On ZZT and “ZZT”

Writing about ZZT feels perfunctory. Having only heard about the game a month ago, its importance was to me invisible. Being a ASCII-based computer game released in 1991, present in videogame’s market tested pedagogy, it’s not the kind of game that gets to be remembered. There’s undeniably an essence of iconoclasm to ZZT; I think it resembles a bunch of things, but akin to scenes and art movements, it was a time and a place. It’s not going to be reproduced. In that sense I can’t introduce ZZT, because I can’t hold it in place. I can’t capture what I never knew or saw.

Those who were imprinted by the allure of making ZZT games seem to follow and be followed by artistic pursuit. I see a self-explanatory, self-justified thing. It was a design language people could see and feel demonstrated. An immediate understanding that a videogame was made by a person. The ZZT community was, paraphrasing words that aren’t mine, mostly a bunch of frustrated teens, that through a specific and arcane practice were able to exercise control and interpret their lives. The specificity was kind of special and secret, and it was kind of lonely and isolating. In the late 90s, who was seriously into ASCII videogames, among the advent of 3D?

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cw: depression stuff

writing in lowercase again because it’s more comfortable to tackle personal topics like this. i think of it like minimizing space, a kind of tepid and forced humility. it’s a natural impulse for me when i don’t want to feel seen and i don’t want to feel like an authority, but i’m not sure if that’s how other people see it or read it. i don’t mean to impose anything either. it’s just easier for me to apply a specific direction and style of writing for certain topics.

i’ve decided to also start writing about japanese freeware games because, i uh, can, and i think it’ll further my commitment to talking up small games by tying big ideas and lifestyles to them. or in other words, same as any other writing on here. lightly, consider lightly, that gamewriting’s american and english-centrism is a clear and present weakness.

but already, engaging with stuff i’m not fluent in has presented challenges. peripheral information is laborious to unparseable; i didn’t really know what i was getting into when i started playing 少女 (shōjo, which just translates to girl). having to suddenly and unexpectedly devote my attention (reading while learning a language is indistinguishable from close reading) to traumatic events that i have personal stake in… is less than pleasant.

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literacy in small terms

max edits all the essays i write. everybody say hi to max, big round of applause to max, give lots of thanks to max. THANK YOU MAX

he put in a request though to do a little exposition on a common idea vextro treads on and around. we bring up like, games not being quite coherent and games not living up to an expressed potential. the best shorthand for addressing all of this is a statement starts to become a mantra. developers (or just as often inverse, gamers in interpretation) lacked the proper videogame literacy, and that’s why a game is. this a lot of assumed knowledge for my audience, and a lot of universalizing a concept that has no center, no core, no place of education. or I mean, you can’t go learn videogame literacy, so what we’re actually saying is that they “don’t understand videogames as well as we do” and that is pompous as shit. i don’t want to create hierarchies. i want this to be easily understood, i want it to be hopefully an accessible concept. i’m not the best at clarity, but i’ll put in an effort to explaining on my terms.

a lot of this is just paying forward ideas lana polanksy wrote in a response to ludonarrative dissonance as a concept making the rounds again. it hasn’t made the rounds much since. coherence versus incoherence is a really clear and direct model for a critic to adopt, though it’s usefulness is tied up with a critic’s desire to ascribe meaning or value to a work. which I mean fuck it, that’s what most gameswriters do anyway, so it’s a good model. my friend becky applied the framework what is a most comprehensive way, it flat out works, and it’d be nice to see a lot more people shifting away from the nebulous “the videogame is good because it makes me feel good and “the videogame is good because it’s appealing to the market” toward “this videogame is meaningful because of precedents in art and history, and I can prove it”

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Like Slow Disappearing

I’m not an expert on horror games or anything, so I can only guess the origin of persistent horror is from Slender: The Eight Pages (or maybe, arguably, Ao Oni?). I can’t actually handle persistent antagonists either, especially in first person. I’ve never finished Slender, but I’ve played it a bit, sorta just to face my fears. I gotta force myself to play most horror games. Maybe I just feel a lot, maybe I’m gullible; I just get really invested and really scared. The point is to get scared, but I don’t know. It’s not exactly pleasant.

A persistent antagonist (usually randomly) spawns in and chases the player. It may chase permanently, or it may despawn after a certain point. Commonality here is how it fosters an intense vulnerability. Control and tempo of play isn’t dictated by what the player necessarily wants, it’s a matter of being in constant avoidance. Rhythm is determined by whatever chases; a player must cede control over the space, in a way that other genres or styles rarely, if ever, require someone to do.

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Outer Sight





From the description of Agent Escape:

This is a serious game that explores the motivations of a paranoid and depressive schizophrenic. Auditory and visual hallucinations are common in these patients … Lack of motivation and drug abuse are very common in schizophrenic patients … I hope that through playing this game the player gains a better understanding of the motivations and mental state of paranoid delusional schizophrenics, and will exhibit empathy and understanding.

