Sex Work: Moralism, Markets & Marxism

The issue of sex work and how it should be treated by society has long been controversial, particularly on the Left. While generally rejecting the conservative view that sex workers are themselves immoral (and filthy, dangerous, evil, etc.), progressives and liberals of various stripes have nevertheless struggled to find a common approach. Even in feminist circles, radically different views continue to clash on this subject. Meanwhile, as academics and activists debate morality, sex workers continue to be faced with violence and exploitation.

This is where the socialist – or more accurately, Marxist – approach to sex work becomes relevant.

It would be impossible to talk about every single political approach to sex work there is, but I think it’s fair to identify two broad streams of thought. In their extreme forms (which are common), they go like this:

  • [The Moralistic Approach] All sex workers are inherently victims. All sex work is inherently violent. There is no difference between sex trafficking, prostitution and pornography.
  • [The Market Approach] There is a clear distinction between sex workers and victims of sex trafficking. Sex workers have agency and choose to do the work they do. Sex work is just another capitalist market.

Proponents of the former view (frequently radical feminists) favour a variety of solutions; many support laws that criminalize sex work, some support laws that semi-decriminalize it (like the Nordic model), while a few support fully decriminalizing it. Proponents of the latter (frequently sex workers or activists) generally favour decriminalization.

Both approaches present certain problems.

The flaws of the criminalization approach – including the Nordic model, which “only” criminalizes paying for sex – are fairly obvious: it utterly fails to protect sex workers, pushing their work underground and making them much easier to harm and exploit, stigmatizes them on a personal/cultural level, and even normalizes violence against sex workers (since it doesn’t distinguish between sex work and rape). Decriminalization allows for regulation, safety standards, legal recourse in case of violence, and has many other benefits that make a sex worker’s life safer and easier. Moralists who condemn sex work may argue that this normalizes an abusive practice, but not only do they utterly fail to account for women’s agency, they also fail to account for the fact that trying to ban sex work simply doesn’t stop it. Thus we have to ask ourselves whether the goal is to actually protect women – or to perform a ritual of public condemnation to prove one’s progressive credentials.

The second approach, while certainly far less hypocritical, does come with some flaws as well. In a capitalist economy where the basic rights of people are not guaranteed, where unemployment is high and jobs are scarce, a person’s choices are not necessarily as voluntary as they appear. When the alternatives are starvation or homelessness (for yourself or your children), freedom is an illusion. It is not a coincidence that increased austerity results in increased sex work: people need work, and when they don’t have a choice, they’ll do sex work as well. That’s not to say all people who do sex work do it for that reason; but it’s impossible to argue that it’s not a common reason. There is a danger of ignoring this aspect of the problem when (justifiably) trying to address the unjust socio-cultural treatment of sex workers.

Proponents of decriminalization disagree on another issue: legalization. It’s possible to get rid of laws that criminalize sex work without actually making new laws that control it specifically. While laws can create health and safety frameworks that make a huge difference to sex workers, some argue that this creates a two-tier system which leaves all those who don’t meet the correct criteria (such as illegal immigrants) in a vulnerable position. This is partially true, but even if sex work is treated as simply another job in the national capitalist system, without any specific regulation, that doesn’t make those particularly vulnerable groups (which, statistically speaking, are often involved in sex work) any safer. That the existing type of nation state is bad at regulating something does not mean that market-based chaos is a better or more humane alternative.

The Marxist approach to sex work is simple in its universality and humanism: the part of “sex worker” that matters to Marxists is worker. Marxism fundamentally rejects any and all attempts to impose moralistic beliefs about sexuality on people, and especially the notion that people should be categorized around such issues in political or socio-economic terms. It’s not that Marxism is pro-sex or anti-sex: it’s that it places the freedom of the individual above such concerns. As far as Marxist theory is concerned, sex workers are doing a job, and the purpose of Marxism is to end the exploitation of all workers, no matter what their jobs are. (Note, however, that “exploitation” here has a very specific meaning: not unfairness or immorality, but the capitalist’s theft of the surplus value produced by the worker. In other words, you don’t get paid for the work you do.) Whether the worker is being exploited by a factory owner or a strip club owner makes no difference – the economic mechanics are the same.

