Here on My Side of the Screen

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(I’m officially retiring my usual “Ian here” greeting, as, in the absence of student posts, there will be no one but me posting on this blog for the foreseeable future.)

Early in his book Pilgrim in the Microworld, a phenomenological account of videogame expertise that stands as landmark work of first-person game criticism, David Sudnow attempts to describe, to a presumably completely ignorant reader, the experience of playing Breakout (Atari, 1972). “There’s that world space over there, this one over here,” he writes, “and we traverse the wired gap with motions that make us nonetheless feel in a balanced extending touch with things.”[i]

Today, the term “wired gap” is archaic—we sit comfortably in the age of wireless game controllers. But the general logic of this gap, and how it is traversed, nonetheless persists. On the one side, we have the electronic world represented on the screen. On the other side, we have ourselves, cordoned off from the world of the game by virtue of being flesh-and-blood. If we act upon that other world from our side of the screen, it must be by virtue of some sort of electronic input device: keyboard and mouse, DualShock 4, Wii Remote, Jungle Beat bongo drum, what have you. Wired or not, the relationship we have with that world on the other side of the screen is necessarily mediated by technology: sever that particular link, and our involvement with it ceases.

Not all games follow this logic, however. In this post, I’ll be looking at three games, all of which came out around 2012–2014, that ask you to do more, as a player, than simply manipulate an electronic interface. These games have a different sort of contract with their player. They ask you agree to more wide-ranging sets of behaviors over on your side of the screen, which, by their very nature, cannot be regulated in strict procedural terms. These are games that re-map the points of contact between our fleshy, spacious realm and the realm of bits and pixels.

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The Limits of Disempowerment

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Ian here—

For years, I didn’t know what to do with Anna Anthropy’s Realistic Female First-Person Shooter (2012).

It is, shall we say, a “minor Anthropy.” It’s not one of the games that she includes on her itch.io storefront. If you want to play it, you have to head over here. (It is, unfortunately, Windows-only, although Mac users should feel free to look at this video of the game in action on YouTube).

But despite its somewhat tossed-off status, it is a game I was serious considering including in my article on fumblecore games. There was just one problem: it seemed completely incompatible with my argument. So I swept it under the rug, but kept it in my memory, blinking in the back of my brain, challenging me, keeping me honest.

I think I’ve finally figured out what I want to say about it now, and it’s mostly thanks to the students in my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” class. I didn’t even teach Realistic Female First-Person Shooter in that class. Instead, my thoughts began crystalizing as students reacted of Alyson Macdonald’s Twine game Female Experience Simulator (2013), one of the most contentious games we played in the course.

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Personal Puzzles

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Ian here—

When you first start playing Eli Piilonen’s The Company of Myself (2DArray, 2009), it feels as if someone found a way to perfectly weld together a diary entry with a puzzle platformer. This was back in the heady days in the wake of Jonathan Blow’s Braid (Number None, 2008), when the public at large was still reeling over the idea that puzzle mechanics could mean something. And, at first glance, The Company of Myself seems to take this trend and go somewhere quite confessional with it. Its central mechanic of cloning yourself to solve puzzles stood as a perfect expression of feelings of self-reliance. And not just any self-reliance, either, but rather that specifically incorrigible mode of self-reliance that emerges when one is a bit too much of an unreconstructed introvert, refusing even the most basic forms of assistance because you desperately wish to not bother, or to be bothered by, anybody.

The “cloning” mechanic has popped up elsewhere in games—for instance The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom (The Odd Gentleman, 2010)—but The Company of Myself was more ambitious, wedding the mechanic with a personal story of interior life. Or, at least, it seems to do this, until you realize the whole thing is bullshit. The story takes an eleventh-hour delve into the lurid, revealing itself as an over-the-top fiction, rather than a form of sincere self-expression on the part of its creator.

The Company of Myself takes the easy way out, tacking on an over-dramatic denouement that destroys its potential as a diary-game. But … what if it didn’t? Could one actually use puzzles to communicate the intricacies of internal lived experience, in an emotionally sincere way? In this entry, I’ll be looking at two games that try: Liz Ryerson’s intimate and beguiling Problem Attic (2013), and Atrax Media’s more slick and straightforward Sym (2015). Along the way, I’ll also be dipping a bit into Braid, just because it’s hard to talk about contemporary puzzle platformers without doing so.

