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This is the excerpt of the thesis Absurd Games that I’ve written for my MA in Game Development and Research at Cologne Game Labs supervised by Gundolf S. Freyermouth and Bjoern Bartholdy. I’ve omitted the whole build-up to this chapter and many things may seem to be out of context but the alternatives are either a 50+ page blog (no one will ever read it) or a massive rewrite (that ship has sailed). For the full (kinda) picture, please, read it in full (50+ pages) here:
It’s free, but tips are much appreciated. You can find the practical part of the thesis (four games with devlogs) there too.
Also, potential spoilers for the following:
Dutchman (USA 1964, P: Amiri Baraka)
The Bald Soprano (France 1950, P: Eugene Ionesco)
Waiting for Godot (France 1953, P: Samuel Beckett)
Asthenic Syndrome (USSR 1990, D: Kira Muratova)
Synecdoche, New York (USA 2008, D: Charlie Kauffman)
Three Stories (Russia, Ukraine 1997, D: Kira Muratova)
Depression Quest (USA 2013, O: Zoë Quinn)
Fantastic Fetus (Poland/Austria 2019, O: Alexandra Jarosz)
Frog Fractions (USA 2012, O: Jim Crawford)
Space Giraffe (USA 2007, O: Jeff Minter)
Defiance of Death
Finding anything absurdist in games is tough. Games are escapism vehicles that provide us with our fantasies, the rules are well defined and telegraphed, and every time we try something we can generally predict the result. Most of the games sugarcoat or file the rough edges as they present us with these fantasies. We have alibis and excuses provided to avoid reflecting on our actions. Life has meaning in games even if we’re in horror.
Attacks need to be telegraphed and rules clearly communicated denying the experimentation with both of them. Endings should be satisfying or not exist at all denying Aristotelian experimentation. Heterotopia is looked down upon as a failure of world-building that alienated the players who like exploration. Only tragicomedy persists.
Through experimentation, breaking apart, and liquefying the medium we can change and affect it. We can’t do anything about death.
Death means nothing in a video game. At the very least it doesn’t mean the same. Jason Tocci in his article on player’s death describes the relationship with death as such: “Videogames may be the only narrative medium in which the death of the protagonist isn’t just devoid of drama, but is entirely routine. If players have any emotional reaction, it is usually frustration rather than reflection.”
As such many designers attempt to work around death, especially in narrative-driven games. The rogue-like genre, for example, defies death by adopting it. What happens after death? Another run. Except now you better understand how the game works. Imagine knowing how to do taxes at the age of three. Some rogue-likes actively incorporate death into their narratives. Hades puts us into the shoes of a son of Hades, the god of death. Death simply returns us home to start again. Into the Breach implements a time travel mechanic that zooms us back in time to try to save the world again. Rogue Legacy lets characters die, however, we then become the deceased character’s descendant, transcending death.
Additionally, there is a further push to minimize the impact of death and failure: “[G]ames automatically mark ‘checkpoints’ in the player’s progress (where the player will restart if the protagonist dies), or allow players to save the game wherever they wish.” There are different difficulty setting, providing “story modes” like in Mass Effect 3 or Witcher 3.
Video games are escapism vehicles that provide an experience to avoid the feeling of real-life absurdity. Death isn’t part of the narrative, no matter how we frame it. Death isn’t the end, isn’t inevitable, doesn’t render life in the fictional universes meaningless. We can’t restart our real lives from a save point, we can’t live our lives again, we can’t see what happens after we die. All of it is possible in games by virtue of the medium’s technology.
This isn’t a bad thing for the medium, it makes it more accessible and removes the vestigial “Failure in videogames – whether conceptualized as death and “rebirth” without narrative explanation, or simply as trial and error” To create the absurd, to make the player feel the absurd, realize the absurd we must take something else and make it as powerful. “If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine guns, I shall consider his act to be absurd.”
We need to find better machine guns. I propose we remove transcendence echoing the absence of transcendence in Kira Muratova’s narratives.
Current Absurd Games
Since we moved on from Kharms, I found it increasingly more difficult to find works that exhibit absurdist qualities or deal with the absurd through form rather than theme. Due to the reasons outlined just above, looking for absurdist games was the hardest part. I can’t claim I found an all-round absurdist game.
