Replayability

One of the ways in which a popular video game is often critiqued is on its replay value. Is it still fun the second time around, or the third, or the fourth? Do you glean new insights, or different interpretations, by replaying it? Does its story or gameplay even make you want to replay it, or do you get sick of it after one time through?

I was thinking about this component for the games that we’ve played in this class. After finding out the ending of Gone Home, which revolves around the mystery of “What happened?”, now that you know what happened, can it still be replayed? I imagine that if I were to play this again, my approach would be entirely different from my first time, where I was always so tense and driven to progress by the mystery of the plot. Instead, I would be much more relaxed and more willing to spend time exploring and finding those easter eggs that Taylor brought up. However, since it’s such a linear game, I don’t think I would be replaying it for the story.

That’s in direct contrast to something like Galatea, which is so multilinear that you can just keep playing again and again without getting everything, which is (for me) a huge incentive to replay it. I think this has a lot to do with what elements of the game are strongest – Galatea is almost purely content, with very little going for it in technical gameplay, which might make it frustrating and unappealing to someone who is purely interested in game mechanics. The storyline for Gone Home, on the other hand, is kind of a one-time deal, so in order for it to be replayable it would need some other compelling element.

Which of the games we covered would you all be open to replaying? Is replay important to your experience of a game? Are the particular reasons that make you go back to a game the same or different from what makes you go back to other forms, such as a book or a film? How strongly does a game’s replay value factor into your opinion of how “good” or “successful” it was? (And this isn’t just restricted to Gone Home and Galatea, it would also be interesting to talk about Braid and Rohrer and Dys4ia.)

Masking the Horror: Light & Music in ‘Gone Home’

When I was young (I’m talking like 6 or 7), I was absolutely terrified of the Carmen Sandiego video games, which I’m quite sure were not supposed to be actually terrifying. These were educational adventure mysteries designed to teach geography, math, history, etc. with a very low (to nonexistent) level of horror intensity, but I could never play beyond the first level or so due to my own expectation that Carmen might appear and I would be unable to catch her. Similarly, I played the Barbie Detective game series, which was a more sophisticated 3D point and click mystery that involved finding clues and chasing a shadowy figure that would spontaneously appear. That was also too terrifying for me, and I would frequently hand the controls over to my friends and watch as they chased those shadowy figures.

While playing Gone Home, I felt that same urge to duck and cover or just hand over the controls to a friend, even though I’m 21-years-old now and this game’s potential horrors never actually emerged. I needed to play through my own irrational fears, though, in order to experience the gameplay, so I found myself inventing ways to put myself at ease throughout the game. Initially, this meant playing the Turn On Every Light game. I’m calling it a sub-game, because that’s very much how I treated it: with each new light turned on, I achieved a new level of safeness. I suspect I wasn’t the only person who had this experience.

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 6.10.41 PM.png

The cassette tapes (and the record player) also factored heavily into this kind of distraction-based gameplay. Each time I entered a room with a music player, I immediately turned the music on, and to the best of my ability, I replayed the songs soon after they ended. This served to drown out the (beautiful! but) occasionally creepy ambient score and the frankly unwelcome thunderstorm, allowing me to dwell in Sam’s teen space.

This strategy of masking the ambience of the “Psycho House” with Sam’s riot grrrl aesthetics was ultimately very effective, and I think it allowed me to better connect with both Sam’s character and the larger ~purpose~ of the game. The ouija board, pentagram, and blood-red hair dye became un-frightening to me as soon as Sam was brought into the picture. Just as I tried to ease my personal fears and brighten the tone of the game by turning on lamps and listening to Sam’s energetic music, I-Kaitlin came to realize that her family was gone from home not because of something terrible but because of something really touching.

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 9.21.37 PM.png

Nazi Board Games (Really)

I fell into a board game Wikipedia rabbit hole a couple of days ago (as you do), and discovered there is an entire category of Nazi board games. The games include one called Juden Raus! where your player figures are all Jews (with big pointy hats) who you try to see off to deportation points so they can be sent to Palestine. Another requires the player to bomb London, presumably during the Blitzkrieg. Apparently, Goebbels himself had some hand in the creation of these games – one of his Principles Of Propaganda is:

TO BE PERCEIVED, PROPAGANDA MUST EVOKE THE INTEREST
OF AN AUDIENCE AND MUST BE TRANSMITTED THROUGH
AN ATTENTION-GETTING COMMUNICATIONS MEDIUM

There are worse ways of achieving that goal, especially with children, than creating a board game that models the behaviors you’re trying to inculcate as a propagandist.

