a jot about huniecam studio & specialization

A ‘flow state’ is an even match between the level of obstacle you meet and your ability to overcome those obstacles. Obtaining flow is unobvious at the best of times – overcoming obstacles often changes our ability to meet them, either increasing skill or depleting a resource, which then changes the level of obstacle we are next able to meet – but particularly when I want it most. Like every adult, I come home with a certain bored rage and want to snap it immediately with something sweet, something fun, something different. Usually what I look for is a good game. HunieCam Studio fulfills those criteria, but when I was burned out as fuck and playing it, I was just empty-tank afterwards. Part of that is that you need certain mental resources left over to enjoy something, period, which is part of the frustrating cycle of coming home and wanting to be happy immediately 1 without really being able to be. Playing anything might have been an undue drain on what I had left, but what struck me as I played HunieCam Studio is that this is the game I am playing all the time: resource management of stressed employees.

As the title suggests, you are managing the women who work in a skeezy web-cam studio, trying to balance their level of stress with their ability to produce profit. You drag your cam-girls between buildings that represent different ways to spend their time and thus your money. You can accessorize them to cater to niche patrons. You can make them more skilled, though then they demand more money. Same with increasing their style. Someone has to provide for their vices, or they stress, and if they work for long enough, they need to retire to a spa to get mani-pedi’d and mud-masked until they’re refreshed enough to get back in front of the blinking red light. There is almost no titillating content beyond the premise, but even so it’s an extremely absorbing process of dragging between buildings and checking on timers and making sure the books are above the red each night. My first several times through, I played it without even achieving the limpest trophy2, and partially that’s because I selected girls based on brief backstory bios, and partially that’s because I went for as much diversity and skill as possible in my cam-girls. Not really a successful strategy.

After repeated failure, I eventually looked at a guide, which offered the simple and nearly always applicable advice: specialize. One person attracts with full style, everyone else c’s with full skill, everyone has the same accessory to attract a shared audience, with one poorly paid girl who ran around convenience stores to attend to the crew’s respective vices. Simple. Smart Industrialized. I want to think about specialization as a strategy, and I want to talk about reading game guides.

Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state these functions are parcelled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things…

In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking…

Books are written on it by thinkers, not by Man Thinking; by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles. Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.

Hence, instead of Man Thinking we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class who value books as such; not as related to Nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.


– “American Scholar,” in Nature, by Ralph Waldo Emerson3

One of the things that games can teach you is the situations where your intuitive strategies succeed and fail. I love to diversify: do something different; read something different; my Spotify playlists are more about left-turns than discernable themes; I typically view nothing quantitatively but rather as a series of categories. Similarly I develop soft-spots almost instantly for particular characters that has nothing to do with their quantities contributions to strategy. None of these are winning intuitions in a typical game. “Specialization” may be overbroad as term, but I intend it to describe selecting development in a very limited amount of sectors, in contrast to the number of opportunities to develop others. My cam-girl’s were doubly specialized, for example: they had extremely limited functions that that they were highly skilled in, and attracted a niche audience that I created by giving them all the same niche.

Sometimes I think of my refusal to specialize as a kind of cowardice. ‘Specialize’ involves taking something in particular as special – i.e. to choose to value one thing over another. HunieCam Studio is like my life in that I am constantly flitting between tasks, where the resource being managed is myself. Modulate your level of stress against how much you have to work, to get more money, to survive, to buy things that modulate stress, so that you can work more. Specialization is like making choices at all in life. After all, it’s just the one lifetime, hardly long enough to do a few things, much less everything. Which things do you pick?

Yet life is not so neat as to reward a single strategy, even if that’s sometimes what we want behind our moral story, a clean way to make choices in any situation. Worse, it often feels supernaturally dull. That’s half of what I hate in my work life, that it involves such a limited use of myself.

Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.


― John Dewey

Dewey4 claimed that the feebleness of human infants is in fact a complicated evolutionary strategy. It puts us immediately in a situation where a vast amount of motor failure is likely before we meet with any success. This outfits us well to approach many, many different circumstances, because in the process of failing to do what we intend (pick up a toy, for example) equips us with incidental knowledge about how to accomplish other sorts of things, even if they were not things that were initially wanted to do.

