I published a new game earlier this week. It’s called Lichenia and it’s about creating human habitats amidst climate chaos. It involves reshaping the natural and built environment, reclaiming dead cities, and growing sustainable ones. It’s a sandbox game with some tiny secrets to unlock, and a few obscure mechanics to discover. The simulation is infused with dynamic story bits that may help you figure out what’s going on in the little glitchy world. It’s an utopia/dystopia inspired by Octavia Butler’s Parables, and by the notion of Anthropocene.
Lichenia is part of an ongoing series of alternative city building games – the other one so far is Nova Alea. I’ve been presenting this Playable Cities project as a series of magical realist alternatives to SimCity (or better magical Marxist, think Italo Calvino meets David Harvey). SimCity is not only the game that established the genre, but also a recurrent object lesson in topics such as ideology and electronic entertainment, neoliberal urbanism, reductionism in simulations, the ambiguity of interactive text, and so on, and so on.
I spoke at length about the many issues of city games in general, but I keep coming back to the subject precisely because what’s wrong in SimCity – its harrowing omissions, its irresponsible design choices, its unapologetic capitalist realism – is an endless source of inspiration. I could easily spend the rest of my life making semi-broken games that attempt to fix the damage made by Maxis/EA.
More specifically, Lichenia tries to complicate the element of tabula rasa, or blank slate. In all kinds of city and civilization building games, including board games and RTSs, you typically start from scratch, settling on an immaculate wilderness that’s just there for grabs. Such situations are very rare in history. Cities are usually built on top of existing settlements, both human and non-human, which the colonists simply don’t see or value. So in Lichenia you start from a polluted and messy map that you have to remediate. And you can easily add to the mess if the human growth (beige bar) outpaces the natural resources (green bar)
Occasionally you’ll be hit by floods, droughts, and wildfires, an homage to the disasters of the original SimCity. Apparently they were added because the publishers were skeptical of a pure sand box game and requested some kind of challenge. Today disaster preparedness is a crucial component of city planning and should feature more prominently in city games.
Another starting point for Lichenia was an old quote by SimCity’s original designer Will Wright. He claimed that “the actual process of playing SimCity is really closer to gardening” than to planning or governing a city. It’s about unpacking an ecology by trial and error, understanding a living system.
I’m a big fan of games that intentionally under-explain themselves. Much of the pleasure of playing Starseed Pilgrim, Cultist Simulator, or the Purpose of Water for example, comes from figuring out the rules that govern their systems.
Of course, this is a tremendously risky design philosophy: many players can feel frustrated by the lack of feedback, or feel dumb, or prematurely conclude that there is nothing more to see, and just quit. But I believe it’s a pattern worth experimenting with. It pushes against all the mainstream trends of usability, and requires/creates/prefigures a more critical kind of play.
Lichenia’s first prototype was made a couple of years ago, but I abandoned it because I couldn’t figure out an appropriate look and feel. I wanted the player to observe the dynamics and not interpret the visuals in the most immediate and normative way (e.g. a building that looks like a police station stops crimes, a certain type of brick building means low income residential, etc ).
Then, earlier this year my colleague and hero Everest Pipkin released Mushy, a set of tiles generated by a neural network trained on isometric pixel art. These noisy, ambiguous graphics seemed like a perfect match since the game is all about transcending the natural/artificial binary, and squinting hard while trying to recognize patterns.
Lichenia is built with p5.js, a open source library (and a wonderful community) for creative coding. It also uses p5.play, an add-on for making games that I initiated years ago and that’s currently being maintained by some amazing people.
