83 – Dropsy

A woman named Kim Davis, a government clerk in Kentucky, is currently in the news for her legal troubles surrounding her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples following the United States Supreme Court’s decision that people can’t be denied marriage licenses just because they’re not heterosexual. This is, of course, about as divisive a topic as you can get: Davis cites her religion as the reason for her stance, which plenty–myself included–see as simple bigotry. Davis and her supporters see her as a hero–much to the band Survivor’s dismay, “Eye of the Tiger” was used at a rally for her–who is standing up for the rights of poor, battered Christians forced to uphold immoral laws. As everyone knows, gay folks are sinners and kind of gross.

It’s hard not to treat Davis as monstrous–there’s a reason that the most popular, memetic photo of her that’s going around is of her looking particularly unattractive, looking like she’s screaming–the fat ugly bitch jokes write themselves. I’ve made a few myself. To a very real degree, she represents a strain of thought which is monstrous. If the Christian Right thinks that gay marriage will lead to dog-fucking, I can’t be blamed for thinking that her attitude leads to beating people up, tying them to fences, and leaving them to die.

In the middle of all of this, the game Dropsy the Clown was released.

The kneejerk reaction to Dropsy, as exemplified by Kotaku, is that it’s a “messed up game” about a “disturbing clown”; as of the time of this writing, the single news story in my Steam library page is a PC Gamer article with a similar sentiment. At some point, coulrophobia became trendy–and so you’ve got plenty of grown adults talking about how scary they find clowns and how scary Dropsy himself is.

A very, very slight bit of research–a simple visit to the game’s front page, frankly–is that such is the point of the game. The setup is that Dropsy’s circus burned down some years ago, that he’s been blamed for it, and that he’s looking for redemption. One of the main gimmicks in the game is a hug button, and many of the puzzles involve solving characters’ problems so that they feel comfortable enough to return the hug.

And so the main theme of Dropsy becomes fairly obvious: Dropsy may be gross, but he’s got a heart of gold underneath the distastefulness, and the game becomes about showing people love and kindness in order to earn their love.

Adam Cadre talks about what he calls the “redemption of the ludicrous“–taking a silly pulp story and treating it seriously. Citing the examples of Watchmen and the film Ed Wood, redemption of the ludicrous essentially gives dignity to characters that most people took to be jokes. Dropsy takes a similar theme, one after my own heart–it’s essentially the plot of Zest and my upcoming IFComp game–which I call “redemption of the gross”.

See, when I started following the indie scene, particularly the Twine branch of it, a few years ago, I found it inextricably latched with Jon Ronson’s shaming and callout culture. A major element of queer gaming culture that I’ve always found horrifying is its willingness to ostracize–to cite oppression as a reason to utterly dismiss people that might not necessarily be oppressive. White, heterosexual, cisgender men are synonymous with power, power is synonymous with oppression, and as long as one is queer–queer games defined facilely as “like, a game where it’s not a straight, white male doing things“, a definition which simultaneously refuses to understand both the history of queerness and the history of games–then one can never be an oppressor. What I’ve always understood queer to truly be is that it’s an attempt to break down hierarchies rather than simply flipping them. What I found in the queer Twine scene was that practice of simple flipping–rather than a blur, I see a simple “white cisgender men are bad and gross“. A refusal to explore other perspectives. A willingness to label anyone who disagreed as “gross” and shut them out of the conversation forever. A monolithic view of groups along with a brush painting them as moral or immoral.

For me, queer is a blurring of the boundaries between people, one which sees the very divisions between people as the methods in which power oppresses. Queer is very linked with that redemption of the ludicrous, redemption of the gross–it’s a method by which all people are allowed to attain dignity and understanding. I remember the big insight I had in college, which, like any insight made by a 20 year old is simplistic and not always applicable to the real world, but which I think has a little bit of merit still: Everyone’s kind of queer. “Heteronormativity”–which, sorry to say, does not simply mean “white, heterosexual, cisgender male”–is an illusion, a goal which doesn’t exist. It is an ideal that nobody quite matches with 100%. Everybody–Kim Davis included–has some sexual practice, some aspect of their gender identity, some part of their being–which deviates from the invisible ideal.

I find that, for all its obsession with empathy and understanding, the queer indie gaming scene doesn’t often have any–and given its focus on hierarchies, on its two-legs-bad-four-legs-good denigration of anyone not like it, anyone not willing to step in line with its orthodoxies, it’s not surprising that queer gaming wants to talk without listening. Believes that no one can truly understand each other.

I don’t have a high opinion of activism. A few years ago, I found myself randomly living in an Occupy house a couple years after Occupy itself ceased to be relevant and powerful and had devolved into a bunch of confused kids who were passionate and committed but not particularly organized or focused. My roommate was Cecily McMillan–a formidably smart woman who exemplified the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom stats–someone whose drive and ambition ran hot, chaotic, and ineffective instead of cold, rational, and efficient.

