An Explanation on Being a Slave to the Music

There's a pretty big reason I would never consider myself a writer these days. I haven't written in a very long time. Not really, anyway. Although I pop out a little article sometimes, the flood of thought and corresponding paragraphs just don’t flow like they used to. It would be great if the reason for my drought was a mystery. Writer’s block of the mythic kind is a wonderful dilemma because it is instantly dramatic. Where there’s drama, a story can be found, even if that story is that you can’t write a story. No, unfortunately, I know my problem quite well.  My creative process was never one built around sustainability. No two creative process are quite the same, but to explain, mine was built around coincidental song discovery. The rockbed for the story or poem would be something I was having difficulty talking about during normal life discourse. These were things I couldn’t talk about with friends easily or, often enough, didn’t understand well enough to articulate them as personal reflections. A troublesome thought or misinterpreted feeling would sit around and stew for a while, then spill out all unexpected like when coincidence just happened to rear its head in the form a song. Whether it be overhearing a radio, having a friend send a link or following the release of a favorite band’s new album, songs would have a funny way of illuminating that thing you’d been having discomfort for in just the right way at a time that felt appropriate.

I say this is not a conducive way to write if you want to keep writing because I have convinced myself that music is the one and only catalyst. It would be the turnkey to the floodgate of feeling. Recognizing that fact, it left me with basically no agency as a writer. It wasn’t my decision to sit down and write a story anymore, it was a game of chicken with the musical universe on when it would allow me to write because I happened to hear a song that made me think of that one time it took me three hours to travel about two miles.

Waiting around for musical coincidences didn’t used to be so much of a problem in the days of doing absolutely nothing but going to class, reading, then writing about what I read. I'd put a newly discovered song on repeat and let it drive my pencil until a surprising amount of the core content was committed to paper. In a lot of ways, it was an exhaustive process. I’d let the song inform the interpretation of my characters and the conflict they were to experience. It was a focused effort with the only real time limit being my ability to keep listening to the song and maybe a deadline for a first draft. A pencil and paper were always close by and the work continued. In most classes I wrote out of necessity, in others, out of opportunity. Even when I had no idea formed naturally from experience, there were prompts from professors or fellow students that would fuel a wide range of creative output. Lured into a false sense of happiness with my thought processes and workability, I found out when you feel comfortable you should know something is wrong. That something, was sustainability. I had to graduate eventually. When I did, I went to work. And like with every pseudo creative person before me, what creativity I had was pretty much swallowed up by responsibility.

It isn’t all bad. Thankfully, my job actually allows for me to listen to music much of the time. There are a lot of solitary tasks and enough quiet where plugging the headphones in and getting into a groove can be very helpful. Here's what's not so helpful: All of those emotional things that used to only surface under the right musical circumstances still exist. They don't break free as often, but sometimes when getting lost in a series of spreadsheets, an unprocessed fit of sadness will bubble up because Joanna Newsom’s munchkin voice reminds you that yes, you really do have a soulmate and she married a friend of her’s you’d met a few times while dating. Before, that was great. Break out the tears and try not to let them fall on your keyboard too much! I’d sit until the sun lowered beneath the windows and my computer screen was the only source of light in the entire apartment. Now, I'm at work. That spreadsheet is unblinking from the crisp screen and all I want to do is work out this idea for a story about a girl looking into a mirror and recalling trying on her mother's shoes as a six year old. That's it. I continue to listen to the song but it’s more a tantalizing fantasy to get to sit and actually write through it so I can discover.

Postpone it, just postpone it. Jot the name of the song down and it's fine. You'll come back to it. You’ll remember how you felt. No. That poor woman will remain in front of that mirror forever. Those moments can't be recreated. I learned that. I can play the song all I want, doesn't matter. The story of that woman gets hijacked into a story about how I can't write that story. That surprised me a little, but it doesn’t feel as satisfying. Examining being unable to write can be helpful in the sense that it gets you to actually put some words down, but the same sentences tend to work their way in more and more often. Trying to disguise it only makes you feel worse. How many times can you really write “I can’t write.” So eventually the writing stops. Again. Maybe a great line will come up and I’ll have just enough time to open a word document, type it out and save it. I won’t look at it again. The title will probably be Untitled, like everything other document. Dates mean nothing so finding what you’re looking for would be a fool’s errand on its best day. So your creativity rests. You can think of it as hibernating if you believe it’s still there. Instead, you might worry that maybe it just walked off and left you. You can reminisce about how you used to be a great poet or how well received your story was in your workshops, but you know you are a different person now.  

