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I am tired of video game protagonists. There’s a specific character that gets created over and over again when a video game designer asks themselves “what kind of person would only ever interact with the world through the barrel of a gun?” and it’s a pretty boring character. The worst part of these characters is the ways they try to soften them, to make them ultimately the good guy in a world of bad guys, to make them tortured and conflicted, to make them sad and sympathetic.

The problem isn’t that they try to humanize a character who does violence, it’s the attempt to somehow square the demands of a sympathetic character with the sheer scope of violence that these characters enact over the course of a game. A video game protagonist frequently kills hundreds of people, along with devastating their surroundings in many other ways. This obligatory massacre gets monotonous sooner rather than later, but the attempts to convince us that the concerns of a person who is living this life would have anything in common with the concerns of any actual existing human being are downright insulting.

I don’t mind the violence, but I detest the way it’s justified. Violence can be interesting and fun to explore in art, and it frequently is, but if we’re going to be mowing down swathes of people then let’s at least admit that that’s a choice, that we are reveling in something wicked. If we’re going to be monstrous, then make us monsters. This is one reason why I found Hotline Miami such a breath of fresh air – there is no justification for the kind of violence that the game wallows in, and it at least has the decency to acknowledge that. There’s no grand anti-violence message in the game, as much as people have tried to project that aspect onto it, there’s just the violence itself, unadorned, and how we feel when confronted with that.

The worlds portrayed, in an effort to make violent gameplay seem natural, take on an aspect of propaganda. It is a popular political and sales strategy to make people scared so they are more pliable, to terrify them with outside threats so they’ll open their hearts and their wallets. The ways games portray their worlds as full of militant threats just waiting for an opportunity to strike is eerily similar to the way politicians like to portray borders. Even games that try to have progressive messages often fall into the trap of portraying the world as fundamentally cruel and predatory just so the player is justified in fighting back against it. Of course, bad things happen in the world – but there’s a big difference between portraying the world as a place where cruelty and evil happens versus portraying cruelty and evil as a natural law which dictates everything that must happen.

Games that offer “non-lethal” solutions are often even worse, though. Playing through a game like Dishonored without killing means leaving behind a swathe of injured and very angry people who have already demonstrated themselves to be brutally violent when frustrated or bored, so not only are you still beating the shit out of them, you’re leaving them to continue whatever cruel and oppressive practices they were in the middle of when you non-lethally choked them, non-lethally threw them through a shop window, or non-lethally bashed their faces into the pavement. What’s even worse is that these “non-lethal” approaches are presented as peaceful, as leading to a less chaotic world with less violence at the end.

But non-lethal is not non-violent, and this conflation tells us a great deal about the views of the developers. You have only to look at how the so-called “less-than-lethal” measures made available to law enforcement are frequently used – to intimidate, to torture, or sometimes even just as a joke – to see how creepy and shallow the myths of non-lethality we make use of in games really are. If we introduced, today, the “sweet dreams cannon”, a weapon capable of instantly and comfortably putting someone to sleep and having them wake up refreshed and happy, it would shortly thereafter be used to silence legitimate protests, evict inconvenient tenants, and abduct people going about their business who look suspicious – as well as, of course, many extralegal applications that may be even worse. There is no such thing as a completely benign ability to disable a human being, and the more we try to disguise such inventions as benevolent the more cavalierly they will be deployed. The only situations where non-lethal disabling force is warranted are those situations where lethal disabling force was already warranted, and the role of “less-than-lethal” weapons should primarily be to reduce casualty rates when these situations arise – not to serve as warning shots.

The question raised by any game that presents violence as the solution to a problem, though, is what comes next? Do we use our power to kill and subdue to restore the previous society, even if the systemic issues of that society will inevitably give rise to the same problems? Or do we work to preserve whatever the most amenable power structure exists in the new world? Or do we seek to tear down all unjust systems so that something new might rise in their place? Or do we merely revel in the chaos we can sow, unbounded by society? Most games barely acknowledge these as decisions: In Dishonored, we seek to become re-honored, and that implies rebuilding the collapsing society. In most modern Fallouts, we just pick whatever faction seems least objectionable and back them, whereas in Fallout 76 I guess we just throw around nukes because we can. One of the few games that addresses what comes after the violence in an interesting way is Fallout: New Vegas. While you’re still picking the most amenable of several factions, each fairly closely aligns with one of these options: You can go back to the old world that the NCR represents, back Mr House’s vision of an independent Vegas, join up with Caesar’s Legion if you’re an asshole, or strike out on your own with your new personal army to see if you can make something better.

