Monday, December 17, 2012

Responsibilities: an exploration game

my friend Andi McClure made a promise to me awhile back that she'd do all the coding for me if i decided i wanted to design a game of my own. i've always been really nervous about my minimal artistic ability, but the opportunity was too great for me to not finally take her up on it for this past weekend's ludum dare competition. half my motivation to finish this has been out of envy for all my friends who are game developers and have been doing stuff for years, but i've shied away from since the things i did in my teens. now i finally have something i can call at least 51% my own! though it would not have been in any way possible, if not for her complete patience in dealing with my utter confusion and lack of patience for any kind of technical fuckups.

i decided i wanted to make some kind of isometric action/stealth game kind of like D/Generation. out of crazy ambition she took me up on it and made an isometric engine from scratch past week. after looking at the limits of my artistic ability and all the things that it would be insane to try to implement into the engine to make any sort of action/stealth game possible within the time limit, and not being able to decide what kind of mechanics i wanted, i worked with what we had. it gradually morphed into a Yume Nikki-style exploration game (which is what i may have secretly wanted to do all along). some of the bug/features she added to the engine are really what made a lot of the coolest looking areas like the one above possible - and i've barely even scratched the surface for what's possible.

i won't talk much about the "story" of the game, because i think the mood is pretty apparent if you play it. i don't really think i could articulate it anyway. the experience is as much about the kinds of questions you might your friend in talking about your experience - "did you reach an area with a big blue tower?" "no, i totally missed that! did you interact with the eyeball in the beginning?" "oh, i didn't know you could!" etc, etc say more than i really could.

consider this v .001 of the game. there are a billion more areas i'd like to add, and some other changes i'd like to make in the next month or so, so look for that. in the meantime, though, enjoy what's there!

and the ludum dare entry where you can vote on the game is here:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

games criticism: a reader (with introduction)

a couple weeks back, journalist Helen Lewis asked in her blog for the UK publication the New Statesman why we're still so bad at talking about videogames. in that article she talked about the failure of the so-called "new games journalism" to substantially improve the larger discourse surrounding games. i agree with suspicion of the NGJ and her notion that most of the discourse surrounding games is still extremely inadequate, but our agreements end there. i saw her characterization of particular games to be a bit clueless (particularly when she said that the only real critique of a "narrator" character in FPS games is in Bioshock) and her criticism completely centered on current AAA games and commentary on them in the "major outlets" for games journalism, as if valuable and meaningful discussion couldn't possibly be happening anywhere else, or about any other games. it irked me so much that i finally decided to email her. this is what i said:

i feel very strongly that (as i said on twitter) there is a revolution in game criticism starting to happen, but it's happening outside of the major media sphere. at least in my case, if you're a new writer who wants to engage others with some kind of honest, serious criticism of videogames, you're probably not gonna look to try and get it published in the same major outlets that you view as part of the problem in the first place. it's the case now, at least more than it was before, that you can still get a fair number of views (though definitely not in the same numbers) through a personal blog - and you don't have to worry about the format and how you fit into larger aims of whatever outlet you're supposed to be representing. and i think doritogate has shown just how much PR has a poisonous, controlling, deeply ingrained effect on much of the discourse that happens around videogames. any and all meaningful discussion is mostly channeled through talking about whatever the current 50-hour triple A game is, which keeps the buzz alive for these companies to sell them. even if a lot of games writers in that sphere don't think they're buying into that, it really feels like they're required to buy into it to even have a voice within that sphere.

and i'm sorry to say, but while i agree with much of your article, i think it also showed that you don't have much of an awareness is going on outside that sphere. which i completely understand! it's very hard to get anywhere near exposure and audience i would like just by writing in a blog and praying for some people with lots of twitter followers to retweet my articles. but i think it's of dire importance for these different spheres of game criticism to be much, much more closely engaged with each other, instead either not knowing or not acknowledging that one another exist. if we want a serious dialogue to happen, it has to come from all fronts, not just the ones we're used to seeing things from before. it is really frustrating, to me, to not feel like i'm being acknowledged as part of the conversation, and not feeling like what i'm saying is penetrating beyond a very small sphere because i'm writing on my own blog. i know why this is, but i'm not sure what i can do to start to change that, short of emailing a bunch of journalists like you and trying to get involved in a conversation.

i really, really want the conversation to change. there has to be something newsworthy beyond the discussion of current triple-A games with maybe the occasional indie title thrown in. we need brutal honesty more than ever, and i have serious doubts whether the position that the PR machines have put much of games writing in can really allow for that at all.

she then (very graciously) asked me if i wanted to make a reading list of good game criticism as a kind of rebuttal to post on her blog, so i did. here's the article, with a little introduction from that email:

i'm going to break the list up into individual sections that'll hopefully be more clear than a massive link-dump. this is not meant to be a completely comprehensive list of valuable writings about videogames, only a collection of interesting trends and themes i've come across in recent writing. take from it what you will, and i'm open to suggestions.

the idea is to try to find different themes in current criticism so we can see the connections and the interactions between people and media that may seem otherwise completely disconnected. if nothing else, hopefully this will serve as a useful starting point for people who are not insiders but want to understand the different kinds of debates that are starting to emerge in this sphere. of course, this is all filtered through the warped perceptions of one missus elizabeth ryerson...

Friday, November 30, 2012

on kink and BDSM


Which is what it is, and that unnerves the Immortals (with their bodies whole and perfect health and bubble of faux teenage invulnerability inflated to the point that it absorbs their entire lives (attempts,Blobbishly, to absorb everyone else’s, too.))

The prevailing narrative has to be that kink is a corrupt response to trauma, rather than a fairly obvious means of articulating, to one’s self, to one’s partners, what it is to live in a Universe that, by its nature, permits trauma. Beyond its interaction with the social signifiers we’re entrenched in, it examines consciousness itself, the experience of existence as an organism, and the negation and affirmation of each.

