Tragedy in Last Day of June, Through Murray

Group project summary, by leader Joe Gill

The Last Day of June is a beautiful, heart-wrenching game that effectively utilizes Janet Murray’s constructions of Agency and Transformation in order to create an effective tragic video game. The game centers on Carl and June, a couple whom tragedy strikes. After a car accident takes the life of June, Carl gains the power to control his neighbors in the past, and through changing their actions the day of the crash, he hopes to ultimately change the fate of his wife. The tragedy of the game is brought to its full emotional power in part due to the effective construction of bounded player agency and creative character transformation.

Agency, as defined by Janet Murray, is, “When the things we do bring tangible results, we experience the second characteristic delight of electronic environments- the sense of agency. Agency is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices.” The Last Day of June is set up to make players feel like they have a large amount of agency and derives a lot of it tragic texture from destroying the illusion of this agency. The game allows Carl to take over characters who are related to June’s death’s bodies and change their outcome for how they spend the end of the day. The whole process of taking over someone else’s body, exploring the world in their body, solving a puzzle, and ultimately determining where their day ends builds up in the player a sense that their actions and puzzle-solving ability matter and have the potential to save Carl’s wife. This agency building process is undermined over time due to the limited number of actions/endings the player is restricted to. You cannot simply go back to the treehouse and sleep as the little boy. You either fly the kite or play with the dog. With each new combination of pictures, you discover that June dies once again. This building up and diminishing of player agency is the main method by which the game explores tragedy. Those grieving for a loved one often try to reimagine what their agency is through actions like denial and bargaining, with an endpoint of realizing that there is nothing you can do to change the outcome and you accept it. This is proof of Murray’s later point that video games allow players to explore the tragic process in a way other mediums do not allow (more on that later).

Agency in The Last Day of June is largely fulfilled through the topic of the second Murray chapter, transformation. Carl is left alone, wheelchair-bound, and gains agency by finding he can transport back in time through June’s painting. Carl’s quest to change his fate is manifested not through trying to right his own mistakes. He instead looks outward at those present around the time of the crash and tries to use them to change his situation. This certainly has character analysis implications, especially evident later on, when we see the decision to go to the pier as essentially inevitable, as Carl comes up with the idea independent of June. On a gameplay level, this results in us switching bodies, growing attached to different storylines, and processing grief through a variety of lenses. This provides many opportunities, as well as potential pitfalls for exploring tragedy through video games. These pitfalls come in the form of potential dissonance in the game’s relationship with time and space. As you switch from character to character, you can become confused about when your actions are taking place relative to others’, whether actions you took as another character affect things in the world for other characters and feelings of inconsistency between these two factors (being behind in time but others’ actions still affect world). Murray writes that in the midst of a story told in this complex, kaleidoscope method, it is necessary for storytellers to build up a coherent set of conventions for signaling to players where and when action and taking place.

The way the game does this is through a series of pictures that magically combine each time a character ends their day, which produces an outcome for the car accident. The process by which the game sets this pattern up is somewhat arduous. Over the first 1-2 hours of gameplay, the player is introduced to Carl and June’s love story, thrust into different character’s bodies, and often confused about how the game works. In my experience, it was a difficult phase of the game to get through. I found it uninteresting, needlessly complex, and tedious at times. The benefits of it in terms of story impact end up being quite large, but game developers need to be careful about the way they introduce their interactors both to the story of the game, as well as the conventions making the complex storytelling system function. This tension between the act of storytelling, which can require lengthy and complicated exposition, and game design, which necessitates consistent engagement. In class, I compared the long kaleidoscope exposition in Last Day of June to the near-instantaneous one done during season 3 episode 4 of the NBC comedy Community. This episode tells the differing timelines that occur as different members of a group simultaneously go get the pizza in the different timelines. This split in timelines is facilitated through the roll of a dice that lands on a different number, selecting a different group member in each timeline. The episode is able to set up these conventions around this complex kaleidoscope in 15 seconds because the episode already had a world built around it, whereas in Last Day of June, the simultaneous building of these conventions and world-building creates a fairly unremarkable first hour or two of gameplay.

Fortunately, this initial period of unremarkability bears many fruits. The structure of the game allows players to explore what Murray refers to as the tragic process (rather than tragic action, which is how tragedy is normally explored in novels). The replaying of the tragedy in a variety of bodies, each with a unique relationship to Carl and June heightens the emotional impact of the game and really draws out the process of processing a tragedy. Murray describes this well when she writes:

“The navigation of the labyrinth is like pacing the floor; a physical manifestation of the effort to come to terms with the trauma, it represents the mind’s repeated efforts to keep returning to a shocking event in an effort to absorb it and, finally,  get past it. The retracing of the situation from different perspectives leads to  a  continual  deepening in the reader’s under­standing of what has happened, a deepening that can bring a sense of resolution but one that allows for the complexity of the situation and that leaves the moment of shock unchanged and still central.”

She later writes that this creates a sense of closure in the interactor because they have engaged with the story of what happened in a complete way with a range of possibilities. This is exactly the experience of playing Last Day of June. The casual navigation of the map on a normal day through each character is always underscored by the knowledge the interactor has of the dark turn the day will take. Carrying a bag of stuff to the car feels heavier. Playing ball with the dog does not feel so lighthearted. Yet, through all these mundane tasks, coupled with the continuing reinforcement of the idea that June is in fact gone and our actions will not change that, the interactor truly goes through the grief process about as accurately as one can do without actually losing someone.

This idea that the interactivity of video games allows it as a medium to help process the most complex of human emotions is certainly striking. Murray speculates that these stories dealing with processing emotional trauma could be just as effective as allowing an acrophobic to walk across a VR bridge. Murray describes why this might be effective saying, “This is a reassuring format for encountering a traumatic event because it allows plenty of room for conflicting emo­tions. It lets us disperse complex, intense reactions into many deriva­tive streams so that we do not have to feel the full flood of sorrow all at once. The multithreaded web story achieves coherent dramatic form by shaping our terror into a pattern of exploration and discovery.” This is indeed what playing Last Day of June felt like. It felt like a constant pattern of exploration and discovery, where we come to terms with what we end up discovering is June’s grief at the passing of her husband. There are emotional highs, such as when June tries to prevent the old man from giving the gift, and moments of frustration with the process, after you accidentally reset a level to the same exact cut scene for the fifth time. The fact that the game lacks dialogue and any character traits that are overtly strange makes it easy for the player to substitute in figures in their lives for the characters in-game. This allows players the opportunity not only to experience the tragic process in-game but also to think about how they have experienced will experience tragedy in their lives and prepare. Death awaits us all, and Last Day of June does an incredible job of exploring grief and the tragic process, overcoming many potential pitfalls for video games within the tragic genre.

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