Super Omega Land on Greenlight

So, there’s this game I’ve been making for freaking years. I actually started it before Ithaka of the Clouds/The Council of Crows was even an idea, and I’ve been working on it in the background ever since. This was never my main project, only something I switched to when I was exhausted from writing mushroom descriptions all day. But it’s done now, and I’d like to get in on Steam.

(I am back to writing mushroom descriptions all day now, or rather to trying to finish the wonderful monstrosity that is The Council of Crows. Finishing this helped me clear my mind after I’d reached an extreme level of burnout, and now I feel like I know what I’m doing again. I wish making games was easier.)

I don’t want to hype Super Omega Land too much, because I really would like this to be a small, unassuming game, the kind you pick up because it’s cheap and looks like it might entertain you for a while, and then it turns out to be more fun than you expected. (I actually strongly considered releasing it anonymously, just so people would approach it without expecting anything, but ultimately that seemed excessive.) Not unlike the Lands of Dream games, really.

It’s very much inspired by classic platformers, particularly my beloved Super Mario Land 2, although it’s a little more relaxed. It doesn’t require an insane level of skill to enjoy, although it does have its challenges. Mainly I wanted it to be fun, to make you feel good, and to have a few surprises along the way. In many ways it’s the kind of game that I once would have made for Newgrounds, except a lot bigger.

I feel happy about this game. I’m fond of it, its silly world, its characters, its monsters. Making it let me get back to certain areas of design I hadn’t touched in a while. I approached it without thinking of anything except what I think is fun.

I have no major expectations, but it would be nice if it reached a few people. It would be extra nice if it helped us pay for the costs of marketing The Council of Crows when it’s done, because promoting the Lands of Dream games is hard and I’d like to get some help to do it better. Thus the whole Steam thing.

Anyway, all votes/retweets/shares/hugs are appreciated. I hope this will be the first of several long-term projects to be completed in 2017.

Things Are Not OK

Once upon a time I was talking to an old German man.

“The government is blaming foreigners for everything,” he told me. “All these politicians, they’re completely corrupt! Taking money from corporations, doing whatever they’re told by the rich. They don’t care about ordinary people anymore. They don’t care about jobs or healthcare. They just line their pockets. And then they blame other countries for our problems, the problems they caused themselves. It’s not the fault of foreign people! They’re getting ripped off just like we are by their own politicians. It’s exactly the same. The politicians and the media are just trying to distract us from what’s being done to all of us.”

I nodded along.

“None of this would have been allowed,” he said, “under Hitler.”

“How can anyone vote for Trump? How can anyone poor or oppressed vote for Trump? How can women vote for Trump? Latinos? Black people?”

I’ve seen a lot of variations of that question being asked in tones of despair these last few months. And before I continue with my main point, let me note that pretty much nobody voted for Trump. There wasn’t a huge surge of support or anything like that. Mostly the people who vote Republican just voted Republican again. Most Americans don’t vote at all. To say that Trump is somehow representative of the majority of Americans is not just offensive, but downright silly. Clearly the majority of Americans care neither for Trump nor for Clinton. But let’s talk a bit about the people who did vote for him, who did have some kind of hope that Trump could “drain the swamp.”

Most ordinary people, particularly poor people, do not have a political education. I don’t say this with contempt. Where the hell are they supposed to get one? Schools certainly don’t teach anything even resembling meaningful political analysis; they don’t even provide the basic tools to help someone think about politics in a complex way. And what else is there? Newspapers? Television? We’re all aware of how terrible Fox News is, but are there alternatives? Look at the liberal side of the media right now, frothing at the mouth about evil Russians and exploding with outrage at Trump’s suggestion that the United States may have used shady methods to accomplish its goals in the past. (Incidentally, if you’re wondering why most of the world was terrified of the United States long before Trump, it may have something to do with a history of overthrowing democratically elected governments, invading countries, and assassinating those Americans who oppose such policies.)

Above all, the one concept that is truly taboo in all mainstream discourse is that of a material understanding of historical processes. Whether liberal or conservative, ideology is king, and the economic foundation of life must never be examined.

But the material, economic foundation of life is the one objective fact that everyone experiences. People work and their bosses prosper. Wages decline and bonuses soar. Banks get bailed out, people get kicked out. No matter what anyone wants to believe, this is what happens. This is the objective reality the majority of people experience. This is what they know with absolute certainty. The question is… what now? How do they react to this reality?

People are consistently and insistently told that they have two choices: liberal or conservative. This is true in most major capitalist countries; in the US, it takes the shape of the Democrats and the Republicans, two parties that pride themselves on their dedication to capitalism. No alternative to these two parties is permitted; even the suggestion is generally treated as heretical. (Even months after the election, liberal pundits are raging at the Green Party, although it demonstrably did not cause Clinton to lose the election. Their hate is so intense that even major journalists with millions of viewers will suggest that third-party candidates are actually Russian agents, the kind of position once associated with the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party ranting on talk radio.)

So, in the end, people are told that they must choose between two options or be considered fools or traitors. But what do these two options mean to them?

Let’s not think about what the policies of the two parties actually entail in the real world (the near-perfect continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations should say it all); let’s instead consider what people were offered in this last election. People tend to focus on the various details of what each candidate was speaking about, but I think it’s far more instructive to look at the overall direction of their message and its relation to the objective reality described above.

  • Trump campaigned on the promise to Make America Great Again. At its core, this message said that things are not OK. That’s the baseline. Things are not OK.
  • Clinton countered Trump’s claims with America Is Already Great. Unemployment, police violence, terrible healthcare, stagnating wages, constant war – but actually, things are OK.

Yes, Trump’s campaign was full of appeals to hate, whereas Clinton spoke about diversity and inclusiveness (though she does not really have a history of standing for these things). But the basic premise of Clinton’s campaign was a big fat lie, whereas Trump’s was a truth that is rarely acknowledged. That everything Trump built on that truth was sheer horror isn’t the point, because he started with something that reflected the reality people were experiencing. Even poor people, oppressed people. And with Clinton, it doesn’t matter that on average she probably would have been less horrible and destabilizing (although “we came, we saw, he died” will never not be the profoundly psychopathic statement of a war criminal), because the moment she told people that things were OK, they knew she was lying. Things are not OK. People know that.

