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End of Life IF

Posted in Newsgames, Projects, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on October 19, 2009

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End of Life is an interactive fiction about family life and decision-making. It started as an idea in Ian Bogost’s newsgame project studio. One of the branches of newsgames we have identified for our book is the documentary game. Typically these have a medium-length (20 minutes to two hours) playthrough time and are built as a mod for a 3D engine. There are three major types: spatial, procedural, and personal. Personal documentary games mix spatial and system-based models in order to tell share a story from a unique, subjective point-of-view. End of Life is a text-based adaptation of the documentary game form, addressing the real-world issue of “end of life counseling” or the decision whether to pull life support from a dying loved one.

The high concept pitch for EoL would sound something like, “It’s Ruben & Lullaby meets The Sound and The Fury.” Point-of-view switching is a powerful literary device, but in static texts this typically implies a forced perspective. In EoL, the player can switch back and forth between five family members at any moment and in any order. If they don’t like a character, they can ignore her for the course of the playthrough. The invalid family patriarch is our Benjy Compson (the mentally handicapped member of Faulkner’s fictional family), providing commentary that the active family members do not have access to. Some characters always do the same things in every playthrough; most have branching choices based on their moods at certain points in the day. When there is no choice in action, mood will instead dictate how the character mentally reacts to her situation.

Ruben & Lullaby provides the inspiration for the interaction model: the player controls a wisp that can nudge the emotions of one family member per hour. I see this as a direct contradiction of the interaction model of The Sims, where players are cued to a desire or feeling in the Sim that they can rectify or not by dictating action. Players of R&L and Facade are often frustrated when their commands don’t lead to tangible results in game, and I wanted to capture a similar frustration in EoL. Each family member begins the playthrough in a randomized mood. Each is variably susceptible to particular mood swings, leading to healthy dose of guesswork and replay value. The player can also choose to abstain from influencing the characters, letting the drama play out based on the beginning values.

At the end of the game, the family convenes to decide the fate of the patriarch; some will vote to keep him alive if they are in a good mood, some if they are in a bad mood. This decision takes place offscreen, much as in the violent sections of Greek tragedy (mostly because I wasn’t good enough to code it dramatically). The player has gleaned parts of their personalities in the playthrough, but he doesn’t know everything about each family member. Most importantly, their ethics aren’t considered. The game argues that people make decisions based on who they are and the mood they are in. Ethics certainly make up who we are, but they tend to be remarkably malleable under duress. Decisions are also relational; some people, under some circumstances, will take radical action to counteract what they see as the controlling influence of others.

In discussing digital media, we often fall back on an essentialist logic that says that an artifact is aesthetically legitimate if it maximizes the affordances of the medium; however, there is a slightly older aesthetic criterion, coming from Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, which states that aesthetic legitimacy arises not from essentialist qualities but from the reflection of the work’s means of production–it has to reify the cultural milieu of a time and place, adopting a suitable form for conveying it. End of Life draws from the latter school of thought, directly confronting a relevant public issue and encapsulating how one specific family deals with it.

The suggestion that a digital artifact should provide always immersion, embodiment, and agency is perverse. It only makes sense if one views digital media as escapism, created to fully engage the user in the place of the real world around them. A brute fact of human life is that we don’t have control over much of our lives or the lives of others. Aarseth argues that games become more “gamelike” if they are configurative, that the player should be able to see the meaningful influence her actions have on a virtual world. I would argue that agency and embodiment mean more in configurative work when they are directly contradicted in non-configurative work. By taking these essential qualities away sometimes, we make them more cherished. Such qualities should be selected from to suit the work, not the other way around. Defaulting to what is important to us robs it of importance. This is an educational opportunity, an antidote to the intoxicating sense of power that most digital artifacts provide. Some things simply aren’t configurative in the real world; families are a good example.

