The only succinct way to describe Den vänstra handens stig is to call it “divisive.” Every label I attempt to attach to it slides off its slippery, icy surface. Despite my frustration at attempting to fully comprehend it, I can confidently say that Den vänstra handens stig is by far the most interesting experience I had at PAX South 2016. Now that it’s had some time to sink in, and I’ve had a chance to talk to creator M. James Short about it, I’m ready to share what I think I know.
Den vänstra handens stig follows a nameless, faceless, almost shapeless protagonist on a mysterious, Sisyphean journey. At the outset, a red piece of cloth falls to the ground, and the mysterious protagonist rises and claims it. Afterwards, the player embarks on a perilous journey to some far off location. Along the way, there are various hazards, but they are only temporary setbacks. The player encounters them, pits their skills against them, and fails until they succeed.
At this point, I could be describing any one of a million different platformers… but here’s the twist. You are not the player; you are simply an observer. The game is played by a custom-built AI. It will attempt to succeed in its quest over and over, and over again. The vast majority of the time, all you can do is watch.
There is but one interaction you can have with the AI – you can force it to stop. If you press the game’s single button, the player will fall dead to the ground, and the game starts over from the beginning. The AI will reset, having forgotten everything that it learned on its quest. That’s the extent of your direct interaction with Den vänstra handens stig.
Did I mention the blood sacrifice? Den vänstra handens stig translates from Swedish to English as “the left hand path,” which is a reference to the way of the occult and satanic rituals. The game is intended to be played with a very special controller, one that has just one button.
In the center of the button is a hole, and inside the hole is a needle. As you press the button, the needle pricks your finger, and claims the drop of blood required to invoke its dark magics.
Is Den vänstra handens stig a game?
Den vänstra handens stig stretches the definition of “game” to its breaking point. Games have certainly flirted with this line before and will do so again. What qualifies a piece of software as “a game?” Does Den vänstra handens stig meet those qualifications?
If we judge by its Steam Greenlight campaign, the internet seems to think it isn’t. M. James Short was discussing his campaign at PAX South and mentioned that he’d gotten mostly “no” votes:
Further, most of the comments seem to be from people who don’t understand the concept. Those comments that do understand the role of the AI seem to be mostly negative as well.
Some of that may be attributable to M. James Short’s Greenlight campaign, which he says was intentionally unapproachable. After the first showing of the game at the Rooster Teeth Expo (RTX), things changed:
The day I launched the Greenlight I put the whole page in Swedish and used a trailer that was very off-putting. I sort of self sabotaged myself. After RTX, I noticed that people were in the Steam comments defending the game. I also got a lot of messages from people who told me I should change the trailer. That my game was something more people should give a chance and I was pushing them away.
Certainly it seems that Den vänstra handens stig meets the basic criteria. It’s an interactive experience, one that can be “won,” even though most of the winning is from abstaining from play rather than the traditional mastery of game mechanics.
Den vänstra handens stig may be a game that’s never intended to be won, though. At PAX South, M. James Short mentioned that the AI’s goal might be something that people aren’t comfortable with. I don’t yet know what that goal is, and when I asked M. James Short what it was, he said:
It’s up to the player to discover through experiencing the journey. What’s interesting about the quest though is that I, as the creator, have given the quest to the AI. Somebody pointed this out at PAX by commenting “Really, you’re just torturing your child. Don’t YOU want to push the button?”
While certainly non-traditional, I do feel that Den vänstra handens stig is a game. In thinking about it more and discussing it with my colleague EBongo, we concluded that Den vänstra handens stig is as much a game as the Twitch or YouTube live experience is. All that’s missing is a talking head in the corner wearing a headset and giving commentary, and the two experiences are virtually identical. Gamers as a whole are voting with their eyeballs – and what they want is to watch games being played, rather than play them themselves.
To take this another way: say I owned the only copy of some rare game. I played it while you watched on Twitch or YouTube. You can heckle me and force me to quit. Is my rare game not a game because your interaction with it is limited?
Is Den vänstra handens stig art?
“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling – this is the activity of art.” – Leo Tolstoy
(I know what you’re thinking. “Tolstoy quote? Really?” I promise I’ve hit “maximum pretentiousness” for this article. It’s all downhill from here.)
Video games as an art form is a subject that is often the center of great debates. Defining something as art or as not art is a highly subjective process that can’t be reduced to a mere binary, blanket statement. There are a million definitions and all of them are probably correct on some level.
Still, though, this question will be asked and demands some sort of answer. Is Den vänstra handens stig art? M. James Short’s thoughts on the subject would seem to imply he thinks so:
So much of this experience is tied into me and the way I use my games as an outlet to compartmentalize and control experiences or emotions I’ve had. They’re a way for me to try and make sense of the world around me and by extension – my attempt at giving others the same roadmap.
In my mind, I associate art with a statement made by its creator, that is open to interpretation by its audience. By this standard, Den vänstra handens stig qualifies as well.
M. James Short shared two stories from PAX South about how people watching interpreted it:
At the booth, a gentleman watched the AI struggling for about 25 minutes then asked “What’s the AI holding?”. I asked him back “What do you think it is?”. He replied “I think the AI is on a mission to take a blanket to his son who is freezing on top of the mountain.” That man’s projection and expectations for the game will influence his feelings and emotions during his experience. He’s probably going to be very upset with me by the end. But that’s what I want.
I got an email from somebody, on Tuesday after PAX, who had seen the game over the weekend and wrote something to the effect of “I didn’t understand why I kept getting drawn back to watch the AI’s struggle. On Monday night I woke up crying and realized that the game reminded me of watching my terminally ill [relative] slowly die. I cheered and felt happy for the AI with each small success they made and used that to tell myself that the AI’s end would be a happy one. But by the end of the weekend, I found myself pushing the button to end the AI’s struggle. This left me feeling peaceful.”
I’ll add my own interpretation to the mix. After watching Den vänstra handens stig for a few minutes, and then letting that experience settle, what grabbed me was the AI’s struggle. The AI would persevere, trying and failing to reach its goals, sometimes for hours on end. All it took to make all that hard work futile was one person making them give up. The player’s exchange for the AI’s sacrifice was tiny by comparison, but still meaningful – they had to give up a bit of their humanity.
For me, Den vänstra handens stig is about struggling – struggling with massive, seemingly impossible goals and struggling in the face of negativity from faceless, almost inhuman internet hate mongers. It’s a game about bullying and depression in an era where we’re constantly exposed to things that want nothing more than to force us to fail.
But then again, I’ve never seen where “the left hand path” takes me. Won’t you join me and find out? Just offer your sacrifice, and press this button here.