So just look at the situation that the mainstream political forces have created. They don’t allow anyone to think in systemic terms, to question why capitalism is not producing widespread wealth as it once did (to some degree). They present them with a binary choice. One option says that everything should continue as it is. The other says that change is necessary.

That’s not why Trump won. But it is why many people who have absolutely nothing to gain from his presidency voted for him. Because they know – objectively – that the system isn’t working. They know it needs to break, to be shaken up, to change in some profound way. They lack the political education to understand how capital functions in times of crisis, but they know something needs to be done, and even inside the framework offered to them by the opposition (there are two capitalist parties and you must pick one), it makes sense for them to support the candidate who at least has the right premise. They don’t need to be racists or homophobes or misogynists. There are immigrants who are pro-Trump. Trump has gay supporters. Plenty of women voted for him. But just like many people held their noses and voted for Clinton, because although they disagreed with many of her policies (especially her strongly pro-war history), they thought she at least got some of the social basics right, plenty of people held their noses and voted for Trump, because at least he got the economic basics right.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Trump does actually represent anything anti-systemic. Of course he doesn’t. If anything, he’s a part of the plutocracy seeking to bypass the traditional managerial political class and seize direct control. But looking at the facts above, from the perspective of certain people, he may well have seemed like the lesser evil, or even like a tiny sliver of hope.

Speaking of hope, if you think of Obama, it’s not hard to understand Trump’s appeal. Obama’s first campaign really disproves the liberal narrative which depicts the majority of poor Americans as reactionary hicks. Obama, a black man with a foreign-sounding name, who campaigned on a pro-worker and anti-war message, drew an incredible amount of support and enthusiasm from all over the country (and beyond). That Obama, the Obama of Hope and Change, was what Americans really wanted. Not racism, not sexism, but someone who acknowledges the great problems that plague society and promises to do something about them.

They never got that Obama, of course, and so the enthusiasm waned. Some of it came back during the Sanders campaign, but he was pushed aside in favour of Clinton. But Clinton did not run as the Obama of Hope and Change, she ran as Realpolitik Obama. She ran as a proud representative of a system that has left the majority of people behind. It is not a coincidence that polls showed Sanders winning decisively against Trump. People want change.

Trump’s campaign, on an abstract but important level, resembled Obama’s campaign more than Clinton’s did.

If one thing is characteristic of mainstream liberalism worldwide, it is a rabid anticommunism. Inequality can only ever be condemned as insuffiently equal access to market forces; exploitation, in the sense of the appropriation of surplus value, cannot be questioned. The struggle can only be conceived as the effort to create a capitalism whose results are not distorted by prejudice, creating a ruling class that is as diverse as the general population. Capitalism is holy.

For decades, there has been a global liberal consensus, best expressed in Fukuyama’s idea of capitalism as the end of history. Now, as capitalism sinks deeper and deeper into a crisis it cannot recover from, more extreme forces are necessary to maintain the economic and political status quo. They are the exact same forces the system deployed last time a major crisis occured: various flavours of fascism and authoritarianism, ideal for suppressing dissent caused by inequality and perhaps even jump-starting capitalism through all-out war.

The bitter irony for those who value liberalism’s social values, which will be sacrificed to ensure the division of working-class people as the role of capital becomes more openly dictatorial, is that it is precisely liberalism’s dogmatic insistence that there is no alternative to its own brand of socially-acceptable capitalism that enables the rise of fascism.

On Punching Nazis

There’s been a lot of debate about the use of violence to oppose various manifestations of the far right lately. Both sides of the argument are frequently indignant. How can it be OK to punch anyone? How can it not be OK to punch a Nazi?

What’s missing from most of these debates, I think, is the distinction between the different ways in which political violence can be evaluated. The main two sources of confusion are two of the great dogmas of contemporary liberalism: “nothing is ever solved by violence” and “the personal is the political.”

The former, of course, has a long history, which is primarily defined by hypocrisy. The opposition to the use of violence to achieve political ends is only ever applied to those seeking to change the system. The most famous case is probably Martin Luther King Jr., praised widely by liberals for his commitment to nonviolence, then condemned as a traitor by the very same people for opposing the war in Vietnam. (Read some articles and statements from political leaders of the time, even from inside the Civil Rights Movement, and you’ll be shocked by the degree of venom directed at MLK over not differentiating between violence against Americans and violence against the Vietnamese.) Wars and police repression are necessary; protests and other forms of direct political action are destructive, divisive, unhelpful, and so on.

The influence of “the personal is the political” is perhaps equally insidious. By erasing the profound difference between individual and organized/collective action, it conflates lifestyle with politics, leading to the extremely dangerous delusion that the one can substitute for the other. It gives individuals the feeling that their personal behaviour, divorced from any greater movement, somehow amounts to meaningful political action. This encompasses everything from throwing rocks at cops to writing articles about how women having short hair is actually truly politically radical. It gets a response that makes the individual feel that they have transgressed, but changes nothing about the nature of the system.

If we rid ourselves of these two dogmas, we can look at the question with a little more complexity.

That political violence is useful, in the sense of being able to accomplish goals, is proven by history. From the defeat of fascism to the world-changing effects of the great revolutions, violence has played an intrinsic part in changing the political order; we live in a material world, where most conflicts have material roots, and naturally they also play out as conflicts between material bodies. That doesn’t mean that a political movement should choose to initiate violence, mind you; but no ruling class has ever given up its authority without employing violence against its opponents, and sometimes that means using violence in self-defense, even if it is deeply unpleasant, even if our goal is a world without such violence. Every modern democratic right we have, every freedom we cherish, was only made possible through the use of violence. That includes the violent overthrow of the feudal system by capitalists.

