Off Menus

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Ian here—

Ah, the game menu. So often in PC games, it is accessed by hitting the “esc” key, and so often it is just that: an escape from the pressures of the game. A place where players can put things on pause, and can retreat into a familiar suite of low-pressure activities. Saving. Loading. Inventory management. Party management. Gamma settings. Resolution settings. Pretending to know the difference between trilinear and anisotropic texture filtering, and then getting up to pee. So calming. So safe.

Except when it’s not.  Because sometimes, one encounters a menu that is just a little … off. An “off menu,” shall we say.

Below the fold, an appreciation of two games, including one from 2016. Tis the season for year-end retrospectives and “best of” lists. Unfortunately, I had neither the time nor the budget to expose myself to many of 2016’s releases in the calendar year of 2016, so I’m not well-positioned to mount a case that CALENDULA (Blooming Buds Studios, 2016) is actually one of my “favorite” games to release this year. But I did want to slip in a write-up of it before December gives up the ghost. (Spoiler warning for both games … including one that’s over a decade old.)

Killer7 (Grasshopper Manufacture, 2005)

Presumably, players of Suda51’s Killer7 know they’re in for a strange ride early on. After all, the game’s tutorial features a man in a magenta bondage suit speaking to them in subtitled gibberish, explaining that the game’s control scheme has a dedicated button to make its normally-invisible enemies visible.

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Still, though, the first time I played the game, this tutorial has nothing on my first visit to the location known as “Harman’s Room.” This room put me in a state of abject confusion, to the point of almost physical discomfort. Here’s a brief video clip of players’ first visit to this space:

Why is this room populated by a television and a maid named Samantha? A bit of fiddling around allowed me to guess that this room served as a place for saving the game and switching between the game’s titular seven characters. But what about that creepy doctor on the television, standing around and waiting for “thick blood“? What was thick blood, and what did it do? And why didn’t I have any blood? Was that something I should be worried about?

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Further exploration of the level revealed that there were more Harman’s Rooms dotted about—or, I guess, more entrances to the same Harman’s Room? No, that wasn’t it. Games such as the Persona series had prepared me for the idea that a central room might serve as an access point to critical game systems, and that there might be many entrances to this room throughout the game’s geography, Euclidean space be damned. But the second Harman’s room clearly wasn’t the same as the first. In place of the first room’s austere blackness and overhead lighting, this room was draped in ratty wallpaper, and lit seemingly with natural light coming through a window. Furthermore, Samantha was out of her maid’s outfit. Instead, she was slouched in a chair, passive-aggressively unresponsive to my presence.

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I’m the woman in the blood-splattered dress now, in case it isn’t clear. And, in this game, nothing is.

Here’s the thing: there are totally reasonable answers to all of the questions I had about Harmon’s Room. The room serves as a menu. It provides necessary and very familiar functions to players. The game just goes utterly out of its way to disorient the player while accessing of these basic functions. To wit:

  • Thick blood” is something you receive upon defeating enemies. Collecting it allows you to level up your character’s abilities. The developers might as well have named it “XP,” because, functionally, that’s what it is. Instead, they gave it a more gruesome name, and forced you to watch a video of a doctor operating some sort of nefarious centrifuge any time you want to cash it in for upgraded abilities.
  • Samantha being in her maid suit means that you can save. Samantha slumped in a chair means you can’t save. There are perfectly standard game-design-related reasons why any developer would want to prevent you from saving in certain spots. Usually, this would just mean that the “save” option is greyed over in the menu. In Killer7, this distinction is distinguished by Samantha’s dress and demeanor.

This is more than just strangeness for strangeness’ sake. The events depicted in Killer7 carry with them a mind-bogglingly complicated backstory, communicated with astounding ineffectualness in the cutscenes that separate out its seven missions. The game is not very good at conveying plot. What it is good at conveying, though, is a sense of psychological unease. The only relatively clear point about the game’s story is this: you are playing as an assassin with some sort of dissociative identity disorder, who believes themself to be (and, in some way, physically is?—remember, I said “relatively” clear) seven different people. This is obviously a non-typical psychology, and Killer7 uses all of the means at its disposal to play up the essential alienness of being this person.

Game menus are usually the great “safe spaces” of game design. You pause the game, you futz about. You generally know what things do. The boilerplate for menu design is well-established, and there’s an enormous degree of adherence to convention in most game menus.

Some games play around with these conventions. To create an extra layer of anxiety, From Software’s Souls series and some horror games refuse the norm of pausing time in the game’s world when players bring their menus up. Killer7 defamiliarizes things even further. The game aggressively forces its disorientation on you, making you do perfectly standard and necessary things in uncomfortable ways. Players can’t catch their breath for a moment, even when attempting mundane tasks such as saving. Even in the game’s menus, you have to play by its rules—and its rules are really, really weird. Its surrealism doesn’t let up. There is madness even in the margins.

A productive contrast here can be drawn between Killer7 and something like Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010). The Dark Descent is frequently allows the madness of Daniel, the player’s character, affect the game interface. When Daniel’s sanity starts to get low, player’s visual and auditory access to the game’s world is distorted, and everything becomes all “squiggly.” The moment the player pops into the menu, though, suddenly all is well. Daniel’s madness cannot reach us here. We are free to peruse our inventory, or read every single one of the notes and letters collected in the game, unburdened by Daniel’s psychological state. Killer7 allows for no such respites.

