The video games industry is a big dumb mess, part 1.
In the third act of Kentucky Route Zero, when Conway and his ragtag group of companions enter the Lower Depths tavern, it’s supposed to be a simple detour—one borne more out of necessity than by choice. But if there’s any recurring theme throughout the three acts of Cardboard Computer’s seminal and increasingly significant game it’s that sometimes the most important moments—the revelations you search desperately for—come where you least expect them, trapped in a haunted mine or a desolate dive bar under the quiet of the open night sky.
Junebug and Johnny’s performance of “Too Late to Love You” to an almost empty tavern forms the musical centerpiece of Kentucky Route Zero’s latest act. The ambient piece with its minimal beat, swirling orchestral flourishes and emotive vocals encapsulates the ethereal beauty that lies at the heart of this game. It is here that the magical realist adventure finally lays bare the opaque heart filled with vague, amorphous intentions, giving the clearest hints of how its internal machinations work.
In more than a few ways, taking a left-of-center detour from the main plot that concludes with a musical set-piece puts this scene in direct comparison with Final Fantasy VI’s famous opera scene. Both narrow their focus onto the aesthetic elements and reduce player interaction to purely text-based choices, capturing a microcosm of a larger truth through a magical musical performance. The larger truth here, at least from the game’s context, is how differently each treats player choice within the context of their linear narratives.
In the opera scene, the player has to rehearse lines from a script before performing them on-stage as Celes. The choices are reduced to simple right or wrong—where much like the rest of the series, the games aren’t interested in the motivation or intention of the player who made them. In Final Fantasy, players embody these characters who are essentially chained to the script themselves, the game too absorbed with its own narration to bother inviting the player into that process.
Kentucky Route Zero’s musical centerpiece is similarly linear albeit with a key difference—the three choices you are offered at specific points in the song are of subtly different tones and moods.
There are advantages – and disadvantages – to playing with “humanity,” and it is a resource that can be gained and lost throughout the game. In addition to being subject to attacks from other players, playing with “humanity” enables the player to summon aid – that of other players and that of AI placed strategically around the world. The inclusion of “humanity” in this capacity is not only mechanically interesting (and exciting), but produces interesting commentary on the developers’ view of human beings. Possession of “humanity,” that thing that is unique to human beings, enables us to be both our best (helpful) and worst (hostile) selves; only by embracing the polar opposites contained within the mechanic can we be considered human. Without “humanity,” players in Dark Souls must walk the game’s path alone – they will not be able to summon allies to help them – but they will also not place themselves at risk from attack by other players. The best and the worst of being human.
One of the other components that the husband likes and that I don’t is the fact that there is functionally no plot, no complex narrative. The game has more of a premise than a plot, really, and a lot of it is shrouded in mystery. Mystery can be a good thing. I loved it in Braid – the game didn’t tell us what was going on, it let us figure it out as we went. I just like some narrative to make me care about my player-character, and Dark Souls doesn’t really have that.
Partway through the game, the husband became convinced that Dark Souls was in some way aping the premise of Shadows of the Colossus: that his player-character is in fact evil and is killing off guardians in his desperate attempt to once again become human. The fact that the player-character begins as undead and is collecting “humanity” may have had something to do with this idea.
Reviewing without playing.
Near the start of his relationship with a computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-winning film Her, Samantha the OS (Scarlett Johansson) helps Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) play a videogame. Called “Alien Child” by the filmmakers, the game seems familiar enough to be plausible to viewers, yet foreign enough to induce estrangement. The same could be said of the film’s high-waisted trouser fashions, improbable high rises and mass transit in future Los Angeles, and Theodore’s job as an outsourced personal correspondence writer. This is not our world, but it might be.
The viewer sees the game’s uncanniness most clearly when Theodore controls the helmeted creature in its holographic world. In a burlesque of recent “natural” physical interfaces like Microsoft’s Kinect, Theodore moves the game character by walking the fingers of his own downturned hands to operate the character’s feet. The act is ridiculous; it looks like dog paddling, or rifling through paper files, or prancing like a show horse.
It was thus no surprise that OReilly would eventually try his hand at making a real video game. The result is Mountain, a $1 game that seems to bend the very idea of a game to the breaking point. OReilly’s website describes the game as “Mountain Simulator, Relax em’ up, Art Horror etc.” Among its selling points: “no controls, time moves forward, nature expresses itself.”When you load mountain, it first poses a series of prompts. Loss, or Sickness, or Your First Memory, or Logic, or Your Soul or Birth, for example, although many others are possible. The player must respond to these prompts by drawing a picture on a blank canvas.
