whoami: 2016 Edition

that_dragon_cancer-screenshot-header-image

Ian here—

So, I’ve been struck by a fit of mania. Although it’s an arbitrary gesture, I am determined to write up a few of my thoughts on some more interesting games of 2016 before midnight strikes and the calendar year ends.

Below the fold: three games from the past year that do interesting things with perspectiveembodiment, and intersubjectivity. Consider this a follow-up to yesterday’s post.

2016 witnessed the commercial release of two long-awaited personal gamesThat Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games) and Fragments of Him (Sassybot). In contrast to most of the games that arrived under this banner in the heyday of 2012–2013, these games boasted 3D graphics (created via the Unity engine in both cases), voice acting, and non-bittunes musical scores. Partly because of this, they had lengthier cycles of production, with more time to build up buzz.[i]

That Dragon, Cancer is an autobiographical game developed by Amy and Ryan Green, as a way of emotionally coping with the illness that eventually took the life of Joel, their five-year-old son. As early as 2013, the project was being reported on and compared to personal games such as Depression Quest (Zoë Quinn, 2013) and Actual Sunlight (Will O’Neill, 2013). (In 2013, Joel Green was still alive. Production continued after his death in 2014, as the Greens struggled to find new ways to tell their shifting story.) April 2015 saw the release of a feature-length documentary on the game’s production, Thank You for Playing. In December 2015, Radiolab teamed up the Reply All podcast to do a story on the Greens. This is a level of pre-release hype not enjoyed by most games, period, let alone small-scale personal games.[ii]

Fragments of Him tells a fictional story, recounting the life of Will, a recently-deceased man, by plumbing the memories of his grandmother, an ex-girlfriend, and his boyfriend (and now-never-to-be fiancé). Fragments did not have the storied production of That Dragon, Cancer. (What does?) But it, too, had a much longer production cycle than the average personal game. It began as an experiment created for Ludum Dare in April of 2013, and the original version has been freely available on Kongregate since around the time of its creation. By the end of 2013, developer Sassybot had received funds from Mediafonds to create a more polished version of the game for commercial release, which ended up happening this past May.

In what follows, I am going to do something that might strike some a perverse. I’m going talk about That Dragon, Cancer and Fragments of Him not in terms of their tragic and emotionally-searing content, but instead in terms of experiments in perspective they undertake as a way of navigating similar problems of interactive narrative. Along the way, I’ll be adding a third game: Into (Animal Phase, 2016).[iii] On the surface, Into is quite unlike the previous two games. It was dropped utterly without fanfare onto itch.io this past February, without pre-release buzz. Its content could be described as “stoner freshman philosophizing,” rather than tragic personal loss. In terms of form, though, there are surprisingly similar issues that all three games grapple with.

Excuse me while I kiss this guy

Fragments of Him has an enormously distinctive art style. Its world is highly desaturated: mostly grayscale, with hints of beige and coffee or the occasional bright blue sky bursting in. Its four central characters are privileged with high-quality (albeit grayscale) models, but the rest of the humans populating its spaces are textureless gray or white shadows. The intention is clear: these are memories we are wandering around in. The details are hazy, except for those few that for whatever reason stick in our mind. The people who aren’t important to us fade into an undifferentiated, faceless mass.

Fragments‘ storytelling technique is nearly entirely dialogue-driven: we learn about these people’s lives by them recounting recollections of earlier times, one line at a time. These lines are prompted by players wandering around in the rendered space and clicking on things. As they move their first-person view about, using standard WASD+mouse controls, outlines will appear around certain objects and people. Red and blue outlines mean that the line of dialogue can’t be prompted yet, usually because the player’s virtual body isn’t yet close enough to the object. Once the outline turns yellow, players can aim their targeting reticule and click. This will cause some element of the mise-en-scène to dissolve, as characters move about the space, events progress, and time “fast forwards.”

Here’s what the technique looks like in action. In the following two-and-a-half minute clip, Will’s grandmother encounters a surprise while visiting Will at college:

Before I get into my deeper thoughts Fragments of Him‘s storytelling techniques, I would like to offer something for the record: I am rather allergic to charges that a given film or game “doesn’t fully utilize the possibilities of the medium,” and especially allergic to the charge that a game is “barely interactive.” So often what such accusations miss is that the possibilities of a medium create forms of expectation, and that playing against audience expectations is itself a form of utilizing the possibilities of a medium. For most of its running time, La jetté (Chris Marker, 1962) doesn’t use cinematic motion. Technically, it could have taken the form of a slideshow, with audio accompaniment. But Marker knows that we know that cinema can move, and therefore have the expectation that this imagery might, at some point, move. And, indeed, this expectation, thwarted throughout most of the film, does in fact pay off for a few seconds near its end! By contrast, you can take something like Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993): Yes, its screen is just a single shade of unmodulated blue throughout its entire running time. Yes, it would perhaps be a more “efficient” piece of art if it was an audio-only piece. But its entire purpose is to force viewers into some approximation of Jarman’s visual experience for 80 minutes. Its denial of visual interest is part of its statement. The film is a provocative twist on our expectations of cinema, and, as such, could not exist in any medium but cinema.

