Cylne: a wet art dream for Games Critics

Consider Cylne a wet dream (game) for modern Ludonauts

A artful provocation by Theodore Miles / remix of another Killscreen self-parody

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One need not be sceptical when told a videogame is “poetic.” Poetry and games often seem entirely compatible; hypertext poems and novels clearly show the avenues for poetic exploration possible in digital texts

While “poetic” can be as vague a buzzword as “cinematic” or “immersive,” more useful in cultivating an air of Ludonautic interest than offering insight into a particular state of play, this does not mean players should automatically dismiss genuine attempts to create an artistic experience digitally

However, after reading Cylne’s descriptions as “a symbolic game” and “a first person surreal exploration game, in the form of a visual poems collection,” many players are now even more convinced that the whole Cultural hype about “Games are Art” has gone on unchallenged long enough

Consider too the sense in which Games Critics seem so bent on justifying their own ontologically dubious existence as holders and beholders of the holy Games = Art torch, that when any old Crapolaware comes poncing along onto the electronic marketplace of vacuous virtual experience, their blind willingness to stick the Art label on it too often marks them out as shills of Culture and taste, sensitive aesthetes of lifeless digital voids

“Visual poems” is an apt descriptor for Cylne, partly because Cylne is a particularly easy game to describe: “Cylne makes the poetry of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings look positively Vogonesque by comparison

It belongs to the all too prevalent, and (often necessarily) derisively named category of “walking simulator.” Whereas other artful tone-poems such as Gone Home, The Path, The Stanley Parable or Dear Esther ground their excessively limited interaction with shoehorned-in elements of ‘story’ or ‘purpose’, Cylne seems to have entirely bypassed any intangible pretence toward narrative or player impetus

Each of the five chapters offer little more than ‘surreal’ landscapes to mope around. Massive boulders decorated with glowing glyphs guard a bland expanse of desert flanked by two titanic chains. Twisting spires of bone or rock form makeshift bridges and ladders stretching to and from nowhere. Levitating door frames suggest portals to other, equally bland worlds

All these environments host equally enigmatic (read: largely inexpressive and depressingly minimalist) soundscapes, sparsely populated by the echoes of mournful guitars, clanging bells, crackling fires, the clank of metal of solid ground

“Progress” in Cylne occurs after walking to, or in some cases merely looking at certain objects. These entities either cause the environment to change, thereby opening up new avenues to explore, or they transport the player to a new area. *yawn*

Players would be mistaken to assume this is some zen-like reduction of gameplay to its most basic elements. What makes Cylne an alienating experience is not that it renders the most basic interesting concepts of interaction unfamiliar by dropping the player in a world with its own rules, with its own sense of twisted dream-logic

Rather, it has no rules to speak of, and its sense of ‘twisted dream-logic’ feels all but entirely senseless. Walking across an ashen wasteland, which turns into levitating high above the ground and then into swimming outside the world itself, all with little or no warning, does not an automatically deep experience make. Not unless you feel bizarrely passionate about Games As Art, and feel the questionable, burning desire to mindlessly extol their (apparently endless) virtues as Artful Experiences

Sure, as one plays, one might well suddenly think of Ben Marcus’ The Age of Wire and String, a novel/short story collection/encyclopedia about a world built from the detritus of structures both physical and social. Yet one does so, perhaps because there’s a desperate need to think of anything whatsoever that has more too it than Cylne

In fact, nearly anything one thinks about holds more potential interest and philosophical possibility than Cylne, an incredibly ugly game that harks back to random shovelware point n’ click Myst-likes from the 90s

The developer Marcus, much like Cylne, places his reader within an all too familiar world made from familiar parts, and only by ploughing past the wreckage of artful language of Games Critics can players make sense of the senseless world glimpsed on the screen

Cylne’s flaccid ideology is to ask its players: to willingly abandon assumed operational functions to embrace what it (somehow remotely) imagines are ‘alternate paths to meaning

Alternative paths? To ‘meaning’? What meaning? Do not be confused, player – there is no confusion available here, no ‘surrealism’. In fact the meaning is entirely transparent, and all too understandable – the only probable meaning of Cylne is that it has none whatsoever. None that is, outside the hollow words of those who mistakenly defend it as a Work Of Art

Only by sifting the wreckage of Ludonautic language can players make sense of the self enclosed world of Ludonauts

Like the surrealists (who Ludonauts laughably consider ‘inspired’ Cylne), their boneless attempts to unify the waking tangible world – here recognizable in the brainless simplicity of movement controls combined with the abstract, stilted movements of their own unconscious, their apparent dreamscapes and lifeless interactions – in a way feels a hunt for an ideal mode of expression (about how perfectly useless their are)