Engaging in play with fear, pain, and negation/death violates their sanctity, threatens to dilute their cultural currency in Binary Land (where there is light, and there is dark, and where we have the ability to cast you from the former to the latter at any time.) More directly: the problem with incorporating bondage and “torture” into sexual contexts is the suspicion it casts on our motives for binding and torturing humans at home and abroad. Stop making us feel weird."


a month ago i made a post talking about my sexuality that i titled "the puzzle world". i couldn't really use a better title to describe how i've been trying to approach my sexuality, particularly since transitioning. my need to improve my emotional health, have some sort of basic confidence in myself, and be able to somehow make some sort of living without becoming a homeless, drug-addled mess has meant building a complicated network of methods for shaming myself for any time i felt like i've succumbed to feelings. i felt like those feelings were just weaknesses created by abuse, and that it was my job to either overcome them or die. i've felt like the only way for everything to make sense is to have some sort of optimal partner that i completely and utterly trusted. but i haven't been able to trust anyone. i've thought loops, and then loops around those loops, and loops around those loops, then loops that return me back to the first loops - repeat ad infinitum.  but, of course, i still wasn't any closer to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. i thought there must be an optimal solution to the puzzle, and that i wasn't looking hard enough.

a couple of days ago i was bored and downloaded some cheesy lesbian BDSM comic about two girls meeting and eventually falling in love (which served more as a thinly veiled basic FAQ for BDSM than a real story). no, i'm not going to link it because it's not important for this story. in the back of my head i was saying "this ought to be really hot" but admitting that might have meant also admitting that the only stuff i was finding myself drawn towards (and finding myself REALLY drawn towards) to any degree was all based around themes of dominance and submission.

my earliest memories of sexuality are hazy but tend to all revolve dark, witchy, villainness sort of women and the themes of being taken control of or being kept in a box or being tied get the point. i've always known this, but thought that they were sort of relics of an abusive childhood and me feeling immensely uncomfortable with my body pre-transition, and that i'd eventually "get over" them and move on. but as i've dealt with the abuse i've only felt the desire to indulge in this grow larger and harder to obscure.

i tried to laugh off reading the comic as a curiosity, like "haha look at me looking at this corny porn". that usually works pretty well. this time, though, i wasn't very far through that reading that comic and that defense wasn't really working. i started to panic and tried to go back to my old standby of "no, you're ok, it's fine, it's just a cheesy thing, you're fine". but i wasn't fine - i broke down and burst into tears. all the walls and things i had built up were collapsing all at once, and at that moment it was obvious to me that i've been hiding what i've really wanted all along, and that the only way for me to ever be happy was to confront all of it head on.

i guess i didn't want to be yet another transwoman who was into this stuff. yes, that's a weird stereotype you might notice if you're around a trans community for very long (along with the "transwomen like videogames/computers" thing). it seemed like every other trans person i met was into kink, and it seemed all like the same boring stuff  to me. i even felt the urge to make fun of them, i guess out of some sort of jealousy i couldn't articulate. my former roommates and good friends anna and daphny are a couple who are very much out in the open with basically anything and to do with their relationship, and i thought that was cool and i was happy for them...but i had to constantly shut my own feelings down and laugh to myself bitterly, saying "look those crazy ladies" whenever they did things with each other. and then all the other people i've met around the bay, i feel like i come into contact with tons and tons of queer, transwomen subs. i didn't want to just be another person like this. in the back of my head i was saying "these people are all messed up, not like me". i wanted to be strong - i didn't want to let someone to walk all over me, because i knew (or at least believed) that in the end they wouldn't understand or accept me, and just leave me by myself again. and if they weren't doing that, then i'd do it for them and cut them out. this has been a continuing theme of my life and my friendships.

i don't understand why i feel such a weirdly, inexplicably intense desire to engage in the kind of game of dominance and submission. i can say it strikes me (hehheh, get it) as a way to close the barriers between myself and the world around me, and get closer to another person (or multiple people, i suppose). but i'm still pretty afraid. where all of this comes from, i have no clue, nor do i really have any interest in figuring that out. i won't pretend like i know that much about it or have really any substantial experience, because i don't. but it's still there, the little unquenchable monster, and it's not going away any time soon.

after a night of no sleep, i decided that this is a big part of my life and a big part of how i see myself and i can't deny that any longer. any hope of me returning to the land of normal human beings is gone completely, disappeared into the ether. i am a freak, i am a mutant, hallelujah.

i've been crying while writing this post. this is an extremely hard subject for me to talk about, especially on a public blog like this. i felt i should share this - that it was only fair to share it, given my previous post. but do i really have that much of a desire to share these intimately personal things with a bunch of internet people, those strange steel cubes of people, i don't know who only want to read about videogames? not at all. but it's my blog. go be your steel cube selves somewhere else if you don't like it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

fifty or so of my favorite albums

awhile back pitchfork media had a "people's list" social media clusterfuck sponsored by Converse or some garbage like that. anyway, this post is just an excuse to link to my very hastily done list before i lost the link to it forever:

as it turns out, i was in a small minority of women who decided to embark on making a list. this is addressed in the thoughts of these women that touch briefly on why the whole thing was so dude-heavy and why music criticism and the culture of endlessly making these lists takes what's appealing out of the music in the first place, and makes it all about pointless cultural dude posturing:

hopefully i will share more of my thoughts on this issue in a later post.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

five of my favorite videogame soundtracks

as someone who is pretty fond of videogame music, and even participated in a community for rearranging it for many years, i tend to feel now like it usually falls pretty safely into one kind of musical cliche or another. either it's the JRPG soundtrack with the typical range of character and battle themes, or the rockin' action or racing game, or the "epic" orchestral soundtrack, or the ambient background music, or lately, "generic chiptune" - you get the idea. even older soundtracks, like many well-revered NES/SNES/Genesis soundtracks, all start sounding like the same second-rate Yellow Magic Orchestra or Yes-aping stuff to me after awhile. and even when they're not like that, there will be only one or two things going on that i find that interesting, but nothing really that makes them stand out as anything other than a work of their time, meant for a very specific purpose.