But Marxism also has no illusions in the nation state, and makes no distinction between workers from this country or that, legal or illegal. The scope of its vision is what makes it challenging to implement, but it’s also what makes it actually capable of causing meaningful change. Marxism isn’t trying to help this one group of sex workers as opposed to the rest. It’s not trying to make a moral argument to those in power that they should be nicer to sex workers. It is radically, steadfastly dedicated to the rights of workers, to organizing workers, to giving workers control over their own lives and their own jobs. Its power is precisely in refusing to exclude sex workers, much as it must refuse to exclude illegal immigrants or anyone else whose work falls into a category that makes them easier to exploit.

In the end, the needs of sex workers are the needs of all workers: self-determination, health, safety, leisure, social equality. Will people still choose to be sex workers once they have achieved these things? The Marxist answer is a shrug. Who cares? If the conditions exist for people to be able to freely choose, then it’s not up to anyone to judge them. If they don’t have that freedom, then the only correct attitude towards sex workers is the same we have towards every other worker, from the factory labourer to the programmer: unconditional solidarity.

This universalism is both goal and necessity for the socialist movement. Without rejecting divisions, it’s impossible to build a movement that can seriously challenge the fundamental structure of the global economy. But building this movement based on our common, objective needs is also our very best chance to overcome centuries of propaganda and prejudice. The fact that our lives are so defined by our work is what oppresses us, but it’s also what can free us, what can overcome the walls that have been built between us.

Any movement that calls itself socialist or Marxist that fails to embrace the full radicalism of such a universalist perspective is not only untrue to the systems of thought it claims to stand for, but also doomed to fail.

Game Texture and Liminal Spaces

Years ago Michael Brough gave a talk in which he used the concept of working with or against a game’s grain. That idea, of thinking about game design in such physical terms – a game’s texture, grain, surface, shape – has fascinated me, particularly given my own thoughts about the centrality of structure to game narratives. This notion has been on my mind again lately, particularly with the release of Omegaland, a game that it would be fair to describe as deliberately rough around the edges.

Omegaland takes a great deal of inspiration from older games, but – despite what you might think at first glance – it’s not intended to look like Super Mario. If anything, it’s meant to look like a Super Mario clone. Let me explain.

I’ve played a lot of strange little games over the years. When I was a kid, we weren’t exactly rich, and getting a new game was relatively rare. Computers were also evolving so rapidly at that point that even if you had the money, to play the latest games you needed the latest hardware. So I played a lot of freeware and shareware games. Some of them I got from the internet (waiting hours for a download that would take under a second now), but most I got from various collections of “5500 FREE GAMES!” and the like – or maybe from a CD burned by a friend, who’d gotten it from a cousin, who’d gotten it from a schoolmate, who’d… you get the picture.

I don’t remember a lot of these games very clearly. I was young, my language skills were limited, and half the time it was impossible to even get the games to run properly. So these games were a mystery to me – a mystery that grew in my mind, as I imagined all the great things surely hidden somewhere in there. These half-remembered games were one of the origins of The Sea Will Claim Everything, and they’re an even bigger influence on The Council of Crows.

There was this one game… sort of an adventure/RPG, where you moved from one static screen to the next by following the cardinal directions, and… I think there was a dragon in your village that you had to defeat? I also remember some kind of dwarf. You had stats to increase, and possibly objects to find. It was crude as hell, but somewhere – on the credits screen, maybe – there was a message from the people who’d made it, possibly also a low-res photo. And it made me realize – hold on, regular people made this. Which means I can make this. And I can make it better. The crudeness of it, in an odd way, made it easier to imagine making games of my own.

