• Sam Machell

Help! Help! Everything is Collapsing! Video Games as Collage

this talk was given at Adventure X @ the British Library on the 3rd Nov, 19. Here is the unedited original script:

It is the end of the world and my name is Sam Machell. Outside, the sky is on fire and hot rocks from space are evaporating the Thames. I read this all on my phone. Modernity is broken and leaking. I make games with my friend Colin le Duc. It is his birthday today and weekly protests are still ongoing in France, as they have been all year.

You may have played one of our games at an event before in their superior installation version. Between Stations was at EGX Leftfield and Feral Vector. It’s a late night hotel TV simulator, you flick between channels and drop in and out of surreal text-based stories. On the way here I drank a coffee on the train and scrolled Twitter on my phone.

Exhaustlands was at EGX Rezzed Leftfield, a moody collaborative road trip exploration to build an anti fascist army. This game was naively optimistic. For the show we forced players to interact with it through a modified child’s toy. I am terrified of the future.

This talk is going to be quite scattershot. I am here to talk about video games as collage. I’ll talk about how we can take inspiration from collage, both as a visual form and as a conceptual process to embody during production. I’ll talk a little about the relationship between images… the way the juxtaposition between two things can create meaning… and hopefully encourage some positive destruction so we can build something beautiful from the rubble.

So to set the tone of the thing, I thought I’d start with a clip from art school staple: John Berger’s BBC series Ways of Seeing… this is where the content warning fits in, there are some distressing images here, around the same level of what they show on TV for Comic Relief.

Let’s clarify our terms and figure out what we’re working with by turning immediately to Wikipedia:

Collage comes from the french coller “to glue”.

Collage is a technique of art production where the artwork is made from an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole.

On the day of writing this talk these headlines were trending. There’s something seriously wrong and broken with the way I experience reality. I am beginning to feel like I cannot trust anything I see. Connections are being made that I didn’t ask for. Meaning is in flux.

The terms “cut and paste” & “copy and paste” originated in the context of manuscript editing, where the editor might chop up and move around certain phrases. Paste up was the process used to physically assemble and layout magazine or newspaper pages.

Obviously, since then, this term has grown to apply more widely to the process of moving one piece of information from its source to a new site. We are neck deep in the information age and by now, everything has already been made. There’s too much stuff. I’m saturated.

Collage as a visual medium grew from the proliferation of the printed image. When I think of collage I think of the work of Hannah Hoch. Dada was a reactionary, radical art movement formed in Zurich during the First World War. The associated artists felt that the horrors of war called into question fundamental aspects of society, and they responded by making nonsensical, farcical and satirical work: performance, poetry, visual art. Hoch’s work uses clippings from newspapers, images of faces, to question notions of gender and the role of women in society. To me her work references the history of painting and the tradition of cubism: of showing one thing from multiple angles… exaggerating the contradictory facets of representation...

To make art in this panicked, urgent, angry state, Dada artists used what they found around them as material.

“One can only say this culture is mad,” says John Berger.

Nathalie Lawhead makes stunning work and they are one of my absolute favourite artists working in games today. Game-like things might be a more accurate term. Their work Everything Will Be Ok is described as a zine. This is their page… a collage in itself… hopelessly hypermanic... There’s definitely something punky and collage about the old Flash era - where games were thrown together with samples from Google images and hideous Microsoft fonts. Lawhead’s games reference this history but twist and refract it. Their games are personal, and deeply emotional.

The zine comparison is apt: the democratisation of the printing process through the invention of the photocopier allowed individuals to rapidly put together their own publications… this mirrors neatly the rise in accessible software and open web portals to upload work.

In Lawhead’s work, to me, the Flash era is referenced to conjure nostalgia in the viewer, but it is dipped in an undeniable melancholy. In their work Cyberpet Graveyard the player can ressurect year 2000 style desktop pets, who ultimately feel very displaced in the environment of the modern desktop, and speak about their experiences of neglect. The collage of styles creates something haunted… a longing for a lost future.

I am terrified of climate collapse.

