Austerity Ecology

Austerity Ecology

I’ve been struggling to articulate just why this book is so tremendously important – not because it’s hard to talk about, but because it’s just so full of utterly vital ideas and arguments. I want to see this book in every library and on every political reading list. If you have even the slightest interest in technology, civilization, and the environment, then this is essential reading for you. It’s not only the best book I’ve read about the climate crisis, it’s also an urgently-needed work of (political) philosophy.

That climate change is a huge and terrifying issue is something that more and more people are becoming aware of. But how do we respond? Forget about the people who pretend the problem doesn’t exist for a moment. The problem exists – but what is the solution? In liberal/leftist circles these days, the answer is frequently personal, small-scale, and anti-technological. We need to change our personal habits, the argument goes. We need fewer gadgets, fewer products. Everything has to be more local and “natural” (the latter, of course, a term with absolutely no scientific or philosophical basis, as it’s impossible to exist outside Nature). Frequently this is combined with a deeply flawed critique of “capitalism” – which here doesn’t refer to relations of production, but to a vague, moralistic opposition to “greed” and “consumerism.”

Leigh Phillips, a science journalist, carefully takes this dogmatic construct apart from every possible angle.

First of all, there’s the very simple question of effectiveness. Can we really stop climate change through individual action? If “we all cared just a little bit more,” would that make a difference? If we all recycled and drove hybrid cars and went vegan and only bought local and organic, would that solve the climate crisis? And the answer is a clear and simple no. That’s not a matter of ideology. Nor is it a matter of “at least doing something.” It’s a matter of mathematics.

It just doesn’t work. It’s nowhere near enough. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of the problem.

Already, this conflicts with what a lot of people want to believe. That’s odd, actually, because the same people who will invoke the work of climate scientists when trying to convince denialists have a great deal of trouble accepting the rest of what the numbers show us: current tactics are not even coming close to the necessary goals, and all the lifestyle changes in the world won’t make enough of a difference. Partially that’s because the scale of the problem is so immense, and partially – and this is another fact that makes many leftists uncomfortable – it’s because a lot of supposedly “ecological” solutions simply don’t work. In fact, much of what is praised as “green” is actually massively counterproductive.

A particularly effective example is Germany’s so-called “Energiewende” – a turn away from nuclear power, the bugbear of environmentalist activists, which has resulted in a significant worsening of Germany’s impact on global warming. Just because something sounds “natural” doesn’t mean it actually helps.

(In fact, just talking about nuclear power as a possible solution, especially with recent advances that make it much safer, is guaranteed to rile leftists up in a way that is distinctly reminiscent of religious fanatics getting angry about abortion or other taboo topics. The same goes for genetic engineering, which the book demonstrates has many applications profoundly relevant to improving global quality of life and protecting the environment, but which has become a taboo so strong that people are willing to kill over it. I think this reveals a lot about the antimodernist position.)

With every point that he makes, Phillips goes into detail and provides extensive citations. This isn’t some careless dismissal – although at times the writing cannot help but become sarcastic – but very solid argumentation based on decades of climate research. The book does not challenge the idea that the climate crisis is important; it doesn’t want environmentalists to abandon their struggles. What it does is carefully look at the known facts and ask: do you really want to solve this crisis, or do you want to feel good about yourself through lifestyle choices? Because if you really do want a solution, this isn’t working, and more of the same won’t make a difference.

So where does that leave us?

This is where the bigger questions come up. We are forced to deal with a problem on a huge scale that our current civilizational structures cannot overcome. Small-scale solutions are largely either ineffective or counterproductive.  We can’t keep going as we are. The road diverges: do we reject civilization, or do we embrace it? In other words, do we reject humanity, or do we embrace it?

Those familiar with my writing will know that there’s a text by Albert Einstein – “Why Socialism?” – that I greatly admire. In it, there’s a passage that I’ve always found particularly relevant to the modern day:

Innumerable voices have been asserting for some time now that human society is passing through a crisis, that its stability has been gravely shattered. It is characteristic of such a situation that individuals feel indifferent or even hostile toward the group, small or large, to which they belong. In order to illustrate my meaning, let me record here a personal experience. I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind, and I remarked that only a supra-national organization would offer protection from that danger. Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me: “Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?”

I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made a statement of this kind. It is the statement of a man who has striven in vain to attain an equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people are suffering in these days. What is the cause? Is there a way out?

The attitude at which Einstein expresses shock here is one which the book is designed to oppose. And the truly sad thing is that this is not an attitude common to the Right. Even Ayn Rand, miserable old hypocrite that she was, did not embrace such a nihilistic view of humanity. In fact, I’m guessing it’s Rand’s devotion to the ideal of a heroic humanity (if in an utterly antisocial way) that draws many enthusiastic people to her work. No, such misanthropic statements are actually a fairly common element of the modern Left. A postmodern Left that has not just abandoned but renounced the Enlightenment, and with it any belief in human beings and their ability to solve problems. A Left that is not just technophobic but, in its sanctimonious opposition to the vital human activities of consumption and growth, downright puritanical.

Why is it, Phillips asks, that the Left, which once stood for a vision of a better world in which humans used their ingenuity for the benefit of all, is now telling us that we need to do less, to reject the things that bring us joy, to go back to the land, back to some ill-defined Golden Age, to give up the incredible things our species has accomplished in its short lifespan in favour of merely subsisting?

