Why action?

I’ve been reading archives of Tim Rogers’ work out of a compulsive need for comfort than a desire to feel illuminated, or get my writing chops strengthened, or whatever other goals I decide to define my compulsion by. Meaning this reading is maybe more honest than other habits, being for escape and pleasure, instead of a distant escapism of self-improvement. Rogers is more often a storyteller than a formal critic; I’m more or less reading an entertaining journal, but hey, I’m there for the videogames. Our shared annoyances and preferences are just a hook. He does legitimize his experiences with videogames by a spectrum of how they make him feel and how they fit into his life, though a lot of it is just how annoying being in this really is. This selling of a personality tied to subculture interest is what now dominates videogame discourse, as genre of content on youtube and such. Tim Rogers’ whispered influence makes his work seem more classy than the average youtube reviewer-reactor-explainer-whatever, but it’s essentially the same stuff. Just, well, youtube culture is filled with gamer nerds I won’t find myself agreeing with, while Rogers is an elitist jerk with relatively grounded perspective and yeah, I feel commonality since I’m a white dude hipster too. (I’ll deny being a hipster—what the hell even is a hipster anymore—but I’ll admit A is A in my relation to others).

That archive is specifically 2006 Mr. Rogers with 2006 videogame problems, and indeed, ‘06 Tim Rogers problems. Issues that feel far away and strangely, frustratingly, still vaguely present. While the language of videogames change and their possibility avenues expand, their problems and blunders are largely the same. What’s valuable about Tim’s writing, in all of its soupy, rambling, inarticulate blocks, is not some kind of historical perspective (though through his writings you can live vicariously through a splinter of decade-old videogame discourse since it’s perspective based rather than clinical). It’s that Tim writes for basically no audience at all. There’s an assumed readership, obviously, but there’s no pressures to write a certain way, or convey clearly, or stay on topic. Stephen “thecatamites” Murphy wrote about this effect, in a post that could be classified in the same way, written naturally instead of fussing about comprehension.

recently i’ve felt like i’ve been working on things mostly for myself, which is a cliche and usually untrue, since anything legible is at least theoretically public and i think must take some shape and energy from the effort to present a relation to that public – and in fact from a desire to adjust that relation. for something to be materially real in addition to hypothetically legible is in some way to insist upon material legibility as well; it’s to say this thing is here, now, a fact of production, and it’s reality’s fault if it doesn’t catch up: vasily zotov’s games exist, therefore they’re valid. it’s a placement of faith in a kind of brute intractability of matter. but the materialist quality of this desire also means it’s vulnerable in the opposite direction. it means that it requires a certain frontier of plausability to work off of, so as not to fizzle out or devolve into a mirror game of bloodlessly multiplied alterities; and when that frontier moves what’s left behind more often than not is the sense of possibility ossified into something dutiful and ceremonial, a relation to “the public” – to other people, to ourselves and our own imagination of how to relate, how we’d like to relate, to others – frozen into a narrow set of rehearsed gestures, exhaustedly performed so you can get them out of the way and get back into burrowing.

I think this brushes up with definitions of authenticity, when working for yourself is performing a conception of self. It’s trying to isolate the “self”—work which feels analogous to self-defined ideology, and assumedly pleasurable to the ego—and bridging it to another in a way that nothing feels lost in transition. Really though “working for myself” means “working without audience expectations” which further means “working without expectations of capital” which altogether is a sentiment that’s, yeah, cliché and untrue. That’s the push and pull, opposition to self’s iconoclasm is pacification, to allow bits and pieces of conventional approach to slick or placate an audience conception as to continue art at all. Compare Terry Cavanagh’s commercial games to his lesser known experiments; similarly consider increpare’s success with Stephen’s Sausage Roll but the lack of critical consideration for his many other games. I’m in a similar predicamentwithout name recognition obviouslybut I’ve made games to explore intelligible artistic whims and personal ideas, while working on something I can sell. I appreciate the sentiments of supporting and searching for utopian art, art that is made for no express means, but we in fact do not live in a utopia.  

