Game Design, Dynamics and the Ripples of Play

The basic idea of this essay is pretty simple: when we design a game, we aren’t making a static thing, a tchotchke that people set on a shelf and forget about. Our games interact with people and culture in ways that ripple out well beyond the play experience. As obvious as this may seem, we all too often ignore the rippling effects of our games on ourselves, our players and those around us.

Systems Dynamics

forester

Jay Forrester is the guy standing there over the shoulder of the seated fellow in this photo. He first conceived of systems dynamics as a field of study back in the later 50s and early 60s as a way to understand the complexities of businesses. He later applied it to the social world, and his students spread its use into all sorts of other domains. Though Jay Forrester isn’t well known in game design and development circles, he was a game designer of sorts.

That’s because game design is systems dynamics. Take a game as seemingly simple as Go. As systems go, it is quite simple: two players take turns placing stones on a gridded board in order to control as much of the board as possible. Yet there are billions and billions of possibilities for how the game plays out. This is where the discipline of systems dynamics come into play: how can we ever know all the possibilities of our games, even in systems as simple as that in Go?

When we design games, we are doing something quite amazing. We design activities for our players, which they enact through their play. They perform their understanding and desires through our games, often in ways that we could never imagine. If you’ve ever designed and play tested a game, you know that feeling of surprise when your players follow the rules of the game, yet it looks nothing like you imagined it would, or what it looked like when you played it yourself. This is the textbook definition of systems dynamics.

A useful model for this comes from Robin Hunicke, Marc Leblanc and  Robert Zubek’s MDA Framework. We design the mechanics of a game—what our players do, the goals they pursue, the spaces within which they do this. The dynamics happen when the game is put into motion through play. The aesthetics emerge from the play experience. This is a formalist perspective on games, wherein the aesthetics, or the thing we care about as game designers, is the experience people have. Instead of thinking of aesthetics as what a painting looks like, or its style, we think of what a game plays like. In less fancy terms, we might call this “fun.”

The challenge and pleasure of game design, for me at least, is the gap between my design and the experience—the fun the players have. We only have so much control of what shape that fun will take. Take the card game The Metagame I worked on with Local No. 12. We designed the two decks—culture cards and opinion cards—and we’ve designed ten different games that people can play with the game. So the rules, the things each game asks the players to do with the two kinds of cards, these are the mechanics of the MDA framework.

What happens when people start to play? That is the dynamics. Players pick which game they want to play, they pick the arguments they want to make, they size up their fellow players to think about what they like and how they think so that they can get their votes, they think about their understanding of the culture cards, and the possible arguments they can make. Sometimes people play it to be funny. Sometimes play to show off their smarts. Sometimes people get serious about it. Sometimes they get naughty. That’s up to them. The rules we designed create the space for a variety of dynamics to emerge. And that they do. These are the aesthetics: the place where our design is activated, and an experience unfolds.

Ripple 1: play + fun
That is the first ripple of game dynamics: what happens when players first encounter your game, and the experiences they have with it. This is that formal “fun,” or aesthetics layer. This is where we stop all too often when we think about the design of our games. But play goes so much farther than just a formal principal. This is treating our work like old musty paintings that hang on a wall of a museum, with no connection to life.

As The Metagame shows, there is no such thing as a purely aesthetic experience, there is no perfect “magic circle” within which gameplay happens. We don’t leave the rest of our experiences behind when we play a game, and we don’t leave our play behind we exit the game. The Metagame would break if this were the case, as we’d have no opinions about Comic Sans, or Lasers, or Journey, or for that matter, gender.

Ripple 2: play styles
Of course, there aren’t just the dynamics that emerge from our designs. There are the dynamics that emerge from how players like to play. We can design for certain play styles, but we can’t make players play our games in a certain way. Dungeons & Dragons is a great example of a game that can support any number of play styles. To John Romero, D&D was a playspace that begged you to battle and adventure. For Rand Miller, D&D was a playspace that invited storytelling and discovery. Both were play styles  were supported by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s design.

This is the second ripple of game dynamics: the play expectations people bring to our games. This is still a formal ripple, one that has to do with the aesthetics of the experience, and doesn’t necessarily touch on the real world. People bring their experiences and their desires to bare on our games and the play experiences they can provide. Sometimes these happen to coincide with what we intended, as with D&D, and sometimes, not so much.

Ripple 3: semantics of play
What happens when we think about what our players bring to the creation of play dynamics? This brings us to an important idea for game design: the semantics of play. I’m borrowing this phrase from the artist and game designer Matt Adams of Blast Theory, a group of English artists. The design of games creates meaning which is interpreted through people’s prior experiences and their desires for their play experiences. Because of this, games can take on unexpected meanings that push against your intentions. That’s a complicated thing for many of us in games, imagining how others might interpret and respond to our games. Just because we design a particular set of goals doesn’t mean that will contain or constrain what people want to do with our games. This goes beyond play style, to more complicated ideas.

idhideyou

Let’s look at a Blast Theory game, I’d Hide You. There are three “runners.” The runners moved around Manchester with their camera devices streaming live video feeds back to the game players. Online players track the three runners on a map, and can see what the runners are capturing through their cameras. The online players give advice to the runners about where to go, and how to encounter the other runners. Whenever the runners were in camera shot of one another, the online players could snap shots to “capture” them and score points. Further, the runners can ask passers-by for help, in the process, if only briefly, bringing the public into the game, too. So now we have the runners, the online players, and the general public, each bringing different experiences, different frames of reference and levels of engagement in the game, all at the same time.

