Wednesday, June 29, 2022

My Little Cockroach: Friendship Is Magic

Concerning the cockroaches, there was an extraordinary phenomenon, for which none of us could ever account.

Every night they had a jubilee. The first symptom was an unusual clustering and humming among the swarms lining the beams overhead, and the inside of the sleeping-places. This was succeeded by a prodigious coming and going on the part of those living out of sight. Presently they all came forth; the larger sort racing over the chests and planks; winged monsters darting to and fro in the air; and the small fry buzzing in heaps almost in a state of fusion.
   —Herman Melville, Omoo: Adventures in the South Seas (1847)

American cockroach (Periplaneta americana)

It’s time we discussed the cockroach.

Is it misunderstood? Certainly. Most of us don’t trouble ourselves to learn about something that makes us shriek and dry heave. But since cockroaches aren't going anywhere, perhaps we should to become more knowledgeable of these contumacious neighbors of ours.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Young Justice: A Postmortem (or: Kneel Before Hugbox)

After spending more time writing about Magic: The Gathering than was sanely warranted (and not saying very much interesting about it for all the words, words, words) I wanted to be done scribbling about pop culture dreck for a while. I've got other stuff on my mind.

Then I went on vacation and got covid with a side of insomnia. I hadn't brought my laptop (all of my vacations are also digital detoxes) and only packed the sort of books that one can't effectively read when they've got a fever, a head full of germs, and are running on three hours of sleep. So, once again, I kept myself distracted late at night by writing something easy. Pop culture is easy.

So, this is a transcription of fevered chicken scratches, tidied up and expanded a bit. I already regret typing it, am intensely annoyed at committing time to editing it, and will surely hate myself for posting it. I'm going to bed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (8 of 8)

Because for rational beings to see or re-cognize their experience in a new material form is an unbought grace of life. Experience translated into a new medium literally bestows a delightful playback of earlier awareness. The press repeats the excitement we have in using our wits, and by using our wits we can translate the outer world into the fabric of our own beings.
   —Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964)
Is anyone surprised that McLuhan articulated the appeal of games writing over a decade before even Pong and Dungeons & Dragons were on the market?

I'm putting this last part out ahead of schedule because I'm ready to be done with it.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (7 of 8)

We're drawing closer to the point where I started playing Magic: The Gathering again after Weatherlight alienated me, and something occurred to me regarding Magic's remarkable persistence as a game, a community, and institution.

Somebody who collected and played with Magic cards at any point in their lives can return to the game after a decade or longer and still use their old cards at kitchen table games. If their collection consists mostly of cards from Mercadian Masques and Invasion, they probably won't win many games today—but their old decks still qualify them to participate in casual play with friends. The metagame changes, sure, but the only cards that have become completely incompatible with the game are a few very old ones that assumed people played for ante.

Once again, let's use Street Fighter as a counterexample. A person who dropped hundreds of quarters playing Street Fighter II circa 1993, skipped out on Street Fighter Alpha, Street Fighter III, Capcom Vs. SNK, SNK Vs. Capcom, etc., and then had his interest piqued by Street Fighter IV in 2008 would have discovered a game that resembled the one he'd been hooked on a decade and a half earlier, but was nevertheless a different animal. Street Fighter IV's Ryu might handle similarly to his Street Fighter II version, but even apart from the all the new moves, IV's fundamental mechanics are not the same as II's. Even if all the hours he committed to playing Street Fighter II gave our guy a leg up on somebody who was a total novice to 2D fighters, he still had to learn an entirely new game with its own intricacies and fine technical points.

Magic: The Gathering is like what Street Fighter II would be if Capcom had continuously updated it with new characters and the occasional balance tweaks for thirty years. (If "Super Street Fighter II Turbo" is a cumbersome title, imagine what its twentieth or thirtieth version would have been called. By that point, Capcom would have probably taken a cue from SNK and called it Super Street Fighter II Turbo 2021 instead of  something like Double-Plus Ultra Street Fighter II #Reloaded Champion ╬▓st ¡Prime! Edition." But we digress.)

I suppose Maple Story is a good instance of a video game actually doing this in practice. Hundreds of thousands of people still play Maple Story, but that's a precipitous decline from the 92 million users crowding its servers back in 2009. It's clearly showing its age, and there's the dilemma: at this point, modernizing it would amount to melting it down and remaking it. Nexon might as well just announce Maple Story 3 at that point—and judging from the brief lifespan of Maple Story 2, its reluctance is understandable. Since its obvious datedness precludes it from attracting many new players, the plan seems to be to let it run on fumes for as long as enough people still play it out of habit, come back for the updates, or revisit it in a sudden fit of nostalgia (as Shirley did last winter), and are enticed to spend real money on fake swag once they're there. 

