Back!

We’re back in Germany now. I’m working on the last stuff I need to do for The Talos Principle and trying to make sure A Postcard From Afthonia works for everyone before I release it. I had some major revelations about Ithaka of the Clouds and The Council of Crows (working title) while in Greece, which I’m going to tell you about soon. (It’s all good, even if it means some big changes. Also means we’ll eventually be making another Lands of Dream game, after these are finished.)

Meanwhile, enjoy this wonderful video.

There and Off Again

20140818_110806

The best moment at Gamescom was a little boy playing The Talos Principle and turning to his mother to say “This is so awesome!” The second best was someone who was already trying to decipher the secrets of the plot, just from the demo.

There are other important things to mention, though. Like the fact that the guys at Croteam are just great. They love making games, and they’re very good at it, but they’re also just fundamentally nice people. They care about The Talos Principle just like they care about Serious Sam, doing their very best to make it as fun and polished and interesting an experience as possible, both for the people who want to dig deep into its philosophy and science fiction and for those who just want challenging, enjoyable puzzles. They’re the opposite of all the horror stories you hear about the industry, and have more “indie spirit” than many a one-person team.

I was also incredibly happy to meet a whole bunch of wonderful folks at the Adventure-Treff party – people I’ve known online for over a decade in some cases, people I’d call friends, whom I’d never met in person before. Turns out they’re even more fun to be around than I thought.

The only sad thing was that I was so busy with telling people about The Talos Principle that I didn’t manage to go play Risen 3, which Verena tells me is really awesome. Ah well. There’s lots of cool games to look forward to in the next few months.

And now I’m in Greece, ready to focus on finishing my novel. I can still be reached via email, but I might be a bit slow to respond. (See this post for Lands of Dream news.) I hope you’re all having a good time. Be safe and remember to read a good book every now and then. Me, I’m going to continue reading the new Frankie Boyle, Scotland’s Jesus. There are jokes in there that would make easily-offended people’s heads explode, but it made me giggle with delight even during the flight here, and if you knew how terrified I am of flying, that’s saying something.

Anyway. Off I go to write more words.

Gamescom

I’ll be at Gamescom Cologne in my role as co-writer of Croteam‘s upcoming game The Talos Principle! If you’re there, come say hi.

Verena Kyratzes, the co-designer and artist of the Lands of Dream games, will also be there. Be nice to her, or Bob the Spider will make the insides of your eyelids grow stinging nettles. Just be nice to everyone and you should be OK.

The Game Itself

Red Faction

Reading games criticism – as separate from game reviews – is something I often find very frustrating. With some lovely exceptions, the feeling I often get when reading “games crit” could best be described as no-one is talking about the game itself.

For some time now, there has been a movement in games writing to get away from the kind of simplistic thinking that reduces games to numerical scores (“so that’s a 7/10, then?”) and engages with games on a deeper emotional and analytical level. As someone who’s been trying to make games with genuine artistic depth and significance since before the term “indie games” was popular, I’m obviously not opposed to this idea. Why then does it feel like this hasn’t worked at all, or works in a way that I find unsettling both as a player and as a writer/designer?

One could divide the type of writing I’m talking about into two general categories:

1) The Autobiographical Gaming Story. How Super Mario Helped Me Deal With My Parents’ Divorce, that kind of thing. A traumatic event, or sometimes a happy childhood memory, is somehow connected to a game.

2) A Modern Game Viewed Through An Autobiographical Lens. The author switches back and forth between narrating a personal event in their life (often of a sexual or relationship-related nature) and talking about the game, sometimes drawing parallels between the two.

Opportunity

Now, I should make it perfectly clear that there is nothing inherently wrong with either of these models. You can write perfectly meaningful things in this way, and no-one should be judged for employing these forms in and of themselves. However, there is one thing that tends to be lacking in these articles, and that is the game itself. Both forms can reveal a lot to us about the critic’s personal life and about the role of games in society – but this is autobiography and sociology, not art criticism. The game as authorial intent, as text, as work of art, is not examined. It is used a jumping-off point for other considerations – which, let me stress, may be perfectly legit – but it is not the primary subject of the analysis.

So we might get, for example, an article about how someone feels about the looting in Borderlands 2, but not an analysis of how the game juxtaposes the cities of Sanctuary and Opportunity as different models of human society, or how it explores the destruction of a planet for corporate profit, or how its primary villain is essentially a geek power fantasy laid bare. It’s not that it’s wrong to use Borderlands 2 to muse about your personal relationship with commercialism, or to write about how you played it when your grandmother died; it just tells us very little about the game itself, leaving the work of the game’s writers unappreciated.