The meaning of the play experiences for the three different players all demonstrate the third ripple of dynamics: The often-unintended interpretations of our games. Each mechanic we design into our games is a prompt for action. “This is a thing I get to do. What does it mean? Why do I want to do it? How does it relate to the rest of my life?” The goals of our games focus players attention only so far. We all bring different value systems, which influence what we are drawn to, offended by, feel prompted to respond to, in all sorts of impossible to predict ways. Things start really getting out of the control of the designer at this point.

Ripple 4: games as culture
What happens when games take root in culture? What happens when they become a phenomenon unto themselves? Games like Starcraft, Johann Sebastian Joust, Super Smash Brothers, Cards Against Humanity: they all take on lives of their own, far out of the control of their designers.

Basketball is a great example. These are the original rules of Basketball, written by Joseph Naismith back in 1891:

rules-of-basketball

The original rules did not allow players to run with the ball, so passing was the only way to get the ball closer to the basket for a shot. Naismith’s goal with the game was to keep young men off the streets and keep them occupied during the winter. Within a few years, the basics of the game that we know today were in place: dribbling, passing, the hoop and backboard.  Basketball spread like wildfire, so fast in fact that some thought it was a troubling development. It moved well beyond the keep young men occupied.

DrJ_scoop

Eventually, we end up with something like this, some 100 years later. Dr J finds a new wrinkle in the game no one in the preceding 100 years had realized you could do. The amazing thing about basketball is there isn’t just one version of the game. There are hundreds of basketballs. Once the game becomes part of culture, once it is out of the developer’s hands, the game becomes everyone’s and not just the developers. There’s streetball, HORSE, women’s pro, college ball, old man pick up ball, and on and on. It is a game, it is a spectator sport, it is a way to cheer for your town or school or nation.

This is the fourth ripple of dynamics that emerge from our games: What happens when our games become culture. The moment our games are in the public, they become theirs, not ours. They move from our initial prompts for actions and go in all sorts of directions, imposing their own uses on our games.

Ripple 5: culture reflects back
What happens when culture ripples back onto games? What happens when beliefs and behaviors seep into our games? The very idea that we think of games as systems is an example of this: the most basic framework for designing games is derived from a set of tools designed for understanding and fixing business systems.

One of its more pervasive offshoots of systems dynamics in our culture is Game Theory. Game Theory is the use of mathematics to understand human behavior. It was popularized by John von Neumann as a mathematical tool for analyzing the decision space of zero-sum games. At the crux of game theory is the assumption that “rational actors” will always act in their own best interest. This line of thinking was used to develop U.S. Cold War strategies, including the SAGE computer system developed to monitor Soviet activity. What is interesting here is the desire to imagine humans as rational logic machines, and not as people. There is a lack of empathy deep in the heart of game theory, even a distrust of people. The assumptions of Game Theory are that we want to win, to beat everyone else in a zero-sum, winner-take all game that is life.

John Nash, the mathematician made famous in the movie, A Beautiful Mind, was infamous for designing cruel games that pitted people against one another in zero-sum games that rewarded selfish play—the assumed baseline of game theory. One of his better-known games was So Long Sucker, better known as “Fuck You Buddy,” for reasons that become clear if you’ve ever played it. Game Theory and its views of the world bled into all aspects of life, including games themselves of course.

The culture of games always being about winning and “beating” a game emerges from this zero-sum mindset. We have internalized this thinking, and often take it as a given in the design of our games.  We see similar ideas playing out in games like Shark Tank, where business is treated like a single goal game: extracting profit. There is no value here in providing employment, or having products that enrich lives. Only money, and profit at all costs. Total bottom-line thinking.

Back in the land of video games, we find other values reflected. Like that it is OK to represent women as objects of desire, rather than as sentient creatures. There’s this thing called the Bechdel Test applied to film to see if women are being treated well:

Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

God help us if we applied a similar test to games.

This is the fifth ripple of dynamics that emerge from our games: When culture ripples back onto us, influencing how we make our games, and the meaning produced when players play our games. The assumptions we make and the baggage we bring into creating our games that inevitably end up in the games. And so in turn, influencing the dynamics that ripple out of our games into the lives of our players and into culture as a whole.

It’s never “just a game”
So this is the main thing I want us all to be aware of: We need to be accountable for the dynamics that emerge from our games, and for the assumptions and values that we put into our games. We can’t simultaneously say games are important and a vital art form and say that “it’s just a game” when people challenge the violence and misogyny in games.