Richard Hamilton’s work in the 50s reflects concerns of Pop art: overabundance of objects & the omnipresence of consumerism - he fills his home with methods of communication, advertisements, comics, 19th century paintings, artificially posed “ideal” human forms. Overabundance is something we are swamped by, now more than ever, and this work feels dangerously current to me…

As are these others of his…

Hamilton was a big inspiration for me when designing spaces for an unfinished project called Brownie Cove Hotel… I wanted to emulate the way he constructed interior space, but through a dialogue between digital and analogue processes… Handcut, collaged furniture marries digitally fragmented line drawings, and Flash style cartoony illustration. A hotel is a sort of second-hand, already lived in, space - so building the space from existing images felt conceptually appropriate.

Samorost by Amanita design is a gorgeous game series. The title is a czech word used to describe objects sculpted from discarded wood. In this game photographs become the material and the world feels as it is carved from them. I think it serves to make the world feels at once modern and ancient.

Jack King Spooner’s game Beeswing juxtaposes childishly rendered watercolour paintings with sincere reflections on his own childhood. The elderly village residents sculpted from clay speak about their pain and their memories from tacky hillsides you could imagine hanging in a care home. The tactility of the media that the game is assembled from works to make the game feel like an exploration of old artefacts, like sifting through a box of photos from the attic. Collage is a great process to use to explore the disconnect between reality and memory.

Pioneering conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote in 1969: “the world is full of objects, more or less interesting: i do not wish to add any more”.

In 3d space, collage is called assemblage. This is a long tradition of art, but 3d isn’t really my speciality so I’m only going to touch on it… This work of Sara Lucas’ uses her unique sculptural language to discuss sexual objectification. The arrangement of familiar objects creates an interesting tension. It’s somehow both mundane and suggestive, eerie and comforting.

Assemblage is a great thing to look at when thinking about video games. When arranging objects and actors within scenes, we are basically performing assemblage. The Unity Asset Store allows game developers to buy pre-made assets and import them.

Cosmo D and Studio Oliomingus both make games that I would describe as assemblages. Surreal combinations of disconnected yet familiar objects

David Kanaga’s masterpiece Oikospiel is, a psychedelic dog opera made almost entirely from models bought on the Unity Asset Store. The game uses its own assemblage form as a way to discuss issues of labour in the video game industry and the overly punitive copyright system that currently favours corporations and restricts flow of information. The use of outsourced assets here becomes part of the conversation in the game. Some bought, some stolen. One section of the game, for example, takes place in a warped version of kokiri forest from Ocarina of Time, destroyed by rising sea levels.

Returning to my obsession with hotels, this game, Definition of a Ghuest, was made with objects from the Unity Asset Store, a whole hotel room we bought wholesale.. Again, we were trying to make a space feel second-hand and lived-in, these objects have a kind of trashy, grimy feel to them because they are obviously bought in and not made bespoke To close off the room I very lazily moved a door from one wall to another. I think glitchy brokenness adds to the eeriness… I hope this translates…

Our game Some Excavated Wounds we made in collaboration with Marc Loths uses pre-made assets to discuss ideas of labour and the qualities of digital material. This Amazon cardboard box, when mined by the player, breaks down into solid chunks of digital stone.

The writing process bled into another day. These were the trending headlines:

So… that kinda covers collage as aesthetic. What can collage offer us as a conceptual process?

Let’s return to the safety of Wikipedia for another definition. Montage is the french word for “editing”, “the edit”. The cut. The cut and paste. In film, montage is used to “condense space, time and information.” For a general example, we’re all familiar with the training montage sequence in movies, where days, weeks, months of intense training in the forest with your powerful mentor is compressed into the triumphant flow of a single filmic minute...

Soviet film theorist Kuleshov created this exercise to examine the relationship between images in sequence. I’ve modernised it slightly. He proposed that two images cut together inform the meaning of each other, and that the meaning is created from the dialogue between the two images. The man’s face is blank, but we infer he is hungry because we see food, or sad because he is looking at a corpse…

I think This example is quite outdated, and I honestly find it ineffective. But in modern moving image where the language has evolved and matured, we are so used to this effect, that it is a subconscious process. Our perception of images when sequenced through time is not the same as looking at a still image.

Our understanding of images is informed by what precedes them, and by what comes after them.

A veeeery famous example in the form of a match cut would be the moment in 2001: A space odyssey where it cuts from the thrown bone to the missile launcher.

I’m gonna show another small clip and talk over it I think.

Christian Marclay’s film The Clock runs for a full 24 hours.

