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The subtle art of selling out: Adam Hammond investigates DIY gaming culture in his new book The Far Shore

In their 2004 book of cultural criticism, The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter make reference to Kurt Cobain’s first appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in April 1992. Posed beside his bandmates, the Nirvana frontman sported a t-shirt that read, “Corporate magazines still suck.” Heath and Potter quote Cobain’s journal about the rationale behind the move, which went well beyond simple Gen X irony: “We can pose as the enemy to infiltrate the mechanics of the system to start its rot from the inside. Sabotage the empire by pretending to play their game, compromise just enough to call their bluff.”

The authors follow up with the observation that can stand as the central thesis for their book:

One can see here quite clearly that, while Cobain and the rest of us punks many have rejected most of the ideas that came out of the hippie counterculture, there is one element of the movement that we swallowed hook, line, and sinker. This was the idea of the counterculture itself. In other words, we saw ourselves as doing exactly the same thing that the hippies saw themselves doing. The difference, we assumed, is that, unlike them, we would never sell out. We would do it right.

The core insight here is that under a capitalist system it is impossible not to sell out. While the compromises required for Nirvana to become one of the biggest bands of the 1990s and the defining emblem of the Seattle grunge scene caused such angst for Cobain that he ended up taking his own life, the group’s drummer, Dave Grohl, had no problem embracing the corporate rock establishment on his way to massive popular success with Foo Fighters. Rolling Stone itself has morphed from its underground origins publishing mavericks like Hunter S. Thompson and Lester Bangs to a behemoth owned by Penske Media Corporation, an outfit that boasts revenue of $77.1 million USD per year.

All of which may go some way to explain why visionary indie video game creator Craig D. Adams (aka Superbrothers), having spent years working with programmer Patrick McAllister (aka Pine Scented) on the follow-up to the groundbreaking 2011 game Sword & Sworcery, signed seven-figure platform deals with industry heavyweights Sony and Epic Games for exclusive access to the new product, released to the world in October 2021 as JETT: The Far Shore. University of Toronto English professor and cultural critic Adam Hammond quotes Adams in his new work, The Far Shore: Indie Games, Superbrothers, and the Making of JETT, released in November with Coach House Books: “We’re trying to do something honest and meaningful. But you kind of have to step back and say, ‘And now we’re going to ask a tech giant for money for it, to fit into their catalogue of selling more widgets or whatever. And it’s just weird to inhabit both roles.’ ”

It’s a weirdness that is baked into the capitalist system, something every true artist (i.e. anyone not interested in pandering to a mass audience in the service of making a mint) must at some point reckon with. This is true whether the product is music, video games, or books. Hammond looks at Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press as an example of an attempt to circumvent market rules by securing for themselves the means of production – in part to print Woolf’s high modernist work, books like Orlando and The Waves. Hammond quotes Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas, where she elucidates her conception of intellectual liberty. For Woolf, this means “the right to say or write what you think in your own words, and in your own way.”

This is a very high-minded ideal, but Hammond’s students are correct when they point out that Hogarth did not operate on some ethereal plane above the capitalist machine it pretended to disdain; to the contrary, it profited handsomely from it. “Hogarth,” Hammond writes, “was profitable. And she wouldn’t have been able to start it, and it wouldn’t have become such a success, if she wasn’t from a privileged background and wasn’t so well-connected to the conventionally powerful.” At least some of the resources and connections that allowed Woolf to launch Hogarth resulted from the success of her first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day, both published with traditional publishers and both written in an accessible style more reminiscent of the Victorians behind her than the modernists in front.

If setting up Hogarth was the way to get from Night and Day to Jacob’s Room and the novels that followed it, any reasonable observer would probably consider this a fair trade-off. In the event, JETT: The Far Shore managed, at least in Hammond’s estimation, to retain enough of the visionary wonder that imbued Sword & Sworcery to allow Adams to sleep at night. And, not incidentally, to confound a number of critics who found the game too slow, too contemplative, and too ambiguous in its morality or message.

Which, for Hammond, is precisely the point. “JETT is, in every sense, a modernist game,” he writes, locating it in the same category as the complex, perplexing work of Joyce, Picasso, and Stravinsky. For Hammond, modernism is characterized first by a comfort with ambiguity and confusion, a refusal to provide easy answers and a desire to traffic in surface chaos and disagreement while leaving it to the recipient to sort things out. “The reader of a modernist novel complains to its author, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t know who to like or which characters are good or evil. I’m not even sure what’s happening.’ To which the modernist author responds, ‘You’re welcome.’ ”

From the start, Adams, who gave Hammond unfettered access during the almost decade-long gestation of JETT, is clear about not wanting to create another violent first-person shooter along the lines of DOOM or Resident Evil. He is much more interested in the complicated moral calculus facing humanity in the era of rampant climate change and other existential threats. The game he creates involves a small crew of a spaceship that has been in stasis during its 1,000 year journey to a planet they hope to colonize once Earth becomes uninhabitable. Much of the game play as Hammond describes it involves long stretches in which the player character, named Mei, explores the geography of the new planet without any development in the story or deepening of the plot. It refuses any satisfactory closure, prompting one early reviewer to write, “just as all the pieces seem poised to truly deliver, it’s all over.” For Hammond, this is not only correct, it is the game’s whole reason for being.

Hammond begins his book by stipulating that he is not a gamer, which is reassuring to readers who find themselves in a similar situation. In fact, it may help to have only limited knowledge of gaming to appreciate Hammond’s book, which is as much about the creative process and the challenges of remaining true to a personal artistic vision when everything around you encourages capitulation to market forces. Hammond traces the history of DIY culture through punk music, riot grrrl, the 1990s zine explosion, and on to the relatively young realm of indie games. He illustrates the perils of maintaining complete control over every aspect of a project, especially one as complex and with as many moving parts as a video game. It is only after Adams gets the corporate cash that allows him to hire a staff that the production of the game really gets off the ground.

In The Far Shore, Hammond has created something that is as unclassifiable as his favourite works of modernism: part biography of an iconoclastic and brilliant game designer, part cultural critique, part hipster manifesto. One doesn’t always have to agree with him – he is no more correct than Bangs was that “the DIY ethic of punk” renders a lack of technical proficiency forgivable – to appreciate the thought that went into his text or to marvel at the diligence and perseverance required to see a project as ambitious as JETT through to completion. Any book that is equally comfortable parsing the abstruse theories of Mikhail Bakhtin and the music of Bikini Kill is worth the price of admission.

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