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Exploring Transgression

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.

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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.

A thing about video games that I wonder sometimes if people really understand is that they’re made to be completed by the player. Dark Souls is made to be completed. Cuphead is made to be completed. The most challenging (or even unfair) game you could possibly imagine is still almost certainly made with intent to create a complete experience for the player. A lot of players never finish most of the games they play, but still, that intent, that structure, is there.

This makes difficulty a kind of odd concept. We offer challenge paired with the assurance that the challenge is possible to complete – which makes it completely unlike most of the challenges we’re likely to face in our day to day lives, which might easily turn out to be impossible. Perhaps impossible for anyone, due to some fundamental law of nature, but more often circumstantially impossible – impossible for us because we don’t have the resources to make it happen. Some of these resources are external, such as wealth and social power; some of these resources are internal, such as mental and physical health. Either way, some of us are born with more of one or the other, and this can make some tasks others consider to be easy impossible – and others some consider impossible to be easy.

I worry sometimes that the structural assumptions, taken from games, that challenges are inherently completeable has helped to reinforce the ever-popular just-world fallacy, the belief that what is sown is reaped, that we all get what we deserve through our own merits and demerits. This belief is extraordinary popular both because it absolves the wealthy and powerful of responsibility for caring for the less fortunate and reassures those less fortunate that if they only try a bit harder, try to be a bit better, than a commensurately better life awaits them.

In games, when we make every goal set out for the player achievable, we communicate, over and over again, that those who cannot achieve their goals are not working hard enough. When you believe that natural advantages and disadvantages simply make achieving those goals easier or harder, when you think of having or not having privilege as merely being playing on easy or hard mode, you are convinced that anything is possible for anyone. If you regard physical and mental ability as simply being the quality of the player, and if the player can’t improve their play then they deserve to lose, you are convinced that anyone who won did so because they were a better player. It becomes a meritocracy where the ability to avoid starving or dying of exposure is defined as merit.

What’s curious though is that games are full of things that are actually impossible. Invisible walls constrain you to the constructed play area, you only get a few dialogue choices at any moment, your hands are built only to stab and shoot and fight. You aren’t made to live like a person, but to be played by the designer until you complete his or her obstacle course. That’s fine: It’s a good time, it’s a fun and interesting experience if it’s made well.

But I think sometimes about what it would be like to do the impossible. To break beyond the level boundaries, insert new dialogue options and game commands. We have words for this: Cheating, modding, hacking… And these, as well, may be what we will need to do to break down the boundaries that channel us, that let us be played by our designers, in everyday life. Cheat, mod, hack, and turn the world into something its owners never intended it to be.

pyrovision

There’s been a great deal of discussion about violence in video games over the last couple of decades, but the conversation usually doesn’t go anywhere interesting because the participants don’t really understand what violence is. What makes a violence isn’t blood or the guts, breaking bones or excruciatingly detailed mutilations – these things, or the artistic depictions thereof, mean nothing by themselves. The essence of violence is the framework that justifies the bloodshed, the story of just war or of vengeance. Violence isn’t the pull of the trigger or the splatter that happens afterwards, it’s the brain justifying the decision, it’s the story we tell ourselves about why it is okay to hurt and kill. At that moment, before it ever happens in reality, a human being is reduced to an object, an enemy, a corpse.

In this way the concern over violence in media like games is revealed as not quite as misguided as we would like to think, though the specific critiques and accusations are often nonsensical and ignorant. The concerning aspect of artistic violence is always, always, who do we decide it is okay to kill – and why? Because a process very much like that is used every day out in the world, and the same calculus that creates a first person shooter may one day create a school shooter.

We have designated villains, ranging from zombies, who are already dead but haven’t noticed it, to criminals, who we have to take the game’s word for that are definitely bad enough dudes that they need to die. Usually the questions that would naturally emerge about why we should kill these guys are short-circuited by the pragmatics of self-defense: It’s not important how we got here, but now that we’re here these guys are trying to kill you and the best (only) solution you have to that problem is to kill them first. As we flesh out games more and more narratively, it gets weirder and weirder that we’re pigeonholed into killing – but, still, the original assumptions made in the structure of the game take primacy, and we go along with it, because we really don’t have a choice. That’s the way the game is played: Kill or be killed.*

But it says something, doesn’t it, that we care more about the blood and guts in our art than the policies and assumptions that bleed and gut our world? It may be that we fight against violence in media, not because it contributes to violence, but because it reminds of of violence. Or it may be that we like fighting against fictional violence because it’s such a smaller and more understandable problem than actual violence. Actual violence doesn’t go away once you clean up the blood – it remains, its damage done, forever.

