a journal of play.

Research Methodology #1:

I do a lot of research.  I’ve been doing a lot of research since high school and I’ve gradually been cobbling together a workflow that saves me a lot of time, and even better allows subsequent research to build on work I’ve previously done. If programmers have codebases, researchers can benefit from knowledge bases.  Since I’m starting to work on a Master’s thesis, I’ve been putting some thought into how I collect and collate notes, quotes, and the assorted data that turns into papers (and sometimes journal posts).

Some of that reflexivity stems from the kind of research I’ve been doing, specifically into science technology studies and a focus on the materiality of knowledge studies. Some of it stems from having to teach others about research for the first time as a teaching assistant.  I’ll save the theoretical background for another day. Right now, I want to offer a quick solution to a problem I see people dealing with all the time.

When I read articles or books that I know will form the core of a paper later, I like to mark passages and then copy them down for future use.  In print, this often means sitting down and typing out long paragraphs— I’m a quick typist, so that’s not so bad for me.  Generally, I start off with a citation of the source, and begin each quote with a page number, followed by my comments in italics. When I get down to writing, I have a shorter summary to refer to, and quotable/citable segments of text to back up my argument. If I’m making an outline, I might copy these segments into the appropriate part and start writing my paper around that.

But now that many resources can be found on PDF through Google Scholar, I often copy and paste the segments I would have typed into a similar note-taking system.  The obnoxious part about copy/pasting from PDFs (when they allow you to do so) is that line breaks aren’t handled very well. At the end of each line on the PDF, a break is inserted.  When copied into a word processor, it ends up looking like this:

The above image is actually justified to both margins, to give you an idea of what the problem looks like.

Not only is this annoying on an aesthetic level, it has to be fixed before it goes into a paper. Otherwise those sneaky line breaks can seem fine if they more or less line up with the page margins, but when you add text elsewhere the screw everything up and make whoever is grading our paper think you’re a sloppy cur. Before I wised up, I used to go through (vigorously punching the arrow keys hither and yon) and delete all the line breaks so Word could automatically handle them.

For me, this kind of monotonous cleaning up after a computer program is a Dantean purgatory. How many man-years has academia lost to this kind of drudgery?

Then I figured out I could use replace instead. In Word, all you have to do is highlight the pasted passage with the offending line breaks, press Ctrl+F, open the Replace tab, and configure it like so:

The required code for a paragraph break is “^p” for the Find dialog, and a space (i.e. ” “) for Replace.  After replacement, the same block of text (justified) looks like this:

Since this is something I do a lot that requires a lot of keystrokes, I went ahead and made a macro to cut down further on time.

That’s a first look at the materiality of research— now if you’ll excuse me, that’s what I need to get back to!

Speculative Ludism:

Or, What Is It Like to Be a Mario?

Death is an incoherent and varied phenomenon across the many instantiations of the genre of the electronic game.  Frequently, there is little relationship between rules and fiction[1] when it comes to dying.  To take a common scenario: Mario plummets to his death; a “life” is subtracted from his total, and the player is sent back to the beginning of the level.  What is the player to make of this situation?  Perhaps his or her Mario is identical to the one he had before he began play; perhaps Mario has lost whatever power-ups he had previously collected.  Has Mario been granted a boon by whatever god he favors, allowing him to return to the realm of the living once more?  Is a bizarre simulacra Mario decanted from a cloning tube somewhere and placed at the beginning of the level?  Does Mario survive his run-in with danger and somehow come to return to the beginning of the level?  Is each life representative of an alternate universe or timeline where Mario has not yet died?  Does Mario face down Hades and throw off the shackles of Death itself between each life?  Are we to instead assume that only successful runthroughs represent the “real” playthrough, and our multiple playthroughs are simply an affordance to allow us to achieve the unerring perfection of the fictive Mario?  The Mario series offers little explanation for giving the player multiple “lives”; by whatever mechanism of closure[2]they exercise, either subconsciously or through an idiosyncratic explanation, players discount this cognitive dissonance and continue on.

[1] For more on this usage, see Jesper Juul, Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (The MIT Press, 2011).

[2] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (William Morrow Paperbacks, 1994), 63.

