This was written in the early spring 2013, one of a variety of drafts I was planning on publishing but wasn’t able to. In this draft I let myself off the leash to try and push some creative boundaries.
There are many kinds of videogames. There is Porpentine’s Howling Dogs, a hypertext game released last year. It is about mental health, and what constrained spaces and faulty trash receptacles can do to one’s sense of place in the world. It is also about feminism, the inevitable war of the undead against the living after the apocalypse, and the odd life of a queen who’s primary function for her people is to die in any number of ways. Then there is Kentucky Route Zero, a game about driving an antique store truck around rural Kentucky. It is about coal mines, debt, the way capitalism destroys the peoples whose toil makes it breath.
There has been a lot of hand wringing about whether videogames – not just any game,but digitally mediated games – are art. But as the learned, sociologically minded academic class is already aware and itching to tell us (Hi N+1), art is a relational proposition, one of habitus and contingency in relation to the structuring roles of economy and power. I think the better question to ask is “what do games do?” In a sense, its’ good to think about videogames as a number of things. They are rhetorical tools, things to move people to new states, to fill in gaps in the mind shaping into new forms of praxis. They are aesthetic propositions about the way the world can be dreamed. They are also commodities and they are products of labour. They are the spawn of our material world, of our machines and our nightmares.
Games like Howling Dogs and Kentucky Route Zero are emblematic of a shift in videogame production that has taken place over the past five years, incubating in the weirder corners of the Internet. In this place a slew of voices that were always on the outside of mainstream “gamer” culture have found purchase. Some of these people who do not have the technical expertise nor the ruthless entrepreneurial spirit to build digital playgrounds and stories for the masses of people. When they are familiar with programming it has allowed them to see through its assumptions. Videogames, at least the ones most people think about when they hear the term, are amazingly expensive to construct today. They are built in the conditions that exemplify post-fordist, flexible accumulation: hundreds of employees all under the same roof are delegated tasks and projects that focus on specific portions of the overall game. No one person, aside from the project lead (most similar to the factory foreman), would ever have control over the entire contour of the project, and even then budgets, technological limits, licensing agreements and market forces restrict the realization of the dreams of the game’s creators.
The arms race of technology and the industry’s linear attention to photorealism created this normality. Videogames originally started off as the craft projects of individuals. Even when companies like Magnivox and Atari constructed a business model predicated on mass consumption, many of the games built for these systems were made by one person – even though the expertise required to code the games themselves was absurdly complicated (See Montfort & Bogost’s (2009) Racing the Beam for more on this). Marx wrote in his “Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy” that the ruling ideas of the age were determined by those who controlled the means of production, giving rise to ideology critique of the kind that Althusser attempted so hard to escape from. Regardless of what you think about the base / superstructure metaphor that as at play in Marx’s original meaning, the ‘ruling ideas’ in videogame production are still tied to the AAA industry. Recall the horror show that was Sony Entertainment’s ‘launch’ of the Playstation 4: a man coming close to having an on-stage orgasm as he described how happy he was that they now had the technology to model the suede interior of an half million dollar Italian Super Car; another man introducing us to another Killzone game in which men in menacing masks with glowing orange eyes shoot at you, and where the fictional city in which it takes place is described as being like “Cold War Berlin” because it has a wall in the middle.
At the other end of the spectrum are the people who could never hope, nor dream, nor particularly care, about how to use a computer to model a suede bucket seat. These people mostly rely on a cobbled together collection of words, images and mechanics to model their realities. A few names, with varying approaches: Anna Anthropy, Porpentine, Merrit Kopas, Kim Delicious. All of these designers are either queer or trans. Queer Spaces and queer people are creating Queer games, and often as not, these games are appropriately weird to match the levels of transgression needed to set oneself apart from the space marines, rogue treasure hunters and special forces operators. There is a consciousness, an ideology predicated quite often explicitly from not only a queer perspective, but an anti-capitalist one. It strikes me that a fusion of Marxist political economy (Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters has one of the best critiques of technology and ideology in videogame production I have ever read) and anarchist political practice seems to unite those who agitate against the market driven excess and homogeneity of the AAA videogames industry.
