...And all the men and women merely players.
A blog about the state of gaming and technology

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Lynchian Games

Have you ever seen Twin Peaks? Are you a fan of David Lynch in general? (If you're not sure, read this essay by David Foster Wallace. Maybe it will intrigue you.) Or maybe you like The Prisoner, or even maybe Lost?

All of these things, to differing degrees, are weird. But weird in a very specific way. They start out normal - sometimes very, very normal.  There's a murder in a small town, or there's a beautiful 50s suburb, or a charming village on an island, or a plane crash. All of these things are fairly mundane. But then something starts going a little off: a woman talking to a log. A severed ear on the lawn. From there, they slowly, slowly, descend into madness, until we're in a parallel dimension with velvet curtains listening to a dwarf talk backwards about the nature of reality, or something.

For fans, this is what we're here for: the total mind-fuck. The endless interpretations of what is going on, what each element means - for in this sort of media, everything is fraught with meaning, with metaphor, with mystery. What happened when the beautiful actresses suddenly started playing each others' characters instead? What does that indicate about the world, what message does it carry, and what key to understanding the whole does it offer?

This is tremendous fun for fans.  However, sadly, the world of video games has been largely devoid of this kind of mystery. We have plenty of the more mundane kind in our stories - who is the Origami killer? Who is behind the evil plot to take over the world?  But very rarely do things just get weird.  I was thinking about why that might be, if it would be possible to make a game that conveyed that sense, and what that game might look like.

The main problem, I think, is that games actually have a hard time hitting that first step: the normal. That's not to say that we can't create a suburb or a plane crash. But when a player sits down to play a video game set in a suburb, or with a plane crash, they're already submerged in the weird, and trained to ignore it. Nothing looks quite right - it's a bit flatter and less convincing than a real suburb, let's say. The houses all look the same (even more than in a real housing development). The people, too, look very similar, they move in fairly stilted ways, when they speak their lines are delivered without much inflection and they repeat themselves often.  There are invisible walls, past which our avatar can't go (although he will continue running forward while sliding along them). There are probably graphical glitches or other bugs, in-jokes and call-outs, and a host of other things that require a suspension of disbelief from the beginning. And then, of course, there's the fact that your avatar can jump roughly six feet straight up from standing, can control in the air, comes back to life if killed, and probably can do any number of vaguely superhuman things from expertly operating firearms to shooting lightning out of his hands.

So when things get slightly weird in another dimension - like a severed ear on the ground, or a woman talking to a log - it doesn't really stand out as well against this background noise. It could be a joke, or a bug, or normal in this particular universe - if we notice it at all. In order to ensure we do notice it, and notice that it's pretty strange, the player has to be told loudly and repeatedly exactly how bizarre this situation is. Or they just sort of file it mentally with all the other weird stuff they've had to ignore so far.

Eventually, we'll reach the point with the backwards-talking dwarf. Now, either this is entirely unsubtle, because the player's avatar has been going on for the past 45 minutes of game time how things are getting weird, or this is the moment when suspension of disbelief finally breaks and the player finally notices that things are supposed to be weirder than normal here. Either way, we've failed to find that brilliant gentle ramp, that excruciatingly slow heating-up of the waters of absurdity, and we've been plunged straight in. If we have mysteries to solve, we don't care about them, because we haven't been led to believe that there's meaning here, we haven't been subtly set adrift with an interest in finding the shore again. It's just another fantastical video game.

Is it possible to get beyond that? To start with the normal in a way that the player will believe in the normal, get invested in the mysteries, and learn to love the surreal?  I'm really not sure, but I'd like to try. I think you'd have to start, like Twin Peaks did, with a mostly mundane genre entry. Sure, there's been a murder - some hook with which to start the story. There's a normal mystery there, one we've seen played out hundreds of times on cop shows. For video games, what would this be? It's hard to think of any normal game that doesn't start the player out as an unrealistic hero in an unrealistic universe. Perhaps Heavy Rain's family simulator would be enough - but the problem with our medium is that a family simulator is already pretty unusual.

Perhaps the slow ramp to surreality is beyond games. The few games that are successful at the surreal plunge the player right into it - Pathologic, Psychonauts, Katamari Damacy. Of those, the one that's closest to Lynchian is Pathologic, perhaps because it focuses so much on the mundane - disease that must be cured, eating, drinking, sleeping. Time actually passes - the fact that that's rare in a video game only underlines my point above about suspension of disbelief. Pathologic has many more mundane needs than your average video game, and perhaps it's the contrast between these mundane needs and pastimes and the impossible architecture, weird masked characters, and obvious symbols of the game that make it so effective at the surreal.

So maybe that's the key. In order to make a Lynchian video game, one must first make a joyless, difficult family simulator. Then you can throw in your tiny, terrifying elderly couple or your unexplained polar bears, and people will take you seriously. I wonder why no one has tried to make that game.


Marc F said...

I think it has to do with the market. New games in which you have to invest significant time to get the point will not sell well. At the same time it's difficult to imagine a hardcore family simulator done by an indie studio, given the required level of fidelity would seem to require a large studio. (Yes, Dwarf Fortress is a hardcore simulator done by one guy, but it's not like looking at text gives you the same feeling and subtlety.)

There just is very little market for games as art yet. :(

Anonymous said...

Ever tried Deadly Premonition? It's a low-budget horror game directly inspired by twin peaks. You have to do various simulation detective things in a town that slowly descends into madness, I understand. Pretty much everyone hated it except Destructoid, who gave it a 10/10.

"Deadly Premonition is like watching two clowns eat each other. It's perverse, it's wrong, and yet it's so fucking funny. There are many who will not understand, or not even want to understand what makes it so compelling and excellent despite its quality."