Even so, there’s a limited circumstance where failure feels interesting. Babies have all their needs met. If they want something, pick up a toy, say, that’s usually not for mere self-maintenance, but because of the brute nature of wanting things. Theoretically, I have all my needs met (tie my own shoes and everything) before I game on a Friday night, but it might be something more akin to where you are on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.5 If you can’t tell, I ain’t that high up on it right now. It might be difficult to find repeated failure in a silly little cam-girl game interesting if you feel you are going nowhere in your life, for example; maybe it feels like too much of the same terrible thing. I think often about which games are actually going to give me something back at the end of the day. Something purely exploratory, with no sense of success or failure, imputes a sense of time wasted to me, for reasons I don’t like. Even if it’s only fake money, it’s nice to have seen my clicking go somewhere.

Yet success isn’t all you want – you want to figure it out yourself.


From Yayification’s brilliant Steam guide.

I still struggle with whether or not I should read a game guide, the same way I sometimes wonder if I ought to see a therapist. Anything they can figure out, I should be able to figure out for myself. Besides, if you take out the puzzle part of a game, it just becomes a matter of clicks and keystrokes, rote activities which produce no joy on their own. You want to click with purpose, ha. You want to have figured out exactly what you need to do and then done it. That scales from games to life choices.

And yet wanting this does not preclude outside input, I have to remind myself. Usually a guide tells you that if you look at a puzzle this way, the solution becomes obvious. You can cross-pollinate that knowledge by trying to apply previously successful perspectives on fresh problems, seeing how they fare, what features are shared and what aren’t between two sets of circumstances. You can get interested, in other words, in what your failure has to do with your perspective – and this doesn’t make you less thoughtful. Refusing to specialize is sometimes John Wayne nonsense; it is a way of refusing to engage with others in shared projects. Some people have the right intuitions to approach particular problems, but cannot describe them in terms clear and abstract enough to realize that a different set of problems can be approached successfully in the same way.

I do want to say one last bit about specialization and choice, though it’s wandered off from the point. I do worry that sometimes it’s really existential angst about choosing things that prevents me from taking specialization in any circumstance seriously. I’m an American of a particular political alignment that clashes deeply with the recent election, however, and I want to include one brief excerpt regarding compromise. It involves the protagonist, a witch, being confronted with an assassin masquerading as a middle school teacher.

“How about you, Miss Delfine? Do you think the occasional witch burning helps to weld society together?”

Patricia lost a breath. Then she found it again and looked up, regarding Theodolphus with a steadiness that he couldn’t help admiring. Her thin lips pushed out.

“Well, Patricia said. “A society that has to burn witches to hold itself together is a society that has already failed, and just doesn’t know it yet.”

All the Birds in the Sky,6 Charlie Jane Anders

The most thrilling part of games is realizing a new way to think that allows you to abstract amongst strategies Often that abstraction hops all the way to the top level, life or something like it, but also between games and puzzles. Games do test strategies, but the results are only hypothetical imperatives: if you want this, do that. For the strategy to be worthwhile, you have to want something it gets you. You can look at certain kinds of puzzles and decline them as worthy of pursuit. You can cut the Gordian knot. You can refuse to compromise; you can specialize. I’ve always thought of specialization as deeming one thing unworthy and thought little of it accordingly, out of a moral allergy to labelling anything unworthy plus an intellectual arrogance. How belatedly obvious that morality often involves labelling something ‘unworthy.’ Better check that intellectual arrogance.

Transistor, Elvis Costello, Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Game?

And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated—as good rock and roll did—challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics.

– from The Essential Ellen Willis, by Ellen Willis

One of the most instructive parts of watching Mad Men is noticing how the men and women change their minds, particularly on socio-political matters. There is a fashion to opinion, even those on race and sex. Suddenly hemlines are higher; suddenly racism is something Pete Campbell is against. There are few instances where characters confront their beliefs and revise them, even though those beliefs seem to change. Sometimes I wonder similar things about the vogue that environmentalism and food politics currently enjoy. Right now, I wonder that about feminism. Is it a very good time, or a very bad time, to be a feminist? Those who are vocal about social justice no longer seem to be underdogs, even if those meant to be served by social justice still are. Joss Whedon, playing Joss Whedon and someone interviewing Joss Whedon,1 asked himself, So, why do you write these strong female characters?, and responded, Because you’re still asking me that question. It’s a significant response to a significant question, and it is also significant that this question is only imagined. And yet: Gamergate. And yet there are so many moments when playing a game, or reading books, or walking by bars in the dark, when I find myself unable to do anything except think of myself as a woman and unable to be comfortable with that fact.2 And yet I found myself unable to listen to Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True.