But playing cards don't obsolesce. They're slips of cardboard. A CCG has no user interface that becomes clunky in comparison to newer products, no core engine that hits its practical limit, and relatively few "patches" (rules changes) that fundamentally change how cards operate in play. Thirty years later, your Beta Edition copy of Lightning Bolt still deals three damage to any target at instant speed, and nobody cares that the art isn't digitally enhanced, the card layout differs from later printings, or that the wording of the rules text isn't as rigorous as it became later on. 

If you knew how to play Magic twenty years ago, you know how to play it now. Adjusting to things like the removal of mana burn from the rules and the loosening of the restrictions on legendary creatures (the same player can't have two copies of Jedit Ojanen in play, but two different players can each have one) might take some getting used to, but you're not going to be like the inveterate Street Fighter III fanatic (me) who tried to like Street Fighter IV, but couldn't get past the idea that it was an inferior reiteration.

There was never a Magic: The Gathering II, Magic: The Gathering Champion Edition, Magic: The Gathering Sword & Shield. After almost thirty years, it's still the same game—which goes a long way towards accounting for how easy it can be to get hooked on it again after a long absence. The original recipe and all its addictive active ingredients remain exactly the same.


Monday, May 2, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (6 of 8)

I mentioned in the first post that two converging factors occasioned me to begin writing this series: the notion that I could neutralize the urge to take up Magic: The Gathering again by writing about Magic, and a bout with depression. There was a third factor I left unmentioned: I'd been unemployed since November. (That contributed to the depression, certainly.)

But I got a new job a couple of weeks ago. My days have structure imposed on them again. I'm biking to work, and the weather has become markedly less dreary. I don't feel like sleeping all the time anymore.

I wrote most of this during the winter, and as I get closer to the end I'm finding I lot of paragraphs that I let taper off, intending to finish them later on—meaning that now I have to do more than just try to tidy these things up before posting them. And now that I'm coming back to life, I'm remembering there's a lot more I want to read, think, and write about other than Magic, and now I have a time constraint.

There's two of these left, so I might as well finish them, but I'd like to have a bit of room while I readjust to the world of living and ponder other projects to occupy my time. Part seven will be up in two weeks.


Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (5 of 8)

The notes about archetypal shadowplay alluded to at the end of the last post ended up becoming a separate thing, which you can read here. I'm still not sure how much sense it makes. At some point I ought to try systematizing this shit.

We've passed the halfway point, and my plan was a total success. I can't tell you how much I want to write about anything other than Magic: The Gathering at this point. Let's hope I think back on this the next time I think that a long-longform thing about some pop-cultural this or that would be an easy and fun thing to do. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

MtGtWtW: Interlude

Appendix: some quodlibetical notes about the anatomy and physiology of a mythos, apropos the closing remark of the last post.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (4 of 8)

This is going to be a long one, but I want to get the Weatherlight Saga out of the way. It's sort of like 1990s superhero comics: full of iconic characters and landmark events, but much more impressive in retrospect than in its execution.


Monday, April 11, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (3 of 8)

I do read people's comments on this stuff; I'm just terrible at replying. It's a case of perfectionism causing procrastination: somebody takes the time to leave a note, and I feel like they deserve a substantive reply—which, somehow, I never feel I'm capable of doing in the moment. So I put it off, and then it just never happens. My apologies.

Anyway, one "PC" left a note on the last post:
I just finished Elden Ring and you made me realize it's basically the same thing as Magic, except item descriptions are the equivalent of cards. It's just a bunch of free-floating "lore" without any plot or meeting any of the mentioned characters, give or take a few boss fights. Is raw lore that interesting? I suppose it's a nerd thing?

That's...that's exactly right. I've never played Elden Ring or any of Hidetaka Miyazaki's other games (and yes, I know, I'm all the poorer for it), I did play Blasphemous earlier this year, which I understand is a Souls/Metroidvania hybrid.

Blasphemous' story, as communicated during the occasional moments of dialogue, explains what's happening as though the player were already acculturated to Cvstodia and didn't need to be brought up to speed on the Miracle, the Church, or the Brotherhood of the Silent Sorrow, and the effect is that you're operating in the dark for most of the game. The descriptions of the items you collect supply fragmentary information about the land's history, its people, the origins of its monsters, its morbid religion, and the depravity of its leaders. Some of it is important; a lot of it is trivial. But it helps a game that would otherwise be an above-average Metroidvania romp with a unique and brilliantly realized aesthetic tunnels deep into your brain. You're presented with a scenario and you want to make sense of it, to create meaning from the patterns with which you're presented, and you can only make progress by being proactive. Blasphemous doesn't tell you its story; it leaves pieces of it lying around for the player to put together so they can make their own conjectures and draw their own conclusions.