This year I played more indie games than usual in the process of curating shows for LIKELIKE. And yet, I had some trouble finding my usual top picks in terms of novelty, artistic intent, and social engagement. These indiepocalyptic times are giving us an embarrassment of releases but the most popular development strategy seems to be: work within established genres, put a lot of effort into visual polish (probably a result of increasing visual social media), and often just… make games punishingly hard (which I guess yields more play hours in face of limited resources?). At this point I served my time jumping on platforms and getting my ass kicked over and over, so I apologize for some notable absences. These highlights definitely fall on the relaxed side. Continue reading →
I’m a sucker for lightweight, elegant board games with unusual themes, so I was immediately intrigued by Here Comes the Dog by Itten. Unfortunately, this stylish little game about domesticating dogs turned out to be quite disappointing, if not fundamentally broken. I tried to rescue it with some house rules. This is a nerdy post, you should read it only if you are unhappy with the game or if you are planning to purchase it.
The Meaning of Colors is a tiny “game” about connecting the dots and thinking like a right-wing nut. It was made with flickgame, a tool by Stephen “increpare” Lavelle for the creation of quick, MS painterly, visual hypertexts. The peculiarity (and brilliance) of flickgame is that it forces you to define specific colors as active areas, as opposed to objects or shapes, so I decided to make a piece around it.
GlitchScarf is a playful performance and a system to mess with knitting patterns in real time. Design or glitch a scarf as it’s being made, wear your artful errors with pride.
The project is a collaboration with Tenley Schmida. It was for the most part developed during a 3-day game jam at the Carnegie Mellon University Textiles Lab (the makers of the award winning embroidery game Threadsteading).
This is possibly the only software that allows the creation of knitting patterns on the fly, as opposed to feeding a machine with a static image.
GlitchScarf was made with an AYAB (All Yarns Are Beautiful) board, Processing, and a Brother KH910.
The Ills of Woman is a faux Victorian-era board game imagined as a precursor of Hasbro’s Operation. It was co-designed by Molleindustria and Tenley Schmida who came up with the idea after reading about the “wandering womb”, an ancient belief that the uterus could freely move around the body of a woman causing all sorts of afflictions. Some variations of the wandering womb persisted until modernity, whereas other discredited illnesses referenced in the game have been well within the realm of official medicine until the 20th century.
More than simply making fun of obsolete science we wanted to create a game about how psychiatry, medicine, and even fashion was (and still can be) used to justify the oppression of women and marginalize “sinful” or deviant individuals. There’s plentyofliterature on how conditions like hysteria or melancholia were used to pathologize a wide range of behaviors in women.
Victorian board games were permeated by the morality of the time, and often conceived as educational tools, so it’s not a stretch to envision a proto-Operation game along the lines of The Checkered Game of Life, using the then novel electric technology as a gimmick.
The cards’ descriptions heavily draw from British and American writings from the 19th century, making the game somewhat accurate in its wrongness. Still, The Ills of Woman builds upon a caricature of a bigot and oppressive Victorian society. On closer examination, most of the conditions in the game were subject to fierce debates, defying simplistic narratives. While corsets were certainly popular until the 1920s, the practice of tight lacing may have not been as common or extreme as we think, its condemnation may have spun from moral prudishness rather than genuine health concerns; the treatment of Melancholy, which roughly maps to today’s depression, included many common sense practices, and the use of leeches is mostly documented within insane asylums; the notion that the vibrator was invented to cure hysteria may be more of a contemporary fantasy than a historically uncontested fact; even the infamous bicycle face, occasionally resurfacing as a feminist meme, existed only within conservative circles and was quickly replaced by the now common-sense idea of cycling as a healthy and liberatorypractice – even for women.
The Ills of Woman is currently a unique (and functional) piece and it will be shown at the next likelike show. If you want to include it in an exhibition or festival, feel free to contact us.
How would we sort things out? Canid, hominid; pet, professor; bitch, woman; animal, human; athlete, handler. One of us has a microchip injected under her neck skin for identification; the other has a photo ID California driver’s license. One of us has a written record of her ancestors for twenty generations; one of us does not know her great grandparents’ names. One of us, product of a vast genetic mixture, is called “purebred.” One of us, equally a product of a vast mixture, is called “white.” Each of these names designates a different racial discourse, and we both inherit their consequences in our flesh.
- Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet
Yesterday I released Dogness, a game in which you to have to create a the most “perfect” and homogeneous dog park. The perfect dog is randomized every time, and it is quite challenging to create a population that approximates the ideal. It involves controlling immigration, expelling the “unfit” dogs, and selectively breeding the animals to preserve or achieve the desired traits. The traits are determined by four “genes” (size, build, height, and color). The offspring tends to look like the average of the parents with some added randomness. The genetic engine is extremely simplified for playability: there are no dominant or recessive genes and the sex of the parents doesn’t matter, anybody can mate with anybody. However, puppies can come out stunted if they are forced to mate with close relatives. At the end of each 6 minutes section you are evaluated based on the moving average of your population’s Dogness. A Dogness of 70% or higher is a good score.
Dogness was meant to be a submission for #resistJam, a friendly competition calling for games that “resist oppressive authoritarianism”. The game itself was pretty much done a year ago but it took a looong time to find the willpower to complete the UI.
The game is obviously a direct response to the resurgence and normalization of white supremacy in the Trump era, but I was going for something a bit more complex and open-ended than a satirical allegory.
I’ve been looking at the relationship between eugenics and dog breeding, and how they support and undermine each other. Humans have been breeding dogs since forever for utilitarian purposes (in fact we likely adopted and domesticated each other), but the crystallization of breeds and the obsession with pedigree only happened at the end of the 19th century with the creation of Kennel Clubs. That’s around the same time eugenics was introduced by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s problematic cousin.
Galton’s starting point for eugenics was the domestication of animals and he often referred to dog breeding to support his theories. The dude spent an awful lot of time trying to find biological justifications for social inequality, and therefore was well loved by rich people and British aristocrats.
Eugenics and dog breeding shared the same language and misconceptions and provided a pseudo-scientific backing to racist ideologies: the idea of blood purity, mongrelization as dilution of desirable traits, biological reductionism, and so on. Consider how during the golden age of eugenics in the United States there were societies promoting “fittest family” contests similar to dog shows.
Recently there has been more awareness of the problematic aspect of purebred dogs. Breed standards are creating increasingly unhealthy animals, and calls for the ban of “puppy mills” are becoming more frequent. However, at the same time, we are seeing a resurgence of xenophobic groups recuperating these discredited theories (of course proper neofascists would pedantically argue about all their different flavors of shit: how white supremacy is not white nationalism, how some of them may not deny holocaust and what not, but it’s really not worth getting into details).
Anyway, the game is available on itch.io as Pay What You Want and it will officially premiere at the next LIKELIKE show along with a bunch of amazing dog-related games.
At the beginning of 2018 I quietly started a new project in Pittsburgh. LIKELIKE is a space for independent games and playful arts. Its mission is to expand the audience and perception of videogames, promoting indie culture, giving visibility to experimental and overlooked gamemakers, experimenting with novel ways to present games beyond the white cube and the expo formats, creating a nexus for the local indie and digital art scene.
LIKE is built upon about 15 of experience in showing my games in the most disparate contexts and the work of similar venues, festivals, and collectives from Babycastlesonward.
For the first phase of the project the goal is to organize a series of themed shows, exhibiting 4 to 6 projects selected for their accessibility to non-gamers and their diversity of approaches. The first event was about “complicated relationships” and showcased multiplayer games such as Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Fingle and Breakup Squad as well as the upcoming card game Consentacle. February’s show was centered around alternative shooters, which was unexpectedly timely given the current debate about gun control, and Trump’s use of videogames as scapegoats.
For the future the plan is to form a proper collective and add more site-specific, performative and experiential pieces to the mix. Let us know if you have playful or gamelike projects that struggle to find a home.
