a wanderer's map

This month’s piece is part Kentucky Route Zero, part A Strange Voyage, and part vector flowfield. Run it and it will generate an idiosyncratic, wandering map. It uses the current date reported by your computer to seed the random number generator, so each (real-life) day you run it will show you a different map.

It started out as a recreation of the classic “place a bunch of particles in a flowfield and have them drop ink on a canvas” effect seen here, but then I realised that if you follow just a single particle it generates these really nice, natural-looking meandering paths. And if you place just a few stylised points of interest on one of those paths, you get something that looks a bit like a map, or at least the record of a journey.

It’s strange: when I started this whole project I assumed that I’d inevitably hit a point where my inspiration would run dry and I’d be unable to come up with a piece for that month. But (so far) that’s not what’s happened.

Instead, the process has been: 1st week: I have no idea what I’m going to do for this month; 2nd week: Huh. This idea’s kind of interesting; 3rd week: The core piece is up and running, just a little polish remaining; 4th week: Done.

I keep being surprised at how smoothly the pieces come together. Though it probably helps that I find it therapeutic to work on small projects like this.

Download a wanderer’s map

Controls: escape: quit

The Rules:

  • The file at this link will be deleted 1 month from now (02/11/19).

  • All downloads are zipfiles containing a Windows executable.

  • All source code and assets are included, licensed under the GPL (code) and CC-BYSA (assets).

  • As long as you abide by those licenses, you can do whatever you want with the download.

Further Reading

This month I fell in love with Molly Mendoza’s Skip, the tale of 2 friends tumbling through different worlds, trying to get home. Check out some sample pages here; it’s a seriously beautiful piece of work.

Everest Pipkin wrote about their experience playing Rune Factory 3, where they missed a key trigger in the game’s progression system and as a result found themselves playing a very different, far more interesting game than the developers intended.

Ava Foxfort wrote a wonderful piece about games that ask you to close your eyes.

This yelp review goes places.

Beats is the best thing I’ve seen all year. It’s such a strange sensation to watch something and recognise it. The locations they filmed, the accents and slang… There are parts of this film that feel intimately familiar in a way that I’m just not accustomed to, as someone who’s lived in Scotland his whole life (as opposed to say, London, or New York). It’s so rare that I recognise my home on screen.

Turns out Combat Juggling is a thing. More than that, it’s an entire sport with its own league and governing body.

This Super Mario playthrough is simultaneously a wonderful performance in its own right, and a powerful demonstration of all the assumptions we make as videogame players when we’re already embedded in games culture.

I watched the second season of Flowers on netflix, and while I liked the first season a lot, the second season is something else entirely. I don’t think I’ve ever seen comedy and dark, bleak drama combined quite like this before. And the cinematography (and the music!) in the second season is absolutely stunning. CW: suicide, depression.

Mary When You Follow Her: A powerful story of fear and escape, told in a single extended sentence. CW: sexual assault, murder.

It feels like its release got overshadowed by Untitled Goose Game for a lot of people, but Mutazione is a genuinely wonderful thing, interested in its characters’ lives in a way that still feels incredibly rare in videogame-land.

Lately I’ve been feeling distinctly antsy; tense and nervy. I’ve been taking every chance I can to get out of the city. To climb hills, traverse forests. To find somewhere quiet with nobody around, and just sit, and breathe. I had so many ways to escape the city when I lived in Glasgow; it feels harder in Dundee. I’m still building up my map of escape routes and sanctuaries.

this sky is a canvas

I love the strange tangents and unexpected details that arise when you try and translate something from one medium to another. This month’s piece was born of a desire to recreate two specific things in a fused, interactive form: the gorgeous pastel skies of Steven Universe, and this track by Lake Mary.

It’s in a similar vein to the work I did for my PhD. That was focused on creating a fused audiovisual instrument, but these days I’m not sure that “audiovisual instrument” is the best way of describing these things.

That’s because 1.) they rarely have the same expressive range as traditional acoustic instruments, and 2.) I think calling them instruments obscures the relationship between me as the creator of the thing, and any players of the thing.

