frustration in Galatea

In class and on the blog, several people have mentioned the frustration that seems inherent to the experience of playing Galatea. I really loved the game (I’m calling it a game here mostly for convenience, not to make an argument about the distinction between interactive fictions and games), but, especially during the first few plays, I also felt that frustration. A lot of the time, I think that the game was resistant in a useful way, but I could also see how it might prevent a player from playing through more than once or twice. I want to think about this frustration as a product of the tension between the content/mode of engagement that the game requires and the formal elements that it delivers. 

I’m particularly interested in the way that the objectives of Galatea (what we might get out of it) do or don’t match up with the ways of achieving them that the form seems to propose. “Objectives” are obviously difficult to talk about in this game, even after playing it a few times or reading potential endings (both of which actually make things murkier in terms of “objective”). But this matters on a really basic level — when you start playing you don’t know what sorts of things you might be aiming for, so it’s hard to know what actions to take. So your initial actions, and maybe all of your actions, have to be kind of shots in the dark. You undertake them not to move toward some specific goal, usually, but with the hope that performing them will give you a better idea of what that goal could be. 

But also the interactions that the game seems to formally suggest aren’t really conducive to getting to anything meaningful. The potential routes for investigating things or achieving objectives that are suggested to us either by the text-based format are generally unproductive. In the form of a more traditional text-adventure game, it makes sense to begin to move around the space, find objects, and understand your options. But in Galatea, this leads to blank walls, and ultimately to the game ending. 

Interacting with Galatea herself doesn’t really resolve this problem — you are bound get a bunch of “your question cannot be formed into words,” which imply that you are failing to understand the basic conventions of gameplay, not that you are starting down the path that leads you to the more interesting endings. Even when you can form your questions into words, Galatea starts out as cold and difficult to engage. This is really necessary to the plot(s) and the potential payoff(s), but it also makes the game particularly frustrating. This could be an asset — not having much of a guide allows the game to be open-ended and reflective of what the player puts into it. I think that the game’s formal elements, especially the ambiguity and lack of visual representation, are a great way to get at the problem of making meaning out of an interaction with another being. But the frustration sometimes seems to go beyond this function in ways that aren’t useful.

I wonder if there would be a way for Galetea to ease the player into a new way of interacting with the traditional text-adventure format. As we discussed, Braid does this wonderfully — it forces us to reconsider the conventions of a platformer, but at the same time it uses our familiarity with them as a baseline from which to move. Galatea’s form also brings to mind a specific type of gameplay, but it doesn’t seem to use its player’s familiarity as effectively. I think that Galatea might provoke a meaningful experience more consistently if it could use the gameplay cues implied by its formal structure as a means to better teach the reader how to play it.

1 thought on “frustration in Galatea

  1. I think that the issue of “giving up” is particularly relevant to the sorts of issues that you’re talking about here. I remember at least one student mentioning that they quit Galatea before they could reach an ending. Unlike with books, movies, or TV shows, where ceasing to read or watch is usually due to a lack of interest or time, with Galatea (as well as with video games), quitting is usually the result of being unable to progress. If a given player cycles through a series of actions in Galatea that either are impossible to complete or fail to progress the story in any noticeably meaningful way, the player can easily become too frustrated and simply give up–and this possibility creates more difficulty for the game to communicate its themes to its audience and a greater risk that such communication will fail. I definitely agree with you that some mechanism that would allow Galatea to coax the player more easily into its own mechanics might help to reduce this risk, but I wonder if such a mechanism might go too far in the opposite direction and remove too much of the frustration to communicate the themes that Galatea is trying to get across. This seems to be a balance that all (or at least many) games must strike, between keeping the player sufficiently frustrated while still compelling them to continue playing, and I wonder how Galatea could have better achieved that balance.

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