Before I heard a word of it, I was blown away by the album, and I spent a solid week waking up to “Waiting for the End of the World,” loosely grasping a connection between the percussion and the title and my own sense of a doomed summer. But loving it led to listening to it, and listening to it led to growing discomfort. The album is named for the repeated chorus of ‘Alison’, quoted below:

Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking
when I hear the silly things that you say.
I think somebody better put out the big light,
cause I can’t stand to see you this way.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.
My aim is true.

– “Alison,” Elvis Costello

It’s an ambiguous double entendre: He’s got good intentions; his gunshot won’t miss. A perfect mixture of menace and sympathy.3 But it is ambiguous, so perhaps it’s unfair to put murder on Costello’s mind here — but note that his contempt for Alison is unambiguous, unambiguously combined with her sex appeal. Hearing this contempt, I looked for it elsewhere, and found it: the album begins with “now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired,” then narrator laughingly hopes that the working week, perhaps as a prostitute, perhaps as a sad career after some kind of stardom, doesn’t kill the admired woman; in “Miracle Man” he declines any disapproval about his abilities because he doubts the judgment of the woman in question; the loss of the narrator’s anger in “I’m Not Angry” occurs when he ceases to expect anything but disloyalty from this woman (perhaps all women), and in fact admits to snapping pictures of her liaisons behind her back; in “Sneaky Feelings” he confesses that, against his better judgment, he finds himself caring for this partner, willing to have sex where “You can force me to use a little tenderness / White lies, alibis, anything but say that it’s true. / Now we could sit like lovers, staring in each other’s eyes / but the magic of the moment might become too much for you”. The album is strung from vignettes of loneliness and unskilled sex, and closes with “Watching the Detectives,” which details a femme fatale’s callous observation of legal proceedings, “she’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.”

If there are helpless processes of identification, such that we search out those that are the most like us in a story and understand how they are treated as ways we would be treated in similar circumstances, then the people most like me in My Aim Is True were women who were pitied, dismissed, or morally repugnant, often some combination of these.

Ellen Willis, a fantastic rock critic in working largely in the sixties and seventies, was conflicted by whether or not her feminism contradicted her love for the Rolling Stones. Her resolution was that the ostensibly more ‘feminist’ offerings suffered from the very timidity that feminism ought to counter, and so she found herself feeling more feminist, powerful and unhesitant about the validity of her thoughts and feelings, when she rocked out to Exile on Main Street instead of the more womanly folk-singer strummy types.4 This could save My Aim Is True. It might be that the honesty in rock-n-roll prompts your own, regardless of whether or not the honesty in question is about you, in particular whether the honesty in question is about you as a pitiable, bad, dismissible but perhaps fuckable. Sometimes I listen to the album. There’s toe-tapping, but there is also always a point where I can’t do anything but listen. Which, if the lyrics are anything to go by, is roughly what the women described are doing throughout the album: listening to Costello tell them how it is, and if they object, they do so in the silliest ways. Excepting of course the murderess at the album’s close, but then Elvis notes that “Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay / it only took my little fingers to blow you away.” A gun metaphor again. This is not honesty as an invitation.

Enter Transistor.

It’s the kind of game which seems to aim for a particular comment. You are Red, a young woman and popular singer in the city of Cloudbank, rendered mute by a bizarre attack by a cult of tastemakers. The game begins directly after this attack, the body of Red’s boyfriend laying lifeless, a glowing sword stuck in his chest. Turns out that the boyfriend’s personality has been stored in the sword, the titular ‘Transistor,’ and his voice guides you throughout the game, narrating the circumstance, naming the various computerized monsters that you encounter (things like “Creep” and “Young Lady”), but unable to do anything beyond that narration and naming. As you dash around Cloudbank, the city is being remade into a blank slate by a digital force called the Process, and as details about this become clearer, the nature of Cloudbank as a virtual place becomes clearer. Red’s goal is to save her boyfriend and the city. She cuts her dress, puts on her boyfriend’s bomb-ass jacket, and gets on a motorcycle against the initial protests of her sword, who begs her to escape with the rest of the citizens of Cloudbank.