I’ve been interested in the attention economy of videogames lately and in the wicked problem of the duration of play experiences. While AAA companies gamblify their business models and compete for the most repulsive and exploitative monetization schemes, indies generally stick to wholesome premium experiences (in Apple newspeak, the pay once and play forever genre). But premiumness is hard to sell to the vocal gamers proletarized by an endless economic crisis. There’s plenty of pressure on indie gamemakers to offer the hours of playtime that can justify a $5 to $20 price tag – the kind of market positioning that can potentially pay the bills. Play hours can be generated expensively with content, or for cheap with truckloads of text, sheer difficulty, or repetition. This best-of-the-year list is devoted to the idealists who organize the players’ time according to their expressive goals, and not to the perceived market demand. If games are machines for wasting time, they may as well waste it in an artful way. Hand picked with my usual emphasis on things that matter and imperfectly ordered from longest to shortest:
I made a short documentary/Let’s Play about one of the first artgame makers: John O’Neill who, in the early ’80s, created strange videogames about the meaning of life and dolphin communication. It contains material that has never been recorded or put together before.
I was doing some research for one of my classes when I stumbled upon O’Neill’s wikipedia page. It was well documented, and his tabletop game company is active, but I could find very little information about his early digital games, except for a couple of screenshots and two incomplete videos. So I went down a retrogaming rabbit hole and I even ended up interviewing him.
The great game industry crash of 1983 pretty much wiped out all the opportunities for game experimentation in North America, and several of John’s personal projects were cancelled or obtained limited release; but it’s remarkable how despite everything, both Lifespan and The Dolphin’s Rune are still playable today via emulators.
The games are quite cryptic but if you feel like trying them, in this zip you’ll find everything you need to emulate them on Windows, plus a scan of The Dolphin’s Rune manual: Lifespan-The-Dolphin-Rune.zip
In this zip you can find the interviews quoted in the video and a very detailed account of John O’Neill’s involvement with the video game industry. It was written by the man himself a few years ago in response to an inquiry from a game historian: John-Oneill-bonus.zip
It’s the first molleindustria project that employs a first person view and immersive 3D environments, mainly because they are the subject of the piece. A Short History of the Gaze is conceived as an experiential essay, in analogy to the film essay genre; instead of exploring a theme though text and images, it tries to do so though a series of scenarios and micro interactions, mostly looking and not looking at things.
All the scenes examine the act of looking and its relationship with violence. From the evolution of sight in a pre-cambrian sea creature to the dominance display of a primate, from a landscape of billboards begging for attention to an infinite panopticon.
The gaze is central to any Virtual Reality experience and yet rarely problematized. I wanted to create an artifact that is immersive while fighting against the suspension of disbelief, in which the player/viewer is encouraged to fill the conceptual gaps between dramatically different scenario. A Short History of the Gaze is my response to the many oversimplifications that afflict the discourse surrounding virtual reality: VR as presence and embodiment, VR as empathy amplifier, VR as the liberation from a despotic directorial gaze etc.
If you tried it and you want to know more, you can watch this (spoilery) 5min playthrough with commentary.
The second coming of Virtual Reality is a convergence of different technological traditions with different aesthetics, goals, and strategies. In this talk given at the A MAZE and Game Happens festivals in 2017 I tried to question the current narratives supporting the idea of VR as a mass-consumer product, and recuperate some of the visionary and countercultural ideas that went out of fashion since the early ’90s.
Sometimes I get asked for permission to publish screenshots from my games. It annoys me a bit because all my games are released under Creative Commons and, besides, I don’t see screenshots or video recordings ever falling outside of fair use. Streamers, youtubers, and machinima artists can even make a living out of commenting and manipulating recordings gameplay. The documentation of a dynamic, interactive piece is always transformative, participatory, and many steps removed from the actual work. Architects don’t prohibit taking pictures of their buildings.
Despite that, the publishing industry and academia are quite attached to pre-internet conventions, and fair use is not always valid outside of the United States. Therefore I, Paolo Pedercini, representing the project known as molleindustria, hereby state that:
All screenshots and video recordings of molleindustria games and products are to be considered public domain and can be reproduced without permission or attribution for any commercial and non commercial use.
