What Makes a Game?

I’ve always been strangely fond of any art that challenges my ideas about its medium. And this isn’t an easy thing to do with me. I’m the sort of person who walks past a painting called “Red Rectangle on White Canvas” and thinks there’s a sucker born every minute. Still I’ve seen art, read poetry and stories, and heard music that challenged my definitions of art, poetry, stories, and music. But never before have I had this kind of experience with a game. Yes, a game.

DearEsther

I can’t recall how I first heard about Dear Esther, but I understand it began as a mod for Half-Life 2 (which I still need to play). The version I played is the revamped 2012 version. And oh. my. god. is this game gorgeous. I can’t even begin to go into it. The caves. If you start this game and don’t at least get to the caves, you’ve not even begun to play.

Okay, so I’ve heard the complaints about Dear Esther. I had them, too, at first. No, really. I finished the thing in one night, got to the infamous black screen, and said, “Wait. That’s it? That’s it! You just walk through it and look at stuff, and you don’t even get any answers? Oh, no you don’t, game. I’m getting SOMETHING out of this—a story, at the very least, since you couldn’t even give me the (admittedly false) sense of accomplishment I usually get from finishing a game. Bad game. Bad. I payed how much for this? Oh, for the love of…” Yeah, I get emotional about things.

Lately, my answer to infuriating art is to find out as much as I can about author intention, reader interpretation, and the process of creation. I often end up doing this with David Lynch films (which will become relevant a few paragraphs down). And I learned some things when I read up on Dear Esther. So when it came time for The Other Lamm to play, I was ready with hard-won insight. He reached the black screen, fiddled around because he was sure the thing had a glitch, and when he discovered it didn’t, he said the words I knew he would say: “That’s it?”

“Okay,” I said. “The game starts now. Ready. Set. Go.”

Once you finish what I’m calling the “walk-through” of Dear Esther, you’ll find you’ve been given an array of puzzle pieces. Your job is to put them together. Build a story. And that’s the game. Each person’s story is different because each person is going to get different pieces of the puzzle, focus on different aspects of the story, and notice different visuals in the walk-through. And each person is going to bring aspects of their own lives, experiences, and knowledge to their interpretation. Once you’ve built a story, the fun, of course, is sharing it. I’m going to share mine below, after the spoiler warning, so if you haven’t played the game, don’t read past the warning. You really do want a chance to piece this together on your own before the interpretations of other people change the puzzle for you. And they will. And that’s fun, too. But getting that first idea will tell you some things about yourself.

One last thing before I go into spoiler zone: I was given the option to purchase the soundtrack in a bundle with the game. I scoffed, thinking why should I buy a soundtrack I haven’t even heard yet? I should have taken the deal. The music in this game is over a good third of the experience, and it is gorgeous. The soundtrack really should be singing to you while you’re playing the REAL game. In fact, I kind of think it would be far more fair to automatically bundle the soundtrack with the game, simply because the game you’re paying for is played during and after the first walk-through.

Now…

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Spoiler Warning: the following is my own interpretation of Dear Esther.

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lost highwayOne day, at a friend’s party, I found myself watching my first David Lynch film: Lost Highway. I was awestruck, disturbed, unraveled by the thing. I spent the next week reading everything I could find on it. I finally saw an article that talked about the film’s intention to put the viewer in the position of the protagonist, who is suffering a fugue state. That information completely changed my understanding of the story. It all came together for me. And in Dear Esther, when I was given a monologue that implied a fugue state, I couldn’t help going back to that idea.

Here is the monologue that changed my interpretation:

“The pain in my leg sent me blind for a few minutes as I struggled up the cliff path: I swallowed another handful of painkillers and now I feel almost lucid. The island around me has retreated to a hazed distance, whilst the moon appears to have descended into my palm to guide me. I can see a thick black line of infection reaching for my heart from the waistband of my trousers. Through the fugue, it is all the world like the path I have cut from the lowlands towards the aerial.”