These are various ingredients of gender and video game tropes. In A World…, a film about that ubiquitous beginning to movie trailers, ended with dialogue about the power of narration and gender, about how it matters who is telling the story, perhaps more than the content of the story. Here, perhaps as usual, a male voice narrates the circumstances, the female lead being unable to speak. Perhaps as usual, the story is a combination of save-the-world and save-my-romantic-interest, though less-than-usually, it’s a girl trying to save a boy. There are various clues about the sexual orientations of the few characters you encounter, though these things are not stated outright and do not feature prominently in their characterization. These clues suggest a happy marriage between two male cult-members, and an attraction to Red by a female cult-member, who planned to attack her that night knowing that her boyfriend would attempt to get in the way. All in all, there is a feeling of play to the ingredients of the game, the spare plot and the lonely, rapidly disappearing world, the girl who never speaks and the man’s voice which serves as the only real guidance through the world. When I said that they seemed to aim for a particular comment, it’s due to that sense of play, where a particular bedrock template has been adjusted just so.

Do me a favor; don’t let go

Of course, the mere presence of these ingredients does not guarantee that this work is feminist or aesthetic success. Bissell puts the aim of video games brilliantly in Extra Lives:

So what have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that points not toward but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.
– from Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell

For a video game to be an aesthetic success, then, playing that game indicates something deeply about the player. Transistor‘s various ingredients seem to be poised for that sort of indication, and I find myself wondering if it’s poised for feminist aesthetic success. That ‘play’ I mentioned? It might be those elements of the narrative can be distilled into feminist success or failure, but that sort of interpretive work, and the squabbles surrounding them, sometimes is sometimes discouraging to everyone, participants and non-participants alike. By squabbles, I mean the various pieces, on Tumblr and in textbooks, arguing back and forth about whether or not Ariel’s choice The Little Mermaid film was a feminist one, or not, the sort of articles that spring up around blockbusters, sometimes about skin-tight suits, sometimes about Bechdel tests. “If there’s not some fact of the matter,” a critic of such squabbles might ask, “why not always interpret something feminist-ically? Why problematize?” There are lots of things to say about what might motivate feminists, and others, to problematize works. These thinkers might suspect that a lot of quite real issues begin as unquestioned statements about certain kinds of stories, certain kinds of importance, certain kinds of character given to various kinds of people. By making room for alternative interpretations, a thinker can weaken the claim that a work must be taken this way, that a certain interpretation is The One with the capital T. And sometimes simply the act of speaking up is powerful enough.

This essay began about identification. In video games, when one plays as a character, that playing-as seems like an invitation to identify. Here’s what it would be like, if you were, say, a young woman with a sword that spoke with her boyfriend’s voice, wandering around an empty Art Deco city, trying to confront an apocalypse. This partly explains the vast preference to play as ‘Good’ in games that offer good-or-evil choices, because we want to be Good. There are fewer female characters one can play as in games, and feminists sometimes point to this as a failure of identification. Young women who play these games can only see themselves as men, usually white, saving the world and, often, a girl along with it. If they identify themselves with characters based on gender, and not just who they play as, these young women are likely to find themselves in damsels in distress, in love interests, in various kinds of leather-and-sex villains.

Red fails to save her boyfriend or the world. At the end, in an empty city, with a weapon that can make that city any way she wants, she flicks her sword up and kills herself.5

Transistor Ending / End

What is interesting about Transistor’s Red is that the game presents a moment where identification is impossible. I pressed every button I could, watching the transistor rise, hearing the voice inside it go no no no no — in short, I was abundantly aware that Red’s suicide was not my choice. It was hers. Regardless of whether that choice was foolish, wise, virtuous, feminist, or misguided, the game presents in its last moments a woman as a chooser.

That’s your first hint that something’s alive. It says no.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, Catherynne M. Valente

In some sense, this lives up to Bissel’s claims that games point a finger at the person playing them. I think this game points a finger at the person playing Red in those final moments, namely, that she is a character whose choices are ultimately independent of my preferences. In one guise or another, combating one source or another, feminism’s primary motivation seems to be eroding the temptation to not see women as choosers. If there is a such thing as a feminist aesthetic, it would be an aesthetic that promotes that, and I think you can find it here.

