Why bother?

It’s ironic that art feels precarious and scarce because of cultural factors, when we live in an age where it’s freeing and easier than ever to connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime. When so much art is being made. It might be a confusion, the flood causing us to dig in, reinforcing the way it has been. Keeping order and sensibility, while adapting to thoughts humans never had to hear, never had to care about, never had to see. It’s too much but someday it won’t be, I think someday it will be a new normal, and it might be too late (or was never our ball) to define what that normal is.

To answer, in essence, why bother? Change is incremental, imperceptible, the amount of blood and sweat and risk put in doesn’t match the gains. Why bother?

if you can have your pick of 200 free videogames released each day what does it matter if a particular one is bad? what does it matter that a particular game is good? i don’t mean this in the sense of some celebration of eternal creation or of, god help us, “choice”, so much as that the very material fact of having to grapple with vast quantities can result in a dislocation of old questions of usage and of value – that these questions take on something of a conceptual quality rather than a utilitarian one, like writing book reviews in the library of babel.stephen “thecatamites” murphey, work crit

If there’s an innumerable amount of new games available every day does it matter if one of them is bad? (Innumerable because I think 200 has become a possibly conservative guess at how many there are?) Does it even matter if most of them are bad? A lot of game exhibitions, especially the ones that are big spends and big draws for big galleries are very married to the commercial history of games because that at least imposes a sort of comprehensible limit for what is considered. While there are still more than you can play in a lifetime, and most are probably also bad, they are all coming from this system that seems like a singular place, The Game Industry, and so you can build a channel and kind of order and prioritize your consideration of these things… this approach to history is becoming more and more obviously inadequate. – Emilie Reed, Depicting Vulgar Profligacy

Just the assertion, what am I doing (I am writing book reviews in the library of babel) was a tiny existential crises. These excerpts paint a bit of an incorrect picture, I really recommend reading this informal back and forth. A few posts in now and they have great insight and analysis on modern conditions of art games and games as art, that sort of intersection. And uh, I don’t really! 

I guess this is an informal sequel to a previous essay which was focused on a single inequality in gamescrit rather than shooting into the broad infinite. I argued against Stephen Murphey bringing up Vasily Zotov, but my argument was completely disingenuous, a way just to score points about how I’m not going to pedastal One Name in the same way. Dropping one name is still kind of… it’s not really a rigorous assessment, but also his was just a fairweather post and I’m not the one to be talking about rigor.

Vasily Zotov’s games exist, therefore they’re valid.

That stuck with me though, and inspired my last post, that validity is not something earned or given, it’s something factual. It just is. One problem though, Zotov’s games don’t exist anymore. His three iOS games were removed from the app store after he was ostensibly arrested for being in America illegally. (I’m just guessing, I don’t know what happened, maybe he’s fine and safe and just stopped making games, but I doubt it). I guess Apple doesn’t want to publish games by “criminals” or some hackneyed excuse, but we all know Apple is incredulously anti-art and pulls this kind of crap all the time.

Vasily released two free games, Space Spy and Refugee, that for all of my efforts I could not find. His domain is gone and all links are dead. Wayback machine preserved the website but none of the downloads. My external drive filled with freeware that I don’t want to delete now feels less like wasted space. Like, for all of the glowing, and many not so receptive, but at least shocked and emotional, reviews and descriptions of these games, I’d think someone would have preserved them. Nothing though, they’re just ephemera. I guess if anything is less damning Vasily was active until a bit after 2015, so the loss hasn’t been long. It hasn’t been long and it’s been basically unnoticed.

I did get to play Quite Soulless. Vasily Zotov’s first videogame, commercially released, thanks to whoever uploaded the whole thing to the Internet Archive. Which is beautiful, and exactly what I wanted to see, a legacy preserved for an artist that was individualistic and unique. Definitely, and unfortunately, ahead of his time, obviously struggling with still present barriers to being accepted as a gamedev. Now I can scroll through some odd curation account and play stuff as exuberantly lo-fi, striking, and unconventional as Quite Soulless and well, okay, nothing is really in quite the same manner, but you know what I mean. Though, it’s not like materially anything is all that much better for weirdo artists, but there’s a precedent at least.

Quite Soulless is a slow moving, awkward, extremely baffling, and unfortunately racist videogame, so I’m not trying to canonize it or whatever. A description from the extremely great and shortlived artgames blog Uncommon Assembly:

The raw, unpolished feel of Zotov’s games recalls a stream-of-consciousness aesthetic often found in art brut and outsider art (also see: vernacular art, naïve art). These types of art are generally created outside the boundaries of the official culture of the medium. The value of art brut as contemporary art was first recognized and cataloged by French artist Jean Debuffet in the late 1940s. Debuffet believed that mainstream culture tends to consume and incorporate all new developments in art, therefore removing from them their genuine power and expression. He believed that art brut was resistant to the influences of mainstream culture, since the artists were unable or unwilling to be assimilated.

I dislike the connotations of outsider art, the implication that there’s a true and right art and somehow you wind up outside it, and how often these divisions are bandied about to encompass mentally ill artists and pretty much nothing else. This is a true paragraph though—and for the record I prefer art brut—because cowards won’t institutionalize and preserve things in a way that proves their formulas and formalism wrong so, “outsider” it is. Because, of course, you can make evocative art without being trained in the right ways to do it.