We don’t get to have it both ways. Either we own up to the place games occupy—sports, board- and cardgames, and videogames alike—or we accept games’ status as mindless entertainment widgets for emotionally stunted boys. Part of this is taking the design of games seriously, and recognizing their place in life and culture. We tend to want to stop at the abstraction, and delight in the formal and experiential qualities. While those are where the aesthetics lie, it isn’t where things stop. That’s just where the dynamics begin.

Rendering Meaning: On the Intersections of Visual Style, Interactivity and Gameplay

The following essay is based on a talk I gave on February 6 at College Art Association’s annual conference. It was part of “The Visual Politics of Play: On the Signifying Practices of Digital Games” organized by Soraya Murray. My talk wandered off the panel topic a bit, looking more at the challenges of critiquing games that fall outside traditional gameplay expectations.

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Over the last few years, I’ve increasingly felt the need for a more inclusive aesthetic framework for considering videogames. More specifically, I seek an aesthetics that takes into account play experiences that go beyond typical player expectations: the pursuit of goals, the exploration of the space of possibility in a game, and winning, and so on. Some of this thinking is captured in my book, Works of Game, released last year, and Fun, Taste & Games, a book I’m currently writing with David Thomas.

Today, I would like to set out on a new path within this project—exploring evaluative approaches for games where the play emphasizes sensory, thematic or affective experiences that bend and break videogame tropes. I’ve picked three games to use as case studies today—Tale of Tale’s Sunset, Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero and Eddo Stern’s Vietnam Romance. In each case, the gamemakers combine videogame technologies and game design tropes with literary, film and visual art strategies to create sensory-driven play experiences.

Sunset

Sunset
First, Tale of Tales’ Sunset from 2015. The player guides Angela, an ex-pat African-American woman living in a Latin American country roiled in civil war. Her job is your job: housekeeping for a wealthy man. The game consists of 44 late-afternoon visits to the apartment. Each day, Angela is given a set of tasks to accomplish—unpack a box, clean the kitchen, wash windows, vacuum the floor. The player has until the sun sets each day to complete her tasks. At the end of the visit, Angela returns to the elevator, and the game advances to the next housekeeping appointment.

The game is played from a first-person perspective, meaning we never really see Angela outside her reflection. We never see the owner of the apartment either, leaving the apartment itself and the city outside its windows as the primary visible characters. The carefully-designed and decorated 70s bachelor pad Angela maintains is represented in a “videogame realist” style balanced between game engine realism and a sculptural stylization just this side of the uncanny valley. The environments and objects—pillows, plants and rugs alike—all have that hard-surface look of 3D, belying their creation by meshes overlaid with images. In contrast, the perfectly-emulated cinematography of the game engine reveals a world awash in warm, dusty sunlight. This sets up a visual tension—the stylized, quasi-realistic modeling of the world is viewed through photo-realistic cinematography where light refracts just-so off polished furniture, and ghostly reflections shimmer in windows.

The play experience of Sunset operates in a middle ground of audience expectations. It is presented in a typical first-person, three-dimensional manner that suggests real-time engagement in which the player sees through the character’s eyes, and by extension, performs in-game tasks as the player. But in Sunset, the player navigates Angela to the room where the task is to be completed, and once the player locates the site of the task, she simply has to click on the appropriate space or object, and the task is complete.

Instead of transposing the act of sweeping or plunging or washing into actions performed with a game controller, the player simply clicks, at which point the view shifts to the glimmering evening sky as the clock shows time rapidly passing while the task is presumably performed off-screen. This can be read as Angela’s own focus during her chores—she tunes out and daydreams, with little active mental attention required to carry out tasks she has done over and over during her time as a housekeeper. The extra-mimetic nature of the interactivity also relocates the core play activity from performing intricate tasks to moving and seeing. In the realm of 3D games, the acts of seeing and moving are so commonplace as to not be considered game actions; in Sunset, this extra-mimetic treatment of the tasks the player is asked to perform shifts the focus of the experience from goal-completion to a more atmospheric story experience.

There are two additional “videogame easy” actions available to Sunset players—listening and examining objects. As Angela rides the elevator up to the apartment each day, she receives her list of chores, while we hear her thoughts, which tend to focus on snippets of current events relating to the war, and details from her own life and that of the apartment owner. Angela encounters various objects as she moves around the apartment—magazines, records, artworks, papers. Some of these objects trigger additional commentary by Angela, here presented as text. Angela’s verbal and written commentary become the primary vehicle for backstory and interpretation.

Despite the goal-oriented premise, Sunset is more atmospheric than mechanical, and more concerned with a sound and audio-driven story experience than goal-oriented achievement. This is a far cry from most videogames set in times of war—instead of focusing on combat, Tale of Tales looks at how a time of conflict impacts the quotidian.