– from a revision of On Permadeath

A Tremendous Headbutt

Damn, long time since I’ve been around here, huh?  I was travelling a lot this summer, which upsets my digestion of scholarly literature, but fret not, gentle reader!  I have just recently moved into a new apartment, with a comfortable chair, suitable for sitting long hours in.  This is key to my writing process— I have to sit on these ideas to incubate them in my hennish manner. Another key to the process is having to write in order to get a grade or the promise of a few coins to rub together as just desserts.  The former has driven me back from the free pastures of unscribed reading and thinking with a steady hand, but I still have a little sulking to do before I write something clean and proper.  There is no shortage of writing to do.

Last time we caught up, I had just given a talk at the Virtual Worlds Research Network’s inaugural conference.  There’s actually video of that event here, but the audio is atrocious— you can hear my former laptop howling indignantly into the microphone with my meek chirps on top.  Plus I accidentally repeated a joke on account of being nervous.  I wrote a thirty page paper based on the presentation about a week afterward, and I’m happy to say that I made a lot of progress on uncanny telepresence.  My interdisciplinary curse is not quite knowing where it should go, of course.  If anyone wants to swap manuscripts for revision, get at me.

I was elected to the executive board of the Digital Games Research Association as secretary.  Another unopposed election, one of my notable specialties.  I’m especially interested in seeing how conference-sausage gets made, and I take a pretty mean set of minutes.

After the pell-mell rush towards finishing my second semester at ITU, I was hit with an epic tidal wave of thrilling LAZA KNITEZ!! action.  First we went to Nordic Game Indie Night, a fantastic event organized by the Copenhagen Game Collective, and everyone played our game!  The Buttfighter (that’s the atrocious name we gave our homebrewed IKEA cocktail cabinet) made the trip to Sweden with us, and we went around thrusting controllers into every sweaty palm we could find.  This was the first live test of LAZA KNITEZ!! since we finished up the slide mechanic, and we were absolutely blown away by the response.  We were honestly surprised we were nominated as finalists in the first place, and then we ended up winning the Indie Sensation award!  Going up on stage and standing next to the guy from EA in charge of Battlefield 3 was pretty cool, but for me, standing next to the magnificent son of a bitch that made Super Stardust HD was even better.  Here’s Mads and I hammin’ it up after taking home our plaque:

Shortly after that, we brought the Buttfighter to SpilBar X and had a chance to get some of my professors from ITU to take a crack at the game.  We also got Kunal from Babycastles and Leigh Alexander from basically every gaming website to play LAZA KNITEZ!! and they had fun!  Check’em out rocking these LAZA KNITEZ medallions:

After that we trucked the Buttfighter out to Distortion Street Festival, courtesy the fine folks at KnapNok and the Copenhagen Game Collective.  For almost the entire day we were out there, bringing LAZA KNITEZ!! to the people under the ominous shade of some real serious rain clouds, and finally the heavens opened and it was every man for himself.  Somehow the Buttfighter escaped unscathed, but Jonas and I were like a couple of drenched cats staggering around Copenhagen under my little umbrella.  But while the weather held out, we were in some pretty outstanding company— the incomparable Nidhogg was right next to us, B.U.T.T.O.N. just around the corner.  Here’s a dude having a really, really good time playing LAZA KNITEZ!!

That’s more or less the game-related part of my summer, those last couple of weeks in Copenhagen!  Future update on what I’m up to this schoolyear, but right now I’mma elbow drop Rip van Winkle and catch Zs with a butterfly net.

Virtual Worlds Research Network

I’m putting the finishing touches on my slides for a presentation tomorrow on “Uncanny Telepresence” at the inaugural conference of the Virtual Worlds Research Network, hosted at the University of Edinburgh.  Plenty of updates to give you about life in general (if you haven’t checked the LAZA KNITEZ!! website in a while, take a look!), but at dinner I had the opportunity to sit across from Richard Bartle, the legendary co-creator of the Multi-User Dungeon (commonly known as MUD1. Dr. Louise Connelly asked Dr. Bartle if he’d ever give up gaming. He replied:

No—because games are my means of expression. They are how I make my artistic points.


