Friday, March 1, 2013

Performance as Game

I can pinpoint the moment when I became a Serious Jazz Listener. When I was in high school, I played saxophone in a small extracurricular ensemble attached to our music school. One evening we played an intense, 40 minute version of "Afro Blue," collectively improvising on F minor in 3/4 time until we were exhausted. Floored by the experience, I sought out and purchased the John Coltrane Quartet's Live At Birdland. When "Afro Blue" began, it seemed like familiar territory. The group articulated what was basically the melody I knew. McCoy Tyner's solo started veering into the unknown almost immediately, but I barely noticed. The piano was a mystery to me anyway and all I heard as things started getting heavy was "intensity." Then Coltrane's horn came in and everything changed.
He engaged the raw materials of the music, form, melody, harmony, structure in a way that was utterly alien to me. This bore very little relationship to our naive F minor jam.

Coltrane was playing by an entirely different set of rules.

In his discussion of Yasunari Kawabata's The Master of Go, Douglas Wilson describes a famous loss in the game of Go in which a student exploited a rule designed to prevent player advantage during break periods to defeat his master. He suggests that one explanation for the loss is that the seemingly trivial rule was able to re-frame the game that was being played.

"...we might point out that he was playing a different game than he had thought he was playing....In adding a new rule to make the game more “fair,” the officials had also changed the very game itself. It wasn’t the same game that Meijin had grown up playing."

The move was very controversial. Wilson goes on to make an interesting set of points about rule negotiation and systematization and the influences of a game's culture on how it is played. What interests me now, though, is that the primary objections to the controversial move were seemingly aesthetic in nature. For the author and master, it wasn't just a breach of etiquette. In the quoted passages, Kawabata compares Go to a painting or a piece of music and the move to a smear or false note. It's described as "ugly," and the locus of the work of art it's defacing is in the interaction of the two players within the implied contract of the game.

I'm currently playing double bass in an adult ed jazz ensemble at New England Conservatory of Music. I am still a beginner at the instrument. Last night we were playing and discussing Coltrane's composition "Mr. PC," and I told my coach about a version Coltrane played with Eric Dolphy (Dolphy comes in at 2:18; coincidentally this was also performed at Birdland.) He shook his head for a little while and repeated Dolphy's name several times. He said he hadn't listened to Dolphy for a long time and wanted to revisit his music now that he knows more. He described when he'd first heard Dolphy's music.
"Dolphy's crazy. I mean amazing, but crazy. I heard people talking him up so I decided to listen. And I just couldn't understand. Everyone's playing and then Dolphy's solo starts and I was like 'it's all wrong! What is he doing?' Elvin didn't know what he was doing, he just plays time, like he shrugged his shoulders and was like 'I don't know either.'"
He went on to say that even then he recognized that Dolphy was doing something amazing and he wants to go back and listen a lot more now that his ear has caught up.
In 1962 many critics were calling what Coltrane and Dolphy were doing together "anti-jazz," "ugly," "destructive." In the view of those critics, now generally viewed as regressive, their performance practices, the way they reconfigured sonic elements was defacing the music they were playing.

But Coltrane and Dolphy had both paid dues in more conventional ensembles and had some automatic cred. Even more divisive was Ornette Coleman, who popped onto the scene a few years before the above recordings, AND had a lot more vitriol thrown his way. Listen to "Focus On Sanity" from The Shape of Jazz To Come. Consider how it is possible that this would have invited any kind of ire, much less the violent reactions it received. I didn't understand how that could be the case until I started learning to play bass.

Functioning in a jazz rhythm section is very different than playing a lead instrument. The primary functions are cohesion and propulsion. Bass and drums lock together to create a solid pulse on which to build structure, but they also must maintain a relationship with that pulse and with one another in which the music feels like it's being driven or pulled ahead or drawn back. On a moment-to-moment level, microscopic differences in beat placement between different beats in the bar and between musicians combine to form the foundation of the "feel" of the music. If this is solid, a soloist can toy with time, sound and beat placement and remain grounded.
A level above the moment-to-moment cohesion and propulsion, the rhythm section is responsible for maintaining the overall structure of a piece. In most non-free jazz, some form of the harmonic rhythm from the melody of the piece is maintained throughout all solos. The rhythm section maintains the form and signposts important elements to prevent soloists from getting lost. When people do get lost (a famous feature of the 60s Miles Davis groups), the rhythm section either provides or takes cues to get the music back on track. I was always aware that the rhythm section played a "supporting" role, but until I started playing in one I wasn't entirely sure how that existed.  And now that I play as a rhythm section player, I hear music differently.