Of course, many would scoff at this “archaic” idea of progress, claiming that humanity has never accomplished anything good, that we are merely a scourge. Here, too, Phillips uses an actual scientific understanding of the history of our planet to put things into perspective. Human beings are hardly unique in their destructive capabilities; everything on Earth, down to the air you’re breathing, is the result of life’s relentless terraforming. What we’re doing is completely normal. Where human beings are unique is in our ability to understand all of this – to make sense of the world, and to change it purposefully. (That, of course, and everything else that comes with our intelligence. Millions of species kill others, even to the point of extinction, but we’re the only ones writing books and making movies.)

This isn’t just about philosophy, though. Phillips makes a very strong case for our ability to solve problems through large-scale planning simply by demonstrating that there are loads of examples of humanity succeeding at it. If you set aside the anti-human and anti-technology point of view for a moment, if you just look at us as another species – like ants, say, who also like to build – then you can see that the things we have created are absolutely stunning. And they work, even when so many catastrophists claim over and over that they won’t. For centuries now, all the predictions about how humanity couldn’t solve its problems, how we’d all starve or die of diseases or be struck down by the gods, have been proven wrong. And though many problems exist, people do largely lead better lives now. Those who claim the opposite generally fail to understand the amount of human misery that existed before industrialization, or the effect of technological modernity on social freedoms (like women’s equality).

Small, Phillips argues, is not beautiful. Small is a reactionary fantasy that’s closer to right-wing survivalist bullshit than to anything in the history of the Left. What’s beautiful is humanity working together to survive, to expand, to grow.

Which brings us back to capitalism. A lot of environmentalists claim to be anti-capitalists, but their definition of capitalism, as mentioned above, is usually quite hazy. Their positions frequently end up amounting either to an ineffective social-democratic liberalism or to primitivist anarchism, neither of which is capable of dealing with the true extent of the crisis. (Nor, as we can see all too clearly, is capitalism itself, stifling innovation with its focus on profit and failing to organize its efforts on a large enough scale.) Phillips instead argues from a classical socialist perspective: the problem isn’t that capitalism is immoral, but merely that it is outdated. The structural and technological tools it has provided us with are not unnatural. They simply need to be used correctly.

There is a long history that shows we are capable of it, and a serious scientific argument that shows embracing modernity is not just the way to a better future, but the only way to save the planet.

If I have any criticisms to make of the book, they have nothing to do with its content, but with its production. The book could’ve used better proofreading, and the print edition is entirely too expensive. I’d probably recommend getting the ebook edition, although the paper version is fine otherwise.

All in all, though, like I said in the intro, this is essential reading.

Notes:

  • Yes, this book shares many concerns with The Talos Principle‘s Alexandra Drennan. There was a passage about how wonderful it is to have a planet full of six billion supercomputers that moved me to tears.
  • Did you see the movie Tomorrowland? It’s not about socialism, but it shares a similar belief in the human future, and a frustration with the abandonment of modernity in favour of apocalypse fantasies. The critics hated it, of course.
  • I suspect Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov would have appreciated this book. Iain Banks, too.

Links:

Worship the Algorithm

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Imagine there was a civilization that worshipped an algorithm. Not used an algorithm – understanding and applying it – but worshipped it. A civilization that allowed all of its capabilities to be guided by numbers produced by this algorithm without even remotely understanding what they meant. A civilization that made important decisions about its resources based on a graph that nobody could predict – and which, as far as anyone could tell, didn’t represent anything in the real world.

In this strange civilization, the very same set of material conditions – the same factories, the same technologies, the same population with the same needs – could one day be described as “everything is going really great” and the next suddenly mean that “the economy has failed.” Not because of a fire, or an earthquake, or the outbreak of a plague, but merely because the Magic Numbers suddenly looked different.

Wars could be started over this algorithm. People could lose homes, jobs, everything they ever had, even if they weren’t personally involved with the algorithm.

Meanwhile, attempts to stabilize this algorithm would have no scientific basis and yield no reliable results. Instead they would mostly focus on placating invisible forces considered to be extremely flighty, while there would always be an underlying fear of a smaller set of predatory invisible forces that delighted in chaos.

None of these forces could ever truly be controlled, the belief would go. There could never be an alternative to the algorithm. Pray to the algorithm and hope the magic numbers go up again.

What would we call such a civilization? Primitive? Superstitious?

I think we’d call it insane.

The Horror of Far Cry 2

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My favourite thing about Far Cry 2 is that there isn’t a twist. Its emotional impact doesn’t come from making you think you’re the hero and then somehow making your actions have horrible consequences, or making it turn out you’ve somehow been deceived or controlled. Nor are you somehow responsible for everything that happens, reducing the story to one of individual guilt. It just stays true to its premise: you’re a mercenary in a small African country ravaged by civil war. So by definition, the things you do are extremely unlikely to help.

When the game starts, you’re completely in over your head. You were supposed to track down and assassinate the Jackal, an arms dealer, but instead you’ve contracted malaria, your mission is a failure, and you’re caught between the two sides of the civil war. It’s a very immersive introduction, helped by the excellent environment design. The distinct architectural styles, the thick jungle, the badly-maintained roads – all of it feels like a real place. If you’ve ever been to a very poor country (even without a civil war currently happening), there’s a lot you’ll recognize. A huge amount of work has clearly been put into making the game’s setting as believable as possible.

