Tag Archives: anna anthropy

Without Money How Were the Nobles to Survive?

La La Land (2006) is a series of five short games by Matt Aldridge with recurring themes and a consistent protagonist. Of the series, Anna Anthropy has written: “in the way that static might draw attention to the pauses in a phone conversation, la la land emphasizes those vast between-spaces in the dialogue between player and game.” Anthropy’s description eloquently explains why these games defy explanation. They accent pieces of interaction we’re not used to talking about with words. In some ways, the games practically play themselves, though probably not in the exact ways you’re thinking.

La La Land 1 is the opposite of what most would think of as a “first level” or introduction. It greets you with confusion and apprehension, jagged geometry and dark, visual noise. The screen is hard to look at. The sound is made up of chords played backwards and low, guttural vocals in a fake language on a broken record player. You control a cute, grey, cat with an open, red mouth and lopsided ears. Of this cat there are many copies onscreen at any given time. A large, numerical score audaciously punctuates the chaotic backdrop, laughable in its contrasting clarity. This number spastically jumps around on the screen, tracking your progress as you fetch lighting-bolt-like collectables. It serves as a comforting, familiar trope, reminding you of progress and grounding your participation in the confusion. Because even as you are thrown into the unfamiliar you are still jumping, performing an act of familiarity, a thing that’s like a handshake in the videogame space. The game, however, is content to limit this familiarity. You can’t jump to higher surfaces, and your character spawns at random elevations.

The cooperative understanding that normally unites player and system is notably absent. This game feels like it’s fighting you, and it feels broken, but in a very intentional way, as if selectively comprehending a small percentage of your input for its own manipulative purposes. Rewards are glimpses of videogame logic, scattered in the noise. The sensation is that the system enjoys messing with you but is not entirely in control of itself. Considered as an introduction, One immediately sets the series apart. Instead of attempting to instruct or govern the player’s approach, it concentrates on evoking a desired mood. Out of the entire series, this game is the longest. The most frustrating. The most abstract.

Two is shorter and more direct. Greeted by onscreen text and a hulking, swaggering “poor fishhead in need of money,”  you learn that your cat protagonist is called Biggt. Shooting and jumping abilities are gone. All you can do is walk left or right. In the adjacent screen, you encounter two more fishheads, marked as nobility by their formal attire and fancy wine glasses. The fishhead nobles sit at either end of a long, wooden table, jerking spastically, as Biggt’s doppelganger stands in the middle of the room crying yellow tears. An amorphous pile of yellow that must be gold waits patiently in the lower left corner of the screen. As you take gold from the nobles’ pile and deliver it to the poor fishhead in the next room, the nobles’ glasses fill up with tears, and the poor fishhead says thanks but demands more. An onscreen monetary value tracks your progress. The music sounds something like what self-help, eco-poetry must sound like, recited, accompanied by soft, electric organ riffs.

In this satirical Robin Hood fetch quest, dialogue is strangely spelled and punctuated: “Look at the shini JEWEL i bougt thanks a lot,” the poor fishhead exclaims. Unlike the previous game, Two presents little in the way of challenge. Curiously, it’s the only game that comes packaged with explicit instructions. In the game folder, a facetious “readme” file reads: “left for left right for right.” Though the art remains harsh and scribbley, characters and backgrounds are more clearly discernible than they were in One. Clear themes of exploitation and greed emerge, but I think this game is less concerned with larger economic or political issues and more concerned with one character’s struggles to function underneath an exploitative authority umbrella. Two marks the start of a narrative thread in which Biggt’s internal constraints are exacerbated by cold, manipulative, external forces.

Three recalls the dark palette of the first game, but its screen is much less busy. Biggt’s open, red mouth has been replaced by rows of scratchy teeth. In his room, Biggt complains of having to eat oranges every day: “there has to be something MORE.” On the left side of the screen sits an amorphous pile of orange that must be oranges. As you venture outdoors, Biggt encounters a tree with a fallen coconut at its base. The game prompts: press “up” to eat. When you oblige, Biggt’s teeth fall out. Further on, there’s an apple, still clinging to its branch. One of the fishhead nobles loiters behind the apple tree, wearing a maniacal, toothy grin. The game prompts: press “up” to reach for the apple. When you oblige, Biggt’s arms fall off. Biggt suddenly becomes overwhelmed with hunger. The only thing to do is return to the first screen and the oranges that Biggt can no longer eat.

