This is part of an on-going companion series to the game curation effort Forest Ambassador run by merritt kopas. Please explore and support it if you can!

What can games teach about design? To anyone, not necessarily industry people. It’s important to discuss because there are a lot of people talking about games who might not fully have a grasp on design. There’s a lot of criticism about this, that players and critics focus on non-interactive elements when they talk about video games. We often see critics talk about how games fit into certain contexts of our lives, be it as a product or an autobiographical metaphor or an example of systemic oppression. Rarely do these analyses come from the directly design itself, rather by-products or echoes of the design. Which isn’t necessarily bad, that’s what design is supposed to do, make a person feel things.

I just finished reading through anna anthropy’s section of A Game Design Vocabulary, a book co-written with Naomi Clark, just in time to talk about her work on Triad (it only takes a little bit to play) with Leon Arnott and Liz Ryerson. What I like about anna’s writing and talks is how she aims not only for good games and good design, but for a lot of the excess to be cut and manageable for people who aren’t already in video games design to understand and do themselves. I’ve become a fan of saying the idea of minimalist games is misleading, and that most games are overwrought. I want to detail a little about anna’s proposed language around game design through Triad and how it teaches on its own.

anna uses syntax as a way to talk about design. Of most importance are verbs, which she defines as doing rules. In Triad, the player’s main verb is to move around the three members of a relationship into proper sleeping positions on a bed. anna is really good about boiling things down to essentials and makes everything else revolve around this verb. You only use your mouse for the entire game, and a click becomes a decision making action, punctuated by the lamp being the finish button. This seems trivial information at first, but for anna, giving the player the smallest amount of information and input needed to play is an important part of design, because it ties the player stronger to them. I could imagine, and have seen, different keyboard buttons for rotating the people, turning off the light, or advancing the dialogue. We can push this a little further and say that the verb is actually arranging rather than moving, or another word that carries a nuance that would be good for interpreting. I can see a possible avenue for criticism to take and interpret verbs this way, because it allows you to change the light design decisions are seen under. This arranging feeling echoes back out to the objects and context of the game.

I should take a moment aside to talk a little bit about rules. I myself do not really see games to be, essentially, rules or instructions one plays with, but we are in a paradigm that sees rules as the smallest building blocks of creating games. Rules as a concept are also stretched beyond the typical meaning of rules here. The broadest way I can put it is rules are things that are designed to happen. In Triad, this can be that the light can’t turn off until all body parts are on the bed or that to win is for everyone to not be bothered during the night, and down to clicking being what forwards the dialogue and the bed being pink. I see rules more to be a lens than things that really exist on their own, we read rules and systems into design to explain them. Rules as lens is another good place for a critic to start when talking about a piece, such as, how does the rule of the cat jumping on the bed relate to or affect player decisions and behavior?

She uses objects pretty much how you think one would in a sentence structure, the rules verbs act on. anna advises for having interesting objects that help advance verbs. In the game, the main objects are the people being arranged. All of them have different qualities that make them interact with each other in unique ways. One of the bedmates rolls around in their sleep, another flips on their side. These create relationships between the characters, particularly with the one that rolls; they somehow have to be contained in the bed without being kicked. Most interesting and resonant with me however is how these objects are coded to hit each other out of the way unless you are precise and methodical on how you place them. The rules of objects are almost like personality traits; you can read in a sort of frustration yet care in arranging these people on the bed. These objects are fussy to work with but there *is* a solution (well, sort of).

Context is the layer where critics and player tend to sit in the most. It’s important; without context, this would be a simple puzzle game not too unlike other things you’ve seen. This is probably another good practice in criticism, imagining a game stripped of its context compared to its actual one. Because this is depicting a triadic relationship, there’s more going on than pieces fitting together. It’s trying to have different needs met, and requiring a lot of trial and error. My favorite part of the game is actually the interludes between each night, because it mounts the pressure of getting it right the next time. I could only imagine that this triad was also having lots of other things in their relationship going on, and they had to end every night with one of them constantly rolling off the bed.

And, for me, that’s really where design-focused criticism stops. Not much interesting comes out of analyzing in a design-centric manner to connect the game to the outside world. These critiques are pretty much from a user experience standpoint; a lot of anna’s writing is about how to be clear to the player and how to have a less is more approach to design. It is meaningful that there is a game that depicts a triadic relationship, and I think that ends there. This doesn’t mean that this game nor others can’t be significant because of this, rather, I don’t think design analyses can hold up without cultural criticism. I can see a larger piece about themes of restriction in games with queer content and how that manifests, but design-by-design points typically boil down to ‘it’s fun’ or ‘it’s elegant.’ To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the games themselves are void of value, rather, I think design analyses are stuck on what’s good design and how to make a good game on a product level. There is more to be said about the game being about a triad than the puzzle itself; that’s not a critique, more like a sign we need another way to look at games, and why autobiographical connections to games are in vogue.

I find anna’s work both as a designer and theorist to be the terminus of contemporary design ideology, boiled down to its essentials and ready for more people to pick it up and use it. I find that this design paradigm is rather, well, videogamey, and is too down the entertainment rabbit hole to really be mined for something other than that. This isn’t downing her games, knowing her personally I am privy to her non-digital work and ideas that are interesting. Just that I don’t think we’re ever going to find much to talk about in this era of games with a rules-based design paradigm. I definitely suggest buying and reading her and Naomi’s book however, because it will make a lot of contemporary video games clearer, and allows you to understand design-speak better when you hear it. As for my criticisms or difference to this work, I hope to detail that sometime in the future. For now, consider that a game doesn’t need to say something profound through its rules to mean something to someone else, and that players don’t necessarily have to have a designer’s logic to be affected by design. Smaller games like this are like drops in an ocean that can make a wave. We don’t need one or a few games to be especially profound, rather, getting game making tools and methodology into more people’s grasps.