Beyond a strong desire to play these games (seriously, if anyone finds a copy of Juden Raus I am very in), finding out about their existence raises a lot of questions about games for me, both about their nature as a formal medium and about their ability to communicate through play. We can be shocked by the existence of Nazi board games, but our own culture is full of children’s games that do roughly the same thing, indoctrinating kids into certain patterns of behavior or teaching them lessons, albeit ones less repulsive than deporting Jews. Certainly, Monopoly (which began life as The Landlord’s Game, designed to teach the unfair economic consequences of renting) and a whole host of other games implicitly and explicitly model the rules and norms of capitalism. Other games are made and played as teaching tools (I know Bea is currently making a game designed to communicate nutrition facts). Do these games serve as more powerful teaching instruments because they force the player to act out the systems they model or create, whether they’re capitalist or National Socialist? Do creators of these sorts of games have more of a responsibility to think about what they communicate? I don’t want to sound like someone trying to ban Grand Theft Auto or something like that, but I think these are super interesting questions about, in particular, the sorts of games we use to teach in early childhood. And come on… Nazi board games.

None of these games seem complicated enough for the play itself to communicate the message in the way, say, Braid occasionally seems to. You could imagine changing the names of the pieces and maybe conveying an entirely different message with the same mechanics of Juden Raus!. But one of the things we discussed (possibly just in my group) as a criterion for the category “art games” was an attempt to convey some idea beyond the enjoyable or “fun” experience of play itself. If that’s a way toward defining what we think of as “art games” today, are Nazi board games art games? Are they just propaganda? If they’re just propaganda because of the obviousness of the message, might a slightly simpler version of Galatea that focused almost entirely on one of Short’s themes (say, the male gaze) also merely be a piece of propaganda rather than an art game or interactive fiction? It’s probably not totally fair to compare those games (if Galatea is even a game), but the ways in which we often consider games to be “important” is divorced from the actual message of the game–it seems like frequently we simply care that there is one at all. Or, similarly, ignore the “message” to laud advances in the gameplay mechanics themselves (Grand Theft Auto). That seems to raise thorny questions about how we think about games, particularly when they communicate things we don’t like.

So where does that leave Nazi board games?

 

The gamer is dead, long live the gamer!

The last two weeks have thrown up numerous surprises for me. Earlier, I had dabbled in ‘popular’ games and had a fair taste of that cuisine. But the staggering variety of offbeat games that we have been subjected to in these two weeks has made me question the very definition of game and gamer that I had subconsciously built up in my mind. I mean I had never thought about it in the sense of a definition, but I had certain expectations from games. Mostly story based games I expected to move gradually to a harder level, with a storyline keeping it together and missions/ challenges along the way. Braid played with the concepts of game-time and in-came penalties. Then, Passage and Between showed me how to play ‘not fun’, boring games, more as a homework for the class than recreation.

This week had us playing two very contrasting games. While Galatea took away the game part of the narrative and made it completely gamer centric, in my opinion, Gone Home did the opposite. We chose the ending that suited us as a ‘gamer/reader/player’ in Galatea, with the narrative changing every time we interacted. Gone Home was unique in the way it told one single story, unmovable (at least I hope so, unless I am shocked to find that someone in the class has found himself/herself in the middle of an alternate story!). It gave us the exploratory powers that a gamer expects but managed to sustain a linear narrative without going into a linear gameplay mode. In other words, I never felt like moving from one ‘stage/level’ to another with varying difficulties (as most survival horror games would do) but that didn’t take away the somewhat linear narrative. I think the game was closer to detective video games that any other genre. The gamer only had to find the fixed storyline but the interaction and freedom made it an enriching experience that couldn’t have been possible in a mystery novel. Picking up a crumpled paper/note/book/magazine/pamphlet and reading it can be done once or twice in a novel but it would bore me to death if I were reading a novel that traces its line through exactly the same path that I took while playing this game. Or a movie, for that matter.

I agree I am being unfair when I say Gone Away takes away the ‘gamer’ part of the equation (Dys4ia did this successfully in my opinion) since we do choose our actions ourselves, but I felt like the game was using me to explore its storyline rather than me using the game for my pleasure. To check if I was the only one, I asked a friend of mine to play it. Now, this gamer friend of mine usually has little interest in the storyline and plays games for the ‘fun’ (Sample dialogues: “Look I beat up the policeman.” “Hey, I can fly here.” “I am using this unlimited ammo cheat.” “This is a cool shortcut to level 5”). I would consider him to be a typical gamer and he said he quit this game soon enough. And he, like me, believed that the game wanted to use us to complete its story rather than the other way around. Is this sample set of two people still producing an erroneous observation or do you guys agree? What did you feel, as a ‘reader’ and as a gamer?