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Far Cry 2‘s game design is controversial. Many players felt frustrated by the constantly respawning guard posts, the cars patrolling the roads, the extremely limited ability to fast-travel between locations, and the weapon degradation. In the almost fifty hours I played, I also found myself occasionally irritated by these things, particularly when I had to repeatedly traverse the same terrain and thus clear out the same guard posts over and over. On occasion, I resorted to only playing the game in short bursts. And yet I think these choices were valid, even if aspects of them could have been executed better.

By forcing you to stick to its reality, to its harsh rules, the game starts having an effect that I have very rarely encountered, the other case being the excellent S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. As you played those games, you started learning how to survive in the Zone. This felt like acquiring a very specific set of skills, habits, reflexes, combined with increasingly detailed knowledge of the Zone’s geography and the behavioural patterns of its inhabitants. You started feeling like you were that character you were playing, because you knew the Zone as a place, almost as a way of life, not as a level or a series of challenges. The same thing happens in Far Cry 2. You start developing strategies for dealing with certain situations. You figure out the fastest and safest paths to places. You find yourself instinctively alert for the sound of engines, for headlights in the night, for rustling in the undergrowth. You start to become the hardened, paranoid mercenary you’re playing.

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Combat in Far Cry 2 is brutal and fast. Enemies are smarter than in most games, trying to outflank you, run you over, searching for you if they lose you, helping injured comrades, and so on. Between that, the possibility of a patrol car suddenly joining the fight, and the game’s stunning simulation of fire, you get some of the most memorable fights I’ve ever encountered in a game. At first, these fights are terrifying and exhilarating, and surviving one makes you feel great. After all, you’re the underdog, and the people you’re fighting aren’t exactly innocent. But after a while, it starts to get ugly.

It’s not just the missions themselves. Sure, most of what you do is awful, but it’s not awful in some manipulative way, where you’re trying to save the orphans but the orphans are secretly explosive clones who will destroy an abortion clinic if you don’t torture them (i.e. the Battlestar Galactica approach). You’re blowing up infrastructure, assassinating targets – the kind of thing a mercenary does. It becomes clearer and clearer that neither side cares about civilian lives, or even about the ideologies they claim to espouse, and your actions are definitely not constructive in any way. Some of the missions are more disturbing than others, like destroying a source of medicine or assassinating a radio propagandist.

But an equal amount of disturbing violence is simply the result of the gameplay. You’ll shoot people in the back as they’re limping away from you. You’ll wait for someone to pick up an injured comrade to carry him to safety and then kill them both. You might even use that as a strategy, injuring some enemies instead of killing them outright. You’ll casually put bullets in the heads of enemies who can’t walk anymore. (I couldn’t stop thinking of that clip from the Charlie Hebdo murders.) You’ll kill enemies who are so terrified of you that they’re babbling about how they don’t want to die.

None of this is a cutscene. None of this is forced on you. You’ll just do it because you’re trying to survive.

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Some have criticized the game for being too long, but I think its length is actually essential to the player’s emotional arc. At some point, you are no longer the underdog. You’ve got the best equipment, you know the terrain, and you’re really good at this. But you’re not a hero. Quite the opposite, as is reflected in your Reputation statistic. Some people think you’re the Devil. And while you’ve never done anything out of cruelty, at some point you start to recognize the unspeakable horror of this neverending slog through hell. You’re killing and killing and killing and what are you accomplishing? Nothing.

There are some minor good things you do, almost accidentally in some cases. To get more malaria medicine, you have to help the Underground, an organization dedicated to helping refugees out of the country. (The EU would see this as your only crime.) There is also an African journalist trying to document the things that are happening and expose them to the world. These ordinary Africans are easily the most human, most heroic characters in the game.

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And then there is the Jackal, a character who, in his own words, “used to be you.” Predictably enough, the game is influenced by Heart of Darkness, and the Jackal is its version of Kurtz. But he is quite different from the novel’s ivory trader or the equally-famous colonel from Apocalypse Now. The Jackal isn’t a leader, for one thing, and he isn’t admired or worshipped by the natives. As noted above, the civilian characters of the game, though sadly rarely seen, are the least savage. The Jackal has simply taken the disgust the player is starting to feel to its ultimate extreme. He does want to “exterminate all the brutes” – but in this case, that means both of the sides in the conflict, as well as the mercenaries – including you, and including himself.

Your encounters with the Jackal near the end of the game are particularly powerful, because you understand where he’s coming from. You’ve slaughtered so many people. You’ve worked for both sides. You’ve seen the horror and you feel dirty and you want it to end. And at no point has the game popped up some self-righteous character to preach at you about your personal responsibility. If anything, the sane people you meet are grateful for what you did for the Underground and your journalist friend. Ironically, the Jackal is the one person who really understands you, who can talk about the cancer that you’re part of without sounding judgemental. He is you.

At the very end, you try to do something good. You destroy the leadership and help the refugees escape. One of you must sacrifice himself, and the Jackal suggests that the survivor should kill himself as soon as the refugees are safe. The cancer must be destroyed. It’s the only logical conclusion of what you both have become.

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But does it work?

