Are “personal games” a thing, in 2017?
They most certainly were a thing back in 2013, as evinced here, and here, and here. I think the case can be made that they were still a thing in January 2016, when That Dragon, Cancer, one of the most buzzed-about “personal games” in existence, finally released. But are they a thing in 2017?
Signs point to “no.” Not in the sense that people stopped making them—au contraire. What happened was that the floodgates opened. Digital distribution made its way to the masses, in the form of itch.io, and Steam’s post-Greenlight non-exclusivity. Twine went from a footnote in Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters to a designated week in every digital media course offered in North America. People are even making and distributing dreary anti-consumerist Super Mario Maker levels.
So, the games themselves have not abated. But the writing about them, the treatment of them as a definable “scene”: yeah, I think that has gone away. Part of this might be about queasy caution among game journalists, who pointedly remember how a non-existent review of Zoë Quinn’s Depression Quest (2013) sparked Gamergate. But mostly, I think, it’s that there are now just far too many of these games to keep track of, and treat as a coherent thing. Now that seemingly everyone is making games about their deepest and most private anxieties, there is little incentive to build any sort of critical consensus on how to survey the how to survey the zinester scene, who to determine what games are worth checking out (if only to pointedly critique), and which creators should be checked in on every now and then, to see if they’ve done anything interesting.
Case in point: in 2013, Will O’Neill released Actual Sunlight. The game became a central text in the conversation around “personal games” movement, and cemented O’Neill as a figure to watch in the interactive fiction/visual novel scene. Fast forward to June of 2017. Will O’Neill (now operating under the moniker WZO Games Inc.) releases Little Red Lie, to absolutely no fanfare whatsoever. It is by sheer chance that it didn’t slip under my radar entirely. As of this writing in November, I have found precious little writing about it anywhere online.
Which is a shame, because Little Red Lie deserves to be talked about. So I’m going to do my own part.
So, last night, Nintendo pulled the plug on its Miiverse social network. This means I just lost a convenient method to take screenshots of Wii U games. Not only that, I also lost the only method I had to take screenshots of the video feed on the Wii U Gamepad.* I hope the screenshots I’ve saved so far are enough to illustrate any future writing!
Of course, we could ask why players ever needed to connect to a social network to take screenshots of a game in the first place. (Certainly, the ever-reliable twelve seconds required to reach the Miiverse servers was never welcome.)
But, in honor of its passing, let’s cut the Miiverse some slack. The Wii U was, after all, the first console to launch with a built-in screenshot taking mechanism, catching up to Steam’s well-worn “F12” key. And it remained, up until last night, admirably responsive. Despite the network-induced downtime, you were still guaranteed to capture the exact frame up on the screen when your thumb hit the “home” button, with none of the guesswork-inducing delay of the PlayStation 4’s “share” function.
That’s not the only feature the Wii U sported that was demonstrably superior to those of its competitors. It gave the world the first web browser for a home console that didn’t completely suck. To this day, I still curse the Steam and PS4 browsers for not auto-filling your browser search bar with the game you have suspended, a cherished Wii U feature. And the notion that strategy tips posted on Miiverse would transform every game on the console into a pseudo Souls-like was intriguing, even if never got implemented beyond a few choice first-party titles like Super Mario 3D World.
Ah, and now I’m getting all misty-eyed. I missed a prime moment to post a retrospective on the Wii U console, back in March when the Switch launched. But the Miiverse’s death seems like a worthy milestone, so let’s commemorate.
In The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits offers the following definition of a game:
[T]o play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.[i]
What does Suits mean by the favoring of “less efficient means“? Well, we could imagine a reductio ad absurdum version of any given game, in which players truly want nothing more than to achieve the game’s end goal. Suits offers this famous description of golf: “if my end were simply to get a ball into a number of holes in the ground, I would not be likely to use a golf club in order to achieve it, nor would I stand at a considerable distance from each hole.”[ii] Of course, the real goal of golf is not to get a ball into holes in the ground. The real goal of golf is to be good at … well, golfing. This leads Suits to his pithiest formulation: “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”[iii] Games aren’t really about their purported end goals. They are about consenting to manufactured inefficiencies, accepted as the constraints that make play possible.