Having offered all of that as preemptive inoculation, I will now say: I do not find the implementation of the story in Fragments of Him to be particularly successful. Its failures, though, are worth talking about, beyond offering the invective that it is “barely interactive.”

Because “barely interactive” games can work, damn it. Videogames, just as cinema, can profit from the devious manipulation of expectation. One of the most potent ways of modulating possibility and expectation in games is by confronting players with their own lack of agency. Here, the implicit promises of the medium come up against the productive limitations of a particular game. To take two examples I’ve written about recently, I think that Mainichi (Mattie Brice, 2012) does a particularly good job of causing players to gradually question the amount of agency they have, and I wrote yesterday that Simmons (Ashton Raze, 2012) presents a good example of how to outright deny player agency as a means of establishing character.

But Fragments of Him … doesn’t really work. And part of the reason it doesn’t really work is that the lack of agency is built right into the story itself. The game makes it clear to us that we are visitors in other people’s memories. It is aggressively past tense, and it is consistent in establishing that we are not these people, but instead are sitting down to hear their stories. There’s no way, then, for the game to play upon our expectations of agency, as Mainichi and Simmons do so well. We have no expectations of agency, because of the way the story is set up.

What we’re left with, then, is minimal interaction. The drama of Fragments of Him is delivered as an awkward radio play, in which players must occasionally click on objects in a 3D rendered space to progress to the next line of dialogue. It is not a problem that the action is limited, per se, but it is a problem that it isn’t limited in ways that are particularly thematically interesting, as in the games mentioned above. A feeling of busywork hangs over the proceedings. While playing, I was not entirely sure why I was sitting at my desk and manipulating my PC’s mouse and keyboard, rather than listening to this otherwise-affecting story in the form of a podcast. What was added by going through these actions?

Well, to be fair, one thing was added. There was one omnipresent question, that kept running like an unsettling current through my mind as I attempted to pay attention to the proceedings. It was a question familiar from yesterday’s post: Who am I?

As I’ve said, it is not the case in the game that we “are” the people whose memories are being shared. We are privy to these memories, to the point of spatially inhabiting them. But our point of view onto these spaces is not anchored in any particular person (even as the narrative point of view of the stories being told on the soundtrack is).

At the same time, though, we aren’t some completely disembodied floating-point view. The standard rules of first-person-perspective games apply. Our view is presented at general “standing person” eye height. We are subject to gravity. We can’t pass through walls or objects. In the clip above, even though we clearly aren’t Will’s grandmother, we are still bound by the same physical constraints she is. As my slightly awkward movement through the crowd in the second half of the clip makes clear, we can’t walk through the bodies of these students any more than she can. We must click on them, causing them to dissolve away. We’re clearing the way for ourselves to pass, just as much as we’re clearing the way for her to pass. We just happen to be endowed with a weird clicky-glowy interface for saying “excuse me,” “pardon me.” And even this otherwise foreign act of clicking on outlined figures is made familiar by the fact that we can click on them when they enter what could be described as “standard videogame arm’s length.”

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that Fragments of Him could have been improved by including taking a page from Ether One (White Paper Games, 2014) and offering some sort of sci-fi, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style mythology for explaining how an outside observer is able to enter the memories of others. That would, I think, have been a distraction from its emotional focus. But, as it stands, the game’s stylistic half-measures are themselves a distraction. Its first-person “click on stuff” format is a perfectly functional answer to the boring question, “how do we gate storytelling content, so that players must take some sort of action to advance things”? But in its functionality, it calls attention to how arbitrary the “embodied human” point-of-view seems in this context.

It’s an enormous missed opportunity, because the narrative conceit of exploring others’ memories really allows developers a chance to experiment with how videogame space could be navigated when untethered from a single bodyconsciousness, or point of viewFragments of Him‘s solution of “solid but invisible human body, which must get close to things in order to interact with them” was probably straightforward to enact in the Unity engine, but doesn’t serve the material as well as it could. Happily, though, we still have Into and That Dragon, Cancer to discuss.

