Monday, 13 April 2015

Cats in the Sun: Representations of Suicide in Two Games

This piece discusses suicide in a way that, while hopefully pragmatic may be difficult or triggering for some readers. It contains spoilers for two games, The Cat Lady and Actual Sunlight, which both examine the theme of suicide in deeply emotive manners.

In video games suicide is painless. Respawns, resets, failed lives are all grist to the iterative mill that pulls the player forward; they mean nothing except as learning experiences or temporary annoyances, instantly soothed over by the continuation of the game. By restarting. In this milieu, suicide can be part of that cycle of death and rebirth - a conscious seeking of the failstate to reset a misaligned system, to test a theory or practise a maneuver, or even to just partake of the vicarious joy of self-annihilation and le petit mort of that momentary reversible end.

BRIAN:     What are you playing?
TIM:          Tomb Raider III.
BRIAN:     She’s Drowning.
TIM:          Yeah.
BRIAN:     Is that the point of the game?
TIM:          Depends on what mood you’re in, really.

Or, as this scene from UK sitcom Spaced attests to, sometimes dying can be the point of the game.

The Cat Lady starts with the death of its protagonist Susan Ashworth by suicide. Pretty soon she comes back to life and discovers that she is no-longer able to die, although her immortality is shown to the player, but not to Susan herself, to be at the expense of others’ deaths. Susan is thwarted, but she is also punished. It is suggested by the entity that Susan meets and deals with that the fate of those who die by suicide is worse than that of those who die by other means. And this was where my problems with The Cat Lady started.

I once, as a selfish teenager, thought that I might be able to break my girlfriend’s suicidal urges by telling her that I would never forgive her if she succeeded. Thankfully, those thoughts stayed in my head and were never articulated; for as much as I was a terrible person to go out with at least I never added to her burdens in that way. The idea that those who die by suicide are damned further and more conclusively than those other dead is a common and horrible stigma. It may have a place in horror stories, although I would argue that it does harm far beyond its narrative usefulness, but in a setting that aims to make us sympathise with the deceased then it is unforgivable, even as a background aside.

This is the first of many points at which the twin aims of The Cat Lady diverge and create a tension that is, in my mind, irreconcilable[1]. The game wants to be a serious and sensitive portrayal of living with suicidal feelings, of loneliness and of coming to terms with death. But it also wants to be a schlocky horror story, with blood and nudity and power chords and unmitigated, violent evil. And so, after a meditation on the taking of one’s own life and what it means to want to be dead Susan enters into the machinery of the void, forced to fix that which no longer works...

… and it promptly chops her arm off. And then there’s a sequence of spurting blood, bad metal and she wakes up in a hospital talking to a creepy doctor and we’re right back into the most obvious of storylines once again.

It is supremely frustrating. The game aims to humanise Susan’s suffering but it succeeds in simultaneously demonising the psychiatric profession and other mentally and physically ill people. There is the hospital in which no-one, not orderly nor nurse nor doctor, acts in a professional manner. There are the so-called Parasites; the villains of the game. These cliched horror murderers are portrayed as part of the usual portfolio of killers set loose from the asylum; including the butcher-doctor, cannibal couple and random hammer guy. And then there is The Eye of Adam, the game’s big boss, so to speak, a man who causes others to kill themselves because he really just wants to die.

Of all of the people who I have known who have been suicidal the only person to complete the taking of their own life was not depressed. This is anecdotal data, not evidence, but it is important in our cultural understanding of what suicide is and what it means to choose to no longer live that we understand suicide and depression as separate concepts. Depression is a risk factor for suicide, that is undoubtable, and it is the most common psychiatric condition present in those who die by suicide. But depression and suicidality are parallel streams; not everyone who is depressed is suicidal and suicide should not only be understood as a function of depression.

My favourite part of The Cat Lady is a sequence that introduces that old bugbear of mine, the sanity meter. Susan is at home after escaping her first confrontation with a murderous Parasite and for the first time since her suicide attempt. As she goes about washing herself and getting a coffee and a cigarette she is given a stress meter and a wellbeing meter. Each of these are filled by events as she potters about; a reminder of her past triggers stress, a nice shower triggers wellbeing. There is a sense as you do this that you might just succeed in making it through, but the deck is rigged. Eventually Susan has a quiet breakdown, sobbing on her bed. The feeling that you just might make it if you do the right things, if you solve the puzzle correctly, is one that I found myself relating to immensely, along with the final, lonely moment of collapse.

It turns out eventually that, unlike my own, Susan’s depression is tied directly to trauma. This need to explain why people are depressed is understandable but I think ultimately devalues both trauma and depression. I have been through both, and for a while they were deeply entangled, but one of the most important things for me, at least, and I feel it is the same for others I have spoken to in similar situations, is to know the limits of each. To be at peace with both one must understand what the qualities of each sadness are and to relate to them for what they are. Tying depression to mourning works only to delegitimise the sadness of those who untouched by tragedy, or who have dealt with it already. Calling mourning depression risks medicalising human experience. They are linked, but they should not be bound.

