Exciting news: I have an article in this week's New York Times Sunday Magazine! Yes, that's yesterday's paper. (I'm on Malibu time these days.) And no, I can't understand why my piece wasn't put on the cover instead of that Megan Fox either. Especially since there were such great art opportunities, like so:
Nutshell: technology and distribution has enabled a do-it-yourself, 'zine movement in video games. It's a raucous avant-garde, and wants to upset its medium's apple cart while also — dare one say it — making video games that aspire to artistic greatness.
This I learned at the Game Developer's Conference, during which the indie designers all convened in Room 131, in a far corner of the Moscone Center, to celebrate their own insurrection against the establishment. Which is where I saw an incredible lecture by a legendary indie gamer named Cactus. Sadly, this scene got cut from the article at the last minute. It happens! But thanks to the magic of the internet, the Director's Cut is already available. That slide above comes from Cactus' presentation, as does this slide:
They were all that good. Want to hear more? Press SPECIAL FEATURES. Now press DELETED SCENES. Now press CACTUS! Here goes:
FROM THE BOWELS OF THE GAME DEVELOPERS CONFERENCE, MARCH 2009
Room 131 was filled to capacity when Cactus took the stage, flat drunk on Malibu Rum, to give his talk: How To Make a Game in Four Hours. Cactus is the handle of Jonatan Sondstrom, a 23-year Swedish amateur who has made over 100 video games over the past five years. For many of the people in the audience, this prowess made Cactus a folk hero. And he looked the part, in torn-up vans, red jeans, and green army cap. Cactus’ games are sensory overload experiences, where the player is thrust into a strange world of psychedelic imagery and must quickly resolve the ensuing confusion. This would also be a fitting description of Cactus’ presentation, which was mumbled, heavily accented, accompanied by colorful slides, and opened with a rudimentary animation of a digital turd. "DON'T MAKE GAMES IN FOUR HOURS IF YOU STINK," the text admonished. "END OF LESSON ONE."
Unlike Jason Rohrer, who programs in C++ — “I feel like I’m working with the grain of the machine,” he says — Cactus uses GameMaker, a drag and drop software tool that makes it possible for anyone to make a working game. GameMaker, which costs $25 for the “pro” edition, has allowed Cactus to spend his days in his childhood bedroom at his parents house in Gothenburg, Sweden, transmitting his bizarre output to the world for free.
Whereas Rohrer might start programming with a premise, Cactus and other designers like him approach each game as new experiment with no hypothesis. They start doing something, and see what happens. The process is somewhat algorithmic: constantly branching out, discarding duds, finding occasional breakthroughs. “You make a game a month, or every week,” a young Canadian designer named Chris Lobay later said, “And you’re going to have a few eurekas.”
Over the course of the next half hour, Cactus delivered what seemed at times like a mixed-media performance experiment in PowerPoint comedy. The aesthetic was like his games — crude but clever. The point: a video game can be anything. “Games don’t need to be fun. They can get intensely weird and freak you out.” He said from the stage. “More people should make games that are not for children, but for adults. And, like, mature people.” Cactus did not explain precisely how to do this (or make a game in 4 hours, for that matter), but he did say that anyone can try. His one caveat: “Don’t make games that suck.”
By the time it was over, Cactus’ talk was already becoming a matter of GDC legend. He personified the indie game movement’s anti-establishment cultural ethos, and although his actual games don’t speak to a broad audience now, the example he set for relentless innovation excited the room. “If you were talking about music,” said one indie designer, “then this would be like seeing the Ramones play for the first time.” Cactus left the stage, and was quickly surrounded by a posse of like-minded indie designers and admirers. “Let’s go get more drunk,” he said, and wandered off. It was 4pm.
A 58-year-old Wal-Mart employee who said he
"couldn't take it anymore" lit himself on fire in a parking lot
near the Bloomingdale store where he worked late Thursday night and was
later pronounced dead at a hospital, authorities said this morning.
an interview, his son said his father went to work last night with
nothing seeming out of the ordinary. "This had nothing to do with the
economy. I want to make that clear," he said, adding that the family
may never know the reason for the public suicide.
Carol Stream man, who worked the overnight shift, was in a parking lot
of an adjacent sporting goods store in the west suburban strip mall
when he set himself on fire with lighter fluid around 10 p.m., said
Randy Sater, a watch commander with the Bloomingdale Police Department.
The man set himself afire outside of 328 W. Army Trail Road, and the
Wal-Mart is at 314 W. Army Trail Road, in the same mall, Wal-Mart
corporate spokesman Dan Fogleman said.
At least 10 people,
including some teenagers, witnessed the suicide and several attempted
to help the man by throwing their coats on top of him in an effort to
put out the flames, he said.
