Tuesday 17 September 2019

A Journey to Lavender Town

Journey To Lavender Town (2019) is a 27-hour piece of video art I made earlier this year. It is footage of a game of Pokémon Red, where the game is gradually corrupted as the player plays the game.

As the player’s journey through the game continues, entropy plays a bigger and bigger role. The screen becomes less readable and simple actions take longer and longer to perform.

The video is below, split into four separate parts.

My vision is for it to be installed at an exhibition, playing on a loop. The viewer will be able to witness a part of the journey, but no individual can feasibly witness the entire thing. Everyone who spends time watching it will see a different fragment of time.

This article is about how this video piece came to be.

Over the past few years I've been playing around with modifying classic game emulators in order to create strange glitchy effects. I used this the basis for some experiments with Sega Mega Drive games, which I documented here, and as the bases of a new live show.

I really like the effects that get created. There's something about taking something that is supposed to be a finished object, and transforming it into a brand new experience, that fascinates me. As part of a recent experiment I modified a Game Boy emulator so that it could write random data to the device’s ROM and RAM while a game was running.

I knew there was an expressive use for this that I wanted to tap into. Finding joy in breaking something felt rich with potential.

The original Pokémon games in particular struck me as artistically interesting. These games emulate a living breathing world with its own flora and fauna. I liked imagining that this was an ecosystem that could be changed in the same way as the real world. How would the world of Pokémon be affected by environmental concerns such as climate change, invasive species, and the cross-pollination with GM crops?

Pokémon themselves are defined by a set of bytes representing how they are drawn on-screen and how they should act in battle: a digital DNA. So I came up with the idea of propagating the data for the player’s team of Pokémon into the data for wild Pokémon.

Every Pokémon the player caught would spread genetic contagion into the rest of the world.

How it works

When two Pokémon fight, the emulator will edit the cartridge, swapping the values for the player’s Pokémon and their opponent. These changes will not just effect that individual instance of that Pokémon, but all similar Pokémon in the game. So if a Pikachu gets changed from an electric-type to a water-type, all future Pikachu will be water-types.

The emulator will periodically pluck values from the player’s Pokémon, and write them into the area of the cartridge that describes the game’s graphics. It will also pluck letters from the Pokémon’s names and write them into other instances of text in the game. Thus it is not just the DNA of the animals that gets infected, but the DNA of the world itself.

I wanted to make the world transform gradually to the point where all Pokémon are the same, where the player cannot navigate the environment, and where text no longer has meaning. An amorphous sludge, which inspired the name of the first test video: SLUDGEBOMB.

Making these changes had unintended consequences. In particular - and here's where it gets super-technical - each line of dialogue programmed into in the game ends with a byte of value 50. The game is programmed to interpret 50 as a cue to stop writing text to the screen. But if that number 50 was replaced, the game would continue reading through memory, through bytes that were never intended to represent text at all, until it found an instance of the number 50.

When the game encountered bytes it could not interpret as letters, it would interpret them as cues to play sound effects, play music, or execute totally unpredictable commands. At one point during the playthrough, a line of dialogue was interpreted as a command to evolve all four of my Pokémon into Kangaskhan.

Seeing these effects in action I realised that this project wanted to be about entropy.

It wasn’t just that the Pokémon world was becoming more and more amorphous. The longer you spent playing the game, the longer actions would take to perform - even the most basic ones.

Playing the game for one hour was funny. But what if I played it for 24 hours? At what point would it cease to be funny and simply become alien? At what point would the viewer simply be soaking up the sights as the world collapses?

Recording the Journey

Playing through the game was, obviously, done in stages. 24 hours is a long time to spend in front of a screen! I would play Pokémon Red for sessions of about 2 to 3 hours, recording the screen as I went.

Every time the game was corrupted in some way, my modified emulator would log the change that had been made in a file. This meant I could switch off the emulator and come back to it again in the same corrupted state. The emulator would simply read the list of changes from the log file, and edit the cartridge so it matched the state I left it in.

Sometimes the game would become too corrupted to play at all. Sometimes a specific line of dialogue would crash the game. Sometimes the game appeared to get into a loop where it would play the same sound effect over and over and, after listening for 10 or 15 minutes I'd convince myself it wouldn't stop. At these points I could go and explore another part of the world, and hope that when I came back to the problem area the offending byte would have been overwritten.

Occasionally, however, it did seem that these game-breaking glitches would be insurmountable. In these cases I would do a bit of detective work to find out which area of the cartridge was causing the issue, and delete the changes made to that area in my log file.

There is part of me that worried that that was going against the integrity of the piece - rather that letting the system do what it did organically, I came in and righted it through human interference, so it would make a better video.

But as I thought about it I realised that this whole piece was created by human interference. Human interference was in my choice to make the corruption mechanisms in the first place. Human interference was in my choice of which areas of the cartridge should be corrupted and which areas of the cartridge should be left untouched.

To deny that this piece was steeped in human interference would be disingenuous.

The system I was filming was not a naturally-occurring microcosm decaying on its own accord. It was a human-created system: a game created specifically to be interesting to human players. To right it when it fell over, so that its collapse into entropy could go on for longer, felt entirely congruent with the reality of the piece.

To imagine the Pokémon world as a living ecosystem is itself an illusion.

Creating the Still Life

In the final hours of the playthrough I’d already started to think about how I wanted to present the video as a piece, and how I wanted it to resemble a Vanitas still life.

Earlier this year I read The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli. A non-fiction book about the science and philosophy behind time. Rovelli posits that the direction we perceive time flowing in is the direction in which entropy increases. We see time, he says, flowing towards death: to the end of our worldly experience. Were it not for our mortality, time would not matter to us.

I was making a piece about entropy, about decay, and - at over 24 hours - quite clearly about time. It was natural that the journey should end at the Pokémon graveyard: in Lavender Town.

Time. Entropy. Mortality. The Vanitas painters would paint still lives that included rotting fruit as a reminder that life is fleeting. I had created a piece of video where fruit could visibly decay in the time it takes to get from the start to the end. It made sense that the environment in which the video was displayed should itself change over time. Thus I re-recorded the footage as part of a real-world still life. The objects in this still life would change between the start of filming and the end.

Again, there is an element of human artifice in the video itself. I could film for multiple hours at a time, but I also needed to go to sleep and go to work. So it was filmed across several days. Wait for the right moment and you will see sudden - perhaps even dramatic - changes in the details. As these time jumps became necessity I realised they gave the video, in the face of its morbid overtones, a positive outlook.

Yes, it can be read as gloomy: a recognition that our worldly commitments prevent us from engaging with the more difficult questions of life and the universe. But at one point I stopped filming, not because of work or sleep or other necessities, but simply because it was a sunny day.

I went for a walk and enjoyed the sunshine.

I think it is important to contemplate the heat death of the universe and environmental catastrophe, in order to appreciate the world and make it better. But I also believe that to appreciate life we need to live it, and if that as message has found itself in the artwork then that is something I am happy to see there.

Ultimately, however, what I am speaking to here is not the reality of what the piece means. What I am talking about is how it spoke to me during the process of making it.

The reality of the piece is how you, the viewer, experience it. Whether you encounter it at an exhibition, or through the medium of YouTube. Whether you experience it without reading this blog post, and come at it with my interpretation in your mind, or if you come at it entirely on your own.

I hope you find in it something that connects with you.