Interesting Games of 2017: GUIness

emily_is_away_too_screenshot-02

I first broached the topic of GUIness in the context of talking about cinema and television. In recent years, everyday, quotidian technology has thrown visual storytellers for a loop. Telephone conversations are well-built into the foundations of cinematic storytelling. Even the most mediocre director can successfully weave a phone conversation into a variety of scenarios, from suspense to romance.

Texting presents far more of a challenge. It’s sort of ironic, really: Even working within the medium of silent film, D. W. Griffith realized how powerfully cinematic a telephone conversation could be, as illustrated in his 1909 film The Lonely Villa. Today, though, texting makes some directors pine for the intertitle, that vestigal bit of cinematic vocabulary that lost most of its relevance with the coming of sound. The most advanced forms of experimentation along these lines have thrown out the traditional language of moving image storytelling altogether, instead telling stories by directly throwing GUIs on the screen.

Google’s 53-second “Parisian Love” ad for the 2010 Superbowl marked an early instance of this trend, but the style soon leaked out of advertising and into commercial narrative filmmaking. The experimental student film Noah (Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, 2013) seems to have been a bellwether here. In its wake, both The Den (Zachary Donahue, 2013) and Unfriended (Leo Gambriadze, 2014) used the technique as a twist on the “found-footage” horror trope. The Modern Family episode “Connection Lost” (2015) brought the GUI style to mainstream television.

When I first considered this trend, I connected it to videogames in only the most slantwise manner. 2017 made me reconsider this, though. We are very clearly in the middle of a GUIness trend in gaming.

Continue reading

Interesting Games of 2017: Labor Party

infra_screenshot-03

‘Tis that time again: the waning days of December, when the unwrapping of gifts is accompanied by the wrapping-up of a year. I have been trying to keep up with interesting releases this year, and over the next several days I will be attempting a final run-down.

(Just to be clear: “Interesting” is my way of circumventing the “best” trap. There are hundreds of voices you could find promising to reveal the “best” games of the year. These, by contrast, are games that made me think—about the subject matter presented, and/or the possibilities and limitations of the medium. Some of them are noble failures. All of them deserved to be remembered in some way, as a game that contributed to the medium in 2017.)

These little retrospectives will undoubtedly stretch into January, as there have been exciting releases stretching all the way into December (Finding Paradise!) that I will need to catch up on. 2017 has been, overall, exceptionally chock-full of exciting indie releases. Back when I was doing my “Games of the Decade” retrospective, I wrote that, following tremendous excitement about the indie scene in 2012–2013, the diabolical duo of Gamergate and the Trump election put a damper on my naïve enthusiasm for this budding art form. And yet, while the current moment certainly finds me hardened, pessimistic, and politically preoccupied, I also can’t deny that 2016 and 2017 have witnessed the release of an inordinate number of truly superb games. It really does seem that the medium is rediscovering its creative mojo, a few years after everyone had to go into hiding from being harassed by ‘gaters. Best of times, worst of times, and all that.

Anyway, I have a lot of ground to cover, and I’ve chosen to split my retrospective into themed posts. Up today: games about labor, a topic I have developed something of an interest in over the course of 2017.

Continue reading

Let’s Study Tacoma

Hello, dear readers. It’s been a while since my last post, and to make up for the gap, I have come bearing a video. Specifically, another video in my “Let’s Study” series. This one is fairly short, zooming in on the technique of “scrubbable narrative” in Tacoma (The Fullbright Company, 2017).

Special thanks to Amy Stebbins on this one, who directed me Alan Alston’s 2013 article “Audience Participation and Neoliberal Value: Risk, Agency and Responsibility in Immersive Theatre,” which ended up forming the backbone of most of the observations in this one.

As always, transcript below the jump.

Continue reading

Meta/stasis: Little Red Lie

little_red_lie_header_image

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.

Continue reading

Games of the Decade: Intimacy

games_of_the_decade_oneshot_02.jpg

The games in my “ambition” category all “aimed big.” They tried to simulate the daily lives of an entire community, or put the entire history of videogame storytelling in their satirical sights. This category can be seen as the reverse of that. If my “ambition” games were large in scope, these games are small. They are cozier, more intimate, content to make sharp observations on a small scale, or to experiment within a tighter and more focused domain.

You can also think of this category as an extension of sorts to my “stakes” category, from two days ago. Much like Gravitation or That Dragon, Cancer, many of these are about interpersonal relationships. They are about acting ethically as a parent, or a sibling, or a lover, or … an interstellar salvager who has rescued a couple of AIs.

Okay, so, the connection might not be obvious at first. But, much like the games in my “stakes” sub-list, these are games that give you stranger, more precise goals than saving the princess or saving the world. They give you goals that are deeply intertwined with the hopes and fears of characters you get to know … well, intimately.

Continue reading

Here on My Side of the Screen

Hate_Plus_screenshot_02

(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.

Continue reading

Lesson Plan: Janet Murray, Damn Fine Futurist

murray_diptych

Ian here—

The first half of my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” course is devoted to five major debates that have hovered around games over the past couple of decades. Some of these are legal, some have occurred in the art world, some have occurred in the sphere of popular discourse, and others are academic. For the first academic debate, I pitted Janet Murray‘s ideas about the storytelling potentials of new media agains the hard-core ludologists.

When prepping for this lesson, I found re-reading the ludologists in 2017 to be an unpleasant experience. Looking back at the early-2000s era writing of folks like Espen Aarseth and Markku Eskelinen, it’s pretty clear that they were the academic precursors of the game police. And not the snarky, tongue-in-cheek Game Police parody twitter account that arose in 2013. I mean the angry young men, who would later become Gamergate, but who already, in 2012–2013, were barking back at “corrupt” journalists praising games they didn’t see as games: games that told stories, rather than let you shoot things. These young men took it upon themselves to politicize the term game, to define its boundaries and beef up its border security. A “videogame” became a medium you couldn’t freely pass into until you showed your papers, and proved that everything was in order. The most vigilant among these enforcement agents, the Joe Arpaios of gamer culture, enjoyed a wide jurisdiction and acted at their own discretion, with great impunity. (Is it really any wonder that this burgeoning culture of alt-right gamer trolls would evolve into one of Donald Trump’s key blocks of support?)

As I said, it is tough re-reading, let alone teaching, the ludologists in 2017. As a consolation, though, it is a delight teaching Janet Murray. Time has proved her to be an exceptionally good predictor of the future, meaning that reading her twenty-year old Hamlet on the Holodeck is a surprisingly exciting experience.

Continue reading