For our first issue, we have fair number of writers who wrote some lovely things:
Line Hollis wrote a piece about repetitious structures in narratives and games’ relation to Groundhog Day,
Lana Polansky is exploring Major Bueno games and the possibilities of games and comedy,
Zolani Stewart is writing about Sluggish Morss and Futurism,
and Alex Pieschel writes on pulp modernism and the games of Stephen (thecatamites) Murphy
We also interview Titouan Millet, an artist/writer who created A Cosmic Forest. We’ll be talking to them about his games, his artistic ventures, and art things in general. And our cover was illustrated by Phil James. Follow his work at shinestrength.com.
The Arcade Review #2 is here! Our spring issue is packed with good things.
Firstly, Owen Vince goes through John Clowder’s Middens, exploring its depiction of the gun and its interrogations of DaDa surrealism,
Emilie Reed explores the nature of RPGMaker horror games and the communities that center them in their play and discussion,
John Kilhefner discusses the structures of immersion, engagement, and aesthetics in Sounddoger+,
John Brindle writes a journalistic piece on the use of macro technology in the Twine game-making community,
And Brendan Vance asks why so much of our play feels unfulfilling and centreless, seeking through this dilemma by engaging with the relation of form and content.
This issue, we have a marvelous interview with artist, performer and game designer Amy Dentata. We go to 7k words, Paris Review style.
And our cover for Issue 2 is done by Toronto artist and illustrator Lauren Pelc-McArthur! Much thanks to the work she’s done for us.
In our Summer issue,
Stephen Beirne explores the realities within realities of the RMIT student game Rabbit Rush,
Amsel Von Spreckelsen interrogates the unreliable narrator and its place in IF storytelling,
Krish Raghav looks at the satirical work PAP 2048, and the tense political history of Singapore,
Stephen "thecatamites" Murphy writes on the long-lost RPGMaker game Gassy Choose Your Own Adventure Weirdo,
And our editor Alex Pieschel gives an extensive history of the glitch aesthetic, from early modernist art to videogames under the late 20th Century digital arts.
We also have an interview with game creator Lilith, where she and I chat about abstract 3D games and the influence of her various works.
This time, our cover was illustrated by Ellie Rassia, an artist and illustrator working out of Athens.
Three full issues of this underappreciated gem of a video game journal/zine, featuring smart writing on a host of unconventional games - particularly freeware, odd, 'outsider' and other wonderfully diverse titles. Read 'em and you're guaranteed to learn about some things about wonderful game artists, from Stephen 'Thecatamites' Murphy to RPGMaker obscurities and beyond. – Simon Carless
"It is $5, and that $5 is well-spent. So far, the pieces I have read are really interesting and comprehensively excellent."– Cameron Kunzelman
"The Arcade Review is an oasis in an industry duned by hype and consumption."– Stephen Beirne
"I read Form and its Discontents in @arcadereview and better understand my own project, UFO, and where I am likely to find its meaning."– Amy Dentata
"Rather than pay lip service to the giants of the industry, The Arcade Review sets out to expose the artistic side of games to an audience that may be oblivious to their existence."– The Link
"The Arcade Review is getting into much different territory than other game writing that concentrates on entertainment value and difficulty level."– Allison Myer, Hyperallergic
"And the arcade review, only three issues in, is easily the best games writing anywhere out there right now, far as I can tell, with a wide margin..."– Zack Fair
"But there is a small independent reality that has chosen to take a completely different way and not to focus on the big upcoming titles, the new console to be tested or the app of the moment, but on those obscure pieces of software (s) border (in) with the world of art: non-games-games that instead of giving you a gaming experience ever closer to reality choose to raise questions, to question your certainties of human being as well as gamer."– Simone Sbarbati, FrizziFrizzi
'Anyhow' is my favourite Singaporean-English slang word.
It doesn't parse easily into traditional English grammar. Sometimes it's a verb, meaning "to potter about" or to kill time. Sometimes an adjective, meaning 'unusual' or 'random', and often it's an adverb, written as 'anyhowly'—meaning 'reckless' or 'against the grain'.
Freighting a sentence with it can mask tone, to give it the appearance of gentle humour. It can indicate a winking display of disapproval that invites a closer look. It can signal exasperation, laced with sardonic self-deprecation. "It's just anyhow talk", you could say to deflect attention off something controversial. "Cannot anyhowly say what", is the gloriously local way to abstain from a sensitive discussion. In other words, it's the perfect smokescreen for layered political discourse in a city that takes surface level meaning very seriously. It's hard to think of a better word to describe PAP 2048, arguably Singapore's first political videogame. It is 'anyhow' gamified: a work that exudes profound silliness while hinting at surprising depth. That masks political satire over breezy humour.