The canned surrealisms of Dalí rely heavily on juxtaposition of seemingly familiar objects presented in dull new ways – for instance, combining object and animal or confusing environment and perspective – not to reproduce the functional mysteries of thought, but to evoke the idea of them as functional mysteries. In fact however, thought and existence is all too understandable, all too easily knowable

Yet pseudo-critics of games like Cylne, wide-eyed with plastic wonderment, work with juxtaposition and constant misdirection as well, measuring misdirection against fake revelation, constantly asking the player to ‘come to their own conclusions’ about why its different worlds exist in their current states, as though there’s anything really there to see, play with, think or really care about

Cylne breaks into the more active aspects of this modern Ludonautic surrealism as well. In his Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton theorized that the best way surrealism could access the complexities of thought was through “pure psychic automatism,” a way to allow the cynical digital game artist to create from (or to simulate) randomness and error as possible manifestations of the dubious notion of the Unconscious

Symbollics, more like

Likewise, Cylne certainly has the appearance of randomness in that the environment changes in all too expected unexpected ways by responding to the player’s paltry nods toward interaction

The resulting dreamscapes seemingly create themselves as the player explores them, and the results only seem to reveal some ‘unexpected lucidity’ surrounding the rules that govern the world. But these are only the boring and often entirely arbitrary rules of the Ludonaut, which govern how players are meant ‘correctly’ read such automatic Games As Art works (that is, Culturally)

This minor revelation lies at the heart of Cylne’s pre-packaged surrealism and its lazily shrink-wrapped promises of accessing some sort of digital unconscious. The comparisons the game invites with other artists seem entirely plausible, given that it also strives to be ‘about so much more’ than the game itself

Surrealism, having splintered from the politically charged and far more exciting Dada movement, speaks as much about the culture of its day – the disillusionment after the first World War, the role of art in the age of machinery, the advances in science and shifting social structures – as it does as a largely failed formal experiment in artistic informality

Cylne however remains perfectly content to confine its exploration to soulless digital space, rarely attempting to use the text to say anything about the world, in or outside. (Like any other choices were even on offer)

Even these merge criticisms seem insignificant; the game’s distinct lack aesthetics make for some non-uniquely ugly environments as well as some un-insightful moments of clarity about the often bland nature of modern play. Even if that itself makes the game “poetic,” it might not matter all that much

If games have boring dreams about nothing in particular, players might be smart to wager they’d look something like Cylne – just not as much as the laughable £8.99 it requires for its dishwater mundane Artistic pabulum

In the future, all unannounced games will be Nature Trail Fly-throughs

In the future, all unannounced games will feature ‘nature trail’ style fly-throughs

The trees, foliage and realtime grass will be beautifully rendered, the skybox magnificent, the rivers deep, the mountains broad, the viewpoint majestic – and the whole warm and pleasant artistic statement a hyper-generic product of a phenomenal lack of Imagination, so utterly ubiquitous, one wonders if a parallel unknown race of sentient machines has started to churn out these Natural™ Setting trailers as some form of Gamified Performance Art competition

Note how such trailers, rather than actually informing anyone about the game to come, are far more simply machine-ego demonstrations of (allegedly) automatically-impressive Demonstrations Of Tech

If they inspire Playdevs to do anything, it is to run – or in this case, fly-through such comprehensively characterless and plain-vanilla, workaday-whitebread design in any opposing direction whatsoever at high speed

In strict comparison, check out the wildly artificial setting and play scenario of “Insane Door Factory” by Tiny Little Studios

The Witness: Japanese woodblock prints

Vertical screenshot banners from The Witness game’s official site were placed together and tweaked in Gimp for an hour:

The banners were first arranged horizontally in order of brightness, one each side, before being resized to 4K

Then their relative brightness was flattened out, and some of the brighter light sources in each banner inverted

Various film, anti-aliasing and chromatic aberration filters were then used

Finally, a Wikipedia reference to Japanese woodblock prints – 木版画 ‘moku hanga‘ – were retro-fitted to their design to suggest a possible imaginative / aesthetic context

 

Xilitla and the shallow art of Culturally sanctioned Play

Who cares for you? said Alice – You’re nothing but a pack of pixels!
– Alice In Ludoland

Alice as wonderland Ludologist
Alice as wonderland Ludologist

What you first consider is Just Another Lousy Art Nor Game (‘jalang’) that turns out just to be a messy, yet all too understandable symbol of (what must be by now the long standing) role of Interactive Digital Art in the largely philosophically-devoid world of officially (Culturally) sanctioned Play. It’s bright, slick. Who’s the audience for this?

