The Process Genre in Videogames: Skulljhabit

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Ian here—

This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.

The games that I have dealt with so far in this series—ShenmuePapers, Please, and Cart Lifeall enforce some sort of time pressure on their players. They don’t operate in any sort of 1:1 “real time” (their workdays last in the range of 5–45 minutes), but they do have their own internal ticking clocks, enforcing a certain pace. Cart Life‘s accelerated workday doesn’t even go so far as to pause while players are navigating its menu screens.

Skulljhabit (Porpentine, 2014) breaks this trend. It was made in the interactive fiction platform Twine, so player activity consists of clicking on hyperlinks, sans any ticking clock. It is bound, in this way, to the constraints of its platform. But what Porpentine achieves within those constraints is nevertheless quite remarkable, pointing toward the outer limits of how we can think about labor in videogames.

Skulljhabit (and how are we supposed to pronounce that, anyways? Adopt a Swedish pronunciation for the “j”?) was released on May 31, 2014. This makes it, as far as I can tell, the first of the eight games that Porpentine would go on to release in the 2014 calendar year. Riding high off of the critical success of Howling Dogs (2013), Porpentine was not only astonishingly prolific in 2014, but was also sharpening her skills, hiding unexpected systems behind her text.

Skulljhabit begins with players arriving in Skull Village, near Igedihet. We have apparently moved for a job. This job is apparently shoveling skulls. The utility of these skulls, and the reason why they are piled into a massive hill and need to be shoveled down into a pit, is never clarified. This isn’t that sort of game. We can’t ask those sorts of questions. We can, though, poke around a bit, and discover some more details about the world. Skulls are, apparently, valuable in this society. If you spend your day loitering in the village square, sometimes a passer-by will inquire, and offer to buy one off of you for a few coins.

Much like Howling DogsSkulljhabit is based around a few limited locations, and adopting a certain daily rhythm within these locations. But, fairly soon, the world of Skulljhabit proves to be more responsive to player’s actions than Howling Dogs was. As the days pass, the game remembers how many skulls have been shoveled. The pile grows larger and larger. More important for players’ purposes, it remembers how many coins are currently in our possession. The fact that this Twine game actually has an inventory, and can track our progress, proves to be essential in the way it links daily ritual to player goals.

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There’s a slow satisfaction and comfort that can come from the long sequences of labor that punctuate process films. Even if we understand Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (Chantal Akerman, 1975) to be a satire of bourgeois values and scathing critique of the dull lives housewives are forced to lead, it’s hard to not find something relaxing in the film’s slow-motion variation on the cooking show format, as Jeanne prepares chicken and potatoes in real time. There’s a similar relaxing sense of satisfaction that goes along with watching the hands of Liu Jiayin’s family prepare dumplings in Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin, 2009), listening to the laid-back tones of idle family discussion. And don’t even get me started on the meditative pleasures of watching Martin watering the cemetery grounds in El Velador (Natalia Almada, 2011).

But there is something that links all three of the above examples: the labor represented in them is all highly familiar. Cooking and watering something with a hose is something that nearly all of us have done in our lifetimes. The world of Skulljhabit, meanwhile, is nothing if not unfamiliar. Typically for Porpentine, it is harsh and alien, filled with craggy landscapes, unnamed disease, and the odd outcropping of sci-fi technology.

Daily labor in Skulljhabit is not relaxing. It is strange. But it’s still about all we can cling to in this world. Alternating between shoveling skulls and trying to make a bit of side-money by selling them in the village square gives us a ritual to enact. And sometimes, in strange times, a daily ritual is about all you can cling to to give yourself some shadow of a sense of normalcy. We are creatures of … well, it’s right there in the title.

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Labor in Skulljhabit also carries with it the deferred promise of escape. There’s a train station on the edge of town. If we save up enough to buy a calendar, we might actually be able to tell what day it is, and head over there on the correct day to catch the train. Of course, we would also need to save up the 15 coins for a ticket…. Skulljhabit piles on the goals-within-goals so familiar to videogame players, all directed toward a means of escape.

And, if not the train station, then maybe the mountains? When players first wander out toward them, they get lost in the fog. But, upon buying and reading a book of folklore, we can find our way (at least, on a good day). Deep in a ravine, there is a cave, and deep within a cave, there is a wall of bricks. It’s weak enough to tear apart with our shovel, but we can only remove a few bricks a day before we get tired, and have to return. Okay, so: should this be our new daily ritual? Should we focus on breaking down this wall, bit by bit? Or, wait—if we focus on shoveling skulls, we’ll get a bigger stipend when the next payday comes around, and then we can buy a better shovel, and then we can return to the cave… Hmm…

And so it goes. Goals within goals. Balancing rituals like spinning plates, alternating between them, all with the end goal of finding an escape. Of escaping from these very rituals that define our in-game life. Of discovering a way to not play anymore, beyond closing the browser tab. Preferably, by finding a point to all of this—but, if no point is forthcoming, than a mere escape will be enough.