When we get suicide represented without depression it tends to be noble, heroic or tragic. The orientalism of honourable seppuku or the brave sacrifice that saves others. In contrast, the suicide of the depressed is coded very often as one imbued with selfishness. The short game Actual Sunlight makes this explicit: every time the player-character contemplates killing themselves they are turned away by the thought of a duty to someone else. When they finally do complete their suicide, at the end of the game, it is in part because they no longer feel beholden to anyone else, they are finally able to make this one selfish act.

Actual Sunlight is in my view a deeply irresponsible game[2]. In this world killing oneself is no-longer a fail-state, it is the completion of the game. It imparts the value of success on the ending of one’s life. It is difficult for me to criticise in this manner because it is so clearly a very personal story, and to its credit it does contain disclaimers and content warnings from the start. I feel that if it had been presented in any other medium I would have loved it for its raw honesty, but as a game I cannot do so.[3]

The advice given by mental health and anti-suicide charities to the media on reporting in cases of suicide is primarily about the protection of other at-risk people. Don’t detail methods of suicide. Don’t disclose the contents of suicide notes or final social media postings. Don’t use formulations such as ‘successful suicide attempt’ even. This is because it is well researched that reporting in this manner can cause further suicides as people become fixated on the justifications of others, get ideas about how they can achieve the aim and begin to see it as a valid and successful answer to their problems. This suggestion or strengthening of destructive thought patterns is known as suicidal ideation and it kills.

The status of ideation in fiction is more complicated. Unlike the unavoidable gut-punch of a suicide note splashed on a front page with a headline screaming the method of death that sends your thoughts spiraling all day most fiction is consumed voluntarily. In addition, the very unreality of the situation can help many people, where they feel able to do so, to work through their own suicidal feelings and to come to terms with who they are in a relatively safe environment. Many of the more public forms of fiction, for example television soaps, will also provide information and support as well as content warnings when showing traumatic scenes that might cause viewers distress or unearth difficult feelings. I myself made very sure that I was in a safe place mentally before playing either of the games I am discussing here.

It is hard to say that a work of fiction or a work of art shouldn’t approach suicide head-on, and I don’t believe that either, but there are still consequences to the way that they might do so. Actual Sunlight’s position as a game blurs, or rather hyphenates the distinction between reader and protagonist. The character of Evan is a player-character, his actions are driven by the player and his death implicates them. The game encourages you to interact with objects and other people, but each interaction only brings forth bitter justification, eloquent and clever and above all funny, for the ending of Evan’s life. The player has no opportunity to argue and is instead further wrapped up in Evan’s warped worldview, which sees women only as objects, men only as rivals and those younger than him only as incomplete failures yet to make the decisions that will consign their life to the inevitable. This is an ideation machine.

There is a chan culture meme, and if you do not know about chan culture then you are a lucky person indeed and I don’t suggest that you find out, that is crystallised into the words ‘do it f****t’. It is drive-by ideation, the one-upmanship of trolls who would just love to be killers, and it manifests usually in a description of a life that is not worth living, that would be better off ended. The life described is all of the worst elements of the self-image of the stereotypical chan-dweller, and the clear intention is that, just maybe, the post will catch someone at their lowest ebb and push them over. It is targeted ideation. Actual Sunlight bears an awful lot of similarity to this rhetoric.

This is where it becomes difficult to split the artistic intention of the author from the reality of the situation of the work. I don’t believe that Actual Sunlight wants to be an incitement to suicide, I believe that it is the heartfelt expression of the creators’ own feelings, but that is how it acts. In order to play Actual Sunlight one needs to have a knowledge of the language of top-down RPGs, how they function and tell stories and how movement and interaction through them work. To have this knowledge a player needs to have spent a non-trivial amount of time playing computer games. That non-trivial amount of time spent playing computer games is one of the things that Actual Sunlight puts forward as being a waste of a life, of making a person’s value as a person diminish to the point where their death is a greater good.

Actual Sunlight does this repeatedly, building a picture of a life that hews closely to that of many of the people who will be playing it as it builds a picture of the life of Evan, and then insisting that this life is fundamentally unfixable - is only worth trashing. And then it makes the player complicit in that ending. As with the chan meme it indicts itself in a way that attempts to (or at least manages to even if that is not the intent) indict those most likely to come into contact with it (and alienates those who don’t fit the mold of its protagonist), a self-destructive variation on last man standing.

Susan Ashworth is not the only person in the Cat Lady to attempt or complete a suicide. One of the major plotlines in the game is her lodger and later friend Mitzi’s search for a murderer who calls himself the Eye of Adam. The Eye is a frequenter of suicide support chat rooms and message boards who this time actively seeks people to encourage and aid in their suicide attempts. He too wants to die, although disappointingly this is revealed to be because he is severely physically disabled, once again undercutting one of The Cat Lady’s greatest moments of understanding. As Susan and Mitzi evaluate their changed relationship to their own value as people in the one moment of true player choice in the game, and as Susan’s inability to die is challenged and transformed into an unwillingness to die, the game unveils the old ableist trope of the ‘evil cripple’ whose life is not worth living.

