Let’s Play–Dear Esther | Part 1: Designing Hopelessness (Critical Let’s Play)

Hey, everybody!  I’m trying out a new format for analyzing video games with this critical Let’s Play.  For a while now, I’ve felt that video is much more suited to analyzing games and I hope you all will agree!  I decided to return to the Chinese Room’s masterpiece, Dear Esther , because it’s so dense and there’s so much to say about it.  I’d love to take this as an opportunity to talk about the game with all of you, so feel free to leave a comment and start a discussion!

Advertisements

Native (Self- and Mis-) Representations in Video Games

274226-cowboy-kid-nes-screenshot-you-ve-come-to-kill-those-peaceful
Indian enemies in Cowboy Kid

There has been a long history of misappropriation of other cultures in Western society. Native American cultures frequently fall victim to this as seen in sports, fashion, and art. As a part of this culture, the video game industry has exploited images of Native characters in similar ways; though, over time, they have gradually been converted to a medium for self-expression in many Native communities. Native people are one of the most underrepresented groups in games, and when they are represented, it has often been in disrespectful and stigmatizing ways. The vast and distinct cultures are usually jumbled together into a Pan-Indian stereotype and displayed as “primitive” or a thing of the past. One of the first depictions of American Indians in video games dates back to 1971 with the original Oregon Trail. Since it was meant to be an educational tool, Oregon Trail is not terribly offensive. On the one hand, tribes are individually recognized, and fairly accurate histories about these peoples are provided. Tribal peoples serve as guides and people to trade with. On the other hand, the original version of the game also uses them as hostile enemies, contributing to a long list of games that use American Indians as targets. Subsequent versions of the game corrected this flaw, but the damage was still done and the original use of Native Americans as enemies in an educational tool indicates a common disrespect for Native peoples in the collective unconscious of Western society.

The Oregon Trail was followed by many games that weren’t nearly as culturally sensitive. Indian Attack (1983), Kane (1986), Cowboy Kid (1991), and Hammer Boy (1991) use heavily stereotyped Pan-Indians as the backdrop for their Western-style settings. The Natives are depicted as primitive cultures and are used as enemies to slaughter by the masses. However, Custer’s Revenge (1982) is the worst by far as what many regard as the most offensive game of all time. The game depicts a character based on General George Custer repeatedly raping a naked, Native woman. Notably, the Native woman is named Revenge, creating an objectifying double entendre on the title. The game not only sexualizes Native women but also perpetuates the idea of indigenous women as “inherently rape-able”*. Due to strong protests by feminist movements and American Indian communities, the game stopped being sold. Unfortunately, a large number of copies remained in circulation and was therefore able to be reproduced and further distributed

Humba_wumba_banjo_tooie. Humba_Wumba2

Humba Wumba from the popular kids’ series, Banjo-Kazooie.

The sexualization of Native women in video games did not end there. The fighting game Tekken (1994) features Michelle and Julia Chang, half-naked, Pan-Indian women. The first-person shooter, Darkwatch (2005), uses a female shaman as the antagonist who is shown completely naked in some promotional materials. Even the kids game, Banjo-Tooie (2000), is guilty of sexualizing their Native character, Humba Wumba. It should also be noted that this sexualization is not just harmlessly inappropriate imagery. According to a study by Amnesty International, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women of other ethnicities and an overwhelming number of these assaults (86%) are committed by non-Native males. This suggests that the common sexualization of Native women in pop culture is both responsible for and indicative of continuing colonialist sentiments in Western society.   It is not hard to believe that such depictions of Native women—as shown in Custer’s Revenge—are directly responsible for perpetuating beliefs of Native women as “inherently rape-able”. In other words, the common disrespect for Native women in art leads to the same sentiments in real life.