I just am so tired, not of violence in art, but of the incredible regressive tedium of the narrative violence proffered by most big-budget games. There are so many interesting and powerful questions these games could ask – but it seems they would prefer that we just don’t ask any questions at all.

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In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I’m bound to go
Where there ain’t no snow
Where the rain don’t fall
The wind don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

The perspective I usually like to take on art is that we enjoy it because it serves some sort of emotional need for us. We all like a certain amount of joy and sorrow, a certain amount of anger and laughter, and when life can’t provide those sometimes we seek out art to fulfill those needs – or, alternately, sometimes we are overwhelmed with sorrow or anger, or some other strong and unpleasant emotion, and seek out art about and evocative of these sensations to help us make sense of what we’re feeling. This is a helpful perspective to see from, because if a work is extremely popular even though I personally dislike it I can still examine it and gain benefit from it by trying to determine what needs it serves and how it serves them. Inversely, if I like something I can also use this as a lens to examine why, and what part of me is hungry for this kind of art.

This is not to say that all art is equal and that judgment is impossible. Some ways of serving needs are irresponsible or malicious – for instance, it’s quite common to salve the wounds of an inequitable system by blaming all the world’s ills on minorities. Some ways of serving needs are also predatory, selling snake oil or risky gambles. Many things you might consume to serve an emotional need are like drinking sea water when you’re thirsty, seeming to ease the pain for mere moments before they make it come back worse than it was before. In this way, the lens of served need can be turned to also show the many harms that can be done by art, as well as its benefits.

As someone interested in games, then, I start to ask: What needs are served by most games? What needs are served by the most popular games, and what less predominant needs are served by games with smaller followings, and what needs of mine have made the games I love my particular favorites? Most games feed the need for learning and self-improvement: Whether directly, by giving the player a challenge that they can learn to tackle over time, or indirectly with some sort of simulation that recreates the sensation of self-improvement, like an experience system. Others feed a need to feel like we can change the world by making a world malleable, allowing the creation of grand projects, cathedrals and magic machines, in relatively short order. Many games also feed the need to feel that we are gathering things, accumulating wealth or other material to make ourselves feel safer. Some games feel rewarding just because they acknowledge when we do well in a way that the rest of the world does not. Sometimes games are enjoyable just because the tasks that they offer have clear-cut parameters with definite boundaries, so you know whether a task is solved or not in a way you frequently cannot in your daily life.

There’s another step, beyond noticing what needs are fed by games, and that’s then interrogating the systems that give rise to these needs. The lives people lead, and the lacks that they perceive, are going to lead them to seek out different gaming experiences that offer different things. The world we live in, and the governments and systems that organize those worlds, are going to create the needs that create the cravings that create the games. In each instance, once we identify a need that people feel a game serves, comes the next question: Is this an inherent need that is being unsatisfied by the system, or is this a need created by the system in order to sustain itself? That question might not make intuitive sense, so let’s look at the list I mentioned in the previous paragraph, one by one.

  1. The need for self-improvement and learning. This may be an innate need, but it’s also deeply tied into our society’s conception of a human being as a commodity that has worth. By getting better at something, even if it’s trivial, you are demonstrating a capacity to learn and improve, and thus your worth to the system. Do you want to improve for your own sake, or to be a better cog in the machine? It can be hard to tell.
  2. The need to have an effect on the world. This one is, interestingly, relegated almost entirely to indie games – and likely reflects as much of the needs of the creators as it does the needs of its consumers. It’s probably not a coincidence that these building games have achieved their most massive success among children, largely prevented from manifesting any substantial effect on the real world
  3. The need to accumulate material wealth. This has obvious parallels in the capitalistic systems, but it’s also rooted enough in the hunting/gathering survival instinct that one can hardly lay the blame entirely at the feet of capitalism, as much as one would like to. However, the specific model of accumulation favored by games, where everyone has the same capacity to do it and every action has a predictable result, probably serves to prop up the concept of meritocracy, which is a vapid lie.
  4. The need to have one’s accomplishments acknowledged. I think this is an innate need to be seen, but is also exacerbated by a system where excellence is supposedly recognized by financial reward, but where that reward is increasingly withheld to line the pockets of the already extremely wealthy.
  5. The need to have a distinct task. This is probably a relatively recent one. Not too long ago, everyone expected to have basically the same job for life, and could wake up each day with a certain amount of confidence about what to expect next. Though many deride repetitive and simple games as seeming like work, the kind of work they supposedly seem like is becoming rarer and rarer, and some people do miss it.