Where do I end, where do I begin

Before I say anything, please just watch the following minute-long clip. It is of the opening scene of Into, in which two friends write messages to each other while not paying attention in an art class:

Now, at least on the surface level, the technique to advance events here is very similar to that used in Fragments of Him. Both games use some sort of cursor or reticule to allow their respective players to target things. Both offer objects or “hot spots” that, when clicked, will advance the progression of the events onscreen. Into‘s clickable areas, with their drifting images of eyes that “snap into” the dotted lines with a satisfying swish, are perhaps more visually captivating than Fragments’ red/blue/yellow object outline cues. Aside from that, though, we can acknowledge a certain amount of functional isomorphism here.

But what Into does, which Fragments of Him does not do, is call into question the relationship between “advancing events” and “controlling characters.” Throughout my playthrough, clicking on outlined objects in Fragments of Him never felt like more than a story-advancing mechanism. Questions as to why I seemed to occupy a solid, humanlike body aside, I never really entertained the idea that I “was” a character in the story. Into, by contrast, does give me the feeling of controlling a character. Or, to be more accurate, it gives me the feeling of controlling two characters, simultaneously.

I think it’s a fair question to ask: Why? Part of it, I admit, might just be the effects of personal taste on matters of good faith. But there’s also something to be said about the moment that occurs around the 23 second mark, in which I raise my cursor up and away from the drawing paper, and click on the statue/model.

One hundred years ago, in 1916, the psychologist Hugo Münsterberg published The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, widely considered to be one of the first works of film theory. (It has been edged out of its position as “the” undisputed first work of film theory by a wave or renewed appreciation for Vachel Lindsay’s 1915 The Art of the Moving Picture.) The book’s fourth chapter, simply entitled “Attention,” explores some of the formal means available to filmmakers (and not available to artists working in previous media) to communicate the modulation of character’s attention. A well-known quote:

Here begins the art of the photoplay. That one nervous hand which feverishly grasps the deadly weapon can suddenly for the space of a breath or two become enlarged and be alone visible on the screen, while everything else has really faded into darkness. The act of attention which goes on in our mind has remodeled the surrounding itself. The detail which is being watched has suddenly become the whole content of the performance, and everything which our mind wants to disregard has been suddenly banished from our sight and has disappeared. The events without have become obedient to the demands of our consciousness. In the language of the photoplay producers it is a “close-up.” The close-up has objectified in our world of perception our mental act of attention and by it has furnished art with a means which far transcends the power of any theater stage.[iv]

Münsterberg uses a lot of words here to say something that seems obvious to us now: Shot scale in the cinema often simulates how human attention work. How big something is on screen usually has some connection to how much we should be interested in it.

But the point is that this wasn’t always obvious. Someone had to say it first—and Münsterberg got there! And, furthermore, the point is that we still haven’t quite gotten around to taking stock of the possibilities of videogame form as well as Münsterberg had taken stock of cinematic form in 1916, a mere 20 years after the medium’s appearance (and only 10 years since it became primarily a medium for storytelling).

What means do games have at their disposal to communicate the mental act of attention? There are all sorts of tricks, and they haven’t been adequately catalogued. What’s obvious to me, though, is that Charle Taylor Elwonger (the developer behind the Animal Phase name) has found a really good way of communicating it. As we look at different things in the frame by moving our cursor, our auditory attention shifts in a corresponding way. We’ve decided, for a moment, to stop dicking around, and pay attention to the lecture (as rambling as it sounds).

The fact that we can modulate attention in this way goes a long way toward explaining why playing Into gives me the feeling of inhabiting the psychology of a character, rather than just occupying a body-like point in space. While playing Fragments of Him, there were certainly things that I, as a player was interested in. But I didn’t get the sense that the view I was controlling was particularly capable of being interested in things. I do get that sense in Into. I get a sense of a differentiation between attention and distraction, between interest and disinterest. And these things solidify the sense that I am a character, rather than just a body in space.

Or, again, rather: characters. And here’s where things get really tricky, and interesting. Because I don’t seem to be stuck in the conscious subjectivity of either the figure on the left, or the figure on the right. Instead, what I inhabit seems to be something like the intersubjective point of contact between them. Their distraction is a mutual distraction, as they engage in a shared activity. When they break from this activity, their attention to the lecture is a shared attention.

Alright, so: there’s one experiment in how to deal with an in-game perspective that’s not explicitly tethered to one single character, while retaining some obvious psychological qualities. Let’s look at something that puts this into practice with thematic content that more closely resembles Fragments of Him. Let’s turn to That Dragon, Cancer.

I am a bird now

That Dragon, Cancer has similarities to Fragments of Him beyond being a tale of gut-wrenching grief. Both games are organized into chapters, vignettes based off of specific memories (the real-life memories of Ryan and Amy Green, in this case). Both juggle between different narrators between (and, in That Dragon, Cancer‘s case, sometimes within) these vignettes. Within this structure, both grapple with questions of how to endow the player with a distinct point of view, and how to give them things to do to progress the narrative.