A week before finishing this project, I finally found published theoretical grounding for my position. In their early work on augmented reality games, Jay Bolter and Blair MacIntyre argue that point-of-view switching provides adequate embodiment in lieu of actual agency in a digital environment.2 I actually don’t find their particular example of this principle compelling; basically they simplified Twelve Angry Jurors to Three Jurors, strapped a backpack computer and a virtual reality visor to a player, and then allowed the player to switch between inhabiting the mindset of one of the three characters as a static drama played out. I think EoL takes point-of-view switching one step further and provides a better proof-of-concept for their argument.

I consider End of Life no small success. My writing is admittedly the weakest element; mentally I finished the piece the moment I finished coding the framework girding the story. This project combines everything I’ve learned how to do in Flash thus far (excepting animation), and it constitutes the first true state machine I’ve ever made completely by myself in the platform. Even though the writing is somewhat trite, pulling from every cliche of everyday family life I’m familiar with, it becomes true in that I pulled it from one specific, real-world family (my own).

There is some room for future development here, both graphically and procedurally. Right now there are two variations for every character in every round based on there mood. Given the way the structure is set up, I could add mood variations to the branching story sections or add a third mood variation (neutral) given enough time and literary inspiration. I would also love to try to remake this project as a true documentary game, in a 3D engine, with unique art assets and dialogue. The current iteration of this project represents the utmost level of my design and programming abilities given the time constraints and the specifications of the assignment.

I should note that this situation didn’t actually happen to my family, and the personalities have been a bit blown own to be more compelling. My grandfather died five years ago from Alzheimer’s disease, asleep in his bed, in the room that I grew up in. This isn’t meant to be a universal story, though it can be generalized to the extent that families are, after all, families; it is a directed experience featuring characters with largely determinate personalities. This is the way I wanted it, and I hope the player enjoys what I crafted for them. A big thank you goes out to Graham Jans for teaching me how to randomize variables in Flash. I’m also indebted to my family for providing me with the strong personalities embedded in the family members of this fiction. Thank you to my father, who used to work as an intensive care nurse, for describing the hour-by-hour care of a comatose patient.

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Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 16-45.

MacIntrye, Blair and Jay Bolter. “Single-narrative, multiple point-of-view dramatic experiences in augmented reality” in Virtual Reality 7 (London: Springer-Verlag, 2003), 10-16.

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Documentary Games & the Life and Death of the Saga Song

Posted in Columns, Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on April 1, 2009

Originally written for Bogost’s News Games blog.

In looking for proof-of-concepts for the success and creation of documentary and editorial games, I came across a historical movement in country music that I think bears exploration. Country music became popular music in the United States after World War II, because so many training camps were located in the South. Soldiers from around the country were introduced to the genre then, and they brought it home with them when they returned from war. An accompanying reason for the meteoric rise of country music was the “saga song” – a prominent sub-genre in the 40’s and 50’s that openly explored tragedies such as war and murder.

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Preceding the wide popularity of country music was a ballad about the “Wreck of the Old 97.” The engineer, Steve Broadey, had to make up for a one-hour delay in the delivery of a Fast Mail shipment for the USPS by traveling at unsafe speeds between Monroe and Spencer. Broadey lost control of the engine while descending a gradient toward the Stillhouse Trestle; he de-railed the train, which fell into the Cherrystone Creek ravine killing all nine passengers. Broadey was blamed for the tragedy, but as a contributor to the Wikipedia article on the song explains:

{The ballad clearly places the blame for the wreck on the railroad company for pressuring Steve Broadey to exceed a safe speed limit, for the lyrics begin, “Well, they handed him his orders in Monroe, Virginia, saying, ‘Steve, you’re way behind time; this is not 38 it is Old 97, you must put her into Spencer on time.’” }

From the point of view of editorial, this is a case of the songwriter including information that determines an editorial line: Southern Railway caused the accident by enforcing reckless driving in order to satisfy their contract with USPS.