What I mean is: while we don’t tend to think of it this way, ultimately all (instrumental) musical performance is a collaboration between the musician and the creator of their instrument. The musician determines how the performance plays out, but they do so entirely within the space made for them by the instrument creator.

So I’m calling this an interactive composition. I think that helps manage expectations in terms of what’s possible (this piece has a far more limited expressive range than a guitar, for example), and it also clarifies our relationship. I’ve determined the space you can play in, but without your input, your choices, nothing will happen; there will be no music.

Download this sky is a canvas

Controls: move mouse to play; escape: quit; s: take screenshot; r: start/stop audio recording

how you move the mouse matters; it will react differently based on your gestures

The Rules:

  • The file at this link will be deleted 1 month from now (05/10/19).

  • All downloads are zipfiles containing a Windows executable.

  • All source code and assets are included, licensed under the GPL (code) and CC-BYSA (assets).

  • As long as you abide by those licenses, you can do whatever you want with the download.

Further Reading

A fascinating, in-depth look at the differences between british and dutch streets, and the specific choices and priorities that shape them.

A beautiful, aching piece about birds and a cancelled wedding.

Rufi Thorpe on the difficulties of motherhood and being a writer.

Liz Ryerson and Emilie Reed both wrote about the state of games criticism and the economic structures that shape every aspect of videogames as a medium. Emilie, I believe, alluding to the abuse that engulfed the Ooblets devs last month (note the content warning at the top of that article).

Staying with that Ooblets horrorshow, thecatamites is insightful on the role of the market and the big gaming monopolies in feeding into and perpetuating this system where small devs find themselves compelled to take these exclusivity agreements (i.e. because there are no other real options). Tbh, my own thoughts mainly echo this tweet by JP LeBreton.

The White Pube with advice on how to take criticism.

I’ve not watched the entire playlist of talks, but Hannah Nicklin’s keynote from Freeplay ‘19 is really good on who we make games for, and how we might do better.

A short story by Rachel Swirsky about loss in a world where people are able to store snapshots of their consciousness so their loved ones can still talk to them after they pass away.

Lastly, this tweet by Alan Hazelden reminded me of a nomic game I took part in 8(!) years ago. Nomic games are all about writing and altering the rules of the game you’re playing together as you’re playing it, and they tend to involve a lot of politics and rules lawyering. My main memories of Our Law are of feeling completely bewildered and out of my depth, but it was kind of amazing to go back over Jonathan’s official record of the game and my own diary.

I’d completely forgotten that at one point I managed to form a political party named NIALL (the New Independent Anarchist Labour League), and then somehow had a law passed which stated that citizens who were not affiliated with NIALL were not allowed to vote. I also made a complete fool out of myself at one point when I misinterpreted a rule and accused Stephen and Terry of a grand conspiracy against the rest of the players.

I also love how Jonathan’s official account and my diary only really cover the surface of what happened in the game. There was a lot more going on (particularly in the first few days) that is only really alluded to in these 2 accounts. Anyway, reminiscing about this has got me itching to play a nomic game again, so I guess that’s something to add to my todo list.

That was all I was planning on writing this month, but then #metoo finally hit the games industry, and it feels wrong to not acknowledge that. Someone has set up a google doc here with a list of all the people who have been outed as abusive, and links to the accusations (the accusations themselves are not listed in the doc, if you don’t feel up to learning the details and just want to know who is involved).

I don’t really know what to say, but now that I work in games academia I have to recognise that I have some power in this situation and a clear responsibility. I need to figure out what I can do, and how. And it has to be more substantial than the performative outrage we saw from so many men on twitter when the accusations first hit.

Some other links if you’re feeling up to it (big content warning for these):

Nathalie Lawhead's initial post about Jeremy Soule, and a follow-up post.

Scott Benson writing about his relationship with Alec Holowka.

Ugh. Ending on a grim note this month. Take care out there. Look after yourself, and look out for the people around you. I’ll see you again next month.

the company of clouds

I take a lot of photos. One of my recurring preoccupations is using code to make those photos move. I’m not interested in having them move in a realistic fashion though; if that were my goal I’d be better off working with video. Rather, I want them to move in ways that are only possible with digital images and code. I want them to move in subtle, ever-so-slightly unsettling ways, where things blur together both spatially and temporally.