I really don’t like this game. There are a lot of problems considering its short runtime. An intrinsic motivator to create conflict is that the player-character has complete amnesia after going through electroconvulsive therapy. Chances of this actually happening are astronomically low. It has happened, but this outcome happening, and somehow also the hospital staff are not aware that it has happened, is flatout impossible. It only happens to create tension, to preserve a false start framing. Continue reading

Overexplaining Literalism

I play a lot of freeware games. I start to pick up on trends. Many of them come about out of convenience. A lot of free games are products of a jam and so a straightforward production pipeline is essential. I guess game jams work as an excuse to make a game not “good” enough to meet expectations of a typical game release, so they proliferate as the largest modern genre of freeware.  Which is whatever, a lot of game design demands a short length, but the videogame economy does not. Game jams are unfortunately effective.

There’s a narrative trend that I don’t know how to describe in a snappy way. I do know once I start describing it, like, most people who’ve been around these scenes will know what I’m talking about. It’s just unacknowledged with any kind of specific name. Crucially, I’m talking about games that try harder than is needed to mean something. Videogames that hit you over the head with their intention, in a way that I don’t think is motivated by being blunt or obvious. Game design in the vein of Passage, where it’s more important to make a statement about the present value of videogames. Prioritizing commentary on expectation-value than much more affecting expression. I guess videogames inevitably asserted they’re not toys in a way as annoying as possible, because the inverse discourse really is and was that annoying. Ennui has to be sincere before it can be excised.

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Reduction Critique

Typical shmups ask a player to (albeit in simplified form) pilot an aircraft. They present wars of impossible odds, in which a skilled individual defends, well, something. This kind of really obvious framing is something I might take for granted, though because it’s a strong tradition, it has an especially clear expressive goal. I hesitate to call it a power fantasy because most shmups really do have impossible odds. This framing may be alarmist and reactionary, but they are, at least, coherent within their expressed intent, by expressing near impossibility with extreme difficulty.

rRootage doesn’t have any sort of straightforward thematic framing device while remaining clear and communicative. You pilot a pixel surrounded by wireframes that fires a giant laser at a shape-like assemblence that emits a collage of shapes. It’s quite beautiful actually, makes me want to be writing about that instead (maybe in the coming weeks…). Without representative graphics drawing connections to real life counterparts, I feel a hyperfocus on the play loop. I think about what the gliding movement feels like to me, I think about the lines I have access to, I’m focused on the peaks & valleys of stress and emotion a shmup incites in me.

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A Living Videogame

I kinda paused at the idea of making a videogame as a gift. A short pause. I know there’s really nothing wrong with that. Surely it’s as personal as anything, and I think I’d enjoy being on either side of such a gift. That reluctance isn’t my own, it’s absorbed from being in games. A sense of what games can do and what they’re for pushes away meaningful expressions dedicated to someone else. It feels like this because videogames are always polishing, always focus testing, always trying to reach as a broad an audience as possible. Can something like that truly reflect an individual?

Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy! is a stranger game than it would normally feel like, because it was made as a gift to the developer’s girlfriend. Nelly, the protagonist, was made in her likeness. A pretty clearly masculine Spoonbeaks Ahoy is not explicitly romantic, the author’s nevertheless romantic interest spends a majority of play time outsmarting portrayed-as-vain and material-obsessed women. There’s a feeling of crypto-sexism because the, male writer, accents how much more special Nelly is compared to other women and even other characters in general. His motivations are really transparent. From a mile away, it’s obvious how an expression of “you’re not like other women” is degrading, undercuts solidarity, though it’s used so frequently in fictional romantic contexts.

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Modeling Spatial Game Design with Pinball

As a child I spent an obscene amount of time playing three virtual pinball tables. I’ve forgotten this, or maybe it’s been mentally blocked. I am earnestly talking about twenty hours or more playing Pinball on the NES, 3D Pinball for Windows – Space Cadet for, uh, windows, (yeah that default windows pinball game that isn’t actually 3D) and the casinopolis stage in Sonic Adventure. Pinball, being adapted from analog arcade games, can’t really deviate from a specific ruleset, otherwise it’s not pinball. Its simplicity manifests longstanding and sharp game design ethos. I want to try to unpack some relationships pinball has in a broader sense of gamedev.

Pinball is presented, viewed, and arranged very similarly to single table score attack games, like Breakout or Space Invaders. This is evidence of something analog, hundreds of years old, obviously influencing how we play today. It sounds silly like this but we wouldn’t have R-Type without pinball! While the concept of a score attack arcade game shifts depending on platform demands and influence from material history, pinball is just pinball. Such a strict adherence is an anomaly in game subgenres and mediums.

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Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going

The other day I tweeted “indie rock fucking sucks” and that still feels belligerent. Maybe it’s something that’s never wrong even if I’m not being honest. I was listening to early Yo La Tengo, which is alike to Modest Mouse and Dinosaur Jr., and I surely think those bands suck. I enjoy listening to them sometimes but their whole existence is obnoxious. Which I couldn’t quite articulate why for awhile and maybe I can’t really nail it because I’ve never felt intimate with rock music. Still I was listening to The Kingsmen and The Sonics and The Saints and The Stooges for, well, I really have no goddamn clue why I was listening to garage bands that begin with The. I just felt like it. The Stooges are still really fucking good. Anyway I realized the gap between rock music and the so-called hipsterism of indie rock isn’t very wide at all. The point of rock music, at least as presented by british dudes and white americans, was a stance of disaffected appropriation.

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