And as a result I also understand the implied rules of shared performance differently.

Ornette Coleman worked with his rhythm section to untether the group from certain previously central structural elements of that implied contract. Though early on they still sometimes played changes, The Ornette Coleman rhythm sections usually followed and led the soloists far afield, using the propulsive AND the cohesive grammar of a jazz rhythm section to create structure on the fly rather than reinforcing the pre-existing structures of the written melody. And whereas previously a soloist's statement was taken to be in conversation with the underlying harmonic structure of a song, no matter how radically altered, a soloist in Ornette's band could no longer be said to be interacting with that structure. The sound grammar Ornette used as its own base elements was developed by the beboppers as a means of elaborating and extending melody in a fixed context.  By divorcing that grammar from its context, listeners, especially close listeners, heard it as nonsense.

Ornette had smeared black ink on his canvas by radically altering the unwritten rules of a jazz performance in a way which is virtually inaudible to today's casual listener.

A performer in a group could be said to be engaged in a game with the other performers in that group for the benefit of a set of spectators. But the individuals and the group could also be said to be engaged in a game with those spectators, and a game with the musical materials being manipulated during the performance. In some ways, the tension between the rules in those games, any differences between shared understandings of the rules at play between those games, and the possibility of a performer introducing new and unexpected rules at any time are what make jazz performances exciting to me.

And as in games, the masters often prove to be responding to rules and affordances of a much higher order, and their performances often get richer as understanding blossoms.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


A few years ago, I reconnected with an old friend I hadn't seen since we both graduated from high school in 1992. A few meetings in, he revealed that he'd recently gotten an XBox360, which was his first game console since the Sega Master System. Almost apologetically, he talked about loving the console, on which he played Gears of War and Grand Theft Auto IV.

He expressed amazement about how immersive videogames had become. To a third non-gamer friend who was there, he described the realistic virtual worlds, the complicated shooting and movement mechanics, the detailed cutscenes and the captivating environments. It was all incredible, he said, an amazingly advanced guilty pleasure.

He was definitely game-aware when we were younger. When we were in high school, we almost always visited arcades as part of any weekend outing. Used record shops, comic stores, bookstores, arcades. Beat-em-ups were the genre of choice because you could play cooperatively, and these were social occasions. We both had home consoles we'd stopped playing. Neither of us were PC gamers.

I suspect that there were videogame phenomena that crept into the periphery of his awareness between then and now. As he described it, though, in his experience videogames leapt from the state of the art in 1992 to the state of the art in 2009.

And from his standpoint, we'd developed some incredibly addictive, incredibly immersive, incredibly fun summer-blockbuster-grade trash.

There's nothing wrong with that exactly. There's certainly nothing wrong with consuming summer blockbusters. But I felt compelled to come to videogames' defense. I'd invested more of my thinking and free time in the things than I wanted to admit, so I talked about indie games and art games and serious games and even big budget stuff like Ico and Rez and Portal. 'The possibilities of the medium' and so forth.

After I left high school, I abandoned videogames for a few years. There were a few minor gaming diversions in my senior year of college, but what brought me back into the fold was playing SNES jrpgs the following summer on my now-brother-in-law's console. I'm a little embarrassed to say that they struck me so profoundly I abandoned my plan of teaching and I ended up making software for a living.

The expressive possibilities for the medium seemed endless. Emboldened by the utopianism of Next Generation magazine, I naively envisioned a gaming future in which new experiences weren't primarily escapist, which didn't follow the tropes of blockbuster film and genre fiction. I imagined a vanguard of eager, forward-thinking artists (probably based in New York) invading the mainstream and blowing the doors off the place. And I played everything new I could get my hands on, taking note of unusual features and novel storytelling and fitting them neatly into a narrative about how games were evolving.

Somewhere between then and now I recognized the dissonance in that narrative and stopped assuming games were progressing toward anything in particular. Genres I thought were leading the way have dropped in and out of favor. Ideas I like have appeared once and never again.

