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Lana Polansky is a Montreal-based writer, game critic, amateur game-maker and professional scowler whose rantings you can enjoy on Twitter @LanaTheGun. She has written for Kill Screen, Billboard, The Wall Street Journal, Five Out of Ten, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty, re/Action, Paste Magazine and Bit Creature.

Brendan Keogh is a writer, videogame critic, and academic from Melbourne Australia. He has written for Edge, Unwinnable, and others, and is the author of Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops The Line. He writes infrequently on his blog, critdamage.blogspot.com, and too frequently on Twitter @BRKeogh.

Ghosts in the Machine by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh

Ghosts in the Machine is a collection of 13 short stories by a diverse group of videogame critics, journalists and artists about the bugs, glitches and design quirks of videogames and what they can tell us about ourselves. Many of these stories imagine the lives, thoughts and feelings of characters trapped inside the fractured, virtual worlds we understand as games, while others bridge the gap between the virtual and the real world. All of these stories look to the problems of games to examine problems we all face in different aspects of our lives.

Organized and edited by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh, and including writing by Lana Polansky, Ashton Raze, Denis Farr, Alan Williamson, Shelley “Big Shell” Du, Matt Riche, Rollin Bishop, Ian Miles Cheong, Aevee Bee, Ryan Morning, Dylan Sabin, Alois Wittwer and Maddy Myers.

CURATOR'S NOTE

A diverse, surprising set of short stories from the fringes of video game culture, written by some seriously thought-provoking critics. –Simon Carless

 

REVIEWS

  • "Ghosts in the Machine is a collection of short stories about video games, edited by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh. I dug it. And, surprisingly (to me), it has stuck with me a lot more than I assumed it would initially after reading it; there is, I'll say up front, something slight-feeling about many of the stories, but that is, or at least for me was, a mistaken assumption. The stories work in ways that aren't immediately evident, and in ways that I'm not really sure I'll be able to articulate. I do think that you should check it out, especially if you have some interest in games. It's not really what you're bound to expect, no matter who you are, even if it remains uncomfortably close to being so."

    –Uninterpetative

  • "This is a book about living out our own flaws, and the metaphors we see in video games that help us mediate this sometimes soul-crushingly overwhelming task. In “GDD,” the initial story in the collection, we are told “Don’t take my anecdotes literally.” There’s no attempt at covering up the use of hyperbole and metaphor because there is no need: sometimes the most honest truth comes out when we’re not exactly being strict with the rules of reality."

    –Medium Difficulty

 

BOOK PREVIEW

GDD

[All good games start with a great idea.]

If I had my own game, if I could make games or think up worlds or had any fucking imagination whatsoever, this wouldn't be a problem. Type type type, a few lines of code, head onto Twitter, find an artist or two, find a guy to lay down the beats [a good soundtrack will immerse players in your game] put it all together. No more of this drivel, control wrenched from me, switching to autopilot, watch as the scene unfolds. Orchestral swells score dragon swoops, string crescendo, clash and clang of steel [high quality sound effects can really add to the feel] and yawn through another cutscene.

If I had my own game, I'd play it.

I can do it, they say; they all say I can. This bitter fucking no-hoper without an original idea[keep a design diary; note down any ideas you have before you forget them] could do it. Instead, instead of sitting, languishing, controller clenched in tense grip, vice-like, [be sure not to frustrate the player—test your game thoroughly] cursing as I clip through the wall, my companion flails in tree roots. Or maybe it's a racer, the damage model's off, these fuckers know nothing about track design. Or a shooter, brazenly all-American [gunshot puncturing silence and a fistbump for solidarity can go a long way] filled with cursing and lazily-drawn blood decals. Did the QA monkeys even bother to test this bit?

If I had my own game, I'd test the shit out of it.

But what chance do I have? Can't code, can't think, can't even hold down a steady job. Working afternoons at the bookstore, scowling over a copy of 250 Indie Games You Must Play. Final warning, but not for that. If I could just [sort out a self-employment tax reference number] work harder and maybe just pin something down, turn this whole ‘playing videogames' thing into more than just a pastime, I know I could make it. All this turgid shite, all these frustrations, I know I could do a better job. Then, when I put my game out there, let's see all those shill reviewers make asses of themselves by giving it a bad score. This is another problem [perhaps consider a loan if you need to get your development studio off the ground] because I don't have the money to pay off the big sites like some of those publishers obviously do. And some of the indies too, obviously. I mean, a 7/10 for a fucking feminist visual novel? 10/10 for a buggy, broken open world RPG? Come on. That's not what gamers want. Reviewers are so out of touch with modern gaming, [an 8-bit platformer or a SNES-era JRPG is always a good place to start] it's not even funny.

