Personal Puzzles

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Ian here—

When you first start playing Eli Piilonen’s The Company of Myself (2DArray, 2009), it feels as if someone found a way to perfectly weld together a diary entry with a puzzle platformer. This was back in the heady days in the wake of Jonathan Blow’s Braid (Number None, 2008), when the public at large was still reeling over the idea that puzzle mechanics could mean something. And, at first glance, The Company of Myself seems to take this trend and go somewhere quite confessional with it. Its central mechanic of cloning yourself to solve puzzles stood as a perfect expression of feelings of self-reliance. And not just any self-reliance, either, but rather that specifically incorrigible mode of self-reliance that emerges when one is a bit too much of an unreconstructed introvert, refusing even the most basic forms of assistance because you desperately wish to not bother, or to be bothered by, anybody.

The “cloning” mechanic has popped up elsewhere in games—for instance The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom (The Odd Gentleman, 2010)—but The Company of Myself was more ambitious, wedding the mechanic with a personal story of interior life. Or, at least, it seems to do this, until you realize the whole thing is bullshit. The story takes an eleventh-hour delve into the lurid, revealing itself as an over-the-top fiction, rather than a form of sincere self-expression on the part of its creator.

The Company of Myself takes the easy way out, tacking on an over-dramatic denouement that destroys its potential as a diary-game. But … what if it didn’t? Could one actually use puzzles to communicate the intricacies of internal lived experience, in an emotionally sincere way? In this entry, I’ll be looking at two games that try: Liz Ryerson’s intimate and beguiling Problem Attic (2013), and Atrax Media’s more slick and straightforward Sym (2015). Along the way, I’ll also be dipping a bit into Braid, just because it’s hard to talk about contemporary puzzle platformers without doing so.

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Lesson Plan: Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim

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Ian here—

Back on Halloween, I posted a fitting lesson plan. For Thanksgiving, I guess I’ll go with a perverse one.

I taught Sink or Swim (Su Friedrich, 1990) in a week in my course “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” devoted to the use of biography as argumentative grounds in film criticism. Since this course served as a writing seminar, one of my learning objectives this week was to get students to consider how they could marshal biographical details of an artist’s life into an analysis, without falling prey to the intentional fallacy by assigning the artist’s views and experiences too much weight. To this end, we watched some Joyce Wieland films, and I had students read Lauren Rabinovitz’s chapter on Wieland in Points of Resistance: Women, Power, and Politics in the New York Avant-garde Cinema, 1943–71. My plan here was threefold: 1) I wanted students to enunciate the specific sorts of arguments we could make about the films when we drew upon knowledge of Wieland’s status as a Canadian artist living and working in the US, her political commitments, and her status as a woman artist too often playing second-fiddle to her more-famous husband. 2) I wanted the students to acknowledge the scope and limits of what we can learn from these things, and to understand that a work of art’s meanings are not entirely determined by the artist’s biography. 3) I wanted students to recognize the difference between acknowledging biography when dealing with a filmmaker like Wieland, versus acknowledging biography when dealing with a filmmaker like Friedrich, whose work tilts further into the genres of personal essay film and diary film. While one could imagine an analysis of Wieland’s Patriotism (1964) that doesn’t dwell on issues of Wieland’s biography, it is impossible to imagine and analysis of Sink or Swim that doesn’t acknowledge Friedrich’s biography. It belongs to a genre in which acknowledgement of the filmmaker’s lived experience is absolutely essential.

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