Kentucky Route Zero

KRZ_conclusion

The second game I’d like to look at is Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero, a game in five acts, the first three of which were released in 2013 and 2014. The game augments the traditions of the point-and-click adventure game genre with a keen cinematographic eye, while stripping away the puzzles typical of the genre. Players follow Conway, a truck driver, as he attempts to deliver antiques in the backroads of Kentucky. As was common for point-and-click adventure games, scenes are presented as deep-focus middle shots that establish context and characters, and are the stage on which scenes unfold. Moving Conway, and on occasion, other characters, is the core interactivity. Typical for the genre, this is accomplished by clicking on the place the player wants the character to move.

Much of the game’s beauty comes from its visual and cinematic style. Flatly colored, stylized figures, objects and spaces are composed from planes of geometric color, together generating a flat, two-dimensional pictorial space. The only nuance and shading comes from the lighting sources, which also provide the primary indicators of depth in the environment. Though subtle, the camera work is precise, feeling more like carefully composed cinematography than what we might expect from a point-and-click adventure game. This happens largely through the decoupling of the camera from the player, allowing a more deliberate composition, framing and movement.

The camera movement also suggests a depth in the seemingly two-dimensional world. The game is indeed three-dimensional, organized along a series of planes within a shallow stage-like space. The camera tends to track Conway’s movement and the action in general—panning left if he goes left, zooming in slightly if he moves away from the picture plane, tracking him if he moves upward. The camera movement causes parallax effects that give the game a quiet cinematic lushness.

Changes in scene are indicated by small directional prompts. The typical design decision would be to allow the player to make these changes by clicking on a door or ladder or otherwise abstract the passage from scene to scene through an in-scene interaction, like clicking on the door to indicate Conway should pass through it. But in Kentucky Route Zero, these choices are moved into super-imposed interface elements.

Similarly, there are interface prompts for three additional activity types: “look,” which provides a more detailed written description of a person, object or animal; “talk,” which opens text dialog trees; and “use,” which can mean different things depending on the item: pick up, drive, turn on, and so on. The text trees through which conversations and verbal actions occur are the source of much of the story progression. Decisions are made, situations worked through, backstory explained, and most importantly, the main through line—Conway finding his way to his delivery destination—unfolds through these conversations.

The most curious of these is “looking.” Instead of allowing the player to zoom in on a detail, something fairly commonplace for examining objects in games, players are instead given a written description. Often, the description fills gaps in the level of visual detail—letting you know a chair is a Queen Anne, or the condition of Conway’s dog’s hat. Other times, these indicate activity.  These descriptions are presented parenthetically like the stage direction one might find in the script for a film or a play. These descriptions also deepen the style and tone of the game tone.

These two devices—overlaid selection menus and the use of text for description and dialog—engages the player while keeping them at arm’s length from the story and characters. We never become Conway, even if we get to decide where he walks and what he says. We are participants in establishing the tone and tenor of the game, but we are not an actor within the game.

Unlike many videogames, Kentucky Route Zero has no pretense for immersion, instead opting for absorption. Most everything about the game establishes a carefully-controlled play experience that can be like the best of film or literature—allowing the player to become absorbed by the authored experience.

Vietnam Romance

Vietnam Romance

The last game I’d like to look at is Eddo Stern’s Vietnam Romance, a game still in development, though it has been displayed on several occasions including a solo show at Postmasters in New York this past summer. The current state of the game is a series of nine vignettes, primarily constructed from the conventions of side-scrolling games—driving a car, flying a plane, shooting an arrow at a distant deer, catching objects thrown from a vehicle ahead on the road, and so on.

Woven through the scrolling levels is a collectible card game. The cards represent the resources necessary to carry out the actions of the game. The play experience then unfolds as the player navigates while pausing on occasion to collect, examine and “play” cards.

Early in the game, “If you hated the War but liked the Movies, you’ll love this Game!” scrolls across the screen. This seems like a glib joke, but it is key to making sense of the game. Vietnam Romance is a playable meditation on American cinema’s romanticization of the Vietnam War.

The most striking thing about Vietnam Romance is its visual style, and how it is creates the play space. The graphics are all hand-created watercolors mapped onto extruded shapes. This creates a sense of depth with the overall effect of watercolors affixed to black foam core arranged on flat planes receding into the middle distance. The clearly hand-made style created from saturated colors create a striking play experience that feels less like a videogame than a playable diorama.

It may well have been easier for Stern to use a more realistic, three-dimensional style, but that would have likely led to the game reading as a typical war simulation. And so the watercolored diorama creates a necessary distance, allowing us to consider a different aspect of war.

Similarly, the move away from first-person aiming and shooting or the strategic deployment of military forces are set aside for set pieces inspired by films like The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now and the Vietnam War tourism phenomenon.

The activities in these set pieces vary widely—puppeteering a Nancy Sinatra-meets Full Metal Jacket dancer; taking an aging Rambo-esque fellow deer hunting; catching playing cards thrown from a ox-drawn cart; shooting letters out of karaoke lyrics, and so on.

