What Work Was: Labor and Play in Night in the Woods

You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.

-Philip Levine, “What Work Is

Night in the Woods is a game released by studio Infinite Fall not too long ago.  Normally in these essays I talk about something that’s either really old or at least old enough that no one cares about spoilers, but this essay will be different in that I’m dealing with something relatively recent.  To that end you may want to note that I am going to be discussing aspects of the game’s plot in some detail, and if you want that experience fresh, you better bail now.

So, again: Night in the Woods is a game released by studio Infinite Fall, consisting of a team of Alec Holowka, Scott Benson, and Bethany Hockenberry.  I’ve described the premise to others as a bit like a Rust Belt version of Richard Scarry’s Busytown.  It takes place in a world where everyone is an anthropomorphic animal, rendered in simple but charming illustrations reminiscent of children’s books, but the location of the action, a quietly dying east-not-quite-Pennsylvania hamlet called Possum Springs, is the precise opposite of Scarry’s thriving metropolis.  The mines closed long ago and when the player character, Mae, arrives suddenly home after dropping out of college during her sophomore year, she discovers that the local supermarket has shuttered as well.

In my hometown the local grocery store was sold during my first-year of college.  “They’re Indians,” my mom said, with no particular tone, but the fact this was observed at all was a tone in and of itself.  In my rural Indiana town of about a thousand people, there was at the time only the one store.  One of my first good online friends, who lived near Philadelphia, once mentioned to me over AIM how weird it was that I would say “going to the store” rather than specifying which one.  This was the first time, perhaps, that I realized how small my world was.

The store closed the year after the Indian family took it over.  I met them only once, when I asked them if I could use their fax machine.  The building has been empty since, but hey, a Dollar General opened down the street.

Soon Mae reconnects with her friends from high school, dour goth Bea (who is running her family’s hardware store after her mother’s sudden death and her father’s nervous breakdown) and manic troublemaker Gregg (who is working at a convenience store so he and his boyfriend, quiet and thoughtful video store clerk Angus, can save up enough to move to the city).  As my descriptions indicate, the game’s point of emphasis is primarily its characters, their personalities, and their interactions.  But inextricable to character, in the game’s perspective, is work.  This is true even for Mae’s parents: her father has worked a few industrial jobs before taking up the deli counter of a Wal-mart-ish box store, while her mother does admin work for the local church.  Characters you meet on the street are on their lunch breaks from their telemarketing jobs or waiting at the social security office.  This is a game concerned with what work is.

In my senior year of high school I worked the deli counter at a Wal-mart.  I was 18 so I could legally run the fryers and machines.  College was on the horizon and a lot of things were uncertain.  Since the divorce about six years earlier my mother’s finances had been a little scattered; within a year or so she’d lost her job as a gas station manager, a job for which she suffered a torn rotator cuff due to reaching up on a high shelf for cigarette packs multiple times a day (she still can’t fully lift that arm).  She had eventually gotten a job in the same Wal-mart I now worked in, across the way, in the bakery.  But when it came time for me to apply for financial aid I found that she hadn’t filed her taxes for years, a prerequisite for any of my applications.  She wasn’t making enough for it to matter, and she was working so hard and so often, she said she didn’t have the time, and it had never been something she felt compelled to do.  But now it needed to be done.  So I learned to do — and then did — my mother’s taxes.

Mechanically Night in the Woods is fascinating for the way it layers its thematics of labor and employment over the experience of gameplay.  Mae, who has just returned from dropping out of college, is literally unemployed, and the game provides little firm direction in the normal sense of the term, what designers call the “core loop” of actions that the player undertakes.  Other characters talk about their jobs, can be met at their jobs, but Mae is granted a certain ambiguous freedom to wander around Possum Springs as she (or rather, as the player) desires.

Essentially how the game progresses is that every day Bea and Gregg are working at their respective jobs, and Mae can go visit them to ask if they want to hang out, which moves into a sequence of some evening activity — band practice, going to the mall, smashing fluorescent light tubes in a parking lot, and so on.  The player can do this as soon as Mae wakes up in the morning, making for a fairly brisk run-through, but time is not exactly of the essence.

The game models Mae’s unemployment by emphasizing the player’s freedom relative to her friends.  Whereas they stand behind counters and talk about how bored they are, Mae can wander by the old canal, or climb trees and tip-toe across powerlines to reach the roofs of buildings downtown.  For the most part there is no spur to exploration in these platforming sections; the player simply decides how to make use of Mae’s time.

What you find yourself doing, after a while, is building a routine.  Mae gets up in the morning and talks to her mother in the kitchen.  She wanders downtown into the canal and shoplifts a pretzel from a vendor for the baby rats she discovered when she broke into the storage room of the municipal building.  She feeds the rats.  She talks with her retired high school science teacher about star-gazing.  She listens to a high school acquaintance’s poetry.  She visits the homeless man living in the woods outside the church, and talks with the new pastor about God.  She eavesdrops on some workers outside the local bar.  All of these things and more can happen, and precious few of them are required.  The player’s lack of concrete direction mirrors Mae’s own aimlessness, orbiting the uncertain reasons for which she dropped out, and her friends’ quiet resentment toward her (from their perspective) frivolous and selfish choice to scuttle an opportunity they never had.

My scholarship was a miracle.  They put my face on a billboard, along with the other winner.  Full tuition paid to any in-state college or university.  My work at Wal-mart, and a mom willing to let me mooch a few months out of the year, meant I’d saved up enough to pass through the summers when I lived at home.

My friends were working at gas stations or delivering pizzas while taking class part-time at the local state university satellite campus, half an hour away.  The school I chose — which was in the same town, also half an hour away from home — was a private liberal arts affair, and the vast majority of the students were from far out of town.  My roommate’s parents were professors.  He didn’t know how debit and credit cards worked, so I explained the ones his parents gave to him before they left.

During a safety convocation during our orientation week, a campus security guard with a thick Indiana drawl pronounced “motorcycle” in a way that made all the other students at the assembly snicker — motor-sickle.  During Q&A people kept trying to subtly maneuver him into saying the word again.

For a lot of reasons, but these were some of them, I felt very alienated at school.  My old friends were too busy to talk to me and everyone new I met was someone who would blithely mention things I had no way of comprehending — travel to Europe, vacations, high school internships — or, potentially, mock me for being ‘basically’ a townie.  What do your parents do? Oh, my mom’s a bakery manager at Wal-mart and my dad does machine maintenance at the casket factory.

My untreated anxiety and depression was boiling and to this day I cannot think of a moment where I have hated the world and everything in it more, and more personally, than standing in the dining hall alone and seeing that rush of bodies and hearing that chatter of voices and passing my tray off to the guy who worked in the kitchen who probably said motor-sickle which was the way I’d said it too before, many years before, when television helped me unconsciously train myself out of it.  And why had that happened, Michael?  Why did that happen? I saw a therapist for the first time that semester.

I returned from my first year of college, aimless.  I read ten books a week and, on weekends, sometimes, met up with high school friends.  But we didn’t hang out as often as we used to.

Night in the Woods is a narrative-heavy game, but it’s also not quite an adventure game.  Choosing to hang out with, say, Bea more often than Gregg or vice versa means you only see more of that character’s life.  There’s no penalty, in the sense that other characters or the gameworld at large don’t judge you.  Furthermore, aside from explorations and conversations, the game is interspersed with what we might call “minigames” — short sequences where the type of actions you as the player undertake change.

There’s a nice little roster of things: guiding Mae’s hand as she shoplifts, stopping your movement when a clerk’s eye turns toward you, or swinging a pretzel around to catch the attention of all your baby rats.  Perhaps chief among these gamey elements is band practice, which you undertake with Bea, Gregg, and Angus, with Mae as a bass player in a Guitar Hero-style rhythm game that is so frustrating to play on my controller I basically gave up.  (I told Scott Benson this, and he said that’s all right, because Mae is a canonically bad bass player.)

That I basically gave up doesn’t really matter, though, as the game progresses normally regardless (characters just make passing comments on Mae’s ability).  Like the exploration of Possum Springs, these smaller minigame sequences aren’t very stressful or difficult.  Indeed, by bringing back the Guitar Hero approach, a genre I haven’t personally touched in like ten years, Night in the Woods seems to invite not play necessarily, but reflection on play.  It’s true that when I played Guitar Hero it was… mostly with friends.  Mostly before and during college.

Even Mae’s normal mode of movement evokes the platformers of my childhood, but it shears them from the context of Mario gathering coins and powerups, repurposing them for self-guided exploration.  Similarly, the unexpected reappearance of a rhythm game sequence (with an inappropriate controller, to boot) both recalls and estranges me from something familiar.  Interacting with Night in the Woods is often like interacting with an old toy from your childhood: you remember the delight and wonder of these things, and stuff still moves more or less like it’s supposed to, but you’ve personally moved on.  There’s a temptation for nostalgia, for when games were clearer, when the actions we do now seemed to mean something more: when there were win and loss conditions, things to collect, points to rack up, prizes to earn, levels to complete.

The closest the game itself comes to offering this is a roguelike you can play on Mae’s laptop — which provides that point- and goal-oriented experience, but does so only as yet another way for you to whittle away Mae’s long, aimless, unemployed hours.  In a late sequence of the game, while exploring a house with Gregg, Mae becomes frustrated with having to take multiple elevators between floors and collect materials for lockpicking: “This is like work!” she cries.

And so it is.  The game cannily walks a line between presenting players with gamey elements and, at the same time, evacuating those elements of the affective veneer of gameplay.  This is not a criticism, mind you, but I think overall part of Night in the Woods‘s project: if play and work only exist in meaningful distinction, then the loss of work is also the loss of play.  Mae’s unemployment becomes a condition for how we experience the world: as a place for interaction and exploration, but also a place where, in the absence of productive labor, our play becomes itself a kind of labor, a routinized inspection of the game’s world and characters that can (with enough repetition) overwhelm us.

This is made clear in the game’s multiple dream sequences, wherein Mae traverses jumbled dream architecture to stir up phantom musicians and receive apocalyptic visions of giant animals devouring the world.  Aside from the short minigames, this is probably the game at its most “game-like” — there are markers to help you find your way as you platform around, small lanterns that show which musicians you have summoned, and activating each musician offers the reward of deepening the complexity of the in-game soundtrack (which is incredible, by the way).

But, as is the case in dreams, and the case for the game generally, this play lacks context: the points, the score, the concrete sense of progress.  With one or two exceptions, as dreams they communicate theme and mood more than any sense of accomplishment or plot, and by the time I thought “I am not looking forward to the next dream platforming sequence” — they stopped.

By the time I graduated from college I had gotten over a lot of stuff, but a recurring moment: people I met expressing surprise that I was local.  I was never taken for a local.  Most people thought, I discovered, that I was from Chicago.  Everyone assumed I was middle-class.  I did not mention my family’s jobs often or my origins because it got tiresome to hear people say I’d “overcome” something, as if my family and the place where we lived were obstacles to jump over.  That’s the charitable part.  The other, more queasy part, is that I also didn’t want people thinking less of me because of it.

I was feeling increasingly out of place when I went home for the summers and for vacations.  I saw my old friends less and less, went out infrequently, and read more and more.  I also played videogames.  Lots of videogames.  There was no time in my life, I think, where I played new releases more frequently.  Passing the time, waiting for the next step.

