Meh: I Made A Game Called Apathy

I made an HTML5 game called Apathy. You can play it here.

It’s a submission for the MacArthur Foundation’s Looking@Democracy competition. Which, by the way, has a public voting period between May 6th and May 16th, so if you’re reading this between those dates, please go vote for me.

What follows now is an artist’s statement. If you haven’t played the game yet, please go ahead. Then come back here and see if your experience at all jives with what I was going for.
Continue reading ‘Meh: I Made A Game Called Apathy

    Why We’ve Been Silent About YFIAS For Months

    Around the beginning of last year, in anticipation of the Your Face is a Saxophone Kickstarter, I started acting differently online. I became less candid, less talkative, and more worried about how the things I said would be interpreted. I was trying to seem professional. That was a mistake. It didn’t actually make me look like a more trustworthy person to throw your money at, and it only made me, personally, more anxious.

    No more. Total transparency time.

    Production of Your Face is a Saxophone has stalled. We haven’t made any progress on it since April. The reason for this is that, at this stage of production, all the onus is on me. I’m the only one with the hardware, software, and resources to animate this thing. There’s also a little bit of dialogue to record, and many of Dave Lanz’s lines need to be re-recorded, but I haven’t scheduled the time for that. I’ve been out of commission, and I haven’t had the motivation and drive to do any of this.

    Now, for people who’ve given me money with the expectation that it would translate into hard work, “I don’t have the motivation” isn’t an acceptable excuse. I know that. So if you don’t want to hear any more of it, you can stop reading after this: I still plan to deliver more episodes of YFIAS, but if anyone who has donated to Episode 3 would like a refund, I will offer it. A lot of the money has been spent, so I won’t be able to fulfill that refund immediately, but if you want it, you can have it.

    If you’re still with me, I’ll explain what’s behind all this.

    First of all, the reason the money’s spent is because the fundraising is meant to pay my bills, so that I’d be able to work full-time on YFIAS instead of finding a “real job.” At this stage, there aren’t any costs associated with the project other than my ability to eat and stuff, because starvation is a severe impediment to animation. Fortunately, I’ve been able to eat and find a place to live without needing donation income, but there are still expenses beyond that. It’s a fact of life that everyone needs to spend money. I haven’t been spending it on Ferraris, I promise. I’ve been living as frugally as I possibly can, simply because it’s necessary.

    Anyway. The motivation bullshit. The end of April was when I had planned to start getting into the swing of animating Episode 3. Then the end of April began some family troubles, which culminated in me having an uncertain living situation. Most people would be able to compartmentalize these things. Unfortunately, I’m a nutcase.

    I’ve been clinically depressed for the past few months, and I’m currently on medication that’s sorta-kinda helping not really. Behind all this is something going on with my brain which causes me to have dissociative episodes which my doctor initially thought were panic attacks, but on further study it turns out they’re atypical. It’s never a good sign when your doctor looks at you with utter fascination twinkling in his eyes, like he’s an astrophysicist and you’re a newly-discovered planet that appears to be orbiting 16 different stars at once.

    So, TL;DR, health problems. That’s why I haven’t been animating. That’s why I haven’t updated anything. That’s why I’m still dawdling with opening the source files for Episodes 1 and 2.

    As you can probably tell, though I like to refer to “we” when talking about Plankhead and the YFIAS team, a lot of it rides on me. I don’t like that. I work much better when I’m collaborating with someone, because it makes me feel accountable. I’d venture to say the only reason Episode 2 actually got finished is because I had Erica Frohnhoefer sitting in the room with me, day in and day out, also animating.

    To rectify this, I’ve decided I’m going to use Blender entirely for Episode 3. I figure if I’ve taken this long to actually start animating, I might as well take a little longer to get used to Blender. Since many more people have access to (and expertise in) Blender than do Apple mother-skull-fucking Motion, that potentially enables a bunch of people to work with me, if not physically then at least remotely. It also eliminates proprietary formats from my workflow, and frees the project from the shackles of OS X.

    I’m also going to start local meetups for artists and creative people who want to collaborate on each others’ projects, as a way to start turning Plankhead into a movement. I’m not going to trademark the name or logo of Plankhead. Anyone who wants to start a local Plankhead chapter, do it. Anyone who wants to release work under Plankhead branding, do it. All I ask is that this work be CC0 Public Domain or equivalent. Obviously there’s no way I can enforce that, other than the hope that Plankhead becomes ubiquitous enough that people automatically assume if it says Plankhead, then it’s public.

    I will start doing all this as soon as I’m ready. To all our fans and producers, I thank you for your patience and your continued support. Life is hard, and challenging the way that art is made is hard, but I plan to keep on doing it. I hope you’ll all stay with me.