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Benthic Love

This is the first in an on-going companion series to the game curation effort Forest Ambassador run by merritt kopas. Please explore and support it if you can!

What does subversive play look like?

Subversion has quite the range of people interested in its manifestation whenever it comes to creative expression. For many scholars and critics, it usually marks a piece of work as culturally relevant by crossing over into the metafictional, appropriated by the public. We see this fascination expressed often, when we see instances like Minecraft being used to build a processor to mod culture in general. The piece becomes more than just itself, it stands as a medium for the public unconscious to express itself. There is also a more grassroots activist, though not completely unrelated, take on subversion as well. It revolves around upsetting the norm and creating room for the other and the yet-known. Both of these concepts are hard to imagine designing for, and I think they follow the conversation around values like agency and choice.

Games can be both subversive and allow subversion without handing the player an entire world to make choices in. Often all we need to be subversive is our minds. I found Mike Joffe’s Benthic Love holding many different kinds of subversions, much of which flies in the face of what critics would typically look for in subversive play. It shows how games don’t have to be apparently radical or sandboxes to offer the player subversive opportunities. It doesn’t take a long time to play, so I suggest you go through it a couple times before continuing.

The main part that really makes Benthic Love a good example is how it obviously references a genre, dating sims, but doesn’t require the player to be aware of dating sim tropes to take meaning from the piece. It’s not just that this is about anglerfish, but how their mating process shapes their identities. Typically, protagonists in dating sims are near-ciphers, with enough of a personality to provide speaking lines to other characters, but leaving enough room for the player to insert themselves. This cipher is typically a heterosexual boy who is at a life juncture of some sort that implores him to find a girl to date or just straight-up have sex with. Sex is typically the end-goal, even if the story revolves around romance; the sex scene is a reward for the player for successfully gaming the system to achieving a girl character’s affections. Within the tradition of visual novels, the genre dating sims is a subset of, players are encouraged to go through the same motions over and over again until they view all the story paths.

In Benthic Love, the image and disposition of the male angler fish serves as a reflection on the usual motions of these protagonists. Particularly with the concept of nature, and how it propels life in the deepest part of the ocean. The male angler fish quite literally needs a female, starvation acts as a main motivation to on this journey rather than happening upon a romantic situation. Nature forces them to seek out the female fish, even when, at least in the fiction of the game, they will lose their identity and being after fusing together. The apparent inevitability of nature, and why it is this way, reverberates throughout the entire piece. The slow struggle between the sperm whale and colossal squid, the bones on the ocean floor, the commentary on the poop of over animals floating down to fertilize the benthic region. The ocean worked this way all along, and the main character’s existence is just a small notch of a cog in the clockwork. There is a still violence about it all, but that violence doesn’t necessarily come from an identifiable source. What is it about human nature that depicts men the way they are in dating sims? What is this quiet violence and where is it coming from? In a way, this was a very succinct through line to contemplating masculinity that I haven’t seen before, because usually art frames masculinity through forcing a man to prove his. While there are some choices that give your angler that tone, they aren’t challenged on the basis of who they say they are. Women being the more interesting and aware agents, at least through the metaphor, in the story is also an interesting twist. These males attach and wither while the female moves on with life, using them for their genetic material. The female wants it to mean something, even if it’s a little, and the male just wants his last meal.

Because nature and its slow but forceful cycle is so present in this piece, and given the replayable convention of visual novels, players are easily enticed to resist. Your character can simply choose not to mate and fuse with the female angler, and they will slowly die from starvation. This is treated as a positive however, and even if it seems undramatic, it’s powerful to me. It’s the option that completely rejects any more participation in the cycle, a sort of self-deterministic ending. The game doesn’t treat it as bad, and acknowledges this path as one fine to take, even if the narration doesn’t quite understand fully why you would. This stands in contrast to games of all sorts that essentially shame players who don’t win. Yet, is there any real winning when you are just a cog swept up in inevitability?

Of course, the most powerful, and weird, scene comes when you meet another male angler fish who seems to be struggling with the idea of mating with a female. This scene is interesting to me because of how uncommon vulnerability between men occurs in our reality and media. It is the site, if you will, of where masculinity is enforced, stabilized, transmuted, or discarded. This scene allows for a lot of interpretations, maybe the most salient being queerness. Though what is more interesting is how queerness still, in some way, follows the flow of nature, but co-opts it at the same time. As Mike mentions in his note about creating this, there is something to conceiving the opportunity to subvert the story and then the surprise when you can actually do it. Subversion isn’t the complete disowning of nature, or in sociological terms, nurture, rather reshaping culture to fit your own needs. Quite poetically, when the male anglers mate, they create a cycle of their own, both conjoined and independent of the cycles going on around them.

While this ending is given a little extra treatment than some of the others, there aren’t fireworks going off to celebrate how subversive you are as a player, nor would anyone look at these playthroughs and see some exercise of player agency. This is the power of playing with text. Instead of players being preoccupied with gaining choice or exercising it, they get prompts to consider why the choose the things they do. What do their choices mean? Why are they getting to choose this? Games typically want to communicate the importance of the power to choose, while pieces like Benthic Love have you contemplate the function of choosing anything in the first place.

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