One means of introducing “less efficient means” into the completion of a task is by using deliberately abstruse user-experience design. We see this in analog game design in classic party games like Twister or Operation. We see this in digital game design in the fumblecore genre, which I have written about before.
Today, I’ll be writing about two games, both of which harness deliberately inefficient control schemes as a key component of user experience: Affordable Space Adventures (KnapNok Games, 2015) and Duskers (Misfits Attic, 2016). Neither precisely qualifies as “fumblecore” (at least according to my own definition), as neither involves the control of a human body. Instead, both games task players with piloting spacefaring vessels, using a technologically-aided science-fiction setup to justify their cumbersome controls.
Despite this congruence in abstract terms, you’d be hard pressed to find two games more tonally divergent, which made pairing them together even more irresistible.
Alright, here they are. These are my fifty most highly-recommended games of the decade. It is, admittedly, an unusually demarcated decade, stretching from October 10, 2007 to October 10, 2017, as a way of celebrating the 10th anniversary of the release of Portal.
Happy birthday, Portal. Enjoy the cake.
Again, I make no claims that these fifty games are the “best” games of the past decade. They are not even necessarily my personal favorites. They are, instead, the games I recommend the most highly. They are the games I feel are the most representative of the new horizons artists working in the medium have pursued over the past decade. I would recommend them to anyone interested in the outer edges of what the medium can do: students, teachers, family, friends. I am recommending them to you, right now.
A week ago, I laid out that videogames typically have bad pacing. Did I also mention that videogames far too frequently to have bad endings, too?
No? Well, they do. So often, in fact, that I can lay out five distinct schools of bad videogame endings. Below, I list out those five traps of videogame endings, and how the games I have chosen to end my own list with escape those traps.
I’ve already compiled a list of games that make me deliriously happy and agape with wonder. But not all art aims to create positive emotions such as these. Much to the continued consternation of aesthetic philosophers, human beings have been proven, time and time again, to also like art that makes them sad, that makes them scared, and even art that makes them angry.
The games listed under this category excel at provoking feelings. Not all of these feelings are what I’d call “emotions.” Some of them are too inchoate and undirected to attain that designation. This is raw, bodily stuff we’re talking about here. And unlike my delight category, not all of the feelings provoked in these games are positive ones. Happiness might be undercut by a sense of melancholy. Wonder might be mixed in with dread.
But whatever the feelings are that these games actually offer up, they all display an airtight control of tone. Some might find the end results to be manipulative. And, for some of these games, I wouldn’t deny that charge. But even if we grant it, there is still no denying that these games display top-notch craft in mood-modulation. If nothing else, they are a wild ride.
A couple years back, I wrote a dissertation on Heidegger and videogames. This was, from the outset, a contradictory endeavor. Heidegger would not have liked videogames.
Already in his lifetime, Heidegger did not like the cultural changes brought about by newly emerging digital technologies. “Cybernetics transforms language into an exchange of news,” he wrote in 1972, the very year Nolan Bushnell debuted Pong. “The arts become regulated-regulating instruments of information.”[i]
Moreover, Heidegger wasn’t big on moving-image culture, in general. He had no particular love for the cinema, which he saw as sapping our sense of the wondrous (das Er-Staunen, Heidegger’s translation of the Greek θαυμαστόν) in lived experience. “We might think in passing of all the extraordinary things the cinema must offer continually,” he writes, “what is new every day and never happened before becomes something habitual and always the same.” The uncommon acquires an “insidious habituality.” Genuine wondrousness is supplanted by manufactured spectacle.[ii]
In titling this category, I fought against a perverse desire for maximal irony: I didn’t call it “wondrousness.” I wanted to, though. Absent the burden of context, “wonder” is precisely the word I would use to describe the feeling these games provoke in me.
I chickened out, though. I went with the word “delight,” instead.