Alongside, and I would say, because of, these games designers something like Kentucky Route Zero can come together. In an interview co-creator Jack Elliot expressed his deep apprecation of Twine games such as Merrit Kopas’ two-player game Brace. Kentucky Route Zero exists in a liminal space between AAA and games made with platforms like Twine or flash. It’s filled with low resolution, yet gorgeous, visuals. It is an homage to the adventure games of more than a decade ago, where all you did was click on objects in the environment and solve sometimes simple (often infuriatingly hard) puzzles. Alongside the storied set of mechanics, guerrilla logics of Twine have worked their way into the game where narrative progression isn’t always about solving a puzzle but instead reliant on clicking several possible dialogue options. In a beautiful move, the game eschews the logics of games like Mass Effect, which predicates itself on choosing very specific dialogue options to specifically alter outcomes in a procedural manner. Choosing one or the other isn’t about the rhetorical manipulation of others, it is about constructing an identity for yourself or the proposed character navigating through the hyperlinks and maps.
Howling Dogs, a game I have only recently come to despite its 2012 release,is the game that I genuinely feel embodies this tendency, what I might call the ‘Twine New Wave’, to its limit It begins with little context other than a passages pulled from Oe Kenzaburo’s The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. Immediately following this is the introduction of the space you will repeatedly interact with over the course of the game:
A room of dark metal. Fluorescent lights embedded in the ceiling.
The activity room is in the north wall. The lavatory entrance, west, next to the trash disposal and the nutrient dispensers. The sanity room is in the east wall.
Her photograph is pinned to the side of your bunk. A red LCD reads 367 a few inches over.
The player must then go through a series of actions to progress. Eat. Drink. Use the sanity room; use the activity room; take a shower; sleep. Howling Dogs' brilliance as a game and a piece of interactive fiction is in its ability to interrogate the distinction between digitally mediated realities and the physicality of bodies in dire, claustrophobic circumstances. There is a kind of positive unity to the situation, rather than a negatively charged dialectic. Porpentine has said that “the purpose of a puzzle is to provide resistance,”She continues: “My mechanics are to be touched. Games are perhaps the most intimate art because the player must remain touching at all times. They must touch or the game does not exist.” echoing, in a way, Deleuze who said that “When a body “encounters” another body, or an idea another idea, it happens that the two relations sometimes combine to form a more powerful whole…”
This powerful whole also applies to the player’s avatar, imprisoned in a room where her body begins to deteriorate as she is taken through virtual reality to increasingly fantastical and violent worlds. While the room begins as barren and stark, the worlds are overflowing with life and death – they are excess par excellence. While they seem so far removed from the reality that the corporeal body of the protagonist exists in (and it is) it is at the same time entangled with the matter and meaning of it. What are these stories if not hallucinations, the utopias of the repressed and abused, the nightmares of those alienated from the very bodies that sustain them?
Games like Howling Dogs and Kentucky Route Zero are being created at the height of the dystopia that is high-technology capitalism, the Bio-Political Production that Hardt and Negri proposed at the end of the 20th century. In Games of Empire Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter argue that videogames are the ideal commodity of our age. Videogames use the contemporary post-fordist highly trained and highly flexible workforce to mass produce a commodity at little to no marginal cost after the first day of release. First Person Shooters like Call of Duty have come to embody this excess of capitalism with its culture of overblown militarized masculinity, misogyny, homophobia and near fascistic nationalism. Frederic Jameson has suggested an inversion to Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “There has never been a document of culture which was not at one and the same time a document of barbarism” which a joyous turn that the Marxist dialectic should force us to concede that there “the effectively ideological is also, at the same time, necessarily utopian.” In a sense we should open ourselves to the possibility that there is something to recover from the shambling corpses of the videogames industry. There is a utopia hidden before our very eyes. But maybe the best way to go about recovering this utopian impulse isn’t in conducting the kind of Jamesonian textual analysis that has dominated Cultural Studies departments for the last 25 years, where we see how this narrative or that text shows us something we might not have seen on first glance. Maybe drawing the utopia out can be done through the process of making.
Games like Howling Dogs and Kentucky Route Zero are the material embodiment of this positive impulse. These games would not exist without the blood and horror that is the AAA games industry. They have to exist in stark contrast with it – but at the same time they draw out the utopian, feminist, trans, queer, anarchist ghostly utopia in them. These games are praxis in its purest sense – something done to enrich the family, the community, the polis. at the same time one shouldn’t forget that the people who make these games, some of whom comprise a cohort of some of the most important digital artists of our generation, live in extreme poverty. Their bodies, their lives, are cast to the side while the project leads of AAA games buy Lamborghinis. There is no utopia without a privation in the present. These weird games can be sold, (Kentucky Route Zero is while Howling Dogs is free), but are they really labour? Is a radical, anti-capitalist future found in just making these wacky, brooding, dark, utopian games for the fuck of it? Is that immanent future just lying there in the refusal to take labour too seriously, to reduce one to ones work? These games won’t change the world, but they might be showing what the next one looks like. I, for one, hope it does.
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