This final judgement of the value of lives is shared with Actual Sunlight, although in the Cat Lady you can spare The Eye and condemn him to the ‘horror’ of being alive as he is. Susan finds the strength to go on, but it is at the expense of the deaths of others. Ultimately, both games are unable to escape the transactional underpinnings of suicidal thinking, or maybe they illuminate them starkly. All I know is that it is important most of all to find the value of your own life in and of itself.

For support with suicidal feelings please look here for a list of hotlines by country. For further information on reporting or writing about suicide please look here. I am not an expert on suicide, although I have done what research I can it is a very complex and personal subject and my views should not be held over the head of either your own or someone you know’s struggle with suicidal feelings. The most important thing to do is to talk and to understand.

[1] For an alternative view that sees power in this dissonance see Sin Vega’s article here

[2] Jed Pressgrove's essential Marxist reading of actual sunlight sees it in an entirely different light

[3] Laura Dale examines the specific nature of culpability and suicide as they relate to games, looking at her experiences with Life is Strange in this excellent piece

This post has been funded by Patreon. It has been slightly updated at 22/04/15 to include some new links.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Darkest Dungeons and Diagnosis as Disorder

I feel like the most damning thing I can say about Darkest Dungeon is that it's boring. Or at least that I found it boring. The repeated 'scene-setting' Lovecraft-lite voice-over dulls all creepiness and atmosphere into a grind of you-will-be-scared-now horror. The prevarication over death - I had a character go down to zero hitpoints something like 5 times in one fight and still not die - robs the roguelike idea of permadeath of any meaning. Eventually, after a disastrous expedition that was entirely my own fault - my first real failure of the game - I felt no urge to retry. I had not been punished just as I had not been tested; I had just been stupid and miscalculated and I was left with the same dungeon to grind through once again and I discovered I had no more interest in proving my worth.

That this is the most damning thing that I feel that I can say is ultimately the thing that upsets me most about Darkest Dungeon. It has, as its signature system, a horribly reductive and rather stigmatising sanity system (bolted onto a somewhat elegant morale system). But everything I've seen written about it so far has praised the quirk mechanic, even while sometimes maintaining that it has its problems, as a progressive step in the way that video games handle mental illness[1,2]. And it makes me feel small and angry and bitter: like my reservations are carping or as if I'm demanding everything now when I should be praising the progress that has been made. And so I resort to sniping about those aspects that I can securely criticise. To being damning about aesthetics and replayability. To talking about it in the most terribly game-centric way.

Culture is monolithic. It takes time and energy to shift even slightly and ordinarily I praise any progressive movement. The small, localised shifts that make the world just that little bit better, that make the next shift just that little bit easier are what I've realised work the best and are what I've dedicated my own small life towards. So why can't I celebrate Darkest Dungeon's small steps towards complexity and representation for people with mental illnesses? Because, fundamentally, I don't think that Darkest Dungeon does anything new. It is mired in decades-old RPG design and all that the automation of putting it on a computer does is  make the bookkeeping easier; and when mental health becomes relegated to a bookkeeping exercise, when the advances are based on more efficient crunching of variables and modifiers, then it should be clear that this does not help us understand pain and dysfunction and joy and the life that you lead when you are mad.

Darkest Dungeon's stress meter is fundamentally a morale rather than a sanity system, although sanity systems in general grew out of morale systems in the first place and Darkest Dungeon borrows back a lot of their flavour and understanding of the mind. The differences, in practise at least, are that sanity systems tend towards describing a single PoV character and, as with a health meter, reaching the bottom renders the character unplayable (I have written somewhat more extensively about this here and here). Morale systems on the other hand tend to model a group dynamic (the spread of panic or the steadying hand of a strong leader), are more dynamically affected by success or failure (as opposed to what is experienced), and tend towards mediating between the character and the player in a way that provides for the character's agency to overwrite the player's orders.

Morale systems grew out of tabletop and board wargaming, as a way of measuring how well troops under stressful situations would follow the orders of their generals. They have grown into a staple of the modern wargaming ruleset and an important factor in how a player controls their forces. From the command zones in Warmachine to the animosity rules that could have an entire  Orc and Goblin army squabbling amongst itself in Warhammer Fantasy Battle, morale can be deeply embedded in a game or a bit of flavour or both. Although morale systems do seem to be strangely absent from many real time strategy games (the videogame equivalent of tabletop wargaming), which may account for some of the novelty factor in discussions of Darkest Dungeon, they do turn up in things like the panicked soldiers in XCOM shooting wildly at either friend or foe.

The roleplaying game, the structured dungeon/overworld adventure as we know it, derived from tabletop wargaming. Many of the odd traditions and incongruous design choices that still pop up, both on tabletop and on computer, can be traced back to that genealogy, including concepts as seemingly basic as levels and hit points. But, just as interesting as the things that were pulled through from wargaming are the things that were left behind, and morale is one of these. Early editions of Dungeons & Dragons are specific that morale, a concept which would be familiar to its players at the time, should not be applied to the characters. The shift in D&D was that you embodied a single character rather than the general of an army, and the rules are clear that it is up to the player to decide if their character is bold or cowardly, if they wish to martyr themselves for the good of a cause or to flee to fight another day.