I will attempt to translate the concepts outlined in the previous chapters (See full thesis on itch.io) into the language of video games. Narrative techniques as, for example, Kharms’s flaneur-like language can be applied to a game’s text as is. Similarly, I can safely say that Kauffman’s heterotopia and most of the visual absurd can be implemented as they are.
In terms of games, this is that condition when the player abandons any thought of the real world – flow.
In the article Flow and Immersion in Video Games: The Aftermath of a Conceptual Challenge the authors outline the elements of flow:
Flow theory is often approached from a radical standpoint, wherein all of its nine proposed dimensions must be present for the experience to qualify as flow. These dimensions include balance between the skills of an individual and the activity’s demands; merging of action and awareness; clear goals; immediate and unambiguous feedback; concentration on the task; perceived control over the activity; loss of self-reflection; distorted perception of time; and intrinsic motivation toward an activity (autotelic)
That loss of self-reflection is in fact something we want to revert. The absurd designer may want to invite the player to interpret the game with them while they play the game, inviting the interpretation to be part of the gameplay.
Flow usually implies a continued application, that is a designer should get the player into the flow and keep them there as long as possible. The ending, the exit point, doesn’t seem to be taken into a consideration. The quote above does mention clear goals, however, the assumption is that there is always a new goal. While infinitely repeated content does reminisce of the implied loop in Waiting for Godot and The Bald Soprano, a good chunk of games does have an ending.
In my experience as a narrative designer, the endings for video games aren’t directly a catharsis in the Aristotelian sense. They don’t purge our emotions, but rather provide a logical consequence to our actions, usually in a satisfactory fashion. We save the universe, kill the beast, rescue everybody, and see the results of those actions. It is the Aristotelian arc that usually ends on a high note. Tragic endings, unless there are multiple endings, tend to be rare.
A satisfactory ending is just an exit point from the flow. It is hard to pull off a smooth return to the real world. On the one hand, removing such a problem is liberating, on the other, that sense of parable might be an even bigger undertaking.
I will be looking at games that disrupt the flow in some ways or subvert the transcendence through the completion of games’ goals. Whether deliberate or not. The games mentioned below probably never were considered absurdist but they either implement some parts of the absurdist framework or invoke the actual sense of absurd.
There are plenty of games that omit verbal information or provide very little. This is natural for many genres: sometimes trial and error are part of the learning curve, sometimes information is just not required. Attributing absurd to games that ignore narrative is an exercise in futility.
Similarly, the unreliable narrator in games like Stanley Parable is used as a mechanic that is clearly understandable, provides a goal to annoy and disobey said narrator, and gives the antagonist a humorous flair.
Absurdist mediums use omission of information or overt disinformation to disorient the player, however, the information that is there does give viewers and readers the necessary tools to engage with the medium. In this regard, I’ll use the concept of telegraphing and feedback as a prime target for the absurd.
Telegraphing is a way for a designer to inform the player about what is going to happen. The usual example is an exaggerated pull-back before an enemy attack. It allows the player to react consciously and build a strategy around it. “We want to communicate exactly what the enemy is going to do so the player knows exactly what to do to avoid it. If players don’t understand the questions they are being asked, they actually can not play your game.”
Feedback is an immediate reaction to the player’s action informing them of either failure or success. The best example is violent screen shake popularized by Vlambeer games like Nuclear Throne or Luftrauser.
These can be found in narrative design too. Telegraphing is essentially foreshadowing choices and twists, whether it’s a setup for a selection of choices that allows a conscious decision or a more traditional foreshadowing of a character’s betrayal.
Space Giraffe is a 2007 game developed by Llamasoft. It’s a tube shooter where we control the titular giraffe (that only vaguely resembles a giraffe) navigating geometric arenas to shoot down enemies. All of it is presented with and among synth visuals reminiscent of an acid trip. “Like modernist painting, Space Giraffe breaks conventions in ways that encourage players to reflect on the medium and fixed-shooter genre as they play.”
