Games, Life Writing

First Automedia Game Club Meet-up: Path Out and Dys4ia

For this summer, I have organized a local “game club” that focuses on autobiographical – or automedia, as I prefer – games: games that tells a life narrative or disclosure about the developer’s self and/or others. The organization of the club reflects my current interest in digital life writing and automedia games. The size of the group is about 7, although people will come and go as they please. We meet once a month, trying to play at least 2 games per month. Following each meeting, I will write a brief summary of our discussions here our blog. While the group is mostly composed of academics, the discussions won’t necessarily veer that way.

 Last week was our first meeting to discuss Path Out and Dys4ia. In the beginning of the meeting, we discussed the term automedia, as defined by Julie Rak, and how it is a useful term to characterize autobiographical texts that are composed of a range of media. The term is especially pertinent to Path Out, one member pointed out, because the game includes 16-bit graphics and live, Twitch stream-y video throughout the game play.

The highlights of our Path Out discussion was the game’s interruptions of live video and its critiques of Western games and game design. Path Out is described as a “autobiographical adventure game” and it tells a life narrative of a Syrian refugee, Abdullah Karam, and his escape from Syria. The game begins with you controlling a sprite navigating through a forest. Eventually, you are caught and are killed. At that moment, Karam appears in the upper left corner of the screen in a style that is reminiscent of Twitch streams (thanks to an acute observation from a group member) and says to you, the player, “if you did this in real life, you wouldn’t survive.” We really liked this reminder that despite the game allowing the player to retry certain areas, Karam never had that chance. It was a nice way to begin an automedia game, emphasizing that this game is trying to tell a life (in a similar but different manner than Dys4ia‘s opening disclaimer).

Throughout the rest of Path Out Karam interrupts the game to critique the design of the game. He comments that the city he grew up in doesn’t look like the one depicted in the game, that the game’s depictions are clearly very Western. There’s also a time where a camel is in the streets, and when the player goes up to the camel, Karam appears and says, “Guys, really?!”, comments how the game is caught up in Western ideology, and then the camel disappears when Karam requests it. We really found this subversion interesting, establishing since Karam is collaborating with a developer – Karam is only the writer of Path Out.

What transitioned our discussion from Path Out to Dys4ia is our realization that we experienced the game slightly differently. Turns out there are different paths out in Path Out. I had experienced a version where Karam comes onto the screen to say that what is currently happen didn’t happen to him but happen to others; another member didn’t get that section or any video of that kind. So, despite Path Out being a game about Karam’s experiences, it also seems to be aiming for telling the experiences of others (which is classic relationality in autobiography studies!).

In contrast, Dys4ia makes it clear that it is own the experiences of Anna Anthropy, the author of the game. Dys4ia is about Anthropy’s experiences with Hormone Replacement Therapy. Anathropy makes it very clear in the disclaimer at the beginning of the game that the experiences depicted in the game are “my experience” and “is not meant to be representative of every trans person.” We discussed how this, like the video used in Path Out, establishes the autobiographical pact, a term in autobiography studies that defines the moment when the reader “accepts” that the story being told is true (more or less). For us, we found it interesting that Anthropy makes it clear that the experiences expressed in the game are not representative of any other trans person, but Path Out seems to incorporate others’ experiences when telling Karam’s. There are definitely reasons behind these choices, but we didn’t get too much into detail – just discussing that making this choice is one to critically analyze.

Playing Dys4ia, we enjoyed the mechanics behind the game that were connected to communicating Anathropy’s experiences with Hormone Replacement therapy. With Path Out, which was like an RPG, we couldn’t quite see how the mechanics were connected to Karam’s experiences or exactly why an RPG (the game is admittedly only one chapter finished). One member pointed out that, despite being limited to the arrow keys, the movements in Dys4ia were sometimes disorienting, and felt that this disorientation was intentional, a point I really like. We were particularly surprised when we decided to play the game together and realized that near the end of the game this series of sequences happen in the final act: at one point, you play a mini game like Breakout (or Brick Breaker for you Blackberry fans) that ends once you make a hole through out the wall, and later on in the final act, right before the ending of the game, there is a quickly changing tetris shape that heads towards the hole that you made. The hole that the player can make can be different each time – we tried it, and it worked. So, really liked this ending because although the experiences in the game are Anthropy’s experiences, this ending gestures to players who may be going through similar experiences. Thus, we found the final act’s title, “It Gets Better?” to be fitting because it reflects the #ItGetsBetter  project that started in 2010 (Dys4ia came out in 2012).

And that sums up our first discussion! Most of this is from memory and few notes jotted down after the meeting, so I’ll try to be less rambling next time. Thanks for reading!

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