Until They Inevitably Find and Kill Each Other

What has changed, two decades on, is the thrust of these games. There has been, in video-game sports as in the culture at large, an astonishing administrative bloat. The first time I noticed the shift was in playing GameDay 2000, a basic NFL simulator. Sure, you could play an NFL game, watch the tightly-packed polygonal men glitch through one another, watch the victory dances to buttrock anthems. But GameDay also let you start a franchise. Now, instead of calling plays and moving small men around, you were the GM. The game let you simulate entire seasons, no longer bothering with the incidental back-and-forth of moving a ball across a field, but playing football on a world-historic level. In the offseason you would trade and draft new players, based on stats generated by the computer, new rookies with computer-generated names populating your team, until your Chicago Bears were unrecognizable, the year was 2020, and your franchise had won the past decade of Super Bowl rings.

Video games roundup

Still from Persona 5

When not tweeting or writing, n+1 editors and writers occasionally play video games. We asked them to describe what they’ve been playing.

In Hidden My Game By Mom!, a free smartphone game by lone wolf Japanese indie developer hap Inc., you play a boy whose disapproving mother has squirreled away his handheld video game console. Each stage requires you to solve puzzles to find it. In the first few stages, the console is hidden on shelves and under couches, as you’d expect; in Stage 4, it sits in the jaws of an alligator. The solutions get sillier. Some are purely non sequitur, like when you help a golfer sink a shot, which causes the console to float down from the sky. Others are more absurd: knocking over cyclists, appeasing water goddesses, making elephants poop and old men levitate.

Superficially the game fits into the sub-genre of “escape-the-room” games like Crimson Room (on which the current real-world escape room trend is based). But it’s more interesting as an extension of the retro-gaming trend, beyond 8-bit throwbacks (Fez, Undertale, Downwell), to the experience of being a young gamer. In the age of mobile gaming and cloud storage, the vexation of having your games physically confiscated is a fading generational memory, right up there with blowing dust out of NES cartridges, keeping a Myst notebook, and making your youngest sibling use the shitty Wavebird controller. Yet instead of just serving up plain nostalgia, which pop culture hardly needs more of, Hidden takes the mundanity of youth as a setup for oddball gags.

Because of the technical barriers to entry, video game design has been slow to find its punk, graffiti, or mumblecore. Hidden comes close. The wonkiness seems so blatant and easy to fix that it feels deliberate: not low quality, but high camp. It’s drawn like an air safety manual, with solid color fills and slightly asymmetric faces; the gameplay amounts to basic screen-poking. The voice acting is untranslated, the text is Google Translated, and the music sounds like “Chopsticks” syncopated on a toy Casio.

Conventional wisdom holds that comedy is uniquely difficult in video games, when the truth is that comedy is just plain hard, and different mediums are suited to different forms.1 Multimillion-dollar AAA games, with their obligations to lore, world-building, and replay value, are often too cumbersome to pull off the lightness and spontaneity, but Hidden succeeds with a shoddiness that’s essential to its appeal. The ethos of willful jankiness is everything I root for in modern game design, and everything modern game design usually lacks. Some gamers might sneer at Hidden for being fleeting and disposable, but just because a joke is less funny the second time you hear it doesn’t make it a bad joke.

In the penultimate stage, you barricade the door with a broom to keep your mom out. Three years pass, and in the final stage, you’ve become a pudgy, greasy-haired shut-in. The room is strewn with trash, and your Nintendo DS sits in plain sight. If you pick it up, you make a nerdy cackle and start playing—you lose, and have to start over. But if you remove the broom and open the door to the outside world, your mom appears, beaming, followed by the rest of your family, and all share a joyous hug. The camera pans to the Nintendo DS, whose screen now reads ESCAPE THE ROOM SUCCESS! So the only way to win is to quit video games. It’s both a funny nod to its predecessors, and a rebuke to the vast, addictive, immersive, unfunny mega-games of today. If nostalgia is an escape from reality, Hidden is an escape from nostalgia, designed to be played and enjoyed, even if never rediscovered.