But where that game was genuinely crude, others were rough in a different sense. To go back to that idea of imagining games as physical objects, some of these games were absolutely brilliant in their own way, they simply had a different texture. You hear a lot of people talking about polish. Well, some works of art look best when polished. Other look best when the surface is left rough.

It’s very important to me that this not be taken dogmatically. Around the time indie games started being a “scene” (which was odd to me because I’d been making them for years), there were a lot of debates in which people took very extreme, inflexible positions that never made any sense to me. On the one hand you had the idea that games needed to be perfectly polished, that this was what distinguished the pros from the amateurs, and on the other you had people arguing that anything polished was bourgeois and the rougher a game, the more punk rock it was. Which is a bit like saying that all paintings should be painted the same way, all books should be written in the same voice, all music should sound the same. But different works of art have different requirements – that’s part of the fun!

There can, under the right conditions, be something magical about what seems to be an imperfection. The Lands of Dream games could never work without Verena’s graphics, because if they were more polished, the sheer weirdness of the world would feel incongruous. The flaws – which are deliberate, a result of making the graphics in this particular way – create an entirely different imaginary space than more polished graphics would. The metaphorical cracks in the material combine with the words to become tiny gateways to another world, where mushrooms can be communists and an object can smell of mathematics. To employ an overused and potentially pretentious term for a moment, the key here is the liminality created by a certain degree of “roughness” in the game’s design and presentation, which allows the game to evolve in strange and unexpected directions in ways that a more settled/consistent design and presentation do not allow.

Thus, when working on Omegaland, I wasn’t mainly thinking about Super Mario, although Super Mario Land 2 was definitely an influence. Rather, I was thinking about the many odd little platform games I played over the years, some of them made long before indie games were a thing. (I wish I could remember all their names – I’ve searched and searched for some of them.) The very first version of Omegaland, in fact, used SpriteLib for its graphics – the same graphics used in HappyLand Adventures, a freeware game by Johan Peitz that I played to death in the early 2000s. The only reason I eventually asked Verena to make some graphics (“can you make graphics that will look like a cheap but enthusiastic Mario clone?”) was because the result felt too much like I was stealing from Johan’s game.

When approached as an artistic tool rather than as dogmatic prescription, considering a game’s texture – whether rough or polished – opens up a range of possibilities in the kind of experiences we can create. Personally, I find this exhilarating, and I’m lucky enough to be able to explore both ends of the spectrum via my own games and the games I make with other people. I’m amazed by some of the breathtakingly beautiful, aesthetically superb games people are producing. There’s nothing wrong with those. But sometimes I do miss the weird, janky games of the past and their strange sense of possibility.

I think this is another reason that a broader, more inclusive awareness of the history of the medium is invaluable to us as artists. Instead of looking only to the handful of landmark games that have been mythologized as the games that defined the medium, we should always be willing to check out the weird, flawed, fascinating games people have been making for decades. Art isn’t about a linear evolution from primitive to complex forms – it’s actually a tree with thousands of branches, rich for the picking.

Caution, though: some of the fruit is hallucinogenic.

 

Notes

  1. Of course, it’s essential that we differentiate between doing something badly or screwing something up (which happens to me all the time) and deliberately trying to create a rougher texture. A bug is still a bug.
  2. I could have called this “Ludic Texture and Liminal Spaces” but then I would die of embarrassment.

Omegaland

Omegaland is now available! I wrote this about its history:

Omegaland has been a long-term side project for me. I’ve been very lucky to get to work on some big projects like The Talos Principle, Serious Sam 4, and Phoenix Point, but sometimes I missed the strange freedom we had when making Flash games. Everything was extremely low-budget, we had severe size constraints, but somehow the whole atmosphere of games then seemed more relaxed. I got to make games that were both fun and weird, like Alphaland or Traitor, and audiences on sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate were surprisingly positive even when those games contained some unusual material here and there. I wanted to make something in that spirit again. I took inspiration from various old platform games that I enjoyed – not just the obvious console classics (like Super Mario Land 2 on the Game Boy), but also freeware games that I loved back in the day, like Happyland Adventures (also made with very few resources, but so much fun). In the end, what I really hoped to accomplish was to make the kind of game you might stumble upon at random, get because it’s really cheap, and end up enjoying more than you’d expected.