It’s the glitch, not as a signal of an interruption, but as a symbol of the (/art) system’s continued wellbeing; a reification of continuing commodity fetishism

Bromidic, Wittgensteinian Language Game “Xilitla” by Rosa Menkman

The Making Of Video for this jalang appears interesting for the potential insights provided into the lofty, twilight virtual world of International Art; of the world of important, oh-so smart people (with The Right Connections) who are able to speak convincingly, fluidly and at length about their various Research Projects and come out with they assume is intelligible explanations andor loose theoretical justifications for whatever on digital earth they think I.T is they’re doing, making, performing (or mostly it appears) Selling

It’s a world of Artistic Directorships, grand (yet narrowly esoteric) festivals, of ‘artists in residence on the forefront of this immersive digital media revolution‘ – of Research Grants, densely worded conference papers, elite fellow peer review, digital be-ins. One becomes a museum quality piece of living installation, permanently installed in the Artistic System – entire Institutes Of Networked ©ulture

..And as a Ludologist, oh how you’d love to be up there with them, giving overly long, deliberately dry, po-faced interviews about What It’s All About. International travel at leisure. Fancy magazines in the business class waiting lounge featuring elite postmodern typefaces. Complementary drinks and self-complementary analysis over one’s Culturally acceptable, family friendly videographic achievements

The ‘uncanny glitch art’ mentioned by Kill Screen – just their sort of thing – does indeed do what it says on the tin; it causes deep existential crisis through being perfectly self-inserted up its own Arts. A perfectly sealed Klein Bottle (that is, sealed from the outside) from which Players are unable to escape, penetrate, connect with meaningfully or co-assimilate (unlike the International Art World to which they concede their brittle plastic forms); shallow surfaces masquerading as deep rivers of delicate theoretical conception and tangible meaning

The most interesting aspect of “The Game Xilitla” is the “Xilitla Manual .txt” file which comes with the game’s executable. It reads like video game art gallery ad copy. One wonders just how remotely interesting the ‘Xilitla’ Art Experience would be without it. Cultural context masquerading as actual content appears king here:

Manual Xilitla

> Here you cannot die and you cannot win If you fall of the world you come out right on top
> Please look for the staircase that will bring you down again

> I am a very nasty movement programmer
> But I made you a cheat which will make it easier for you to move
> Now isnt that nice?
> ===> When you push Alt / Cmd key you will change from camera 1 to camera 2 and vice versa <===

> use A / S / D / W to move space bar to jump and control to restart. Happy gaming!

> Rosa Menkman rmenkman@gmailcom
> =====================

> Shout outs go to da Unity_cr3ws
> Alex Myers Rick Silva Kevin Carey Nick Kegeyan and Bryan Peterson for (ᴳ̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇̇litch) Art > Genealogies
> Alfredo Salazar-Caro and William Robertson for unity support
> Tamas Kemenczy / jonCates Jake Elliott / Theodore Darst
> VADE for Syphon

> Nick and Jon == best of chi
> MSHR Pussykrew Goodiepal Sister0 and Emma for magick
> My MX families HD XD / Mafer and Funkee / Elisa and Alex
> Jodi and Glitchmom

____________

> A first iteration was made possible by Cante Impakt, The Netherlands Embassy in Mexico, The Mondrian Foundation, CONACULTA and FONCA

> Kristoffer Gansing for the moveforward catalogue August 2012

> Wrong Places Inbetween One Code and Another

> Contemporary art in the contexts of global economical and informational networks belongs to Janus the god of transitions in space and time such as between physical places or between past and future Miwon Kwon in her seminal One Place After Another (2002) investigated the transformation of the notion of site-specificity in contemporary art from one of “permanence and immobility” to one of “impermanence and transience”

> More recently in the context of the algorithms guiding our computational everyday the work of the Dutch artist and researcher Rosa Menkman continues our poetic education in ongoing transformations of time and place and in the paradoxes of the never-ending search for specificity and authenticity within transience

> For Kwon the notion of site-specificity is intrinsically tied to our understanding of the identity location and authenticity of art In the 1960s site-specific art she claims was related to an interest in the physical properties of a particular place then with institutional critique this interest was expanded to the socio-economic structures governing art In the global art market Kwon identifies a move towards a nomadic model where site specificity is predicated on mobility

