[Game: The Witness, Thekla, 2016]
DeMystified:

A Deconstructive Reading of Jonathan Blow and Thekla’s The Witness

 

Introduction:

Game designers who take seriously the idea that they are creating works of potential artistic significance operate at a great risk to their peace of mind. Regardless of the quality of their efforts, if their works are successful, they can expect to be bombarded with accusations that they are over-serious, over-dramatic, pretentious, overly political, egotistical, fatuous, and snooty. While players may be mostly united in the proclamation that games can be art, they often behave as though they are allergic to what it would mean for the world to accept that postulate: the production (and later the analysis) of works that are as challenging in subject matter as they are in mechanics.

One frequent target for that manner of criticism is Jonathan Blow, the lead designer and partial programmer of The Witness, which was made with a small team under the developer name ‘Thekla.’ The Witness is a game in which the player wanders an uninhabited, brightly colored island, slowly uncovering its landscape and details by tracing lines on the faces of circuitry panels installed throughout. On first glance, The Witness is a quasi-conventional title in which the player solves visual logic puzzles in order to ascend and explore a conspicuously placed mountain. Beyond that first impression, however, it slowly becomes clear that The Witness is a work overflowing with visual trickery, peppered with recordings of fiction and philosophy, offering a coherent-yet-concealed story concept, and harboring some of the most astonishing secrets hidden in plain sight in any piece of popular media ever made. These latter elements, much like the narrative details of Blow’s prior game Braid, have garnered a fair amount of the heavy-handed dismissal described in the paragraph above.

The Witness screenshot with entire island - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

Presumably, players are so keen to reject this kind of material precisely because it is at present relatively uncommon, unexpected, and thus instinctively unwelcome in games. But this tendency of people to brazenly dismiss ideas which are not straightforward in their delivery does not land only on game designers, and is in fact a longstanding tradition among the public reactions to certain academic fields and artistic styles. A natural case-in-point is the practice of deconstruction, a method of analysis popular in the philosophy of the humanities in the late 20th century as part of the movement of poststructuralism. In a very simplified nutshell, deconstruction teases out contradictory content in the grammatical, linguistic, and thematic content of a work in order to demonstrate a general idea about an inability to access the work’s “true” meaning and the world’s “true” qualities.

Interestingly, I personally feel that the reactions of most onlookers are not the only things that deconstruction and Thekla’s game have in common. I intend to show here that the method of deconstruction provides a remarkably appropriate path into analysis of The Witness.

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[Game: The Witness, Thekla, 2016]
DeMystified:

A Deconstructive Reading of Jonathan Blow and Thekla’s The Witness

was last modified: March 26th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski

[Game: Infinifactory, Zachtronics, 2015]
Infinite and Individual:

On Zachtronics’ Infinifactory, and What it Means to Approach Games as Art

 

Introduction:

Most players agree that games can be art, yet act in ways that betray the fact that they do not personally approach games as art. For such players, it is as though the word art is merely a badge that gets to be worn by things people particularly like. They see that some people seem to like novels quite a bit, and that those therefore get to be art. Well, they want to make it clear that others now like games a great deal, so of course they want games to be allowed to wear the badge too. I am certainly of the opinion that games can be art, but from my perspective, the word ‘art’ does not refer to a vague and insubstantial category of preferred works.

In this article, I would like to zero in on this topic of games as art. My test case for this purpose will be the design-based puzzle game Infinifactory. This example is a very conscious choice on my part, as Infinifactory is one of the many games that I consider to be poised between conceptions of games as art and conceptions of games as not art. If that sounds strange or you’re already making assumptions about where I’m going with this, don’t worry: I’ll explain myself with considerable specificity in the sections that follow.

This article will have four primary parts. First, I will present a working definition of art that I consider to be both flexible and rigid enough to be tenable. Second, I will apply that definition to games in general. Third, I will justify my claim that players often approach games as though they are not art. Then fourth and finally, I will describe how one may conceive of Infinifactory as a work of art. In doing all of this in a systematic fashion, I aim to foster a more specific and concrete discussion of this topic than most of the extant debates and articles produced about it over the past few decades have engendered, as a small contribution to spreading the formalist revolution in the study of games to a wider audience.

Infinifactory screenshot with corpse - Zachtronics - games as art, definition of art

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[Game: Infinifactory, Zachtronics, 2015]
Infinite and Individual:

On Zachtronics’ Infinifactory, and What it Means to Approach Games as Art

was last modified: March 26th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski

[Game: Slay the Spire, Mega Crit Games, 2019]
Someone Else’s Strategy:

On Mega Crit’s Slay the Spire, and the Occasional Heresy of Outside Help

 

Introduction:

The deck-building roguelike Slay the Spire is a well-designed, challenging, engaging game. Each of the game’s characters has a unique set of cards from which options are randomized and dealt to the player during each run, usually as a choice of one from three at a time. Each run begins with a small standard deck, which the player improves, expands, contracts, and (ideally) eventually uses to conquer 50-54 floors of the spire. On succeeding, the player unlocks a slightly harder version of the game for the character that won, up to a maximum of 20 difficulty modifiers (a system called ‘ascension’ in-game).

