Not even a year into my illustrious career and already we're digging things up from the vault. Less for the best-selling hardcover collections, but I think I'll manage.
But first, a foreword. I got into a number of decent discussions over the piece from people who bothered to read it instead of jumping onto the dog pile, which thankfully prevented this thing from being a complete wash. While I stand by the critiques of Dys4ia and Lim I make here, I wholly realize these games are important works by sheer virtue of their existence; I even had the privilege of watching their well-deserved lionization in real-time with the announcement of the IGF finalists.
But I'm not interested in all-or-nothing criticism and analysis; merit can be found in failures, and flaws can be found with success. I felt that these games were important steps into the future, but not the attainment of that future. Anna Anthropy disagrees with me; if she thought something was wrong, she would have made her game a different way. We come from wholly opposite viewpoints on the nature of games and what their strengths as a medium are, and that's where dialog happens. All writers inherently forward an agenda, and I felt like blanket approval didn't serve mine. Busting chops and being all edgy isn't my thing, and most people who make it a habit are hacks, but there still needs to be room for measured praise.
Okay that was all boring but this is my blog damn it I DID IT FOR ME. Okay here it is.
When someone creates a work with the intent for it to be consumed by an audience, there are expectations that come with it. They're not immutable, but patterns emerge. They generally derive from the nature of the work, the medium used to convey it, the venue of its presentation, and the creator's intent in choosing these aspects. How much license is given to the audience is a crucial part of this.
Movies and television are generally passive experiences, while books and music leave room for imagination and use of the mind's eye. Mediums like improvisational theatre and interactive fiction begin to anticipate the participation of their audience, and while their arcs may hew towards specific results, there is room for divergence; experiences can become any of various iterations, and when living people are involved, instances can be truly unique.
The level of trust that the creator or creators of a work place in their audience can generally be measured in terms of how prescriptive the story is, and ultimately whose story is being told. Having various outcomes does not mean ceding authorial control, but the means of achieving them, the pathways to reach them, and the degree of divergence between them do.
In all mediums, there is no outright invalid approach, only varying degrees of success which can only ever truly be known by the creators and intuited by critics or analysts. The audience will take away whatever message they've formulated from their own experiences regardless, and trying to dictate what they will conclude is the primary purpose of a work. The tools of creation are a system of coding a message, and their efficacy is measured in how well or how poorly that message is transmitted and decoded into ideas and emotions. Whether or not you want to deem it "art" or "high art" is irrelevant to the core principle: communication.
So then, how do games communicate? Traditionally, they create a system of rules that govern interaction, and the experiences a player goes through and the techniques they use in pursuit of their goal are meant as the tools of conveying that message. The act of "play", structured or unstructured, with a game or a toy, alone or with others, is the creation of a testing bed for whatever the game asks of its player.
The notion of the "play frame" that distinctly dissociates a game from reality dates back to Gregory Bateson in the 1950s, and explains the power of play in deducing things about ourselves and our capacities. A game's power comes from seeing what a player is capable of, and the story that results from their actions is the key. Games are inherently designed to be trivial in relation to the greater whole of life; something being "just a game" is often used as a battle cry to defend objectionable and/or socially regressive content, but beyond that nefarious smokescreen is something more: the true source of the form's power.
Here's where the trouble starts. At a certain point, experimental deconstruction becomes nothing more than destruction, and the agreement between a player and the game breaks down. It's the reason the catchphrase "ludo-narrative dissonance" cyclically falls in and out of vogue. It's a reflection of the various shortcomings in recent games large and small. It's why finding profundity in games often amounts to sociopathy, and why adding superficial interactivity is a farce that does more harm than good to a story. What might seem like a bold challenge to preconceived notions at a cursory glance is often just another round of empty and misguided posturing, making fools of those who fall for it.
I have a great and abiding respect for Dys4ia's Anna Anthropy and Lim's Merritt Kopas, and their stories deserve to be heard by as many people as possible. That said, their respective games attempting to directly tackle the issue of gender dysmorphia seem to do a disservice. Their visual representation is simplistic, as are the means of completing them. No amount of emotional heft can override that I "beat" both experiences in 5 to 10 minutes, and the most evident takeaway I got from both was a mild and brief sense of inconvenience.
As much as I understand that I can never truly know their struggles, I feel that their games provided a vastly inferior window into their individual worlds than even a cursory familiarity with their biographies provides. Important messages are not aided by oversimplification, and to claim interactivity will cover any deficit in meaning is to utterly discount things as human as sympathy and empathy. I'm grateful that their bodies of work, in both written prose and other games, exist to provide the clarity both women so richly deserve, but I still see those specific instances as mis-steps. For something that seems like it wants an audiovisual experience with tight authorial control, choosing a medium open to audience influence or subterfuge like video games just seems like one of the worst possible choices compared to more rigidly passive mediums.
