For years the go-to critique of Animal Crossing has been how it encourages capitalist tendencies such as taking out loans, buying everything possible, and taking natural resources for profit. While these mechanics are undoubtedly a noticeable part of Animal Crossing’s gameplay, the game features other mechanics that encourage a somewhat contrasting ideology. Players are not just encouraged to sell bugs and fish for money, but also to donate them to the museum. Once players donate items to the museum they are rewarded with some fun facts about the donated item, as well as an update to the museum’s appearance. This appearance update takes the form of the donated item living in the museum display. The more things are donated, the more lively the museum gets. This mechanic is an effective mechanism to encourage players to not just use the natural world for profit, but also for education and conservation.
The various motives for reaping the rewards of the natural world do not just end there. Another use for fish and bugs caught in Animal Crossing is as adornments for player homes. If players place fish or bugs in their houses like they would furniture, these creatures will spawn and appear in either an aquarium or a terrarium. This adds another facet to the player’s relationship to the natural world in Animal Crossing. Bugs and fish are not just there for profit or education value, but also can be a part of the more intimate side of things as pets. Finally, the very mechanic of catching bugs has positive implications for player behavior outside of the game. While out exploring the game world, players pay close attention to their surroundings in case they happen across a critter they haven’t seen yet. This attention to the natural world encourages players to appreciate and notice the beauty of nature, something that will likely stay with them once they have exited the game world for the real world.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is available for the Nintendo Switch.
Due to the various issues impacting the contemporary world, it has been difficult to decide what topic to use when creating a radical/persuasive game. Initially, I was drawn to critique the tendency of video games to be marketed toward men, and the consequential effect this has had on the video game industry. This would have been explored via an alternative history, where video game companies in the 1980s decided to target girls over boys. The player character would be male, and the game would follow his experience as a male who is drawn towards video games in a world where that interest is dominated by females. It would start in the 1980s with the player character as a young boy who enjoys video games even though they are designed for girls (eg this universe’s version of Duck Hunt is Duck Farm where players are tasked with raising ducks, reflecting the feminine-associated trait of nurturing). The later parts of the game would follow the player character as he tries to pursue a career in the video game industry, which in this world is dominated by women. However, as I thought more about how the mechanics would work, I realized this concept might work better as a piece of interactive fiction or a short story. Apart from exploring the world and talking to other characters, there wasn’t much potential to develop game mechanics with the time frame available.
The second idea I had was a game where players must get past a group of protesters. Originally I had envisioned this taking place in front of a Planned Parenthood, due to the recent laws that have restricted abortion rights. The gameplay would involve the player character trying to get through the anti-abortion protestors to go in for a pelvic examination, or another non-abortion service Planned Parenthood provides. In terms of mechanics, there were several ideas I had in mind. One was platforming or traveling through a maze that was the parking lot, avoiding the protestors who would force you to lose health or start over. This would demonstrate how anti-abortion protesters make life difficult for people and can make people who go to Planned Parenthood feel in danger.
Since the protester-game mechanic seemed like a better mechanic than the one for the alternative history idea, it seemed like the one I would pursue. However, after mentioning these two ideas in class and on Discord I was approached by other people interested in forming a team. While getting to know each other it came up that all of us have a dislike of Karens, which led to the idea of having one of the protesters be a Karen. This led to the idea that it would be fun to be able to play as or against a Karen. After discussing it in a group meeting, this idea evolved into the game we are currently in the process of making: a fighting game between a Karen and a barista. While on the surface humorous, the subject matter is reflective of how service industry workers are often treated poorly. To emphasize this, one of our mechanics is for every hit Karen serves she gains 5 to 10 times more points than if the barista hits her. The key inputs for the barista are also more spaced out than the ones for Karen, making it easier for Karen to hit more often. In addition to this, Karen has double the number of attacks that the barista does. This leads to a game that while technically possible to win as the barista is, like so many things for the Boomer generation, heavily tilted in Karen’s favor. Hopefully after players experience Ultimate Karen Smackdown (working title) they will treat service workers with more respect and empathy.
While many have bemoaned the lack of creativity in some game genres, the fear that lack of originality and creativity leads to artistic decline is nothing new. In 1946 Marcel Duchamp warned “a creative lull” will occur when artists merely continue the work that those who came before them had done. (Flanagan, 3) That said, Duchamp also points out that there is hope. Artists can still take from previous creators, they just must adapt what they take to make it their own. Duchamp’s critique is especially true today. So many games, especially those from large studios, are not of the mold-breaking variety. They are either just part of an existing series or so similar to competing games in their genre that they become indistinguishable from their competitors (eg Battlefield vs Hali vs COD). The homogeneity of games can be confounding and irritating, especially given how game-changing (pun intended) having just one radical element can be.