I knew I was going to go to grad school and I knew that meant leaving — really leaving — for the first time.  “That’s great, Michael,” my mom said to me when I told her, and then she paused.  “So what is grad school?”  When I joined the McNair program at my college — a program specifically for helping first-gen and low-income students get into grad school — I discovered this experience isn’t by any  means unique.  My path through life had tugged me away from my friends, and now did the same for my family; my home began to feel less like home.  I wanted out.

My senior year, a man was found in a ditch outside my hometown, a plastic bag on his head, his hands bound, his throat slashed.  A drug thing, they said.

The plot of Night in the Woods is minimal but interesting: Mae and her friends discover a severed arm outside a diner one night.  Mae also begins to suspect that something is happening in the town — that a “ghost” is stalking her, and kidnapping local youths.

What might seem, at the beginning, to be merely Mae’s own breakdown takes on a grim reality in the game’s final sections.  Most of the gameplay is the aimless routine-building and hanging out I’ve described; in the climax, however, Mae and her friends descend into one of the abandoned mines to discover the weird stuff happening in Possum Springs is quite bad indeed.

A demonic cult has taken root literally under the town.  Evoking the neurotic perfectionist murder cult of Hot Fuzz, these hooded figures claim to be the disenfranchised laborers who lost their way of life when the factories and mines closed, and they are now offering sacrifices to a dark god who lives in the bottomless pit in the mines in the hope that it will return commerce and vitality to the area, that it will, in short, bring the jobs back.  That this game began production three years before the reality of a Trump presidency is really something.


The game is cagey about the reality of some of this.  I mean, it’s truly happening — other characters apart from Mae see and talk about the cult — but it’s not clear if anything really lives in the bottomless pit and, even if it does, if it’s doing anything to help out Possum Springs.  The cultists insist that it is, that these sacrifices are holding small town entropy at bay and soon the jobs will come rushing back, but the best evidence they can offer is that one time some flowers bloomed.  What the player has actually seen of the town isn’t exactly heartening.  But if sacrifices are left off, furthermore, the cultists claim disaster will come — floods or worse, with the eventual erasure of the town. (Here, to the odd combo of Busytown and Hot Fuzz, the game adds Stephen King’s IT, which similarly deals with cyclical evil and destruction in a town and features a character having confusing conversations with large mystical animals.  I point this out only to appreciate the effectiveness of the eclecticism.)

What is clear about the cult is that they are modern blue collar reactionaries, decrying the loss of industry as the government supposedly spends too much money helping out immigrants.  They feed to their demon the homeless who pass through the town and the less useful young people — the ones who don’t work, who go into drugs or are simply mired in Rust Belt aimlessness.  The game makes it clear that their fantasy of work is, now, only a fantasy — Mae goes so far as to wonder whether the cultists are even old enough to remember the heydey of industrialism — and it’s their dedication to an ahistorical idea of what meaningful labor is that has led them down their dark path.  They are obsessed not with what work is, but what it was.

The characters in this game are not too big for their town.  Working at a convenience store sucks, yeah, but so did working in the mines.  One was indisputably more dangerous, but that makes the other no less real.  The unpleasantness of labor, its tedium, or the risks one faces are not what make that labor dignified.  It is dignified because it is labor.  It is our labor, yours and mine.  Working to exist, and knowing that’s why you are working, is better than sacrificing others in hopes of conjuring what you imagine to be a better job for yourself.

The cult’s nostalgia mirrors the player’s — let me be honest here, my nostalgia.  My feeling that I’ve played all these little games before, but that it used to be clearer, more meaningful, that I knew I was working — playing? — toward something.

Mae reveals that she dropped out because she was overcome with a depression that took hold of her at college.  She contextualizes this with regard to her history: in high school she severely beat another kid, put him in the hospital, during a raging manifestation of depression that boiled up in her when she realized a game she had been playing was fake.

It was all scripted, she explains, and the characters weren’t real people — characters she felt so strongly about! — but just shapes on a screen.  And if characters on a screen are just shapes spouting scripted lines, where does one find the reality of people in the world with you?  How are we different from the fictions we represent for ourselves?  That this is said in a game, of course, gestures toward metacommentary: the characters themselves are just “shapes,” Benson’s simple but beautiful animated storybook animals running on Holowka’s code and Benson and Hockenberry’s writing, often reduced to silhouettes by the game’s lighting.

None of this is real.  And yet when Mae finds out the local supermarket closed my teeth clenched.  When I saw her dad behind the deli counter I remembered how much standing on the concrete floor back there strained my calves.  Smashing lightbulbs with Gregg and vandalizing an abandoned car reminded me what passed for fun in the middle of nowhere.  When, at a party, Bea tried to judiciously flirt with a middle-class poli sci undergrad my heart hurt. When Angus described his childhood pleas to a God who never answered I recalled the little boy in Indiana who, sitting alone (hiding, but not quite) in the backyard, looked to the sky and asked something to make his parents stop fighting.

If these characters are just shapes then so am I, something you might glimpse between them as they are pressed together like a tessellation.

When I was a child I was convinced the water tower in the center of my hometown was the tallest structure in the world.  We lived out in the country, across the flat Indiana farmland, but you could still see it: a column of electric blue gleaming on the horizon.

The year after I graduated college, a turbine company bought a bunch of that farmland and set up sleek white windmills to generate green energy.  When you approach the town now you can see them all, so much more numerous and so much larger than that water tower, sometimes moving and sometimes still.  At night they blink red in unison to warn aircraft of their presence, popping into view along the skyline like lightning.

Night in the Woods is a game that ends by remembering a game.  Characters quite incidentally discuss a game another character has been playing, something with obnoxious music and wacky sound effects, an older game that everyone played when they were in high school.  “All summer,” Mae says.

What the game suggests on the level of plot is that labor is changing, but it is still labor.  Mae’s unemployment and freedom to play become, for the player, a search for meaningful work in the world of the game.  But the loss of labor and a surfeit of play threatens to render both meaningless.  Play becomes labor, but without any clear purpose.  On the level of gameplay — or experience — Night in the Woods hammers home this theme by representing, again and again, vague echoes of familiar gaming templates that, lacking their original context and goals, edge toward the absurd and tedious.

It is tempting to let what is lost dictate our ideas about what should be next.  If the game argues that the cultists are caught in a reactionary fantasy, it mechanically fashions the player into someone who is tempted by a similar dream: remember what it was like to just play?  Do you want to go back to that?  This is the first choice Mae seems to make, ducking out of school to spend her days annoying teens and feeding rats.  But the game itself goes to great lengths to show how much work goes into this play, how much effort the player/Mae must expend to fill her time, and the disruptions it causes for Mae’s friends and family.

That she recognizes, along with the player, the hollowness of play elided with or abstracted from labor, suggests a hopeful turn at the end of the game.  The cultists have been trapped in the mine, a new taco joint has opened up in Possum Springs (doubtless the cult would take credit if they knew), and she finds herself ready to move forward with her friends.

The cultists are wrong not because they desire to work, but because their idea of work is a Mammon to which they’re willing to sacrifice anything.  The old jobs aren’t coming back.  The mines and factories will not reopen.  Work has changed, but their idea of labor is something other than what they’re doing, an escape from reality.  This is why, it seems, they and their dark master possess such an affinity for Mae, whom they try to persuade to carry on their order.  She is at a crossroads, caught between the child who could play games “all summer” and the young adult who, disenchanted with the play that used to seem so meaningful, is at a loss for what sort of work should follow.

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Between the Haunted and the Weird: The Horrific Ontology of Videogames

Oxenfree is a 2016 game by Night School Studios, a point-and-click story-focused adventure game pseudo-throwback similar to something like Kentucky Route Zero (that is to say: mechanically and tonally it mimics adventure games of the days of yore but for the most part jettisons obtuse puzzling). It concerns a group of teens who go to an island in the Pacific Northwest for a night of unsupervised drinking and fun, and we all know how that sort of thing turns out for fictional teens. At the time of its release it was compared to the similar but much bigger project, Until Dawn, which also deals with the “teens in a remote area encounter bad stuff” subgenre of horror, but this is misleading. Whereas Until Dawn‘s primary reference points are the slasher films from which this typical premise is derived, Oxenfree‘s thematic antecedent is most clearly the 2001 film Donnie Darko, a deeply existential teen time travel thriller.

Generically, then, Oxenfree is poised between science fiction and horror in a way that I think meaningfully impacts how it conveys is narrative through the medium of the videogame itself. Be warned that from this point forward, I’m going to discuss specific elements and details of Oxenfree‘s story, so if you haven’t played it and care about that sort of thing being spoiled, consider yourself warned.

Oxenfree is a ghost story, of a sort.  Edwards Island, the location of the game, is a lonely tourist trap and former military base where groundbreaking research on radio and communication was carried out during and after the Second World War.  Our protagonist and player character, Alex, travels to the island with her friend Ren, her new stepbrother Jonas, Ren’s crush Nona, and Clarissa, the bitter ex-girlfriend of Alex’s deceased older brother Michael.  This entire situation is quite understandably tense and awkward to begin with, but of course, it gets worse.

The island is notorious among local youth for the anomalies that can be heard over the radio from certain locations — things that range from numbers stations to what seems to be sourceless electronic voice phenomena.  While exploring a cave by the beach, Alex accidentally contacts something — manifesting primarily as hovering, flashing triangles and angry static — that separates the group and unleashes a lot of weird bullshit on the island in the form of uncanny recurrences and timeloops (that, from the player’s perspective, are indicated by the screen’s distortion a la a badly tracking analog tape).

So on the one hand yes, Oxenfree is a ghost story — the thing Alex has contacted turns out to be the collective consciousness of a submarine crew that was sunk by friendly fire off the island’s coast after the war.  But it is also a softly science fiction-inflected time travel story — the crew are called “ghosts” but in-game exposition suggests that they did not so much “die” as get shunted out of our “dimension” (ie, the normal space-time continuum) by the accidental detonation of the experimental nuclear reactor on their submarine.  Unmoored from the most basic laws of physics and temporality, the crew of the submarine have lost all notion of individual identity and claim to have watched the entire history of the world play out to its “demise” multiple times in multiple ways, and now long for nothing more than to find their way back into linear time by possessing Alex and her friends and living the existence they feel they have been denied.

For decades the crew has been contained in their dimensional warp, but Alex lets them out with the radio she brought to hear the island’s anomalies — “you tuned into our signal” they tell her.  And I want to think for a moment about the significance of the use of the radio here, and in particular what the game accomplishes by way of placing midcentury radio technology front and center in its supernatural shenanigans.

Media theorist and philosopher Eugene Thacker has outlined a taxonomy of what he calls “dead media,” “haunted media,” and “weird media.”  Dead media, he explains, are media where “the object is no longer in use, but the form of the object remains active” (“Dark Media — An Abbreviated Typology” 129).  The example he gives here is the Victorian-era magic lantern, a device which projected still images onto the surfaces of walls and was a common attraction in certain theaters.  We no longer use magic lanterns, but the basic operative principle still exists in the form of modern projectors.

“Haunted media,” meanwhile, are when a technology “is still in use, but in a non-normative way,” Thacker’s primary example here is “the complex interplay between the photographic camera and spirit photography in the late nineteenth century” (129).  Specifically, haunted media are noted in their “disjunction … between a contemporary artifact and its connection to adjacent fields such as religion and spirituality” (129), becoming almost darkly divine in their properties.

What haunted media do allow for, in imaginary and narrative terms, is the communication between two distinct ontological realms, this world and that one, the supernatural and the natural.  However, the other potential Thacker outlines is what he calls “weird media,” in which the “human sensorium can be augmented, transformed, or in some instances, ‘see’ more than a human subject is prepared to see” by way of some media object (132).  One example here is H.P. Lovecraft’s story “From Beyond,” where a scientist perfects a devices that allows human beings to see the various horrible creatures that exist alongside us, but outside our realm of sense perception, and which also (of course) drives people mad.

Unlike haunted media, which open up a portal between that world and this one, in weird media “mediation only results in an absolute impasse, in the strange non-knowledge of the impossibility of mediation, in the way that all communication collapses” (133).  In other words, weird media show us something, but something fundamentally flawed in its communicative result: we see something just doesn’t make sense, it is there and yet refuses to cohere into anything like purpose or meaning, and the result (as witnessed by Lovecraft’s characteristically fated protagonist) is the concomitant dissolution of all meaning.

The point I would make, first of all, is that these types of media are not necessarily distinct.  For instance, “spirit photography” existed more or less simultaneously with the beginnings of photography, with trick images appearing basically right out of the gate, rather than waiting for the medium to “die.”  In other words, a medium does not have to be dead, or close to dead, to be haunted; often they are born that way.  However, a medium’s proximity to death does seem to make it useful for stories of dark media — think here of the videotape in Ringu/The Ring, which appeared relatively close to the end of the lifespan of the VHS.

At the same time, the distinction between a haunted and a weird medium is not always terribly clear.  Thacker divides them based on a selection of narratives and, basically, how those narratives play out: is the end result communication or madness?  These distinctions, however, cannot always be made — and Oxenfree is exemplary in this regard.

Radio is not an entirely dead technology, of course, but it is certainly outmoded in the way the game presents it — weighted with the context of its development during the war, an idiosyncratic feature of the island and its particular history, etc.  At first we might say that the radio in Oxenfree is haunted, as it does what Thacker says haunted media do: it opens a portal, it brings this world and that world together, and so on.  And yet communicating with the other side is not easy, and for much of the game it’s not clear what Alex and her friends are dealing with or what it wants.

Furthermore, at various points in the game Alex becomes stuck in time loops, and must synchronize the music tracks playing on a series of ghostly Magnetophons in order to return to her proper temporality.  Just as the dead (?) submarine crew live on as garbled voices on the radio, so too are the lives of Alex and her friends mysteriously tied to the functioning of old military-issue tape players.  That is to say, they are themselves mediated by the island’s weird technology, sometimes skipping back into the past (where Alex can make decisions regarding her deceased brother that, it seems, are different than the ones she might have made before) or forward into the future where they witness deaths and suicides that never actually manifest in the straightforward plot of the game.

So while these media are a conduit for the dead past, they are also conduits for the present and a kind of undead future, possible futures, and possible pasts.  Any glance at a forum or subreddit dedicated to the game will show you they are filled with theorycrafters attempting to parse out the game’s timelines into something stable and coherent, something that can be charted in a sensible order that all adds up to a “point.”

This project is troubled by a few things about the game.  First, there are multiple endings, none of which are presented as particularly good or bad (and hence, “true” or “untrue,” since games so historically tie these judgments).  Alex’s relationships with her friends may strengthen or degrade, one of them may be sacrificed to the ghostly crew in order to placate them, her brother Michael may even be brought back to life through her interference with the timeline.  The game doesn’t pass judgment on you for any of these endings in the trite way we’ve come to expect of the medium: sacrificing Clarissa is not ideal, for instance, but given the absolute bugfuck nature of what’s going on it plays out as a kind of tragic necessity.  Similarly, bringing Michael back to life doesn’t result in some condemning “don’t play with the forces of causality!” message, it just… kind of happens.  At worst it rings hollow narratively just because we’re so used to seeing the condemnation of this sort of thing in other stories.  And similarly, if everyone survives and remains friends, well…

The game ends with Alex narrating “what happened next” for everyone like any good teen movie.  As I said, outside of being erased from existence, none of the end results for anyone are particularly “bad,” some are just sadder than others.  But in the final few seconds of her narration, the screen distorts again, and Alex resumes talking about how though she’s not looking forward going to Edwards Island, it may be a fun night.

No matter what you do, the game begins again.  Except, of course, if it doesn’t… completing the game unlocks a so-called “New Game+” option, where you are treated to a bonus opening scene of Ren, Jonas, and Alex hanging out waiting for their ride.  Alex uses her radio during this scene and receives a message from herself, warning her not to go to the island; if you choose to listen to her warning, the gang stays in for the night and the game ends, its entire plot summarily averted.

Now here’s the thing: at no point in the game you play can you make Alex deliver the message she receives in this bonus scene.  EDIT:  Zaratustra on twitter pointed out that if you complete the New Game+ as if it were a normal game, ignoring the warning, you actually do get the choice to deliver this message to a past Alex — that is, you can save an Alex you have not played from looping through everything.  You save someone, but not yourself.  You render everything you have just done meaningless (because it will never have happened) but also direly important (because it had to happen in order for it not to happen).

And this is how the game, to get to my point finally, collapses the haunted into the weird, because it’s not clear what is communicating here, and what or why it is even communicating.  The game recedes indefinitely into itself in a way that is not left for us to explore.  The addition of time travel (or, perhaps, the movement between distinct timelines, much like the submarine crew blasted outside of all continuity) means that what sometimes (in Thacker’s terms) operates as haunted media (communication between two ontological orders) also sometimes devolves into weird media (the transference of madness inducing nonsense, a kind of excess of information that makes coherence impossible).

In the end, there is a sense in Oxenfree that things are overmediated, too complexly bound up in each other, done and redone and undone, until all meaningful difference is lost in a sea of noise like the analog static the game deceptively renders on my digital monitor.  For at its most basic level, Oxenfree is a videogame that is making itself known to us as a videogame, as a site of weird media, or overmediation.

As I said, some media are haunted at their inception.  In Oxenfree this is especially true, encrusted as it is with the signifiers of analog media it has supposedly surpassed and rendered “dead” (and yet, what is my wi-fi connection but a sort of afterlife of the radio technologies developed by the island’s engineers?).  But more to the point, Oxenfree is suggesting that games as a medium are both haunted and weird, constantly warping between these two poles as they connect disparate orders of communication or devolve into madness-inducing nonsense.

I have written before about how haunting can serve as a vocabulary for how players experience gameplay.  Gameplay is always already underwritten by expectations mediated to the player by prior games, and by prior playthroughs of the same game.  In its turn to the weird, Oxenfree makes this point quite literal: at various points in the story, Alex is confronted by a ghostly version of herself in a mirror.  It speaks to her, giving her advice that seemingly makes no sense (for instance, telling her to advise Michael to break up with Clarissa, despite the fact that Michael is already dead).

This is the weird: communication that runs into the limit of intelligibility.  However, as the game progresses, it becomes clear Alex’s reflection is giving her advice about specific moments that take place later in the game.  In the climax of the game, Alex finds herself “on the other side” with the dead submarine crew, and in a series of vignettes is transported to shadow versions of various locations from the game where she provides advice to herself  — now on the other side of the mirror.  Communication between the natural and supernatural, between one timeline and another: what was weird becomes haunting.

But this is what is truly remarkable: you do not have to listen to the advice your reflection gives you, nor do you later have to give advice to your reflection that jives with (or departs from) your own actions in the game.  It is up to the player to decide how trustworthy their reflection is, and in the end, to decide how they might have done things the same or differently.

In fact, what happens is this: the game searches your friends list (through Steam or whatever service) to find people you know who have already played Oxenfree.  When you see Alex’s reflection early in the game, this person’s username appears above it in bright green text in a visual evocative of an MMO.  The dialog choices made at the end of the game by your friend (in my case, an Alex who was hilariously named “Chopper Dave”) are presented to you, and at the end of the game, your dialog choices are sent along to the next person in your social circle to play the game (so if you ever see an Alex named “Richard Plantagenet” — hi).

What Oxenfree quite literally enacts here is the haunting of gameplay: your experience of it always already bears the uncanny impression of a prior playthrough that was not yours, an attempt to communicate or give advice about how you should play the game.  But this communique is fraught by all manner of weird problems: first, you have no idea what is happening, and second, you might not listen.  Thus the haunting of gameplay again collapses into weird gameplay: not communication between or across playthroughs but the potential simultaneous existence of mutually exclusive in-game “realities” connected by their very refusal to resemble one another.

Oxenfree, then, is an apt demonstration for the horrific ontology of videogames.  Not only does Alex’s endless looping through the various endings suggest the idea of replay, the game itself metatextually and mechanically links these ideas, forcing us into an uncomfortable conceptual space that narratively challenges the ways by which we defend everything from the importance of individual identity to the very possibility of meaning-making.

Are we — the mass of players — meant to stand in for the lost crew who hope to find something like “life” in possessing these kids?  And what does it mean that the game in practice so intransigently deflects what the ghosts say they want: stability, continuity, identity, linear growth.  “Oxenfree” is, after all, a cry to end a game, to signal to the players that the game has finished.  But in Oxenfree no such ending is forthcoming, and we are left to confront how one can make meaning and find happiness in a weird, haunted, overmediated world.

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Is There a Community Outside This Text?

Let’s establish some groundwork.  The Beginner’s Guide is a short art game by Davey Wreden that was named as a hot new IP for the year in a list at Destructoid.  The author of the list, Laura Kate Dale, made a very weird move of first, recommending the game, then, recommending the reader complete the game quickly in order to get a refund:

The Beginner’s Guide is a weird game, in that it caused a huge splash upon launch, with many reviewers hesitant to say anything at all about it. People were affected by it, not always positively, and it clearly had a strong impact on many players.

A few months on, it’s still unclear how genuine the narrative told is, or how much we can rely on the narrator of the experience. But if you have around and hour and a half and want to be floored by an unexpected narrative, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than The Beginner’s Guide.

Just make sure to complete it within your Steam refund window, as there are legitimate reasons to want to return this game after purchase.

The reason for this, it turns out, is that the game is metafictional and presents a scenario in which an unreliable narrator (portrayed by and named as Davey Wreden himself) is supposedly showing you some unfinished products made by another game creator who has since  disappeared.  The story takes on some dark aspects as it becomes clearer and clearer that Wreden’s fixation on this other artist is undeservedly intimate, and the end result is a meditation on how we feel about and approach authors through their work.  Dale explained her position in a later clarification:

To clarify the above statement regarding refunds, while I view this game as a work of fiction, and recommend people play it as such, many players view the narrative as an accurate work of non-fiction.

If you fall into the camp that view this as non fiction, an aspect of the narrative implies that the content is stolen wholesale from another developer. While I paid for the game and believe doing so is a morally acceptable action, what I wish to make clear is that if players disagree with my reading of the narrative and feel I recommended them an experience they didn’t morally agree with, there is a financial way to back out of that purchase.

This is not an encouragement to back out of payment due to length, but simply me pointing out that if you finish the game and believe the narrative to be non fiction, and if you believe that you purchased stolen goods, there is a way to avoid your money remaining with that developer in this very specific case.

My initial vague comment was an attempt to avoid a major spoiler for the narrative, but has unfortunately left the reasons for my recommendations open to wider interpretation.