Flash. Flash is good. Flash games on Newgrounds or Kongregate. You get some good shit on there, and the creators are sometimes barely literate. If they can do it I can do it. This quest is broken, though. How does stuff like this even get released? What kind of piece of shit do you have to be to rip off customers like this? Makes me so mad.

***

I'm at work. I'm not reading that indie game book, that was ages ago, don't take my anecdotes literally. I've been scribbling on a pad, desperately trying to crowbar inspiration out of my brain[take care in choosing your engine—remember, you may be stuck with it for the duration of your project] and onto the page. So far I've got a level with spikes and a little dude who has to leap over them. It's a bit like that one game, but not bullshit hard like that, and not made by a couple of [an original hook is holding down a button to affect gravity] clowns who never played a platformer in their lives. I'm at work, and this girl approaches me. Great body, smooth-as-hell legs, but she's wearing a jumper and I can't see as much of her torso as I'd like. Not bad, though. The only real perk to working in a bookshop is being able to check out hot nerdy girls, and most of them aren't faking it if they're actually in here buying Sartre or whatever.

She comes up to me at the desk and I'm still doodling in my notepad. I've written down B = 8/F = 6. Body, face. I make no attempt to cover it up, not like she'll know what it means. I am disconnected.

"Do you have any copies of The Secret History?" she asks, "Because I really need a copy for college." And I ask her if she's tried checking the shelves and she's like, "that's the thing, I can't remember who wrote it."

She glances down at my notepad, back up at me. I smile, avoiding her gaze, my eyes drifting down to her chest instead. If she notices, she doesn't let on. I tap away at the computer, look it up, find [be sure to play similar games in your chosen genre—learn from the successes, and the failures] the author (Donna Tartt), we have two copies in stock I tell her. "Thanks," she says, then waits.

"Can I help you with anything else?" I say, while resuming my doodling. There's a bottomless pit now, and at the bottom is a bunch more spikes. Wait, no, it's not bottomless then, is it? There's a silence, a bottomless pit in the conversation, perhaps that's where I got it from.

"Who wrote it then?" she asks. I don't like her tone. "I need to know where to look." I sigh, and go straight to the correct shelf, grab the book, come back. I hand it to her.

"Did they make a movie of this or am I thinking of something else?"

"No, they didn't, you moron," I want to say, but don't, or, "My own fucking generation makes me sick. Movie version? Just read the damn book," I want to say, but don't. Instead I tell her no, because if they had it'd be one of those shitty movie tie-in editions and it isn't [the best way to ensure there is no disconnect between player agency and your narrative is to script your game in a dynamic way] and she seems resigned and accepting about this. She pays by card, and I see her name is Carla. I watch her as she leaves. She has quite a nice ass.

***

Later, I leave work and go home. Dishes fill the sink, my lazy shit of a roommate no doubt too busy fucking his girlfriend to bother to clean up after himself. Or were they mine? I don't recall, because I think [adding cooperative play to your platformer can transform it into a best-selling title] mine are still in my room.

I sit at the computer and the internet is bullshit. I play some Flash games, and they're all bullshit. I rate a few, leave a few comments. I'm already picturing my game up there, top of the rankings, a game for gamers by a gamer. None of this corporate- funded red-tape crap. I have the freedom to create the type of game I'd like to play. I go back to playing games on my console, carry on with my archer build, but it all feels so asinine now. I think about that girl Carla a bit and feel a bit guilty for being snappy. Maybe she just likes movies. It's hardly a crime. [It's important for your central character to have a motive. A girlfriend, kidnapped, who he has to rescue, is a good motivator. Or perhaps she's not his girlfriend, at least not yet, and he wins her over with his daring rescue. Maybe he could be a knight, an agile knight.]

Talking of movies, I torrent a movie, the inspirational one. The one with Blow and Fish and those guys I mentioned earlier. It's alright, and I think, one day this could be me. Loads of them started out making Flash games. Mostly I don't really care, but Blow says something that resonates with me, something about taking his deepest flaws and vulnerabilities and putting them in the game[eliciting emotion from the player is definitely something to think about] and I am down with that. That's how you make a meaningful experience. That's what these big budget games are lacking; the human touch. They're churned out by corporations, there's no soul, and increasingly these days they're pandering to the limp-dicked faggot liberal brigade but [consider porting your game to a wide variety of formats, in particular mobile platforms] with indie games, with MY game, I can make what I want to make, say what I want to say, and nobody can stop me or argue otherwise. It is my right, my god-given right, my right to freedom of speech. I am an artist,[never compromise] a creator, and I'm beginning to understand how to do this now.

If I made a game, it would represent me: the gamer, the person, the man. Playing the game would be like seeing the world through my eyes.