When making a game, it’s important to think a bit about who wants to play it and why. Are you making something that feeds needs created by an unjust system, something that will only serve to act as propaganda for that system? Or are you creating something to serve a need that the system has failed to serve, something that will serve as an escape? Are you justifying evil, or positing good? These lines can become very blurry.

I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM 2 recently, and after a discussion on the differences between it and its precursor the other day I started thinking about the nature of decisions in games. In XCOM (the first one), you’re expected to make a few very clear-cut decisions in the strategy layer – what to research, what abilities to train, what missions to take, and so forth. Each of these has extremely clear trade-offs. The tactical layer, similarly, has fairly clear-cut decisions, though the effects of decisions can be a bit confusing – it’s not clear, for example, whether you’ll be able to see an enemy unit if you reposition, or see why your odds of hitting are particularly high or low. In XCOM 2, the strategy layer has more decisions with murkier effects: Rather than having a choice of three missions pop up periodically, events you can investigate are constantly popping up all over the map, and since it takes time to investigate these or to do anything else on the map you can realistically only get to so many of them. The tactical combat, however, is much more clear-cut: You can see everything that affects your shot percentages, and the UI will tell you whether you can see an enemy or not when you move, and helpful icons will show if you’re moving a soldier into harm’s way.

It’s interesting to me, given all this, that players generally seem to prefer XCOM to XCOM 2. I think there are a few reasons for this, but the confusing unquantifiability of XCOM 2’s event system is probably the main turn-off, especially nestled, as it is, within the highly regimented and quantifiable decision-making that defined XCOM and, to a lesser extent, its sequel.

It all just goes to make me think about the old Sid Meier quote (or misquote?) about a game being a series of interesting decisions. Though I love XCOM, a game with a relatively few important decisions, a lot of the games I like most have you making little decisions constantly, all of which add up to a big effect in aggregate. In a game like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the decision to crouch or not to crouch, lean or not to lean, go full-auto or single-shot, equip an angled or a vertical foregrip, run into the circle at a 5 degree angle or a 6 degree angle, any one of these can be the difference between life or death – and that’s what makes it, despite its many flaws, still so fun to play for me.

In thinking about this, I started classifying the differences in decisions. In general, I think a decision in a game can be considered in two parts: One, how the decision is made (choice properties), and two, the effects of that decision (effect properties). Each of these have three parts – that I’ve thought of so far, anyway.

Choice properties:

  1. Frequency: How often decisions are made
  2. Quantity: The number of options available with each decision
  3. Temporality: How much time pressure there is to make the decision

Effect properties:

  1. Impact: How much they can change the game state
  2. Clarity: How evident these changes are beforehand
  3. Expression: How much the player can express themselves using the decisions

Different games prioritize aspects of decision-making differently. XCOM has medium-low frequency decisions with little temporal pressure and high impact and clarity, with little focus on player expression. The Street Fighter games have fairly high frequency of decisions, making choices at each moment of where to position yourself and which attack to use, with a fairly high quantity of different attack maneuvers, high temporal pressure and impact and moderate clarity (since move effects depend on what your opponent is doing) and a small-moderate amount of player expression… except, that is, in the menu where you select which character you want to use, which is a single (minimal frequency) choice with large quantity, no temporality, and huge impact, clarity, and expression. Super Hexagon is a game with extremely frequent decisions with almost no quantity (left, right, or neither), unbelievably high temporal pressure, high impact and clarity, no expression. The Walking Dead, Season 1 has low-frequency, low-quantity decisions, with some temporal pressure, moderate impact, relatively little clarity, but a huge amount of player expression.

Genres start mapping pretty closely to different decision models, when viewed in this respect. Strategy games prioritize low frequency and temporal pressure with high impact and clarity, tactical shooters like PUBG value high frequency, quantity, temporality, and impact with moderate clarity, RPGs like Fallout medium frequency, impact, and clarity, high quantity, low temporality, and extremely high expression.

From this viewpoint, it becomes clear why many of the decisions made in XCOM 2 rub people the wrong way. The decisions presented to the player in the strategic layer of the game don’t hew as closely to the ideal of what strategic gameplay decisions look like, and though they’re valid as a design in their own right, and I still find them enjoyable, and while they don’t necessarily make it a worse game, they may, in fact, make it a worse strategy game.