You can download relatively high resolution screenshots of most games on this website from here.
I had the honor to be one of the keynote speakers for the first International City Gaming Conference in Rotterdam last month. The conference, mainly attended by city planners and architects, looked at how games can facilitate more effective and inclusive city-making. Here’s the transcript of my talk (a similar version was presented a year ago at the Screenshake festival in Antwerp): http://molleindustria.org/GamesForCities/
In a recent episode of the politics/comedy podcast Chapo Trap House, a listener asked “What can socialism do for gamers’ rights?”. The question was obviously a joke, but the hosts produced a humorous and somewhat thoughtful answer. Thankfully, there is no such a thing as “gamers’ rights” in the sense of something distinct from consumer rights. The joke was likely a reference to the sense of entitlement and tribal identification that fueled the gamergate campaign. But the question of what gaming would look like in a socialist world has haunted me for days. Not only because I’m a leftist and I care about games, but because of how it relates to many crucial issues of 21st century radicalism…
I teamed up with poet, performer, and activist Harry Josephine Giles to put together a collection of games to be played during protests. Casual Games for Protesters is a kind of response to the daunting question “What can game makers do in the age of Trump”. It’s a gesture but also a serious proposition, a way to see protests as experiences that can and should be crafted. We are soliciting guest contributions and we’ll be adding more games in the days to come. This is the project statement:
Casual Games for Protesters is an ongoing collection of games to be played in the context of marches, rallies, occupations and other protests. They require very little preparation and equipment.
Protests can often be alienating or difficult to access for some people — whether that’s because of safety concerns, lack of physical accessibility, burn-out or just not knowing how to get involved. And rallies and marches can be overwhelming, formulaic in their structure, unnecessarily grave, or even boring to attend.
We believe it doesn’t have to be that way. Participating in social change should be exhilarating, social, intellectually and physically stimulating, liberatory and fun. Games can help craft those collective experiences.
Of course, context is crucial, and not all games make sense in all situations. The dignity and rage of the Ferguson uprisings involved mourning victims, expressing anger and campaigning for better lives. The blockade of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock is shaped by the traditions and beliefs of the Native American tribes that lead the protests. Such situations may not always leave room for playfulness — or they may call for a different kind of play.
We have tried to compile a wide variety of games from many different sources and imaginations. We’ve remixed folk and parlor games, added a political twist to acting and training, borrowed liberally from our precursors, and made up new things entirely. We are indebted to a long tradition, from the experimental theater of Augusto Boal and the New Games Movement, from the creative protests of C.I.R.C.A. to the world of modern live-action games. Direct inspirations were the Tiny Games format popularized by Hide & Seek, Metakettle by Terrorbull games, and the playable poetry of Harry Josephine Giles.
What we haven’t included yet are less casual and more pre-prepared games for specific events. Such games could be deeply integrated with the theme and the tactics of a protest, complement its theatrics, and inform actions of civil disobedience. We hope that some of our games might inspire such inventive, radical and effective tactics.
We will see an escalation of unrest and mass participation in the coming years, in opposition to the resurgence of the extreme right in Europe and North America, as part of global responses to climate change and floundering neoliberalism, and in both local and international movements. Countering protest fatigue and making activism more approachable and stimulating must be a priority for everyone.
2016 has been declared *annus horribilis* for months, and there is a good chance it will remembered as the year when everything started going to shit in the Western World.
Despite being recently swept by the proto-fascist backlash known as Gamergate, the world of videogames has yet to respond to the new turn. The big-budget game industry, with its glorification of dystopia, cold war nostalgia, and fragile masculinity product lines, will probably adapt and produce even more baroque hyperstitions to serve new and old powers.
