Dysfunctionality and a Lack of Player Agency

It occurred to me while reading the description for “Perfect World” that, in all the works that we’ve looked at so far that fall under the “dysfunctional” category, there has been a distinctive lack of player agency. In 17776, all you as the reader had to do was scroll through the story, watch the videos, and click “continue” to progress to the next chapter, but there were no player choices that would impact the final outcome or change the story in any way. In The Gathering Cloud, all you did was mouse over the words in red to reveal mysterious sentences and click through to each of the “plates,” but again, with no choices to make or ways to impact the text. These two works seemed to be more about creating texts that people could read rather than games where the player could change the story by interacting with it.

On the other hand, “Perfect World,” being a Twine game, gave off the illusion of player agency, since there were different choices to make that changed the storyline somewhat, but it ended the same every time, with a sense of defeat and sadness and a thoroughly glitched page of unreadable text. After going through the work a couple of times, trying and failing to get a different ending, I ended up scrolling down to read the author’s description of the work, and found an interesting statement within it.

The author says in the description that “Perfect World” is one of his works that is “built around deconstructing player agency in different ways.” I thought this was interesting on its own, since the use of Twine gives the player choices, but your agency is compromised since the endings are all the same no matter what choices you make along the way. However, later I started thinking about the other “dysfunctional” works we’ve looked at this week, and I realized that this lack of player agency applied to all of them. My question is, is it merely a coincidence that all these works lack player agency, or is it part of what makes a work dysfunctional?

Screenshot of the description beneath “Perfect World.” (Click image for source)

The Gathering Cloud: What Type of Dysfunctionality Does it Use?

Off the bat, The Gathering Cloud by J.R. Carpenter is dysfunctional. There is too much going on to be able to focus on one thing. At first, there’s a scenery and then there is a group dead birds that are moving up the screen, blocking any other images that used to there. Moving your mouse in the slightest can result in a word blurb appearing, creating more chaos and dysfunction. The blurbs explain what the word means or gives a random fact like how many bird specimens are held at the Natural History Museum in London or how thunder is produced. All the slides have similar features, there is a story but it is masked by the pictures of giant elephants and bugs that keep popping out. This dysfunction is different than that of the other dysfunctional texts we’ve read, including the other one we read for class today called Perfect World with words glitching and weird symbols that make other words in the story hard to decipher. When thinking about Marie Laure-Ryan’s categories of dysfunctionality, both of these works’ interfaces seem to use inadvertent dysfunctionality to some extent because it seems as if there is too much going on or that the interface was not designed perfectly with the glitches and overlapping of images. Even though I think they use the same type of dysfunctionality, they use it in different ways because one is making it hard to focus on the story while the other seems to be just added the dysfunctional does not hinder your ability to read the story, it just adds another element that makes the meaning more interesting. This dysfunctionality was likely intentional but the reason why the authors used this is less clear because it is all subjective, just like Maurie Laure-Ryan feels about her categories of dysfunctionality because how you read a piece and interpret it is all subjective.

 

A screenshot of The Gathering Cloud

 

 

Screenshot from Perfect World. 

Dysfunctionality in Gaming

Dysfunctionality in gaming is nothing new. Glitches have been present through all genres of gaming. While glitches may be unintentional, they often add a new layer to any ordinary game. Glitches are intriguing, and for some they are the entire reason for playing. For example, in the popular Pokemon games, red, blue, and yellow, there is an additional Pokemon with the name missingno that was unintentionally added into the game. This Pokemon can only be found by following certain procedures, but it is actually catchable. This often draws players to find and catch the infamous missingno in an effort to truly catch them all.

This is the encounter you see when you find missingno. It’s typing does not fit any other in the game and it often causes corruption in the game.

This unique glitch reminds me of the inadvertent dysfunctionality that Marie-Laure Ryan writes about. This kind of dysfunctionality refers to a glitch in the system that is completely unintentional. Another example of dysfunctionality is the experimental. Works that utilize experimental dysfunctionality are attempting to use dysfunctionality to lay the groundwork to a new type of functionality. Jason Nelson uses this, as well as political dysfunctionality (deliberate dysfunctionality in order to make a political statement) to create unique games on his website Secret technology.

Screenshot from Jason Nelson’s Game, Game, Game, and Again Game, which utilizes multiple forms of dysfunctionality to convey his message in a new and innovative way.

For example, in Game, Game, Game, and Again Game, Nelson uses his medium to point out political dysfunctionalities, while using experimental dysfunctionality to test the limits of what can be defined as a “game.”

 

The Metaphor of “Perfect World”

Of the three pieces we had to look at for Wednesday (I’m including 17776), “Perfect World” made the strongest impression on me.  While arguably the least technologically sophisticated and shortest work of the bunch, I found that it was also the one that communicated its message most effectively.

To me, both the form (the dysfunctionality) and the content (the story of being the singular imperfect being in an otherwise perfect world), were metaphors for feelings of some sort of inadequacy or inherent wrongness and the way those feelings often spiral out of control.