So my final interpretation of this story is that it’s about a man who had a few drinks the night he crashed his car, and his wife was killed in the accident. He is trapped in a fugue state, wherein he identifies as a stranger trying to assign blame. He assigns blame to the other driver, to himself, to the drink, to the seagulls, to the paint on the road. He wants desperately to make meaning out of a meaningless tragedy. He is on a variety of medication, painkillers etc. He is not himself. Maybe he’s dying. Maybe he just wishes he was. Every once in a while, he becomes lucid and remembers who he is. But the fugue state always draws him back because he cannot deal with reality. The ending can be either happy or miserable. I toggle between them, and I think that’s okay. Interpretation doesn’t have to be precise to be meaningful.

Now I’ve read interpretations that are so different from mine, and yet these people had very similar information with which to build. I’ve read someone’s idea that the person wandering the island is Esther, who is in a coma and listening to the letters her husband reads to her as her dreamscape is influenced by those letters. And I’ve read an interpretation where you, the player, are an infection traversing the body of a dying man and hearing the thoughts that haunt him. These are all beautiful interpretations, and I don’t think any of them are right or wrong. They just are, and the people who came up with them have now beat the game, as have I. My prize is a story I pieced together, good memories of beautiful landscape and music, and new ideas about what makes a game a game.

Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?

a babyLook. Here’s a baby. How do you react when you see that squashy, little person? Do you just melt? Do you get the urge to coo and make silly faces at it? As far as I understand, that’s the normal human reaction to babies. It isn’t mine. When I look at a baby, my primary thought is that it looks like every other baby: tiny, squashy, probably moist. That’s not to say I don’t have a protective instinct. I do. Whenever I’m in proximity, my mammal brain says, “Guard the child with your life.” But for whatever reason, I don’t get automatically googly-eyed over images of infants. It’s just not a feeling I can force.

This puts me in the interesting position of noticing when horror stories use an assumed automatic love of small children to create a sense of suspense where there might not have been one otherwise. They do the same thing with animals: dogs, cats, and birds for some reason (likely the blatant symbolism of birds=freedom is just too much for writers to resist). If you see a domestic animal at the beginning of a horror movie, odds are that critter will be dead by the end. If you see a child, odds are the child will either be a creepy kid à la Damien Thorn, or an object to be guarded, often with little to no personality. Fantasy may be guilty of kidnapping too many young maidens so the hero has a prize to win, but horror is guilty of endangering too many small children so the audience will have an instinctive fear of a sub-par monster. This tactic usually drives me crazy, especially when the children are little angels and therefore unlike any child I’ve ever met in my life. Then I read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

Cover: The Turn of the ScrewMy favorite part of The Turn of the Screw is when the narrator basically says, straight-up, I’m going to throw children into this story so it’ll be scarier for you. No kidding. Now this is artistic honesty:

“I quite agree—in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?”

So we’re going to hear a story about two children. Why? Because two children in danger is scarier than one, obviously. Except I disagree that this is the case. What truly terrified me in The Turn of the Screw wasn’t that there were two children being threatened by a monster, but that the monster who threatened them was eerily familiar. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so I won’t specify here, but if you don’t mind spoilers (or learning one person’s interpretation of a highly interpretive story) and you have the stomach to learn about an utterly sickening phenomenon, try reading these real life news stories before you pick up The Turn of the Screw. And then realize that they are not isolated incidents at all. The Turn of the Screw made my skin crawl because I was already familiar with the story.

the othersAnother ghost story involving two children that did not feel forced to me was the film The Others. If this is something you haven’t yet seen, see it. Seriously. I’m not going to give anything away with this film, but I am going to talk about why its use of children doesn’t bother me. Firstly, the film was inspired by The Turn of the Screw, so there’s that. But most importantly, the children behave like REAL, ACTUAL children. They argue, they pout, they bully, they talk back, they blaspheme in the most adorable way ever. They don’t feel like the typical, children-in-danger cliché we’ve all come to expect from these films. They feel, instead, like real people. And I like real people. I don’t want bad things to happen to real people. So aside from the damn-smart premise, the beautiful writing, and the clever storytelling, the film just works because its central characters are genuine. They’re kids I wouldn’t have minded baby-sitting as a teenager, although I might have asked for a higher rate because photo-sensitivity in a huge, window-filled mansion looks like a major pain in the ass.