Documentary Games and Gameplay

Back in 2007-2008, when I was still a young’un in high school, it was difficult to be a deeply interested video game fan without hearing about controversy. That was the period when many of the video games Ian Bogost mentions in his essay about documentary ‘newsgames’ were released. Games like Kumawar, Six Days in Fallujah, and Super Columbine RPG were regularly featured in gaming websites and blogs. An inevitable media rampage soon followed. I dabbled in playing a lot of these types of games (except Six Days, which never saw the light of day), and they all had something in common.

They weren’t very entertaining.

The Kumawar episodic games were critically lambasted for being simplistic, sloppily made first-person shooters. Super Columbine RPG was made with the RPG Maker tool, inherently limiting its gameplay to that of a generic, 90’s-era turn-based roleplaying game. The subject matter they reference is definitely compelling, but it’s hard to be engaged in a game when the actual ‘game’ part of it is flawed and boring. Some of the flash games are better in this aspect, such as the McDonald’s game I blogged about earlier in the year, but they’re also just that: very simplistic flash games.

Bogost speaks of the spatial, operational, and procedural aspects that can shape these documentary games and help them properly replicate and emulate historical events. But should these games be critically discussed without mentioning the playability and game design aspect? Obviously, the coding and design of the game itself is distinctly separate from the more scholarly and political ideas behind it, but shouldn’t these games be enjoyed and analyzed holistically? Considering how new this entire genre of media is, I didn’t exactly expect a masterpiece out of any of these games, but Bogost does convince me that the potential is there for video games to be serious documentary works.

We don’t have a video game equivalent to ‘Planet Earth’, a documentary series that demonstrates deep technical achievement and accessibility, but we might just see something like it emerge.

‘Facade’ as a Modern-Day DOCTOR

DOCTOR, a program created in the 1960s,  was one of the first and most rudimentary examples of a program processing and responding to full user language input. “Facade,” a ‘one-act interactive drama,’ stands as one of the only examples of applying that sort of language parsing algorithm to a narrative piece of media.

The game begins with an unbearably awkward answering machine message from your friend Trip, asking you to come visit him and his wife Grace at their apartment. The game then asks you to choose from a set of names, teaches you the basic controls, and then play begins. You can move around the apartment with the arrow keys, and interact with objects, as well as Trip and Grace themselves, with the mouse. Most importantly however, you can type in something to say (limited to a certain character length), and have the characters respond to it.

It was difficult to figure out what exactly the program would accept. The program draws from a limited set of voice-clip responses, so vague sentences have only minor effect on the plot, something I quickly learned as I interacted with it. Playing around with the mouse, I clicked on Trip’s cheek, which apparently registered as a kiss. He, needless to say, was slightly weirded out by that ‘Italian greeting.’

That action began a quick chain of events that led from discussing a romantic trip to Italy, to major relationship issues, to an affair being admitted to, and a quiet reconciliation taking place. I tried being courteous and as reaffirming as possible, with little to no effect on the plot. Besides the kiss, the most I ended up doing using the language parser was suggesting wine over chardonnay, something that Grace didn’t seem to appreciate. ‘George,’ my player character of choice, mostly just sat, drank, and watched the sparks fly.

Playing around with ‘Facade’ is a strangely engrossing experience. I did actually feel compelled to help out a clearly tense, troubled relationship, and I did feel obligated to comply to basic conversational norms (as tempting as abusing the parser for hilarity may be). Wrestling with the algorithm, however, also makes clear the limitations of such complicated technology, even today. DOCTOR was no psychiatrist, and this game isn’t quite the complex procedurally generated drama it set out to be.

The game did, however, recommend multiple playthroughs, so I did play one more time. In an attempt to ‘make’ the game react to me, I told Trip to ‘fuck off’, and repeatedly flirted with and kissed Grace (who enjoyed the attention), all while spouting out random vulgarities. The game actually did react to me that time. I got kicked out of the apartment, and I ended up with an utterly incoherent stage script.

The Cult of Authorship

While reading Barthe’s essay, I found it a bit bizzare that, for an essay intent on dismantling the cult of personality surrounding the author in all forms of criticism, Barthes tends to mention authors a lot in his essay. It does offer context to his ideas (the Balzac line tieing everything together helpfully), but for an essay suggesting something as extreme as the replacement of the author, Barthes is still dependent on their existence to write his essay. The wordiness (and rapid-fire name-dropping of authors I’m mostly unfamiliar with) didn’t help matters either, and made the essay more difficult to understand for me beyond its surface.

Hyperbole aside, the issue of the fetishization of the author is one that basically anyone who’s taken a high school English class (or even a college-level one) can empathize with. The established set of meanings as intended by the author are the ones that you are restricted to, and often times critical reading becomes less of an analytical exploration (if that makes sense at all) and more of a ‘deep meanings’ treasure hunt, with pre-set clues and prizes to dig up. Though one would certain be more unskilled in high school than in college to truly form a non-spoon-fed opinion, the fact remains that the author is consistently put on the pedestal in academia and criticism, with the reader taking the side role of ‘putting the puzzle together’.