As the name implies, this has a connection to Alphaland, but you don’t need to have played Alphaland to enjoy this game.

I must admit that I have no idea how to market Omegaland, because I genuinely hate the hype that surrounds everything now – I think it creates an incredibly unpleasant atmosphere, in which the games themselves end up disappearing from the discussion, and all we end up talking about is the marketing. And it’s incredibly unhealthy from the artistic side of things too, this constant pressure to sell yourself, to make yourself and your “product” look cool. Well, Omegaland isn’t cool. It isn’t going to change your life or kill all other platformers. I think it’s pretty good, but at the same time I’d much rather see people approaching it in a relaxed sort of way than trying to convince them it’s the Next Big Thing.

And if you find interesting stuff in there, well, then let that be part of the experience, not the marketing. Enjoy!

Everything You Give Them Can And Will Be Used Against You

There’s a reason that unconditional support for the concept of free speech has been a defining characteristic of left-wing thought for centuries. Beyond the principle of the thing – and the principle certainly matters – there is the matter of power. And there’s a very simple fact about power: when power is given, power will be used.

Those now making arguments against free speech, ostensibly from a “left-wing” position, are seeking to expand the authority of the system – a system they themselves on other occasions will characterize as oppressive, inherently reactionary, and so on. Yet somehow they imagine that when they give more power to that system to control speech, to prohibit “offensive” ideas, to punish verbal transgressions in a material way (such as taking away someone’s ability to make a living), that this additional authority will be used for progressive purposes only.

One is reminded of those defending President Obama’s expansion of the surveillance apparatus who were then shocked to realize said apparatus would be inherited by President Trump, desperately urging Obama in the last days of his presidency to dismantle what he’d spent years building. As it turned out, political structures that are useful to the system don’t just go away when the superficial flavour of politics changes. Systems don’t let go of power.

Every inch of ground you cede on the matter of free speech will come back to haunt you. Every “victory” against a despised individual will turn to ten people whose work you value being fired for views you never thought were controversial. Every protection against hate speech will be used to silence criticism of those who thrive on hate.

There are countless examples already. There will be many, many more as the world slides deeper and deeper into crises that cannot be resolved without systemic change.

The structures of authority in this world are not on your side. Whether it’s the government or the university board – their interests are not your interests. Yes, they will happily go along with your campaign when it’s convenient. They’ll tell you just how much they oppose sexism and racism, and how these new regulations will make everything better while coincidentally giving them more power to clamp down on expression.

Until you say something about police violence. Or Israel. Or a pipeline. Or the latest war. Or any of the dozens of topics that have gotten left-wing people fired or punished.

And do you think the far right will stay away from the tools you’ve handed the very system that helped create them? Do you think they won’t present themselves as the victims of violence and persecution? Do you think the system won’t find some “respectable” fascists who don’t deserve your intolerant liberal abuse? What could make anyone think that, when faced with an existential crisis, an inherently right-wing system will swing towards the left? When two groups are claiming to be oppressed and persecuted, why would the system ever support the one that is critical of so many aspects of society? Why not go with the law-and-order option? Why not go with those willing to defend the absolute rule of capital?

(Did you know that Germany, a country with open censorship of the arts, has a domestic security agency called the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which amongst other things is meant to fight Neonazis? Do you know what they actually do? They harass left-wing groups while funding and protecting Neonazis, even when they murder people. Germany, in many ways, is the perfect example of what English and American liberals want to create. Google “Alternative für Deutschland” to see how well that works.)

If you want to seize power and change the system at its core, defeat the opposition structurally, politically, and intellectually – go ahead, I’m with you. But if you think you can win by petitioning the existing system, by adding to its authority, then you are handing ammunition to the very forces that are going to destroy you.

