released on Aug 14, 2019
A thousand worlds surround our own, composed of bits and bytes. When they die, where do they go; what secrets do they hide? Stumble ye, wayfarer, through the wreckage of a dead MMO.
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Essentially the same as the other ones but a lot longer and costs money
One aspect that my own discipline on how I go about reflecting on games on here evades is the fact that I'm kind of a moron. As I eluded mildly in my last post, Minimalist, my relationship to my memories and recall is at best mildly amusing, imitating a real 'whose on first' style of trivia prompting from other people. At its worst though, it feels like early onset dementia. For instance earlier today, somebody liked my post on Magic Vigilante this fantastic horizontal shmup that I poured a strong appraisal in. I don't remember writing this, and I almost don't remember playing the game. If you had asked me 'what did you think of Magic Vigilante' 2 days after I played the game, I would tell you 'what? what are you talking about?'. I do like it now that I remember it, I do want to play it again sometime soon, but I didn't recall it at all until that happened. It's possible part of that is due to the fact there's no point in a SHMUP where you can sit and stare at scene and let it imprint. The sequences of what you see on screen in a SHMUP are by design always moving. There's a terminal rush going on that never slows down. This explains certainly why I can remember what the shop looks like in Oblivion (dusty, some barrels around, croaky music, potion flasks littered around everywhere, a soothing tannish brown plastered on all the objects) yet not remember so well a SHMUP, but this explanation is just that: an explanation. At the end of the day my memory is still painfully jagged and sudden. It's a ball of worms, not an epiphany. This is the norm.
I don't really want to continue endlessly the wistfulness about myself here, I think it can start this slightly obnoxious descent into a panicky attitude about life. It can cause readers to want to bow out because you're no longer focused on the experiences of the game but instead yourself. I don't want to come on here and act like a David Foster Wallace short story on everyone's timeline by any means. So, the point of noting this at all is simply to say that when some of us joke we don't remember what we even had for breakfast yesterday, that's not a joke, we really mean it.
Contrast that with the work of the Pagan series and some of my initial insecurity about intelligence and memory start to make sense. Many other people mention that Pagan: Autogeny leaves the vignette formula of the previous 2 games, and clearly follows up on building a more ambitious world that those 2 games set out. Lost niche MMOs to war, girls that may no longer exist, tarot cards, etc. You're clearly meant to be in a hostile world of knowledge you're behind on. But some more behind than others. The first title, Pagan: Technopolis is stated to be good but constrained in comparison to how 'ambitious' this title is. I disagree. Before you even download the game you're hit with a James Joyce quote, you know the modernist icon of synaptic memory. I've read some Joyce, particularly A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which in many ways may be my favorite book, but the thing is that's 19 year old Joyce, one where there's some references to a bygone past but still playful within a limit you can understand. The references aren't overwhelming yet. She quotes from a short story collection Dubliners, in which symbolic objects begin to take on a multiplicity of meaning to such an extent it feels intimidating. I've been a 'fraudulant fan' of Joyce for a good while but the reality is I never could get past the first chapter in any of his other books. I just liked the prose.
Opening the first game in your trilogy with a Joyce quote rings these very specific alarm bells to a player in the know: Pay attention! The 'small scope' of that game, duely populated as it is, makes up plenty in its evocative density. A nuclear processing plant that's just an entire section of town. A weird fox cult. A player piano ringing out in particular a classical tune I straight up cant remember (god save me for this, I hummed it drunk once in a moment of pure suffering about 5 months ago now, at my lowest, and yet I can't remember the name). Finally you're building the statue of Venus. Goddess of love. I don't know, its all very 'considered' in my view. Each symbol is trying to evoke something in reference to everything else. There's a sense of relational distance going on that is surprisingly rare for the medium. I'm behind on my mythological history though, so its all lost on me. Point is that Autogeny is not where it first gets symbolically esoteric, it's just a slightly larger version of the same contemplation.
By this game the textuality of it. In the texture of the world had set in, this game series was clever and mysterious. I was having trouble keeping up so I asked a friend to help me out. @BloodMachine. Very helpful she was, though consternated me rightly for feeling lost and helpless through the world. This was over half a year ago now, but it feels like it happened half a decade ago honestly. I beat one of the endings, and a mystical angel beamed down and broke the world. That's not the real ending, you have to go back in there and do something else. So I did, I tried to.
I found what I think is a 'bug'. In Pagan: Autogeny one way in which you can fast travel is via a car. Which takes you there automatically. You can look around in the front seat as its railroads you back and forth between that destination point. Somehow the car sequence looped, and just waited around for it to stop. It never did, so I soaked in it, and lay down for a bit with it running. The soothing reverberation and chaotic anxiety of being trapped in a vehicle outside your modus of control. I was transported back to the misery of my childhood, in a miserable professorial little gender I would later denounce...
