Imperfection and beauty – part one: video games

Imperfection must be loved. This is not the same old discourse about defending diversity – this is about the peculiarity of how beauty is perceived.
How many technically flawless illustrators are there in the world? Millions. The internet is constantly spammed with hyper-realistic drawings that may leave us speechless at first sight but will soon be forgotten by the next day. Perfect photographic drawings of a bean can. What do they tell us, what will they leave behind? In fact, nothing.
We have always fallen in love with other people’s details: they were like tiny treasures to us, we have always thought – perhaps arrogantly – we were the only one to see and appreciate them. To others, they were imperfections.
Imperfection is peculiarity, uniqueness, the human trait. It means wanting to convey something despite one’s own technical limits, despite oneself. If the content is more important, the form subdues to the feeling. Beauty, real, deep, long-lasting beauty, is hidden behind the apparent imperfections.

I’ve decided to dedicate some articles to the relationship between imperfection and beauty, a duo which is often the beating heart of art. During this excursus I will bring up different artistic or otherwise creative fields, and today I will focus on videogames.
I must admit that things changed since my first article on indie-games and its premises (“I never had a passion for videogames”). Admittedly, these last two years gaming became a sort of passion of mine. To those calling me childish because I’m not interest in Triple a, I shall reply that I think this medium is changing with some noteworthy surprises, that this passion is connected to some of my works and so on. But the facts do not change. I really wanted to go back to talk about videogames.
In order to do so, I’ll take the premise of an article by the italian magazine Prismo as starting point: a videogame is a piece of design. A functional piece. With his own signature style, that shall not be confused with art – a common misunderstanding nowadays.
An interesting thesis, truthful in many ways.
And yet there are exceptions. There are certain videogames in which the inner functionality of the medium is somehow lacking. Which is not necessarily negative. There it is, my beloved imperfection!

 

The unforseen complexity of opening a door

The Beginner’s Guide – Davey Wreden

The Beginner's Guide

Lets start with a paradox. If we are talking about game design, Davey Wreden is its Roland Barthes. The Stanley Parable is a revolutionary masterpiece which investigates the nature of gaming itself. A love song which also tries to show its ephemeral flawed side. I hope you already know and played this title but if that is not the case, I highly recommend it: it is both essential and extremely enjoyable.
The premise is both simple and intriguing. Stanley is in his office, as always, sitting in front of a monitor, when something unexpected happens: he stops receiving orders through the terminal. At this point he has to stand up, get out of his office and explore the empty company building to understand what his happening, accompanied by a narrator telling his story as it unravels.
The first play will end in a few minutes, by simply following the flux of narration. And yet, re-playing it, we will find out a lot of turning points we left behind, which could drag us into unexpected situations, completely overturning the narration. It is difficult to explain how disorientating, vast and theoretical this piece can be without spoiling too much. It is a deep reflection on gaming, the “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” of games.

The Stanley Parable
After this debut, in many ways impossible to match, Wreden wanted to follow with an equally conceptual piece: The Beginner’s Guide. And here comes our paradox.
The game is about the work of a fictional game designer, Coda. He is introduced by Davey Wreden himself, who shows us his short experimental games and illustrates his artistic and expressive intent. This path starts with the designer’s fascination for a bug and guides us into its isolation process.
We have two specular works, focused on the game design concept. But they are very different in the soul. The Stanley Parable is a perfect game, literally perfect, in each of its parts, while The Beginner’s Guide shows its flaws. The theoretical irony of the first title contrasts to the human discourse of his last piece.
To Wreden, we are what Wreden is to Coda, this is easy to understand from the start. In many ways, this is the author’s stream of consciousness, an open-hearted discourse with psychoanalytic aspects. It leads us through a fragmented experience of minimum interactivity, with almost pedagogical explanations, declarations of particularly heavy moments, using words of a certain uncertainty and duplicity.
In many aspects, The Beginner’s Guide is the gaming equivalent of an Herzog documentary: the truth is investigated through forgery, the thin line between art and life, the obsession, the corrupt human nature that, through its flaws, can lift himself up to folly. Similarly, we are the unique means of narration, we are forced to be the audience and pushed to a critical role. But this is Wreden’s means and his alone, through which he questions us about the relation and opposition between himself and us.

