Error and Sin

It is not because angels are holier than men or devils that makes them angels, but because they do not expect holiness from one another, but from God alone.

– William Blake

One of the major issues any social group has to figure out how to deal with is disagreement. Disagreement is inevitable, a natural result of human intelligence and diversity. But what happens when someone has a different opinion about something you are truly passionate about, an issue that defines your worldview? How do you treat this person now?

How do you classify this discrepancy?

You could classify it as a sin. That is, you could see it as a moral failing, a sign that there is something reprehensible about the other person’s innate characteristics. A sin is an individual matter, to be solved on an individual basis, usually through a public display of repentance. The alternative is usually some form of shunning, as no-one wants to surround themselves with people who are fundamentally bad.

You could also classify it as an error. That is, you could see it as an intellectual failing, a sign that the person has failed to correctly connect the dots, or has not been exposed to the correct information. This is not a moral matter, and very frequently it is not even an individual matter, but the result of systemic problems. The solution comes through logical argumentation and exposure to information. If that leads nowhere, the person may be deemed incapable of currently changing their mind, but that does not necessarily mean shunning, since no moral judgement has been made.

The difference between these approaches is particularly relevant when dealing with individuals with whom we share common goals or interests. Let’s take libertarians as an example. I’m a socialist. What is my goal, as a socialist? A society in which all human beings are truly free and capable of reaching their fullest potential. What is a libertarian’s goal? A society in which all human beings are truly free and capable of reaching their fullest potential. What do I think would happen if we all embraced libertarian politics? I think we’d end up living in a nightmarish dictatorship of capital where none of us would be free and human potential would be utterly wasted. But, crucially, that’s not what the libertarian is actually aiming at. I believe the libertarian analysis of economics and the libertarian understanding of power are utterly wrong; but I don’t think they’re evil. A libertarian can still be my friend. I can believe a libertarian is a good person, or at least that their being a libertarian has little bearing on their quality of character.

The same can go for a feminist. I believe in the liberation of all people from oppressive social roles. In fact, I believe in the abolition of all group-based social roles. I am a socialist because I believe in a better individualism. That means that the liberation of women (and gay people and trans people and so on) is an utterly essential part of creating a socialist society. However, unlike many feminists (though not all), I do not believe this can be accomplished through identity politics or similar means, but can only happen through a universalist movement aimed at abolishing the class structure of society. But neither of us wants women to be oppressed.

To some degree, when people are honest about their beliefs, this can and must be extended further. For cultural and historical reasons that go back hundreds if not thousands of years, people frequently hold positions that are profoundly erroneous, yet not intended to do harm. In many societies, for example, both men and women commonly hold sexist views – that is, they believe in restrictive gender roles. But sexism does not necessarily equal misogyny. Tradition is a powerful influence, and the idea that “this is what society is like, this is what’s normal, this is what people should do” is difficult to shake. When parents, for example, attempt to impose culturally-based restrictions on their children, they are frequently acting on the belief that this course of action will result in a happier outcome. It’s important to be clear that this is frequently tragically wrong and the cause of much misery in the world, but at the same time that does not mean it should be equated with the actions of deranged antisocial individuals who act out of hatred and resentment.

That is not to say that there are not those whose views are truly repugnant, or whose clear hypocrisy is not worth engaging with. But a systemic rather than personal view at least allows us to understand that such individuals are also not necessarily evil; their errors may simply be so fundamental and so strongly reinforced by society that it would take a radical change in the structure of said society for such individuals to ever change, or for similar people to turn out differently some day. That makes some people our enemies, but it is not against their personal morality that we struggle, but against the conditions that turned them into who they are.

Of course, the usefulness of all this depends entirely on your winning condition. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to change the world? Do you believe it’s possible to win? Or are you trying to achieve a personal sense of moral purity in a world that cannot get better?

To understand disagreement in terms of error is to allow for the possibility of learning, for the possibility of change. Not just for others, but for yourself – the same mechanics apply to everyone, and that in turn leads to evolution, to an improvement and convergence of ideas that makes cooperation possible. The logic of sin, however, leads to loneliness. It may achieve a feeling of superiority, enhanced occasionally by confession, but the only change it leads to is personal. Constant moral judgement tears apart the bonds between human beings, who are after all not only fallible, but incredibly varied in their ideas of what is right and what is wrong.

In the end, from the point of view of the system, it hardly matters what flavour of sin you’re after. It doesn’t make a difference whether you’re hunting witches or bourgeois infiltrators, TERFs or the enemies of gaming. What matters is that you’re hunting individuals, living on outrage, never seeing the bigger picture. “All sin tends to be addictive,” W.H. Auden remarked, “and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.” But there’s a reason Jesus admonished people not to judge, lest they be judged themselves. Those who constantly look for sin in others are themselves damned.

Strangely, then, it is in the systemic view, the impersonal view, that we can find a kind of grace. Empathy is more likely when we stop thinking in moral terms. Forgiveness is easier when we think historically. And justice may be more achievable if we worry less about criminals.

If there is to be any hope, we have to stop looking for sinners and start looking for solutions.


