When you first start playing Eli Piilonen’s The Company of Myself (2DArray, 2009), it feels as if someone found a way to perfectly weld together a diary entry with a puzzle platformer. This was back in the heady days in the wake of Jonathan Blow’s Braid (Number None, 2008), when the public at large was still reeling over the idea that puzzle mechanics could mean something. And, at first glance, The Company of Myself seems to take this trend and go somewhere quite confessional with it. Its central mechanic of cloning yourself to solve puzzles stood as a perfect expression of feelings of self-reliance. And not just any self-reliance, either, but rather that specifically incorrigible mode of self-reliance that emerges when one is a bit too much of an unreconstructed introvert, refusing even the most basic forms of assistance because you desperately wish to not bother, or to be bothered by, anybody.
The “cloning” mechanic has popped up elsewhere in games—for instance The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom (The Odd Gentleman, 2010)—but The Company of Myself was more ambitious, wedding the mechanic with a personal story of interior life. Or, at least, it seems to do this, until you realize the whole thing is bullshit. The story takes an eleventh-hour delve into the lurid, revealing itself as an over-the-top fiction, rather than a form of sincere self-expression on the part of its creator.
The Company of Myself takes the easy way out, tacking on an over-dramatic denouement that destroys its potential as a diary-game. But … what if it didn’t? Could one actually use puzzles to communicate the intricacies of internal lived experience, in an emotionally sincere way? In this entry, I’ll be looking at two games that try: Liz Ryerson’s intimate and beguiling Problem Attic (2013), and Atrax Media’s more slick and straightforward Sym (2015). Along the way, I’ll also be dipping a bit into Braid, just because it’s hard to talk about contemporary puzzle platformers without doing so.
This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.
On the docket for today: Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please (3909, 2013), a simulation of being a border guard in the fictional Soviet-bloc-style nation of Arstotzka in 1982. As you scrutinize people’s documents, weeding out the undesirables, stamping the passports of some travelers and detaining others, there is plenty of opportunity for political drama—in particular, do you do your best as a servant of your obviously oppressive government, or do you quietly aid rebel factions? But there’s also just the matter of making enough money to keep your house heated, your son fed, and getting medication for your elderly uncle. Since you’re paid by the number of entrants you correctly service, this means being good at your job: memorizing the bureaucratic rules, getting good at both quickly and carefully examining documents, and keeping your desk clean and orderly. It is, all things considered, as much a game about a desk as it is about a family, or a nation.
Consider this another addendum, this time to my previous post on teaching the concept of procedural representation. These are two more of my favorite case studies to use for that topic—ones that, however, fall outside the designation of “games about squares.” As with the games outlined in my previous post, I teach these via small group work, assigning students to first play these games, and then present to their classmates on them. For these presentations, I direct students to not simply say “this game is about xtopic,” but instead say things like “when you do y in this game, z happens.” My aim is to get them to specifically lay out how rules shape player behavior, and provide consequences for that behavior, and how this combination of rules/behavior/consequence can make claims about the how the world works.
The first time I taught a unit on the concept of procedural representation, it was in my course “The Moving and Interactive Image” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The theme I wanted to explore that week was the limits of thinking about games as moving images, at all. Are there some games that get such a large percentage of their meaning from rules and interactions that it is not even productive to think about them as images at all anymore? To this end, I assigned students the chapter “Art” from Ian Bogost‘s book How to Do Things with Videogames, where he lays out the idea of what he calls the “proceduralist style” in art games. Bogost characterizes this style of games in the following way:
In these games, expression arises primarily from the player’s interaction with the game’s mechanics and dynamics, and less so (in some cases almost not at all) in their visual, aural, and textual aspects. These games lay bare the form, allowing meaning to emanate from a model.[i]
I also set up a unit on proceduralist games in my Intro to Mass Communication course at DePaul University, which I taught three times, in the Fall 2015, Winter 2016, and Spring 2016 quarters. As I repeatedly taught this unit, I segued away from using Bogost’s “Art” chapter from How to Do Things with Videogames. (I found that the chapter’s engagement with the tired “are videogames art?” debate was too much of a lure, pulling student attention away from the core issues I wanted to address.) Instead, I subbed in “Procedural Rhetoric,” the first chapter of Persuasive Games, with very heavy excisions. (It really is a shame that, at 64 pages, that chapter is so unreasonably gargantuan. It definitely makes for some headaches when deciding on reading assignments.) And, over time, I gravitated toward some specific games to play in-class: a group of games I affectionately refer to as “games about squares.”