I am reminded of a Roald Dahl story about a man who invents a powerful listening device, and when he listens through it he can hear the agonized screaming of each rose as his neighbor trims them in her garden.

Empathy is difficult and exhausting.

I guess I understand why we avoid it so much of the time.

*Even though this structure is at its most common in multiplayer competitive games, this environment also lends itself well to hilarious subversion of these assumptions

wolfman

Halloween keeps growing. More and more over time, this act of pretending, and of naked greed for candy, has defined who we are. It’s expanded, taken over the entire month. October is Halloween now. It’s a couple of days before the 31st, and here’s a Halloween-themed blog post. Case in point

It’s strange thinking about the rise of Halloween and what it might mean. I’m beginning to feel as though we may, gradually, be coming to be more comfortable in each others’ skins. We’ve all become actors. We play games where we are something else. We become monsters for candy.

We use pretending to be something else to find ourselves.

We learn to play our first part so young, learning to act as children are expected to act – Not very well, at first, but learning very quickly, until our very ideas of what we can be are circumscribed by the roles described to us. Eventually we get to grow out of the extremely narrow role of ‘child’, but often those available to us aren’t much more desirable: Good student, bad student, nerd, jock, thug, boy, girl, worker, wife – further narrowed by our appearance and background, until often we find ourselves typecast into just one identity. Some people actually come to believe those identities accurately represent themselves, are the whole of what they are. Some people become incredibly angry at the suggestion that there might be something beyond these roles.

Being able to transcend that for a day, or a month, is precious. Being able to break out of the skin and become something else, perhaps even something disgusting and terrifying, is what lets us discover new ways of being.

We put on other skins. In games, creating the textures for in-game objects is called, grotesquely, skinning. It’s like we hunted polygons, small game but so satisfying. We skin ourselves and reskin our selves as we learn to do it better, each layer of our identity painted on over the last, and sometimes a bit gets scraped off and you find a version of you that you forgot ever existed.

It gets easier every time, and we start trying out new identities for fun. Mostly games are the simplest version of this, simple badass power fantasies, but they still allow us to express some inkling of identity through them, to pick a hat or a shirt without any risk of looking like a guy wearing a stupid hat or ugly shirt, to bust a sweet move even when we are not comfortable with our bodies in motion, even if that move has the side effect of kicking a demon’s face off. We became heroes in private, defined ourselves by overcoming impossible challenges that were actually easy, took the mantle of a champion without ever winning a real championship.

But isn’t it strange how Halloween’s huge upswing in popularity coincides with the emergence of a medium that is all about Pretending to Be. Isn’t it interesting, and a bit hopeful, that more people than ever are able and content to pretend to be exactly what they are, without fear of repercussion. This kind of creative being and becoming wasn’t just now invented, but it’s spread so far, taken over this entire month, taken over this entire medium, and this wave is so powerful and exciting, even if, in practice, so much of this pretending amounts to playing with murder and power fantasy. It’s all just Halloween. All just red food coloring and corn starch, a way to pretend at monstrosity to define humanity.

These identities grew around us so gradually, we didn’t notice them rise over our heads and put us in their shadows. We grew up making user names and secret passwords, making masks and playing secret roles, became spies, the identities piled up around us, each a tiny shard of who we were.

My problem is that I can’t schedule. When I try to plan my actions at any sort of regular interval, it works out all right at first, but after a week or two passes I drift further and further away from the state that allowed me to follow that schedule. It stops fitting. And, now, I’m beginning to see how this is the shape of my life in miniature, how I always shift just out of place, how nothing ever fits me because I keep changing.

I am not unique, though I am perhaps unusual in the high frequency and low scope of these fluctuations. Maybe this is what they call an attention deficit. I don’t know. Whatever shape I make for myself yesterday stops fitting me the next. And now I look back and I see the repetition of this flow, the history of making shells and growing out of them, like a line of metal rings set up to allow just a pinpoint of light through from the other end.

