On Pete Buttigieg

https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/01/buttigiegs-hollow-military-bragging/

This article about Buttigieg’s rather hollow military service helped me understand what I find so distasteful about his campaign: he reminds me of Singapore’s ministers. Buttigieg’s military career was short. He entered through a scheme known as Direct Commission and his short-lived Afghanistan deployment was spent mostly pushing papers. Yet now he spends all of his time on the campaign trail talking up his military experience.

The thing about the military is that it is the one organization in which attaining a high position in its hierarchy is uniformly respected and recognized (at least among pre-millennial generations). If you wanted to manufacture respect and honour and experience, this is a simple way of doing it. Thus the phenomena of “paper generals” in Singapore, where potential ministers are given high ranks in the SAF, before being parachuted into cushy ministerial roles, lording over civil servants with vastly more experience and understanding of the necessities and responsibilities of the ministries they are in charge of. The high rank in the SAF seems to justify their ministerial role. It’s self-confirming.

Buttigieg’s hollowness is evident in his rhetoric. Consider this tweet:

Like, no shit Sherlock? The nature of our governance systems ha implications for the effects of governance. Like, duh. There’s no wisdom in this. But it has the *aesthetics* of intelligence and eloquence. It sounds smart. The Singapore government’s rhetoric feels like this so often. It sounds visionary and imaginative and progressive and forward looking. But there frequently is no substantiate progressive policy underlying it. The policies underlying this rhetoric is often safe and milquetoast. Exactly like Buttigieg, and it’s really really disheartening that so many people seem taken in by this sort of thing, both in the USA and here.

The mourning in Night in the Woods and Kentucky Route Zero

[minor spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero and Night in the Woods]

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Kentucky Route Zero (KRZ) and Night in the Woods (NITW) are games about decay. They’re both focused on small town America, and the slow death of rural communities as a consequence of corporate consolidation and changing times. There’s a clear pattern in indie games here. This isn’t unique to American games. Disco Elysium, from Estonian developers, too is about the slow death of societies.

In NITW, Mae returns home from college to find the town she grew up in and loved altered irrevocably. The local mines have shuttered, and most of the younger populace have moved to cities for opportunities elsewhere. The town residents are aging. Small businesses are closing. Infrastructure is breaking down.

Similarly, the town at the edge of the Zero in KRZ is dying. Jobs disappeared as businesses closed or were absorbed by the Consolidated Power Co. People have left, and those that haven’t are deep in debt, slowly dying or already dead. The Power Co. pulled out of the town when it stopped making business sense. The infrastructure they were supposed to build left incomplete. As a consequence, torrential storms have flooded it, destroying many of the houses – a final death blow to the already precarious town.

For Mae, the decay is unfamiliar. She is in the prime of her youth, privileged enough to attend college, with the freedom to move beyond the town into the cities where opportunities still exist. The decay is a shock to the system – A reminder that the childhood she knew was long gone, far in the past. for the people in the Zero, the decay is all too familiar, a constant throughout their lives, a state of the world they had to live through.

Despite their similarities, NITW and KRZ are remarkably different in tone. NITW is steeped in child-like nostalgia – a longing for the world of the past. During her time at home, she relives childhood memories with the few friends who have remained. In KRZ, the nostalgia has faded. We are left with a mourning and a silent bitter anger at the powers-that-be. The residents of the Zero live in a liminal state. The world has not ended, but it looks like it might soon. Days are dedicated to mourning the past, not reliving it.

NITW’s reflects a very young perspective. The decay started before we were ever around. It lurked in the background, ignored by our youthful naivety. KRZ has an aged perspective. They have seen the tides change. They have been drowning in them. KRZ mourns the world that was. NITW mourns the world that could have been.

Crunch and Consumers

The announcement of Cyberpunk 2077’s delay came together with a barely-tacit admission that the developers would be crunching to meet this already-delayed release date.

It should, I think, be an uncontroversial statement to say that crunch is bad. It’s psychologically draining, demotivating and simply leads to bad quality work from people. For the individual, it’s also completely unsustainable.

