Pastoral thoughts

There’s a really good review of Arcadia: A Pastoral Tale over at Jay is Games. There’s also a brief mention of the game at a place called Superlevel, which warns readers that some of them might find the game “too kitschy”. That set me thinking about a couple of things, but I’d like to ask you to play Arcadia before you read on.

“Kitschy” is a word that’s always annoyed me, I must confess. There are certainly cases where it’s appropriate, but I feel that it’s become one of the ways in which our increasingly cynical and misanthropic culture defends its own degradation. Has human culture ever before gotten to the point where beauty was considered a bad thing? Not where standards of beauty were different, but where we actually preferred grit and ugliness and reflexively denounced any attempt at beauty or poetry as kitsch?

I’m thinking about this is in general, not just because of this (otherwise positive and friendly and fine) review. I don’t feel the need to defend myself – Arcadia has done much better than I expected and I’m immensely pleased – but I do feel the need to defend the, shall we say, mode in which the game was created. Why do we so easily dismiss art that is hopeful or even just aware of the pleasures of being in the world as kitsch, but so readily applaud art which celebrates selfishness, despair and the feeling that life is and must be miserable? Why do we react with a kind of paranoia to the sight of a beautiful landscape but immediately classify any kind of gritty violence as “realistic”? Is that really our everyday experience, or is it no more than the world-weary posing of overgrown wannabe-adults?

To get back to Arcadia, however, I find the comment particularly weird because it seems to only apply to the surface of the game. If the game was only a superficial celebration of an idealized Disney-esque pastoral setting, sure, I could see why some people would be put off by that. I would be. But it isn’t! It does genuinely celebrate the beauty of nature, but there’s quite a lot more to it than that. The setting is not at all what it appears to be. Which leads me to the question I initially wanted to ask: what did you make of the setting? Not in the sense of “Did you like it?” (I know people liked it, and I wouldn’t care if others didn’t) but as in “What is this game actually about? What is Mount Lycidas?” All of the reviewers so far have been kind enough not to post any spoilers, but that also makes me wonder how much exactly people got of what’s going on in the story.

I’m not upset or anything. Just curious.


  1. Well, it’s hard to answer a question like that. You’re obviously implying there’s a particular meaning in the game that, if your design was successful and we payed some attention and we’re not morons, we should understand after a few plays.

    Now I know it’s possible to play Arcadia by just enjoying the landscape and the strange creatures and the prose and the timeless human theme of a land being taken from its rightful owners, without getting any other special meaning that is. Just as I played it, and just as many people played and enjoyed The infinite ocean without really getting who the PC is and what exactly is it doing (I recall Tom Jubert making a pretty thoughtful review and really missing that one).

    But I would love, of course, to read a discussion about it.

  2. James Patton

    I got carried away with this; it’s definitely TL;DR for most people. Please don’t feel like there’s any onus on you to read. But for those who’d like to, here are my thoughts.

    Regarding why people like “gritty” things – this is a difficult thing to talk about because I think it’s kind of rooted in our culture somehow and is very difficult to prise out and look at because it’s grown tendrils everywhere. Having said that, I’m going to just say what I think and be damned. You’ve gotta start somewhere, after all.

    If there’s one word I’d use to describe the general trend of people’s views throughout the past hundred and fifty years, it’d be “disillusionment”. There were various promises which were raised in the past: mainly, I’m thinking of the idea that if you work hard and invest wisely you’ll be rewarded (American Dream), and that nature and man and self-expression and individual desires can somehow come together in some wonderful, probably peaceful state (Romanticism). Since those ideas came to prominence, they’ve been basically found to be redundant, or at least to describe an unusual or difficult state rather than a promise which will be fulfilled if you keep up your end of the bargain (eg. work hard, or read poetry or something). It’s now pretty obviously true that 1) birth, race, preference, one’s natural talents and luck play a greater role than good old fashioned hard work in whether you’re successful or not and 2) we’re basically killing the planet so there goes nature, and if you end up expressing yourself you’ll either become weird and shunned or society will have a hard time categorising you which means you might fail at whatever you’d want to do since you have to be packaged before you can be sold to people.

    (I don’t think everything I wrote above is true. It’s certainly a huge generalisation. But I do think it at least suggests a way of thinking about this which might yield an answer, even if it’s vague.)

