One of the differences between studying literature and studying digital fiction is that in the latter, all these irregular little machines start popping up. They aren’t stories or narratives in any traditional way – they’re more like toys, or gimmicks. You could put them in a gallery and call them exhibits, pieces of art – not in the ‘Games Are Art’ sense, more in the Yayoi Kusama ‘The Obliteration Room‘ sense. Kusama’s ‘The Obliteration Room’ is an interactive art piece where you go into a white room (with all white furniture and appliances) and dump coloured stickers everywhere. As the public moves through over time, more and more stickers are added on, and the space becomes ‘obliterated’ – an empty canvas turned into a vibrant, colourful mess. For many contemporary artists, interactivity is a big part of their work. They provide a point of reference for how we talk about these weird little digital widgets.
Take Stacks, for instance. The 2017 game Stacks, from Iceland-based developer Torfi, was made for Ludum Dare 40, with the theme ‘The more you have, the worse it is.’ Stacks offers you a big red button in the middle of a clear space. If you push it, a stack of cash falls from the sky. If you push it again, you get another. That’s it. Eventually you push the button so many times that the cash starts to pile up over the button, and then you can’t push it until you move the cash out the way – so you toss it around and build up big dumb piles of cash, and they just get bigger and bigger, they topple over, your computer starts slowing down as it struggles to run all the physics shit, and – like it says, the more you have, the worse it is. Nailed the brief.
So let’s do the art thing, I guess, the digital fiction thing. Let’s run through the obvious thematic analysis. From a thematic perspective, this is a game about how the accumulation of wealth causes problems, how it creates a situation where managing the money becomes just as important – arguably more important – than the actual process of making it. The money even becomes an obstacle to making more. Stacks shows how the money-making process ultimately fails to bear its own weight, as towers of cash topple over onto the button, forcing you to stop for excavation. You experience the meaninglessness of the dollar: with each bundle using the same graphical model, any individual stack does not hold a unique sense of identity. It’s just a shapeless, indistinguishable ocean of cash, where every stack is identical with every other and they all just wobble around and get in the way. It’s a critique of capitalism, of unending financial gain. It’s a process of self-destruction and fat stacks, a tragedy driven by our need to keep pushing the button.
And that’s – you know – fine. It’s not bad, but it feels very easy to lose sight of the actual game. The actual moment-to-moment experience, the back-and-forth of pushing the button as many times as you can and being inundated with stacks, and then having to stop and push them all around – maybe flinging some of them, maybe trying to create shapes, or patterns, a moat around your button – the weight of the stacks on the mouse when you pick them up, the amount of effort you have to exert to shift them out the way – how they get caught on each other, how they ripple and bounce – the actual material experience of the game feels lost behind this higher-level thematic analysis. Some of the details do feed into the themes – we mentioned the way each stack uses the same model, for instance – but you could make any number of clones of this game that would all ‘say’ the exact same thing. You could use different models, build it in Unreal instead of Unity, make the button bigger or smaller, or a different colour – and those tangible, experiential details would vanish behind the abstraction of commentary. The idea, the theme, feels suffocating, rather than enlightening. It doesn’t bring you closer to the text – it pushes you out, up, towards the abstract and the conceptual and away from the presence of the button and the actual experience of play.
This type of commentary is maybe one of the perils of the comparison to fine art. Inside the ‘Games Are Art’ slogan is this inherent sense of inferiority, this consciousness – maybe hyperconsciousness – of the gap between ‘low’ and ‘high’ art. I think one of the tendencies that comes out of that slogan is a need to over-explain, to smarten everything up with critiques and commentary and all the rest of it. But when we look at what the actual fine art world is doing – stuff like ‘The Obliteration Room’ – maybe there’s some reason to relax into play as play. The commentary isn’t necessarily bad, or invalid – there’s definitely something about capitalism in Stacks – but the sheer free-wheeling play maybe also suggests that you don’t take it too seriously. These elements co-exist as two separate dimensions, with points of overlap and contested territory, but somehow comfortable with each other. It’s not the beating heart of a Rothko bearing down on you from above. It’s a funny little browser gimmick, and it’s fine with that.
[…] That’s a tension that video games are still struggling with. We discussed it last week with Stacks, and how video games almost have these competing impulses towards being high and low art. I think […]