The Bureau

Of course, this problem is hardly unique to games! We live in the age of “the personal is the political” and “academic writing could be seen as a kind of art.” Personal subjectivity is the highest value; our gazes are turned inwards, because that’s what is considered to be “deep” and artistic. And games are particularly susceptible to this, both in its benign form of people genuinely writing about personal issues they care about, and in the more exploitative form of “I can write anything and pass it off as meaningful,” because so many games are terminally vacuous.

But if we want to encourage works of higher artistic complexity, criticism must be more than autobiography and sociology. It has to amount to more than dismissing games for having too large a budget, or calling for a greater diversity of authors, or using games as a jumping-off point for essays on unrelated subjects. Criticism must engage with the games themselves – especially those that have something to offer. Take them seriously. Assume that there was an intent. Use the huge variety of intellectual tools available to the critic.

Even in so young and commercial an artform, you’d be surprised at how much there is to find.

Todash Country

Not really a very todashy image, but a good representation of how I feel.

Sometimes I feel like I’m just barely holding on to sanity.

It’s not the sense of failure. Sure, I have yet to accomplish the things I want to accomplish most, but for someone who started out with very little, with no capital to invest and parents in a desperately poor country, I’m not doing so bad. This year in particular has been quite good. The Matter of the Great Red Dragon, The Talos Principle, A Postcard From Afthonia (very soon), The Council of Crows (after that), Ithaka of the Clouds (after that), plus some other projects I can’t talk about yet… it’s going pretty well.

Nor is what’s driving me mad reducible to the individual irritations that beset me at the moment, like the ridiculous amounts of noise from outside that are making it really hard to focus on writing. (They’re doing some kind of work on the roof of the house next to ours, which is exactly at the same height as our flat. But even when that’s not happening, there’s some kind of car repair place that makes the most ear-piercing sounds you can imagine during the day. Even though this is a residential zone.)

The weather is probably a bigger part of it. Most of this “summer” so far has consisted of grey clouds and rain. Some people aren’t bothered by this – some even long for it – but I was raised in a country where the summer is bright and beautiful and lasts many months, and my body has internalized this pattern on a level that can’t be reached by reason. Without a proper summer, I get depressed.

But right now, the sun is shining. Well, it just disappeared as I typed these words, but it’ll come out from between the clouds sooner or later, and it’ll be bright again. But even when it’s bright, I don’t feel OK. It feels like there’s something off.

Somewhere in Stephen King’s exceptional Dark Tower novels, there’s a description of what it’s like when you’re close to Todash – the void between the worlds. I don’t remember the precise words, but the idea is that the weather appears to be bright, but somehow there’s darkness underneath that, like the world is too thin. That’s what Germany feels like to me. Like reality is constantly about to tear open and monsters are about to come spewing forth. There may be a political metaphor in there.

Please understand, I’m saying this as a native. I may not have been raised here, but German is one of my native tongues, I went to a German School, I have relatives here, and we came here regularly when I was a kid. I’m not struggling with the language or finding it impossible to understand the culture. I know people who are, but I’m not one of them. But something about this country still horrifies me. I can’t quite put it into words, at least not just a few words. I could write a novel, maybe, but I think it would end up being the Necronomicon.

I catch glimpses of another Germany sometimes, a Germany that could’ve been, perhaps a Germany that was, but they’re rare. Between the failures of the Left and the “success” of the Nazis, it often feels like Germany is left with an extremely extended Petite Bourgeoisie and a huge Lumpenproletariat, but not much else. It’s not the fault of individual people, and neither is this a statement about “the Germans” as a whole. But there’s just something vital missing in the country’s culture. Which is not surprising – it’s what happens when you put all the good people in concentration camps and leave most of the bad people in positions of power.

There’s a lot to appreciate, of course. While Germany isn’t as organized as propagandists would like us to believe, the difference between living in a rich, powerful country like Germany and a poor country like Greece is massive. Ironically, of course, most Germans aren’t aware of this at all, and thus aren’t ready to defend their quality of life against the politics of austerity. But anyway. Right now, things still work, even if they don’t work all that well. In Greece everything is broken. Living in a broken country is not fun, as my parents can tell you. There are many advantages to living in Germany.

And yet it drives me to absolute despair. I catch myself trembling.