I can’t explain or fathom all the ways the game does it except that when I play it at face value I don’t even notice when I die. The death sequence is uneventful, signified only by the sound of an old phone ringing, or perhaps with something else I didn’t notice under the barrage of color that is the game space.
[I]t's a dazzling piece of thinking on behalf of Minter and his colleague Ivan Zorzin: 1. Arcade games are all about precision. 2. What if we built on that precision with things that obscure it? 3. And then, what if we gave the very best players the tools to cut through all obfuscation and draw a clean signal out of the noise again? (4: Spitfire fx?) Everywhere you look, you see this back-and-forth sort of mentality at work, from collectable pods that provide useful powers but also advance in blinding pools of light, allowing enemies to sneak along with them unseen, to foes that, when shot, actually warp the background even more. Success in Space Giraffe almost always brings with it the likelihood of imminent failure.
The loop of figuring out the signals the game sends you, reacting to them, and receiving juicy feedback is disrupted at every stage. It’s there only if you’re willing to listen and negotiate with the game as it is, without applying any pre-existing knowledge derived from the medium’s literacy. “Space Giraffe frustrates the player who is seeking a traditional game experience, much as modernist painting frustrates viewers, past and present, who seek the traditional structures and dependable interpretations of traditional painting.”
There is a feeling of flow once you learn the language of the game. To get there you need to understand how it works and just surrender to the light and cacophony until the phone ringing wakes you up.
If the player has nothing to react to and no way to know if their reaction was the correct one, their agency is under threat. I argue an absurdist game should lean into it.
Josh Bycer in his Gamasutra article defines agency as “The player’s ability to impact the story through the game design or gameplay.” I’d expand it also to the variety of options and choices provided to the player. The usual rule of thumb is to provide as much agency as possible or at least keep it consistent. It isn’t directly linked to exposition as you can absolutely have clear exposition and no agency in a perfectly linear game.
Good player agency is about having the player make choices both large and small so while yes, not every choice should be a matter of life and death, they should still mean something to the character and the plot. Wherever you start the game at in terms of how much control the player has on the plot, should be where it ends.
Depression Quest is a 2013 interactive fiction game developed by Zoë Quinn using the Twine engine, with writing by Quinn and Patrick Lindsey, and music by Isaac Schankler. We play through a series of situations choosing one of the presented options to advance the story. Our goal is just to go through situations while suffering from depression. The authors say this before the game starts:
Depression Quest is a game that deals with living with depression in a very literal way. This game is not meant to be a fun or lighthearted experience. If you are currently suffering from the illness and are easily triggered, please be aware that this game uses stark depictions of people in very dark places.
The game isn’t absurd, it’s coherent and doesn’t produce a paradox, however, the way it deals with the agency warrants reflection. Depending on the severity of your condition the options you have will be struck out. Clearly shown but unavailable to choose. You can’t do anything about any given situation but to choose a less than perfect choice. The text below the options explains what’s going on: “You are very depressed. You spend a large amount of time sleeping, hating yourself, and have very little energy or motivation.”
The effect is undeniably powerful as the player is forced to reflect: why can’t I socialize at the party, why is the option unavailable? What we project at Didi and Gogo as humans, we don’t project at characters in video games. They have the rules they abide by, the tramps can just leave and live their lives. If we put ourselves in the shoes of Gogo looking at his boots, we might just leave them be and go away. Removing agency is a way to give the player the feeling implied.
It is also absurd. We want to do something and face the rigid rule of a video game turned against us. The rules of a video game are even more rigid than the rules of life but they are usually applied to please us. Turning them against us shows them for what they are: rules that don’t care about us.
The exit point of the flow can be beating a final boss that tested everything we have learned. It is a logical conclusion to everything we have done, reflecting our choices and their meaning. This makes us special and ensures we leave the game with our fantasies fulfilled. This isn’t absurd at all.
While a thought-provoking finale isn’t that unusual, it isn’t necessarily absurd. Spec Ops: The Line puts the player into the boots of a delusional soldier looking for a commander that has been long dead through a series of fight scenes and events that, in hindsight, are clearly hallucinations. But we see how the decisions made sum up to the result.