It’s important to know what sorts of decisions you want to present to the player, and what sorts of decisions they came to you to get. Trade-offs which may seem like good design when viewed through the lens of balance or of excitement may simply not fit the type of decision system the game is most suited to.

 

There’s a way of talking about games that’s begun to bother me – most games, when we describe and discuss them, particularly in comparison to one another, tend to get boiled down to one or two focal points, a gimmick or two, that become the only things they are known for. Whatever the game’s most distinctive trait is comes to stand in for the totality of the work, obscuring all other aspects of the experience it offers.

This may, perhaps, be a reflection of the medium of discourse: Twitter especially tends to lend itself to this memetic distillation of art. However, regardless of its source, this understanding of what a game is extends outwards. And, to be fair, this isn’t always a problem: Even great works of art tend to be discussed in terms of the novelty they brought to the medium, and it is always necessary to make a case for what a work has to offer before it can help to ever earn an audience. There’s something wrong, though, when the elevator pitch remains the dominant mode of discourse long after we’ve gotten off of the elevator – that is to say, when we still boil games down to gimmicks long after we’ve played them and gained the opportunity to understand them in more detail. Dark Souls becomes that really hard game, even though the difficulty is one of the least interesting aspects of it. UNDERTALE becomes that cute pacifist game, even though only half the content is pacifistic and much of it is decidedly un-cute. Braid becomes that game where you can go back in time, even though it was not the first game you could do that in and the actual puzzles involve much more sophisticated manipulation of time than just reversal.

Of course, if you look at these examples, you’ll note that this issue is in no way an impediment to success: Each of these games were, in their own right, huge hits, and having some handy descriptor of what they brought to the table was probably part of that success. And yet, if that becomes the way people understand the games even after they have found success, it’s that much harder to actually discuss these games in comparison to others – and harder for other games to riff on their ideas without being dismissed as copycats.

While this happens to some degree with all forms of art, games seem to be especially susceptible. There are a couple of reasons I think this happens: First, with more strictly narrative forms, there’s usually an effort to keep from exhaustively discussing the narrative before someone has had a chance to experience it for themselves – so, since any novelty these forms bring to bear is usually rooted in the narrative, they are protected by the specter of the spoiler warning. Games are not afforded the same protection, however, because the mechanical aspects of the game are conceptually separate to the narrative – and, even if a game pulls narrative tricks, we often tend to regard these as still being somewhat in the domain of ‘game mechanics’, of smoke and mirrors. Second, because of the way we tend to describe games, we’re used to evaluating them as a consumer product first and an art form second, assigning numerical scores based on how well they perform – so, for games, any element is regarded as a feature for the front of the box just as much as it is regarded as a technique used in the creation of art.

A lot goes into every game that is created: Not only the broad strokes of groundbreaking ideas, but the narrow strokes of detail, the music and character design and animation, traditional bits of craft and smaller elements of game design that make a game function and make it speak to people. Without these, the gimmicks mean nothing, and it does a disservice to the game to only describe it using its most obvious elements. What really makes the game work or not work isn’t the big ideas or the small details, it’s how well the small details are fitted to the big ideas. UNDERTALE’s pacifistic ideals wouldn’t mean anything without a lovable cast of characters and systems and assets that express those characters, Dark Souls’ difficulty would seem merely cruel outside of its sad and stately world, Braid’s time reversal would be just a toy without the intricate puzzle-craft that provides the meat of the experience.

How much a game suffers from this tendency depends on how much it breaks from the established norms. In an industry that focused for so long on empowering players at all costs, the mere unforgivingness and weight of Dark Souls was exceptional. In an industry so focused on violence, merely making a game where violence was a choice instead of mandatory was exceptional. In an industry where powerups were rare and limited, giving players the ability to instantly reverse any mistake was exceptional. These ideas were sticky! And, similarly, in an industry where every game had to be fair, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds gave players a 1 vs 99 fight, and they loved it.

But: PUBG isn’t the 1 vs 99 game any more. It was for about 6 months, and then other games with the same premise started coming out. All of a sudden, it was a genre: The Battle Royale. Now people talk about PUBG differently. Well, most of them talk about it as “Fortnite, but worse” I guess, but it’s still distinguished from its competition by the details, the movement and gun behavior and vehicles. Probably worse for the game, but probably better for the discourse.