It’s refreshing to hear such a straightforward defense of games. His general argument for the purpose of virtual worlds has a lot to do with self-actualization—which lines up fairly well with my adaptation of Martin Redish’s argument for self-realization as the first principle of free speech to explain why electronic games should be protected by the First Amendment.

I encourage you to check out the VWRN site and get involved!


“It has been a game changer,” said Ray Gutierrez, who trains the civilian crews, all Americans, who operate the cameras, and the military units who use them. One recent afternoon, he stood in the small control room beneath the old fort where two men with joysticks scanned close-up views of the hillsides several miles away, practically as if they could reach out and touch them. “It lets us see the battlefield as we have never been able to see it before.”

– via NYT

Preparing for Exhibition:

LAZA KNITEZ!! will be at Nordic Indie Game Night.  Here’s a video recording our saga thus far:


More on Miniatures as Cybernetic Control Fantasy:

Life imitates art.  A recent Wired article features some interesting commentary from one of the controllers of the Israeli missile defense system called Iron Dome.

Computer geek, keyboard combatant, soldier, call him what you will, Idan and others like him man the controls of the latest rock star in advanced military technology. “There are a lot of flashing blips, signs, symbols, colors and pictures on the screen. You look at your tactical map; see where the threat is coming from. You have to make sure you’re locked onto the right target. There’s a lot of information and there is very little time. It definitely reminds me of Warcraft and other online strategy games,” Idan says.

—Amir Mizroch, “Israel’s Rocket-Hunting Ace Got His Start in Warcraft

Miniatures: Control & the Self

This essay originally appeared as a guest article at The Ontological Geek.

“The term miniatures refers to entities that players can fully or partially control, but which do not, in themselves, represent the player. Examples of miniatures would be units of cavalry in Medieval II: Total War (Creative Assembly, 2006), the workers in Age of Empires (Ensemble Studios, 1997), or the falling blocks in Tetris (Pajitnov, 1985). I am using the term miniatures to account for the perspective this form of control encourages in such games. The world presented to the player is a miniature one, with the player occupying the position of an external, omniscient1 controller.”

—Gordon Calleja, In-Game.

I. In the early ’90s, a new strain of games that asked players to peer down from a great height on their digital subjects were dubbed “god games.” In Molyneux’s Populous (Bullfrog, 1989) and Black & White (Lionhead Studios, 2001) series, this nomenclature is particularly apt— the player is explicitly given the fictive role of a deity and treated as such by his or her subjects. Yet the player in the “god game” is generally not omnipotent. In fact, inclusion in the genre of god games usually signifies nothing so much as the relative autonomy of the agents being controlled. They must be appeased, encouraged, treated gently. Consider another Molyneux project, this one late-era Bullfrog: in Dungeon Keeper (1997), players are given free license to punish and torture their creatures, even directly slapping them around with the monstrous-hand-as-cursor. But if they do so, or if their libraries aren’t large enough, or if minions are forced to bed near some jerks they don’t like, or if the chickens don’t flow freely enough, or god forbid if they don’t get paid on time, they get mad and leave, or even maybe go crazy and try to murder all of their co-workers.2

II. How insignificant is this divine might, based on persuasion and appeasement of worshipers & giant flies,3 compared to the unquestioning, relentless loyalty available to the average player of real-time strategy? The RTS is a fetishization of cybernetic control. It is a simulacra of the modern Western military paradigm of command and control; sometimes a more efficient one, sometimes less. It almost always privileges positions of management and control over the autonomy of the individual.  As Calleja notes, the player is a controller from the perspective of miniatures.  By choosing not to simulate the will of the units being directed by the click of the mouse, the RTS is a partial fulfillment of the dream of an all-drone army, with no friendly human lives at risk.  In the absence of even a rudimentary artificial will animating the miniatures in most games, the player’s will steps in to fill the vacuüm.