The game is a custom version of 2048, which is a modified version of iOS puzzler Threes. In Threes, you combine numbers by moving tiles on a 4x4 grid. Tiles of the same number fold into each other to form a tile of the multiple– 2 and 2 make a 4. 4 and 4 make a 16. The goal of the game is to get a 2048 tile without running out of space. In PAP 2048, the tiles are replaced by pictures of Singapore politicians. Instead of combing numbers, you combine members of Singapore's ruling People's Action Party (PAP).
In a talk at the 2013 No Show Conference, game designer and critic Robert Yang mentions a mod for the game Yakuza 5:
"When you replace [Yakuza's] main character model with a Japanese woman character model, the game becomes something much more political," he says. "…A game about street harassment and revenge fantasy as you beat the shit out of every creepy guy who's ever leered at you. This is especially poignant in a culture where groping and harassment on public transit was such a problem that they instituted women-only subway cars – choosing to mod Yakuza 5, with its emphasis on physical contact, was not random. It was very important and intentional."
Likewise, PAP 2048 isn't just an incidental editorial cartoon. Swapping2048's numbers for pictures of Singapore politicians marks the game as a deliberate political statement – one that subverts the rules of the original to make a discursive point. As a player, the tiles we 'combine' in the game are now people literally consuming and being consumed. It's a stark statement on the intensely hierarchical world of local politics, and the invisibility of those who occupy the lower rungs of the ladder.
It also represents a particular historical moment in Singaporean civil society activism, one marked by a diversity of tactics and irreverence towards the city-state's founding myths, and the emergence of a powerful new discursive tool, videogames, for political argument. It also punctures a long-standing trade-off between the ruling party and the citizens of Singapore – an understanding that the party would deliver consistent economic performance, and in return define the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. Vanilla2048 was a simple puzzle game about moving tiles, but PAP 2048 is a satirical deconstruction of the ideology of Singapore's ruling political party.
Where the PAP likes to think of itself as a true, horizontal meritocracy, PAP 2048 interjects by pointing out the clear hierarchy in its ranks. Where the PAP likes to project itself as representative of the electorate, PAP 2048underscores the ridiculousness of that assertion. Only one woman – Tin Pei Ling – makes it to the game, and at the lowest level. For a proudly multicultural and multi-racial city, the PAP's upper ranks also have poor minority representation. Roughly 74.2% of Singaporeans are of Chinese descent, but only one non-Chinese politician, deputy prime minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam (DPM Tharman), makes it to PAP 2048. Their inclusion is a disquieting reminder that Singapore's 'meritocracy' only applies if you're male, and not an ethnic minority.
It's a widely unspoken belief in Singapore that DPM Tharman is the party's best candidate for Prime Minister, but for another unspoken belief among the PAP elite that the city isn't 'ready' for a non-Chinese PM. DPM Tharman occupies the 256 tile in PAP 2048 – it's a threshold point in the game, after which there's a sharp spike in difficulty. After Tharman, the three remaining tiles are Singapore's current and past Prime Ministers, and one is likely to get a portentous 'Game Over' screen in their attempts to 'convert' Tharman into one of them.
* * *
Singapore is ostensibly a Westminster-style democracy, but it's effectively a one-party state.
Eight Left Wing Activists are released from detention, Singapore 1959
Since the first general elections in 1959, the People's Action Party, helmed by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, has consistently held over 90% of seats in parliament. The PAP runs what's often called a 'paternalistic' state: a government very interested in the minutiae of people's lives, dictating their morals and values. Lee Kuan Yew, writing for the Straits Times in 1987: "I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn't be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think."
The unchallenged majority in parliament has also created a particular political economy, one that academic Kenneth Paul Tan summarizes as 'survivalist-developmental-neoliberal.' Unpopular policies, including forced evictions, liberal immigration, and means-testing for welfare, were frequently pushed through for 'nation building' and 'economic development' reasons. Coupled with a persistent siege mentality, and the threat of a slippery slope ("a little red dot in a sea of green"), the 'politics' in the early political history of Singapore were effectively defanged. These weren't political acts, the argument goes, but 'hard truths'. There was no choice, no alternative but the PAP way.
Anyone who thought otherwise met the full force of Lee Kuan Yew's knuckle dusters. In July of 1961, the Barisan Sosialis, a left-leaning political party, split from the PAP. Two years later, a controversial raid known as Operation Coldstore saw Singapore's Internal Security Department arresting several members of the Barisan, putting them in indefinite detention and essentially eliminating the political competition to PAP rule. One member, Dr Chia Thye Poh, was imprisoned without trial for 23 years, making him the world's second longest serving prisoner of conscience after Nelson Mandela.