but then there are a few game soundtracks that seemed to have come out of left field, and show that there have been people who were interested in doing something different with the hardware they were given, if only out of boredom. they often languish in obscure games that are either terrible or commercially unsuccessful (often both), or are misunderstood by fans expecting the soundtracks to push the same emotional buttons most game soundtracks do (i'm thinking of the Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance soundtrack here).

i have to admit that i'm starting to become less and less fond of the idea of a traditional game soundtrack, and more into things interactive audio, that directly speak to the way the player interacts with the game, instead of awkwardly looped and sandwiched in. i'll mention a few examples of this later. really, my interest in a lot of old game music now has very little to do with "nostalgia" or any associations i had with the games, and much more to do with the way the different kinds of hardware used created interesting compromises for composers that led them making some really interesting sounds. if you can divorce the music from the game, often you will hear things or look at it in a way that you wouldn't otherwise.

now that there aren't really hardware limits on what a game composer can do anymore, the period of game music limited by its hardware is kind of an odd, unrepeatable blip in time. so i think it's important to, instead of just forgetting about that moment and moving on, go back and unearth some of the interesting things that people were doing at the time, within the limitations they had.

(i'm not including Mother 2 by Keiichi Suzuki and Hip Tanaka on this list because it's so well-known, but it is probably my favorite game soundtrack. it goes without saying that it is a work that both stands completely outside the game, and enhances it in every way.)

but anyway, without further ado:

Equinox (SNES) by Tim & Geoff Follin

Tim Follin is the well-known hyper-prolific wizard of a billion different game soundtracks on all kinds of different hardware. his music is usually pretty free-associative, heavily prog inspired stuff that contains all kinds of sound manipulation. the one big complaint that is often leveled at him and his brother's music is that it doesn't fit the games it's, and that he's just doing whatever he feels like doing (which he admits himself in this interview). still, when you're commissioned to do soundtracks for the amount of total shitty games as he was, i can see why he just chose to entertain himself instead.

Equinox is an exception, though, and what i consider the peak of him and his brother's work. his usual propensity to show off is toned way down, and the technical wizardry is channeled into establishing a consistent mood and feel. it's really a remarkable piece of work and shows how great of a composer he and his brother could really be, game music or not.

here's a link to the soundtrack (in MP3).

Animorphs (GBC) by Randy Wilson

i was pointed out to this soundtrack recently by a friend of mine. i really don't know anything about it, other than Randy Wilson was a likely collaborator with the famous japanese noise group The Boredoms, which goes a long way in explaining the sound of the music in this game. there's really no adequate way to explain the sound, but there's nothing really like it. you'll have to take a listen to the link above (which is one of the most subdued tracks in the game, really) to see for yourself.

the really peculiar thing is that when i was looking up gameplay videos on youtube, i found that the music plays at half-speed of the GBS rip i had, throughout the game. this really changes the feel of music and lessens its bludgeoning impact drastically. i thought whoever ripped it from the game on zophar's domain must have made a mistake, but i found a different rip in a different place and the music was the same speed. my only guess is that it was intended to be that way (given the Boredoms association), but upon implementation the game developer freaked and slowed it down to half speed so it wouldn't be so grating to the target audience of young kids playing the game.

here's the rip of the soundtrack on zophar (you will need some kind of plugin to play .gbs files).

Dune (Amiga/DOS) by Stéphane Picq

i discovered Stéphane Picq's work through seeing gameplay footage of the amiga game Extase. i was really blown away by what i saw of that game, but the audio in particular is wonderful. the only reason i didn't include it here is because it's apparently fully interactive within the context of the game, in the vein of  David Kanaga's recent work.

Picq worked on a lot of game soundtracks through the late 80's and 90's, and i have to admit i'm still not terribly familiar with most of them. from what i've heard, though, he has a great ear for sound design, even when his music is full of cheesy cliches. the limited set of sounds on the DOS version of Dune mitigates a lot of the datedness and is definitely the best and most interesting use of the adlib soundcard i've ever heard (which btw, i've found that a lot of game composers who did really interesting things with limited sets of sounds tended to pick pretty boring, awful sounds when they were given the choice to choose whatever sound they wanted to)  but it's also missing a lot of the range and charm of the original Amiga version. there was also an enhanced soundtrack released of the Amiga version, but i prefer the sound of the original better.

my favorite version i've heard by far, though, is the one featured in the video i embedded above, that uses the reverb feature on the not-so successful adlib gold soundcard. it really brings the adlib sounds out in the best way possible. you can download all of that soundtrack here (scroll about halfway down the page).

Recca (NES) by Nobuyuki Shioda

Recca is an (apparently) mega-hard bullet hell game made late in the NES's lifetime that takes a lot of advantage of the hardware, both in the hyper-fast visuals and the extremely agressive sound.

Nobuyuki Shioda is a composer i really know nothing about. he composed a few different, fairly conventional game soundtracks in the early 90's, but he apparently found his voice emulating the popular club techno music of the time on the NES soundchip. while the music is very much in the club vein, it really doesn't sound like anything else. the limits of the soundchip really bring it out in a way i couldn't describe. if you don't like repetitive music you probably won't like this, but the really interesting and unique sound more than makes it worthy to include here.

you can download the NSF rip of the soundtrack here. the game's music was also released separately, but i can't find any of the mp3s anywhere.