Like how Tim Rogers writes specifically to an audience, without expectations of an audience: that kind of contradiction lays de facto behind most impactful art. Some distance from the familiar is why anything is ever interesting. At the same time, materially, art is related and comes from a history, there are only degrees of distance, and what separates two objects will bring a different pair together. Or, rather than stressing about the situations of capital, we can and should come to agree that authentic videogames do not have to be Vasily Zotov to exist. I doubt Murphy is asserting as much, he’s is not asserting negative postulates but rather supporting a possible tornado of perverse videogames. It’s become a consistent trend when inferring new or renewed legitimacy for videogames, the author’s knowledge of the most avant-garde, capital defying, impossible game is trotted out (I am guilty of this). (Most games cited in this way do not have the impact of Quite Soulless, though as something comparable to Jandek I think they’re specific manifestations of class and marginalization; overlapping with avant-garde but not invoking it).

When I set out to write about Tim Rogers I cursed this writing to be in dire need of confident direction, which I won’t grant or edit. Tim Rogers and Stephen “thecatamites” Murphy are somehow very similar writers, focused on affectual elements of videogames, and structuring their writing’s form (though I assume just naturally, subconsciously) in a way to represent and strengthen identified affect in their criticism. Stream-of-conscious writing for a stream-of-conscious act. Yet their writings are basically disciplines apart.

Rogers writes in a proto-formalism (or a commercial-formalism? product evaluation through artistic merits) basing his criticism in an instinctual knowledge of what kinds of excess is pleasurable or necessary, and what kinds hold a videogame back from expressing a pure idea of play, modeling this criteria by specific and abstract definitions of his favorite videogame sensations. A belief that games are pockets of potential, lost to bloated design decisions and incompetence—writing mostly about action games and role playing games for no other reason than preference.

Murphey’s writing is historical but not trying to recreate the past, or identify games for the future. He scribbles in the margins about things lost and alternate understandings that come from being separated from a teleological perception of art. Highlighting those values seem to be self-satisfying. They’re worthwhile because they exist; art does not strive but merely survives. He’s anti-formalism as long as formalism in videogames is so excruciatingly narrow. It’s hard to be anything other than for or against.

My own lightly existential musings comes from relating to Rogers’ absolute confidence in the form of, well, action games, while being unable to completely capture the same attitude. To me it’s not the end of the world if a game doesn’t feel perfect, I mean, most of the time that’s what I prefer. If Rogers wrote in a more typical, clinical style, I wouldn’t at all be interested in writing that hyper focuses on craft in an insular way, only commenting for the sake of it. Writing like that seems to justify videogames in relation to videogames that already exist, but not in relation to community or culture, and action games encourage that kind of writing more than any other style. Murphey’s commentary on boundaries capturing rules as being matter-of-fact is immediately contemporary and useful. Being indifferent to the necessity of rules, other than their texture as “videogame”, broadens definitions, encourages disparate object relationships, and is accepting of any style of game or play. These stances are very representative of when they came from. Videogame priorities have changed incredibly in the past decade. I’ll quote Murphey again, from the same essay:

a good thing about videogames is how truncated the stakes are; in another form someone could labour for years, live with priestlike vocation towards the fullest reaches of their art, emerge with hard-won mastery over their abilities and finally commit a work which could fully capture the range and depth of human experience, etc. if they did all that stuff for videogames the output would be a software disc about a clown who eats cherries in the desert and when hit by a car makes an ambiguous buzzing sound. in the bizarre refraction between intent and the result lie all the best and most exciting tensions of the medium.

And like, he’s not wrong. Studying notgames, the avant-garde, and the abstract, takes monumental effort, from a lack of curation to a lack of framework to even study and appraise these kinds of games. Their symbols, their utter lack, can be likened to atonal and dissonant music like serialism, to dada and other protest art. A long lasting, draining movement, that will run under and opposed to commercialism until they can rest evenly, asymmetrical, in the open.

On the other hand, quoting Rogers on Nintendo games is almost slander, but:

Zelda‘s pop-culture miracle was two-fold. It was a miracle because it established what would go on to become a whole new format of entertainment, and it was a miracle because it saw a group of people who had previously performed a pop-culture miracle (Super Mario Bros.) turning around and performing another one, as if on demand, with something just about completely unrelated. Everything about the two games — Mario and Zelda — was as different as night and day. Yet they were both so mathematically well-crafted, with their own delicate atmospheres, play nuances, and amazingly well-composed music.

His statement that these games are mathematical is a shared sentiment, a call to arms for so many devs and artists making games specifically for an audience. Mainstream videogame development is to minimize self-expression as much as possible chasing these viral feverdreams (though for many gamedevs their self-expression is strictly replicating a pleasurable childhood). It’s basically impossible to make interesting, idiosyncratic art, chained to templates and expectations like this. Rogers goes on to clarify himself it’s impossible for other games like these to ever exist, but that’s not a statement backed by history, it’s just strict materialism. Videogame history, especially defined by our body of critical writing, is the constant iteration of successes. Whether or not there’s another Super Mario Bros. 3, well, there’s just the one. But mainstream videogames, action games, commercial games, will always be scrambling to divine the mathematical reasons why any game was a blockbuster, focusing and iterating in a discipline of similitude.