By not reducing the civil war to a matter of personal guilt (your character experiences personal guilt, but the war is not caused by that), the game avoids the kind of simplistic moralism that games with a postmodern liberal political outlook fall prey to. That’s not to say the game is Marxist, but it certainly presents a situation that has historical, material causes. And as such, the actions of isolated individuals like yourself and the Jackal, while having an impact, can’t really fix the underlying problems.

In the end, all of this is part of a much bigger problem, which too many powerful people aren’t interesting in solving, because they are far more interested in the resources the country has to offer. More soldiers and more weapons won’t help bring peace. Nor will claiming that one side is “moderate” and helping it destroy the other. This isn’t about ideology; it’s about power.

You know that, and that’s the game’s biggest triumph. You know that because you remember the towns, the roads, the jungle, and the endless killing.

You know that because you’ve been there.

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Cancer and Capitalism

Lately, as friends, relatives, and celebrities have had encounters with cancer, I have spoken out several times about how I think the cause of this suffering and death is, in many ways, systemic. I’ve had a variety of responses to this that I find irritating:

  1. “You’re politicizing a tragedy!”
  2. “It’s just how it is.”
  3. “You’re always blaming capitalism for everything.”

Of course, a major problem is that “capitalism” is a word that just gets thrown around by people who don’t really understand what it means. It’s become a hollow word for trendy leftists to use when they want to sound radical, not a tool of political analysis. In that incarnation, it’s about as relevant to a scientific understanding of economics as the fashionable claims of anarchism are to the works of Kropotkin.

So what is capitalism?

Capitalism is not greed. Capitalism is not industrialism. Capitalism is not consumerism.

Capitalism is not a moral term or an ideology (though there are ideologies that support it).

Capitalism is the private ownership of the means of production. Capitalism is production for individual profit, not common need.

In other words, capitalism is a system. A way to structure society and its relationship to the material world. Such a system is totalizing: it affects every single aspect of our lives. That’s not a moral judgement. All economic systems, circumscribing our everyday experiences as they do, must by definition affect everything society produces.

I’m not asking you to live a non-capitalist life. You can’t, because capitalism is not a lifestyle. It’s not about how much you buy or what clothes you wear. It’s not about you. Or me. Or Bill Gates. I don’t blame the rich or glorify the poor. We’re talking about systems. Systems are impersonal. It’s just how things are organized.

And right now things are organized badly.

I don’t mind people disagreeing with me. That’s a different matter. But do please try to understand what I’m talking about.

Things don’t just happen. History, the sum of human experiences, is produced within a socio-economic context. There is no outside of this context, as various survivalists and back-to-nature fantasists imagine. You can’t unsubscribe from the system. And this system is not eternal. It changes. It’s changed many times, usually through some form of revolutionary action. Capitalism itself overthrew the previous system only a few centuries ago. Things not only change, they change radically. The life you are living now was inconceivable to an average person a thousand years ago.

And with the big systemic changes come radical changes to how we live. As our ability as a species to employ and refine the means of production changes, so does our ability to alter the world. We’ve been doing this for tens of thousands of years, and it’s tranformed our lives for the better. We’re frequently told that it hasn’t, that there was some utopian world of rural tranquility that once existed, but this is pure fantasy. What makes that fantasy seem real is simply a lack of knowledge, an assumption that everything was always as it is – the tendency people have to underestimate just how much of what they take for granted is, in fact, a fairly recent invention. The imaginary rural life rarely includes the endless drudgery of pre-industrial agriculture or the rates of child mortality our species once suffered.

In fact, it was a radical new system – capitalism – that helped us eradicate many of those problems.

Progress is not a fantasy or an ideology, but a real, observable phenomenon. Postmodern academics deny this not because of facts, but because it is convenient for those who benefit from the status quo. Nothing is more useful to the upper echelons of society than a population that does not demand more, that believes things are merely as they are.

So when someone dies of cancer, as my aunt just did, and I blame capitalism, I’m not blaming some bogeyman. I’m not talking about “everything is the fault of this thing I don’t like!” What I’m doing is looking at the history of our species, at all the problems we’ve eliminated, at all the systems we’ve overthrown, and noticing that right now we’re wasting our resources. We’re allowing our avenues of research to be dictated by what would be the most profitable for a tiny handful of people. We’re using supercomputers to crack your emails instead of cracking the secrets of cancer. We’re spending trillions on blowing each other up and on stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. We, a species capable of utterly amazing feats of analysis and engineering, are wasting our time and our energy on bullshit.

And I don’t buy that this is just what we do, that this is some essential “human nature” that can never change. History shows such a view to be utterly wrong. Because things do change. All the time. It’s not just “how things are.” Things aren’t any one way, not permanently.

How many diseases were once considered incurable? Or not just incurable, but a punishment from God himself?

How many systems that were considered eternal are now not just gone, but largely forgotten?

How many phenomena that once were terrifying are now easily understood?

You don’t see a whole lot of people defending the plague these days. The divine right of kings does not seem like a great political concept anymore. Do you know what happened to the smallpox? We stamped it the fuck out.

I’m not interested in blaming Big Pharma for this, or imagining that if only everybody became a little kinder, everything would be great. Neither conspiracy theories nor collective guilt are particularly useful in changing how the world works. When we’re talking about the allocation of resources, we’re talking about production – and so we must look at systems, at the core structures that define how society functions, how the goals of production are determined, not at the epiphenomena.