For the corporation though, you can pretty much go on crunch mode forever if you are able to replenish your workforce as they slowly get fired or quit from depression and disillusionment. This is very much happening. Blizzard did this when they laid off over 800 people before relisting their job positions with either lower pay or more responsibilities or both.

Hiring and firing is a hassle, of course, but the crunch, ah yes the crunch makes it worth it. Crunch make thing go fast. When thing go fast, you make more thing. When you make more thing you make more money.

But hey, games are made for us consumers right? What if we, through sheer force of miraculous will, collectively decided we didn’t like our favourite game devs crunching? What is that sacred power we have under Capitalism? It’s like democracy but the rich have more power. Oh right! It’s called voting with your wallet. So let’s say we did just that. How does the company respond? Maybe, if you’re lucky, they stop crunching. Maybe, instead, they do something else to cope with lost revenue. They fire people. They add micro-transactions. They make smaller games. There’s a whole host of ways a company can cope with lost revenue. If your company culture involves crunch, it can feel like it’s impossible to separate your company from that culture. That certainly seems to be CD Projekt Red’s attitude. You can give them a reason to change. You can’t direct *how* they change.

The awkward truth here is that the idea of ‘voting with your wallet’, the power to shift markets and corporations through market incentives, is severely limited in a variety of ways. After all, you’re controlling a company’s bottom line, which is really just a single number. Maybe the power to stop crunch has to come from somewhere else. Maybe it has to come from within.



When a game is also a game engine

So Warcraft III Reforged just released, and Blizzards fans are kinda angry. Partly because the visual improvements aren’t as great as they were hyped up to be, but more interestingly, the remaster’s licensing agreement indicates that all custom user-created maps become the intellectual property of Blizzard.

This policy was in all likelihood inspired by the surprising success of DOTA, which started off as a custom map in the original Warcraft III. By implementing such a policy, Blizzard guarantees that should any cool ideas come out of the game’s community, they would be only ones with the ability to fully commercial exploit said idea.

When is a game not just a game? When is a game also a game engine? Mods have always occupied a strange grey area in terms of copyrights and IP ownership, yet it can be argued that this ambiguity is what allows interesting mods like DOTA or Counter-Strike to percolate to the top and emerge as full games in their own right. Blizzard’s policy draws a line in the sand, giving legal clarity where there once was not, but at the same time the legal territory they have drawn for themselves extends far and wide.

A simple compromise would be similar to what Valve allows for Source Engine games. Allow distribution of mods non-commercially, but require a licensing agreement for commercial distribution. In such a scenario, ownership of mods remain with the creator, and they have the ability to choose the best way forward for their project. Under Blizzard’s policy, your cool custom map can be yanked away from you without your consent.

How many map creators would see this policy and hesitate? How many cool map ideas would never be made? The original Warcraft III was an amazing bastion for this sort of thing. Warcraft III custom maps ran the gamut from party games to multiplayer RPGs to tower defense games to game adaptations of films to third person shooters. The remaster will have none of this.

Work and the Zero

[Some spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero]

Through an unfortunate series of events, Kentucky Route Zero’s Conway finds himself in debt to a mysterious distillery in the Zero, staffed entirely by strange glowing skeletons. With no way to pay, the distillery hounds him into working for them.

His traveling partner Shannon Marquez suggests that he could always just run from them. Run, far away from the curious spatial anomalies of the Zero, but Conway doesn’t want to. When they are granted the opportunity to rest and relax at the Rum Colony, a beach-side bar in the Zero with a literally infinite menu of Rum cocktails, Conway explains his reasoning.

He is getting old. His body is starting to fail. His boss, Lysette, may be going senile and is shutting down her shop. Small businesses throughout the Zero are slowly closing or being subsumed by the shadowy Consolidated Power Co.

He’s watching the decay of the world, and he, like everyone else, is powerless to stop it. How do you live in a world dying around you? How do you soldier on? How do you motivate yourself to keep living, to not want to drown yourself in rum cocktails? For Conway, the debt with the distillery is a blessing in disguise. If he just held a job, if he just worked, greased the cogs of the machine, then all will be well. Whether the world decays or lives, he could live with himself, that he did something dignified with his time.