But acknowledging the power of political violence does not mean that all political violence is useful. We must distinguish between violence – and nonviolence – as ideology and as strategy. Those who embrace violence or nonviolence in ideological terms will frequently find themselves trapped. Nonviolence only works against an opponent who doesn’t have a problem just slaughtering you; violence has a huge array of side-effects and consequences that can easily derail a movement.

Therefore, it makes sense to consider violence in strategic terms. That means considering a specific situation and weighing the consequences of using violence as a political tool. For example, when various fascist types organize street gangs that attack immigrants and immigrant-owned establishments, violence can be immensely useful. Many lives have been saved by the political response of beating the living shit out of such people. Note, however, that this type of action – even when performed by anarchists – is usually organized. It’s a response to a situational assessment, followed by planning, executed collectively with a highly specific goal in mind. It may have negative consequences (lawsuits, negative media depiction) but it also has quantifiable, material positive consequences: shops saved, people protected.

Not all uses of political violence are effective. When the public perceives the violence as unnecessary – that is, the goals as unsound or simply not worthy of the damage caused – then it can turn even deeply oppressed people against the movement, strengthening the position of the police and allowing them to use more extreme tactics themselves. This is why the police employ provocateurs.

If your actions cannot be distinguished from those of police provocateurs, they are probably not politically useful.

We must here also distinguish between violence as employed by individuals or small groups and violence as employed by a mass movement of the people: this is the difference between a terrorist attack and a strike. The latter is a great collective action that represents the will and interest of an organized populace struggling against an oppressor; the former is an action taken without any consultation, without any support, in a way that isolates the acting individuals from the people and usually accomplishes little more than to tarnish the entire movement and give those in authority a good excuse to crack down.

Trotsky wrote the following in regards to individual terrorism:

A strike, even of modest size, has social consequences: strengthening of the workers’ self-confidence, growth of the trade union, and not infrequently even an improvement in productive technology. The murder of a factory owner produces effects of a police nature only, or a change of proprietors devoid of any social significance. Whether a terrorist attempt, even a ‘successful’ one throws the ruling class into confusion depends on the concrete political circumstances. In any case the confusion can only be shortlived; the capitalist state does not base itself on government ministers and cannot be eliminated with them. The classes it serves will always find new people; the mechanism remains intact and continues to function.

But the disarray introduced into the ranks of the working masses themselves by a terrorist attempt is much deeper. If it is enough to arm oneself with a pistol in order to achieve one’s goal, why the efforts of the class struggle? If a thimbleful of gunpowder and a little chunk of lead is enough to shoot the enemy through the neck, what need is there for a class organisation? If it makes sense to terrify highly placed personages with the roar of explosions, where is the need for the party? Why meetings, mass agitation and elections if one can so easily take aim at the ministerial bench from the gallery of parliament?

In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission. The anarchist prophets of the ‘propaganda of the deed’ can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the masses. Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise. The more ‘effective’ the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organisation and self-education. But the smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen. And as a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement comes disillusionment and apathy.

All of the above allows us to consider the political aspects of punching a Nazi. We may also consider the personal aspects, as long as we remember that these are entirely distinct.

A dedicated fascist of any kind is a vile human being and an enemy of the majority of humanity. Far worse than any royal who merely happens to have been born into an unfair system, a fascist is someone actively working to reverse all the progress our species has made. These are simply facts. How one responds to such a person is a matter of personal morality.

The pleasure many found recently in watching a Nazi get punched is an entirely positive, healthy sign. It’s not a sign of political understanding of any great depth, but it does tell us people’s hearts are in the right place. That does not mean, however, that those who find all individual violence truly abhorrent are wrong or would not support a greater struggle against fascism. As I said above, it is merely a matter of personal morality, and does not necessarily have political implications. It is only when someone actively seeks to support such an individual that we enter the political realm once more.

In any case, it is entirely too easy to get caught up in questions of individual punchworthiness. The vile Nazi who got punched in the face was certainly scum; but what is he compared to a liberal President who has killed tens of thousands of people with bombs, including citizens of his own country? Or a conservative President who has killed a million after using lies to illegally invade a country? What about this supporter, or that collaborator – and so on? Such debates inevitably become moralistic, missing the greater systemic issues at hand.

People often cite World War II when it comes to punching Nazis, but wars are not won by individuals punching Nazis in the face. They are won by armies. And revolutions are won by the organized masses of the people. Every great political transformation is won through power.

Is it OK to punch a Nazi? The answer to your question is ORGANIZE.

Deplorables

I’ve experienced racism as long as I can remember. As a small child in Greece, it was because I spoke German to my mother, so other children would mock me, screaming “Hitler! Hitler!” on the playground. As an adult living in Germany, it’s because I’m Greek, and Greeks are supposedly lazy and corrupt leeches. Racism and xenophobia have always been with me, and it’s not really gotten much better, especially with the economic crisis pushing all ideologies towards their extremes.

Now, with Brexit and Trump, I’ve seen a lot of people get very angry at the perceived “white working class” responsible for these things. That a lot of it actually comes from middle-class voters – and that non-white and non-male people also voted for these things – is a different issue; let’s stick with the racist underclasses for now.

I happen to know a lot of German working-class racists. I know even more who are so poor that they don’t qualify as working class, but as lumpenproletariat. I’ve heard them discuss their ideas, sometimes with me present. They think Greeks are crafty, greedy foreigners just looking to exploit honest, hard-working Germans. They think Greeks are lazy, living in luxury. They think Greeks work few hours, retire early, and get huge pensions. They think Greeks literally owe them money, which they are very angry about, because they are genuinely poor and struggling. They think Greeks should be punished for their crimes against Germany. The only thing they hate more than Greeks is those refugees, who are actually lying economic migrants, coming here to steal their jobs and rape their daughters.

“So, what, you want us to like these people? This is the working class you want to build socialism with?”

To answer your questions: 1) no 2) yes.