First, let’s examine the content. I’m sure all of us, at one point or another, have felt like we have some sort of inherent flaw that makes us unloveable or destined to fail.  In comparison to what we perceive as the otherwise perfect people surrounding us, we feel as if we alone are wrong at some fundamental level.  The images of the flowers that wilt when you walk by, the ground cracking beneath your feet, or the pebble that crumbles to dust in your hands are deeply evocative.  Who hasn’t, perhaps in the wake of a breakup or some other failure, felt that they have somehow tainted or sullied something pure and good.  It’s an intensely relatable, but often unspoken feeling that “Perfect World” makes visible with vivid and unsettling imagery.

Now, let’s examine the form.  The deeper you get into the story, the more you feel as if you are tainting the world around you, the glitchier the text becomes, until you’re left with a screen that looks like this.

The final screen of “Perfect World.” Just a wall of glitches. Source.

To me, the degradation of the text represented the often debilitating power of these thoughts and feelings.  I refer to this experience as a “thought spiral,” where your mind takes you deeper and deeper inward, ruminating on your own failures and weaknesses.  These thoughts can become so powerful that it’s hard to think about or do anything else, hence the glitchy screen.  These thoughts, if they grow large and overwhelming enough, really can prevent you from functioning, which I thought “Perfect World” represented beautifully.

That, at least, is my interpretation of “Perfect World,” but I’m very open to hearing alternative perspectives.  To me, this was a story that simply, beautifully, and evocatively rendered a feeling so hard to put into words.  It was short and relatively technologically unsophisticated, but it was nevertheless very powerful.

Political Dysfunctionality and the Gathering Cloud

Of my reading in preparation for tomorrow’s class I was mostly interested in the fairly obvious, although not to the general public, environmental statement satirizing all of the memory we have on our devices. More importantly, this memory is not immaterial.

I say that the general public probably is not aware of how much energy ‘the cloud’ uses to store memory because I used to be one of those people who didn’t know this, until taking DIG 101. Towards the beginning of the year we focused on the environmental costs of data in databases, which we are overlapping extensively in this class presently.

I’m not at the point of advocating for getting rid of the cloud, or advocating for policies that could eventually cut environmental costs of the data and databases, although it’s beginning to become a more and more unsettling thought in my mind.

But why is it unsettling?  Obviously, the true statement that the cloud uses a lot of energy and is taking a toll on the environment does lead to this case.  But “The Gathering Cloud” by JR Carpenter literally and figuratively illustrates through political dysfunctionality the dead birds, ducks, insects, and other examples of how the environment is being affected by cloud computing.

To put this in more general terms about this topic of dysfunctionality, I think that political dysfunctionality has the opportunity effectively make attentive political statements that otherwise would be left on the back-burner of people’s minds because of the fact that this method of advocacy appeals to the viewer’s emotions.

The representation of a flash drive inside of a fish is powerful in showing that these environmental impacts are pretty serious.

Diving Into “My Father’s Long, Long Legs”

My Father’s Long Long Legs is a confusing story. I went all the way through and the ending only makes me ask more question. Why was her father digging? Did her mom know why and choose to ignore it? Was her father actually growing more and more and was it linked to why he was digging? What happened to her brother? What happened to her?

Other than story-line questions I have questions about the logistics of the story. When there were different words or phrases (as seen in the image below) you could click, did your choice change the plot? I bet that it does changes the story a little bit but does not change the overall story, like I am sure there is little variation in the closure-less ending. This work in some ways reminds me of Living Will by Mark Marino which did have multiple words you could choose; the only difference between these two is these choices did change the end result drastically. Why did sound only start working in the last moments? My guess is that it was most dramatic and therefore effective to use little sound because the sound that you did hear was very creepy and really added to the last few screens of texts. I know for me, I thought that my headphones weren’t working or something so I was not expecting any sound at all so when I heard the noise I was startled. Because of the sound and the last few scenes, it was a sort of uncanny ending.

A screenshot from “My Father’s Long Long Legs.

 

“Hana Feels”: A Utopia?

I’d like to open this blog entry with a psychological analysis of Hana and her interactions with the various people that appear in the story, also known as us!  Then I’ll bring this entry straight to the point of this piece of Electronic literature;  specifically, I’d like to point out a clever use of the participation that allows the readers to live vicariously through Will, Jen and Hana’s boss in the piece of Electronic Literature known as Hana Feels.

The reason in which I enjoy Hana Feels is because of the psychological aspect of the piece.  I just get wrapped up in the feels of this piece because I’m just so emotionally invested in every single interaction.  And I, like probably most people deep down, want Hana to feel better about herself.  Often we get swayed by the ups and downs of the relationship in which Hana is ‘feeling’ (because this is fictional but actually real and very relatable).

The participational aspect of this piece of elit is a true testament to the procedural aspect of electronic literature. What I’m trying to say is that as we choose the next thing to say, in essence making progressing the conversation between Hana and either person Hana is speaking to, I (or maybe even more people) choose the options on what to say based upon our ideals.  For example,  I think people should be as friendly and peaceful as possible.  That’s just me, as I think a lot of people are too.  In the story, I chose options that made were the nicest to Hana.  In other words,  I tried to make the story a Utopia, as I think most people tried to do.  But here’s where I get cynical.  Relationships like Jen’s and Hana’s are not normal, at least in my experience.  Says a lot about my life, huh?