Deck-building games, like most games with card-based combat, are a subset of the strategy genre. The principal challenge of Slay the Spire—as in its broader strategy siblings—is, as the name of the genre implies, developing and executing an effective strategy. In theory, barring some truly horrendous luck, a person who has robust strategies should be able to beat the game a reasonable proportion of the time, even at high ascension levels. Figuring out which strategies work and which strategies don’t work forms nearly the entire gameplay loop and motivation structure of the game throughout nearly the entire time a player will spend with it.

I feel that these facts must be patently obvious to most players of Slay the Spire, yet I’ve encountered again and again people who give new players some truly objectionable advice which would never come from someone that understood those precepts. The advice in question runs rampant in the forums across the web dedicated to the game, and even feels implied in the words of the developers within the game’s graphics settings when they say that they “recommend Borderless Fullscreen for fast alt-tab.” The relevant advice is to make use of secondary resources—such as watching high-level players in order to “learn the game,” or having a wiki open while playing. I intend to argue here that doing so is tantamount to telling new players to skip the most engaging and valuable content of Slay the Spire.

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[Game: Slay the Spire, Mega Crit Games, 2019]
Someone Else’s Strategy:

On Mega Crit’s Slay the Spire, and the Occasional Heresy of Outside Help

was last modified: March 26th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski

[Game: Dark Souls, FromSoftware, 2011]
Unchosen Undead:

A Thorough Existentialist Philosophical Analysis of FromSoftware’s Original Dark Souls

 

Introduction:

Dark Souls, FromSoftware’s dark fantasy masterpiece, is a seemingly impenetrable work from an interpretive and thematic standpoint. First, famously, much of its worldbuilding and story can be reached only by careful attention to environmental set pieces, optional character interactions, and item descriptions. Second, and more of an obstacle for our present analytical purpose, Dark Souls is a game which seems to be about death, decay, and annihilation—but which is simultaneously a game starring a prophecy-driven character who survives death, and in which souls are demonstrable realities.

But would-be Souls scholars should not despair. As for the subtlety and density of its worldbuilding, this is no rarity in the wider world of art. While it’s nowhere near as complex as a Modernist novel, I would contend that Dark Souls is similarly rewarding to careful study as are, for instance, the works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. So, obviously I don’t consider the difficulty of accessing its story to be an insurmountable detriment. And as for the seeming thematic contradictions of the game, these are not intractable.

A reading of Dark Souls as being in conversation with the canon of existentialist philosophical thought yields a relatively straightforward path toward interpretation: Dark Souls, especially through its story and gameplay mechanics, is an allegory for the human condition in an entropic universe with no inherent meaning. That might seem vague and insubstantial, but hereafter I intend to provide support for it (and eventually specificity) through careful attention to both the game and the relevant philosophy.

Dark Souls screenshot with Furtive Pygmy, Dark Soul, and First Flame - existentialist philosophical analysis of Dark Souls - FromSoftware - existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche

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[Game: Dark Souls, FromSoftware, 2011]
Unchosen Undead:

A Thorough Existentialist Philosophical Analysis of FromSoftware’s Original Dark Souls

was last modified: March 26th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski

[Game: Puzzle Link 2, Yumekobo, 2000]
Integrated Game Goals:

On Yumekobo’s Puzzle Link 2, and the Potential Simplicity of Good Game Design

 

Introduction:

Puzzle Link 2 North American box art - Yumekobo, SNK - tile-matching puzzle game cardsYumekobo’s Puzzle Link titles are not well-known games in America (or maybe anywhere). Besides Puzzle Link having a Japan-only release for the original Neo-Geo Pocket, Puzzle Link and Puzzle Link 2 were released exclusively on a little-known handheld console called the Neo-Geo Pocket ColorPuzzle Link 2 - Yumekobo, SNK - tile-matching puzzle game cards, which was made by SNK. In fact, the North American release of Puzzle Link 2 preceded the console’s discontinuation in America by a mere two months. For today’s article, I’ll be discussing and recommending the sequel—because it is similar to the original, but with a few very important improvements (some of which I’ll detail below).

Although Puzzle Link 2—like its predecessor and like many other Neo-Geo games—was well-received by critics at the time, the combination of its timing and the Neo-Geo Pocket Color’s tiny little share of the North American handheld console market means that the vast majority of gamers in my country have never heard of it, let alone played it.

But I was part of that minority share of the market, and I played it quite a bit when I was younger. And I think more people should know about it, because upon reflecting I figured out what made the gameplay such fun. So I decided to write this article on how Puzzle Link 2 builds compelling puzzle gameplay simply by establishing three complementary, concurrent player goals.

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[Game: Puzzle Link 2, Yumekobo, 2000]
Integrated Game Goals:

On Yumekobo’s Puzzle Link 2, and the Potential Simplicity of Good Game Design

was last modified: March 26th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski