I’ve been thinking about critique lately, especially in the realm of assigning something value. Is a game good or bad? My current philosophical leanings usually allow me to skirt that question, except for the past year I’ve been judging games for festivals. No matter what, I have to bring down a gavel, and I’ll always feel weird about it. However, I know that I’m brought onto these review panels for a reason; I’m often looking at strange, small games other people can’t make heads or tales of. In particular, I review many games made with twine and other minimalist and text-based games.
Now, I don’t give credence to questioning game credentials of any of these works. What hasn’t really been discussed often is how to critique these sorts of games, or, what is their particular contribution to play. A lot of people look at games made with twine as almost journaling, and the kinds of things expressed happen to be different topics than what is usually developed in games. There are very few design critiques of text play, and having encountered some in my judging, I really had to think about what my angle would be for critique. Often, text games put a lot of weight on the actual writing, which is an intuitive thing to do, but often, play is being evoked in a way that disrupts the writing instead of contributing to it. There has to be a reason a game is the proper way to use this text, and again, I’m not going to delineate what is a play and what is reading, just that I’m a judge for games festivals.
I don’t have everything figured out, but I wanted to share and aspect of text design that I’ve found interesting and use when I critique text games in this manner. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about time and temporality in play, and how games can make us aware of our relationship to time. So when I was looking at some text games these past couple of weeks, I was reminded of a game I looked at last year, Justice by Adrian Hall (I suggest two+ ~12 minute playthroughs). Like many text games (granted, this isn’t fully text), it’s easy to give a large amount of the importance to the choices, since the ruling paradigm of design makes agency its center. If you think of the game largely in what kinds of options are given to you, then the play is kind of pedantic, moralizing. However, consider instead the presence of the timer juxtaposed with the option to present the evidence. The play space is more, why and how do you choose the things you do? What are all the other characters’ timers?
Instead of trying to extract meaning from the choices themselves, I found myself analyzing the rationale behind why I chose what I did. Ultimately, if you didn’t present the gun right away, you were manipulating for your own sense of justice, or cruelty, or curiosity. All coming from a place of privilege; this game is about a battle of egos and how people in places of privilege ascertain morality over minoritized people. The real drama of the piece is the pacing between Fadiyah’s speech, especially after McCoy asks a question. The arrogance of him walking up the stairs, of being intentionally mysterious about the decision that determines another’s life. The choices and their contents are dressing for unearthing this arrogance, this selfishness that people at the top of social systems.
There is another kind of selfishness in another game with a countdown: anna anthropy’s queers in love at the end of the world (you will get a good amount in around five minutes). The tension and anxiety is ramped up a little faster here, but the similarity between the games is this contrast of speed and somber. The world is about to end, boom, and you want, need to, enjoy it. anna uses the time it takes to read against the player, to the point where they start to memorize exactly what they want to do, yet the want to explore all the different choices and paths they have before they get to the point where they just rest in a moment, a thought. And, again, if we look at this for just the choices, you aren’t going to find much other than multiple vignettes.
The pacing of the game through its time segments turn this from a gimmick into the mental state of the author, and possibly the player. It unearths desires and worry in a world where things are fleeting, a world where people are so frequently hurt. The timer and loops makes your concentration on your queer lover total; all you have is each other. The twist on all this the end of the world seems to be a metaphor for love, how we rush towards its pleasurable destruction. The repetition trains you to become obsessive, wanting to consume as much of this experience as you can.
I find that both of these examples are explicit in the flow and pacing that many text and minimalist games use to communicate something to players. People get caught up in the choices aspect, and it’s completely misleading; games that you find using twine often aim to train your perception, get you to understand the architecture of your thoughts, the reason why you chose the things you do. I’ve found a common pattern in these games rejecting player agency, showing false choices or boiling down the results between options to be quantitatively the same and emotionally resonant in different but even ways. Think of reading text as hijacking your thoughts and manipulating your perception, and what that does to how you navigate the game. This is just one of many things, of course, and not the in sole domain of these minimal text games, but I’ve found it useful for when I need to find a foothold in analyzing these games. And, really, they reflect back on games of other types as well, mostly showing how cheaply choice as a concept is deployed in mainstream games.
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