Anyway to conclude, I’d just like to bridge my idea of this utopia to the title of my blog entry: Hana Feels: A Utopia? .  I’d like to hear your thoughts on that, it might make for some good conversation tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to it!

This image is of Will and Hana’s conversation pretty deep into the story. I choose this because of the participatory choice that allows you to choose the path best for how you’d like the story to end up.

 

Empowering the Population with Twine

With the rise of technology and complex coding, common folk can feel a little disillusioned when attempting to enter the world of game creation. However, Twine has revitalized the creative process with an easy and comprehensible format. Twine, created by Cris Klimas, is a tool that empowers the masses to create personalized games. Twine games are text based, and are usually played by clicking on hyperlinked text that bring you to the next part of the story based on what you picked. These works of e-lit can still be considered games, as your decisions have actual impact on what part of the story you see next.

Although these games never attain much fame or collect any revenue, they can be be incredibly impactful and helpful to those who need to express themselves. For example, one could create a story about deceased family member to help keep their memory alive, or they could make a game indicating the dangers of certain drugs to help raise awareness among the different communities.

In other cases, Twine may just be an outlet for creativity. This is apparent in Michael Lutz’ work, My Father’s long, long legs.  This work takes you through the life of a young girl who describes her past with her father. Then the story follows her going back to her house, and it is thoroughly creepy.

This is a snap shot from the Twine-based story, My Father’s long, long legs. The player walks through the story by clicking on the bolded words. This is an excellent example of Twine’s creative capabilities.

As you can see, there are many implications to Twine. Twine is an unbelievable too that truly  gives the power of game creation and expression to the people.

Telling Untold Stories: Self Harm in “Hana Feels”

I confess that I adore the Internet.  This is partially a superficial love, fueled by my enjoyment of silly YouTube videos and the miracle that is television and movie streaming services.  But I also love the Internet because I feel that it, in many ways, is an equalizer.  With a device connected to an uncensored Internet, you have access to boundless information and the ability to produce content of your own.  No longer is spreading your message or art solely the prerogative of mass media companies.  Anyone with a WiFi connection can share his/her/their work with the world.

Carolyn Petit expresses a similar opinion in “Power to the People: The Text Adventures of Twine,” and nowhere did I see this manifested more powerfully than in Hana Feels.  Despite the title being a bit on-the-nose, I adored this story.  It was an honest, un-romanticized, and potentially hopeful look at an often unspoken issue.  People, including Hana herself, describe their experiences with self-harm as profoundly isolating and alienating.  They feel as if only they engage in this taboo behavior, which only fuels further feelings of guilt and shame so commonly associated with self-harm.

Hana, the unremarkable but important protagonist of Hana Feels

I find it very unlikely that any major video game corporation is going to create a game focusing on the experience of a young woman struggling with self-harm (frankly, I’m impressed when one creates a game with a female protagonist at all).  The story is not exciting or entertaining – it’s raw and heartbreaking and all-too-mundane.  However, thanks to Twine, Gavin Inglis can tell this story and render visible an often invisible experience.  That, to me, is the beauty of the Internet.  People can tell stories that would otherwise go untold.  Stories that are not slick or glossy or commercially viable.  The story of Hana Feels needs to be told, and thanks to Twine, it can.

“Horse Master” and The Power of Twine

When we mentioned Twine in class this past week, it sounded a bit boring or uniform to me; after all, how different could individual stories be if they always followed the same text-based format?

The obvious answer to this question, after exploring various Twine works such as “My Father’s Long, Long Legs,” “Hana Feels,” and “Horse Master,” is that Twine stories can indeed be very different from each other. Each of the different works we had to explore for Monday’s class had an impact on me, but “Horse Master” in particular is one that I’m sure will stay with me for a long time to come. The game’s strange use of language and pet simulator-type gameplay eventually morphs into a strange perversion of a horse show, which is equal parts exciting  (because this is what the entire act of raising your horse leads up to) and horrifying (due to its gruesome events). I went into this game knowing no background about it, which I’m glad for; I didn’t know what to expect, and this made the experience even more memorable and powerful.

The game’s title screen features an innocent pixelated image of a cowboy riding his horse in a desert, which, after a playthrough of the game, seems to be either an entirely unrelated concept or a sly way to twist the player’s expectations before beginning the game.

The simple pixel art image that appears on the game’s title page. (Click image for source)

After playing through these works, I’ve certainly changed my mind about Twine; it’s a simple, but incredibly powerful tool that utilizes the game creator’s imagination and use of language to build characters, stories, and even entire worlds. The program only requires text, and this is precisely what makes it so fascinating. There’s no need for graphics or fancy CSS coding, just the author’s story and the reader’s imagination, and they can be as interactive as a video game or as passive as reading a novel. The fact that Twine has no boundaries, demands no coding experience, and allows for anyone to create a work are three factors that prove its universal appeal, and it has even inspired me to (perhaps someday) create a Twine work myself.