That Dragon, Cancer does a much better job of these things. It will sometimes experiment with perspective and narration in more interesting ways within a single vignette than Fragments of Him does over its entire running time. One particularly powerful example of the game’s bold choices is the chapter entitled “I’m Sorry Guys, It’s Not Good.”

that_dragon_cancer-screenshot-01

As the chapter begins, the player is presented with a front-on view of a sound toy—Google tells me they’re called “See ‘N Says,” or at least that’s the official Mattel brand name for them. A cursor allows us to choose a farm animal, and then to pull the lever that sets the arrow off, prompting some brainless jokes about the animals. Joel’s bubbly laugh erupts at the conclusion of each joke (despite the fact that some of the jokes, such as the one about the scripting language the horses are developing, would seem to fly above the toy’s target audience).

If they player doesn’t move the view around too much with their mouse, it is initially suggested that we are Joel in this scene. His laugh is prominent on the soundtrack, and, as you can see in the above image, his foot is visible in the edge of the frame.

However, if we pan the camera over to the right with our mouse, we see that we are in fact not Joel. We seem to be seated next to him. But, technically, we’re not accounted for at all. We seem to be an interloper in this room, and don’t seem to be occupying a body.

that_dragon_cancer-screenshot-02

After we’ve played with the toy enough, the scene shifts. Doctors appear in the previously-empty chairs in front of us. The See ‘N Say changes, as well. Now, instead of far animals, it has Ryan Green’s face, Amy Green’s face, and the faces of the two doctors.

that_dragon_cancer-screenshot-03

The See ‘N Say has now transformed from a children’s toy to a mechanism of narration, allowing the player to trigger perspective changes. Choosing a face and pulling the “play” lever will advance the dialogue, and allow us to hear the inner monologue of a different character during this moment. (A “rewind” lever now at the top of the device allows for the same snippet of dialogue to be replayed over and over, listening to each character’s inner monologue during that particular moment of the discussion.)

It’s not just the audio that changes, either. With each choice of character, the camera flits over to plop the player down in a new first-person visual perspective to go along with the auditory inner monologue.

Here we see the power of experiments in intersubjectivity when relating stories of grief. Each of these characters is stuck in their own heads, in some ways unable to cope with what’s going on in the room. But this fact of being unable to cope binds them all together, creating an oppressive mood that we understand each and every one of them to feel. It is unspoken, but real. When the water starts filling up the room at the end of the clip, this isn’t just the illustration of one particular character’s subjective experience. It is a manifestation of an overwhelming emotional truth that all four of these people are grappling with, binding them together in this suffocating room.

And players? We are each of these people, and more. We are this experience, in all of its complexity. In stark contrast to Fragments of Him, this means that sometimes we’ll be released from the confines of a humanlike body. Tethering the player to such a body is not always the best way to communicate these events. For instance, in the chapter “Adrift,” in between moments of reading letters written by Amy and hearing the inner monologue of Ryan, the player becomes a bird, able to fly about the space and light onto various spots:

Why a bird? I don’t know. But it’s no less fitting than being an invisible humanoid in Fragments of Him, and it does allow the player to navigate the space of the chapter in a manner that is more intuitively associative, and less needlessly laborious.  And this sort of freedom of perspective, that get us out of the simulation occupying a human body for no good reason, is, to my mind, commendable.

[i]. Of course, it is worth interrogating whether the term “personal games” should be used to describe these games, or if the window of usefulness for that particular term window closed circa-2014. Certainly, a case can be made that the nascent movement was crushed completely out of existence with the ugly stomping of Gamergate. Since then, much of the moment’s promise seems to have withered on the vine, as its brightest luminaries have moved on. Merritt Kopas has largely abandoned videogame design. Anna Anthropy has branched out from videogames, exploring areas such as analogue games and analogue forms of ergodic literature. Robert Yang seems to be drifting in the direction of experimental VR. And, as I noted in a previous post on personal games, several makers associated with the movement have proven to be not just wary of mainstream gamer culture and the harassment it encourages, but also of the motives of those promoting their games under the banner of “empathy.”

[ii]. This long period of press attention saw the eruption of debates on the ethics of excitedly hyping a game about such a personal loss—and, alternatively, the ethics of the Greens’s work itself. Having to complete the game while dealing not only with their son’s death, but also a growing awareness of these debates, is certainly a  task I do not envy.

[iii]. Credit where credit is due: I first stumbled across Into via Robert Yang’s review of it here. Yang has written insightfully over the years about many of the issues brushed upon in this post, which he approaches via Gerard Genette’s term focalization.

[iv]. Münsterberg, Hugo. The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, and Other Writings. Edited by Allan Langdale. New York: Routledge, 2002. Pp 86–87.

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