      Subscription Inequality: Is This the New Digital Divide?

      There’s been a huge reaction in Silicon Valley to Dalton Caldwell’s audacious proposal. He’d like to create, an API-focused feed service (or, “Twitter/Facebook-y social sharing thing” if you talk like a normal person) which has absolutely no advertising, so it can keep the company focused on the needs of the users instead of advertisers.

      If you know my work, you’d think that’d sound great to me. The entire point of doing Your Face is a Saxophone the way we have is to combat the “advertising hell” that’s making Caldwell upset.

      The problem is that his solution is a paywall..

      Okay, quick disclaimer: I am not I am not trying to cynically dismiss it, and this is not a snark piece. But I have some very serious concerns about its implications.

      In order to be a “sustainable, predictable business” (great!) providing a service where “you own your content” (awesome!) which “will align [its] financial incentives with members & developers” (I love this!), is going to charge its users $50 a year. With just 10,000 users, they can pull in $500,000, which should be enough to keep the business afloat. That way, doesn’t have to worry about not having the millions of users that Twitter and Facebook can claim.

      Good for What about poor people? What about high school students without access to a credit card? What about people who are already paying their home Internet bill, their phone bill, their gas bill, their rent, their utility bill, and just don’t want to have to pay another damn bill?

      For those people, Caldwell might say, there’s still the ad-supported Twitter. Which isn’t free, by the way, because you’re being advertised to, so you’re giving away your data. I’m with you on that, Dalton. All valid points. But I have a below poverty-line income, so Twitter still feels pretty free to me.

      But if Caldwell’s right, all of those ad-supported services are unsustainable anyway. So eventually, you’ll have a choice between a paywalled social networking service like, or just not networking online at all. So all of the people who love and rely on Twitter but couldn’t (or wouldn’t, but it’s mostly couldn’t) pay $50 a year for it will be left behind.

      Now, a cynic would say that all those people will be forced to actually go outside and meet people and blah blah blah good old days etc. I sincerely doubt anyone in Silicon Valley would say that. Silicon Valley — rightfully, I might add — believes that social networking services are as essential a utility as electricity and running water. Ad-supported Twitter and Facebook, for all their evils, are doing a much better job of providing essential communication utilities to low-income people than could ever hope to. Especially Twitter, which many of my friends use in lieu of text messaging because they can’t afford a cellphone plan.

      However, there’s still that whole sustainability thing to worry about. Even if it were being run entirely as a not-for-profit, would still need to bring in money to exist. In fact, assuming it doesn’t take any outside investors, might as well be considered a non-profit consumer cooperative. But that’s what I don’t like about it: If Twitter is Wal-Mart, then is a snobby organic food co-op in Park Slope. Good for the rich Park Slope people, but East Harlem is still a food desert. There has to be a way to create a sustainable business without being an exclusive club for people who can afford it.

      My biggest concern is that is the first of many things like it. I’m concerned that we’re moving towards a world of computing where only the rich and the upper-tiers of the ever-shrinking middle class can afford to participate. More than anyone, I want to see sustainable businesses that aren’t compelled to needlessly grow, but I’d like my friends and I to be a part of them, thank you very much.

      I don’t definitively know the answer to this. Freemium works for some businesses (like Dropbox, Github, and Evernote — which are, interestingly, the three examples cites as being proof that people will pay for web services), but I’m not sure how to make it work for a social networking service. The only thing I can suggest is a pay-what-you-want model, which has decades of history in brick-and-mortar social businesses and has been wildly successful online for the Humble Indie Bundle.

      It’s still not wildly successful for Your Face is a Saxophone, but that’s more the fault of obscurity than viability. If people like you, they’ll give you money. I just need to get more people to like me. Which is why I don’t put my shit behind a paywall. But I digress.

      I really want to see a world full of web apps, services, or just plain old-fashioned sites that aren’t inundated with ads. I also really want to see a world where a low income, a bad credit score, or a young age doesn’t bar you from experiencing them. We can have both, right?

        I Told You Animated Movies Didn’t Need $180 Million Budgets

        Over the past three years, I’ve gotten a steady trickle of hate in response to my post titled “Why Do Animated Movies Have $180 Million Budgets?“. The gist of it was, animators could just use video game engines and post-process them just past the point of being able to run in real time, as opposed to dicking around with million-core render farms.

        The gist of the hate mail was “lol u r stupid and vfx costs money”.

        Now, 9 director Shane Acker is literally doing exactly what I was talking about.