It’s as if there’s something that makes it impossible for me to attach positive memories to places in Germany. I don’t know why. I have had many good experiences while living here, but they don’t seem to rub off on the places themselves. I don’t seem to have that problem elsewhere – this has nothing to do with Greece. I’ve been to rich countries and to horrifically poor countries, but none of them had this effect on me.

I know a couple of other people who feel this way. Just an inability to connect to this place. An inability to love, perhaps. The cities, in particular, do not inspire any kind of poetic impulse in me. I find cities fascinating, and there are plenty of cities that can inspire me (though not like the sea inspires me). Not here, though. Not even Berlin, which is probably the best German city I’ve been to. I like Berlin, but I’m not sure I could love it.

It sounds petty and pretentious. There are people all over world who would love to live here. When I’m back home in Greece, people are always telling me how much they want to leave. I get that. And yet, I’ve met very few Greek people who aren’t absolutely miserable here. The lack of sunlight alone is enough to break people after a few years. But ultimately it’s not a national thing. I know enough Germans who can’t stand it here to understand that. Hell, I’m married to one.

I’ve come to think of this as a matter of survival. I’ve held on for years, thanks to my burning desire to keep creating art, thanks to my wife, thanks to my friends, but each year gets harder. I can’t imagine another winter. I just can’t. I feel like my life is slipping through my fingers. I have to struggle to get any work done. Oh, I work, I work incessantly, but the toll it’s taking on my mental and physical health is starting to get out of hand. Which is doubly horrible, since I’m actually doing something I love.

Forgetting about the poetry and the culture and all that emotional bullshit for a moment, on a purely practical level, I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this. That’s what matters. The practical reality of not losing my shit.

(There’s a financial side, too. While there are jobs here, as opposed to many other countries, costs are high and cutbacks in the healthcare system are not helping.)

So what to do? Get out of todash country, obviously – but it’s not that easy.

If I was 20, with no attachments and not much to lose, I might just move to another country and see if I can make it. But we have a life here – and a cat. That’s the part that my parents, practical working-class people that they are at their core, just can’t understand. That damn cat. But anyone who’s had a cat for a long time will understand that she’s family. That part’s not negotiable.

But again, what matters is practical reality. Much as the causes of my problems may be emotional, the solutions have to be practical. I’m not writing this because I want the pity of people on the internet, or to make a performance of how oppressed I am. I’m writing this 1) to explain why some things are taking longer than they should 2) as part of my own attempts at understanding the situation 3) to see if anyone has any ideas.

Let’s attempt to dissect this from a practical angle, then.

Advantages of where we currently live:

  • Possibility of getting a regular job.
  • Functioning, if increasingly expensive, healthcare system.
  • All our stuff is here.
  • We speak the language.
  • Cat allowed.
  • Interconnected gardens behind house form safe area for cat.

Disadvantages:

  • Creeping onset of insanity.
  • Weather.
  • No career opportunities (wrong language, Frankfurt’s art scene is awful).
  • Weather.
  • Most expensive city in Germany.
  • Weather.

What are the most important factors in finding another place to live?

  • Can we afford it? It would have to be pretty cheap for us to be able to live off our games/writing income. Or one of us would have to get an amazing job.
  • Can we speak the language? I’m honestly not sure whether I can learn another language. I don’t think I can, and I’m *very* reluctant to move to a country where I don’t speak the language.
  • Is it a scary country with too many guns and horrifying healthcare? I’m not sure I could imagine moving to the US, even if they did let me in, which I doubt. (I’m not opposed to the idea of living in the US per se, but not like this.)
  • How’s the weather? A sunny country would be ideal, but I might be able to deal with shit weather if other factors improved.
  • Are there any career opportunities for writers? I could live without this, since the internet does offer some possibilities, but it’s something to consider. I’m particularly interested in the film industry, of course.
  • Is it safe for the cat? Cat goes out at least once a day, usually spending the whole night outside. I don’t want her to get run over or attacked by wild dogs (things that happen regularly in places I’ve lived). Plus, we’d need an apartment where she’s allowed to stay.

I go over this list every day. Verena and I are both willing to work hard to make a major change in our lives happen, but so far we’ve not found a good solution. If you have an idea, feel free to contact us via Twitter, Facebook or email. We appreciate any input.

(I realize, by the way, that there’s a potential argument in there for moving to Berlin, but I’m not sure the financial cost would be worth it in terms of the difference it would make.)

OK, back to work now. I keep adding little things to A Postcard From Afthonia, but it’ll be done soon. If I don’t suffer the fate of a Lovecraftian character, of course. Thankfully the Great Old Ones are afraid of our cat.

