Electron Dance

Less Cause, More Effect

Figure, in bed, says "Kill Me"

Brian Moriarty, in an interview with Electron Dance last year, talked about how he was disenchanted with videogames as a medium. In the comments, I came clean about where I agreed with Moriarty:

Where I would find common ground is this: In 30 years, I can’t remember a single video game that has ever changed the way I think about something. Certainly I have had profound experiences, but these are games in the “emotional simulator” format, not of “and the next day, I saw things differently”.

Ever since I wrote that comment, I've been looking for examples where games have changed my world view or taught me something. Let's be clear: today, I don't give a shit about games that move me to tears. This is about having impacts beyond the confines of the videogame, a game that leaks.

Today, I'm going to share three personal examples that have done just that.

Cart Life

Yes, I'm sorry. Once again Cart Life rears its evil, ugly head. I'm sure you must be getting a little tired of me banging on about it by now so I'll cut to the chase.

Cart Life is about the lives of people who struggle at the bottom of the ladder. It concentrates on those who exist on the other side of a shop counter and face you every time you buy a doughnut, a hot dog or a coffee. Modern capitalism tries to humanise itself by cladding itself in people, selling faces and not service. But this tends to work in reverse: it dehumanises those that face the customer, poisoning them with the blandness of corporate brand.

Andrus Poder at Motel

Cart Life fights to re-humanise them and, for those who totally get the game and survive the odd bug here and there, succeeds.

Afterwards, I found myself studying people in shops and cafés. What exactly did they have to do to get me a coffee or process my order? How much of their conversation – with colleagues as well as customers – was necessitated by the job? How did all this intersect with their non-work life?

This was the kind of thing the author, Richard Hofmeier, had been doing as research for the game.

In other words, Cart Life turned me into a crazy person.

The Cat and the Coup

“The use of surrealist symbolism to compress historical events can be an effective mnemonic, as when protesters literally push in the walls around Dr. Mossadegh, making you feel his confinement. But more often, it obliterates clarity.”

Brian Howe's Review of The Cat and the Coup (Kill Screen)

Last year, I posted about a game called The Cat and the Coup which explored the rise and fall of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the Prime Minister of Iran in the early 1950s. What makes his story interesting is that the West, through the United States CIA and Britain's MI6, orchestrated a coup d'etat to end his rule. It is a grotesque example of the West's selfish yet self-defeating pursuit of interventionist policies that still persists today.

The developers, Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad, perhaps made a mistake in calling The Cat and the Coup a “documentary” videogame. I'm not even sure such a thing is possible. But this single misstep encouraged Kill Screen to tear it to pieces and a reader might draw the impression that this IndieCade finalist was without value.

Howe is correct in that The Cat and the Coup is both accessible and impenetrable at the same time; you come away with the sense that something important has happened here, but it doesn't do a bang-up job of explaining what that was. The text-saturated endgame remedies this but we find ourselves again questioning whether the videogame experience can really supplant other media in terms of educating an audience.

But I was so intrigued that I went off to Wikipedia and spent an hour or two digging up the details of Mossadegh's life and seeing the consequences of the West's meddling reverberate across the years to the present day. It was surprising to learn that Mossadegh was TIME's Man of the Year in 1951 shortly before things went south. And the coup likely contributed to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Iran's continued allegations that everything bad that happens is orchestrated by the American CIA unfortunately has historical precedent.

Whether the game “fails or succeeds” is irrelevant because, as the result of playing The Cat and the Coup, I learnt something about the world today, something I had been previously ignorant of.

Johnny Got His Gun Quest

Played a really disturbing flash game on Newground earlier. I didn't like it, exactly, but I think I might post it.

Terry Cavanagh, Twitter, 23 March 2012

You know, if I read a tweet like that, I have absolutely no option other than to follow the damn link. So I went from Free Indie Games to Newgrounds, happy to play Folmer Kelly's Johnny Got His Gun Quest.