Unless you compromise, of course. Those who oppose free speech most frequently do so because they don’t have anything to say.

Semper Fidelis / The Second Step

Here are two more stories I wrote for Phoenix Point.

  • Semper Fidelis. An ex-marine finds himself reenacting history in Antarctica.
  • The Second Step. A journalist interviews two radical scientists in Moscow while the world teeters on the brink of catastrophe.

Someone commented to me on the amount of effort going into these stories, given that they’re essentially just background material for a game, and as such will probably never get the amount of attention that a “proper” short story can get. And… yeah, that’s probably true. But!

  1. I believe in always producing high-quality work. Even the tiniest bit of filler should be as good as you can make it.
  2. This is Phoenix Point! A new X-COM-style game by Julian freaking Gollop. If it goes well, it’ll be a piece of history. Even if no-one pays any attention, every bit of it should be great.

Anyway, the crowdfunding campaign is almost over, but if you still want to pledge, you can do so here.

Nature, Ability, and Value

Perhaps nowhere do the great philosophical issues of civilization become more evident than in how society treats the disabled.

Take the current obsession with the notion of the “natural”, for instance. Human civilization is repeatedly criticized for being unnatural; the natural world is taken to be morally superior. But what would be the fate of a disabled individual in this supposedly desirable state of nature? The answer is simple: death. A disability such as blindless or abasia (the inability to walk) is, in evolutionary terms, a distinct disadvantage. The disabled individual performs its tasks less well, and will therefore be eliminated from the gene pool via natural selection. Life is perpetual competition, and value is derived solely from the ability to outcompete others.

Many who promote “natural” values would be horrified by the prospect of letting the disabled die; this points to the philosophical errors that are at the very core of a great deal of Green ideology. Nature is neither kind nor balanced; to the degree that capital-N Nature is even a useful concept at all, it is a process characterized by violence and randomness.

A common attempt at asserting the value of disabled people is to emphasize alternate forms of ability through euphemisms such as “differently abled”. Apart from the political consequences of this approach, which I’ve written about before, we must also consider its philosophical foundations. To put the emphasis on ability – even if it takes an alternate form – is to maintain the very “natural” logic so many would otherwise reject. After all, it is to argue that value is still derived from ability, which in turn implies that those without ability are without value. It is a more inclusive definition, but it changes nothing about the logic of brutal competition at the heart of this philosophy. As such, it is not surprising that it has been taken up widely by those representing the socially liberal part of capitalism, which seeks wider inclusion of a diverse workforce without altering the material relations at the system’s core.

(This is particularly important when we consider those who, for a variety of reasons, are genuinely and fully disabled, unable to produce value. Their stories are ignored in favour of more convenient stories of exceptional individuals.)

What is the proper origin of value, then? I would argue that the most foundational characteristic of human society’s understanding of value is that it is not based on ability, but is considered to be intrinsic. We do not choose to help disabled individuals because they are somehow useful, but because we assert that all human beings are inherently valuable. We take care of the old, the disabled, the sick, because we assert that it is the right thing to do, because it is the kind of world we want to live in, not because we hope to get something out of it. In other words, the basis of civilization is a rejection of Nature’s endless and meaningless optimization of the gene pool to fit constantly shifting parameters.

Capitalism, of course, takes society back towards the very logic we had rejected. In this lies both its tremendous creative and disruptive power, which undid the staid hierarchies of feudalism and drove forward human thought and productivity, and its terrible danger, which we see now as the competing factions threaten to eradicate civilization and perhaps even the species itself. Like Nature, capitalism is perpetual competition, characterized by violence and randomness, and measures value in terms that contradict the essence of civilization. This is why it is impossible to fight for the rights of disabled individuals in cultural terms; to do so will only improve the chances of those with exceptional abilities (as measured in the ability to generate a profit) to rise to the top of a system that rejects the very notion of intrinsic value.

