From the description of Agent Escape:
This is a serious game that explores the motivations of a paranoid and depressive schizophrenic. Auditory and visual hallucinations are common in these patients … Lack of motivation and drug abuse are very common in schizophrenic patients … I hope that through playing this game the player gains a better understanding of the motivations and mental state of paranoid delusional schizophrenics, and will exhibit empathy and understanding.
I really don’t like this game. There are a lot of problems considering its short runtime. An intrinsic motivator to create conflict is that the player-character has complete amnesia after going through electroconvulsive therapy. Chances of this actually happening are astronomically low. It has happened, but this outcome happening, and somehow also the hospital staff are not aware that it has happened, is flatout impossible. It only happens to create tension, to preserve a false start framing.
Agent Escape wants to suggest that maybe you are actually an agent, in a misguided way to generate empathy for delusional episodes, I guess. This more importantly allows a brief stealth puzzle to occur, since the “agent” needs to escape, and so that’s what is to be done. Actually empathizing with mental illness takes a lesser role to what is horrid gameplay, because of course it does. This doesn’t feel like empathy, it feels like an excuse to have a unique setting for a standard kind of game. An aestheticization of mental illness that feels like dehumanization (this happens a lot in horror games, for the record).
There’s a patient that stands outside the protagonist’s room who speaks in broken english, with very few lines, which leads me to assume this characterization is rooted in stereotypes. I don’t know why she’s there or talks like that; her inclusion is to instill an off balance feeling by using the unknown. This careless portrayal is the opposite of empathy. I should be given an understanding of what motivates her to think and feel this way. Her illness shouldn’t be used as a prop. I guess “instilling empathy” starts and ends with the player-character.
I took screenshots of the game’s descriptions and what parts they actually pertain to. If that’s an unclean room, well, I can only joke about my own room… Slovenliness and drug abuse being (apparently) characterization for mental illness feeds into stereotypes, especially since they’re used as identifying traits. They are literally tells for the game’s ending choice, where the “good end” is going back to the hospital, and the “bad end” is not, because the character dies of a drug overdose (can’t overdose on weed, doesn’t seem like he has any money either). I’m a broken record at this point, but relying on a negative stereotype for a hint so the player can win is the opposite of an empathetic portrayal. Might as well just have a criminal record also lazily strewn about his room. How about that for environmental storytelling!
Nevermind that… it’s just weed. It is a lot (there’s more in his electronic safe), I’d have to assume he’s a dealer, but it’s just weed and a bong. For that to mean “drug abuse” signals someone who’s cruelly naive. I can’t make flat assumptions, but I grew up around people who believe just one time with pot will ruin your life, and that those who do smoke should be utterly shunned. I’m assuming the developer comes from a privileged compsci background, because it isn’t an incredible or telling thing that somebody smokes weed.
This game is, obviously, misguided, idiotically cruel, and painfully naive. It needs to be said though that one should pick their targets. I did not write this to generate outrage at an unknown game nobody has or would have played. Critique of microaggressions and systematic oppression is very important, but it’s a bit of a waste of time if the critique itself brings on more attention than the media object ever could. I just couldn’t in good conscious write about what appealed to me without tearing into its horrid core.
Art brut is an accurate label for this game. It’s confusing, broken, and physically sickening – I experienced my first bout of game-related motion sickness because of the game’s uncanny weighted movement. Washed out assets make up the spaces, striving for a feeling of simulation but incapable of realism. This manifests a distracting awareness of how artificial and incorrect it feels to move and exist. The flat and dark colors exude even a stillness, or a sadness. Low budget assets have this particular feel to them, but their peculiarity is never purposefully leveraged. They’re used out of necessity.
Right click brings up a context menu to interact with people and things. It’s very underdeveloped. In line with being an apparent simulation, the player-avatar can open and close certain things, and can sit down on any chair around the hospital, though these activities are unnecessary for progression. While it’s possible to initiate sitting on every chair, certain ones are obstructed, so the character will get stuck autopathing. This movement is tied to the game’s onetouch controls, so if you disable those, movement is restored, but the avatar is still pathing. So, for some reason, collision breaks.
I could go into rooms that were locked and leave the hospital. Things that were impossible within the game’s scenario. Managing to get into the elevator, I found things simpler: the walls had no collision detection. It was extremely cathartic to break away from a thing I hated, to do what it explicitly did not want me to do. To walk around whole city meant to just be a prop. In an exaggeration, it felt symbolic of breaking away of horrible attitudes, replacing them with introspection.
Games tend to fear that as we move away from their maintained structures and rules, they’ll lose a certain degree of fecundity for like facilitating the things we asked for back when the silent contract were formed? But really the opposite is true. The more I’m able to push towards the ephemeral realms of a game, the more my relationship with a text is highlighted rather than threatened. It’s sort of stressed. But games don’t necessarily get this because videogames are very existentially conflicted artifacts. They struggle with the notion that they’re presenting “real” spaces, when what they’re truthfully offering are simulacra that we agree have a certain degree of validity. The more we move away from the structured elements of a game and assert our own value of the space, the more a game fears a total collapse of any truth it might’ve held.
Heather Alexandra – Final Fantasy XV Minicrit
I could interpret these shots, but I’d rather they stand for themselves. What’s interesting to me is that, though these areas are inaccessible without breaking the game, they’re more expressive than what’s supposed to be seen. Everything that’s decided to be too ugly or broken for the player to see is more beautiful than it’s actual core. Through them, I imagine a game that purposefully leans on its surrealistic depiction of a quaint city, of depicting a complex alienation from health institutions. If game developers knew there’s other ways of composition and game design than bland simulation, I think there’d be more games interrogating and dismantling oppressive stereotypes, instead of “rational” ones that reaffirm them.