Tony Tulathimutte

Like a Western film or a presidency, a game show can help describe the boundaries of an era. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was a crass analog for the inflated promise of post–September 11 economic mobility, and its double at this moment is the mobile app Trivia HQ, a live, multiple-choice trivia contest—basically the same game, but with a ten-second timer to head off googling and played by its entire audience at once. A host, drawn from a rotating freelance cast of actors and comedians, reminds us we are not alone alongside a lightning-fast chatroom feed, which is impossible to read because sometimes more than one million people are playing.

They’re eliminated quickly as the questions get increasingly arcane, ramping up from, in one game I played, the definition of a racehorse jockey to the place of Nineveh in the Persian Empire. Sometimes as few as two people have answered all twelve correctly. Games run once or twice a day. When my roommate and I won on a lucky guess about the CGI sets on Babylon 5, we howled, delighted; I felt like I had won a bet. When I woke up the next day, I was still exhilarated. The game exerts a mysterious power.

The image of a vast, diffuse audience tapping at a cell phone app is a tidy fit for the contemporary narrative of smartphone-enabled gig-economy desperation. The game is, after all, not just an experiment in format—and it is a formidable new front in media, completely independent of legacy networks—but a business venture by the frustrated co-founders of now-defunct Vine. The company burns seed funding with every prize payout; its own co-founder has been accused of “creepy” behavior toward women bad enough to spook potential funders and put at risk its $100 million valuation. Surely underwriting that figure is the expectation that active, white-knuckled trivia players are a better, more trackable audience than TV watchers.

The game’s key innovation is really a retooling of the triangular quiz-show structure of host-contestant-audience, and the collapse of the latter two roles into one means the usual host, Scott Rogowsky, or one of his alternates, lacks a well-vetted contestant to debrief, counsel, or taunt. Rogowsky performs for players like he’s still trying out for his job, ad-libbing jokes and dancing between questions about geography, grammar, LCD Soundsystem. The fratty vamping of this suit-wearing character, against a green screen and through the clipping of the video feed, recalls (as Ian Bogost and others have noted, with discomfort) the stuttering, computerized 1980s TV host Max Headroom.

HQ has been compared hand-wringingly to something out of Black Mirror, which overstates the case. It’s as if the bargain of a few thousand dollars in exchange for the undivided attention of a million players is so cunning a business model as to be dangerous. In flexing the strength of its menacing intrigue I suspect HQ’s producers stumbled, perversely, onto the flip side of the game’s cozy appeal. Rogowsky will sometimes wink through the techno-dystopian kayfabe, offering his own Black Mirror-themed free association, riffing not “close, but no cigar,” but rather “close, but no vape pen.”

Chris Looft

My relationship to video games is tautological: I didn’t play games growing up, so I’m not good at them, so I don’t want to play them, so I’ll never be good at them. A similar pattern holds for most new hobbies, but video games in particular demand reflexes that it feels too late to develop, as well as amounts of time one devotes to no other comparable activity. One website (HowLongtoBeat.com) estimates narrative playtime for the most recent Zelda game at 44 hours, or 172 hours for the “completionist.” My preferred interactive entertainment, a crossword puzzle, has me feeling satisfied—and self-satisfied—in under forty-five minutes.

Late in 2015, I read about a game called Her Story in an online gift guide and was drawn in by descriptors like “murder mystery” and “whodunit.” I bookmarked the page and promptly forgot about it. This November, listless on an early-sunset weeknight, I was tidying my bookmarks and found the game again. The About page quoted the creator, Sam Barlow: “If you can Google, you can play Her Story.” I downloaded it to my phone immediately.

Her Story is set up as a mid-’90s computer desktop. A couple of text files give some context and basic instructions—you have access to videos that someone obtained through a FOIA request, though it’s initially unclear who or why—and the database of clips is ready for your viewing, searchable by transcript. The first term is filled in for you, with four results: MURDER.

