ENG 730: Fictions, Representation, and Narrative.

While playing these games, I was thinking a bit about three things from Jasper Juul: his notion of “incoherent worlds,” the role of abstraction and representation, and the ways that rules and fictions can interact.

Juul defines incoherent world in a game as “a game with a fictional world but where the game contradicts itself or some game events cannot be explained as part of the fictional world.” He gives the example of Donkey Kong, as we don’t know why Mario has three hearts and can never find out why. Initially when I was playing A Dark Room, I was considering it a bit incoherent, as the idea of clicking to stab or clicking to build–this projection of a real world action into the game through this mechanic–felt arbitrary.

But really I was confusing the ideas of representation with this coherence. In the world itself, though textual, things made sense. Huts provided housing, and though some of the materials felt odd–like stone spears coexisting with laser guns or teeth and scales making weapons–game elements had an internal coherence. Instead, I found myself a bit jarred from the narrative by the mechanics of playing.

As time went on, also, I found myself less engaged by the fiction and more engaged by the mechanics, which is something Juul also describes: “It is a common characteristic that with sustained playing of the same game, the player may become less interested in the representational/fictional level of the game and more focused on the rules of the game” (139). I think was especially easy in this sort of game because things were pretty abstracted: no sound, only symbolic images (instead of more “realistic” ones), largely alphabetic representations, simple controls and rules, etc.

I found the opposite taking place with Myst: the world drew me in, but I (in time) got a bit bored by the mechanics. As Elizabeth points out, it was nice to sort of hangout in Myst for one, as the setting was  full of ambience, including music and sound effects. The visuals were also attractive and realistic. And the point-and-click movement had a calming quality.

Adding to the raw sensory experience, Myst also wove its game mechanics and instructions into the game, like the note one initially finds from Catherine. This helped the apparatus of the rules feel more integrated into the world itself, withdrawing into the fiction. Similarly, the point-and-click hand that let you project your actions into the space was one of the only representational elements in the game. The rest was “in the world,” as it were, augmented by in-game texts about the world itself.

But, as John points out, it was a bit tedious to go back and forth hunting for clues or trying to figure things out. After some initial gains, I found myself a bit stuck trying to figure out some of the puzzles–or figuring them out but having to re-walk across the island to find a particular number that I missed along the way.

Splitting the difference, Home had some interesting mechanics and fiction, though it undertook the fiction differently. Similar to Myst‘s multiple endings, Home has multiple endings, but it does so through this odd combination of trees and literal chose-your-own ending. I only played through once, but reading about other endings, I was intrigued by some of the possibilities. For me, Norman had killed my wife, but I didn’t know how Norman got killed or who the man in the house was. And, I was able to walk out the door at the end. For others, they decided that they killed Rachel and Norman, then slit their wrists in the bathroom. While some choices affect the ending–like the gathering of clues or the taking of the knife or gun–the player is ultimately decides key plot points, like if Rachel is really dead. This was odd.

For example, one player noted how this puzzling end broke his immersion. As a response, though, another player said, “Most games with various paths and endings just drag you along for the ride, telling the story of these charcters [sic] and expecting you to feel for them. This, though… when I was first presented with the question “Did I find my Rachel?”, I literally sat at that screen for… I dunno, 20 minutes, just piecing together the things I had learned and trying to come up with my own answer. I /loved/ it. It really was my story, even though I was playing as another person.”

I’m still thinking through what Home did and how I feel about it, whether considering it clunky or clever. But overall, I think these games do a great job highlighting the different ways that “fiction” operates in games–and how it differs from narrative.

Coming “Home” to a New Place

[A work in progress, a freewrite of sorts]

To work on my PhD, I’ve come back “home” to my birthplace in Syracuse. I’ve even come “home” to my parent’s house, where I grew up. I suppose I’ve always been hyper-sensitive to ideas of home. What it is. What it means. And now I’m experiencing a certain renaissance of that sensitivity.

I suppose I awoke one day from a more unquestioning view of home when I traveled abroad alone for the first time. Something about traveling alone–the hotel rooms, the airports, the isolation–brings on such thoughts. Particularly because I had to spend the night sleeping in Newark Airport, shivering from the air-conditioned cold and woken up every view minutes by an automated message.