This game punishes you (and Biggt) for trying to participate, just as it asks you to do only one thing and nothing else. A wounded exploration of social anxiety and failure, Three sees upward mobility as a pipe dream. The saddest thing about Three is that the fear that causes Biggt to stay in his room and eat oranges everyday is justified when he ventures out into the world. There are no instructions for this game in the accompanying readme. Just a message: “if you feel like you need to talk to someone about your problems, my e-mail adress is full_cream_cheese@hotmail.com thanks.

In Four, Biggt wears a chef’s hat and stirs a pot, having presumably resolved to prepare, for others, the food that he can no longer eat. The game’s initial screen presents a simple platforming puzzle, more reminiscent of the typical videogame scenario than anything we’ve seen up to this point. After you complete the puzzle, Biggt’s newest employer, a fishhead noble, shows up and barks orders at Biggt to serve the guests. When you press the arrow keys, Biggt walks out of his body. One screen over, Spirit Biggt is greeted by a woman screaming “what have you done?!” on loop until you walk against her repeatedly. Then, she departs, and Spirit Biggt flies to the moon in a heart-shaped spaceship. On the moon, Biggt encounters another Biggt-like creature with long, blonde hair. When you move towards her, Biggt is pushed away by the unseen. A monstrous manifestation of Biggt’s head appears, and you flee until you reach Biggt’s bed, which transports him back down to earth. Four shares much in common with Three in that it describes an attempt to escape. The escape in Four appears more spiritual than corporeal. Love eludes Biggt. When he flees the physical body, a demon follows. Like in Three, Biggt’s efforts to operate outside of imposed reality prove disastrous and terrifying.

Five’s title screen is festive, filled with confetti and upbeat music. The game’s story begins “5 days ago” with Biggt in bed. This Biggt has teeth and wears a tidy, black suit. Biggt’s room is sparsely decorated with only a bed and a door. Biggt ventures outside to discover a multitude of idle, identical fishhead citizens. Press “down,” and Biggt throws a Bible. When Biggt’s aim is true, the fishheads catch the Bibles and fall asleep, completing a transaction. Onscreen numbers climb as Biggt sells more Bibles. Once you satisfy Biggt’s food budget, you can access his bed at the far right side of the screen, and the day ends. Each day, Biggt wakes, and you repeat the ritual. Every day, Biggt’s market becomes more saturated, as more fishheads start their day already asleep. On the next to last day, all fishheads are asleep. On the final day, the background blurs, and Biggt is suddenly old and bearded, rolling in a wheelchair at a slow crawl as a cheery, anti-evolution chorale plays in the background.

The final game is pitched as a celebration but only offers bleak futility. The pinnacle of Biggt’s journey is a lie. He peddles promises that put people to sleep. Biggt’s attempt to exist within some semblance of normalcy produces maddening mechanical exercise that leads to a dead end, a boring ballet just as discouraging as the failures that came before. The career transition from under-appreciated cook to Bible salescat provides little in the way of change or redemption. Biggt subsists for a while, but does not live, and then, Biggt dies.

Videogames often reach for the whimsical or irreverent, but rarely do they embrace the outright nonsensical. La La Land considers the overlap between disturbing and amusing and demoralizing. It flirts with the unintelligible, as it enforces a narrative thread. While One establishes tone, both Three and Four present escape narratives in which Biggt tries and fails to usurp oppressive reality. Two and Five portray Biggt’s unsuccessful efforts to find place and meaning in society.

What strange, heart-breaking meditations on life, poverty, anxiety, loneliness. And how wonderful, that such a jarring collage of interactive imagery can communicate such an unexpected kind of subtlety.

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The Videogame Intertext

Christopher Whitman’s Run reminded me of one of my college classes. That class was called Romance. The Romance we read in this class was not harlequin, but the chivalric kind, popularized as tales of knights and maidens, later satirized by Cervantes in Don Quixote. We got into Arthurian legend, Ariosto, Shakespeare and Tolkien. We discovered that a romance is kind of like an epic but different, in that it focuses more on the developments and consequences of individual characters, while epic worries over the fate of nation-states (i.e. Homer’s Iliad).

We studied the Romance genre through the lens of intertextuality, which is one of those made-up academic words, coined by a lady named Julia Kristeva. Like any theoretical term, it has its flaws, but it changed the way I think about literature and other media. In our class, we studied it to mean that every text, whether consciously or unconsciously, informs and affects every other text.