It turns out, for me that isn’t true. I'm just not that creative a person. The circumstances for creation for me are so narrow and so crucial to it’s generation that it's a good thing, probably, I'm not sitting around trying to craft fiction or films anymore. Sometimes that’s tough to take. I dedicated a lot of my time learning to write, and learning to read in a way that would make me a better writer. Sometimes it feels like I should have chosen something else to study. Other times I think it wouldn’t have mattered what I studied because the results would have been the same. I used to think I would try to be the best. It motivated me. Sure, it’s vain and unrealistic, but believing I was good helped make me good. The curtain got pulled away, though, and the truth is that there are so many people better at writing than me. They are so good at it, they can even write when they want to.

braid and the unknowable correct path

Since playing it for the first time, I have wanted to talk about Braid. As is so often the case, I feel as if I’m arriving at a housewarming party after the hosts have already moved to another house. Despite the freshness of the game having worn off, it’s one of those games that demands sustained consideration and conversation about it in a way that few games do. I think this demand stems from the simple act of the game choosing to ask the player a question. Games, by definition, ask players to participate in their system, but before the player ever begins the game, Braid is up front with its intentions. If you watch the game’s trailer, it poses a few very direct and pointed questions to the player. Two of those questions (“What if you could learn from mistakes but undo the consequences? Then what would you be?”) have really taken hold of me. Braid’s construction takes the player through various scenarios in order to take these questions on. Interestingly, it is difficult to say whether or not any of the questions get answered, so far as I could tell. So I wanted to try to answer them for myself.

Being able to correct mistakes by reversing time does not come naturally. The overarching question posed to the player of Braid basically asks what would happen if you could go back in time and fix your mistakes? The game accomplishes this by allowing the player to reverse time. If the player mistimes a jump, they can press a button to literally rewind to a point before that jump is made. The way this works out, a player can go so far as to rewind to the beginning of each stage and begin all over again. Completely resetting a stage can also be accomplished by exiting and reentering the door at the beginning of each stage, a much more effective method since some actions cannot actually be reset in the stage if they are done incorrectly. While this might seem like a godsend to players prone to timing issues or even those who just like to experiment, in practice, it’s actually quite difficult to get used to rewinding. If I made a poor jump, but the character survived, I was much more likely to run and jump my way back where I wanted to go rather than simply rewind to a point before I made my error. Part of that might be years of learned behaviors from other games, but there is something very unnatural feeling about rewinding time, as if the ability is inherently wrong. This initial resistance really was surprising, considering that I generally like to experiment with abilities in games. I found that only consistent and sudden death was enough to force repeated use of the trick to achieve some level of comfort using it.

Braid deliberately eases the rewind mechanic into gameplay. Although it’s really the biggest focus of the game mechanically, the player can progress through the first couple stages without really having to use it. Those early moments are much more focused on precision platforming. In some ways, familiarizing a player with something they very probably are already familiar with is an interesting diversion. Platforming is important, but since you can rewind time at any point, becoming proficient at it is much less important than it would be in a game with a set number of lives or that forced you to start the stage at the very beginning after each failure. Again, Braid seems to be reinforcing the idea that rewinding time is an unnatural process, leading the player to consider its gravity.

As unnatural as rewinding time feels, apprehensions about using the ability eventually become non-existent. The fears associated with making a mistake slowly fall away as each death becomes a minor hurdle on the players’ path to progress, an afterthought at best. After completing the first world, I didn’t think twice about reversing time if I had even the slightest inkling that I was making a mistake. Eventually, I would press the button very often before the mistake could even play out. One of the benefits of rewinding time that wasn’t immediately obvious to me was that I was reliving the mistake in a way that would help me prevent it in the future if I so chose to use the information I was getting. The end result, really, was that I was getting better at predicting outcomes. There is a puzzle early on where you have to jump on an enemy being shot out of a cannon at exactly the right moment so that you can make it across a gap to collect a puzzle piece. It’s a difficult jump to time because the visual cue you get in the form of a lit fuse on the cannon is subtle in appearance and the velocity of the enemy being fired out of the cannon is fairly high. There’s essentially no room for error. If you don’t time the jump right, then the only option is to rewind and watch the cannon fire off again and again until you can time it correctly. It’s a simple puzzle, but it encapsulates the spirit of the game very well. Observation is key and to play the game the player must take in all of the available information and use it to arrive at the correct solution.

