively, and it clearly had a strong impact on many players.

A few months on, it’s still unclear how genuine the narrative told is, or how much we can rely on the narrator of the experience. But if you have around and hour and a half and want to be floored by an unexpected narrative, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than The Beginner’s Guide.

Just make sure to complete it within your Steam refund window, as there are legitimate reasons to want to return this game after purchase.

The reason for this, it turns out, is that the game is metafictional and presents a scenario in which an unreliable narrator (portrayed by and named as Davey Wreden himself) is supposedly showing you some unfinished products made by another game creator who has since  disappeared.  The story takes on some dark aspects as it becomes clearer and clearer that Wreden’s fixation on this other artist is undeservedly intimate, and the end result is a meditation on how we feel about and approach authors through their work.  Dale explained her position in a later clarification:

To clarify the above statement regarding refunds, while I view this game as a work of fiction, and recommend people play it as such, many players view the narrative as an accurate work of non-fiction.

If you fall into the camp that view this as non fiction, an aspect of the narrative implies that the content is stolen wholesale from another developer. While I paid for the game and believe doing so is a morally acceptable action, what I wish to make clear is that if players disagree with my reading of the narrative and feel I recommended them an experience they didn’t morally agree with, there is a financial way to back out of that purchase.

This is not an encouragement to back out of payment due to length, but simply me pointing out that if you finish the game and believe the narrative to be non fiction, and if you believe that you purchased stolen goods, there is a way to avoid your money remaining with that developer in this very specific case.

My initial vague comment was an attempt to avoid a major spoiler for the narrative, but has unfortunately left the reasons for my recommendations open to wider interpretation.

To parse this out, then: the game is a fictional narrative that presents itself as, essentially, stolen content from an obsessed fan who has cobbled together his idol’s half-finished projects.  If you believe, however, that this game is somehow nonfiction, then you should request a refund.  What is bizarre here is Dale’s admission that the game is fiction and then the capitulation to a camp that reads it otherwise, as if fiction and nonfiction were a matter of interpretation.

But we’re not here to talk about Dale’s response so much as we are to talk about another response, from Paul Kilduff-Taylor, “The Beginner’s Guide of Interpretation,” which summarizes the above drama in more detail.  As Kildof-Taylor goes on to explain, he understands perfectly that the game is fiction, and he sees why so many of us are eyerolling at this peculiar turn:

A few years ago, I would have just joined in with sneering at this idea. I would have said that anyone who believes The Beginner’s Guide to be a comprehensive work of non-fiction is a total idiot, and thus has no right to any kind of opinion on it whatsoever, let alone a refund.

But, aha, Kilduff-Taylor explains, he knows why things have gone so awry.  The problem is what he calls “the equal validity of all interpretations,” and the following train of thought:

All interpretations of a work of art are equally valid

Truth is a component of validity

Some interpretations of a work may lead people to believe they are complicit in a crime perpetrated by the creator of the work

Therefore, such people are complicit in such a crime

Therefore they are morally obliged to ask for a refund

Thus, as Kilduff-Taylor says, if you see The Blair Witch Project and think it’s real, of course you’re morally obliged to demand the police investigate the crime.  Now here’s where Kilduff-Taylor does his own strange two-step: while admitting that this is a problem, he then laments that it cannot be solved, that interpretation itself has broken:

I now think that this may be a hopeless situation which cannot be escaped. It doesn’t matter that the “non-fiction camp” is overwhelmingly likely to be factually wrong, given the entire history of fiction, authorial insertion and so on. It doesn’t matter that, I believe, a superior interpretation of this game takes into account its ambiguity and allows space for other secondary readings to explore various facets of that ambiguity. It doesn’t matter that the game itself discusses these themes and we’re all playing into its hands continually with this kind of discussion. This does not matter. All interpretations are equally valid.

It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, facts are useless.  “We’ve conflated everyone’s right to an opinion,” he says, “with the idea that all opinions are equally correct. That has happened now, and as a culture we can never go back.”

He admits to sounding like a grumpy old man, and I’m glad he does so, because what is happening here is that Kilduff-Taylor is rehearsing a bizarre version of the conservative reaction to the rise of postructuralism in literary studies: the center cannot hold!  His closing statement that “We’ve already had the death of the author” and it is now “time to party at the wake of meaning” is a double lamentation for the linchpins that held discourse in place that have, apparently, been totally destroyed by some nebulous development in our culture:

This is a combination of huge social factors, like the existence of the internet and the intensely tribal backlash culture that has emerged. “Literally” means “figuratively”; every opinion must be prefaced with a statement of identity to highlight and define its subjective nature.

Nested in here and masked are complaints about social media, “callout culture,” indeed, it critically anticipates even the very fact that I’m writing this response only six hours after Kilduff-Taylor posted his article.  I’m not thinking, it alleges: we’re not thinking.  We’re reactionary.  We have a feeling, and we act upon it.  As the weird condescension suggests, we’re devolving into infantile subjectivism.

Stanley Fish, a pioneer of reader response criticism, developed the idea of the “interpretive community” to fight against the assertion that the “death of the author” rendered literary interpretation into pure subjectivism.  The anecdote that most often circulates here is Fish’s story of teaching a list of names left on chalkboard to his class as if it were a poem; what happened was that, if the class decided to treat the list of names as a poem, they could produces an analysis of the text as if it indeed was poetic, despite that not being the author’s original intent.

The point to be made, then, is that meaning arises as part of a relationship between not simply the reader and the text, but a variety of readers, a text, and a variety of cultural protocols that inform the production of meaning.  Fish’s “interpretive communities” are the people who have decided, okay, we’re going to treat such-and-such type of language as poetic, and other types as not. Meanings are “true” only insofar as they correspond to the parameters outlined by the interpretive community: whether it’s our classroom and our chalkboard, or the portion of the world that has decided green means go and red means stop when you’re driving.  We can interpret all we like, but our interpretations are informed by outside, communal resources and circumstances, and in the end, validity of our interpretations is based on how well the community sustains them.

Let’s say something extreme and silly: I think Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about space aliens.  Specifically, Old Hamlet’s ghost is not a ghost, but an alien.  My evidence for this is that the ghost has otherworldly powers and is scary.  The evidence I discount is, well, the text’s referral to the creature  as a ghost, and the cultural history of ghosts and ghost stories Shakespeare had access to.  I can believe that the ghost is an alien as much as I want, but that will never make this interpretation valid, because there is no interpretive community to support it.  To put it another way: an interpretation can be “valid” insofar as a person interprets (no one can deny you that) but an interpretation’s connection to truth is a result of a community’s willingness to acknowledge and sustain its truth value.

In Kilduff-Taylor’s thinking, it seems,  a multiplicity of potential meanings completely explodes, in the popular mind, any ability to distinguish between truth claims.  We now, suddenly, live in a world where Hamlet is filled with aliens and also I can run down to the police station and tell them to investigate these Blair Witch murders, and even if they show me the IMDb pages of the actors involved and various making-of featurettes, because I am still entitled to my opinion.  Even if there is a “superior” interpretation that takes into account facts, my interpretation is still valid.  Hyperbole aside, this is flagrantly wrong.

Now, let’s say we have two interpretive communities, people who believe The Beginner’s Guide is fictional and people who believe it is nonfiction.  The people who believe it is nonfiction agree in their interpretation of the text, more or less.  Their evidence derives from the game itself, where the game’s creator Davey Wreden address you and tells you a story about how he took some of the stuff you’re seeing from another artist and then sold it to you. Seems pretty airtight, right?

But in doing so they fetishize the game as an object extricable from its circumstances of production and reception, namely, that we live in a culture and a market where it would be pretty universally regarded as bad form for Wreden to actually carry out the conceit of the game, let alone admit it to us, and metafiction as a longstanding tradition wherein you never trust a narrator named after the author.  Yet for this camp, meaning inheres not in interpretation, but in the most glaring parts of the object itself.  In the end, the author is not dead, he’s just been swapped for his persona.

The interpretive community which acknowledges the game as fiction takes not only the game’s narrative irony into account, but the extensive writing and criticism about the game and its metafiction.  This community’s interpretation is more sustainable (“superior” in Kilduff-Taylor’s terms) because it enlists the game in addition to a history of and protocol for critical reception, as well as the presumed protocols for the production and sale of the weird objects we call videogames.

Kilduff-Taylor’s tired handwashing here is not so much an indictment of the problem of two interpretive communities — whose existence and cross-reference is facilitated by the internet as a mode of critical reception — as it is an attempt to escape the problem entirely.  At some undesignated time before now, people just would have read the game correctly, no problem!  Meaning would have been obvious, and interpretation would have been a pleasant exercise in riffing upon its verities from that point on.  We’ve thus already lost, and all we can do is take solace in our own knowledge and interpretation as things fall apart.

This is disingenuous because the fact that anyone is even taking issue with the implication that Wreden should not be paid for his work is a sign that, indeed, people are not willing to let the patently worse interpretation of the game stand.

20 paragraphs on Undertale: a critique


EDIT: twitter user @akatookey alerted me that the “genocide run” (as it was referred to in an earlier draft of this post) isn’t preferred terminology of the creator, which makes a load of sense. i went along with what seemed to be the prevailing usage in the community materials i found but since i now have an alternative, all instances have been changed to “no-mercy.”  -ML


Undertale is a game by toby fox. it is very clever and entertaining, and filled with loads of cool characters and funny jokes. it is kind of a slog to play, because it has random encounters that lead to bullet hell segments, and these are my two least favorite types of gameplay. still, it’s worth it.


Undertale has received much deserved acclaim, but criticizing it has been something of a thorny issue. jake muncy’s review at killscreen for instance was met with a lot of derision, since muncy takes issue with what he sees to be as the unclarity of the game’s combat mechanics. the point that muncy ends up making needs to be considered, however: he is not admitting he is ‘bad at games’ — he is telling us that the game does not always clearly communicate to the player that pacifist options in combat are having any notable effect. indeed, i would add that this is symptomatic of Undertale as a whole: it is attempting to communicate a message about how to be a good or bad person in the world it presents for you, but in the end the game itself unintentionally muddles your ethical relationship to that world.


this is important because the game operates on a very unusual and fascinating moral calculus. in combat you always have the option of fighting a monster or peacefully placating them. the game tracks these decisions: killing any monster results in an eventual “neutral” ending, which gives you the option of trying again on a purely pacifist route, which will get you the so-called “true” ending. on the other hand, killing every single creature you encounter in the game results in the so-called no-mercy route. the game keeps in mind your previous playthroughs — thus the true ending is always preceded by a neutral ending — and if you complete a no-mercy playthrough, the game remembers this and, even if you attempt to do a pacifist route afterward, there are grave consequences.


there will be spoilers.


