Of course, in the land of video game words, what does that mean? Is it the best game I have played in the same way that the newest iteration of Call of Duty is the best game that some people play every year? No, probably not, though if we had a yearly iteration of a game where difficult social issues and gender performance were brought to the forefront, I would probably say it was my favorite game every year.
I think I enjoy the games so much because they are perfect distillations of their subject matter. Dys4ia isn’t about being a game, not really; it is about conveying an experience to the best possible degree–that just happens to be through a game. As Anthropy writes in her Rise of the Videogame Zinesters:
Digital games, because of their ability to withhold and pace the player’s access to information, because of the strict narrative control the author is able to have over the the player’s experience (because the machine enforces the rules), and because of their capacity for generating a wide variety of sights and sounds to enhance or even define the playing-out of rules, are particularly well suited for the telling of stories. And the telling of stories–games becoming more personal–is what especially interests me about games as a form. (55)
So Dys4ia is about communicating a narrative, but it is also about constraining freedom. The best way to ensure the contract between designer and player is to absolutely eliminate player agency–they have exactly the experience that the designer intends. They are held hostage.
Dys4ia excels at this. Each new screen has a new form of gameplay; each new gameplay form changes as soon as you understand how it works. There is nothing stable in the game other than the overarching design–there are narrative chunks and small games. Only that can be depended on. Mechanics rarely transfer from screen to screen, and most importantly, the time that a player spends on each screen is limited. Often it felt like I was being hurried through an exhibit; no time, no time–no room, no room.
And all of these things are great design. They communicate, in as few words as possible, the difficulty around Anthropy’s hormone replacement therapy.
I enjoy Lim for a similar, but more honed, reason. It forgoes any diegetic words (unless the title screen counts) in order to give the player one single mechanic.
You blend in or you get beat up.
Lim feels like one screen of Dys4ia extended for three of four minutes. It is a meditation on a single, overriding mechanism of daily life. The glitchiness of the game makes it even better. Sometimes the abusive blocks come together and you can never pass; at least in a game you can reload the page. Other times, the player is kicked out of the world altogether. Unmoored, you float, a block in space.
These games are favorites both because of their simplicity and because of their strong commitment to making the player understand a life that is outside of their own. We’re not attached to some shit character created by committee and shoved into an already-designed world. We are playing real-world experiences, and more importantly, we are playing pretty shitty real-world experiences. We are being shown alternate subjectivity. We are being there, if only for five minutes at a time.
And I totally think that is better than shooting nameless brown people or torturing prisoners in quicktime events.