Musics I done

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Manifold Garden and Recursion

 I don't *hate* Manifold Garden*.

My trajectory of emotions while playing Manifold Garden went like this:

-> delight, at the visuals the game provides;

-> disappointment, that the puzzles don't seem to use the USP of the game much;

-> dread and cosmic horror, at the monumentally meaningless world the game creates;

-> frustration, that some of the puzzles involve knowing what I want to do, but not seeing how I am able to do it;

-> tiredness, and just wanting the game to be over, to the point of relying on walkthroughs to get to the end.

So let's unpick that, because I think Manifold Garden is an interesting failiure; I don't think it's a great puzzle game, but I do think it's a decent experience, and much how I love playing games on tourism mode without any conflict, I wonder if MG would be better without the puzzles. I don't think it successfully changed me as a person, but it did make me feel something, and at least some of what I felt was intentional.

The game looks good. It's interesting that there are virtually no textures on the walls in the game - it is entirely told through wireframes and solid colours. The lack of textures is important for the way that walls change colour when the player changes direction of gravity - the players' way of interacting with the world - but also I imagine there's a processing reason. Sometimes, because of the looping nature of the game world, the number of panels the player can see is staggeringly huge, and having a wireframe world rather than a textured world is a good way to keep it running smoothly (I used to do the same trick whilst playing Ultima Underworld, which allowed you to switch off the texture mapping and play in an abstract VR rave). This lack of... implementation of the game world has allowed the studio to go in a very haunting direction with the design: firstly, it means that any architecture must be communicated only with shapes and outlines, leading to a world of austere columns, staircases, and pedastals; secondly, it creates a sterile, unheimlich atmosphere. That word of course conjures up memories of 'House of Leaves', which the architecture also reminds me of; HoL has whole sections dedicated to describing the absolute lack of architectural style that the interior of the house has, trying to drive home the lack-of by listing pages of things that the architure *isn't*.

Now, as an aside I want to talk about the maths of the game world. Game worlds that loop around themselves have existed before, largely in 2-dimensional retro titles, Astroids and Pac-man being the obvious examples. When you have a flat 2-D world that loops at each edge, the mathematical explanation of that would be a torus, the bagel or doughnut shape. You can't map a flat rectangle to a sphere without all sorts of nonsense happening at the poles, but mapping a rectangle to a torus preserves the both parallels and the areas. 

The thing is, a torus is a 3D shape with a 2D surface, so this is why the mapping works. MG seeems to be a 3D implementation of this same thing would necessarily involve the existence of a 4D torus for it to be happening on the surface of. This is a really neat idea! You can read Chyr's blogpost about this, It has really good visualisations of the maths involved. Reading up on blogs and design documents gives me a real sense of the creator that the game doesn't give me at all. I really like this design document too.

The game has two mechanics: change the direction of gravity, and looping 3D space. most of the puzzles take place in small closed enviroments, where you only have to worry about changing gravity. Each of the small worlds you inhabit has several of these, connected by abusing the open world's looping. Quite a few times, I found myself walking across these huge open spaces, looking for a jumping off point I could change gravity from. I like how the game progressed from large open environments, where the 'world' could be seen a few times across space, to loops there the 'world' extended through the loop, to worlds where the loop is small enough to be useful in the actual puzzle. However, for almost all of the game, the two systems don't really interact; The 3D looping world is dazzling, but is also mostly just used as a replacement of a 'jump' feature. When it gets more local, the looping universe ends up being used exactly like portals in Portal. So there's this disconnect between the 'hook' of the game (being the looping world) and the mechanics of the game (being the coloured-block puzzles) that I found quite disappointing. It's not Ludo-Narrative Dissonance, more Ludo-Environmental.. I dunno, they're not oppoite each other, they're more perpendicular to each other. Like, one is saying 'pizza' and the other is saying 'brick', and those aren't opposing, but they aren't linked either.

