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.
I suspect that every cinema studies teacher has their own favorite examples to use when teaching key vocabulary terms, and I would not be so presumptuous as to prescribe my own favorites! Nevertheless, though, it’s an important part of the job, so I wanted to share my own approach here.
Over the past couple of years, I have gotten used to teaching these terms in a very specific context. At the School of the Art Institute, I teach first-year seminar courses. They are courses designed so that all students have some basis in college-level writing as they go through their time at SAIC. Instructors are given enormous freedom to teach whatever they like. This makes it a great venue for testing out new and interesting course ideas, but the flip side of that is that your courses never have prerequisites, and there’s no telling the level of expertise students who enroll will actually have.
What I do, then, is devote one day early on in the semester to a quick-and-dirty Intro to Film in a single lecture. I take a lot of the examples and explanations I first started using when I taught Intro to Film at U Chicago in 2015, but I condense them down into something that can fit into an hour or so. It’s potent stuff.
You can access my go-to presentation here. I’ve set the privacy and sharing settings to their most open, so if you’re a Prezi user you should feel free to copy it if you like it, subbing in your own preferred definitions and clips as you feel necessary! I’m here to share, and not here to impose.
In 1982, longtime Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman penned a famous essay entitled “Vulgar Modernism.” In it, he pointed out that medium-specific reflexivity—the use of “art to call attention to art” that Clement Greenberg proposed as the defining feature of modernist painting—was, in fact, everywhere in American mass culture in the 1940s and 1950s.[i] It was in Tex Avery and Chuck Jones’ Daffy Duck cartoons, chock to the brim with distanciation jokes and forthright acknowledgements of film form. It was in Bill Elder’s Mad Magazine cartoons, parodies that sometimes literally broke through their own frame. Hoberman coined the term vulgar modernism to name this “popular, ironic, somewhat dehumanized mode reflexively concerned with the specific properties of its medium or the conditions of its making.”[ii] Vulgar modernist works hold no pretensions toward being anything other than mass culture, but they demonstrate an astute awareness of the history of their own medium, and puckishly call attention to its conventions.
Hoberman’s essay is a helpful reminder that artistic devices don’t come pre-packaged with aesthetic aims. Greenberg observed painters embracing flatness, brushstrokes, and the properties of pigment, and considered such medium-consciousness as a crucial element of modernism in the fine arts. Hoberman observed similar devices employed by Warner Bros. and Mad, bent toward parody rather than Kantian self-criticism.
I offer this opening excursus because I’ve noticed a growing popularity of “modernist” devices in videogames. As in Hoberman’s case studies, these devices aren’t offered up in the spirit of intellectualized self-criticism. Rather, they constitute what I’ll call misty-eyed modernism: reflexive devices used to emphasize the vulnerability of a fictional character, a foregrounding of the specific properties of a medium for the purposes of empathy or tear-jerking.
About a month ago, I professed to not having played enough games from 2016 to name any as among my “favorites.” I have taken decadent advantage of the past 30 days, however, and I’m in a position where, yes, I can actually count the two discussed below as among my “favorite.” And, wouldn’t you know it, they both share misty-eyed modernist tendencies. Significant spoilers for both Oxenfree (Night School Studio, 2016) and OneShot (Team OneShot, 2016) below. If you’re spoiler-averse, then you should just take these above-the-fold recommendations and do with them as you see fit. If you don’t mind spoilers (of if you’ve already played the games in question), continue … but don’t say I didn’t warn you.