Last Bible 3 (SFC) by Hiroyuki Yanada

Last Bible 3's music is very much in the vein of a traditional JRPG soundtrack (for a game released only on the Super Famicom, that has still yet to be translated to english) and as such covers all of the different cliche JRPG range of moods and settings you'd come to expect from a game soundtrack like this. these days, those kinds of soundtracks are only the mildest curiosity to me, but this one stands out for me. what makes it unique, i suppose, is how personal and warm it feels. the sound of it is i guess what people often call "quirky" - likely inspired by Earthbound (especially because i can hear one or two Beatles references), but it's still kind of its own thing. it's not the feat of sound design of the other games i listed, but the use of sounds is generally very good and this is an obscure game soundtrack that really deserves more recognition.

you can download the SPC rip of the soundtrack here.


as i mentioned in a previous post, check out my tumblr SOUNDS FROM THE ABYSS for much more strange/unusual/unique/interesting game music.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Monster Within

i have a piece up on Midnight Resistance that talks about the recent Hotline Miami, the problems with how videogame critics tend to talk about stupid games, and the dark human impulses that lie behind the enjoyment of violent videogames. check it out!

feel free to leave comments here as well!

Sunday, November 4, 2012


i made a tumblr as a companion piece to lost worlds for strange (thought not just strange, but unique and interesting) videogame music. i HIGHLY recommend that you check it out.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

the puzzle world

it's a gross understatement to say that i've spent a lot of time thinking about my sexuality.

i've had a lot of major revelations about my life in the past few years that have led to intense periods of isolation and self-discovery. sexuality has always been at the center of this. i usually settle on the fact that i'm interested in women, and leave it at that. by default, that makes me "queer" or "a lesbian". i won't deny those labels because they have some way of communicating to the rest of the universe what my interests are and i don't want to be an asshole.

then i'll go on okcupid and find basically every profile i look at strange and alienating in one way or another. part of it might be that i find the format of aggregating a bunch of headshots of people i'm supposed to be interested in objectifying by its nature, but it also says something about how people feel they have to present themselves to get a date. and there's definitely a pretty consistent language people use to describe themselves. depending on where you live or who you're interested in, it's different, but it's always there.

then i've had sad moments of realization when i see all of my personal heroes identify as straight or some variant of bisexual/pansexual. i couldn't think of any lesbian heroes i have off the top of my head (i believe very strongly that anyone who biologically essentializes against transwomen must have other substantial flaws in their thinking), though i'm sure there are a few. sometimes it seems kind of ridiculous that i would even give it this weight, because i understand that "non-gay" people are a vast majority of the population. but knowing that the identity i have is supposed to make me different from them in some way makes me feel pretty bad about whoever i am.

and then i'll feel inspired by something someone male-identified has done or said, or guy friends will express interest in me, and because i feel very alienated with my own identity, i'll try to let that in. and then i go over in my head many many times how maybe i'm something else, like pansexual, because that would make me more open to the world and less focused on what "lesbian" or "queer" means i can and can't do. and then i think about how girls that i feel attracted to could just be some projection of how i see myself, or a desire for the sort of strong female support i didn't have early in life. or that negative feelings i have towards male figures early in my life are obscuring feelings i might have for men.

but i realize that's just easy. it's just me, out of frustration, trying to indulge in what norms and past abuse have tried to make me believe. in better moments, basically everything feels in sync and these feelings aren't exerting any sway over me. in weaker moments, though, it is incredibly hard for me, without the support of others, to be able to separate parts of myself out and understand who i am and that i'm not some kind of freak or monster for being who i am.

going my own path and stumbling my way through all this doubt and confusion has instilled in me a very strong need for autonomy. in order to not be a victim to all of this expectation, i've found it completely vital to understand why these norms exist, who's enforcing them, and what their motivation for doing so is.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

games journalism

nuff said

i made a music video

while looking for screenshots for my tumblr, i stumbled upon a whole world of tech demos made over the years for the zx spectrum (many of them russian). the deer running through the meadow bit at the beginning of the final video fit so well with the beginning of this song that it inspired me to do a whole video. i eagerly grabbed a bunch of them off youtube and started piecing them together into some kind of weird pseudo-narrative. i didn't have to do that much editing, as it turns out, because the ones i found were all pretty brilliant in their own ways. if nothing else, i hope this video will be a testament to that (and a testament to Blues Control, a very underrated group).

here is the link to a playlist with all demos i used in the video.

(i'm also uploading a couple more chemical warfare videos as we speak, for anyone keeping track)

Monday, October 22, 2012

chemical warfare: a wolfenstein mod i did when i was 14

after finding out that the embedded youtube videos i was using for my adventures in level design articles here are gone, i thought i should do something to make up for it.

i came up with the idea of looking back at a wolf 3d mod i did over 10 years ago called "chemical warfare". it was my first and only real significant contribution to the small wolfenstein community before i started getting into doing remixes of game music. chemical warfare is supposed to be loosely based off of wolf3d episode 4, which i have written a bit about my fascination with in this blog. and indeed, there are levels which are basically "remixes" of wolf3D levels, in episode four and elsewhere, except bigger and in the eyes of a 14 year old. the level in the above video has parts which are a fairly obvious remake of episode 4, level 2 for example. but it's also a mishmash of every other thing i liked or new idea i could come up with at the time, mixed with any new graphic i could take or any new source code change i could make without changing the feel of the game that much. the result is kind of jumble of a bunch of different ideas: some really slapdash or incomplete, some too complex, some boring, some over-the-top cartoony, some too cruel, and some surprisingly interesting.

i stuck with wolf3d editing partly as a way to understand and re-experience the emotions i felt from playing the original game (i talk about this in video part 22), and partly because it was easy to visualize - every bit of data in the level was on a single screen, represented by different colors or symbols making up a big 64x64 grid. by comparison, doom and other games that i was into were full of all kinds of incomprehensible (to me) technical details. i was too overwhelmed by all the things i had to tweak just to get something working, and too bad at visualizing what everything would finally look like in the game. with wolf3d i could exorcise the ideas for spaces i felt must get out without losing my mind in the process.