So my argument is simple:

  1. History demonstrates our ability to solve problems (such as diseases).
  2. We have the economic and technological resources to eliminate many of our problems.
  3. We are not using these resources in a way that solves these problems.
  4. This is because capitalism, which was once a vital and powerful system, has reached a point in its development where its internal contradictions make it ineffective and crisis-prone.
  5. History demonstrates our ability to change systems.
  6. We should change the system and fix our problems.

I don’t want to “smash capitalism!” I don’t have a Che Guevara poster in my room. And I’m not looking for some vaguely-defined entity to blame the tragedies I encounter on. But there is a clear and direct connection between the death of my aunt – or David Bowie, or Alan Rickman, or millions of people I don’t know – and where our civilization chooses to spend its resources.

I’m not politicizing it. It is political.

Now, if you disagree, as I said, that’s fine. Got some other way of fixing these problems? Have you thought about it a lot and believe it can work despite the limitations of the current system? Good, fight for that. I think you’re wrong, but so what? I could be wrong, too. But if you think radical change is impossible, or unnecessary – then I’m really sorry for you, because somewhere along the line you’ve lost track of your humanity, and that’s a shame. I hope you find it again, because I think humans are pretty great. You can do better. You deserve more.

Links! 16/01/2016

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I’m working my ass off on Lands of Dream stuff at the moment, but I intend to get this blog properly going again this year. It’s much better to actually write my thoughts down in a detailed way than to just throw them away as one-liners on Twitter. I also intend to get the Lands of Dream website going again properly, with regular updates and stuff. I’ve been intending to do that for a long time, and now that we have a ton of new Lands of Dream stories coming (at least two games this year, I swear, plus other stuff), it seems like the right moment.

While I figure out the remaining technical issues I need to solve, here are some links!

  • Our friend Ivo Shmilev (you may remember him from Fear of Twine’s Abstract State-warp Machines) has released a book of poetry. It’s called Past the Layered Stones: The Collected Poetry of Jared Quieton Ilyief Vile. As the title suggests, it’s presented as a poetry collection of a fictional character, an obscure poet in the far future. It even comes with a deeply satirical (but sadly realistic) academic essay. Ivo is too close a friend for me to be able to say anything particularly objective, but if poetry’s your thing, and you like poetry that is unusual and unique, I suggest checking it out. In a sense, these poems – which are frequently personal, if to a fictional character – only represent a fraction of Ivo’s vision, a beginning or introduction to his larger themes, but I’d be quite happy if people who appreciate poetry supported this first step, which I hope will lead to even bigger projects.
  • BoingBoing published a review of Austerity Ecology by Leigh Phillips. I’m going to write a review of my own as well, but I hope this book really catches on, because it’s fantastic and important.
  • GameWorld.gr published an interview with me (in Greek). It was fun to do, though they probably make me sound more coherent than I actually am.
  • Steven Brust is still writing about The Revolution Betrayed and it’s still worth reading, even if you haven’t read Trotsky’s book.
  • There was an interesting article in GamesRadar about how The Talos Principle is mature. I believe very much in treating one’s audience like adults. And by that I don’t mean the kind of thing adolescents are prone to, which is to try and perform “adultness” through posturing, smoking, cursing, and so on, but through just assuming they’re smart people who shouldn’t be talked down to. Frankly, that’s also how we approached our children’s book, and children also seemed to appreciate not being treated like idiots.
  • Have you played TOMBs of Reschette? It’s more than it seems to be.
  • Into the Black: On Videogame Exploration is a new video by Electron Dance. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s based on articles that I liked.
  • Song of the indeterminate time period: Superman’s Song by the Crash Test Dummies. I always thought their album God Shuffled His Feet was an underrated masterpiece, but recently I’ve been exploring the rest of their discography, and they have some truly amazing songs. (I highly recommend the albums The Ghost That Haunt Me and I Don’t Care That You Don’t Mind.)

So that was 2015

Well, that was a full year. Still kind of frustrating, but I do think we are, as I really wanted us to, starting to accelerate. Going somewhere, if not quite as quickly as I’d like.

The biggest thing I did in 2015, of course, was work on Road to Gehenna. As usual, it took about three times as long as I thought it would, and man was it a lot of work. We basically wrote as much text for Gehenna as we did for the original Talos, if not a little bit more. And this time there were text adventures, too! Those were a lot of fun to write. In fact, they were a reminder that this sort of thing is something I really enjoy and am really good at, and I should do more of it. The same is true of Verena’s remake/expansion of her game Zombies and Elephants. It’s not done yet, but watching her work on it made me kind of jealous.

I can imagine a scenario for the next few years where most of the games I create by myself are interactive fiction, while I work on a variety of other games purely as a writer. I prefer scripting to “proper” programming by a solar year; designing narrative logic is fun and an organic part of telling a story. It’s the other stuff that drives me insane. (I do also enjoy game design in the more classical sense, and I don’t think I’d ever stick to purely making one type of game, but it would be nice to focus on using words to tell stories for a while.)

