The scope of new releases I have been playing has narrowed, as of late. I’ve been focusing in on a few choice genres and subject matters, as I round up my final list of case studies for my book project (as well as any upcoming video essay series connected with it). Practically, this means I’m spending a lot more mediocre games I hope I’ll have something interesting to say about, and a lot fewer games I’ve genuinely heard good things about, had fun with, and would in turn recommend. (It’s downright incomprehensible to me now that the first time I did one of these round-ups, in July 2017, I had actually played both Breath of the Wild and Persona 5 already, and was ready to write some words about them.)
So this post will be a bit more slight than some past mid-year wrap-ups have been. Below the fold, I offer thoughts on six little highlights released since January.
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.
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.