Super_Street_Fighter_II_X_Art_T_Hawk_3julia-tekkennightwolf Thunder Hawk (Street Fighter), Julia Chang (Tekken), and Nightwolf (Mortal Kombat)

Similar to Tekken, other fighting games like Mortal Kombat (1995) and Street Fighter (1993) depict Native men, Nightwolf and Thunder Hawk, as half-naked, hyper-masculine fighters. These two characters fall into the “mystic” and “nature-friendly” Pan-Indian stereotypes that effectively depict Native people as primitive and antiquated.   Since characters in the game are given little to no background or personality, they seem to only be included to add an “exotic” feel to these games. Humba Wumba in Banjo-Tooie serves the same purpose. She is a shaman that speaks broken English, lives in a wigwam, and sports feathers. She has no other function in the game than to cast a spell on the titular protagonist, Banjo, in each level. The character could serve her purpose exactly the same if she had been any other kind of magician, characterizing her as a “background decoration” character as one that is both instrumental and entirely interchangeable*. Her only purpose as a Pan-Indian is to add said “exotic” feel to the game. If this wasn’t enough, the game also negatively depicts her culture by forcing the player to sacrifice a creature for her in each level so that she will cast her spell.

BZsq6

The scene for Native representation in games improved with the 1997 release of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. While this game fell back on many previously mentioned, Pan-Indian stereotypes, it was one of the first to feature a Native protagonist, which was a promising sign for Native gamers. It depicts Natives as bow-wielding, feather-wearing hunters with other-worldly connections and never really delves deeper into the protagonist’s personality or culture. However, it doesn’t necessarily show Natives to be anachronistic to modern times as the game has a sci-fi setting and involves the main character using advanced weaponry like machine guns and grenades. Contrastingly, kids’ games, Tak and the Power of Juju (2003) and Brave: Search for the Spirit Dancer (2005) depict stereotypes that entirely set the Native protagonist in a primitive past. Furthermore, the inaccurate portrayal of Native Americans is not entirely the fault of the games industry in the case of Turok, since it is based on a comic book by the same name that harps on these stereotypes.

prey2
Cherokee reservation as depicted in Prey

Depictions of Natives in the video game industry changed forever with the first game made semi-collaboratively with American Indians, Prey (2006). This first-person shooter follows Cherokee war veteran and garage mechanic, Tommy Tawodi, on a science-fiction journey to reconnect with his heritage akin to themes in native literature (like Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko and House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday). This game is one of very few to depict modern reservation life, specify the character’s nation of origin, and give the Native protagonist an interesting and complicated identity instead of the superficial caricatures of Natives that preceded him. The game developers set a new precedent by consulting Native Americans for cultural sensitivity guidance and employing Native people to voice their characters, classifying this as one of the first collaboratively made games between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans. The game still exploited the “mystic Indian” stereotype by connecting the protagonists’ superpowers with his Cherokee heritage; however, even this is more culturally sensitive than in previous games, as these superpowers are related to real, specific Cherokee oral traditions and, therefore, metaphorically demonstrate how Tommy reconnects with his culture.

Kanienkehá:ka village as Assassin's Creed III
Kanienkehá:ka village as Assassin’s Creed III

Following this game, Assassin’s Creed 3 (2012) classifies the first fully collaborative effort between Native and Western-American video game developers. The game’s protagonist, Ratonhnhaké:ton, is a Mohawk boy who grows up during the American Revolution. While the game depicts Natives in a historical setting, it is important to note that all of the games in the Assassin’s Creed series are set in the past and the developers went to great lengths to ensure that it was both historically accurate and culturally respectful. The development team had Kanien’kehá:ka cultural and linguistic consultants with them throughout the game’s development to verify information and advise them on the use of certain cultural elements. The game creates an immersive experience of Mohawk culture and even reinforces indigenous knowledge through gameplay by allowing all parts of hunted animals to be collected and used. The narrative takes a look at the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s effect on the American Revolution and examines the colonialist tendencies of both sides of the war. Perhaps most exciting of all, nearly a third of the 40 hour long game is spoken in the Kanien’kéha or Mohawk language.