Each live-action clip features a charismatic young British woman, Hannah (played by the British gymnast Viva Seifert), answering questions posed by a police detective. You never hear the questions themselves, but Hannah’s answers in the first batch reveal that her husband is dead, and she seems to be a suspect. Based on her outfit changes and the video’s timestamps, you gather that the interviews take place over several days, but you can’t just watch them all in order: the database will only display the first five results for each search term. The only way to access the game’s 200-plus clips is to keep plugging in new terms, hoping that the word or phrase you choose will call up at least one unseen video.

Hannah gets sad and angry; she sings; she flirts; she lies. Every clip reveals new information, and new lines of inquiry. I kept handwritten notes with timelines and ideas for my next search terms: proper nouns, concrete objects, juicy tropes of murder mysteries I thought might pop up here.

The genius of the game lies in rewarding a banal “skill”—how many times has a friend claimed “stalking people on the internet” as a special talent? There is simply no way to play Her Story wrong, no narrative order that won’t feel revelatory, but the whole time you get to feel like the next coming of Sherlock Holmes. Even once I’d pieced together the sequence of events, I wanted to keep going, to flesh out the character as fully as I could. Luckily for me, a Her Story completionist only needs four hours to do it.

Gillian Brassil

You, the unnamed male player, are a high school student, just transferred to a new school to overcome a horrible situation from your past. (After you found yourself defending a woman from sexual harassment on a small street late at night, you are falsely accused of that sexual harassment, and sent to jail for a year.) Your parents, deciding that you are better off living in the anonymity of the city rather than the notoriety of your small town, send you away to live with a family friend in Tokyo. So begins the story of Persona 5, a highly anticipated Japanese role-playing game released in the US in April of last year.

But your life does not strike the note of normalcy you were hoping for. Something’s up at the high school. A volleyball coach is abusing his players, but controls the school’s administration with his team’s success. There seems to be no way to stop him from terrorizing your new friends. That is, until you stumble upon a strange, shadow world—activated through an app that downloads itself onto your smartphone. You suddenly find yourself in a perverted version of the high school that looks more like a castle than a school. The coach, stripped of the masks he uses to hide his behavior, is on full display as the lascivious monster that he is, replete with a bathrobe barely hiding his boxer shorts, studded with hearts.

You begin a quest to capture the treasure at the center of this castle: his heart. You gather your friends into a group called the Phantom Thieves, hanging out with them after school to increase your social connections, and as your friendship grows, so does your power in the psychological realm. When you defeat the boss at the center of the castle, you have also defeated his erotic other, his evil half. Zapping back to normal life, the coach’s will has broken down, and he confesses his crimes of his own volition. You’ve acted as vigilante, saved your friends, and strengthened your connections with them. Perhaps you can use this method to catch more criminals.

The game is psychoanalytic in its construction: just as you delve into the mind of the city to level-grind, the goal of the game is travel to the minds of the worst criminals one by one. You enter the mind of a mafia man, whose psychic castle is a giant bank populated by anthropomorphized ATMs. You discover the deepest secret of a renowned artist: his most famous painting is a forgery. Inside of their minds, the criminals are laid bare, their superegos no longer there to protect the fragile ego and the out-of-control id, and you are able to induce them to change their ways through psychic destruction. And in your downtime, you get to know your new friends, deciding whom to hang out with after school.

But no good deed goes unpunished. Eventually, the real world in Tokyo catches on to your tricks. Why have a series of criminals suddenly admitted to their crimes, seemingly out of the blue? Is it true that a gang of Phantom Thieves will come and steal your heart if your heart is in the wrong place? A savvy young detective in the police bureau takes ethical issue with your methods, suggesting that disrupting the criminals’ unconscious is psychological coercion. Meanwhile, a larger plot gathers: Train conductors in the subway suffer strange psychotic episodes that cause them to run their train cars off the rails. Is there another player somewhere using your methods to induce good people to have terrible breakdowns?