i'm about halfway through the playthrough now (with commentary). i can't attest to how interesting any of this will be to someone who's not me. but i'm at level 20 now, basically halfway through the mod (there are 42 levels). my abilities and enthusiasm increased exponentially the further i got into making this, so the best levels are mostly still to come. here's a playlist of my progress that i'm updating every other day or so:

i don't think this mod was a work of genius, or anything like that. there are many, many things wrong with it. but i'm someone who is very prone to relentless self-doubt and self-examination, and i didn't really have any friends in real life to share this with or talk about any design ideas with. i was (and still am to some extent) ashamed to reveal to other people that it was even an interest of mine. it was very personal to me, and hard to talk about at time. these things i did when i was much younger are still haunting me to some extent, and making it hard for me to move on into adulthood.

i'm hoping doing these videos will at least be some sort of snapshot of something that was a big part of my life for a little while, especially for someone who won't feel like playing through all 42 levels of a 10+ year old wolfenstein fan mod. i hope at least a few people can take something meaningful from it. if not, then at least doing it will make moving on a little bit easier for me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

askhole, volume 1

it's been a whole three fucking months since i've posted anything in this blog! i apologize. i have no good excuse for not updating more frequently, other than being stuck in my own head and endlessly second guessing myself

about a week ago i started a tumblr for strange videogame screenshots. just today i decided to add one of those "ask me anything" things to it to see what sort of questions i'd get. i only have three so far, but in an effort to get myself to actually post things, here they are:

One of the qualities of your music that I try to emulate is a feeling that the music is part of something much larger. Not that it feels incomplete, but that the track is just one element in a larger universe. Is this intentional? Or did you read that and think, "what is he talking about?" -Ben Prunty

i guess i have a belief that music, like all art, is there to capture a particular feeling, thought, or idea that already exists somewhere in the universe. whether or not i've done this intentionally, i think i have always approached it this way.

it is impossible, though, to get around the fact that the music i've made at each point of my life has been very reflective of the emotional place i was in at the time.

in high school (the OCR music i did) it was a kind of happiness that i had some sort of musical tools to express myself in and a naive faith that things were going to be great as soon as i got out of ohio and into the world

in college (the unidentified flavors stuff i did) it was much more shattered and incomplete because of how alienated i felt from the people around me.

from then on (basically just the Dys4ia soundtrack so far) it's been very overwhelmed but still trying to find a place of peace and happiness to operate within in the world.

i had a more involved answer but i think this best explains everything.

good job on the FTL soundtrack, btw!

(edit): i might as well include the additional stuff i cut out of the original answer

when i was starting out i think i was mostly motivated by having some sort of textural balance - not too many smooth or sharp sounds, etc. sometimes i'd just make pick random sounds i liked and tried to relentlessly hammer them into the mold somehow.

i was also terrified of the idea of repetition, because i was sequencing everything out by mouse alone. if i just repeated some part that was mathematically exactly the same (no volume variation or anything) as a previous part then i'd just be making a machine, and not something that was human. i won't say this is the best way or even a good way to approach it, because it's really came from a fear of the process that had nothing to do with the end result. mostly what it did was make the process of music-making a much more laborious, and less fun/give-and-take-style exercise.

despite the setbacks to the old approach, i always felt like if i were making something, i'd have to at least be a friend to the sounds i'm using and do justice to them. i wanted to let them have their day, like they're little creatures. i wanted to (and still do want to) have some sort of faith in them. in some ways it was admirable, but in other ways it was very naive.

now my approach is somewhat different. i try to find sounds that are interesting and work with the sorts of timbres and weirdnesses they have, instead of trying to relentlessly shape them into something. with the Dys4ia soundtrack i left all the background chatter very exposed because i wanted it to have that dry, uncomfortable, unsexy feeling that untreated audio recordings do (since it's a game about feeling uncomfortable with oneself). i do still think about the music i do as having some sort of narrative, though not always in a linear way. with BGM, the music invariably has to repeat, so you can't put the same sort of linear narrative arc there. instead it's more like a musical snapshot of a particular sort of feeling, which is what i tried to do with the Dys4ia music.

pizzapuke asked you: 
thanks for including skyroads on your blog, it was one of my favorite games as a kid (i've paraphrased this cause i lost the exact message)

no problem! i'm sort of surprised i never played it, given that i grew up with DOS games

animatedscreenshots asked you:
Not a question but the source link for Metamoqester contains the phrase "In a hilarious reversal of normal events, the baby rapes you!" :\

that's what i get for trying to link to things other than wikipedia =/

Monday, June 18, 2012

Indie Game: The Movie: The Review

hey! i recently wrote a review of Indie Game: The Movie. you can check it out over on Midnight Resistance

Friday, June 1, 2012

re: The Depth Jam and its criticisms

there are a few things that bother me about The Depth Jam. the biggest thing is the name, which makes it sound like some grandiose exclusive event, rather than a small-scale experiment. the fact that the participants rented a beach house, ate catered food, and appear to have a photo album with an absurd number of pictures of themselves engaged in the event don’t help that image of self-importance, but it also doesn’t say a lot about the aims of the Jam itself.

in his writeup of it, Jon Blow outlines that the idea behind the jam was to provide a space for a few experienced game developers to give each other feedback and provide the sort of meaningful input into the development of each other’s games that they might not get otherwise. it was titled “The Depth Jam” to differentiate it from other game jams, which don’t really provide a space for much meaningful artistic input. however, they do provide a more of a loose, social community space for people working on or interested in working on games. Blow concedes this point but still seems to harbor a negative opinion towards game jams in general, and the idea of a loose social interaction among people. i agree with him that most social time and energy in the tech bubble gets spent endlessly talking about the same things, and very little time is spent actually experiencing things that exist outside that bubble. but people a lot of people in technology also spend a lot of time in isolation, without many friends, so game jams can provide a welcoming space for those people.