It's a strange, truncated game – one might even suggest its capability for agency has been amputated – but precisely the sort of crazy thing that spawns out of the billion game jams that seem to be happening every single day in a town near you. I didn't like it much either, possessing nothing but shock value. Devoid of meaningful context, it's a failure.

Masked doctors look down

But the description for the game mentions: “It's basically a loose interpretation of the book presented as a classic point'n'click.”

A book? Here we go again. What have I missed now?

So I discovered Johnny Got His Gun is a powerful anti-war novel by Dalton Trumbo about a hideously mutilated World War I solider who has lost his ability to interact with the world – his arms, his legs and even his face are destroyed. It's also a film, a stage play and the inspiration for Metallica's song One.

If I get the chance I'll probably look the book up. Failing that, the film.

To Be Continued

I'll be sure to let you know if I play any other games that "leak". But it's your turn now: drop a note in the comments if you've played anything that has changed your real life outlook or told you about something compelling or important that you didn't know about before.

Update 03 Apr: Please check out the great discussion in the 50+ comments below! Readers have shared some fascinating experiences and opinions.

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Posted by Joel Goodwin

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (68) Trackbacks (2)
  1. @Matt W: I never played Digital! By the time I was getting around to it, the internet had already spoiled the twist for me. I couldn’t convince myself to give it a proper go. I know I should but… I have also not played Metal Gear Solid.

    @Phlebas: You may not have blackjacked anyone but it’s still creepy. =)

    @Nicolau: As I’ve worked through these comments I’m warming ever more to gnome’s almost scoffing response that it’s much more likely we are changed by games in totality and concentrating on “revolutionary changes” inspired by individual games is perhaps underselling the medium. Interesting that you’re pretty much of the same mind.

    However, I still feel that if a videogame made me interested in some “real world thing” then it’s still a win. It’s not easy to get people interested in things like a coup d’etat in Iran in 1952.

    But I would love to hear what Final Fantasy VI did for you: I’d be willing to give you wordspace for that story!

    @James Patton: I think you’ve taken the comment ball and knocked it out of the park! I’m no art historian but I’m cautious when mapping the development of other media onto videogames. We seem to be in an age of such rapid technological change that I can’t tell if we’re speeding through the evolution of the medium or just taking the normal course. Plus, videogames are innately more complicated than all of the other linear media we deal with; there are many paths from the beginning of a videogame’s journey and it’s ending – plus those endpoints are often not even fixed. Does that slam the brakes on our evolution because making disruptive videogames is a “hard problem” to solve (like Brian Moriarty suggested)?

    Half of the internet is happy to compare videogames to other artistic mediums; the other half says no, that videogames are so different we shouldn’t even be making these faux comparisons. An article at the end

    This is my roundabout way of saying I don’t actually have an opinion.

    I will say that something is happening right now. There’s so much activity in the field due to the barrier of entry (free, easy tools like Stencyl) falling stone dead to the floor. Who knows where this could take us?

  2. Page 2 of the comments! ARGH RUNAWAY

    I played FFVI a few years ago for the first time on my DS (the GBA version) and I found it a slog to be honest and overall quite predictable, although I will say it’s a lot darker in places than I expected it to be. I get the impression that had I played it when it came out and I was young, I’d hold it aloft like many people do. As such I’m a bit apprehensive about playing the likes of Chrono Trigger as well, another ‘classic’ RPG. Planescape: Torment I played a year or so prior to FFVI and it constantly surprised me, shook me, made me laugh — FFVI paled in comparison. Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, I don’t know.

    However, back in the day FFVII ‘changed’ me. I mean, hell, I did a perhaps ill-advised and slightly cringe-worthy project on it at college as a result (I’m glad damp and mould claimed that project in my parent’s old garage). It was the first game to wrap me up in this sweeping epic adventure (3 CDs!). Games had taken me places before but not on such a massive scale and, just like FFVI, VII had a superb soundtrack which only hammered the scale home — I still go all dewy eyed and wistful when I listen to FFVII’s soundtrack. It was back in a time when cutscenes were rewards as well and Square (still) do very nice cutscenes. At the time, it highlighted just how grand games were capable of being and how much they could potentially be, but looking back, I think it was more my youthful naivety coupled with the scale and romanticism of it all that knocked me for six. I dare not ever return to it.