It’s a good summary of then and now. Previously there were self-defining “good games” on metrics of value like sales numbers, critical reception, and consumer satisfaction. No numbers were stronger. I’d like to say those values are now treated with skepticism, if not outright scorn, but it’s a small resistance. Action games, otherwise mathematically designed games, studied and iterated games, they pull the largest audience, make the most money, have the most media support. Their dominance and hegemony goes unsaid, if not unquestioned. Talking about them with such specificity is quite normal, partly because Rogers has already done the work, mostly because of their size. Dismantling that hegemony is subversive, though I fear this will be never ceasing propaganda, tirelessly challenging a statist approach to spiritual fulfillment.

When Doom 2016 or Titanfall 2 are our equivalents for academy award winning games (of course awards are still crap, but they’re indicative of broad subculture values) maybe it’s time to take pause at how much action styled gameplay is critically valued on a formal and historical level than anything else. Teleological progressions of game development passed down breathlessly in hobbyist terms have taken the strongest root and command more legitimacy than other styles of play. I’ve faced the argument that these are just two disparate scenes. The average consumer values a certain kinds of play experiences and writers-artists prefer others. A self-defeating sentiment that is okay with Doom 2016 being called game of the year, because that’s just how things are and it’s not my game of the year. This shirks the responsibility of creating any kind of influence at all, shooting extremely low while assuming what people want. A truth is that the average consumer doesn’t necessarily have time to dig past what is heavily promoted, but writers do. Critics in this scenario aren’t archaeologists, preservationists, or curators, they’re mirrors, echoes, and advertisements. We’ve gotten better but we’ve only gone so far.

I was playing Rotating Squares of Death (appreciate the literalism) and it slammed me just how boring action games are. In the aforementioned, the player controls a triangle, and avoids rotating squares. Both objects are black and the background never changes. A sort of new age ambient soundtrack plays, the only substantially different aspect of this game.  If you’ve ever followed a game creation tutorial, you’ve probably made a similar avoider prototype, since it’s a complete game on two basic tenants on (action) game design: movement and hit detection. (As an aside I’d point out that many basic videogame tutorials are shooters, platformers, action games, and the like). Rotating Squares is pure, minimalist, in action videogame terms—meaning there’s nothing in it besides doing some kind of task.

Super Mario Bros. is that same nothing. Do we romanticize that nothing? An action game is its sensations or kinaesthetics. It’s an audiovisual experience. I know the arguments, I’ve made them. But why action games? Action games are on average more resistant to learn and the more difficult for impaired players to experience. They’re more inaccessible, more inward, more myopic games. They’re made so incredibly specifically for an audience, with pre-molded expectations of how they should function, that they’re the clear and present opposite of interesting, utopian art. That altogether is the source of my tiredness and apprehension when I read about action games, even consider writing about them myself. I wonder if, in a way, we seek to get a return on our investment on our time spent to be literate in action games? Do we pride ourselves on mastery; are we addicted to some kind of pleasurable rush of achievement? Is it just the culture; an inability to separate game criticism from the game industry? I ask these questions rhetorically because it’s contextual, because I don’t know the answer, because it’s all of these and none of these.

I feel these rhetoricals when I read, for a soon to be dated example, new criticism screaming about how great of an action videogame Titanfall 2 is, because I rarely read anything that couples how dynamic or fun it was with why that matters. I know it isn’t easy but I think that is the best recompense for writing about a seemingly empty action game: fill it up with words. Checklist criticism signals a belief that games don’t need to be special, while factoring in the natural attention capital of action games, writing like that can boil games down to not really being anything at all. There’s little to be gained to write about something as it exists when everyone has the means to give art a personal and new existence. I think the only way to address how much discourse space action games take up is to offer transformative, idiosyncratic criticism, that connects and paves way to other forms.

(mentally apologetic because of what this turned into as i struggled to write about yokcos’ games which despite my blunt treatment i think are extremely good. while i don’t need to be blunt as i’ve already said this which nuance, but, it’s not that action games lack ambition, it’s that writing about them often does. a reminder to myself too that definitional writing isn’t enough)

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