Embedded in Conway’s story, in the nether shadows of the Zero, is this message: there is a hidden irony in late-stage capitalism. It swallows the world, and rots it from the inside, then offers us the appearance of an antidote, a salve for our anger and nihilism: work.

The Smallness of Florence

One of the texts for our interactive storytelling class is this, an interactive music video for Jeff Buckley’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman. As the music plays, a series of comic book style panels scroll past the screen. You are invited to click the panels, causing them to alternate between alternative narratives, where the two characters are either alone, happily together, or together but resentful. Later in the video, you are also given the ability to choose between additional layers of instrumentation that add to Buckley’s singing and strumming.

For a variety of reasons, this work reminded me a great deal of Mountains’ Florence. Like the music video, Florence focuses on a relationship and its ups and downs. Like the music video, the user/player is invited to interact, and explore how the tiny things in relationships can mean so much more.

Florence, like the music video, does not ask much of the user. While Florence is more game-like than the music video, with more defined rules underlying the interactions between game and player, the rules are still simple and easily comprehended. The simple gameplay requires little to no skill and only a mild level of mental engagement from the player.

It’s the perfect sort of game to play on your phone, so it makes sense that Android and iOS are the platforms it was released on. In an abstract sense, Florence is an ‘idle’ game. It’s the perfect thing to play on your commute or when waiting for a friend, when the time you have to play is short or uncertain and the changing environments around you preclude the sort of intense mental engagement more ‘hardcore’ games require.

Yet unlike a lot of the games that are usually referred to as idle games, Florence does not exist to waste your time or compel you to spend money with micro-transactions. Florence fills its moments with an emotional and thematic richness those sort of games frequently lack, and it does so without requiring the same level of player concentration and effort that all-encompassing experiences like Dear Esther or What Remains of Edith Finch do.

It’s tempting to think that to make a game that is emotional resonant or thematically rich or artful in some way you must make a game that is bold and enthralling and attention-grabbing, but Florence and the interactive music video show us another possibility: you can make a thing that is small and humble, and asks only for a small sliver of time and focus from the audience, and still deliver something beautiful. Games like Florence, small but resonant, are uncommon. I can’t think of many others like it. Gorogoa, Device 6, Donut County, to name a few. More of this sort of thing would be cool.

The familiarity of 1917

1917 feels familiar. Its set pieces, the rising and falling tension, the long moving shots are all in many ways evocative of Dunkirk. Even its famous conceit, appearing as if it were shot in a single take, hearkens back to the pitch perfect finale of Children of Men. 

The film is a technical achievement, no doubt, and it hits all the right notes, but I don’t feel the notes. I don’t feel them because I’ve heard them so many times before. I heard them in Dunkirk. I heard them in Children of Men. I heard them in Call of Duty. I heard them in Medal of Honor.

I don’t blame the film for my muted response. It does the best it can, but because the territory it explores is as well-trodden as the muddy trenches our protagonists walk through, it cannot help but feel like a song we’ve heard before. There was one conclusion for me at the end of the film: the cinematic language and thematic territory of war films have been so thoroughly explored that there might not be much left that is truly new.

Maybe there is some new paradigm out there, some new way of portraying the horrors of war, that we have not seen yet. It’s impossible to say for sure. The other question would be this: is there value then, in retreading old ground? Even if the visual language we use in new war films closely resemble war films of the past, is there value in them, in showing new generations the costs of war? In these uncertain times, it certainly feels like there is.

On Rogan

So Joe Rogan kinda sorta ‘endorsed’ Bernie Sanders. And the Sanders campaign picked up on that, and circulated the video of the endorsement.  Rogan is hardly a ideological ‘pure’ figure. His podcast has had guests associated with the alt-right. He himself has said some things that can be construed as transphobic. That said, his influence and reach is not to be reckoned with. His audience isn’t really right wing or centrist. They are frequently cognizant of the fundamental inequalities in society, but they don’t consider themselves left-wing due to their wariness of so-called identity politics.

 So when Sanders signal boosted the Rogan endorsement, it caused a bit of a stir, even among progressives, even among trans people.  The act of accepting Rogan’s endorsement is a tactical one. Rogan’s influence would likely bring many many votes in favour of Sanders. The acceptance of the endorsement implicitly suggests that these votes are more important than the feelings of trans people. 