My family spent years in my youth traveling by car. Hundreds upon thousands of hours spent in this vehicle. I would always try to read, get sickly and lie down. It was boring but soothing in a bleak way. Many peoples childhoods are made up of playground antics, or daycare entertainment. They reflect fondly on how they spent years of their life like this. Mine was spent listening to shitty rock music, on the highway, quietly closing my eyes or imagining some creature a friend chasing me leaping from tree to tree inspired by the energetic scenes in Code Lyoko...my favourite show as a child which I remember shit all about now. My isolated childhood, a majority car. It came back to me. The alienness of it. No wonder I have such a faulty relationship to memory when burbling down american roads in transit is the highlight of my childhood. Keeping myself entertained through the mild car sickness by doing mental math puzzles at 5. Doing sudokus at 10. Daydreaming at 14. Thinking about anime at 19. Arrested asphalt development.
I'm not sure I will ever understand what the Pagan games are trying to tell me. But the sound effects work here in this way of 'uncovering'. When you leave one area into another there's a loud door slam noise. You swear you've heard it somewhere before. It's all satisfying in this way. You swear you've fought this frog boss somewhere before. A game that feels like a representation of something lost. In choice moments it comes into your vision and then goes vague again. You walk at the perfect speed, its all rightly woozy. This is life, ambiguous and unsatisfying in its complexity, and all you can cling onto is these weird noises that remind you of your childhood. Devs might find this relationship to their work cantankerous and anti intellectual. To me though, the sound design is the alpha and omega to this whole resonance. Trap a player in a room and perform the right sounds at them, and see what happens.
The worlds, the noises they make when you interact in certain ways. Sound design is the 'prose' of videogames. The gameplay don't have to be 'perfect'. You don't have to find the 'ending' or 'get it'. Its just there, its just those noises and that world, the complexity of references only get you so far. When all is done, for me at least, its how it sounds that really matters, and this, for me, one of the best sounding worlds out there.
This review contains spoilers
After 2 years of having the files for PAGAN: Autogeny sit undisturbed on my PC in a folder marked "games I need to try" that had nothing else in it, I finally decided to go back and play the entire Pagan trilogy. After playing through the two games that precede Autogeny, I'm a little unsure how I feel about Autogeny overall; I don't want to give off the wrong impression here, because I really, really enjoyed it. At the same time, though, I finished the game wanting more. Or less. One of those two. I'm still not sure which.
I think what makes me feel so conflicted about Autogeny is how much more ambitious and “big” it feels next to Technopolis and Emporium. Those games were mystifying and disturbing, presenting you with these deeply "wrong" worlds to try and make sense of. Technopolis is quiet and eerie, filled with this looming sense of sadness, and Emporium by contrast feels loud and overwhelming. Still, Emporium is even more isolating, the bizarre floating rock NPCs that populated Technopolis replaced by faceless mannequins surrounded by roaring static and fire; everything's loud, fuzzy, drenched in feedback and reverb. Both games are off-putting and unsettling in a really beautiful way. Collecting everything you need to crack the mystery and escape is engaging, but that primarily serves as a vehicle for you to soak in the setting and the ambiance it conveys. At the risk of sounding like I only care about the 𝕧𝕚𝕓𝕖𝕤 of these first two games, they're incredible mood pieces.
Autogeny feels a lot like this at first, but right off the bat it’s made clear that it’s going to have a way grander scope than the games that came before it. There’s a small central hub, and from there you come across branching path after branching path, falling into these little microworlds that each have their own sub-areas to explore and secrets to uncover. There’s clunky combat, a shitton of rudimentary RPG equipment to collect and wear, and you start to uncover clues to what your ultimate goal is. Soon, it becomes a quest to find all the different items you need to solve its central puzzle, and as I hopped from digital space to digital space, I found the abstraction between typical MMO environments and dreamlike distortions of real places (dead malls, small rural towns) disconcerting and compelling. You get that feeling with some of the items too- the melee weapons are what you’d expect from the ostensible setting of a dead fantasy MMO, a mythical sword and a spear/shield, but there’s a sharp divide with the ranged weapons, which are just guns. Plain, unenchanted modern firearms, a pistol and shotgun.
This split between drab, sinister real-world locales and more vivid, comfortable fantasy themes added a layer of abstraction that struck a chord with me. The game seems to be pretty blatantly about what it feels like to be transgender in a digital space- having the ability to create an identity divorced from the constraints you’re bound to in waking life. You pick up spinning 3D models of prescription pills to level up your estrogen stat. You collect floating limbs and graft them onto a statue in a process the game calls “body forging”, which quickly reveals itself to be your central objective. In a few of the more realistic locales, you can collect little dollars, “labour vouchers,” that do absolutely nothing and only take up precious inventory space. They can’t help you build The Body- that’s something you have to do in a more abstract way. It’s tragic, and I kind of couldn’t help but see myself in it. As a trans person whose own prospects of a full transition are somewhat hampered by social, financial and familial pressures, the idea of this stark split between a mysterious fantasy world where you can be the person you want to be and meatspace hit home. I know it’s embarrassing to talk about, but I think it’s something a lot of people have felt- when you struggle with gender dysphoria (or any manner of body dysmorphia), the creation of a digital avatar can be a powerful, liberating form of escapism, and a tool for self-expression when you otherwise don’t have the luxury of doing that in the real world, at your job, when you’re with your loved ones.