Being able to predict outcomes does not keep you from making the same mistakes. This was one of the more interesting lessons Braid taught me. On the one hand, the very calculated time manipulation rules that the game employs demand that the player recognize how they behave in order to exploit them. The mistakes you make lend themselves to self-correction through observation, with a little bit of trial and error to supplement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of that really matters because you can always rewind time. Armed with powerful agents towards problem solving, the player who should be better and more careful at solving puzzles can very easily be worse and reckless at executing them the more difficult the puzzles become. Yes, the player will eventually have to figure out the solution in order to progress in the game, but the weight of each individual decision gets reduced essentially to nothing. In a way, each puzzle gets subdivided into moments of good execution and bad execution. Good execution gets glossed over because of the success, and bad execution also gets glossed over as well because it gets erased immediately.

In one of the worlds, the player can manipulate the game through simulated multiple realities. If the player goes and collects a key, but then rewinds time, a shadow version of the character will then appear and replay that reality, with the key being collected by the shadow reality instead. This ability is configured in several puzzles requiring you to be in two places at once. In the game, this ability is limited to a certain amount of time and resets with each subsequent reversal of time. It touches a little on the idea where each decision that gets made signifies the creation of a new universe. In one universe, if have to decide to walk to work or drive, one universe gets created for each of those possible outcomes. Braid is lousy with these possibilities. While it only really gets expressed in a concrete way in one world, it does posit the question that each and every time the player chooses to do something, then reverses time, multiple universes are sprouting up to continue on with those actions. After a full playthrough of Braid, one can imagine the sheer scale of what this would mean. And if that is the case, why do we only get to see the one we see? How do we know which universe is the one we want? Is it worth even worrying about since it would be a given that at least one universe would contain the timeline that the character is seeking? Does acknowledgement of all possible outcomes result in a change of the outcome from what it’s supposed to be?

Ultimately, I think Braid answers the questions it posed by saying that undoing the consequences of your actions, even if you think you learn something from the experience, does not solve your problem. While the character thinks he’s fixing mistakes, it’s revealed to the player at the end of the game that his efforts were either in vain or completely misguided from the beginning. The princess he so desperately wants to save is trying to escape him. The “correct” puzzle solutions weren’t getting him what he wanted, but rather getting the player to the understanding that the character of Tim doesn’t know what he thinks he knows. Conversely, if Tim did know that working back through all of this would lead to the moment the princess tried to escape from him, why would he choose to go back to that moment? Is there something he thinks he can learn by doing so? The game seems to have an ending really only for the sake of the player. In theory, it seems possible that Tim could continue trying to solve his problems by going back, constantly rewinding time until he gets the desired outcome. This is not actually possible to do in the game as the epilogue marks the end of the puzzle solving parts, but is strongly suggested by the fact that Tim enters the first screen of the game  once he goes exits through the final door.

So then, if you could go back, if time did behave in these particular ways, what would you be? Well, you might be a person obsessed in the most debilitating way. You might become so consumed with finding the way to the end result you want that you are lost forever in time. For all the things you could try to solve, you could also be creating new problems. It might take your entire life to realize that something you did twenty years ago was the wrong thing. Would you then rewind time twenty years just to fix that one thing? Would you really even be able to tell which decisions were the ones that produced any particular outcome? Maybe you would constantly go back after each and every decision just to see how all of them played out. Maybe worse yet you might sit frozen in time forever, incapable of making any decision at all, immobilized by trying to keep track of all of your life’s events as if they were happening simultaneously. Whatever you would be, you would be experiencing it alone.

The last thing I want to talk about has to do with agency. Braid affords the player agencies that real life can’t replicate. Interestingly, despite being godlike in your ability as player to manipulate time and produce multiple and simultaneous universes, that doesn’t seem to be enough to truly change the course of an overall timeline. Your efforts within the game itself amount to failure in many ways. It’s as if Braid is saying that you cannot actually undo your mistakes, after all. This is expressed in the puzzles themselves. Braid’s worlds are designed to be solved in a particular way. Although there are a handful of exceptions, the player must understand the concepts and execute their abilities in a particular sequence for “normal” play. This is not so true, however, when it comes to tool assisted playthroughs.

To quickly explain, a tool assisted speed run (TAS), is a manipulation of a game through various means, such as emulation software or deconstruction of a game’s ROM, to execute commands to take advantages of bugs within a game’s design. This is used primarily to play through a game as fast as possible, often times employing scripted command executions that cannot be performed by a human being. The results vary from game to game, but the general idea is to abuse the game’s rules to achieve the most optimal path. For a lot of games, the results are entertaining because they show off incredible flaws within a game. For some, the idea of the TAS breaks down to cheating. Braid’s assisted run challenges this idea. Since the game’s rules were intended to ask questions about unnatural abilities, it hardly feels like cheating to use an outside method to enhance the game’s experience. While a human being playing the game might not be able to execute the flaws within the game, the point of the game to a great degree, is to cheat to see what it means to cheat. Through the assisted run, Braid’s intended sequences can be sidestepped on occasion. Since the game has physics to it that govern the movements of the player and various objects, those properties can be exploited to things such as maneuver unbelievable jumps. Time can be stopped at exactly the right moment to create a series of increasingly powerful jumps. The what if questions already asked by the game just get extended to new questions.

