NarraScope 2020: Wandering Games
Melissa Kagan is a game studies academic and incoming Assistant Professor of Communication at Curry College. She's published in Game studies, Convergence and Game environments, and she serves as an associate editor of the Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds. Her book project Wandering Games is forthcoming.
When I started analysing wandering games I started thinking about, particularly walking sims and gender, and how walking sims get gendered female. Some work was starting to get done on walking sims as queer spaces and I started to get really fascinated at how walking sims are usually defined by their lack. The definition that I cobbled together is that they’re exploratory non0-violent games without points, goals or tasks in which the undying first person player character wanders around a narrative leverage space.
The term walking simulator originated as this derogatory smear intended to denigrate games that were less violent, less task oriented, or less difficult to complete, which immediately implies this sense of lack. They're not violent, they don't have guns, they don't have tasks, they might not have wind loss conditions, there's something missing, which in part comes from their history of being modded.
But, the more I thought about this, the more I wanted to rethink Walking Sims and reclaim them as wandering games. Wandering games don’t lack something, rather they draw from a vast intellectual history. So over the last decade, "walking simulator" has become a catch all term for games that are interested in alternative modes of expression, and alternative considerations of embodiment, environment, orientation and community. The genre now serves as a catalyst for debates about anti game ascetics, changing gamer demographics and the radical potential of poetic spatial storytelling in video games. In process, the term walking simulator also accidentally tapped into something brilliant: The vast heritage and intellectual history of the concept of walking and wandering in performance, philosophy, pilgrimage, protest and literature.
Originally my book was going to be about walking simulators, but I shifted it towards wandering games in order to bring this intellectual heritage explicitly into the discussion of walking. I'm interested in showing how this genre has inflected and continues to inflect some of the most interesting hybrid games of the last couple years.
These games are connected to the concept of wandering as a theme, a formal mode and aesthetic metaphor, a player action. And through troubling the concept of wandering, They tap into what I would consider some of the most crucial conversations going on in game studies today, wandering in games exposes the multiplicity as possibilities of a simple human act of moving through space, and complicates what such movement might mean within different game worlds.
Labor and capitalism:
How does wandering games attempt to reinstate a radical boundary between work and play? How can we understand the reaction against wandering games within gamer culture as something like a resistance to any game that criticizes the unthinking replication of capitalists success paragraphs, if most games are premised on this same paradigm? Are wandering games binge designed to provoke unproductive contemplative, anti-capitalist play? How does the construction of empty landscape in walking Sims replicated colonizers understanding of space and place? How does the heroic monomyth of the wanderer and the ubiquity of exploration with narrative gaming, invite colonialist game design? How does the negative space violence of an empty landscape connect to broader conversations of violence in gaming?
Gender and sexuality:
How and why are wandering games often gendered female? And how does this gendering map onto long standing discussions of female agency and presence in the public sphere? How do wandering modes queer traditional video gameplay, and finally death and violence? How does the central tension of simulating a traditionally an undying Player Character traversing a dead haunted world help us to understand ludic conventions, metaphors and obsessions surrounding death, and play?
A lot of the wonderful work that's already been done in this space has been done on walking simulators.
Right? Okay? So, very ambitiously, I'm now about to take you through one slide per chapter.
An incomplete background about wandering as a concept for games before digital game, and then how those discussions and discourses get kind of imported wholesale oftentimes implicitly into contemporary video games.
I include a survey of the digital game genres that developed conventions surrounding ludic exploration, and the embodied performative game genres that enable players designers and landscapes to co create narratively rich spaces through which to wander.
Then I zoom out a little bit more and look across the 20th century In general, the array of artistic and activist practices related to wandering, which are relevant to the development of walking, including 20th century performance art. So interactive insights, theatre, situationist international Capra's happenings. I also look a little bit at digressive landmarks of literature, particularly modernist ones that demand respect for meandering, purposeless anti-capitalist, leisure. And then third, an activist understanding of the connections between wandering and marching when does wandering in a group turn into marching occupation resistance protests I draw from Rebecca Solnit Sarah Jean Servin ack, Carla Wallace and Lauren Elkin in particular.