And Killer7 doesn’t let up: it just keeps getting more uncomfortable. The introductory scene of “Target o1,” the game’s second level, finds personality Garcian Smith in his trailer. Disturbed screams of unknown origin fill the air. One hallway terminates in a safe door, fixed tight. Another door opens onto the torn-wallpaper version of Harman’s room. The scene inside reveals that the maid Samantha is not just a weird mechanism for saving our game, but a genuine character—or, rather, characters, as she seems to have distinct personalities, much like the killers do. Upon first entering the room, she’s snotty and abusive, smacking around killer7’s oldest personality, the apparently catatonic Harman Smith. Once the player “switches Harman on” via the television, the scene changes entirely: Harman is now lucid, and Samantha, in full maid attire, is appropriately prim. The transition is every bit as unnerving as Naomi Watts’ transformation from “Betty” into “Diane” in Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001):

It’s unclear how much—if any—of this is to be taken as part of the base layer of “reality” in the game’s narrative. Clearly, the character we are playing with is psychologically unwell, and the game’s narration should be taken as highly unreliable. “Narration,” though, is perhaps too limited of a word: it is, after all, not just the recounting of the events of the story that seem infected with madness. Even the figures populating the save screen are embroiled in a surreal psychodrama. There’s nowhere the player can retreat, to to catch their breath from this crawling instability.

And things only get worse as the game continues. In the introductory scene to the “Target 05” level, Garcian enters Harman’s Room in his trailer to find Samantha slumped in her chair, dead. Throughout the rest of the level, the save function is taken over by a new character, a steward named Gary Wanderers, “a dedicated, 50-year career veteran.” “The maid straight up disappeared,” complains Iwazaru.

In the final Harman’s Room of the game, in the subsequent level, “Target 06,” an unresponsive Harman lies collapsed on the floor. Not only is Samantha dead, but Gary Wanderers is gone, as well. Although it’s still there, the television does nothing: cycling through its channels results in static and snow, except for the blood doctor, whose transfusion center now has a “closed” sign over it. A room that was once a spatially-rendered menu has become functionless, a graveyard of never-answered mysteries in a game that, by this point, is collapsing in upon itself.

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CALENDULA (Blooming Buds Studios, 2016)

As much as I enjoyed CALENDULA, I have to say: I would not want to be on the game’s marketing team. On the one hand, it’s nearly impossible to describe the game without spoiling it. If there were ever a game that you should go into completely blind, it would be this one.

(So, really, you should stop reading now, play the game, and then come back here. Really.)

On the other hand, though, there’s no real way to describe the game that properly makes it seem interesting or remotely enjoyable. What should the advertising copy for this game be? “Fiddle around with configuration settings in the menu for a game that never actually properly launches!” doesn’t make for a compelling tag line. And yet, that’s an accurate description of the game. Here’s a glimpse of its opening moments:

After the loading screen that ends the above clip, the game dumps the player into a 3D rendered space, controlling a first-person point-of-view with relatively standard mouse + WASD controls. “Aha,” the game tempts us to think, “that bit about video configuration and save files at the beginning was just a mood-setting tactic to keep me on my toes. Now the real game starts. What gorgeous art direction! Feast your eyes on that chromatic aberration. Such an unexpectedly refined use of the Unity engine. This is obviously where the team’s budget went, and so this must be the real game.”

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But before we can even walk to the end of the hallway pictured here, the video glitches out, the computer-rendered space disappears in favor of some video footage, and we’re kicked back out to the main menu. And, when we try to re-load the save and start the “game” again, this happens:

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And so it begins. From here on out, the game adopts a predictable rhythm: we briefly explore a 3D rendered space, the video cuts out, we’re booted back into the main menu, and told that our save file is password-protected. Hovering our cursor over the eye at the bottom of the main menu will provide an oblique clue as to how we should look up our password. The process always involves navigating somewhere in the menu, and changing a certain setting. After this, we are “rewarded” with the ability to slowly walk through a 3D rendered space for a few more seconds, before being booted out again. Eventually, it becomes clear: the 3D rendered portions of the game are not the “game.” The menu is the game, and it more or less boils down to a scavenger hunt through options and settings.

Now, I have been a frequent skeptic of the efficacy of the diegetic/non-diegetic distinction, so frequently uses in film criticism and analysis, to the realm of games. I think that theorists such as Kristine Jørgensen have been right to question its basis (even if I don’t always agree with the alternative lexicons proposed). However, I do concede that it can sometimes be useful to think consider these terms: we should just remain vigilant, and always be aware of games’ capacities to complicate them.

As an example, I think Alexander Galloway’s concept of the nondiegetic operator act is an extraordinarily useful one. Here’s an excerpt from his description of it:

These are acts of configuration. They are always executed by the operator and received by the machine. They happen on the exterior of the world of the game but are still part of the game software and completely integral to the play of the game. An example: the simplest nondiegetic operator act is pushing Pause. Pausing a game is an action by the operator that sets the entire game into a state of suspended animation.[i]

This term and its definition obviously describe the vast majority of games well. Its main usefulness when approaching CALENDULA, by contrast, is in our ability to recognize just how much the game attempts to disrupt and disturb this category. CALENDULA provides no place to perform acts of configuration ensconced from the pressures of the game’s world. The game’s “world” is nebulous, ill-defined, and therefore capable of osmosis through the boundary between diegetic acts and non-diegetic acts. This boundary, it turns out, was built upon only the weakest of agreements between operator and machine, and is easily violated.

If we think of merely the 3D rendered space of CALENDULA as its “world,” we have made an error. Game worlds are not so easily constrained. CALENDULA‘s world permeates every operator act that we can make, all the way up to closing the software. All of the tools it provides us with are shot through with its own infernal logic. As the eye that’s constantly on the bottom of the main menu screen reminds us, the entities that populate the game’s world are always watching us, always keeping track of us, even when we’re just trying to change our resolution settings.

[i]. Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Pg 12.

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