I think some of this lies even in the game mechanics. You gain abilities throughout the game that can be combined in different ways, allowing for different abilities; as you fight, however, some abilities are ‘overloaded,’ requiring you to attempt new combinations constantly.

My first introduction to video games and the internet was through Final Fantasy games (and the character shrines they inspired online, websites chock full of essays advocating for that character’s specialness). Looking back on those games, in fact looking back on my gaming history, I wonder how much those games affected me. They are games primarily beaten through leveling. When you come across a boss you can’t beat, you grind for a few more hours and come back and voilà, you can beat him now. To win, you change the character you’re playing. You level up. But more and more I find myself playing games where characters don’t level up at all. You’re given a set number of abilities, which you, the player, have to combine to appropriate effect. I think that young women can get tempted by the level-up mentality. They acquire something that lets them be adequate to their challenges. I suspect this is half of why I went to graduate school, to level up, so that I would then be able to think through the problems that kept hitting me at three AM. In contrast, the do-it-now mentality presents a confidence about personal ability, without a new level, without becoming something else. Here’s a version of the same issue, put Simone de Beauvoir style:

… every human being by definition struggles with what she calls ‘ambiguity’: she is both a subject (a selef-conscious being capable of moving beyond what nature and the world give to her, including her desires as they stand) and an object (an embodied being with characteristics, a style, appetites, and a history, all of which invite the judgment of others. It is fashionable these days to reject the dualistic, Cartesian metaphysic of the human being. But both Beauvoir and Sartre — convincingly, in my opinion — understand the subject/object split not as a mere fact of ontology, as Descartes is at least ordinarily taken to have argued, but more as a phenomenological dilemma. In other words they are interested not so much in claiming that the dualistic picture is true as they are in drawing our attention to the fact that our experience is one of dualism, or more precisely, of a tension between our drive to transcend ourselves and our drive to cement our identities in ways that we and others will find ceaselessly praiseworthy.

…Beauvoir claims that from time immemorial human beings have on the whole found a certain satisfaction in exploiting inherently non-normative biological facts to split the difference when it comes to the painful existential fact of human ambiguity: men, according to this way of thinking, will be the subjects and women will strive to be objects. I put the idea in this odd way to bring out what Beauvoir identifies as the incoherence of this plan: to “be” something, once and for all, is precisely not to be a subject; and to strive to be an object is precisely to demonstrate that you aren’t one.

– Nancy Bauer, “Beauvoir on the Allure of Self-Objectification,” in Feminist Metaphysics, ed. Charlotte Witt (New York: Springer, 2011), 125, 126.

Perhaps antecedently to playing video games or perhaps partially because of what I found of myself in them, I’ve had the level-up mentality. It strikes me as just what Bauer is attributing to Beauvoir here, as tapping into the way in which a person is fixed. When I play do-it-now style, however, I find myself exercising more of that part of myself which is a chooser. That is, I see myself capable of choice, at present, without addition or permission or adornment. No doubt there are counter-examples, but thinking of what I can do in a game as largely stat-based, rather than player-skill based, evokes that same old phenomenological fixation.

Transistor is has lovely mechanics, different from the old level-up kind.6 The way you win encounters is through constant adaptation. No stats, although combining your powers in interesting ways reveals the majority of the information you get about the world, but not information necessary for the game’s completion. If mechanics can advocate a certain mentality, then I think this game can present something quite friendly to Beauvoir’s claims.7

I finished the game and sobbed while the credits rolled, then googled like a madwoman to see how I had gotten the ‘bad’ ending. I’ve realized that I only ever cry out of a wish not to be some person. The martyr on the screen, or, in moments of self-pity, myself, now or in the future. There is a pinch in feminism about whether, when you make claims about what all women’s lives are like, you are silencing them in the process. One of the great things about philosophy is that it always involves making claims about something you have a stake in, such that you cannot remain neutral. You buy the argument or you don’t, and you ought to say something either way. This is trickier in feminism, a subset of philosophy, where a traditional issue has been the difficulty women themselves can have in seeing themselves as capable of that kind of assertion. This would be a trick in a feminist game, too. If it involves presenting a woman as a specific character, how do you present that woman in such a way that women who have differing races, classes, dental histories, sexual orientations will see themselves in her specific choices? Oddly, I think it is powerful to present a woman who defies identification. I cried because I didn’t want to be her, but I couldn’t be her. If the problem with identification is that you extrapolate the specifics of a character you identify with in harmful ways, then I think the ultimate characteristic Red offers, as said, is that she is someone, and to be someone is to have a specific life all your own. It is an invitation in a way that My Aim Is True is not. This is an excellent point for everyone to learn and relearn about women. Women included.