This is precisely how early Magic: The Gathering did things in its early years. You collected and played with the cards, and for the most part, when you opened a booster pack of sifted through your collection, you were more interested in how a card functioned than what it revealed about any imaginary world. But you were still looking at the art and reading the flavor text; the ambiance of the setting and the story (even when the story was rudimentary) was inescapable. The same compulsion to make sense of a pattern was apt to assert itself—and, yes, I suppose nerds are particularly susceptible to this sort of thing.


Monday, April 4, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (2 of 8)

If I had to rank my favorite Magic: The Gathering artists, Amy Weber and her buoyant, diagrammatic compositions would be somewhere in the top three. What exactly are we seeing in Curse of Marit Lage? How does it relate to the card's in-game effect? Who knows! But it sure is fun to look at.

I really miss old Magic art. In the mid-1990s, Wizards of the Coasts' artist coterie was full of people whose work was impossible to mistake fom anyone else's. Amy Weber, of course. Richard Kane Ferguson. Kaja and Phil Foglio. Drew Tucker. Rebecca Guay. Andi Rusu. Even that deranged nazi fuck Harold McNeill. In its early years, Magic's signature "look" was a composite of diverse art styles, imbuing the fantasy world depicted in the cards and the aesthetic experiences of the game they're used in with a touch of surreality, of the protean, of...well, magic.

Scrolling through these writeups and just looking at the card images is sort like watching a time-lapse video of a flower blooming or a carcass decomposing. By the time we get to the end of the decade, the art doesn't look very much at all like it did at the beginning. After another eight years, the difference between Mark Poole's Counterspell and Jason Chan's Counterspell is as stark as the contrast between how Jack Kirby and Jim Lee drew the X-Men. Nowadays, Magic art is sleek, consistent, and exquisitely polished—but not as much fun as it was when it was still a hodgepodge, and before Wizards ran its art department like a factory. 

...Anyway. Let's get on with it.


Monday, March 28, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (1 of 8)

Postscript: This was written in fits and starts, spaced out across about five months—usually coinciding with Wizards of the Coast previewing a new Magic: The Gathering expansion and releasing the associated web fiction. As usual, one of the motivators of this "exercise" is the idea that I can apply to myself the parental logic of forcing a child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes after catching him lighting up in the garage.*  It's worked before, and the results were usually something I could live with. This time...I'm not so sure.

For the Magic: The Gathering fan/addict (what's the difference?) who happens upon this writeup, I suspect it'll be so much catnip. For the person who's never thought about or spent any money on the damn cards, it could be an entertaining dive into an entertainment product that rakes in upwards of $580 million a year, forms the basis of an esoteric subset of geek/gamer culture that's probably larger than most people think, and achieved with nothing but colorful pieces of carboard the same degree of slavish patronage which World of Warcraft needed the Unreal Engine and cable internet to inspire in its players.

For people in my age group (read: old) who played for a couple of years in middle school and then wandered off, never to return, it might be a fun way to see how much the game changed over the years.

I should say in advance that I'm not going to be looking at every single Magic set. There's a point where R&D refines its approach to worldbuilding into almost a matter of rote method, and where most of what can be said about a given set is "so-and-so happens in the story," "it's a lot like such-and-such previous set," and "it's inspired by this-and-that real-world culture and folklore." We won't be venturing very far into the post-Mending era.

Since most of these have already been written and need only some touch-ups and pictures, I think I can stand to post them weekly—which might mean I have two months' worth of updates on deck. If I weren't so ashamed of myself for having written so much about Magic: The Gathering, I'd be very pleased.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

The conspiracy of NFTs

Everybody hates NFTs and is sick of hearing about them, barring the people who have gotten, or are hoping to get rich (or richer) from making and selling NFT art—and we might getting of sick of them, too. We're tired of the phantom whiffs of vape oil and cannabis we get whenever we glimpse a fugitive Bored Ape Yacht Club avatar, and we're tried of gnashing our teeth when we hear that some insipid, procedurally generated .png with a blockchain receipt sold for tens of thousands of dollars. We're even getting weary of reading articles about our collective hatred of NFTs. And yet, the media persists in telling us that the damn things are here to stay, and that we'll all soon embrace them as willingly as we did credit cards, Farmville, Instagram, or any other parasitic technology. Surely the incessant anti-NFT chatter helps to fulfill the prophecy, crystallizing the inevitability of Web3 the same way Freddy Krueger grows strong by feeding on the fears of his future victims.

Nevertheless, we are now, reluctantly looking into the mirror and chanting "non-fungible asset tokens" three times. What compelled me to this was Wikipedia's decision to classify Cryptopunks and their ilk as NFTs—not as "art."