I got Persona 5 the day it came out, and it’s been received as one of the best role-playing games of all time. But after forty hours of gameplay, I stopped playing. For all the mental complexity being unearthed by the team, your character is blank and your friends are boring. For all the choices you can make about whom to hang out with, the game has none of the serendipity of free will. And for how deep you dive into the minds of the criminals, there is little darkness, or urgency, in the game. The game’s predecessor, Persona 4, is moodier. There is a series of mysterious murders on foggy nights, in which the corpses are found hanging from TV antennas. You travel to a strange world inside of a TV screen at midnight to investigate. Creepy! In Persona 5, you are simply a good person who must prove his goodness to the world. At some point it felt like most of the game was spent receiving texts from my fellow Phantom Thieves. Of course, this is how the world is, these days. I began to feel claustrophobic.

Nausicaa Renner

Gorogoa begins with a young boy getting a brief glimpse of something enormous and strange: a kind of vast fractal seahorse that rears up behind the buildings outside his window, then disappears. He spends the rest of his life obsessed with that vision, searching for a way to see it again, or to get it to see him. It’s a fitting introduction. Gorogoa itself is a glimpse of a game, tiny and simple—an iPhone puzzler that takes maybe a couple of hours to complete—but it feels immense. It expands in the memory, or maybe just rattles around in there so much it seems to take up more space than it should.

Part of this is the efficiency with which it works through its own mechanics. The player is offered a grid of four square panels, some or all of which contain hand-drawn, lightly animated scenes. The panels can be moved around the grid, and the scenes within them can be scrolled left or right, zoomed in or out; sometimes when you move a panel it unpeels, leaving part of itself behind—a window frame abandons its view, perhaps, which becomes a panel of its own. The panels can be layered on top of one another, or aligned, or placed in some other relationship, and if done correctly the little boy is allowed to proceed on his journey.

It is systematically illogical and perversely intuitive. Zooming in on a mousehole might turn it into a full-size doorway. A tiny detail on a wall in one scene might unite with an entire building in another. Photographs can become real landscapes, and vice versa. A star can fit on a desk, an alarm clock can tower over a hillside. A city might be hidden in the pattern on an insect’s wings. All this is communicated entirely without words, and the moment a new twist on the idea is established, the game moves on, never lingering over its own possibilities. It feels dense and delicate at once. Each puzzle might easily be a whole set of levels in another game, but here is a matter of minutes, demonstrated and abandoned.

Meanwhile, often literally in the background, the story of a whole life is being told. The boy’s first attempt to contact and propitiate the creature (it involves gathering orbs of various colors—one of the game’s few descents into conventionality) is seen alongside what followed: a lifetime of study, struggle, and devotion. We see him as a young man and an old one; we see him in a wheelchair, and walking with a cane; we see him poring through books, peering through a telescope, slowly moving between altars in desolate landscape. These fragments affect one another: the scene of a young man’s patient research, say, must be manipulated to allow the young boy he was to proceed through a garden. It’s a powerful, subtle narrative method—a good bit of the story is told before you even realize there is one, if you’re as inattentive as I am—and it feels unique to video games. It’s associational, achronological; a story, and a life, presented not as a sequence but as a pattern, a structure, a whole.

Gabriel Winslow-Yost

For the past six months, I’ve been competing in an invitation-only league called Learned League. Everything about Learned League is corny—like the group’s name, and the fact that it’s invitation-only, and the fact that it’s a trivia league—and suspicious. Learned League is a triumph of analytics, a surveillance state in miniature: you can view detailed rankings and statistics for every player, every question asked, every tournament, going back two decades. The league’s founder, who goes by Thorsten A. Integrity, sends genial emails, and the trivia questions themselves are written with a light touch. But as always, the message boards tell a different sorry: everything delightful and fun is litigated and discussed at length, in tones that range from pedantic to belligerent.

