A while back I played Democratic Socialism Simulator, which is exactly what it sounds like. It has this kinda weird conflict between its style, which is silly and goofy (it’s a bunch of animals in suits making policy decisions), and the very serious commentary offered by the developer. In a blog article, the developer claims that “the game doesn’t portray a democratic socialist society but rather the first years of a hypothetical post-capitalist transition via social democracy.” It is, allegedly, “an attempt to prefigure a Sanders (or a Sanders-like) presidency by focusing on the issues not fanboyism.” For example, one issue that’s placed in front of you is about whether you should appoint senators based on state population. You can either agree (“Amend the Constitution”), or disagree (“bUt ThE cOnStItUtIoN!”). It’s a bit of a weird experience – this game pitches itself as thinking seriously about the issues, and then kinda just mocks the other side.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking more broadly about this thing of, like, refusing to legitimize different points of view. I don’t know if we’d call it sarcasm, or satire, but it’s fundamentally based on undermining the integrity of another point of view or portrayal of events. Sometimes this happens on the level of texts undermining texts, and sometimes characters undermining characters. In the opening of Spaceballs, for example, the over-long starship is mocking the opening shot of A New Hope. A New Hope has an establishing shot of a Star Destroyer crawling past the screen, and Spaceballs parodies that by having a spaceship just go on and on for even longer. It’s a grotesque disfiguration of the original film, an attempt to make the audience go haha, yeah, that shot in A New Hope does drag on. It’s an attempted dislocation, where you shift a moment away from its original intention and give it a second, contradictory meaning. In Star Wars, the original shot is grand and epic. It gives you a sense of scale and power, and of the tone of the story. Spaceballs recasts it as boring. It’s overblown, self-important, and it drags on forever.
Obviously there’s a spectrum here between playful ribbing and going for the throat. Spaceballs isn’t trying to destroy Star Wars, right, it’s not trying to ruin it. But we have to acknowledge that sometimes satire will entirely overwhelm the original meaning, such that repeated encounters with the original can only be seen through that parodic lens. This was essentially what happened with Melissa McCarthy’s SNL portrayal of Sean Spicer. It displaced the meaning of Sean Spicer so drastically that his ongoing press conferences could only be seen through the McCarthy lens. He became self-parody.
Part of the point here is that these conflicting perspectives are usually mutually exclusive. They don’t coexist easily. To that point, when a text shows a satire interaction between two different characters, it’ll usually come down on one side as having the ‘correct’ perspective. In The Emperor’s New Groove, for example, Pacha voices his concerns about losing his home, and Kuzco mocks him as being petty and whiny. But that interaction doesn’t come off in Kuzco’s favour. His perspective, conveyed in his satire, just seems wrong. He’s obviously an asshole. The film sides with Pacha, even though Kuzco is the one doing the mockery. There are two points here – firstly, the person doing the satire doesn’t always come off best, and secondly, films, and other texts, take sides. They don’t sit back and let both perspectives coexist. They tell you which perspective they think is right: “bUt ThE cOnStItUtIoN!”
Given all of that, it’s interesting to look at a game like Far From Noise, which has a complicated relationship with some broader questions of tone. Released in 2017, Far From Noise is a game about nature and time and the meaning of being alive. A woman loses control of her car and ends up teetering over the edge of a cliff. While she sits there, unable to move for fear of tipping the car and plummeting to her death, she reflects on what everything has meant. It’s a meditative experience – except when it’s busy goofing around. For instance, over time you see a bunch of creatures running around in their natural environment. There’s like a turtle, and then a frog jumps on its back, and it’s like this touching encounter with nature, except the girl in the car is saying things like “It’s like a turtle taxi!!”, “I’m crying”, “Do you think they’re dating?”, and “Oh god I love that so much.” It’s just goofy. Meditative and goofy.