the goal of the event is pretty noble - to allow one little instance of a space for deeper ideas to breed, but it’s difficult to say to what extent that can happen within videogame culture without some fundamental changes happening. if i were coordinating an event like this, the first thing i’d do would be to completely remove the access to technology for a few days and have the three or four participants have a required discussion of a particular book, or film, or album, or work of visual art. i would also require them to buy their own ingredients and cook food together, and would also require a hike, and maybe some sports or improvisational games, just to get their energy levels up. and then the last three or so days would be spent working on and discussing the games. this probably sounds like hippie bullcrap to some people, but the idea here is for people to go outside themselves and able to appreciate and gain meaning from the world outside their own little bubbles of technological security. that’s much more helpful and stimulating to me than catered food and lots of time spent posing for photographs... but i guess we’re just different people.

in all seriousness, in the end what i get from the depth jam article is that it’s a model that should be taken for what it is: an alternative to the traditional game jam aimed at providing some meaningful input for more experienced developers. and i do think that’s pretty noble.

it’s pretty easy to characterize the event from external appearances as an instance of a few exclusive rich white male friends who are whisked away to some private beach house to go be white saviors. i think in some ways, Jon Blow in particular has become sort of a boogeyman among people involved videogames as a representation of a pompous guy who doesn’t “get it”. to people who identify as gamers, he’s a deluded art-snob who hates all videogames. to those on the fringes, he’s the embodiment of a creepy “male gaze”-y white male. a lot of criticism leveled at his ideas from both sides seems to have a convenient target him as a person, a sort of criticism which i’ve never found particularly insightful or useful. i can’t really be critical of the fact that no non white males were invited to the jam, for example, because it’s clear that its a small-scale closed experiment done by a few friends, not an open or semi-open event with the intentions of representing a diverse array of voices within game culture.

here you could say that it still embodies what is wrong with game culture by the fact that these white males are all friends with other similarly-minded white males that they chose to participate. to which i would say, sure, but that’s a problem with social structures that exist within videogame culture, and it’s not at all unique to this event. there aren’t many non-white male voices in the videogame world, and by just throwing in a Brenda Brathwaite or a Jenova Chen you don’t really solve any problems of representation in the larger culture. and anyway, those goals being explored in that particular instance of the jam is irrelevant to the intention of the event itself, which is meant to spread and take off as its own thing, much in the way of the first indie game jam. to which you could say, they’re always relevant because they're always present in the world and i will always call these examples of privilege out for what they are. to which i would say, call out videogame culture, and call out the participants for being unaware privileged white dudes, but if you’re actually trying to criticize the jam itself you need to look at what its stated goals were, instead of just trying to characterize them into whatever negative narrative you want to fit them into. if the latter helps you feel better, fine. but that kind of approach totally shuts down the possibility for an exchange of meaningful discussion, and makes it much likelier to just create drama that devolves into name-calling. i personally find that fucking boring as hell.

(now that i’ve gotten that weight off my chest...) the other criticisms that it has an anti-community spirit don’t make sense to me, because art is a process that depends on some form of isolation from the outside world. in order to understand yourself and what you want to say, it’s important to be able to divorce yourself from the things that might have a negative or stressful influence on your own work. and just because not everyone can afford it, doesn’t mean that time away from the outside world isn’t a desirable thing.

i, personally, hope to see events like this catch on in the future, and also for the participants of this one to maybe not take themselves so seriously next time around (or at least axe the photographer).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Happy 20th Birthday, Wolf 3D!

i did a short essay for the 20th anniversary of Wolf3D over on Midnight Resistance. it's more about memory than the game itself, but i'm pretty happy with it. let me know what you think!

Wolfenstein 3D Director's Commentary

the 20th anniversary of Wolf3D is this month. to celebrate, John Carmack did a commentary of the game on youtube! i've embedded it here:

in conjunction with the commentary, they released a browser version of the game at

sadly, only the first three episodes are available. and the graphics are a little blurry, presumably for speed reasons. but it's definitely worth checking out!

more adventures in level design articles will be coming soon!

Monday, May 7, 2012

GDC 2012 thoughts

reposted from Robert Yang's blog (with some edits here and there)

i'm still reeling from my first time at GDC. on the one hand, i felt it was some sort of dream come true. it was this far-off ambition of mine to go to GDC, and i actually made it there! but now that that feeling has worn off, i still can't get over how upsetting it was to feel like a spy into an event based around a thing i've loved my whole life. i know that most people who work in games probably got into it for the same reasons i'm getting into it. these are people who have chosen to devote their lives to videogames when they could have chosen a much more "serious" profession, which is very honorable (of course i know plenty of other people get into it because it's a business that makes money). and it's not as if my love of games is better or more pure than theirs because i'm an "indie" and they're not, because it isn't. some indies may honestly believe that, but i really don't.

there's just a barrier that exists because of the culture. even though i grew up among people who lived and breathed games, and idolizing game industry figures, being in that world is now far outside of the realm of possibility for me. it requires buying into a set of values that i can now see with clear eyes as hollow at best and evil at worst. i grew up, put games aside, got into film and other kinds of art, had serious life changes and went through some major soul-searching, and now i'm as far as anyone could be from being a part of the culture of videogames. now i'm an "other". game culture has no interest in me anymore - in fact, it's hostile to me, if it's even aware of my existence. i'm starting to understand how someone like Dani Bunten must have felt. what must it have been like to go from one of the most respected game designers in the world to a target of complete dismissal and hatred, forced to the fringes just because of one choice she made with her life?