The fundamental problem with online trivia is that you never get better at it. The analytics tell me what I already know: I’m not good at online trivia. I have better days and worse days, but on average I am below average. Learned League is a daily humiliation: 19th-century novels everyone but me has read (or at least heard of), basic historical knowledge I somehow never absorbed, literally anything to do with science. Every day I ask myself the same questions: Can I really be this stupid? And: Do I have early-onset Alzheimer’s? And: How the fuck did I miss that?

Having competed in two full seasons, it’s clear that I have shown no improvement. And I won’t. I’m not going to memorize the correct answers to questions I get wrong, and even if I did, this, too, would be pointless: as far as I know, Learned League does not repeat questions. There is no way to get better at trivia except to learn more things. But how? By reading more books? I like books, but so do my competitors. “Trivia becomes motivation to pay closer attention to everything, just in case,” wrote Hannah Goldfield in her lovely tribute to Learned League in the Times Magazine. That’s true, but everyone else in the league is paying close attention, too. The averages will remain what they are.

I cannot imagine a life without Learned League. The league’s straightforward, text-heavy interface is a joy, its questions—even the ones I get wrong—often point me to surprising discoveries (like Cop Rock, Steven Bochco’s 1990 musical police drama), and there’s something almost utopian about its very existence. Still, it is a pointless activity—an endless confrontation with my own inadequacy. Before I joined Learned League, I would often remind myself of my own stupidity. Now I pay a website to do it for me.

Mark Krotov

I spent my year of political depression playing video games. I was tired, and the consolation offered by most games—the promise of moral clarity, and a universe that doles out reliable reward and punishment—brought me solace. This was especially the case for the two games I played the most this year: Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. As grumpy as I can get about massive, capital-intensive AAA games, both Zelda and Mario reminded me that the resources big studios devote to their projects can yield something more affecting than the Michael Bay film du jour. The storylines in both of these franchises haven’t changed over thirty years; they are, at base, about the triumph of good over evil. But both games mark their respective franchise’s foray into an open-world format, where players can travel wherever they like on the world map and tackle a set of challenges in whatever order they choose. These games can often make me feel listless: If I can go anywhere in a world, where do I start? Why would I want to embark on all these side-quests that have nothing to do with the story in the first place? But I’ve played few games that are as invested in the soulfulness and richness of their worlds as these two. It was a pleasure to steadily climb mountains in Zelda’s Hyrule as it started to snow, or to possess, quasi-body-snatcher-style, everything from dancing spoons to tiki-shirt-wearing runes using Mario’s sentient hat (weird, I know). A pleasure, in other words, to stray from the tasks at hand—banishing evil from your homeland in Zelda, and saving the princess in Mario—and explore the minor joys of these very big worlds. There’s a lot to say about both of these games, but this rare and ready feeling of delight is what struck me the most about them, and it’s why I’ve returned to them long after completing them.

Other games cut a different shape in political reality. I spent many late nights propped up in bed and clicking through Kentucky Route Zero, a magical realist point-and-click adventure game about a secret highway connecting the caves underneath Kentucky. Cardboard Computer started sporadically publishing the game in installments in 2012, and released the fourth installment of the game in 2017. I downloaded all four installments onto my Macbook and played them over a span of two months, which gave me the feeling of slipping through a looking glass. The spectral quality of the game—its monochromatic palette, spare, polygonal characters, and bluegrass-inflected atmospheric score—is grounded by the habits and people of post-recessional Kentucky, the debts and dues of blue-collar work. Most video games struggle with conventional storytelling and make the mistake of looking to film as a narrative lodestar for the genre. But KR0 resists the itchy impulse to forward-moving action, and instead lingers in the impressions and thoughts of its characters. Over the course of these four installments, I probably played through north of 30,000 words of script, most of which were devoted to lengthy descriptions of the landscape, its characters, and their choices. Dialogue selections don’t determine the progression of the story, rigid and treelike, as they might in a BioShock game. Instead, the options themselves, ranging from stoic to slapstick silly, become expressive correlatives for each character’s relationship to a world in flux. The figures here—among them a truck driver, a mechanic, and musical duo—all emerge unsure of the changing world around them, struggling to keep a tally of what they’ve lost and what they’re owed. Rarely has the nature of displacement been so richly understood or finely expressed in games.

