Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Short on Games: October 2015

A slight departure; this month's Short on Games will focus briefly on a number of games that I played at, or found through, Indiecade and QGCon Local.

Tribal & Error


Tribal & Error is a game about language built to be playable regardless of the language(s) the player knows. The player controls a little tape player sent back in time to the ice age, to help 'cavemen' survive. The player discovers that there is a sort of language among them, and uses it to aid the humans in their troubles. The demo was short – you can also find it here – but interesting. The core mechanical conceit is a rich way of combining accessibility with expression, which is worthy of praise. The narrative conceit rubs up against a pet peeve of mine: the "cavemen with capitalist familial organization" trope, though that isn't necessarily the story. I'd be pretty hype if it didn't devolve into that.


Uni is a Twine game about a nonbinary unicorn lady's first day at college. Probably the most interesting things about it for me personally are fairly tied together. I want to describe Uni's tone as "mixed," but that isn't quite right. It finds some amount of balance between the 'personal' tone that a lot of Twine employs, and a more oppositional tone that a lot of other Twine employs. I liked that mixture, even though the two rarely appeared immediately juxtaposed. The only possible exception is when the player attempts to apologize. The other aspect is slightly more (videogame) formal. Uni looks very much like it was built in Twine 2.0, and it does a thing that I don't remember seeing much in Twine games: it assumes the use of the built in back buttons. There are certain paths that branch to an end and yet are still written like they mean for the player to continue onwards. I found this incredibly baffling at first, and not in a bad way. That oppositional tone mixes with the game's design choice to use the UI in a neat way, I think, especially since so much of the tone (this is a shitty word; I am using it in a literary criticism sense) is directed at the player for things like invading the privacy of the character.


Engare is a line-drawing puzzle game by Mahdi Bahrami. It has something of an oleomingus aesthetic and the interactions reminded me, at least somewhat, of the work of Talha Kaya. I was really bad at it, but it was pretty and seemed neat.
Gathering Sky


Gathering Sky is a painterly birdflocking sim. I have no idea if it does anything other than drops you into a painting as a bird and asks you to figure out how to move and gather birds; if it does, that's a shame. As you fly around, lines will appear that will guide you. Touching or getting near other birds will have them join you. Sometimes other little lines will appear that you can touch and eventually they pop and maybe ding against a crystal and that's nice. Sometimes you fly through big cloud banks.
Blush or Burn


Blush or Burn is a Visual Novel where you competitively flirt with another player on the same keyboard. I played it alone, so I was mostly trying to figure out if it was just rock paper scissors with the three options each player had or something less straightforward. I really failed to determine whether it was because it was cute and I was too distracted.
60 Seconds!


60 Seconds! is a timed 3D dash-and-grab and survival Visual Novel. The dash-and-grab is neat since you are looting your own home. It kind of controls like a PSX Rugrats videogame. That's not a bad thing, I think. The survival game that it leads into seems to be the bulk of the game, and involves resource management based on the things got during the dash-and-grab. There's wandering around and little cute storytelling bits there. That part seemed okay.


Abzû lets you be in a school of fish and ride a manta ray. I've been playing Aquanaut's Holiday a lot lately so I got kind of excited about this. Aquanaut's Holiday is more my speed, but Abzû seemed neat too. The game is gorgeous, and it controls in a way that might be called swimmy. Moving around in the world is neat. I played it passing off the controller with someone who wasn't super familiar with the Dualshock controller, and she was clearly struggling, but not in a necessarily negative way. The big concern I have about Abzû after the demo is, presumably, going to be its selling point. The game seems like it is going to be the sort of thing that is advertised according to its Emotional Narrative and Emergent Gameplay. If they don't do that – if they allow it to exist on the strength of its awkwardness and beauty – I still won't play it because I don't have a Playstation 4, but I'd be much more disappointed in missing it.
Seven Day Band


Seven Day Band is a 7 Day Roguelike in the style of Angband. The gimmick is that you develop the game as you play it. As you wander around the ASCII world and discover things, they can be changed; you name the enemy initially, and determine how strong they are and so on. The person manning the booth – who I'm fairly certain was the developer – explained to me that his motivation was his assumption that when most people say they want to make a game, what they mean is that they want to change the content on an existing structure. Then I played it and he spent the whole time arguing about evolution and voluntary human extinction with some randos? That was weird. The idea behind the game is incredibly neat though, although I don't know how much I dug the implementation, no matter how much Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup I've been playing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

24 Theses on The Beginner's Guide

A suggestion: aside from the obvious way of reading, these theses may be read as three separate essays. The top of each section as one, the middle as another, and the bottom as the third (so, e.g., thesis seven follows from thesis four follows from thesis one; nine follows from six follows from three). This is not mimetic.

  1. Everything worth attending to in The Beginner's Guide is handled better in Problem Attic.

  2. Complicity is a hollow eggshell. A thin protective layer around a pocket of air.

  3. My Let's Play.

  4. * * * * *

  5. Cara Ellison names Return of the Sunfish and How Do You Do It? and Twine and Kojima; Brendan Keogh names Papers, Please and This War of Mine and Alien Isolation; Kris Ligman names Braid; Jed Pressgrove names Off-Peak; Emily Short names The Magic Circle and Anna Anthropy and Stephen Lavelle (Increpare) and Michael Brough and Pippin Barr and Robert Yang and Porpentine and Tale of Tales; Austin Walker names Counter-Strike and Mario Maker; Carolyn Michelle names Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Inquisition; Tyler Wilde names Her Story; Hayden Dingman names Ken Levine and Sid Meier and Tim Schafer and Cliff Bleszinski; Bob Mackey names Sunset and Undertale; Christopher Byrd names The Old City: Leviathan; Cameron Kunzelman names Kitty Horrorshow and Brendon Chung; Jeffrey Matulef names Journey and Rez and El-Shaddai. In no sense is this exhaustive.

