I haven’t bothered Googling “A Proceduralist Manifesto”. There’s probably one out there already, but this one’s mine, and that’s all that matters.
There are things that are games, and there are things that are not games. We can clearly delineate what is not games by asking ourselves a simple question:
- Do I give a fuck?
If the answer is yes, congratulations, you can stop reading and proceed to GAF. Collect your asshat and go there straight away.
Now, for those of you who do not give a fuck, let’s see what we can do about that. Form is content, like media is message. The form delineates the content that can be presented and understood. Since this is an ontological slippery slope, it’s best we set a couple of premises:
This is not an image of Richard D. James, it is a waveform representation of acoustic signals encoded in a medium.
This is a loop, despite appearing as a branch.
This is a pipe.
A form is not defined by what you say about it, but what you say with it. A musical road sign, for instance, may be music, but it is most likely not an effective road sign.
Exhibiting the formal traits of music (rhythmic acoustic emissions made through sentient application of an apparatus) characterizes the musical road sign as music, but it is relatively illegible as a road sign compared to, say, an upright aluminium-alloy pole upon which is mounted a flat sheet of metal fashioned in a geometric shape and tinted with pigments.
Yet there is no denying that this is a musical road sign, because that’s what it is. It may be of poor utility, but the author’s intention remains even after death. After all, what is conceptual art but authorial intention?
Would a canyon through which wind is funnelled to produce a variably pitched but rhythmic whistle be a musical road sign? After all, it can produce information relevant for traversing roads.
Could a sign alerting you to the whistling canyon be a song?
Let us reiterate the opening question:
- Do I give a fuck?
This is the central question of our time. Ponder it well.
Central to form is “meaning”. Often, meaning is understood as subtext, something to be gleaned from a form rather than simply savoured. The less conducive a form is to the meaning it conveys, the richer the opportunity for defining it.
As conceptual art, the musical road sign challenges your notions of both composition and signalling. It quavers on the edge of utility and futility, and we can all relate to that. We can see part of ourselves in the musical road sign.
This means something.
First of all, it means I am lending undue significance to a very contrived set-up designed to inform you about the limitations of your imagination and intelligence, especially when compared to the writer’s.
Second, it means that the musical road sign fails as form-in-itself since its meaning diverges from its utility. How often can you say that about a sidewalk or a bit of plumbing jutting out of crumbled brickwork in a condemned building?
Let me put it another way: When did you last find utility where there was no meaning? Please try not to immediately contradict me. As I’ve suggested above, the point of this exercise is to subordinate you to me as I construct a meaning you can take away and grow on.
You don’t wanna deny this beautifully structured essay its meaning, do you? I worked hard on this. I put off important work to write this. I did this for you.
The reader appeared confused. Sip of coffee. Eyes closed, fingers rubbed bridge of nose. Reading the last several paragraphs again, slower this time. A glimmer of something, like a sneeze that won’t come out but lingers as little flutters of the nose-wings. In Beijing, a storm brews.
"Darling, can you come over here a minute?"
He enters the room, rimless glasses catching the fluorescent lights that made her veins so visible. She didn’t like that, but you could hardly get non-energy-saving bulbs any longer. Progress.
"There’s this dude on Twitter who wrote a manifesto. I think it’s about games, but there’s no mention of them so far," she said, swivel chair turning to face him.
"So what?" he says somewhat distantly, inspecting a weird cavity on the base of his belly that he’d wondered about many a time before. "It’s just some guy on the internet."
She looked past him for a moment, through the door, down the hall he had emerged from. Two more doors, a framed picture of a dog. Not their dog, they were cat people. At least she was. Shifting focus, the two boyfriends merged the same instant more hallways appeared behind him.
"Dunno, he seems pretty smart. His screed’s got this trick-structure, where seeming non-sequiturs start amassing meaning as they’re heaped on."
He looks away for a moment, then back at her. “And? How do you know there’s really meaning there, couldn’t he just be gaming your associative faculties, relying on you to find meaning where there is none?”
Half-smile, halfway at him. “Yeah, yeah, you’re smart too. Come here, sit down, help me make sense of this.” She beckoned slightly coyly, knowing what the half-smile might mean to someone without curiosity or imagination. Like him.
He pulls a low stool out from under the desk, knocking it into the black computer case and snagging a wire before finally hauling it under his ass and planting himself on it. The stool, not the ass.
"Ok, sure, show me," he says, drumming his fingers rapidly against the edge of the desk. "What’s this about?"