The early versions of D&D then were missing this nod towards the psychological impacts of violence and combat. Players, given the option, tended towards bold and calculating powerhouses. Meanwhile, although the option was suggested that a Dungeon Master might use morale to govern the monsters under their command it quickly left the lexicon and the rule books. And so monsters became as stubborn as players, throwing themselves onto the swords of their enemies in waves trying to choke them with their own blood, to wear them down so that maybe someone following can prevail (a process almost like that of trying to change the entrenched culture); a quirk of behaviour that almost no video game has since challenged or subverted. The zero-sum RPG was born.

Unsurprisingly almost as soon as morale, or rather more specifically a set of rules governing how people behave (because role-players like nothing more than rules, especially if there are tables to roll on included), was stripped from the system something was put back in to replace. The most famous of these, as well as possibly the earliest, was Call of Cthulhu's sanity points system (a direct and parallel analogue of the hit point system already in use), but there are many others out there. D&D itself experimented with madness in the standalone version of the Ravenloft setting, Domains of Dread printed as part of AD&D's 2nd edition. In this various events, horrific experiences and the stress of combat against unnatural foes, could cause a player to take fear, terror and horror tests. The more tests you failed the harder subsequent tests became until, eventually, something snapped and you picked up a permanent insanity. Is this sounding familiar? Domains of Dread was printed 18 years ago.

Even then, the idea of permanent, stackable 'insanities' that added colour as well as modifiers to a character was not something new. White Wolf's gritty urban horror games already let you purchase them at character creation to give you a few more points to spend on maxing out your stats. Call of Cthulhu was often house-ruled to allow insane characters back after a spell at a sanatorium, but forever changed by their experiences. I have a copy of an independently produced game called Asylum where the premise is that everyone is mad and locked in an asylum-city; you choose what specific diagnosis you get at the beginning of the game.

I should be clear - I like the stress system in Darkest Dungeon. I actually quite like the sanity meter system in  general when it is used intelligently and non-prescriptively. What I don't like, what I think is damaging and makes life worse for those with mental illnesses, is the use of diagnostic labels as flavour text on game modifiers. Or, even worse, the suggestion that diagnosis and illness are coextensive - that knowing the first will allow you to roleplay, to understand, the second.

The Domains of Dread book is remarkably interested in not being offensive, in providing a tool for Roleplaying, but it fails so badly it just makes me sad. Part of the failure is that it is a D&D supplement, and as such it can only model the world in a way that conforms to D&D's mathematics, a maths that abstracts experience in a way that is incompatible with the realities of mental illness. But the biggest, saddest failure is that they did loads of research, they just researched the wrong things. There is a huge section on dissociative identity disorders, or multiple personalities as they used to be somewhat pejoratively known, that is based on the utterly debunked work surrounding alleged satanic cults. It also relies heavily on the DSM, making the usual mistake of viewing it as a dictionary rather than a tool. It tries so hard to not reduce us to our most basic elements, to rob us of our humanity and replace it with our madnesses, even as it does exactly that, and it feels tragic to read now.

So, Darkest Dungeon isn't doing anything particularly new. But why should this be a problem, other than a slight annoyance at the people who are mistakenly calling it progressive. Essentially, it is just the same as the rest of the gaming industry and, for better or for worse, that seems a bad reason to single it out. Maybe that's my problem - I am irrationally annoyed with the game. I am irrationally annoyed that we haven't made any progress and that this lack of progress is being hailed as progress. It isn't even the fact that the quirks in Darkest Dungeon are so often fist-bitingly offensive, that they  are wrapped up in the language of sin and redemption (a classic stick with which to beat the insane) or that they can be 'cured' with a simple week in a darkened room at  the sanatorium. Its that they are presented in this way at all. This is what we need to work against if we are ever to break the hold that these reductive ways of thinking have on our media landscape. This is what we need to do if we want to be people, rather than a collection of labels and modifiers.



Both of these are great articles, by the way, and fascinating insights into other points of view on this game.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

One Flew Away from the Cuckoo's Nest - Representations of Aslylums pt 1

I've talked before about the moral codings and judgements used with respect to madness and mental illness but I feel like it is a subject that is worth expanding on. In order to give a grounding both in terms of how it happens and what it means for our cultural discourse and for the lives of those affected it is worth looking at in detail. I want, therefore, to look at in overview the ways in which we encode the mad in cultural objects and, specifically the way we encode the realm of the mad: the asylum.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest has a lot to answer for when it comes to popular understanding of the asylum as an institution, and to mental illness as enacted within its walls. Ken Kesey's novel is profoundly political, and surprisingly conservative, in a way that is surprising to a new reader who may only know of it through the force of cultural osmosis. Jack Nicholson's is the face of the confined man who needs freedom and Louise Fletcher's that of the oppressive system that denies it, but the novel underlines these characters with a weight of significance that is present if underexplored in the film.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a misogynist text. It is also filled with essentialist racism, although this is more of-it's-time and passive than the misogyny, which is an active thread. That may not seem at first to have a direct bearing on how it relates to and presents the asylum inmate, but it runs through the representations within. Its misogyny is a key tenet of the counter-culture movement that it espouses and to a certain extent the mad are, within the text, objectified and turned into expositional arguments rather than people - a common experience for any mentally ill person in fiction.

