A Letter to Steven Harmon

I found Awkward Dimensions Redux incredible in the way I find most things that are so brutally honest and forward. A lot of my favorite things are confessional. Maybe because it takes a lot to convince myself that I’m not alone. What I found so valuable in this game is just how much of it lined up to my personal situation and so I have to admit it’s a really particular game. That’s what it is though, isn’t it? A particular game about the particular time and space you were in when you made it. It’s a diary, a crystallized youth. So I was wondering how exactly to write about something clearly personal and I guess I decided the best way was to try to be personal in turn.

For a quick introduction, hmm, I’ve been working on my own games for two years? Three years? Somewhere in that threshold. I don’t actually want to pinpoint the exact time. I call vextro a gamedev “collective” but it’s really just me and my friend max doing what we like. I wanted to experiment and do interesting things. Our games aren’t really popular at all but they’re unique at least. I gotta take risks while I’m young and can, though actually I’m not really that young anymore, and I dunno how long I can…

A bit more recently, a little over a year, I’ve gotten into critical writing about videogames. For me, learning criticism and theory bolsters my own creative process. It’s a low stakes way to work out questions and answers I think are integral when I’m designing a game, or a way to be answering a constant question: what does gamedev mean anyway? Art isn’t necessarily meaning and meaning isn’t necessarily art, but it’s a clear cut way of thinking. It helps me stay organized. This website, though it’s a recent conversionbasically since until recently I had no idea what I wanted to do with my writingis dedicated to shedding light on obscure, underrated, or otherwise underground videogames.

I guess firstly I should admit I’m a little bit jealous. You portray such a confidence, tempered by realism and anxieties sure, but it’s something I would’ve thought impossible at your age. I don’t want to pay extra close attention to our age gap or anything but, you feel intensely, and so much, about the art you do, which are feelings I’ve only recently been able to relate to. My teenage years were spent coping with crippling depression, self-esteem issues, and inadequacy. Never leaving my room levels of self-destruction. I guess I’m a survivor. I still feel those scars from my lack of individual development. I’m doing a lot of personal learning a bit too late for respectability’s sake. Not that I really give a damn about respectability, but I notice the difference this setback had on my life. No matter whatever, my life is marked by this black cloud, and it’s a part of me I accept, but sometimes it just sucks.

And like, Awkward Dimensions Redux got greenlit! It’s gotten curated in places my games have been declined from. Though you’ve been making and putting out games for awhile so you really deserve this success. It’s a fantastic game so I’m glad to see it being received as well as it is. You’re driven to do something with that tooI hope you get into a good college if that’s what you want, I hope this doesn’t just fizzle. The videogame audience and even industry types still don’t really know what to make of personal, artistic, and experimental games, but like, there’s a wave of people like us who actually care about the medium as a cohesive thing that thrives on diversity of expression. The changes are slow and incremental but they’re happening.

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Really what I want to say is, like, no matter what happens going from here, because the future is always an unknown, you made something really special. I often roll my eyes at autobiographical novels because they’re just bursting with distant ennui and contempt for other people (don delillo comes to mind). Awkward Dimensions Redux isn’t like that. Sure, it’s a dramatized presentation of your life, like you felt on a stage right? It’s this squeezed out performance of your intense fears and declarations, but the narration is raw and honest. It’s straightforward and not foisted on anyone else. And it’s this powerful contrast of complicated, expressionist levels, that are open containers to meditation and interpretation, to really focused levels and ideas that just state how it is and was for you.

I’m a big fan of a genre of games I guess I could call dream sims? Simulation isn’t the right word either, at least not for just any game about dreams. Yume Nikki and LSD are comforting to me, and are maybe closest to dream sims, their surreality tugging at subconscious things I can’t quite convey myself. In a way dreams are these culturally sanctioned places where it’s okay for things to get weird or surreal, since that’s what dreams often are like. I think that’s kind of a crutch, like people shouldn’t be adverse to abstraction in any sort of setting, but still, videogames as possibility spaces or impossible places are perfectly suited for representing dreams. Visual mediums are naturally suited to bleed dreamlike, but being an active agent in a dream game mirrors you know, how we ourselves are often active in our own dreams.