neveralone2
Never Alone

While Prey and Assassin’s Creed 3 mark important strides towards sovereignty of self-representation for Natives in the video game industry, an even more important step was the creation of Native owned and operated game companies such as the Inupiaq developer, Upper One Games, which recently produced Never Alone (2014) to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The game focuses on a girl, Nuna, and her companion, an arctic fox, as they set out to end a harsh blizzard and save their clan. Along the way, they meet important figures from Inupiaq oral traditions and are aided by “Helping Spirits”. The story itself is narrated by a traditional Inupiaq storyteller. In addition to adapting Inupiaq storytelling to a new format, the game’s visuals are heavily influenced by Inupiaq art. Never Alone brings the concept of Native “visual sovereignty”* to the sphere of video games by creating a distinctively Inupiaq experience and catering only to an Inupiaq audience. Meanwhile, the game deconstructs stereotypes established by the game industry and instead perpetuates an authentic understanding of their people among non-Inupiat.

otsi-flying head
Kanien’kehá:ka legend of the flying head as depicted in Otsi

As more and more indigenous people are getting involved in video game development through programs such as the Skins Project, an increasing number of Native-made games are being produced. Around the same time that Assassin’s Creed 3 was released, Haudenosaunee students from the Skins project got together to produce Otsi, a game about Kanien’kehá:ka legends. Additionally, a Cherokee company has begun production on a Cherokee language-learning game, RezWorld, about a man with memory loss, and sub-Arctic Cree game developer, Ernest Webb, co-directed the recently released game, Spirits of the Spring. In the history of gaming, Native American characters were often used as exotic “background decoration” or stereotyped enemies, lumped into a pan-Indian culture that is often stigmatizing toward Native peoples. As the Kanien’kehá:ka cultural liaison on Assassin’s Creed 3, Teiowí:sonte Thomas Deer, put it, “Most people in the world today amalgamate the vast and distinct cultures of each indigenous nation into a sort of pan-Indian cliché, which does a big disservice to these cultures who work hard to protect and strengthen their distinct identity as a sovereign people against tough odds” (Venables). While Prey and Assassin’s Creed 3 represent important strides toward Native sovereignty over their cultural image in video games, the most promising step toward the expansion of visual sovereignty to games has been Native written, directed, and produced works like Never Alone. This analysis drew from experience with the above-mentioned games.  Additional influences include:

  • Amnesty International USA. ‘Maze Of Injustice’. 2007.
  • *Beebe, Laura. ‘Film As A Form Of Indigenous Storytelling’. 2014. Lecture.
  • Goeman, Mishuana. ‘Native American Women’s Issues Today’. 2014. Lecture.
  • LaPensée, Elizabeth. Native Representations In Video Games. 2011. Video.
  • LaPensée, Elizabeth. Indigenous Representations in Assassin’s Creed 3. 2012. Video.
  • Morley, Julie. ‘A Brief History Of Native American Representation In Video Games’. Cliqist 2014.
  • *Ogden, Stormy. ‘Prisoner W-20170/Other’. Sharing Our Stories Of Survival: Native Women Surviving Violence. Sarah Deer et al. 1st ed. Lanham: Altamira, 2008. 161. Print.
  • Sarkeesian, Anita. Women As Background Decoration (Part 1). 2014. Video.
  • Sharam, Charles. ‘Native Americans In Video Games: Racism, Stereotype, And The Digitized Indian’. Project Coe. 2014.
  • Venables, Michael. ‘The Awesome Mohawk Teacher And Consultant Behind Ratonhnhaké:ton’. Forbes 2014.

The Modern Gaming View: Why Art Games Constitute Games

Though it is clear that the gaming community is growing more and more accepting of art games, it seems that there is still a pervasive view that their status as games is debatable. While they obviously break from a standard form in games, that does not change the fact that, of the main types of media (aesthetic art, theater, literature, music, movies, video games, etc.), they clearly fall under the category of video games. For all intents and purposes, they are merely Modernist games.

One of the main roots of this debates seems to be in a fundamental disagreement about what constitutes a video game. With the most avant-garde games like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, and Dear Esther, the most overwhelming complaint seems to be that there are not enough buttons. The four arrow keys and an occasional click do not create a sufficiently interactive experience to call it a game. However, the major flaw in this logic is that interactivity is still heavily required. These are not movies in which you can only change the camera angle; the player must knowledgeably interact with their environment to move the narrative forward.