Playing Manifold Garden depressed me. It made me want to stop existing. The spaces are so grand, blank, and beyond comprehension, even before you get to the 3D world-wrapping, that it makes me feel despondant. Aside from the landscape being alienating, the lack of any conversation, any people, or any signs of life, left me numb. While this chimes in with some great authors, like Kafka, Borges, and PK Dick, who often look at the absurdity of reality and come away hollow and despairing, it lends a sense of pointlessness to the game. I felt nothing driving me to complete the game, whether an emotional draw or a hint system. Despite the fact that I relate to the alienation that those authors make me feel, I have grown away from it, and towards the writing of people like Vonnegut, who look at the meaningless universe and find humour and humanity in it. Glados in Portal does more than just act as an antagonist - It is a subtle reward system, each level completed granting one more small punchline, one more little reason to make progress in the game, as well as act as a companion (as well as the signs of earlier test subjects, even if they're not there *now*, act against the sense of being alone). Many games have other characters, that can be talked to for hints, or just to foster a sense of urgency in your quest; MG's lack of this is an interesting twist, but I found the experience actively unpleasant. 

As a design decision, there is not only no other beings, but also no character model - this avoids questions as to who 'you' are (a spider, according to my children), but also raises questions - at one point in the game, you can see the loop clearly enough to see a block you are carrying moving as if by itself. this tells us the loop is indeed a loop - and not infinity at all! - but also it hghlights the fact that the player is apparently invisible.

As I said, Dread and Cosmic Horror, that's quite an achievement in a video game. That was my take-away from the game about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way in. 


But as that drew away as I carried on playing the game, MG began to grow frustrating, as I would find myself getting lost and having to walk miles around really large structures - it reminded me of moments in Deus Ex, where you'd have to walk around the edge of a massive building that hadn't been fleshed out at all. Things began to get less enjoyable when I would reload a game, and have no idea where I was or what I was meant to be doing, and there was no way to know what direction to go off in, because everywhere looked the same. Then some of the puzzles began to rely on spotting tiny details in a massive noisy map - finding the right tree you needed began to feel like some sort of abstract tessellating 'where's wally?' game. There was one puzzle towards the end, where I couldn't find a yellow tree for a block I needed, so I back-tracked to the last puzzle I solved, becoming convinced that there was some clever way I could reuse one of the blocks from that puzzle; however,it turned out there was another yellow tree right where I needed it in the puzzle, rendered invisible by the amount of  detail on display. 

My point is, that wasn't fun. It was frustrating that I knew what I needed, but I couldn't find it; I felt that it wasn't my fault I was stuck, but the games'. By the time I'd got past that point, I just wanted it to be over. I didnt find the puzzles interesting to solve, and whenever I got stuck, I didn't feel it was because the game was difficult, but because it was obtuse.

So I'd like to compare it with a game that I've been stuck on more often than MG, but never at any point did I feel frustrated with. Recursed is about four years older than MG, but has only had 1/6 as many reviews on Steam, if that's anything to judge popularity by; both are rated 'very positive' in reviews.

I think Recursed is a good comparison, because MG is flagged as 'infinite' and 'recursive' a lot, and I don't think it's either of those things. MG has loops in it - but that's not the same as being infinite. A repeated loop from 0-9 is not the same as an endless string of increasingly large numbers, or a recursive pattern that contains itself. Recursed - which I discovered in an old RPS review and have played on and off since its release in 2016 - does contain true recursion, as eventually you start playing with levels that literally do contain themselves. And look - it's right there in the title! The concept *matches* the game mechanic!

Recursed does not contain a hint system or any other players, but there are rings lying around that talk to you, presumably having been dropped by an earlier player. I am about halfway through the game, I've been stuck on it loads - but never have I felt at fault for being stuck, and never have I felt frustrated at being stuck. Any time I've been stuck, it's usually because I've been too tired to play, I can't get my head in gear to deal with the puzzles - but when I come back in the morning, it works out just fine. A couple of times, I've gone to look on the internet for hints, and at no point have I kicked myself for not getting it. 

