Archive, Criticism

ARCHIVE: Thank You For Communicating: On Exquisite Corpses

This was originally posted on tumblr on 11th May, 2015.


You can play Exquisite Corpses for free here.


Kent Sheely’s Exquisite Corpses reminds me of driving through Death Valley with my family a few years ago: for miles, the endless desert stretching far away, dotted only occasionally with a lone caravan, or shack, or signpost. It was a ruined place, and I felt like we were trespassing there.

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In Exquisite Corpses there are no shacks, but instead there are colossal glitched models from Team Fortress 2 that form the game’s scenery. They come from a previous piece by Sheely that goes by the same name:

“When the player’s character dies, the camera jumps to a freeze-frame of the killer. Sometimes the “killcam” glitches and ends up inside other players or objects, creating strange abstractions. I cut some of these images apart and reassembled them.”

They are images of frozen collapse, of the (cartoon) body at the moment of death, with the glitched angles emphasising this static liminality; between life and death, they are ersatz, uncanny. In the game, their place in the background and foreground transform them into monuments to entropy, reflecting the breakup that plays throughout the long drive.

A breakup is an attempt to move, both through the initial, awful moment of failure and then pastthe relationship and onto the next stage of your life. Here, we get the car driving through the landscape of failure, signifying movement as the two people in the relationship communicate their way through the end of their time as a couple. Except, all of this – the scenery, the communication, the driving – seems inadequate.

The dialogue itself is auto-generated, which means that the conversation never feels like a conversation. The language itself is distant in tone: lines like “I hope we’ll be able to talk through it” and “thank you for communicating how you felt” veer into an overly polite register that rings utterly false. Each line is disconnected from the wider dialogue, always reaching out to the others but never quite touching them in a way that feels authentic. It feels like an exquisite corpse.

An exquisite corpse is a piece of writing or art that has been composed by several contributors in sequence; one person starts writing or drawing, covers up a portion of their composition, then passes it on to another person to continue it. The result is surreal, discontinuous, pushing the boundaries of intelligibility even if it comes out technically sound. It is a challenge to coherency and narrative, a deliberate failure of communication between its participants.

So each breakup you drive through is a failure to communicate. And I say “each” because as the car comes to the end of the road it seamlessly goes back to the beginning of the same environment, with the same glitched models in the same places, but this time with a different autogenerated non-conversation. The player is – for as long as they choose to remain playing – trapped in the moment of this relationship’s failure, just as they are trapped in the road between the background and foreground scenery, just as the models of that scenery are trapped between life and death. The scenery and the dialogues are both liminalities, which is why they are both unrecognisable bastardizations of the things that come before and after them, moments that resemble neither life nor death.

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Archive, Criticism

ARCHIVE: Your Words Are Losing Structure: Brief Notes on The Falling Sun

This was originally posted on tumblr on 23rd February, 2015.


The Falling Sun is free and available on itch.io

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“There are times in life where you simply cannot win… where you have no choice but to accept your unpreventable, impending fate.” – Game description

Kingdaro’s The Falling Sun begins at the end of the world.* The player is given some Typing of the Dead-like word prompts to fulfil, but as soon as they do so the game collapses as the timer starts and a raging, dying sun comes closer and closer to the earth. You are implored to type the words at the bottom of the screen, but this does nothing to halt the world’s demise; the entire ludic element of the game serves no obvious “function”, inasmuch as it never intersects with the one other mechanic present and seems to have no relationship whatsoever with anything else in the game. It is a game built specifically around arresting as much agency from the player as possible.

This is something I talked about briefly in my last essay about Glitchhikers, in which I quotedBrendan Vance noting that the driving mechanics of Glitchhikers do not affect the way the outcome of the game. Instead, they exist to reflect the game’s themes of solitude versus solidarity with the wider universe. In The Falling Sun, the gameplay does not affect the outcome of the game either, but this in itself is what makes the game so interesting.

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Archive, Criticism

ARCHIVE: Sonder on the Highway to Kiel

This was originally posted on tumblr on 2nd October, 2014.


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It’s 1am and I’m transporting 22 tonnes of peas across Western Europe for a large paycheck like a capitalist mercenary. I have the radio on, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is player Mahler’s Second Symphony. My high-beams glint off of the tarmac and reveal my solitary condition – I check my mirrors and confirm that I am by myself on this German highway. I turn a shallow corner, and as I do the grassy bank on my right side recedes, unmasking the moon: bare, beacon-like. And I am alone.

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Of  Glitchhikers, Brendan Vance writes:

“We may use the keyboard to change lanes, to accelerate or decelerate, and to look out the side windows. These mechanics provide no ‘utility’ in the sense we typically associate with videogames. They do not advance the player towards victory or defeat, nor do they compel her to spend money via microtransactions.”