Applying the mentality of tool assisted runs speaks to the nature of human inquisitiveness and the ever increasing desire to know more and do more. No matter how powerful we become or how much we understand, there will always be a new frontier to break into. As that happens, individuals can change, but all of us also change with it. The definition of our world shifts to fit our new understandings. We try desperately to change the world around us, still without being able to know what it would be like had things turned out differently. Those initial questions asked in Braid’s trailer seem to tantalizingly close to being answered thanks to an excellent game design and its ability to force the player to examine the experiments conducted. Still yet, the answers are out of reach and most likely will remain so. We simply don’t know what we’d be. We just keep trying to figure that out.


Defining Loss In Fiction

When I was beginning to tell stories, I was guided by and obsessed with loss. Maybe the young are drawn to the emotional weight of things they have no experience with and no business experiencing. The characters I liked to read and watch would fight so hard to end up with the person they loved most, only to have that love snatched away by menacing figures, insurmountable circumstances or seemingly at the whim of fate. It captivated me. None of the emotional weight could have been borne by me in any relatable way, yet those experiences seemed like my own. I can remember losing sleep at night worrying about the things not described in the stories. Open-endedness drove me crazy with empathy aimed at purely fictional worlds and people. What happened after the last printed word was even more compelling than the story itself.

Without the context to process the things I was feeling, I was left with relentless anxiety. In my elementary and junior high years especially I would try to pull the experiences out of the stories I loved into the world in which I lived. It was so important to be able to recreate the hopelessness that seemed to permeate such a vast amount of our cultural literature that various scenarios would be projected onto classmates and friends. Love triangles sprang up out of imagined crushes. Quarrels with friends blossomed where no genuine conflict existed. In trying to force what I thought was an adult body onto the framework of childhood, I lost out on actually understanding the one I wanted to experience and experiencing the one that I didn’t give a second thought to.

To me, turmoil was the equivalent of adulthood and all of those stories were supposed to prepare me for an adult world filled with unforeseen consequences and heartbreak. Those experiences had to become real in order for me to tell them back to a new audience. I had to make them real. So that’s what I’ve been doing with myself for pretty much all of it. For every wonderful thing I’ve come across, a tragedy had to befall it. I discovered that very few large catastrophes could be manufactured because very few events feel momentous when they are happening. Falling in love doesn’t happen all at once. It might begin with singing along to the same song or allowing someone to go in front of you at a checkout counter. In the same way, the end also takes us by surprise. For a minute there will be no question that you can be yourself around someone and suddenly they have decided that the self you have realized isn’t the person they want to be with. There won’t be a horrible fight, just as there won’t be a horrible car accident to take them from you. They just won’t be there anymore by decision.

Romanticism in the form of young love does nothing to account for the endless subtlety that the adult world operates in. While the realities of losing someone in a tragic fashion are not met by reading about star crossed lovers, neither are the actual emotions of navigating a relationship in the modern world. I was completely unprepared for when I first fell in love and then realized I wasn’t in love at all. With each new potential relationship, my definition of love would change and it would be so obvious that everything before it wasn’t love, but now the real thing had begun. And none of that was true.

The worst part was that the drive to create tragedy had not been extinguished. All of the grandiose expression of soul mates worked under the foundation of a promising relationship. Perhaps subconsciously, though I suspect not, it was important that I still create the feeling of loss that had driven me to feel with such intensity. That’s why I would spend time with a woman I had no future with when I had a girlfriend at home. That’s why I would let someone use sex as a weapon against me. It’s also why I have no concept of what a healthy relationship should be like despite having parents who have been married since their early twenties.

I don’t want to tell those kinds of stories anymore. I find I don’t want to tell any stories anymore. Writing and storytelling have become methods of my destruction. While there are certain realities that deserve to be preserved in the form of a novel or a cartoon, I worry that it won’t make any difference. The world of adults is always filled with fantasy for children, no matter how accurately portrayed. The simple fact that it is unknown lends itself to the fantastic. Because of that I’ll always be trying to imagine what adulthood is like and keep wondering if I’ll ever know when I get there.