"Like I said, I think it’s about games, since that’s mentioned in the first paragraph, but then it kinda splits in three and goes out on tangent after tangent."
He looks pensive as he reads the first two paragraphs, then scrolls, stopping at a picture. After studying the picture, he turns slightly towards her, looking out of the corner of his eye. “This is clearly bullshit. That’s a guy, and that’s a branch.” Bit more scrolling. “And that’s not a pipe, says right there.”
She wasn’t terribly surprised. A teensy-weensy bit disappointed, maybe. “Read a bit further. I’ll fix another coffee.” Rising from the swivel-chair, she curled her toes for a moment and headed for the kitchen. A small room, this time strip-lit. Kettle. Water. Cafetiere. Grounds.
"I’m still of the opinion this is bullshit, hun," he says, loudly, from the living room. "Why’s there a story in there? It doesn’t have anything to do with the earlier points, and it’s not very well written either. Shitty characterization, pointless observations, and no ending."
She twisted a knob, pressed a button, and tiny blue flames shot out of even smaller gaps in the ceramic hub. She mounted the kettle, and went back to the living room.
"Ok, first up: Read it properly. Notice that he messes up the tenses. The guy’s always in past tense, and the girl’s always in present tense."
Slight grimace on his face, eyes kinda dully glaring. “And so?”
"Well, it’s clearly intentional, the whole thing is really meticulously crafted, it has to mean something."
"Like I said before, he’s just throwing shit on the wall and hoping some of it sticks. If he had something to say, he’d just say it."
She rolled her eyes. “Oh come on, there’s something there, you just have to …”
"Be gullible," he broke her off, turning away from the screen. "It’s just this brainfuck clickbait written to make you both feel smart. It’s not working on me, though, cuz I just feel a bit stupider."
"Read it again while I fix the coffee," she said, turning towards the kitchen.
"Because I want to talk to you about it."
"What’s there to talk about? It’s just bullshit."
Boiling water throws grounds up against the glass tube of the cafetiere, steam folding and dissolving around her hands. She’d always wondered what form steam was, if it was a shape or a volume. It was like flames, more air-currents tinted by caught matter than a thing in itself.
"I’m curious. You know I like wondering about things, and you used to do that too. Why are you not curious?"
He looks almost sullen for a moment. “Because I spend half my waking hours on the internet. I see stuff like this tweeted by introverted teenagers with lower-case nicknames every five minutes.”
"Same old, same old?"
"Sure it’s not you who’s getting old? Look, it’s just fun. It’s like a crossword puzzle or something. Makes your brain move. Go places. Exercise is healthy."
Another glare. “Hun, I’m a trained logician. Like, seriously, I spend my days formulating unambiguous statements. They’re the only ones that can be properly instrumentalized. Waffle like this?” He takes a little pause, scrolls back up to the waveform rendition of Richard D. James. “This is just sophistry.”
She grabs the cup from the desk. “Did you read it again?”
"And it didn’t leave you with any questions?"
"Oh?" Actually surprised now. "What?"
"Why do you give a fuck?"
Notice how that cup of coffee never got made?
The office is full of shit. Like, heaped yay tall, literally. There’s old goddamned toys, and boxes of old convention materials, there’s outdated business cards still sitting in their shrink-wrapped boxes.
It’s not even his office, it’s just a storage room with a desk planted in it. Decent computer, though, and the chair’s comfy. Can’t complain.
Supposed to write code now, but four hours of sleep ain’t exactly conducive to critical thinking. He’s had the IDE open on the vertically-oriented screen all fucking day, but no work has been done.
Literally no work. Not one new line of code. If you opened SourceTree, all you’d see is the Unity lock file. No, actually, not even that since the lock file was ignored a couple of commits back. Messes with the timeline, apparently. And why not reduce commit size?
The game’s on schedule, fortunately. It’s probably why he can afford to do this without sweating the small stuff. When you’re on schedule, you can afford big-picture thinking. And self-promotion is definitely big-picture thinking.
I mean, any sucker with some patience can write a game. It’s just logic, worst case scenario it takes a lot of time to formulate it. If you’re smart, not even that.
He’s not that smart, though. He’s more of a thinker. So’s the game. A gaming think-piece. He used to wonder if anyone would get it, but he’s not worried about that anymore, since he’s basically got paid.
Funny, that. Money changes the equation every fucking time. Dollar-sign here, pound-sign there, suddenly things make a different kind of sense. Once upon a time, he had to finish the damn game to get it over with and get on with something profitable.
