Saturday, May 5, 2012

Thoughts on Journey & Way


I didn't get to play Journey's mutli-player aspect, and I'm not sure how much I'm missing because of that.. lots, I'm sure. I did play thatgamecompany team member Chris Bell's Way, though (play it!), which seems something like a relevant substitution. For me, much of it's meaning emerged from the two rapid shifts of possibility space at the end: the initial hop-around meetup and the map/chalkboard denouement. One after another. The first change-- the effect of being in an entirely new situation with someone (or something) we've only ever known in a particular setting but have gotten to know very well there; the languages of precision we've developed up to that point give way to a more fluid language of dance/gesture (a language developed further in Journey). Then, a repetition of the effect (of change) initiates a new state of things on a higher level, change itself as the new constant, the situation as a variable, a fundamental kind of rapid un/re-learning, a destabilization pointing toward a continual dissolve and rebirth of possibility. This affects how we play, and the played end is a very beautiful thing, indeed. The puzzles, the learning we're involved in for the bulk of the game, they're fun enough-- but it's what they're preparing us for that gets to the real heart of the matter, a shared sense of shifting possibility, our subjectivities as the only constants in an otherwise variable space. When this is felt, it's profound. From the sequence of events I played through in Journey's single player game, it seems unlikely that any similarly designed re-contextualization of relating with an other has been suggested (though, of course, so much more than what's suggested will emerge in play-- for now I can only try to imagine the dances).


When I started Journey, I looked around and figured it was an exploration game, and I set off in some direction other than that of the mountain which we are implicitly asked to head towards. When I found myself stuck, trying to force my way up too-steep a sand dune, I felt let down. From here on out, I redirected my energies and intentions toward achieving the goals the game had laid out for me-- my playing became instrumentalized. 

The game is a series of playgrounds stitched together, each with one entrance and one exit. Some playgrounds are more liberating than others. All of Journey's are embedded with values asking that we eventually rank our possible ways of playing by order of how well a given action will help us find the exit. We are free to stay in the spaces for as long as possible, and this is occasionally a stunning thing, but at other times they don't seem to be designed for such use-- rather more like giant versions of the aisles of Ikea, which ask us to move in one direction, to see everything along the way (and to hopefully find some beauty in these spectacles), and then to check out.

Like Super Mario Galaxy before it (one example among many, I'm sure), Journey rewards our discipline and obedience with a wealth of movement-treasures. At it's best, it opens some new directions in videogames as digital ballet. Gardens of carpets and scarves that give us the power of flight are lovingly arranged in ways that suggest particular choreographies. Upward motion, climbing the little nodes of possibility, each hop a meaningful thing. Falling, recovering. Dunes as ski slopes, etc. All of this-- rhythmic fluidity. A lot of this meaning is a kind of touched meaning. The variety of the terrain, how the game's responses to input change accordingly with our navigation of the physical environment, how possibility shifts on that level. That's the essence of Journey-- these little details, the procedural manipulation of key variables between input and output (this is what feel is, I think?). Timbre. Like a musical instrument, a system of tight feedback loops, a tool for exploring possible meanings in time. 

And yet, when we get into these intimate systems at a low level like this, and really learn to love them, to let touch teach us something-- when we've finally become comfortable collaborating with the game in the process of generating our played meanings-- it's difficult to not contrast the joys of that kind of emergent experience with the grander, yet more contrived, spatial/narrative ambitions of the game. That we're told this is a journey, a meaningful traversal of space-- we'd expect from this a generation of meaning on a higher level, too, a valuation of where we begin and where we're going to end up. But it doesn't emerge, because of the imposed top-down design. We follow the path, the string of playgrounds. Our sense of possibility is far greater than our space of possibility here. Play that emerges from the bottom up in strength/abundance naturally wants to ascend, to rise up all the way into space, to become a dancing star. The play impulse leads itself , in dialogue with the environment, but not with the environment as a static thing; rather as a musical thing, a living thing. A world more than an environment. Spaces designed from the top down impose a limit, an atmosphere. This is inevitable. Not to say that there's no place for limits imposed by top-down design. Rather, the function of these limits should be a declaration of radical values, a means of breaking the tyranny of habit, to encourage a new kind of play, more true/beautiful than we might have discovered on our own.

