In Summerland, Paloma Dawkins's new graphic novel, the lead character Santana is asked by an artist why she decided to pursue law school. "I want to learn what justice is," she responds, "I can't tell if it's real or if it's found in nature."
Dawkins, a Canadian cartoonist and game maker from Ottawa, seems preoccupied with that gnomic answer: Her games seem real and natural, unreal and artificial, and somehow organic.
"I look at the way programs are designed, and it just seems a lot like the way that plants are designed," said Dawkins. "Use as few resources as possible to take up much space as they can."
She told me this during TCAF, an annual alternative comics festival in Toronto, where she was easy to spot. Among the other video game stations, her computer was covered in mock overgrowth, fake plastic flowers, and jungle vines. The keyboard was dominated a spongy moss that concealed everything but the four necessary keys.
Trailer for Paloma Dawkins' ALEA.
She was there demonstrating her latest game, ALEA, a minimalist rhythm game and meditative spin on Dance Dance Revolution inspired by a walk through the Californian Muir Woods during GDC, where attendees were taking a break from computers and booze. Dawkins said splitting her attention between the redwoods and conversation with other developers was like a game for her. ALEA is an attempt to capture that: It is up to the player to decide if tearing themselves between the hypnotic environment and the task of playing is a challenge or part of a more pleasant whole.
"It seems like an unnatural place for a plant," Dawkins said of her floral display, "but I find that computers and technology, it's all so natural."
There has been a growing interest in exploring natural environments that are impossible in reality: the deep blue seas of Abzu, the orange and green planets of No Man's Sky. Many judge the natural-ness of something on its distance from human influence, which is a naive position, since few of the spaces around us developed without the influence of the human species.
But there is a combative sense of ownership in game spaces that isn't present in reality, the idea that since you've purchased a universe from a shelf, you own that space. Things you come across in the Legend of Zelda or Grand Theft Auto have a very finder's-keeper's philosophy, and No Man's Sky's sense of exploration is driven by sticking your flag in things and harvesting resources. Video games talk big about the zen of strange worlds, but few encourage players to explore them for exploring's sake.
David O'Reilly's Mountain, one of Dawkins's favorite games, is one example that upsets these conventional sensibilities. Mountain is a sort of digital pet rock that sometimes talks to you, but mostly floats in the void as things like loose teeth, CDs, and top hats occasionally hit it. It lives on the player's hard drive but there's very little you can do aside from watching it. An overlooked favorite of mine that similarly upsets gaming's usual sense of the natural is Ian Endsley and Carter Lodwick's A Good Gardener, a game that at first looks like a lovely gardening sim, before pulling the rug out from under you. The concept is that nothing, not in your garden or your game, really belongs to you—think of it as the opposite of Minecraft.
At TCAF, Dawkins told me that Ed Key and David Kanaga's Proteus, a game set on a procedurally generated island where plants, rocks, and other organisms sing to you, has been a major influence. The previous time we met, Dawkins had a demo for her larger game Gardenarium, upon which Proteus' influence is obvious. She gave me a review code tied around the stem of a plastic sunflower.
In Gardenarium you awaken in a surreal, bubblegum-colored space. Your jumps are low gravity, plants and trees spruce to life as you walk by, and the horizon is nothing but cloud cuckoo-land and digital patterns. Gardenarium, unexpectedly, is a satire, and as you explore further and meet its locals, you'll hear a story seemingly making fun of every game it isn't. It's the game that asks, "Who does that tree belong to?"
How do you win when you're playing Gardenarium? That's not an easy question to answer. Collecting items off the ground, something that would seem innocuous in many other games, makes you come off as a weirdo to some of the strangers you meet. It's a space that at first seems open and free, but all belongs to a nebulous force called "The Depot" that the citizens of the world speak in riddles about. Dawkins listened to audiobooks of Kafka's The Castle while working on the game, which became a creative compass.
"Winning" feels close, but out of reach, on the tail ends of processes that don't appear to have a starting point. I told Paloma over Skype that this world reminded me of that joke about "the secret of the monks"; when she asked me what the secret was. I told her she'd have to become a monk to find out.
Dawkins tells me she believe many things are more natural than we commonly assume, that creation and gardening are natural, and that even humans, an environmentally destructive force, are still part of the ecosystem they litter. If no one is around to hear a tree fall in the middle of the woods, then certainly no one's around to declare it as part of "nature."
"A small revolution would be to start your own garden, grow your own food," said Dawkins. "I really want that, but I feel like there's not enabling that for me. I don't have that much space. Not a lot of people my age have that much space to start gardens. Plants will grow in an almost magnetic resonance to wherever it is. No matter how bad the sunlight is, how strong the wind is, how much water it gets, it will always be a different plant." Dawkins said that while she wishes she had more time to garden, programing her plants in games gives her an identical satisfaction.
"The way that I learned programming," said Dawkins, "or, the thing that interested me in the beginning, [is] how simple it is. It's the same with nature, how actually simple it is, but how intricate it becomes because it replicates itself. That's how code works sometimes. These systems replicate themselves over and over again until it becomes this way. It's all made of pieces."
Dawkins's next project, a VR game being made with the National Film Board, is about a museum intern looking for the "natural" in a natural history museum. Dawkins said a lot of museums fail at creating immersive spaces, and this game follows those thoughts. One of her favorite museum exhibits was an aviary display at Ottawa's Canadian Museum of Nature, a spiral of stuffed birds in a diorama, one she laments has since been renovated.
"It was so funny and amazing," said Dawkins. "It looked like the birds were interacting, and it was spiral. They were above your head, you'd push a button and then they would chirp. One day they got all this money and they built these neutral white walls. It was very strange to see that happening to one of my favorite places."
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