The Beginner's Guide

 

The obstacle march of a relationship

March – Felix Park

March videogame by Felix Park

We are going from a critically acclaimed game among the global indie scene to a game that would perhaps deserve more visibility. Just to be clear, March is a primal work. It is a brief game developed by a single individual independently, so this comes as no surprise – especially if you know the gamejolt platform. But it is not just about the limits of realization, of graphic and design: gameplay itself is basic.
Nonetheless, this little product can have an exceptionally deep emotional impact.
We will found ourselves in a figurative and abstract path where design express concepts by using simplicity as a strong point. From imperfection comes engagement. No targets or challenges – just a narrative to get involved in. Which is remarkable.
A small touching poetry about couple relationships.

March videogame by Felix Park

 

An ordinary day in an insane world

Journalière – Mason Lindroth

Journaliere videogame by Mason Lindroth

I will be clear: I love Mason Lindroth. I devotedly followed all of this strange painter’s interactive experiments, I let myself be captured by his incomprehensibly atypical world just to end up surprised and sated. It would probably make sense to introduce you to his last work, Hylics, which is maybe his most complete and complex game. But I would rather talk about this small gem with which I got to know him with – but be warned, Journalière is maybe the strangest game I ever saw.
2-bit graphic with dithering atkinson (the mind goes to the very first macintosh OS: http://www.cloudpaint.com/imageeditor), illogical architectures, grotesque plasticine-like shapes everywhere, a creepy surrealism brought to its extreme consequences. We impersonate an employee which we lead to work through a twisted world. Along the way it will be possible to extend her path by visiting some spaces, to interact through strange dances, to entertain oneself with a mini-platform. But it is useless to try to describe it: Journalière feels like playing with an extraterrestrial videogame. Literally. No action is comprehensible, it looks like a hieroglyphic created by a different kind of intelligence. A de-language contaminating everything. This is what makes the experience unique and disarming.
A brief, estranging game, marvelously flawed: Mason Lindroth created a small art masterpiece.

Journaliere videogame by Mason Lindroth

 

States of alienation

North – Outlands

North videogame by Outlands

I was already impressed by the Outlands (Tristan Neu and Gabriel Helfenstein) because of their Pictures of a Reasonably Documented Year, an interesting experiment of a psychological horror based only on the exploration of a list of text files and AV files. North comes as a confirmation of this team’s capacity to exploit the limit of production as a strong point.
Our protagonist is a refugee from the South, dealing with a request for asylum in the North. Quite an archetype for our society. We start with no coordinates, estranged in an empty, dark, abstract, disturbing city. Everything in this game actually deals with the estrangement of what cannot be comprehended. It deals with a state of overwhelming complexity.
Both a flaw and a strong point of the game, sometimes the gameplay fuels the feeling of inadequacy, alienation and frustration by forcing us to move randomly and by reconstructing the sense of each move only afterwards, once the letters for the sister are put in the envelopes. A mechanism which can seem odd and forced but also fascinating in a way.
Not much more can be told about this piece without undermining its very intent. A cruel, intense experiment, between the darkest kind of science fiction and Kafka.