Then there was Serious Sam 4. I really wanted to get that gig, and I’m incredibly happy that I did. I didn’t expect to end up collaborating with Verena, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense – in fact, writing comedy together was how we first got to know each other, almost exactly ten years ago. We balance each other well in that regard. I tend to go a little Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy on my own, if you know what I mean, while she comes up with short, effective one-liners. The week we spent working on the script in the Croteam office was exhausting and exhilarating, and I’m very proud of the final result. There’s more to do, but if we can realize 80% of that script, it’ll be an awesome game.

One massive source of frustration is that I haven’t finished the updated version of The Sea Will Claim Everything or released The Council of Crows. The constant awareness of that failure is a terrible weight. I was certain I would be done this year, when something completely unforeseen destroyed my schedule: roof repairs. And our house being what it is, the roof is basically the (slanted) wall of both our bedroom and our office. For one and a half months, a bunch of guys spent all day hitting the roof with hammers. The noise was deafening, and the entire room was shaking. Hell, at times even my screen was shaking. I couldn’t work elsewhere, so I put on headphones and tried to soldier through, but at the end I was a nervous wreck. I worked on Lands of Dream stuff every single day, to the point of complete burnout, but my productivity was probably less than 50% of normal.

Generally speaking, there are two things that really make it hard for me to work: too much noise and a lack of light. So a month spent in darkness with the kind of noise they’d play to torture someone shaking the room all day… well, it wasn’t the optimal way to work. When they finally took the scaffolding down, my whole body relaxed for a second… and then I immediately got sick.

I’ve been ill a lot this year. It started with San Francisco, where we went for GDC. I think I got some sort of lethal combination of every strain of flu on the planet. Not only did my throat hurt like hell, plus fever and sneezing and coughing and all that, I also went fucking deaf! When I got back to Frankfurt, I just flat-out couldn’t hear. It took weeks for that to get better, and I had a relapse later in the year. (I could tell it was the same thing because the way my throat hurt was so specific – like having a long horizontal cut.) But that’s still better than the entire German side of my family, where everyone got horrible problems in the space of a month or so. Cancer sucks and capitalism’s inability to innovate more quickly is one of many reasons we need a better system.

In more positive news, we travelled a bit this year, and I enjoyed it a lot. San Francisco in particular was gorgeous. In many people’s mind the city is associated either with libertarian startup bullshit or with tiresome identity politics, and it’s certainly a city that’s increasingly hard to live in for working-class people, but the city itself is simply lovely. I frequently thought that this is what Thessaloniki might’ve been like if there had been a lot of money in Greece about a hundred years ago, and if all its beautiful historic buildings hadn’t been torn down by the greedy assholes who destroyed Greece in the name of the free market. The ordinary people I talked to (bus drivers, bakers, etc.) were all extremely friendly, and not in a “fake” way I’ve heard tourists complain about. Same was true in Boston, of which I sadly didn’t see much, as at that point I was basically patient zero of the Apocalypse Flu. It’s such a shame that the US is this hellhole of deranged capitalist policies that ruin people’s lives (the barbaric healthcare system, the militarized police… terrifying stuff), because it could be a genuinely amazing place.

As I mentioned above, we also went to Croatia this year. We didn’t have time to see much, what with the ten-hour days of writing Serious Sam, but I liked Zagreb. The shortest way of describing it is to say that it’s like a nicer, more human Germany. Like you injected some Mediterranean attitude into a Western European city. A lot of Croatian people have told me that Croatia is awful and Germany is so much better, but… well, no. The economic situation may be better in Germany, at least on paper, but that doesn’t always translate to quality of life. Anyway, Zagreb’s not my favourite city in the world, but it’s a city that feels like human beings can live there, which is more than I can say about any number of big cities in Germany.

I also spent quite a bit of time in Greece, more than I have in a while. I actually got used to being there, which made going back to Frankfurt exceptionally hard. The time I spent in Greece was also the time of extremely important political events, which culminated in an utter betrayal of democracy as Alexis Tsipras and the SYRIZA leadership signed an unconstitutional agreement with the European Union that has already begun to utterly obliterate what was left of Greece. I should’ve known this would happen, but it was still a shock, with dire consequences for millions of people, including family and friends. For one second, there was a chance to really make a difference, with a huge percentage of the people willing to fight, and Alexis Tsipras took it and used it to destroy not only his country, but pretty much the entire Left. Now he poses, grinning, with dictators and war criminals, and goes out of his way to enforce austerity policies that make his far-right predecessor Samaras look sane by comparison. (The people I admired in the party have all been purged, of course. In fact, almost the whole party is gone.)

To witness the energy and hope in the streets after the No vote, and then see it all crash and burn after the betrayal… I still feel emotionally exhausted from it, and it’s hard not to be constantly overwhelmed by anger and despair.

The refugee crisis was only just getting started when I was in Greece. I helped out some local volunteers for a day, distributing food and petitioning the mayor for portable toilets, but since then the situation has exploded, and the government response has been nothing short of catastrophic. The EU’s border policy is shameful, and the SYRIZA government has done nothing but demonstrate its uselessness and inhumanity.

The thought of all those people drowning in the Mediterranean, the sea that I love so much, gnaws at me day and night.

