Let’s Study Tacoma

Hello, dear readers. It’s been a while since my last post, and to make up for the gap, I have come bearing a video. Specifically, another video in my “Let’s Study” series. This one is fairly short, zooming in on the technique of “scrubbable narrative” in Tacoma (The Fullbright Company, 2017).

Special thanks to Amy Stebbins on this one, who directed me Alan Alston’s 2013 article “Audience Participation and Neoliberal Value: Risk, Agency and Responsibility in Immersive Theatre,” which ended up forming the backbone of most of the observations in this one.

As always, transcript below the jump.

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On Ones (and Zeroes): A Tribute to Hannah Frank

Today, the friends, family, and colleagues of Hannah Frank held a special Chicago memorial for her, hosted at the University of Chicago. I already wrote quite a bit about Hannah in the past two weeks, so for my presentation at this memorial I decided to do something different: a short found-footage celebration of Hannah’s audiovisual interests.

As you might imagine, this compilation video includes things that Hannah wrote about. But it also includes things Hannah shared on social media that she liked. And things Hannah shared on social media that she made. It includes things Hannah and I shared a mutual love of. It includes things Hannah encouraged me to teach and/or write about. And it includes things I encouraged Hannah to teach and/or write about. I’ve arranged these clips to the tune of “Deeper into Movies,” by Hannah’s fellow Hobokeners Yo La Tengo.

Special thanks to Will Carroll, Chris Carloy, Sierra Wilson, Jordan Schonig, and James Rosenow.

If you’d like to explore Hannah’s own output as a video artist and animator, check out her Vimeo page here.

If you’re curious about the sources for all of the visual bits, a full list is below the fold.

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A Hodology of Videogames: Post-Socialist Rails

For this entry in my series on “hodological space,” I decided to do something a bit different: a video.

Way back in January, I promised that I would write some further thoughts on 35MM (Sergei Nosgov, 2016). The more I tried to pull my thoughts together, though, it became clear that, as much as I like that game, I was lacking in concrete ideas about it. In place of the concrete, 35MM left me with nebulous impressionsfeelings, and half-formed memories. My quest to craft a container for these impressions led to something that is not quite a video essay. The embedded video here is really more of a piece of meditative, impressionistic experimental machinima than it is an analytical work.

This video encapsulates my fascination with the prevalence of abandoned or poorly-maintained railroads and rail stations in post-apocalyptic games coming out of former Eastern Bloc countries. Sometimes, there is a clear lineage on display here, as when the Ukrainian studio 4A Games adapts the Russian science fiction author Dmitri Glukhovsky’s Metro books into the complementary Metro game series. More diffuse influences envelope these games as well, though. Some go back to the Soviet era. In the video, I pick out Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (USSR, 1979) as a distinct visual reference point. Although the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series developed by Ukrainian team GSC Gameworld hews much closer to the atmosphere of the Strugatsky novel Roadside Picnic on which Stalker is based, I think it’s undeniable that Tarkovsky’s film left a visual mark on post-Soviet apocalyptic fiction. (He was doing “ruin porn” before it was cool.)

As to why, exactly, the decaying rail line has become such a staple of former Eastern Bloc post-apocalyptic fiction … I have no answer. But that’s one of the things you can get away with when choosing this sort of video work over the written word.

Let’s Study The Witness

This past March, at SCMS, I walked out on a paper being delivered by Oscar Moralde on The Witness (Thekla, Inc, 2016). I did so not out of disinterest. (I’ve enjoyed Moralde’s papers in the past.) Nor did I do so out of rudeness. Rather, I did it because of spoilers. Moralde was kind enough to warn ahead of time that his paper would spoil a small portion of the joy of teasing out the behaviors of The Witness’ world, and advised those who hadn’t played it to leave, lest they deny themselves a rich intellectual—and some would even say emotional—experience of personal discovery. And, in my eternal shame, as of March of 2017, I still had not played The Witness. Even though it had been sitting right there in my Steam library for months. (Ashlyn Sparrow and Whitney Pow can attest to the truth of this story.)

Moralde’s paper was a wake-up call to me that I needed to get better about my gaming backlog, if for none other than purely academic reasons. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping up on things in real-time since that moment. (I played Tacoma, already!) I offer this story, though, not (strictly) as a chance to to advertise my newfound dedication to keeping up with recent releases, but also as a warning. Basically, the heads-up Moralde offered in front of his talk also applies here. The pleasures of The Witness are the pleasures of discovering puzzle mechanics, and you will deny yourself a small portion of those if you watch this new video essay I’ve whipped together.

That said, if you don’t mind spoiling such things, or if you’ve played The Witness already, go ahead and dash right in. This video is considerably shorter and more focused than my previous experiments in the “Let’s Study” format. It focuses on the pedagogical aspects of the game’s puzzle design, in particular its fondness for safe failure. Whether it’s encouraging assumptions about its mechanics that quickly get proved wrong, or setting up perceptual bad habits only to nip them in the bud, Jonathan Blow’s puzzle design in the best portions of The Witness front-load failure, so as to hammer home lessons. I hope you enjoy my short tour through this technique!

As before, a full transcript of my narration is below the fold. (I’d love to eventually add these as subtitles to the YouTube upload for accessibility reasons, but that is beyond my abilities, at the moment.)

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Let’s Study Virginia … some more!

Ian here—

It’s done! The second part of my “Let’s Study Virginia” video is now live on YouTube.

If you just want to watch the second part, click the embedded video above. If you want to watch the whole thing from the beginning, click here. (I have also updated my original post so that the embedded video there autoplays the second part.)

Time will tell if I make more of these “Let’s Study” videos. Building up an archive of them could have real pedagogical benefits. The best option when teaching games is, of course, always to have students play things themselves. But one must consider the realities of constraints on access to specific platforms. If students playing a game is a logistical impossibility, it is undoubtedly a better to be able to say, “here, watch this video I uploaded onto YouTube that precisely demonstrates exactly the relevant points of this game,” than it is to say, “go find some footage of it on YouTube recorded by some random let’s play-er.” A strong case can be made that this sort of video essay work is the next best thing to having students play things on their own.

As before, full script below the fold, if for whatever reason that interests you.

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Let’s Study Virginia

Ian here—

So, awhile back I promised further thoughts on Virginia. After mulling it over, I decided to put them in video form. The end result is a sort of let’s play/video essay hybrid, which I’m calling a “let’s study.” (This sounded less presumptuous than “let’s analyze,” which I didn’t want to use because this video isn’t particularly academic. At the same time, though, it sounded more sturdy than “let’s think about,” or some other wishy-washy formation.)

This video is slightly under an hour, and it’s only the first half of what I’m planning on making into a two-video sequence. I’ll update the embedded video above so that it plays the whole playlist rather than just the first video once I’ve finished the second one. [UPDATE 2017-02-28: I’ve updated the embedded video! If it doesn’t auto-play the entire sequence, it should at the very least recommend the second after you finish the first.]

Full transcript of the script below the fold, for those of you who prefer reading things.

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Sprayed: A Video Essay on The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal

Terry Hines

Terry Hines and Luke White are two UChicago students who take an adventure through Hyde Park to investigate the sunconscious artisitc merits of graffiti removal. Inspired by the 1990s documentary, White and Hines venture into the urban streets of Chicago to discern for themselves what really matters when judging art in the world.