Praising Difficulty, Opacity, and the Incomprehensible

Ben Abraham does a reading of the Alt Lit movement and points out some interesting things about it (and some problems). I think he hits on something really amazing, though, when he writes

. . . what would it mean truly for a medium to treat incomprehension in a work as a virtue? Not a kind of “anything goes” postmodern relativity – but instead an absolutely radical, nihilistic, all-encompassing rejection of attempts at comprehension? Probably something excitingly different to Alt Lit, to be honest, because I much suspect it doesn’t live up to such a stratospheric standard (maybe some of it does – which is what I find exciting).

While I don’t think that a pure, absolute destruction of meaning should be an end-goal, I certainly think that the introduction of opacity into games is something that should be given a bigger push. I think that we should celebrate games that don’t give us all the pertinent information we need to make a decision, or games that surprise us by making us weird victims, or games that purposefully make sure that we have a hard time playing them.

Those are the games I enjoy, of course, but I also think that there is a lesson to be learned in a game that makes you struggle and feel emotional pain. I have written before that “I want to see games where [players] are the killed, not the killers.” Beyond the affective potential for assuming the losing position, there is also the struggle in itself–being reduced to a non-actor, an object without power, can create a new subjectivity in the player. Distancing the self from the winning world is a lesson in humility, but more importantly, it is a lesson about the positive aspects of struggle.

In his talk “Learning to QWOPerate,” Bennett Foddy talks through some of the things that he believes players enjoy in games. He believes that players like to be “confused, humiliated, and frustrated” if the developer is causing those feelings to exist. I absolutely agree, and the perceived intentionality on the part of the developer is key. I enjoy Demon’s Souls’ crushing difficulty because I know that it is intended, that is gameplay that I am supposed to persevere through until I come out the other side. In the same way, I didn’t enjoy how Anna had mind-breakingly difficult puzzles that weren’t complex, merely random–that is to say, they were there because of lack of clear intent.

Foddy’s point in the talk is that all games are adversarial; single player games are merely competitions between the developer and the player. Other people have formulated this same idea in their definition of what “game” means at the base level–a player interacting with a system.

And this struggle against difficult controls, or controls that are opaque to the player without massive baroque documentation, gives us something to overcome. I am by no means that “hardcore gamerrrrr” who thinks that there is too much handholding in games or that games have softened up and are thus shitty. I can tell you that SNES, NES, and Genesis games were fucking hard as hell for me when I was ten and they are just as hard now, even though I still try to get my R-TYPE on sometimes. But Bennett has a really good point when he shows a QWOP player scooting along on one knee and says “I would be embarrassed to show this to anyone, but this person is genuinely proud of it” (I’m paraphrasing).

People set their own goals in these really difficult, really abstract games, and the same thing can happen in opaque or “incomprehensible” games. In spaces without meaning, without a telos that defines the play experience, we make whatever we want–this was the success of Minecraft for a long time, before the “end game” was added. But there is the possibility for more.

I want to resist imprinting meaning on things. I want them to exist, to be interacted with, and not be based on my experiences or my access; I want to be open to digital worlds or other beings or the strangeness of the universe and not have it be limited to final boss levels or achievements.

And I guess we’re gonna have to build that.

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3 Responses to Praising Difficulty, Opacity, and the Incomprehensible

  1. Ben Abraham says:

    Hmm. So I guess there are technical/material differences between the “literature” of Alt Lit (?) and the “code” of Games… so I’m not too sure about the comparison to opacity in games. Don’t get me wrong, I’m (probably) all for more of those but it seems kind of different from what I see as the Alt Lit aesthetic (though many, many Alt.Lit-er’s have come out and denied any kind of ‘aesthetic’ or programmatic concern since I posted the essay, but hey authorial intent isn’t the final arbiter and I say there *is* a common aesthetic so w/evs).

    Um… not sure how to relate that to what you’ve said about games without intentionality/meaning… sorry =P

  2. Fred says:

    Cameron, please make that game you wanted to make so we can fulfill wishes and allow Fred to do the music.

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