Socialism Without Socialism

I have a terminology problem.

I used to call myself a socialist; I picked this over communist because the latter made people think of Stalinism, which is the exact antithesis of everything I believe in. Sometimes I used the term Marxist, because that seemed more precise: class struggle, materialist conception of history, etc. Sure, some right-wingers had completely deranged ideas of what being a Marxist was, from thinking it meant “the state should control everything” to thinking it was something like Scandinavian social democracy, but in theory it was accurate.

These terms were already confusing back then, particularly thanks to academia. Academic liberals had long ago adopted “leftist” terms, completely draining them of their original meaning in the process. The dreadful and idiotic Theodor Adorno, for example, is considered a Marxist, which is absurd to even contemplate. We laugh at terms like “cultural Marxist” deployed at random by the Right, but honestly, even though it’s a contradiction in terms (actual Marxist analysis is about economic conditions, not culture war bullshit), there are entire generations of academics who produced rubbish as meaningless and opportunistic as any postmodernist’s drivel and called it Marxist.

Of course, even Marx thought the term Marxist was useless and derided the people who had adopted it.

But with the rise of what I can only describe as the new American pseudo-leftism, a confused sort of liberalism that’s adopted its self-image from how the Republicans see it, and which is spearheaded by grifters loyal to the Democratic Party, the terms have become even more useless. There are now masses of people who call themselves Marxist who oppose the most fundamental precepts of Marx’s thought. Who put some fetishistic conception of “Mother Nature” above humanity, who oppose growth, who think class is just one of many categories of oppression, who think ideology is what moves society, and so on.

At this point people always say “but you have so much in common! why can’t you ignore these differences? does it all have to be about purity?” Which is a silly framing: it’s not about purity, it’s about goals.

If you think growth is bad, if you think individual freedom is optional, if you think the presumption of innocence should be surrendered, if you want a world with fewer humans, less technology… then you want the opposite of what I want. I cannot stress this enough: I considerably prefer capitalism to most of the visions of a “leftist” or “socialist” society being promoted today. They have nothing in common with the humanistic, libertarian, Promethean socialism I embrace.

So I’m stuck. All of a sudden “socialism” and even “Marxism” has become popular, but it no longer means anything except reading Jacobin and voting for the same parties you always voted for. The very people who called me a “brocialist” and “manarchist” (even though I’m not even remotely an anarchist and not much of a “bro”) now call themselves socialists. It’s all reached a level of absurdity that’s tiresome and depressing.

How, under these ridiculous conditions, can we continue the struggle for what socialism once represented? I don’t know. But somehow rekindling or reclaiming the vision of socialism as rooted in human achievement and human liberty is one of the awful and necessary tasks of our time.

The Council of Crows – Final Update

I could write an entire book entitled What the Fuck Happened to The Council of Crows. In that book, I would be the idiot protagonist making all the wrong choices. You’d have a certain degree of sympathy, because those choices all came from trying to do the right thing at the time, but overall I’d still look pretty silly.

For that, I can only apologize. There are no excuses for taking so long. And I can’t even properly explain. But here’s an attempt.

In 2019, I said I was almost done. I was. 85% or so of the game was done (depending on how you count it it could also be more). Only the final section remained, plus a handful of extra graphics for additions that happened during development, when the game got bigger than expected.

And now? Now I’m in exactly the same place. Because 2019 got destroyed by another project.

You know how I do freelance game writing? My main thing now is Croteam, but I occasionally also do projects for other companies, outside my main work time. But that’s the same space reserved for The Council of Crows. In 2019, that got completely obliterated by a project that, for reasons I can’t go into here, took about 10x the amount of time and energy I had expected.

It’s ridiculous to tell you I did it for the fans, but I did. I wanted to do my best on that project, and put an insane amount of work into it. To the degree where the overwork and stress gave me severe health problems. It was… not good. I was working something like two or two and a half full-time jobs and it was killing me. But I wanted to deliver what I’d promised.

Yeah, I see the irony.

In the end, when I had gotten everything done, I quit. I quit because I cannot physically work like that anymore, the way I could when I was 20. And I quit because I need to spend my non-Croteam time on projects like The Council of Crows.

I spent January recovering, but we’re now back in proper development, and I aim to be finishing the game this year. I don’t care about the commercial aspect anymore, as indie games are basically dead – but I care about the Lands of Dream as a whole, and have also been working on planning future games and updating the old ones, especially where they intersect with The Council of Crows.

So, that’s it. It’s been an absurd journey but I’ve put aside all the distractions and I’m finishing it. It’s going to have some flaws that I struggled with more than you can imagine in my attempts to make it “fresh” but I recently replayed it all with the benefit of distance and I’m happy to say it’s still pretty good.