Outside of the games-for-gamers niche we’ve seen a lot of developments this year. We’ve seen the second coming of Virtual Reality met by the indifference of the masses – a scenario that may actually encourage more artistic and experimental use of the technology. We’ve seen the Pokemon GO fad, which may serve as a demonstration of the power of games to reclaim and transform public spaces. We’ve seen some first-wave indie developers upping the ante without compromising their visions: the hauntingly beautiful INSIDE, the sprawling madness of The Witness, the existentialist infinitude of No Man’s Sky, are multi-year team projects made possible by the success of previous releases (hence the importance of supporting your favorite game makers).
One-person outfits without million dollar budgets pushed things forward in even more interesting ways: Quadrilateral Cowboy builds upon the Blendo Games’ stylish short-pieces; Imbroglio is another dizzingly deep roguelike by Michael Brough, and Stephen’s Sausage Roll is the culmination of Increpare’s ongoing exploration of block-pushing games. A banner year for puzzles.
Here are some of my highlights from 2016, with the usual emphasis on politically-aware/ underrated/experimental works:
1979 Revolution: Black Friday
1979 Revolution: Black Friday is a documentaristic game about the Iranian revolution. The gameplay is reminiscent of titles like The Walking Dead or Heavy Rain: a mix of cutscenes, linear interactions, quick time events, and multiple choices that occasionally produce major outcomes.
The game takes the player to the events preceding the Islamic Revolution with very little context or exposition, letting them gradually unpack the complexity of the conflict. They have to face the impossible moral dilemmas of a revolution doomed to fail, negotiating the protagonist’s background and desires. Everything in the ~3 hours game is tuned to maximize emotional impact and meaningful play. 1979 Revolution is bleak and uncomfortable but also masterfully produced and researched. An engrossing introduction to one of the key events of our times.
The Resistance against the Nazi-fascist regime toward the end of World War II is a defining moment for the Italian people. Relatively limited geographically but deeply rooted in civil society, the Resistance prefigured a democracy yet to come, provided a model for a regime change supported from below, and still gives us a way to grapple with our tragic past. We, the Italians, were the bad guys, but the good guys were among us, and fought when it was time to fight. Venti Mesi (Twenty Months) is a collection of short interactive stories based on actual events happened in Milan in the months before the Liberation. They are all from the point of view of common people dealing with the unraveling of their nation, and all adopting brilliant visual and narrative strategies.
Bomb the Right Place
The rise of Trump is forcing all satirists to reconsider their approach. The next president of the United States is already a caricature of himself, and has a talent for occupying the media space with his outrageous and grotesque posturing. By receiving mostly bad press, he effectively erased the feeble and confused message of the establishment Democrats. That’s why most of the newsgames series GOP Arcade, with its one-liner games like “pussy grabber”, felt short and inadequate for this political phase (admittedly the stated goal of the site was simply to make the “election slightly more enjoyable”).
However, Bomb the Right Place is pure genius. It’s a kind of a geography puzzle and a riff on the old joke that Americans learn about new countries after they bomb them. Bi-partisanly challenging.
There is something inherently contradictory in room-scale Virtual Reality (or “VR with hands”). The first wave of VR promised mind altering experiences, non-human perceptions, post-verbal languages and more; it underdelivered in part due to the lack of good mimetic interfaces, in part to the sickening disconnection between camera and body movements. Systems like the HTC Vive or the Oculus Touch solved some of these issues at the price of remapping the space of action back to our miserable human scale and our miserable human limbs. Job Simulator makes the most out of this contradiction, by re-proposing familiar scenarios distorted by the limited affordances of the technology.
The Vive launch title presents itself as an artifact from the future, a kind of museum exhibit allowing people to play as workers of the late 21st Century: a white collar in a cubicle, a convenience clerk so on. The player is asked to push cartoonish buttons or juggling objects around, leaving room for some mild workplace sabotage. The robotic guide provides a satirical, slightly off description of the job.