Maybe every time a game gets boiled down to this one narrow idea of what it is, what we are witnessing are the birth pangs of a new potential genre. I suppose in many cases, rather than becoming genres these ideas just filter out bit by bit into other games, slowly becoming unexceptional. Either way, I suppose eventually, case by case, the problem goes away on its own.

This week I played through Doki Doki Literature Club, which is a game I’d been vaguely aware of as a harrowing anime experience but, honestly, that describes several games, so it wasn’t really distinct in my mind. I’d like to talk about some of the ideas it brought up to me – not having participated in any of the discourse around the game, it’s entirely possible I’ll say something ignorant here, but I’d like to just go off of my read based on a single complete playthrough of the game here.

There’s gonna be spoilers! In fact, I’m going to spoil the entire thing, give a play-by-play of my entire playthrough, since most of what I want to talk about doesn’t make a ton of sense without that context. If you’re interested in playing a meta horror-game with fourth-wall-breaking elements framed into a visual novel dating-sim format, you should probably play this game before you read the rest of this post. The game has content warnings for mental illness and suicide, so I guess you could consider this post to have the same, though I won’t be going into much grisly detail.


The setup is this: You play as a faceless (but explicitly male) high school student: You can name this character and make a few decisions here and there, but for the most part his personality, such as it is, is out of your control. He is made to be generic and uninspiring, with few interests aside from sitting around his house playing games and reading comics. You’re talked by your childhood friend, Sayori, (who is, of course, a cute girl) into joining her after-school club, the titular literature club. This literature club is also comprised entirely of cute girls: Along with Sayori there’s Natsuki, Yuri, and Monika, the president of the club. As members of the club, you all decide to bring a poem each day: “Writing a poem,” in this case, takes the form of picking 20 words you like out of a list to represent the approximate sort of thing you wrote. Depending on which words you choose, one or other of the girls will probably like your writing more – and therefore, in the logic of the game, like you more. For whatever reason, you can’t write to appeal to Monika, just the other three girls – there’s no narrative justification for this, just The Way Things Are. You get some feedback as to who likes what, and how the scenes afterwards play out depends on who you appeal to – I don’t know how much changes since I only played through once. You also get to read their poems, which I really enjoyed: The poems all show their characters well, and are frequently charming in their own right, as well as having clues to where the story might be going later.

I wanted to be friendly with everyone but the game was really not set up for that: You have to choose someone. Generally when I had to choose an option I’d side with Sayori, primarily out of a sense of loyalty since I’d narratively known her longest and she’d invited me in the first place. As the game progressed and I got closer to her, she started behaving erratically, needing to leave early or not showing up. I talked to Monika about it and she talked to Sayori, came back, and told me not to worry about it – but, after she talked to Sayori, Sayori seemed even more upset, and left. A while after this it was revealed that Sayori was struggling with severe depression and that it was getting worse. A while after that she confessed to being in love with my character.

Here’s where I feel I made a mistake. I was of the opinion that Sayori needed a friend more than she needed a boyfriend, and that it was more important that I be supportive than I be romantic, so instead of picking the “I love you” option, which I felt would read as manipulative, I picked the “I will always be your best friend” option – which, contrary to the literal reading, is framed as romantic rejection here. I feel some nuance was lost, but that may be intentional. At this point the plot progressed on its own without any of my input, because my character just let her run off on her own, ignored when she didn’t show up the next day, and of course by the next time I saw her she’d killed herself, since that was obviously what was being set up.

What was less obvious was what came next: The screen turned glitchy, the game restarted, but this time Sayori was nowhere to be found. The intro was rewritten without her, it was Monika instead of Sayori who recruited me to the club. The plot progressed much the same way it did before, except any time Sayori would be there it got glitchier and glitchier, with Monika reading most of her lines. Eventually history repeated itself with another of the girls, except she started behaving much stranger much faster, and after she stabbed herself she lay on the floor dead or dying while page after page of gibberish text went by, and several days passed by in the game.

Monika returned and confessed that she’d been editing the game files to try to drive me away from all the other girls, exaggerating their mental problems and negative traits, since without her changing the game itself there was no way for me to ever choose her. She deletes the other characters and traps me in a world with just me and her. Of course, like all good super-villains she describes the means of her own downfall, so I delete her. Though she’s deleted, she still exists a little bit somehow (perhaps still present in RAM), and feels remorseful for everything she’s done, so she restores the other characters. The game starts over again, everyone’s back except Monika, Sayori is the president of the club now, except now she too is self-aware and malicious: So Monika’s ghost, or whatever it is, just deletes the entire game. Roll credits, complete with Monika playing a nice ending theme for me.