Fantastic Fetus developed by Alexandra Jarosz, Thomas Feichtmeir, Sebastian Merkl, and Michael Hartinger works with the ending differently. It’s a Tamagotchi style game where you take care of TamaMama, a pregnant woman going through her days waiting for the child to be born. While she’s sleeping the player is invited to design her baby and give them, for example, a top hat, eldritch tentacles, or goat hooves. In the end, however, the baby is shown to be deformed. The game then talks about Polish anti-abortion laws.
The ending of Fantastic Fetus is a good example of the absurd in the style of Muratova. The fun adorable game is jarringly followed by the real life breaking out of your screen. It’s a sucker punch that isn’t telegraphed by anything and a reward that you never wanted. By violently throwing the player out of the fantasy, Fantastic Fetus nails its point hard.
Waiting for Godot, The Bald Soprano, Dutchman, Asthenic Syndrome, Starukha all deny us the enjoyment and revelation of a traditional Aristotelian arc. The catharsis doesn’t happen and the piece stays with us forcing engagement even when we no longer interact with it. Fantastic Fetus gives us a logical conclusion to the events, it’s just the one that ignores what we did and the one we don’t want to happen.
To complete this scavenging run on a high and cheerful note, I want to talk about Frog Fractions. Specifically, the first installment in the series.
Unpredictable and absurd, Frog Fractions starts out under the guise of a piece of edutainment software in which you control a frog sat on a pond scooping up bugs and defending fruit. Then after buying a few upgrades, you’re suddenly riding a dragon through an underground tunnel that takes you into Crawford’s own bizarre version of video game wonderland. Many read it as a comment on the absurd conventions of video games. Many others read it as a weird frog game.
In Frog Fractions you play as a frog that eats bugs with fractions attached to them, occasionally it becomes a typing game. Then you get a turtle friend that allows you to collect fruit by carrying you over the surface of your pond. You can upgrade your friend into a dragon and dive under the water to collect all the fruit. You then fly up in a shoot-em-up sequence to reach Bug Mars. You’re stopped by Bug Mars custom patrol and brought into the court.
In the court, you plead your case and take a rare option to get naturalized and receive a full pardon. The citizenship test is a series of ridiculous choices with all the right answers. After becoming a citizen of Bug Mars you dive deep with your dragon through an underwater labyrinth while the narrator tells you the history of boxing. You find a spaceship and fly away.
On the spaceship, the game becomes a parser text adventure where you need to activate the sleeping pod and plot course back to Bug Mars. While asleep you get a nightmare where you are a human trying to lick bugs with a stubby tongue. On Bug Mars, you’re again in court, at which point you counter the accusation by running for president. The elections are represented by a DDR sequence.
As the president of Bug Mars, you produce bug pornography to receive more upgrades until you get a swimming pool. In the pool, you’re riding a turtle and lick bugs. Roll credits.
It is very absurd. It ticks experimentation with language as each new mechanic is introduced as a non-sequitur with zero explanation, it ticks heterotopia with its Bug Mars, it ticks Kharms’s brevity and self-destruction as mechanics are shown briefly and then abandoned, it conflates time and space, it rips its original mechanical premise apart even before you get to the actual subversions.
Where it shines is in removing the need to master any given mechanic. Carefully considering money in the bug pornography segment is pointless, just print all the money. DDR segment is easier to win by button mashing. Collecting enough fruit is best achieved not by licking bugs but by diving beneath the water to find a mountain of fruit rendering grind pointless.
When the bug licking mechanic switched to the typing game where you need to type corresponding words to lick bugs, I was ecstatic. I felt like I could be good at this. It never showed up again. It wasn’t a sad moment because the game immediately showed me something else. The same thing happened with the text adventure segment. DDR and the bug pornography segments were dreadful. The game moved and fluctuated between flow and frustration.
The game’s message seems quite nostalgic as we run through genres generally abandoned by the mainstream. As Robert Yang writes:
Frog Fractions is nostalgic for the mismatched discourse / metaphors of the edutainment genre. Killing bugs has nothing to do with fractions, but developers just thought cartoon animals would make the material more appealing. Neither does DDR have anything to do with how elections work. And it suggests the bug president's job is to print ‘megabytes’ of pornography, and inflate the currency when you overproduce pornography at a loss...