Emma Janaskie

Last fall, I bought a PlayStation 4 from a man in a Staten Island parking lot. I downloaded and began to play 2K Sports’s NBA 2K17. It had been at least a decade since I’d seriously played video-game sports. As a child, these games, for me, were all variations on the same theme: Pick two teams, move the little guys around. In NBA 2K17, much remains familiar, though the graphics are astounding and so many more tricks and flourishes are available (I’ve become reliant on performing improbable alley-oops, and indulgently double-tapping the circle button on defense to “flop,” sending my players falling backwards across the court; it is about reminding oneself that if one could control the universe, one would still have a sense of humor).

What has changed, two decades on, is the thrust of these games. There has been, in video-game sports as in the culture at large, an astonishing administrative bloat. The first time I noticed the shift was in playing GameDay 2000, a basic NFL simulator. Sure, you could play an NFL game, watch the tightly-packed polygonal men glitch through one another, watch the victory dances to buttrock anthems. But GameDay also let you start a franchise. Now, instead of calling plays and moving small men around, you were the GM. The game let you simulate entire seasons, no longer bothering with the incidental back-and-forth of moving a ball across a field, but playing football on a world-historic level. In the offseason you would trade and draft new players, based on stats generated by the computer, new rookies with computer-generated names populating your team, until your Chicago Bears were unrecognizable, the year was 2020, and your franchise had won the past decade of Super Bowl rings.

Where once these pro-sports simulators were primarily explorations of what it might be like to become or control Michael Jordan or even Phil Jackson, the domain has largely shifted to that of general managers like Jerry Krause and billionaire owners like Jerry Reinsdorf. Simulations between games are constantly interrupted by meetings between a coach and a head trainer, or a trade offer from Dallas offering a 2019 Second Round draft pick with some sort of complicated option to defer, or extend, or otherwise manipulate the deal with SEC-level stipulations and caveats. Trade deadlines pop up on the screen, or a contract expiration date, with a constant eye on the franchise’s salary cap. In the off-season, the owner comes to you to ask your opinion on changing administrative rules, like whether they should change it back to ten seconds for a backcourt violation instead of eight. You scout high schoolers, run training camps, trawl for free agents. You hold press conferences where different answer options have different effects on stakeholders, like the press (trust levels nearly always plummeting), your staff, your owner, and the players. You can even manage the concessions sold at your stadium (and move that stadium from city to city), a little ticker showing the franchise’s profits and “fan interest.”

This is the stuff of middle management, of the aspiring professional class. This is the man you overhear discussing the Detroit Tigers’ batting order in a Big Boy in Romulus, Michigan, who must be some species of assistant branch manager, who knows if he had his fucking shot things would be run a little differently around here. It is to say nothing of the hideousness of a cadre of white billionaires hollering orders about teams of black athletes. It is something that happens to those who are somewhere between power and powerlessness, something that first presents in early middle age, when one’s children are born or soon to be and need the strong guidance of a father who knows. I now am 27, and I have recently been granted access to these thoughts and feelings. That’s why, I shudder to think, I play NBA 2K17.

Jonah Furman

A round of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds begins in the cargo hold of a plane with ninety-nine other players. Your first decision is where to parachute in as you and your enemies fly a direct route over a massive battlefield. The game takes place on one of two open world-style maps: one is a vaguely Eastern European map called Erangel, with forests, fields, and small cities, and the other, Miramar, is a presumably northern Mexico-inspired desert. To accommodate one hundred players, each map provides just under forty square miles of terrain in which you can run, drive, and swim. PUBG is a Battle Royale-style survival shooter, and its mandate is simple: survive.