Undertale has three well written stories, but i don’t think these stories hang together. the criticism (for me at least) arises out of an attempt to consider the project as a whole: games are structured like arguments insofar as they make a series of propositions that you-as-player agree or disagree to with an eye to how these things will pay off in the future timeline of gameplay. the game (as a system) offers incentives or disincentives for various choices, and in so doing belies its own (ie, the creators’) commitment to one path over the other. the branching narratives of a game form their own sort of system that belies an argument. in the case of Undertale, the game itself embraces the notion of its various plotlines coexisting (or potentially coexisting) simultaneously as a kind of quantum phenomenon expressed through metafictional gimcrackery. yet in considering all of its possibilites as a whole, the game’s argument tends toward incoherence.


Undertale‘s no-mercy run is so incredibly tedious and difficult to complete, and the characters in the game shriek at you for being horrible so often, that these constitute in my view pretty clear disincentives for doing it. the game (and by extension its creators) are very obviously telling you you’re being an asshole, even as they allow for the possibility. by contrast, if you complete a neutral run, the game will helpfully offer you hints on how to get the “best” ending, ie, encouraging you to pursue it further and do a pacifist run. however, in the case of a no-mercy run, the game assigns you a persona of perverse willfulness in order to construct a sensible narrative for why you are carrying it out.


you play as a human child who has fallen into an underground realm of neurotic monsters. the monsters fled underground to escape human persecution, and have been plotting vengeance in their own incredibly half-hearted way for some time. things were set on this path, we eventually learn, when a previous human child fell into the underground and befriended the child of the king and queen of monsters. in a terrible tragedy, the human child and the prince of the monsters died, and ever since the king of monsters has been working to collect enough human souls to breach the barrier keeping his people trapped in the underground.


that is what you learn when you do a neutral run. if you follow the game’s prodding after that and do a pacifist run, here is what happens: you are not who you think you are. the first human child, it is implied, attempted to incite an open war between humans and monsters by emotionally manipulating the royal family, a ploy that resulted in the aforementioned tragedy. your player character’s name is “frisk” but up until this point, everyone has referred to you by the name of the first fallen child, who by default is named “chara.” in the pacifist ending, you peacefully resolve the conflict with the monsters, placate the unhappy spirit of the prince of monsters, and lead all your new friends back into the light of day. it’s nice.


if you complete a no-mercy run, you discover that the spirit of the first human, chara, is still lingering. after you have murdered everyone in existence, chara approaches you with a bargain: trade your soul for a chance to remake the world. not complying renders the game unplayable. agreeing seemingly “resets” the world. attempting to complete a pacifist run after this point results in the same ending and is mechanically no different, save for one thing. in completing a pacifist run after a no-mercy run, a brief stinger will reveal that frisk has been fully possessed by chara and still plans on taking out the surviving characters. short of messing with the game’s data, there is no way to undo this.


my biggest criticism of Undertale is that for a good portion of it to make sense you have to do the thing the game expressly does not want you to do; the implied player of the best ending just accepts things on blind faith and never questions or investigates the metaphysics of it all. doing a no-mercy run makes the best ending unobtainable. this wouldn’t be a problem, i insist, if not for the fact that the no-mercy run is the most expedient way of making sense of a few aspects of the story, namely, the role of the character of sans, and the only way to discover the nature of the original fallen human, chara.


sans is a short skeleton who maintains memories of your various playthroughs of the game through saving and reloading. this is because he was assisting a mysterious doctor with some secret experiments and now operates as some sort of guardian of the game’s timeline/reality. he will suggest the background on this only if you do a no-mercy run. you can discover roughly similar information in a pacifist run, but this requires you to save and reload several times in his presence, which is frankly obtuse since it is only through the no-mercy route that he openly admits to knowing something. though he appears to you as a moral arbiter no matter what route of the game you’re pursuing, without the hint from the no-mercy run, his anomalous knowledge seems more like a convenience than anything having to do with the plot.


yet what truly interests me here is chara. chara is the closest thing the game has to a real villain, since everyone else you fight is either confused or misunderstood and can be helped. chara is, not to put too fine a point on it, radically evil. without completing a no-mercy run, you don’t know this: you simply know that chara was not as nice as everyone thought they were. however: you are chara. what i mean is, chara is the name of the player, since that is who you name when you begin the game, long before the player character is revealed to be frisk. in other words, chara is implied to have your name. indeed, toby fox said on twitter you should name the fallen human after yourself. death of the
author notwithstanding, the implied player, from the developer’s standpoint, becomes coterminous with the game’s vision of radical evil.


in the end you are either someone who did their best to “listen” to what the game was telling you and get the “best” ending, or you’re someone who decided to be a homocidal jerk and somehow, in the process, got the fullest sense of the game’s narrative possible. i have no idea why these outcomes are counterpoised.


attempting to discuss these issues with fans of the game meant i was sanctimoniously told i expected to not face consequences for my actions. even questioning the game’s representation of this moral choice made me, in the eyes of several other players, morally dubious, or someone who cared too much about a game that was trying (and they assumed, succeeding) to make me feel bad.  but i did not do a no-mercy run. indeed, the idea was unpleasant to me, since as i said, this route exacerbates what i already find tedious about the game.  furthermore, i genuinely liked the characters; i have no problem with not being able to murder them. but even at the end of the pacifist run, i had questions about the world, these characters, and their motivations. frankly, without the knowledge gleaned from a no-mercy run, sans and chara are so barely outlined that they make little sense in the larger context of the game.  my knowledge of no-mercy runs here is gained through perusing the wiki and LPs on youtube.


the game hid answers to my questions behind something i had no interest in doing. it’s not clear what it was trying to communicate to me in doing this. nevetheless, Undertale feels very insistent about wanting to tell me something about the nature of friendship and forgiveness and what it means to play a game. some aspects of the no-mercy run, as far as i can tell, leverage a kind of anticompletionism message: characters suggest you’re committing these atrocities simply to “see what happens” and things to that effect. and indeed, many who complete these runs are probably doing just that. but the game itself is what has married completionism to the act of murdering all the other characters. and why is it that only players who choose this path confront the real truth of chara? why cannot chara — who is you, really — be overcome?


in all other arenas, Undertale insists that conflict arises from unwarranted fear and misunderstanding. it rewards you for pacifism and forging friendships. everyone, it wants to suggest, can get along only if we’re determined enough. and yet, the no-mercy run offers the exact obverse suggestion: radical evil exists, and it cannot be expunged. if we take Undertale at its word, however, and believe its conceit of multiple timelines manipulable by the game’s save and load functions, we find that the latter possibility is necessarily latent in the former. that is to say, chara happened; they are constant through all possible narratives, and they are still there, somewhere. the game’s sentimentality runs aground on the lack of mercy it allows the player to exercise, and the subsequent lack of mercy it extends to that player.


flannery o’connor famously said that To Kill a Mockingbird was good — for a children’s book. what she meant was that the story it had to tell, while good, was also ethically simplistic. if the publication of Go Set a Watchman this year did anything, it proved o’connor right: by introducing the complexities of racism in showing a segragationist atticus finch who could, on the one hand, believe in the innocence of a black man, and on the other, insist black people in general should not exist in the same realm of life as white people, the novel revealed how dearly held the simple tale of good and evil had become to us.


at the risk of sounding terribly crass (and catty), i will reformat o’connor’s critique for Undertale. part of the game’s power is that it allows the player to feel like they’re part an intense network of emotions, spread across its cast of colorful characters. the game attaches a moral judgment to this act, suggesting being friendly, open, and merciful is the right thing to do. the stance, while not revolutionary, is certainly admirable, considering the violent tendencies of most games.


but the emotional high of making the decision to be good relies on the concomitant potential to be evil. and in order to maintain the desired sanctity of its good ending, the game suggests that there is indeed a way to go beyond salvation — a way that the game itself scripts and judges you for. the ideal Undertale player is docile, merciful, and does not question their path, even when the game presents no indication that things are moving forward. the ideal Undertale player is not you, does not have your name: you have already been here, left your dark mark, and now you must be exorcised. finding yourself in Undertale is dangerous.


my favorite character is mettaton.


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.

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 uncle who works for nintendo






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.

“Tear it outta the sky!”: Stuplimity, Affect, and Games

In the fall of 2008 I was a sophomore in college.  I had a friend who reliably purchased hot new AAA videogames, and it was our custom after dinner to retire to his room and play something or other for a few hours, rotating play responsibilities while the rest of us chatted, made remarks about the game, discussed classes and campus life, and so on.

This friend purchased StarWars: The Force Unleashed.  At a certain point in the game, you are tasked with pulling a Star Destroyer out of the sky with the Force.   As with so many other parts of the game, it was a lengthy quick-time event that made an elaborately choreographed scene marginally interactable.  Here’s a video:

What was important about my friend’s game is that it glitched.  At the final stage of the event (about 3:30 in the video) the player avatar locked into place, the icons indicating the player needed to use the analog sticks appeared, and a crackling disembodied voice commanded him to “Pull it outta the sky!

And then nothing else happened for probably more than an hour.

The game didn’t freeze, the music didn’t stop, my friend could still move the analog sticks and influence the movement of things on screen, and every few minutes the game would remind him, as if he had somehow wandered off or forgotten, to “Pull it outta the sky!

My friend, a tenacious game-player if there ever was one, kept at it.  We watched as he became increasingly agitated, leaving him to stew in silence as our conversation drifted away from him and the television in the center of the dorm room.  On the screen was something that I imagine we might only ever see again if Samuel Beckett somehow got a job writing one of the new Star Wars films: a snarling Jedi caught in cinematic stasis, a waggling Star Destroyer suspended indefinitely in front of him while the brass blared heroically all around: —We must pull it out of the sky!Oh, but we couldn’t.  —But if we did?Could we?

I don’t know how long it took us to suggest to our friend that maybe it was a glitch, and to reload from a prior save, but this event became sufficiently notorious in our social group as to constitute its own in-joke, a tendency to shout a misremembered “Tear it outta the sky!” at one another during moments when we were feeling frustrated, irritated, or overwhelmed.

This has all been a roundabout introduction to the issue of affect and games, and in particular the ways in which videogames often seem to confound the epic and exhilarating with the banal and irritating.  This precise confusion has been described by Sianne Ngai in her book Ugly Feelings, under the neologism of “the stuplime” — a bizarre crossroads of the unpleasant, thick, and “stupid” with the vast and terrifying wonder of the Kantian sublime, where the human mind is supposed to successfully recognize its own inability to grasp the totality of, say, a mountain or a storm, and then takes comfort in its own self-conscious boundedness.