Starting on 1/6/19, for 7 days I took photos of the sky at about 10:30pm each night. the company of clouds is built around those photos; run it on a Monday and you’ll see the pictures I took on the Monday; run it on a Tuesday and you’ll get the pictures I took on the Tuesday, etc.

The piece cycles through and blends its photos together so that they’re always in motion. That said, the sky during that week in June was largely overcast and uniform. This means that for most days (not all of them!), the motion generated by the code is rather subtle. You have to concentrate to see it. Which is itself a useful process, I think. Straining to perceive subtle details tends to recalibrate your perception in interesting ways.

Download the company of clouds

Controls: escape to quit

The Rules:

  • The file at this link will be deleted 1 month from now (07/09/19).

  • All downloads are zipfiles containing a Windows executable.

  • All source code and assets are included, licensed under the GPL (code) and CC-BYSA (assets).

  • As long as you abide by those licenses, you can do whatever you want with the download.

Further Reading

Speaking of images blending and bleeding into each other, the final shot of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia is one of my favourite things.

I was reminded of George Buckenham’s Rules for making games recently. There’s a lot of good advice here.

Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam is an incredible queer sci-fi love story, with a gorgeous colour palette and artwork. Also, the spaceships are fish. I read it in book form, but it looks like the whole thing’s also available as a webcomic here.

This adaptation of a Janet Paisley poem is great.

An interview with Donna Haraway where she talks a bit about the radical potential (and necessity) of play.

Clint Smith: When people say “we have made it through worse before”

I love Catherynne Valente’s reading of her poem The Melancholy of Mechagirl here.

“There is something beyond the mathematics of the world that I will always reach for and never touch.”

A tale of long-lived (golems? gargoyles?) in Germany in the run-up to WW2, by G.V. Anderson.

Well, here we are. September’s approaching fast. I am dreading September. From September through to November I’ll be lucky if I can catch a breath. Too much work for not enough money. These newsletters may be a bit shorter and more frazzled for the next few months. Anyway, take care. I’ll see you soon.

there are secrets

If you read last week’s letter you can maybe guess where the inspiration for this one came from (visually at least, if not aurally).

I’m starting to think this project should have been subtitled “how many things can I do with centred text, photos, and minimal interaction”. turn left was maybe an unintentional mission statement; I’m increasingly interested in moving any interaction out of the software and into the player/audience’s head.

Maybe it’s that software and videogames’ strictly delimited worlds and rules have started to feel too tightly-defined, too rigid. They don’t leave me enough space.

Software/code is still my primary medium though. I wonder where this train of thought is going to lead me.

Download there are secrets

Controls: escape to quit

The Rules:

  • The file at this link will be deleted 1 month from now (03/08/19).

  • All downloads are zipfiles containing a Windows executable.

  • All source code and assets are included, licensed under the GPL (code) and CC-BYSA (assets).

  • As long as you abide by those licenses, you can do whatever you want with the download.

Further Reading

If You Should Find Yourself in the Dark; a beautiful, aching piece on anxiety and motherhood.

Sloane Leong’s Prism Stalker is an astonishing thing; a vivid, alien take on colonialism and survival. With an equally astonishing soundtrack by Neotenomie.

I quoted an Ada Limón poem last month. Here’s another one.

Related to my thoughts on this month’s piece, this is a strong criticism of videogames’ focus on rigid, tightly-defined interactivity. An excerpt:

Video games are not more interactive or creative than previous medium; if anything, they are arguably less. Each video game involves a mastery of a series of digital gestures, controls, contextual clues, or modes of seeing and knowing. Playing a video game is largely about learning how to play by its systems and rules, how to get organized and efficient. And while the best games offer space for improvisation, reflection, storytelling, and of course fun, the relation between gamer and game is most commonly one of disciplining the gamer to a set of systematized interactions.”

A Bewitching Revolution: A game about waking and collectively remaking a city using tarot and Marx. Games are often power fantasies, but so rarely collective power fantasies. We have so few games about coming together, looking after each other, and fighting back against the systems that divide and immiserate us.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing since reading the medium article of her original EYEO keynote, and it lived up to my expectations. Filing it alongside Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark as a book which confronts the despair I suspect a lot of us now grapple with daily, and then offers a way forward.

