The alien diplomat has a traditional greeting, often off-putting. There might be virulent, unspeakable consequences if I should give offense.
Devine Lu Linvega's App Store curiosity Ledoliel is a simple creature, but it prickles like a strong drink. It's exceptionally clean, stylish, from the monochrome palette to the way the screen turns red with failure messages like "Elnashivec lays flies in your hands, killing you.". And it's simple to play with: Basically, the offworlders each have three personality traits (greedy, wise, pestilent; sadist, childish, evil), and you have a selection of "devices", and it's about offering the right things for the right traits, in the right way.
Using only your devices, your best guess about the alien's traits, and the verbs SAY, TOUCH and GIVE, You just have to survive as many interactions on as many tiny planets as you can. I can discuss things like "mansion" "food" "kitten", and have them either warmly received or coldly repudiated. I have touched an alien's food, talked about drugs with it, and offered pain. I have been told it feels accepting toward me. And I have had brambles invoked in my throat, bolts shot in my heart, needles fed into my throat.
Some aliens like conversation best, while others would rather touch or receive. Over time the unpredictable, threatening and sometimes intimate (you will offer feces, or touch genitals) negotiations begin to make a strange kind of sense, like the lyrics of a song. You learn things, like how the alien's first trait listed carries the most 'weight'. Or you remember patterns, like how pestilent creatures often have the same traits as lustful ones.
That is all there is to "do", really, to learn and remember and to continually try -- and fail -- the unscientific work of pleasing someone you can never fully understand. I think it's no wonder that Ledoliel stills my mind when I can't fall asleep at night.
Even as the modules of universal communication start to lose their innate sense ("You touch Weehthegrev's education. Your guest is a physical one. Weehthegrev, being scientific, likes education. Weehthegrev's nudist trait hates education."), this sort of purity sets in. How many of our social interactions are really negotiations against an opaque system? We have innate social rules. Would even the simple ones -- we shake hands when we meet, or do the cheek-kissing where you aren't supposed to actually put your lips on the other person -- look uncomfortable, implacable to an alien?
Devine Lu Linvega is wildly multitalented; he develops interactive art and apps, makes music, is a DJ and an illustrator. Arrested by the distinctive vocabulary and calm, self-assured dissonance of Ledoliel, I began digging into the rest of his work. The result was a dull ache, a feeling of profound loss -- like, why did I not know about him before now?
There is black-and-white Hiversaires, a sort of interactive album that feels like Myst but is really about escape. Paradise is an experience where the easy "text-based MMO" label only sort of works, a sprawling, collaborative online multi-user work where people create and embody spaces in a sort of infinite nesting universe. I've made my own lands there, where a small cleft in a landscape painting leads me to a luxury aircraft within the body of a jeweled bee. In a changelog, I can see that other people -- a hat, a teapot, a nematode -- have been among my things.
In Oquonie, a collaboration with illustrator Rekka Bellum, I move through a puzzle-like network of rooms and creatures, some of whom I seem to become. The signature of the artist is strong -- even Noirca, a simple black-and-white camera app for iOS, feels ghostlike and precise, as if it were a lens to make the real world look just a little more like one of Linvega's own. Together, the icons of Linvega's apps all share the same dark, runic visual language.
His body of work is like its own place, almost literally. The "setting" for Linvega's oeuvre, he says, is a place called Neau -- "a sort of exploit in the feedback loop of imagination." Even the artist's website feels like a tear in the fabric of the familiar through which a thrillist can quietly, gleefully sidle. It tells me today is Tetruary 21, 2014.
"I usually don't send my work to press," Linvega tells me. I think it makes the sense of discovery more profound. I feel stupid because it took me so long.
I interview Linvega mostly, I think, because I want him to help me understand Ledoliel, how better to conquer the uncomfortable crevasses between myself and the impenetrable aliens. "The visuals are a mixture of styles I like, shapes you will find in the Alchemy software, and traits found in Tsutomu Nihei or Hayashida's novels," he tells me. "All the traits have their own visuals, so the alien's look is not random, nor are their names."
But does the size or color of an alien's planet clue me in to its residents' rules and behavior, their pleasures and their repellants? "It's not meant to be entirely serious," Linvega suggests. I feel a little chastised.
Am I seeing patterns because I want to see them? "I think it is possible to master the game," Linvega says. "Knowing which traits like to talk, touch or give, and those multipliers... like talking about gold to races with 'religious' as the first trait, knowing that religious creatures will like to talk (instead of doing), and that they like gold, as they are pious."
There is probably an entire element of intuition I was missing, like, of course religious creatures like to talk!, and that maybe even by projecting onto this "system" of interaction I've probably missed the entire "point." Just like how no matter how many planets I consecutively succeed at, the number never seems to really go up, possibly meaning --
"This is actually a bug," Linvega says. "I have fixed it a few days ago, and it should go live once Apple approves my update."
Ah. Right. Of course. This is the thing about Linvega's portfolio; they are all experiential works, but in a visceral sense, rather than in a cerebral one. Yet part of what inspires him is the fact players like me project so much. "I guess I made [Ledoliel] to see how I could make stories from interactions with a random intelligence," he says. "But then there was a Tweet, I forget by whom, that went: 'This is so typical of my love life,' and a screenshot followed in which they tried to 'GIVE love' to the alien, and the alien was unaffected by it."
"Things like that really inspire me," he reflects. "I think that's but a slit into video games' great potential."