Another linked (or not?) oddity in the game was the lack of mirrors anywhere in the house, even in the bathrooms. Though Sam mentions mirrors in one of her notes, the whole house never shows us our reflection. It is strange, to say the least, especially when we get to see Kaitlin right at the start (the portrait). Why then, would the game not show us ‘ourselves’? Is it done so that we don’t feel ‘odd’ in another character’s body? So that we can have a purer experience as Kaitlin? Remember, many first person adventure games do have mirrors. So, what aspiration of Gone Home prevents us from seeing ‘ourselves’? Is it to kill our ‘gamer’ by uniting us with the character? Or something else? Your thoughts?

Constructing Identity in Galatea

I think the choice of the myth Galatea is an interesting one for this game. When I hear Pygmalian, the first thing I think is My Fair Lady, the version with Audrey Hepburn. And the professor makes her over, and falls in love with her, not because he put her in new clothes and changed her physical appearance, but the set up is what gave them the opportunity to fall in love. So I had to look up the myth to understand the reference. A sculptor falls in love with his own creation, and it becomes animate, thanks to a god. And this game, or interactive fiction, or whatever you want to call it, involves us playing with something that doesn’t have life, but can produce many different reactions. While the quote from Emily Short that we read today suggested that she created Galatea as a way to explore interactive fiction. But I think it raises questions about games in general and what our role in the games means.

Galatea and the artist have a confusing relationship, the details of which seem to vary a bit depending on what track you take through the game, but regardless, she seems to be her own person, but only exists because of her physical self. I don’t totally have this worked out, but I feel like there’s an interesting relationship between the physical and the intangible. Galatea came into existence through her physical form; we only interact with her through this medium that keeps us imagining rather than seeing her, as the whole experience is through text, not visual. Further, you can use all the sensory verbs—again, through text, reading descriptions. Like I said, I don’t exactly know how to draw these threads together but maybe someone else has an idea…?

And just to throw one more thing into the mix, how does this relate to the way we create the narrative? We make Galatea’s story by interacting with her; it is through a relationship that she gets an identity. Is this intentionally raising questions about the ways we construct our own identity, and project our ideas onto other people through our interactions with them, and maybe commenting on the fluidity of identity itself?

Watching Survival Horror Games

As I suggested in class today, the formal appeal of the survival horror genre comes from how it induces cycles of heightened tension and relief, which arise from experiencing occasional scares/assaults that you cannot entirely pre-empt and are not sure your character will survive, and then managing to pull through anyway. Philosophically, the genre can offer a vision of reality/fantasy which posits that evil cannot be entirely vanquished, only avoided for the time being.

This account, however, mostly assumes the role of the player or the identifying watcher. A different pleasure of the survival horror game comes from hearing players scream or whimper their heads off. In this case, a watcher experiences distance from the typical tension/relief cycles thanks to the foregrounded audio of the player’s voice, so that the gap between the fear the player is feeling and the un-scary reality of the player’s merely virtual experience produces a hilarity instead, as in this Amnesia: The Dark Descent playthrough video:

Of course, part of the humor of watching such playthroughs probably also stems from a gap between the player’s maleness and his un-masculine expressions of fear. What do people think?

See also:

Time and Transition

I’ve never been much of a gamer (more of a watcher, whatever that might entail), but I’m familiar with enough of the tropes to appreciate how Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia was able to manipulate them like Braid had, but in a much shorter span of time. Like Braid, Dys4ia uses video game tropes to lend a sense of familiarity to the player while simultaneously dissociating them. For instance, on more than one occasion, the player’s goal is to fit blocks into their respective sections—however, the blocks don’t fit, thus the game doesn’t adhere to Tetris or its variants. The rules of video games, like the rules of gender, are made to be broken.

It called to mind an essay I read a few months ago, in an anthology of Doctor Who essays, called Queers Dig Time Lords. “Same Old Me, Different Face: Transition, Regeneration, and Change” accounts Jane Bigelow’s transition through an extended comparison to the Doctor’s series of regenerations. It’s an amazing essay, especially for those familiar with the franchise. Mostly, though, I was interested in the way both texts explore time in regards to transformation and transition. 

“Here’s a story I heard: somewhere there was a transgender woman trying to explain her transition to a geeky-but-otherwise-clueless friend. Nothing she tried could really convey what she was going through to him, until she described it in terms he could grasp. “It’s like I’m the Doctor,” she said. “Except I’m regenerating into a woman.”

His eyes lit up. He got it then.”

