You finally realise how to get off the ground and onto the legs of the colossus. Maybe you need to shoot arrows into the soles of its feet so it kneels in pain. Maybe you need to hide under an archway, wait for it to stoop down low and make a leap for its beard.
You enact your plan, haul yourself up and begin climbing the body of the colossus. As you go, you might occasionally find part-time horizontal surfaces - armour, shackles - upon which you can rest and regain your strength. Or, you might plan your route so you can shimmy up as fast as possible, avoiding the limbs that sometimes flail and force you to stop climbing and just cling on.
You reach the top. The shoulders of a biped. The back of a quadruped. This moment is magic. You stagger across this great roiling mass that feels like moving rock. You cling on as it rears up. You creep over it, whispering, “stay calm”, praying it will not buck.
Being at the top is relatively safe. Though you must cling on when the colossus bridles, there is always a reprieve when you can stand and regain your strength. Your aim is now to reach one of the glowing tattoos on the colossus’s body. To get to a tattoo, you must leave your perch and climb to the crown of a swaying head, or a flank that can only be reached from above. These forays are a commitment. Once you set out, you have a ration of strength that cannot be replenished until you return. If your strength runs out during your expedition, you will lose your grip, fall to the ground and possibly die.
You reach a tattoo. To kill the colossus, you must repeatedly stab it here. You raise your sword. The longer you hold it aloft, the more powerful the stab will be. The more powerful the stab is, the fewer stabs you will need.
This piece of the game is particularly beautifully designed. If the colossus bucks while your sword is raised, you must lower your sword and cling on. This means you have wasted grip strength. Having your sword raised is a tense balancing act where you want to wait as long as possible, but no longer, before you strike. There is an elegant mapping between the sword and your controller. You press and release X to raise your sword. You press X again to stab. A more intuitive system would have you press and hold X to keep the sword raised. But the way the controls actually work is better. Stabbing the tattoo is such a cathartic, primal screaming moment, to attach it to the release of a button would diminish its power. The way it is, you jam your finger back down on X like you really are astride the colossus’s neck, like it is about to throw you, like it is the only thing stopping you from winning back your girlfriend.
A documentary by Nikolaus Geyrhalter. Notionally, it shows a series of things that happen at night: monitoring of borders, conventions of EU sub-committees, care for the elderly and prematurely born, parties, news broadcasting, pornographic broadcasting, food production, policing, counseling for the suicidal. Reviewers have noted different themes. Surveillance. Protection. The service industry. But these notes tell you more about the commentator than the theme of the film.
My own conclusions on the theme changed as I watched: being on or off stage, activities that happen at night, people who are working surrounded by people who are not, the services people provide to others.
By the end, I had arrived at: jobs that must be done at night. But distilling it down to that is a trivialisation. It is more worthwhile to think, “There are jobs that can’t wait until morning”, and take that as a jumping off point. Some general questions arise. What do these jobs entail? Why can’t they wait? Who does them? How? Then, more specific questions arise. Why does the night nurse clean the hand rails in the care home as well as attending to the patients? How does one talk to a stranger who is suicidal? Why are parcels sorted separately from letters?
In the film, there are many moments of distance and alienation. But, there are moments of human connection, too - a nurse tenderly feeding an old woman from a beaker, two people taking turns to shower after having sex, the film’s poster showing a network of street lights strung through the darkness of Europe.
Unsleeping people connected in the night.
Here, according to Last.fm, are the bands I have listened to the most over the last seven years. I have put in bold the bands that feel like a part of my identity. When I think about these bands, I get a warm glow. When I talk about them, I say “I fucking love”.
Dear and the Headlights
The Paper Chase
The Mars Volta
The Blood Brothers
Hurray for the Riff Raff
A Silver Mt. Zion
These identity bands have some common traits.
One. I love at least two of their records. Dear and the Headlights: both of their albums. Sunset Rubdown: all of their albums. Women: both of their albums. Des Ark: all of their live acoustic records. The Paper Chase: Now You Are One of Us and God Bless Your Black Heart. A Silver Mt. Zion is the exception, here. Horses in the Sky is one of my top ten records, ever. The rest of their albums probably aren’t even in my top fifty.