Just Keep Going

2018 was crazy.

  • I worked incessantly. Every day. Even when travelling.
  • We travelled! Italy was a particular highlight, as was seeing more of the Balkans. My belief in internationalism was strengthened by the people we met and the experiences we had.
  • Verena successfully ran a marathon, but later in the year had some problems with her Achilles tendon, which meant she had to use crutches and get various treatments and exams. We managed to keep working during this time (there wasn’t much else to do) but it was pretty exhausting. She’s much better now, thankfully, and will soon be able to start training again.
  • There were a lot of funny cat stories, but sadly, despite our best efforts, my parents’ sick old street cat died. We spared no expense to keep him alive, but in the end he wandered off, never to be seen again. Sigh.
  • At some point, without quite noticing, I seem to have become a proper full-time game writer, rather than a game developer who also writes games on the side. This is a welcome development, but it’s meant a lot of work, and will continue to do so. The good news is that I really love the projects I’m working on.
  • I wrote a ton of stories for Phoenix Point, by the way, and yes, I’m also involved with writing the in-game content. Yes, there’s a lot of it. No, it’s not cutscenes. It’s all interactive.
  • Serious Sam 4 is going strong. If we can pull it all off, it’ll be really fun.
  • Other Croteam-related projects like The Hand of Merlin and Tormental are also really promising.
  • I wrote an entire game early last year that’s not even been announced. I rather liked what I wrote, so I hope that all turns out well.
  • Then, of course, there is The Council of Crows. Last year, I thought I was almost ready. After that, I worked on it constantly, eating up all the spare time I have outside my regular work. Afternoons, weekends, everything. And… I’m still almost ready?
  • The truth is that I severely miscalculated my endurance, and more importantly, I forgot what I was aiming for: a game as polished and detailed as the Steam version of The Sea Will Claim Everything, not the original release. The Steam version tooks months of full-time work.
  • So what have I been doing? Mostly just polishing. For games that look deliberately crude, these bastards take a ridiculous amount of polish. Cleaning up images, adding descriptions to objects, book titles… and yes, I may have expanded the plot a little.
  • Look, the thing is this: indie games like The Sea Will Claim Everything are stone-cold dead. I no longer expect to make any real money on any future Lands of Dream games; in fact, there’s a good chance that future games will be freeware again, or really cheap. I need to approach these games as purely artistic work. I will pay my collaborators, but I don’t think there’s much of a point in trying to sell such games to an increasingly uninterested or hostile press.
  • But since I have work, I think that’s OK. The Lands of Dream cycle is going to be finished. It started before indie games were all that huge, and it’ll conclude after they’re gone. I suppose it’s appropriate.
  • Another major delay was caused by the nature of telling a story on such a huge scale. The more I worked on The Council of Crows, the more I realized it needed to include much bigger themes, and ultimately that meant working out the next two Lands of Dream games as well.
  • So after The Council of Crows is done, I’m going to make Ithaka of the Clouds, which is the beginning of the cycle; and the cycle will end with Strange Days in the City of Dreams.
  • I wish I could adequately express just how badly I need to finish The Council of Crows. I’m not the kind of person who is comfortable with not delivering what he promised, despite the other stuff the backers got. And the sheer amount of energy that’s going into the game is keeping me from finishing other personal projects, including two novels and a podcast that I urgently want to get out there.
  • I’ve worked myself to the point of physical exhaustion several times now, and I’m trying to avoid doing so again, but… it feels like I’m on the verge of a breakthrough. There’s a lot of promise on the horizon, and if I can just keep going a bit longer, if I can finish this, amazing things will happen.
  • So please, all of you looking to travel back to the Lands of Dream, be patient just a little while longer. We’re so close, I can smell the snow.

Ideology and Causation

When we discuss why people do things, there are certain assumptions which are frequently left unexamined; human behaviour is often only discussed in a particularly moralistic and individualistic way. This may seem like an abstract philosophical issue, but it has very real consequences.

Let’s take the example of the kind of tragic atrocity we’ve been seeing over and over in recent years. When a person kills others, we treat the case on a personal and moral level: who is this person, what was their life like, what did they believe?

That what the person did (whether a mass shooting or a terrorist attack) is wrong is beyond question. But what causes such things to happen? This is where the usual analysis breaks down, or obscures more than it reveals.

The typical response is to attribute causation to the person’s beliefs. He did it because he was a white supremacist. She did it because she was an Islamic extremist. People do things because they believe in them. These connections seem simple and obvious, and they’re not wrong per se; they just don’t tell us half as much as they appear to.

