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.