Journey is a spatial exploration game and yet our greatest freedoms are still constrained by the closed boundaries of a bead occupying a particular place along a string (maybe a stick is more accurate, less malleable). It's a mechanical exploration game (insofar as touch can be explored), and yet we're not given the openness that's a necessary foundation for the free association of our played impulses. Let's melt the beads, explore their topological equivalents, allow constants to give way to variables. That would be an exploration game. The string can still be used, of course, but let's use one made of rubber. Or, instead--let's tighten the string, and shave these beads down to their most essential qualities, Mario Galaxy's strategy. No time wasted, constant imposition of atmosphere from the top-down. We'll let things melt, but they'll always bring us someplace new, and quickly, too. This will be more work, but it'll also be more play.

For now, though, this is what we have, and we'll play here if we're compelled to do that. I'm torn. I want to play with the raw materials of the space and situation in whatever way seems most suited to continuing my ritual of focused presence in the moment, my flow, and this necessarily leads me in unpredictable directions-- how could it not? But then, I also recognize the power of the rewards I'm given when I follow the rules..


Possible directions for future research: observing the variables in a space like this which erect the boundaries of possibility, how they change over time, how they're determined by geography and player actions, etc. Even on the lowest levels, games are (unknowingly?) creating beautiful pieces of tangible music (whether audible or not, usually the latter). To dig into these changes (the source of musicality), to explore ways that change itself functions as an expressive device. Maybe we can learn some important things from Journey at this level. And beyond this, to trace the trajectories of subjective desire at a low level, and to create spaces that allow these impulses to flourish; spaces designed for the motivic development of actions, spatially/temporally augmented, the smallest seeds growing into the tallest trees. And to really understand that smallest seed, to touch its vibrational qualities, we need to design musical interactions at a low level-- these are not the modules of a composed block form, but rather the variable pressure and angle of a finger depressing a string, or mouth blowing a reed, etc. Once we can hear the seed, we'll really feel it better, it's output will touch our ears, and to start with this, we'll be hardpressed to go on designing against its own touched inclinations.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Dissolving Musical Space

(drawing in Alchemy)

In playing music that hasn't been designed, and in forms of music that have been designed to be played-- we, the subject, & our materials, our objects, begin the process of dissolving into one another.

Free improvisation, music that hasn't been designed, is an example of this dissolve. The self into the instrument, into the group, the situation. Improvisations can surf the dissolve, prolong the dynamic state.

But forms of music? can dissolving spaces be designed?

First, can musical spaces be designed?
Folk forms, musics that we play, create spaces like these. Music designed to be played.
We start from the uncountable multitude of aural traditions. Convention. The gradual systemization of loose form.
Infinite possibility giving way to shaped possibility.
Notation can help serve this function-- it communicates possibility spaces to audiences with a read/write literacy of its system. Scores in general-- visual, verbal, etc.
These are, at their best, guidelines rather than directives.

But scores aren't for everybody-- they're for musicians, for artists, and they thus ignore that important observation, that "an artist isn't a special kind of person; rather, every person is a special kind of artist."
Professionalism breeds work at the expense of play.
Start from what we have.
Now-- recordings rule over our musical landscape.
They have become the new "scores," directives, which all too many live performances seek to reproduce, and lives seek to live in harmony with-- mechanically, reproducible.
There is an intimacy with music that has been lost in our shift toward listening to recordings,
A diminished sense of possibility. Read only.
An object rather than a process.
Toward the impossibility of systemic intervention, pure spectacle.
But not quite-- we know, at the same time, that these recordings open up new possibilities.
We know we can use them.
We know that in some situations we can start & stop them, and we then begin to rediscover that current of musical play. Can we also stretch? isolate? invert? transpose? To the whole? To components? The threads making up the fabric?
Melting constants: variables.
A recording is a thread. A component-- but of something new.
The material of the recording is a substance to sculpt with.
Sampling? Yes, but only as a process-- not the object that it produces.
Synthesis, similarly. The materials of computer music, searching for a new open future where all participants are players.
Imaginary landscapes-- now melting to our touch.