Praising Praise (An Examination of the Experience Mechanic in Ōkami)

When it comes to writing characters that are gods, it can be very tempting to write one that is far too powerful. While omnipotent beings can serve a function in storytelling, as protagonists they can wind up being completely uncompelling. When you take an all powerful or even just slightly overpowered protagonist and turn that into the playable character of a video game, the consequences can be even further reaching. Part of what makes video games interesting is their inherent challenge. Playing as a character that can do as they please with little challenge has a fairly limited appeal. At the same time, it can be frustrating to lack agency knowing full well that the character being controlled is divine in some way. In the Capcom published game Ōkami, the issue of power balance and challenge gets handled in two basic ways, which both serve to make the game work within established video game mechanics, as well as to weave an interesting story that is dependent on the game mechanics.

In Ōkami, the player takes the role of Amaterasu, essentially the god of the sun and universe, reborn as a wolf so that she can help the people of a fictionalized ancient Japan defeat the evils that plague it. The key factor in all of this, though, is that hardly anybody knows that the wolf is a god. This is played as a joke to some degree as the player is basically reliving something that the game explains has already happened before. In practical use, this storytelling device ties in to the power management system of the game through the use of Praise. Due to the population having lost their faith in the gods over time, Amaterasu’s power is fairly minimal at the start of the game. During the course of play, Praise can be earned through various means, such as feeding wild animals, ridding the landscape of beacons of evil, and restoring plants to full bloom from states of decay. The earned Praise can then be spent like experience points to increase Amaterasu’s abilities. What’s so interesting about this particular type of experience system is that it really gets to the core of what this game is about in a fairly subtle way. Where general experience points work just fine mechanically, Praise helps eliminate the feeling of an arbitrary mechanism by closely tying it and the story together. You, as a player, are motivated to do good deeds in as many ways as possible in order to become more powerful, getting to the heart of the idea that gods are a direct result of peoples’ belief in them.

What makes Praise even more interesting as a game mechanic is that very few of the things the player can do to receive Praise are recognized as having been done by the player. Amaterasu can affect the world around her using different divine techniques (like creating wind, or making the sun rise), but it isn’t apparently evident to the non playable characters that this white wolf is what is making it happen. Still, the effects are perceived as having occurred through divine intervention, and that restored faith is what turns out to be more important than direct recognition for having fixed things in the world. Ōkami hammers this point home well since the things that reward the player with Praise are fairly trivial matters on the surface. At one point the player helps a boy go fishing. In another instance, the player fills a bucket of sake. The methodology of having these little tasks be what are required to become more powerful has a couple of different effects. The first is that it emphasizes that even a god is not above doing the small things that must be done in order to achieve one’s desired goals. Second, it demonstrates that aiding other through guidance is more valuable than just doing everything for them. In a gameplay sense, it doesn’t quite always work this way as often times it seems that the player is basically tricking the non player characters into thinking they did something (Amaterasu has to use divine techniques as mentioned before to fulfill all of the tasks that would otherwise be impossible), but even that works in the sense that they now have the belief that they can do what they set out to.

This idea of working in the background is complemented very nicely by the characters throughout  the game that do recognize Amaterasu for what she is. From the start, the non player companion, Issun, recognizes the player immediately and quite rudely tries to make everyone else recognize her as well. Some of those that end up playing one of the biggest roles in the context of gameplay are the Celestial Gods. Through these gods, the game grants the player more agency by revealing techniques that allow the player to manipulate the world in various ways. To get these abilities, an incomplete constellation must be found and the missing stars must be painted in the sky using a Celestial Brush. As the constellations are completed, a Celestial God reveals itself and grants Amaterasu a new ability. There is a bit of humor played out in these encounters as well. Once revealed, the gods will invariably open with “Ah… Amaterasu. Origin of all that is good and mother to us all...”. The surprise in seeing her, while slight, comments on the overall condition of the game’s population and the strength of their belief. The god Bakugami even blatantly expresses his concern over this phenomenon, lamenting “Too often, it is easy to forget that which we cannot see. Hidden away, I had lost track of you. But now my soul is at ease”. This small exchange encapsulates the main theme of the game in a way that doesn’t feel too overbearing. That, again, is a testament to the quality of the game’s incorporation of its mechanics as an extension of its story.

Ōkami’s overall strength as an adventure game rests on the implementation of its core ideas. It wants to express the idea that the player is not omnipotent, so it created a set number of abilities and a system of ink containers which limits how long these abilities can be used. Additionally, the game wanted to convey the idea of action through community, so it made the player seek out numerous characters throughout the game that either give the player new abilities or, more simply, allow access into new areas. This is how you create an interesting god. The status of the god and the health of the world are so interconnected that the player isn’t embarking on a quest as an arbitrary inhabitant, but rather, working to heal and preserve a world that, ultimately, the player was responsible for creating. It’s hard to imagine a more compelling god than that.