It cuts together 1000s of clips from the history of film/TV that feature clocks, and puts them together into a real time flow, turning the history of cinema into a functioning timepiece. The montage here is used not to compress time but to exaggerate our awareness of the flow of time.

We watch the excruciating waiting and anticipation of a victim tied to a time bomb, we wait in real time for a pizza that is running late, we sit through the morning school bell, we wake with the bakers at 4 AM.

Montage as a process can exist outside of filmmaking: Writer William S Burroughs, although not the originator, popularised a technique known as cut-up writing. He would write a chunk of prose, then slice it up with a razor blade and reassemble randomly. It was his hypothesis that the act of reading was like one of watching a film, albeit a film that takes place in your head.

A word on paper is a visual thing, in a way it is a pictorial representation of an idea. So the flow of one word to the next is like the flow of one image to the next, therefore the space between each word is a space for subconscious meaning in the mind of the reader.

His cutting up and reordering of words opens the text up to accidental possibilities of meaning.

Poetry is for everyone, was a manifesto in Dada times: Burroughs popularised a technique that really did allow poetry to be for everyone. Anyone had the ability to cut up newspaper headlines and reassemble them. Suddenly, everyone has the ability to be a poet.

Modding could be seen as a collage or montage process. The editing of an existing game, or existing technology to create something new.

Not only is modding a fantastic way for developers to test new ideas and make quick experiments, but thinking of modding as collage can open up new possibilities of meaning to be explored.

Robert Yang’s Radiator series is built in the Half Life 2 Source engine. The familiar grimy texture of Source games is used to reflect the grimy texture of the character’s emotional reality. Part of the weight of this series comes from the way in which it uses and juxtaposes itself within the original game.

The Source Engine is famously good at modelling physics. Specifically it is very good at moving boxes around, and this becomes the core mechanic of Yang’s game where the player has to move “emotional baggage” from place to place.

The original Stanley Parable mod is also a good example, using it’s form, the narrative first person game we associate with half life 2, as a way of generating humour and as a way of commenting on narrative expectations and subverting them.

Writing this right now I realise I could probably do the whole talk just about half life 2 mods...….

Or dark souls mods…

As Jon Berger tells us, “One can only say this culture is mad.”

When we tweet, or speak through social media, we are writing for an audience.

But this audience is an imaginary one.

We do not know who reads our tweets, and so when we compose them, we are estimating the contexts in which people will read them. This has been described by social media researcher Danah Boyd as “Context Collapse”.

When we tweet, we are writing for an audience made up of people from across different areas of our lives: real life friends, family, colleagues, “gamers”. When we write for this imaginary contextless group we self censor and end up writing vaguely, untruthfully, and for no one.

We also consume everything in this same space, in this stream. The images we are fed have no relationship to each other but we experience them one after the other at a rapid pace. It’s an experience of violence, of abuse, of confusion. The possibility space for meaning between each is both infinite and non-existent.

What is this experience? Everything is rendered meaningless. The context is collapsed.

In Getting Over It Bennet Foddy describes something similar. He discusses the speed of content consumption in the hyperspeed flow of the internet. The lifespan of content is nearly instant, he says, and this means content instantly becomes trash. As soon as we upload, the content is already dated. It has already been digested and excreted.

In her book, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, which is a fantastically inspiring and relevant book that has informed a lot of this talk, Anna Anthropy says: “few commercial games, these days, are made entirely of original resources.”

Of course, big budget games try to hide their reuse of content. As we’ve seen from the ridiculous controversy surrounding reused animations in the new pokemon games, this is delicate territory, and one that needs to be explored and discussed in the public eye.

I am not trying to diminish anybody’s work here when I say that video games themselves are confused and collapsed trash at their very core…

A character in a game is a polygon mesh, plastered with a texture that was maybe once a photograph… the character speaks lines written by someone, recorded by someone else… it lives in a world of more collapsed stuff… collaged pictures and shapes and words and sounds and laws… It’s all trash.

Reusing, remixing and recontextualising should be brought to the forefront. It is economical for big budget studios to do this and it is economical for indie developers to do this, but there are so many aesthetic and conceptual possibilities to be gained too. The Unity asset store is a gift.

Once there were no constellations, only stars.

So get messy. I want us to stop hiding our process. I want these to be less clean. I want to cut my fingers on the rubble and build it all anew. Poetry is for everyone. I hope you’ve all got a good bunker ready. I certainly don’t. Thank you.