TSWCE Greenlit!

So, not only has The Talos Principle been announced, but now The Sea Will Claim Everything has been greenlit!

And the week isn’t even over yet.

Holy shit.

The Talos Principle

The Talos Principle has been announced! It’s a new game by Croteam, which I’m co-writing with the lovely Tom Jubert.

Links! 08/06/2014

It's a rock.

A delicious selection for all internet-compatible humans:

  • EFF: On 6/5, 65 Things We Know About NSA Surveillance That We Didn’t Know a Year Ago
  • Konstantinos “Gnome” Dimopoulos is doing one of those Patreon thingies. He’s been quietly, humbly writing about indie games for nearly a decade, getting the word out about hundreds of interesting games without inserting himself into the story. Worth supporting, if you can afford to.
  • The Sea Will Claim Everything is currently in spot #79 on Greenlight. Vote for it or something.
  • This article about trigger warnings by a psychiatrist specializing in trauma is worth reading, as is this article by a group of humanities professors who actually subscribe to many of the same politics as supporters of trigger warnings.
  • Greek politicians have decided that Greek beaches should be privatized. You can sign a petition against that here. Will it make a difference? Probably not, no.
  • The Electron Dance article about zombies, combined with the fact that I’ve been playing co-op Dead Island lately, reminded me that I’d like to make a zombie game at some point, just to see if I can make it interesting. I’ve always really admired George Romero, after all.
  • I know it’s sad, but every now and then I remember the huge manatee and I start laughing uncontrollably out of the blue.
  • Odds Are cheers me up, in a dark sort of way. If you don’t want to be cheered up, listen to Tonight Is The Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheel instead. Brilliant song, mind you, just heartbreaking.
  • I enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow. Solid, smart, and surprisingly funny. Not the most profound movie of all time, but worth seeing.
  • I’m pretty sure there was something important I was going to tell you about… oh well, it’ll come to me.

Ithaka of the Clouds and other news

I’ve just sent this email to our backers:

Hi everyone,

We thought we’d finally share some news about Ithaka of the Clouds and the Lands of Dream in general, because we know we’ve been entirely too silent. This is not because anything’s gone horribly wrong, by the way, but simply because we’re always worried about spamming people and giving away too much of a game’s magic. (But it certainly isn’t good PR, and our backers deserve to know what’s going on!)

So. Here we go. The news:

– Ithaka of the Clouds will be released this winter. We don’t want to name a specific month, because you know how these things are. If we name a month, it won’t be that month.
– The Council of Crows, a smaller Lands of Dream game that will be free for everyone who backed Ithaka, is coming out… soon? It turned out bigger than originally intended, but it’s nearly done. We just need to make sure we can have the time and energy to publicize it enough when it does come out, so there are some scheduling issues that have to be resolved.
– These are not the only Lands of Dream games coming in 2014. That’s all I can say for now.

All in all, we’re making progress. We should have anticipated a longer development time, really, especially given how easy it is to get interrupted by health issues when you’re such a small team (Jonas and his teeth…), but we’re definitely getting there.

Speaking of getting there, we’ll also finally get to all your perks that relate to actual game content. Expect emails. Actual emails. From us. :)

Thanks for your continued support!
Jonas & Verena & Cat & Chris & possibly some mushrooms

PS If you haven’t played The Matter of the Great Red Dragon, it’s now available on the Lands of Dream website.

Sympathy for the Hollow Artist

Leave me alone.

It’s often easy to condemn the artists of the past for their political ignorance. Easy and also necessary – particularly in the last sixty years or so, when art has made tremendous strides backwards, away from radicalism and visionary genius and towards pseudo-intellectual masturbation of the ego with a hint of watered-down liberalism and a vague smell of dull, desperate mysticism.

See? Those words come so easily, and they’re a fair represenation of what I think of the trajectory of art in general. Even the exceptions are frequently disappointing – works which are supposedly critical, but which never seem to have the guts to go far enough, leaving us with little more than a moralistic “What if we could all just get along?” or another individualistic appeal to our guilt. Is it really possible that none of these people could understand anything about what is wrong with the world? Were they really all so blinded by their middle-class upbringing that they were incapable of a decent systemic critique? So much talent wasted on so little substance.

And yet, I wonder whether that’s fair. Not in terms of the politics – there really is a depressingly huge amount of smart, well-intentioned people who ended up dedicating their gifts to vaguely socially-progressive capitalism, people who are now terminally confused as the parties they supported wreak havoc on the world – but in terms of intent. How many of them, I wonder, had much more radical thoughts? How many knew that the real issues were bigger and more difficult, but settled for at least saying something, being socially progressive if not politically radical?