Contrasted to that, as Ngai explains it, the stuplime is

…a bringing together of what “dulls” and what “irritates” or agitates; of sharp, sudden excitation and prolonged desensitization, exhaustion, or fatigue. While the Kantian sublime stages a competition between opposing affects, in which one eventually supersedes and replaces the other … stuplimity is a tension that holds opposing affects together. … Stuplimity reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality … yet not through an encounter with the infinite but with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition. (271)

I obviously would like to suggest that stuplimity has something to offer the study of videogames.  I am not the first person to do so; in an insightful article on “the digital sublime,” Eugénie Shinkle invokes Ngai to describe the affect of gameplay as one of potential  stuplimity, of boring and repetitive tasks punctuated by moments of heightened attention, energy, and exhilaration: “…this suggests that we situate videogames in the context of the general waning of affect that is said to characterize postmodern experience” (6).

It is Ngai’s contention that stuplimity is a specific and symptomatic affect of our contemporary late-capitalist world, which is why it warrants the neologism.  Indeed, if she is correct in this, and if I am correct in my hunch that stuplimity describes game-experiences with an uncanny accuracy, then the fit might be because the videogame is the late-capitalist aesthetic object par excellance.

Shinkle’s search is, as I indicated, for the elusive “digital sublime,” and in the end she asserts that stuplimity will not get us there, because in games “the two affects [ie, astonishment and boredom] are not collapsed into one another but continue to exist, in tension, as discrete categories” (10-11).

Shinkle contrasts the stuplime with Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “flow,” which accounts for the large expanses of repetitive or abstruse gameplay we may endure without actually becoming irritated.  A good example here might be how many people, at a certain time in their lives (particularly the 90s) were able to buckle down and grind through thousands of random encounters in Japanese RPGs with nary a grumble.

But Shinkle does not simply argue for flow over stuplimity, pointing out that both of them rely on an implicit notion that “the technology itself – software and interface – disappears into functionality” (8).  She then turns to the issue of a game’s “failure event,” which breaks flow.  This, then, is why games (for Shinkle) do not “collapse” the affects of astonishment and boredom, because a game that is “working” will result in an experience of flow.  What Shinkle calls the digital sublime, then, is always ultimately an accident, a moment when the game as artifact retreats from the player indefinitely:

In failure events, both the game and the technologically-enabled posthuman self cease to exist as such. Instead, the subject is confronted with a mute technological artifact – a featureless surface that bears no decipherable relationship to the unimaginably complex workings that it conceals. Contemporary digital technology lacks the capacity for representation that allowed nineteenth-century artifacts to function as sources of awe in and of themselves. As objects, contemporary digital technologies are destined for obsolescence, their production driven less by a wish to celebrate human ingenuity than by the late capitalist imperatives of novelty and innovation. (9-10)

Shinkle’s digital sublime relies not on the hopeless muddling of boredom and astonishment, but rather irruptive moments when digital artifacts at first cast us off and, contrasted with Kantian natural phenomena like storms and mountains, we recognize them as “banal” consumer products, things made for us but which exist in some inscrutable and frankly-not-very-exciting way beyond us.  (In this sense I think Shinkle’s idea resonates to some extent with Tim Morton’s idea of the hyperobject, especially as it describes the styrofoam trash that stuffs our landfills and will outlast us all.)  As Shinkle summarizes, “In the contemporary digital sublime, the experience of the limitless potential of human ingenuity is
lodged within artifacts whose material existence is fleeting and insignificant” (11).

And yet I think, in the search for the sublime, Shinkle brushes past far too quickly the potential insights of the stuplime gaming experience.  I find myself returning to the moment when my friend could not tear the Star Destroyer from the sky.  On the one hand this is precisely the failure event Shinkle discusses, the moment when the game seemed to clam up and resist my friend’s attempts to act on it or with it, and we recognize it as banal, overhyped, mass-produced Star Wars merchandise, indistinguishable from any copy in any other Xbox anywhere else.

But on the other hand, the object was not at all “mute” — the icons were there telling my friend to use the analog sticks, the game itself kept urging him to “pull it out of the sky,” the Star Destroyer bobbed like a cork in the sea, and yet despite all of this happening, nothing actually happened.

Or rather, nothing happened in terms of progression through the game.  Outside the game, my friend became increasingly and obviously angry; my other friends and I became increasingly bored and increasingly uncomfortable about our friend playing the game; in the end the experience was so affectively strong that it left its mark on our group dialect, and many years later, brought me to write this blog post.

Not only that, but games can be affectively deadening, irritating, and uncomfortable even when they work correctly.  This seems to have become more pronounced lately in  gameswriting, especially regarding AAA titles.  Consider Leigh Alexander’s excellent critique of BioShock Infinite, which describes her dismay at encountering a gamespace that is technically excellent, artistically ambitious, and yet at the same time unsatisfying and hollow:

I’m in the land of the Vox. Some shantytown. A man stands on a crate, preaching about the misfortunes of the working class. I want to snap a picture of the juxtaposition between the way I always want to listen to him and the way I am always waving a gun in his face, and so I put the controller down and held my phone up to the screen. As I am picking the controller back up, my finger slips, and I shoot him by accident.

What Alexander describes here is not a failure state.  It is the way the game is supposed to run — you are supposed to be able to shoot that street preacher.  Someone somewhere in the game’s development thought, “The player may want to shoot people on the street.  We won’t force it, but we’ll allow it to be a possibility.”  But for Alexander — who by this point is quite disenchanted with the game, anyway — it is merely one more absurd setpiece of murder in her episodic journey through a game consisting almost entirely of instances where you brutally murder strangers on the street.

We might also look at Paul Tassi’s review of Call of Duty: Ghosts.  Calling the game “modern military shooter fatigue incarnate,” the flat affect of his opening line succinctly encapsulates the stuplimity of videogames: “I’m in space. I’m shooting a machine gun, in space.”

His follow up: “I don’t know what else is left to do at this point.”

One might fairly object that these are unfavorable reviews.  They are, of course, rhetorically positioned to figure their objects as stuplime; in a “good” game, or at least a game the reviewer likes, there is less attention devoted to issues like this because the player either buys into the game’s absurdity in a sincere way or the gameplay (which, almost definitionally, will be somehow repetitive) produces the “flow” necessary for “proper” enjoyment.

To further crowd an already populated essay, let me point out the phenomenon of the cynical video review — I think most specifically of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation, or James Rolfe’s Angry Video Game Nerd.  Croshaw’s persona as a reviewer is predicated on him being sardonically unimpressed with most games he plays, delivering his comments in a brisk but generally disinterested tone.  The Angry Video Game Nerd’s format, while focusing on vintage or classic games, relies on being similarly unimpressed, though Rolfe’s delivery is considerably less manic.

In both cases the reviewers repeatedly present their positions of darkly humorous cynicism as being a viable viewpoint to take in regard to videogames.  They form a counterpoint to the “hype machine” of the enthusiast press and, I suspect especially in Croshaw’s case, earn a sense of “authenticity” in their opinions among viewers.  Both seem to be chronically on the verge of echoing Tassi’s weary observation: “I don’t know what else is left to do at this point.”

What is left to do?  The answer is actually quite simple: review another game!

What if the tired cynicism of the video reviewers, the tone of floating distress that invades written reviews of bad games, illuminate something fundamental to the aesthetic experience of videogames?

Ngai again:

Inducing a series of fatigues or minor exhaustions, rather than a single, major blow to the imagination, stuplimity paradoxically forces the reader to go on in spite of its equal enticement to readers give up … pushing us to reformulate new tactics for reading. (272)

Is this not how games function?  Are not all games just a little bit boring, chains of “minor exhaustions,” challenges and puzzles and unfamiliar mechanics, requiring us to chip and click and press and shoot our way forward again and again and again?  In reviews where games are figured as boring or bad, are we not simply seeing highlighted and disparaged the very mechanics that, in another configuration in another game, might become a part of the “flow” of gameplay, perhaps unpleasant or imperfect but “natural”-feeling enough to keep us from giving up?  Might not any “bad” game mechanic, if pulled into the proper assemblage, or experienced by a certain player, come off as rather tolerable, if not outright “good”?  In short, what if all games are basically stuplime?

I have already brought up the example of the JRPG as a game whose tedium might be subsumed by the trance-like state of flow.  I was one of those players who experienced their share of very grindy JRPGs in the 90s, and I hold fond memories of all of them — but I question whether this was the result of flow, or rather the result of a selective memory and a selective fondness.

I certainly don’t think I have the patience to play through Final Fantasy VIII again, despite the fact that it’s one of my favorite games.  I remember, in fact, being bored and irritated by extensive bouts of grinding in it and just about all the JRPGs I played.  I continued with these games so long as it seemed possible to make the next non-grindy section of the game more palatable; I continued to play JRPGs so long as I had a taste for melodramatic stories about teens with nebulously environmentalist or anti-fascist messages looking sad and/or beautiful while staving off cosmic catastrophe.

This is all to say, pace Shinkle, that astonishment and boredom do in fact collapse into each other during gameplay.  There are certainly instances where one is winnowed from the other: boredom overcomes all and the player quits, or those moments of heartfelt wonder and astonishment.  But I would argue that, for the most part, games are experienced precisely in the middle of these two extremes.  Games are filled with “gray” time — unremarkable time, filler, which we may or may not recognize as such and may or may not care about, given a variety of external factors.  The game does not cede to a pure functionality, but rather the player’s affect and attention exist in tension with what the game asks or requires the player to do.  (Consider the varied responses to David O’Reilly’s Mountain [scroll down to the website logos for reviews] for some rather lucid expressions of these tensions.)

My friend did not restart Star Wars: The Force Unleashed immediately because he genuinely could not tell he had entered a failure state.   It bore none of the more egregious marks of a glitched game, and it had occurred in the already vastly narrowed playspace of a quick-time event, without any of the hallmarks of that event being failed.  We waited so long to restart because we could not “comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality” — ie, because we were inoculated to games as complex systems designed to present challenges, to urge us to “stop” or “give up the fight,” while hiding the fact that progress was indeed possible, implicitly demanding we try anyway, that we attempt a new tactic, keep attempting the QTE, or (eventually) reload a save.

Is there, then, a fundamental way in which games teach their players to embrace a certain type of stuplimity: “Do this.  Keep doing this.  Now do that. Oh, you messed up — try again.  Yes, again.  Do it again.  You may not like it, but the cool stuff’s ahead — I promise”?  And perhaps the player sees it — or thinks she sees it: that cool stuff, that Thing, the payoff, the promise of affective astonishment hovering just ahead, bobbing helplessly in the air, waiting to be pulled down to her with just the right combination of button presses.

2013 in review

Wow, what a year.

I skipped last year’s review because I felt like it was simultaneously too boring/stressful and I didn’t want to do a write-up, but then THIS year happened and it was simultaneously more boring and stressful than last year, so I figure why the hell not.