...and I’ll finish with a short story by Brit E. B. Hvide about a ruined Earth which ends up in a similar place to Odell’s conclusions in How to Do Nothing.

I’ve found myself surrounded by sparrows this month. Every time I look out the window or go outside, there they are. I think it’s that time of year when the young have just left the nest and are suddenly free; brave and hungry, excited to explore the world.

Anyway: look after yourself. Get a good night’s sleep, and push back whenever you can against all the demands on your time and labour. This world asks too much of us. If you can spare the time, find a quiet spot outside, sit, and watch the birds for a while.


This is a ritual of rhythm.

Use it to reset, to recalibrate your relationship to time. Time does not flow in a consistent, constant stream. It speeds and slackens. It follows our attention, our perception. This ritual is an anchor. For the length of its duration time’s flow will be fixed to the pattern of the ritual.

Before beginning the ritual proper you must be quiet and still. Take some time to sit with the ritual’s pulse before continuing. Draw all your attention towards the pulse. Let your internal rhythms fall in sync with it.

This ritual, once started, cannot be easily stopped or paused. It will run through to conclusion of its own accord. So don’t start until you are ready. Take your time.

To start the ritual you must choose 4 letters. These letters will determine the 4 words from which the ritual is constructed. How you choose those 4 letters should be determined by your intention for the ritual. You may spell out a 4 letter word that has meaning for you; you may close your eyes and select 4 letters at random; you may create a 4 letter acronym describing the focus of your attention; etc.

The ritual will begin once you have entered the fourth letter.

Download 111 bpm

Controls: letters to choose your words

The Rules:

  • The file at this link will be deleted 1 month from now (06/07/19).

  • All downloads are zipfiles containing a Windows executable.

  • All source code and assets are included, licensed under the GPL (code) and CC-BYSA (assets).

  • As long as you abide by those licenses, you can do whatever you want with the download.

Further Reading

The framing for this one was partly inspired by Avery Alder’s incredible Variations on your Body, a collection of 4 pervasive games built around ritual (pdf, hard copy). An excerpt:

the feeling is getting clearer. You dream about flying either all of the time or never at all. You hate depending on your legs for movement. You don’t trust like you used to. You crave beauty like you’ll die without it. You’re ready to fly.

You’re a sparrow, brave and terrified.”

A wonderful audio piece by Hannah Nicklin about Lincolnshire, the environment, Brexit, and moving country.

Holly Herndon: Frontier (I want an interactive version of this, that I can play like an instrument)

Bomb Magazine has a fascinating article about José Maceda, a composer whose work I was (shamefully) completely unaware of. Ugnayan in particular is an incredible thing; every single radio station in Manila (37 in total) broadcasting a separate track from this one composition at the same time(!). And all with the backing of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. I don’t really know how to unpack all of that.

I loved this piece by Emilie Reed on the ruderal; the way plants (culture, games) can spring up in inhospitable environments and gradually force open cracks, new spaces. Plus: it made me homesick for Glasgow (not hard to do at the moment, tbh).

Do Not Look Back, My Lion is a powerful, bitter rumination on relationships and parenting in a time of war.

I feel like I never hear people talking about Silver Mt Zion, but I’ve been listening to them again lately. The way they transitioned away from GY!BE’s doomed orchestral soundscapes into a kind of desperate, ragged choir is a thing to behold. This song has always had a powerful hold on me.

Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
something singing? The truth is: I don’t know.”

Ada Limón; The Leash

I’ve found myself singing more lately.

For the longest time I hated my voice, but lately, not so much. Maybe I had to grow into it. Maybe I just hadn’t found the right songs.

For me, singing is something visceral and fierce. You’re using your lungs/chest/throat/mouth/tongue/lips to expel air and shape it into sound. There’s no other instrument so tightly connected to your body. It’s why singing out loud has a physical effect on you, why it can leave you light-headed and buzzing.

But you have to sing loud. You have to commit. The magic doesn’t work if you don’t commit to it.

See you next month.

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