Being admonished for so much as participating in a game is another dead end that seems to rear its head constantly. The ham-fisted hand-wringing of Spec Ops: The Line, the mocking of a player's obedience in Bioshock, and the "Nazi surprise" in the board game Train are nothing new, let alone revelatory. Each begins on the faulty assumption of its extremely rigid construction and ruleset being an accurate reflection of real people in complex circumstances, then plays its big twist and draws its conclusions from there. It provides a finite selection of undesirable choices within its "safe space", then calls us monsters as if those were the only choices we could or would make in real life. I've been duped into doing evil in Crackdown and been admonished for "my" senseless violence in No More Heroes, and at least those had the intellectual honesty to be ridiculous and shallow upfront.
Faulty choice, be it binary or convergent or illusory, is not as egregious an offense, but it's much more widespread and still problematic. Bioware have practically made it a plank of their design platform, and in doing so have built a brand on rudimentary power fantasies. Their games are as riddled with unhealthy projection and sociopathic moral reductionism as many of the military first person shooters they're supposedly an antidote to. Some games manage to compensate with sheer pathos, like The Walking Dead adventure games, but even those who praised it all the way onto year-end best-of lists have occasionally voiced problems with its structure and mechanics.
The fault isn't really with the designers themselves, who are reaching for (and failing to achieve) meaningful choice, but the unrealistic expectations of digital games to be able to satisfy those demands in the first place when it's currently beyond their scope. Computers have finite processing power with which to model some rickety semblance of a reality, and there are often sacrifices made to create a space in which the player's actions have relevance. Quantic Dream's experiments with sacrificing depth of input for breadth of story in Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain were fascinating, but ultimately came up short. Most people came pretty comfortably to that conclusion, but for some reason, games that invert that same problem by giving control but stripping player agency have yet to be roast on the same spit. Simply put, being satisfied with the mere feeling of being in control of a game's proceedings is to only evaluate a single facet of the work and be smug in one's own ignorance, and positing the theft of player agency as some grand statement on nihilist philosophy is nothing short of intellectual charlatanism.
There is a third way, however. Look at the games that create individual moments, then let the player draw their own significance and make a compelling story from there. The shared experiences of players in games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown or Minecraft or a particular open-ended Dungeons & Dragons module all carry the spark of humanity in them. Games with large communities focused on multiplayer have their own entire histories, which the best players can become a part of. As socially problematic as the sexism and racism of stereotypical FPS and fighting game players might be, that is just a byproduct of their demographic composition; their communities' core revolves around play and the interactions fostered through the promise of testing and comparing skill. The inclusion of half-baked multiplayer modes in story-heavy games are almost a vestigial reflex in acknowledgment of a truth we seem to be losing: drama requires a human element, and most high-profile games only succeed in stamping it out.
Consider Johan Sebastian Joust in the following thought experiment. Build the functionality into a devoted hardware "jousting wand" and sell the rights to Milton Bradley to put it in the toy aisle on a shelf below Bop It. Sure, it's not the talk of the video game community anymore, and no way on Earth is it a Kickstarter darling driving the Sportsfriends pack to success, but playing it isn't any less fun. That's because it would be the same game, and just as worthy of praise for its design, just as playing "prison chess" where you get shivved for winning doesn't change the rules of chess or make it a different game. The audience can't escape context when it's time for them to engage something, but the work itself is always free.
Joustin' Johan would be as big an afterthought punchline to most games writers and indie designers as Mr. Bucket. It would have no cultural capital to help validate the cesspool of a subculture they've anchored themselves to, at least compared to the games playing dress-up in the closets of the "grown-up" mediums. Games become nothing more than a safe label to avoid the scrutiny and competition of artists and designers in more established forms, even if it means co-opting pre-existing communities like interactive fiction just to prop up the sagging tent. The computerized mimicry of what real people are capable of will inevitably wilt in the light of scrutiny for as long as we insist on working against the strengths of games as a medium.
This isn't a blanket condemnation, or a proclamation these problems are impossible to solve. It's simply a call to realize that these games are not the panacea that so many others would have you believe. For my misgivings about games like Lim or Dys4ia, they are almost certainly are a better hint of the way forward than hopeless piles of self-hating reductionism like Yager Development's long-gestated stillbirth. At the very least they're a shelter of social responsibility when we constantly struggle to so much as keep up with modern mores. The trap to avoid is the assumption we've reached the end of the road.