If, philosophically speaking, we do not wish to return to a state of nature, but to continue the great human project that is civilization, the struggle for the rights of the disabled is an essential part of that project; but it is a struggle that can only be won by seizing conscious control of the system, as we once seized control of the natural environment in a way no other species had before, and asserting the inherent value of all human beings not only in cultural, but material terms. Socialism, then, is not only a political necessity, but also a philosophical one.

Far Out There

Far Out There is another short story I wrote for Phoenix Point. This one is a bit shorter, but it has a flavour all of its own. (The most important aspect of writing a story, I’ve always felt, is voice. I can’t write a story without having found the right voice. This is the reason it takes me a long time to get going, and why I write very carefully and precisely; the advantage is that I don’t need to edit as much.)

Here’s a fun bit of trivia: this story, while fitting perfectly into the game’s mythos, is partially inspired by the most terrifying dream I’ve ever had. The details are quite different, but the central experience, of the encounter that forms the story’s climax, is drawn from my own life. Except it wasn’t real. I hope.

The Tomb of the Phoenix

The Tomb of the Phoenix is a Lovecraft-inspired short story I wrote for Phoenix Point. I had a ton of fun writing it and I’m really pleased with the result. Sorry if that sounds smug, it’s just one of those stories that show up in your brain almost complete and are a real joy to work on. It’s also very encouraging to see that people are enjoying it; I do have a certain level of confidence in my work, but with how hard it is to get my kind of writing published, I sometimes fear that I was born a century too late, and that when I finally finish that novel I’ve been working on for 10+ years, nobody will want it. It’s good to be reminded that there is, at least, an audience.

If you enjoy the story, it would be great if you could share it with other people who might also enjoy it. The internet is fantastic for getting the word out, which is why it’s incredibly hard to get the word out about anything on the internet.

More Phoenix Point stories are on the way! We’re building a complex, layered world with many flavours of horror and hope. The real challenge, of course, will be to make the dynamic narrative in the game just as good.

From X-Com to Phoenix Point

I remember playing the demo for X-Com: Apocalypse. I got it from a CD that came with an issue of now-defunct Greek gaming magazine PC Master. I’d only just recently gotten my own computer; I think the only game I’d bought myself so far was Shadows over Riva. (We weren’t exactly rich.)

I immediately fell in love with the game. Everything about it appealed to me. The mix of sci-fi and horror. The RPG elements. The combat. The way it felt less like a game and more like a simulation. The sheer amount of options. It felt like a whole world had been crammed into that game, a world with complex rules, with mysteries, with behaviours that weren’t just responses to the player, but somehow happened on their own.

I bought it, and I’ve rarely been so excited. I read the manual (on the toilet, the proper place for reading manuals) and it just made the game seem even bigger and more wonderful. And then… I have no idea. Did I bounce off it at first? Did it take me a while to understand all of its systems? It’s possible, but I can’t really remember. I just remember finding myself utterly absorbed. I had favourite bases, favourite soldiers, even favourite scientists. I had opinions about the various organizations in the game, including a vicious war with one of the gangs (and, of course, the Cult of Sirius). The combination of a detailed fictional world full of specific detail and abstract, dynamic mechanics created the feeling that you were defending a real, living place. It drew me in.

The combat was completely fascinating. In games, I have a strong tendency to look for unusual solutions, and X-Com: Apocalypse offered so many of them. I remember an alien shooting at my soldiers from a balcony, and instead of killing the alien we just shot the balcony away from under it. I remember repeatedly raiding the same gang over and over to ruin their finances and enrich myself, using a truly devious strategy: find a room with a destroyable floor that contains a smaller room, use incendiary ammo to destroy the outer part of the room, then use teleporters to turn the room into a floating fortress of safety. Man, those teleporters were overpowered, but they were fun. I did the last missions with just one or two soldiers. Teleporting guerillas.