Mountain and Alien Child.
When he was an immigrant boy growing up in New Jersey, the writer Junot Díaz said he felt marginalized. But that feeling was dispelled somewhat in 1981 when he was in sixth grade. He and his buddies, adventuring pals with roots in distant realms — Egypt, Ireland, Cuba and the Dominican Republic — became “totally sucked in,” he said, by a “completely radical concept: role-playing,” in the form of Dungeons & Dragons.
Playing D&D and spinning tales of heroic quests, “we welfare kids could travel,” Mr. Díaz, 45, said in an email interview, “have adventures, succeed, be powerful, triumph, fail and be in ways that would have been impossible in the larger real world.”
“For nerds like us, D&D hit like an extra horizon,” he added. The game functioned as “a sort of storytelling apprenticeship.”
On D&D and literature.
Recently I wrote about the realisation that I am sexist and how I’m trying to change. The response was fascinating. OK, a few people were so upset that I want to respect other people’s humanity that they threatened to leave the site forever, but I also received lots of thoughtful messages, in comments and by email, leaving me with lots more to think about.
One of the ones that stuck out came from a reader called Juliane, who told me about something that always irks her when this subject comes up. It’s the old argument that female protagonists don’t make sense in a lot of games (or books or movies or comics or whatever) because their presence isn’t historically accurate.
Juliane had a good point to make about this, but before we get into it, let’s first take the opportunity to consider how selective the “it’s not historically accurate” defence is whenever it’s levelled at people who advocate for the addition of female characters to video games (or indeed any character that isn’t white, straight, male, vest-owning).
None of this was why Juliane wrote to me about the historical accuracy defence, though. Juliane’s objection was simple: written history isn’t accurate.
On historical accuracy.
Last week a colleague was being systemically and hatefully harassed on the internet about video game websites or something, and that was when I decided to get a Mountain.
David OReilly's new “ambient procedural mountain simulator”, called Mountain, is simple. There is nothing to “play”; your mountain exists, sunlight and dark play over its green craggy face, weather happens to it. Occasionally a few words appear on the screen: The mountain has thoughts or feelings about the weather or the night.
It’s annoyingly simple, one of those things where you assume someone either “thinks they are so deep” or is making fun of you. But listen: I love my mountain. I want to keep it.
Let’s back up. So, I’m having an increasingly stressful time on the internet.
I embraced the idea that the answers to these questions did not matter. My mountain is uniquely mine. I am not having a “communal experience.” I am not networked. There is no multiplayer, and nothing to show or “share.” Mountain felt like a rebellion against everything that had been bothering me.
On Mountain as rebellion.
Simulation versus stagecraft
People who are interested in the inner life of the player are going to tend to prioritize signal that excitates the player. People who are interested in the inner life of the object are going to be interested in signal about excitation within the object. We have terms for these.
- When a game object is ticking over, turning, tumbling, moving, living, it’s called “simulation.”
- When a player is ticking over, turning, tumbling, moving, living, we usually call it “thinking” or “reacting” or “cognitive processes.”
- When a game object is not actually exhibiting much of an inner life, but the player is getting a signal anyway, intended to provoke a player’s inner life, we call it “stagecraft.”
Critics and thinkers who are interested in the inner lives of the game are often disdainful of stagecraft. It’s “faking it.” You’re talking to the dead, after all. Now, nothing is entirely “dead” in that sense (everything has some amount of inner life) but there’s a threshold there where they see themselves betrayed. They can tell at a glance that the apparently static output of a Mandelbrot set has a rich inner life, and that Conway’s Game of Life does too, and that a Hardy Boys novel has less.
On the other hand, designers who are more interested in simulation are often accused of “ant farming,” of non-commercial work. They frequently fall into the trap of making games with rich inner lives are are opaque to the player:
It has to be visible and responsive to players. This includes exposing causality. Otherwise, it might as well be random.
Because of this, it is usually considered best practice to make sure to have the right amount of stagecraft present to get across the inner life of the object.
Musing on The Mountain as it relates to interactivity and the concept of inner lives.