Music as a Tangible Process rather than Gradual Process.
An instrument, a composition, a playspace.
Product as raw material-- the dissolving of recordings, of all things.
A new kind of open form, to discover a fluid architecture of musical space.
And to play out existing architectures, to dance to them.
From these dances-- a shifting form, born of the dissolving self.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Silent Play

4'33", John Cage's famous "silent piece", is a kind of aestheticized proof of the non-existence of silence. The performer is asked to play through three movements, each with one instruction: "tacet" (meaning "remain silent"). At this point, the sounds in the environment become the focus of our attention-- these sounds will always be present, there is no silence. More than an ordinary piece of music, it resembles a ritual, a spiritual exercise in self-restraint and openness to the external world. Cage always talked about the piece as something he played regularly, in all kinds of different situations-- in the city, on the beach, wherever. Perhaps more than a "piece," it's a whole-- a way of being. 

I've had some of my own powerful experiences with it. I remember sitting in my backyard a few summers ago, listening to all the traffic go by. I'd recently been reading a lot of Cage's writings, and I was listening to all of this as I would listen to music. I was just becoming interested in response structures, cybernetic relationships of a kind in all sorts of music-- call and response, chain reactions, loose pulse, etc. This kind of systemic thinking had a profound effect on me, and my experience of the traffic system's dense counterpoint heightened my sense of presence in the environment-- in a way, an awareness of myself as a subject in an endless participatory system, an identity with external forces that behaved the way they did precisely because of my own action (or inaction). If I'd felt the nihilistic urge, I could have gone into the middle of the street to cause an accident (/death) and all the rhythmic and textural changes in the music that would come with that. Cars crashing, bodies squishing, sirens arriving, etc. Xenakis' Formalized Music describes a similar situation..

So, in the right state of mind, the silent piece, which is really a kind of play tactic, can help us uncover new dimensions of this fundamental ludic (playful) message: non-action as action. Contemplation as play. It's a way of being that's rarely encouraged (or even allowed, thanks to time limits and other deadly forces) in videogames, games in general, and maybe this is unfortunate. Still, to be silent (still)-- it's a freedom we can never really be denied. It's an often ignored outer bound of our inner/psychological possibility space deserving of serious exploration. If a reason we play is to seek a kind of identity between ourselves and the materials we're engaged with (and this is a necessary precondition of any spiritual play process), silent play is a way of letting the space be itself on its own terms before engaging with it. Confucius said something along these lines.. "if I am going to play music with another person, first I will sit in silence, and listen to them playing by themselves. Then I will join in."


Now, to respond to the above video, a performance of 4'33" in Level 1-2 of Super Mario Bros. (SNES All-Star version) -- Imagine the game is now more aware of our silence. How long it's been since we last pushed a button, and what that button was. If the button was "A", the room gradually begins to grow when we release it. If it was B, the hue of everything on the screen shifts, cycles. The speeds of these processes are determined by how long the button was held. The goombas, too-- if the last button was A, they'll jump in a rhythm based on the time relation between that pressing  and the previous pressing. If the button was B, they'll turn into fish, and suffocate-- the speed of their death is determined by the size of the room.  The lights grow brighter as they die. If the last button we pressed was the down arrow, water will begin to rise (and again, its speed is variable). The color of the room determines the speed at which which we move through the water, it's resistance, or "feel". And in the water, when the feel is right, we too might become a fish.