At the PRACTICE conference last weekend, I talked over lunch with some fellow attendees about the fact that understanding games as art requires something from the players, something that the culture of games has only weakly and occasionally embraced. Specifically, if games are a product, then we can expect them to cater to us, to make themselves accessible; we feel justified in discarding them if they aren’t.
But when it comes to art, we frequently expect to have to put in extra effort: to sit in front of a painting for a while before we start to understand it better, to reread a poem several times, to check out the footnotes on a play that contains many now-lost references. Art asks us to be patient with the difficult, open to the strange. It asks us to assume the artist has something to say, even if we don’t immediately see how.
I try to bring this approach to the works I play. Sometimes playing that way straight-up exceeds my personal resources. This was especially evident during IF Comp, when I was already stretched, and was not able to give as many extra hours of investigation to long-form games as their authors might have hoped. Sometimes, too, what I lack is not time but the right context or the right life experience or the right type of games literacy to interpret something. An author this Comp asked me whether I’d perceived certain themes in their work, and I had to say no, not really – but that this wasn’t proof that the themes weren’t there or that they’d been mishandled. It was possible that I’m just the wrong person to see them.
A couple of hours after this lunch conversation, Brian Moriarty gave a talk about the history of interactive narrative that highlighted a number of games and works not usually mentioned in this connection: Wander, the IF system invented prior to Adventure; Kinoautomat, an interactive Czech film from the 1960s that ultimately demonstrated the users’ lack of real agency; Mr. Payback, another interactive film that sounds dire (and justly scorned by Roger Ebert [look around 16:55]); the Brainiac, a circuitry toy that could be wired up to perform as a sort of automated CYOA device, and featured such gems as an interactive quiz to determine the user’s gender (oh boy), and an interactive story about pirates.
Immediately after Brian’s presentation, Leigh Alexander spoke about the need to preserve cultural memory: to recognize, cover, and discuss important games and important criticism; to remember advances made so that we don’t have to remake them over and over.
These points – about people’s willingness to dig into something in order to find the challenging ideas there, and about our collective ability to remember and build on discoveries – stuck with me.
I was about to have occasion to think about them a lot more. The previous day, I’d written a post about the experience of agency in games, and the fact that stories of disempowerment still miss out on addressing some of the things I think are unhelpful about power fantasies. I mentioned an interest in the middle ground where the player has little power but is still implicated in the system.
That post soon got a response from Liz Ryerson, which is worth looking at in full. She notes among other things that her game Problem Attic is about some of these very issues, but that here was a blog post that didn’t acknowledge her game’s existence or show awareness that such a thing was even possible. (I want you to read Liz’s tweet thread partly because it’s thoughtful and nuanced: I don’t want to speak over her, and it’s hard to summarize with full justice.)
This made me go back and re-scan my original post to make sure I hadn’t actually said that no such games existed. I try never to make statements like that: I’m frequently exasperated by other people’s sweeping-but-ill-informed statements about what cannot be done with interactive narrative, or what has never been accomplished. And I think I didn’t, precisely – I was saying I don’t know how to do this, and I want to know – but I can see how it might have read as a blanket statement.
Anyway, here plainly was something I needed to look at. I had heard of Problem Attic but not played it. This is not surprising. I’m terrible at platformers. The only platformer of significant size that I’ve ever finished was Braid, and that was because it had undone one of the core aspects of platforming. Even some very short games, I’ve had to watch on YouTube if they were at all hard. I wasn’t sanguine that any amount of Play Games As Art attitude would make up for my truly awful reflexes.
Helpfully, Liz supplied a couple gameplay-and-commentary videos of Problem Attic that she thought did a decent job of unfolding what is going on, one short piece from CronoManiac42 and one rather longer from Brendan Vance. In investigating the game, I also read/viewed Ryerson’s RPS interview with Robert Yang, her thoughts on the game for Gamasutra, her talk “The Abstract and the Feminine”, and Brendan Vance’s written discussion of the piece.
With the help of those resources, I’m going to write about Problem Attic even though I haven’t been able to finish it myself. I’m relying on the expertise of other players both for the experience of gameplay in this case and for the rhetoric of platformers in general. Therefore, please frame everything I say below with “as far as I can tell,” or “from what I can see,” as needed. Nonetheless, in this case, I’m fairly sure it’s better to discuss the game in this limited way than not to discuss it at all.
Here is what I read from what I saw: Problem Attic concerns negotiating a space that is consistently confusing and hard to read – though also beautiful, full of rich autumnal reds and yellows, botanical purples and greens. Along with the visual, there is a lovely soundtrack.
Certain blocks represent solid walls and others represent open spaces, but it’s not obvious how to read that without some experience. Some blocks allow the protagonist to pass behind rather than in front of them, temporarily obscuring the player’s view. Sometimes the camera pans past where the protagonist stands, leaving them behind. Sometimes the screen shakes and judders. Sometimes items that seem like goal objects are not goals at all. From time to time the background space carries messages to the player, largely hostile. Eventually we start to move inside the spaces that were formerly presented to us as walls.