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Awkward Dimensions is different from LSD or Yume Nikki because of its explicit videogame conventions, even though it’s so clearly a dream journal. Which is an ironic statement to say when commenters on steam and such clamor that it isn’t even a game, but it’s still true. There’s platforming, puzzles, and a defined goal in each stage. I’m a person basically at odds with puzzles but I have to say I really enjoyed the puzzles in this game, especially in Frame and Self Destructive Portrait. Frame is a mechanic that could make a compelling game all to itself, probably, but it’s so great that finding triggers, exploring, and doing puzzles like the aforementioned have thematic goals and relate to an overall theme.

I was able to do some processing myself during Self Destructive Portrait, watching your performance. Art is this process that alchemizes good and bad parts of myself and puts them on display. It’s a cathartic experience I think, but there’s a twinge of pain in it for me, as a self-conscious person who feels hurt a bit too easily. To put myself out there and have so few people look is an unmaking of the ego every time, it reaffirms terrible knee-jerk judgements I have about myself. It’s hard being vulnerable. I think I needed some walls I already broke and threw away and there’s not much else to say.

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It’s true though that this sort of, I guess it’s a kind of a mixtape videogame. Each of these levels are self-contained things, they’re less like levels and more like individual videogames. I ended up thinking this game is closest to the The Beginner’s Guide. Though it’s a pretty organic link with all your references to Davey’s work and philosophy. I’m assuming you’ve been working on Awkward Dimensions off and on for awhile though? So maybe it’s a coincidence they’re so similar. Either way I think I can say your game is a pioneer, since it puts your own spin on a game collection, or mixtape, whatever this kind of game is. You know, I wonder what kind of name will actually come to apply to games like these…

The Beginner’s Guide was a videogame I really enjoyed, like, it demonstrated a graspable model for artgames and communicated easily what their possible meanings could be. So it’s an introduction to game design and analysis that a lot of people wouldn’t experience otherwise. It was more ambitious than just that though—it’s an incredible dramatic work too. What the game ends up stating is frustrating though in many senses, though purposefully frustrating, I’d say. It seems to be really going into the implications of interpretation. Like there’s this sense you’re getting to know someone through their art but, that’s never a true feeling. You can never really know someone by their art alone. It’s informed by the artist but divorced from them. Honestly though that’s an innate part of the process, so I didn’t really latch on to the grief beyond the game’s core melodrama.

Another unique thing about The Beginner’s Guide and your game: they’re the only games I can think of where the pov, or the player character, or whatever, is inarguably and definitively the person playing the game. Your narration was for the person playing. What really dug into me playing Awkward Dimensions is thinking about your narration as a foil to The Beginner’s Guide. Your game isn’t about the inevitable distance of art, but ways art can bring people closer together. It’s just laying your soul bare and hoping that someone can understand or relate. Because the levels are representations and abstractions of your life experiences, it’s a presentation that explicitly invites people to embody and understand them. And like, hearing someone being honest about very similar hang ups and ideals about gamedev was an immeasurably helpful thing.

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Awkward Dimensions is the combined optimism and pain that inspirational art requires. Those feelings are why I’m doing all of this too. Despite mistakes I’ve made and horrible anxieties when thinking about the point and purpose of myself, I still want to light up the dark corners of the mind. To help people feel less alone. To challenge expectations.  Because that’s what I need and I need a lot of it. It just feels right to give some back. I dunno if you really meant it to be a rebuttal to the conclusions found in The Beginner’s Guide, but the lack of anything jaded in your self-presentation shows confidence in yourself and your methods. I think optimism and confidence in the arts are some of the most powerful things an artist can wield, if art is intended to be an agent of change. Passion itself is voluminous.

That’s one crucial way we disagree, I feel. A few times you referred to gamedev being a kind of prison. Artistic work can be lonely and isolating so I understand the metaphor with clarity. I do not mean to dissuade you from your feelings, if there’s truth to it that I can’t feel. But, I think gamedev is a canvas. It’s transportation and it’s communication. It’s something that lets ideas be transferred, of any complexity, and of any relationship. It’s constant new horizons and understandings. I’ve sometimes felt my discipline to be unbearable, a painful and unknown quality at times, but I work willingly. I do this not to trap myself, but to set myself free.

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(i actually don’t want to pressure you into writing back like at all because i’m skittish but it feels wrong to send a one way letter so, my email is wasnotwhynot@gmail.com)

and for everyone else, get the game here

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One thought on “A Letter to Steven Harmon

  1. I found this personal letter is really good, I want to say thank you to Steve Harmon for giving this game to us, because it has made me think, it’s an amazing game. Also thank you to Leroy, this letter is great and opens my mind a little, your opinion of this is helpful.

    Like

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