[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: September 24th, 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: September 13th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski

[Topics: Genetics, Literary Theory, Philosophy of Language]
The Discourse of the Scientific Humans:

Exploring an Analogy Between Genetics and Language via Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction

 

Jacques Derrida - genetics - deconstruction - critical theory - literary theory

Introduction:

Perhaps only with the recent theoretical developments in such fields as ecocriticism, the digital humanities, posthumanism, and elsewhere has literary theory attained the content or the form of scientific autonomy as desired by the Russian Formalists. This is not a particularly surprising development, however, as the European theoretical schools which followed the period of Russian Formalism, as well as Russian Formalism itself, drew heavily from the highly technical social sciences of linguistics and, later, anthropology.

Yet even the New Criticism, with its avowed (partially cultural) distaste for the distinctly denotative and ‘un-poetic’ nature of scientific discourse, clearly borrowed in its scrutiny—and in its testing of theoretical modes—from post-Enlightenment scientific methodologies. In fact, one may contend that scientific endeavors and theoretical philosophies share far more than either discipline readily admits, not only in methodologies but in the implications and applications of theoretical knowledge (where ‘theoretical’ here refers to the sense of the term in both the sciences and the humanities).

Taking up just one salient, demonstrative analogy, there is a curious parallel between the implications of much of the scientific understanding of genetics and those of the theoretical underpinnings of deconstruction as formulated by Jacques Derrida. Indeed, one may find that, using either Derridian deconstructive theory or genetics[1] as a starting point, one is led down the familiar roads toward poststructural theory and cultural criticism (broadly construed).

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[Topics: Genetics, Literary Theory, Philosophy of Language]
The Discourse of the Scientific Humans:

Exploring an Analogy Between Genetics and Language via Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction

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

[Game: Papers, Please, Lucas Pope, 2013]
Coherent Contradictions:

Exploring the Literary Qualities of Papers, Please from the Perspectives of the New Critics and the Russian Formalists

 

Introduction:

The self-sufficiency attributed to literature by both the New Critics and the Russian Formalists is indicative of an approach to art which renders legible, through close study, work in many fields aside from literature. Indeed, the practice of ‘close reading’ the relative coherence and ironic interplay of a work’s constituent elements can be as demonstrably successful in parsing a video game as it has been in parsing other contemporary subjects, such as film, painting, and photography.

The 2013 indie game Papers, Please, created by Lucas Pope, is perfectly amenable to analysis in this mode. This deceptively simple game centers on a middle-aged, male player-character who lives and supports his impoverished family in the dystopian country of Arstotska in 1982; he is an unwilling government employee staffing a border checkpoint, tasked with sifting the paperwork of would-be emigrants for discrepancies (as seen in fig. 1, below). Papers, Please is an expression, through both typical literary elements and unique ‘gamely’ elements, of the paradoxical situation of human agency within mechanical, menial work—and of power, even political power, within the disenfranchised individual.

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[Game: Papers, Please, Lucas Pope, 2013]
Coherent Contradictions:

Exploring the Literary Qualities of Papers, Please from the Perspectives of the New Critics and the Russian Formalists

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