To parse this out, then: the game is a fictional narrative that presents itself as, essentially, stolen content from an obsessed fan who has cobbled together his idol’s half-finished projects.  If you believe, however, that this game is somehow nonfiction, then you should request a refund.  What is bizarre here is Dale’s admission that the game is fiction and then the capitulation to a camp that reads it otherwise, as if fiction and nonfiction were a matter of interpretation.

But we’re not here to talk about Dale’s response so much as we are to talk about another response, from Paul Kilduff-Taylor, “The Beginner’s Guide of Interpretation,” which summarizes the above drama in more detail.  As Kildof-Taylor goes on to explain, he understands perfectly that the game is fiction, and he sees why so many of us are eyerolling at this peculiar turn:

A few years ago, I would have just joined in with sneering at this idea. I would have said that anyone who believes The Beginner’s Guide to be a comprehensive work of non-fiction is a total idiot, and thus has no right to any kind of opinion on it whatsoever, let alone a refund.

But, aha, Kilduff-Taylor explains, he knows why things have gone so awry.  The problem is what he calls “the equal validity of all interpretations,” and the following train of thought:

All interpretations of a work of art are equally valid

Truth is a component of validity

Some interpretations of a work may lead people to believe they are complicit in a crime perpetrated by the creator of the work

Therefore, such people are complicit in such a crime

Therefore they are morally obliged to ask for a refund

Thus, as Kilduff-Taylor says, if you see The Blair Witch Project and think it’s real, of course you’re morally obliged to demand the police investigate the crime.  Now here’s where Kilduff-Taylor does his own strange two-step: while admitting that this is a problem, he then laments that it cannot be solved, that interpretation itself has broken:

I now think that this may be a hopeless situation which cannot be escaped. It doesn’t matter that the “non-fiction camp” is overwhelmingly likely to be factually wrong, given the entire history of fiction, authorial insertion and so on. It doesn’t matter that, I believe, a superior interpretation of this game takes into account its ambiguity and allows space for other secondary readings to explore various facets of that ambiguity. It doesn’t matter that the game itself discusses these themes and we’re all playing into its hands continually with this kind of discussion. This does not matter. All interpretations are equally valid.

It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, facts are useless.  “We’ve conflated everyone’s right to an opinion,” he says, “with the idea that all opinions are equally correct. That has happened now, and as a culture we can never go back.”

He admits to sounding like a grumpy old man, and I’m glad he does so, because what is happening here is that Kilduff-Taylor is rehearsing a bizarre version of the conservative reaction to the rise of postructuralism in literary studies: the center cannot hold!  His closing statement that “We’ve already had the death of the author” and it is now “time to party at the wake of meaning” is a double lamentation for the linchpins that held discourse in place that have, apparently, been totally destroyed by some nebulous development in our culture:

This is a combination of huge social factors, like the existence of the internet and the intensely tribal backlash culture that has emerged. “Literally” means “figuratively”; every opinion must be prefaced with a statement of identity to highlight and define its subjective nature.

Nested in here and masked are complaints about social media, “callout culture,” indeed, it critically anticipates even the very fact that I’m writing this response only six hours after Kilduff-Taylor posted his article.  I’m not thinking, it alleges: we’re not thinking.  We’re reactionary.  We have a feeling, and we act upon it.  As the weird condescension suggests, we’re devolving into infantile subjectivism.

Stanley Fish, a pioneer of reader response criticism, developed the idea of the “interpretive community” to fight against the assertion that the “death of the author” rendered literary interpretation into pure subjectivism.  The anecdote that most often circulates here is Fish’s story of teaching a list of names left on chalkboard to his class as if it were a poem; what happened was that, if the class decided to treat the list of names as a poem, they could produces an analysis of the text as if it indeed was poetic, despite that not being the author’s original intent.

The point to be made, then, is that meaning arises as part of a relationship between not simply the reader and the text, but a variety of readers, a text, and a variety of cultural protocols that inform the production of meaning.  Fish’s “interpretive communities” are the people who have decided, okay, we’re going to treat such-and-such type of language as poetic, and other types as not. Meanings are “true” only insofar as they correspond to the parameters outlined by the interpretive community: whether it’s our classroom and our chalkboard, or the portion of the world that has decided green means go and red means stop when you’re driving.  We can interpret all we like, but our interpretations are informed by outside, communal resources and circumstances, and in the end, validity of our interpretations is based on how well the community sustains them.

Let’s say something extreme and silly: I think Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about space aliens.  Specifically, Old Hamlet’s ghost is not a ghost, but an alien.  My evidence for this is that the ghost has otherworldly powers and is scary.  The evidence I discount is, well, the text’s referral to the creature  as a ghost, and the cultural history of ghosts and ghost stories Shakespeare had access to.  I can believe that the ghost is an alien as much as I want, but that will never make this interpretation valid, because there is no interpretive community to support it.  To put it another way: an interpretation can be “valid” insofar as a person interprets (no one can deny you that) but an interpretation’s connection to truth is a result of a community’s willingness to acknowledge and sustain its truth value.

In Kilduff-Taylor’s thinking, it seems,  a multiplicity of potential meanings completely explodes, in the popular mind, any ability to distinguish between truth claims.  We now, suddenly, live in a world where Hamlet is filled with aliens and also I can run down to the police station and tell them to investigate these Blair Witch murders, and even if they show me the IMDb pages of the actors involved and various making-of featurettes, because I am still entitled to my opinion.  Even if there is a “superior” interpretation that takes into account facts, my interpretation is still valid.  Hyperbole aside, this is flagrantly wrong.

Now, let’s say we have two interpretive communities, people who believe The Beginner’s Guide is fictional and people who believe it is nonfiction.  The people who believe it is nonfiction agree in their interpretation of the text, more or less.  Their evidence derives from the game itself, where the game’s creator Davey Wreden address you and tells you a story about how he took some of the stuff you’re seeing from another artist and then sold it to you. Seems pretty airtight, right?

But in doing so they fetishize the game as an object extricable from its circumstances of production and reception, namely, that we live in a culture and a market where it would be pretty universally regarded as bad form for Wreden to actually carry out the conceit of the game, let alone admit it to us, and metafiction as a longstanding tradition wherein you never trust a narrator named after the author.  Yet for this camp, meaning inheres not in interpretation, but in the most glaring parts of the object itself.  In the end, the author is not dead, he’s just been swapped for his persona.

The interpretive community which acknowledges the game as fiction takes not only the game’s narrative irony into account, but the extensive writing and criticism about the game and its metafiction.  This community’s interpretation is more sustainable (“superior” in Kilduff-Taylor’s terms) because it enlists the game in addition to a history of and protocol for critical reception, as well as the presumed protocols for the production and sale of the weird objects we call videogames.

Kilduff-Taylor’s tired handwashing here is not so much an indictment of the problem of two interpretive communities — whose existence and cross-reference is facilitated by the internet as a mode of critical reception — as it is an attempt to escape the problem entirely.  At some undesignated time before now, people just would have read the game correctly, no problem!  Meaning would have been obvious, and interpretation would have been a pleasant exercise in riffing upon its verities from that point on.  We’ve thus already lost, and all we can do is take solace in our own knowledge and interpretation as things fall apart.

This is disingenuous because the fact that anyone is even taking issue with the implication that Wreden should not be paid for his work is a sign that, indeed, people are not willing to let the patently worse interpretation of the game stand.

20 paragraphs on Undertale: a critique


EDIT: twitter user @akatookey alerted me that the “genocide run” (as it was referred to in an earlier draft of this post) isn’t preferred terminology of the creator, which makes a load of sense. i went along with what seemed to be the prevailing usage in the community materials i found but since i now have an alternative, all instances have been changed to “no-mercy.”  -ML


Undertale is a game by toby fox. it is very clever and entertaining, and filled with loads of cool characters and funny jokes. it is kind of a slog to play, because it has random encounters that lead to bullet hell segments, and these are my two least favorite types of gameplay. still, it’s worth it.


Undertale has received much deserved acclaim, but criticizing it has been something of a thorny issue. jake muncy’s review at killscreen for instance was met with a lot of derision, since muncy takes issue with what he sees to be as the unclarity of the game’s combat mechanics. the point that muncy ends up making needs to be considered, however: he is not admitting he is ‘bad at games’ — he is telling us that the game does not always clearly communicate to the player that pacifist options in combat are having any notable effect. indeed, i would add that this is symptomatic of Undertale as a whole: it is attempting to communicate a message about how to be a good or bad person in the world it presents for you, but in the end the game itself unintentionally muddles your ethical relationship to that world.


this is important because the game operates on a very unusual and fascinating moral calculus. in combat you always have the option of fighting a monster or peacefully placating them. the game tracks these decisions: killing any monster results in an eventual “neutral” ending, which gives you the option of trying again on a purely pacifist route, which will get you the so-called “true” ending. on the other hand, killing every single creature you encounter in the game results in the so-called no-mercy route. the game keeps in mind your previous playthroughs — thus the true ending is always preceded by a neutral ending — and if you complete a no-mercy playthrough, the game remembers this and, even if you attempt to do a pacifist route afterward, there are grave consequences.


there will be spoilers.


Undertale has three well written stories, but i don’t think these stories hang together. the criticism (for me at least) arises out of an attempt to consider the project as a whole: games are structured like arguments insofar as they make a series of propositions that you-as-player agree or disagree to with an eye to how these things will pay off in the future timeline of gameplay. the game (as a system) offers incentives or disincentives for various choices, and in so doing belies its own (ie, the creators’) commitment to one path over the other. the branching narratives of a game form their own sort of system that belies an argument. in the case of Undertale, the game itself embraces the notion of its various plotlines coexisting (or potentially coexisting) simultaneously as a kind of quantum phenomenon expressed through metafictional gimcrackery. yet in considering all of its possibilites as a whole, the game’s argument tends toward incoherence.