Somewhere in the distance, a dog barks. I laugh at the irony of the situation when I'm trying to be deep. I can hear my roommate, and my roommate's girlfriend. My roommate is called Danny and I met him through Craigslist looking for a house share, and he's cool I guess [do not be concerned about making a game to please everyone, it is a fool's errand]. Plays some games, doesn't hassle me, but his girlfriend really is a total bitch. I won't even go into specifics but seriously, some people fucking astound me with their rudeness and shit.

Later still, I am sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal. I normally eat in my room, but I wanted to use the table. I'm making notes. My little dude, Sir [players want to feel like the hero. Give your character a strong, masculine jaw and a clear sense of justice] Brian is leaping, tumbling, swinging [a rope swing mechanic will add a retro feel, igniting memories of Pitfall] and saving his princess. I think about possible metaphors but decide to keep it simple. Danny's girlfriend wanders into the kitchen. She's wearing a bathrobe and when she stands at the fridge I can see her left breast just through the opening in her robe. She sees me and smiles.

"Hey, Chris.""Hi," I mutter.She closes the fridge and comes over with a carton of orange juice—MY orange juice—and sits down. "Whatcha doin'?" "I am designing a game," I say, looking down at my game design document, trying to highlight the obvious.She laughs, and I know there's scorn implied. "Really? Didn't know you could code." What the fuck does she know about coding? Her robe's too small for her and I can still see her tits [RPG elements, if implemented right, can work cross-genre] a bit. I don't care if she sees me looking; she's a bitch.

"I can't, yet," I say. "Working on it."

"Well, good luck," she says. Doesn't even bother to ask what kind of game it is.

"Hey, while you're here, have you got any idea when you'll be able to give Danny your rent check?" [It's important to ensure that the player is engaged at all times]. Oh, here it is. Here she goes again. Sick of her already.

"Soon," I mutter, and gather up my notes. There goes my train of fucking thought.

***

Four months later and I still can't code. I still can't make my game.

It feels like forever since I started. I am making next to no progress. That's a lie, actually. I've made a lot, just not in the right directions. I have pages and pages and pages of notes[meticulously planning your game will pay dividends in the long run] and I know pretty much exactly what I want my game to be like. But I was bad and got distracted, life got in the way, and everything's fallen apart.

Carla came back to the store. It was about a month before I lost my job. I'd finished playing that RPG and moved onto a multiplayer shooter phase. 60 hours clocked and speechless at the idiotic fucking design flaws the developers had left in. It's like they've never played a game before [if you are making a game, acting on player feedback is important]. Carla came back a bunch of times, actually, and it turns out she'd never noticed my rudeness, I guess, or never cared. We ended up becoming friends, and then got closer. We nearly hooked up, or so I thought, but I told her how I felt about her and things went a bit wrong, which is honestly a relief because I was done with her. I refuse to be friendzoned. All girls are the same. You say one thing wrong, just do one wrong thing, after being the nicest fucking guy [do not punish the player excessively—while extreme difficulty can work, it is a delicate balance that often requires years of developmental practice]and you're no longer good enough. Maybe if I'd treated her like shit or whatever she'd have liked me, I dunno. I expended so much energy on this girl, tried to do fucking everything for her, but no, she was interested in some guy who by all accounts is a massive douche which is fairly typical[creating a believable antagonist, the perfect foil for your main character, is the key to a strong narrative] I guess. All that time, energy and emotion wasted, and no further progress on games development. What did I get out of it by the end? Nothing. Fucking nothing. A broken heart, a wasted few months [your player's time is precious. Every aspect of the game should serve a purpose], and not even a sympathy fuck.

All that time, up until now, those words resonated through my mind. Blow's words, those softly-spoken syllables dancing in the back of my head. Take your deepest flaws and vulnerabilities. Put them in the game. [Take your deepest flaws and vulnerabilities. Put them in the game].

Fuck you, Jon Blow. Fuck you, you coward. I've played your stupid fucking game, with its metaphor and allegory and what-the- fuck-ever. It's just Mario in a business suit. I've played it, I've played your deepest flaws and vulnerabilities. And so what? Your deepest flaws are time travel and jumping? Or if it's more, why keep them hidden? Why mask them in colorful design and cutesy characters? [A player will look for reflections of a game's author. Be sure they see you the way you want to be seen]. It's not that, not just that. Take everything. Your highs, your lows, every fucking aspect of your character and put them in the motherfucking game. Become your game. You are your game. You live, breathe, eat, sleep, die by your game. Fuck your flaws and vulnerabilities. I will use my everything.

It's easy when you know how. It's easy to work it out, easy to undo your best laid plans, easy to overhear your roommate [be sure to enlist some trusted beta testers] Danny talking with his girlfriend about when they're going on vacation. Easy to set up auto-emails on a timer, easy to[remember your early builds may contain bugs] go to the mall and buy the knife, the cables, the plastic sheeting. It's easy [act on any feedback, talk to your players] but it hurts. Suffer for your art. Become the game you want to make. Pour your heart and soul into it. You are not a faceless corporation. [You are not a faceless corporation.]