Nearly 50 years later, the decreasing importance of authorship can be seen in a fairly different form. Much of today’s internet content is inherently anonymous: few people look at a username on Reddit, Youtube, or any other meme-machine website to examine who wrote what today, or who originally created what viral piece of media. Much of it is also derivative, using pre-established structures, designs, or pictures to portray a new idea without the weight of authorial intent. Though much of it may be purely for light amusement and entertainment, in the user-generated content of the internet era, authorship is truly becoming less and less relevant.

‘One Chance’

‘One Chance’ is barely a game, despite its familiar 8-bit style. There are only two controls: the arrow keys to move and the space bar as an action button. There is little else involved in the gameplay besides walking, watching scenes take place, and making your choice. An average person will likely complete the game within 10 minutes. However, it does do one thing very unique to interactive media in general

Your choices are permanent.

Simply reloading the website will direct you back to where you are in the game, or to the final scene of the game after completion. Even opening it on a different tab or browser will result in the same thing (apparently the game keeps track of IP addresses).

The plot of the game itself is simple, and fits the format this game chooses to follow. Following the prompt of having ‘six days before every living cell on planet Earth dies’, you begin play as a scientist, Ron Pilgrim, who has just created a cure for cancer that directly destroys the cells involved. Every day, you are given the option to either go to work, or do any other activity prompts the game provides you (anything from staying home to having an affair with a co-worker). The next day, your work place realizes the cure is a bust: it destroys -all- living cells it comes into contact with, and its use could lead to catastrophic consequences. The ‘cure’ is inevitably released, and within the next 3-4 days life on Earth comes to a fast end, and your family and coworkers gradually die off. At the end of the game, the prompt ‘You have one chance’ turns to ‘You had one chance’, and the character is reduced to a sickly crawl, able to make their final option before the ending.

I managed to get what was likely the best ending by simply choosing to go to work at the lab every day, concocting a cure to save what was left of the world. The last image I got was an inviting, green park, which is shown every time I reload the game. Perhaps a practical way to try to save the world, but considering that the game does give you only one opportunity, I doubt many other people would have done that given the myriad other options offered to the player.

The concept of introducing that sort of permanence to a player’s actions is definitely rare, if not entirely non-existent. Even games with ‘hardcore’ (permanent character death) options will allow you to make a new character afterwards. Though it is a bit of a gimmick, especially for an otherwise short flash game, I still enjoyed it as a compelling diversion, and the concept of consequence was something very unique to the format of the flash game (and arguably video games in general).




McDonalds and the Compulsion to Win (Creative Response)

Video games have evolved greatly from their predecessors of years past. Where there were once high scores and obscene difficulty in order to extend an otherwise short experience, games now more than ever emphasize story, art styles, and. Yet the central aspect of nearly every game, especially competitive games such as Starcraft and Counter-Strike, is at its very core simple: to win. Whether that means victory in a competitive match in Street Fighter, beating the final boss and seeing the ending, getting 100% of the achievements, or even scoring loot in a game like Diablo or World of Warcraft, the compulsion to win is almost always what keeps you in the game. The infamous ‘Mcdonald’s Video Game’ uses that concept to highlight the ultimate cultural cost of McDonald’s’ brand of corporate excess.

The game itself is a fairly casual browser game, with a simple objective: to make money. The player is given access to several aspects of the company to manage: a pasture farm, a slaughterhouse, the McDonald’s restaurant itself, and the corporate office. Each of these aspects have extremely questionable shortcuts: growing genetically modified plants  to increase your soy production, corrupting city officials and politicians, using hormones and animal flour to fatten up your cows and obtain more beef, punishing your employees or awarding them a badge, and using clever stealth marketing tactics (like toy deals with Disney) to get more people to come to your restaurant. At least some of these tactics have to be used, as the game itself seems designed to be too difficult to keep from going bankrupt without them.

With that said, my playthrough of the game felt far less political than I expected. Though it took me a few tries to keep the company from going bankrupt within 5 minutes, I eventually adjusted to the rhythm of the game, manufacturing tons upon tons of genetically modified soy product, killing off overly diseased cows before they’re processed into meat, micromanaging the restaurant, and of course keeping environmental lobbyists and problematic politicians sated with loads of money. I tried to avoid some of the obviously immoral actions to be taken in the game, including wiping out rainforests and reusing animal matter to feed cows. The in-game repercussions were nearly non-existent , however, and there was no in-game moral prompt saying “Hey, this is totally wrong and you should stop.” I caved in and reaped the rewards of virtual corporate overkill. I wanted to see that profit number go up, and it promptly did. It is, after all, a game. I played to win.

But hey, who likes losing?