I mention my personal experiences – due to a sarcastic article I once wrote, this site still gets hits from people searching for “kill all Greeks” and meaning it – because these days the identity angle is frequently used to dismiss any solidarity with people whose voting habits we detest. But I’m not talking as a member of the “dominant majority” who has never experienced racism, I’m talking as a member of a group that has been relentlessly vilified by the system.

And that vilification is part of the reason. Where did those people who hate me so much get these ideas? Were they just born that way, genetically reactionary? Did they choose these ideas after long and careful consideration, so that we can say they truly represent their innermost beliefs? No, of course not. They are just bombarded with these ideas 24/7. Every tabloid is overflowing with that stuff. But where the tabloids are overt in their racism and perhaps easy to dismiss, others are much more subtle. On TV and in the fancier newspapers they might use the term “mit Migrationshintergrund” (with a background relating to migration), but it’s still a codeword for “filthy foreigners!” Government announcements deplore racism in one sentence while appealing to it in the next.

Perhaps more importantly, completely aside from tone, the “facts” that are presented, the reality that is constructed by both media and government, would logically lead you to believe horrible things about other people. The lies are so shameless and so pervasive that questioning makes you seem like a conspiracy theorist. During the EU-Greece negotiations, German politicians would come on TV and announce things that were literally the exact opposite of what had just happened. Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble have held long, condescending speeches about the Greek people describing a situation that is 100% false, contradicted by every single statistic produced by independent agencies. They lie right to people’s faces, and they do it so much that it seems like it must be the truth, because no-one would be so crazy as to repeat such nonsense over and over while millions of people are listening.

(Does that sound familiar? And yet these are the exact sort of serious technocrats that everyone wants to hand power to in order to avoid Brexit, and who we are told would have been so much better than Trump, because they know how to run the system. The only thing they know how to do better than Trump is sound coherent while lying.)

Now think of these working-class people – people who, I must remind you, personally hate me for being Greek – and consider how many chances they’ve had to be exposed to something else. Their education is minimal, their political education even less so. They certainly don’t teach anything politically useful in school, and some of them haven’t even finished school. They know how to use Facebook, but aren’t that familiar with the internet. The places where you are supposed to get “serious” information all spout versions of the same ideology. Meanwhile, their lives are constantly getting worse. Austerity in Germany is not what it is in Greece, but it’s nevertheless real. They struggle to get jobs, and when they do get them, they are terrible. They are constantly unsafe. They have little access to culture or anything uplifting. And the system is brilliantly calculated so that they stay just there, always surviving, never thriving, always available as a cheap workforce.

Sitting in a room with these people, hearing them talk about foreigners (like myself, unless I’m lucky; then I’m the exception, “not like the others”) is pretty disgusting. I have a temper when it comes to these things, so it’s a bit of a miracle I haven’t screamed at anyone.

But that’s a personal, emotional response. Those are all well and good, but they’re not the same as political analysis. Confusing the two is the basis of identity politics, and that’s part of why things have gone to shit as they have. The personal is not the political.

You may be familiar with a famous phrase from the last paragraph of the Communist Manifesto: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” Look at that phrase carefully. Nothing to lose. The basis of socialist thought isn’t that the working class is socially and spiritually better. The goal isn’t to uplift the people who somehow magically deserve it more than others, because they are more advanced, more progressive, more hip. The proletarians have nothing to lose because they have nothing. To be more precise: the foundation of socialist thought is the systemic relationship between workers and capital, in which workers are exploited to produce profit, resulting in their economic, cultural and spiritual immiseration.

Reactionary ideologies are the result of immiseration. They are the result of the atomization of society, of life lived under pressure and in competition. They are also a tool, a method employed by the system to preserve itself. The hate towards Greek people promoted by the German government doesn’t have social or cultural roots; it is a way of dividing the international working class, a way of preventing German and Greek workers from understanding that they are both being exploited, that both their governments represent the same economic interests. It’s not necessary for a politician to hate a group of people to promote hatred against them. It only needs to be politically useful. And when it is politically useful, either those politicians will go with it, or politicians with more useful beliefs will take over their positions. I’m not describing a conspiracy here; it’s just how the system works. In many ways, it’s impersonal.

Despite what we are taught in schools, being determines consciousness: material conditions, not personal philosophies, determine the rise and fall of ideologies. The goal of socialism is to break that cycle, to assert human control over the economy, rather than the other way around. But for that we need the working class.

Why? For one thing, because the working class comprises the large majority of people. In many ways, it is the people – it is humanity. For another, because of what makes it the working class: the term does not denote a cultural group, but an economic relationship to the means of production. That is significant in two ways. One is that the majority of people have common economic interests, from which a huge coalition can be built, which in turn has profound social and cultural implications. The other is that the working class represents the beating heart of the system. Capitalism cannot operate without the working class. We’re frequently told that this is no longer true, because a handful of programmers and designers and artists are making a lot of money, or because of the stock exchange, or even more laughably, because robots will be doing all our jobs by next year. But the truth is that the vast majority of work, the work that actually keeps civilization going, is done by people. And if those people banded together, having understood the nature of their exploitation, they could change everything.

None of this implies compromise with reactionary political movements. As both liberals and traditional conservatives are supporters of capitalism, there is a politically logical tendency for some people from both camps to normalize various far-right movements once those have gained enough power. In Greece there was an attempt to make Golden Dawn (a neonazi criminal organization responsible for multiple deaths) seem respectable; in Germany many will point out that Alternative für Deutschland (a thinly-disguised fascist party) “does have some valid points” about migration; in the US, many will say that “he is our President after all”; in the UK… actually, the UK is such a mess that it deserves a separate article. In any case, the point is that there are those who are willing to adopt the reactionary ideologies that the system requires to preserve itself in order to gain more power inside that system.

Such people should be opposed without mercy. As should those who, despite their class, become so deeply dedicated to destructive ideologies that they become enemies of the people. That’s tragic, but such people exist, and they will have to be defeated. A better world will have to be created for them in spite of them.