Job Simulator is a clever joke on Virtual Reality escapism and indirectly poses some questions about futurism, bullshit jobs and the post-work society we should be moving toward. But above everything it’s a very satisfying lightweight puzzle and an experience unlike anything I’ve tried before. Exaggerated Reality is more fun than Virtual Reality.
I have a soft spot for simple and elegant political games. Two interviewees is a commentary on gender discrimination on the workplace developed in one day by Mauro Vanetti (who is also an anti-slot machine activist).
A male and female candidate are getting interviewed for a job, the screen is split, the questions are the same. The player picks the answer for both characters.
From our vantage point we can see the notes taken by the interviewer which reveal an implicit bias. A confident, resolute answer will make a good impression coming from the male character but it will be perceived as threatening or arrogant from the female counterpart.
The scenario is quite similar to the many field studies on gender and race bias consisting in sending out identical resumes from fictional identities with male, female, white or typically African-American names. Studies that confirm, overandover, that prejudices and more or less implicit discrimination is still widespread.
The Game: The Game
Dating sims, with their creepy heteronormative tropes have been ripe for parody and subversion for quite a while; the flamboyant Wrestling With Emotions and the porno terrorist Viral by artist-rapper Fellatia Geisha are two notable examples. But nothing gets close to The Game: The Game in terms of conceptual rigor and execution.
The creator, my friend and colleague Angela Washko, spent years researching the world of pick-up artists and its intersection with the “manosphere” (i.e. outspoken right wing misogynists on the Internet), an effort that included a long interview with the infamous Roosh V in an attempt of “radical empathy”.
The Game: the Game distills an in-depth research on seduction methods devised by pick-up artists in the form of a dating sim. The format is a perfect match since many of these techniques are basically conversational algorithms. Instead of playing the part of the seducer, you are put in the shoes of a target of an actually existing pick-up artist and subjected to his perplexing, pathetic, very rarely clever techniques. Every dialogue is based on actual primary sources and presented without exaggeration or ideological filters. An eerie original soundtrack by Xiu Xiu contributes to the utterly uncomfortable but engrossing experience. The project currently exists only as gallery installation but it will be released for digital download once completed.
The Last Guardian
I’ve been pointing at how animal companionship in videogames tends to be informed by an utilitarian and reductionist logic: Pokemon are both weapons and collectibles, existing in a fictional world designed to naturalize this instrumental relationship, Neko Atsume is an addicting conditioning device dispensing immaterial cuteness for your time and money; virtual pets are nothing but a few lightly dressed variables banking on our tendency to attribute feelings and thought to artificial entities, the Tamagochi effect. The Last Guardian is an epic tale of domestication and healing that manages to transcend this instrumental relationship. Gameplay-wise it’s an action/adventure with simple puzzles that can be solved by indirectly manipulating a griffin-like creature named Trico. However, there is no way to see the companion as just a way to reach a platform or as a formal constraint, like the helpless girl in Ico, the game’s direct predecessor. Trico’s behavior and characterization is vivid and subtle, it develops over time, and yet stays unmistakably “other”. Trico resists direct control, misunderstands you and then surprises you by autonomously navigating the impossible architecture. It’s often a frustrating experience, but frustration is an integral part of the aesthetics of the game.
San Andreas Deer Cam
Art that transforms commercial games through modding or subversive play has been around for more than 20 years. Today, with the explosion of game spectatorship (live streaming, let’s plays, absurdist stunts), it might loop back to the realm of internet folklore and find a mass audience. San Andreas Deer Cam is a mod of Grand Theft Auto V that followed a computer controlled-deer in real time. The deer exhibited a deer like behavior and showed us the familiar simulacrum of Los Angeles with completely different eyes, traversing the built environment in oblique ways, naively crossing highways, taking us to places and vistas we would have never thought to explore. The live stream gained a big following on Twitch. Day and night, online spectators commented and interpreted the inscrutable motivations of the deer, creating their own micro-memes and inside jokes.