There were many good moments for me personally, of course. Meeting old friends, watching good movies (Tomorrowland, The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road), good TV (Sense8, True Detective, BoJack Horseman), good books (should’ve made a list, have no idea what I read anymore), and so on. I’m still as happily married as ever. Our cat is still an adorable monster. But I have a distinct feeling of unease. Some of it is just due to living here, even though in some ways Frankfurt is probably one of the best places in Germany to live. I spent a great deal of time and energy this year trying to find a way of moving out of Germany to someplace more inspiring and more affordable, but so far I’ve not succeeded, mainly because the more affordable a place is, the more unlikely it is to have a decent internet connection. Of course, even changing our personal circumstances would only go so far to change this feeling of unease – most of it is due to the world going to hell in a handbasket.

At least this year didn’t feel empty. Stuff is happening. More stuff will happen next year. Where it’ll all lead… we’ll see.

Good luck.

The End of Nationalism

The end of nationalism could’ve been in sight. We could’ve been looking at it right now; not quite there yet, but able to see it on the horizon.

Look at the world I was born into. A world becoming increasingly open to travel and migration. More and more children being born, like myself, to people from different countries. Children growing up speaking multiple languages at home and learning additional languages in school. Of course, the world has always been profoundly transcultural in every way, and globalization is hardly a new phenomenon, but at the same time the degree to which we were exposed to international influences (music, cinema, books, TV, videogames) was extraordinary.

Here we were, constantly in touch with the rest of the world, and I don’t think any of us had any great concerns about where we belonged. Unless you force them, children rarely do. I don’t have any particularly idealistic ideas about children – in fact I generally find them annoying and am glad not to be one anymore – but while they’re certainly susceptible to tribalism, the idea of some kind of external identity doesn’t actually come naturally to them. Children just want to be themselves, and they are perfectly capable of seeing through the absurd constructs of identity, especially when they’re exposed to more than one variety.

“Are you Greek or are you German?” people would frequently ask us, and we always knew it was a stupid question. We were ourselves.

And then came the explosion of the internet. Suddenly an entire generation could comfortably chat to people from the other end of the world. And as it turns out – surprise! – the internationalists were right all along, and we mostly care about the same things: food, relationships, sex, music, games, cat videos. There isn’t some magical barrier of cultural essence keeping us apart; in fact, on the internet, you frequently can’t even tell where the person you’re talking to is from, let alone what their gender or sexual orientation might be.

We’ve built a world in which everything that surrounds us, from our pop culture to our communication media to the people we meet in the street, can irrefutably demonstrate our common humanity. It has never in human history been more obvious that constructs like straight/gay, black/white, local/foreign, are fundamentally ridiculous. We are human.

It should be the era of a new and powerful internationalism, ready to finally break down all these barriers. And in this time of financial crisis, it should be the Left, which has fought for internationalism for over a century now, which has always been founded on a belief in humanity and solidarity, that would be fighting to unite people.

And yet the majority of the Left – or what passes for it these days – has embraced the very reactionary ideology it was created to oppose. It promotes the separation of people into increasingly tiny categories, and defends these categories as if they carried all the moral weight in the world. It embraces the essentialist notion of East and West and the Clash of Civilizations. It treats the pseudoscience of race as inalterable reality to be highlighted, almost worshipped, not obviously absurd superstition to be destroyed. It treats critical analysis of those designated The Oppressed Foreigners, an essentialized monolithic Other with no class structure, as blasphemy – the latter a concept it has successfully reintroduced along with shunnings and various forms of symbolic self-flagellation.

The Left as it stands today can’t even imagine uniting people. It can’t even imagine that people are capable of communicating with each other, apart from issuing apologies. Workers of the world, please do not offend each other as you sort yourselves into the correct cells. And make sure to defend your personal brand!

I cannot think of a greater triumph of capitalism than convincing its opponents to embrace every single ideology that perpetuates it.

And it hurts, it really hurts, because we’re so close. We could be winning. We have a thousand times the tools that the revolutionaries of the early 20th century had, but not a thousandth of the vision or ambition. Our generation could’ve been a vanguard in the fight against all forms of nationalism. We could’ve made the very notion of prejudice laughable, something to be associated with silly old people who don’t know any  better. We could be fighting against global systems of exploitation together, right now, not as “allies” worried about our place in the moral hierarchy but as comrades, as fellow human beings.

We could be.

We were ready.

All the tools were there.

Instead the bombs continue to fall while the Left debates belly dancing, yoga, and the best secular prayers for warding off sin.

Designs and Consequences

For those interested in the development of Lands of Dream games, or those curious about game/narrative design in general, a few thoughts about what I’m currently working on.

Having added a big and entirely unnecessary secret to the upcoming Steam version of The Sea Will Claim Everything, I thought I was almost finished updating the game. But then I remembered one of the most frequently requested features: a way of telling which conversation topics you’d already talked to a character about. It’s not an irrational idea: there’s a lot of talking in The Sea Will Claim Everything, and a lot of characters, and sometimes it can be hard to keep track of what’s new and what isn’t. And what if the character has something new to say about the same topic? How are players supposed to know?

Now, one of the weird things about programming, especially when you’re really more a writer/designer than a programmer, is that it’s easy to build systems in such a way that adding a simple feature can be ridiculously overcomplicated. And then when you make multiple games, you keep building and iterating on those systems, and it all feels like a huge mess. (This is how Bethesda games happen.) Anyway, I thought I was in that situation with the dialogue system in the Lands of Dream, but then – literally while falling asleep – I came up with a simple way of adding this feature without having to break too much. So on the next day I tested it, and the basics worked! Yay!