This is a pun, I'm interested in thinking about the corpse as media ties and archival object. Wandering games are archival adventures. You're working through big fields of different kinds of text and you're piecing all that text together like a researcher in an archive.
So from there, I go towards some thoughts about death and walking since in general, wandering games have a reputation as these peaceful ludic environments. Oftentimes, that's a major complaint about them. But I argue that these games fully participate in the tradition of death and violence that characterizes the history of video games. The difference is time. In so many games, you walk into a peaceful environment and you kill everything in it. (Overdone – where you discover and try to solve the mystery of a ship full of dead bodies) assumes the opposite, you walk into a peaceful environment in which everything has mysteriously already died. IN other words, you’re not divorced from death, you are instead exploring the aftermath of death rather than causing it directly.
The archival poetics of the game hinge on the mythical existence of that impossible moment when the living person transforms into an archival and archival object.
And finally, I conclude by discussing what that process of objectification means, in the harsh capitalist world in which every death no matter how bloody must eventually be reduced to a number in a ledger. In this chapter I draw a lot from Margaret Schwartz’s Dead Matter. Jennifer Murkowski’s Dying in Full Detail. And Amanda Phillips work on macro politics, which is an article rather than a book.
I also discuss Each Shade, an early 2019 beautiful game where you wander around being a traveling artist in a beautiful place, painting it. You take commissions for your paintings as you explore the whole island get to know everybody. It's so lovely. It's perfect fantasy, if unrealistic. The maker shade rebels in this gap, offering the player a fantasy tailor-made to soothe the particular fears of precarity in 2019 2020, and doing so with such charm that the player hardly realizes that it's happening.
So this chapter looks at how this game is delivering a fantasy of late capitalist precarity. I start by jumping back to the 19th century, and tracing the aesthetic socio-cultural mythmaking surrounding the wandering artist, a character who became increasingly important during the 19th century. I show how the players response to East Shade landscapes relates to the aesthetics that developed during European romanticism, that particular art movement. And then in addition to the romantic ideal of the wanderer, I discuss how the player is also put into the role of that character’s much more realistic cousin, the mid 19th century artisanal journeymen who migrated in search of work.
The experience of playing East Shade is this constant back and forth between the dream of being a wandering artist and the reality of finding commissions and managing all of these different economies, but you have to keep track have largely in a traditional RPG sort of way. But when juxtaposed with the promise of the fantasy of just being a wandering artist and painting, whatever you like, it's really interesting how much of your time is spent, you know, building up your relationship with pivotal NPCs and making sure you have enough inspiration to paint the paintings that are on commission even though that's not what you really wanted to paint and so on and so forth.
So I analyse the key economic considerations that drive the player (and designer, and game studio). And I read their actions within the context of millennial anxieties. Here I'm drawing a lot from Ergin Bulut’s A Precarious Game: The Illusion Of Dream Jobs In The Video Game Industry, a super fascinating work on favour, parity, and the neoliberal instrumentalization of love and passion, the dangerous promise that of the do what you love ethos, and how it's perfectly designed to produce and reproduce a creative precariat.
I then turn to consider feminist considerations, first in the context of moon visuals as a queer feminist take on wandering. In the game Under Constraints, a player character is a powerful witch, who has been banished from the entire earth and relegated to a tiny circle of movement, which she walks and re-walks daily. Each day she conducts an identical ritual and decides whether or not to protect the Earth today against this apocalyptic comet, which we see about to crash into the earth. Every day, the player must remember to play, but it's constrained to play for only five minutes at a time, you have to play every single day for 28 days, but only for five minutes each day.