Two. I admire the aesthetic they achieve. Dear and the Headlights. The most beautiful melodies by anyone, ever. Bob Dylan. The deeper you go into his lyrics, the more you find. Women. The Beach Boys as a noise rock band. The Paper Chase. Find the most beautiful melody, then destroy it with how hard you feel it. Des Ark. Equate the art with the artist. Aimée Argote puts no distance between her manifestation in real life and her manifestation in her art. She makes music that, when heard, might be detrimental to her actual life.
Three. I find pieces of their music very meaningful. It is hard for me to cite examples, because music is so far from words. Not only is it impossible for me to explain why I love Bob Dylan’s line, “Let me dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free”, but it’s precisely because of its wordless meaning that I like it, and it was Dylan who taught me that alogical emotion is worthy of trust.
Four. I admire (my conception of) the song-writer as a person. Sunset Rubdown’s Spencer Krug has a solo project, Moonface. The Pitchfork review of the Moonface record, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped, said Sunset Rubdown’s Dragonslayer is “A personal record about the toll that the worlds inside someone’s head takes on his relationships.” Des Ark. Aimée Argote sings about being a broken, high-functioning person. She sings about immovable, incidental, unpolitical queerness. Bob Dylan. He constantly moves on from his previous successes. As seen in the documentaries, Dont Look Back, and No Direction Home: he lives this life on the road half in love with Joan Baez, half in love with his own head.
I can’t identify with The Mars Volta’s music. Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics mean nothing. He chooses words that are one, impressionist remove from their actual meaning, rather than assembling a rich, internally consistent network from a few versatile base operators. Omar Rodríguez-López’s approach to arrangement is to chuck everything in. By saying everything, you say nothing.
I really like the Tony Scott film, Enemy of the State. It is a thriller that is brilliantly thrilling. In the same way, The Mars Volta’s music cuts in on a primal level and makes me want to sing and dance, which is kind of what music is supposed to be all about.
In Spelunky, you go through a learning experience that is like the learning experience you go through in the real world. First, you become familiar with the behaviour of the elements of the game. The arc described by a projectile. The beat walked by a cave man. The activation perimeter of the spikes in a totem pole. Second, you learn strategies for overcoming these elements. Land your jump on top of that totem pole. Strike a cave man three times with your boomerang to kill him. Third, you learn back-up strategies for the moments when your primary strategies won’t work. Activate the totem pole spikes by passing near them. Just as they are withdrawing, jump, hang onto the edge of the pole and haul yourself up. Jump on the cave man’s head to stun him. Throw him somewhere else. Fourth, you learn to combine the behaviours of elements. Whip a cave man until he sees stars. Throw him at the foot of a totem pole. Watch him get spiked to death.
But Spelunky is better than the real world, because it is simpler. There are fewer active elements, and no redundant elements. This makes the rules of the world easier to understand. It makes it easier to concoct a plan. It makes it easier to understand why the plan went wrong.
In Spelunky, you are always having fun. What type of fun? You are always on the edge of your seat because you lose everything when you die. You are never frustrated because the levels are randomly generated, so you need never replay any part of the game. You are always in an intellectually stimulating situation. Each level gives you a new combination of obstacles. And you can make the game as hard as you like. You can go for the riskily placed bars of gold, or the valuable artifacts that set off traps when you pick them up, or the items that you are too poor to buy and that must be stolen.
In Spelunky, you must balance risk and reward. Do you jump into that pit to try and grab those bars of gold, knowing that you might get unlucky, miss the jump out and get eaten by that man trap? This decision has multiple dimensions. The amount of gold you have determines your score, which might be important to you. But it also determines what you can buy. What you can buy affects your options for dealing with situations. You can buy more ropes and bombs. You can buy items with specific uses like ice guns, springs for your shoes, parachutes, and sticky gloves. Having extra things makes you more adaptable.
And what you can buy affects concerns outside your current life. Each death resets everything, besides the experience and skills you (not your avatar) have acquired on this go-round. But, very occasionally, there will be an artifact of your life that survives you. There are four worlds. Surviving the first leads you to the second. Surviving the second leads you to the third. Usually, death means starting right back at the beginning of the first world. But, if you make it through a world bearing particular gifts - a sizeable amount of gold, a bomb, a rope, it depends - someone called the Tunnel Man will dig you a permanent short cut to the beginning of that world. And purchase is one of the ways you can get hold of these gifts.
I have spent most of my game time this Christmas trying to make it to the end of world two with a shotgun for the Tunnel Man. To do this, I must battle through the jungle, at some point lay my hands on a shotgun, then make it to the end of the world alive.