In 1993, performance artist Joseph Ng infamously snipped his pubic hair in a series of public performances to draw attention to the country's criminalization of homosexuality. In response, both performance art and 'forum theatre' became ineligible for government funding, as 'spontaneous' art with no script and the possibility of audience interaction posed dangers to 'public order, security and decency.'
With a subservient state media and strong censorship controls, it wasn't till the broadbandthat a significant civil society could organize and coordinate. One of Singapore's earliest online political communities, Sintercom, came under the government's crosshairs in the late 1990s. Pressing the site to be officially registered as a news source, the rules would make site moderators personally liable for sensitive content posted by any Sintercom member. The site shut down soon after.
So the real power of Singapore's paternalistic government has evolved,to rigor, over brutality. Where one expects an authoritarian regime to be careless and somewhat incompetent, Singapore's technocratic state machinery hums with extraordinary efficiency. Activists have always had to rely on a diversity of tactics—to use emerging technology faster than its government could, and a thick layer of rhetorical and linguistic smokescreens – to anyhow without drawing attention. To conceal tone and intent.
The city's position as a global finance hub has created a nation of early adopters and trend seekers, and these flows can't be dammed lest Singapore lose its competitive edge. The state has distanced itself from outright censorship or heavy-handed muzzling of dissent, instead relying on a system of economic incentives and ambiguous rhetoric to let people censor themselves. They have, for instance, long maintained that political critique was permissible, but 'demolishing respect for the government via systematic denigration' was not. The word 'constructive criticism' was often trotted out.
This is why a diversity of tactics was important. This is a city where forum posts on message boards are monitored, where screenplays and scripts are scrutinized (with a comprehensive blacklist), where edits to Wikipedia pages of Singapore leaders are met with calls for legal action, where even song titles for a proposed gig are double-checked (The Taiwanese pop artist A-mei was recently 'requested' not to perform her pro-LGBT rights song "Rainbow").
The predominant form of political expression, then, has had to keep shifting. First music in the late 1960s, then literature and theatre in the 70s and 80s, and then film in the 1990s – each major medium of discourse has been systematically strait-jacketed. The latest battlegrounds are online. The Internet was a freewheeling hotbed of political awakening, but a coordinated effort is being made to shackle it. The last two years have seen numerous cases of defamation suits and 'contempt of court' cases against bloggers, bought by politicians who felt their criticism went too far.
The 'anyhow' defence became standard practice – every incendiary statement qualified with a gentle retraction. Every serious critique mellowed by self-deprecating humour. It's at this point that videogames, and PAP 2048, enter the picture.
Games are everywhere in Singapore pop culture. Take the subway during peak hours and you'll catch many a game of Candy Crush Saga. The opening moments of Valve's Free to Play documentary are set in one of the city's public libraries. The city is an outpost for many of the industry's AAA publishers – a part of Assassin's Creed III was developed at Ubisoft Singapore. EA's regional hub for the entire Asia-Pacific is based here.
A nascent developer community has been growing on the sidelines of these AAA industry outposts. But the Singapore 'scene' is more like a motley group of bedroom programmers and modders rather than the co-ordinated indie community we see in American cities. There aren't many examples of retail games to point to, but there are experiments and prototypes aplenty.
The honor of 'first political videogame' should have gone to a prototype for aCivilization V mod, which did the rounds on social networking sites a year before PAP 2048. You could now play as the 'Singapore civilization', the mod promised, with a delightfully clever systematization of the Singaporean worldview ("Cities do not rebel or revolt, roads/railways generate gold when a unit passes through and coastal tiles can be reclaimed into land tiles"). It was never released, and its development status is unknown.
PAP 2048 is significant because it's the start of videogames being responsive, and immediate and being deployed like memes and editorials and rallies for political discourse. For instance, the hierarchies of power reflected in the game are both intentional and responsive to news stories at the time. The first two tiles, and therefore most common, in the game are young PAP ministers Tin Pei Ling and Baey Yam Keng – both known to put their foot in mouth, appear in the wrong places and say the wrong things. Both are frequently criticized for being more concerned with their image than real issues.
The message board commentators that discovered PAP 2048 caution against 'reading too much' into something merely playful, but that's where the intriguing possibilities of videogames as a discursive medium come to the fore. The political 'messages' of PAP 2048 are coded as anyhow statements, and players connect the dots endogenously. Half the replies to any PAP 2048thread were suggestions for other political games that needed to be made.
In games, players can be co-authors of tone – they can use systematized rules to create satire, and to generate ridiculous situations. PAP 2048 is often just that – ridiculous. But being ridiculous isn't a criticism. Because in Singapore, where satire is seen as destabilizing society, where ridicule is seen as undermining political capacity, and where poking fun at politicians is out-ofbounds, just anyhow is a matter of seriousness.