seeing this is just another reason why i feel that i don't trust the culture and it's very difficult for me, emotionally, to call myself a participant in a thing like GDC (even as an "indie") without feeling like i'm part of the problem. i don't want to be part of a culture that empowers misogynists, bullies, and bigots, even if it is based around a thing i love. i see an underlying emptiness that seems to color every action of the people involved with videogames now. how much do people who are part of this culture really know or understand about other human beings? probably not a lot.

i guess that's why i find this whole thing disturbing. what has happened to cause these barriers? what have the games, themselves, been doing to contribute to that? why am i in such a different place than all of this now? is this really something i want to support, or be at all part of? i guess it's just a reality that most people who have been around GDC are well aware of, but this year it was entirely new to me.

i am glad about the constant debates/arguments that happen in indie circles. it's extremely important for people to be able to air their frustrations in an open setting and have them not completely dismissed. that's why i hate it when some of the more successful indies dismiss oftentimes valid complaints as just jealousy.

i am a bit scared, though, that a lot of indies don't seem to embody any values that are different from the ones espoused in the industry. many are still in it to make a product, even if there's a bit more personality in that product. i feel like that's why there are a lot of games based around mechanics-based gimmicks with values that are no different from those of triple-A games. it starts to feel like they're just there to be a selling point for the game and not so much to break new ground. and then on the other end, if something as agonizingly heavy-handed as "Dear Esther" is what most people see as a deep, emotionally-resonant experience than i think we have a long way to go on that front as well. 

but at least some sort of alternative exists now. and there were also many bright spots at GDC; "Proteus", "At A Distance" etc etc. are a very good indication that things are starting to change, even if it's not a change i could have any context for on my first time there.
i am also glad that people are taking Anna's book seriously - that's one step of many needed to make a world of videogames that i might actually feel proud to call myself a part of.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Björk on electronic music

adventures in level design: Wolfenstein 3D, episode 4, level 5

"atmospheric" is a popular staple word of the gamer vocabulary. i have seen it in so many magazines and websites over the years that it seem like it's ceased to have an actual meaning. i only imagine it being sincerely used now as an item on some checklist game companies have, like "necessary features to add before shipping". a buzzword, if you wanna call it that.

i feel like we've come to a point where the popular understanding of what that word means, among game designers, is making an environment evoke emotion by adding a lot of manipulative, gimmicky features into the game. this is very far from the "atmosphere" of a Silent Hill 2, or Ico, which is part of the core of those two games.

so i'll just compromise and say that "atmosphere" is the word that gamers use when they want to describe anything in the feel of a game that fits outside the gameplay mechanics. that's an awfully all-encompassing term, but i think it has stayed that way because explaining all the ways an environment can affect a player is an impossible task. not to mention that there's so little critical vocabulary for games, and so few people who are even interested in looking at these things in any detail.

with that in mind, i couldn't write an entry about level 3 of episode 4 ("A Dark Secret") without doing one about level 5. this is the only level to make me cry out of utter betrayal. after looking through it again, i'm convinced that it's the closest thing the game has to a masterpiece. it's probably one of the best levels i'll ever write about, anyway. i say this despite it being totally manipulative and unfair. this is not unfairness in the sense that Kaizo Mario World, or I Wanna Be The Guy, or "challenge" levels are unfair. it's much more deeply unfair, because it breaks rules that the game previously lets on will never be broken. it gives you ample resources to beat it, like any other level, and just doesn't let you. it's like it's saying, go back to the fucking Kill Hitler episode to feel good about yourself, cause you're obviously not ready to deal with what's going on here.

this is the level that planted the thought in my head, many years ago, that maybe some levels are just meant to be impossible. maybe they're just there, floating in space, not ever meaning to have a solution. that carried over into my experiences with DOOM. i had a friend in school laugh at me because i told him certain DOOM levels were supposed to be impossible. he said "why would the levels exist if you couldn't beat them?" he may have been right, but i still don't believe him.

the idea of an "impossible level", one that exists for mysterious reasons and never lets you beat it is ultimately a reason why i'm interested in game design as a thing. i'm so deeply angered by the idea, and that's why i find it fascinating. i'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is probably the level that inspired the careers of many game designers, at least if we're going by amount of keyboards smashed.

Friday, April 27, 2012

adventures in level design - Wolfenstein 3D, episode 4, level 3

episode 4, "A Dark Secret", is the first episode of the "Nocturnal Missions" (d'ya get the pun? eh? eh?). unlike all of the other episodes, it has no easily distinguishable features. a couple of new walls are introduced, but only one of them (a weird light brown stone/cave wall with lots of blood splatters) is used more than once. it may seem mundane to mention the variation in wall textures. they're such a huge part of what defines the feel of the game, though, that their impact can't really be understated. the brown wall, especially, contributes strongly to the feel of an episode. still, i couldn't easily sum up what this episode is about, or how exactly all the levels are tied together.

i intially ignored episode 4 because of the relatively uninviting first level. after a pretty entrance room, it wastes no time in plunging you into a series of bland winding passages to get the gold key and exit. the mazes are short, but they seem to already put you in a couple agonizingly claustrophobic situations. looking at the level now, the way both of those passages are introduced with bright lights seems almost too perfectly surreal. at the time i didn't like that feeling, so i guessed that it must be representative of what was to come. in a way, i was right, but the episode also makes many so left turns and breaks design taboos the game went to a lot of effort to previously establish that it's impossible to categorize. this is where you can see Tom Hall, the designer of all of episode 4 (and a majority of the Wolfenstein's maps in general), starting to shift away from trying to make realistic-feeling environments, and move towards a kind of a surreal farce on his previous realistic levels. many odd chances are taken, design-wise, and some work much more effectively than others. the effect this has on you as a player is definitely disorienting. though looking back, i think having the rug constantly pulled out from under you makes this episode a lot more representative a depiction of the fevered, all-encompassing cruelty of the Nazi regime than previous ones. Brenda Brathwaite, when she absurdly quipped off-the cuff that Wolfenstein was about the Holocaust in a talk in her "One Falls For Each Of Us" series, might actually have been onto something.