    Ahhh youth, where did you go? Everything burned so bright back then.

  3. HM – well you’re right, videogames are unlike anything we’ve seen before so there’s no way to tell how their evolution will compare with other forms! But I was thinking that, if other forms had periods which we today don’t think of as particularly mind-blowing, maybe videogames will also have periods which we don’t think of as mind-blowing either. But I completely agree that what with the speed of technology, the all-time-low barrier of entry etc. we can’t just compare games to other media and expect a perfect fit.

    Ultimately I, like you, don’t really have a fixed opinion on this. I *hope* that I will one day play a game that makes me rethink life in the same way that a novel like “Infinite Jest” makes me reconsider the way people deal with reality. But, since I can’t remember playing such a game, it must be rather hard to make such games. “Heavy Rain” was a promising prospect, for example, but the plot was just too Hollywood; it was clearly derivative of cop shows and movies like Saw that by the climax there was a dissonance between the different bits that had been jammed together – climactic fight scene on an absurd conveyor-belt system vs. touching emotional scene between father and son. But I still hold out hope. Surely all we need for games that make us really, really think, is somebody who is able to make very good games but who also has very interesting thoughts and, maybe, a decent knowledge of culture and life generally. Sure, that sort of person’s got to be rare, but I’m certain somebody like that must exist *somewhere*.

    Oh! “The Baron.” It’s a truly brilliant game and one of the most intriguing and expressive things I’ve played since… well, I can’t remember playing anything more genuinely mournful, understanding and emotive. And it’s a frigging *text adventure!* Actually, maybe that’s part of the reason why it’s so good. If your entire production cycle revolves around writing some text, you don’t need to sink thousands of dollars and man-hours into the game: you can just *go*.

  4. I think the discussion of whether video games can have a strong impact in our lives should be separate from “is video game art?”. Because, you know… I took some time to think about other media that have had strong impact in my life, and they’re not clearly distinguishable… not many. Very very rarely does a movie, a song, an image or whatever-is-called-art changes who I am as a person. So there’s a little bias is saying “video games are not art because they don’t rock my world”.

    @Gregg B yeah, FFVI was great back in 1995, but I just refuse to play it again because I’m positively sure I wouldn’t like it as much… I probably wouldn’t even like it. But I’m very fond of my memories. Planescape: Torment is really great indeed… I considered it when making my list on the previous post, but it’s not really life-changing. I’ve been gravitating to indie games nowadays because they have a stronger likelihood of bringing something fresh. As far as epic-like RPGs go, I’d recommend Dhux’s Scar. Really mind-blowing.

    @HM I couldn’t dwell on the full extent of the impact FFVI had on me… too intimate!

  5. Hummm, effecting games;

    Cactus Norrland – pretty crude, but intresting – although no lasting effect.

    I found the Path was dripping in atmosphere, I had alot of time for the sense of been lost in the woods it gave me. But I imagen it would frustate alot of people.

    Amnesia, boy did that have impact, at first until I settled into the grove a bit. Cheap tatics sure but I found myself scared. Not sure it changed my world view.

    Oh an portal 2 made me delighted me in a way that I have not been for a long time – I have never delighted at a game before.

    On impact; hummm, I go to the theatre for that kind of thing.

  6. @Gregg: Not all of your childhood is intact (I am destroying mine by rewatching Transformers the cartoon series, “Noooooo….”) but some of it will be. I still got a kick out of playing some of those Atari games.

    @James: Depending on my mood, sometimes I’m inclined to think games are shockawesome fabulous and other times that the perfect game is an insoluble problem, that all games require significant blinkers and knowledge of mechnical tropes for them to immerse you. Depends on my mood.

    And I’ve still not played The Baron although I was very close once. I don’t quite remember what the twist was but I believe it was somewhere in the haunting/shocking section.

    @Nicolau: Yes, I was trying to avoid the whole games=art thing here, and concentrate on life-affecting experiences which led to a more concrete discussion, I hope.