III. The miniatures under the control of the player might be thought of as slivers of his or her will, even estranged facets of the superego. In the typical blank-slate multiplayer scenario, players start afresh every play session with a few workers and a single point of production. Every single miniature under the control of the player is a direct result of specific intention, outside of a few cowardly or recklessly aggressive impulses provided to lessen the cognitive load required by the game. Miniatures never act in heroic fashion on their own accord.4 They do not plot a brilliant tactical approach and decimate your foes while you tend to training more workers. In many cases, if the player doesn’t interact with these lesser avatars at all after creating them, they will stand still until they are destroyed or the game ends.5 Their proclivity for inaction makes it seem their limited psychology is motivated only by a Freudian death drive, a return towards stasis.

IV. Meanwhile, the player-as-general blithely commits his or her troops to the abattoir. The perspective does seem to have something to do with it, though we are no less bloodthirsty when given the opportunity to commit wholesale slaughter in first-person. Still, that variety of death and destruction seems more localized; the carnage of RTS demonstrates a certain economy of scale afforded by a wider field-of-view. More victims can fit on the screen. Outposts, expansions, bases are callously surrendered to an enemy onslaught; targeting civilians and unarmed workers is a routine and effective tactic. In games featuring the “endless zoom” popularized by Supreme Commander (Gas Powered Games, 2007) players are given the option of zooming out so far that their miniatures lose any kind of representational appearance and are abstracted to the realm of the symbolic, if they don’t disappear altogether. Visual distance correlates with affective distance.6  Consider Orson Welles’ famous monologue as Harry Lime from The Third Man (1949):

V. Miniatures are pawns in the most derogatory sense. Miniatures never volunteer for suicide missions or futile last stands. They go to the point specified by the player’s cursor without question. Likewise, they are never given the chance to surrender. Real-time strategy games always simulate total war. Massacres are tidy— there seems to be little demand for simulating prisoners of war. In games like Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War (Relic Entertainment, 2004) or Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns (TimeGate Studios, 2001), at least the miniatures have simulated morale and will flee when the situation is totally hopeless. Many miniatures stand and die in a fashion that would make the average ancient Spartan envious. The total imbecility of miniatures outside the will of the player occasionally strayed into unsettling territory in the early ’90s. In Blizzard Entertainment’s seminal Warcraft II (1995), unit AI was so bad that orcs would stand motionless and serene in the middle of a raging battle, totally still as their brothers were cut down mere feet away, as if they were struck by the horror of it all and overcome with a nihilistic pacifism. Perhaps they just didn’t want blood on their hands. To avoid having your orcs spectate during a fierce mêlée, you had to click on them, gently prod them back into battle, make them pay heed to the violence raging around them. They needed you, and when you told them to do something, they more or less listened.

VI. Simply using the cursor to command miniatures is a mechanic with autotelic properties: I submit that clicking on little dudes and telling them what to do is one of the chief pleasures of electronic games. Anyone who has attempted to steer an organization knows that games like StarCraft II (2010) present a utopian vision of ego-centric leadership. Alternatively, we might consider this projection of the will as the bizarre experience of embodying a corporation, insofar as a corporation might be thought of as an abstract will (seeking profit, or in the RTS genre, striving for Taylorist efficiency devoted to producing the strongest force most quickly) dominating the actions of a collection of workers with specialized tasks.  Is it any wonder that terms like “micromanagement” flow so easily between the RTS game and the business world?

VII. Like capitalism, the multiplayer experience of the RTS is fueled by competition. Roger Caillois argues that games of agôn, rigorously balanced contests of skill,7 often turn on a single trait: in strategy games, that trait is the skill of manifesting one’s will across a multitude of splinters, allowing parts of intent to be sacrificed, adapting as we progress, shaped by the path dependency of chance and circumstance.  This process is structurally similar to the way our own selves8  develop, mutating new variations, generating novel forms of expression, collecting memory-traces, letting convictions die, shaped by that path dependency known as personal history. In the strategy game, this process is standardized, rationalized, and compressed to manic intensity, honed to a razor’s edge by a system of ruthless competition so engaging that verbal communication is nearly impossible. Instead, opponents communicate with each other in elaborate proxy wars, their only medium of exchange base trickery and zero-sum competitive efficiency to be resolved into a binary end-state that will have no effect whatsoever on the next instance of agôn.  No matter how incompetent their last campaign, no matter how many soldiers are pointlessly lost, the player will once again be confronted with four immobile workers and an idle base through which to enact his or her will.

