I play a lot of freeware games. I start to pick up on trends. Many of them come about out of convenience. A lot of free games are products of a jam and so a straightforward production pipeline is essential. I guess game jams work as an excuse to make a game not “good” enough to meet expectations of a typical game release, so they proliferate as the largest modern genre of freeware. Which is whatever, a lot of game design demands a short length, but the videogame economy does not. Game jams are unfortunately effective.
There’s a narrative trend that I don’t know how to describe in a snappy way. I do know once I start describing it, like, most people who’ve been around these scenes will know what I’m talking about. It’s just unacknowledged with any kind of specific name. Crucially, I’m talking about games that try harder than is needed to mean something. Videogames that hit you over the head with their intention, in a way that I don’t think is motivated by being blunt or obvious. Game design in the vein of Passage, where it’s more important to make a statement about the present value of videogames. Prioritizing commentary on expectation-value than much more affecting expression. I guess videogames inevitably asserted they’re not toys in a way as annoying as possible, because the inverse discourse really is and was that annoying. Ennui has to be sincere before it can be excised.
And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but an elegance to Passage is that it’s just barely open to interpretation. Though it’s painfully, exaggeratedly obvious and maudlin, there’s design choices that lend to someone potentially playing through it and not picking up on anything. Videogame literacy is bad and it used to be much worse. I’m not saying that someone who doesn’t pick up on Passage’s themes is unintelligent (I mean), just that at the time an average player wouldn’t try to glean a deeper, metaphoric, or symbolic meaning from a videogame unless it was begging for it.
People also cried and stuff. Though Passage is a really short game, and you could play it maybe faster than it’d take to read all of this, I still gotta establish what I mean by a game that means something. Passage is a metaphorical game for a (straight, cis, white, male) person’s life. There’s loaded assumptions about the purpose of deviating from a preset path, marriage and a woman’s role in it, and what it’s necessarily like to age and die. What’s distinctive is that Passage was designed to purposefully explore and interrogate these concepts, instead of incidentally coming into contact with them.
This style of game is familiar by their eventual, now sardonic nickname, Empathy Games, which is a game specifically about some kind of real life ennui or angst. Notable ones explore oppression with a measured, essay-like, confessional tone, like Cart Life or Dys4ia. They resonate in their mood and aesthetic even before their message; they don’t feel condescending or manipulative. I’m not going to be talking about notable ones.
There are many more that exist and they resound like Passage. It seems to be an assumed impulse that high culture in game design is to represent or even simulate a real life experience in order to demonstrate, or even get someone to understand, whatever it is like to have that experience. I don’t know for what other purpose a game like this is made. Models can be convincing and powerful, as much as they will always remain models.
The other half of this, because I am denoting a specific intersection of game design, is when a Passage-like ignores the demonstrative quality that you’d think would be inherent to the style, and add an explicit narrative. A very explicit narrative. It’s best demonstrated by Pretentious Game, which I think was parodying Braid? It lives on as an extremely relevant, decisive parody, at demonstrating the shortcomings of games that unwittingly are structured exactly like it. I don’t know, maybe they’re even inspired by it. Apparently, there are sequels, which blur the line of parody and self-parody, becoming probably an insufferable metajoke, which I don’t care to explore.
Pretentious Game displays text “I will go wherever you are,” and then the player moves the blue square to the pink square. “I will climb any mountain,” and then the player jumps some steps; “use whatever is necessary,” and completes a simple puzzle. It is obnoxiously condescending. That is the joke though. I have a hard time taking it as parody because I’ve played games exactly like it, without pretense of parody or of being a joke.
In these games, some narrative reads off about there being changes, and then you change the level. There’s text about something being mundane and easy, then the next challenge is… mundane and easy. I sacrificed myself for you, it says, and then in game the avatar gives something to a different character. My issue is that these actions occurring in game communicate entirely the same thing! The narrative is redundant and superfluous. It makes me think that people see play as not being capable of diegetic impact without literally spelling it out, which then, why even try to foster play?
I was going to write about examples of games that unironically make empathy games in the style of Pretentious Game and take easy shots at them, but that seemed not really nice in the end. I’m not trying to call out any devs or games in particular, this isn’t a hitpiece. They do exist and they’re kind of terrible. My advice for devs that are nervous about writing? You don’t have to! While it’s good to build up skills if you want to, dialogue writing is not a strictly necessary part of a game.
I think this can basically be a game-writing principle (you know it might already be one, it’s not like I know anything). If exposition is redundant, if it restates what’s expressed already by game elements, then it doesn’t need to be stated. In a graphical game, especially non-interactive fiction, there should be a confidence in what’s being expressed on screen. Reiterating what the player should understand from what is already expressed on screen undercuts both.