I think maybe we’re all shifting in tiny ways that make a shape difficult to hold, but that we set up barriers to stick ourselves in place, build dams to let us control the flow. The job that requires you to show up at the same place at the same time every day also serves to tell you who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing within the scope of its hours. The degree you earned at college tells you what you’re acknowledged to be good at and what work you’re expected to strive for. And friends and family, too, have an understanding of you that is more nuanced and implicit but shapes you no less. These things are shell and cage, exoskeletal, and we both struggle against their uncomfortable stricture and rely desperately on them to define who we are, what we do, what we want.

Art tells us new ways to be, stranger or more ambitious. Art lets us break down and re-form the structures that bind us and bound us, together and apart. Well, it doesn’t have to be art of course: Anything can show us the way. But, the more I think about it, the more I believe this is the primary function art takes in our society: Showing us new ways to be who we are, new things to want, to fear, to care about. It’s not necessarily a good thing. Good samaritans and other kindnesses thrive on their own stories, on showing us all how to be better, but copycat criminals and other cruelties spread in much the same way.

You can’t stop the flow though, can’t allow just the good things to go through, can’t tell only good happy stories with morals of kindness, because sometimes a cure is just a smaller amount of toxin. Sometimes the pill is bitter and hard to swallow, but what seems cruel may be necessary, cutting away the gangrene, creating an escape or a revolution. A restrictive view of what art can be or should be leads to a kind of soul-death, a kind of ossification. A world of stagnant art is worse than one with no art at all, because it constrains even our imaginations to mediocrity. The shell hardens and traps us inside, forever.

But-nobody-came

I played Undertale and I’m not sure if I’m going to actually be able to write about it. It’s a remarkable game, but I don’t know what to remark. I guess I’ll try, even though I’m sure people have written a gajillion essays and I’ve probably totally missed the boat.

After getting the ‘good’ ending, I started a new run through the game to see what was up with the, um, less good endings, and was disturbed enough by the process that I just aborted my run and looked up what happens, which revealed to me both that I hadn’t been nearly brutal enough to get the darkest ending and, moreover, confirmed to me that I wasn’t willing to be that brutal.

Despite containing no blood or explicit violence, this weird indie RPG gets closer to the truth of violence than any other game I’ve seen. The reality of violence is that someone who was there isn’t there any more, that the world becomes deader and quieter because you’ve fundamentally broken a part of it that worked before… Yet violence is also intrinsically appealing, because it’s a way to push against the world directly, a way to effect change regardless of whether it’s acceptable to others, a way to feel strong, a way to overcome concrete challenges. Simple solutions to complex problems, cutting knots, not actually easier but stronger, more decisive, more quantifiable.

A weapon is one way to change the world, it just usually does so by making it emptier.

Sometimes that’s the way it goes anyway. Sometimes violence is necessary. Sometimes there’s no time, or communications break down, or it really is you or me and it’s not gonna be me. Not often, not nearly as often as we like to pretend it is, but sometimes. That’s just how it goes. But it’s nice to at least acknowledge, for once, that our violence has effects beyond the immediate, that our world is impoverished by the absence of a living, breathing, thinking process that once inhabited it. Maybe that seems trite, but if it’s so trite then why do I so rarely actually see it in the stories we tell about violence?

Anyway.

It might be a parable about violence and its consequences, or it might be not about that at all. It’s not really a game about violence, just a game that responds to violence in an uncannily truthful way. It’s no more about violence than it is about cool skeletons or fish lesbians or fear of the unknown or the anger of the oppressed. You can make it about those things, I suppose, but that’s just as much what you take with you as what’s there.

And that’s just it. Undertale is expansive, it pushes against its boundaries in surprising and unexpected ways. It’s a short game, but packed so full of detail and possibility that it’s hard to pick any one thing to really talk about. No other experience has taken me on this ride from hilarious character-based comedy to deeply unsettling introspection to alternately intriguing and terrifying blurring of where the boundaries of the game lie. It’s…

Well. It’s really something. I guess that’s all I can say, though I’m sure it will come up in other specific contexts later.

It’s not an experience I’ll be forgetting any time soon, that’s for sure.