Gospels of the Flood

The first three episodes of Gospels of the Flood are now available.

Thanks to Peter and Chris, this is probably one the very best things I’ve ever been involved with. Please, if you liked any of my work, give this a chance.

And if you like what we created, please help us spread the word. You have no idea how hard it is nowadays to get any attention for something that isn’t a Disney product, let alone for something like this. Share the show with your friends, write about it, tweet about it, kindly suggest to some outlets that this might be cool to cover… anything will help.

Coming Soon: Gospels of the Flood

Gospels of the Flood is a new audio drama written and directed by me, with music and sound editing by Chris Christodoulou, starring the one and only Peter Wingfield. It’s a story about the yearning for faith, set in a world slowly vanishing beneath the waves, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.

I wrote Gospels (quite some time ago now) out of a kind of desperation. I feel like our entire global culture is increasingly dominated by shockingly superficial material, banal stories for children, designed by committees and dressed up with the occasional joke spat out by an algorithm, and I find it profoundly depressing. It gets to me, it really does. Add to that the frustrations of working in games, where sometimes you will put years of effort into something only to see it twisted into a pale shadow of what it could have been, and… I just needed to do something that felt meaningful to me.

So I just wrote this thing, writing purely for myself, for the work, without any constraints. I wrote it with one particular actor in mind: Peter Wingfield, whose career I’d followed since first seeing him steal every single scene as Methos in Highlander: The TV Series. That voice, I thought even then, that glorious voice! I’d always wanted to direct him one day, so I wrote for him, but without really imagining that I could actually get him to do this. I mean, I’m just a working-class nobody from Greece.

Except… I’ve now been directing people for years. Sure, it’s not film or TV, but I seem to be good at it, and I know a few people in the business. So I reached out to SIDE, and they helped make it happen. When I got the confirmation that it was actually happening, I almost exploded.

I’m happy to report that Peter was extremely nice, very thoughtful, and delivered a spectacular performance. I’m sure there are people out there who would’ve just taken the money and phoned in their performance, but Peter took the work seriously and did an amazing job.

The first episode is coming out on Monday and I am very aware of how difficult it’s going to be to help the show find its audience. Chris and I are both known for work in a very different field, and while people do like our work, we’re not exactly huge celebrities. And reaching out to the press has gotten a lot harder over the years, particularly as so many websites have been absorbed by these corporate behemoths and very rarely write about an independent production such as ours. So word of mouth will be essential.

Chris and I both know that any kind of huge success is unlikely, and we didn’t set out to make this show for that purpose. But we do think there is an audience out there that will appreciate it, and any help we can get reaching that audience will be appreciated in turn.

You can subscribe to the show here:

Podbean / Spotify / Apple / Google / CastBox / PlayerFM / TuneIn / Soundcloud / RSS

More on Monday.

News! News! News!

I’ve been very bad about updating this site, mainly because the combination of the goddamn global epidemic and various related complications has been incredibly draining. That and I’ve been working nonstop, which hasn’t exactly been great for my health. But the good news is that this time it looks like things are actually going to get a bit less intense soon.

So, here are the latest news.

  • The Eternal Cylinder did a public beta of the first couple of hours of the game, and the response has been really positive! This makes me very happy, because I love ACE Team and I put a lot of work into that game. I’m especially glad that people seem to be enjoying the narration and wondering about the mysteries of the plot. (The biggest question, of course, is: why is there narration at all?)
  • Serious Sam 4 came out! I didn’t actually talk about this here, mainly because Verena and I immediately plunged into working on The Hand of Merlin and The Talos Principle 2. The response has been more mixed than I’d like, partially for understandable reasons, partially… less so. Still, a lot of people had fun with the characters and the wild ride the game offers, and overall I’m very proud of the work we did, especially when you remember that Croteam is very much not an AAA company.
  • Speaking of which, one of the greatest pleasures of working on Serious Sam 4 was collaborating with Joe Lynch, whom we rather surprisingly cast as Kenny. Recently we made an appearance on the Movie Crypt podcast, which was incredible fun and allowed us to geek out with two directors we love.
  • The Council of Crows was unfortunately impacted by the chaos caused by the epidemic, which slowed me down in a million frustrating ways (I don’t want to go into autobiographical detail and no we’re not sick, but it messed us up good). I am days away from a completely playable version of the game, with a bunch of extra content Verena recently created, and I just… can’t… find… the fucking… time. But the time-consuming problems are almost over.
  • The Hand of Merlin, which Verena and I are writing for Room C Games and Croteam, is reaching the end of its development. In terms of the writing, it’s absurdly ambitious, containing over 200.000 words. And it’s a sci-fi/horror/fantasy adaptation of the Matter of Britain and the Matter of France, which not exactly a lot of people have done before.
  • Later this week I will be announcing a project Chris Christodoulou and I have been collaborating on. It’s an audio drama starring one of my favourite actors, written and directed by me and with sound and music by Chris. It’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done, and if you liked The Sea Will Claim Everything or The Talos Principle, I think you will like this too. I’ve poured my heart and soul into this and I really, really hope it manages to reach an audience.

That’s it for now. More soon.

Socialism Without Socialism

I have a terminology problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Council of Crows – Final Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I see the irony.

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

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

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

Just Keep Going

2018 was crazy.

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

Ideology and Causation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dysfunctional system will always produce errors.

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

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

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

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

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

Serious Sam 4: Planet Badass (teaser)

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

More soon.

Writing Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Games Themselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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