Games Are Not Art

An examination of the link between Video Games and Art

Month: November, 2014

Mind: Path to Thalamus and the phrase “And Yet”

Mind: Path to Thalamus is a difficult game to talk about. Not for the usual reasons – a complex subject matter, say, or because its terms of appreciation are unique. Rather, Thalamus is difficult to talk about because it’s an example of a game that demands qualified praise with every breath: in each gesture, there is simultaneously something to commend and something to criticize. There is nothing new in this conclusion. Granted, The Telegraph gave it an unjustifiably sterling review by simply leaving out all of the game’s problems:

The game’s . . . a deconstruction of the usual ‘salvation’ narrative. It’s exceptionally smart. And not what you’d be expecting if you read a blurb on paper. It does some terrific things with how it explores the way the mind works, what we convince ourselves of and how we view the external world. It’s a story about redemption and salvation, sure, but in unexpected and emotive ways.

But most of the more on-point criticism has laid out how the game fails at doing what The Telegraph’s Nina White says it did. Gamespot’s review (written by Kevin VanOrd) justly reckons with the game’s amateur script and voice acting by noting:

This is a heavy-handed story; it takes itself so incredibly seriously in the way it slathers on the pedantic metaphors, and in the narrator’s own wistful recollections, some of which are difficult to listen to. This is due in part to the voice acting, which doesn’t communicate the solemnity the writing calls for, and in part to the lead’s self-pity, which made me wish the narrative canvas had been painted upon by a subtler brush.

While Gamecritics.com’s treatment (written by Sparky Clarkson) of the game aptly points out that the game, like the final battle, “has some clever puzzles, but most of them seem disconnected from the rest of the world.” In short, there are many problems with Thalamus, but the game does demand that qualifying, semi-redemptive phrase “and yet:” and yet it is of a quality that makes it impossible to simply dismiss the work as a whole.

Mind: Path to Thalamus has a simple story: it is a narrative of redemption, taking place solely in the psychic landscape of the game’s nameless protagonist. After a harrowing opening, the game takes you through a series of beautiful landscapes, demanding that the player complete a series of increasingly complex puzzles in order to proceed. All the while, the player is treated to the protagonist’s history: his tense relationship with his father, the loss of his sister Sophia to a tsunami when she was young, and the presumed loss of his own daughter, also named Sophia, to a cyclone. The titular path to Thalamus (originally Ancient Greek, meaning “chamber,” now the term for the part of the brain that regulates consciousness) is then a path of literal self-exploration (we are travelling through his own mind) and a quest for forgiveness for, in his youth, failing to save his sister. It is a straightforward and well-executed journey – if only it weren’t for the many flaws therein.

On the one hand, these reviews (pace, Telegraph) are quite right to criticize the amateur quality of the script, or the lackluster, two-dimensional quality of the puzzles. But despite these two details, the game shows more promise than the average fare of straightforward mediocrity on our digital platter. Yes, the script has howlers like “I wish that I could. But I don’t.” But at the same time that line comes at the plot’s great turnaround, after a puzzle set amidst the static waves of a visually magnificent beach, frozen in the moment that the waves overwhelm the fragile shore, and meant to recall the loss of the first Sophia, who died in a similar storm.

The game simultaneously shows a sense of awareness of its own themes – the moment you enter the waves to fix everything is the combinatory climax of the mechanics and the narrative – along with its perennial clumsiness. On the one hand, the narrative takes a clever and subversive turn: the emotional catharsis that has been promised and hoped for is revealed as merely the dark nexus of the main character’s guilty obsession with his sister’s death. The confrontation with his sister’s shade reinforces this realization: instead of her voice, the shade uses that of the main character as he has forgotten what she sounded like. What is a clever use of limited resources (i.e., voice acting can be expensive) becomes a reveal of the protagonist’s naked solipsism, the real psychological hang-up that has motivated this quest for redemption. But the moment is hamstrung by the mediocre voice acting and the problems in the writing: when the protagonist, reluctant to give up his delusion, asks for forgiveness from his sister’s shade, the shade responds – in a sniveling voice as sinister as Snidely Whiplash: “I wish that I could. But I don’t.”