The game doesn't look fancy, it's a 2d retro-pixely platformer, but I think it's massively under-appreciated and stunningly well-designed, because it allows me to feel clever. I definitely felt things while playing MG - it had an impact - but I didn't feel clever. It was a really interesting experience (and I appreciate this - making me feel what the game did is a product of a great deal of effort on the studio's behalf), but I didn't enjoy it as a puzzle game.  

I think that's interesting because my assumption was they'd created an interesting world and needed to fill it with a puzzle mechanic, which hadn't really worked; but reading the design docs and stuff, it seems like the gravity stuff came first (inspired by Escher), and the bit that i really liked -  the 3d looping - seems to have been put on top. Maybe there were two separate games in here, trying to get out? Is this 'first novel' syndrome, where you try to pack too many ideas in? Maybe I'd have really liked the puzzle mechanic, if that was the whole game. 

I think I just talked myself into liking this game again. 

*I keep calling it Manifold Valley, partly because that's where my parents live, but also because it's reminiscant of  'Monument Valley', another puzzle game that deals with visual paradoxes. The two titles have the same rhythm and many of the same sounds; like how Supergrass' B-side 'Melanie Davis' fits with 'Eleanor Rigby'. Maybe the 'Three-Two Title' is a thing to explore in a future blogpost.

Burnt Ogre Kareoke lyric video




I had some difficulty deciding what to do with the vocal on Burnt Ogre. 

The poem is integral to the music, but having me read it over the top felt like it distracted from the music. On the other hand, the Karaoke version got rid of the poem all together.

So this might be my favourite way to experience the Burnt Ogre piece - the karaoke version, with karaoke text that is timed to the vocal version. It's a read along!

Friday, April 16, 2021

What is 'The Boxtrolls' Trying to Say?

I have found the moral mess'ges of the Laika Films production The Boxtrolls quite difficult to decode. 

Boxtrolls is, I think, quite a gorgeous film, although being a stop-motion animation, it automatically makes me miss the drip-feed of jokes you get in an Aardman film. for example: it took me about three watches of Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists to get the joke with the cannon ball dispenser, and the film is stuffed with moments like that. I feel like that if you're going to take such care over something, for so long, that has to be so carefully planned, you might as well stuff it to the gills with details that reward repeat viewings.

That aside, let me think through what I've always found to be a confusing set of values that might make sense if I try to put my thoughts down in writing, or maybe they won't and that will be a conclusion worth reaching. Boxtrolls has had some stick for being transphobic, as it portrays Snatcher as a villinous transvestite. 

Let's start with a plot recap, focusing on the Snatcher and Eggs, the an-and-pro-tagonists of this story:

Trubshore the scientist is kidnapped by Archibald Snatcher; his son is sent away with the boxtrolls to be kept safe. The boxtrolls name him Eggs and raise him as a boxtroll. Snatcher claims the boxtrolls killed Trubshore and stole and ate his son; the -mayor?- Lord Portly-Rind strikes a deal with Snatcher that if he can rid the town of boxtrolls - who, it's worth restating, are only considered a problem because Snatcher claims they are - he will be granted a white hat. Of course, Portly-Rind does not ever think he will have to come good on his bargain. 

The White-Hats are a group of high-ranking nobles in the city, including Portly-Rind, who... just seem to eat cheese, really, and misappropriate public funds for their extravagant cheese-eating sessions. Snatcher seeks to be elevated to their ranks, despite being severely allergic to cheese.

Snatcher then goes into business as a boxtroll exterminator. at the same time, he becomes a musichall-syle star, performing in drag* as Madame Frou-Frou, singing propaganda songs that whip up hatred of the boxtrolls and hence more business for himself, and drives his political ambition of upgrading from lowly red-hat to elite white-hat.  

*I'm not sure this counts as drag, because the audience are apparently unaware that Madame Frou-Frou is not a real person.

So what I'm looking at, is we have this character Snatcher, the atagonist, who is obsessed with image; he pretends to be something he's not when he's performing as Madame Frou-Frou; he aspires to wear a different coloured hat, something that has no intrisic worth; he seeks to eat cheese for the social prestige it carries, despite the fact that doing so gives him an anaphalactic reaction, a fact he denies even to himself as it gets in the way of his aspirations. He is not in touch with his own true nature.

