The Process Genre in Videogames: Walden, a game pt 2

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Today marks the 163rd anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. I am celebrating the occasion by resurrecting my old “Process Genre in Videogames” blog post series, and turning an eye toward the USC Game Innovation Lab’s recently-released Walden, a game, across two posts.

In this series, I borrow the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies. According to Skvirsky’s 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 this series of posts (you can see them all here), I examine games that strike some of the same chords.

Yesterday, I compared and contrasted Walden with Minecraft, including a consideration of the Life in the Woods: Renaissance mod pack, which heightens Minecraft‘s Thoreauvian aspects. Of central concern was each game’s treatment of the natural world as a collection of resources. Today, I turn to the matter of “inspiration,” and how Walden, a game transforms enlightened, deliberate living into a game.

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The Process Genre in Videogames: Walden, a game pt 1

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Tomorrow marks the 163rd anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. I have decided to celebrate the occasion by resurrecting my old “Process Genre in Videogames” blog post series, turning an eye toward the USC Game Innovation Lab’s recently-released Walden, a game. I ended up having too a bit too much to say about it to fit into a single blog post, so I’ve split up my thoughts across two days.

Just a quick refresher: in this series, I borrow the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies. According to Skvirsky’s 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 this series of posts (you can see them all here), I examine games that strike some of the same chords. Today, that means turning to the life and work of everybody’s favorite environmentalist pseudo-hermit, Henry David Thoreau.

The itch.io page for Walden, a game claims that the game is the product of a “very small core team” at the USC Game Innovation Lab working on the project for “the past ten years.” I first became aware of it in November 2011, when Tracy Fullerton sat down and had a wonderful talk with students during a session of the University of Chicago’s New Media Workshop. Back then, Fullerton described the project as a difficult balancing act, balancing the quantitative and systems-heavy “gamey” aspects of games—which are actually right there in Thoreau’s text, making this entire project of adaptation especially tempting—with the need to present nature, and the labor one does when living in it, as a source of unpredictable inspiration, worthy of our respect and wonder.

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The Process Genre in Videogames: Sunset

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In all seriousness, call your elected representatives and tell them to oppose defunding the NEA and NEH.

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.

I reserve the right to sporadically post future entries in this series, but with Sunset (Tale of Tales, 2015), it really does feel as if things have come full circle. As I laid out in the first post in this series, the process genre finds its most archetypal manifestation in Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), and Skvirsky has been tracking its development in contemporary Latin American cinema. Sunset was created by Belgian artist duo Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, and is about the daily life of a housekeeper in a (fictional) Latin American country. The parallels are easily drawn, but there’s also more going on here than this brief description suggests.

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The Process Genre in Videogames: In the Shadow of Papers, Please

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The Westport Independent (Double Zero One Zero, 2016)

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 its completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that strike the same notes? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.

In this entry, I turn not to one game, but to a whole slew of them. Particularly, I will be looking at games that have popped up in the wake of Lucas Pope’s lauded Papers, Please (3909, 2013), which I considered earlier in the series, here.

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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.

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The Process Genre in Videogames: Cart Life

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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.

Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) was part of the opening volley of what would eventually be termed “personal games.” Although some of the best known games slotted under this designation told stories of queer lives—for instance Dys4ia (Anna Anthropy, 2012), Consensual Torture Simulator (merritt kopas, 2013), and Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013)—this is far from a requirement. Hofmeier’s game pursues an alternate tactic, telling the personal stories of characters whose lives might normally be overlooked, considered too humdrum for the purposes of mass entertainment. If you squint, you can see Hofmeier importing aspects of cinema’s neorealist tradition to the medium of videogames, in the game’s focus on the working class lives, on the effects of financially precarity on family relations, and even its use of black-and-white imagery. There is one major difference, though: The neorealist tradition in the Cesare Zavattini mold was often devoted to slow pacing, using empty moments to model the often-incident-free rhythm of everyday life. (Contemporary films in the process genre continue this tradition, hyperbolizing it beyond anything found in 1940s-era neoralist cinema.) Hofmeier, by contrast, enforces a frantic pace. In Cart Life‘s version of working class life, there is no time for idleness. When you’re trying to prove to a judge that you’re financially stable enough to have custody of your daughter, or trying to save up enough for a security deposit on an apartment so that you can move out of a hotel, every minute counts.

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The Process Genre in Videogames: Papers, Please

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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.

On the docket for today: Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please (3909, 2013), a simulation of being a border guard in the fictional Soviet-bloc-style nation of Arstotzka in 1982. As you scrutinize people’s documents, weeding out the undesirables, stamping the passports of some travelers and detaining others, there is plenty of opportunity for political drama—in particular, do you do your best as a servant of your obviously oppressive government, or do you quietly aid rebel factions? But there’s also just the matter of making enough money to keep your house heated, your son fed, and getting medication for your elderly uncle. Since you’re paid by the number of entrants you correctly service, this means being good at your job: memorizing the bureaucratic rules, getting good at both quickly and carefully examining documents, and keeping your desk clean and orderly. It is, all things considered, as much a game about a desk as it is about a family, or a nation.

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