There is a countercurrent to this kind of thinking, but it’s usually quite weak and confused, since it stays on the level of trying to determine the moral culpability of the individual involved. When challenged with simple-seeming facts, it tends to fall apart. She said she wanted to kill black people because she hated them. Then she did so. What does this have to do with factories closing? You’re just making excuses. Or: he said he wanted to kill infidels because God told him to. Then he did so. What does this have to do with the war? You’re just making excuses.

To actually understand such events, we have to take a step back. Considering the life of the individual tells us very little about the bigger picture.

We need to think of society as a system. What produces these individuals?

Imagine that you have a little community you can run your experiments on. A thousand people who live in the idyllic little town of Ideology. They are like people everywhere: some of them are nice, some of them are idiots, some of them are brilliant, some of them are unstable.

In the first scenario, you put the town of Ideology somewhere in the West. People are raised in an environment influenced but not solely defined by Christianity.

Initially, everything is running along more or less fine. Then you start introducing tensions into the system. You cause unhappiness to spread – whether via austerity or bombing doesn’t really matter. Things get worse. People get insecure. The economy pits them against each other in a struggle for limited resources.

Eventually, this causes one of the less stable individuals to embrace a reactionary belief system based on extreme Christianity and commit an atrocity.

In the second scenario, you move the town of Ideology to somewhere in the East. People are raised in an environment influenced but not solely defined by Islam.

Initially, everything is running along more or less fine. Then you start introducing tensions. You make an increasingly large amount of people miserable. Life gets worse. People are afraid. The economy pits them against each other in a struggle for limited resources.

Eventually, this causes one of the less stable individuals to embrace a reactionary belief system based on extreme Islam and commit an atrocity.

A dysfunctional system will always produce errors.

In both cases, to consider the personal history of the individual is to miss the point: in a thousand people, you’ll always have one person who can’t function equally well under pressure. When you look at society as a system, you understand that the existence of such people must be taken as a given, and the problem is the extreme amount of pressure you’ve subjected the system to. You have created the conditions for the emergence of such individuals – and while the individual expression of the system’s dysfunction is random, the overall effect is entirely predictable. This is what always happens to every human society when you create such conditions.

To use a crude analogy: if you whack the aquarium with a stick, some of the vulnerable fish will die of stress while others will behave erratically. The solution isn’t to blame the fish. It’s to stop whacking the aquarium.

Equally important to note is the fact that the belief embraced by the individual is itself irrelevant. You’ll occasionally hear comedians joking about Buddhist extremists, as if that were a contradiction. Meanwhile, in the real world, the history of Buddhism is exactly as bloody as that of every other religion, and atrocities are being committed in the name of Buddhism on a daily basis. In fact, atrocities can be committed in the name of pretty much anything, because just about every ideology can be bent into shape to serve the mechanics of how the world functions.

Belief is not the cause of an individual’s behaviour, it is a manifestation of that individual’s systemic (dys)function, determined by the culture they find themselves in; it is, as we say in games, flavour text. The mechanics remain the same.

The oddest objection to a systemic understanding of why things happen is “you’re acting like people don’t have agency!” – an objection which seems to presume that we live in an ideal world. We do not. The majority of people do indeed not have a terrible amount of agency. We are all born into our place in history, our lives determined by circumstance, our minds battered by ideology. To break out of that, to emancipate ourselves and our species, is the entire point of the struggle.

Serious Sam 4: Planet Badass (teaser)

In case you haven’t seen it, Croteam have released a teaser for Serious Sam 4: Planet Badass. I’ve been so insanely busy this year (Serious Sam 4, Phoenix Point, The Council of Crows, plus several other games) that I haven’t managed to update this blog at all, but trust me – all the stuff I’ve been working on for so long is finally coming, or at least moving forward rapidly. And it is such a relief.

More soon.

Writing Advice

Writing requires both talent and craft. Talent is something you are born with (the recent tendency to reject this comes from confusion regarding the origin of human value), but it’s worthless without the hard work of learning the craft.

Having a talent does not make you a better or more valuable person. But it is a gift, a calling, and you should treat it with reverence.

Story is more important than ego. Make the choices the story needs, not the choices that make you look good. You are not trying to impress, you are trying to create.

Never write for the market. Write for God, for the Muses, for the City of Dreams. Even if you don’t believe in any of that. We don’t get enough transcendence in this world as it is; don’t give away the little scrap that you’ve been blessed with.

Challenge yourself. Read constantly. Read outside your field. Read obscure theoretical texts. Obsess about history. Read silly stuff, too. Never only read one kind of thing, or your brain will rot.

Think about structure. Spatial relationships between bits of text. Shapes in the reader’s mind. A text is like a building, and if you don’t get the design right, it’ll collapse.