These two scenes are emblematic of Thalamus’ problems. On the one hand, the game is aware of the character’s emotional arc and what its fulfillment demands: his guilt, regret, and obsession are developed, toyed with, and then resolved in this moment. But on the other hand, it is but one of many potholes that litter this path: the slipshod script of both shade and the crackling specter of his self-hatred irretrievably sour what should be a brilliant moment of naked, searing, shattering honesty. Even the penultimate puzzle at the seashore meets this kind of cognitive dissonance: the setting is perfect, but the puzzles are just more of the same. It is almost as though the left hand is muddying what the right hand has skillfully crafted, or as though the mouth is too dumb to give voice to the mind’s brilliance.

About a year ago, I wrote a brief piece on the Myst series and the way that it is at its best when the particulars of its worlds and puzzles reinforce the narrative. Myst IV: Revelations, specifically Achenar’s Age, Haven, best exemplifies this point:

The major puzzles – the totem puzzle and the monkey puzzle – are representative of [Achenar’s] moral redemption. The totems were both an act of penance for his bloodlust and a memorialization of his victims, while his befriending a tribe of monkeys is an act of redemption. Indeed, we can even look at the mechanics of the puzzle as further evidence for Achenar’s moral turnaround: the clues are all sketched images of the different monkeys, and therefore predicated on a familiarity with this little tribe, while the puzzle itself requires that the player mimic Achenar’s rapport with this tribe in order to subdue a predator. In effect, this gives Haven a neat, mirror-like structure: when Achenar enters the world, he is the hunter; when he leaves, he is trying to protect the hunted.

This careful construction is only halfway present in Thalamus. The four different tools the player uses to alter the world are the basis for all of the puzzles: fog barriers often act as walls or trampolines; rain serves to raise the wooden platforms needed to progress; night turns empty stone doorways into portals; time restores ruins, allowing them to act as additional pathways. Often these tools work in conjunction with others: a doorway must be activated atop a wall that can only be climbed in the past, and so on. Standing in each particular circle can activate its effects, but so can the presence of the game’s many balls of blue filigree. But this tends to lead to threadbare, repetitive puzzles, where almost every slope is a giveaway (hint: the ball needs to be rolled down the hill, giving you the chance to run to where you need to go before the magic ball arrives at each magic circle). The problem with these puzzles, however, is not merely that they are unsatisfyingly repetitive – they have the strange and frustrating quality of being simultaneously difficult, different, similar, and simple. It is that they do not signify anything.

Of the four mechanics, only two have an immediate and obvious connection to our stormchasing protagonist: fog and rain. The other two – time and night – are, as best as I can tell, utterly disconnected from anything of significance, just as the former two features – though they are both meteorological features – remain, at best, tangentially connected to any greater thematic point. To compare and contrast, the totem puzzle in Revelations makes it clear that Achenar is remorseful, while the monkey puzzle demonstrates his desire to reform; in Thalamus, the repeated play of day to night and rain to clear skies is beautiful, but only that. These mechanics do nothing to support the game’s overarching quest for redemption. There is, at first glance, an obvious connection between at least some of these mechanics and the protagonist, but that connection is never given any significance. Fog, night, rain, and time are merely perfunctory parts of the journey, obstacles to keep the player occupied – and nothing else.

But there are elements of the game that are well executed. For example, the stage upon which these puzzles play their insubstantial role is simply magnificent. The journey takes place across a fantastic tableau of sunlit, shallow seas, haunting caves, verdant forests, stark oceans of ice, and a final seashore rich with symbolic meaning. Similarly, one of the game’s high points – the confrontation with a colossus – hits all the notes it needs to: the terrible titan represents the protagonist’s father, and this character’s every step leaves a terrible imprint across the psychoscape of the protagonist’s mind much in the same way that his actions affected the life of his son. That the battle is won by impaling the colossus on the incandescent representations of neural connections – the literal embodiment of the mental realization that the memory of his father need not dominate his life any longer – is a clever resolution. Thalamus does contain brilliant moments of artistry, but the many instances of artistic incoherency mar the entire project.