Quite Soulless is inspired by Myst and Alone in the Dark, even described as much by the author, and it plays like a bastard fusion of both games. The player character moves at a miserable pace around pre-rendered low poly collages solving full-screen prerendered puzzles that are near impossible. I think their unsolvability might even be the point. My favorite set of puzzles revolves around items that, though you have them from the beginning of the game, the protagonist himself has no idea why or what the items are, until after transforming into another person and receiving more information about where he’s ended up. I don’t think Vasily expected a player to know they had to assemble a little car to let their mouse partner ride up and disable the islands electromagnetic locks, or whatever the hell the mouse does, or even being able to realize the mouse would be capable of doing anything of the sort, so he rightfully included a walkthrough with the game. I like that it’s the most obtuse thing ever and also just tells you how to do it, probably the perfect compromise as far as I’m concerned.

Graphics in Quite Soulless do remind me of the rough and strange adware that populated browser in the old net, probably a commonality of only having access to cheap and dated tools. Screens are like out of control Playmobil sets. Odd colors, bizarre angles, collaged 2D materials, gaudy and psychedelic UI, melds a concrete feeling of being off-balance and unsure of one’s presence within the game. Not dreamlike, but hallucinatory, structures and institutions made sinister, unfitting to exist.

All of it is delightfully absurd. Though the graphics look cobbled, after watching the incredible fountain-travel fmvs, I think it’s indisputable there’s an intricate level of foresight, planning, and technique occurring, just paradoxically through the most garish looking 3D in videogames. When indie games was more of a fun clique than an empty brand, I guess Quite Soulless made a list of notoriously bad games, which is frustrating to behold. There wasn’t enough space for a game like this to exist without being a joke or sideshow.

I might be a bit more enamored with Vasily himself though. When he finished Quite Soulless he promoted the game in the only way he could in 2008: making forum posts on indiegame webpages. Inevitably he was ridiculed for his apparent lack of business sense, imperfect english, and unconventional aesthetic, even though he was a game design student, even though he had no money or platform to conduct business. Most threads are gone now, but thanks to wayback I got an amazing quote (emphasis his).

I will not work not alone (only as a founder and director). So… no jobs for now. No more waitressing (I am a healthy waiter of the 4th degree according to my State documents, I had this enough). To work for somebody sounds like slavery to me. Sir, I am proud to be ALONE.

You do not sound like an artist. Are you an artist or a PROGRAMMER? Be so kind. Just tell us.

I don’t believe the LANGUAGE is that important, but my HEART.

Tell me, were your parents working for the government of your third world country? Tell me are you a product of yourself totally?

Because I believe I know this kind of people. Was it you, I served to in restaurants?

I seem to be the only INDEPENDENT PERSON at IGDA.

Videogames are the only medium where protest art isn’t seen as a quick positive. I don’t necessarily mean that as a pure good. Vasily would be exploited and turned into a meme if someone found his story compelling enough to be packaged—but hell, exploit him, let his passion, his message, live and fester. Instead he vanished ignobly, most of his work dead, remembered mostly for making an “infamously bad indie game” and not for being a provocative or pioneering influence.

There is a lesser-known history of the games themselves. By this I mean a more intimate account composed of a long heritage of games deliberately concerned with the artistic, political and personal. For these, the term “artgame” comes in handy. This term refers to videogames intended to provoke artistic ideas but still be understood contextually as games. The “artgame” stands in important contrast to “game art,” which is usually produced by conceptual artists and aims to treat games not as a form unto themselves but as raw material for new works. The line between the two, however, can and does blur. It’s sometimes unclear whether or not a given piece of digital art is intended to be read as a “game” or as “game-based conceptual art,” and I would argue that as games and art converge to insist on an unassailable distinction between the two is to engage in futile pedantry.

Videogames as a medium and culture have more or less grown up on the internet, which hindered the growth of the art form as much as it helped it. On the one hand, the internet did facilitate the proliferation of small, independent and personal gaming experiments by allowing people to make and share them for little to no money. On the other, the growth of the corporate web has meant that a great deal of gaming’s art history has been lost, hamfistedly revised, or put into the “weird” corner of the medium’s past mistakes. – Lana Polanksy, Towards an Art History for Videogames

No history is a complete history, all flows in uncertain terms, with no concrete direction. It is, rather, directed, curated, haphazardly researched, built up by generations. History is interpreted. Without records there won’t be any history, and sorry to say, we’re not making very many records. Vasily Zotov’s games are gone but there are innumerable other chances to let artists paint a portrait of when, where, and how we lived, yes even an infinite. I’m not striving to present everything fully and accurately, or anything as grandiose as the traditional purpose of curation, that these are the greatest to ever work. No, I just want to communicate that we existed.

That’s why I bother. Sorry for the length, this’ll probably be the last corny thing I write like this, and second apology if that’s what you like reading from me. I want to keep doing Vextro, I want to continue the reading lists, and I hope to eventually compile them into books. I want people to know we struggled and created. I’m egotistical and I’m going to work on preserving a legacy and a history of gamedev that nobody really wants, so it’ll be there when they finally do.

the only currently running dedicated indiegame outlet is a damn gdc affiliate. not sorry if that offends that’s not really “indie.” this may be more illustrative of the economic strain criticism exists in, but still…

shouts to owen ketillson, jay castello, and pip turner currently engaged in artgame crit

I’m waiting for the arcade review’s triumphant return, but regardless its legacy lives on

lana polanksy is a damn pioneer

grateful for all the dead blogs that just remain. there are too many

grudging respect to hardcoregaming101 for their older angle but I want better than corporatism, for-use consumerism; vincent kinian does older forgotten games better.

liz ryerson utterly convinced me of what kinds of politics are communicated by shutting out marginalized art & artists.

glorious trainwrecks’ comment sections very often have great discussions. they have an amazing archival system going on as well. I like reading marek kapolka‘s random posts

hell that’s it. the short list is the long list; that’s all I know of. counterculture being represented critically is important, I think, and it’s so few

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