VIII. The real-time strategy genre has somehow managed to escape notice when the popular press goes looking for power fantasies in electronic games. The typical criteria for deciding which games qualify as power fantasies revolve around virtual embodiment of the heavily muscled bad-ass, i.e. what Duke Nukem is both parody and epitome of. But this standard unnecessarily conflates power with hypermasculinity. We should instead look to Weber, for whom power represents the ability to exert one’s will on others. Real-time strategy games, where miniatures are a manifestation of the will & intellect of the player, are the true power fantasy. The volition of the player is the sole animator, his or her desires more absolute than those of any monarch. In god games, where the player’s lackeys can be kept in line with divine wrath, power is an apt term, but in the common secular form of unending obedience of the player-as-Leviathan, the player’s command goes beyond power to total domination; Weber defines domination as “the probability that a command with a given specific content will be obeyed by a group.”

IX. Thus, we might think of the real-time strategy game as a simulation of total domination.  The role taken by the player is the ideal manifestation of Hobbes’ Leviathan, the rhetorical figure representing the whole of a nation controlled by a unitary authority.  Compare Hobbes’ words to your experience of the miniatures perspective:

“The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort as that by their own industry and by the fruits of the earth they may nourish themselves and live contentedly, is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will: which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and every one to own and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so beareth their person shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern the common peace and safety; and therein to submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgements to his judgement. This is more than consent, or concord; it is a real unity of them all in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man, in such manner as if every man should say to every man: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH; in Latin, CIVITAS. This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the Commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that, by terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual aid against their enemies abroad. And in him consisteth the essence of the Commonwealth; which, to define it, is: one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all as he shall think expedient for their peace and common defence.”

Chapter 17

Rather, for miniatures, it is the player who acts as the multitude and forms the will of them all.  Hobbes would no doubt be delighted that our most innovative medium has produced so many variants of games that provide a procedural rhetoric simulating his conception of the ideal state.  But it is a faulty simulacra of Hobbes’ vision, though perhaps not of reality: the unitary control expressed by the player from the miniatures perspective is possible only because the miniatures possess no will to contest that of the player.  No social contract or covenant could compel the obedience made commonplace in real-time strategy games.

  1. However, fog of war & other design patterns mean that many games featuring miniatures do not allow the player perfect information, which makes the use of “omniscient” more of a rhetorical device than a component of a definition.
  2. Is there another game that simulates alienation so well?
  3. A strange reflection of the elected politicians’ relationship to their constituents.
  4. Except sometimes they do. One of the most frustrating experiences in the RTS genre is the incorrect implementation of the player’s will by his/her subordinates. Consider the archetype of the heedless, incapable-of-giving-an-inaugural-fuck miniature whose inscrutable path-finding algorithm prefers marching through most of the enemy’s heavily defended base instead of taking an entirely safe route that is perhaps a few pixels shorter.
  5. Even worse, we occasionally forget or misplace these shards of our personality during the course of an involving game.
  6. See also the lords of finance looking down from their celestial skyscrapers, deluded into thinking they are doing God’s work.
  7. e.g. chess, tennis, wrestling, the multiplayer component of most RTS games.
  8. The unitary self is a naïve self.

On Ruining Dear Esther

This critical essay originally appeared at Oh No! Video Games!

N.B. In the course of this article, I will ruthlessly spoil Dear Esther, certainly for those who have not experienced it, and in all possibility for some who have.

The haunting landscape of Dear Esther

“There’s nothing better to do here than indulge in contradictions,” says the narrator. His British voice is deep and theatrical, tinged with mania. My avatar crosses the gloomy beach. Stubborn, I persist in seeking out better things to do than indulge in contradictions. A wrecked boat beached on the rocks looks intriguing. Perhaps some clue as to what I am doing here? My avatar intrepidly paddles out into the surf for a few moments before sinking into the empty blackness. I drown(?); I hear the narrator’s voice: “Come back…” and then I am staring at the rocky sand of moments before, yards away from the surf.