As stated above, the final battle between the protagonist and the specter of his self-hatred is the climax of Thalamus’ marriage of the brilliant and the banal. On the one hand – talking about this game, it seems, demands a repeated use of this rhetorical tool – the boss fight is far larger and cleverer than it initially seems in that it launches a series of critiques against the game itself. For example, the colossus-as-father is, at once, a well executed image and utterly cliché, and the specter notes this:

“And how about that colossal metaphor for your daddy issues? What, you wanted to face something before the great revelation, so you pulled that nonsense out of a hat? Wasn’t it just a masterful piece of symbolism, by the way? An authoritarian parent you never faced in life, turned into a gargantuan effigy looking to stomp you. Truly masterful! You should dabble in symbology… or myth-making. I’m sure that pays better in the end.”

The audacity of a game tearing itself apart parallels the way in which the specter is simply another aspect of the protagonist’s psyche. In short, the game critiquing itself mirrors the nagging voice of self-doubt in everyone’s head that erodes, justifiably or not, their own ego. But the delivery of these lines is abysmal, more akin to schoolyard taunting than the demolishing basso profundo of naked truth, while the unironic use of ‘symbology’ just makes me mad.

Similarly, the ending’s slow move from a blurred camera to the beauty of a seaside drive taken in search of his daughter, Sophia, simultaneously recapitulates the opening of the psychological journey that is the game, while at the same time being burdened with an attempt at a pensive, thoughtful monologue that relies, in a bathetic twist, on John Lennon’s misremembered lyrics. In short, the conclusion brings the protagonist back to where he started, in search of Sophia. But now he is free of guilt and obsession, and looking for the only Sophia that matters right now – the living Sophia, his daughter – to simply talk to her. And the script spoils it all by addressing “people of the future world” and making a bad joke about smartphones.

But to call Mind: Path to Thalamus a bad game – or even a mediocre game – is to do it injustice. It is frustrating to dive from well-executed moments to amateur ones, or to play a boss fight that is simultaneously audacious and slipshod. But there is more to be found in its baffling blend of the brilliant and the banal than in its straightforwardly mediocre cousins – Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and its ilk – and that demands our attention, and even our tempered praise.

I read game creator Carlos Coronado’s announcement that he was going to improve the game’s script with a (by now characteristic) mixture of excitement and trepidation. On the one hand (again), the game would benefit from this rewriting, and be all the better for it. On the other hand (again), the creative hands behind Mind: Path to Thalamus shows such distinct promise that I cannot wait to see what they do next.

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Depression Quest, The Novelist, and Choice

About a month and a half ago, right around the release of The Fault in Our Stars and the start of yet another round of the Young Adult fiction discussion – a debate that, in many ways, mirrors the discussion surrounding video games as a mature cultural pursuit – The New Yorker featured this article on Henry James, the novel, and the subject of YA fiction. It was the concluding paragraph that hooked me:

Much is taken from us as we pass out of childhood, but other human beings who have suffered these losses have created great works of art, works that can only be truly appreciated by those who have suffered the same losses in turn. These works are among the great recompenses that experience offers us. Putting down “Harry Potter” for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex. It seems to me not embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to forego such pleasures in favor of reading a book that might just as easily be enjoyed by a child.

Leaving aside the last sentence (which, like the conclusion to their article on video games, “Painkiller Deathstreak,” from the summer of 2010, is frustrating in its condescension), Christopher Beha has a delicious point: as we grow older, we are rewarded with the refinement of our tastes, or the development of an ability to explore and appreciate new, nuanced ones.