The idea is that a single text cannot be an island. It does not have inherent, static meaning, but its meaning is constantly molded by other textual hands. One piece of literature is but a single thread in a sprawling tapestry. For me, this idea sort of clarified my own study of literature. It seemed to be what allusion, metaphor, simile, etc. were all getting at, and it allowed me to use close reading to make broad statements.

Intertextuality can be observed by tracing archetypes. Once you start looking at symbols and characters that have been around for a while, it’s easy to see connections between every text. George R. R. Martin’s Brienne of Tarth is informed by Spenser’s Britomart, regardless of whether or not Martin read Faerie Queene (he probably did) and consciously decided to draw from it. The knight is an archetype that is turned on its head by the female knight, Britomart, and the female knight archetype is usurped by the physically unattractive Brienne. Britomart is just as famous for her beauty as she is for her prowess in combat. Brienne has no such luck.

Dungeons & Dragons, and arguably most RPGs, are pretty much numbers games, traced by archetypes and colored by player personalities. Intertextuality could be a useful way of looking at videogames, since a game is such a strange fusion of artistic forms that sometimes selfishly compete with one another and sometimes work together in harmony. It’s a confused, but rich, intertext.

Lately, I’ve been playing Audiosurf, a game that is more directly shaped by other media. When you fire up Audiosurf, you’re asked to select a song from your own music library, and the game responds by generating a racetrack based on certain patterns it recognizes in the music. I say racetrack, but it’s more like a roller coaster that makes you solve puzzles. As you glide along the track, you try to arrange blocks so that their colors match up. The track and background reflect a song’s basic tone. Tempo is reflected in the speed of your ship. The blocks lightly mirror a dominant beat or riff. The National’s Sorrow plays like a steady, dark odyssey into a black hole, while Bloodbuzz Ohio is a malfunctioning merry-go-round, mirroring queasy percussion and tense swells that feel homesick but sick of home.

Run tells the story of an outsider who visits a village and presents himself as Christ-like savior. He grants the villagers a false sun, which allows them to grow crops in their previously fruitless fields. As player, you are that outsider, looking in on a primitive land through a digital magnifying glass made of primitive videogame verbs. You manipulate the villagers, as your avatar is manipulated by the in-game text. Run tells the story of you playing it: an intruder looking in, rearranging, meddling, promising salvation.

I read Run as an explicit commentary on a videogame intertext. It builds its system on walls of other iconic videogame systems. To play Run is to transition between different types of games, while interacting with a textual narrative.

Most of the narrative exposition in Run occurs in a platforming segment, where words form the scaffolding that supports the player’s running and jumping. Some words lie dormant. Some move horizontally or vertically. Some disappear when you step on them. Others form stairs. Repetition is implemented so that certain types of words serve predictable functions, establishing a mechanical consistency between prose and play. The phrase “He arrived” slides from left to right and allows you to cross a large gap. The text leverages you towards progress.

You transition from this prose platforming segment into something that looks and sounds decidedly more retro. It’s a Snake clone, stacked on top of another simple platformer. Both systems must be considered simultaneously in order to advance, and they affect each other as you attempt to navigate them. Further stacking occurs later, as Space Invaders and Gorillas variations are added. In this way, Run uses retro, iconic games as its language. It compartmentalizes established systems into sets of mechanics within its own system.

As you progress further, a farming sim asks you to till fields, plant and harvest crops within a time limit. When the timer expires, the amount of food you have harvested must match or exceed the number of villagers. Else, some of your people will starve, and you will be left with fewer workers to plant crops in the next stage. While the platforming and retro sections of Run allow you to try again if you fail, the farming sim is not so forgiving. If you run out of villagers, the game ends.

Run is intertextuality realized in videogame form, and it manages to successfully convey an affecting tone, if not a consistently coherent narrative. On her blog, Anna Anthropy applauds Run‘s use of “collage” and argues that it implies a curious irony:

“there are some enormous human experiences – farming, for example – from which most of us have become so alienated that we only relate to it in a detached, abstracted, incentivized videogame form.”

We farm so that we may eat so that we may live. But Run makes it impossible to successfully harvest enough food to keep everyone alive. It’s not that its digital inhabitants are incapable of putting in the work. They are constantly overwhelmed by shadows of their inevitable demise and discouraged by the rays of a false sun, their disingenuous savior.

