Games, Life Writing

The Final Automedia Game Club Meeting

Last Thursday, our automedia game club met for our final meeting. For this meeting, we just decided to talk about anything related to automedia games or auto/biography theory, or anything that was not on our list. It was a really illuminating and great discussion.

The original schedule did have a specific game, of which we briefly discussed: Sean Han Tani’s All Our Asias. Although the game is not described as auto/biographical, it was described as a “deeply personal game” in a Waypoint interview with Sean Han Tani and Danielle Riendeau. So, we discussed how to analyze games that incorporate possible auto/biographical content in a fictional game. Or, specifically to All Our Asias, the role of memory in constructing a life narrative. But mostly we talked about the PS1 visuals that are used, that really communicated the abstract fuzzy content of memories and how these very abstract visuals resonated with the general title of “All Our Asias.” If the game is a “deeply personal game,” there was some creative distance in the abstraction and fictionalizing of the personal content so that it would connect to other Asian American experiences.

A group member then brought our attention to an article written by Kawika Guillermo called “Can You Live A Video Game? Autobiography and Living the Author in Video Games.” In that article, Kawika writes,

As Robert Yang said, “no one makes personal games,” and it’s not difficult to see why. First, the gaming player-base is international, so the political implications of telling “identity stories” would have totally different meanings to non-American players, and may cause the game to look provincial.

While not explicit, Kawika points out that “personal” or “identity” stories may not be accepted or be misconstrued by other players. They will be dismissed as “not a game.” Yeah, that bullshit. Or, in the case of That Dragon, Cancer, people criticized the creators for “profiting” off of the passing of the creators’ child.  Kawika goes on to describe that his experience playing automedia games is characterized by frustration.

The article made us think about the autobiographical pact for games. The pact, as it is understood in a/b studies, is an agreement between the reader and author that the name on the cover of the autobiography is the same as the character in the novel. It’s a pact that establishes it’s truth claims and that the life narrative is an auto/biographical narrative. Usually, the reader is the one that has to be convinced. But other than a few scandals (such as the James Frey A Million Little Pieces controversy) or some playful blurring what is real and not real in life narrative by the author, readers accept the truth claims “until proven guilty.” This is a wide generalization but it led us to this point: for games, the autobiographical pact is tricky and precarious because the toxic culture around games don’t want personal games or don’t believes games should be or can be personal. They refuse to accept the pact and might (but not always) refuse to play the game or acknowledge the games’ truth claims. Or the game becomes a target for hate campaigns. So although Robert Yang says “no one makes personal games,” people do. Yet, he points to the larger risk of making personal, auto/biographical games, especially for marginalized devs. The discussion made reconsider the autobiographical pact and how I understand it working in games.

We then looked at Lizzie Stark’s post “Designing Autobiographical Games.” Her focus was on designing auto/biographical LARPs (Live Action Role Playing). None of us have participated in LARPs, but we discussed the possibility of table-top RPGs and how tricky it is to tell a life narrative when players have so much more agency. We scrolled through the rules of the game, and it was a lot to absorb so we didn’t chat much about it other than sharing Stark’s rules for her auto/biographical games.

And that concluded our meeting and the summer club. It’s sad that it has to end, but with a looming defence date, two courses to teach, and some papers to work on, I’ve got my hands full for the next coming months. But it’s something I’d like to do again simply because it’s just good to chat out scholarly stuff in an informal non-academicy way/setting. Despite some academic talk, our conversations were mostly about our experiences playing the game and our thoughts on the life narratives and how they were told through the medium of games. And those conversations were highly informative for my thought processes and academic tinkering with automedia games.

 

Games, Life Writing

Automedia Club pt2: The Archive of Play

Last week, my local automedia game club met together and we discussed Nina Freeman’s Cibele and Davy Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide. Both are very different automedia games, and whether or not the The Beginner’s Guide is an automedia is debatable (still, it employs biographical and autobiographical writing).

The “theme” that ties these games together is “the archive of play.” The concept comes from Anna Poleitti’s essay “Autobiography and Play: A Conversation with my 12-year old self.” She defines the “archive of play” as “the materials produced and left behind by the activity of playing” (113). She elaborates,

Of course, not all play produces a material trace. That play that does, however, results in material that is…a rich resource for self-representation and life narrative. Materials in the archive of play are diverse and can include: stories, hand-drawn and digitally produced illustrations, letters, videos, photographs, puppets, costumes, collage, and automatic writing…The materials, and the archive itself, may or may not be cherished by the autobiographer. The archive of play may not be valued or recognized as an archive. Many, one suspects, are thrown away during spring cleaning or the purges of objects that regularly occur in societies with high levels of consumption. Where such archives do persist, they may constitute the flotsam of a previous life that is stored in out of the way places and rarely accessed, or stored by members of one’s family or childhood friends. The value of the archive of play becomes apparent once an autobiographical project is initiated…In some cases, the archive itself demands remediation or engagement in the contemporary moment, as I will explore in the examples of “A Conversation With My 12 Year Old Self” and the auto/biographical film Tarnation (Caouette 2003). (113-14)

Poleitti’s focus is on film, and the “play” that she refers to seems to refer to childhood play or, as she puts it, materials produced by play. Cibele and The Beginner’s Guide are two games that I (and later, the group) felt really spoke to this concept, especially the line “The value of the archive of play becomes apparent once an autobiographical project is initiated.” Documents in Cibele are taken from Freeman’s hard drive, and the premise of The Beginner’s Guide is that Wreden is taking you, the player, through old games that were made by “Coda.”