It’s a point that is especially salient right now as the subculture is troubled by the fiasco known as Gamergate. Though it is ostensibly a grassroots movement committed to the promotion of ethical journalism in video games (aside: I am reminded of the following joke, “Why are the fights so bitter in academia? Because the stakes are so small) there’s more to it than that. As this fantastic Foldable Ideas video argues, one side of the strife is founded on the idea that the current state of gaming (which is a nebulous concept itself, given the sheer explosion of games available) is fine the way it is – and is even justified by the idea that it is some sort of natural ecosystem, the gestalt combination of user preferences, cultural trends, and so on. I like to frame the debate between those who are content with a relative lack of complexity, and those who want to throw open the doors to new voices and new vantage points – particularly those that have occupied marginalized positions in the past.

There are a host of reasons to be opposed to Gamergate – such as the fact that its catalyst was a scurrilous screed by a bitter ex, or the fact that its initial confrontation was over a conflict of interest that simply did not exist, or the rampant outbursts of furious misogyny – but, personally speaking, it is this point that I find most evocative: that the debate on outsider perspectives in games be quashed. Foldable Ideas expertly outlines this reductionism by rewriting 4Chan’s “Everyone is Anonymous” creed as “Everyone is Default.” Put another way, one side of the debate tacitly accepts that there is a conventional mould in video games that must express a conventional perspective, or a general perspective, or some equally vague yet eroded and common outlook.

Unfortunately, the opposing side in the controversy will argue that its opponents are the ones who are really reducing the medium by demanding that games absorb and present a leftist agenda. Granted, there is nothing new about two sides of a controversy employing the same mechanisms to promote their viewpoint (example: the pro-Gamergate side’s talking point vis-à-vis the slew of death threats directed towards Quinn, Sarkesian, and other women is the fact that actors on both sides are receiving death threats). But context is everything: the fact that the debate, presumably about journalistic ethics, began with a spiteful post by a bitter ex-boyfriend while also giving momentum to a latent misogyny sadly inherent to our culture means one side is irrevocably tainted. The marrow is rotten, and its crutches (journalistic ethics!) are so comparatively small in relation to the furor as to be ridiculous.

But not all proponents of Gamergate are vitriolic anti-feminists, nor are they concerned with maintaining a point of view that solely supports a dumbing-down of video game criticism. Hulk Smash Film Critic has dealt with this point with more nuance, thought, and compassion than I would ever be able to express. But amid all the fury, I thought it would be interesting to actually play the game that started all of this noise and see what it was all about.

Depression Quest is a game centred around the choices the player makes for a personal stand-in who suffers from depression. Much has already been made of the way in which these choices are – depending on the severity of your depression – unavailable for the player, while the first choice remains permanently unavailable as an expression of the character’s inability to just “shake it off” and act with reflexive enthusiasm or passion.

We make much of player agency in video games, though often without recognizing that this freedom is restricted by the bounds of the game’s character; good games offer choices that reflect meaningfully on its thematic imperative, as in the case of Spec Ops: The Line. There, each choice is something like Sophie’s Choice: there are no good options, merely bad ones. Do you kill the refugee or the soldier? Do you let Riggs, the CIA operative, die a slow death or offer him a quick out? The unjust confines of each binary decision are meant to feed into your growing anger at Konrad, who, because he is the villain, is the one responsible for your being forced to make the choice in the first place. You have to shoot either the soldier or the refugee because Conrad is literally telling you to chose – even if you take the unspoken third option of shooting the snipers (in which case the prisoners die regardless). The thematic payoff for these choices comes at the end, when you realize that there was no hand forcing you into position, that it was always Walker’s choice to begin with.

This care with regards to the meaning of player choice is different from the mechanics in, say the saint-or-sinner binary of Mass Effect or Fable. The one limits your options in favour of making a point; the other offers you similarly limited options while saying, somewhat disingenuously, “Go ahead and express yourself within these confines!” Depression Quest falls into the former category. It creates an organic framework that feeds off of your decisions, making the resulting experience the whole point of the game. Unlike in Mass Effect, where, regardless of the choices you make, you have to be thrust forward to the next segment of a carefully scripted plot, these choices can drastically alter the game’s narrative. Yes, you follow the same series of narrative vignettes, but the increasing number of crossed-off options effectively carries across the sense of falling into a pit of despair, and the tone of the responses to your choices steadily gets darker and more desperate.