The curious thing about some of the set pieces is their pressure on player skill. Many require a mastery of videogame actions. For example, the opening driving scene becomes a resource management puzzle to keep the beaten up car from overheating, while the deer hunting scene demands a keen spatial understanding coupled with precise trajectory calculation. These are akin to carnival games, as they test the player’s skill, but ultimately do not thwart the overall play experience—the player can simply give up, and resume the vignette, or return to the menu to play a different vignette. The game becomes an amusement park cars-on-a-track ride exploration of videogames and American cinema as much as it is a look at Vietnam War nostalgia.

Challenges for an inclusive aesthetics
Looking at these three games, we see different approaches to bending and breaking videogame genre expectations to create expressive play experiences that largely stay away from goal achievement and systems-driven interactivity.  This presents a challenge for analysis and critique: if these games meld sound, image, story and repurposed game tropes to construct play experiences, but ignore most all other expectations of videogames, can we still evaluate them using the critical language of videogames?

Even at their most inclusive, the theoretical frameworks of game studies and digital media can fall short. Take Janet Murray’s defining characteristics of the digital medium: procedural, participatory, encyclopedic and spatial. As Murray’s theory is generally interpreted and applied, the presumption is that videogames should push these properties to their logical extensions, meaning player interaction should lead to unexpected outcomes within the designed space of possibility. Sunset, Kentucky Route Zero and Vietnam Romance are indeed inside Murray’s boundaries, but they use the digital medium and videogame tropes for authorial expression that is light on interactivity as authorial agency.

This leads to the consideration of the importance placed on choice and decision-making. The concept of meaningful choices has long stood as a defining principle of game design. This perspective is best embodied in game designer Sid Meier’s definition of a game: “A game is a series of interesting choices.” which places value on players having an active role in determining the outcome of the game. From this vantage, Sunset, Kentucky Route Zero and to a lesser degree, Vietnam Romance, fall short, as there is a presumption that interesting choices give players systemic impact on the quality and quantity of the play experience.

This points to the value placed on games as dynamic systems. Videogames are approached as interactive systems within which players can tinker and pursue measurable outcomes. In these three examples, the systems dynamics tropes are for the most part replaced with structures of progression rather than emergence, to borrow Jesper Juul’s terms. For these games on the margins, it is necessary to see the systemic confluence of visual and aural elements, interactivity and theme and not just on state changes.

This suggests another early theoretical framework—Espen Aarseth’s nearly 20 year old theory of ergodicity. As Aarseth defines the term, “… nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text.” Aarseth’s example of trivial traversal is the act of reading a book—assuming one knows how to read, and is familiar with a given culture’s conventions for navigating pages and their sequencing, reading requires minimal effort, and thus is non-ergodic. Aarseth’s ergodicity has been broadly interpreted to speak to the player’s agency in shaping the game text through in-game actions. But in games like Sunset and Kentucky Route Zero, player actions are mostly the equivalent of reading and page-turning, at least from a vantage that privileges meaningful choices within a systems-driven space of possibility.

The reception and literacy side of these experimental works cannot be taken for granted, however. Each of these three games make demands on players that at once requires gameplay literacies and an openness for experiences partially outside videogame conventions. Tale of Tales’ Sunset asks us to understand and master the basic interface of a 3D first person videogame—look and walk. For gameplayers, these have become trivial, but for those who might have more affinity for the subject matter but aren’t gameplayers, this basic expectation is a barrier. Vietnam Romance is also instructive here—the deer hunter / Rambo vignette requires a surprisingly sophisticated ability to estimate distance and trajectory across a long distance. We find a tension point here for developing more inclusive critical frameworks—one player’s nontrivial is an another player’s rote and commonplace.

If we re-orient our focus toward a more experiential set of player choices, the real value of these games becomes clear. Aarseth uses labyrinths and mazes to tease out the differences between ergodic and non-ergodic literature. Unicursal labyrinths involve movement through an ultimately linear path absent of decision points. Multicursal mazes require decisions at forks in the path which have a substantial impact on where the experience goes. The presumption is most ergodic texts are multicursal. In our three examples, they generally don’t present multicursal “meaningful choices” that drive toward goal completion or quantifiable outcomes with win and lose states.

But if we shift this from a valuation of a player’s exploration of a space of possibility to the experiential choices a player makes—peer out the window at the city sky, pat a dog’s head, wonder at amusements from a slowly moving car—these games present meaningful experiential choices within a unicursal play experience. Analyzing and critiquing games like Sunset, Kentucky Route Zero and Vietnam Romance requires we break from the systems-driven, goal-oriented evaluation of player activity. The roles of player agency and decision-making have to be re-located to support the value of lighter player impact and heightened authorial expression.

At this stage in this project, I’ve only scratched the surface in sketching out the issues in creating an aesthetic framework that values experiential play experiences, and I am raising more questions than I’m answering. Hopefully, though, I’m starting to reveal a path toward a more inclusive videogame aesthetics.