Eggs, on the other hand, believes himself to be a boxtroll, and to the film's credit, this is enough for him to be considered a boxtroll. Boxtrolls are timid, caring creatures, but even as their numbers dwindle, they do not do anything about it - until Eggs goes above ground, disguising himself as a human, to find the other kidnapped boxtrolls. When all looks lost - the boxtrolls all captured, about to be destroyed - Eggs' makes a speech about how they don't have to be slaves to their past:

Fish, Fish, everyone, listen! I'm a boxtroll and I stopped hiding. So you can, too. Stand up for yourselves. We can fight back! Don't be afraid anymore! Sparky! Fragile! Get up! Get up and fight! Just stand up and take a step. Please! Do it for me!

At the time he thinks he failed, but it turns out the other boxtrolls did escape - abandoning even their boxes in order to do so. They have gone against their nature, and grown. Eggs has grown and found his genetic father, revealing more about his identity. At the end, as Snatcher, swollen from his allergy to the cheese he feels like he needs, is about to eat the fatal piece of cheese that will do him in, and we get another little speech from Eggs:

Don't do it. It won't change who you are. Cheese, hats, boxes, they don't make you. You make you.

Snatcher replies:

I have made me, boy.

Snatcher, being the villain - really a tragic hero, if we take this as his own story - dies precisely because he can't really change. Snatcher dies because he wants to be something he's fundamentally not. Eggs and the boxtrolls survive because they redefine themselves at a more fundamental level; not through external signalling, but through changing their actual character.

So this is why I've always been bugged by the story:

On the one hand it appears to be telling us to be true to ourselves, accept who we are, and not to put a value on external signals. On the other hand it appears to be telling us that our nature can change and grow. 

But despite that, whilst Eggs idenitifies as a boxtroll, meeting his genetic father is still important to him, implying that his 'true nature' is still human; and Snatcher's true nature, that of being allergic to cheese, is fundamentally immutable; he's not going to be able to will that away.

Is this a muddle? Is it ok for a film's message to be 'know thyself' at the same time as 'Nietzschian transformation is possible'? is that a contradiction - or do you need to be in touch with your own nature in order to change your nature? Buddists would argue that the first step towards changing things is to accept them for what they are.

I don't think I can find any more words to explore this with. I feel like the film didn't really explore the themes it was suggesting. So either it was a brave move to try to put these themes into a childrens' film, and at least get a conversation going about it; or it's a little bit of inspirational philosophy dusted on top that didn't really have the implications thought through. I just can't decide.

The themes remind me of Hedwig and The Angry Inch though;

At the end, the drag is gone, and we are left with Hedwig just as Hedwig; they finally stop trying to be something and there's a moment of acceptance of the situation, of themself, not seeking to be defined one way or another. I'm desperate to rewatch Hedwig as I saw it about 15 years ago, and I'd love to see how it stands up today. The ending taught me a lot about seeing things for what they are. I know it's ran into complications with casting lately, which I just think makes it more interesting.


Writing all of that above, I realise that I haven't mentioned the character of Winnie at all, because she seems to be, by and large, irrelevant to the plot and without an arc of her own - except perhaps that she reconciles with her own father.

Which brings me to my last point - this film massively erases mothers. 

Firstly, like many hollywood mothers, Eggs' mother is entirely absent and never mentioned, as if her existance would just complicate the film too much.

But then I think the film goes one step further by casting Toni Collete as Lady Portly-Rind (Winnie's mother) - and then giving her, if i recall correctly exactly one line in the film (certainly no lines of note, as evidenced at imdb). This must have been a case of the script being finalised after concept art and casting, because there's no way you'd cast that actor in that role knowing how little they were going to be used. 

This being a stop-motion animation, due to time and budget constraints, the editing process is done *before* the filming commences, so it can't be that there are recorded and animated lines cut from the film in post-production. 

anyway, thaughts.

Sunday, December 13, 2020