I remember one conversation at a party at the house–she was having an argument about feminist issues with an older guy, an African-American man who I think might have been a professor of hers. I judged him to have been a little too young to have been directly active in the civil rights movement of the 60s, but not by much–he was probably in his mid-20s at some point during the 1970s and had, based on his conversations, had direct family members involved. “You can’t understand what it’s like to be a woman,” Cecily was saying.

“Maybe not directly,” he said, “but I’ve got a mother. I have sisters. I have aunts. I’ve heard their stories. I have an idea.”

“You can’t understand,” Cecily repeated. “I can’t understand what it’s like to be black in this country!”

He laughed at this. “You can. You can listen to my stories, you can compare that to your own life.”

“No,” Cecily said. “I can’t.” He gave up soon after.

Divisions between people. Boundaries. A failure of empathy. A sense that one’s personal feelings trump everything else.

It is fairly obvious, when playing Dropsy for even a few minutes, that Dropsy is cuddly and lovable, just misunderstood. Most people are picking up on that, and I’m glad of that. I’m glad that we have an indie game which is based on the redemption of the gross rather than the rejection of it; in this light, Dropsy is one of the queerest queer games to be released in a very long time. But what’s striking me about the game is that it’s not simply about Dropsy letting the world know that he’s okay–it’s about Dropsy finding the okayness in everyone else, in understanding their lives and their needs, in helping them into a state of dignity.

Dropsy, see, has no compunctions about who he interacts with–he wants to hug everybody. He wants to love and be loved by everyone he meets on the journey. No one is too gross or distasteful for him. There are people that it’s certainly easier to love in the game–the little girl mourning a dead flower, the two bored young women sitting on the steps, the cool bouncer in front of the club. But the game is about loving the freaks and the losers. One of the most touching moments in the game is a troglodytic, hungry, homeless old woman in an alleyway; her puzzle involves giving her a sandwich. Returning later, you find her asleep and content, a smiling caricature of Dropsy now graffiti’d on the wall, one of the most touching moments in the game so far. Going into the church, seats empty except for two guys who seem more interested in the free food and who are explicitly annoyed by the preaching, you find a woman ranting about the sins of the world, a fire and brimstone preacher that Kim Davis would probably love to listen to. Go to the playground at night and you see her smoking a cigarette, depressed, and worried about the lack of attendance. She may play the role of a ranting preacher by day, but at night she’s as alone and sad as anyone in the game.

See, a lot has been written about how kind of sociopathic adventure game characters are. Looking at the whole of the genre, a lot of puzzles are about tricking characters. About seeing NPCs as obstacles. As an adventure game player, I’ve poisoned guards doing their jobs, swindled money and goods from countless stores, killed animals that were simply protecting their homes. Any other game would see the preacher lady as an obstacle, as a bad person that it’s okay to trick. Dropsy sees her as a human being that’s no less deserving of love and happiness.

The other day I noticed Dropsy designer Jay Tholen tweeting about some Christian movie and about his disappointment with that genre itself–in a nutshell, he finds a lot of Christian media to be exploitative, to take the trappings of the faith but not the message. To be about Christian superiority. To be about shutting out anyone who doesn’t talk the talk. Dropsy is a subtly Christian game–there are crosses scattered here and there, not just in the church but as devotional knickknacks. There’s one in Dropsy’s tent owned by his fellow clown. After solving the puzzle of the dead flower, the little girl joyfully emotes a cross–dialogue in the game is rendered entirely in pictograms–suggesting that she believes she’s been the recipient of a tiny miracle. (Frankly, she has.) If Dropsy isn’t quite a standin for Jesus, he’s a suggestion of the hard path of Christianity. It’s not the vengeful God of Kim Davis who judges who is worthy, who is gross, but the compassionate God that recognizes that faith that can move mountains is utterly useless if I have not love. In addition to being extremely queer, Dropsy is also profoundly, deeply spiritual. It’s not preachy–it’s not Alum, which is an awesome game in its own right–and it’s not theological. But it is concerned with the here and now, in using faith as a path to love and a path to seeing the dignity in everyone.

It’s hard to love Kim Davis when she finds it so hard to love people like me,  just like it’s hard to love Dropsy and many of the people in his world. But it’s important to try at least. Before playing the game, the mentions of the dedicated “hug button” in previews made it seem to me like a meaningless thing that you could do to any character in the game no matter what–that it was just a little bit of flavor. But most of the people refuse to hug you unless you’ve solved their puzzle–unless you’ve managed to understand them and make that moment of connection. Loving and being loved is hard, Dropsy says. But god damn is it worth it.