Kesey's argument is derived from Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness, as well as Goffman's work on institutions. This in and of itself might not be a problem - the two combined tend towards a view that says asylum inmates are structured in society to be asylum inmates by the very fact that they are in an asylum. That moving from the outside to the inside recasts one's life so that it is seen in terms that justify that movement. McMurphy is the avatar of that idea - it becomes immaterial whether or not he is mad before he enters, and his actions, which in other contexts would be seen as sane are considered mad because of and to justify his current location.

But there is more to it than this. Kesey is, very openly, more interested in story than in truth. The narrator states it outright, and the novel continually distorts the lives of its protagonists into a way that fits the martyr narrative even when it doesn't fit their established characterisation. The final act in particular is damning of mental health professionals in a very callous way (by someone who worked in the profession and seems to have to a certain extent projected his own apathy and disgust for the patients onto the rest of the characters), which has an affect on how people view those workers in the real world.

This is where the misogyny comes in as well. Almost every main character is in the asylum due to the actions of a woman. Specifically, it is due to the actions of a woman who is allowed to have power over a man. Kesey's main statement is that mental illness doesn't exist, but that it is a function of a man's relinquishing of power to a woman. Ratched is specifically shown to be the way she is because she isn't married (another, sympathetic female nurse, who is married, makes the observation). Women are objects either of oppression, or of sex, and the good woman, as in the counter-cultural ideology Kesey was espousing, is one who offers sex freely and without contract to the liberated man - allowing him to be himself fully.

So, the asylum becomes sexualised and the madman (and it is a man here) becomes enthralled by rather than a master of sex.

One of the real shames of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is that, where the story allows the inmates to breathe and to be themselves it becomes liberating and incredibly humane. The depersonalisation of institutions is a real and a terrible thing and, for example, the fishing trip is an absolutely exhilarating read as you feel the power of treating objectified individuals as people once again. It's just a shame that Kesey immediately objectifies them once again as they return to the asylum and he forces them into position for the final part of McMurphy's narrative. The truth, as Kesey sees it, even if it didn't happen. The film version, which is the most well-known, smuggles these ideas into the consciousness of the viewers, keeping the structures that were informed by this set of intentions without showing the working.

The asylum, as befits a home for the mad, has always, like the mad, had a life that is not always its own. It is a political and theoretical battleground, an object with which to score points as much as a machine for housing dysfunction. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is like a case study and an exemplar for this tendency. It is not about the mad and their lives, it is about how a place of madness distorts the landscape (politically, mythologically, theoretically, geographically etc.) and allows for vested interests to make for themselves a place of power.

This distortion is in line with representations of asylums across the spectrum. They become places where 'the veil is thin', so to speak, often allowing for demons, or generally malign psychic phenomena, to break through and make a home for themselves. (Demonic power and female power are so closely linked in religious patriarchy as it is.) Sometimes it is the passions of the mad; the explosion of constrained female sexual energy that manifests as poltergeist, the gravetic horror of male sexual depredation drawing interlopers to the cusp of that abyss. Sometimes it is the experimentation of the wardens; making playthings of madness until it becomes an affliction that can be used to punish, rather than an illness that should be cared for.

The asylum often defaults to a place of horror in the popular imagination, even the images from One Flew Over are wrapped into horror tropes when recycled into other media. The very real horrors of institutionalisation, and of the personal experiences that lead to it being an option that makes even any sort of sense for a person, are compounded by media representations. Images and concepts of horror become normalised in the rhetoric of madness so that a complicated, layered image such as this one, which shows a disused hospital room that has been re-purposed into a b-movie set, can be shared as and believed uncritically to represent 'an abandoned mental hospital', despite the truth being more fascinating. A common misconception of what it is to be mad, of what it means to be the kind of person who would belong in an asylum, is that concepts of fiction and reality blend into one another and become indistinguishable. And yet, our concept of the asylum itself is one that has become indistinguishable from the fiction that surrounds it.

The asylum itself becomes, then, a magical space: transforming both those inside and those outside of it; distorting the light that shines through it. The modern psych ward contains within it the Victorian insane asylum. The image is the thing itself; a superimposition illusion, both ladies and vase, duck and rabbit, Bedlam and Broadmoor. The asylum is a place that fascinates us but to which we wish we will never go, which is how it can be all these things at once.

This magical nature is in line with Kesey's use as well, in that the asylum is both itself and a political tool. It is a place where truth can be re-written into Truth, which is to say the fictional concept of what should be rather than the mundane concept of what is. In part two of this essay I will look into that concept further. Into the idea of asylums as magical spaces and the way that they mirror some other types of magical space such as the hotel and the private sanatorium.

This post has been funded by Patreon.

Monday, 3 November 2014


I've made a decision.

This project has fallen by the wayside recently with various other responsibilities and plans taking precedence, but I don't want to abandon it because I think that there is good work that I can do here. I don't intend to abandon it, but I have set up a Patreon to help fund the costs associated with it (in terms of research materials, books and games that I might not otherwise have played) and to help with pushing it up in my list of priorities. I don't expect people to pledge very much, and I won't be paywalling anything I write but if you did want to show support it would certainly help with getting this blog moving again. More information can be found over at my Patreon page.