Undertale‘s no-mercy run is so incredibly tedious and difficult to complete, and the characters in the game shriek at you for being horrible so often, that these constitute in my view pretty clear disincentives for doing it. the game (and by extension its creators) are very obviously telling you you’re being an asshole, even as they allow for the possibility. by contrast, if you complete a neutral run, the game will helpfully offer you hints on how to get the “best” ending, ie, encouraging you to pursue it further and do a pacifist run. however, in the case of a no-mercy run, the game assigns you a persona of perverse willfulness in order to construct a sensible narrative for why you are carrying it out.


you play as a human child who has fallen into an underground realm of neurotic monsters. the monsters fled underground to escape human persecution, and have been plotting vengeance in their own incredibly half-hearted way for some time. things were set on this path, we eventually learn, when a previous human child fell into the underground and befriended the child of the king and queen of monsters. in a terrible tragedy, the human child and the prince of the monsters died, and ever since the king of monsters has been working to collect enough human souls to breach the barrier keeping his people trapped in the underground.


that is what you learn when you do a neutral run. if you follow the game’s prodding after that and do a pacifist run, here is what happens: you are not who you think you are. the first human child, it is implied, attempted to incite an open war between humans and monsters by emotionally manipulating the royal family, a ploy that resulted in the aforementioned tragedy. your player character’s name is “frisk” but up until this point, everyone has referred to you by the name of the first fallen child, who by default is named “chara.” in the pacifist ending, you peacefully resolve the conflict with the monsters, placate the unhappy spirit of the prince of monsters, and lead all your new friends back into the light of day. it’s nice.


if you complete a no-mercy run, you discover that the spirit of the first human, chara, is still lingering. after you have murdered everyone in existence, chara approaches you with a bargain: trade your soul for a chance to remake the world. not complying renders the game unplayable. agreeing seemingly “resets” the world. attempting to complete a pacifist run after this point results in the same ending and is mechanically no different, save for one thing. in completing a pacifist run after a no-mercy run, a brief stinger will reveal that frisk has been fully possessed by chara and still plans on taking out the surviving characters. short of messing with the game’s data, there is no way to undo this.


my biggest criticism of Undertale is that for a good portion of it to make sense you have to do the thing the game expressly does not want you to do; the implied player of the best ending just accepts things on blind faith and never questions or investigates the metaphysics of it all. doing a no-mercy run makes the best ending unobtainable. this wouldn’t be a problem, i insist, if not for the fact that the no-mercy run is the most expedient way of making sense of a few aspects of the story, namely, the role of the character of sans, and the only way to discover the nature of the original fallen human, chara.


sans is a short skeleton who maintains memories of your various playthroughs of the game through saving and reloading. this is because he was assisting a mysterious doctor with some secret experiments and now operates as some sort of guardian of the game’s timeline/reality. he will suggest the background on this only if you do a no-mercy run. you can discover roughly similar information in a pacifist run, but this requires you to save and reload several times in his presence, which is frankly obtuse since it is only through the no-mercy route that he openly admits to knowing something. though he appears to you as a moral arbiter no matter what route of the game you’re pursuing, without the hint from the no-mercy run, his anomalous knowledge seems more like a convenience than anything having to do with the plot.


yet what truly interests me here is chara. chara is the closest thing the game has to a real villain, since everyone else you fight is either confused or misunderstood and can be helped. chara is, not to put too fine a point on it, radically evil. without completing a no-mercy run, you don’t know this: you simply know that chara was not as nice as everyone thought they were. however: you are chara. what i mean is, chara is the name of the player, since that is who you name when you begin the game, long before the player character is revealed to be frisk. in other words, chara is implied to have your name. indeed, toby fox said on twitter you should name the fallen human after yourself. death of the
author notwithstanding, the implied player, from the developer’s standpoint, becomes coterminous with the game’s vision of radical evil.


in the end you are either someone who did their best to “listen” to what the game was telling you and get the “best” ending, or you’re someone who decided to be a homocidal jerk and somehow, in the process, got the fullest sense of the game’s narrative possible. i have no idea why these outcomes are counterpoised.


attempting to discuss these issues with fans of the game meant i was sanctimoniously told i expected to not face consequences for my actions. even questioning the game’s representation of this moral choice made me, in the eyes of several other players, morally dubious, or someone who cared too much about a game that was trying (and they assumed, succeeding) to make me feel bad.  but i did not do a no-mercy run. indeed, the idea was unpleasant to me, since as i said, this route exacerbates what i already find tedious about the game.  furthermore, i genuinely liked the characters; i have no problem with not being able to murder them. but even at the end of the pacifist run, i had questions about the world, these characters, and their motivations. frankly, without the knowledge gleaned from a no-mercy run, sans and chara are so barely outlined that they make little sense in the larger context of the game.  my knowledge of no-mercy runs here is gained through perusing the wiki and LPs on youtube.


the game hid answers to my questions behind something i had no interest in doing. it’s not clear what it was trying to communicate to me in doing this. nevetheless, Undertale feels very insistent about wanting to tell me something about the nature of friendship and forgiveness and what it means to play a game. some aspects of the no-mercy run, as far as i can tell, leverage a kind of anticompletionism message: characters suggest you’re committing these atrocities simply to “see what happens” and things to that effect. and indeed, many who complete these runs are probably doing just that. but the game itself is what has married completionism to the act of murdering all the other characters. and why is it that only players who choose this path confront the real truth of chara? why cannot chara — who is you, really — be overcome?


in all other arenas, Undertale insists that conflict arises from unwarranted fear and misunderstanding. it rewards you for pacifism and forging friendships. everyone, it wants to suggest, can get along only if we’re determined enough. and yet, the no-mercy run offers the exact obverse suggestion: radical evil exists, and it cannot be expunged. if we take Undertale at its word, however, and believe its conceit of multiple timelines manipulable by the game’s save and load functions, we find that the latter possibility is necessarily latent in the former. that is to say, chara happened; they are constant through all possible narratives, and they are still there, somewhere. the game’s sentimentality runs aground on the lack of mercy it allows the player to exercise, and the subsequent lack of mercy it extends to that player.


flannery o’connor famously said that To Kill a Mockingbird was good — for a children’s book. what she meant was that the story it had to tell, while good, was also ethically simplistic. if the publication of Go Set a Watchman this year did anything, it proved o’connor right: by introducing the complexities of racism in showing a segragationist atticus finch who could, on the one hand, believe in the innocence of a black man, and on the other, insist black people in general should not exist in the same realm of life as white people, the novel revealed how dearly held the simple tale of good and evil had become to us.


at the risk of sounding terribly crass (and catty), i will reformat o’connor’s critique for Undertale. part of the game’s power is that it allows the player to feel like they’re part an intense network of emotions, spread across its cast of colorful characters. the game attaches a moral judgment to this act, suggesting being friendly, open, and merciful is the right thing to do. the stance, while not revolutionary, is certainly admirable, considering the violent tendencies of most games.


but the emotional high of making the decision to be good relies on the concomitant potential to be evil. and in order to maintain the desired sanctity of its good ending, the game suggests that there is indeed a way to go beyond salvation — a way that the game itself scripts and judges you for. the ideal Undertale player is docile, merciful, and does not question their path, even when the game presents no indication that things are moving forward. the ideal Undertale player is not you, does not have your name: you have already been here, left your dark mark, and now you must be exorcised. finding yourself in Undertale is dangerous.


my favorite character is mettaton.


Kitty Horrorshow’s Pontefract and Shakespeare as author-medium

Pontefract is a 2012 Twine Gothic horror game by Kitty Horrorshow.  In this blog post I will talk about the game generally, but specifically my aim is to tentatively theorize how Horrorshow’s game makes use of Shakespearean allusion, what affordances its buys her as a creator, with the overall goal of opening up questions of what this might mean for us (me and my cohort) as Shakespearean  and early modern scholars.

In Pontefract, the player takes on the role of an unnamed character, perhaps a knight, in a Gothic fantasyscape.  You work your way through several rooms of a semi-abandoned castle, populated only by apparently undead humans.  Primarily how the games works is this: you enter a room.  The room is described, sometimes with occasional observable details (for instance, when entering the kitchen, instead of directly confronting the cook you can check out what she’s boiling in her cauldrons).  If there is an NPC in this room, they will ignore you, instead carrying out routines (praying, cooking, being eaten by a floating horse’s head) that bespeak either their undead qualities (ie, they are zombies, not fully human, and only carry out certain deeply wired routines) or their artificiality (they are, in the most literal sense, videogame NPCs, written only to carry out certain limited, repetitive behaviors).

You can choose to interact with these characters, at which point you are presented with two options.  The first is always “friendly” — you either attempt to get the NPC’s attention, or help them if they seem to be in trouble.  The second is always hostile, and involves drawing your sword to kill the NPC.  For three NPCs you meet — a priest, a stablehand, and a cook — choosing the friendly option will result in your character’s death.

Progression in the game involves killing these NPCs.  After being slain they leave you with keys which will unlock the door to the castle dungeon.  You know you want to do this — apart from the fact that a locked door in a videogame always implies the goal is to open it — due to an encounter with the fourth NPC in this section of the game, the so-called “Pale King,” who sits eyeless and presumably also undead in the castle’s throne room.

This is the only NPC with whom you have no options for interaction.  Instead, when meeting him he speaks “into your thoughts [with] a hundred clamorous voices”:


Somehow, you understand that the ‘terror’ of which the pale king speaks is locked away within the castle dungeon.

You take knee before the king and vow to rid him of that which grieves him so, before standing and turning to descend the stairs back to the great hall.

The line spoken by the Pale King is from Shakespeare’s Richard II, very close to the end of the play, and is curious enough in and of itself.  Henry Bolingbroke has recently deposed and imprisoned the rightful king, Richard II, and named himself Henry IV; in Act V, scene 3, Henry uncovers a plot against him by some nobles loyal to Richard and has most of the conspirators put to death.  In the next scene (V.4), a nobleman named Exton enters with his servant.  The scene is brief, so I will reproduce it here in full for you to see just how odd it is:

Didst thou not mark the king, what words he spake,
‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’
Was it not so?
These were his very words.
‘Have I no friend?’ quoth he: he spake it twice,
And urged it twice together, did he not?
He did.
And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me,
And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man’
That would divorce this terror from my heart;’
Meaning the king at Pomfret. Come, let’s go:
I am the king’s friend, and will rid his foe.

So Horrorshow’s Pale King quotes Henry IV, but only as he himself is quoted by Exton.  The scene to which Exton refers, in which the king speaks these lines, is not one we ourselves are allowed to see: the previous scene where Henry uncovers the plot against him contains nothing close to the statements that Exton attributes to him.  In fact, going thoroughly from the text, Exton hasn’t even shown up prior to this point in the play.

This scene seems to pointedly highlight the lengths to which the ambitious Exton is willfully misinterpreting the situation, if not in what Henry is referring to, at least in the fact that Henry is personally addressing the order to him: “And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me, / And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man'[.]”  (Compare Horrorshow’s: “Somehow, you understand that the ‘terror’ of which the pale king speaks is locked away within the castle dungeon.”)

Indeed, the play ends with Exton presenting Henry with Richard’s corpse and Henry, horrified at what has been carried out in his name, disavows himself of Exton and the act committed for his benefit (though, of course, he does benefit).

In Horrorshow’s game the command is given directly and unambiguously, placing us in the shoes of a character who is and is not Exton.  It should come as no surprise to a player familiar with Shakespeare that when you venture down into the dungeon what you find is a weakened, miserable figure “you” immediately recognize as the “rightful king.”

Again you are presented with a choice: to peacefully beg forgiveness from the rightful king, or to kill him.  As before, the peaceful option proves ineffectual,  but this time, not because it kills you.  Rather:

You attempt to kneel before the rightful king, ready to apologize for your wrongful deeds and vow yourself to his cause, but your body resists you. The castle shudders and the walls begin to wail, and your head is filled with the lurching, ragged language of the stones.


At this point you again have the same choice, and the only way to move forward is to kill the king.  The game ends immediately after: you die as the castle collapses around you, but almost immediately you find yourself once again in the woods outside the castle gates, preparing to enter.  The implication, perhaps, is that you are no different than the creatures that trace their endless, undying routines within the castle walls: as a player, you are finally robbed of the agency the game has dangled in front of you at every turn with its false choices, and you are at last subsumed into the machinery of the Gothic landscape.

Appropriately enough, Horrorshow’s hypertext game seems to adapt and extend Gérard Genette’s pre-Internet idea of hypertextuality as “any relationship uniting a text B (which I shall call the hypertext) to an earlier text A (I shall, of course, call it the hypotext), upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary” (Palimpsest: Literature in the Second Degree 5).  Rather than a simple allusiveness, or even a dense and methodical rewriting (eg, as between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses), Horrorshow’s references to Shakespeare are more like the hypertextual apparatus of Twine itself: links that send us outside the text, or into another text, or a different part of the same text, but which do not do so to make a claim about Shakespeare or Richard II.  Rather, both texts become hypertexts, existing in tandem or parallel, creating a space for thematic echos and reader (re)orientation.

