Indie games and "that solitude whose final form is one's confrontation with one's own mortality"

One Chance: One Chance, by AwkwardSilenceGamesOne Chance: Opening screen

"One Chance" by AwkwardSilenceGames is the latest short, clever, experimental, depressing gamelike experience (SCEDGE) to make rounds as Something Interesting to Look At. That this game will someday soon be part of someone's conversation about whether games are art seems inevitable, if not for the painterly textures of its abstract, pixelated imagery, then more so because of the validation implied by diverse channels through which this game has appeared on my radar. These channels include reddit, where the comment threads pick apart the moral implications of various choices, and my twitter network, where the game is compared (favorably, it seems) with William Gibson's self-destructing, poetic experiment in digital and literary obsolescence:

The Agrippa of games! RT @marcruppel: One Chance: a game that allows the player just that: one chance at a playthrough. http://bit.ly/epeIasless than a minute ago via Echofon

Comparisons with two other icons of the SCEDGE genre, Passage and Every Day the Same Dream, also seem inevitable -- the former for its similarly expressive lo-res thanatopsis, and the latter because "One Chance" quotes stage design directly from molleindustria's grayscale meditation on the drudgeries of corporate life.

You are Late. Every Day the Same Dream: "You are Late." "We are f***ed"One Chance: "We are f***ed"

This similarity with "Every Day" surely merits some further thought, since it is so similar. I imagine, for example, that a side-by-side close reading of the two would yield some valuable insights. But what I want to reflect on more broadly here in this blog entry is the idea that this game is so depressing and that this is not at all uncommon. In fact, what I facetiously refer to above as "SCEDGE" above might as well be a "memento mori" genre. (Indeed I have heard it referred to this way, although I cannot now locate that reference.)

There is, I suspect, a reason behind the relentless melancholy these games represent, and it has to do with that quote by Harold Bloom that I use in the title. Here it is in context, Bloom's argument about why the great works of the literary canon are indeed great works:

Harold Bloom wrote:
Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind's dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one's own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one's confrontation with one's own mortality.

The tautology of Bloom's definition notwithstanding (and to be fair, Bloom does make it clear that this particular "elegy" for the canon is unassailably personal) mortality is indeed a serious business, and since videogames have for a long time made a trope of conveying failure through representations of death, it is no surprise that game designers have found ways to introduce moments of reflection by manipulating this feature of games that we have learned to take for granted.

Clearly, something deeper is also at stake, if Bloom's assertion is to be taken literally. That is, if a videogame makes me consider my own death, then perhaps it belongs on that bookshelf alongside Shakespeare and Cervantes? If so, then perhaps quite a few other works should be among the great works of 20th century culture.

That's a question, by the way, that I've explored in one class, and the opportunity to return to it next semester has probably motivated my blogging about this today.

More interesting than that cultural situation, however, is a question raised by a student in my electronic literature class, "Why is Electronic Literature so Depressing?" -- a question that certainly applies to memento mori games as well. After Bloom, one obvious and reductionist answer could be that e-lit is trying very hard to be capital-L-Literature, and Literature (electronic or otherwise) is generally pretty depressing. But the "New Media" in my job title doesn't like the implication that what I'm studying and teaching has to, in some way, ride the dank, somber coattails of that which came before. In other words, if games are making me think about death, perhaps there's more to be made of it than a convenient parallel with Bloom's relationship to literature.

Two options occur to me. First, mainstream games are increasingly less about failure, so the failure-as-player-character-death trope is less taken for granted than it used to be. Indie games that feature death prominently are an expression of nostalgia for the Contras of days long past. I Wanna Be the Guy reflects this nostalgia in a more immediate way, and Ben Abraham's Permanent Death is part of the same conversation in yet a different sense.

And second, videogames are not very good at encouraging reflection. This is, to me, one of the most valuable insights from Mark Sample's analysis of torture in videogames. Death is certainly something that should give us pause, but the key here is more than simply that moment of meditation. Videogames comprise a medium that often works through timing-specific input, and at least since the Channel F console, the ability to pause has been a core mechanic that, like death, we learn to take for granted. In this way, games like Execution remind us that the greatest agency afforded us in any game is the ability to stop playing. In other words, a memento mori game reintroduces the possibility that death plays an aesthetic role, in service (ideally) of a game's deeper procedural rhetoric.

Which brings me back to "One Chance" and why I like it, despite it's indie hipster politics.

I often introduce my classes to Passage, and I'll admit that I'm motivated in part because it's a game that is hard not to take seriously. It's not easy to dismiss, in other words, and it usually leads to a good discussion. After this initial discussion, though, I like to show students how easy it is to hack the game and manipulate its apparent meaning. Annoyed that this allegedly universal allegory about life and death puts the male character in the position of privilege and control? Go to the game's graphics directory and reverse the file names of characterSprite.tga and spouseSprite.tga.

Passage: Spouse HackPassage: Spouse Hack In this way, Passage-as-software demonstrates even more about proceduracy than Passage-as-game. Similarly, "One Chance" (which, if you haven't played it or already guessed, is designed to be played only once), might be interesting precisely because that gimmicky premise is easy to defeat by deleting your Flash player's stored data, a simple process that only works with a deeper knowledge of the platform. Thus, it could be that the platform-specificity of the game gives it some charm that overrules my initial inclination to dismiss it as something that tries way too hard (i.e. that it loses through its relatively overwrought stylization what "Every Day" gains through its nuanced minimalism). Then again, it could just be that it made me think of my own death. One Chance: My own death?One Chance: My own death?

Videogames and Reflection

Zach, thanks for bringing up my own ideas on videogames and reflection. I don't think there's anything inherent in videogames that makes them good or bad at encouraging reflection, though certainly it's easier to design games in which stillness or stoppage only denote PAUSE or GAME OVER, rather than some diegetic player event. Ian Bogost's A Slow Year is a recent game-like experience that explicitly encourages reflection, and you could argue that Heavy Rain is a non-indie game that does the same.

In my piece on torture and videogames I ultimately argue that it's not simply the act of reflection that needs to be built into games---we need spaces for deliberation, which I see as reflection + action. Games should ideally not only give us pause to reflect, they should then spur us into a decision based upon that contemplation.