My basic observation is this: Dys4ia is, suffice to say, a very short game, and a fairly simple one. Despite that, there is never quite enough to time to explore the rules of each level—the player is rushed through without much time to consider the implications of Anthropy’s experience. It creates a coherent narrative due to our expectations of it, but is otherwise disjointed in both chronology and rules. When the levels begin to repeat with variation, the player is invited to view the process of transformation—not into the expected video game trope (the block fits into the hole), but one that is unique and further changed (the block flashes and shifts but still doesn’t fit).

Bigelow’s essay explores something similar. When the doctor knows he will be regenerating in the near future, he makes a survey of his life (across timelines), says goodbye to old places and people; he will be a different person soon, even if he is in many ways the same. There is never enough time, though, so say goodbye, never enough time for him to understand the “rules” of a given lifetime before the irrevocable change. Each regeneration is the same, but different.

I suppose these two transwomen’s accounts—though different in both form and content—made me consider the possibilities of genre in regards to expressing change. A straightforward, “realist” account of a transition did not suffice for either creator; instead, elements of science fiction, time travel, game play, and the blurring of time and space, were necessary to express their respective subjective experiences. Genre or new media elements, to me, express the inexpressible, or at the very least, invite their audiences to experience something they might have otherwise never attempted to understand. In the case of Dys4ia and Bigelow’s Who essay, audiences are moved through disjointed, fabricated time in order to understand the process of transitioning. I found it to be extremely emotionally resonant. What do you all think?

“It’s a small thing, but I feel like I’ve taken the first step toward something TREMENDOUS.”

 

Art Games and Boredom

I’ve been thinking more about the concept of the “fun” that my group talked about in class.  Patrick mentioned how the universal perception of what “fun” should look like, sound like, etc. has naturalized a single prototype of video games as the ideal form for the entire industry.  Is what we consider fun conditioned by a simulacrum of fun that gets manufactured somewhere in the interstitial spaces between the realistically radically different individual perspectives on fun? 

Since it’s supposed to be the case that “gaming” is what we do to relieve ourselves from the stress of “working,” gaming should inherently strive to be “fun,” right? And that supposedly means that the most statistically popular games share the most characteristics with the simulacrum of the ideal form of the “fun” game.  Some of the properties of the so-called “fun” games share, as we discussed in class include spectacular visuals, immersive experience characterized by perspective-based control, and narrative with a clear objective.

 Specifically, the goal-oriented aspect of mainstream games is challenged in the art games that we played for class.  Some contemporary examples of video games focus on the experiential aspect of gameplay, as opposed to putting the entire emphasis on competing towards a singular objective.  In fact, more than a few games deliberately and overtly obscure what, if any, the player is working towards, and makes statement out of it.

The experience of playing Between, for example, did not involve any kind of dramatic emotional rollercoaster riding towards pre-determined climactic moments, but rather, was an experience in itself.  The lack of a explicitly designated endpoint, or a presence of a very murky one at best, forced me to make decisions in the present moment for their own sakes rather than deliberate a future moment which may-or-may-not exist.  The prospect of not having a satisfying finale perhaps fulfills exactly the expectations for the antithesis of the conventional “fun” in video games.  Lack of objective also connotes a lack of consistent validation or approval, which conventionally encourages and fuels the player through some of the less “fun” parts of “fun” games, and without any of that, the game is essentially empty of “fun.”

 So why are we drawn to these games that are not “fun”? I am not returning to Heidegger’s notion of “profound boredom” now.  I spent a lot of time not doing anything, or, waiting while playing Between, both because I literally did not know how to proceed but also as a strategic tool, and those in between moments of silence and stillness began to dominate my gameplay experience, more so than the actual kinetic, active moments.  As opposed to in my experience playing spectacle-based, fast-paced RPG games, where I am busy making sense of the myriad of events exploding in your face at any given moment, I was doing a lot more internalizing of what was going on, as if my digestion of the game was as much the part of the gaming experience as the game itself.  It’s as if we are taking the “grinding” moments in traditional RPG games and expanding that into its own universe, and enhancing it, as the “grinding” moments at least have some kind of ulterior purpose in RPG games.

 A particularly impactful example of a “boring” art game, I think, is “Everyday the same dream” (http://www.molleindustria.org/everydaythesamedream/everydaythesamedream.html).  The graphic design of the game is very simple and basic, and so are the game play controls and the progression.  In this specific case, the inanity of the gaming experience marvelously mirrors its subject matter of the repetitive and droning routine of a modern working person.  Going through the routine within the diegetic world of the game over and over again without encountering any surprises or changes for a long while, I was being evoked the similar sentiments of frustration that I feel in my own real life routine.  At that point, I realized that I kept on playing the game as opposed to quitting it not to be thrilled or laugh, but to interrogate my own bodily experience in reality.

