Fragile Equilibrium: Extended Artist’s Statement

PART 1: MOTIVATION The following is an extended artist’s statement for my latest game, Fragile Equilibrium [FE]. FE is the latest game I’ve created, along with my friend Aaron Cloutier and a number of RIT students working in various contexts ranging from students in a class to employees at MAGIC Spell Studios. I’ve written a little bit about the game on my website, and will continue to do so. I offer this bit of writing and reflection on process both as an extended statement on the game as well as a reflection on the process and intent of the project.

In 2013 I was asked to create the MAGIC Center by then-president-of-the-university William Destler. A part of that was to create an ‘entrepreneurial unit’ that would assist faculty, staff, and students in disseminating interactive media and creative work. I took that perhaps more literally than anyone intended and set out to make a commercial media studio directly embedded in a research center, what I believed at the time to be a pretty unique structure. My intent and purpose was perhaps not as commercial as some would have liked in that it wasn’t really profit-driven, it was intended instead as a platform for experiential education.

I was similarly concerned about the work that was ongoing at the School of Interactive Games & Media I founded with the faculty in 2009: it was being challenged to look more and more traditional in its scholarly and creative work, and I wanted to preserve “making as a mode of inquiry” (an incredible turn of phrase by I. Horswill at Northwestern) as a recognized scholarly and research activity. I was concerned that faculty teaching games should make games. I was concerned that students studying game development should make games. And that at some point in that process these groups needed to explore not just making games but producing and releasing games as a part of that creative act. And so in 2013 I gathered some friends and colleagues and set off to do that at my university, in the hopes that it would blaze a bit of a trail, provide some breadcrumbs, set a new stage.

PART 2: HISTORY We were coming off of having made the Just Press Play project, and while I had tried to help in securing funding and presenting that work, contributing bits and pieces to its design and foundation, it was really my colleague Liz that ran the production of that project, and in particularly the second phase that saw it “put in a box and shipped” to the extent that it was. It was a wonderful project in that it helped bring a lot of folks in IGM together in a context that exemplified an applied and contextual form of scholarship for working in game development, but it was less recognizable as an individual product and traditional game. The first game I made at MAGIC Spell Studios, then, was intended specifically to look like a game, and to illustrate that universities were capable of game production at a scale and level of polish that was different than just “a project”. That game was Splattershmup: A Game of Art & Motion. You can see screens and a bit about it in my gallery website, and it was shown at the Indie Arcade at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, at the Blank Arcade at DiGRA, and a finalist for Educational Game of the Year at GLS 12.

The second game I made was Hack, Slash & Backstab, which was a tongue-in-cheek satire of administrative review processes for faculty, campus politics, and the notion of teamwork in a society that is obsessed with individualism. You can read about it at my gallery, including the post-mortem presentation on the game and the process we used to build it. The students involved won an award at the INTEL Game Development challenge, placing 3rd for visual quality. But perhaps more importantly it again sought to blaze a trail, proving production capability for an ID@XBOX game, and teaching a course in game production by actually doing game production. It put the slogan of the MAGIC Center, “We Learn By Making Things”, front and center, in an experiential, applied way. It challenged students not to just “design a thing and build it” but to take a high-concept initial design, make it their own, and turn it into a product not on their own but by working in tandem with faculty and professional staff in a structure that looked less like a class and more like a media studio. It was intended as raw apprenticeship. I like to imagine that it worked, I think time will tell.

PART 3: PROCESS Which brings us to FE, the largest scale production I ever made at MAGIC Spell Studios, and what may be the last one I will ever do in that context. It is a game production spread out across 2 courses and a series of cooperative education experiences over two and a half years: I taught an initial production course in fall of 2016 that attempted a prototype of the game based on my initial designs and summer ideation and creative work with Aaron. We learned a lot about the game and the mechanic and the narrative there, but ultimately it didn’t “pop” as a finished work in that time-frame. We shelved it.

I went back to FE the following Fall with a renewed sense of effort and purpose, and again taught a production course, again with Aaron, again exploring the core concept of FE as a world that eats its own representation. I wrote, at the time, the revised statement on the game in the next paragraph, and we had a better go of it the second round given what we learned the first time, and then proceeded to move it “into studio production” in the spring with a set of student employees, staff contributions from the studio, Aaron’s incredible leadership in taking the helm as a product manager, and my own continued efforts.

During those efforts, we described the game as follows:

FRAGILE EQUILIBRIUM [Fe]
Broadsword 2: Recurrence, Resurgence, Rebalance, Recycle

Fragile Equilibrium is a game about the Imperfection and impermanence of life. It is a reflection on transience, a balancing act between progress and regrowth, a reminder to find beauty in decay and inevitable destruction. Using old-school “shmup” mechanics and forms, [FE] invites the player to explore a world of quick actions, forced decisions, and subtle strategy: but with each decision, the 
player falls ever out of balance.