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A Practical Guide to Gone Home

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Ian here—

Two weeks ago, I taught Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013) for my “Frames, Claims and Videogames” course. I hadn’t played the game in quite some time, so, in the run-up to the course, I re-played it, searching through the house exhaustively, reminding myself of where every last note and prop was, re-acquainting myself with the ins and outs of everyone’s story. Taking some notes, it occurred to me that it would be nice if there was a guide to it online. Not just a guide to picking up all of the items that give you achievements, or something like that—there are plenty of those online, already. Rather, a guide to the stories Gone Home tells, and where exactly you can find the environmental elements that move those stories forward, and flesh it out.

Well, I guess it falls to me to create what I’m looking for. Again.

My guide to Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic (2013) was just a walkthrough. This is a bit more, as I have specifically designed it to aid in things like class prep and analysis. It isn’t, by itself, analysis, but tends closer to that direction than the Problem Attic one does. (I’d place it roughly in the realm of my Virginia videos.) Enjoy!

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A Practical Guide to Problem Attic

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Ian here—

Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic (2013) is a classic of the personal games movement. It is also notoriously difficult, for a number of overlapping reasons. I have come to realize that there are no real walkthroughs of it online, to help players that might be interested in examining Ryerson’s game and seriously considering its themes, but simply cannot get through an especially tricky area without help. I have decided to rectify this, before I teach the game for a class.

If you are looking for pedagogical notes or analysis, be forewarned: there will be none of that in in this post. This is a walkthrough, pure and simple. I’m planning on posting something more genuinely analytical on this game in the weeks ahead, but first I thought I’d do the world a public service. (If only making walkthroughs was something one could put on a CV…)

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Feeling Through Computers: Videogames and the Bleeding Edge of Empathy

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Ian here—

What follows is an invited talk I gave last month at a university that will remain unnamed. Here, things get a little awkward: the talk in question was actually a job talk, and I am technically still waiting to hear back on the school’s final decision. Hence, the location of the talk remaining unnamed.

Originally, I was going to wait to post this talk until I had heard official word back on the status of the position (whether that news was good, or bad). I’ve decided to post it now, though, mostly because I attended an excellent panel at SCMS 2017, “Video Games and Queer Affect,” chaired by Bonnie Ruberg (an old compatriot of mine from Bard College) with papers by Whitney Pow (with whom I co-organized this conference) and Diana Pozo. Bonnie and Diana’s papers, especially, shared considerable overlap with the trends outlined here, down to including some of same case studies. It seems, then, that this material is very “of the moment,” and I didn’t want to let the opportunity to make is publicly available pass. I’m planning on moving this material forward into an article in the coming months. It’s exciting to be part of a community of peers who finds it as interesting as I do, and I’m definitely going to alter the direction and focus of aspects of this piece in response to the work I saw happening on the panel.

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Lesson Plans: The Definitions and Expectations We Have of Games

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Ian here—

This post serves as a little mini-postmortem on two difficult class sessions in my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” course. There are multiple overlapping reasons why these class sessions were difficult for me. One is that my lesson had to pivot strangely from seemingly-academic debates on the definition of games to a sudden dive into matters of harassment in game culture. Harassment itself is, needless to say, a difficult thing to discuss in class. It becomes exponentially more difficult when one is teaching  a class with a high percentage of international students, many of whom (thanks to the registration realities of late-scheduled courses) have no particular interest in games, and who simply cannot fathom the cultural forces that align to drive a certain subset of American men to use things like changing conceptions of videogames (videogames!) as an opportunity to harass women online. I mean, how do you explain this, really—to anyone at all, let alone someone completely on the outside of American “gamer” culture?

I won’t go so far as to claim that my approach to this material was entirely successful. (The class did not, for instance, become a platform for thoughtful discussion in the same way my unexpectedly post-Trump-election lesson on the politics of American comedy did.) It was, though, a learning experience for me, so it’s worth sharing some details.

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