Saturday 8 December 2012

"We need empathy simulators, not another game about being a white savior": Interview with Porpentine

pic: porp

Yesterday, I got an article up in the New Statesman about text games which challenge mainstream representations of war. I talked to a bunch of IF authors and game developers to write it, but only a small amount of what they said made the wordcount.

So this week I'll be posting my full interviews with all the cool people who gave me quotes. To make things simple, I am going to post them up in alphabetical order of surname - a system which our first guest, Porpentine, has already glitched by having none.

I contacted Porp because she had recently written a whole thing about the political implications of creating text games, and because her latest work, Howling Dogs, includes a sequence which reads like a kind of Gears of Warhammer fantasy pastiche. The game is also quite reflective about videogames generally (this interview with Emily Short was a touchstone).

After completing the summoning ritual, I mooted some thoughts about the subject:
It seems to me there are kind of three things text 'does' in this context...
On the one hand, it's a different medium with different aesthetic capabilities. It can at once conceal more and be more specific; it requires slightly more time to absorb, and more imagination on the player's part. Typing it can be experienced as intensifying player complicity.
On the other hand, the use of text and its implications of being subdued and reflective is in itself a deliberate contrast with AAA games. Unmanned and Change both use it in this way. There's an implicit criticism of mainstream war games here, the allegation that their graphical fidelity actually prevents them from adequately analysing the phenomena they simulate.
On the weird alien third hand, it's a production question: text is easier. It takes fewer resources, few expectations and fewer overheads. The people making the games don't have to play it safe; they can be imaginative and do what they like.
Your thoughts may violently differ, which would be interesting.
Porpentine replied to this first before moving on to some more specific questions.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah (as above).

Your points are good. Games that try to represent violence through graphical fidelity usually just end up being silly porn. We need words and thoughts about violence not the strangely sterile money shot of a structure exploding into attractive flames. We need survivor accounts, art about violence by people who have had violence done to them.

I think of all the sequences in howling dogs, the moor house scene is actually the most introspective about violence. Intense fear of retribution for any resistance to violence, paralyzing self-doubt, persistent thoughts of revenge. Experiments with complicity and resistance.

In your opinion what CAN text say about war that visual spectacle can't?

Text rejects the wrongheaded challenge to depict violence through visual fidelity, although I am interested in visual spectacle, just not the way people are using it right now. The best game about war will probably be one where you don't have a gun and it won't be pleasant and it will be scary and very loud and dirty and dangerous and unfair.

Our wargames try to talk about violence but they insist on putting you in the shoes of a trained super soldier who is the best at shooting, when we should be the refugee, the victim.

We need empathy simulators, not another game about being a white savior. Liberals are eager to pity victims but shudder at the thought of actually identifying with them.

You said most of your games about violence focus on the internal repercussions. Do you think text is a more introspective medium than 3D graphics? Or is it just that people likely to use text are more likely to be interested in introspection?  

Text is an introspective medium that rewards close analysis--not that I want to discount those using any medium to convey introspection.

My favorite graphical games about violence, like Lim by Merritt Kopas, work within minimal constraints. I think we realize that trying to convey violence through graphical fidelity usually falls short. If you have a visceral emotional truth at the core of your work then abstract shapes or text say so much more than any multimillion dollar war porn war game that soars like Icarus and explodes on the sun of hilarious ragdoll physics.

I can convey a more complete picture through text than I can if I were to try to juggle art/sound/music/level design/physics/see the problem here? Words are cheap and that's GOOD.

What's the difference between critiquing representations of war and critiquing war itself? Is there one? 

Representations of war come from a war culture. To critique one is to critique the other.

What was your intention with the 'DEATH MARINES OF DEATH' vignette in Howling Dogs?

Narrativewise the sequence is the creation of an artificial intelligence that cannot understand the context and meaning of death on a human level so it combines death/violence imagery--reliquary tanks and drop-coffins that convey dead people into battle like some kind of gothic Starship Troopers.

Part of the inspiration was a wonderful tweet by Leon Arnott about coffin-tanks that are sealed before they roll into battle.

I've always wanted a feminist Warhammer, all that lost potential because the audience is men who really don't have to think much about the effects of violence.

War is an absurdity that realism in games can undercut. Realism falls short whereas absurdity draws on the collective dripping horror pooling up in the psychic reservoir of our hideous shit society. So you have people dead before they get into battle, you have people traveling to a war in coffins, death universe, death saturation, deathscape, it's absurd. It's war.

Thank you.

for now...

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