* * *

Dear Esther is unquestionably a beautiful experience. Jessica Curry‘s elegiac score provides cohesion and drive throughout the narrative. As the setting reveals more of its secrets, the more difficult it is to believe that the painstaking detail of the island’s sparse signs of habitation and subterranean wonder were created by a single level designer, Robert Briscoe (Mirror’s Edge). Dan Pinchbeck, Ph.D, with a dissertation on the FPS, has crafted a structural narrative shaped by Lovecraftian elements: purple prose that teeters on the overwrought, an unreliable narrator whose sanity is slipping away, and a remote island cursed for generations. Nigel Carrington‘s voice acting saves the most melodramatic sections of writing from grating, and much of the game’s affective power comes from the texture of his voice.

When the developers label the game a “walk’em up,” they aren’t being coy. There are no mechanics; your task is only to walk along the path, free to look around and investigate as you please. As the walker progresses across the island towards an aerial crowned by a blinking red light, the narrator delivers what is presumably the inner monologue of the character directed by the user. The order of the audio segments is semi-randomized and the walker will not trigger every variant in one journey, meaning that the game cannot be completed in the most straightforward sense; every iteration of the game is a fraction of the narrative, and there is no definitive version to analyze textually.

The disconnected segments, lacking cohesive pacing and ragged with loose ends, give Dear Esther the feeling of a fugue state. Unfortunately, while the monologue begins in media res, my experience of embodying the character did not. I came into the game confused, after the “Start” option on the menu brought me to a level selection screen rather than the beginning of the game. Beyond this initial confusion, the narrator doesn’t discuss the destination of his journey until perhaps a third of Dear Esther has passed. Until roughly that point, I had little idea of what was expected of me, or even what I was capable of. I did not know swimming was strictly limited, or that exploration often went unrewarded beyond the opportunity to slowly trudge back to the main path and the occasional run-in with an invisible wall. My own uncertainty clashed with the bold soliloquies that periodically issued forth from what I presumed to be my character. When I heard the narrator say, “There must be something new to find here – some nook or some cranny that offers a perspective worth clinging to,” it seemed our thoughts had for once converged.

* * *

“I have found myself to be as featureless as this ocean…” For once, I agree with the voice; when I peer into the water, I see no reflection. Lately, the voice has been talking more and more about a serious leg injury, unbearable pain, a life-threatening infection and a quantity of pain-killers that would make even Rush Limbaugh blush. But the walker plods on without complaint, my steady pace maintained in the face of the character’s laments. The walker’s footsteps are often silent, and when audible have the regularity of clockwork. I look down into a chasm, and as the voice fills me in on its significance, I edge a little too close to get a better look— and fall in. A black screen, and again the narrator’s voice: “Come back…” Vision returns, and I am standing once again before the chasm.

* * *

While Dear Esther does a superb job of conveying a sense of place on the island, it makes very little effort to create a sense of embodiment. The narrator reveals his leg has been badly injured, and as the journey progresses, the grave and potentially fatal nature of the wound is expanded upon. Complaints about pain become more frequent, and the narrator talks about eating painkillers in the present tense. Yet while I am told these things, I do not experience any of them. My pace never slows, even after a few precipitous drops and a steady slog up the hillside. Even though my inner monologue says I am taking pain killers, I never see them. Furthermore, I have no way to affect the environment around me. At times, it feels as though I have taken the form of an armless invisible man.

If Dear Esther lacks any kind of mechanical/haptic interaction with the environment (e.g. press A to pull lever), is it still interactive? As more of the tragic tale is revealed, themes of fatalism develop and intermingle with a crescendo of biblical imagery. The state of the narrator’s sanity erodes further. Among many overlapping and often contradictory subplots, there are spurts of frantic talk about a car accident, conflicting accounts of the whereabouts/uses of Esther’s ashes, and previous inhabitants of the island.  Beyond inconsistency, the story is shrouded in dense metaphors and allusions to other snippets of information that haven’t been encountered yet, and may never be.