I thought I would really enjoy Mountain. I had this idea for an essay I would pitch to somewhere, probably Overland, that I thought Mountain would fit perfectly for. I love small, minimalist games that challenge our notion of what it means to engage with a videogame. We have such reductive, causal ideas of what interaction is. You press a button and a thing happens. That’s it. And we lose so much nuance in the bodily engagements we have with videogames beyond simply ‘choosing’ an ‘action’ when we think about things this we. We end up with absurd terms like “non-gameplay element” as though any part of the videogame is not an element I am engaging with when I am playing a videogame. We put aside menus and cutscenes and the time spent just watching our train chug along to London in Pocket Trains as gaps ‘between’ gameplay and we don’t have ways to talk about them because “no gameplay is actually happening” in those moments, as Galloway says of standing on a streetcorner and watching the sun set in Shenmue. It’s absurd as saying “no movie is actually happening” in a film scene that might be pitch black with dialog playing.
So I love games that challenge this. I love how Dear Esther and its ilk have the minimal ‘amount’ of ‘interactivity’ (as though you can even have an ‘amount’ of interactivity, christ) and make us realise how much more we are engaged with videogame works beyond ‘just’ acting. Proteus's use of the spacebar to sit down instead of jump is exemplary of this. You just press spacebar on a hillside, sit down, and just look at your laptop's monitor as the owl slowly drifts from one tree to another beneath the asteroids. At what point did looking and hearing stop being actions—interactions with a thing—in and of themselves?
So I thought Mountain would be great for this. I thought I would write a piece about how it makes a point of nothing-ness in a really interesting way. In its menu, where it explains the controls, both ‘keys’ and ‘mouse’ are said to do “NOTHING” despite this being clearly false (keys play musical notes and the mouse rotates and tilts the mountain). It seemed like an explicit commentary on videogames and nothingness, and I thought that would be cool.
But I found it so boring.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and while still a young boy, the novel’s protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, writes on the flyleaf of his geography book:
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
The Universe (James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dover, pg. 7-8)
As an exmple of a bildungsroman, a novel about human development, maturation, and growing up, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man uses this moment to emphasize Stephen’s burgeoning awareness of himself and his relationship to and awareness of the world around that self. Indeed, all human deveopment is marked by this exponentially growing sense of the self in relationship to a larger world. We all begin life with a sense only of the immediacy of the self and its own needs, before becoming aware of a small corner of the world around ourselves, before then becoming aware of how that corner fits into a larger and larger universe.
Playing the browser based version of A Dark Room, I was reminded of this passage from Joyce’s novel. Indeed, I almost feel that the whole game is in some way an effort to represent this model of the growing awareness of self and its relationship to a significantly larger universe and the discovery then of how the self fits into such a vast space.
A Dark Room and a sense of place. Contains spoilers for A Dark Room.
Last week we discussed how Wolfenstein: The New Orderuses alternate history to make the player reexamine Nazism and World War II. And while The New Ordergenerally elevates its pulp material to something more, I suggested that one aspect - the well-worn trope of “Nazi super-science” - still retains some troubling subtext.
In short: it gives the Nazis too much credit. The reality is that the Nazi war machine was no more technologically advanced than other countries, and in fact lagged behind on many fronts. In reality myth of German techno-terror was actually a joint creation between Nazi propaganda and, ironically, American popular culture like comic books and films. The actual Nazis, by contrast, were anti-intellectual, anti-science and - though they made some engineering breakthroughs - lagged behind in basic military technology.
On Nazi super-science.
There’s a word that crops up every so often in videogames journalism, and it’s one that can frustrate by its presence. That term is “punk.”
All too often its usage fails to reflect the fascinating history of a movement that is musical, cultural, artistic and social; that for hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people has changed or redefined lives. All too often the appearance of “punk” in a headline doesn’t indicate that you’re about to read an incisive exploration of what punk games might be, or what points of confluence exist between a videogame or developer and a particular interpretation of punk.
This bothers me. I’ve a deep fascination with the storied history of punk and every time I read a weak article that leads with a banal statement like “indie developers are the new punk rock,” I feel like God has just drowned a sack of adorable kittens.
It’s not hard to see why so many writers—and not just in games—seize upon it as a descriptive metaphor. Punk and its children have often proven a source of great creativity, of independent social and political thought, and of iconoclastic lifestyles—straight edge being a notable and sometimes infamous example of the latter. When trying to describe something that stands apart from societal and cultural norms, “punk” can be an irresistibly evocative choice of word.
What do we mean when we discuss ‘punk’ videogames?