Thanks for reading, and let me know any comments you might have about this decision.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Dark Souls, Depression and Me

I thought I knew what I was going to want to say about Dark Souls before I started playing it. I knew it started in an asylum, usually coded in games and other media as a place of incarceration for the mad, and it centred around a concept of undeath as a meaningless and hollow existence of repetition without humanity. I had heard fans talk about it as a bleak world in which you struggle against madness, that this was coded as a descent, and I assumed that I would be writing about damaging representations of mental illness, of stigmatising depictions of the mad as violent, worthless and degraded. There is still, possibly, that article to be written, but having played it for some 25 hours by now that isn't the article I want to write. Dark Souls is a strange, elegiac game that borrows from the structure of RPGs but isn't one. It is slippery and gossamer, and it represents without representing. It is beloved of people I know to be depressed and I think I now know why.

The weirdest thing is how nothing changes. Even when you kill a boss the world just gets emptier. The rush of a major victory, a completed project, is swiftly swallowed by the continuation of life's grinding work and daily battles. Worse, it can never be revisited, either for the joy of a challenge or to test oneself again if the battle is felt to have been unfairly won.

I talked before about how I play role-playing games when depressed to experience the feeling of change; to know that change is both possible and meaningful even in some abstract sense. Dark Souls denies this bodily. There are changes happening within the world as you play - small subplots that play out around you and helpful souls who can be gathered around the Firelink Shrine, but it is thin and these people all seem as tired and despondent as you. They know that their actions too can only destroy, that they exist in a world centred on your own self destructive impulses and that all that they can do is watch and help and leave you to it. Their attempts to do more are what left them hurt, trapped and afraid, lost somewhere in the maze of your psychodrama; their release yours alone to grant them.

I'm on citalopram right now, which means that my lows are of a different quality to those I might have unmedicated. I am also in a low, or have been for the last week or so. Taken together this means that my motivation and concentration is completely shot, but at least I'm not having to deal with self-loathing and intrusive thoughts in any great respect. In this situation a good mechanical grind of a game is exactly what I need which is probably why I've been playing Dark Souls every night this week whilst for the month before it was much more on and off. But it is difficult to tell if the emotional distance of the game is inherent or a product of my medication.

I think that it is inherent to the game. The weirdest thing is how nothing changes. Even as you accrue rare weapons and pick up pre-placed item-drops the world just gets emptier. A corpse you looted reverts from a glowing beacon of promise to a dull reminder that what you got was probably not what you wanted anyway.
Hollow and hardy.

I have been playing the game primarily internally. I found myself rereading Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman and will probably reread Robert Rankin's Sprout Mask Replica trilogy too as a supplement to my internal life with the game. I think I look more interesting, more embodied in myself, when I am hollow than when I am human. But there is nothing in the text to support this, beyond the mechanic of struggle. Humanity is a face, a front. It is something that must be maintained against all odds, that can be lost with a single mistake and is ultimately worthless for anything other than material gain. I find it better to embrace hollowness, to be at one with the world and not fight it. To allow my mistakes, the lows which I know that I will always have, to be themselves rather than the thing that destroys my careful house of cards, my constructed 'normal' life, my fa├žade of sanity. "Because the best shield is to accept the pain, Then what can really destroy me?".
Still human after all these years
A pretence at being real.

For all of this, I don't really know anything about myself, or rather my character, in this world. It is strange, pertinent maybe, that I am referring to my character as myself as this is something I usually never do with RPGs. With RPGs I play characters and I make decisions based on what they would do, not me. I started with this in mind whilst on the Dark Souls character select screen but the brutal lack of choice coupled with the continuity of experience implied by the death mechanic has eroded any distance between my own and my character's point of view. We are contiguous in what we see and what we feel. We explore this world together and at the same pace - she is not a distinct being, able to benefit in her final form from my knowledge as a player and my manipulation of her timestream through judicious save states and cancelled futures. Where I fail she fails, and where she picks herself up again I must do the same.

And of course, the weirdest thing is how nothing changes. The same enemies patrol in the same patterns as ever. The joy of a new face, of a different experience is subjugated, it is singular and can be used up and when it is the world just gets emptier. The world gets wider, and one day it will be an experience that is completed, its limit reached in both time and space, but at its core is loss.

In this way, it is like life.


(I would like to point to the article by Line Hollis in issue 1 of the Arcade Review as a brilliant piece of writing that explores some similar themes.)

Monday, 2 June 2014

Still Here

I am still here and I am still writing. I have, as I think I've mentioned before, a post on the cultural position of asylums in the pipeline which, once completed, should be the last of the theoretical and background posts that I need to write before I can start exploring the implications of some of these representations in games, both as a part of the media landscape and as objects of play. The problem is that, the more reading I do the more reading I want to do. Having finished Foucault's Discipline and Punish I immediately started on Goffman's Asylums. Meanwhile my fiction reading list has included One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. I even found myself contemplating reading Norwegian Wood, which I have only seen the film of, to ensure the accuracy of what will probably be a single sentence of comparison.