There were real moments of horror, though, especially when you encountered a new type of alien. The sound design was superb – you learned to identify the enemies by the sounds they made, which made hearing an unknown sound doubly terrifying. And there were even a couple of surprises in the late game.

(Side note: my computer at the time had an extremely peculiar property, which I discovered while playing X-Com: the sound card would randomly pick up signals from passing taxis. Suddenly hearing the loud voice of a taxi driver shouting through my headphones while I was in the middle of a tense mission literally made me jump.)

All of the brilliance of the tactical combat (best enjoyed in real-time mode) wouldn’t really be half as much fun without the strategic layer, though. Managing your base, equipping your soldiers, making alliances with other organizations – these provided a context and a feeling of freedom to the whole thing that other games just couldn’t match.

After X-Com: Apocalypse, I went back and played the first two games, and enjoyed both very much. Even later, reading up on the history of the games, I found out that Apocalypse was essentially unfinished, and had been something of a nightmare project for its creator, Julian Gollop. I still think it’s a brilliant game, though, and even all these years later I still tremendously enjoy it. The last time I replayed it was a couple of years ago, and it was still properly exciting. I frequently feel like games from that period represent a lost branch in the evolutionary tree of games, before the desire to simplify and streamline everything. (My holy trinity of strategy games is X-Com: Apocalypse, Master of Orion II, and Master of Magic. I replay all three regularly.)

I played the demo for X-Com: Interceptor, but just couldn’t get into it. It wasn’t what I wanted, it wasn’t X-Com. Its only influence on my life ended up being a running joke with some friends about future sequels being increasingly unlike the original, until X-Com 27 was a toaster or something. That joke was revived when the game that eventually became The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was announced, which like many others I felt to be a cheap attempt to slap a franchise name on something barely related to sell a few more copies. Then XCOM: Enemy Unknown was announced. And you know what’s really ironic? I ended up enjoying The Bureau a lot more.

Not that XCOM was bad. It really wasn’t. It was a very solid, very well-designed (except for those satellites) game. It took the original X-Com and evolved it in a different direction. But it wasn’t for me. Too many of the things that I really loved about X-Com were missing. The world didn’t feel alive, the base-building didn’t feel strategic. I enjoyed the time I spent with it well enough, but it didn’t grab me. (The Bureau, weirdly, did. Mainly because of the superb atmosphere and surprisingly solid combat. If only it had been more dynamic, or at least longer. It was like one third of a brilliant game.)

There are two things I spent years looking for, slowly acquiring a huge collection of bargain bin CD-ROMs: a good follow-up to X-Com and a good RPG. There were a few attempts at mimicking the formula, but to be honest all of the results were pretty terrible. That’s changed recently, with games like the very solid (and surprisingly well-written) Xenonauts and a fairly impressive X-Com modding scene, but none of those existed in my own personal Dark Age. (I still have trouble finding satisfying RPGs.)

Which brings us to Phoenix Point, the new game by Julian Gollop, a return to the genre by its very creator. When it was announced, I immediately asked whether I could work on it. I don’t normally do that; I’m not fond of trying to sell myself to others, it just feels crass. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and with some highly acclaimed games under my belt (which would have sounded pretty amazing to the version of me who’d just gotten his first PC and was thinking of learning how to program so he could make games) I thought I might actually get this gig. And I did! Holy shit.

I’m both excited and terrified to be working on Phoenix Point. In many ways, Phoenix Point is intended to be the game that X-Com: Apocalypse was never allowed to become. It has a detailed setting, but it’s also very dynamic. It has tense and challenging tactical combat, but also a proper Geoscape. It has distinct factions, scary aliens, oodles of atmosphere. It’ll draw players into its world, make them feel like they’re fighting for something that matters… if we do it right.