Though it pains me to say it, I don't think this was the right call. "Art" is a word whose meaning lost all coherence around the same time the cabal of critics and curators retroactively canonized Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. If what we talk about when we talk about art is the stuff we see in museums or read about in Artforum, it's hard to deny that NFTs fit the profile. If Banksy's stencil graffiti or Warhol's screen prints of camouflage patterns get to be Art, then who are Wikipedia's editors to say that a .jpg with a blockchain ledger "pointing" to it belongs to a separate, lesser category of cultural artifact?

Not only would I argue that NFTs deserve to be categorized as art, but that they represent the next logical step in the evolution of contemporary art, and of the art market (and truly, it is impossible to separate the two). But what's more important is how they arrived at this position: by a feat of reductio ad absurdum.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

flowers of the machine, part 3: gamelon of the floating world (IV)

 As I said before, this project seemed like a much better idea before it began.

Several months after I first watched it (and re- and rewatched it), YouTube rerecommended me the Zelda CDi Reanimated Collab—again. And like a cat who can't help itself from batting at a foxtail dangling in front of its face, I clicked the link and watched it—again.

This time, for whatever reason, I imagined a scenario where an alien anthropologist, visiting Earth thousands of years in the future, somehow found itself viewing the ZCRC in the vine-shrouded shambles of an old server bank. (No, I don't know how it would accomplish this. Alien science.) What if, somehow, this very video was one of the only digital artifacts from the twenty-first century that the visitor could reconstruct in toto? Given this clue, what would the curious alien surmise of humanity's way of life in the twilight years of its global civilization?

That was the handle of it: pretending that the ZCRC wasn't just a silly piece of internet ephemera, but something that deserved a thoroughgoing accounting for, as though the description "YouTube video about the cutscenes from a so-bad-it's-funny 1990s video game" would be received with an uncomprehending stare.

Since I'm too afraid to reread the first three parts of this exercise and discover that I'm actually a babbling idiot, let's please assume that I've given an adequately explication of the ZCRC in terms of the medium in which it occurs, the persons who made it, and its cultural functions, all as outcomes of historical processes. All that remains is to guess at what it means.


As the seasons passed and his missions continued, Marco mastered the Tartar language and the national idioms and tribal dialects. Now his accounts were the most precise and detailed that the Great Khan could wish and there was no question or curiosity which they did not satisfy. And yet each piece of information about a place recalled to the emperor's mind that first gesture or object with which Marco had designated the place. The new fact received a meaning from that emblem and also added to the emblem a new meaning. Perhaps, Kublai thought, the empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind's phantasms.

"On the day when I know all the emblems," he asked Marco, "shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?"

And the Venetian answered: "Sire, do not believe it. On that day you will be an emblem among emblems." 
   —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972)

What does the Zelda CDi Reanimated Collab mean? What do The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon mean, for that matter?

Saturday, February 12, 2022

flowers of the machine, part 3: gamelon of the floating world (III)

Games, like institutions, are extensions of social man and of the body politic, as technologies are extensions of the animal organism. Both games and technologies are counter-irritants or ways of adjusting to the stress of the specialized actions that occur in any social group. As extensions of the popular response to the workaday stress, games become faithful models of a culture. They incorporate both the action and the reaction of whole populations in a single dynamic image.
   —Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964)

Of course, "games" meant something totally different in 1964 than today. But the good professor is still worth listening to on the topic, I think.

So, once again, we're examining the technical and cultural backdrop of a silly YouTube video where a couple hundred different animators set new moving pictures to the old noises from two of the most embarrassing video games ever made.

This seemed like a such a good idea a month or two back. I was drinking more back then. Early winter and all.


Who are the mythmakers?

First, it depends on what we mean by "myths." We'll come back to that.

Second: it depends on how a culture is organized, and the technology it uses.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

flowers of the machine, part 3: gamelon of the floating world (II)

In case you missed our last episode (and I don't see how a 6000-word blog post about the evolving phenomenology of the art-object shouldn't be at the top of everyone's reading list), we're scrutinizing the techno-sociological paradigm which the Zelda CDi Reanimated Collab instantiates. Excogitations upon the trivial can sometimes illuminate more of our world than an enquiry into a grand figure or theme, and while I can't promise that will be the outcome here, maybe we'll get lucky.

For the ReAnimated Collab version, see here.


A decade ago we all assumed, or at least hoped, that the net would bring so many benefits to so many people that those unfortunates who weren't being paid for what they used to do would end up doing even better by finding new ways to get paid. You still hear that argument being made, as if people lived forever and can afford to wait an eternity to have the new source of wealth revealed to them.
—Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (2010)

Who makes art?

An unusual feature of the modern epoch is the new inequivalence between this question and the more generic "who makes things?".