    @awwells: Welcome back, Captain Wells! Reading between the lines, it sounds like you have no real examples of life-changers =)

  7. I feel for me games are possibly still to much in there infancy to be capable of such things, It took centuries for writers to get to novels. Games have a good head start as they have so much media to draw from, as its a combine art form. Cart life is interesting because it uses the mechanics to make its point (as I understand it….MAKE A MAC VERSION!), this is a massive leap forward – ‘dont take it personally’ is a book on a screen, not a game. Mass effect is a movie broken up by interactive sequences where you have to jump through hoops to get to the next bit of the movie.

    Well its that, or I am a sociopath.

  8. @HM: I know what you mean. Some games have had such an effect on me – emotionally, that is – that I’ve been amazed. But the niggling thought at the back of my mind is “Did this *need* to be a game to do that to me?” Okay, fair enough, that fact it *is* a game and can do this is significant. But I’m still not sure if we’ve really nailed what sets games apart from other forms, and pushed that to its full potential.

    And the twist in the Baron is in shocking/horrifying camp, that’s for certain… The developer even put a section in the “about/help” menu suggesting young children shouldn’t play it. It’s definitely a “serious” game – not, that is, a game that’s trying to be weighty and “meaningful”, but simply a game that’s not made for children and is not made as a power-fantasy.

    @adam: But when writing was invented we still got the Epic of Gilgamesh and the works of Homer. The idea that the novel is the pinnacle of all literature is understandable, since most people think “novel” and “book” are pretty much synonymous. But Beowulf, the works of Chaucer and the plays of Shakespeare were all written before the novel was formed. And when the novel *did* emerge, it was often an exploitative, sensational story about a criminal. The novel actually developed out of so-called “Newgate Lives”; these were pamphlets sold in the street about the lives of prisoners in Newgate prison who would soon be executed. (And I’m pretty sure you could then watch the hanging as part of the fun, as a kind of epilogue to the pamphlet.) There was very little high-minded about it when the first novel was written; they were often penned because there was a gap in the market, not because people thought they were artistic. Bear in mind that, at the same time, people were writing poetry and drama (which I find a bit dull but which was nevertheless taken seriously at the time) which was considered far, far more ennobling or intellectual or whatever than the novel was.

    Basically… when writing was invented we got epics like the Odyssey and the Iliad. When drama was first separated from religion we got Aeschylus, and within twenty years we had Sophocles. When theatre in England became static rather than performed by roving companies, we got Marlowe and Shakespeare within twenty years. With film we got Eisenstein (and others, I’m sure, but I don’t know enough about film). And now we have… Planescape? Well, it’s very good but not really life-changing. Plus it’s fourteen years old, so what have we done since then? Mass Effect? Again, it’s *promising*, but it’s also surprisingly forgettable. Maybe Cart Life does something we haven’t seen before; I’ve not played it beyond the “Yeah, I totally know what to do! Let’s go somewhere! Wait, that took me eight hours to walk, I’m hungry and it’s midnight” stage, so I can’t really comment. To be honest I do think “The Baron” is the game that’s really stuck with me more than any other, although that’s largely due to the way its structure allows for maximum reflection on what the game is about and what the game *is*. (I’ll say no more for the sake of spoilers, but I think Gijsbers did something really clever there.)

  9. @James: just going to hop in briefly to say that your argument is pretty spot on, but I think you should decouple writing from storytelling. The best evidence suggests that the Homerian epics were originally oral stories that evolved over generations, and I suspect the same is true to some extent of the Epic of Gilgamesh too. Storytelling preceded the written tale by a very, very long time, is what I’m saying.

    Aside: possibly some legs to the idea of multi-pathing and emergent narratives in gameplay demonstrating a flexible, variable yet coherent example of storytelling similar to the variance you get in oral storytelling (and not in later, more formalised modes).

  10. I don’t think it really affects the main point, but I’m going to quibble that your history of writing is very Indo-European there; the Tale of Genji and probably Journey to the West come well before the Newgate lives.