The thing is, the votes are kinda more important though? If those votes help make Sanders the democratic presidential candidate, then the hope of a Sanders presidency grows brighter.  The feelings of people who are hurt are… well feelings. They are not invalid. They are not unimportant, but in consideration of how to respond to hurt that has been caused, factors beyond the hurt itself need to be considered. 

Is Rogan a figure to be ‘cancelled’? His podcast has certainly been hurtful in various ways, but I don’t think he is motivated by malice. Like his audience, he’s just ignorant. This is evident in his interviewing style. He allows guests to talk without end. Rarely does he disagree or question the claims made by his guests, even when they are so clearly wrong. By exposing himself to guests of wildly varying perspectives and claims, he and his audience end up ideologically rudderless. They have no comprehensive and consistent understanding of the system of the world. 

This can be exploited. 

Rogan’s audience and Rogan himself understand class inequalities, thus the Sanders endorsement. Now they just need to understand that minority issues and identity politics are part of the same system of inequalities. That’s not impossible.

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out but set in Singapore

Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc – Educated overseas. Tries to use Singlish when talking to others but sounds like a Mediacorp actor instead.

Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera – The Filipino maid who does all the real work and tolerates the vaguely racist things she overhears. Under-eats at mealtime because she’s afraid she’ll look too comfortable.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda Drysdale – Tells you how many calories is in that pineapple tart you’re eating without you asking. Gives you your angbao only after talking to you about Herbalife.

Michael Shannon as Walter Thrombey – Votes opposition because he thinks the PAP doesn’t help the poor. Only donates to charity when the President’s Star Charity Show is on. Gives very generous angbaos to the maid. Talks to her in bastardized Tagalog even though she’s fluent at English.

Chris Evans as Ransom – “You’ve seen my videos so you know I’m an internet millionaire”

Don Johnson as Richard Drysdale – Complains about there being too many foreign workers but his company is entirely dependent on them. Gives his employees angbaos containing coins. Wears reflective Oakley sunglasses even when it isn’t sunny.

Toni Collette as Joni Thrombey – Bigwig in the local arts scene. All her artist friends are exclusively Chinese and she hasn’t noticed.

Katherine Langford as Megan “Meg” Thrombey – Rails against capitalism on Facebook. Says she donates her angbaos to charity. She doesn’t.

Jaeden Martell as Jacob Thrombey – Talks to no one at family gatherings. Thinks videogames are getting too political. Likes anime but keeps it a secret.

Contagion and Information

David Fincher has always been known as a director who is interested in *information*. Panic Room’s introductory one take shot, where the camera flies through the house so your awareness of the space, and how elements in the space relate to each other is a classical example of this. Another director who shares this fascination with information is Steven Soderbergh, though he’s less known for this. Ocean 8 and its sequels constantly hint at their inevitable twists, ever so slyly suggesting the possibility of being able to predict the twist, but of course you can’t. 

Contagion, on the other hand, hides nothing. Released in 2011, Contagion depicts the outbreak of a global epidemic and the breakdown of social order as panic, fear and death set in. The film, stylistically, feels almost minimalist. All information known to its characters is known to you, and the information is presented concretely without embellishment. It’s incredible how documentary-like the entire film is. Nothing about the film feels excessively embellished or unrealistic. Soderbergh has complete faith that you will find its subject matter, a global epidemic and the resulting social decay, inherently interesting. 

And it is. This is not a character drama, per se. There are characters and they are vividly portrayed with their own fears and anxieties, but there is no real protagonist and the film frequently shows them to us with a detached eye. The central focus is not the characters. They are, like the symptoms of a disease, indicators of the failing organs of societal infrastructure. The characters, and their manifold positions throughout the world and society, allows us a comprehensive systemic understanding of how the epidemic erodes order. 

That’s what makes Contagion incredibly fascinating. It’s a film that’s not about individuals or personal narratives. It’s a film about systems. It’s a film about infrastructures. It’s a linear medium depicting non-linear dynamics and mechanisms. 

(Wait that’s supposed to be what videogames are good at!)