Take for example Bioshock. Parts of it very much fall in line with first-person shooter and action-adventure conventions. While it does take some aspects from previous titles, Bioshock’s creators also adapted it into something unique that makes it more of a critical game than your average shooter. One way they did this was by the little sister gameplay mechanic. In Bioshock the little sisters are young girls that have been bioengineered to grow ADAM (a substance used to make plasmids, which players need to use special abilities) in their bodies. Players can choose to “harvest” the little sisters, which kills them but awards the players more power.
There is also the option to save the little sisters, which allows them to live and cures them of having to grow ADAM.
Having to choose between saving or harvesting the little sisters forces players to grapple with the moral question of how much they value human life over power. (6) What makes this question so powerful in Bioshock is it is both concrete and abstract. Players experience the tangible consequence of gaining a large amount of ADAM should they harvest a sister, but should they choose to spare them then they will get to see the sister return to being a normal little girl (as opposed to a sickly glowing-eyed incubator). On an abstract level, players deal with either the guilt that they killed a child or the heartwarming knowledge that they have done the morally right thing. In addition to these consequences that occur immediately after saving or harvesting a sister, there are also implications for the game’s ending. Should players choose to save the little sisters they will get the “good” ending, but if they harvest them they will get the “bad” ending. This further drives home the importance of making moral choices by highlighting the impact they have beyond the single moment when they are made.
Due to it’s literary foundations, visual flair is arguably something that can take a back seat when it comes to interactive fiction. While researching interactive fiction these past few weeks, I noticed that some of the most lauded pieces were lacking in extensive visual style. For example The Golden, States of Awareness, and Queenlash had the same default black background that comes when making a Twine game. Apart from the font color of each of these being changed to something relevant to their topic (purple for the royalty of Queenlash, green for the zombies of States, and gold for Golden for obvious reasons) there was not much to differentiate each visually.
In contrast to this, some of the more lackluster pieces of interactive fiction I’ve read were noticeably stylized. Some Space is memorable for its sci-fi background and futuristic font just as much it’s preference for puzzles over narrative. While it does add a futuristic aesthetic that fits with the narrative of a human immigrating to an alien world, there are also drawbacks to Some Space’s embellishment. The impressive quality of Some Space visuals juxtaposed against its lackluster parts do not result in a positive impression. It makes readers wonder if the writer didn’t spend as much time incorporating the puzzles into the piece as they did finding the right font. Granted this view might be unfair. Everyone has different strengths, and it is natural to want to show off what you’re good at. That said, it’s not entertaining to play or read something that was made just to show off. A piece of interactive fiction can look amazing, but it’s primarily the story being told that makes readers want to interact with it.
Although it doesn’t have as much of a sway on readers as narrative, writers of interactive fiction should still give some thought to the appearance of their work. It is possible for interactive fiction to have a memorable style and story. A good example of this is Bogeyman. The eerie black and white style of Bogeyman’s passages appropriately matches the dark subject of child abuse that is one of its themes. It sets the stage for the dark and intimidating world the protagonist finds themselves in, effectively setting the mood. In addition to color, a different font is used to indicate when the Bogeyman is talking. The heavy slightly jagged font paired with the lack of quotations makes the Bogeyman more intimidating. He comes across as speaking directly to the reader instead of the characters, making for a chillingly memorable experience. Bogeyman, along with Some Space, shows the impact style can make for better or worse when writing interactive fiction. It is worth it for authors to consider how to make their work visually unique, because when done right it can elevate an already good work.
As technology has become more a part of our everyday lives, people have become accustomed to it accurately simulating our humanness. At the dawn of the video game era visuals that were not anatomically accurate where to be expected. In the early 1980s if a sprite in an arcade game became visually distorted it would not have been that off-putting due to its already pixelated nature. However, if at that time there was a sprite that depicted highly accurately a human visage this would have been uncanny to users. That was in a pre-digital world, but as Ferreira and Ribas argue we are now living in a post-digital world. This post-digital world is one where we are surrounded by technologies that can accurately depict real world images. Because of this, when glitches occur that distort this intended realism they are especially off-putting.