Indeed, the flavour of Depression Quest’s choice system reminds me of the 2013 game The Novelist, as in both games the thrust of the choice system lies in its emotional impact. The narrative result of your decisions in The Novelist are almost an afterthought, brought to the player’s attention in short, written segments at the end of every game month. The game’s main point is to merely ask how you should prioritize each character’s desires, ambitions, and needs: do you let Linda, the wife, go to her grandmother’s funeral by herself? Do you take time out to give Tommy, the son, the encouragement and attention a young child needs? How do you mesh this with Dan’s need to finish his book? Who gets what they desire, and who gets left out in the cold?

The level of variation this kind of choice allows for lets the player bring more to the game than the binary system of Mass Effect. On my first time through the game, I sacrificed much to Tommy because I have certain ideas about the moral duty of parents. I can foresee other players who, more moved by Dan’s desire to write a brilliant novel, prioritized the writer over the other two characters. And, of course, there are many other overarching approaches to the game’s questions. But the particularization of each choice makes it difficult to find any easy answer. The resonance of each decision – both in terms of itself and the way they knit together over the whole narrative – give you more room to express yourself, to plumb your own emotions and values.

At first I viewed the fact that The Novelist and Depression Quest have similar kinds of choices as a point against the latter: I thought The Novelist does a better job in drawing out emotional complexity with its demands on the player. Balancing the needs of a marriage, a career, and a child was more harrowing than the comparatively simple needs of working my way towards some semblance of emotional stability. But, I realized, that’s an unfair comparison: the weight of each game’s mechanisms of choice are sui generis. Depression Quest’s decisions reflect the game’s more personal concern, as it is merely trying to help the player understand one single facet of living with depression. It does not try to do more than this, and should not be judged by another standard.

The game does not necessarily depict this struggle as a solitary venture – one of the ways you can pull yourself out of the hole is to rely on your network of support (girlfriend, brother, online friend, cat) that you build within the game – but at the same time, the choices ask you to do everything for yourself. There is, often, a loneliness present in Depression Quest that is absent from The Novelist, which is appropriate: the latter, regardless of the decisions made, is concerned with a family unit – three in one – while the former is just one person’s struggle. We must not mistake solitariness for simplicity, and each work deserves to be judged by the criteria it assigns itself.

Of course, the systems of choice present in Mass Effect, Fable, The Novelist, and Depression Quest are not necessarily representative of two different species, but rather two ends of a spectrum. The first two games allow the player to bring themselves into the game in a manner similar to that of the last two – but the player’s space is so much smaller when the only choice is between black and white, as opposed to the various shades that the latter two games allow for. Simply put, there is more room for nuance in Depression Quest and The Novelist than there is in Fable.

That being said, it’s no electronic titan. Kyle Wagner is halfway correct when he writes “that Depression Quest was not a good game so much as a critic-proof gesture at one,” in that the game’s personal nature (the way in which it represents only one person’s struggle with depression) insulates it from the discussion of whether or not it is representative of the broader issue of depression, whether it is useful, or what-have-you. But it is aware of what it does, and the way in which its system of choices reflect the game’s overall concern with the difficulty of dragging yourself out of a depressive hole.

Overall, Depression Quest is an interesting, somewhat novel use of the medium to transmit a sense of just what it feels like to suffer from depression. Again, I do not think that it will go down in the gaming canon as some sort of masterpiece – it strikes me as something of a ‘safe’ game, one that treats a subject with care, poise, sincerity, and respect, but only that. It has none of the profound depth of the discussions of depression in, say, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

But it should not be chastised for its smallness. It merely tries to take one life, one facet, and make that singularity understandable. But in its careful smallness, it has a nuance that is becoming more and more frequent in games: in The Novelist, Papers, Please, and, perhaps, the upcoming This War of Mine. It is a part of the movement from adolescent power-fantasies towards a more mature pensiveness and deliberation. In the end, I wonder whether that is what the whole Gamergate debacle is about in the first place: an unwillingness to let go of that adolescence, first on the part of Quinn’s ex, and then on the part of a segment of the gaming population.