However, to actually win against these people will require far more than just the most socially progressive individuals expressing their collective contempt for the misled downtrodden. It will require an analysis of why people are misled, and that analysis must include not just ideology, but economics. And then, on the basis of understanding how material conditions affect the totality of human experience, as many people as possible must be shown where their common interests lie.

The majority of working-class people are not actually reactionary; statistics show that over and over, and the Bernie Sanders campaign recently showed it again. Sanders is not a socialist, and the Democratic Party will never represent anything except the ruling class, but the enthusiastic reaction in poor regions to a Jewish self-proclaimed socialist says a lot. But there is a part of the working class that has fallen prey to deeply reactionary beliefs. I am not asking you to like them. I don’t like them myself. They are not my friends. But they are my comrades – or they could be.

If you want to win, you need people, even people you don’t like. If you want to get those people on your side, you need to fight for them, even if you don’t want to sit at the same table with them. History shows that if you fight for them, they’ll realize you’re not the enemy, and they’ll fight for the common cause with the determination of people who have nothing to lose. It also shows what happens when you look down at them and dismiss them.

Solidarity does not require friendship, but change does require solidarity.

But What Does This Tell Us About Art?

In my early university days in Germany, I made the rather painful mistake of picking something called Theatre, Film and Media Studies as one of my majors. I was fully aware that this department only cared about the theoretical/academic side of things and wouldn’t teach us how to make movies or direct plays, but I was under the impression that it would at least be useful in terms of expanding my horizons and giving me interesting material to sink my teeth into.

The reality was more one of mind-numbing boredom as tedious quacks with a hatred of popular culture and an unhealthy obsession with the misanthropic works of Theodor Adorno expounded endlessly on topics that even a small child could both understand and dismiss as precious nonsense. One bit stood out, though: their ideas about subversive art, particularly in the theatre.

As the majority of students tried to keep their eyes open – the rest choosing to sleep under the tables – our distinguished professors explained that for art to be truly subversive and transgressive, it had to break with the conventions of the form. Look, they said as they showed us a recording of naked actors babbling incoherently, with no artistic intent or thematic cohesion, look at how this breaks the conventions! This will truly shock the audience into engaging in a whole new way! The boldness of putting a naked man on stage! The radicalism of retelling the story from a Freudian perspective! The subversiveness of projecting some piece of unrelated video over the actors as they spoke their lines backwards!

A few years later, a friend went to the theatre with his mother. He thought the performance was odd. “Did it involve a naked man and a projection?” I asked. “How the hell did you know that?” he said, genuinely surprised. “They all do,” I sighed.

They all did, and it had been that way for decades. And yet the academics persisted in making grandiose claims about disrupting a status quo that no longer existed, and artists kept producing plays that consisted of nothing but such “radical disruptions” of a dead format. Art, storytelling, vision – all these things had been excised from the process, along with popular audiences who enjoyed the work itself, the latter replaced with elite audiences who cared about being seen enjoying the work.

This wasn’t a failure of imagination, however, although it grew from one. It was a deliberate scam, a hostile takeover by hucksters and con men. Much like the purveyors of “modern art” who are entirely aware that what they do is a business designed to create money without effort, these artists and academics had no belief in what they did. Instead, it was a kind of scammer symbiosis: the academics legitimized the meaningless nonsense cooked up by bored writers and directors (following a pretty much identical “radical” formula), who in turn produced material for the academics to write unreadable, jargon-filled essays about. A system of empty-headed idiots producing nothing and glorifying themselves for it, largely funded by taxpayers.

It’s surprisingly easy to set up systems like that, and they exist all over the arts. What makes them so effective is their two-pronged method of attack: if the artists produced this work on their own, to be judged by audiences, they would never be half as successful. But the legitimacy provided by the academic half of the scam makes questioning the supposedly “radical” works much harder – just say that artists like Duchamp or Beuys or Hirst are scammers and see the immediate outrage this causes, even though plentiful evidence of their true intentions exists. And the more shameless they become in their scamming, the more they just sell you their unused trash (like Duchamp selling his bottle rack as art, perfectly aware that he was just scamming people), the more they don’t even do any of the work themselves, exploiting other artists to mass-produce their simulacrum of art, the more those who have built an entire artistic world on their backs will defend them – if only because there’s money involved.

All of this is supported by the most ingeniously shallow yet seemingly deep question ever asked: but what does it tell us about art? With this vague, fundamentally meaningless meta-question, the worst, most obviously ludicrous work can be raised to a status of great artistic significance. Is a toilet seat art? Is a bathtub art? What does this lump of fat tell us about art? No vision, no talent, no transcendence is required – this question allows anything to become art, and thus anything to become product, to become the subject of essays no-one will read and exhibits no-one will enjoy, which will nevertheless generate meaningful amounts of money for the scammers involved.

Perhaps the worst effect of this feedback loop of deception is that, from the outside, the field appears to be healthy. Works are being produced and written about. The “scene” seems lively, if hard to understand for the unwashed masses. But underneath all is rot. It’s not just a lack of new ideas – it’s a lack of anything at all.

If death was apparent, if the field seemed empty, something new might take root. But the shambling corpse – still profitable to some – keeps going, disconnected from the people, disconnected from reality. And where are new artists to turn?

So they get swallowed up by this purposeless machine, the more cynical amongst them richly rewarded for consciously signing up for the scam, but even those who aren’t cynical, who have vision and talent, pushed and pushed towards conformity. The pushing doesn’t even need to be obvious: artists are desperate for validation, and giving them that validation only when they produce works within the accepted framework will guide them towards performing as the system desires. Tell them that they are radicals, that their work is subversive, and they will feel so proud of themselves for fighting the good fight that they’ll keep digging their own graves, thinking that they’re opposing the status quo.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled wasn’t convincing the world he didn’t exist, it was rebranding himself as God.

Art does not exist in a vacuum; each of us builds on what came before. But art also does exist in a vacuum, creating something mysteriously unique out of entirely common elements, not only because of its context but in spite of it – much like life. When art is reduced to a reaction, to a relationship to its context, it is stripped of what actually makes it truly powerful – the creative spark, the paradoxical, visionary process that creates meaning and transcends the limitations of the human beings creating it.