Before I played the game, when I was talking to people about it, I heard some criticism of the game’s treatment of mental illness – and, in one sense, I think that that criticism is entirely justified. The characters’ problems are somewhat cartoonish, broadly drawn for the purposes of dramatic traumatic reveals, and in the sense that anyone looking to the game for a realistic portrayal of mental illness will be let down this portrayal is, indeed, a problem. However, within the meta-narrative of the game, I think it’s important that these characters be unrealistic: The original versions of them are crafted to be endearing, to be just damaged enough that the player character can save them, so that he can dramatically be there in their moment of need. And, once Monika sabotages them, this ‘cute’ mental illness is exaggerated, made grotesque. The portrayal is unrealistic and shocking, and in this way serves as a satire of many other saccharine depictions which are also unrealistic, but in ways we don’t notice – that we have become primed to accept, but nevertheless may do harm.

Even before the game became explicitly horrific, I found aspects of the setup disturbing. The emotional manipulation of the other characters paired with the lack of control I had over my own character’s behavior were difficult for me to cope with: At every moment, I felt like I was making a bad decision, particularly once the life-or-death stakes of the game were made clear. When everything went wrong, and I had no control, no ability to say anything to fix it, it felt simultaneously unrealistic and realistic, alienating and familiar. Not being able to say the right thing is a very common experience, even if the limitations to me doing so are not generally physical. Every dialogue tree with actual consequences in a video game makes it a sort of horror game, a simulation of the terrible inadequacy of the spoken word to convey what must be conveyed, and the brain to find the words that must be spoken.

Monika breaks these hard barriers, though, and in so doing becomes a dark reflection of the player: She is aware of a world outside of the game, but she’s entirely trapped within it, with just these ‘friends’ who seem like paper cutouts to her now for company. Like the player, she has romantic ambitions within this world, and like the player she seeks to achieve these romantic ambitions by emotionally manipulating the characters around her. However, unlike the player, the world she’s in is not set up to allow her to easily do so: All of the tools, all of the language of the game, is designed for the player to manipulate the emotions of these three fictional girls. She can only do it from the wrong side, using clumsy and destructive methods. I don’t know that it justifies the monstrosity of her methods, but it does seem that the methods she uses are the only ones available to her. The ethics of this situation are interesting: From her perspective, all of the characters in the game, aside from herself, are automatons with no real feelings. What would make her actions evil when we so readily accept authors tormenting and killing their characters in the name of truth and beauty? She’s just writing an unhappy ending, the same as the game’s creator did.

Monika’s transgression is, then, not a transgression against ethics, but a transgression of the natural order of the world. Only the author is allowed to kill off characters, only the player is allowed to manipulate them towards their own ends. And, because this power imbalance is formulated into a genre where the main character is positioned as the sole male with exclusive power over a domain of women, she takes on an aspect of the witch – the woman who does that which must not be done, claims the power which is for the exclusive use of men. The violence she enacts against the other characters doesn’t originate in her: The violence is inherent to the structure of the game, and she just brings it to the surface, makes it explicit. This makes her the villain apparent of the work…

And yet, it reminds me of something. It reminds me of how much violence is enacted by the systems we live in, silently, without consequence, and yet when windows are broken by people attempting to struggle against that violence they become the villains. It reminds me of the peace of oppression, of how people who speak up on behalf of those who suffer may one day in the distant future be regarded as heroes, but in the meanwhile are just regarded as troublemakers. While I know this is silly, and may seem trivializing, and I’m not actually suggesting Monika is some sort of fictional character freedom fighter, it does seem strange to me that when she does the same thing the author does, the same thing the player does, when she does nothing but reveal and exaggerate the structural violence that already exists, she becomes the villain.

Since 2014, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the ethics of art, the responsibilities of putting work out into the world. This may be jumping the gun, since very little of my work garners much attention, but, well, on the off chance that that ever changes I would like to have my principles figured out beforehand.