Links! 26/04/2016


Whoa, there’s a lot of stuff going on right now. Big projects to work on, major decisions to make, that sort of thing. Also been violently, explosively sick a few times. So there hasn’t been much time for updates. Here’s the most important stuff:

  • I’m going to be at Reboot Develop. I’ll be doing a talk called “Narrative Depth, Literally” (about narrative structure, using The Talos Principle as an example) and also participating in a panel about storytelling in games. If you’re there, come say hi.
  • The Council of Crows got greenlit, which means it will make its debut on Steam, where people might actually hear about it. Now I just need to finish it.
  • Have you seen the reviews posted on the Lands of Dream site? Reviews of things from the Lands of Dream, that is. There will be more soon.
  • There was also this lovely interview with Ontological Geek in which I got to talk about literary influences, politics, and other stuff.
  • If you speak Greek, there’s also this interview I did over at Adventure Advocate, although I was quite sick at the time and don’t clearly remember what I said.

Seas and Crows


The Sea Will Claim Everything is now on Steam.

The Council of Crows is now on Steam Greenlight.

You can also get The Sea Will Claim Everything via the Humble widget on its Lands of Dream page.

We’ve been working on the Lands of Dream for, what, a decade now? I’m not good at doing the whole “selling yourself” thing, but I’m quite proud of what we’ve created. It’s a world, a strange and interesting and unique world with a life all of its own. It is rich in themes and imagery, deeply interconnected to literature and poetry, and full of shockingly daft jokes. And it’s not just games, it’s also the Oneiropolis Compendium and the children’s book and even the website itself, all part of this huge tapestry of stories.

I think it’s some of my best writing, but none of it would have been possible without my collaborators. Verena Kyratzes not only draws the graphics, she’s also an equal partner in the design process, coming up with all kinds of ingenious ideas. Helen Trevillion created amazing music for the first few games, bringing out the grace and beauty I wanted the Lands of Dream to have despite all the silliness. I didn’t think anyone could have kept the spirit of that music alive, but Chris Christodoulou has done so and gone even further, and his scores elevate everything we do.

We’re all extremely grateful to our kind and patient fans, who have supported us over the years even as we sometimes take ages to finish anything. A habit we are now trying to break by making some changes in our lives.

If you would like to support our games, the best thing you can do right now – apart from buying them, or buying copies for your friends, relatives, and/or enemies – is to write reviews on Steam. What we’re particularly keen on is reviews that explain why you enjoyed The Sea Will Claim Everything. It’s a strange game, after all, and one of our biggest challenges is just getting people to give it a go. Any positive review is hugely appreciated, of course, but what would be particularly brilliant would be reviews that are useful to other players, helping them to make up their minds about whether this is their sort of thing. Thanks!

Folks who’ve already bought the game: see the previous post. We’re working on getting Steam keys to you, although in a few cases it may take a few more days, depending on factors beyond our control. You’ll definitely get them sooner or later!

Some of you may also end up getting more than one key. Do us a favour and give it to a friend who might enjoy the game. Word of mouth is a big deal.

No doubt we are in for a whole bunch of confusion, chaos, and tech support. But we’ll try to do our best. If there’s a problem, get in touch and we’ll see what we can do. And most importantly of all, enjoy your time in the Lands of Dream.

TSWCE coming to Steam soon


Good news, everyone!

The shiny new updated version of The Sea Will Claim Everything will finally be released on Steam on Thursday, March 24th, which also happens to be the birthday of William Morris. Did you know that Morris was not only a texture designer, translator, and a poet, but also a wonderful mythopoetic writer who inspired Tolkien? And a socialist on top of all that? Yep, he was a pretty cool guy. Read some of his books.

Where was I? Right. Steam.

I’ll be posting more about all this in the next few days, but for now I wanted to quickly answer a popular question: what about people who bought the game elsewhere?

If I was better at this whole capitalism thing, I’d probably give TSWCE 2.0 a subtitle and claim it was a completely new version, to be sold separately. But to be honest, while it’s much improved and does contain all kinds of small new things, that seems like cheating to me. Besides, I’m aware that we have a lot of fans who can’t easily afford to buy more games, and I know how much being poor sucks. (We’re not exactly wealthy ourselves, despite being better off than a few years ago.) So you can have the game if you’ve bought it before.

Here’s how:

  • If you bought the game via Humble, your account should get a Steam key assigned to it.
  • If you bought the game via FastSpring, you’re going to get a Humble copy.
  • If you backed Ithaka of the Clouds on Indiegogo, you’re getting a Steam key via email.

In case you bought it via a defunct website:

  • If you bought the game via Bundle in a Box or IndieRoyale or Desura, please send me a proof of purchase (order email, Paypal receipt, screenshot, anything like that) and I will send you a key.

If you end up having more than one Steam key, consider giving one away to a friend.

The Good Stuff


I’ve been depressed lately.

OK, bit of an understatement there. It’s actually been pretty crippling. On some days I barely function.