"He said he didn't want any help and threw the coats off," Sater said.
When one of the first officers tried to speak to the man, who by
that time was severely burned, he responded, "I just couldn't take it
anymore," Sater said, citing the officer's report.
The man "enjoyed his job and living in the 'burbs," his son said.
"We were getting ready to redo the front lawn." He added that his
father had no health problems.
"You try not to ask yourself the question [why he did it] because there's no answer," the son said.
Like every other eleven-year-old smart ass, I often argued with my father that playing Mario Brothers enhanced hand-eye coordination and was therefore a worthy exercise. As an adult, I'm not so sure. Contrary to Steven Berlin Johnson's commercially successful counter
intuitive catch-all thesis, I don't think Everything Bad is Good For You. Many
things that are bad are bad for you. If playing Mario Brothers had some kind of value, there are probably better paths to, say, dexterity. Especially since the hundreds, or even thousands of hours I spent traipsing through the clouds looking for gold was well past the point of diminishing returns. Like other kids, I played so much that I can still hear it now: the satisfying sound of collecting those beautiful gold coins.
Tetris, too, left a lasting impression. I'd start on level 19 and fend against the falling shapes as long as possible. Then I'd try to sleep and see those shapes when I closed my eyes. Even though my brain was supplying the blocks, I'd still have to line them all up. As it happens, I'm on a video game jag at the moment. Freaking Call of Duty. I thought it was over nine months ago when I successfully kicked CoD IV. Then came World At War, a trip back into the moral clarity of The Big One. Fun, yes, but it's lost time. What might be the legitimate carefree
satisfaction of an year-old is just more procrastination to an adult. Plus, it
feels like some kind of neural invasion. For the past few weeks, I have been good for several rounds of War and Domination online every day, despite that it hurts my eyes, briefly elevates my sensory perception to some kind of weird paranoid state, and for a few minutes makes me scan the upper corners of my real world vision for the map that discloses the location of the Nazis. Doesn't sound good for you.
And now to make my own counterintuitve point, maybe it is! Turns out that this very aspect of video games may be therapeutic for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to a paper by some Oxford researchers, Tetris and other video games may assuage flash backs and other mnemonic trauma. The "visuospatial cognitive tasks" entailed in video games, the study showed, basically funnels brain resources away from remembering the bad stuff. Precisely because those falling shapes burn themselves so effectively into your brain, there's no room for flashbacks. The article doesn't extrapolate further, but it does raise the possibility of treating veterans of real war with virtual war. Replace those Falujah flashbacks with virtual the Siege of Stalingrad! Come to think of it, maybe that's why the latest Call of Duty has been so popular. With the ongoing horrors of our two simmering fronts, a quick trip into the last Just War is a sort of refuge.
In the beginning, there was Beetlejuice. And then came the rest. All of which was intriguingly detailed in the New Yorker's best celebrity profile in recent memory. If you haven't read it yet, do so. In one of the rare moments when a magazine article makes the universal consciousness, everyone was talking about it the week it came out, mostly because it combined two qualities seldom found in profiles: candor and pathos. Baldwin was honest about being an unhappy dude. He's dissatisfied. Which he's good at, applying great rhetorical flourish to his dissatisfaction. And we love him for it. Or something like that. Luckily, there's more where that came from: Moments of Clarity, a new collection of addiction testimonies includes an entry from our favorite sad Dad. First of all, how did I not know that Baldwin was on Knot's Landing? I guess the beginning was before Beetlejuice. Apparently, it was during those dark days that Baldwin was addicted not just to the devils drink, but that other foil of men from the Emerald Isle: Galaga.
"I would play video games from, like, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., and I
would wind down. Then I'd go home and go to bed.
"This was the only way I could go 'beta' and go into that state I
needed to be, where I could calm down and take my mind off everything.
I didn't want to see anybody, talk to anybody, deal with anybody."
Listen, brother -- I hear you. Been there myself, although these days for me it's Call of Duty 4. I need my own Moment of Clarity in fact. Baldwin's came when he realized that Julian, the guy who ran the arcade, felt bad for him:
"I was doing a show then ['Knots Landing'], making tens of
thousands of dollars a week, which was part of the problem."
"Julian would put the key in the lock and open the door, and he
would just kind of look at me like, 'Wow, I'm glad I'm not you.' You got no idea, Julian. Julian, I need you. I
need you to get that key and open the f- - -ing door and let me in. I
got to play 'Galaga.'"
Grandpa's ninety-three. The dude was born in Fargo a few decades after
the Dakotas became states. He can vaguely recall celebrations at the
end of the Great War -- I mean World War I. And god love him, he sat
down in his leather chair in Sun City, Arizona, and made his way through my 8,000-word Harper's epic on Billy Mitchell and the metaphysics of Ms. Pac Man. Then he left me this message:
If you can't understand the audio, his take was:
Joshuah, I read your letter, and I'll be the first to tell you -- if you'd have written it in Chinese, I wouldn't have understood it any better.