I finished my graduate coursework and will now be moving into qualifying exams, preparing my reading list for the summer for my oral exams in the fall.  I have wrapped up a very difficult semester of teaching, two sections for the first time, and after my department switched out the class I was supposed to be teaching in favor of something else only a few weeks before the beginning of the semester.

I made two games with the hypertext program Twine, and they were both pretty well liked by folks!  For reference, here’s a very flattering write-up Alex Pieschel did for my game Tower of the Blood Lord.  The second game, my father’s long, long legs, very nearly crashed my webhosting here and then actually did crash my webhosting, and courtesy of Peter Damien was featured on a website for people who read books instead of internet.  Emily Short wrote a very brief but thoughtful piece on it and I recently found out all-around Cool Chap Cameron Kunzelman included it on his GOTY list.

Interactive fiction — and games in general — have become much more important to me recently, as I find myself being very interested in 400 year old plays on the one hand and very new and weird digital things on the other.  The uniting factor, to rehearse the cliche, seems to be that “play’s the thing” — gameplay, shakespeareplay.  Or something.  Anyway I am continuing to press on this and what it means for me as an academic (which is my job) but also as a person who wants to be better at being a person, generally, and to make things that help others enjoy life and be people.

So thanks to not only the people I’ve linked here, but the people who’ve played my games, talked about them, shared them — and all the people who made the games I played and wrote the things I read that suggested to me that this was something I could and should do myself.

I am going to continue to work with twine.  It’s been a very therapeutic process for me in a lot of ways, allowing me to look at old memories askance, and to synthesize a lot of the information and theory I get from my work as an academic, but to put it towards ends that are in some ways more personally rewarding than simply writing a research paper.  2013 could probably be called the year I remembered to think about myself.

Also: this was the year I asked my girlfriend to marry me.  She said yes.  The date is a ways off — not until she finishes her grad program in another year and a half, at least.  But that’s certainly a thing that happened in my life, a very big and important thing, in a year that seemed to be filled with important things.

It was a tough year for a lot of folks. Next year might not be any better, but we’re all here right now. For a time, at least, we’re moving and saying things in a crazy multifaceted fully articulated material universe, and things just keep going.  So thanks for taking a moment out of your busy, fully articulated (but eternally obscured) schedule to read this, to read any of the words I’ve written on this blog, or elsewhere.  Best of luck next year.

I will end this post with a block quote.  Rather than provide any explication — apart from the fact that it is something I think about often — I will let it stand on its own, and perhaps its significance will become clearer in time to both you and me.  From The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton:

“What place can this be?” he asked. “Can it be the old devil’s house? I’ve heard he has a house in North London.”

“All the better,” said the Secretary grimly, planting a foot in a foothold, “we shall find him at home.”

“No, but it isn’t that,” said Syme, knitting his brows. “I hear the most horrible noises, like devils laughing and sneezing and blowing their devilish noses!”

“His dogs barking, of course,” said the Secretary.

“Why not say his black-beetles barking!” said Syme furiously, “snails barking! geraniums barking! Did you ever hear a dog bark like that?”

He held up his hand, and there came out of the thicket a long growling roar that seemed to get under the skin and freeze the flesh — a low thrilling roar that made a throbbing in the air all about them.

“The dogs of Sunday would be no ordinary dogs,” said Gogol, and shuddered.



PLEASE remember to stay on-topic and respectful in your reviews.  Our automated system will flag anything that does not discuss the maze or seems inappropriate!

Ian K.
Whitbridge, IN


[Note: This post  is under moderator review for the following reasons: Does Not Discuss Mazes]

Incredibly sad to see this place go, we had some great times here!  I guess from now on for all my cider needs I’ll have to head down to Kellerman’s Cidería, the home of the best spiced apple cider in southern Indiana!

That’s Kellerman’s Cidería, just off Bockhoffer Road on the west side of Whitbridge!

Janice D.
Chicago, IL


Apparently everyone down here is insane, since I remember something about riots in this same area around Halloween last year.  Anyway, I saw the crazy woman myself, standing in the flames with her gas can in hand and barking like a dog (????) as the corn maze burned down around her.  At one point I saw her pick up this screaming toddler and chuck him right into the flames!  That might have been a hallucination though, I’ll have to talk with my therapist.  Plus I’d been breathing in a lot of smoke.

And of course, it being Halloween last night, the place was packed — screaming everywhere, people trampled underfoot.  THAT wasn’t all a hallucination.  Jesus.  They still don’t have a count of casualties beyond an estimate, and several people are still missing.  Even the town’s mayor was there, and no one can find him now.

All in all, not a very fun experience.  If it’s representative of trips to this venue, I would NOT recommend going.  The apple cider was good, though, and made for a quick and delicious way to put out my shirt when it caught fire.

George L.



[Note: This post  is under moderator review for the following reasons: Does Not Discuss Mazes]

almost ripe

almost harvest

Corey A.
Indianapolis, IN


Well, it’s that time of year again! We all know once autumn hits corn mazes pop up left and right here in Indiana, and those of us on unWindr take a break from searching out the best meditational labyrinths and hedge installations to experience these quaint seasonal projects — there’s something special about a maze that’ll be gone soon, lost to the elements, and built anew next year. Of course, with so many of these all over the state, the question becomes which ones are worth your time?

I have to tell you, the Harvest Maze out on the old Frumhel land (forget the stories you’ve heard) outside of Whitbridge is DEFINITELY one of the must-visits this season! After a rough start a few years back things are finally taking off for this amazing maze of maize!

The mayor himself is apparently in charge here, which tells you this place is of vital importance to the town.  A sort of farmer’s market has grown up around it, so there are plenty of pumpkins, squashes, and other fall produce to buy, freshly made cider, candy apples, etc. Hay rides are given in the evening and every Fri/Sat/Sun the maze’s “Spooky Hour” is accented with a creepy soundtrack and locals in goofy costumes jumping out and saying boo. (Note: younger kids may not find this so great! Our daughter is prone to nightmares so we left her to play with the son of the woman running the front stand, but she must have heard us talking about some of the “spooky” stuff, and she’s not sleeping well!)

The maze itself is of a surprisingly high quality and complex design for what is normally an amateur job. The paths are looping and intricate, and confounded even an experienced unWindr such as myself. You bet we’ll be back next year!

Tracey P.
Cincinnati, OH


We were in town visiting some friends, and lemme say, in Ohio we tend to look down on corn mazes (my family comes from a long line of die-hard hedgers). Hate to admit it, but this competes with the best! Tons of fun for all ages, by turns goofy and creepy and charming. Everything an autumn activity should be!

The hot cider is exellent, some of the best I’ve ever had, and an absolute must if you visit. The cider, according to the man who served was, was his own family recipe, so it was really great to see that this place had so much history already!

Still, it’s not the perfect corn maze experience — at one point during the journey I smelled something rotten, as if there was some bad corn or something just behind the path.  It can happen this time of year, especially if harvest is being put off, but still.

Erica D.
Haymeadow, IN


My boyfriend and I love the caramel apples at this place and also the cider! We wish there was an orchard so you could pick your own apples too but still you can get a discount for produce and the hayride together so it’s a good deal.

The people who run the maze have a little shack out front where they sell the cider and local farmers sell produce, and the lady behind the counter has the cutest little kid! The poor thing sits in a little car seat most of the time and he’s just so small and cute!!!

Also don’t go into the maze without the guides because it is VERY easy to get lost!!!!!

Anna N.
Indianapolis, IN


The doctors let me out on good behavior.  I told them everything they needed to hear, which is to say I lied.

Can you lie, when you don’t really understand what you’re lying about?

I don’t know what’s happening with this maze, not really.  And I’m beyond wanting to know.  But I think I know how to stop it.


Kelly R.
Whitbridge, IN


Amazing point of pride for Whitbridge, definitely one of the best seasonal mazes out there.  Plenty of challenge without any of the hassle. Really took our minds off all the stuff that happened over in Haymeadow.  Mayor Louis made a speech here last night about how much work it took to harvest a field in the olden days, and how we can kind of think of ourselves like that now: we’re all part of something greater.  I like that idea, because it’s times like these our community needs to stick together.

George L.



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Shuxin J.
Columbus, OH


On my way back from seeing the labyrinth in New Harmony I had to detour because of an accident (heard later there were riots or something nearby — wow!) so I ended up driving by this place and decided to check it out. An excellent maze all around, with plenty to see and do. If you can believe it, I actually got lost a couple times! (Check my review history to see how uncommon this is.)

A little displeased with how there were obviously folks in costume stalking behind the rows at five in the afternoon despite the signs outside clearly stating that the “Spooky Hour” didn’t begin until 8. I imagine most of the people employed for the job are bored teenagers or elementary school volunteers, but at least give them something to do other than pretend to try and grab folks just out for a leisurely maze crawl.

PS. Even though it’s not related to the maze specifically, the cider is excellent!

Luke B.
Indianapolis, IN


This place is awful. My girlfriend Liz came here last year (before we started dating) and when fall came she wouldn’t STOP talking about going back. We get here, and what does she do? Breaks up with me right on the spot and then turns and walks straight into the maze without saying goodbye! I didn’t see her again that night and she’s not answering my calls.

Sorry I guess this isn’t the maze’s fault. Just a lot of bad memories.

If you go try the cider, despite everything I’ve said it’s excellent.

Whitney R.
Chicago, IL


Me and my sorority sisters came down from Bloomington to check this out. It’s supposed to be super creepy. Like years and years ago this old crazy dude and his family had a farm there, and they were like serial killers or whatever.  All Texas Chainsaw Massacre or whatever. It’s probably bullsh*t but that’s the story I heard.

Anyway we came during Spooky Hour and the spookiest part was was Elena realized her Uggs were completely caked with mud.  The maze itself had little to no challenge (back in high school the cheer squad did better designs out of gym mats for our Homecoming Labyrinths) and any scares the dudes hiding behind the corn might have tried to pull off were all undercut by this place apparently only employing six-year-olds wearing what looked like plastic bags over their heads, which is probably against some law or whatever.  I’ll have to ask my social policy professor.

Cider and hayride was fun, though.

Ian K.
Whitbridge, IN


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Liz O.
Indianapolis, IN


After reading all the lukewarm reviews, we were a little wary. But we needed something to do, and because some other plans fell through, we came down for Spooky Hour! What a surprise!

The maze itself is probably the single creepiest experience I’ve ever had. At one point I got turned around and realized my friends had gone on without me, but I couldn’t figure out which direction they had gone. I thought I had a better memory than that, but the paths all seemed to blend together, and even though I could hear sounds from other people in the maze or from the cider stand and hayrides, there’s something about the valley where the field sits that makes it seem like sounds are always coming from different places.

