Here on My Side of the Screen

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

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

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

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

First up: Asphyx (Droqen, circa 2012).[ii] Asphyx announces itself as “a game about you”—that is, specifically, “the human at the keyboard.” The hook? Whenever you fall underwater during this short platformer, you must hold your breath.

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Asphyx does not rely on technics to hold you to this arrangement. As a free Flash game, it certainly does not come packaged with any sort of breath-test hardware to use as part of its control scheme. It just expects you to not be a spoil-sport. In this case, not being a spoil-sport means pressing your “esc” key to indicate when you’ve breathed in, and failed the game’s challenge. In place of a high-tech interface, we have a gentleman’s agreement: an unenforceable control scheme. All the game can do is ask that we operate in good faith. “In the end,” one of the game’s screens says, “only you can judge yourself.”

I have occasionally seen the term “exoludic mechanicsbeing thrown around in discussions of Asphyx. It’s a spiffy term, but in my opinion it’s a bit off the mark, linguistically. “Exo–” signals that we’re dealing this things “outside” the game. To me, though, the interesting think about Asphyx and its ilk is that, in their incorporation of far-flung and unenforceable rules, these games blur the inside/outside distinction. As an alternative, I would propose honor system mechanics, since it seems to me the most interesting thing about these games is that they rely on player honesty.

One could point out here that Asphyx is purposefully forgoing some one of the central attributes of computer games, as pointed out by Jesper Juul (among others): the fact that a computer can enforce an astonishingly wide array of rules in a manner that is much more perfect than any human game master ever could.[iii] When playing card or board games with friends, we expect a certain amount of fudging and mistakes around rules. Not so with videogames: because of the way the computer handles processes, these rules are supposed to be absolute, inviolable, baked into the physics of this simulated universe. Asphyx alters the deal, putting a greater onus of honesty on its players.

Beyond game studies, though, we could also look at Asphyx through the lens of film theory. Stanley Cavell writes that cinema places us “in the condition of ‘viewing unseen,'” allowing us to view a world that is not ours, but “at the price of establishing our absolute distance and isolation.” Cavell frames this in terms of philosophical skepticism, but there’s an ethical dimension here, as well. A world that we aren’t seen from is a world that we hold no ethical responsibility in. We are intrinsic bystanders. Cinema, Cavell writes, enacts a “miraculous neutralizing of the need to connect with reality.”[iv]

This sort of ethical isolationism has been attacked in the history of avant-garde filmmaking. “This is a film about you,” Owen Land/George Landow’s insists in Remedial Reading Comprehension (1970), in an effort to re-route attention away from artist intention (there’s a complementary, defensive insistence that the film is “not about its maker”), and toward the meaning-making processes that happen during reception, as a group of people gather in a theater to scratch their heads in unison.

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One might assume that videogames are already about us, the players. After all, we’re served up empowerment fantasy after empowerment fantasy, all in an effort to appease our egos. And yet here is Asphyx, repeating the same line to us, nearly verbatim: “This is a game about you.” And, deep down, we get it. It is a game about us precisely because it gives us the chance to be dishonest. Its unenforceable control scheme transforms us from mere actants, asked to press buttons in a specific way, into ethical agents, fully held responsible for our honesty. In acknowledging the parts of the wired gap that it can’t see, that fall outside its purview, it opens up new modes of integrity (and the lack thereof) that don’t exist in other games.

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A different sort of contract, indeed. Bet you’ve never seen an EULA quite like this before…

Interactive fiction author and “Queen of Twine” Porpentine gave a shout out to Asphyx in her “Life Free, Play Hard” column at Rock Paper Shotgun in 2012. A couple years later, she made With Those We Love Alive (2014). If I’m not mistaken, some aspects of the latter seem inspired by the former—although Porpentine certainly takes things in her own unique direction.

Conscripted into the service of a monstrous (but also intoxicatingly godlike) Empress, players spend the first few in-game days of With Those We Love Alive exploring their workshop and the surrounding palace grounds. This includes a garden where the player can do a controlled breathing exercise. Much like Asphyx, this exercise depends on the player holding up their end of the bargain, modulating their breath to respond to timed text prompts.

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This is just the beginning, though: Porpentine eventually takes things much further. Once our character’s service crafting royal artifacts for the Empress begins, players are given a new task: to draw sigils upon their body. (The game’s initial set of instructions lets players know that they should have “a pen or a sharpie nearby, something that can write on skin.”) Moments of character growth, or shifts in the relationship between our player-character and the Empress, are punctuated by requests to draw more sigils. The emotional arc of this character, and their eventual drift from the emotionally abusive orbit of the Empress, becomes hieroglyphically symbolized via gradually-expanding homemade body art.

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Much like a set of Fluxus instructions (I always think of Jackson Mac Low’s Tree Movie here, but that’s probably just my cinema bias showing), With Those We Love Alive is a textual work of art that invites the creation of visual works. Despite throwing nothing but text on the screen, the game can be a deeply visual experience, if we let it be—if we are willing to take it up on its invitations, to offer up our bodies as a canvas to trace our character’s history.