The message isn’t directed at players, it is directed at other designers, Yang continues:
Frog Fractions is not nostalgic for bad educational games of the early 90s. Rather, Frog Fractions is nostalgic for absurdity in games, at a time when game design schools and developer communities are so focused on congealing design into a teachable discipline / coherent culture, when we think designing something to death is necessarily good design.
When we ultimately look at the ending, at a frog licking bugs and riding a turtle in an ostentatious swimming pool we get the absurdist parable. Just like Waiting for Godot is about Didi and Gogo being there for each other this one makes designers reflect on the nature and state of our medium.
If something like Spec Ops: The Line is full of self-loathing, and Gears of War is totally oblivious and lacks self-awareness, then Frog Fractions knows it's the butt of a joke. But it also knows it's the life of the party, as it dances on the table with a lampshade on its head. It's more important to have a good time than to ‘worry about the future of the medium.’
I will finally address tragicomedy properly.
[M]aybe the greatest contribution that the absurd made on the theatre is that ‘tragicomedy’ has become the default ‘genre’ in the theatre. For over two millennia, plays were either ‘tragedies’ or ‘comedies.’ And any ‘mixing’ of the two before the twentieth century generally caused quite a controversy.
What Bennett is describing in hindsight mirrors what Schrank is talking about in the present when he discusses the monopoly of flow: “A dominant cultural convention in games is the expectation that games should flow” Genre-bending games are nothing new: the experimentation with mechanics and mixing them together is one of the ways to stand out. However, flow and fun are mandatory for a good game in the same way. Jesse Schell prescribes it directly.
Once you notice a player going into flow during your game, you need to watch them closely - they won’t stay there forever. You must watch for that crucial moment - the event that moves them out of the flow channel, so you can figure how to make sure that event doesn’t happen in your next prototype of the game.
If we look at absurdist games as a potential continuation of the Theatre of Absurd, of Kharms, and of challenging cinema – among others, – then we don’t see a lot of their aspects clash with existing traditions. One can do a traditional formal fun game that uses heterotopia (Zeno Clash), exposition experiments (Soulsborne lore delivery), playing with plot structure (Nier: Automata), Muratova’s ugliness (Bad Mojo), Kauffman’s play with time (Thirty Flights of Loving), etc. However, the flow remains, transcendence is achieved, and the player doesn’t think much about it.
Because the audience many times subjectively experiences the same emotions as the characters on stage, the audience find themselves more a part of the onstage world that does not make sense (than in, say, the objective emotional responses of ‘traditional’ theatre). Thus, the response to the contradictions presented onstage in an absurd play cannot be merely an objective intellectual response (what Bertolt Brecht favored in his Epic Theatre over the objective emotional response of ‘traditional’ theatre), where, however, the impulse to make sense of the situation can easily be ignored, but because it is a subjective emotional response, the audience feels personally part of the world that does not make sense and must resolve their own emotions; however, in order to resolve those emotions, it is necessary to have a subsequent subjective intellectual response.
This is the crux of the problem with finding absurdist games for this thesis. While games achieve the subjective emotional response, the flow prevents the player to resolve it on their own. The flow reorients the player. Fantastic Fetus disorients and jarringly leaves you to handle the problem on your own only suggesting the right response.
The tragicomic angle, usually referred to as a mix of comedy and tragedy in the narrative, in the interactive language of games is this attack on flow. They’re fun until they’re not. They’re not fun until they really are.
Bennett Y. Michael, Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd – Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter, United States: Palgrave Macmillan US 2011.
Bennett Y. Michael, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre and Literature of The Absurd, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press 2015.
Camus Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus, USA: Alfred A. Knopf 1955.
Roberts Graham: “The Meaning of Death: Kira Muratova’s Cinema of the Absurd,” in: Birgit Beumers (Ed.), Russia on Reels: The Russian Idea in Post-Soviet Cinema United Kingdom: I. B. Tauris and Co. 1999.
Schell, Jesse: “The Art of Game Design: a Book Of Lenses”, USA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2008.
Schrank, Brian: “Avant-garde Videogames: Playing with Technoculture”, USA: MIT Press, 2014.
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