The Zombie Zeitgeist A full scale movement is on the lurch. But why the best zombie movie ever made a video game?
Believer interview with Mark Allen Digital artist and awesome gallerist Mark Allen talks about Tekken Torture Tournament and other projects where people were wired to machines and did strange things in public.
Believer interview with Marjane Satrapi Enlightening Q & A with the Persian cartoonist, memoirist, quick conversationalist in which she declares: “THE WORLD IS NOT ABOUT BATMAN AND ROBIN FIGHTING THE JOKER; THINGS ARE MORE COMPLICATED THAN THAT.”
Yeti Researcher Yet another 100-page issue of the world's top academic journal devoted scholarship about the Yeti, Bigfoot, Sasqatch, and other mystery primates worldwide. For researchers and lay audiences alike, the latest YR features a history of Sasquatch sightings in southern California, an update on the wily orang pendek of Sumatra, and a new look into Teddy Roosevelt's obsession with bagging a Bigfoot. As Editor-in-Chief, I promise you won't be disappointed.
Panda PowerPoint! I guess I don't mind being "the entertainment" when it's at Mark Allen's second annual Holiday Fry-B-Que. Presented: preliminary findings from my ongoing research into the most charismatic megafauna of all: Giant Pandas.
McSweeny's Presents: The World, Explained | Dec 9, 2006 For those who missed it, there will be more. World, Explained is going strong! Money was raised, laughs were had, and for those paying attention, small amounts of useful information about things like the aurora borealis were transmitted. Plus: Michael Cera = lovably funny. And Nick Diamonds' renditions of Dumb Dog and Hanging Tough are still in my head. As is that horribly catchy Fresh Step jam.
Jest Fest at Skylight Books Somehow I wound up hosting the 10th anniversary jubilee for Infinite Jest at Skylight Books. Because who doesn't love a jubilee, right? Despite being delirious with Hepatitis A (that's the mild, non-lethal kind; I'm not at risk for Hep B since I always go the needle share and choose clean-looking prostitutes), I managed to not mis-pronounce anyone's name and make an erudite joke and poke gentle fun at Michael Silverblatt.
McSweeny's Presents: The World, Explained | June 10, 2006 Number Three! Last one was sold out so we moved to a slightly larger theater. Andy Richter hosted, and his opening exegesis of CSI: Miami warmed the people up right. Evany Thomas presented her very scientific findings on the Secret Language of Sleep; Starlee Kine bared her neuroses to the world (or at least the 300 people in the audience); Josh Davis showed video of his 135-lb self sumo wrestling a 550-lb opera singer from San Bernardino; and Davy Rothbart closed it out with some Found Magazine magic. Grant Lee Phillips, Sam Shelton and Zooey Deschanel provided the music punctuation! I can still hear their rendition of We Are the Champions.
McSweeny's Presents: The World, Explained | Feb 11, 2006 The second in our series of precision comedy and fact-based entertainment extravaganzas benefiting 826LA. Patton Oswalt was kind enough to host, and Jon Brion joined in on the piano and guitar as thematic accompaniment. Presenters included: David Rees, Michael Colton, John Hodgman (along with his hirsuit troubadour, Jonathan Coulton), and me. Plus: a fashion show of exciting multi-user garmentry.
Little Gray Book Lecture at Galapagos How to Observe President's Day. Jonathan Coulton's technical wizardry has made this entire show available online. The summary from PRX: Sarah Vowell, John Hodgman and Joshuah Bearman on Presidents' Day, along with a fifteen-piece marching band and a new song about all forty-three presidents. My contribution? Yes, from Yeti Researcher. Again. Actually that was the first one. So I have only five stories!
July 25: TJ to LA -- A Night McSweeney's Readings I was honored to be part of a strange triptych along with Salvador Plascencia and Josh Kun. Sponsored, somehow, by La Ciudad magazine, we all packed into Beyond Baroque with no air conditions. 150 people showed at 7 o'clock on a Friday evening, which we took as a good sign of something. Sal held up and anxiously discussed drawings from his novel, Josh delivered an essay on the Dr. Moreau of Tijuana, and my shtick (again) was Pac Man and metaphysics, this time with fun slides.
October 8th: Skylight Books w/Stephen Elliott Fun times were had by all. Someone in the audience actually mistook me for an expert on the psychology human character. We ate shrimp cocktail and drank cheap wine and laughed at Bush and celebrated the certainty of right besting wrong in American democracy. A lot of good that did.