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With Those We Love Alive fans sharing their sigils on Tumblr

With Those We Love Alive requests private performances, as each player undertakes the requested tasks in front of their own computer. But it also invites public performances, of a sort. To complete the game is to be publically marked, for a time. It has become popular to share one’s sigils on social media (particularly Tumblr), but even beyond this particular mode of exhibitionistic engagement, sigils still seep out into the world. When my class met the week I taught With Those We Love Alive in my Fall 2016 “Moving Images and Arguments” course, I was able to take a peek at the sigils still scrawled on the hands and arms of certain students, valiantly resisting being washed off, separating the students who fully embraced their end of the bargain from those who shrank away, drawing smaller, less permanent sigils … or none at all.

With Those We Love Alive greatly expands the vocabulary of Asphyx. But both still remain firmly within the bounds of using honor system mechanics to thicken and enhance the relationship between players and player-characters. For an honor system mechanic that touches upon some different areas, we could turn to Hate Plus (Love Conquers All Games, 2013).

A significant chunk of Hate Plus, like its predecessor Analogue: A Hate Story (Love Conquers All Games, 2012), is devoted to the relationship between the player-character and an NPC AI named *Hyun-ae. Fully elaborating exactly who/what *Hyun-ae is, and the circumstances under which the player’s character meets her, would take too much space in this post (and, furthermore, would spoil certain reveals in Analogue). I’ll strip things down, then, and simply say that *Hyun-ae is a very old AI endowed with the memories of a teenaged girl, traumatized, naïve, and nostalgic for the half-remembered bodily experiences of the organic life-form she remembers the life of.

A significant chunk of Hate Plus is devoted to *Hyun-ae increasingly acute wish to be able to have sensuous, embodied experiences once again. Much of the game takes place over the course of the Korean lunar new year, and *Hyun-ae takes the opportunity to reminisce about its traditional dishes, and lament the fact that she hasn’t had sensory experience of food in hundreds of years.

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At one point, *Hyun-ae asks the player-character to bake a cake.

And she gives a recipe.

And she asks to check if we have ingredients.

And she scolds us if we say that we do too fast, insisting that we really need to go to our kitchen, and take a thorough look.

And suddenly it dawns on us that *Hyun-ae is not talking to our player-character. She is talking to us, the players, sitting here on our side of the screen. She’s not referring to some in-game kitchen of our in-game character. She means that we need to get up from our computer, and go open our cupboards.

What follows is in an extended sequence in which we are encouraged to bake *Hyun-ae a cake, from her mother’s recipe, culminating in a photo op where we pose with her and our cake. Sending this photo to an address Christine Love set up unlocks a Steam achievement, “Cooking by the Book,” which acts as a bit of metagaming reward for diligently honoring *Hyun-ae’s request IRL.

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This will be my new OKCupid profile pic. Come and get it, ladies.

The twist that Hate Plus offers on the honor system mechanic is that there is now a third party involved. This isn’t just about us, the players, being honest with the game, as a way of establishing an extended bond between ourselves and our player-characters. This is also about us being honest with a game character. The image I’ve used as a header for this post illustrates this well: unlike Asphyx or With Those We Love Alive, if we cheat in Hate Plus we’re doing more than just cheating a system. We’re also cheating *Hyun-ae. Our stance as ethical actors has expanded, to include the possibility of being dishonest to a fictional character. Although plenty of RPGs have allowed me to make my character lie to another in-game character, I don’t think I have ever before or since encountered a work of media that allows me, as a flesh-and-blood agent, to lie to a fictional character.

One last point about Hate Plus: Sadly, I must report that Love is not checking the email account set up for the “Cooking by the Book” achievement very frequently these days. I played Hate Plus just a month ago, and still haven’t received any confirmation back. I mention this not as a warning—”don’t bother baking the cake, the cheevo is busted!”—but rather as a wrinkle. If anything, I feel that this lapse on Love’s part has made the game more interesting. Hate Plus‘s cake-baking is an honor system mechanic that promises a meta-game reward (an achievement affixed to your online gaming profile), but then (as of this historical moment, at least), reneges on that promise. As players like me wait around for the response to our email to come in, we are faced with the question: Did you bake the cake for the achievement? Or did you bake it for *Hyun-ae? And even if the achievement never arrives, was it worth is just to bake it for *Hyun-ae? Is making this fictional character happy, for no reward?

In other words: a classic moment of moral awakening. Delivered through videogames and cake.

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[i]. Sudnow, Pilgrim in the Microworld, 37.

[ii]. In his itch.io upload of the game (which didn’t appear until 2016), Droquen notes “file says it was last modified in 2013 but i know i made this game way longer ago than that.” The earliest public announcement I can find for the game is this little bump on Free Indie Games, from November 1, 2012. It’s quite possible, though, that the game was floating around long before that.

[iii]. See, for instance, Juul, Jesper, Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), pp 48–54.

[iv]. Cavell, Stanley. “More of the World Viewed.” In The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Enlarged Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

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