What Does the Soul Look Like

Undertale’s metafiction isn’t wholly new, but conflating metafiction with sentience is certainly, well, something. That is to say, Undertale speaks to, and judges a player for, progressing through its narrative. Not diegetically as some kind of commentary on the form, but from a point of object permanence. Stretched literary values assert Undertale as a living, real place. Therefore it treats a player as a literal infiltrator of Undertale’s peace.

Layers deep into this conceit the game comes to muster and essentially asks: why play this game, why do these things? I see this a question of taste, of aesthetics; altogether something that has more to do with my life situation. Of course, no character cares about why I literally bought, installed, and played Undertale. They just want me to leave them alone. Making this play a question of ethics, because of the asserted agency and reality of the videogame at hand, makes the metafictional implication of asking like, any possible meaning of finishing the game outside of its conceit basically subtext. Because as far as Undertale is concerned, its awareness is a natural structure.

Basically the post-undertale game is like “The Monster at the End of this Book.” Myself, the reader, share in the static reality of this book with Grover. He’s allowed to turn the page, change the contents of the book, because he exists of it and inside it. Though the “change” is relative to reading it. The page he nails shut is always nailed shut, and so on. Grover pleads in vain for the reader not to turn any pages out of fear for the monster at the end of the book. Spoilers for an iconic classic of literature: the monster is him!

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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?

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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.

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Automatism and La forêt

Often when procedural generation is mentioned, someone will express, without room for debate, that things generated by an algorithm can never match up to the human touch. It’s always a huffy kind of statement, like it’s a waste of time to even consider any virtues. Really, it should be obvious, these styles of creation are not competing whatsoever. Still, people recoil at art that cannot transfer directly into some agreed upon essence of humanity, art that doesn’t reflect some soul or personality. That which cannot be rooted in the skill and cunning of its creator. It can seem like rejecting a personal touch is undermining the statements and abilities of a human author. Underpinning this an implicit fear that the recognition and social capital of the artist is under attack. As if making things needs to service the potential of perfect human genius, where each part is positioned with the utmost care; art as a contest of how much a master agonizes over small details.

Automatic art, random art, aleatoricism, mean to leave some part of the process of creation up to chance, though each in different ways. Automatism has a history in spiritualism—unconscious writing was believed to be the work of possession or some kind of psychic link with the afterlife. I can’t claim those or any irrational conclusion as false, because automatic art is an expression of the irrational. Classic surrealists were enamored with automatic techniques. They allow for creation uninhibited by rules or expectations, communication without any specific code-switching. Subconscious art can emulate dreams, incorporate the unexplained, pay tribute to the real omnipresent factor of the arbitrary.

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