Of course, it can’t work perfectly, because so much in an adventure game is essentially hardcoded. So, in this case, because of how the existing code is structured, there’s a bunch of places where I just have to manually tell the game certain things. That’s OK; it’s extra work and thus an extra delay, but it’s not in insurmountable problem. It’s all late as hell anyway at this point.

But then a narrative design issue crops up. The dialogue screens suddenly feel different. Why? All that’s changed is that when you click on a topic, it becomes greyed out. It’s the tiniest thing, just a convenience for the player. But now the dialogues have become quantifiable; the variables have become visible. Where before there was mystery (did the character have something new to say? when did the dialogues change?), now there is a list to work through. The existence of explicitly “used up” topics makes the characters feel less alive.

Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe most players won’t notice. But I’m noticing. And it matters to me, because I care about these characters.

So there are three paths. Either I remove the feature, which means the game will continue to be frustrating in a way it doesn’t need to be. Or I keep the feature and don’t do anything else, which means the game is less frustrating, but the characters potentially lose some of their sense of reality.

Or I add more dialogue.

Which is, in a game that came out years ago, has been in several bundles, and is more of a cult thing than a huge financial success, entirely insane. But it’s also exactly the kind of thing that makes the Lands of Dream games what they are.

There is another good reason to do this, which is the next game. You see, most of The Council of Crows takes place in one area, with the town of Fifth Pumpkin acting as your temporary home in Hyperborea. And the more I work on that game, the more important it becomes to make the place as alive as possible. So expanding The Sea Will Claim Everything, even if it’s just little touches here and there, is useful in a variety of ways.

But to be perfectly honest, that’s not my real motivation. I mean, while career-wise everything is great, I’ve been pretty depressed lately. The weather is killing me, our roof is being repaired and the constant noise is driving me insane, the political situation is beyond words, and I’m generally pretty bummed out. It would be easy to just dump the game on Steam, release a disappointing but essentially “complete” version of The Council of Crows, and just put it all behind me. The real money’s in other projects, anyway.

But you see – what are the characters of the Fortunate Isles to me? Are they puppets I move around my grand design? Are they abstract storytelling elements? Are they parts of a brand I co-own with my wife?

No.

They are people. They are family.

I’m making them more alive because they deserve to be more alive. We all do, of course, tragically so, but at least in this case there’s something I can do.

And so on goes the grind… but always with the hope that things will get better. Making worlds is a strange business.

A Serious Project

Seriously

So, it’s official – Verena and I will be writing Serious Sam 4! Yes, both of us. Initially it was just going to be me, but Verena ended up contributing so much to the script that she officially joined the project. Which is excellent, because she writes the best one-liners, and solves problems rationally when Alen and Davor and I get stuck on something like the hard-headed fools we are.

We spent a week in Croatia recently, working full-time on the script with the team, and I’m massively excited by the results. I think we’re going to produce something really awesome, which will do justice to the franchise while enriching it with context, flavour, and character. It’s a challenge – let nobody tell you that this kind of writing is to be taken “less seriously” – but after the hard work we all put in, I really feel like we know where we’re going. If all the pieces come together, it’ll be a ride you won’t forget.

More soon!

Links! 23/09/2015

  • Rambling Through The Garden is an article about the literary influences and intentions of The Talos Principle. I try not to link to too many articles about, uh, me (it becomes rather narcissistic), but this one turned out really excellent and I thought you might enjoy it.
  • When doing publicity for Talos at various conventions, I frequently stood next to a stand for Dropsy (also published by Devolver), but I never got the chance to play it. Richard Goodness writes about why it’s really good, and I trust Richard’s taste more than most people’s. The post also touches on wider sociopolitical issues, including queerness, identity politics, and shaming/callout culture, in contrast to the game’s themes of empathy. It’s really worth reading.
  • Tom Morello has started a new record label called Firebrand Records, and one of the bands they’ll be publishing is the utterly awesome The Last Internationale. I love many of their songs, including this one.
  • I stumbled across this interesting old article about the making of Alien 3, an awful mess of a movie that has always puzzled me. Writing a sequel to Aliens seems like the greatest fun you could possibly have as a screenwriter, but every single sequel they’ve made has failed to understand what was great about the original movies.
  • The lovely Steven Brust has been writing a series of posts about Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. They are very much worth following.
  • Identitarians Say Elect People ‘Regardless of Their Policies,’ Exposing Inherent Conservatism of Identity Politics is an absolute must-read on the revealing reaction by capitalist liberals to the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party. Comes with some very telling statistics on the difference between what the majority of women support versus what the people who claim to speak for women support.
  • Kenan Malik’s lecture Free Speech in an Age of Identity Politics is excellent, and goes well with Fredrik deBoer’s Round and Round the Trigger Warning Maypole and his tremendous post about trauma.
  • While I’m linking to political stuff, there’s an excellent article by Touré F. Reed called Why Liberals Separate Race From Class. It involves Bernie Sanders, who is mainly interesting for how he causes other liberals to reveal their allegiances (much like Corbyn), but the main points about race and class are well-made.
  • Finally, I made this meme about the Greek election. The Left really needs a global debate about why, in an age of extreme economic crisis, it has failed to achieve pretty much anything at all.