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The Rainbow River Arcade

I had become fascinated by information theory after reading about it while making an ultra low-resolution graphic adventure type game. The idea that information exists as energy and is destroyed by entropy[1] seemed to have huge implications for my work. In my very elementary understanding of information theory the greatest implication is how the amount of information contained in an image like a jpeg can be reduced almost 100% and still be recognisable. I made an old-fashioned graphic adventure game with the least amount of digital information possible[2] trying to get the most emotional effect. I wondered how far this could be applied to memory and whether a living memory could be encapsulated with enough information that it would persist in a way a photograph can’t. To that end I asked people to contribute a scene from their memory, whatever place they first thought of that was important to them, in a drawing and I would recreate it as a level in a computer game linked together with the levels of other people. To address the need of a game to have a solvable outcome I included a secret level that could only be accessed through hidden objects in other levels.

I settled on the name Rainbow River Arcade as it would be a foreshadowing of the Silver River Arcade and also be less portentous. The image I created for the logo was constructed from several Internet memes[3], as the game itself was constructed from different packets of information. It also alludes to another mythological reference in Valhalla’s rainbow bridge[4]. I hoped the game itself would come to serve as memetic organism, a term I thought I’d invented until I googled it[5]. Like a meme it would convey an amount of information greater than the sum of its parts.

In order to make it intuitive and inviting of interaction to people unused to computer games I tried to devise a passive control system that would hopefully be able to be used without much consideration. I tried several configurations involving an Arduino board, first allowing control by touching the original drawing with electricity conducted through the graphite. This worked and seemed to impress people but became unreliable, as the graphite wore away. I then moved towards the idea of the control system itself being engaging and entertaining, I made it so that the person playing would dip their fingers in different ceramic bowls of water in order to interact with the game. At the exhibition this certainly engaged people but the entire premise of the game itself was overwhelmed by the novelty controls, I realised I would have to address this.

Fig 4. Screen for a graphic adventure, Adobe Photoshop, 2012. Brendan McGuire

Fig 5. Screen for a graphic adventure, Adobe Photoshop, 2012. Brendan McGuire

Fig 6. Logo for the Rainbow River Arcade, Corel Painter, 2013. Brendan McGuire

Fig 7. In-game menu screen. Avatar was found in RPG Maker program and chosen for the resemblance.

Fig 8. Final level of game, RPG Maker, 2012, Brendan McGuire/Julie Easton

Fig 9. Control system using electricity conducting through water, relayed via an Arduino. Photo, Brendan McGuire.

Fig 10. Installation with cabinet, 2013. Photo, Brendan McGuire.

I constructed a box designed to be halfway between a gallery plinth and an arcade cabinet to hold the computer and devised a control system that would simply involve the player touching clothes buttons (chosen as an allusion to memories of my grandmother whose button box I would sift through for hours as a child). This achieved the end I was aiming for of removing it one step from the form of a computer game while engaging people who might otherwise be put off playing it. I installed it in a number of locations as part of public projects, the main problem I found was the great bulk of the cabinet when compared to the actual active part of it, a laptop, seemed absurd and especially when I had to move it between locations, like having a human sized coffin for a pet hamster.

The influence of works of fiction in my work is very persistent and few more so than the 1979 animated film Galaxy Express 999[6]. It tells the story of Tetsuo, an orphan who wants to travel to the Andromeda galaxy via steam train where he will be granted a machine body, whereupon he will become immortal but will lose all emotion. In Galaxy Express an impossible object travels impossible distances for an impossible goal, but it is presented so succinctly that what could be seen as a meditation on the applicability of philosophy to the post-Earth post-human seems comforting and charming. This tendency for speculative philosophy is a defining element of so much Japanese popular fiction that it has bled into reality for decades. For example the Ghost in the Shell[7] franchise first written in the 1980s, which expounds post-human philosophy and anticipated such functional developments as cloud computing and online personas as well as the potential for alienation that an online life might bring. The first true ‘manga’ Astro Boy[8] transplants Pinocchio into the future and while written for children exhibits the strange meditative asides common in better anime, such as when Astro Boy’s friends open his chest[9] to see what’s inside, they are struck dumb by something we don’t see but perhaps only an adult would imagine they have seen his soul. Like vulgate poetry these cartoons created for friendless children by friendless adults have a delicate poignancy and effect upon much of my work.

With the Rainbow River Arcade I wanted to construct an artificial life form made of memory that would attain the conditions of life in whatever form it could take, literally a memetic organism or more specifically a parasite as it not only needed to be interacted with but also needed the electrical input of a person’s body to function. An interesting thing I found whenever installing it was that everything ran smoothly whenever I was present but whenever I would leave the immediate vicinity the game would either crash, the computer would freeze or the Arduino would disconnect itself. It failed like this many times and always in a different way that I couldn’t anticipate. I would joke that it was like a temperamental infant, though I more than half believed it.

As well as the levels based on memory the game came to include another I had made called The Westercommon Space Program, a simulation of the barren region of Westercommon and Hamilton Hill in the north of Glasgow in which the player would find a route to the literary heaven of poetic forms found in E.M. Forster’s The Celestial Omnibus[10].

The conclusion I reached was that though the game did recreate low information versions of memories well and allow others to feel as if they were experiencing them, the computer game itself could not be called art as I had hoped it might. The necessity of a solvable outcome to call it a game has I think a lot to do with this, there is also certainly some element of letting the audience choose their own experience rather than presenting them one’s own vision. It was a successful effort though not typical of me to include the input of other people in the building of the game but I feel it was going too far to allow other people to decide what it was in the end; that went against my deeply held reasons for making art and what I want from it.

[1] Campbell, p37-42

[2] Fig 4, Fig 5

[3] Fig 11, appendix A

[4] Bifröst. Larrington, Carolyne(trans). The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p xiv

[5] Apparently Richard Dawkins beat me to it. Dicky Dawkins. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p189

[6] Galaxy express 999. Dir. Tarō Rin. Perf. Masako Nozawa,Masako Ikeda. Manga Entertainment, 1979. Film

[7] Ghost in the shell. Dir. Mamoru Oshii. Perf. Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayum, 1995. Film

[8] Paul Gravett. Manga: Sixty Years Of Japanese Comics. London: Laurence King, 2004, p4

[9] Astro Boy, Speeding Through the Storm. Dir. Osamu Tezuka. Manga Entertainment, 1980. Film.

[10] E.M. Forster. The Celestial Omnibus. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1998, p31

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