  6. The pocket of air the eggshell protects is the flimsy, worthless theorization that bubbles up words like "immersion" and "interactivity."

  7. I call (3) a critical Let's Play because I made it in conversation with criticism surrounding The Beginner's Guide, and because it owes its existence to the work being done in the field by folks like Lana Polansky, Heather Alexandra, Liz Ryerson, and Zolani Stewart. The main difference being that the bulk of critical Let's Play work is done by adding the creator's voice to provide context and interpretation, whereas my own is an attempt of removing a voice or two to provide the same.

  8. * * * * *

  9. The most obvious connection between Problem Attic and The Beginner's Guide is that the former is "a game about prisons, both real and imaginary" (the creator's description) while The Beginner's Guide is a game about a designer who makes games about prisons (at least some of the time) that are aggressively interpreted at the player as both real and imaginary.

  10. I am using "complicity" in this context as an affect, a reaction to primarily narrative elements that is written onto the body. That the narrative elements are primary does not mean they are foundational, however; the fundamental experience of complicity in this sense is tied to an understanding of the medium of videogames as one that privileges interactivity.

  11. The initial point is, ultimately, so obvious as to be dubiously useful. The first video begins with my own navigation of the start menu. I set up the gamepad that I will use for the bulk of the play; I then go into the Audio submenu, and use the given option to turn off the Narration. This element, which is absolutely central to every single interpretation of the game so far, also happens to be an optional element.

  12. * * * * *

  13. Kris Ligman's reading of The Beginner's Guide's similarities to Braid evokes Ryerson's postmortem of Problem Attic, "The Other Side of Braid." Ryerson writes (in the third person): "If Braid was from the perspective of a white man with a lot of power and resources, her game, Problem Attic, was supposed to be from the perspective of a protagonist with no power, with very little ability to escape or make sense of their situation."

  14. The privileging of interactivity is productive of affects other than complicity, of course. Frustration, triumph and boredom stand at the center. Reflection and disassociation. Complicity is unique only insofar as it is the affect that is just as tied to formal properties, but requires that it be narrativized to be explicitly enacted.

  15. Playing The Beginner's Guide without narration brings about few surprises. The curation frame is more limited, but still obviously present in the intertitle cards/loading screens; any time the narrator would offer to do something, it no longer happens, but other 'changes' remain intact. You must crawl up the stairs and wait in the prison, but the lampposts are still where they were and the housekeeping still ends when it did.

  16. * * * * *

  17. Criticism of The Beginner's Guide occasionally takes an aside to note that certain aspects of the game, and specifically its reception, benefit from material privileges in both broad and narrow social senses. This is not an aside.

  18. Interactivity is already a constellation of ideas and practices. Quoting Brendan Keogh quoting Espen Aarseth: "[Aarseth] notes that 'interactive' is a weasel word that 'connotes various vague ideas of computer screens, user freedom, and personalized media, while denoting nothing… To declare a system interactive is to endorse it with a magic power.'"

    In a more generous reading, interactivity is shorthand for these things, alongside manual dexterity and skill, granted and stolen powers of expression and obedience, a certain influence over the universal temporality of a text, and a(n ideological) real material influence that is mostly seen in cultural reflections like mod scenes. In short, complicity.

  19. The one real surprise, though, was that the narrator's ending of Whisper was excised entirely; the player does not experience the "death" animation in the beam; only the floating.

  20. * * * * *

  21. Problem Attic feels, at times, uncomfortably mimetic of precisely the privileging of interactivity. There is a constant sliding back towards a reading of the game that centers its ludothematic harmony; how its punishing mechanics are extensions of or reflections on its difficult themes. This isn't untrue of the game, but it also largely does not matter, except insofar as that argument might be a rhetorical tool to bring the game into conversations that require their interactive shibboleth for entry.

  22. Despite its synthetic qualities – what one might decide is its unique polyvocality, if one were being incredibly generous – interactivity is largely a useless rubric in thinking about, playing, or otherwise doing anything with videogames. It erases approaches to them as texts, per Keogh, and as situated within history equally.

  23. The implication of this lacking animation is fairly obvious: by turning the narrator off, the experience of playing The Beginner's Guide is significantly closer, if not totally identical, to the "original" games created.

  24. * * * * *

  25. Jed Pressgrove castigates The Beginner's Guide as being "a sob-story expansion of [Mattie] Brice's 'Death of the Player' essay," while a number of other critics reach for their Barthes. Strangely, none bring up Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation," which seems particularly appropriate. According to Sontag, "[t]he interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really - or, really means - A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?" The Beginner's Guide's narrator is a masterclass in this particular style. Didn't you know that prisons mean depression? That machines mean depression? That questions mean depression? The game's dramatic irony is that it is flipped onto his character, of course, in the end; the interpreter forgot to know thyself, and in doing so committed some reprehensible acts. The historical conditions that Sontag identified have finally been personified, in a nicely metatextual videogame.

  26. Interactivity distills all potential affect down to the feeling that an argument has been lost.

  27. Which itself does little more than to shuffle the narrative pieces. Perhaps Coda's accusation that the narrator kept inserting lampposts wasn't literal, but was in accordance with the reading the narrator had given of them to begin with. Coda, in other words, might not have been referring to the in-game objects, but to interpretation as such, per (19).

  28. * * * * *

  29. The impulse that drives (16) is interpretive. Which is to say: despite interactivity's erasures, it is no more against interpretation than the conspiracist. The validity of (1) rests not within metaphor, but execution.

  30. The Bioshocks and the Spec Ops' didn't suck out the yolk; they simply pointed to the shell.

  31. "The only way to win is to stop playing" is only because interactivity is feeling complicit.