25 – I Miss “Interactive Movies”

For a dude who’s been playing videogames since he was a toddler, and who’s been writing about them since he was, oh, 19 or so, I have only the vaguest idea of what NeoGAF is, exactly. It’s some sort of forum, as far as I can tell, related to videogames. I have my share of friends who hang out there and post there; all of them have told me, “Yeah, it’s kinda really hardcore in there,” and since the only game-related groups I’ve ever spent much time are 1) the forums related to AllRPG.com, where I was a staffer when I was in college and 2) the Electron Dance comments threads, where you can see me posting longwinded rants in an effort to make Joel Goodwin slowly go insane (it’s working), it hasn’t bothered me that I haven’t been posting there.

I saw this particular post on Twitter, and I find its premise extremely flawed. Essentially, “videotape” is complains that “modern games try so hard to funnel a player down the single ‘win’ condition rather than providing multiple options for success”. Of the games he lists, I’ve only played Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider; while I can speak more accurately for Infinite since I only made it a few hours into Tomb Raider before returning it, insulted, we all know the exact style of game he’s talking about. You go through a corridor, you shoot dudes, you see a cutscene, you click on a Thing to solve a “puzzle”–videogames as mindless autotuned pop.

‘tape mentions games like the original Deus Ex, games which “encouraged finding one of multiple solutions to solve the problem”; another member posts a flowchart of a single level in the game, one which shows an intricate web of possible routes through the level and which admits that it’s not even taking into account lethal vs nonlethal kills, turret hacks, and a lot of other options. Or, to put it more comparatively, this image which has been floating around on the internet for a while:


It is hard to deny that Bioshock Infinite was neither fun nor challenging because that was my extremely correct opinion on the game–and yet, to say this is a modern trend vs. old-school games which were free and open–that’s fallacious as shit, or one which at least ignores a lot of issues surrounding Gaming Today. Tomb Raider is a Rihanna song–it’s Extruded Videogame Product. It’s not intended to be interesting–it’s intended to be Pretty and Exciting. Just like, you know, Uncharted, which won many GOTYs and whose level design was decidedly NOT 1993. To suggest that Deus Ex was played by the same types of people who played Tomb Raider is to have some very silly ideas. To say that modern games are one-note is to ignore games like Dark Souls or all of those weird light Roguelikes that I’ve been playing a lot of lately (Rogue Legacy, Cargo Commander, Diehard Dungeon). Look, I know exactly why all of my friends have been suggesting I leave the console world behind for the PC world, and I love that I have. But those kinds of games are still out there.

But let’s take this from a different angle–in a comment that’s more or less ignored, “Syril” says the following: “You think that’s bad, try playing some old adventure games.”

There’s a recognized term for “funneling the player so that he/she picks the only right solution which is the only way to proceed in the game”: Guess the Verb. The term goes back to the 1980s, to the days of interactive fiction and graphical adventure games with parsers. In a parser-based game, you’re typing in your commands in. Nouns are usually a lot easier, particularly in a text adventure: Nouns are anything you can see, anything you can interact with, and as such are concretely listed in the room description (“You can see a Rope here.”) [In early graphical games, due to low resolutions and colors, guessing nouns is more common: Who knows *what* that blob of pixels was? Roberta Williams was many, many things; a great visual artist was not one of them.] Verbs are what you do to them–the possible actions you can take in a game.

Due to their well-deserved prominence, Infocom’s parser is considered the standard for text adventure/interactive fiction games; Inform, one of the most common, easiest-to-use, and most flexible Interactive Fiction languages, is a direct descendant. A standardized syntax is important: Unless you’re making some kind of artistic point, you don’t want your players wasting their time figuring out the basics of communicating with your game. You want them wrestling with your puzzles. And so there’s a general list of “accepted” verbs in IF games; type “about” upon starting nearly any one and you’ll get them listed out, or you can let Andrew Plotkin explain it. Note the note at the bottom: “Every game has slightly different commands, but they all look pretty much like these.” (bold original).

These are standard commands; there are many, many games which expand this list. Many times it’s logical: You’re in a car, you’re going to type DRIVE. Some games have special verbs as part of their general design–magic spells are common. Sometimes, a particular verb is the solution to a puzzle or riddle–here’s Jonas Kyratzes talking about this kind of puzzle in Adam Cadre’s Photopia.