SUNBURN! and the giggles of death, in space

Sunburn! title screen

If we believe its developers, the game, SUNBURN! is an ode to the Ray Bradbury short story, “Kaleidoscope,” that first appeared in The Illustrated Man in 1951. Bradbury’s story opens in the moments just after a ship explodes in space, hurtling its passengers on divergent paths into the abyss. Everyone is left to contemplate their solitary death as they chat on their space radios, heading off to their deaths. They fight, lash out, weep, scream, reflect and generally contemplate their lives. Eventually, some of them come to reluctantly accept their fate.

cover, Kaleidoscope

SUNBURN! takes this basic premise and twists it around a bit. Instead of everyone drifting off alone and bickering into their headsets, SUNBURN! asks you to kill off your crew in order to uphold the death pact you all made—no one dies alone!. All of this happens inside a physics-y puzzle game involving tiny little pixel characters lost in space.

As I thought about the game, I’ve tried to sort through why it resonates with me. I’m not always the biggest fan of SCI-FI, with all the space marines and BFGs and all, but there is something fascinating about the genre, particularly the mid-20th century era in which Bradbury wrote The Illustrated Man. Science fiction was pulp, a genre-bound pop form of mythological explorations of philosophical and political concerns—humanist thought wrapped up in gadgets and costumes. Science fiction was a place where things like the meaning of life and the solitary nature of death could be wrestled with. I saw glimmers of this in SUNBURN! before I learned of its connection to Bradbury’s story—life, death, community, meaning, honor, values, bonds.

photo of Eugene Ionesco

SUNBURN! hits a nostalgia note for me, but not how you might think. I’m not a child of the NES or Gameboy or any part of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, so it isn’t that. For me, SUNBURN! reminds me of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist plays from the 1950s and 60s. Ionesco was a master at creating bittersweet humor from mundane situations turned in on themselves. Situations like a place where everyone turns into rhinoceros, or people have conversations about doorbells rung by no one, or rooms that inexplicably fill with furniture. Ionesco taught me that the commonplace, when reconsidered and put to work in unexpectedly absurd ways, proved to be an effective tool for thinking about the world around us.

SUNBURN! hits a similar note for me. The earnest, gleeful spin on tragedy and death tickles my absurdist funny bone. In the same way I love the absurdity of Ionesco’s The New Tenant and the way its characters matter-of-factly deal with a never-end stream of furniture over-filling their space. SUNBURN!’s captain and his crew likewise go about their business of carefully gathering together for one last leap into death. It is all at once sweet and stupid and cute and nihilistic.

One of the best ways to deal with unpleasant things, at least for me, is keeping occupied with simple tasks. Like washing dishes, or knitting or playing a game. And that is exactly what you get to do inside SUNBURN!—keep yourself busy with upholding important promises at the cusp of death. The game does this well I think. There are four basic gestures to the game—tapping to move your character, double-pressing to propel them, spreading to zoom in to see details, and pinching to zoom out to see more of the planetary system. I find myself getting quickly absorbed in these actions. I’m barely thinking about the fact I’m collecting my people to send us all to our deaths as quickly and efficiently as I can. We then all go into the sun, and the game gleefully celebrates that I’ve killed everyone, or kindly chides me for having left someone behind.

There’s a happiness in the apocalyptic vision of the game—in the cute graphics, the poppy color palette, the chirpy dialog. And a level of determination and stick-to-it-ness in the clever constraint-as-blood oath of “no one dies alone” at the core of the game. Everyone has an all for-one-one-for all attitude, even when left behind. And on the other side of death, after that act of abnegation driving the player character (which the other characters declaim, but don’t actively pursue, interestingly), the ghosts continue the peppy banter with comments about their afterlife.

"dude, I'm dead" screenshot

In a lot of reviews, this has been pointed out as naughty or darkly humorous, and I can see why people think that, but I think that sells the game short. It is like stopping at the wackiness of people with rhino heads and not getting to the real substance Ionesco was working over, or only gawking at the explosion in Kaleidoscope and not really taking in what Bradbury has to say. My read of the completion of a level—good or bad—is an underlying belief in humanity, not a “dude, that’s fucked up” sort knee jerk you might see on MTV’s Ridiculousness or on a 4chan board.

Screenshot of the captain alone in space

There is darkness under the chippy veneer of SUNBURN!, if you want to find it. Within the game, something that always brings the direness of the pixel astronauts situation, and I suppose, of the fucked up world around us, are those moments when I lose my direction, or accidentally mis-aim and start drifting out into space. You quickly get out of sight of the planets, and are left drifting with a real sense of direction, nothing to anchor you or suggest which way to aim to insure contact with a planet. All that focus on the task at hand—joining up with your shipmates—disappears as you are out in the void, maybe tethered to a dog or cat, drifting off to nowhere.