        Using the Source engine and everything. Which, okay, since 2009 probably isn’t the best choice, but seriously: an actual Hollywood-experienced filmmaker is doing exactly what half of the Internet has been perpetually calling me an idiot for even considering.

        Is this technique Pixar-quality? No. No it’s not. Will it be in five years if everyone else starts doing this? Duh.

        UPDATE JUNE 27 2012: Here’s a better example:

          Film Needs More Minimalist Theatre

          The other night, my mother treated David and me to the production of Jesus Christ Superstar that’s playing Broadway right now. We did this because somehow, despite living in the New York Metropolitan Area all his life, David had never seen a Broadway musical before, which was in serious need of rectification. I, on the other hand, have seen quite a few, and I’ve always been fascinated the most by shows like Superstar: the ones with minimalist staging.

          Many Broadway shows use elaborate sets, realistically depicting the surroundings and location of wherever the characters are supposed to be. The process of changing these sets mid-show is often just as elaborate — the stage crew scrambles to move props and backdrops offstage, move new ones on, sometimes using pulleys to drop them from the rafters, elevators to lift them from below the stage, whichever. The most impressive productions automate all of this, with setpieces that seem to magically roll on and offstage without the aid of crewmembers.

          This is expensive.

          Because of the cost — or sometimes purely for artistic reasons — many Broadway shows resort to minimalism. They don’t have a set. They don’t have a backdrop. The few props and setpieces they have are often multi-purpose. In lieu of backdrops, they set the scene with lighting and writing. For example, Superstar handles scene-changes by scrolling the location across a big text marquee; “STREETS OF JUDEA – FRIDAY” scrolls across the stage the way stock prices glide through Times Square. The RBC production of The Threepenny Opera used neon signs. And both times I saw Company — the 2006 Broadway revival and the 2011 Lincoln Center thing with Colbert and Neil Patrick Harris — they basically just moved props around to indicate a scene change.

          In 2009, I remember asking myself, why not do this kind of thing in film? The result was the clusterfuckity failed experiment of Bright Black, which is something I’ve vowed to revisit someday when I’ve actually had the chance to coherently plan it. Getting another look at minimalist theatre got me thinking about it again, though.

          First, actually, let me answer that question. Why not stage a film in the style of minimalist theatre? Because films don’t have to deal with set changes, time constraints, or any of the other things that makes minimalism advantageous in theatre, for example. Also, theatre has a rich tradition of the audience suspending their disbelief and filling stuff in with their imagination, whereas films have to depict absolutely everything or risk seeming unrealistic. To which I retort, or do they?

          My idea for Bright Black was a film lit entirely with black light. Costumes and props would be painted with UV-reactive paint, while everything else would be bathed in dark blue if visible at all. This lends itself very well to minimalist set design, because most of the background is going to be shrouded in darkness anyway.

          And besides, the plot would be about wisecracking, katana-wielding Illuminati assassins who have sword fights in Belgian dance clubs. So any pretense of realism has already left the building.

          Now, I’m definitely not the only person who’s ever had the idea to stage a film this way. I’ve seen it in Adrian Noble’s 1996 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and…well, that’s it, really. Rob Marshall’s Chicago kind of did it in a few scenes. Spike Lee’s Passing Strange movie (pictured above) was actually just a recording of the Broadway show, so that doesn’t count (By the way, watch Passing Strange. Right now. I firmly believe it is the most spectacular piece of performance art that anyone has ever staged in any theater, anywhere, ever.). Hitchcock’s Rope was a film staged like a play, but not like a minimalist one. So minimalism on film is, from what I can tell, fairly uncharted territory.

          It’s interesting, because when film was first invented, the medium struggled to be anything more than recorded theatre. It wasn’t until Griffith and Kuleshov that the idea of film as a narrative medium distinct from live theatre really took off, only for it to regress back into emulating the stage for a few years as soon as talkies appeared. It seems like film has ever since been trying to loudly proclaim “I am not theatre!”.

          So I was thinking, during the intermission of Superstar, when I decide to pick up Bright Black again and really do it right, why not stage it like one of these minimalist shows? And not just borrow the sparse set design, like I was originally envisioning? Why not totally go for broke? Don’t cut to the next scene, have a bunch of ninjas in the background change the set while the actors are still there. Use spotlights and stage lights, and have them all be very noticeable and visible. Let’s make the head of the Illuminati be called “the man behind the curtain”, and literally open a curtain every time Jarod Bright walks into his office.

          It’s kind of like how the House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill was clearly designed by an architect who knew the choreography of the sword fight that would one day happen there. But even further off-the-wall and thoroughly divorced from reality, concerned only with the abstract aesthetics of what’s happening on screen.

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