  11. At the danger of sounding extremely arrogant, I can also answer this question from the other side: as a game designer, I know that some of my games have affected people very deeply. The ones where I’ve gotten the strongest feedback of that kind (i.e. the game having a personal effect on people’s lives, not just having made them cry or something) are The Infinite Ocean, The Fabulous Screech and The Museum of Broken Memories.

    The first one has inspired a few people to become programmers, not because they want to make games but because of the ideas about programming depicted in the game (which aren’t even precisely mine, but those of a character).

    The second one has had a very strong effect on some people who have old pets, making them aware of how important it is to treasure the time they have left. It didn’t make anyone love their pets more, obviously, but from what I’ve been told it has caused a change in awareness for some people. That’s actually what I’m proudest of, I think.

    I’ve also heard from a few people who had very intense experiences with The Museum of Broken Memories. That’s the hardest for me to deal with, because it makes me feel like such a superficial and pretentious idiot, especially when the people in question either experienced war themselves or have children who did.

    I thought a lot about posting this, because I know it sounds dreadfully self-important. The reason I decided to post it after all is that all of the people mentioned here are people who don’t come to games looking for a deeper experience; they don’t play games with that almost academic self-awareness people reading blogs like this one tend to have. A lot of them are “casual gamers” and I think that by the very nature of the matter their experiences tend to get lost or overlooked. I’m not trying to make some kind of point by saying that, I just felt that these experiences do count for something.

  12. Looking back, the previous post does sound just as shitheaded as I was afraid it would. Is there no good way of speaking about positive experiences one has had in one’s own work without sounding like a self-important idiot?

  13. Jonas, that couldn’t have sounded less shitheaded. If you’ve heard that your creations have affected people deeply then there’s nothing wrong with telling us that!

  14. Yep. No brag, just fact.

    It’s not relevant to the subject of the post, but The Fabulous Screech did make me cry big huge tears, and I think is the only game to have done so.

  15. I’ve been a little busy so it’s taken me a while to dig into these comments. I’m on a plane right now, so I have no escape. Actually that’s not true, I have a document I’m working on in another window.

    @adam: I did read something this week which said that the problem with games is that technology is disrupting “the medium” far more rapidly than that of books or cinema, which had more time and space to breathe. You could get into a gratuitous comment battle with statements like X is not a game. =)

    @James: My God, man, you’re making this all so highbrow =) Interesting thoughts, I’ll just let Shaun and matt duke it out with you, because they are obviously better equipped with regards the history of literature. On Cart Life, I think it takes a particular frame of mind to work – it is easy to feel disengaged by its grind as almost happened to me, but if you manage to punch through that barrier, it just grabs you. As I’ve said previously, I don’t think it’s for everyone.

    @Jonas: I think that’s extremely important. One of the things I have difficulties with is that if games are so important and influential, then why is it only “critics” who manage to reading meanings from them? I am interested in games that produce change without having to make a “mental effort” to do so, that it just rubs off. For example, I think a better “Citizen Kane” to aspire to is the The Wire. It has such an impact that viewers cannot fail to be moved by some of its messages on the drug war and the failure of institutions, even if they don’t get the idea that the series is a portrait of a city and how all its institutions interact. That’s the kind of thing I’d like to see: something which upsets how people see the world without them having to do much careful analysis. It just does something to them.

    And no it didn’t sound shitheaded. While your games haven’t reached me with the kind of impacts you describe (and matt w admits), I hear that plenty of people have been touched. It counts. It all counts.

  16. The Wire struck me as an extremely game-y piece of writing.

    The whole thing was a series of choices and consequences, where each character’s decisions made sense within their personal context. It’d make a great design template.

    Mind you, thinking of things as games just seems to be my main way of looking at the world – I was at Tintern Abbey the other day mentally designing a political simulator where you were a medieval abbot, balancing the different interests of various power groups.

  17. NB I am inordinately fond of cats. I told my wife that just before bedtime I had been playing a game that made me cry and she said “Kitty?”

  18. I can has link? If not, it should be in my name.