Because God knows I understand how tempting that is.

Merely being socially progressive – i.e. talking about representation, not exploitation – gives you that air of being politically engaged, but it also gets you patted on the back. Sure, there’s always some anger from lunatics, but the majority of people condemn that kind of thing. You’ll have the liberal capitalists on your side in this, and sometimes the conservative ones, too. You want minorities to have more chances? You want more women CEOs? You think we should be kinder to the poor? You want to have a national conversation about race? That’s all quite acceptable. You’ll get patted on the back, maybe even called brave.

You can even call yourself an anarchist and say you oppose capitalism. As long as you’re suitably moralistic and individualistic, people will take this as a sign of how deep you are: anticapitalism as the new bohemianism. Sure, this might get you into a little more trouble, but as long as your anarchism is confined to an aesthetic, not to direct political action, you’ll be fine. They’ll know you’re basically a hippie libertarian. You’re not a threat.

And hey, you might really feel that you’re making a difference. Within the framework of capitalism, things might get a little better for some people you care about. Things will simultaneously get worse for some other people, but that’s not really your fault, that’s just how the world is, and at least you tried. You helped. You can feel fine about yourself. And the best part? You get to keep doing what you love. You get to be a creative artist with a good reputation and the opportunity to keep creating.

But if you don’t want to improve things a little bit for this or that group, and you’re not interested in advocating for a utopian future that everyone knows is more about showing off your beliefs than about causing change? If you want to unite people, you want to destroy the old categories, you want people to seize control not of the discourse, but of the means of production? If you want to do this in a real, practical sense – you want to do this today, not as an ideology, not as a dream, but as a coherent political movement? If you are, in other words, some kind of socialist?

Then you better watch out, because things will get ugly fast.

And here’s the real kicker: most of the really nasty attacks on you won’t come from the Right, but from people supposedly on the Left. They’ll call you an extremist. They’ll say you’re arrogant and deluded and oppressive. They’ll question your morality, call you a creep, insinuate you’re motivated by bigotry. Instead of just generically hating you or ignoring you like the Right will, they’ll loathe you, smear you, do their best to turn you into a persona non grata in the very circles where you’d normally find an audience. After all, you’re far more of a threat to them than to the Right. Who’s going to have a national conversation about race when people of all races are united in their fight for socialism? Who’s going to write soul-searching articles when we no longer have time for bullshit categories? Who’ll talk about patriarchal discourses when men and women are fighting for fair wages for everyone? Who, most importantly, is going to be a consultant? Of course they want to destroy you, you’re trying to take away their niche in capitalism. It’s how they survive. They’re defending themselves.

And it works, too. When a fascist calls you a socialist, you nod and you smile and you fight back harder. When a feminist calls you a brocialist, you die a little inside and you wonder whether it’s all worth it at all. You could just stick to the obvious social stuff, the stuff you’ll get praised for, and maybe people will see you as a significant artist and give you the opportunities you so desperately want. If you conform just a little bit more, if you take out some of your radical ideas, if you don’t say this one thing that might upset middle-class liberals, if you choose to remove this other bit… if little by little, you whittle away at your vision until it’s acceptable to the mainstream that doesn’t realize it’s the mainstream, maybe you can live the life of the artist that you’ve always wanted.

Maybe that’s what happened to all these artists who were so clearly so talented, and yet never quite managed to fulfill their potential. Maybe that’s why there’s always a sadness to their work, a hollow feeling as if something was missing. Maybe it’s not that they didn’t know better, but that they simply felt there was no alternative. They wanted to survive. They wanted to keep making art. They were afraid of being hated by their peers.

What’s worse: never getting the chance to create what you wanted to, or creating it but knowing that it’s hollow?

Notes:

  1. Anarchists stopping anarchists from talking about anarchy. When I see this, I want to put on that helmet and never listen to the world again.
  2. The Politics of Denunciation. An article written by someone who was going to be a speaker at the conference linked to above. Apparently the article was considered to be pro-rape.
  3. First as tragedy, then as farce…then as low-budget bondage porn
  4. The ultimate form of modern politics.
  5. “It is not because Angels are Holier than Men or Devils that makes them Angels but because they do not Expect Holiness from one another but from God only” – William Blake
  6. Of course there are  successful exceptions. There always are, or we’d all be dead.
  7. I catch myself being afraid to tweet even the most basic of political comments. The most powerful censor lives in your head.