Indeed, for a game about driving, Glitchhikers places very little immediacy on its driving mechanics; it is impossible to crash the car, to steer off course, to stop, to ever endanger the act of driving. That’s not to say that the driving is an unimportant aspect of the game. Instead, as Vance also goes on to argue, its importance lies in its relation to the games wider concerns as expressed through the dialogues between the player and their strange, otherworldly passengers.

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ARCHIVE: Time and Timelessness: ‘Mountain’ and ‘Durations’

This was originally posted on tumblr on July 11th, 2014.


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Cameron Kunzelman is right to say that:

‘there’s a desire to see Mountain as profound. It wants to cultivate that, with its poetry, with its random objects, with its sometimes-soaring spouts of music. I’ll come out and say it: There’s nothing special about this mountain. It is like every other mountain, and if we wanted, we could try to mine that normality for profundity.’

It’s definitely a game that both invites reading whilst resisting interpretation at the same time. No matter how much we try and explore Mountain, either by zooming out into space or by flipping the mountain to see its underside, it always calls us back to that view of the rotating giant, turning endlessly through the day and weather cycles; no matter how hard we try and find something meaningful within the game that answers some unasked question, we are unanswered. Sure, we canzoom out into space if we really want to, but what does the space mean? What does it tell us about the mountain? Nothing, of course. Its purpose is to decontextualise; it’s seriously just a mountain floating in space. So we abandon the search for profundity. The game’s musical flourishes and occasional pieces of on-screen text are fleeting and transient, but the mountain itself is constant.

We can, of course, save the game and turn it off, but that doesn’t make the mountain go away. It is still there, in the save file, waiting to be revisited. We gain no progress towards any kind of reward, so when we save the game, what progress exactly are we supposed to be preserving? I think Kunzelman answers this neatly also:

‘The mountain becomes about how I relate to that mountain and what it does to me, and most importantly, how long I can stand to witness it. It becomes a game of endurance. How much Mountain can you take before you close it in boredom?’

A game of endurance, yes, but I think moreso a game of time. Creator David O’Reilly states that‘[w]e as humans feel all big because we build great things but the fact is that mountains dwarf us.’ Not just spatially but temporally; they have outlasted and will continue to outlast almost everything else on Earth. And yet Mountain has an endpoint, supposedly after 50 hours of gameplay. This means it can be conquered, but not in the way that we are used to. ‘Beating’ Mountain requires no action on the part of the player. All that it asks of the player is time.In most games the movement of the player towards some kind of conclusion is predicated on interaction with the game world, and this comes to define the relationship between the player and that world – beat the final boss, complete the story, reach the highscore. Mountain, however does not define this relationship, and it falls to the player to come up with it, that is if the player decides that there is, should be, can be one at all.

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ARCHIVE: The Fragile Point of Pachalafaka

Originally posted on tumblr on June 14th, 2014.


To read this article, you need to have played Pachalafaka. Otherwise, a lot of things aren’t going to make any sense. You can download it on PC and Mac for free/name-your-own-price from here, and it takes five minutes to play. This is an attempt to exorcise some vague thoughts that developed throughout my playthrough(s), rather than a sincere explanation or examination of what the game is “about”.


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I don’t get Pachalafaka, but I think that’s the point.

The best place to start any attempt to understand it is probably the website of the author, David Calvo:

‘Pachalafaka is a world, ending in songs.

Each song has a different meaning but this world always ends.

Entirely drawn by hand, with ink and watercolors, Pachalafaka is a series of game poems, transgender* prototypes between comic books and games, trying to articulate the fragile point where sequential art becomes interactive.’

So it’s a game about games, and about the boundaries that define what constitutes ‘a game’. It exists on a liminal boundary between ‘sequential’ and ‘interactive’ art, occupying neither of those spaces wholly and thus escaping solid definition. In the game’s opening, a contented face moves across the screen, the island space in which the action is situated is created, and the player is given an avatar at the westernmost side of the island. Afterwards, dandelion buds appear, which can be thrown about by the player moving into them. This is how we are presented with this movement from sequential to interactive – Pachalafaka starts with a single image before introducing elements of what we might call ‘gameplay’ as time progresses. But if this is where we start, then what we end up with is collapse. As you play through the game, the scene of the island your little avatar is occupying starts to shake violently and the rumble of earthquakes pierces the otherwise laid-back soundtrack.* This violence is the tension that arises from the movement that enacted the entire text; the work is unstable because its definition is unstable, a mere ‘fragile point’ in a movement from one concept to another.

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