Jay Z + Thacker's In the Dust of This Planet

This sort of moment makes me think of In the Dust of this Planet — the first book in Eugene Thacker’s philosophical horror trilogy. Thacker looks at black metal, horror movies and other genre fair in order to tackle the existential ideas we traditionally associate with philosophy. In the process, he looks at the vastness of the world that is just over there, just on the other side of our efforts to remain preoccupied. Indeed, something is always just around the bend to remind us of our insignificance.

frontispiece, Shelley's Frankenstein

One of the things Thacker pursues in In the Dust of this Planet is a meditation on the limits of philosophy—it can only get so far on its own. Part of Thacker’s argument is that part of what the genre horror provides is a place we can explore things beyond the limits of philosophy. Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is a critique of enlightenment thinking, a meditation on the natural vs. the scientific, on the limits of human ability to create and control the world, of unintended consequences and so on. All told through a fable of an ambitious doctor and his monster in the scary woods. While Frankenstein isn’t necessarily in the required reading list of most philosophy programs, it is a great example of how genre can probe the human condition.

Though it never dawned on me back in high school and college, I now realize Ionesco was an existential fellow traveler of Bradbury and Shelley. Both were probing around the edges of humanity or the beginnings of late capitalism through their creations. But where Bradbury had rockets and control panels and robots and science, Ionesco had the mundane and the everyday. Shelley uses fantastically morbid monsters made of body parts to explore the limits of science, Ionesco uses people turning into rhinos to think about conformity and fascism and shifting moral foundations. So sometimes we can turn to Hegel, sometimes to Shelley, or, if you believe me, Secret Crush, to probe the human condition.

You could say, rightly, I’ve heaped a lot of high-falutin’ baggage on a simple physics puzzle game—and its true, I have. But the limits of what we as gamemakers think games can do is far more limited than what we usually give the medium credit for. If we look past mechanics and goals, and follow the trail of where games might lead a person to ponder—kind of like I’ve talked about here tonight—we can start seeing the real value of games. Yes, games are culture, but not just in the sense of creating or nestling into cultures. They are also Culture in the sense of an Ionesco play, or a Thacker book of critical philosophy, or, bringing us back down to earth, a Eugene Levy role in a Christopher Guest film.

levy_feet

We could look at Levy’s character Gerry Fleck as a down on-his-luck, two-left-feet goofus who triumphs in a Revenge of the Nerds sort of way, because that is certainly there. We can also see him as a sweet fable—everyone has a purpose that eventually reveals itself, bravery in the face of chaos, and so on—packaged in a work of mocumentary genre fare. That’s also there.

Inside of genre-bound works, we can have our fun and our smarts, all at once. That’s something that SUNBURN! reminds me of, and I appreciate that about the game.  So thank you, Secret Crush.

The Author is Present

With anna’s upcoming exhibition, “the road to empathy” opening tonight at babycastles (which I interpret in part as a wake for dys4ia), it seemed like a good time to publish this essay. It is an in-progress excerpt from Fun, Taste & Games, a book I’ve been working on with David Thomas that we hope to release later this year.

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anna anthropy’s dys4ia, The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther and Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest sit alongside a handful of other games that serve as exhibits in the trial-by-Twitter about what games are, can and should be. Much of the controversy relates to how the games are considered from the perspective of dominant ideas about game design. Particularly commercial games, the dominant presumption is that players have agency within the designed space of the game. This has become as central to evaluating games as the role of story is for film—films have stories, games have player agency.

How a gamemaker chooses to engage with the elements of game design—player actions and goals, the space of possibility for player performance, the visual and sound elements, the writing and the story—these are all design decisions. So too is the choice to not use these elements. Indeed, acts of omission are far more important decisions in the creative process than those about what to include. In music, it is the space between notes, the choice of which instruments to use and those to set aside. In film, it includes the decisions around which moments in the characters’ lives should be explored, and which should be left out. In painting, it can be the decision to work abstractly instead of using color and line to represent the world.

Expectations build up around mediums, and artists and audiences alike make assumptions about what ought to be part of works in a given medium. dys4ia stands as an example of a game that purposely resists and plays with our expectations. It is a game designer’s game; it belies a deep, intuitive understanding of the conventions of game design. It also plays with and breaks conventions to expressive ends. In an era when “game” stands in as another product category for disposable entertainment, dys4ia challenges assumptions. But in the context of personal work—Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persopolis: The Story of a Childhood, Gob Squad’s experimental theater piece “Western Society” or Marina Abramović’s performance art piece The Artist is Present—the game also shows us a way games are like other expressive artforms. Like these works, the emphasis is place on authorial experience, not audience performance (even, as in the case of the Gob Squad and Abramović, there is audience participation).

dys4ia is not limited by traditional ideas of gameness. dys4ia isn’t an attempt to make us understand anna’s experience, or to make us more empathetic. The game is a way for anna to make sense of a particular moment in her life, and perhaps to share it with others with similar experiences. The player is separated from the game in two ways: the intimate yet alien act of playing within another person’s experience, and through the distance of time.

dys4ia is a work of ludic literature. It is a playable diary, as Paolo Pedercini and others have noted. Or, as anna probably puts it best, a game journal. Our role is not to play in order to make the moments our own, but to play so we can receive anna’s story. It is a story unfolded through play in the sense of mechanical engagement with an authorial intentionality we might align with poetry—most following poetry don’t view the works as “for them,” but rather created as an expression of the poet. To think of games as solely a space for player performance inside a design is to tragically limit games. dys4ia shows how an ever-present author is equally important. More than that, it is an ever-present author in a past moment. dys4ia explores anna’s experience before and during the game’s creation, in the same way a diary captures the time around its writing.