    I think this all has to do with the role of the individual. It’s no coincidence that the American Dream and the Romantic ideal emerge at a time when politics and culture is often focused on the individual as their own sort of social unit. In, say, the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, people were much more stratified. You were a peasant or a knight or a nobleman or a merchant or a monarch, and while there was always some jostling it took place within that system; you wanted to move within the system, not bring it down.

    In the 19th century, however (and a little before that, I guess) you are not a peasant or a nobleman or whatever: you are a *citizen*. And *everybody* is a citizen. The President might be the most powerful man in the country but he’s a citizen just like you. He shouldn’t have the power to, for example, send men into your house and have you killed (which a king does have), because his social role of “president” is overruled by the fact that both of you are on the same footing.

    So on the one hand we have a system which says “You are like everyone else, you’re all equals”, and on the other hand we have certain ideals which say “You can be anybody; you can succeed; you can be yourself and differentiate yourself from the crowd”. And I don’t think they quite work. For some people they do, sure: some people manage to succeed and for them the two systems work hand in hand. But for most they don’t. They’re told “You can do anything” and then they just end up doing exactly what everyone else is doing.

    Which would lead to a sort of cynicism; maybe not a severe, nihilistic, “There are no morals so I’m going to eat your face” cynicism, but a deep-rooted form of cynicism nonetheless. People go around thinking that it’s hard to succeed, that the world is going to the dogs, that reality is against them, while still, perhaps, being bitterly reminded that there was a time (childhood) when the world didn’t seem like this. That’s probably true to an extent in all societies – childhood is often a time of innocence and then you realise you’ve been shielded from the world by your parents – but perhaps the stratification of social roles at least gave people some kind of framework to rationalise this into. “God’s decided to make me miserable; I’m just a minor gentleman; I have a place in society which means that whatever miseries I experience are a part of my social role” – ultimately, though, “THE SYSTEM IS WORKING, ALL IS (or ultimately will be) WELL”. Now, I’m not saying that a feudal society would be better than what we have now, obviously. Feudalism would facilitate horrific breaches of human rights and would be in every sense a step backwards. But, it did provide people with a social framework which imposed meaning upon their lives; now, we have no such framework beyond “Figure it out for yourselves”, and perhaps people don’t like this figuring out.

    So maybe that’s why people like “gritty” things over beautiful things: they feel betrayed by the simple joy of the beautiful, and while the gritty things don’t make them happier per se, they do make them feel more justified and more comfortable in their new, cynical worldview because this unpleasant art matches their expectations of what life is like.

    Also, such a situation would explain why people think pretty and joyful expression is childish and gritty and cynical expression is mature: because their joy was limited to childhood, and their cynicism to age.

    The problem, of course, is that one way to restore joy to people is by showing them joyful expression, which they might resent or might associate with other things they feel are (and which might genuinely be) immature. Perhaps the way forward is not to say “Life is good” but, rather, “Life is painful, but it has its moments, and it’s worth dwelling on them”. Which I think is what you’ve been doing with BoLM, Arcadia, most of the Compendium entries and, to be honest, quite a lot of your work as a whole. It’s interesting that Arcadia, which would be a Pastoral poem if it were written five hundred years ago, just can’t sustain the relentless glorification of nature and innocence that Renaissance poets put into their own pastorals. It just wouldn’t work at all in an industrial age where the whole idea of natural innocence has been rendered unfeasible. And I like how you work with that and establish that, yes, this place is under threat and will probably always be under threat, but there’s still great beauty here and things worth having, whether new (the new insect) or old (the satyr dance), and you’d be utterly crazy to just consign the whole thing to a dustheap – a dustheap being, ironically, what Arcadia more or less is, since it’s a composting hulk of a former civilisation that nevertheless (as compost does) breeds new life and shows itself to be more than what it seems.

    Sorry for the length!

  3. @David:
    Meaning, as in what one takes away on a moral/philosophical level, is certainly open to interpretation. Arcadia offers themes and directions, but it can’t be boiled down to a “message.” (Neither can any of my games, really, not even You Shall Know The Truth.)