When art is sold to you purely on terms of how it relates to its context – groundbreaking, radical, subversive, experimental, brave, etc. – beware of scammers. Great art is great art, no matter which human being creates it, no matter where or when its creation takes place, because the thing that matters about art is that it’s a window to something greater than time and space. Great art does not need to subvert some imaginary status quo; its very existence challenges everything.

Faith in Humanity

There’s a quote from the glossary at the end of Star Maker – a book so good that even its glossary is worth quoting at length – that came back to me today. I’ve mentioned it before, but hadn’t thought about it for a while. I believe that it encapsulates most clearly what the world so desperately needs.

Religion.

(a) In the mouths of Communists the word means a particular sort of capitalist dope, namely certain doctrines and practices calculated to withdraw attention from the need for revolution, and to fix it upon an unreal world of fantasy, thus relieving the ‘religious’ person from the moral responsibility of serving the revolution. Some readers may condemn this book as ‘religious’ in this pejorative sense.

(b) In another sense ‘religion’ includes all that is best in the emotional attitude of Communism itself, namely the resolute will to live devotedly in service of mankind. ‘Religion’ in this sense includes also a conviction that this will has in some manner not merely terrestrial but also cosmical significance. Further, it includes the feeling that even the will to fight in life’s battle against the forces of death should be complemented by an ultimate piety toward something superhuman, and even super-vital, a piety toward fate, or the whole of being, or some inconceivable deity. This attitude, so well expressed by Spinoza, is alien to contemporary Communism; but it is not to be confused with capitalist dope, for those who have felt it most strongly have been amongst the most active in the service of mankind. [emphasis mine]

The political situation we find ourselves in is deeply depressing. But it’s not the rise of fascism that is so dispiriting; it is the lack of a meaningful opposition. Once radicals like myself attacked liberalism for its hypocrisy, its inability to stay true to the lofty ideals it espoused. But now the entire Left, liberal and radical alike, has been infected by a rank misanthropy and a nasty, nihilistic individualism. There is no hope on offer, no better world to build, only a slightly different distribution of misery and a celebration of each individual’s eternal victimhood. Even many who consider themselves radical have embraced Thatcher’s credo: there is no such thing as society. There is no such thing as the people. There is no such thing as humanity. We’re told this is freedom, but what it is is despair.

Bringing back the idea of humanity, beating back the tide of adolescent pseudo-profound misanthropic notions about our species, seems to me the most important intellectual task of the age. No successful political movement aimed at changing the catastrophic status quo will be organized without it. Art will continue to wither without a deeper connection to our shared history, past and future. Even on an individual level, people will continue to sink into depression, cast adrift on an ocean of relentless solipsism.

We need humanity, and we need it urgently. We need faith in our abilities, faith rooted in knowledge of history and recognition of potential. We need a radical belief in the value of civilization; not something vague and polite, but a deep, committed belief in the human project, shorn of the banal world-weary nihilism we are taught to believe is pragmatic and wise.

And I think everyone who still believes in humanity has to fight for the resurrection of this belief, fight for it tooth and nail, until it claws itself back into the world.

It’ll be really, really hard. It’ll mean opposing people who think they’re morally superior, people who think their anti-human attitude is enlightened. It’ll mean being called naive, being laughed at, being lectured about Human Nature. Against all that and worse, it will be necessary to say, over and over, without irony, without self-aware defensiveness: I love humanity. I believe in humanity. I will fight for humanity.

You’ll hear me saying this again. And again. And again. You’ll hear me saying it until I’m dead, and then you’ll hear me saying it from the Lands of Dream. I will not relent and neither should you.

I love humanity. I believe in humanity. I will fight for humanity.

Consecutive Cat Catastrophe Clustercat

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So, cats.

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you may be aware that a few weeks ago we found a tiny starving kitten that had been abandoned by its mother. Given our lack of time and money, our pre-existing cat condition, and all the millions of complications cats bring with them, it would be foolish to take him in… so of course we did it.

He was just so… tiny!

Well, he’s no longer quite as tiny, but he’s cute and playful and happy and, most of all, alive. The bad news: he can’t stay with us. The good news: we found someone who’ll take him. The crazy news: delivering him will be something of an odyssey. We’ll have to drive across an entire country.

You may also remember our own cat, Cat. She came home the other day with a hole in her leg that was so deep you could see the bone. That’s just a couple of months after almost literally getting her throat torn out by another cat. She’s certainly not helping dispel the stereotype of black cats bringing bad luck.

Well, combined with the whole freelance writer thing, and moving, and games taking forever to finish… some money would be nice. So, if you happen to have some and want to throw it our way, one way you could do it would be to buy The Sea Will Claim Everything and A Postcard From Afthonia on itch.io for just $5. The itch.io version of TSWCE comes with a Steam key and Afthonia has been updated to be less rough around the edges. That update will also be applied to the Humble version later today.

If you already have the game on Steam, why not give the key to a friend who might enjoy it, or an enemy who might hate it?

We have a properly new game coming out soon, though, so if you’d rather keep your money for that, no problem. It’ll be quite cheap, though, just so you know. No pressure.

We’re also looking into putting some of our free games on Steam, with the option of buying some extras to support the developer. I like that model, but Greenlight eats a lot of time, so I don’t know when that will be ready, since I’m also working full-time on other projects.

Anyway. Cats.

Art Is Not Politics

It has become fashionable to treat art as politics. The inclusion of millionaires of a certain gender or “race” in the latest corporate entertainment product is taken to signify an improvement in the conditions of people who share superficial traits with those individuals, even as nothing changes in their wages, pensions, rights, or healthcare situation. Raging against individual works of art, or even individual artists – particularly on the internet, to audiences already familiar with an in-group terminology designed for this purpose – is taken as part of the struggle for equality, or even the struggle against fascism, even as the continuing crises of capitalism result in destruction on an unprecedented scale.