What’s amazing about all this is that most corn mazes have a bunch of dudes jumping out to scare you, and creepy music playing, this was totally not like that. It almost felt like the field was completely empty except for me, and I would simply wander the twisted paths of the corn for the rest of my life, alone, until I lay down on the brittle earth and my body withered like the corn husks and my insides crumbled into the earth to feed the corn, to grow, to build, to burst forth with new teeming and more deserving life, the beautiful children of a new era.

Haha wow!  What a great time!

There was a little distraction where the police showed up and arrested some woman who was making a scene in the parking lot, shouting at people and crying about her dog or something. But you can’t blame the venue for a crazy person showing up, right?

Also, the cider was incredible.  Last time I drank cider at Kellerman’s, I thought I’d never stop throwing up, but after a single glass of this stuff I couldn’t stop!

George L.



each season we reinaugurate the old rites

we cast our offerings to the thirsty earth and wait

do not fear being lost to the new veins we have scratched into the dry dust of this planet

only by being lost in the maze will you find yourself

Evan C.
Whitbridge, IN


Snore-fest, and confusing to boot. One of the old stories is that when Old Man Frumhel was making his corn mazes back in olden times or whatever he always did it by looking at the stars? I don’t know, that’s supposed to be creepy I guess, but the murder parts of the old stories were always creepier.

Anyway I think the people running this place now are still using constellations or whatever to make the mazes because it took us over an hour to find our way through and it was boring as sh*t.

Most exciting point? My little brother almost fell in this huge hole that was right there in the middle of the path. Smelled awful, like a septic tank. Safety hazard much????

Anna N.
Indianapolis, IN


This year I’ve been parking across the road and keep track of how many people go into this maze, and not all of them are coming out.

I can’t get the police to believe me, but if you’re reading this review, please, DO NOT GO TO THIS PLACE.

Ian K.
Whitbridge, IN


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Dalia T.
Boulder, CO


Good cider. Maybe you should drink a few before going into the maze, because you certainly won’t get any fun out of that. The design is unininspired, if not insipid, and the workmanship is shoddy — the edges of the paths are uneven, there are various weeds growing amongst the corn to begin with, and the costumes the kids are wearing here are not scary at all.  The “skin sloughing from my face like dead leaves” look is so cliche for an autumn maze like this.  Plus, who’s scared of kids?


Anna N.
Indianapolis, IN


The police won’t help me. Apparently the woman was telling the truth, somehow — the cops are also telling me her kids were “with their father.” So then who took Champ?  And I thought she only had one kid?

I came by after the maze closed. I could hear barking in the cornfield, out there in the maze.  I know I heard it.

Thomas N.
Bloomington, IN


I have seen a road sign for this place every fall when I drive to or from Indianapolis, and one day I finally checked it out. It’s off the beaten path, and down a windy road off of 37. When you don’t know where you’re going, sometimes distances feel a lot longer than they really are – don’t be discouraged by the drive – it’s really only a couple of minutes.

We got there at the very end of the day. There is a small house-like structure with the maze out back. We didn’t have time to go through the maze, which is okay because I’m more a hobbyist in that area than anything. We had some of their fresh apple cider (pressed the day we were there) and it was pretty good.

The best part was the view off of their side balcony overlooking the maze at sunset.  The woman who was minding the store had her kid with her (some poor little boy who talked very well but he’s still not old enough to be out of a car seat, bless his soul) but he was very well behaved.

It’s worth a stop if you’re a big cider fan like me (do NOT go to Kellerman’s Cideria!  Yuck!!), and enjoy a break in the really boring drive from Haymeadow to Indy.

George L.



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Josh W.
Ann Arbor, MI


Pretty ok place. People working in the farmer’s market can be a bit touchy, but I guess that’s just how the region is.

I asked the woman behind the main counter what was wrong with her kid and she got really offended.  Jesus lady, I just wanted to know!  Anyway I got lost in the maze for two hours but I’d brought my unWindr gear so I had plenty of granola bars.  As I said an ok place, I’ve been lost in better mazes.

Anna N.
Indianapolis, IN


So I tried again to do the maze with Champ this year. I waited until the awful woman behind the counter wasn’t looking and then dashed for the entrance to the maze, but her creepy little sh*thead kid came out of nowhere and said he’d watch my dog for me while I went through the maze.

Well what was I supposed to do? I mean sure the kid couldn’t have been more than four (or a really small six, and Jesus that skin thing he has) but I didn’t want to look like I had been trying to break the rules, so I handed Champ over and went through the maze (time: 45 minutes. difficulty: medium-low).

I came back out and asked for Champ — but the woman at the counter said she had no idea what I was talking about. I told her that her kid took my dog while I went through the corn maze, and she told me her son was “staying with his father” this week.

You better believe I’m calling the cops.

Ian K.
Whitbridge, IN


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Jessica R.
Whitbridge, IN


The Frumhel land has been sitting derelict for I don’t know how long, but finally the town seems to want to do something with it. Mayor Louis owns the land, apparently, since he’s related to the Frumhels some way back. Can you imagine that, someone related to that family is now the mayor of this town?

Anyway, his generosity is appreciated, but unfortunately, just about every corn maze a bit further out of town is better in every way. As a lifelong Whitbridgean I hate to say this, but even the Haymeadow Muncipal Fall Fair has more to offer.

It’s just tepid cider, a walking path, and kids in terrible masks.  Mayor Louis gave an interview with the Whitbridge Gazette recently where he promised “great things were coming,” but I honestly think his son running away from home last year is starting to get to him.


Alberto H.
Chicago, IL


Staff woefully insolent and inattentive, available conveniences and souvenirs subpar. Not an auspicious beginning to this maze, which apparently was only recently established.

For an experienced unWindr such as myself, however, this is all secondary.

Design and layout of the maze, while rough, show that someone here has a lot of potential. Not necessarily professionally trained, but I swear one of the paths looped into a Gordian Hexaknot, a formation I haven’t seen outside of certain Incan ruins. If the maze designer from Podunk, Indiana came up with that independently, I eagerly await to see what they will do once they have a few years of practice under their belt.

Nick J.
Haymeadow, IN


You might think I’m biased because I’m from Haymeadow, but seriously this place sucks hard. It’s one thing if you have a sad little shack at the front of a sad maze. But the people here are kind of awful. My wife overheard the woman running the place yelling “Stop!” and a bunch of other stuff at someone in the back of the little shack (Probably one of her kids, the little *ssholes were running all over the place) and she didn’t come out to wait on us for like 15 whole minutes after we got there. The cider is not that good, but you can at least sample its mediocre glory for $1 for a small cup. Don’t try paying at the back where they actually pour the cider though and, for god’s sakes, don’t try paying with a credit card because they’ll act like they’ve never seen one.

This is typical Whitbridge for me though: something that should be charming and endearing is ruined by the people running it.

Shanna D.
Mooresville, IN


Even though the woman working here says it’s not supposed to be a scary corn maze, the piles of empty clothes scattered around the paths are pretty d*mn creepy.

George L.



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George L.



I found it.  The exit to the maze.  A hole in the center. The only way out is to go deeper

George L.



Please please help jesus christ what is wrong with this maze where is everyone Trish wouldn’t stop crying and then Brandon went off the path I told him not to because I heard it moving out there but he didn’t listen I don’t know where Trish went either or Sam or Ashley and its too dark but I can hear them and I can hear something else something following me there’s someone out there beyond the path I can’t leave the path I can’t I won’t help me help me help me

George L.



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George L.



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George L.




George L.



First, thank god I got this iPhone and 3g.

Second, so I think we’re fucking lost. We’ve been in this dumb*ss corn maze for like an hour and a half now and for some reason my calls out won’t go out but I can still log into this maze fetishist site, so FYI this is NOT A REVIEW, we actually need help. The maze closes in a few hours and no matter how much we shout it seems like the idiots out at the front can’t hear us! I’ll have my dad fire all of them when I’m out.

George L.
Whitbridge, IN


Everyone at school was sort of excited when my dad said they he was going to put up a corn maze here. Our family has owned the land for years (since-you-know-when) and it’s seriously one of the creepiest spots in town — we all grew up telling each other stories about the terrible things Old Man Frumhel did, even if almost all of it’s probably made up.

Anyway Brandon thought it would be fun if we came out today to check it out, and even though it’s a grand opening, you wouldn’t know it. It’s this rinky-dink little place with crappy cider (that I think they just bought at Wal-mart? I think even Kellerman’s could do better) and we’re going through the maze right now and there’s not even anything creepy about it. Of course dad said it wouldn’t be good publicity to have a “haunted” corn maze since this area has such a reputation already.

Anna N.
Indianapolis, IN


They say dogs are allowed but when we showed up with our terrier the woman behind the counter was all “I’m sorry no dogs in the maze.” APPARENTLY they just mean it’s okay to have dogs walking around the crappy little farmer’s market they have?

Well listen, I know we’re all diehard unWindrs here, but we need to remember that not all unWindrs walk on two legs, you get what I mean? Champ has sniffed his way through bigger and better mazes than this podunk piece of crap. While we were vacationing in Europe he slipped his leash in Le Grande Labyrinthe and when we finally came out the other side TWO DAYS LATER he was already there waiting for us.

But Champ and I, we take this as a challenge. We’ll unwind this dumb corn maze, just you wait and see.

Ian K.
Whitbridge, IN


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King Lear and the Blank Page: Reflections on Tragedy, Videogames, and Bioshock Infinite

I have talked about the Bioshock series before, briefly, and only in relation to its first sequel. My opinion there has softened somewhat — I think Bioshock 2 wasin the end, a warmer project than the coldly high concept original, as Richard Corbett has recently argued.  But since we’re back to Ken Levine and the original dev team with the recent Bioshock Infinite, I thought I’d pick up the rubric I implied in my earlier brief mention.  Namely, I hope to ponder in some 3000 words what Infinite can tell us about tragedy and videogames.  Needless to say, there will be some heavy spoilers from here on out.

It seems to me that any sensible videogames criticism would have to take into account to greater or lesser degrees issues of both affect and performance.  Performance allows the critic to account for the sometimes spontaneous, ephemeral (“emergent”) nature of gameplay, the thing which disappears after it’s transpired and may not ever be reproduced.  The study of affect, meanwhile, would allow the critic to assess the relationship between the player and the ludic apparatus: do they care for this character, is this combat sequence frustrating, and so on.

I admit that this is difficult, something of a pipe-dream, and I am my own test subject.  I also admit that “performance” will be less tied to the gameplay itself in this essay, since the gameplay in Infinite tended to float under my radar.

The affect, however, will be thought about in detail — and so I will be thinking about how this game performed emotions for me, how I performed them in return, and what this means for the ludic experience, particularly — as my title suggests — as it concerns the idea of tragedy.