I’m not going to bore you with the details, except for the one relevant bit: most of the reasons I’m depressed are not personal. My work’s going well and my marriage is a source of constant happiness. No,  the reasons are largely external, and right now I only want to talk about one of them: the relentless negativity of the internet.

I don’t just mean the various reactionary trolls (liberal or conservative flavour doesn’t make much difference when it comes to segregationist misanthropic assholes) or other outright destructive behaviour. I mean the general negativity that seems to dominate the culture these days: the attitude that never engaging with anything, dismissing whatever you don’t immediately understand, constantly posing as a world-weary cynic whose only source of pleasure is nostalgia for particular brands, somehow constitutes being a healthy human being.

It’s almost like the internet wants things to be bad. People signal their belonging to “geek culture” by hating the right things, even if they’ve never seen or read or played them. It’s just what you do to show you belong, a hollow, ritualistic gesture. And then there’s signalling your moral superiority by hating things other people like. X is racist sexist transphobic heteronormative misogynoir filth! Y is SJW propaganda for cultural Marxists! How dare you like it! My group is above such things! It doesn’t matter whether it’s in any way factually true that Lana Wachowski secretly hates black people or Fury Road was written by feminist academics bent on destroying American classics that are actually Australian.

What matter is that you be seen hating the right thing.

And don’t get me wrong, talking about a work of art you hated can be fun, and so can listening to someone else take it apart. I enjoy Zero Punctuation. I am entertained by the Cinema Snob taking apart some crappy religious movie. But you know what? Most people aren’t as talented or as funny as the guys running those shows. And even under the best of circumstances, too much sarcasm can become mind-numbing, and if you focus too much on things you hate, you’ll start seeing things to hate everywhere. That happened to me with Battlestar Galactica, a TV show so profoundly misanthropic it actually made me start seeing misanthropy everywhere – even in shows that were truly great and didn’t deserve my scorn. I don’t want to be in that headspace.

Every now and then I end up seeing a terrible movie or reading a terrible book, and I come up with some snarky things to say about it. And I think… why? What am I contributing to the world with these remarks? Like I said, well-done criticism by funny people is something I approve of, but would you really be surprised that a Marxist ended up walking out of the sneak preview of Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie? What’s the point in telling you how much I disliked The Force Awakens? Am I doing anything other than contributing to the noise that’s threatening to drown out our humanity?

One of the most awful things about this fashionable negativity is the consensus that builds around certain works of art that have been labelled Bad. Some of my very favourite artistic productions (for example: the Matrix sequels, True Detective season 2) are not just disliked, but dismissed in a profoundly anti-intellectual way which doesn’t even try to engage with their complexities. What I find particularly worrying about these attitudes isn’t that someone disagrees with me, but the quasi-religious certainty and importance which is attached to these opinions. As I said above, hating specific works of art has become a signifier for belonging to specific groups, and actually knowing these works or trying to understand them on their own terms is irrelevant, while any disagreement is met with the kind of baffled disbelief rapidly mounting into anger that I associate with extremely conservative religious people finding out I don’t believe in God.

You have to keep in mind that many of today’s classics were dismissed in their own time. Blade Runner. The Great Gatsby. Moby-Dick. Pretty much the complete works of William Blake. You can make endless lists of works that were mocked as obviously awful and ridiculous that are now thought brilliant, groundbreaking, ahead of their time, and so on. And I wonder – is this attitude making it much harder for unjustly hated works to ever be recognized? If Blade Runner came out today, and the internet decided it was the biggest piece of shit ever made – “it ruined my love of Philip K. Dick books I pretend to have read!” – would the film still become a classic? If it became a byword for “bad adaptation” like the Matrix sequels have become bywords for “bad sequel”, referenced online not as a film but as a kind of code for tribal belonging, would anyone ever start engaging with it more deeply?

There’s obviously not a whole lot I can do to change these attitudes on my own, although they do depress me. But what I can do, and what I want to try doing far more from now on, is to focus on the good stuff. Instead of joining in with the chorus of negativity, or wasting my time trying to disprove the consensus on this or that work, I want to point out what I think is good. To talk about why I enjoy a certain movie or book or game. To direct your attention to good stuff you might have missed, to reasons for loving things, not hating them. (That’s why I wrote about Far Cry 2 and Austerity Ecology instead of terrible games I’ve played or ridiculous books I’ve read.)

And if I have nothing positive to say about someone else’s work, then I want to put more good things into the world myself. More stories, more ideas, more everything. I started updating the Lands of Dream site regularly. I finished the new version of The Sea Will Claim Everything (release date to be announced soon). I’m trying to find the strength to finish all my other projects. And we’re trying to move to a place that’s less soul-crushing than Frankfurt. I’m depressed, but focusing on that depression isn’t going to help. What helps – as the second season of True Detective illustrated – is doing our best to fight the good fight, even if we lose.

I don’t believe that changing ourselves changes the world. But I do believe that trying to change the world changes us. I do believe that our actions matter, as part of the greater story of humanity, and I want my contribution to that story, no matter how tiny, to be a positive one.

So here’s trying.

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.


  • 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.


Worship the Algorithm


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.
  • 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.)