Before that, though, it began by looking at the workers as the airport drifted into evening hours. With fewer people there, the isolated workers stood behind empty lines. In the gray and metal guts of this whale, we stood, all of us just there by chance, all strangers.

New walls are like strangers. They are alien and unfamiliar. Unwelcoming. Distant. People try to make a place homey by painting it certain colors. By getting comfortable chairs. By getting paintings by Mary Cassatt or Monet, maybe.

But what is it about that chair we sit in at our favorite cafe, that parking place we always park in, that bench we always sit at in the park? Why are we so attached to bits of wood or blacktop? So pissed off when someone robs us from our place? And feel so alienated by new walls, even if they have nice, warm paint?

Places have memories, like people, and like people’s, they fade. Trees with hearts carved by pocket knives get blown over by summer storms. New growth fills once-empty hiding spots. Buildings get weather-stained and worn. The “regulars” we knew in a place shift. Drawn to different places without goodbyes.

I once wrote in a journal that home is a geography. It is a concrete place. At the time, I was traveling a lot. And it is, I think. It is a place. Like a parking space or a bench. But like Heraclitus’ river, it’s always changing. It’s always becoming something that isn’t home. Like entropy. Shifting away from us, as we grapple and try to impose home on the world, onto the raw, living geography of a place.

My dad is a child psychologist, and one of the tests he gives is having a child draw a house and a family. The kids scrawl doors with heavy padlocks, families missing fathers, a grave for a dead dog, terrifyingly tall mothers, fences “for keeping bad guys out,” monstrous siblings, smiling stick-figures holding hands. He interprets the image using certain criteria.

It reminds me of a short story by Varlam Shalamov called “A Child’s Drawings.” The narrator finds a child’s drawing book. At first, he thumbs through the pictures of the countryside. Bright, crayoned-on sunsets. Then barbed-wire fences, guard towers, and planes start to cover the pages.

In the end, another guard comes and throws out the notebook because they can’t burn it, where it gathers frost on trash heap.

The iconography of a child’s drawing. It’s hues and stick-figure people. It’s trapezoid houses. It’s fences and locked doors. It’s smiles. Permeated by “home,” whether that home is a mansion on a hill or an apartment in a war zone. Whether it is filled with trauma or love.

Back home

I’ve been home for about three days now after surviving over 24 hours traveling, sustained by Cliff Bars, airline food, and caffeine. My mom barely held her tears in as she squeezed me near the baggage counter in the echoing spaces of the near-empty airport. The rest of the flight pooled around the carousel, frayed and wrinkled.

“It’s good to be home,” I said.

And it was. Four days before, June 30th arrived after weeks of warnings, anticipation, and scattered protests. Like a ruptured pipe, millions pooled into the squares and streets across Egypt. Tamarod, the grass-roots movement that organized the opposition, flaunted 22 million signatures to throw out Morsi while Tagarod, the pro-Morsi opposition, organized sit-ins.

As some graffiti said, “January 25 and June 30, our Revolution continues.”

Flags, fireworks, clenched fists, posters, and red cards colored the crowds. Couples, children, and friends held cards reading “Leave.” In a country with notorious disregard for timeliness, organization, and teamwork, millions gathered with a single purpose.

“It is the biggest protest in Egypt’s history,” one official told Agence France-Presse.

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Feeling “at home”

I spent the last three days traveling to Boston with an old friend and his girlfriend, House picturescouting for apartments. They’ll both be PhD candidates in the fall–one at B.U. and the other at MIT. My old friend called me about a month ago to catch up, and we decided it may be neat for me to move in with them.

I didn’t get into the MFA programs I applied to last winter, and the prospect of a gap year living with my parents at home as I applied to other programs didn’t seem pleasant. My friend agreed. Boston would have plenty of people, schools, and opportunities to explore. I’d be out of the house, living in the world.

The plan was to find a two-bedroom in Cambridge area for a reasonable price. Turns out, it wasn’t that simple.

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