This is the case with the invisible face glitch from Assassin’s Creed Unity. A fairly famous glitch that was present when the game first released, this glitch causes characters’ faces to be invisible except for their eyeballs, gums, and teeth. Players found this glitch to be unsettling and horrifying, though I believe for more nuanced reasons than its pure grisly image. By removing the digital features that covered the eyes and mouths, players are faced with features that they clearly identify as human parts. Like humans, Unity’s characters are made up of separate parts that combine to make a whole being. The invisible face glitch highlights these parts, which in turn remind players of their own body parts, which could technically be dissected if so desired. As players face the levitating eyeballs and gums of Arno, they are reminded of their own mortality by the image’s uncanny reflection of themselves. While this could have acted as an opportunity for reflection on human experience, it was not welcomed by many Unity players due to them not going into the game expecting an existential experience.
A glitch is a type of noise, both in the positive and negative sense. In terms of the negative, a glitch is something powerful and alarming. (Menkman 340) However, these negative qualities also can have positive consequences. It redefines the meaning of normal and what is thought of as good. (ibid) This is seen in a number of video game glitches. Such glitches are almost always unintentional and are frequently immersion breaking. While not all glitches are welcome (especially the game breaking kind), it is not uncommon for gamers to react to them in a positive way.
An example of one such positively received glitch was found in the initial release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. While Skyrim has a number of noteworthy glitches, the one referred to by the community as the Skyrim Space Program is particularly noteworthy. When players were fighting one of the game’s giants, a certain attack from the giant would send them flying into the air. At first glance this would seem like an immersion breaking bug that needed to be fixed. Bethesda did not design Skyrim to appeal to the same audience as Goat Simulator. Recognizing it as a disruption to the type of gameplay Skyrim players expected, Bethesda put out a patch removing this glitch. However, community backlash at the removal of the feature led Bethesda to add it back in a following patch. Despite disrupting the typical, more realistic gameplay that makes up most of Skyrim, the Skyrim Space Program glitch is a feature many players enjoy for a number of reasons. Some feel it adds to the game’s immersion by showing how strong the giants are, while others enjoy the humorous visual of their character rag dolling hundreds of miles into the air. There are also those that utilize it as part of gameplay, luring enemies to giants who send them flying far away from the player. While it is undoubtedly an alarming visual, the positive consequences of this glitch have surprised the negative in such a way that it has been embraced by the game’s community and developers as a feature.
Given the nature of counterculture games, it can be difficult to find mods for “normal” games that encapsulate the essence of counterculture. This is because counterculture games subvert an original game’s framework and tone, which can lead to the original game being barely recognizable or even playable. Thankfully, not every counterculture mod is as hard to play as JODI’s Untitled. Although originally intended for counter-cinema, Peter Wollen’s theses can be applied to countergaming as well. In addition to providing specific characteristics of countergaming, Wollen’s theses open up the possibilities for what could be considered countergaming. This is seen in the description of countergaming as “foregrounding”, “reality”, and “unpleasure.” (Galloway 110) Based on these characteristics, a mod that breaks the fourth wall could be considered an example of countergaming. This is because fourth wall breaking is upfront (foregrounding), breaks immersion (unpleasure), and causes the player to face the fictitiousness of the game (reality).
There are a wide variety of mods that break the fourth wall. While there are some that are more complex, these are not as common or plentiful as those that simply replace or add un-immersive assets to games. Due to the intention of many of these mods being comical, often the replacement or addition is from a source with an opposite tone of the game. For example, the Buzz Lightyear paladin armor mod for post-apocalyptic open world game Fallout 4 is inspired by the titular character from the children’s film Toy Story.
There is also the mod that replaces the death sound with the iconic clip of Steve Carell’s character shouting “No” from the sitcom The Office.
Other mods are even more upfront about their breaking of the fourth wall, such as a t-shirt which openly references itself as a mod, or the one that proclaims it’s immersiveness despite not being so at all. There are also those that refer to real world individuals, such as the Nicolas Cage paintings mod (which has echoes of Velvet-Strike’s plastering of off-putting images). While these examples are not as grand as some of the more ambitious mods for Fallout 4, they still hold importance as representatives of countergaming culture.