With effort and experience, it’s eventually possible to begin traversing the space, but the environment gets ever more complicated, never allowing us an enjoyable arc of competence and certainty. The background starts to animate in a distracting way, but, again, patterns gradually emerge, like music emerging from noise.
Vance’s video – around 40 minutes in – points out collectible M and F tokens. The M tokens can be used to teleport: masculinity as mechanic? A representation of privilege that makes the world easier to traverse? In any case, the player cannot avoid and cannot ignore these tokens; collecting them is the only way to win.
Around 50:30 minutes, Vance talks about how the game is abstractly representing anxiety, the spiraling of thoughts, the impossibility of escape.
Then he says… well, sort of the same thing that we were saying at our lunch table at PRACTICE:
There’s no reason to ask “can games be art?” Fucking of course they can… As a player you have to give up that dogma you’ve been told that, you know, the game is completely beholden to you… Each party has to aspire to communicate with the other, right? All forms of art are this act of transmission, of thought, from one person to another.
Perhaps most potent of the mechanics is the player character’s dependence on certain moving cross-marked blocks. They harass the PC, bump against it, shake: they are themed as enemies and they project hostility. But the only way to move through certain spaces is to use them as platforms, enduring the aversive response of the system in order to achieve what you’re trying to achieve.
There are a lot of deeper, more abstract connections to make here, but this scenario reminded me of the way I use music. There are times when I need an infusion of confidence to get through whatever I’m working on. My solution: blast Eminem. It’s misogynistic. That bothers me. It’s homophobic. That bothers me more, because I feel like I’m supporting the oppression of someone who isn’t me and that’s morally worse. On the other hand, the tempo and the verbal virtuosity and Eminem’s raging self-regard furnish me with a prosthetic ego. I’ve tried substituting less dickish music and it doesn’t have the same effect.
At the very end of Problem Attic, the PC gains the ability to push the evil cross-blocks around, and in a very limited way to try to protect other entities in the game world. But even this doesn’t make the environment really comfortable or easy.
Towards the end of his video, Vance mentions something Ryerson says in “The Abstract and the Feminine” about feminine work:
So if you think about it as this thing that is lost over time, that doesn’t necessarily speak on its own behalf, we kind of just want to arrogantly assume in this sphere of people who talk about games or know about games, that if a work is worth knowing, if it’s culturally significant, that it will eventually one way or another make itself known to us.
But what if this isn’t true at all? What if something that could be great, a great transformative work in one context, disappears every week or every month because its creators weren’t in the right place or the right time, or no one around them cared or understood what they were doing? What about voices outside of our own culture? What about great works not done in English, not done for Western culture’s needs and values? Do we even think or care about them? Do we even know they exist? …How much are we even allowing for that possibility?
And this touches on what Liz said about my post: that there was something interesting at risk of being lost because Problem Attic was seen and discussed so little: a game that was not a hypothetical, that existed in this space between power and powerlessness. Which is true.
Definitely not a power fantasy, and also definitely not a story about zero agency, as I understand it Problem Attic is about a struggle in an environment both hostile and hard to read. It is about making use of the very things that cause you pain. It is about not being able to disengage from the system. It is about uneasy compromises. It is about the infuriating way the goalposts change for the marginalized, so that when you’ve accomplished what was asked of you, suddenly there’s a new additional requirement before you can be taken seriously. It never offers you full mastery over your surroundings. If it’s a fantasy, it’s a fantasy of survival.
It does all this by defying genre expectations and offering a complex system without overt tutorial elements (or at least mostly without); by making the aesthetics run counter to the mechanics to which they are attached; by giving perceivable consequences but being sometimes misleading or covert about the goals. It turns sideways a great deal of convention about game design, in service of its own point.
I’m glad Liz pointed her game out to me, and also grateful to Brendan Vance for taking the time to document it so extensively, for the benefit of people not equipped to get that full perspective on the work themselves. (Here’s his video again, in case I’ve persuaded you that you should look too.)
Assuming I’ve understood, Problem Attic gets at some of the same themes I was talking about as far as trying to work within a broken system, and acknowledging one’s own involvement in that system.
There’s another thing I was trying to get at as well, which is demonstrated more by the circumstances of this conversation than by the contents of Liz’s game itself.
That other thing I was talking about is radical insufficiency. We cannot cure all the pain or right all the injustice we encounter, nor can we try all the art and listen to all the stories. None of us will ever have enough time, money, influence, skill, or wisdom to meet the need around us. We’ll get things wrong, cause harm, be called out. Meanwhile, society is not perfectible. Our laws and customs may improve, through reform or revolution, but they will never be wholly just. Our competitions will never acknowledge everything that deserves acknowledgement.
We are nonetheless morally required to try to help, and keep trying, and face up to how little difference we’re making and how ignorant we are, and keep trying anyway, in the face of inevitable, absolute failure.
Self-care is important, and so is picking battles, but these are mechanisms for coping with the fact that our resources do not meet our obligations.
The game that offers some companionship in the face of that reality: that’s the game I want to write. In the meantime I will take a perverse comfort in the fact that, despite himself, Marshall Mathers has been a big help to me over the years.