The game’s space of mechanical possibility is narrow. This makes sense, as the game is about anna’s experiences after all, not the player’s. When we play dys4ia, we aren’t role-playing or engaging with a rhizomatic play machine, nor are we exploring an imaginary place and its inhabitants. The vignettes are shaped more like memories or dreams than anything else—distillations of meaningful life experiences.

The game is composed of four chapters, each focused on a particular period during anna’s experience around hormone replacement therapy. The chapters contain a series of short entries or vignettes exploring a particular experience or feeling. The use of Warioware-esque mini-games to construct a series of ludic vignettes gives a flexibility within a structured whole. Within each vignette, anna could use the appropriate gesture while still letting it fit within the four-chapter structure. Sometimes, the vignettes reference games like Breakout or Ms. Pac-Man (or its many themed clones). Sometimes they borrow from matching games. The interactions performed by the player within each vignette illustrate a thought, an experience, a decision.

One of the more striking appears three times, once at the beginning, once in the middle and once toward the end. In the first instance, the player is presented with a puzzle piece, and a wall through which it must pass. Using the arrow keys, we move the piece along. At first glance, the piece seems like it won’t quite fit, even though it is exactly the shape of the hole. Careful navigation allows the piece to enter the gap, bringing up the first passage of text, “I feel weird about my body.” The role of the player in anna’s story is made clear, as is anna’s state of mind about her body. In the same way a comic artist might use metaphor to visualize an idea, anna uses an interactive gesture to illustrate a moment in her experience.

One of the things that first struck me about dys4ia was the clever dissonance between the graphics and the subject matter. The relationship between the visual style and anna’s story brings a poet’s sensibility to the game. The stylization of the people, places and objects brings clarity and focus, but also a particular feeling to the play experience. The same extends to the play itself. When we think of something as deeply personal and challenging as gender transitioning, bright, simple pixel graphics probably aren’t the first style that comes to mind. Lo-fi pixel graphics are more often associated with fluffy and ephemeral, not personal and painful. This stark contrast works well for the game, bringing clarity and force to anna’s conveyance of her experience. But it also speaks to the zinester community and its embrace of “craptastic” visuals and audio as a critique of craft and technology barriers keeping more people from making games.

The language in the game is kept brief and to the point. It is there to underline the ideas more than present them. I say this because the images and interaction often make the idea, event or experience clear. The text’s display is often used to give more nuance to the vignette and to serve as feedback on the player’s actions. In the first chapter, one vignette presents the player with a silhouette of anna trying to put on a tight-fitting shirt. “Girly Clothes” appears at the top of the screen, providing context for the player action—repeatedly clicking the down arrow to pull on the shirt. After a number of clicks, “don’t fit” appears at the bottom of the screen, emphasizing the point, but also confirming the player’s experience.

A couple years after dys4ia was released, I encountered another work of a woman’s experience with gender transition—Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me!. Like anna anthropy, Laura Jane Grace, the band’s lead singer, used the album to express aspects of her experience with transitioning to openly living as a woman. Songs like the eponymous “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” operate inside the idiom of the pop punk metal-tinged subgenre. At first listen, if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics, you might not think anything unexpected is going on with the song. The lyrics, however, suggest otherwise:

You want them to notice,

The ragged ends of your summer dress.

You want them to see you

Like they see every other girl.

They just see a faggot.

Listening to the song as a whole, lyrics and all, you can hear frustration and pain conveyed in a way that came natural to Laura Jane; she works from a place of artistically familiarity—guitar-driven punk-inflected rock. But unlike much of the band’s earlier music, there is a heartfelt, personal feel to the song. Laura Jane works through her experiences, feelings and desires, but doing so in the form she knows best. anthropy’s creation of dys4ia strikes me as similar in many ways—an artist working within a medium she knows well to share her experiences.

One striking difference between these two works is how they operate within their given mediums. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” as a song doesn’t depart from the style of Against Me! in any meaningful way beyond the lyrics. Being someone who doesn’t always pay close attention to lyrics, I’m not sure I even noticed the subject of the song at first. But with dys4ia, there is a reimagining of the form of games. anna composed from the materials of games—more often considered a form of entertainment—as a means of self-expression and exploration. In the process, she gave shape to something new: a game steeped in the history of games, but still unexpected in its use of the form.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues did create some controversy, but it was largely accepted and people moved on. The form of pop-punk was not the controversial aspect, after all. That dys4ia created (and continues to create) a ruckus speaks to the limited conception of games that we operate under. dys4ia, Depression Quest and Dear Esther continue to serve as mile markers in the maturation of games as a medium—in their reception and the way we think about what games can be. For me, they are clear signs of the medium of videogames broadening, becoming more flexible and embracing. That these games receive so much scorn is a sign that they have hit a nerve well worth striking.

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