Narrative Pretension in Games

Moving Image has a big exhibit up now of the famous video games of history, which is partly pretty good (you can play the actual old Spacewar, on a really well done PDP-1 replica, with a round cathode ray tube and crazy controllers) but mostly fairly dubious (maybe it is a byproduct of having all the games be playable, but the space feels dumb, and the game selection is not really a coherent survey of games that mattered in history, by any standard that I can think of).  In the course of going to see this exhibit, I kind of blundered into Indiecade East, which turned out also to be happening at Moving Image this weekend. I thought that I had arrived just in time to see  a talk about 30 Flights of Loving, so after giving the space a brief initial perusal I sprinted down to catch the talk.  But I had misread the schedule, and the talk turned out to be about a sort of self-consciously dull art-ish game called Cart Life.

The guy giving the talk explained at the beginning of it that he did not really “enjoy” Cart Life, but nevertheless feels that it is, at the current moment, a critical step in moving video games (you know you are in a very particular milieu when people start using the term “video games” as opposed pretty specifically to “computer games” or even “games.” It is the milieu that tends to love big retro pixels but also feels strongly about a particular self-conscious kind of “art” or whatever) to where they need to be. The definition of where video games need to be is where I find myself disagreeing pretty strongly with the dude who gave the talk.

Cart Life (you will get a much better sense of it much faster, probably, if you follow the link) is a “retail simulation,” which differs from the extant and extremely prolific existing field of retail simulation by having you control very specific characters, and control them when they are off duty as well as when they are selling things, so that instead of JUST a spreadsheet-driven exercise in building a business, you are playing a spreadsheet-driven exercise in building a business with some bizarre extra-hours minigames (you have to brush your teeth every morning, and they make it into a thing where you are prompted to punch arrow keys until you’re done) and multiple-choice exercises that add bathos. From what the presenter showed of Cart Life, I think this might be moderately amusing, or at least tedious in an interesting way.

BUT! the lesson that the dude giving the talk drew from this is that we should start to think of games in a genre fiction/literary fiction split, and that game people should start trying more self-consciously to do lit-fic sorts of narratives, OF WHICH he holds up Huckleberry Finn (yes, ok, and there are many good “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses“-style takedowns of things that happen in games, but that is probably not the dude’s point) The Master (I did like There Will Be Blood, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to P.T. Anderson’s level of craft, but this still seems somewhat dubious) and Wit (and this is where I think we have to draw the line) as good examples. Wit, in particular, having been pointed to as a reference/inspiration by Cart Life’s creator.

Let’s grant that in many if not most modern cinematic games in the shooty or RPG mode, one ends up having to save the world, and this gets a bit tiresome. But there are a lot of things in which you don’t have to do this, or in which you do it in a jokey way. And of course there are even cinematic games, like the GTAs and their offshoots, in which you are doing some crimes and not saving the world, although the general tone is still pretty genre. But is the way forward really supposed to be super-intentional aspirational middlebrow dullness? I think the really good games tend to bypass these goofy narrative questions, and that the medium probably shouldn’t be framed in those terms, and that it is especially stupid to dredge up ye olde literary vs. genre thing.

Anyhow, I had some issues with that talk, which ended in a Q&A with the game’s creator, who was I guess pleasant enough but really did seem like someone who might hold Wit as some kind of pinnacle of artistic achievement. Then there was a thing about that fairly well-liked but somewhat too didactic drone game, and then I wandered around the little exhibition hall for a while and was too nervous to speak to Brendon Chung.