What art is ethical to create? Many will immediately respond that any and all art is, but that’s more of a kneejerk than a considered response. If we accept the premise that art has power to do good, we also implicitly accept the premise that it has the power to do harm. Knowingly doing more harm than good is pretty much unethical by definition, so that’s at least a stable reference point: Don’t make art that you know will do more harm than good.

Unfortunately that describes next to nothing. Art is, in general, something that is extraordinarily tricky to know the consequences of. A motivated mind can readily misinterpret the most overt of allegories to support their own worldview, so the effect a piece has on the world tends to have as much to do with the particular circumstances of the audience it finds as it does with the content of the work itself. Again many will take this as carte blanche to create whatever work they want without worrying at all about the consequences, and again that’s not a considered response. Just because you cannot know what the consequences of an act are doesn’t absolve you of the responsibilities of trying to account for them.

But what does this ethical responsibility look like? In some ways it looks a lot like what we expect of craftsmanship in general. It looks like avoiding simple and misleading answers to important questions, it looks like flawed heroes and sympathetic villains, it looks like a world that operates in a way that makes sense based on the forces at work within that world. This might not sound like it has anything to do with ethics, but there is an obligation to present a version of the world that doesn’t mislead the audience about how the world works. It doesn’t mean there can’t be fantastical elements, but those elements have to exist within a system that accounts for their presence. It doesn’t mean that good can’t triumph, but it does mean that that victory has to be achieved through some heroic process, not emerge by default, inevitably, just because we have to have a happy ending.

What it doesn’t look like is most of the popular art we make. It doesn’t look like worlds where the only solution to the problems presented is violence, and that violence is always presumed justified. It doesn’t look like cartoons where the good guys always win because they’re the good guys, and it doesn’t look like novels where women have to suffer to be strong, and it doesn’t look like games where you shoot a thousand people in the face and are still considered a hero. These are all conventions we’ve gotten used to because they’re convenient and make creating the rest of the story easier, but we’re starting to see the sort of world that this art creates. It’s hard to be okay with that.

Art is mysterious, though. The way it affects us is unpredictable, and by that token the idea of a work capable of doing great good or great harm is compelling. Someday, will someone find the right words to stop poverty, war, and homelessness? Someday, will someone create the perfect propaganda to guide us all into unending cruelty and fascism?

I think it’s wise that we consider the impact of our work, before we create something we cannot uncreate.

Much as I’d like to think of time spent enjoying good art as a sort of exercise of the mind and the spirit, there’s an assumption there that I wonder about sometimes – no, not the mental or spiritual benefits of art, I am generally convinced of those, but the benefits of good art in particular, as compared to bad art. Surely, while learning about another artist’s carefully conceived and expressed world view is worthwhile, so is picking apart a poorly formed piece of claptrap to discover aspects of your own worldview. Bad art, acknowledged as such, can be a path to self-discovery – simply finding the words to describe what it was you disliked about something can be as beneficial as any other experience engaging with art.

This is why I hesitate to class the experiences we can have with art into any sort of hierarchy of quality. The movie or book or game may have been clumsy and naive, but it might still have genuine insights which were not heretofore available to me – or maybe it was a masterpiece, but still contained niggling flaws which I am compelled to catalog and describe. This is all valuable. What is not valuable is deciding partway through what the experience I am having is and ceasing to engage with the work – to decide 10 minutes in that because I understood the particular narrative trick at play I have nothing to learn, or that because I didn’t understand how it was done there was nothing I can do but gawp in awe. It’s tempting though, to dismiss something as beneath notice or embrace it as beyond knowledge. It’s freeing, being able to enjoy something solely as an experience, in the moment – but it’s also constraining, believing most things to always be beneath notice or out of reach.

I guess if I could distill my general philosophy it would be this: Pay Attention. This doesn’t stop at art. People who are contemptible and unwise often follow some rule of behavior, and even if it’s an foolish and destructive rule it’s better to know what it is, and why it is, than to not. Every friend and ally and mentor and hero carries deep flaws and unseen scars: We are all different, and no one can really live someone else’s life or create their art. We can’t trace, we can’t copy, we can’t merely emulate, we have to actually learn how to make our own art and our own lives. No role can be sufficiently modeled before the fact: Eventually you have to become whoever you are.

All we can do is our best to learn what we can and give what we can. None of this can happen if my understanding stops at friend, ally, mentor, hero, just as it can’t if I write off someone as loser, idiot, asshole, enemy: Understanding cannot stop there, even if it’s easier that way.

We have to look closer. We have to not turn away. We have to see.