Thursday, February 27, 2014

Out of the utopia, into the Problem Attic

I think I've been as guilty as anyone when it comes to projecting a kind of utopian ideal onto the world of games. Whether consciously or otherwise, I feel as if I've sometimes indulged in the hopeful fantasy that I've been living in the dawn of a golden age of video games—evidenced in no small part by the emergence of a (seemingly) thriving independent games subculture. Games, as we know them, I want to tell myself, are progressing—pushing old boundaries and exploring new territory in terms of technical innovation, design sophistication, and even artistic depth.

Of course, when I actually write it out like that, it sounds like total garbage—particularly in the third area. What does it even mean for a game to have artistic depth? The AAA games industry is still as infatuated with expressions of ultra-violent male power fantasy as ever. And even the expanded market for smaller games has become kind of a dull, saturated landscape that tends to pump out plenty of content that keeps us all fairly well engaged and amused but rarely offers anything deeply meaningful or intellectually challenging.

I can't help but feel that the recently announced semi-closure of Irrational Games in Boston will be one of the more significant events from this current decade in games—at least on a psychological level. Because it's more than just another studio experiencing some potential financial struggles. For many people, BioShock Infinite was supposed to be the great redeeming hope for AAA video games, and thereby all video games. It would prove to the world that a massively ambitious, story-driven, first-person shooter could in fact bridge the gap between violent interactive spectacle and grand artistic vision. It was as if that magnificent floating city of Columbia was the digital embodiment of those very hopes and dreams.

Of course it was na├»ve, because—again—what does that even mean? On the one hand, I think BioShock Infinite does represent a grand artistic vision, but not a very focused, articulated, sophisticated, or transcendent one. If anything, BioShock Infinite proved yet again that a well-funded PR campaign can still—if temporarily—bring the great gaming press machine into a state of awe-full, blissful worship.

But where does the industry go from here? Do we fool ourselves once again into thinking that the vast exploitation and corporate shepherding of a large creative team might lead to something other than an incoherent interactive experience with decent to impressive graphical polish. Do we move on and invest our hope and faith in some new messiah, or is creative director Ken Levine's move to the world of smaller games a telling indicator that the dream is truly dead?

Over the past two years since I started this blog, my focus and general thinking about games has been tossed and blown around so many times, influenced by so many competing manifestos both for games and games criticism—frankly, I feel dizzy. It's hard for me to know how to express anything worthwhile, particularly on a macro level. I find it all the more remarkable, therefore, when I come across the work of other writers and critics who manage to distill the so-called "state of games" so eloquently and persuasively. I get excited when I stumble upon a train of thought that seems so imperatively on to something.

One of the most refreshing voices I've encountered of late is Liz Ryerson—a blogger, musical artist, game designer, and probably plenty of other things as well. I've enjoyed reading Ryerson's work over the past few months, because it really has challenged me to reexamine any remaining utopian notions I may have had—in part by pointing out how the cultural worship of the elegant systems of games goes hand-in-hand with our present dystopian reality, whereby the pervasiveness of similar elegant systems (i.e. social media) threatens to drown out our humanity.

Consider this passage from her recent "Re: Fuck Videogames" talk:

within the current culture, there is a heavy emphasis of sort of clean, readable, egalitarian systems that are meant to make information more accessible and approachable and make their ideas easier to sell to a market. But they also serve as a kind of mundane filter to mask the messy, chaotic, subjective reality underneath. we may be living tremendously complicated and colorful lives, but all of those emotions and experiences are colored over by the overarching blandness in the presentation of the systems. for people whose lives are lived on much different terms and in much different places than the well-off Silicon Valley programmers maintaining these systems, the effect is much more drastic. and so, these serve as another institution – one we're being rapidly 'normalized' to, as in Foucalt's concept of 'normalization'. we like to hope they aren't having this kind of effect on us, but they are.
to what degree are we, as game developers, game critics, and game educators, reinforcing this normalization, and to what degree are we challenging it?

I think the entire essay serves as an excellent starting point for delving into Ryerson's work. It's also an incredible companion piece to her 2013 Flash game Problem Attic, which you can experience here.

There isn't a whole lot written about Problem Attic that I've been able to locate, but there is one extremely well-written analysis by Brendan Vance. He certainly articulates many similar thoughts and interpretations that came to me while playing the game, but he also widens the discussion, using Problem Attic as a means to expose the startling absence of intrinsic value at the core of modern commercial game development (he also wrote a followup piece talking about current unsustainable trends in game design—namely its overemphasis on transparent user experiences). It's so carefully laid out, it almost risks being regarded as a kind of definitive statement—something I wouldn't wish on any piece of criticism.

To borrow from Ryerson's own words, Problem Attic is a game about prisons, "both real and imagined," which I take to mean as either physical or psychological, imposed on the imprisoned both by outside forces and by the self. Ryerson represents these conceptual prisons in the form of abstract 2D environments, which the player explores in the guise of a simple avatar sprite.

And one of the first things I notice while playing Problem Attic is the representation of this avatar. It's a curious stick-figure shape—vaguely humanoid but almost like an E.T. character (which, strangely enough, recalls those dreaded vertical pits from the infamous Atari cartridge from the 1980s). Aside from the black body, there is a single red pixel that suggests an eye or a face, as well as a single gray pixel in the location of the sex organs. Already the game hints at themes of uncertain identity.