a jot about the banner saga

bannersaga4

Those old Hanna-Barbera cartoons used to have these funny tells. Velma Dinkley would be inspecting a book case for clues, and you could always tell, because of a marked difference between shelves, which one would have a trap door. I’m sure this was just an artifact of the animating process, such that there was a distinct difference between the background and moveable foreground items, but it also functioned brilliantly with the premise of shows like Scooby-Doo, the three-second anticipation of animation and the formula to every episode braiding together so that nothing really unexpected occurred. Dull, but delightfully so.

The Banner Saga shares some of these elements. Much of the game consists in the shift of a caravan proceeding horizontally across landscape and screen, and though there are animations, much of these are repetitive, glancing eyes and twisting hair. But though these are dull, in a sense, the effect isn’t unfascinating. The game is dull in an aesthetic way, in the way that wintry world would be, where it seemed at every point that my caravan was simply going from bad to worse circumstances, and when they would cut to those animations of the characters, glancing eyes and twisting hair, it seemed realistic, that people in a cold and godless world would address their inevitably sour options with little change in expression. Dull, like hit too much too often.

SPOILERS: THIS GAME CONTAINS A BANNER

That safe feeling, in Hanna-Barbera and The Banner Saga, is tied to seeing nothing change except the foreground. Now, for the latter, this isn’t strictly true. Terrible things occur at various points in the game, directly affecting both the brave caravan and the landscape of the world around you. Yet so much of the game feels the same. You careen from danger to danger, watching food run out, watching the number of units following you ebb. Until a red pop-up tells you that two mothers are fighting over the marital prospects of their daughters, or that a varl, (a horned immortal) was found clawing himself in the woods — or, more dramatically, that someone important, to the characters and to your goals in the game, has died, or betrayed you. When things happen, they happen textually. Beyond that, the in-game visuals are limited to varieties of landscape, varieties of battlefield, and varieties of campsites. (And, as said, the occasional animated exchange, where this animation involves very little beyond glancing eyes and twisting hair and printed dialogue.) But these limitations don’t feel like laziness.

bannersaga2

A Song of Ice and Fire has similar levels of dull-ness and bad-to-worse-ness and also occurs in a rich, historied world, where big things are happening. But, being a series of books, it happens entirely textually. And that seems important. When I played Final Fantasy 8, my actions scar the world, and I see it, in the world map or otherwise. Things change, and also you are constantly chased from bad-to-worse. Neither ASOIAF or FF8 offered me quite the same experience I’m having here, but for different reasons. Since I do not make choices in Westeros, I can empathize with the plights of the ASOIAF characters, but though I am certainly rooting for some, I am never anxious, usually simply in a state of proto-grief. Though I did make choices in FF8, there was never a sense (supported by in-game information) that this was all business as usual.

I think The Banner Saga provides a kind of ludo-delicacy: the sense of making decisions in dreadful world, where your decisions have weight, yet so routinely lead to bad consequences, where one feels very ordinary and not up to the task, in just the way the characters do.

bannersaga3

To get that sense, I think you need elements like formulaic visuals, but choices, too, presented textually. There’s something either very powerful or sadly impotent about one’s imaginative capabilities when reading: I rarely notice inconsistencies. Part of that might be because I’m invested too much mentally, such that I pull out everything I can to make it all work, or I’ve invested too little, such that I haven’t even really imagined things enough to notice inconsistencies.1 That a significant part of the game is textual, and that what is significant within the game occurs textually, seems important. When you pair the formulaic visuals with a rich2 imagined space, I think you get tugged in two directions. You’re anxious because of textually presented decisions, and yet you keep scrolling through the same-old-same-old. Even though there are terrible things happening in the world, the formula for game-play presented in the visuals never seems to reflect the anxious sense you get from the textual decisions, and so their weight never seems to be fully evidenced in the game play. It gives me a rainy-day feeling that literature usually lacks. “All these things need to get done!”, even as the years slip forward.

PS. I don’t believe in spoilers.