The modding of the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim offers a unique opportunity to observe all three types of modding as described by Anne-Marie Schleiner. As described by Schleiner in “Game Modding: Cross-Over Mutation and Unwelcome Gifts”, modders have a parasitic relationship with game designers which comes in three forms. The first one, “noise in the system”, exists purely to disrupt the intended experience of a game. (36) We see this in Skyrim mods that radically change the tone of the game from serious to comical, like the much beloved dragon to Thomas the Tank engine conversion mod. While this is perhaps the most famous example, other mods take it even further, such as one that overhauls the game’s graphics to give it the feel of a Pixar movie. There are also plenty of examples of the second parasite type of “biological infiltration”, meaning a change of the core gameplay. (ibid) Over the years a plethora of mechanic mods of been created, ranging from role playing additions like more complex religions to converting combat to resemble that of Dark Souls. The third type of parasite is one which Schleiner describes as one which takes advantage of and feeds off the wealth of the game creators. In the case of Skyrim, however, there’s a twist.
In the years following its release, the relationship between Skyrim’s modders and creators fit Schleiner’s description to a T. Bethesda generously gifted modders the wealth of resources that is the Creation Kit. It was a typical example of “a symbiosis of reciprocal, circular, cultural gift-giving.” (37) With the resources shared by Bethesda, modders fixed un-addressed bugs, created new lands, and updated graphics, just to name a few. This lush modding community also lured in new players for years after the game’s initial release, extending its lifespan and popularity more than many other games. I myself first played and fell in love with Skyrim in 2018, 7 years after it’s original release. Modders found that they had turned the tables on their so-called parasitic relationship with the game’s creators. In 2017 Bethesda released the Creation Club, a collection of paid mods for Skyrim and Fallout 4. This marked a turning point. Now it is the creator who is obtaining wealth from the modders in the form of both inspiration and producers (several pieces of Creation Club content were made by well-known Skyrim modders). While this new development in the modder-creator relationship has come with some controversy, it’s was not totally unexpected. Mods have kept older games relevant and interesting to new and old audiences for decades. It was only a matter of time before creators attempted to reap the wealth they sowed by gifting modders the power to alter digital creations.
Compared to the visual and technical complexity of modern video games, digital interactive fiction can at first glance seem simple and mundane. Their core gameplay is easy and intuitive to learn: read a passage, select an option to continue, rinse and repeat until you reach an ending to the tale. Anyone who has ever read a choose your own adventure book, or arguably even had a conversation, can do it. Whether in spite of or due to this simplicity, interactive fiction has blossomed to include a large body of unique works.
Some works of interactive fiction don’t stray too far from the medium’s core gameplay, adding interest through narrative and writing style. Two examples of this are Miss No-Name and Queenlash, two award winning titles from the 2021 Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction. At first Miss No-Name comes across as a fun innocent story about a popular kid in school trying to learn more about a loner in their class. Players can approach this objective a few ways, most of which are hinted at being more or less effective by situational context. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that what seems like the “right” way to approach getting to know this shy classmate is not always the most effective. This adds to the mystery of who Miss No-Name is. Not only is her identity unclear, but her preferences are abnormal. The length of Miss No-Name also works in its favor, as players can go through all the options and endings in a relatively short period of time. This provides a satisfying conclusion to the piece’s mysteries, which increases player satisfaction.
While it does not have the benefit of brevity that Miss No-Name does, Queenlash is a highly effective piece of interactive fiction in its own way. Instead of the narrative being its main draw, the writing style of Queenlash is where it shines. With long poetic passages, Queenlash is more of an immersive experience. Readers are surrounded by long walls of text using words that seem archaic and foreign, appropriately for a narrative set 2000 years ago. The story is one many people are familiar with, the rise and fall of Cleopatra VII. Unlike Miss No-Name, where the hyperlinks take players is not always clear cut, though there are still clues. For example, in a conversation where several people are being discussed the words that serve as hyperlinks have some connection to one of the subjects. This conveys to the player that these links will take them to a passage from that subject’s point of view, or go into more depth on their past or motives. It is a more effective way of getting to know the characters that feels more natural due to the hyperlinks being part of the conversation. This makes the story feel more personal than if choices were simply reactionary.a
Authors of interactive fiction have done an impressive job of embellishing and adding to the core gameplay of their medium, further inspiring other authors to evolve their own works. The pieces examined in this post are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creative ways interactive fiction authors embellish their work. Pieces like Depression Quest combine their written components with impactful visual effects and sounds, while others like Some Space incorporate complex puzzles and code. For anyone who considers interactive fiction to be a lackluster part of the digital landscape, I hope this post will make you reconsider that stance and give interactive fiction a try.