Countdown: Thinking of Time in Text Games

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 an 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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Inspiring Games I Played in 2013

Deadbolt

I have a hard time crying. Out of all the people I know, I cry the least. Even when I want to, I can’t seem to reach that catharsis.

Catharsis. I’m really interested in play being used for communication. Especially between people who are intimate with one another. There is something about play that can internalize frustration, despair, relief.

I played Deadbolt twice, and both times I cried afterwards. It wasn’t a game about crying, rather, extreme tension and exhaling. The play was more in what you didn’t do than the simple actions of telling a secret or giving praise.

It was the mood. I couldn’t say a word most of time. I sat, anticipating what raw memory I’d have to bare, listening to people talk to each other in hushed voices. Both for my ears and none of my business. When I finally got to speak, to detail what neurosis haunts me, my voice is hoarse.

I still carry the game around with me. But it’s a part of Deadbolt that doesn’t have any rules. There are three cards with keys on them in my wallet, and when I remember that they are there, I begin to cry.

Dog Eat Dog

We were a nation in love with horses and festivals. Every year we held our biggest celebration on the day of the horses, feeding them fruit and brushing their manes.

Then they came. The first thing they demanded was putting the horses to work. We didn’t understand. White men with lip hair tried to mount our horses, but they bucked and kicked and ran off to the forests. We would have too, if it weren’t for their guns.

We did all we could to resist. We held festivals every day to avoid working for invaders. We began to worship the sea, pretty rocks, strong gusts of wind. We snuck our children in the forests at night so they didn’t forget about horses.

They put us in rooms to teach us their ways. Our young listened to them more than the horses. And even when they left, we could still feel the roads they paved over our homes.

The Entertainment

There is a man sitting at a bar. He rocks back and forth on the back legs of the stool. A cracked leather wallet stuffed with receipts of art supplies and lattes to write off his taxes peeks out his right, back pocket. There were small icebergs floating on a half-inch of amber liquor in the highball by his knuckles. His cell phone won’t ring. He picks up the glass.

I like the way men sit. The angle of their legs just shy of a right angle, one foot dangling, laces just about to touch the ground. Okay, the way he sits. Lip. Gloss. Smack. I can see him in my compact mirror. The jukebox music is just cheesy enough for small talk. Just say how stiff the Long Islands are here. He’s checking his phone. I rise from my seat.

This is about perspective. Every object is observed from different angles, with different senses, from different heights and distances. You feel like you are moving forward through life but an infinite amount of things are hitting you sideways and upside down. We usually hear of life second-hand, but here we get closer to the chaos of experience, even the parts we don’t know we feel.

Killer Queen Arcade

I am the Queen. My kingdom is the battlefield.

I can hear our enemies. They are tapping and whispering. They jump around and I must kill them.

I admit, I can’t keep track of my children. They yell for my attention, powerless without my intervention. They chirp when they jump, pleading as I dodge dive attacks and horizontal swipes.

One is collecting, other ride a snail, the rest chase the enemy queen. I don’t quite understand the snail. What do we do, mother?

In every battle, there is a sacrifice. My children on the ground floor distract the enemy as I evolve my newly born into warriors. They throw their bodies forward without a concern for their lives, only mine.

Only mine.

Mascarade

I am the Queen. Or am I the Bishop? I’m probably the Bishop.

Life Lesson #1: Fake it ‘til you make it. Most of the time, you’re not 100% sure of who you are. More importantly, it’s who others perceive you to be. That’s how they decide to use you, fear you. Always look more dangerous, more well off than you actually are.

I take their gold.

Life Lesson #2: Embrace change. They always say it’s about the journey, and they’re fuckin’ right. Everyone is clawing to win. People you know, people you don’t. We play a game that doesn’t let everyone win. You must deceive and manipulate your way through. You play by the rules.

I am challenged.

Life Lesson #3: We’re all fighting the same battle. We spend so much time sizing each other up, seeing how she is so much more eloquent, how they have so many friends. People will gang up out of desperation. Others, self-sabotage, because that’s the only thing they see.

I am the Queen.

Microscope

Whether we do it intentionally or not, we are all historians.

Misery Bubblegum

It was the first day back from break in the journalism club at the elite Flight Academy. There were mostly old faces, ready to get their small print paper up and running again. They all had secrets; the newest addition who messed with the computers had a crush on the editor in chief, the managing editor was an android, and the star beat reporter has a history, and propensity, for unethical practices. What they didn’t know is their search for the truth would uncover the biggest secret of their lives.

Flight Academy wasn’t just a prep school that sent a large portion of its graduates to the country’s air force. No. Many of these students were selectively, subtly trained to have superhuman powers, all to go on espionage missions against new, threatening alien forces. The journalism club, eager to break news, stumbled upon what at first looked like a paintball match between upper classmates, but turned out to be a battle of psychic forces.

They didn’t have to get involved. But because the reporter wanted to show up the android, who was doting on their new hacker, who felt terrible guilt for breaking and entering the offices of their administration, they found themselves dead in the middle of war. Can these plucky heroes pull together and use the power of friendship to survive?

Pixel Fireplace

During GDC this year, there was a game exhibit over at SFMOMA. Which means the walls and furniture were perfect geometries. It was a room full of relaxing video games. People were lying down making low humming noises, sitting in tents, meditating.

But there was a TV with chairs surrounding it, and it had the most comforting noise playing. It was that of a campfire. When my eyes saw it, they glazed like they do when you stare at an actual fire. The other people who were there had similar looks. We didn’t really talk, just sat, and watching. Every once in a while, someone would type in a word, and the game would throw that into the fire.

p-o-p-c-o-r-n

m-a-r-s-h-m-a-l-l-o-w

f-i-r-e-c-r-a-c-k-e-r

p-a-p-e-r

Every once in a while, you had to place a log so the fire wouldn’t go out.

l-o-g

I didn’t want to say anything else. And when people saw me, saw the fire, they joined and just sat with me. Sometimes they would throw in something flashy, but mostly would sit, sometimes cuddle. No one asked for more, because this was enough. Us, all facing the same thing, in quiet agreement, was enough.

l-o-g

l-o-g

l-o-g

l-o-g

Proteus

the old woman of the sea

queers in love at the end of the world

kiss
please
breathe in
twine
gift
fuck me now
calm you
take
desperate
tell
breathe out
just hold her hand
when she kisses you back
alive
breathe in
hungrily
her breathing
hold

Everything is wiped away.

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