So when such constraints are placed around movement, and then mirrored by the game, they force the player to have constraints around time. The player is denied the chance to exert agency over space, or to wander freely in this game. What is left? To discuss this I construct wandering as a metaphorical concept, not a physical one, the practice of which emancipates those to whom society gives no spatial outlet. Internal wandering enables a rebellion against an external order dedicated to the immobilization of black and female bodies.
Connotations of freedom are defined in relation to the unfreedom of others, freeing certain people in other words, only through the subjugation of others into non wandering immobility. Explicating the ritual of the moon through this lens shows how feminist game studies, queer game studies and disability studies can help us to conceptualize repetitive steps in circles as a powerful and alternative mode of wandering – and create places also where multiple temporalities intersect.
After this I think through three different ways of traveling through space as the explorer in 80 days, connecting each one to the heroic monomyths of the wonder and ubiquity of exploration within narratives. Obviously, exploration is not something new. What I'm interested in, in this chapter is thinking through different types of exploration and how all are not equal when it comes to age, or colonialist outlook.
So first I show how narratives of progress and colonialism are woven inextricably into walking simulators. In this context, the player travels through the colonizer with a predatory gaze seeking exploitable land. The perception of landscape got imported from numerous first person shooters and a lot of Walking Sims are still proceeding through landscape in a similar predatory, exploitative way that often goes under the radar.
Imagine, you’re entering a space where you're not the one doing the killing, the exploiting the colonizing, taking over. But your perspective on the space is still one of taking and looting.
So, right. The second way of traveling through this game doesn’t do this. The protagonist offers an experience of peaceably traveling through a complex world, a world that is much more complicated than the protagonist. I love the idea of deconstructing 80Days (discussed in another panel) or trying to make all the wrong choices. I find that so hard to do as a player, so I appreciate you doing that work, that worked for me.
Many Giants has spoken and written quite a bit about the intention to invite post-colonial play by intentionally disrupting 19th century in our activities, dissolving the players expectations of class colonialism, heterosexuality, and creating expectation that the player is not the center of the world. They're traveling through a complex world rather than centered within it. I analyze the subversive choice of a queer, lower class cleric character, while keeping sight of the fact that he's still a white European man. And I try to speculate on critical play of colonialist and post colonialist works.
Finally, in the third section, I turned to a hyper colonialist board game, based on the same narrative, the first Ravensburger board game published in 1884.
This is a board game that's based on the genre goose games, basically, it's the Spyro game. Nothing to do with geese, very sorry to report. But it has a spiraling board. And I argue that it is hyper colonialist not just in its text and content, but it transforms spatial travel into time travel. The player is traveling through time rather than space. The board represents one day rather than one place through which one can travel. And in this way, colonial progress is made logically inevitable. Believe it or not, in this era, dice and the whims of the dice were regarded as unacceptably subversive or could be with enough bad luck and enough bad dice rolls. Maybe the player would not land on the space that they wanted to invade or takeover whatever it was in the diegetic parlance of the game. So by taking that option away and saying no, no, each square is just a day rather than a place, conquest is inevitable because time will pass and the player will continue on the board.
So these three different ways of wandering through game worlds as exploitative colonizers or prospective colonizers, as curious travelers, and as inevitable conquerors illustrates how different kinds of lunar exploration effects can reflect different relationships towards space.