While these games certainly contain a archive of sorts or an archive of play, as described by Poletti, the group discussed our play. In both cases, the archive is remediated, but it is also designed for players to play with it in a certain way.

We discussed how Cibele just kinda dropped you into the game and you let you play with the folders of fan art, chat logs, poetry, blog posts, and photos (majority of which are selfies). The archive is remediated but as an archive? (as opposed to The Beginner’s Guides guided narration; there is still a narrative throughout Cibele, but there is more player agency to explore). So, in Cibele, the autobiographical narrative is generated through the player’s play; the more the player plays with the files, the more of the narrative arc about Nina’s coming of age is disclosed. While Poleitti’s concept focuses on the author’s play (both in past and in present, I think), we discussed how the player’s play shaped the narrative of Cibele.

This play is not only in the exploration of documents, we noted, but also in the MMO game-within-the-game. We liked that the conversations between Nina and Blake didn’t occur/continue unless you fought with each other (although we also talked about how these conversations were awkward and cringe-y – that is, Blake’s come-ons were very cringe-y). It took some of us a little too long to figure this out, and how this may speak to our play styles in MMOs that doesn’t put the social as something primary but secondary. We also talked about the stripped down mechanics of the MMO. In a Designer Notes podcast that features Freeman, she mentions how she had much more mechanics in the MMO section of Cibele, but stripped these mechanics down to emphasize the social experiences of MMOs and how integral they were to her identity work. This decision, we found, further added upon making the social interactions of MMOs primary rather than secondary.

In The Beginner’s Guide, the player’s play doesn’t really shape the narrative. There is some exploration, but it is guided and there is not much additional narrative generated through playing around in these spaces. It becomes even more suspect when you find out that Wreden has been altering Coda’s games to fit the life narrative that he wants to write about Coda. (I will note that one group member noted that Cibele felt way more voyeuristic thank TBG, primarily because of the desktop and the selfies and the intimate photos that Nina shares with Blake, her romantic interest in the game).

But the ending of TBG seemed too fabricated. While there has been some controversy of the ethics of TBG since Wreden has compiled Coda’s games into this narrative without Coda’s consent, it is unclear who Coda might be and the group has some theories: 1) The Beginner’s Guide is mostly fictional, including Codaand the game might be a critique of fans and critics imposing meanings on Wreden’s games. 2) Wreden is Coda; or rather, Coda is a part of Wreden, and the games are made up: The narrator Wreden represents the part of Davy Wreden who enjoys success and wants to make his games public and wants to engage with the public; Coda represents  the part of Davy Wreden who does not enjoy the success, doesn’t want the public attention, or wants to make games for people but for himself. 3) Same as 2 theory but also adding that the games that we play through are actually from Davy Wreden’s own computer. 4) Coda is actually real and the game is about that toxic relationship, but perhaps the ending is a bit fabricated.

I think we all really liked 3) because it seemed to make the most sense. And it’s not unusual for an auto/biography to contain fictional elements or some kind of “fictional prop” to tell an autobiographical narrative. And perhaps there are elements of 1) and 4) in there: that the ethical implications of the game draws attention to the unethical engagements Davy Wreden has experienced?

We threw our hands up in there air and called it a day.

But wait! there was one more theme that emerged out of our conversations: games as a backdrop of or as a site for identity work. In Cibele, the MMO is integral not only to Nina’s identity formation but also the formation of her relationship with Blake. One member really enjoyed how the game communicates the importance of games in one’s life (there are also blog posts that refer to Final Fantasy X/X2 in this capacity). In TBG, games literally are seen not only as a place of identity work but as something that can be read to reveal a narrative of someone. Although the game questions and critiques this approach, it still uses games to communicate life experiences.

This theme that popped up also made us briefly talk about Path Out, how there is a subtle moment that draws attention to Abdullah’s attachment to games. While it may seem obvious that the choice of having an autobiographical narrative told within a game is motivated by the fact that the autobiographer has an attachment to games, it’s not like every literary autobiographer mentions their attachment to books. Rather, it becomes particularly significant in how the autobiographer representations this attachment to books or to games. So, it might be something to consider when other games include games-within-games or refer to games within their automedia game!

And that about wraps our discussion last week. While our discussions don’t directly speak to Poleitti’s concept of the “archive of play,” I think we talked about the concept in a way that builds upon it to include the play of the player in games. I really liked this concept, and I think it can be useful in games studies, especially in regard to automedia games.

 

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!