Writing is music. Sentences have rhythm, melody. Words are sounds even when they’re not spoken. You’re not just describing events, you’re telling a story, like a bard or an epic poet of old. Even on paper, this is a performance, and aesthetics matter.

Demand more of yourself. Compare your work to the classics. Be insanely ambitious. You might fail, but so what? Try harder next time. Strive for greatness. This is your contribution to humanity. All the authors of the great classics were also just people like you. Why should you aspire to less?

Take your work seriously. Do not take yourself seriously. Do not wink at the reader. Do not bullshit the reader. Whether you’re writing a magnum opus or a one-liner, a powerful drama or a light comedy, make it as good as it can be, and never apologize.

Never listen to writing advice. Not from the internet, not from books, not from famous authors, and especially not from teachers or academics. You can listen to feedback (critically), but never listen to how other people think writing should be done. Even when they’re right, as I am.

The Games Themselves

This is a topic that I’ve written about before, but it continues to be a source of frustration, so I’ll give it another go.

Critical/analytical writing about games is almost never about the actual games. That is, despite claiming to be game criticism, it is built on the assumption (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) that games cannot be interesting as works unto themselves. Setting aside the role of authorial intent in interpretation for a moment, the problem is that games are treated as if no intent ever went into their creation; as if they are not the products of human beings deliberately participating in the artistic process, but merely artefacts for the critic to bounce off certain ideas. In the worst cases, one suspects that games have merely been chosen because there was funding for a “digital humanities” project; but even in many of the better essays, there is still the sense of the games not being engaged with on their own terms.

This is not a problem unique to games, of course, except perhaps in its degree. The issue is deeply rooted in contemporary tendencies in literary studies and academia in general. Artistic value is frequently no longer perceived in aesthetics or in illumination of philosophical or political issues (that would be the dreaded “metanarratives” we must all reject), or even in a harder-to-articulate visionary quality, but either in various forms of self-awareness (what does it tell us about art? what does it tell us about the author?) or, more recently, in various manifestations of identity politics (the work features a representative character, the author is representative of a group).

In games, this generally manifests as these types of essays:

  • the game interpreted in regards to the medium of gaming
  • the game interpreted in regards to authorship
  • the game as starting point for autobiographical reflection

There are, no doubt, some games that are themselves made in the postmodern tradition, and so can correctly be interpreted in terms of “meta” issues such as their comments on the medium or authorship. It is, to be clear, my personal opinion that this kind of subject matter is insufferably dull and narcissistic; but it certainly does exist. So, however, do a lot of other things, and this is where the immense disservice current criticism does to the work of game developers sets in: games are almost exclusively interpreted only in these terms. That is to say, if there is something of value in a game, it must be either in what it makes us think about games or about authorship, or in how it allows the writer to reflect on an entirely unrelated issue; and generally this type of interpretation is forcefully imposed on a game no matter what else it might contain. Meaning, then, can only be found in the critic, never in the work itself.

In fact, to go a little deeper, there is an assumption evident in most such criticism that games simply do not or cannot have the same literary complexity (of ideas, of links and responses to the worlds of history, politics, and of course the arts) that one might expect of a novel. This means that critics never need to engage with the details of a game’s text; it means they never even need to consider the possibility of an accomplished work of interactive art existing, and can safely push any interpretation onto the material. After all, in this view, any type of academic interpretation is doing the game a favour, imbuing it with meaning it did not have by itself. This also means that the more complex and ambitious a game, the less likely are academics to engage with it; we’re more likely to get meditations on Flappy Bird. (Sorry, Ian.)

It is not particularly shocking or surprising to note that the vast majority of games are piles of steaming excrement, or that some games praised for their stories are superficial garbage. This is an obvious byproduct of the cultural and socio-economic situation we find ourselves in. But to stop at noting that is not good enough, because it is to suggest that the “spamming” encouraged by the logic of capitalism reflects something inherent about the artform itself, and that is simply false. Nor does it make any sense, as totalizing a system as capitalism may be, to assume that simply because games are produced inside this system (and at this particular point of degeneration and crisis), they are all somehow impossibly flawed. Human beings produce valuable work even under the worst of circumstances, even with the crudest of tools, and human beings are producing valuable works of art in this medium as well.

If critics want to write meaningfully about games, they need to begin with the premise that artists are consciously choosing this medium; that works of high quality exist or can exist; that works must be engaged with on their own terms. Artistic quality in a game is not a side-effect, an accident, an oddity that the clever academic has impressively managed to mine for a surprising insight into society; it is the result of the same artistic inspiration that produces a poem or a film or a painting. If a game fails to be interesting, it is better to discard it – as you would discard a terrible book without discarding the concept of the novel – and look for something more interesting.

There are real gems to find, if only someone tried.

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.



  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 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!