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.
I will shock no one by saying that videogames, like architecture, sculpture, or gardening, have the potential to be a richly spatial art form. It has been twenty years now since Janet Murray, after playing DOOM (id Software, 1993), reported that “the fluid navigation through the enormous three-dimensional spaces was rapturous in itself.”[i] It has been nearly as long since Espen Aarseth characterized games as being, above all else, “essentially concerned with spatial representation and negotiation.”[ii]
And so, while my last three categories (“pacing,” “characters,” “stakes”) have been elements of storytelling common to any form of narrative, I wanted to call this category something other than simply “setting.” Videogames don’t have “settings” in the same way that literary works do. They offer up spaces, places, worlds: opportunities for virtual exploration that exceed the possibilities of non-interactive media in their richness.
And so the games on this list don’t just just represent my favorite “settings.” They offer up some of my favorite places to visit, to spend time in, to explore, to discover.
Wait … what? Who does that? Who makes a decade-long retrospective in a year ending in anything but a 9? And who publishes a retrospective in any month but December?
Well, I do. And I have my reasons for it.
Chief among these is that the true purpose of any “best of” list is to be wrong in fun and provocative ways. What better way to start things out, then, than by choosing an utterly arbitrary set of dates?
But, really, I do have reasons, which you’ll find below the fold, as well as the categories I’ll be announcing the games in. The list itself will start tomorrow, and continue until October 10th. (And there’s a reason for that!)
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.
I reserve the right to sporadically post future entries in this series, but with Sunset (Tale of Tales, 2015), it really does feel as if things have come full circle. As I laid out in the first post in this series, the process genre finds its most archetypal manifestation in Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), and Skvirsky has been tracking its development in contemporary Latin American cinema. Sunset was created by Belgian artist duo Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, and is about the daily life of a housekeeper in a (fictional) Latin American country. The parallels are easily drawn, but there’s also more going on here than this brief description suggests.
The following is the assignment description for a three-page comparative gameplay experience reflection that I assigned students at about the halfway point of my course “Comparative Media Poetics: Cinema and Videogames.” The theme of this particular week was “Emotion and Identification,” with an emphasis on the differences in both of these things across cinema and games. Students read a selection from Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws on horror and cross-gender identification, portions of Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror where he expresses skepticism toward the term “identification” and plots out his own theory of our emotional reactions to film based in then-recent analytical philosophy, and a chapter from Grant Tavinor’s The Art of Videogamesin which he adapts this same analytical tradition of theorizing about art and the emotions to videogames.
I also assigned students to read Vivian Sobchack’s essay “Breadcrumbs in the Forest: Three Meditations on Being Lost in Space,” because for this assignment I wanted students to focus on a very specific feeling, and how it is translated across different media: the feeling of being lost. Cinema can present us with stories in which we identify with characters that are lost. But videogames can actually make us lost, and cause us to adopt all of the usual behaviors one turns to when lost. I wanted students to plumb this difference in their gameplay experience reflection.
The two case studies I settled on here were Gus Van Sant’s filmGerry (2002) and The Path (2009), a game by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, who together make up the Belgian art group/game studio Tale of Tales. I later resurrected this specific comparison in my SAIC first-year seminar course “The Moving and Interactive Image,” where I adapted the assignment description that follows into a lesson plan, using the following questions to animate in-class discussion, rather than form the basis for a paper.