After this I analyse Heavens Vault and show how language can create spaces for confronting death and colonialism through play. Basically, I'm trying to think of language as a space to explore as well. In Heaven’s Vault so many different kinds of language are available and even required from the player. So, it happens to be an archaeologist Aliya who roams around the nebula following the traces of a missing person. The more she learns of sneaky Brenda's disappearance, the deeper she gets into the mythology of the nebula, a universe of looping time, of use robots, fallen and forgotten empires, and a language called ancient which is inscribed on short phrases on many of the artifacts that Aliya encounters during her travels with each human visited, and each inscription decoded. The player gains a little more knowledge about the language and is able to understand the past and it's eraser a little more completely. The knowledge of encroaching death in the Forgotten past, and maybe the near future because of the time loop mythology or religion of this game gives weight and meaning to the players understanding of the game’s language. The threat of all-encompassing imperial power, which is made manifest in the way language works, which I'll get into a little bit more in a second. So by conceptualizing language as a space co created by player and game, I draw from theories of digressive literature to posit the player as an anti colonialist wanderer in a world made of a dozen different types of language and through the way that they navigate that linguistic space and mix them together through their digressive passage through it, they're doing anti colonialist work
The main mechanic of the game is translating the glyphs of ancient into English. So one is attuned to thinking about language from the beginning and the player is making charts and inferences about what the grammatical systems are. And then in the process of playing the game, there's all of this cultural code switching that Aliya does. They're switching between the speech on the colonized worlds for the player care where Leo was born, the player character, and then there's the speech of Empire, which she uses professionally, in the university where she works. In some cases, her specific cultural knowledge is what cracks the code and makes semantically legible, something that would have been incomprehensible otherwise. So she's going back and forth between different kinds of literacy and legibility, all of which are necessary to her solving these translation puzzles. How is it different for a machine versus a human to read a piece of text? And this then becomes a question of identity as well. Since one of the main characters in the game is a robot with sentience, personality, emotions, quite an intense personality actually. So the ways in which a machine can read something are different than the ways that Aaliyah can read and can be read. In navigating these identities, and these various kinds of text, the characters make manifest the many kinds of linguistic fluency, legibility and communication that the game offers, in which the player too has to learn how to navigate and read.
I also want to make a note about digression. The notion that if one keeps talking, keeps writing, death can't take you. And so the result is digressive literature because you've just continuously written and talked until, well, you can't stop, you can't stop.
One of the texts I'm drawing from here is Astrid Ensslin’s Literary Gaming, particularly the work on Primo and situationists.
I also discuss Death Stranding, a game where the player wanders around a post human, post apocalyptic, post death world. The player is made hyper aware of the particularities and limitations of body as they re-attune themselves to their new physicality throughout the game. In Death Stranding you need to manipulate objects on to the main player character Sam and be aware of how the weight of them changes his ability to move through the world. So he roams the devastated landscape of what was once the US delivering packages to a bunkered down populace and connecting each city to a network that is basically the internet. The world is also infested with ghostly creatures. We’re either in some sort of post death moment or death doesn't really exist, Sam cannot die. Sam goes into any sort of afterlife mode and then comes back and because of this ability his entire body is capitalized on shall we say, his blood and his urine and all of his exertion is sort of monetized in the fight against these ghost like creatures. So Sam is between life and death. The world is between life and death. So many of the characters are crossing back and forth across that boundary and the experience of playing the game is gives us an almost offensive sense of connecting with each bunker and going between one task and another task. And to me that is a smokescreen to try to make the game commercially legible. I think it's really about the horror of his perpetual motion in-between. He's always in the process of wandering from one place to the other.
Because of all of this monetization of every instant of every characters or fans in particular life, and physicality. I'm drawing most explicitly here from Alenda Chang's book Playing Nature: The Ecology of Video Games, especially the last chapter on the ecologies of games.
Wandering Games is due to be published towards the end of 2021.
Further recommended reading:
- Consalvo, M. and Paul, C.A., 2019. Real Games: What's Legitimate and What's Not in Contemporary Videogames. MIT Press.
- Reed, J.E., 2020. Feminism in play: edited by Kishonna L. Gray, Gerald Voorhees and Emma Vossen, Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, 271 pp.,(ebook), ISBN 978-3-319-90539-6. Feminist Media Studies, 20(3), pp.458-459.
- Shaw, A., 2015. Gaming at the edge: Sexuality and gender at the margins of gamer culture. U of Minnesota Press.
Kagan, Melissa. 2020. Narrascope 2020: Wandering Games. edited by Narrascope 2020. U.S.: YouTube.
The USW Audience of the Future research team is compiling a summary collection of recent research in the field of immersive, and enhanced reality media