I. I am not Booker DeWitt.

“The refusal of closure is always, at some level, a refusal to face mortality. Our fixation on electronic games and stories is in part an enactment of this denial of death. They offer us the chance to erase memory, to start over, to replay an event and try for a different resolution. In this respect, electronic media have the advantage of enacting a deeply comic vision of life, a vision of retrievable mistakes and open options.”
-Janet Murray

Booker DeWitt is a troubled man whom I don’t particularly like.  He’s a gambler, something of a drinker, and he seems vaguely aware that race relations in the early 20th century are not ideal but is not particularly angry about it.  At least, not enough to try to change things.  In the hours I got to know him, I found out quite a bit about Booker DeWitt: nothing that made me like him more, though, and at least one thing that made me disgusted with him.

But, in the end, I also felt… sad for him.

The Janet Murray quote up above, from her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck, has been quoted often by various people and, I will be quite frank, is rather a relic of a certain older generation of critics who don’t quite seem to have the same relationship to videogames as someone my age does.  I do not enjoy playing as Booker DeWitt in the way Murray seems to expect I should; it is not exhilarating to be him, he provides no Grand Theft Auto-style release of carnage.  In fact, I agree with Leigh Alexander, who in this excellent piece describes how she found the combat of the game ultimately tedious and disheartening.

But I lead with Murray because she still manages to illustrate what I think has been and continues to be one of the prime sticking points of games and their criticism: many games contain “a deeply comic vision of life” that is implicitly not worth taking seriously, because it is escapism — from the dreary workaday world, from mortality, whatever.  (I would say it is worth quibbling with this persistent bias against the “comic vision,” but at a later time.)

Within the past few years — nearly the last decade, really — we’ve started to see games that nevertheless are grasping toward tragedy.  This very short, very rough writeup is my attempt to think through the ways they’ve done this, and in particular, how Bioshock Infinite resonates within the genre, largely construed.

Primarily videogames that fall into this category — which I will term, I guess, the “tragi-ludic” — aspire toward tragedy by asking serious questions about human nature, often with recourse to their own formal elements qua games and the relationships they forge with the player character.

For instance, in 2007 the original Bioshock revealed that the player-character had been, diegetically, a mind-controlled puppet throughout the course of the game, foregrounding the absurdity of the actual player’s own conditioning to the directional cues usually employed by videogames (pick up this, go here, kill this, etc).  The essential thrust of Bioshock is that something terrible has been done, and the player is implicated.

Brendan Keogh in Killing Is Harmless sketches a rough idea of the so-called “post-Bioshock game,” a game which is aware that it is rail-roading the player into making certain unhappy choices and is nevertheless insistent on reminding the player that by continuing to play the game, they share culpability (like Spec Ops: The Line).  Cameron Kunzelman takes a view of the post-Bioshock game I find more amenable, one that at least allows for an alternative to endless Brechtian shaming of the player: Infinite, as its own post-Bioshock game, “is a moment of reconciliation and cooperation–not ‘we are glad you are here to save us all’ in a classic (and non-reflexive) games sense, but instead a ‘we are all in this together’ mode.”

Overall Kunzelman asserts that Infinite reaches a level of maturity most videogames lack, and I basically agree with him.  Of course I must now qualify “maturity,” because there is plenty of objectionable and ridiculous cartoonish stuff about Infinite in practice.

So I will be specific: what I mean by maturity in this case is the ability to take seriously precisely the things which, according to Murray, “electronic games and stories” let us disavow: things, like, for instance, death, and our lack of choice in the matter.

You die at the end of Bioshock Infinite.

II. Sides of the same coin.

Or, rather, you don’t die.  Booker DeWitt, the player character, does.  I want to emphasize how incredibly crucial this is, because it is by no means the only recent big-name game which killed off the player avatar in the end.  Whereas Commander Shepard was a deeply personalized avatar, though, Booker refuses to be a cipher.  He is a character, an entity of the game independent from whoever is playing him.  It is this fact, I think, which allows Infinite’s ending to be mostly successful while Mass Effect 3‘s was widely reviled.

Murray, I would wager, is half right: there are certain types of games, the ones in which we as players are led to identify most strongly with our avatars, which — due to our deeply personal affective investments — seem to demand a comic resolution, a certain postgame infinitude (shall we say) for the characters we have worked so hard to make ours(elves).  (I think here also of the original ending to Fallout 3, and the DLC remedy.)

In the original Bioshock, where the player-avatar (unnamed in the game) functioned as basically a cipher for the player, a certain affective investment was similarly fostered — and, it turns out, skillfully deployed in the “Would You Kindly” twist.  Though the avatar in Bioshock was not customizable a la Shepard, there was still a way in which the plot’s grand existential prank on him was also the game’s existential prank on the player.

But after the plot/game calls out the avatar/player for following its carefully laid rails, the player obviously would not want to continue — but, given the nature of the medium, there’s no choice.  (Keogh mentions the ability of the player to turn off the game console, which is indeed a viable exercise of the player’s agency but seems something of a dead end.)  The end of the game gave us a player-character who apparently had learned nothing, while the player herself would be all too conscious of what had transpired, and desperate to choose something different.

Infinite resolves the original Bioshock’s deadlock by removing the question of the player’s “choice” from the game almost completely.  Admittedly there are some moments that allow the player the purely cosmetic option to, as Austin Walker puts it, become “authors of tone, aesthetic, and character.”

This does not mean the player ever fundamentally changes who Booker is, but they are allowed small moments of influence: where to toss a baseball during a despicable public execution sport, which brooch Elizabeth should wear.  Walker is correct, I think, in highlighting these moments as particularly useful not for changing the game per se, but rather in establishing a certain surplus connection between Booker, the player, and the game-world.  Paradoxically, to be truly meaningful the choice itself must be meaningless: unhindered by possible metagaming or worrying about stat-bonuses, the game provides the luxury of an illusion of choice, choice for its own sake.

This makes the intense, later moments of the game all the more notable for the ruptures they introduce between Booker and the player, when Booker chooses what he wants at the expense of the player’s desire.

During the scene in which Booker drowns the mad prophet Comstock — echoing at least narratively Bioshock’s mind-controlled murder of Andrew Ryan — the game simply does it in a cutscene, because this is a murder Booker wants to commit.  But Comstock was on the verge of revealing something — something Booker doesn’t want to hear, not yet, but which the player quite definitely does.

Before Booker realizes the truth  (that Comstock is a version of himself from an alternate reality) he sets out to kill him “in the crib,” to which Elizabeth asks — hesitatingly, knowing more than she says — if this is what he really wants.

If, by this point, you’ve pieced together what’s coming — and I had — it does not matter what you think Booker should do, because he’s made his choice, and this is not a game about what you want, but about what he wants.

Against all sense, all reason, the character is pushed toward his tragic end — and the player is drawn along in his affective wake.

III. Tragi-ludic?

If games — at least as Jane Murray sees them — are innately comic, then what must happen for them to become a tragic medium?

Tragedy, by at least one definition, is a terrible thing.  It excites unpleasant emotions which, paradoxically, gives us some amount of pleasure.  We do not want to be the tragic character, but at the same time we recognize in, eg, Oedipus one who has taken the brunt of the truth for us, paying the price for exposing the comfortable lie upon which his world is built.  This is what he was meant to do; we never allowed him a choice.  It is the role that he was, so to speak, born to play.

This is the problem of the one and the many.  How can one being’s particular troubles speak to a multitude?  I would argue that this does not require an identification with the singular entity — with Oedipus, with Booker DeWitt — but rather a particular sort of affective investment from the spectator/player, one that recognizes the terrible, self-destructive agency of the other and appreciates it not only despite but because of its alien nature.

In the context of the tragi-ludic videogame, this suggests a need to both maintain and elide the player/avatar connection in ways different than those one would find in film or drama.  Tragedy largely requires the spectator to understand the characters in the fiction as independent entities, at least insofar as they are subject to individual terrible ends based on actions partly of and partly not of their own doing.  The issue for the tragi-ludic, however, is the tendency for the players of videogames to see their avatars as extensions of themselves rather than as characters.  Overidentification would render the tragedy absurd or, from the player’s standpoint, “unfair.”

Does this mean that any game that aspires to tragedy must divorce the player from the avatar?  My argument is tending this way, but it is nothing I would assert wholesale.  Nevertheless, when a character like Commander Shepard is meant to be our wish-fulfillment fantasy, it makes us angry when we are forced along the rails of a heroically tragic ending for which we were never prepared.  Killing “my Shepard” is like killing me.

By contrast, killing Booker DeWitt was killing Booker DeWitt, and Zachary Hale Comstock to boot.  And Comstock notwithstanding, to repeat myself: Booker DeWitt was a troubled man whom I didn’t particularly like.  In the hours I knew him, I found out quite a bit about Booker DeWitt: nothing that made me like him more, and at least one thing — selling his daughter — that made me disgusted with him.

But I saw him realize what he was, and though he could not change, not entirely, I saw him try to make good.  So nevertheless, in the end, I also felt sad for him.

Sad at the life he lived, and the death he faced, all the lives and deaths with which his were ignorantly entwined, the lives and deaths that were not mine but which, in some nebulously way, I briefly shared.

But perhaps not sad enough.

IV. A Tear

“My brother has presented me with an ultimatum: if we do not send the girl back from where we brought her, he and I must part. Where he sees an empty page, I see King Lear. But he is my brother, so I shall play my part, knowing it shall all end in tears.”
-Rosalind Lutece

It is coincidence, I wager, that a tear (as in, a tear in the fabric of space-time) and a tear (as in, a drop of water gathering in the corner of your eye) are homographs.

I did not cry at the end of Bioshock Infinite.  But maybe some did, because I could see, very faintly, why I would.

Let me use this as a point of transition: If there is a character who truly comes anywhere close to being a player analogue in the game, at least in my experience, I would say it’s actually two characters.

Robert and Rosalind Lutece, quantum physicists and quasi-dead trans-dimensional siblings and Stoppardian observers, embody the analytical stance the player can take when distanced from Booker’s first-person narrative.  It is implied that they have run a high number of Bookers through a high number of trials, what you see during the playtime being only one turn through the rat-maze.  They are experimenting, though they are somewhat agnostic on their outcomes.  What is different this time, they wonder, and what will change because of it? (Very often, it seems, the answer is: nothing.)

I realized, in retrospect, that I play games the way the Luteces wander through the world of Bioshock Infinite.  I try to climb up to places I’m not supposed to, I jump in front of NPCs unexpectedly, harass them with seemingly pointless action button commands, do my best to walk outside of scripted events — not simply for the absurdity of it all, and to see not just what will happen, but to see if something will happen at all — can I escape the game in some way?