From the player's starting location—a kind of partitioned or compartmentalized over-world screen (the titular "Problem Attic," I assume)—the player moves through a series of abstract chambers, the goal being to find each hidden exit and move on.

As I suggested before, I more or less agree with a lot of Vance's own interpretations—including his insights regarding the complicated nature of the pursuing cross figures, which inflict a kind of visual and auditory "pain" whenever they come into contact with the player avatar. I also agree there's a definite turning point that happens within the sixth room of the opening act of the game. It's in this room—a hellish environment using background textures reminiscent of DOOM—where the player avatar encounters a lone, sinister cross figure. More than any other "enemy" previously encountered, the speed and directness of this particular figure evokes a much more predatory motive. The fact that the tiled walls in this room are also semi-transparent gives the player the chilling sensation of being watched or taunted. It all gives the impression of a traumatic memory or event.

This interpretation is reinforced during the next prison section, in which the screen is superimposed with a line of text reading "i can't remember it was," followed by a random number ranging from 1 to 4. What is the "it" that can't be remembered? Is it an age or year that something happened? Is it the number of times that something happened? Obviously, we can't be sure. But the avatar's appearance is transforming, losing both its shape and axis of balance as it struggles to make sense of something.

It's after this that the second act begins. The player returns to the familiar over world screen, only the landscape of the attic is changing, filling in with new tiles and obstacles. And, of course, the gravity of the world has inverted. The sensation of movement in this part of the game recalls some of the joyous leaping I talked about in my writeup of VVVVVV, only in this case there's really nothing joyful about it. Instead, this falling sensation feels cruel and frustrating. All the player can hope to do is slowly crawl along the perimeter of the attic rooms, looking for anywhere that will grant entry or acceptance.

Ryerson reintroduces many of the former prison rooms, only now the typical mode of escape is to find the glitched-out areas that allow the player avatar to clip into the very walls of the room. From here, the player quickly grows accustomed to navigating at the margins of the very playing fields they inhabit. Are these the experiences of a marginalized individual in a hostile society? Is it a representation of circumventing old, uncomfortable memories?

One of the final prisons during this second of three acts stands out for a different reason in that it's actually kind of fun. It involves a kind of collecting mechanic, in which the player navigates the maze-like environment collecting these oddly shaped A.I. characters—who seem to symbolize fellow victims. To me this particular prison iteration plays out like a rescue mission of sorts, whereby the player makes use of a collectible power-up that allows for short teleports through the solid tiles. It's the one stage of the game where the player seems more focused on the wellbeing of others. But it's a short-lived segment that segues into the third and final act of the game, which plays out like the sad, sometimes anxious wanderings of a very hurt and psychologically troubled individual—culminating in a moment of transformation and acceptance.

The difficulty with all of this is that many players probably will not make it very far into the game. The first time I played Problem Attic, I had to throw in the towel early, because the game was giving me motion sickness from all of the jostling, forced encounters with the aforementioned cross figures. I was literally too nauseated to continue, something that has happened plenty of times while playing old first-person shooters on an empty stomach but never while playing a 2D platformer. Fortunately, I was invested enough to restart my play through the next day. I saw the game to its conclusion, and I've since gone through the entire experience again.

I don't dwell on this point as a matter of self-congratulation, or to suggest some quality of saintlike forbearance on my part for putting up with the game's nauseating aesthetics and frustrating design choices. In a Q&A interview with her and Robert Yang, Ryerson actually balks at the question of whether she ought to compromise her design choices—even a little—in order to make the game more accessible to players. And good on her, I say!

We're dealing, after all, with a game about imprisonment—and not some purely representational notion of imprisonment, or imprisonment as a clever gameplay mechanic. It's a game that communicates its theme not so much by challenging our reflexes or our logical thinking skills. Problem Attic hits us at a gut level, asking much more of our interpretive capabilities than the typical playing experience. Many of its design choices are certainly unorthodox but also essential to communicating its ideas.

I finished playing the game Braid last year, and during my time with it I kept coming back to a nagging question. From its puzzles to its cryptic text portions to its interesting choices in art direction, how are we to evaluate whether or not this game is actually good or just—as many have certainly argued—pretentious? I don't think Braid is merely pretentious, but I do have a difficult time deciding just how good it actually is. If the vast majority of games are like prose, then Braid and Problem Attic are more like gaming poetry. And I don't think we're very well accustomed to evaluating gaming poetry—at least not yet. Then again, this whole preoccupation with "good" is part of the problem to begin with, and it's not just confined to the world of games.

I think the danger of utopian ideals is that we latch onto the impossible notion that a perfect form exists, and that it's ours to obtain—if only we can chip away and pare down until only the perfection remains. And yet it seems as if the world of game development has become infected with a similar idea. You can see it in the present-day obsession with playtesting and polish. We must have pure, undiluted, perfect play! And it's not like that's a bad goal, in and of itself.

But to suggest this is the only way is not only dogmatic, it's potentially dangerous. The experience of play becomes yet another drug that fuels our desire for a kind of fluid and intuitive progress through the world that we rarely get to experience outside of games. And to pursue those ideals above all else risks to block out other types of play that might actually resonate with and inform what our inner and outer lives actually reflect.