Once players ditch their parachutes, they scramble to loot buildings, tunnels, and warehouses, looking for weapons, gun attachments, ammunition, armor, and health items. Shortly after landing, a countdown timer appears above the mini-map in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. Opening up the full game map reveals a large circle outlined in white, indicating the area where the game will begin to force players into one of the game’s most crucial mechanics. Once the countdown is up, a second circle (affectionately referred to as the gas or the blue) starts closing in from the edges of the map, forcing the slow or wayward players towards center. In gameplay, the blue looks like a semitransparent electric wall, extending into the sky, that creeps ever closer toward the safety of the white circle. Players who aren’t fast enough and get caught on the wrong side of the encroaching blue begin taking persistent damage. The game slowly kettles the remaining players into smaller and smaller circles until they inevitably find and kill each other.

And so it goes, over and over again. Drop, loot, run, and die. Players gradually become attuned to the subtler moments of gameplay: the different sounds of guns and rifles, the distance of encroaching footsteps. A nearby firefight, a bombing raid, or a plane overhead can serve as the perfect sonic cover for you to sneak out of a city crawling with enemies. The game becomes as much about positioning, timing, map knowledge and stealth as it is about aiming and firing. Survival, then, is about taking advantage of small windows of opportunity and holding your nerve. It only takes one or two well placed bullets to take a player down. There are no re-spawns in PUBG, which means one mistake spits you back into the menu screen. All your loot and progress lost—for that round, anyway.

The game, with its only recent full 1.0 release in December 2017, remains limited. Beyond the one game mode and two maps, PUBG suffers regularly from server crashes, bugs, hackers, performance and optimization issues. Yet somehow, despite its rough and unfinished nature, PUBG has very quickly become the most popular game on the computer gaming platform Steam. Perhaps there is something particularly timely about a game that mixes prepper sensibility with RNG (Random Number Generation)-style mechanics: each round feels fated, subject to the luck of the draw. All the preparation or absolution in the world might not save you from crap loot or a bad circle.

Cosme Del Rosario-Bell

One of my recent obsessions has been the Blackwell series, a cycle of five point-and-click adventure games in which you play a young woman unwillingly forced by a family legacy to perform a strange kind of emotional labor: seeking out the wraiths of the recently dead and persuading them to reconcile themselves to the fact of their own death. This is harder than you might think. The dead do not go easy. They are always trapped in the penultimate moment, when things might still have gone differently. One of the games opens with the ledge outside a high-rise window, on it a man about to jump. In another game you would have to persuade him not to jump. Here, he has already jumped, his obituary long since filed with the local newspaper, but he continues to live in the pain and anguish of his final second. All you can do for him is persuade him to go inside, look at the abandoned office that used to be his, and realize it’s too late. There are many ghosts: murdered children, terrified priests, Joseph Mitchell. But by the end of the series your gift becomes a curse, and until you defeat the final villain you cannot help your ghosts, because just as you convince them to depart peacefully for the hereafter their souls are torn apart. You have betrayed them after all.

The game’s Beckettian yet bleakly redemptive heart is belied by the art and the interface. If you are about 30 or a little older you probably played these kinds of games as a child; if they were serious they could not keep it up for long, which is why the best games in the genre were picaresque fantasy comedies. The Blackwell games try to joke, too. But it’s hard to ignore the obvious. They are themselves the ghost of a dead genre, one that exists only because of the memories its players have of the days when it was flourishing. As you finish the games—a couple hours each, no more—you feel like you’re putting them to rest.

—Greg Afinogenov

  1. In fact I’d argue that games, especially those based around goals and achievement, have a harder time with tragedy—besides horror games, very few games are willing to risk rewarding dozens of hours of gameplay with even a halfway-depressing ending. We’ve seen what happened with Mass Effect 3

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