It’s the last case where the term Guess the Verb is used pejoratively. I did not have a problem with the puzzle in Photopia when I first played the game because Cadre gradually sprinkles in clues, nudges, and ultimately outright suggestions about what to do. In another scene in the game, you’re tasked with giving someone CPR–with another character coaching you on exactly what to type. (And if you mess it up, that character will run in and do it for you.) But Photopia is one of the masterpieces of the form; far more common is for a lesser designer to hide a puzzle solution behind an obscure verb and ONLY that verb. You have a rope and a hook. TIE ROPE doesn’t work. USE ROPE doesn’t work. PUT ROPE ON HOOK doesn’t work. At that point you’ve exhausted your thoughts and gone to a walkthrough, if it’s available; what you were supposed to type was ATTACH ROPE. A good designer would code the game so it would accept all of those and more; and yet, designers aren’t psychic and they’re not all good. Guess the Verb is a problem–it is usually a source of unpleasant frustration for players.

The 80s came and went and everyone began to have a mouse attached to their computer. Games at the beginning of this period–King’s Quest IV is a perfect example–often used the mouse as a supplementary tool, but by the time KQ5 rolled around, point-and-click adventures featured a set of verbs–either icons, as in Sierra’s games, or words, as in many of Lucasarts’–that you would select one from and then choose an area of the world to perform that action on. The effect was to eliminate or downplay Guess the Verb. Now, players certainly had their share of ways to get stuck. In many cases, there was only one specific item or action which needed to be used or performed on one specific object; the larger the gameworld, the more likely the player will miss what to do. The efforts to alleviate player frustration were certainly successful…but not completely. Further refinements to the formula included the “do anything” cursor. I first saw this in King’s Quest 7, and I remember how furious my friend and I were at it because of the implied simplicity: In effect, this makes the game pick the default action *for* you.

Now, in practice, the “do anything” cursor has turned out to be one of the greatest innovations to the adventure game formula. Once developers got used to designing games for the innovation, we as a society found out that most of the alternate cursors were completely irrelevant. Space Quest IV features “smell” and “taste” icons, which do little more than provide jokes or flavor text–fine and funny, but also unnecessary clutter. In its current form, the standard is something like a left click to control movement and actions and a right click to examine objects.

Well, verbs and puzzles have an intimate relationship, and advances in one affect advances in the other. But adventure games have always been about story as much as they have been about puzzles. As the genre went on, developers began to want to create games which at least attempted to have deeper stories–and, in a logical conclusion, which downplayed the puzzles.

It’s the very early 90s; we’re still a sprite-based society. Computers and consoles can’t really handle polygons, or if they can it’s extremely simple and basic. But CD-ROM drives are beginning to be a Thing. Computers could handle full motion video adequately if not well, and the storage space that CDs allowed meant that grainy, oft-interlaced footage of actual actors was simply what PC games looked like. Thus, the Interactive Movie was born. But, as I’ve said, not all designers are good, and for every Gabriel Knight II we got five Double Switches. Budgets weren’t huge–and again, the tech was only adequate. The term is used almost exclusively pejoratively today–usually to imply that the game is low on interactivity and that the movie portion is poorly acted and poorly written.

I would submit that if we were to reclaim the term, the scene might make a little more sense.

“Videogame” is not a signifier of quality, much as the Twine crowd would have you believe.  It is a categorization, and I would submit that many of the games mentioned in the NeoGAF post might not *actually* be videogames. Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider are much more interested in presenting their stories and their worlds than they are with giving the players interesting things to do. All of the “Press X to comfort Elizabeth” moments in Infinite are less player actions than they are cutscene triggers. The game portions are ways of pacing the storyline and opportunities to flesh out the physical world of Columbia. Bioshock Infinite is perhaps the worst videogame I have played all year.

But…if we consider it as an interactive movie? If we consider it as a storyline that we get to wander around in and participate in?

Considered as a world to explore, a set of challenges, a bunch of opportunities for action and decision–considered as a videogame–Bioshock Infinite is a horrible, arrogant mess. We are grabbed by the head as Levine shouts his brilliant plot points to us. When I play a videogame, I want that videogame to shut the fuck up and let me play. Considered as an interactive movie–a story with limited, delineated player agency–it might actually be a much stronger work.

I’m in danger of Formalism here, but I don’t think it’s wrong to categorize the entertainment that we consume if it helps us understand that entertainment better. The trick is to figure out what the most common verbs that the game gives you. In the case of Bioshock Infinite, the most common verbs in the game were “shoot” and “sit back, light a joint, and watch Elizabeth talk and do things.” For a videogame, Bioshock infinite has a lot of time where you don’t actually get to *play*.

I miss the term “Interactive Movie”. I’ve been gearing up to reclaim it for a while, and I think it’s time. We’ve got polygons and we can make these things look *actually* good. Let’s just admit that that’s what we’re making, that what we think of as “videogames” is maybe not this all-encompassing entity that we desperately want it to be, but that we’re dealing with a lot of disparate media that just happen to share the same DNA.