Wednesday 28 September 2011

Notes on 'The Marriage'

'A Garden Party At Which The Husband Is Uncomfortable'

There’s plenty to say about Rod Humble’s The Marriage – a game I briefly mentioned in last week’s article – that would have suffered from being stuffed into it. This is a tangential analysis.

As with RUA, folks unfamiliar with the game are best advised to play it right now, because it will take up at most half an hour of their time. Creator Rod Humble’s explanation of its rules and intended meaning is also essential reading. But for the link-averse I summarise below.

The Marriage was Sims designer Rod Humble’s attempt to create a game whose mechanics were meaningful in terms beyond win or lose. Upon loading the player is presented with a field of abstract shapes which drift across the screen and change their paths or attributes according to inputs that are initially opaque. Not knowing what does what, she has to grope in the dark for a way to exert her influence. Since the controls are unconventional to the point of being obtuse, this can take a long time: if she tries to click, the game will restart, while merely brushing her mouse over certain shapes will bring about seemingly unconnected changes. The player must experiment, slowly learning to waft her mouse around until she starts to understand what principles animate this geometrical petri dish.

The player is discovering a system of rules that constitute the game’s meaning – and, if we are to take it up on its title, a kind of thesis what ‘marriage’, how it works, and how it feels to be in one.

Our chief elements are:
  • A pair of squares whose fates are bound by mysterious mechanisms, and who, given certain conditions, will diminish and expire
  • Circles which have the capacity to nourish or diminish the squares
  • A mouse pointer which affects these things by its location alone
In view of representing romance, the last element is particularly interesting; normally the player’s cursor is a neutral tool which only commits the player to any action when one is selected. Here, however, the cursor – in effect the game’s only measure of the players ‘attention’ – is a resource and its placement can have dire consequences. Placing it over either square (i.e. paying attention to the relationship) draws them together, while placing it over circles diminishes one of the squares. In this marriage, giving your attention to something is not a neutral act. 

'Choosing A New Carpet For The Second Back Bedroom'

You can’t always prevent disaster; so much is out of your hands that you are often placed at the mercy of circumstance and can only hope to hold on for a little longer. The dominant emotions produced are the satisfaction of sufficiency and the creeping desperation of impending failure. Due to the emotive subject matter, it’s easy to identify yourself as one square over another, and in these cases you can come to hate the foibles and mechanisms of its opposite number. You will damn its irrational ways. But because you soon realise that both squares are necessary for each other’s survival, you will keenly feel its loss when it expires, no matter how irritating you found it before.

Play with a masculine bias, and the blue square looks like the active party, spinning plates to keep the relationship alive. You must consider its position at all times, and your goal is to guide it out for sustenance before racing back to the pink square when she’s poorly.  But as with any optical illusion, it’s easy enough to switch sides and imagine that your role as the pink square is to farm (or husband) the blue, releasing him to replenish himself, then lassoing him back in - like Ma Brindle carefully stealing our confused but pliant father towards an appreciation for opera and classical music by getting him enthused about the cannons in the 1812 overture. Either way, you must pay attention to the states of both, and either way, prioritising one over the other will lead to ruin.

These rules remain opaque until they are tested and investigated by the player because Humble has deliberately eschewed any explanation or tutorial. Why?  “I wanted something that was not easily representable by other media,” wrote Humble about its creation; “I wanted to use game rules to explain something invisible but real...any element I could remove that got in the way of the game itself I did.” In other words, Humble’s a hardcore ludologist and The Marriage is also his argument for the primacy of game mechanics as the engine of meaning in videogames. By reducing its ‘representational’ elements to a minimum, and offering no visual shortcuts, it forces you to pay attention to the rules and focus on its mechanics.

And yet: if you’ve read the main article you have already anticipated the words which began this paragraph. For the feelings of confusion and curiosity which I have described are at least as crucial to the game as the supposed thesis of the rules, and their source is aesthetic. Humble himself notes that “one should not assume the game is incomplete because of its graphical simplicity.” Indeed – and one should not assume that because the graphics are simple they are not a key part of the game’s meaning.


They produce a game in which it is not clear what the player can change, how she can change it, or even if she can. Of all the things present in most videogames and absent in The Marriage, silence is the only one it’s easy to ignore and forget (perhaps because it’s so ordinary to work at a silent computer). Its inscrutability, then, is a part of play, simulating the confusion that every person feels when dealing with love and relationships, which no movie ever prepares them for. This is high modernism, attempting to teach us again what it is to love or die by rendering it as alien and unfamiliar as a Model T Ford to a Martian; rescuing its object, in Viktor Shklovsky’s phrase, from the automatism of perception . Moreover, if the visuals serve to distract player attention away from themselves, away from aesthetics, and towards an experience of mechanics, then they do so paradoxically because they and not the rules they point to are the engine of the effect.

Nor do they function neutrally in terms of meaning or message. Their stark abstraction, using only the broadest colour symbolism, is a generalising strategy, indicating the rules of the game (and thus of ‘marriage’) as universals that cut across all particular examples while being blank enough to admit variation. They share this effect with the game’s sweeping title – which is of course a representation too.

This is one problem with the game’s depiction of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ (while Humble starts off by insisting that the squares are ‘principles’, he quickly slips into referring to them as ‘people’). Such broad symbolism makes it difficult to read the mechanical differences between the squares as specific differences between two individual people rather than fundamental differences between two sexes. The game’s pleasing asymmetry acquires a slightly bitter taste when it is specifically the ‘masculine’ that subsists purely on outside attachments and does not need the pink to survive (although he might get fat without her) – when it is the ‘feminine’ that gives the masculine no sustenance of her own and whose enjoyment of outside elements is merely incidental to her survival. Despite a title and aesthetics proclaiming universality, it is pretty heteronormative.

So the visuals are crucial to the game. Firstly, their abstract difficulty declares its relationship to its subject (it is a ‘universal’ depiction). Secondly, working symbiotically with the rules themselves, they help to disorientate and alienate the player. Lastly, by refusing to provide any easy clues to the operation of those rules, they accomplish a meta-comment on game design, asserting the primacy of mechanics. Paradoxically, however, this comment exists in no small part by virtue of the very elements that it seeks to declare as irrelevant. It is in that sense self-defeating.

 In fact, for a while, aesthetics are more important to The Marriage than mechanics. These feelings of confusion, curiosity and dawning understanding overwhelmingly define the early experience of the player. In that sense its commentary on games design is actually that of a narratologist responding mischievously to a rhetorical question about what it’s like to play a game stripped of its representational elements. It does not function so much by removing these as by obscuring its rules, whose apparent absence demands a process of learning. Of this process the rules are merely the object, the pretext, the excuse: the journey is as crucial as the destination.  Far from escaping representation, The Marriage is a forceful reminder of their importance, though it makes its case by privation instead of the sensory blitz of RUA.

'Your Wife, Your Daughter, You, and My Dick'

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