Skulljhabit is cruel. It builds up hope, only to dash them. Promises of escape are revealed as illusory. In the end, we will be uprooted by much more impersonal forces: the vagaries of economic mobility and re-assignment, interrupting the value-generating structure of meager personal goals.

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Coda: taking a stand, through actions that don’t matter

You will have to forgive me a brief digression here.

When I finished the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead (Telltale Games, 2012), I started poking around online, to get a feel for the game’s critical reception. I was shocked. Not by the amount of love the game received—I was completely on board with that. No, I was shocked by one complaint I kept seeing, over and over again, more in the comments beneath the reviews than the reviews themselves: that the game’s lack of branched endings meant that your “choices didn’t matter.”

Those who complained weren’t wrong on the empirical merits of their observation of the game’s system. I just thought that they were wrong to complainThe Walking Dead‘s very lack of properly branching paths was one of the things that solidified it in my mind as a great work of post-apocalyptic fiction. When it all goes to hell, the game seemed to say, there’s not a whole lot of agency that any of us will have. We won’t be able to fix things. All that will be left will be to behave in such a way that we can live with who we’ve become. You’re not always going to be able to save people, and you’re not necessarily going to survive very long yourself. But the one thing you can do is chart out a path of how to be a moral actor, now that everything has burned down. This seemed, to me, to be the whole point of the game.

Then, last November, I was teaching one of Porpentine’s games for my “Moving Images and Arguments” course. (Not Skulljhabit—another one of her voluminous 2014 games.) Students liked it quite a bit, but again they brought up this point about interaction being “illusory,” since the game in question didn’t have bona fide multiple endings.

I asked them outright: Why did they think that endings were weighed so heavily when audiences discuss the interactivity of games? What was it, specifically, about the lack of multiple endings that so often provokes the response, “our choices don’t matter, so this might as well not be interactive”?

There was a distinct danger here that, in my reflex to defend Porpentine’s approach, I might have been too combative. The answer I got, however, was an interesting one, and lead to valuable discussion. My students ventured a guess: the first stories that we encounter as children about choice, consequence, and morality—fairy tales and fables—are almost entirely dependent on their endings for the moral instruction they’re designed to provide. At their conclusions, the good get rewarded, and the wicked get punished. We’re wired, then, from an early age, to assume that this is how storytelling works. If there’s some claim being made, or if there’s some sort of moral instruction that the author wants to impart, it will arrive in the form of consequences delivered at the tale’s ending. This is what we expect from a fairy tale, and this is what we expect of a videogame. Multiple endings have long signaled to players that somebody up there has been watching our choices, and has divvied out consequence accordingly. A single ending sends the message that nothing mattered. Nobody’s home. There’s no one up there in the sky to parcel out reward and punishment.

Whether I fully bought this theory or not, I was quite impressed that my students came up with it on the fly. It certainly gave me something to mull over. Because I think it matters that players in Porpentine’s games are asked to do things, and sometimes make choices, even in the complete absence of consequence. Just the act of clicking on one thing over another matters. Because the universes she presents us with are strange and daunting. The act of engaging in an action, even if it is just a meaningless ritual, is itself an act of sense-making. We’re assigning value. We’re testing out what it means to be in this world—to be a societal subject, or a moral agent.

“In Skulljhabit, you shovel skulls,” Porpetine writes in her artist’s notes for the game. “Some would call that pointless work, but all work is ultimately pointless under capitalism: self-perpetuating and ritualistic.” Maybe players’ disappointment with a lack of multiple endings in works of interactive fiction really just stems from staring into this abyss, and getting frightened. Porpentine’s games confront us with the possibility that there will be no great consequences to anything we do. What agency, after all, do we really have within this socioeconomic order? All things considered, the universe probably doesn’t care about us. Our rituals are just ways to ignore that fact (rather than means of proving the contrary proposition true).

Skulljhabit can be relaxing. Skulljhabit can be oddly satisfying. Skulljhabit can be unnerving.

Skulljhabit is the most effective horror game I’ve ever played.

You can play Skulljhabit for free in your browser, here. If you’d like to support Porpentine’s art-making, though, I would recommending getting it through her Eczema Angel Orifice collection of short Twine pieces, available for $5.00 here.

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