> With the increasingly itinerant artist of the 1990s going from residency to residency or from biennial to biennial the value of a site-specific artistic practice is no longer grounded primarily in a physical place or in a particular institutional arrangement but in the particular set of skills that an artist is bringing in going from one place to another Site-specificity may seem anachronistic in a world in which socio-economic structures are mobile and fluid but site-specificity itself was effectively transformed in order to comply with network culture It is in this context of specificity in transience of “relational specificity” that Kwon puts her trust in the encounter with the “wrong place” as one that “may expose the instability of the right place”

> Arguably the aesthetics of the “wrong place” is since long an established artistic trope spanning for example surrealism situationism and netart Architecture is obviously also a stronghold for all kinds of seductively “wrong places” and in the context of Menkmans new work Edward James surrealist sculpture park Las Pozas located just outside Xilitla springs to mind

> In 1990s media art the notion of site was dealt with in the artistic exploration of new media spaces seemingly dislocated from traditional notions of time space and embodiment (the utopian promise virtual reality)

> Equally however with the rise of critical net culture there was an artistic interest in what Manuell Castells dubbed the “real virtuality” of a world increasingly defined through electronic mediation

> Evocative of the idea of the “wrong place” the recent genre of so called “glitch art” seems to be ambiguously situated in between these two directions of media art one devoted to the joyful creation of new hybrid realities and one devoted to critically exposing the borders and materiality existing also within apparent hybridity New art genres such as glitch increasingly function in a meme-like fashion as Berry van Dartel Dieter et al (2012) explore in their thorough analysis of “The New Aesthetic” (an Internet meme put forward in 2011)

> Inspired by Laurent Berlants work on aesthetic genres they write that “Aesthetic relations take shape as trackable genres or forms which enable contemporary subjects to attach to and at least inhabit the contradictions and ambivalence of this Now”

> But glitch as artists such as jonsatrom or Rosa Menkman demonstrate holds an edge over the technology obfuscating tendencies of The New Aesthetic which revels in 8-bit consumer nostalgia and a superficial overlapping of old and new On the contrary the best of glitch art is not afraid to manipulate the machinery and provoke the emergence of wrong places that disturb our sense of the real in computational culture

> If the sites of site-specific have been progressively transformed from material to immaterial then glitch art suggests a return to materiality

> The structures that allowed one to move from one place to another were indeed never immaterial not even when that movement took place in so called virtual space

> The transience of network culture is defined by codes in the form of algorithms that shift data around be it money audiovisual content or interpersonal communication

> Standard file formats for text and image files and the associated compression codecs for text image audio and video data such as rtf jpg wav or mpeg belong to this domain of data shifting and they constitute the quintessential artistic material for the glitch artist If there ever was a “relational specificity” then these highly transient informational sites revel in it

> This relational specificity also defines the art of Rosa Menkman as virtually everything in her work is generated out of something else not in a serial progression but precisely through constant feedback in between one thing and something else between one code and another

> Appropriately one of Menkmans earlier projects is called A Vernacular of File Formats demonstrating the research component of her work as it was disseminated through workshops and published as a guide to databending compression

> It was the scarce information available at the time of writing on Menkmans new work Xilitla an interface for her Videoscapes series that prompted me into the detour of exploring site-specific art

> Currently Menkman is developing this as a new tool for audiovisual live performance using the glitch methodologies with which she created earlier acousmatic video landscapes In her prototyping we see a surreal 3d character “dancing” over a vast plane of live analogue video feedback

> Everything about this place seems “wrong” in the deconstructive way associated with Menkmans work and it is clear that we are here situated in a site with things existing in a multilayered relation to one another

> It takes Menkmans work of deconstruction to a new level this being a software that will eventually be used for the generation of new kinds of wrong scapes by others than the artist herself

> But rest assured that it will not be a straightforward software tool where all is transparent

> The font for the interface of the software has already been released on Menkmans website a very hard to read lo-fi version of a Charles Rennie Mackintosh font common on buildings in Mexico City

> It is these kinds of subtle displacements of recognizable standards that ultimately allow us to respond to the glitchy and wrong places of Menkmans work

> They are not simply demonstrations of technical feedback but also attempt however contradictory to take on the shape of characters and narratives that seem to explore the negotiation of misplaced identities and loss of self searching for relational specificity regardless if it is a technical or a human one

> This was clearly an issue in Menkmans performance The Collapse of Pal – a piece commissioned for live TV by Linda Hilfling and myself to commemorate the death of analogue transmission