Exton makes a choice; we do not.  Exton must interpret what he will do; we must interpret what we have done, if we have done anything. It is Exton who allows the play its end, and despite his abjection, the consequences of his actions haunt the rest of Henry IV’s reign.  Our actions have, perhaps, no lasting effect in the larger context of the game’s endlessly looping plot, as we are simultaneously trapped within and enabled by the haunted house that is the game’s architecture.  Apart from Shakespeare, then, I would say Horrorshow’s game is commenting on the heroic power fantasy of videogames and the exhausted narratives of aggressive but ultimately impotent of bloodshed they often foster.

As a matter of fact, Horrorshow’s original post about the game makes no mention of Shakespeare at all, and so it’s possible many who played through it did not note the allusions if they had no foreknowledge.  The game is deeply allusive, but the allusions only “activate” for a player quite attuned to Shakespeare’s play — and nevertheless, the allusiveness is not present in any way that would seem to lessen the enjoyment of a player who didn’t know Shakespeare but who was very familiar with the Diablo game franchise, text adventures, or someone who wanted to poke around a haunted castle.

Overall, the game draws deeply from Shakespeare while also meticulously managing the impact of its Shakespearean connections through a variety of tactics, including letting its allusiveness go unspoken, choosing its allusions obscurely, or interweaving its allusions with formal misdirection.  Indeed, the “living fear” Exton says Henry decries is interpreted as the deposed king imprisoned at Pomfret — Shakespeare’s name for Pontefract, the actual castle where the historical Richard II was held captive until his execution.  Thus the games title is itself an allusion that displaces Shakespeare as a central, authoritative voice of historical record, underscoring the gap in terminology between our understanding of history and his.

Furthermore, Richard II is not a play that looms large in the popular consciousness, or at least, not large enough for Shakespearean capital to immediately pay off in a gaming environment as it does, say, when the text at hand is Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet.  Indeed, the lines from Richard II in Pontefract are not the most memorable of Shakespeare’s lines; they’re not even the most famous lines from Richard II.  Nevertheless, Horrorshow puts her obscure citations to work.

After beheading the rightful king, the castle appears to collapse and you hear the severed head whisper to you the game’s second direct lift from Shakespeare: “Grief boundeth where it falls.”  This is not, as it happens, anything spoken by Richard, but rather a comment made by the Duchess of  Gloucester near the very beginning of the play (I.2) when she is urging John of Gaunt to stand up for her husband (whose death she believes Richard sponsored), and implicitly foretelling the whiplash of political instability that will come to shadow the reign of Henry IV.

In Pontefract the player is primed for this line differently, as you descend to the dungeon and the game tells you,

The castle whispers to you.

Dost thou at ev’ry hail draw out thy sword?

From whither comes this eagerness to slay?

Thy lust for blood and anguish sees thee curs’t

These three lines of blank verse generically meld with the Shakespearean quotations, though they are not themselves Shakespeare (as far as I can tell, they are original).  Thus, any player not explicitly looking for Shakespearean allusions might be inclined to read the actual quotations from Shakespeare — if they seemed somehow stylistically distinct from the game’s narrative voice — as of a piece with this verse.  The final word in the quote above is a hyperlink, which takes us to a closing line:

ttO suffERRr EverR thISSs accuRRSSedd dDAyy

The styling of the text here — breaking with typographical convention to suggest the words are being spoken/thought in a hiss, or by an inhuman voice — recurs not only in her original post about the game (“P0ntteEFFraccctTTt”) but in the game’s code, where Horrorshow has named several passages after direct quotes from Shakespeare’s play in the same style:

Click through for a larger image. Highlighted areas show where passages in Twine have been named with Shakespearean quotes.  This is only a section of these instances.

It was not until the game was re-collated in a directory page that the author’s note made the Shakespeare connection clear, “inspired by” Richard II, which provides the reader with an introductory signpost for the allusions.  I don’t meant to imply that Horrorshow is somehow “coming clean” about her allusions, but rather, the broad and subtle nature of the game’s allusiveness indicates a way of approaching Shakespeare that makes productive use of his corpus while insisting it is not the only corpus that matters.

Horrorshow’s Shakespeare is not an impeachable paragon of literature and humanity; he is the writer of Richard II as well as Hamlet, and also the author of dozens of less than memorable lines, dozens of less than memorable images.  Neither is Horrorshow’s Shakespeare an academic Shakespeare, a layered site where the machinations of cultural poetics are put on display if we perform an anatomy with right critical tool.

However, there is indeed something here of the Foucauldian author-function.  As Marjorie Garber has argued regarding the great dearth of personal and biographical information we have on Shakespeare, it is possibly exactly this dearth that makes Shakespeare such a literary powerhouse: “Freed from the trammels of a knowable ‘authorial intention,’ the author paradoxically gains power rather than losing it, assuming a different kind of kind of authority that renders him in effect his own ghost” (Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers 15).

Garber argues it is precisely Shakespeare’s ghostly nature that allows him to “possess” writers as distinct as Marx, Freud, and Derrida, whose use of his texts as examples for their theories means those theories forever thereafter exhibit the marks of a Shakespearean ghost-writing process.  But I do not think we can say the same about Horrorshow’s game: her allusiveness is never to Shakespeare-as-such, not like, for instance, the way Freud “uses” Hamlet to explain his thesis of repression.

I would like to suggest, then, that Horrorshow and Shakespeare work collaboratively.  What I mean is Shakespeare becomes not so much an author-function but an author-medium.  By “medium” here I mean something akin to what Marshall McLuhan means when she says “All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience in new forms” (Understanding Media 85).  This is similar to the way in which Garber argues Shakespeare ghost-writes Freud, Marx, and Derrida — there are things these writers wish to articulate, and Shakespeare provides the vocabulary for doing so.

But it is always Shakespeare’s vocabulary.  The authors work to preserve a whole and bounded idea of “Shakespeare” outside their own texts.  Horrorshow’s Shakespeare, however, becomes an active but epehemeral metaphor for the experience of authorship and creation.  Is Shakespeare ghost-writing Pontefract, or is Horrorshow ghost-writing Shakespeare?

Her textual use of Shakespeare blurs the boundaries between her in 2012 and him in 1595.  His blank verse appears alongside hers; shreds and patches of his words appear in the very underlying structure of of the game, rewritten in Horrorshow’s own typographical idiolect, meaning nothing in situ, hidden from the player, but serving as the connective tissue between the blocks of the story.

In the end, the game is not “based on” Richard II or an adaptation, but “inspired by.”  Horrorshow makes use of Shakespeare as one part of an available arsenal as a creator and — perhaps, disclosing now that my interpretation of Pontefract is as precarious as any one might offer — to express her interests and concerns regarding games and the stories of power and responsibility they can dramatize for us.

Epanalepsis, frames of reference, and the riddle of narrative

I wrote about Cameron Kunzelman’s game Catachresis on this blog before.  Last week his new game, a sort of thematic sequel, Epanalepsis, was released.

Needless to say, what follows constitutes spoilers, insofar as spoilers is a concept that applies to this game.

I made the caveat above because there is, frankly, a good chance I can tell you everything that happens in the game and it would not terribly impact your experience while playing it.  The criticism the game has received has been for its obtuseness, the way its narrative simultaneously points somewhere while insistently seeming to go nowhere.

Let’s talk about that.

Epanalepsis takes place across three time periods: 1993, 2013, and 2033.  In each you play, for approximately 15-20 minutes, a character from that time: a pioneering gentrifier and slacker named Rachel, a listless hacker named Anthony who lives in Rachel’s old apartment in a now-trendy neighborhood, and in the corporate dystopian future, a robotic drone that tends to humans in some sort of cryosleep in a converted apartment building.  Gameplay is simple: you walk among the rooms in the apartment, look at objects or people, and receive a bit of information or dialogue.

The game is short, giving you snapshots of these characters’ lives, and it fills in background details through the oddly performative player-character frame of a point-and-click adventure game: you click on a piece of furniture and the character launches into a brief soliloquy regarding what they think of it, where it came from, and where they hope it will be in the future.  In stripping out the normal complex puzzles, Kunzelman has created a minimalist adventure game that at times almost reads like a parody of the form.

In fact, the third chapter threatens to devolve into self-parody: you are a robot, a literal drone, that apparently putters back and forth in a single room all day, tending to human beings submerged in cryosleep and, it is suggested, virtual realities not at all dissimilar to more traditionally exciting videogames.  You, the drone, are compromised by a group of rebel hackers who are going to use you to blow up the city-block by sending you on a suicide mission.  They may or may not also be aiming to steal or destroy something called “the Von Lessinger equipment” which may or may not be some sort of time travel technology.  This is never explained to you, as the humans don’t bother to explain their goals to the drone, of course, and so you putter between them and try to report their contraband (they have cut off your connections to the network for just this reason).  You are supposedly diegetically controlled by a character known only as “the Inventor.”

This is a critique of the gaming format up to this point — you are reduced to a literal cog in the game’s extended machinery, tending to it, tirelessly clicking the appropriate things to help it run its course on your computer, beholden to the whims of the designer behind it — but it is also a commentary on the narrative of the game itself.  Just as the drone is used by humans, the humans are being used by others for their own purposes, and these entities don’t see any imperative to explain themselves.

For, in place of the mechanical puzzles, Kunzelman serves up a narrative puzzle, one that may be intentionally broken.  At the end of the first chapter, Rachel meets a stranger, a woman calling herself Tony, who makes odd intimations about time, the future, and the nature of the cosmos.  These intimations are similar to ones Rachel received earlier, from a red-cloaked man in a dream, who left her with an object he calls “the Burden,” which appears to be some sort of book or paper — unreadable to Rachel — that morphs into a blinking eye just before she wakes up.  When Tony has said her piece, she disappears and Rachel is left with a choice. After making the choice, the chapter immediately ends.  In the next chapter, you play as a man named Anthony (an odd coincidence!) who also meets the cloaked man (Pasus) and a cloaked woman (Cascabel),  the latter of whom may or may not be Tony from the previous chapter.

At about this moment in my first playthrough I began to detect the influence of Gene Wolfe, who writes in a similarly elliptical way, suggesting that characters you meet are and are not who they say they are, or who they appear to be.  But a difference arises: Wolfe writes narratives that are seemingly inscrutable riddles but which always have solutions.  There may be several and divergent interpretations, but Wolfe, late modernist that he is, gives you always enough tools to build an interpretation.

In Epanalepsis, solving the riddle in a Wolfean fashion is frankly impossible.  I received Kunzelman’s notes on the game as a reward for the tier at which I backed the Kickstarter.  Reading through them after my playthroughs, I confirmed my suspicion of Wolfe’s small influence, and in reading through Cameron’s notes, I discovered some information that would have “solved” the game’s riddle, had it been included.  But to what degree do these notes, always referring to an in-process creation, sometimes obviously diverging wildly from the product itself, really explain what happens?  Does such information, since it is not contained in the normal course of gameplay, even count toward an interpretation? I here belie my own formative immersion in New Criticism, and my own feelings as a creator: everything I put in a game is there for a reason, everything I leave out I leave out for a reason.  Who’s to say the same about Kunzelman?  Or am I just, again, in a different way, scooped up by the Inventor’s guiding hand, tossed back and forth from one frame of reference to another, looking for the continuity that will bring them together, reveal them as commensurate, and make my puttering back and forth cogent and meaningful?