But maybe that’s not a big deal. Personally I feel like it clashes, but it’s a pretty subjective judgement – other players might feel differently – and even if it does clash, that’s not necessarily a fatal flaw. At the very least, it does seem like a deliberate aesthetic decision. The girl in the car spends a bunch of time cracking wise, and the deer – oh, I have to explain about the deer. So after maybe the first quarter of the game, a magical deer turns up and starts talking to you. The deer is more or less the game’s philosophic mouthpiece: it tells you all of the game’s themes and ideas in an explicit and largely unvarnished way. It offers quotes from its key ideological sources, such as Thoreau’s Walden: “There are none happiest in this world but those who enjoy freely a vast horizon.” Again, I’m not totally sold on the tone – I think there’s an attempt to imitate heightened writing, and I don’t think it comes off well. At one point, the deer says “Your predicament is tricky, but I would not grant your spirit the encumbrance of dread.” Mm – yeah, I just don’t like it. All this heightened language, and then we’re going with ‘tricky’? As in Run-D.M.C.’s ‘It’s Tricky’? I’m just not sold.
Anyway, point is that the girl in the car goofs around, and the deer says deep philosophical things. It’s a little crude, but I get it. It’s a clear aesthetic decision. Plus – I mean, you know, most of my complaints so far are relatively small, in the grand scheme of things. I think the dialogue has some rough edges that need sanding down, but it’s not that bad. The characters are pretty well defined. They’re different, and maybe that’s okay. Or maybe it would be okay if the girl didn’t make jokes mocking the things the deer is saying.
This still above shows one of the bigger examples of the girl’s mockery. In case you can’t read it, the deer says “Death’s silhouette stretches to this edge to consume us,” and the girl’s three response options are “… I know it’s just night”, “I’m not creeped out at all”, and “O, WHY must you puncture my soul, cruel twisted claw of mortality!” One of these responses is clearly more mocking than the other, although frankly including a mocking line at all raises the question of whether or not the deer’s words deserve to be mocked. When you include the line as a possible response, players have to evaluate whether or not it’s something they want to say. They have to evaluate whether they should make fun of the deer – which is just not something you want the audience to be thinking about. You don’t want them to be questioning the wisdom of your philosophical mouthpiece. You don’t want the audience wondering whether the girl is accurately calling out the deer for being an overwritten drama queen.
Examples of this problem can be multiplied throughout the text. Immediately after this exchange above, the girl can continue by saying “HOPELESS FOOLS. PRAY THE END SPARE ME THIS PITIFUL DANCE”. After the deer offers the Walden quote, she can reply “Um… what?” After asking if the deer is lonely, the girl is told “Ah, I am no more lonely than… a single dandelion standing in a field. Than a drop of rain falling from a cloud.” She can respond “Do you ever answer questions in a normal way?” This is where our notes on satire really kick into gear. Is the deer’s poetic language thoughtful and meditative, or are we making fun of it? Is it overblown, such that the girl justifiably exaggerates it with her fully capitalised HOPELESS FOOLS routine? Or is she just being an asshole? Is she Spaceballs, or Kuzco? It’s fine to have a text where your main character jokes around with serious things, but the nature of satire is that it undermines the integrity of its subject. And when the subject is a straight-talking magical deer who’s outlining the game’s philosophical principles, it kinda reads like the game is either making fun of the whole meditative experience, or that the girl just isn’t thoughtful enough to get it.
The problem with this approach is that it makes the audience look more critically at both characters in the story. When the girl is mocking the deer’s elevated speech, you as a player have to think about whether or not the deer is overwritten. Alternately, if you tend to side more with the meditative, quiet side of the game, it’s hard not to feel like the girl is somehow cheapening it, as if she was goofing around at a funeral. You end up feeling slightly suspicious towards both characters – which I think underpins my nitpicks about the tone. Would I have raised any of those criticisms if the game hadn’t so explicitly cast these characters against each other? Honestly, probably not. The introduction of satire or mockery crystallizes and escalates the game’s minor tonal conflict.
There are individual moments where I like Far From Noise. Usually it’s when the conflict between the two characters is least apparent. Sometimes the girl in the car will tone down, and say something sincere and genuine. Sometimes she’ll goof around about something unimportant, like the frog catching a ride on the turtle. It has moments where it comes together – and then it has moments where it’s wrapped up in a weird, aggressive tone war. For things like Democratic Socialism Simulator, conflict is obviously fine. It’s meant to be partisan. But for a quiet, meditative reflection on the value of being alive – maybe just don’t have one of your characters constantly yelling THIS DEER’S A FUCKIN IDIOT.