    But there is also the simpler question (comparable perhaps to what you mentioned, the issue of the player’s identity in The Infinite Ocean) of what sort of world we are seeing. I think the game provides more than enough information to at least make a guess, but it’s always hard to know what players actually take away from it.

    As long as a comment is well-considered, it cannot be too long. Not on this site. My games are all about walls of text, after all.

    The role of the individual is certainly a big part of what we’re seeing, I think you’re quite right about that. Our inability to see ourselves as part of the whole (humankind, the planet, life) makes us childish. I mean, what else is being an adult but understanding that you are part of something greater, and you have responsibilities you did not choose? I tend to think of libertarianism as the ultimate reaction to that, the political version of “I don’t want to share my toys!”

    I like the idea of Arcadia as a compost heap. It’s not a bad analogy.

  4. BlueJay

    I’m afraid I have to be a dissenter here. I think both of you (James and Jonas) have touched on the basic issue, but I’m coming from the opposite end of the spectrum and so I went in the exact opposite direction on the conclusion.

    I think most people see the world as dark and foreboding, and think of pain and suffering as the only thing that’s real. Joy and laughter and beauty they see as unreal. They think happiness is only possible to people in fairy tales. So whenever they see beauty or joy or happiness, whenever they see someone who loves their life, they can’t believe it. So they say it’s childish or silly.

    What I find so utterly tragic here, and honestly a little ironic, is that both of you seem to believe in that world. James refers to this mindset as “disillusionment”. James, do you really believe that joy and beauty is the illusion, and pain is inevitable on Earth?

    Most people think of art as escapism. They believe in their painful wasteland of a world, and they use art to pretend for a short while that joy is real. And they come alive for that short while. But then they give it up! Then they put it away, wave it off as childish fantasy, and they go back to real life and they’re in just as much pain as before.

    I feel almost like you’ll laugh at me for suggesting it, but did it ever occur to you that joy is the normal, the real, and that pain and sorrow is the exception? I don’t think art should be an escape, I think it should be a reminder of what is truly possible to us, and fuel for us to go on and reach it. Am I childish because I see the world, the real world, as beautiful? Am I naive because I think I can achieve my dreams and values? Do you think it’s the evil in the world that is powerful, while angels are only mice?

    What am I supposed to say to people who are so certain of the inevitability of misery?

  5. @BlueJay: I think you’ve missed the point of what we were saying. I’ve never believed that art is meaningless escapism, and if I thought that this kind of cynical worldview was appropriate, why would I make something like Arcadia? (Or any of my games?) Mind you, I don’t think that only joy and beauty are real, but I wouldn’t have made a game celebrating them if I thought they were purely imaginary.

    As for “disillusionment” – that people feel disillusioned does not imply that goodness is an illusion, only that they believe it to be one.

  6. James Patton

    “I feel almost like you’ll laugh at me for suggesting it, but did it ever occur to you that joy is the normal, the real, and that pain and sorrow is the exception?”

    Ah, I’m really sorry! I clearly didn’t make myself clear earlier. Put simply, I agree with you! People *think* the world is grim and a wasteland and they can never succeed. And, to be fair to them, it’s certainly not true that happiness happens in real life *just like* in a fairytale. If you work hard you won’t necessarily get that job you wanted, for example.

    But that doesn’t mean that all happiness is an illusion. I think many people become unhappy because they look at life in an overly competitive, consumerist way: “I need this and this and this to be happy, so I need this much money and I need to climb the career ladder”. If everyone thinks like that, clearly many are going to lose out.

    That’s why I think art can be important in making people happier. It’s not just escapism, though escapism certainly has its place and is valuable. It can also suggest a new way of thinking about how to live, or about what sort of place the world is. On a more mundane level, if somebody has put a huge amount of effort into a work made purely of joy and celebration, the audience are surely going to think, “If this person managed to put so much happiness into this, surely the world can’t be *that* bad?”

    Incidentally, I think Jonas’ games do all three. And I’m very impressed that, despite really bad financial worries, you’ve still been able to keep making wonderful things. It’s genuinely inspiring.

    I don’t think art is the only thing that can do this, of course: anything from a parent’s wise advice to a well-argued essay could do the same thing. But art can do it in unique ways, perhaps more fully because it can let you see the causes, processes and results of a situation, and let you take in the whole picture.

    So, to answer your question – no, I don’t think that life is miserable, and I’m really glad you don’t either! I think people often believe life is miserable because of their disillusionment with fairytales when compared with the reality of life, but that doesn’t mean there’s no happiness. It just means you have to readjust your world view; my suggestion is that life in our current culture makes that more difficult than it might have been in the past.

  7. Noyb

    I interpret Arcadia along the same lines as Alphaland: a game world still in the process of creation. Except Lycidas is much closer to a release candidate.

    The narrator describes the creatures using technical language suited to automata: the sheep “register your command[s],” have faulty “pathfinding parameters” that the protagonist “resets.” Your dog’s leg doesn’t “heal” but instead “repairs itself.” The older sheep have more trouble pathfinding, perhaps being of a buggier revision. Simultaneously, the mountain’s mazes are daily reconfigured in order to better suit their current pathfinding algorithms.

    The mountain began as a “wasteland of dead machinery” that gradually gained life as beings of “light” and “information” on a computer. As the world gets more defined, the protagonist finds fewer and fewer novel things to discover, like the glimmering spider creature.

    I’m not entirely sure how I would interpret the ending under this lens, where the world is in danger of being “taken away” from the protagonist and his or her partner. Perhaps this process of creation was initially left to the AI alone, leading to an eventual step where the programmer-gods would intervene and polish the world. Perhaps the programmer-gods are having trouble justifying the inclusion of this beautiful world in their game in light of practical pathfinding troubles. Perhaps it evokes a similar fear as the narrator in Alphaland: losing the beauty of a world in flux as it develops into a static, finished product. The tone is still hopeful in either outcome, for the protagonist can appreciate the natural beauty and the light from ancient stars he has encountered countless times before.

  8. That’s an interesting, if unexpected, reading. But why read the “wasteland of dead machinery” as a metaphor? As for the dancers/gods, I think a closer reading will show that they can’t be programmers; it said that “here they made themselves from dirt, formed the shapes that now dance with you out of a thousand broken bodies.”

  9. BlueJay

    Alright, it seems I greatly misunderstood you both. Sorry about that.

    Jonas said: “It would be wrong to claim that misery is an illusion. The misery millions experience is quite real; the illusion is that this misery is unavoidable.”

    I agree with that. I think it’s good to add that misery is often actually cause by the mindset that it’s unavoidable. If someone thinks pain is unavoidable, they won’t try to correct it, but someone who expects joy will be able to find and create joy where others can not.

    Anyway, I am also glad to see that neither of you think life is misery. Thanks for clarifying. And I do think Jonas’s games do a wondrous job of capturing that world of joy and beauty. I hope you never stop creating.

  10. Now that’s quality interpretation! Fairly convincing, much like the theory on the secret of Monkey Island I recently read, regardless of its actual accuracy.

    See, Arcadia makes it clear, I think, that it happens in some kind of future. Not necessarily our future, but in a world that pretty fenixly begins where another one ended. At least I don’t see any other reason to relate an “ancient beginning” with “dead machinery” like Arcadia does.

    The only way of seeing a winged spider for the first time without going back in time, really, is to wait for humanity to perish and to discover it again. ‘Cause winged spiders are indeed strange, much like flying fishes, but not unknown to man.

    Besides all that, the sole presence of a winged spider reminds me of the winged spiders of the Petrified Forest in Grim Fandango, so I obviously think about a world born out of death.

    Maybe the bug in the game is actually a new kind of insect and has no relation with what I’m talking about. Or maybe is a reference to the actual insect and also a hit at the geographical setting of the game, since those bug don’t live anywhere. Or maybe the game is about machines and programs, since I don’t see how else they could build themselves as the game tells they did.

  11. James Patton

    @BlueJay: Glad to hear it! I agree with Jonas that there is real misery in the world right now, but I also agree with you that some misery arises out of a mindset. If you think to yourself “everyone is out for themselves, nobody cares about anything, life is meaningless”, you’ll fall into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    As far as I recall – and I let the game wash over me rather than looking at it too closely, so this might be wrong – I got the impression that Arcadia is a huge mechanical scrapheap from a past civilisation which is perpetually creating new lifeforms. Hence the new spider. I assumed it was a metaphor for the joy of perpetual creativity and the possibilities of life and nature, but to call it a metaphor doesn’t quite do it justice, because it’s more a place than a symbol of anything – it *is* more than it *represents* for me.