I am basically using this blog as an excuse to motivate myself to do things that, although I enjoy, are very easy for me to put off doing in the face of the opportunity of staring at a wall and experiencing the existential dread of the nihilation of nothing and feeling really sad about everything. Also making sure that I don't only read Horus Heresy novels whilst eating crisps in front of BBC4 quiz shows.

Having said that, I have still been writing. The Ontological Geek has just posted the first of what should be an ongoing, if irregular, series on the links between tabletop and video games, with a particular focus on Dungeons & Dragons. I'm also working on another exciting piece that I will hopefully be able to talk about more in a few weeks' time.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Peripheral Visions

I've written before, sometimes in slightly more polemical terms, about the ways in which games try to present the experience of madness and to impart that information to the player. Right now, however, and for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table I thought I'd look closely at the point of interface between player and game rather than at systems or audio visual vectors. This is an important area of contact between the player and the game, but the relative lack of representational power means that it is something that is relatively easy to overlook in discussions of representation. 

Although I did mention some of the ideas that follow in my post on the physical aspects of suffering from what are usually classified as (solely) mental illnesses that was a very personal post and so here I want to look at things from a slightly more general position. I'm also going to expand my remit slightly to include emotional and psychological aspects of all stripes, not just madness, because as this is an exploratory post rather than a response to any one game or issue I think it is worth remembering that mental illness is just a subset of mental experience; that it is not a state to be held apart from sanity but that they are both facets of the same human experience.

I can't find an image credit for this, despite searching,
so holler if it's yours.
As with much tech-futurism there can often be a teleological narrative around controllers, i.e. a belief that there is an idealised end-point, most likely one where the object of the controller itself has become invisible or indistinguishable from the activity of the game, towards which every instanced controller to date is a direct causal link. This can be seen in the marketing and the evangelism that surrounds new controllers, as well as the misappropriated and pseudo-Darwinian language of linear evolution towards a higher being. 

This futurism however hides a number of practical and real-world complications, not least of which is that, like with real evolution, earlier adaptations are not necessarily either inferior or obsolete. It also ends up with genuine innovation or divergent lineages with divergent applications being re-imagined into the central narrative so that something like the Wii ends up explained as a faltering step towards a homogenised future rather than a genuinely alternate way of playing. As well, the aim of effortless play, as so often hinted at by the focus on ergonomic innovations and 'instinctive' control schemes in next-generation rhetoric, papers over the way in which using a given controller or input method is a learned skill. 

The actual lived experience of being or becoming a player of video games is one of negotiating a landscape of input devices, learning and internalising layouts and iterating set-ups, both in terms of the physical objects and the input mapping, until they are aligned as closely as possible to one's unique physical needs. As a concrete example of how all of the above come together, both my partner and I are equally proficient at the SNES game Donkey Kong Country 2, having repeatedly beaten it when younger. If we replay the game today, however, our performances are significantly affected by which of the two controllers we now own is plugged in, either a classic controller or a non-branded turbo version, as well as how the sofa and TV are set up at the time. Similarly, despite the controller being objectively better, I find playing ported 8- and 16-bit games on my XBox a distinctly unsatisfactory experience and I do not believe that I am alone in this. The game itself cannot be divorced from the physical act of playing it.

All of the above is, I believe, relatively uncontroversial; amounting essentially to: using computers is a skill and everyone is slightly different. I felt it was worth stating in those slightly expanded terms to ground where I'm coming from in the rest of this post and to ensure that my assumptions are clear.
Controller feedback, which seemed so ripe with possibilities when Nintendo announced their revolutionary Rumble Pak accessory for the N64, has since stalled into merely fine-tuning those vibrating hotter/colder clues and death shocks. It is true that there are examples of feedback that are very cleverly deployed but there's also an awful lot of vibration for the sake of it, and despite my fevered imaginings there doesn't seem to be any other form of tactile, physical feedback through controllers in the pipeline. 

In some ways I'm glad. I have no great desire to shackle myself into some kind of full body harness to be able to experience more fully the horrific situations most action game characters find themselves in. (The joke in Red Dwarf's VR episodes being that the only attachment they have other than the headset is for your groin). In the main the most successful and enhancing feedback set-ups are those used for simulations, making a steering wheel resist on a difficult turn or go floppy at high speeds for example, where the aim is accuracy of a measurable representation rather than the imparting of narrative or psychological nuance. 

If we look first at horror games, then, as madness and horror are so heavily linked in our cultural imaginations, we can begin to see the current state of play. Unsurprisingly the majority of games, even those without a sanity meter as such, will embellish tension, damage, surprise and death with jolts and rumbles. This is, to be honest, relatively uninteresting as it is just that: an embellishment. Done well it may increase both tension and catharsis, but it cannot do anything to inform your experience of the character or their embodied situation as we do not tend to experience our emotions, beyond maybe certain aspects of nervousness, predominantly in our hands. The rumble feature is still a one way vector of information from the game to the player, generally ignoring the fact that the controller has an often unique position as the one method the player has of connecting with and influencing the game.