There are a lot of dangerous delusions when it comes to the entanglement of the artistic and the political. Some of these are politically dangerous; others are intellectually dangerous. Debates tend to sink into confusion or become clashes between the sanctimonious and the reactionary, between those who see politics everywhere and those who don’t want to see them anywhere.

To understand the nature of the problem, we must begin by distinguishing between politics (that is, participation in the affairs of the polis) and the political (that is, subject matter thematically relating to politics). These are not one and the same, and their conflation leads to weak art and weaker politics.

The idea that “all art is political” certainly contains some truth. There is little doubt that art frequently reflects the beliefs of the artist – though this is itself too simplistic a statement, as we will see later. It can also be truthfully said that a great deal of art expresses at least some notions about what is right and what is wrong, even if only in the most tangential of ways. However, even the most intentionally political work of art is only thematically political. A work can be Marxist or feminist or libertarian or neoliberal in the ideas it contains, in the story it tells or the characters it depicts; but to call a work of art Marxist or feminist or libertarian or neoliberal is an academic/critical assessment. A novel being Marxist is not relevant to the practice of Marxism; it is relevant to literary theory.

It is greatly tempting for artists and critics to blur this line. It is tempting to think that one can fight for a better world through one’s art or even one’s criticism, safely from one’s home, without having to go through the effort of organizing people and fighting the system in a real-world, material sense. There are archetypes that it is easy to be drawn to: the political artist who has a sexy, semi-saintly glow of being engaged while simultaneously being above it all, or the victim artist, emerging from great difficulty to express their pain and speak for their community. Even the most crudely political art can draw a strong response, and all artists desire attention. The internet has certainly contributed to the intensity of this effect: with a whole lot of people calling you a defender of all that is good in the world, and a whole lot calling you the incarnation of all that is bad, it’s easy to feel you are doing something.

But what is actually taking place is the shifting of struggles from the actually political to the politically themed. This is catastrophic for actual politics, because a perceived victory in the arts is utterly meaningless in material terms. It gives artists and critics and their hangers-on a hollow, narcissistic satisfaction, but it also turns them into tools of a system that is only too happy to distract people from ther misery. It alienates artists, even poor and oppressed artists, from the concerns of the people. The hollow victories of a self-satisfied class of artists will mean little to those who have no food or shelter.

This conflation is also catastrophic for art itself, however. Reducing art to a political tool robs it of its potential for transcendence. Art is significant precisely because it has no purpose; it exists because we want it to, humanity reaching for something beyond the basic functions of biology; it doesn’t matter whether you call it grace, or the divine, or a manifestation of the human capacity to imagine, what matters is that art at its best transcends the world we live in (even if it always begins there) and moves us in ways we cannot easily explain. If that is lost, then what we are producing is not art; it’s advertising. Turning art into a political tool – even for “political self-expression” – denies artists precisely that most important ability of reaching beyond, including beyond themselves.

This effect, it should be noted, is particularly destructive for those artists who are perceived to be part of a minority or otherwise oppressed, as they are strongly encouraged to turn themselves into avatars of an identity, capable of creating only things related to that one topic. (This was painfully and accurately satirized by Drew Hayden Taylor in alterNatives, where the protagonist is always being pushed to write the Great Native Canadian Novel, but really just wants to write science fiction.)

Art is vision, and visions should not be blinkered. Art is a journey, and sometimes the artist should have no idea where they are going. That’s why not even politically themed art should necessarily be tied to the author’s personal beliefs – it’s always possible to produce a work of art that makes even its creator uncomfortable, and that’s part of why art matters. It’s not just self-expression. Art has the capacity to be universal expression; artists have the potential to channel something that feels entirely alien and external to themselves.

None of that is to say that art should not engage with the political. You can’t transcend anything if you don’t know where you are; art must be deeply rooted in historical context, in the ongoing life of the human species in this strange universe we inhabit. But artists must be humble. Transcendence, no matter how minor or brief, is already a pretty significant gift. It is not wise to delude ourselves into thinking that we can use that gift to escape our responsibility as citizens and as human beings. Our artistic struggles matter to us, and we must fight them with dedication – which includes allowing inspiration to take us where it wants to, and not trying to impose our ideologies on stories that don’t support them. We must not pretend that our personal struggles are the struggles of the world, or that our triumphs help others.

The struggle for wages, for jobs, for peace and security and progress, will not be won by artists. It will be won by people organizing, fighting for labour rights, seizing control of the machinery of the state. Yes, that’s scary – a lot scarier than writing or drawing or composing a radical work of art. It scares me too. But that’s where the struggle is, and we’re part of that struggle. So let’s face the truth, no matter how painful or humbling it is.

Towards the Council

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You may have noticed an absence of updates both here and on the Lands of Dream site. The reason is simple: I’d set myself a deadline for releasing The Council of Crows (November 17th) and I was in full crunch mode trying to reach it. It has finally become apparent to me – with some help from my wife – that I simply can’t do it. It’s not a tech or design issue. I just can’t write enough words quickly enough, at least not without sacrificing everything that makes a Lands of Dream game good.

There are other reasons, too. I was getting so burned out from never having any time off that a lot of physical problems that had gone away over the last few months started coming back again. Headaches, back problems, that kind of thing. Too much sitting and staring at a computer screen. And Verena’s age-old problems with the skin on her hands are currently making it impossible for her to finish drawing the graphics. But the biggest problem is that it’s just too big and there just aren’t enough hours in the day. (What makes it especially challenging is the descriptions, because they’re not interrelated. You can’t develop a flow like you can with other types of writing. Every single mushroom forces you to restart the thought process. Sometimes you end up doing an hour of research just to come up with a new type of pun about fungal communism.)

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I know how ridiculous all of this is. Had I known it would take so long, I never would have gone for crowdfunding. I’m massively pleased with where the game is now, but the responsibility of having taken money from people and not delivered weighs heavily on me. I know I keep saying it’ll be worth the wait, but for that to happen the wait has to end at some damn point.