  12. Sam Posner

    The following language:
    “and you feel it reset its pathfinding parameters.”
    “his leg is still repairing itself.”
    “In the height of summer there is a real danger of overheating up here”
    (for instance) makes me feel that all the characters and animals in Arcadia are robots that have somehow risen from a human “scrapheap” (as you put it). This process is clearly ongoing – see the shifting mountains and winged spider. Life and love (see the protagonist and his partner) are born from “waste.” In the conclusion, the characters are said to have “souls.” “Real” human civilization clearly doesn’t think so, and is about to arrive and take out the trash, so to speak.

    By the way, I played Arcadia while listening to Music for Programming episode 2 and watching 8-bit canvas cycle demos on another monitor ( It was beautiful.

  13. I think another element of this- and I’m talking from personal experience, rather than trying to make some backhanded insult- is that it’s easier to write bleak fiction believably. It’s kind of like Tolstoy said “All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is miserable in its own way” (or something like that). I don’t think that’s entirely true- A Scanner Darkly is actually a good example of the idea that there are alternative roads to happiness (even if that example is ultimately tragic- but you get my point. The idea that there is one and only one road to happiness is kind of messed up, and slightly totalitarian if you think about it).

    But Tolstoy does kind of have a point in that there are a lot more believable versions of misery than of happiness. If you think about your own life there are almost any number of ways even at the best of times that things could end terribly- you or someone you deeply love could be hit by a bus, you could lose your job and never be able to get out of a cycle of depression and die sad and alone, any relationship of any kind with any person can collapse under the stress of contradictory interests/personalities/whatever- and all of these things can be made into stories.

    But by contrast making happiness or hope believable is an extremely fine line. Even the slightest overstep and you could wind up in the territory of Disney and Hallmark- “If it were that easy- bah! I know from personal experience that things don’t just turn out because you love someone enough!” On the other hand, asserting a degree of hope in an otherwise bleak work can actually serve to only make the sense of despair stronger. Since one way of dealing with the fear of failure in life is to believe that hope never exists, you can understate the note of hope in a work of art, so that then it looks sort of pathetic- like it’s adding sad, persistent naivety to all the things that will clobber the protagonist in life.

    And I’m basing a lot of that on my own writing. When I was a teenager everything I wrote was totally bleak- I couldn’t imagine any believable way that anything could be written. It was by deliberate effort that I forced myself to try doing things like writing love stories or things with happy endings (I had this idea that if I could get the hang of those elements the contrast would bring out the tragic elements in my normal writing more). My first attempts that were remotely successful actually just looked, well, kind of manic and demented. It was only gradually that it dawned on me that the real value in writing hopeful fiction- and reading it- was that imagining a way forward was the first step towards struggling against things. What I mean is: if you can think your way through to how things could be different and better, that’s a more powerful literary critique than the blackest depiction of the world.

    Anyway, sorry to get kind of solipsistic in that. In my defence it’s pretty late at night this side of Eurasia. In any case, that’s actually a lot of what I admire about your work, that you manage to make hopefulness and friendship and whatever to fiction, what Zach de la Rocha makes the word “fuck” to music.

  14. James Patton

    @bachi: I completely agree, and I hear you about writing nothing but bleak bleak bleak when you’re a teenager. I did a similar thing; in fact, every story I wrote was a Lovecraftian horror story, so not only was the protagonist doomed from the off, he’d probably get his face eaten off by rabid (nihilistic!) space-bees or something.

    Weirdly enough, what focused all of this was an episode of Dr. Who that was shown not long ago, the one with Van Gogh. The whole thing was incredibly cheesy but one character summed up the cheese wonderfully. Van Gogh, he said, was one of the most tortured men alive and yet he painted beautiful things, somehow turning the torment of his existence into something beautiful.

    Now, I’m not sure whether that’s true or if they were just making a pat point, and as they said it I knew it was horribly cheesy, but I also felt that was an incredibly important. Bleak art is kind of important in its own way but how much more beautiful is something if it accepts *all* of the world, and says “Yes, things are bad. Buuut, look at this beautiful little thing! Isn’t it amazing?”

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