It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to be a ridiculous amount of work. Phoenix Point will be a game with a lot of narrative content, but also a lot of systems. The narrative isn’t something you just slap onto the systems, or even worse, something you force the systems into. The narrative has to be grounded in ideas that have depth, so that the player’s actions have a context that gives them meaning, but it also has to be dynamic, capable of responding to those actions. Of course, that’s precisely what’s interesting about games as a medium: the kind of writing required to make something like Phoenix Point work is entirely unlike any other kind of writing.

Some of the things I’ve written as background material are already available on the website: The Hatch is a short story about the Phoenix Project in the 1970s, and there’s also a Phoenix Project file on one of the factions, the Disciples of Anu. More will be posted soon. Finances and time allowing, I want to help make this game as rich and rewarding as possible. Maybe Phoenix Point will be to someone else what X-Com: Apocalypse was to me. Wouldn’t that be great?

Notes:

  • I didn’t generally keep game boxes when game boxes were still a thing, but I still have my X-Com: Apocalypse box.
  • Julian Gollop is very nice. He also sounds and looks like an older version of Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance.
  • I can’t remember who it was (Terry Cavanagh? Gregory Avery-Weir?), but someone once commented on the influence of X-Com on my unplayable, broken masterpiece Phenomenon 32. They were correct, even though it’s a totally different type of game.
  • I once couldn’t finish an X-Com: Apocalypse UFO level because I couldn’t find the last alien. But I kept hearing gunfire. Eventually I discovered that it had attempted to cut its way through the hull. Seriously. It had carved a freaking tunnel into the hull! Was it an accident or was the A.I. really thinking it could avoid my soldiers that way? Even Julian wasn’t sure.

Links:

2017: The Year Shit Got Finished

I’ve just taken a few days off for the first time since Christmas/New Year, and wow, I really needed it. I have to learn to stop working myself to the point of exhaustion. I always realize I’m totally burned out way too late. Of course, the main reason this keeps happening is that I so desperately want to get The Council of Crows out of the way, but the amount of effort it takes to work on a Lands of Dream game can’t always be sustained like you’d think. The Sea Will Claim Everything was created in an insane rush of nonstop work that went on for several months, but if I want to make a game that’s equally good, and more elaborate in a lot of ways, I just can’t do it like that. Sometimes I need to stop and recharge my batteries, do some research, find some inspiration. I need this more with the Lands of Dream games than with other work, because of the sheer amount of references and links embedded into each game.

I retrospect, as I’ve said before, something like Patreon would have been a much better model for supporting the Lands of Dream. Much better than Indiegogo, not because there’s anything wrong with Indiegogo, but because this particular type of game is just too unpredictable.

Speaking of Patreon, since it’s taking me so long to finish the game (and it’s mainly me, at this point, as Verena’s health problems that made drawing difficult are getting better), I’ve decided to keep treating the Indiegogo backers like other people do their Patreon supporters. Which means that since Omegaland is finished and greenlit and coming to Steam in the next few weeks, backers will receive keys for that game too. Please make sure to keep your Indiegogo email up to date, or let me know if there’s a problem.

The good news is that old projects are finally getting finished, and there are new projects to look forward to. Games may always take longer to finish than anyone expects, but this year they are getting finished!

In terms of new projects, there are several that haven’t been announced yet, but you may have heard about Phoenix Point. That’s the strategy game from Julian Gollop, the creator of X-COM. And, umm, do I need to say more? X-COM has been a huge influence, and I think this is the first time that I heard about a project and immediately said “please hire me!” I’m co-writing this game with Allen Stroud, and the first couple of stories (background material, but can be read on their own) are already available on the website. Mine is called The Hatch, and there are more to come.

I’ll write more in a separate post soon, but this is obviously ridiculously exciting.

The other projects I’m working on are games I’m co-writing with Verena, and I can’t wait to tell you more. Hopefully I’ll be able to do so soon.

In general, it looks like 2017 will be the point where a lot of the hard, exhausting work of the last few years pays off, and you all finally get to enjoy the stories that have been haunting my brain for so long. Now, if the world could refrain from ending while I finish this stuff, that would be good.