As balance decays so does the world, eroding over time and out of space, binding the player to a smaller area, pressing in upon the mind. Built upon multi-layered interactions, a Wabi Sabi aesthetic idealism, and a rich, broken world of yesterdays fantasies, [FE] asks the player to reflect upon their play, their world, their nostalgia, and themselves.

Find your balance, live a life well played.

In some ways, that says everything it needs to say, but i want to unpack a little bit of what I was trying to express in that statement, but it means to me. FE is a game that destroys the visual representation of the screen every time something in the game “slips by you”. That in turn reduces the total screen area in a game in which movement and dodging is critical, so it is very much to your advantage to have an entire screen of usable area. At the same time, the only way to “recharge” the weapons and abilities that allow you to progress is to “mend” portions of a broken screen — which means you need to allow portions of it to break, and to understand the strength in both recognizing those areas and working to mend them.

PART 4: MEANING This is all a metaphor for living with depression. Some of it is very literal: the very idea of the view of the world ‘breaking’ and ‘cracking’ comes from descriptions I’ve read of depression as making life ‘brittle’, a series of tasks or hurdles to ‘get through without breaking’. A day divided into little pieces. But more deeply, depression is a thing that alters how you move through life. It becomes a constraint. It becomes, unless dealt with, an all consuming thing that allows no other force or action, no space, no breath, no life of purpose. That is what it means to consume the world. To consume a mind. To consume a person. It is a thing that takes hold of a person and can reduce them to a shell. To a shard. To a piece of broken glass.

And yet, it is also a thing from which many artists draw their creativity, their spark, their empathy. There are numerous pieces written about the relationship of depression to artists, to creativity, etc., and much debate about whether or not these are accurate or nonsense. But some of them, to me, have felt right. Some of them i can identify with. Some of them parrot back to me a view of the world that i understand and empathize with. And so in the game healing the screen gives you power. Engaging with and seeking to understand your soul creates the space and tools for success.

In this way, the game is about balance. It invites the player to understand what it is to feel squeezed between a need to focus on forward progress, on challenges, on obstacles, on goals, but also to focus inwards, to face ‘the wrong way’, to be constantly aware that they are looking not just at a virtual world, but at a purposefully re-rendered representation of one. It is a quest for a fragile equilibrium, and thus the name.

Why do this in a shmup? (shmup being a contracted form of ‘shoot-em-up’ that describes the genre of the game from arcade slang in the 1980s.) Because I grew up with them. I grew up playing Defender in an arcade. I grew up playing Rai Den at a pool club. I grew up playing Striker 1945 at a bar in college. And I grew up in ways where these games were an escape from things I didn’t want to deal with, an escape from life, a chance to clear my mind and immerse myself in a space where I didn’t have to constantly think about everything all the time. I could leave my head and just react. And that is, I think, what many people that live with depression seek even if just for a little while. And so to me, a shmup was the obvious and natural form to explore this topic.

Visually it aspires to encompass a nostalgia for that entire era: the colors and iconography of rock albums of the early 80s, a floating islands world reminiscent of a work of Roger Dean. A visual form for players and enemies from early anime imports. A visual progression of levels and subjects that represent a loss of control, a deepening of desperation, but that ends in an almost surreal sense of tranquility through chaos. A recognition of the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi, loosely translated as “the recognition of the beauty of the imperfect.” It is a game that, in my mid-40s, I look back on everything and stop and stare.

In my way, that is what this game is about. It is not a game that teaches someone about depression, it is not a game that aspires to educate someone or empower someone or God-forbid claim to cure someone. It is not a game that directly addresses its subject: it intends instead to evoke a feeling, a nostalgia, a sense of something. Each of my games are about that to some degree, trying to work in this space around how someone feels to have played it rather than a direct engagement with the particular subject matter. It is a game that aspires to let someone feel squeezed, to visually and metaphorically reflect on a way of being that many people simply are, or at least that I am. It is a game about my soul, about being creative, about trying to find balance, about living. It is one of the most personal things I have ever made. It is, to me, Art.

Of all the things I’ve read and considered as a part of this work, perhaps the one that sticks with me most is (from Wikipedia) “Mono no aware (物の哀れ), literally “the pathos of things”, and also translated as “an empathy toward things”, or “a sensitivity to ephemera”, [which] is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.” Hopefully this game conveys some small aspect of that lingering awareness, that sense of empathy, that awareness and gentleness of form.

I am so very grateful to Aaron, to the students I have worked with on this project, to have had the opportunity to have made this thing over the last 2.5 years. I remain hopeful that the work I’ve done here has opened doors at the university for others to create the things in their soul, and for that work to be recognized. It is, I think, critical that those of us in game development programs continue to create. And it is critical that students in these programs gain experience with game production at several levels of complexity.

FE will launch later this month on XBOX Live Creators Program, STEAM, itch.io, and Windows.

Respectfully submitted,

-A Phelps, 2018