Between Words

I was thinking about the Rohrer interview and his discussion of Between as a game about the gaps between people. In my Mind class, my professors presented us with a statistic that was something along the lines of “In a conversation with another person, one person usually only understands 40% of what the other person is saying.” That’s not to say that people don’t understand the meaning of others’ words, but that the connotations, and some of the more inexpressible things that people try to vocalize, are lost in translation. As Rohrer says, and as the game embodies, “Your red is my cyan. Your music is my silence.”

We don’t pass on every block that we create in our worlds, and we don’t receive every block the other person creates in theirs. Sometimes, as in my case, your partner doesn’t even have the chance to see one of the six essential blocks if it doesn’t get passed on. I even tried to deliberately manufacture them in her world by acting from my end, but she ended up with a whole pile of another color instead. What I wanted to convey didn’t go through, and my efforts ended up causing something else entirely.

The entire time I was playing Between, I kept wondering whether my partner had stopped playing or not. We were online for about three hours trying to figure out how to play and interact, and in the end we didn’t manage to finish the game. Because it took so long, I felt a strange sense of urgency – “Is she getting bored? I hope she hasn’t left. I want to finish the towers, but I’m afraid it’s taking too long.” The strange thing about Between is that even after you complete the towers, you don’t get any trophies or rewards for doing it. In the end, there’s no motivation to finish the towers except for the players’ curiosity. It brings out the weirdness of interacting with someone in real life: wondering if the other person is paying attention, wondering if they care about the interaction as much as you, and working toward what you perceive to be a common goal only to find out at the end that there isn’t very much to see at the finish line.

 It makes me think of Jonathan Blow’s interview about the ending of Braid (which was discussed in an earlier entry), where he kept repeating that the things he was trying to get at with the game were difficult to “verbalise”. A video game is a form in which you don’t have to use words to communicate, unlike with books. And although you don’t read anything in movies either, you can go through a game without a single word, as in the case of Between and Passage. Maybe that’s why the ideas that Blow and Rohrer play with work so well in this medium, because it allows the audience to think about the themes without always having to frame and perhaps reduce them to words.

Narrative Complicity & The Function of the Avatar

I wanted to talk about the function of the game avatar in relation to the player. I think in a lot of genres it’s the implicit assumption that you do or should feel like that avatar, the figure you’re controlling and making move across the screen, is you. And that’s often true! Think of all the casual games where you operate a customized avatar that is literally supposed to be you, or an idealized version of yourself–the Mii, or customizable avatars in MMOs, for example. But I think as a consequence of that, the 1:1 player:avatar correspondence gets written into our minds as a tenet when it really isn’t, and applied where it frankly doesn’t fit.

A lot of the discourse about games and particularly games-as-art revolves around this idea of identification and complicity: because games are interactive, because we’re playing games, we are or feel responsible for the decisions we make in them, and the actions we take, in a way that is not true for other genres. (Think of a game like Passage, where the way we approach the unknown game is a metaphor for the way we approach ~life~) But–I don’t know if it’s because I’m coning at this from an RPG perspective or what, but I’m a little skeptical of that perspective. There are plenty of games where you play and are represented by defined characters, with defined backstories and personalities, which are often not really like the backstories and personalities of people who play video games.

Specifically with regards to Braid, a lot of our discussion has revolved around our (single-minded, goal-oriented) gameplay and how that mirrors Tim’s quest and his ultimate lack of self-awareness about his own nature. It’s easy to postulate that we are supposed to feel complicit, “like Tim” in advancing the game just because “that’s how it works,” ignorant of the fact that “we” were the villains all along–that’s a seductive idea in some ways, and I can see where it’s coming from, but I admit that I never really bought it. I never felt complicit in Tim’s villainy because I never identified or felt sympathetic to Tim. Actually, I was kind of suspicious of him from the very beginning, and I would say that the game almost seemed to encourage that idea. If you read the text bits before each world, you learn that Tim:

  • is resentful that someone he has wronged cannot forgive him perfectly and instantly
  • idealizes a state of being where everything is perfect forever and nothing ever changes
  • whines about how he doesn’t belong at home because his parents don’t understand him

and I could go on, but the point is–the narrative paints a picture of someone who is not a great guy, someone who is immature, self-centered, and a little bit entitled.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, he was someone who I instinctively separated myself from, from the very beginning. It made me wonder if the game might not be doing something different with the avatar, but I’m curious as to what you think, and how you related to Tim as your avatar–did you feel that same sense of separation, or did you approach it from a default position of “this guy I’m controlling is me”?