Nashville Skyline, a column for CMT News by Chet Flippo, discusses the saga song in connection to a recently-released compilation titled “People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938.” Flippo goes through a short history of the sub-genre before editorializing on the disappearance of the saga song in contemporary country music. He seems particularly interested in understanding why country music has shied away from addressing the Iraq War directly.

I asked the only “expert” on country music I knew, Dirt Roads and Honkeytonks DJ Sarah Fox, this same question. She explained to me that country music as we now know it is closer in spirit to pop music than to blues as a result of the manufacturing of pop during the 70s and 80s. This makes sense, in that this era also buried the protest songs of the 60s under heaps of mind-numbing disco beats and escapist love songs; however, it doesn’t explain why a popular sub-genre such as the saga song all of a sudden became un-popular. This, it would seem, is simply a natural result of the eternal shake-up of the music industry that comes with every new generation of music listeners and purchasers.

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Does this mean that popular art addressing social issues is “out” across all media, and that the goals of editorial games will never reach fruition in this generation? I’d like to suggest that perhaps the issue here is simply a shifting of expectations in consumers of various media. For instance, in the film industry “war” and “issues” movies are still released in droves each year. To name a few recent ones,  we can see how Syriana, Jarhead, and Lamb & Lion continue this tradition. Instead of turning on our radios to hear songs about the news, we’re going to theaters to watch movies about them. As it turns out, the decline of saga songs in the 70s and 80s roughly coincides with the emergence of the New Hollywood period in American cinema. Cimino’s Deer Hunter (1978) effectively replaces the anti-Vietnam songs of the late 60’s.

This leads me to tentatively conclude that as a medium becomes the primary vehicle through which ideas are transmitted, the popularity of editorializing artifacts in that medium rises. We can see how, in general, both the American and gaming publics are not entirely ready for political or editorial games because movies are still our primary expressive medium (despite losing ground to the games industry each year). Tracy Fullerton cites an example of this preferential reception of the dominant medium when she discusses the backlash against JFK Reloaded. The game does something that movies cannot: based on physics and a 3D space, it shows just how hard it would have been for Oswald to have fired all the shots on Kennedy’s limo. Despite this unique experience it provided, popular backlash against the game found it exploitative. Fullerton asks the question, “Why don’t we have the same reaction to a film like Oliver Stone’s JFK, which goes so far as to use the much-derided filmic ‘recreation?’”

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Another editorial game suffering a similar fate was Super Columbine Massacre RPG. This game released roughly around the time that Gus van Sant’s Elephant won the Palme D’or at Cannes; the game, on the other hand, was famously rejected from an indie game festival despite winning the jury prize – showing that even among the art game movement such works were not yet ready to be accepted by some people (this was also the first time many industry outsiders were introduced to the genius of Jon Blow, who withdrew an early build of Braid from the same festival in protest of SCMrpg‘s dismissal). It should also be noted that infanticide was also a popular subject of the saga song of early/mid country music (and true crime novels such as In Cold Blood).

Certainly a big part of all this is a presentation issue: have you ever seen the websites for JFK: Reloaded, 9/11 Survivor, or Super Columbine RPG? Talk about poor marketing and image control. Gus van Sant’s career is particularly important to understanding this aspect of artistic creation. From among all the members of the New Queer Cinema, only van Sant and, to a lesser degree, Todd Haynes have managed to build lasting careers on the edge of the mainstream film industry. They do this by mixing up the topics of their work and tireless promotion at festivals – something aspiring documentary or editorial game developers can learn from.

Of course, there’s no reason that the evolution of videogames as an artistic medium will follow the rules set by previous media. Ian suggests that documentary game developers can simply build on the reputation of documentary film in order to gain leverage as a shared genre–as opposed to a disparate medium. In any case, I hope that I’ve shown that we have reason to believe that games dealing with serious issues will not always remain self-funded projects on the far boundaries of the games industry. Strangely enough, popular reception of these games might rely less on their own intrinsic value than on the increased cultural cache of mainstream games in the coming years.

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