I cannot tell you what I thought the game was about before I read the notes, now, because my knowledge is hopelessly inflected.  I did not write down what I thought in a coherent fashion before I read them, and so I can’t honestly provide my account of what the game looked like from the inside, because now I know what it could look like from the outside.

Before reading the notes, I did do my best to squeeze what I could out of the game itself.  I played through several times and plotted characters on a sheet of scrap paper, searching for anything that might crack the narrative code, but found none.  The closest I got was the beginning of Anthony’s chapter, which is presented as an MMO, a game-within-a-game.

Anthony hopes to make a boss-run, but his friends are not logged in, so he courts randos outside the boss’s lair.  A player agrees to help if Anthony will help him collect mushrooms, and so of course he does.  During this segment you pass in  front of the door to the boss’s lair, what the contextual label of the game calls a BAWSS GATE.  Behind the gate and its wall, you can see a high tower with a single light on.

Unless it’s a bug, there’s no information about this gate or this castle.  It is simply a BAWSS GATE, and there is something sitting beyond it, something in that tower, waiting for you.  But no matter how much you click, no matter how many mushrooms you collect, you never receive any sort of flavor text.  Anthony has no reflections, fears, hopes about this thing — as far as I know, it’s the only object like this in the game.

This is Epanalepsis writ small, by way of Kafka’s parable about the gate and the Law: the Boss resides here,  beyond this gate, high in its tower.  It is the endpoint, the goal, the summation, the thing that traditionally marks progress or an endpoint to a game.  It is what we like to think would make the game cohere, and in Epanalepsis it is something about which we will forever remain ignorant.  So the Boss toils on in its work, just as Cascabel and the cloaked man, Pasus, toil on, as well as the cursed old man Abhar Lama in the forgotten-or-yet-to-come reign of Emperor Eskar Lekkak, writing in a book that waits to be read, all of them meeting (as they say) our player characters again and again, watching them make choices that sometimes change, sometimes do not, and which nevertheless do not seem to free any of them from the mobius strip of the game’s narrative: a mobius strip we are told exists, but whose curves we never actually see…

…unless, of course, like Pasus and Cascabel, we slip through the walls of that narrative, step outside of it, and read a book, a certain book, and glimpse more broadly the bends and folds of time, development, and choice.  And yet, even then, again like Pasus and Cascabel — who are lost, apparently, who say they are searching for someone they cannot reach, a figure they call their teacher — we are unable to pin ourselves and others down in a narrative that resolves in a way we’d like, knowing but not omniscient.

the uncle who works for nintendo






My new Twine game, the uncle who works for nintendo, is now available for all to play.  It will take some time to get through one game, maybe 15 to 20 minutes at its shortest.  It has five possible endings.

The original commissioned artwork (some glimpsed in the above thumbnail) was made by the talented Kimberly Parker, who was absolutely amazing to work with.

The abstract artwork was made in the program Icosa by Andi McClure.

My inspirations are listed in the credits game itself, but I think it is appropriate to repeat them here:

Lights Out, Please by Porpentine, Vicky He, John R., Meghan, Jericho Bull, Ashley, Carli Velocci, Kitty Horroshow, Stephen Wilds, Aisley, Cathleen Macdonald, Sarah, and Kira, and the original story by Kaitlin Tremblay that preceded the collated anthology

Her Pound of Flesh by Liz England

You Were Made for Loneliness by Tsukareta

The Yahwg by Emily Carroll and Damian Sommer

History Lesson by withoutpillow

“Glitches: A Kind of History” in Arcade Review #3 by Alex Pieschel

My game uses a horror framework to think about misogyny and emotional abuse and manipulation, as it was (is) fostered particularly among children in the broader culture of videogames.  If you follow games culture at all, there are some resonances with current events here, and given that, I think it would be remiss not also to point you toward Liz Ryerson’s blog, which hosts not only excellent games writing, but some of the most incisive commentary on our recent troubles.

Special thanks goes, as always, to my beta-testers: Spam, Matt, Jeremy, Dan, Ivy, Alex, Harrison, and Victor.

Conspiracy and ‘False Activity’ for the Gamers

I do not have the time, desire, or stomach to completely recapitulate for you the queasy mess that is the ongoing clusterfuck called “GamerGate.”  Here’s an overview.  Additionally, I will defer to two of the finest critical voices on games I’ve encountered, Liz Ryerson and Daniel Joseph, who between them explain quite well the dynamics of the whole thing.

On Twitter, Jason Hawreliak observed that while the hubbub seems to have died down significantly since Zoe Quinn laid out some harsh justice, the fact remains that many die-hards still populate the hashtag, harassing devs and writers (including, still, Quinn herself), and generally hoping to either weather the storm of their disgrace or somehow effect a resurgence in the misplaced anger that fueled this particular hate machine to begin with.  While you’re at it, read Zoe on Cracked about her experiences.

As Jason noted, one thing this means is that the conspiracies born amid the earlier stages of the debacle have become increasingly elaborate and abstruse.  This makes sense, as I say in my reply to him: conspiracy theories aren’t made to be disproved but actually revised and reincorporated into an overarching mythology of conspiracies, providing the thinker with any number of ways to “explain” particular facets of the world.

John Brindle observed how the logic of the conspiracies, the searching, sorting, and winnowing of evidence, has seemed to dovetail almost effortlessly with the logic of playing a videogame.

As I say in my response to Jason’s tweet, I tend to conceive of this conspiracy-weaving through a psychoanalytic lens, and in particular through the idea of “false activity,” which I fork from Zizek.  Conspiracies are a method of constantly delaying “action” because there is always more to the situation then at first seemed apparent: we cannot do anything yet, because we haven’t sounded the depth of our imagined rabbit hole.  And this is particularly important since, in pursuing the bugbears of conspiracy theories (unscrupulous women game developers, or fluoride in your house’s tap water) you ignore more pressing, institutional issues: the fact that mainstream ‘games journalism’ has always been figuratively in bed with AAA developers, or that your civil liberties are being daily eroded by militarized police and an oligarchic government without any help at all from mind control agents in your kitchen sink.

False activity is a necessary corollary to “interpassivity,” an idea which Zizek himself forks from philosopher Robert Pfaller.  To contrast with the more acknowledged idea of “interactivity,” interpassivity is when objects begin to do things for us, in our place, rather than at our behest (this latter condition being the ideal of ‘interactivity’).  Zizek’s go-to example is the laugh track in a sitcom: the show itself laughs at its own jokes, so we don’t have to, and thus some of the heavy burden of paying strict attention is alleviated.  We are in fact allowed to “unwind” or relax.

For Zizek, then, “false activity” is the point at which the subject (sometimes willfully) misrecognizes an interpassive relationship for an interactive one, and vigorously attempts to treat it like one, but in so doing really prevents any action from taking place:

people not only act in order to change something, they can also act in order to prevent something from happening, so that nothing will change. Therein resides the typical strategy of the obsessional neurotic: he is frantically active in order to prevent the real thing from happening.

Here we arrive at my overall point: that “GamerGaters” or whatever we want to call them, are precisely in this position.  As mostly men, cisgender and heteronormative and white, the rise of socially conscious game developers, writers, queer folks, and women and PoC in gaming threatens them into a position where they feel “passive” in the arena of life where they have most often felt “active” (recall, here, points made by Ryerson and Joseph).

The result is the generally false activity of #GamerGate, of spinning wheels and ginning up controversy in the hopes that, by doing all this, absolutely nothing will happen, absolutely nothing will change.

This structure of activity is, I would further allege, one derived from (or at least strongly reinforced by) videogames themselves.  As I’ve increasingly thought and argued in my work on games, they are often profoundly tedious despite being marketed as endless fun.  As some of the voices of #GamerGate cry, reviewers often score the “fun” of a game subjectively, but rather than understanding that enjoyment is obstinately subjective, the Gaters call for more objectivity, as if the marketing copy of games (endless fun for you, forever!) could in fact be true.

Here we see the interpassive face of a medium whose primary selling point is its claim to interactivity.  To choose a rather unfavorable analogy, it seems that games have partly worked by indoctrination.  “I told you I was fun,” the game says, “the commercials said I was fun! So you definitely must be having fun!” And for a thousandth time your space marine is shot in the head by a shrieking 14-year-old on the other side of a continent.

So the “gamer” response is not to call for better games (that is, to interact with the medium and its industry, as many indie developers and writers are in fact doing — interaction with others at all has fallen under suspicion of ‘corruption’ for GGers) but rather a demand to materialize a sublime-impossible artifact of videogame advertising, and to that extent not so the industry can change, but so it can finally be what they thought it was all along: a boys-only playground.  Upon fulfillment of the above conditions these people, in their vociferous cries for action, can in fact remain the passive consumers they have always been, and always wanted to be.

“Tear it outta the sky!”: Stuplimity, Affect, and Games

In the fall of 2008 I was a sophomore in college.  I had a friend who reliably purchased hot new AAA videogames, and it was our custom after dinner to retire to his room and play something or other for a few hours, rotating play responsibilities while the rest of us chatted, made remarks about the game, discussed classes and campus life, and so on.

This friend purchased StarWars: The Force Unleashed.  At a certain point in the game, you are tasked with pulling a Star Destroyer out of the sky with the Force.   As with so many other parts of the game, it was a lengthy quick-time event that made an elaborately choreographed scene marginally interactable.  Here’s a video:

What was important about my friend’s game is that it glitched.  At the final stage of the event (about 3:30 in the video) the player avatar locked into place, the icons indicating the player needed to use the analog sticks appeared, and a crackling disembodied voice commanded him to “Pull it outta the sky!

And then nothing else happened for probably more than an hour.

The game didn’t freeze, the music didn’t stop, my friend could still move the analog sticks and influence the movement of things on screen, and every few minutes the game would remind him, as if he had somehow wandered off or forgotten, to “Pull it outta the sky!

My friend, a tenacious game-player if there ever was one, kept at it.  We watched as he became increasingly agitated, leaving him to stew in silence as our conversation drifted away from him and the television in the center of the dorm room.  On the screen was something that I imagine we might only ever see again if Samuel Beckett somehow got a job writing one of the new Star Wars films: a snarling Jedi caught in cinematic stasis, a waggling Star Destroyer suspended indefinitely in front of him while the brass blared heroically all around: —We must pull it out of the sky!Oh, but we couldn’t.  —But if we did?Could we?

I don’t know how long it took us to suggest to our friend that maybe it was a glitch, and to reload from a prior save, but this event became sufficiently notorious in our social group as to constitute its own in-joke, a tendency to shout a misremembered “Tear it outta the sky!” at one another during moments when we were feeling frustrated, irritated, or overwhelmed.

This has all been a roundabout introduction to the issue of affect and games, and in particular the ways in which videogames often seem to confound the epic and exhilarating with the banal and irritating.  This precise confusion has been described by Sianne Ngai in her book Ugly Feelings, under the neologism of “the stuplime” — a bizarre crossroads of the unpleasant, thick, and “stupid” with the vast and terrifying wonder of the Kantian sublime, where the human mind is supposed to successfully recognize its own inability to grasp the totality of, say, a mountain or a storm, and then takes comfort in its own self-conscious boundedness.