The city was still functioning like a gangsta rap paradise and the deer retained some of the properties of the human avatar. For example, crossing the boundaries of an airport unleashed an unreasonable response from the militarized police, wrecking havoc throughout the city. Hilarious and mesmerizing to watch, it gave the trite GTA franchise a new reason to exist.
Weird Reality was a symposium for the VR/AR curious and the VR/AR skeptic which managed to incorporate, in the words of a participant, “an incredible wonderful diversity of gender, ethnicity, age, experience & trust in tech”.
Graduate students shared the stage with Virtual Reality pioneers like Brenda Laurel; creative industry professionals mingled with artists-provocateurs like Jeremy Bailey critical theorists like Wendy Chun, who delivered a fantastic takedown of the “VR as empathy machine” narrative. Hopefully videos of the talks will be posted online in the next months here.
The intersection between the conference and the music festival was the VR salon, a collection of arty, offbeat works where I got to show my new project, A Short History of The Gaze. It’s my first, and probably last, Virtual Reality “experience” and I was surprised by the very positive reactions. I’m still figuring out the best way to put it out in the world given its susceptibility to spoilers, and the general inaccessibility of headsets and gamer-grade computers.
Here’s some great VR works to keep an eye on:
Laura Juo-Hsin Chen is one of my favorite artist working with VR right now. Her MASK series tackles various subject with hand-crafted headsets and software enabling performances and bizarre social interactions.
In her Daily Life VR, she turns mundane actions like eating, pooping, sleeping into imaginative immersive and social experiences.
At the conference she presented her upcoming project: Zen Zone, a sprawling imaginary ecosystem conceived and art-directed a 6 years old kid named Zen over the span of several months. The process of collecting and assembling all the outlandish creatures and the handmade assets is a great story in itself; it even involved mo-capping the kid mimiking the movements of his imaginary creatures. I understand it would be experienceable as 360 movie and as a real interactive scenario, with an Attenborough-esque voice over by Zen himself.
The Institute for New Feeling is an art clinic/collective committed to the research of “new ways of feeling, and ways of feeling new”. Their project include humorous but credible treatments, therapies, and wellness products. At the salon they displayed a work in progress of Ditherer, an immersive store for HTC Vive that prefigures the future of ethical shopping.
Picking up virtual products from the shelves of a warehouse transports you to a vivid dream-like world representing the narrative of the product. In the currently available scene, grabbing a virtual avocado takes you to Tom Selleck’s controversial ranch where you are bombarded by trivia and bits of avocado history, eventually ending up in a perfect recreation of GW Bush’s living room to enjoy their “famous” guacamole, in a kind of farm-to-table reverie. It’s actually even weirder than it sounds and I’m really looking forward to see more products.
Sarah Rothberg brought a work in progress of Oops I put on your headset!, a vapor-wavey app that simulates the experience of accessing the artist’s computer. Somewhat reminiscent of the hyper-millenial software memoir Cibele or the gone but not forgotten Noby Noby Boy app. The old cyberpunk idea of Virtual Reality as operating system/browser gets an wry and much more imaginative reboot.
DiMoDA: The Digital Museum of Digital Art, is certainly not the first online/downloadable exhibition but it’s probably the most invested in the conversation about the distribution and commercialization of natively digital art (or more specifically, of a type of walkable art installations made in Unity).
Their (anti)institutional framework includes various degenerations of a virtual architecture from which you can access the artists’ worlds, exhibitions IRL, and collectors’ editions of the works: usb drives embedded in slick 3D printed objects.
The controls of the VR version were unfortunately barf-worthy, but the environments were quite interesting and unlike anything I’ve seen in the gaming world. I see a possible convergence between the “walking simulator” type of indie game, and this increasingly more recognized art genre. Let’s join forces and kill these boring photorealistic 3D environments once for all.
For a more complete writeup, check Blair Neal’s post on medium.