Unknown Portraits

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Dear is naïve art (hey look it up). It digs into a deep understanding of minimalism without really knowing or caring what minimalism is for. Little sketches of pixelart, that are intricate and communicative, are strewn about unevenly in the work. Sometimes the vast negative space is used to great effect. Usually it isn’t. At first I wasn’t even sure what I experienced at all, having no paratext blindsided me. There was no useful explanation of the game, no thumbnail, no theme; such an affecting work somehow existed without any statement of intent, or any acknowledgement that it could do anything at all. Such a brisk intensity of experience was hard to conceptualize without a stated framework by the developer. It’s ludically similar to Jake Clover’s sidescrollers like duck turnip, in that play is to facilitate a showcase of screens, aesthetic moments. Basically, a 2D walking sim.

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It starts in stark white, oddly cutting across a player’s monitor. Dear is rendered in a panoramic window, short and wide, a presentation I haven’t encountered before. In this way it rests into a gap of the computer, slotting in, distributing its existence, instead of being centered and demanding attention like the squares we’re used to. A deer, so a pun yeah, the titular deer, automatically walks across the screen. Space toggles its gait to a sprint, the only concrete interaction a player has, a transference that makes it not quite a simple animation. Pressing enter makes the deer leap into a run, autorunning until the end of a screen. An observing player can choose to inject panic or not into their viewing experience.

I like the choice to make the first screen blank, but once our deer crosses over the game’s threshold: a statement of intent. Pink, flesh coded, progressively squished, neatly, evenly arranged squares are situated on the far left of the screen. A cross between a silhouette of city development and the insides of something soft. Then a face, a cover, a watcher, pyramid, before giving way to blue. Blues and purples in Dear are symmetrically arranged, invoking circuitry, with color patterning full of restraint, until something cuts into the design, provoking and representing an anomaly in what should be, or needs to be carefully planned. Deep reds signal industry and collapse, a more focal skyline and a rapidly scurrying current.

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Dear shifts into a hard black. A sigil is filled with red, of violence and blood, and it’s cut out of its own picture, subsumed by a flashing dot. An ornate unrendering, artistic reimagining of mazelike circuitry is traced again and again, being found and finished desperately. Broken words “WHATS THE ONLY THING YOU HAVE EVER DONE.” fill up the entire screen in a finale, repeating over and over again. Videogames, pixelart, minimalism, they’re intertwined with repetition; what is the only thing I’ve ever done? A rhetorical that asks what I am doing, where I’m going, but ultimately what have I done. What am I proud of?

Dear seems to be an intuitively, arbitrarily made game, of mazes, skylines, and circuitry. The only option available is if I want to hurry through these visions or not. Asking what I have done. It’s sickeningly complete. An assertion of existence while being surrounded by strange, symmetric, alienating symbols. Affections of modernism. And then it keeps going, with a tacky signaturewhich I can’t really call out because an artist damn well can sign their workand then a final screen with a deer on the opposite end. I expected my deer to stop in place, or to interact with the other, but they walked past, and the game force closed. Was it a rejection of peers? Or still a homecoming after trials, though poorly portrayed? It’s too clumsy to say.

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Some of what I’ve been doing is reaching my arm far into game apocrypha and pulling out things that never had a chance. This, I feel, is already a gulf of distance from other writers who are looking to orchestrate the next beat, or be tastemakers in some capacity, working with compelling artists both in how they present their work or how they present themselves. I’ve noticed this shift in writers often without great followings to fill up and spearhead what our mainstream press inarguably should be doing. I would say these writers do it simply because it’s more rewarding work. It’s not easy work but there’s an easiness to it, a flow of rightness, a sensibility that I could cultivate too. It’s an undervalued service, anyway. Criticism at this level intertwines signal-boosting, craft-refinement, and encouragement, which are all unfortunately in scarce supply. Supporting artists anchors us to a community of game development and unified expression. And you know it must be satisfying: we don’t get paid for it.

Games that instead were dead on arrival have an obvious look to them. Websites, ostensibly kept up out of nostalgia, have detailed plans for ambitious projects done out of passion that haven’t been updated in a decade. On platforms like gamejolt or itch, dead games have threadbare presentations. Itch games with no thumbnails, no updated themes, and little to no information about the game. A white void.

I’ve played many games that have no description and it matches; they’re scribbles, prototypes or unfinished demos, ideas a dev didn’t have the time or inspiration to cultivate. There’s an energy to them but also a sadness in them. Not because they’re ‘bad’, but because of an implied myriad circumstance for them to end up showcased, unfinished and unconfident. Sometimes games bely this lack of confidence, or time, or energy, but are in fact very good games.

I’m not going to rehash any arguments about how videogame culture is excessively consumerist and neoliberal. Ethics do not begin or end with consumption. I’m not going to say the meme, but I hope people can acknowledge the damage of still filtering our understanding of videogames through a 1% that dominates conversation. Know that this fosters closed attitudes toward games and game making. Know that, and then, still make a decision to support the machine.

There’s all sorts of art that goes unnoticed with so many new democratized, ease of access platforms. I’m listening to an artist on bandcamp who I appreciate greatly, I’m regularly inspired by, and I’m one of like a dozen listeners. That’s just the way it is. Fantastic undiscovered artists are dying on their artblogs, and like the great noise rocker I’m listening to now, I feel a touch, an energy from them, and the way they present themselves. They know their value. It’s pretty consistent that no matter how small or unappreciated these artists are, they’re still serious about what they make and put out.

I often don’t feel that from game makers! There’s a cloying self-deprecation that what they do is just for fun and doesn’t matter, or that they’re just hobbyists and don’t make real games. I don’t think it’s fair to push that they should wake up and take pride in what they do—though they should—what they’re feeling is what they’re told. So much of diversity in games, so much potential, so much understanding, is undercut by what kind of games “matter.”

It’s possible my defense is out of some kind of a pathology. I’ve been a misfit through most of my life so I see a kinship in the perpetually lost and unappreciated. Art-misfits beyond a marketable sense; loners, nobodies, accidents, and the downtrodden, those who are never seen nor spoken to. That aspect of interacting and showing that I care, even faceless, even in a way that’s prioritizes my comfort, is quietly empowering. I can do that which wasn’t done for me.

That’s an empathetic baseline, if for some reason it’s hard to understand why someone would be motivated to support unknown artists. Though, I don’t want to make what is a just engagement with games languishing in the void into a conflict of self actualization. It is not only strictly untrue but really unfair to creatives. They deserve support because they exist, and I mean that, I mean that as much as every person deserves the right to a support network. Every dead game in this way, every game that drops in a void of silence, every game that goes misunderstood, is a collective failure.

It’s not possible to save every game though, right? Maybe not, but it’s possible to shift a culture so that at a micro level art can be better nurtured by peers and mentors. So we can see better value in scribbles, in non-conventional playstyles, and not fuss over hegemonic thought of what good games ought to be. Making these links then, to years old games, that were written off for whatever reason, and asserting that they definitely have value, well, I know it won’t right these wrongs. What it will do is demonstrate what a wronged game looks like and how to talk about them.

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