Dear Esther controls

A counterargument to this is that they should not be called games but rather “interactive narratives” or “interactive experience”, but this idea is flimsy at best. Where do we now draw the line between games and interactive narratives? Do not the majority of mainstream video games contain narratives that the player interacts with? Take Call of Duty for example. The game relies on a plot (albeit a weak one) to give the player’s actions meaning in all of the campaigns. If the player felt no sense of progression in story, they would quickly bore of the experience.

This line between “video game” and “interactive narrative” becomes even blurrier when accounting for a game like Amnesia. While I cannot find articles and discussion threads about games like Dear Esther that do not question their statuses as true games, I have never seen or heard such a complaint about Amnesia. However, if we decide to draw the line between “game” and “interactive narrative” by the number of buttons, Amnesia would fall on the side of “interactive narrative”, requiring the same number of buttons as a game like Gone Home (and, more subjectively, about the same level of interactivity).

What could differentiate these games so much that there is such a disparity in arguments over their statuses as games? The answer is simple; the average gamer likes Amnesia better. That is it. What Amnesia lacks in controls, it compensates for in a more appealing narrative to the majority of the gaming community. Other than the type of narrative (horror versus drama), there are effectively no differences between Amnesia and Gone Home. In fact, Gone Home seems to flaunt this by creating the same suspense and atmosphere as the average horror game.

Gone Home-Amnesia

Frictional Games has pointed out that Gone Home was even originally made in the Amnesia engine.

This is where the modern (or, if you prefer, “Stanleyist”) view on gaming comes in. The psychological concept that perception is reality is a well-known and commonly believed idea. The same holds true here; perception is everything in gaming. The perceived sense of danger in Slender seems to appeal more to the average gamer than the sense of irrationality in The Stanley Parable.

In fact, this is distinctively the “Stanleyist” view on games. The “Buttons” ending in The Stanley Parable is one of the most abrasive and harshly critical attacks against the gaming community that I have seen so far. This ending leaves the player in a heaven-like setting in which they are surrounded by buttons; the ending goes on indefinitely and pushing the buttons causes nothing to happen. The sarcastic setting points out that the gaming community seems to believe that pushing buttons is what is important rather than any narrative or artistic purpose. However, without any sense of accomplishment or narrative progression, player actions in video games quickly break down, losing meaning and appeal. Be assured that this is not just my subjective interpretation of The Stanley Parable, as this is what the rest of the game really gets to the heart of as well. The player needs a narrator to give their actions meaning, and the narrator needs the player to have their story heard.

Heaven

While this new wave of games push the boundaries of gaming and could certainly be considered a new genre or a new movement in gaming, the degree of difference between these games and any others when thought about a little more carefully hardly seems like a different form of media altogether. Remember that, though a game’s atmosphere might not enrapture you, there are plenty of people for which it does. Though a significant number of gamers prefer the atmosphere in Amnesia, I am not alone in finding the quirky nature of The Stanley Parable similarly appealing. And, although many love the interactivity of games like League of Legends, there are also people who prefer the game mechanic of exploration in a game like Dear Esther.

If you enjoyed this post, like, comment, and follow!

If you want to read more, click here to read about The Stanley Parable and Religion or Existentialism in Dear Esther.

Quick Crit! Island of Isolation in Dear Esther

jakobson0041

Dear Esther takes place on a Hebridean Island which depending on the interpretation is either metaphorical or a place the narrator strands himself with the intention of committing suicide following the death of his wife.  The player traverses this island and never comes in contact with another human (despite references to other inhabitants).  Furthermore, these inhabitants are referred to as hermits, lonely (like Jacobson), and out of touch (like the shepherds).  The visual text also shows the island’s isolation (and desolation) with crashed and decaying ships surrounding the island.  Thus, the player receives the same sense of isolation that the narrator feels due to the loss of his wife.  These are all things that could likely go unnoticed but, upon further inspection, show brilliance in artistic design.

What did you feel about the isolation in Dear Esther?  What other aspects of this game do you think The Chinese Room did well?  Leave a comment in the section below!

