_____ On The Planet X – A Year of Interviews With Jeffrey Auburn, #2
You take a term like “geomorphologic unconformity,” you drop it into the real world, say, the intersection of the Appalachians and the coastal plain, and then you wind the Ocmulgee River through it; now give it the heartbeat of civilization, fill it with history, imperil your creation with use; and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a shithole like Macon.
Oh but for twenty-five years, this place was home…
…”Inherent in games is our fascination with home,” says Jeffrey, intercepting two beers from our waitress that were heading who knows where. “Games are physicality given meaning through context. You’d be hard-pressed to find a purer form of that than home…a point of origin, a point of divergence. It’s more than just a location, a location’s just a location. A home represents our awareness of being from, of the physical meaning, of matter mattering. And all this simply because we were there a whole bunch. I create games in an attempt to go back home.”
It’s weird because, as far as I know, Jeffrey has never really left Macon. Not like I did, years ago, when I got a bad case of the anywhere-but-heres and diverged nowhere. Ah but the same irresolution that saw me go has seen me return: so here I sit, enjoying my expropriated beer outside the historic Capital Theater, interviewing Jeffrey once more.
* * *
At a glance, Jeffrey’s 2004 “great unfinished” game _____ on the Planet X is a painstaking, but hardly revolutionary undertaking: with the map and characters of 1987’s Metroid as his palette, Jeffrey has meticulously recreated this little mutual-hometown of ours…
…Yes, Macon, the archetypal “southern city,” known for its history of racial intolerance. And yet, in that intersection of black and white, this city produced Otis Redding, “the King of Soul,” as well as the “architect of rock & roll” himself, Little Richard; not to mention the Allman Brothers, who, by fusing black and white elements of music, became known as the architects of Southern rock. And what of that “white trash” stereotype of the South? Well, you’ll find it artfully explored in David Bottoms’ 1979 Walt Whitman Award-winning “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump”—a collection of poetry based right here in Macon. Additionally, the world’s first women’s college was built in this city, Wesleyan College, and there today it still stands. Oh and when Tennessee Williams penned the character of Big Daddy in “A Cat On a Hot Tin Roof,” he based that character upon the patriarch of a family here in Macon. And let’s not forget the cherry blossoms…With over 300,000 of them scattered throughout this rolling, riparian city, Macon has more cherry blossom trees than any city in the world, including those in their native Japan.
And yet, it’s still a shithole. “Macon’s Macon,” Jeffrey says, with unapologetic simplicity. “But you’re too hard on it. Whether you consider your hometown ‘level 1-1’ or the whole ‘world map,’ you and the ‘game-world’ are intertwined. Nothing you can do about that. Big deal if you’re conflicted…It’s my belief that being conflicted about where you’re from is the best way to be from a place.”
* * *
Among a quickly growing phalanx of empty beer glasses, Jeffrey cracks open his laptop, where the only copy of _______ On The Planet X exists. “I’d been playing .kkrieger that year,” he says, “a game that famously used procedural generation to pack its entire game-world into 96 kilobytes. This got me thinking about what it means for a world to be procedurally generated. I mean, that’s really how big game-worlds came about early on: having little memory to fool around with, developers were forced to find a way to generate levels on the fly. Each time you’d play a game, the rooms, the enemies, the items, the dangers, they’d all be randomized. Well, pseudo randomized, at least. Which is a big part of it: procedural generation, in its most useful form, is supposed to pass for pre-made…An effective algorithm not only generates a world that feels ‘real’ but that seems created by someone who is ‘real’… Someone who has the common sense not to fill a room with walls, or to place items or enemies under the floor where nobody can get at them.”
“As an aesthetic I get why procedural generation is so appealing: Since we all live in different places, and even when we don’t we have our own experience of that place, a procedurally generated world reflects that feeling by generating for us a literal ‘personal space’ to run around in. But this idea seemed, I don’t know, un-human to me. And for good reason, I think: the actual world around us, as it turns out, is un-human. Even though a procedurally generated landscape gave us new places to explore, only the environment, the placement of enemies and items changed. You sweep away the architecture of a procedurally generated landscape and discover that the fundamental structure of the experience remains…that the game, the experience, is unchanged. Games as other places are a given. But games as other places and ‘other places’ as procedurally generated was, to me, a weak substitute for games about this world, a world where if I explore a new location it isn’t so much the lay of the land but the intersection of the lay of the land and my experience of the lay of the land. And even then it’s deeper than that: My experience itself is a fractured thing…and at this point of fracture a new intersection is formed, the intersection of the experiences of the past and the experiences of the present…of the subjective and objective. And it is only after that fracture is repaired that my experience becomes a thing whole enough to be spliced into wherever I happen to be standing at the moment. Let me try to explain that again: a procedurally generated landscapes is a biography of physics. The procedurally generated placement of items and enemies is a biography of mere circumstance. I wanted to make a game that was a biography of experience.”