North videogame by Outlands

 

What we are tempted to call nothing

Sluggish Morss trilogy – Jake Clover and Jack King-Spooner

Sluggish Morss

A space ship going through time and space. Inside it, among some bodies laying on the ground, a character is smoking. His task is to collect coins – like it happens in the most classic platforms – until he reaches his fate and two odd psychedelic creatures.
Just like the space ship’s passengers, he actually lays dead on a corridor’s floor. He was killed by his brother as he was unable to pay his debts. That is the reason for his path in this purgatory, searching for coins as a pledge and comfort.
This is Sluggish Morss, a videogame created by Jack Clover and Jack King-Spooner, first of a trilogy which quickly became more and more complex. On the internet there are plenty of articles on the topic, mostly titled “the WTF game ever”, in which dozens of people comment with amusement the epyleptic approach, the chaos of the events, the many disturbing details. And yet this flawed, senseless game does not limit itself to its appearances, there is a complex world hiding inside of it, built to express a particularly multifaceted and deep reflection.
Sluggish Morss is the name of the space ship of the three narrations, a “time wheelchair” traveling millenniums in the future of humanity. Such a distant future, in which galaxies and planets have been destroyed by men and his devastating expansion. In which the universe is about to become “what we would be tempted to call nothing”.
Three protagonists travel on the Sluggish Morss outside space and time, losing their sense of reality someway. Beside the strange character smoking, we meet Widok, the projectionist, and Fritnid, a recently graduated pilot.
Three protagonist who, as we will discover, are connected: a single entity continuously reincarnating, in a path of fragmentation of what goes beyond relativism.
There is a strong criticism towards society, screamed through the unsettling advertising about the sweetness of death, or insinuated among the aphorisms pronounced during the many encounters we will make. Men tend to become parasites, not only their mortality is deadly, but also their own mind – as two superior beings tell us.
A disturbingly chaotic world, styled by Jack King-Spooner (the signature style is mostly his own, and he is the only director of the last episode), where glitch art becomes expressionism and any material can become part of the creative process.

Sluggish Morss

 

I’d like to be part of the world around you

Life is strange – DONTNOD

Life is strange

At first sight, Life is strange is a teen drama with strong hipster colors. His aesthetic and mood seem to originate from Sundance Festival’s indie hits: deep American province, buses driving along the cliffs at sundown, landfills which can become shelters away from the world, train tracks on which to walk on insinuating into the woods, José Gonzales starts to play. Add the story of a friendship, between two seemingly opposite girls: Max, introverted and sensitive, opposed to Chloe, the brooding rebel. Add an academy of photography full of archetypal characters, dorms and parties. Add reference to the 90s culture, evoking the nostalgia of those in their thirties. And while you are at it, add a (inevitable) pinch of Twin Peaks. Put the whole thing in the structure of an interactive graphic adventure, with an essential gameplay based on time rewind in order to change dialog choices – the main theme of the game seem to be the butterfly effect. This may have provided an idea of the game – and maybe not that positive.
Well, what if I told you this is the most emotionally intense game you could expect?
Life is strange succeed in an improbable task: to create a relationship of deep empathy between the player and a teenager girl who comes back to her hometown and discovers her ability to rewind time. First of all, it succeeds by making its generational references comfortable enough. Dontnod orchestrate an extremely fragile structure, which could constantly crash because of its possible triviality and naivety. And yet the suspension of disbelief wins everytime. The emphatic connection is slowly built through details, interpretations, peeked or shared moments, and sometimes the stereotypes themselves, willingly carried to excess, seem to make the world of this game more believable, along with the subsequent aftermaths.
The relation of empathy with the characters allow the Dontnod to introduce complex themes like drug abuse, sexuality, bullying. These themes are introduced without emphasis, like something that is actually part of our everyday lives. They are not explicitly exploited, which makes the game even more believable.
As empathy makes us see Max as a close friend, Life is strange takes us by the hand into the complexity of life. Through acceptance of pain, through the sense of responsibility with respect for our choices, through uncertainty. It values every choice we made. It pulls the strings of plots and subplots and unite them almost perfectly, filling each element of its world with incredible humanity.
After these premises, of course one of the endings can disappoint (clearly the Dontnot decided to bet on a different, and far more unsettling, ending) – but not really. Life is strange is like an old love, its sweetness and naivety makes you forget each one of its flaws. It has to be accepted as it is, with his flaws that, in the end, make it unique.

Life is strange

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