Contrasted to that, as Ngai explains it, the stuplime is

…a bringing together of what “dulls” and what “irritates” or agitates; of sharp, sudden excitation and prolonged desensitization, exhaustion, or fatigue. While the Kantian sublime stages a competition between opposing affects, in which one eventually supersedes and replaces the other … stuplimity is a tension that holds opposing affects together. … Stuplimity reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality … yet not through an encounter with the infinite but with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition. (271)

I obviously would like to suggest that stuplimity has something to offer the study of videogames.  I am not the first person to do so; in an insightful article on “the digital sublime,” Eugénie Shinkle invokes Ngai to describe the affect of gameplay as one of potential  stuplimity, of boring and repetitive tasks punctuated by moments of heightened attention, energy, and exhilaration: “…this suggests that we situate videogames in the context of the general waning of affect that is said to characterize postmodern experience” (6).

It is Ngai’s contention that stuplimity is a specific and symptomatic affect of our contemporary late-capitalist world, which is why it warrants the neologism.  Indeed, if she is correct in this, and if I am correct in my hunch that stuplimity describes game-experiences with an uncanny accuracy, then the fit might be because the videogame is the late-capitalist aesthetic object par excellance.

Shinkle’s search is, as I indicated, for the elusive “digital sublime,” and in the end she asserts that stuplimity will not get us there, because in games “the two affects [ie, astonishment and boredom] are not collapsed into one another but continue to exist, in tension, as discrete categories” (10-11).

Shinkle contrasts the stuplime with Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “flow,” which accounts for the large expanses of repetitive or abstruse gameplay we may endure without actually becoming irritated.  A good example here might be how many people, at a certain time in their lives (particularly the 90s) were able to buckle down and grind through thousands of random encounters in Japanese RPGs with nary a grumble.

But Shinkle does not simply argue for flow over stuplimity, pointing out that both of them rely on an implicit notion that “the technology itself – software and interface – disappears into functionality” (8).  She then turns to the issue of a game’s “failure event,” which breaks flow.  This, then, is why games (for Shinkle) do not “collapse” the affects of astonishment and boredom, because a game that is “working” will result in an experience of flow.  What Shinkle calls the digital sublime, then, is always ultimately an accident, a moment when the game as artifact retreats from the player indefinitely:

In failure events, both the game and the technologically-enabled posthuman self cease to exist as such. Instead, the subject is confronted with a mute technological artifact – a featureless surface that bears no decipherable relationship to the unimaginably complex workings that it conceals. Contemporary digital technology lacks the capacity for representation that allowed nineteenth-century artifacts to function as sources of awe in and of themselves. As objects, contemporary digital technologies are destined for obsolescence, their production driven less by a wish to celebrate human ingenuity than by the late capitalist imperatives of novelty and innovation. (9-10)

Shinkle’s digital sublime relies not on the hopeless muddling of boredom and astonishment, but rather irruptive moments when digital artifacts at first cast us off and, contrasted with Kantian natural phenomena like storms and mountains, we recognize them as “banal” consumer products, things made for us but which exist in some inscrutable and frankly-not-very-exciting way beyond us.  (In this sense I think Shinkle’s idea resonates to some extent with Tim Morton’s idea of the hyperobject, especially as it describes the styrofoam trash that stuffs our landfills and will outlast us all.)  As Shinkle summarizes, “In the contemporary digital sublime, the experience of the limitless potential of human ingenuity is
lodged within artifacts whose material existence is fleeting and insignificant” (11).

And yet I think, in the search for the sublime, Shinkle brushes past far too quickly the potential insights of the stuplime gaming experience.  I find myself returning to the moment when my friend could not tear the Star Destroyer from the sky.  On the one hand this is precisely the failure event Shinkle discusses, the moment when the game seemed to clam up and resist my friend’s attempts to act on it or with it, and we recognize it as banal, overhyped, mass-produced Star Wars merchandise, indistinguishable from any copy in any other Xbox anywhere else.

But on the other hand, the object was not at all “mute” — the icons were there telling my friend to use the analog sticks, the game itself kept urging him to “pull it out of the sky,” the Star Destroyer bobbed like a cork in the sea, and yet despite all of this happening, nothing actually happened.

Or rather, nothing happened in terms of progression through the game.  Outside the game, my friend became increasingly and obviously angry; my other friends and I became increasingly bored and increasingly uncomfortable about our friend playing the game; in the end the experience was so affectively strong that it left its mark on our group dialect, and many years later, brought me to write this blog post.

Not only that, but games can be affectively deadening, irritating, and uncomfortable even when they work correctly.  This seems to have become more pronounced lately in  gameswriting, especially regarding AAA titles.  Consider Leigh Alexander’s excellent critique of BioShock Infinite, which describes her dismay at encountering a gamespace that is technically excellent, artistically ambitious, and yet at the same time unsatisfying and hollow:

I’m in the land of the Vox. Some shantytown. A man stands on a crate, preaching about the misfortunes of the working class. I want to snap a picture of the juxtaposition between the way I always want to listen to him and the way I am always waving a gun in his face, and so I put the controller down and held my phone up to the screen. As I am picking the controller back up, my finger slips, and I shoot him by accident.

What Alexander describes here is not a failure state.  It is the way the game is supposed to run — you are supposed to be able to shoot that street preacher.  Someone somewhere in the game’s development thought, “The player may want to shoot people on the street.  We won’t force it, but we’ll allow it to be a possibility.”  But for Alexander — who by this point is quite disenchanted with the game, anyway — it is merely one more absurd setpiece of murder in her episodic journey through a game consisting almost entirely of instances where you brutally murder strangers on the street.

We might also look at Paul Tassi’s review of Call of Duty: Ghosts.  Calling the game “modern military shooter fatigue incarnate,” the flat affect of his opening line succinctly encapsulates the stuplimity of videogames: “I’m in space. I’m shooting a machine gun, in space.”

His follow up: “I don’t know what else is left to do at this point.”

One might fairly object that these are unfavorable reviews.  They are, of course, rhetorically positioned to figure their objects as stuplime; in a “good” game, or at least a game the reviewer likes, there is less attention devoted to issues like this because the player either buys into the game’s absurdity in a sincere way or the gameplay (which, almost definitionally, will be somehow repetitive) produces the “flow” necessary for “proper” enjoyment.

To further crowd an already populated essay, let me point out the phenomenon of the cynical video review — I think most specifically of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation, or James Rolfe’s Angry Video Game Nerd.  Croshaw’s persona as a reviewer is predicated on him being sardonically unimpressed with most games he plays, delivering his comments in a brisk but generally disinterested tone.  The Angry Video Game Nerd’s format, while focusing on vintage or classic games, relies on being similarly unimpressed, though Rolfe’s delivery is considerably less manic.

In both cases the reviewers repeatedly present their positions of darkly humorous cynicism as being a viable viewpoint to take in regard to videogames.  They form a counterpoint to the “hype machine” of the enthusiast press and, I suspect especially in Croshaw’s case, earn a sense of “authenticity” in their opinions among viewers.  Both seem to be chronically on the verge of echoing Tassi’s weary observation: “I don’t know what else is left to do at this point.”

What is left to do?  The answer is actually quite simple: review another game!

What if the tired cynicism of the video reviewers, the tone of floating distress that invades written reviews of bad games, illuminate something fundamental to the aesthetic experience of videogames?

Ngai again:

Inducing a series of fatigues or minor exhaustions, rather than a single, major blow to the imagination, stuplimity paradoxically forces the reader to go on in spite of its equal enticement to readers give up … pushing us to reformulate new tactics for reading. (272)

Is this not how games function?  Are not all games just a little bit boring, chains of “minor exhaustions,” challenges and puzzles and unfamiliar mechanics, requiring us to chip and click and press and shoot our way forward again and again and again?  In reviews where games are figured as boring or bad, are we not simply seeing highlighted and disparaged the very mechanics that, in another configuration in another game, might become a part of the “flow” of gameplay, perhaps unpleasant or imperfect but “natural”-feeling enough to keep us from giving up?  Might not any “bad” game mechanic, if pulled into the proper assemblage, or experienced by a certain player, come off as rather tolerable, if not outright “good”?  In short, what if all games are basically stuplime?

I have already brought up the example of the JRPG as a game whose tedium might be subsumed by the trance-like state of flow.  I was one of those players who experienced their share of very grindy JRPGs in the 90s, and I hold fond memories of all of them — but I question whether this was the result of flow, or rather the result of a selective memory and a selective fondness.

I certainly don’t think I have the patience to play through Final Fantasy VIII again, despite the fact that it’s one of my favorite games.  I remember, in fact, being bored and irritated by extensive bouts of grinding in it and just about all the JRPGs I played.  I continued with these games so long as it seemed possible to make the next non-grindy section of the game more palatable; I continued to play JRPGs so long as I had a taste for melodramatic stories about teens with nebulously environmentalist or anti-fascist messages looking sad and/or beautiful while staving off cosmic catastrophe.

This is all to say, pace Shinkle, that astonishment and boredom do in fact collapse into each other during gameplay.  There are certainly instances where one is winnowed from the other: boredom overcomes all and the player quits, or those moments of heartfelt wonder and astonishment.  But I would argue that, for the most part, games are experienced precisely in the middle of these two extremes.  Games are filled with “gray” time — unremarkable time, filler, which we may or may not recognize as such and may or may not care about, given a variety of external factors.  The game does not cede to a pure functionality, but rather the player’s affect and attention exist in tension with what the game asks or requires the player to do.  (Consider the varied responses to David O’Reilly’s Mountain [scroll down to the website logos for reviews] for some rather lucid expressions of these tensions.)

My friend did not restart Star Wars: The Force Unleashed immediately because he genuinely could not tell he had entered a failure state.   It bore none of the more egregious marks of a glitched game, and it had occurred in the already vastly narrowed playspace of a quick-time event, without any of the hallmarks of that event being failed.  We waited so long to restart because we could not “comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality” — ie, because we were inoculated to games as complex systems designed to present challenges, to urge us to “stop” or “give up the fight,” while hiding the fact that progress was indeed possible, implicitly demanding we try anyway, that we attempt a new tactic, keep attempting the QTE, or (eventually) reload a save.

Is there, then, a fundamental way in which games teach their players to embrace a certain type of stuplimity: “Do this.  Keep doing this.  Now do that. Oh, you messed up — try again.  Yes, again.  Do it again.  You may not like it, but the cool stuff’s ahead — I promise”?  And perhaps the player sees it — or thinks she sees it: that cool stuff, that Thing, the payoff, the promise of affective astonishment hovering just ahead, bobbing helplessly in the air, waiting to be pulled down to her with just the right combination of button presses.


New twine piece, playable here.

This is a very short game about having an uncomfortable conversation with a vaguely sinister white guy.

One ending. Or is there? Ask a friend to play and then compare notes.

On related business, Zolani Stewart and Lana Polansky recently posted a podcast in which they discuss the avant-garde in videogames, which is filled with many smart thoughts on these things, and points you to a lot of cool little games to play.  But it also (quite surprisingly!) contains a discussion of my last Twine game, My Father’s Long, Long Legs! I am really excited by the response that game got, which quite frankly has been larger and more supportive than anything I ever expected.

I’ll take this moment to say thank you for reading my posts here, for playing my games, and for generally being a cool person.