I'd like to start revisiting the ideas I noticed in some of those dead-end games and have been thinking about for years. The jrpgs, the adventure games, the not-hardcore-enough strategy games. This is far from a novel pursuit; I read plenty of articles in which people dissect mechanics I never noticed from games I barely remember. But I'm going to do it. Hopefully it will teach me something about design.

And hopefully it will allow me to begin to articulate exactly how and why the popular videogame future my friend has discovered has diverged so radically from the much weirder futures I once envisioned.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Advanced Chess Simulator

While musing in bed at 4AM yesterday morning, I realized that there were no chess simulations that really captured what I feel is essential to the experience of playing chess.

The night before, I'd attended Courtney Stanton's wonderful Women in Games: Boston talk about building games in Twine.  Truth be told, I already had a few open twine projects, slowly spiraling out of control.

Yesterday I decided to start and complete the game in a day. I started in the morning before work and ended after work.

I've solicited feedback from my wife and a few friends and will probably make a few revisions before the weekend.

But I started and posted a game.

It's here.

Mollusk Gone Bad presents:

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I spent Friday night finally playing through Christine Love's Analogue: A Hate Story. 

I failed to notice a key UI detail. You can click on a portrait of the AI character guiding you through the game to get commentary on whatever text log you're reading and to unlock additional texts. This is told to you explicitly, but I misread the icon and thought that its washed-out colors meant that it was inactive.  I spent more than a half and hour reading and rereading 5 text logs and a family tree to try to ferret out the true name of the "Pale Bride" and gain admin access to the in-game terminal.

It was a clear instance of misapprehending the rules of a game. I thought I'd stumbled into a sneaky logic puzzle, that I was expected to be deciphering a riddle with the barest of context and some very indirect clues. On a stray envelope I drew a second family tree from the one text log that described the rival family and tried resolved every relationship that could be resolved logic-puzzle style from the few fragments I had. I walked through each log and made sure I understood who the subject of every sentence was and what their relationship was to every other person I could see mention of.

After none of my attempts to guess the admin password panned out, I checked online for hints and was met by a slew of "you should have no problem getting to the end of this game" posts where I was expecting puzzle game style walkthroughs. I finally found a post suggesting that if I didn't know the password maybe I hadn't clicked on the portrait for every piece of text and I realized I hadn't done it for any of them.

This unlocked the game and I played through to an ending without getting stuck again. But the experience of grappling with that text changed my relationship with the game. I didn't skim any of the text logs from that point on. I had a detailed mental model that contextualized every character that got introduced or deepened. Every new log felt like a revelation. And even though there weren't any logic puzzles that relied on the kind of close reading I had assumed was necessary, I still engaged with the game as though there were. And the game is well enough written that this was very rewarding.

When I played through my first few Infinity Engine games in 2000, I paid careful attention to the in-game calendar/clock. It was very prominent. Except for a few hours of Daggerfall, I hadn't played a PC RPG since The Bard's Tale, but I'd read about how "sophisticated" they were compared to their console counterparts. I assumed that meant that the in-game times and dates were important. When people ascribed urgency to tasks or described impending events or menaces, I gave them credence and tried to glean WHEN these things would happen and handle them at or before the appropriate times. When I realized that the time and date were essentially meaningless except in a few cases, the games lost some of their richness for me.

I wrote this out because I wanted to figure out why in the former case my love of the game was increased, but in the latter case it was diminished. In both cases I misread the rules of the game I was playing and thought I was being asked to handle more complex challenges than were being presented. Both mistakes were also based on my misreading the significance of prominent UI elements.

I think it's because in the case of Analogue: A Hate Story the additional challenge functioned as a kind of membrane on top of the explicit role you're playing in the game. My misapprehension was consistent with the fiction in the game, and the fiction stretched as the mode of reading I was forced into was rewarded with internal consistency and tantalizing blind avenues. When I was freed to explore the rest, that time and effort didn't feel wasted. I never read any of the other logs as closely or as carefully, but I saw much more in them than I would have and I reread them to check my mental model against what was there. Apart from spending a little more time than I might have, no effort was wasted.

In the case of the Infinity Engine games, the Baldur's Gates in particular, when I realized that the clock was unimportant,  what broke was the not just the illusion that the simulation was tracking time in a meaningful way, but the whole illusion that events could happen in that world. The world of the fiction grew smaller and less reactive.

It's unfair to make this comparison; both are based on errors I made and have very little to do with the relative merits of 2 games in 2 very different genres with some very different verbs. But I think there are lessons there.