More interesting then, are the techniques that involve the player in the mechanics of the game by manipulating the way in which they have learned to use and internalised a control scheme. David Cage's games have relied on this heavily with mixed success, but the techniques pioneered in Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy) have begun finding their way into the general language of adventure games. These are the sort of semi-quicktime events that, rather than telling you to 'press X not to die' encourage you to manipulate the controls in a way analogous to the onscreen action required. It can be a fine fit though, and often as not the artificiality of the movements only highlights how separated you are from the game world and how much the controller is a barrier. I loved Skyward Sword but found myself battling and subjugating the control scheme as much as the bosses, refining my movements to the minimal possible levels to get closer to the expertise I'd experienced during Twilight Princess (which I played on the Game Cube).

At its best, enacting emotionally charged events through a controller or input device (and this has certainly been made a much easier link to forge with the advent of analogue-as-standard console peripherals) which has become an embodied part of the player-as-player can ensure both player and game are infused with that emotion. The joy I get when executing perfect combos in Bayonetta, or clearing the first level of DKC2 via muscle memory alone is the same embodied joy I got dodging tackles when I used to play rugby as a teen. Similarly, there's a bit near the end of Season 1 of The Walking Dead where you dig a grave, and the game forces you to do it with agonising repetition and through a semi-analogue control scheme it's spent ten hours or so teaching you and it made me feel truly wretched in exactly the way it should have done. The future, for me, is in the integration of these different modes of mastery and control to provide appropriate registers of feeling and engagement throughout a game's passage. The recent Tomb Raider game I think provides a great example of  this, with emotionally charged moments given a more analogue input scheme compared to the somewhat more traditional, and hugely enjoyable, nature of the rest of the game.

There are other ways in which games have made the nature and the fact of the controller more apparent to the player. I have not played but have heard repeatedly of the meta-textual nature of Metal Gear Solid games, although they seem to be focusing more on commentating about the fact of the game rather than engaging the player on an emotional level. A standard trope in platform games of a certain vintage is an attack which temporarily reverses the controls, but again this is a challenge to the skills and integration of the player-controller more than it is a rejection of that symbiosis. A couple of the sanity effects in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem hinge on showing in-game actions being taken without input from the player as a form of horror, but I always found the telegraphed nature of sanity loss as well as the schlocky nature of the effects meant they were never particularly effective.

The idea of loss of control over the game is an interesting one, as it breaks the trust that is intrinsic to the player-controller interface. It also speaks to the fear of madness as a fear of loss of control over one's mind and body, or the rewiring of mechanisms of being that were taken for granted. A game which does things that the player doesn't want would have to work hard to keep the player playing, however. We don't go mad suddenly on the whole, as most popular representations would have you believe, but by degrees and in self-reinforcing feedback loops. If only a game could somehow convince us, by hiding the gauges and the knowledge of the causes of failure and by introducing the slips of control imperceptibly at first, that we were at fault for missing that jump or that combo. Then it might better model the creeping dread, the gradual anxiety and the replacement of healthy habits with maladjusted ones that typifies the experience of losing control to a mental illness. Of course, that game might be indistinguishable from a merely terribly designed and badly tested game; I may have just suggested Big Rigs Racing as the Ur-madness simulator.

This, finally, brings me right back to what could well be considered the least advanced of input methods, yet which I think has the best chance of lying successfully to the player. The keyboard and mouse set up used for playing interactive fiction and point and click adventure games is both simple to learn, in that you need to if you want to use any computer at all, and yet provides scope for a much larger range of interaction. These games are also, as they rely less on realism and more on literary techniques of constrained viewpoints, better able to lie to players about what is and isn't happening. Adam Cadre's 9:05 being a beautiful and short case in point. Cadre's Photopia also highlights the ability of a game like this to effectively play itself at points in order to make emotional and psychological impacts, which is possible mainly because of the turn based nature of interactive fiction - even though you are being guided you don't feel like you are being taken through a cutscene.

Interactive fiction is still a learned form of interface, however, so a lot of the tricks that might work on the input level still require a knowledge of what to expect in the first place. This is mitigated somewhat in games like Jon Ingold's Fail Safe or Introversion's Uplink, which work to highlight the computer they are being played upon (and so simultaneously the person doing the playing) as an object within the game world rather than a portal into it, bringing the game-player interface closer to the surface. This urge can also be seen in the FMV games of the 90s which trace their lineage to graphical adventure games as well as more modern engines like Twine. Twine and the like at least initially borrow from the aesthetic and experience of navigating a web browser which is itself a learned skill so integral to modern work and leisure that many people have, as with me and the SNES, forgotten quite how learned it is.

The question then that was posed by Blogs of the Round Table is one of the future of input schemes. I'm not sure I've covered everything that I could, but I think that the future of using inputs to connect and link players emotionally and psychologically with the games that they play is one in which existing methods are mined for their strengths rather than replaced completely. Where we remember the physical joy of dance mats and plastic guitars and light guns over a promised future of mime and thought control. Where stories are told with the tools that tell them best, not just the newest tools in the box.

(A couple of links. Brendan Keogh talks about the player as cyborg, and the interface as a generative space here while everygame talks about the learned nature of game interactions and how that affects the way a game's 'message' might be imparted to those with different skill levels in his review of Cart Life)