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

End of Term’s ‘Beginner’s Guide’

Recently, I’ve been interested in games that are “autobiographical.” They’ve only just come across my radar, but they’re also a relatively recent phenomena. Games like Cibele or Dys4ia or That Dragon, Cancer, which are explicitly autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical). There are others, I’m just in the very early stages of research. I prefer the term “automedia,” which Julie Rak outlines in her wonderful essay “Life Vs. Automedia” because games are more than just writing: it’s a combination of video, writing, coding, pictures, drawings, etc. But Rak’s essay explicitly addresses the autobiographical acts and practices of players on Sims 3 and not necessarily a game that is made to be an automedia like Cibele or like That Dragon, Cancer. So I plan on working out these ideas – how to discuss autobiographical games – in a paper and during the upcoming conference season.

But I also tested out these ideas in my “Digital Lives” class earlier this term. I find classes to be a productive way of testing out ideas and approaches when I’ve thought them through enough. The lecture was on Cibele, and a few of my students were interested in pursuing either the game or the topic “autobiographical games” for their research paper. One of my students decided on The Beginner’s Guide, a game that I have heard before but have not played. When the student described the game to me, it was on the basis that it was a biographical or autobiographical game because the game was about a game developer “Coda” but it was also about “Davey,” the author of the game, and his relationship to Coda (and this is why in Life Writing, the / in auto/biography, is quite useful). The student described  the game as simply: You walk through Coda’s games as the narrator describes the story behind Coda and his relationship to Coda. The student then said that the climax of the game is Davey’s realization that he had wronged Coda and admits fault for why their friendship fell apart. (This introduction of the game was important to me because it framed how I was approaching the game. This sounds odd, but if I had heard nothing about the game itself and played it, I would’ve maybe been more skeptical about whether or not it’s auto/biograpical).

So, I thought it was another interesting auto/biographical game – a game composed by an author of another individual’s games, which tell – or you are led to believe that they tell – a narrative of this person’s life and their relationship to the narrator. Without even playing it, the game, as described by the student, reminded me of Anna Poletti’s “Autobiography and Play,” in which she outlines the concept of  “archive of play”: the play of the author with the data of their archive to assemble it into the narrative that readers or viewers read/see. Except for The Beginner’s Guide, the play of the author is not with their own data but another’s (and the author manipulates Coda’s games throughout the game so the player can access inaccessible areas or speed up the process). And more, games also introduce an additional “archive of play” – the player’s play. Though, the player’s play with the data in The Beginner’s Guide is highly limited to what Davey chooses.

But then I played the game. And then I read all of the hoopla over the game when it first came out in 2015. ***Spoiler Alert***

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So one major discussion was: if these are Coda’s games, did Davey have his permission to use these games? (the narrative of the game suggests “no,” and Davey has those games because they had been sent to him in confidence). But the follow-up question is: who is Coda? And is he actually real? Or is Coda Davey himself?

These sets of questions are interesting to me from a Life Writing Studies perspective.  Because Wrenden, the author, does not confirm or deny whether or not Coda is real, the game poses some serious ethical questions if he had simply used these games to create his own narrative (Davey says that the act is meant to reach out to Coda and to apologize). And, as many people pointed out when the game was released, this puts some ethical responsibility on the player, who plays the game, and the distributer of the game.

And even if Coda is “fictional” or about Wrenden, the game still questions the ethics of the player, the complicit willingness to go through someone’s private games.

I do not want think of The Beginner’s Guide as being purely fictional, though, as some suggested. If Coda is fictional and represents Wrenden himself, and that this “Davey” and “Coda” relationship represents different stages in Wrenden’s life, this is still approachable from a Life Writing angle. Or maybe Coda is someone else kept anonymous, but the games are Wrenden’s own (another suggestion), it’s still auto/biographical. All auto/biography has its artifice.

So I appreciate this student bringing this game to my attention. The game is interesting because how you choose to analyze it depends on what you choose to believe. The student did. But I also think that in order to discuss the ethics of the game, some kind of confirmation that Coda is a real person is needed.

So, I’ve got that game on my mind. But I’m also currently working through dissertation chapter revisions and marking. And it’s almost the holidays. So yeah, I’m looking forward to conference season to work out these ideas.