> In that work technology was clearly Janus-faced as PAL the outgoing television format was filtered through Benjamins Angel of History there is a nostalgia for what was lost but at the same time the past is forming a debris relentlessly pushing forward the acceleration of the increasingly chaotic future

> In this work the narrative definitely involved the moving from one code to another from PAL to MPEG but it also refused to think this shift linearly as the glitch methodology jumbled the analogue and digital audiovisual feedback together

> I am intrigued by the possibilities of Rosas new work to further “wronging” of past present and future media scapes

> – Kristoffer Gansing (SE) Artistic Director of the Transmediale festival in Berlin

Whatever you say. There’s a distinct lack of danger here. When “Glitch just = Crap“: something’s laughing out loud at uncritical acceptance of highly polished, culturally sanctioned, alienating electronic niceness being professionally dumped on your theoretical doorstep, Player

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Cynically cloning Gone Home in “Life Is Strange” by Square Enix

Consider how “Life Is Strange” could appear as a parody of ‘an indie game‘ without an original – and ‘lite’ puzzles

Life Is Strange by Square Enix attempts to heavily-handedly construct its bizarre (corporate) notion of ‘strange’, shamelessly ripping off better experiments like Gone Home in an attempt to display that authentic™, ‘edgy’ hand-made Indie Vibe

Firstly, the title brings to mind “Life Is Beautiful” – specifically, Zizek’s thoughts on such movies

*Puts headphones on – must be an angsty, independently minded loner harbouring A Dark® Secret / sensitive soul*

Who is the mis-perceived demographic for Life Is Strange: moody hormonal adolescents who overrated Donnie Darko? Players who forced themselves to find depth and hard-won suburban wisdom in Juno?

As though designed-by-committee for maximum fun, ticking off all the necessary boxes it thinks signifies ‘cool’ – predict a Ludonautical frenzy over this one

Parsing the game’s description, taken from the official website:

> Life is Strange is an episodic, narrative driven adventure game [..]

– Episodic: the ability to profit more by splitting up and padding out

What does ‘narrative driven’ mean? The narrative being generated here by Square Enix seems to be that “This is a honest, heartfelt and emo-tional gaming experience deliberately targeted at, er.. book lovers, people who enjoy windy autumn walks and mom’s home backed (faintly Lynchian) apple pie

> which tells the compelling story of Max; a Senior photography student who suddenly discovers she is able to rewind time

- [..] and every girl goes through a photography phase,
like horses, you know dumb pictures of your feet..
– Charlotte, Lost In Translation

> She uses her power to save the life of Chloe, her childhood friend, whom she has not seen in five years

– Does not answer the (sometimes) useful ‘who are these people and why should we care’ question. “Goly gee, guess we’ll have to play to find out!”  (Why not question her motivations and make for a more compelling dramatic conceit instead?)

> For Chloe it’s been a turbulent time and she’s been drifting off course since her father’s tragic death

– Convenient and clichéd, that is

> The reunion will turn their lives upside down [..]

– Ouch. Didn’t see that coming. Hopefully their faith in Amerika will cure that

> as increasingly strange events plague the small town of Arcadia Bay [..]

Alan Wake was here. As for ‘Arcadia Bay’ – as if

> both teenagers find themselves involved in a grim investigation into the mysterious disappearance of a high school student

Nancy Drew was also here – arriving direct from the uncanny valley

Update Patch: time for another gimmick

Over at Errant Signal, Christopher Franklin attempts a more rounded and nuanced view of the game

He’s also wrong. If one asks, “Why does this game exist?”, or more specifically “What does its central mechanic say it tells us about our own lives” the answer might be a lot less interesting than the reasons the developers would like players to imagine

The game’s central idea of being able able to directly manipulate time feels entirely arbitrary. Life Is Strange does not ‘explore the possibility space of interaction’ but merely  seems to exploit the whole embarrassingly useless / cheesy sci-fi notion of time manipulation to explore its own dominance of this particular Hip sector of the so-called Art Games market

That is, it could have bypassed the cheap Rewind Time gimmick entirely, and instead simply focused on ‘character’ development, simply using the love of amateur photography as a troubled metaphor for (literally) framing time. As it is, the developer’s decidedly non committal choices, though not without minimally meaningful or immediate consequence, feel so generally vapid as to question the need for any interaction on the player’s part

That is, Life Is Strange is so offensively non-offensive, so deliberately and casually vague and warm pastel toned – “Hand painted murals faded by years in the sun” (gimmie a break) – that it might as well of been an animation or a comic