If I had my own game, it would be a reflection of myself.

Here I sit, suspended, gouges red and bloody, my essence, everything, flowing into the machine, replacing my need for knowledge or skill. It is [i am disconnected] draining me, sucking me dry, I am becoming the game. By a gamer, for the gamers, you will play [i am in beta] my very soul and you will fucking like it. Cables spill from my [i am golden] throat as I narrate; tears pour from my eyes as the pain begins to throb. Just me, opening my heart to the world. Each cut a level, each twist a hurdle to overcome. I laugh [announcement incoming] and blood bubbles into my throat, over my lips.

Play me, you fucks.

[For your initial release, self-sacrifice is not advised. Test out the technique on an animal or loved one before committing yourself to code.]

***

Text: Review of Super Knight Leaper for GameRanx, written by Ashton Raze. Dated April 19th, 2013.Used with permission.

Review: Super Knight Leaper

by Ashton Raze

Developer: Christopher B. Broake Format: Windows (version tested), Mac Released: Out now (Steam, Desura) Price: $4.99

Indie platformers are a dime a dozen these days, with the excellent Super Meat Boy leading the pack when it comes to arcade action, and the recent Thomas Was Alone sitting alongside Braidand Limbo if you're after a more narrative-driven experience. To stand out from the crowd, you really have to do something special. The much-anticipated Super Knight Leaper, despite its generic name, certainly leaps for the stars.

Unfortunately, its jump falls significantly short, and the result is a painful faceplant of epic proportions. Despite the pre-release hype, Super Knight Leaper is an unfinished, unenjoyable disaster. With any debut release from an unknown developer, certain flaws can be forgiven, but here...

Honestly I don't know where to start. The game's a mess. From the generic opening level in which Sir Brian's girlfriend is kidnapped (complete with painful chiptune renditions of classic Skrillex tracks), to the horrific collision detection, the sloppy, incomprehensible art and the pitiful dialogue.

Sir Brian struggles to make even the simplest of jumps, and in a game about leaping over spikes, this is a significant problem. Holding down the up arrow allows you to sort of...float around, but occasionally, and without warning, gravity will send you plummeting down to earth and often to an untimely death. Every so often, if you brush up against a wall, the character sprite will begin to vibrate, and eventually the level will reset. Bug? Deliberate mechanic? Who knows. Nothing about Super Knight Leaper makes much sense.

Even more confusing is the narrative, which seemingly has nothing to do with the disastrous events unfolding on screen. The voice acting is delivered in an angry whisper, and is comprised of little more than guttural sounds with the odd curse word thrown in. Occasionally, text appears on the screen, although this does not match what's being said, and seems to be a series of quotes from other, more successful games and—in one particularly unusual instance—from the GameSpot review of Skyrim.

Why do these things happen? This is a question you'll give up asking long before you stop questioning why you wasted five dollars on this game. If you do persevere, which I do not advise, you'll be met with a few sections towards the end that could almost be described as genius if they appeared in a better, remotely playable platformer. The penultimate boss, for instance, is Edmund McMillen's head, but beating it seems to require more luck than skill. I'm still not entirely sure if I ended up winning the battle, or just glitching my way to the next level. Then, at the end, after a painfully bad, hour-long section, you finally reach your princess. Perhaps attempting to mimicBraid, or even Super Mario Bros. in ending with some kind of twist, your princess turns towards the screen, staring, and points silently, her face emotive. The scene freezes. Ten minutes later, the game closes. No end credits, no game over, just... a quit to desktop.

It's unfathomable how this even got released, let alone how the developer is daring to charge money for it. Save your cash. Buy something—anything—else. Hell, with the time you'd spend playing Super Knight Leaper, you'd be better off learning how to develop your own game. Just make sure you use this as a reference guide of what not to do, ever.

A broken, muddled mess of a game that will leave you wishing you'd saved your money. Perhaps worth a look as a bizarre curio, an example of when the hype train gets it wrong, but nothing more.Score: 2/10

***

Text: Review of Super Knight Leaper for GameRanx, written by Ian Miles Cheong. Dated July 7th, 2013. Used with permission.

News: Super Knight Lawsuit

by Ian Miles Cheong

The strange case of Super Knight Leaper took an even more bizarre turn today as, after a failed petition, thousands of gamers have filed a lawsuit against the game's elusive creator. Reminiscent of 2012's "Retake Mass Effect" campaign, the lawsuit was brought about after hundreds of forum users discovered the software was causing slow, yet widespread file corruption. Attempts to identify and combat the virus have thus far met with failure. If successful, the lawsuit could cost the developer of Super Knight Leaper in excess of ten million dollars. The game's mastermind, Christopher B. Broake, could not be reached for comment.