But we’ve done so much. We’ve made a game that feels very much like a Lands of Dream game, but isn’t a repeat of The Sea Will Claim Everything. You get to spend time in Fifth Pumpkin. You get to know Hyperborea and its people in detail. Time passes. Things change. You go on unexpected adventures. Hell, we have crafting. We have mini-games (daft ones, of course). We have the Lands of Dream version of RPG features. We have weird stuff that goes back to the older, more experimental games I used to make.

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And more importantly, the game is much more than just the little fairy tale I’d imagined making in the beginning. It’s still a fairy tale, but now it’s the proper kind, the old kind, with roots that go to deep and dark places. Speaking of roots, The Council of Crows is connected to every single previous Lands of Dream game in really important ways. You won’t need to have played all of them, not at all, but if you have, be prepared to meet a lot of old friends.

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My current plan is to release the game in February of 2017. It’s quite possible that I’ll release a smaller, older project before then, something I’ve been working on since before the Indiegogo campaign. The main point of doing so – apart from allowing me to come to The Council of Crows with fresh eyes – is to raise some money to make properly promoting The Council of Crows more feasible. We didn’t spend the money from the Indiegogo on anything other than the game, and we always expected to invest some money of our own as well, but it has taken a long time, and we don’t want to just throw the game out there without pushing it at least a little. Let me repeat, for clarity, that I’m not starting a new project or anything like that. Just finishing something old but actually quite good. It’s only a matter of days, really. Verena’s hands will hopefully heal enough in a week or two for her to be able to continue working as well. Then we’ll be working full time (but with weekends off so I don’t die, as Verena correctly insists I would if I kept up crunching like an idiot) until the game is done. It’s possible that backers will receive beta keys for the Steam release before the New Year.

By the way, I’ve been advised several times now to start a Patreon. I’d love to – God knows we could use some extra funds – and such a system would probably be much better for supporting the Lands of Dream as a whole. But I feel that I can’t take any kind of crowdfunding money until we’ve delivered the game people backed, even if it does have a different name. After that’s done, I’d love to find a way to keep the Lands of Dream going with your help – more stories, text games, podcasts, all kinds of stuff. But first we have to finish this story.

Thank you for your saint-like level of patience with the mysterious and annoying process of game development.

Serious Sam VR: The Last Hope

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So, hey, Serious Sam VR is out! Verena and I worked on this, so here are some thoughts about writing such a game.

This is the kind of project where you’ll sometimes hear people say “Why do you need writers for this?” And yeah, sure, it doesn’t have a huge storyline or anything. But you’ll notice that it does have narrative elements. It has an overall situation – you’re on a ship, you’re selecting missions – and it has scenarios, broken down into four levels per planet. And it has Sam himself, a highly distinct character who reacts to all this in a specific way (apart from blowing stuff up, I mean; Sam isn’t Sam without one-liners).

In other words, what game writers can provide is context and flavour. SSVR is not a philosophically or narratively ambitious game, and it doesn’t need to be. But those few elements we had to work with – like the level descriptions, or the overall concept of the game – do actually influence the experience, even if the player doesn’t pay much attention to them. Most players only actively notice this when those bits are badly written (or translated), breaking immersion, but they’re always there. They’re not the main attraction in any way, nor should they be. They’re just spices in a big soup. But if you spice your soup with ground-down turds instead of coriander, somebody’s probably going to notice.

From a writing perspective, this was a challenging but enjoyable exercise. When you have so little to work with, and the basic gameplay remains the same, you have to work really hard not to repeat yourself. Why is Sam on this planet? Why is he all alone? Where is he going this time? How can we create variety using only level names, descriptions, and a handful of lines voiced by John J. Dick? It’s like writing a kind of micro-fiction.

We came up with the main concept of a training simulation based on Sam’s experiences, which situates the story within the surprisingly elaborate Serious Sam canon, while also having the advantage of allowing some future narrative flexibility – Sam’s versions of what happened aren’t necessarily 100% accurate, if you know what I mean. You’ll see a bit more of that in future updates. We then presented Croteam with a bunch of different possible ways of introducing all this, all of them based on the very simple means we were given to communicate it, and Croteam went with what they thought most appropriate.

The individual mini-stories were built around the existing environments and boss battles, with some general input from Croteam as to what they wanted to establish in terms of world-building. We tried to draw some connections to the existing Sam universe (in the Earth scenario) and extend that universe in the direction Croteam wanted (in the Pladeon scenario), while keeping all the missions firmly in the spirit of Sam. After all, no matter where you put him, Sam is Sam. Pladeon was particularly fun to write, though.

And then there are the one-liners, of which there can never really be enough. Here some of them also serve narrative purposes, to transition you from one scenario to the next, or reward you for finishing a fight. This is where I’m particularly glad Verena is working on this project, because she’s really good at writing these totally hyper-macho lines for Sam. When we were in Croatia to work out the final script for Serious Sam 4, that really made a huge difference. My first draft had a lot of big ideas, most of which made it to the final draft and which I think will make SS4 a better game, but Verena was just fantastic at getting the tone right. Where I’d gone off in weird directions, she brought it down to Earth, adding more dry military humour and some pretty brilliant one-liners. (The criterion for whether it worked was pretty simple – when we came up with stuff in the room, did it make everyone laugh? Did we all think it was cool? It was a fantastic way to work, even though we put in long, exhausting hours and had to get our butts replaced with cybernetic implants at the end.)

What I’m happiest about so far is simply that people seem to be having a blast with the game. It’s very old-school, in a way, not trying to innovate, but trying to be really good at what it is. We had nothing to do with that, of course, but Croteam is family at this point, and it’s always great to see them doing well. And what I’m second happiest about is the feedback from people saying that the game feels like Sam. That’s the most important thing for us as writers on such a classic franchise, even if our contribution in this case was super tiny. I hope that when Serious Sam 4 comes out you’ll find that what we wrote made it better, not by changing its essence, but by embracing it.