So what ultimately left me feeling kind of bummed by the end of Autogeny is that, unless you’re going for the extremely archaic secret ending, the solutions to those grand mysteries that sucked me in come a little too easily. An hour or two in you’ll have explored most of the world, put together the body, and realized that you need to collect all the secret cards and level up your skills to unlock the main ending and the armory. The problem is that by this point, you’ve already discovered most of the game’s tricks and surprises- all that’s left to do now is figure out how to kill this one boss you’re having trouble with, or find what item you have to interact with now that you have all the cards- each time you come across a new roadblock, the mystery comes just a little too easy. You go back through the same locales again and again, collect all the parts of the statue a few times until you realize what you have to do to Free the Martyr, and then it’s done.
After Technopolis and Emporium, I was immensely excited to delve into Autogeny. From the outset, however, Autogeny demonstrated with crystal clarity that it is not the work I wanted or expected it to be.
Much of this is no doubt due to my own misunderstanding of what the Pagan titles were trying to convey to me. Autogeny makes it explicit that the space the player delves into and reclaims are part of a dead MMO, something that never occured to me with the previous titles. Autogeny is undeniably about the trans (re)claiming of digital spaces. One of your skills is Estrogen, a character tells you that walls are little more than clandestine passages, Body Forging is levelled by appending thigh-high socks to a busty mannequin. I find those aspects fascinating, and fitting for a dead MMO. Not that I can speak with any authourity, but I think like with STG (keep in mind the top Battle Garegga player in the world is a trans woman), the appeal of trans/queer inquiries into the dead MMO space have to do with an a-communal appeal. For an MMO, here exists a land ostensibly populated with other people, real in the case of a 'living' MMO, a simulacra for a dead MMO. Those fictionalised representations of people don't harbour the same discriminatory sentiments that real players might. These false selves hate goblins and demons, not a real person's actual existence. One won't be called a slur for any number of reasons, these players become as ghosts in the machine, consuming that which is no longer considered suitable for consumption. And all of this is fantastic and deserves to be realised in a cohesive, singular gamespace that is agnostic of actual MMOs, I just don't think Autogeny operates well as that space.
The appeal of Technopolis and Emporium largely arose from the non-labelling of them as dead MMOs. The thought hadn't even occurred to me. The colour-banding grey miasma of Technopolis didn't strike me as a dead digital space, but as a non-place between life and death. The pervasiveness of John Atkinson Grimshaw's nocturnal urban purgatories and John William Waterhouse's The Magic Circle and Hylas with a Nymph made it plain to me that this was a time before death, a time of abduction, a time of awaiting a true end. The skills of Technopolis suggested responses to catastrophe, the grey concrete nothings mining away at cars a sort of coping through this transitory period. When rapture is on its way (or perhaps occurrent) would we not descend into a mad reverie of our silicon masters, or stoke the flames of seared flesh in the name of an urban scavenger? The accompanying player piano's ceaseless echoes of Bach's Jesus bleibet meine Freude call to mind The End of Evangelion's audience scene where we see the world continuing, and the world without the body to occupy it. It is a pre-post-present apocalypse.
Emporium only cemented this in/after the end reasoning to me. The overwhelming bass as the world collapses around the self, every fragment of life gone apart from the knights. This is a realm of post-apocalyptic techno-serfdom as conveyed in James Ferraro's Four Pieces for Mirai. It is a land of desiccated theology, of fire's warmth, of murderous necessity. When the meaning of tarot is lost, we look to those omnipresent Bicycle brand playing cards for some answer from the cosmos, given to us like manna by a video poker machine. This is the Strugatsky Brother's notion of a Roadside Picnic, these fragments of someone's dicarded past misunderstood and misapplied to eke out some sort of undeserved existence. Were that not enough, this space is explicitly Hamilton, Ontario. This is not an MMO space, this is a real space. When we get on the boat to leave, we are not headed for brighter shores for there are none. We continue a spiral of non-life and non-death until, mercifully, it will end.
The combat of Technopolis was a non-act, your targets unflinching though they oozed digital red. Emporium had combat as a means to an end for progression, your spear poking into flaming bodies with no retaliation. Autogeny by contrast insists on an actual combat system, at odds with the previous Pagan titles' recontextualisation of violence. It exists only to further the notion of this being an MMO locale. The inventory becomes a clusterfuck of labour vouchers and multiple copies of limbs as items reappear out of necessity when changing locations. The difficult navigation of a blurred, fogged landscape makes everything a frustration exacerbated by agonisingly slow movement. It wastes time by having death as a possibility, by having its multiple endings locked behind repeat full playthroughs a requirement.