For more on Dear Esther, click here to read about the Narrator as a Jesus-figure or an Existentialist view.

If you are interested in learning more about Quick Crits, click the About tab.

Pseudo-gods

I have recently noticed the common trope of omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent characters in a number of video games, which for all intents and purposes we shall refer to as “pseudo-gods”.  Furthermore, I have not been able to think of any examples of this outside of video games.  If this theme is indeed unique to games, then we have to ask, why?  (Really, we have to or else GLaDOS will kill us.)

GLaDOS

It could be that it is rebellious.  After all, the point is usually to overcome the pseudo-god figure.  The obvious example of this is Portal in which the player destroys GLaDOS, a robot in control of the facility that is keeping us captive.  However, even less narrative-driven games like Super Smash Bros. include this trope.  Think about it: the story mode ends with Mario destroying the hand that brought him to life.  In the indie, Flash-style game The Witch’s House, the player also must confront a witch that seems to control everything in the house to escape.  The common theme among these games is that the player feels trapped or held back by the pseudo-god, so he or she must defeat them.  Therefore, these pseudo-gods could be a manifestation of our need to stick it to the man—so to speak—even if it is subconscious on the part of the game creator.

Master hand

The easier answer—but one we shouldn’t just shrug off—is that it is a simple recreational device to disguise the omnipotent nature of the creator’s narrative or the limitations inherent in the game.  Though this could certainly be part of the reason, many games such as Assassin’s Creed have used other methods to explain this.  Nevertheless, this is the theme that The Stanley Parable seems to be playing off of with the Narrator.  This pseudo-god intentionally demonstrates the omnipotence of the creator’s purpose in games but also may symbolize the mind control people face in their daily lives (at work, through media, etc.).

There doesn’t seem to be one correct answer as to what pseudo-gods mean, but they are certainly something to consider.  This device could be as thought-provoking or simple as you want it to be.  Is it a simple plot device?  Or, is GLaDOS a comment on the very nature of reality and fate, just as the three witches are in Macbeth?  You decide!

Inspired Intentions

**Minor spoilers for Portal 2… but let’s be honest, if you haven’t played it at this point, are you planning on it?

There is a certain dependence between audience and creator that is inherent and unique to video games.  That said, this dependence adds a layer of challenge for content producers but allows for more success in conveying their message to the audience.  To do this, creators function upon what we shall call “inspired intentions” which is to say the ways in which a game makes us do what we are meant to do.  This is frequently accomplished using the weak trope of objectives in some popular games but is a much more complex process for the ones that do it well.

Image

Courtesy of the IGN wiki.  AC is guilty of relying on objectives–even though it is a series I enjoy.

I think Portal 2 is one of the best games I have played for inspired intentions, so it will function as my overarching example.

A great score can do wonders for inspiring the right emotions in the player.  Portal 2 has–in my opinion–one of the best scores across all entertainment because of its ability to do so.  The score always makes us want to run away when we have to, makes us pensive when we can be, and establishes any mood from eerie to exciting.  However, it even goes beyond this by being ambient.  It is perfectly camouflaged with the player’s surrounding because it sounds like the harmonizing noises of a machine–brilliant, to say the least.  But, let’s be honest, I’m not a music analyst, so let’s get off this topic ASAP.

(If you are interested in giving it a listen, Valve offers it for free!)

Furthermore, it is well known that people’s attentions are attracted by actions.  By adding scenery movement (along with the right lighting), Portal 2 subtly suggests where the player wants to go.  In the escape scene, for example, walls disappear and a light bridge appears in the direction the player is intended to run.

Image

On top of all this, Portal 2 benefits from a well written plot and strong characters that make it easy for the player to merge identities with the main character, Chell.

Among academic discussions of video games, inspired intentions should be one of our top analysis priorities across the board.  It always struck me as odd that the Horror genre tends to get a decent amount of critical acclaim in the video game industry while Horror movies are scoffed at, but it is because Horror games make us perfectly empathetic towards the character–both player and character are terrified and want to run away.