But weirdly, this turned profitable. Well, probably not to the people whose money is being spent, but certainly profitable to him. Hell, being able to claim a decent living for making his own games is the most profit he’s had in a ton of time.
He’s kinda worried about that self-promotion, though. The whole exercise is kinda moot (salary notwithstanding) if no-one notices the guy behind the game. The game’s all well and good, but unless it establishes the author in a favourable position to make the next one, it’s pretty much worthless.
This thing is not a goal, it’s a hurdle. Run, run, run, run, jump, clear it, run, run, run towards the next one. The goal’s past all the hurdles, somewhere around the bend, where the cameras sit.
The point of jumping the hurdles is to get to the cameras before they’ve turned to track another guy. Sponsors like having close-ups on their logos. If they don’t get that, they’ll stick the logos on someone who secures close-ups.
So that’s that. He really cares about the thing, though, but for its own sake rather than his sake. It’s really meticulously crafted, tons of stuff to see in there if you got the eye for it.
The big question is whether it can open that eye. That’s the only way it can actually be seen at all. After all, there is — in a sense — nothing to see. Nothing to be interpreted, nothing to be deconstructed. It is what it is, as a million hateful hipster hacks wrote like four years ago.
The problem with clarity of meaning is that it shocks. It disrupts. It is too honest, like the kid pointing out the emperor’s lack of clothes. And, honestly, in the midst of a narratologist revival, who gives a shit about what looks remarkably like formalism?
Not that there’s much formal about it, all things considered. Formalism suggests a certain conservatism, a fascination with thing-as-it’s-been. It eschews the conceptual in favour of the undeniable.
And that’s really the goal here: The undeniable. It is undeniably naked. There’s nothing to look for, it’s all bare to the eye, no titillation, just open, gaping, receptive undeniability of purpose.
There’s no question what the author attempted to accomplish. It is, after all, right there. Staring at you staring at it. The problem is that this brutal form of honesty is scary. It suggests absolutes, it rejects perspectives, it hinges on taste.
Taste is dangerous stuff. Look around the office again. All this shit. Old unopened Magic: The Gathering boxes (hm, could it catch anything on eBay?), ridiculous designer-toys, a Frankenstein mask, a …
… oh my god …
… a Batman Forever merchandising toy, still boxed. How old is this pile of junk? A Matrix display toy? Shitting ancient.
Not terribly tasteful, either. And that there’s the big problem: Judgement. The game sits in judgement, amidst this pile of manchild junk. It says: “All the others lied to you. They were also like this all along, but you didn’t see it until your eye was pried open, abruptly, painfully.”
Bit self-aggrandizing, really. But is it really any more self-aggrandizing than the conceptual? Is it any more excluding than suggesting the musical road-sign says something about the human condition? Or denying, maybe portraying in a negative light, those who question the splendour of the musical road sign? Those who fail to appreciate both utility and futility?
The absolute resists interpretation. It is its own meaning. The whistling canyon is undeniable. It has been carved, first by water, now by wind. It points at a dominant dynamic, the implastic whose meaning is unshapeable since it has no meaning.
Yet it is a statement. It is a song about water and wind, and ice and fire. It is proof of life, maybe not in the purely organic sense, but of a life-ness, a changing of things-as-they-were that folds unto things-as-they-become.
So’s the game. It models a dominant dynamic. Not wittingly, perhaps, but willed. It may be more true to say that the game revealed itself to be a dominant dynamic, like a mirror reveals itself as a flattened projection. There’s no image on the mirror, if you think about it.
The procedural is not simulation. It mirrors. It codifies dominant dynamics (whether “real” or “imagined”) and it reifies them through participation. It evokes curiosity, yet fully reveals itself. It demands a new eye. It rewards honesty about itself. It can not lie.
Obviously, it’s not true, but it’s still undeniable. It’s right there, stupid, you can see it. It is what it appears to be. It only needs you to become.
It asks you to accept the ephemeral, as only every moment matters, and then meaning is irrevocably lost to the new. The water throws itself wildly against the stone, clinging to it, if for only a moment, affecting it only imperceptibly. The totality of the ephemeral is the eternal.
Every question arises from the absolute. Every inertial frame is absolute. Relativities are dissociated absolutes. They depend on a point of view, yet they’re fully valid, casting one absolute as the frame of reference for every other absolute, interchangeably.
VII: Atziluth Truth
I have created. I have formed. I have compelled.