Saturday, September 28, 2013

What is a video game, anyway?

I don't know much about video game studies, so if you do, forgive me. What I do know is mostly what Cameron Kunzelman, and to a lesser degree for me, Ian Bogost has told me. So, this is a post about video games, by thinking through that question through the work of Cameron Kunzelman (from now on, either Cameron or CK). (Also, before you read further, a couple of notes. All of Cameron's games are free browser games, most of them require your volume to be on, and most of them are really short. I suggest you play the games as you read, occasionally, I suggest it in stronger terms as you go through the post).

Cameron's video games raise certain questions about what makes a video game a video game. He clearly has little patience for the normal popular questions around video games, like, are they art? Or what will make them art? Or if they are a craft of auteurs? (He, of course, made a super short video game making fun of these very questions, entitled, wonderfully, "The Citizen Kane of Games"). Instead, Cameron's games pose for us questions around what makes a video game a game, and what, while we are at, does it mean to play a game? (I am sure he is far from the first game developer to raise these questions, all I am saying is, he does so interestingly, and I already said I know shit about video game theory, so why are you giving me a hard time?). Now, he has made some games that are clearly in the traditional indie developer version of a normal video game. Take his first video game, Smash the Patriarchy!, a game that I am terrible at. The game is lower key version of the original Mario Brothers, you jump around, try to avoid enemies and falling. You can win it (or so I have been assured). But take his video game Oh No! In this game, you press keys in order to avoid the giant head of Michel Foucault, who is trying to eat you. You can never win this game, Michel Foucault will always eat you (just like grad school all over again). But, it is still pretty obviously a game. Fun to play after a few drinks in a group. But let's take what is without a doubt CK's most popular game to date, Alpaca Run. (Okay, I really suggest going and playing this game before going further with this post. It won't take more than, say, five minutes, put you need to be on a computer and need to have volume. There are just minor spoilers ahead, you have been warned).

There are actual youtube videos of people playing Alpaca Run for the first time. Several of them. One of the things that are fun about these videos is the first time their alpaca character should die, and doesn't. The other time is at the end, when the alpaca finally transcends. People just get happy. But here is what is odd. Though in many ways an inverse to Oh No! (in Oh No there is no win state, in Alpaca Run there is no fail state), Alpaca Run feels like less of a game. I often have referred to it as an interactive music video, a way of pulling you further into the charming song by Samantha Allen.  I often end up referring to the video games by CK as interactive this or interactive that, instead of as a video game. Take his most recent story based game, Catachresis . (There are, of course, other story games, like the always popular twine game about Slovaj Zizek making a twine game). (Also, btw, I was done like a character from the game, here). Catchresis is game that is a weird cross of HP Lovecraft, Ghostbusters, occultic technobabble, and walking (so much walking). It is both funny, and, spooky (not scary, but spooky). There is a brilliant blog post about this game here, and I am going to quote it a bit before coming back to my point. It starts with a definition:
Catachresis, a fygure, wherby the propretie of a worde is abused: as, Facies simillima lauro [A face most like a laurel tree], where facies oonely belongeth to a man, and not to a tree, although it doth signifye there a similitude or fygure.
-The dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot, 1538
The author of the blog post goes on:
Apocalypse from the Greek means uncovering.  In English it was rendered as Revelation, from the Latin revelare, to “lay bare.”  To tear away the veil — to show that which has been hidden.
We live in a time when these words mean the End of the World.  We are now inundated with narratives of Apocalypses — biological, ecological, technological, religious, vampiric, zombie, whatever.  The issue with this use (abuse?) of the term however — this catachresis — is that it is a slide from the original meaning of the Biblical “Revelation.”  John of Patmos had the future laid bare or uncovered or revealed to him — the Apocalypse was not the end of the world itself, but the position of seeing it before its time.
By conflating the revelation with the thing revealed, I think we foreclose on its possibilities — its immensities, for one.  At the end of Catachresis nothing is revealed in any sense beyond the basic — you find out the world is ending and then it ends, welp!  But furthermore, there is not a call to speculate as in some games, no sense that you need to piece together the mythology that has led up to this point, because the event (it is clear) is so much larger than us.  There is no uncovering, but a descent into sublime unknowing.
So yeah, that happened. In way, very little happens in the game Catachresis. You walk around a lot, you engage with things, technobabble happens. Once or twice you solve a really puzzle. But at the end of the game, more or less the same thing happens to everyone that plays the game. First you are the cause of the end of the world, and then you are powerless to stop it. One can ask why CK didn't just write a little spooky story about the end of the world. Well, because at the end of it, playing the game (if you can call it playing or a game) is that you become complicit in everything. Sure, there are characters, but you are the character. You make the world end, and then you fail to stop it. One can understand this as the video game version of what Scott McCloud explains in Understanding Comics as the gutter. For those that want the parts of McCloud I mean with examples and references, check out this SEK post. The gutter, of course, is the way that comics make you complicit in their storytelling (indeed, one assumes most mediums most have a way of making you complicit in their triumphs and atrocities).

Perhaps, in Cameron's work, this is clearest in his short (and very appropriate for this blog) game Laika. The historical Laika was a dog, and she was the first animal to orbit earth, and among the first to be in space. She died, through heat, in the craft. And though she died in flight, she was going to be killed no matter what. Science, and all that. In the game, Laika, you do very little. You press one button, over and over again, which slowly leads to the take off of the craft. You even have to press the button for each number of the countdown. At the end, you are treated to what, for my money, is the most haunting ending of any game Cameron has given us so far.

In William Burroughs' album Dead City Radio (and in his book Interzone), there is a short track entitled no more Stalins, no more Hitlers. See here. Or watch here, start it 3:32 if it doesn't start automatically there for you.

For those that can't watch, it goes like this:
We have a new type of rule now. Not one-man rule, or rule of aristocracy or plutocracy, but of small groups elevated to positions of absolute power by random pressures and subject to political and economic factors that leave little room for decision.
They are representatives of abstract forces who have reached power through surrender of self. The iron-willed dictator is a thing of past.
There will be no more Stalins, no more Hitlers.
The rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident. Inept, frightened pilots at the controls of a vast machine they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push.

In a very real sense, Cameron's games (maybe video games in general) are ways of forcing us to confront complicity in all these buttons that we are pushing.

(PS, if you would prefer to hear CK talk about games, in a smart way, rather than my late night unable to sleep thoughts, go to this video. He start speaking around 25:10. It's smart, talks about Ranciere and the rise of French Pantomime, because...).