Robert believes that the bloody cycle at the heart of Infinite can and will be broken, that the destruction engendered by Comstock and his sky-city of Columbia can be averted.  Rosalind, less cheery, suggests she sees only a tragic ending.  But what tragic ending does she foresee?

The game would have you believe that she sees the destruction of New York City by Columbia’s forces in 1984.  But, given her reference to Leardoes she perhaps mean the inevitability of death and unhappiness no matter what she and Robert do?  On the one hand, NYC is destroyed.  On the other hand, a girl drowns her estranged father in a river, perhaps dooming herself to nonexistence in the process.  How can we reckon one with the other?  How does the one relate to the many?

The game is not entirely successful at this gambit.  As Sparky Clarkson wrote, “I am more irritated by the asymmetry between problem and solution.”  Is this a failed character arc?  If so, what would its successful completion really look like?

I’d say: tragedy.  In other words, this is not simply a failure of medium or character or narrative, but also a failure of genre.

Bioshock Infinite is probably a watershed in games.  It is something that will be talked about in the future.  It is something that will have to be dealt with if the medium and its field of criticism are to evolve.

It is also not perfect.  Especially not in its representations of race, of social struggle, as many have pointed out, and far better than I could.  It also, on the whole, obviously falls a bit short of the emotional mark it wants to hit.

In terms of genre it comes close to being a tragedy — almost functionally is, except for the post-credits stinger, where Booker possibly-maybe-probably awakes in a world where he never sold his daughter, and can now live in peace.  This short and (I think) unnecessary scene returns us to Murray’s claim that the comic vision of the videogame evinces the desire to “erase memory, to start over, to replay an event and try for a different resolution.”  This time, the game wants to say, this time, things will be different.

It is not a tragedy, not fully, definitely not some Sophoclean Great Tragedy.  But it is a point of transition for these sorts of narratives, and for this medium.

And so we are indeed the Luteces.  We play these games, we press their limits when we can, we see what they can do — and we wonder, what will be different this time?  Far too often, yes, the answer is nothing.

Will the circle be unbroken?

But something was different here, or at least almost different.

Perhaps this is a transitional stage.  Perhaps things are starting to change, and as a result of this game in the future something — something — will happen.

I look at Bioshock Infinite and I see a blank page.

But, looking hard enough, I notice in the center of it a single tear.

And beyond that page, on the other side of that tear, just barely visible: I see great poetry.



Forums  >  Regional  >  Indiana  >  Haymeadow  >  Community Chat  >  WARNING: ‘scrow VANDALS in town

Hey everyone this is just a WARNING that some YOUNG PUNKS keep MOVING the ‘scrow in my front garden when I’m not lookin!  Just the basic burlap-head model with the straw/hay mixed stuffing I posted in the WIP thread a few days ago.  Gets moved around the house, sometimes right up to my window!

Happened 2 or 3 times yesterday.  Watch your ‘scrows, people.

10/22/2012 10:02 am

…What is the point of mixing straw AND hay?

10/22/2012 10:05 am


wow great feathertop handy tip its not like we need to know where in town we might expect these vandals or anything

10/22/2012 10:06 am


Feathertop, that’s terrible news indeed.  I suppose one should expect such shenanigans, what with the holiday drawing on and all, but still – I was first charmed by Haymeadow because I thought this town had, on the whole, better character than that.  Completely unlike Whitbridge, where the hooligans from the local middle school would savage our poor ‘scrows every chance they got, stamping on those delicate pumpkin heads…

Oh, but I digress.  Feathertop, has the vandalism only been in regards to the positioning of the ‘scrow, or was there physical damage beyond that?

EDIT: And while I am loath to agree with the ill mannered and poorly named fellow above, it might be helpful to know in which section of town the punks are operating.

JohnCrane, the straw/hay mixture is well known to provide a pleasant fragrance for the ‘scrow.  This is elementary and I’m surprised to see you asking.

10/22/2012 10:08 am [edited 10/22/2012 10:09 am]


Why use straw and hay for “a pleasant fragrance” when there are so many affordable prescented artificial stuffings on the market?  Just a thought…

10/22/2012 10:11 am


some people, perhaps feathertop included, enjoy all-natural ‘scrows, as they feel it honors the earthworking tradition. just a thought, johncrane, but for now keep your peddling to your own thread…

10/22/2012 10:12 pm


Sorry all heat of the moment and everything.  These VANDALS if I had to guess are operating on the SOUTHEAST CORNER of town, I’m between COVENANTER DR and MOORES PIKE, just beside the OLD CEMETERY.  If anyone in the area can report SIMILAR INCIDENTS we’ll have a better idea.  I’ve already asked my neighbor and gotten a negative but anyone else should pipe up.

Also thanks for your concern Cucurbitaphile but the ‘scrow is mostly unharmed.  As I said the punks are just MOVIN my ‘scrow so when I look out my kitchen window I see him where he should be but later I’ll realize he’s been moved to one of the ‘scrow poles in my sideyard or backyard.  TOTALLY out of season and TACKY!!!  But no lasting harm done.

10/22/2012 10:15 am


Feathertop I’m on the north side, as you know, but do you think there’s a chance these vandals might work up my way?  I’m really worried that my Hall of ‘Scrows might be in jeopardy.  The kids in my neighborhood love it during trick-or-treating and I’d hate to have it get all mucked up this year?

Manny McNamara, Straw, Baling & More
Creator of the Famous Hall of ‘Scrows in the Sandybrook Subdivision!
10/22/2012 10:17 am


shut the f*** up manny you and your 1% can lock the gates against any onslaught of working class teens don’t worry the iphones and ugg boots you used to dress up your d*** scarecrows will be alright

10/22/2012 10:19 am


Just a friendly reminder from your forum moderator that a civil tone should be maintained throughout your discussions here on ‘Scrow!  Also, note that we’re called ‘Scrow for a reason — we’re enthusiasts and experts, not laypersons, and we speak accordingly.

10/22/2012 10:22 am


if you abbreviate scarecrow it would be s’crow not ‘scrow and its the dumbest bullsh** that you expect us all to talk like halfwits

10/22/2012 10:23 am


Hey Feather Top my home’s over on Pickwick Lane so I’m just on the other side of the cemetery from you and I noticed the ‘scrows we have on our frontyard moving too!  I heard our dog barking and when I went out front both ‘scrows moving almost like they were going to stand up but I remembered last year (*sigh*) and figured there were rats nesting in the straw again.  So my wife stayed inside and I got the broom and knocked the ‘scrows over a couple times and I’m sorry to say they fell apart but it looks like the hay was infested with some kind of centipedes?  A whole nest of them I think but they scattered into the grass.  Anyway this is just another warning for folks in the area its been a damp fall so I guess we got centipedes to watch out for.

edit: I think my dog got bit by one of the centipedes is this bad?  Should I take him to the vet?

10/22/2012 10:26 am [edited 10/22/2012 10:29 am]


Please keep all pet-related talk confined to the appropriate subforum!  Thanks!

10/22/2012 10:30 am


It wouldn’t surprise me at all, come to think of it, if these vandals weren’t locals at all, or even youths, but some of the more bitter Whitbridge ‘scrow enthusiasts who are simply jealous of the Haymeadow contingent’s work in the county 4-H fairs.  Feathertop, I know it is horribly rude to ask, but are you by chance the lady who nabbed the blue ribbon in the middle division this past August?  I sent you the same question over Private Message but you have yet to respond.

10/22/2012 10:42 am


HAHA yeah that’s prbbly it!!!  Those witbridge boys have been total ‘SCROWNIES since b4 ‘scrownies were even around!!!!! Hey who wants 2 lead a War of Retliation maybe go over to witbridge and cause some wIcKeD mAyHeM?????


10/22/2012 10:51 am


Haymeadow’s ‘scrow rivalry with Whitbridge is both longstanding and intensely honorable.  I doubt they would resort to such tactics, especially so close to the holiday, and I absolutely assure you, very few citizens of Whitbridge would qualify as ‘scrownies.  If you wanted to see such dilettante manchildren in action, salivating over the prospect of their next Star Wars or anime-theme ‘scrow (I shudder to even use that word in relation to such abominations) then you’d be much better off to check out the ‘scrow subreddit.

10/22/2012 11:00


Hey now that’s uncalled for what r u soem sorta witbridge pansy i noticed you have your location pvt r u really from Haymeadow??? lol sCrOwNeD


10/22/2012 11:03


I only had to Google your username, Juggascrow, and was quickly able to discern that you’ve been a frequent poster on r/scrows for sometime.  How typical.

10/22/2012 11:05


Ok finally ENOUGH is ENOUGH.  Ever since makin this thread the trouble with my ‘scrow has only got WORSE.  Just now as I was steppin out for lunch I found my ‘scrow layin RIGHT OUTSIDE MY FRONT DOOR.  If these are KIDS then they’re playin hooky.  I’m also startin to feel paranoid that MAYBE its someone in this thread but I expect better of this community.

10/22/2012 11:06


Please keep discussion civil and refrain from meta-discourse about the operations of ‘scrow discussion venues other than ‘Scrow itself.

Edit: Feathertop, I feel obligated to ask, have you considered contacting the authorities?

10/22/2012 11:06 [edited 10/22/2012 11:07 am]


Heads-up folks even though I’m on the other side of town I think we got similar or related vandals operating up here in Sandybrook.  Just noticed a few of the exhibits in my Hall of ‘Scrows are outright missing.

Manny McNamara, Straw, Baling & More
Creator of the Famous Hall of ‘Scrows in the Sandybrook Subdivision!
10/22/2012 11:10  am


I know I’ve been warned about this by Strawoman but just fyi folks as a GENERAL WARNING if you notice some sort of centipede infestation in your ‘scrows keep your pets away from them, I’m taking my dog to the vet now he’s really sick.  I found some of the centipedes in the grass still this what they look like just for reference








10/22/2012 11:13 am


That’s not what centipedes look like at all, you halfwit Hayseed.

10/22/2012 11:16 am


Andy, that post might be better suited to the Garden Pests Megathread.  Just a thought…

10/22/2012 11:19 am


Feathertop, I second the concern voiced by Strawoman.  Have you contacted the authorities yet?  It might be advisable at this point.  (Additionally, but off topic: in case you didn’t see my earlier post, please check your Private Messages.)

10/22/2012 11:20 am



10/22/2012 11:31 am


TATDAD, you’ll find the appropriate thread for your questions is the sticky at the top of the Haymeadow General ‘Scrow subforum, ‘Scrows for Scrubs.  Good luck!

10/22/2012 11:33 am


I noticed the possible vandalism in the thread title and just dropped into this thread to see if it was at all related to the sirens I’m hearing right now?  Did they catch the ‘scrow vandals?

edit: No never mind, reading the thread I’m not anywhere near Covenanter and Moore’s Pike


10/22/2012 11:41 am [edited 10/22/2012 11:42 am] [edited 10/22/2012 11:44 am]


The sirens are probably going to Northside Highschool my daughter is in the ‘scrow club there and she said during their drills some of the kids had an allergic reaction to the straw being used.

