Sunday, February 21, 2016

Travelling through Twine #1: "it is better to know"

Hello and welcome! This is the first post in a (hopefully biweekly) series of short reviews and reflections on works in Twine. I’ll be taking a look at any game new or old in Twine that I come across on Twitter or, whether it be serious or silly, or simple or complex. Each post will feature 1-3 works of Twine.


Lana Polansky’s latest Twine poem is in part a response to an eye-rolling statement made by popular indie game “genius” Jonathan Blow. In an interview with the Guardian, he said, “I want to make games for people who like to read [Thomas Pynchon’s] Gravity’s Rainbow.” In context, Blow means that he wants to bring the influence of other forms of art to videogames, after suggesting that game narratives are weak because their only reference points are too often other games instead of a wider range of art and media. Which is largely true and echoed throughout games spaces ad nauseum! But that’s what a lot of folks are already working towards in the margins, with Twine, with Unity, with #altgames. But Blow represents something different--a perfectionist approach to artful games that requires a massive budget and wide visibility to sustain such high-gloss projects that would take 7 years to complete, the outcome of which certain critics find dubious at best and stupid at worst. Blow’s quote about games and Gravity’s Rainbow is tinged with an anti-populist intellectual elitism and a latent classism that ignores the artistic experimentation in videogames made by the poor and the marginalized, diverse work that ranges from accessible to esoteric.

“i want to make games for people who read” starts by taking the first part of Blow’s statement and swapping his choice of the complex, supposedly “high art” novel Gravity’s Rainbow for objects associated with everyday commercialism: “the backs of shampoo bottles,” “the labels on their pre-packaged health food,” “the ads on bustops." The poem dissociates reading from its conception as just an intellectual activity. It conjures an audience of average people navigating late capitalism rather than the specificity of stodgy lit professors that Blow’s quote might bring to mind. In fact, though this imagined audience represents a likely broader group of people than Blow’s Gravity’s Rainbow-readers, they’re always embodied in some specific way in the poem. The audience is defined not just by what they read but also by where or how or why they read. The people reading the shampoo bottles are in their bathrooms, perhaps looking at the labels during their showers. The people reading the food labels do so with a “cynical curiosity,” probably about the food industry’s (in)ability to deliver healthy nutrition while being sustainable, ethical, affordable. And the people reading the ads on bustops do so to distract themselves from a long wait and perhaps the possibility of an irate boss at their late arrival to work.

The poem then expands “reading” to include not just of written text but also the mundane yet intimate ways we interact with others and the world through our interpretations. The speaker wants to make games for people who read the “gestures of strangers,” inevitably inventing a personality or past that might explain their behaviors or mannerisms, regardless of their imagination’s accuracy. I think of seeing someone with her arms crossed, backed against a wall at a party and thinking about how she might have social anxiety or that she might have just broken up with her boyfriend or had an argument with a friend. But maybe she’s just cold. Polansky particularly emphasizes people who read faces and eyes, looking to see if another’s words match their physical expressions, trying to get inside another’s head, to see their thoughts, their motives, their souls.

We all do this--we’re always reading people--often unconsciously. We’re constantly trying to make, or find, meaning in others and ourselves. We read because we’re human. The poem imagines a desired audience who reads because they are humans, because they must, while Blow’s statement implicitly points towards an audience who reads Gravity’s Rainbow because it is an intellectual object, for the cachet of reading a complicated book. Blow’s statement neglects to question how one might read Gravity’s Rainbow and why one might like it, beyond that it is a book that doesn’t “hold your hand.” The important thing is that this audience has read it, has marked it off their lists of Smart Things To Read. I would say that Jon Blow might as well make games for robots who read Gravity’s Rainbow, but he perhaps deserves at least a little slack for what was likely a quick, undercooked interview response (plus, robots might be good readers too!).

“i want to make games for people who read” doesn’t simply replace an anti-populism with an anti-intellectualism. It seeks an audience of people who read “slowly, deliberately”--people who want to engage and be engaged. It seeks members of an audience with their own indulgent idiosyncrasies, like reading under the dim light of a candle “because it’s sometimes comforting to feel like an anachronism.” Each line of the poem includes bright green text that, when clicked on, reveals the rest of the words in its line and a new neon green phrase to tease the next line. The phrase “it is better to know” glows thrice in a row at the poem’s end, in lines invoking those who read a variety of things--both what they love and what they hate--to better know the world. This audience, finally, reads their own reflections because “it is better to know thyself.” This reference to an ancient Greek maxim establishes this act of reading as timeless, universal, an act that tends to improve us.

The poem’s final line reads, highlighted in a pale pink: “This passage does not exist: The True Ending.” The pseudo-error message recalls an ending to another of Polansky’s Twines, .error404. In “i want to make games for people who read,” the “error” suggests that we never stop reading nor do we ever stop needing to read, to make meaning and to make sense of the world and ourselves. The poem not only establishes reading as a continuous personal process but also implies that reading is a continuous social process that transcends history. “i want to make games for people who read” constructs an audience through warm imaginings of real people, contrasting to the cold hollowness of Blow’s stated ideal audience. But even without the context of his frankly goofy quote, the poem stands on its own as a remarkably evocative reflection of what it means to read and how to make art with an audience in mind.

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