It requires mental work and imagination to parse these disparate elements into a coherent tale; that is, you have to bring parts of your own self and judgment into play with the narrative. Dear Esther interacts with your mind’s predilection for constructing story. This interactive process is not so different from what is required of a reader of fiction. This argument certainly has its proponents; take Jude Richard Posner, one of America’s most respected jurists, who wrote:

Maybe video games are different [from previous media such as film and books]. They are, after all, interactive. But this point is superficial, in fact erroneous. All literature (here broadly defined to include movies, television, and the other photographic media, and popular as well as highbrow literature) is interactive; the better it is, the more interactive. Literature when it is successful draws the reader into the story, makes him identify with the characters, invites him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own.

That excerpt is from American Amusement Machine Association v. Kendrick, a ruling closely followed in Brown v. EMA, the Supreme Court case which ushered in a new era of constitutional protection for games as speech in the U.S.

As Judge Posner emphasizes, it is too easy to mistake the reader for a passenger along for the author’s ride, but creating meaning through reading necessarily involves the experience and prejudice of the reader. In the dominant paradigm, where mechanics define interaction, Dear Esther falls short of interactivity, and thereby ceases to be a game. Instead, perhaps we might consider the procedural responses characteristic of the majority of video games to be predominantly reactive. We should extend our notion of interactivity to warmly embrace any experience requiring interpretation and construction between audience and creator rather than use it as a cudgel to exclude certain genres from Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” of games.

* * *

“I will drag my leg behind me; I will drag it like a crumpled hatchback, tyres blown and sparking across the dimming lights of my vision. I am running out of painkillers and am following the flicker of the moon home.” I seem to be floating on at the same pace as before. The voice is wilder now. In a few moments, I come up to the aerial, and suddenly the avatar is out of my control. The field of vision moves forward, and then up the ladder—it reminds me a little of a rollercoaster. The body climbs to the top and leaps, rushing headlong down to the beach and surf below before evening out and gliding back over the landscape, recapping the third act and zooming out into the water before the screen slowly goes black. And then the same voice, in the same way, says “Come back…”

I don’t respawn. I think the game might be over.

I didn’t even see any fucking ghosts,” I think. I faintly feel a certain poignancy, an undercurrent overwhelmed by unease. The screen is still black. I contemplate the story for a moment. I fret that I am missing some ultimate scene, some monumental denouement. I finally get up and start mashing buttons until the menu appears and I know that Dear Esther is over.

* * *

I entered the game confused and left the game confused, though I enjoyed much in between. Dear Esther would have benefited from more paratextual material to prepare the walker for what to expect. It could have alternately featured a more strongly motivated beginning, so the user could feel confident of his or her role. The ending was a disappointment. I can see thematic resonances enabled by repeating “Come back”. What the developers failed to realize: that audio file was the one verbal sequence which presaged a change in the game-state, an audio cue that signaled resurrection in the player’s limited mechanical vocabulary. I stared into a completely black screen, wondering if the game had crashed at a particularly unfortunate moment because the developers chose ambiguity, to force the player to interact with the system, to “have a moment to think”. But this ambiguity was tainted by worry completely unrelated to the story. What can we make of this refusal to clearly demarcate the end of Dear Esther?

I recognize this position; in elementary school, I had a teacher who insisted that we not cap off our juvenile stories with “the End.” It made sense to me; after all, you could see the story didn’t continue—only an idiot would need to be told there was nothing left to read. In the novel, a form where narrative ambitions similar to Dear Esther‘s are developed, the rightward stack of pages represents a finitude, a certain fatalism of textual length. But the electronic game has few extradiegetic clues as to its finality; the boundaries of one game have no limits readily interpreted from within the play experience. The player might just as well expect more, especially in a game roughly a third the length of the average single player adventure. Thus, instead of spending that quiet moment wrestling with the meaning of the narrative, I sat in uncertainty and doubt, fearing for the life of my laptop’s video card. It was a pity; Dear Esther certainly gives one a lot to think about.

Documenting Play

Here’s a collection of photos I’ve taken recently of people playing around ITU, including some fierce sessions of J.S. Joust, Nordic Game Jam and some matches in the GameLab. You might as well use Flickr’s full screen slideshow. Press play on the sweet jam I provided to further your viewing pleasure.