10/22/2012 11:50 am


Heh! This is precisely why people should switch to reusable plastic or nylon stuffing.  Serves those kids right.

10/22/2012 11:52 am


Excuse me but my daughter and her friends in the ‘scrow club allergic or not do not deserve a remark that is frankly rude.

10/22/2012 11:54 am


Frankly, “HotMama2,” I’m merely observing the fact that your brood wouldn’t have to worry about things like bad straw if artificial stuffings were more widely used in the ‘scrow community.  It’s the wave of the future and you’re a bumpkin if you’re not embracing it.

10/22/2012 11:56 am


The last thing I want to see in this thread is you ascending to the ever lofty heights of your soapbox, JohnCrane.  Some of us prefer our ‘scrows to be one-hundred percent biodegradable, for the obvious environmental benefit.  Like the plants they protect, ‘scrows should be made entirely of and ready to return to Mother Nature.

10/22/2012 12:00 pm


cucurbitaphile, i know we don’t see eye-to-eye very often, but i find myself sympathetic to your desire for a holistic approach to the ‘scrow lifestyle.  still, i don’t appreciate your normative gendering of nature as feminine, for while i personally and readily accept the idea of the goddess i fear that by marking the stance as given we’re isolating valuable minority voices in the ‘scrow community.

10/22/2012 12:03 pm


your all a bunch of f***faces and i cant believe the s*** spewed from the gaping a****** that is the psot above this one

10/22/2012 12:05 pm


wt* is this stupid wordfilter

10/22/2012 12:06 pm



10/22/2012 12:07 pm


well i certainly hope strawoman reappears soon to deal with this new troll…

10/22/2012 12:09 pm


fock you

10/22/2012 12:11 pm


‘ScroWiccan, I’m sorry to have offended you.  Perhaps we could talk over our issues more at length if you were to answer one of my Private Messages?

10/22/2012 12:14 pm


I would hate to help the spread of a rumor, but it’s been a while since Mannikin reported in this thread.  And it happens I just heard from an acquaintance that the sirens mentioned by Frankelbom were indeed heading to Sandystone — it seems Mannikin was in an accident.  Take this with a grain of salt until we get confirmation, of course, but it may be related to the vandalism.

10/22/2012 12:18 pm


My friend who works for county dispatch just told me the sirens were for Sandystone and Northside High and she said yes that Manny McNamara was hurt he jumped off his roof?

10/22/2012 12:20 pm


haha fock yes chaos rains

10/22/2012 12:21 pm



10/22/2012 12:22 pm


How incredibly crass.  I imagine this is what passes for “free speech” over on r/scrows?  Come now, I know you Whitbridge types are in love with reddit.

10/22/2012 12:23 pm



10/22/2012 12:24 pm


I’ll say it again: plastic and nylon.

10/22/2012 11:25 am


And you see, ladies and gentlemen, why I moved to Haymeadow.

10/22/2012 12:26 pm


bc most ppl here, like u, suck?

10/22/2012 12:27 pm



you don’t seemt o motherf****** this is a TRAGEDY and you don’t mess w/ people who are in tragedys

youll be  sorry if you do


10/22/2012 12:30 pm


Strawoman, where are you to save us from this madness?  We call for aid!

Speaking of calling, it’s been a while since Feathertop posted.  Should we be worried about her?  Does someone on the board know her personally so we may establish contact?

10/22/2012 12:31 pm


i am rather troubled by the way you assume feathertop to be a woman, or to identify as a woman, despite their lack of such information in their profile, and furthermore i do not appreciate your continuous efforts to pry into the lives of certain members of this forum far more than is your warrant, cucurbitaphile.

10/22/2012 12:34 pm


With all due respect, I’m only being a gentleman.

10/22/2012 12:37 pm


with all due respect, we don’t need you to be.

10/22/2012 12:38 pm


f*** sake get a room

10/22/2012 12:39 pm


It’s a terrible state of affairs when so many people are completely incapable of being civil, in so many ways.

10/22/2012 12:40 pm


I just checked again with my friend at dispatch and she said Manny did jump from his roof!  Also my daughter said she’s going to the hospital now to because she’s not feeling good I guess she’s allergic?

10/22/2012 12:43 pm


Perhaps we should keep the talk in this thread limited to the issue of possible ‘scrow vandalism?  It seems to be an eventful day for Haymeadow but there’s no reason to keep bumping this thread unless we have good information on Feathertop’s hooligans.

10/22/2012 12:46 pm


Hey yeah yeall come post in my thread HEYMEADOW TRAGEDY so we can get our commiseratin on


10/22/2012 12:49 pm


I’ve made a thread, Haymeadow Current Events, to continue this discussion.

10/22/2012 12:50 pm



10/22/2012 12:52 pm


come to my thread we are useless pieces of sh** that literally spend all our time making giant dolls to talk about how your lifes a waste

10/22/2012 12:54 pm


Some friendly reminders from your moderator: Keep your tone civil and avoid discussing personal matters or off-topic material outside of Private Messages or appropriately marked threads.

Also: During my lunchbreak I was saddened to learn that valued forum member Mannikin, known to many in Haymeadow as Manny McNamara, died after a fall from the roof of his home in the Sandystone neighborhood.  Manny was the head of McNamara Straw, Baling & More, one of the most widely known ‘scrow stuffing providers in the Midwest, and certainly the greatest provider to southern Indiana.  Condolences and remembrances are best direction to the memorial thread I just made.

As police have reported that Manny’s famous “Hall of ‘Scrows” was completely demolished — with many exhibits outright missing — it is suspected that foul play may be involved, perhaps with the very ‘scrow vandals that seem to be operating in Haymeadow.  If you suspect someone is vandalizing your ‘scrows, please use caution, and notify authorities before taking action yourself.

I’ll be leaving this thread open for the rest of the day in case Feathertop wants to check in.  Out of concern, given recent events, has anyone had any personal contact with Feathertop since their last post was made?

10/22/2012 1:02 pm


Hi all, mostly a lurker here but feathertop’s my neighbor irl and he taught me basically everything I know about ‘scrows, he even tipped me off to the forum.  To be honest I noticed the sort of stuff he said up in the OP with his garden ‘scrow moving but I thought he was doing it to test things out.  I got home a while ago and saw this thread though and actually the ‘scrow isn’t out right now which is a bit suspicious I’d say.  I called a few times and feathertop didn’t answer but his truck’s home so he may just be napping.  (Don’t let him know I told you but he’s getting on in years. ;))

I’ll keep you guys updated if he don’t first.

10/22/2012 1:18 pm


Glad to hear some headway on this matter.  Feathertop, if you check this thread again, I’d advise you to ignore my latest Private Message.

10/22/2012 1:21 pm


I am putting the call out now to the forum at large.  The time has come to put childish things away.

We must make our final stand against Whitbridge.  Already through their plots Haymeadow is in chaos — sirens echo all over town, and people are reporting being attacked in the street.  My own ‘scrows disappeared from my front yard barely half an hour ago.

If you wish to stand with me, my forces will be organizing in the parking lot of Northside High School at 3:00 sharp before making the trek to Whitbridge.  Lasting and final glory in this centuries old conflict is ours for the taking, if you dare.  We will burn their ‘scrows to the ground, until there is nothing left but charred flannel and smoking ash.

Come on everyone.  Let’s cause some mayhem.

– General Juggascrow

10/22/2012 1:25 pm


Juggascrow, as I said in the war-planning thread, refrain from wedging this topic into other conversations throughout the forum.  Thanks!

10/22/2012 1:27 pm



10/22/2012 1:45 pm


Please don’t bump this thread for reasons unrelated to the issue of ‘scrow vandalism.  I am sorry for the loss of your dog, but there are two currently very active threads about mourning and sudden onset allergies, if you think talking with some of those folks might help.

Again, Andy, I am truly sorry for your loss.  Hope you make it through this.

10/22/2012 1:47 pm


Hello everyone Thank you for your concern this afternoon There is no further vandalism to report In fact i suspect there was no vandalism to begin with and only my overactive human imagination

10/22/2012 2:12 pm


feathertop! so good to hear from you.  glad you’re okay.  it’s nice to have some good news during such a crazy day.

10/22/2012 2:14 pm


Appreciate the update, Feathertop!  But what do you mean you only imagined the vandalism?  Certainly something happened to our dearly departed Manny’s Hall of ‘Scrows….

10/22/2012 2:17 pm


The immature ‘scrownies from Whitbridge probably did it as a corollary to their foul play.  I’ve already seen several people in r/scrows copping to it, and while some of them are probably lying, all it takes is one of them to be telling the truth.

10/22/2012 2:21 pm


Yes that is a good and reasonable explanation for the question that was posed

10/22/2012 2:25 pm


Good to hear from you Feathertop!  If you’re convinced there’s nothing more to discuss I can go ahead and lock this thread.

And Bodach: I know you’ve been around long enough to be familiar with the rules.  Watch yourself!

10/22/2012 2:31 pm


You guys have to listen thats not feathertop I don’t know what it is but its not him i went over to see if he was ok and i saw him all laid out on the kitchen floor maybe he fell and i thought he was hurt so i ran inside and suddenly i realize dhe was all wrong and then he started to move and he was flat, that’s the only way i can describe it he was flat and then he wasn’t like he filled up with something and he stood up and looked at me andghe didnt have eyes anymore

10/22/2012 2:41 pm


Oh, lord.  We never did verify if this character actually knew Feathertop, did we?

10/22/2012 2:45 pm


please that thing’s just walking around my house trying to find a way in i’m trying to call the police but no one’s picking up

10/22/2012 2:47 pm


oh god it saw me through the window it looked tin the window at me and it just left i think it went home but it knows i[m talking to you i need to go

10/22/2012 2:50 pm


Hello i would like to

go ahead and lock this thread As was promised there is nothing more to discuss

10/22/2012 2:55 pm


Sorry to intrude at the last second, but Feathertop, have you checked your Private Messages?

10/22/2012 2:58 pm


Yes a personal meeting would be ideal As I am definitely a member of the opposite sex and desire such encounters And I will bring a pumpkin of the dimensions specified

See you this evening

10/22/2012 3:00 pm


Keep it in the Private Messages, please.

10/22/2012 3:02 pm


Apologies for the breach of social protocol recently committed And also any distress caused by my baseless allegations of hooliganism and totally imaginary sense of enclosing danger

Please everyone return to a state of unsuspecting quotidian ease

Continue also to make effigies to frighten away the crows and their very sharp very hungry beaks Please keep them far away

That would be ideal

10/22/2012 3:04 pm