Note: The entire game is available to play for free in your browser here. For a few dollars, you can purchase a downloadable copy, which allows you to play fullscreen and save your progress. I found Run on Free Indie Games

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What’s Loved Got to Do with Mechanics?

I recently spotted a thought-provoking aside from the esteemed Harbour Master, Joel Goodwin, over at Electron Dance, where the comments section has recently exploded into a wonderful cacophony of discussion. The thought that particularly sparked my interest was nudged between parenthesis towards the end of the thread in A Theoretical War, Part 2: “I’m torn over whether to call the graphical flair that occurs when you disobey a mechanic or not.

Now there’s a conversation worth having.

HM is referring to a game he wrote about a couple of years ago called Loved, a browser game about an abusive relationship. Alexander Ocias’ platformer has something to say, like Shift or Continuity or Depict1 or One and One Story, and like its art house platforming brethren, and like pretty much every other videogame ever, Loved heavily relies on visual representation to communicate its conceit. The game is dark and challenging. It doesn’t like you, but you play it anyway.

I’ll bet there’s some super-specific academic definitions of rules and mechanics somewhere in game studies, but as I haven’t seen those articles yet (please link me if you’ve read them) I’m going to stumble along like a stubborn drunk and try to talk about this semantic issue anyway. Besides, I feel like most games writing I read these days calls every interaction between player and game a “mechanic,” regardless of whether or not they’re referring to the player’s interaction with a game’s underlying system of rules or his effect on the visual representation of that system.

So what happens in Loved is a break-down in aesthetic structure that stems from the player’s refusal to comply with a narrator’s demands. The narrator tells you to do something, like avoid a checkpoint or jump into a pit of spikes. If you disobey, then the world you’ve grown accustomed to navigating gradually disintegrates from this clean, black and white interface into a chaotic abstraction of colorful squares. If you take the more compliant route, you’re rewarded with a more detailed, aesthetically pleasing portrayal of your surroundings. From what I can tell, the mechanical rules of Loved remain the same, regardless of whether you obey or disobey. The physics of jumping around doesn’t change, but the way you perceive your environment does.

You could argue that the aesthetic changes that arise from a disobedient play-through increase the difficulty of Loved because they make it harder to distinguish between what you’re trying to jump on and what you’re trying to avoid. So the system of rules that’s under the hood isn’t directly affected, but the player’s interpretation of that system is.

Graphical representation is how a videogame communicates with a player, so those of us who write about games have a habit of calling all of a game’s changeable elements “mechanics,” even if the we’re just talking about an aesthetic response to player input. I did this when I wrote about Flight to Freedom, when I said that its portrayal of illiteracy through blurry in-game text is a “mechanic that really shines.

Furthermore, we often use the term “game” as shorthand for “videogame,” because videogame is such an awkward term. You feel kind of silly when you say it, and when you write it, it’s not clear if it should be one or two words. In Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anna Anthropy devotes a section to explaining why the “video” in videogames matters:

In digital games, the computer keeps the rules. The computer tracks all the numbers. Digital games therefore have much greater control over what information that players have access to, making videogames capable of much greater ambiguity than board or card games. What’s ambiguity good for? Telling stories!” (52)

According to Anthropy, videogames are especially skilled at conveying ambiguity because the player can’t see under the hood to a game’s system of rules. Her analysis implies that aesthetic, the “video” part of videogame, is just as important as the “game” part. Aesthetic is how the game talks to the player. Sure, a game is ultimately a system of rules, but in a videogame, aesthetic affects the player just as much as the underlying algorithms. And it’s videogames that most of us are talking about, right? Furthermore, she distinguishes between “authored” games, which teach us about an author and “folk” games that teach us about a culture. So Loved is an authored videogame that uses aesthetic to communicate its message.

In these things called video games, graphics are our window into a game’s soul. It is through the lens of aesthetic that we interpret a system of rules. Semantics are an easy way to get tangled up in discussions of videogames or folk games or whatever we’re talking about, but it seems like a necessary evil if the goal is to move the conversation forward. After all, we are using words to talk about these things. So should we always talk about mechanics and aesthetic as separate entities? If Loved responds to a player by changing the graphics, do we call that a “(videogame) mechanic?” Any thoughts?

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