here i think it would be easy to dismiss some of the design decisions made in the later part of this game as poorly thought-out relics of an older style of game design. that seems to be a dominant philosophy in a lot of game design theory, and one that i'm trying my best to stay as far away from as humanly possible. certainly fairness is very important if you want the player to feel in control of a situation. Wolf 3D even does this to an extent by letting you save at any point in any level and giving you the choice opt out of a particular episode you don't like and choose to play another one. those may not seem like much now, but at the time being able to save anywhere was a luxury. more importantly, though, suggesting that all design must follow an established set of rules of "fairness" to the player would completely ignore its power to communicate more abstract, complex feelings than just how to reach the exit. what may look like a design troll on the surface often has a much more complicated effect on the player. this level contributes to that idea in just a few bits of surreal imagery.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

adventures in level design: Wolfenstein 3D, episode 5, level 5

one of the things i've always enjoyed about first person games is that you're stuck with tunnel vision. it's pretty damn cruel, being forced to move forward without ever really knowing what might be coming to hurt you. most 2d games there's a great deal of information on the screen at one time that you can use make a decision. in first person the world beyond what is immediately in your view might as well not exist. playing is a process of exploring and reacting to each situation as it comes, never knowing what lies beyond until often it's too late to get out of a bad situation. the suspense created by the threat of near-instant death at any turn is a lot of what makes a Wolfenstein 3D a good game. unless you know the levels by heart, you need to play very cautiously and take few chances.

Wolfenstein 3D, design-wise, is very puzzling. there is very little consistency across episodes, even level-to-level. the only accurate statement i could make about the design is that the odd-numbered episodes (1, 3, 5) generally are pretty internally consistent, while the even-numbered episodes (2, 4, 6) are all over the place. i have no idea why this is the case. you could say that id was strapped for time to come up with 60 levels, which is probably true. but i prefer to think of it as Tom Hall and John Romero (Hall in particular) being so excited about the amount of possibilities afforded by a completely new style of game that they couldn't possibly limit themselves to a small set of ideas. and that's a big reason why i still love Wolfenstein - the design completely eludes categorization. playing through the game, there's an unspoken mystery to it that, even 20+ years later, has never worn away.

i want to look at more levels from the game in the future, but the one i want to examine right now lies right in the middle of episode 5 ("Trail of the Madman"), the only episode in the game entirely by John Romero. Romero is probably most known as a designer for his "tech base" levels on the first (and shareware) episode of DOOM, "Knee Deep In The Dead". those had their own sort of beautifully consistent aesthetic, with a lingering feeling of otherworldliness. episode 5 is Wolf3D's closest analog to that sort of design, even if the settings are completely different. the levels are short-to-average length, often hard but still fair, and have generally less labrynthine layouts than the other episodes in the "Nocturnal Missions" (episodes 4 thru 6). they tend to focus on pretty simple, but oftentimes hairy, scenarios.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Unidentified Flavors - Live Active Cultures (Assorted Fuckups 2005-2009)

After a lot of internet drama and creative frustration, freshman year of college I decided I was done with videogame arrangements. I always wanted to do more songwriting (because pop music has always been what I really want to do), and I finally got an excuse to do more when I decided to make an EP of songs for a winter term project (in January 2006). Half of the month was taken up by a pretty miserable swim team trip to Florida, and then I ended up rushing out the songs at the last minute (like I usually did). Most of the songs have terrible playing that I tried to mask with a lot of effects, and the lyrics were taken up with hating people in my freshman dorm. My setup was so frustrating - using an external program to record wavs, and then importing them into Reason and trying to get the timing just right. A couple years later, Reaper would solve those problems. I also hated my voice so much that I felt like giving up halfway through most of the performances, because I knew they'd never be what I wanted them to be. I've never really got over that feeling. Now I feel like I have a very beautiful and feminine voice on the inside, but what ends up coming out sounds like vomit.

A year later, I was spending a very depressed six months at home. I was trying to work through all my self-loathing and guilt and deal with the fact that I felt like a woman while being in an unstable relationship. I didn't really finish anything during that period, but I did record a lot of demos of songs I more or less made up on the spot. Some of them actually have interesting parts, which I"ll probably use in the future. A few of them became songs on here.

Most of the rest of the stuff was done the summer before my senior year of school - June 2008-ish, another period of intense self-loathing and frustration that I still mostly directed at the (what I saw as) spoiled rich kids at my school. The most out of character ones were done September/October 2008, for a weekly songwriting competition on the Electrical Audio forums. Another one was done around Feb 2009, for the same competition, and then I "finished up" an old song around June 2009.

Around Christmas 2009, I was out of school for 7 months and had floated around to 2 different places before my apathy about being a filmmaker landed me back home. I felt like I absolutely had to move on from the darkness of absolute frustration of the time these songs came out of. I thought the best thing would be to make a compilation to send it to friends and just move on. The album isn't sequenced in chronological order - it's more some kind of very loose narrative. I saw 1-12 as the first "side" and then 13-20 as the second. I never really wanted to send it to anyone but close friends, because I didn't want these songs to be seen as representative of me, and I felt very ashamed to be the person with the crackly, nasally voice singing them. I still feel like most people won't understand from this that, although everything here is from me, I'm a woman, I'm feminine, and this is not how I would like to sound. But putting basically everything into one document has at least led me closer to closing the chapter on that part of my life.

After getting a lot of positive comments about the Dys4ia soundtrack, I decided I might as well put this on bandcamp and let people hear it. I'm sure someone, somewhere will get something out of it, even if I want to distance myself from it as much as I can.

Monday, March 12, 2012

I did the soundtrack for Anna Anthropy's new game Dys4ia, which you can play here:

I've also uploaded the soundtrack here, for anyone interested:

More on the game later!