Purchasing a shotgun is one of the options at my disposal. But shotguns are expensive and rarely in stock. In practice, I find myself making my way through the jungle, hoping to stumble across one of the two beings who carry shotguns: the shop keeper and the man guarding treasure. As I go, I try and accrue gold, bombs, extra health and some sort of projectile weapon.
If I see a mark, I do one of a range of colossally stupid things that will, almost certainly, end in my death. The least terrible plan is to use bombs to blast my way down into the shop or treasure trove, then keep throwing bombs in, hoping to kill the target. If I don’t have enough bombs, and I have a boomerang, I might try and stun the keeper/hoarder and then kill him with his own shotgun. If I have no boomerang, I will resort to doing the stunning with a lobbed rock, skull or damsel in distress.
The day before yesterday, I managed to get a shotgun. Afterwards, I proceeded very carefully. I made a beeline for each level exit. I collected no gold. I stayed back and shotgunned enemies.
I reached a row of vines hanging above spikes (instant death). These vines separated me from the world exit and the Tunnel Man. I drew a preparatory breath (in my actual lungs, not my explorer avatar’s lungs - breathing is not modelled in Spelunky) and thought, “Now, Mary, be careful. You’re not very good at these vines. You sometimes forget you have to hold up on the controller to cling on.” I leapt out over the pit, forgot to hold up and died.
I’ve just told you a gaming story, a monologue that tries to connect a series of disparate events into a causal, meaningful narrative. People attempt to turn the events in their own lives into narratives in the same way. We try and find causality in a world far too complex for our tiny brains to understand. I say, “I keep on moving from city to city, from country to country, because I can’t stand easiness.” We try to find meaning in causality. I say, “I can’t stand easiness because I’m searching for something that I feel is missing.”
Connecting events together into a narrative to find causality takes us a step from alarming randomness into delicious patterns. Using narrative devices - revelation, symmetry, ellipsis - to create meaning takes us another reassuring step into even more delicious, higher level patterns.
The Pitchfork review of Moonface’s record, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped, said Sunset Rubdown’s record, Dragonslayer, is “A personal record about the toll that the worlds inside someone’s head take on his relationships.”
Spencer Krug, the songwriter for Moonface and Sunset Rubdown, expresses patterns in his art that he cannot adequately communicate to the people in his life. This type of communication failure can also occur when reacting to art by another. I’ve tried so many times to explain to people what I like about Sunset Rubdown, how the corridors of the basement of the House of Leaves make me feel, what I see in Al Pacino’s eyes when Frank Serpico realises that his girlfriend is about to leave. But I can’t make myself understood.
With games, it’s even worse. I have some hope that I could make the people I care for understand why I like Hoop Dreams, because they know how documentaries work. But the structure and tropes of games are a mystery to my beloveds. We do not even have a common ground from which to start. So the things I learn from games, the feelings I get, the experiences I have, are locked up inside me, inexpressible.
I tried to find a still to illustrate this post. A still to illustrate the film. This is impossible. It can’t be the shot of Lisa shouting at her mum. It can’t be the shot of the bus driver bluffing his way through his interview with Lisa. It can’t be the shot of Darren crying. It can’t be the shot of the class debate blowing up. Margaret is just people talking. The shots are designed to show these conversations. As stills, they convey no information. There is little artistic observation in the locations, the colours, the montage, the framing. All there is are the words and the characters’ tones and expressions as they say them.
The most appropriate frame would come from the opening credits. These show New York crowds crossing streets in slow motion. They show the people lit up who are on stage and the people in darkness who are not. They make the ordinary lives of ordinary people as fascinating as those of fictional characters.
Margaret is a mess. It has too many side plots. It overdoes its crescendos. It has a strange mix of oblique emotional observation that is almost as good as Anna Karenina and characters that foghorn the director’s thoughts for him. Some characters feel like real people, others made up.
But it’s a very good film.
Press coverage of my latest game:
Kill Screen, PC Gamer, Chrome Experiments, Reddit, Indie Games, The Next Web, Creative Applications, AQNB, Kongregate, JS.gd, Bonte Games, HTML5Games.com, HTML5Games.net, I Can Has Cheezeburger, Ecrans, Bart Bonte’s best browser games of 2012.
I was interviewed for this Huffington Post piece about why programming should be taught in schools.