What games do you think are good at inspired intentions?  How do they make you empathize and/or sympathize with the main character?  Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

A Metatextual Analysis of The Stanley Parable

Image

**Spoilers for The Stanley Parable**

Let me begin this by asking the question that we are all wondering: why trust me?  I am not a professional game analyst, I have never made a game myself, nor have I gone to college to study video game analysis.  However, that is exactly the reason why my analysis is as valid as the next person’s; there are no real game analysts up to this point.  So, this game has already stepped leaps and bounds in front of all of its competition.  In the mere act of delving deeper into this game than people have with games before, we are validating its purpose.

If you have read other analyses of The Stanley Parable, it is no secret that the game left many dissatisfied.  An analyst from Destructoid claims that “the game offers no answers,” but I disagree.  The issue with many of these analyses is that they all try to pick apart each of eight or so possible endings separately.  However, as far as my knowledge goes, there is no way to play the game without going through multiple endings.  Most of them only last 15-30 minutes on their own, and by opening on a pair of two open doors, it is made clear that there is more than one possible path.  As if this wasn’t enough to convince us that the game is in the multiple endings, the loading screen boldly states in repeated text that “the end is never.”  So, what does it mean?  Let’s first look at a few of the individual endings so that we can analyze them as a whole.

Image

The most straightforward ending—the one in which the player follows all of the narrators commands—leads us to the ironically named “freedom” ending.  But, is it really freedom?  Of course not.  We didn’t act on any pretense of free will to get there, and we didn’t solve the mystery of the absent members.  As if it wasn’t clear enough that this ending shouldn’t give us any satisfaction, the player enters the blatantly named “Mind Control Facility” to shut it down even though, by doing this, the player is subjected to the same mind control as Stanley.  Think about it: Stanley starts out by only following commands and pressing buttons on a computer.  Furthermore, the character—not the player—is in control as he steps out into the free world in a cutscene.

Image

In the “confusion ending,” the player and narrator team up to break away from the broken narrative and make their own story.  As the narrator claims in what is later referred to as the “nonsense theory,” perhaps it is about the journey and not the ending.  Nevertheless, it is a disappointment to discover in a room where the player’s previous actions have been outlined that the whole ending was predetermined; there is no escaping the narrative.

Another ending establishes the dependence between player and narrator as the player must grimly jump from a ledge over and over as the only way out while the narrator begs Stanley not to.

In yet another ending, Stanley destroys the narrator’s story by going against all his wishes.  However, this leaves the player literally caged into the cargo lift—no doubt, a symbol for yet another predetermined path which leads the player into a dead end, a room crumbling apart.

The clear, underlying theme of all of the possible paths is that there is no true freedom among the predetermined possibilities.  It is all a carefully controlled experience by the game developers with only the illusion of free will, but, in that case, is this game really just about the semblance of choice in videogames?  Is it nothing more than a parody that offers “no solutions to the gaming tropes it comments upon” as the analyst from Destructoid says?  I believe the answer is no.  While it points out in several endings that all the player is doing is pushing buttons, the same can be said for book and movies in which the audience just sits silently and stares.  Moreover, such a claim is not substantiated when we consider that the developers put a lot of time into creating the game—a sure sign that they are not condemning playing games as a whole.

Instead, I believe that the purpose of the game is to break out from the linear, one dimensional storytelling by analyzing the games we play.  The player takes control of the narrative by giving meaning to it and thinking about it on his or her own.

The Stanley Parable is not a mere criticism of videogames; it is a carefully crafted work of art intending to inspire players to give more meaning to the games that they play.  As the game points out, the player needs the narrator (and, therefore, the game developer), but the narrator also needs the player.  Just as Don Quixote did for popular knight errant stories, The Stanley Parable asks the player to demand more intellect from their entertainment and help the game developer in turn by bringing intellect to their games.  You may be left unsatisfied by The Stanley Parable, but few great works of art will perfectly satisfy its audience.  Amazing authors from Cervantes to Virginia Woolf (and countless artistic films) leave the audience upset and maybe even confused, but they are nonetheless beautifully construed and great advancements in art.

If you liked this and would like to read more, I post criticisms of everything from Dear Esther to Portal.  Check it out!