“It seemed to me that the real world, this one here, is procedurally generated by our just beholding it, by our experiencing it moment to moment. It doesn’t need any more than that. And I don’t think the game-world does either. It’s like Melville said, ‘The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago.’ And yet, somehow, our world is still a ‘draft of a draft’…So I built a game that might reflect that, by using procedurally generated processes…Each time you play the game, the processes that govern that experience are seeded. Meters appear randomly, each attached to a context, also random. Sometimes these meters will fill up; sometimes they’ll drain; and the only way of knowing whether or not you want that to happen is to listen out for the tell-tale beep…beep…beep. Sometimes a meter will move and you have no way of knowing why. Sometimes a meter won’t move at all, and you’ll wonder, how might I make it move? Though the game-world itself remains a solid, immutable thing, our experience upon and within it changes drastically from visit to visit. That, to me, at this point in my life, felt like a real game.”
“But just like a procedurally generated landscape, there are some things to be expected…jump still means jump. Up still means up. And your character will always be the same character. I named her Perlin, after the noise algorithm. Are you familiar with it? Perlin noise is an algorithm that is used to generate pseudo random details within a texture. It’s a visual gradient that attempts to emulate the seeming randomness of nature by adding ‘imperfections’ to a texture, say, the surface of water, or a fog cloud. Well, this character, I felt, exists in the game-world in much the same way. Each randomly generated idiosyncrasy attempts to approach the randomness of actual experience. She is a gradient of experience.”
* * *
It isn’t but it’s all here: The Douglass Theatre, where I watched “The Last King of Scotland” on a date with a girl whose virginity, no thanks to the movie, would be nonexistent in a few hours…Rose Hill Cemetery, where a team of once-hippies patrol the grave of Duane Allman on the lookout for vandals. Intact in Jeffrey’s Macon-vision is the hobo fountain on 3rd St., this time filled with a swarm of Metroids that converge upon you. Oh, and the Thomas Jefferson Building, where I once saw a young boy—he couldn’t have been older than seven—crying into the concrete while ambulance workers carried a stretcher past him. In his place in Jeffrey’s game is a Zoomer, progressing slowly around a floating block. I leave “him” to his endless cycle.
Though each place is the same every time I visit, I find myself hitting restart again and again and again, wanting to see what new meaning might arise out of the way I visit. I even stop by _______ On The Planet X’s equivalent of the Capital Theater, where Jeffrey and I are sitting at that very moment. It’s at this time that a question finally surfaces: “What is unfinished about the game?”
Jeffrey calls the waitress over, orders our tab. “I simply had a grander vision for it. I wanted the game to let you ‘leave’ characters behind; say a character wasn’t that exciting to play; or maybe if you actually thought a character was interesting but didn’t want to see her just…vanish upon death. My notion was to have those characters still there when you return, still shackled to their fates, killable even.”
“What’s stopping you from finishing it?”
“I don’t know…It seems kind of pointless, I guess. The place I’d be creating already exists.”
* * *
The unusual warmth of this winter Tuesday is breaking. In the distance, along the fractured horizon, the last pale hues of day bleed into night. On-screen, another fracture is occurring: I’ve encountered a game-breaking glitch. Halfway down Cotton Avenue, Perlin’s meters go haywire. Suddenly she is able to sort of “float” through walls…I begin slipping soundlessly through the structure of the game-world…its architecture, its geography as intangible as the light that draws away from us now. “Well…” I say again, finishing off my last beer, “I broke it…“
Just then, Jeffrey, flush with alcohol, goes into one of his trademark tirades: “No no no no no no, games don’t break,” he says, “we call it haywire, we call it error, but haywire and error only express our expectations. ‘Break’ is relative to purpose. ‘Break’ is an assumption that our Order of things is The Order of Things. A game isn’t a hammer, where if the handle snaps in half the hammer’s broken. We’re talking about the communication of a language…the programming that the game uses to express itself. And a game might do that beyond us but the game itself can’t break.” In his annoyance Jeffrey’s “can’t” resembles the “cain’t” of the Hollywood stereotype. He yanks another cigarette from the pack. “Just keep playing. Go. The only thing broken here is our attempt to give order to the world. We cannot fault the system’s intelligence for thinking beyond us.”
At his behest, I push forward, gliding through the world not so much directionless but along an unknowable trajectory. All the while Jeffrey’s voice is in my ear, sweetly coarse and tinged with hostility. “Don’t you see? This is creativity in its purest form, in the breaking of structure…That’s what we call all the things that we don’t think can break, capital “S” Structure. But creativity is ordered beyond our Structure. You read about scientists trying to program machines to be creative, to reduce the goddamn concept down to a repeatable algorithm. It’s foolish. Intelligence is one thing…there are many forms of intelligence. Intelligence as strategy can be done, I believe, but only because we often conceive of strategy as statistics. But creativity? No. What creativity can come from that which has been programmed for it? A machine such as this would be only following a path. Creativity is unintended thinking. Isn’t that how we define our own creativity?”
“So what do you suggest then?” This as I walk Jeffrey back to his apartment on Martin Luther King, a street where I just minutes before succumbed to a combination of “sun poisoning” and “animosity.”
“Suggest about what?”
“About building creativity.”
“Oh…well,” he stops in Hollingsworth Park to light a cigarette. He offers me one and I accept. “It’s easy.”
“Alright. You build a conformity machine. You program it to do the same thing over and over and over again.”
“And you wait for it break.”
Next Month: Raymond Carver Vs. The Mortality Of Man