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Enacting Experience

Discusses the technique of enacting experience, or matching content to meaning. Looks at how three Flash games use the technique to make for a more powerful experience.

Enacting Experience is a concept drawn from poetics. The technique is used to match the content of a poem with its messages and/or meanings: you enact the experience. Rhyme, rhythm, syntax, line breaks, consonance, and more elusively definable aspects of poetry can be used in concordance with the meaning of a poem to emphasize its overall effect, and ultimately, the reader's experience. This article will look at three Flash games in relation to enacting experience, how each employs the design technique to emphasize its meanings.

Indie games, and, in particular, Flash games, are in a very unique position in the game industry. Flash games hold their own little plane of existence in game design. Because Flash is a relatively accessible way to create games, and games that have potential for mass audiences, many independent designers are taking advantage of the software to create some truly incredible games. More so, often unburdened by the weight of publishing financing, Flash developers have a beautiful opportunity to freely explore a game's design. Whereas mass-industry developers are bound by the limitations of delivering mind-blowing graphics, staying under-budget, meeting milestones, and everything else that comes with the fish basket, Flash developers have the freedom to experiment with their design, experiment with those things unsuitable for the finicky market and experiment with what matters most in video games: the experience (thank you Jesse Schell).

God Damn It's a Nice Fucking Day Today was made by Scottmale24 and conceptualized by Prguitarman.

It's a Nice Day Today excels, specifically, as a video game. After playing for thirty seconds, a message comes on screen: "Why aren't you outside? Go outside or the sun will fucking rape your shit." This is paired with a Newgrounds Medal: "Failure to Communicate." Quite the convention-breaking move, the message trashes the convention that Achievements, Trophies, Medals, pick your lingo, have to be used as rewards for good behavior or skill. Quite oppositely, the message overlay and medal blatantly tell players that, by continuing to play the game, they're just. not. getting. it.

There is a synergistic relationship between the aggressive message and medal, and the gameplay, angrily sun-laser-nuking every house in sight. The game's author could have easily left out the message, left out the medal, providing the gameplay alone and not its meta counter-part. However, what players are given is a blatant, threatening message, telling players that their continuing of play is in direct opposition to the game's intentions. The message and gameplay match. It's like "with our forces combined" creating Captain Planet. It's like when two sounds waves of equal frequency meet to form a single wave louder than both simply added. The result is greater than the sum of its parts.

Players are the ones who expose the message in the first place and who personally experience it. Scottmale24 and Prguitarman are the ones who created the game (because they had a point to prove), but players are the ones in control. They are able to exit their browser, stand up from their computers, and walk outdoors. That is control. It's a Nice Day Today breaks the fourth wall in the hopes that players might actually listen. What is interesting is that the game makes no attempt to positively motivate nor positively inspire players to go outdoors; its means are command and fear. An alternative game could motivated, showed the sun in all its splendor, showed a happy picnic or swim at the ocean. But would that have been as effective? It's impossible to say, but what we can say is that It's a Nice Day Today uses a very interesting technique to inspire people to go outside, using their own lack of concern and laziness against them. Rather than show, the game tells players: your current actions are preventing you from enjoying the nice outside.

There's the genius, right there. It's a game. You're the one still playing the game. You're the one not outside. Your specific action of playing the game, so chastised by that very game, is the simultaneous inaction of being outside.

Don't Shoot the Puppy!, by Aragagg, is an exercise in either frustration or patience, depending upon your temperament. Fifteen levels of puppy-hopping molasses await players in their quest to not shoot the puppy. With its twitch-triggered Anti-Air Cannon and myriad of trickery, Don't Shoot the Puppy! aims to test players' patience and maybe show them something a little different of game design as well.

The gameplay concept of "non-interaction" isn't entirely new; not to mention others, the brilliant Warcraft III mod, Don't Move the Tauren, had previously explored this "do nothing" reversal of gameplay, albeit in a psychologically-driven multiplayer setting. Regardless, Aragagg experiments admirably with non-interactivity. By employing clever (evil) tricks and toying with the patience of players, Aragagg creates an interesting emotional experience.

Players have two options in Don't Shoot the Puppy!:

  1. Shoot the Puppy.
  2. Don't Shoot the Puppy.

Shooting the Puppy is the easier of the two by far. But since the game's title explicitly tells players one rule, and the game is governed by that sole rule, the adherence to which is necessary for completion, players are driven towards following that rule and not shooting the puppy; it's a challenge. Additionally, the game's humor, the utter ridiculousness of the situation, is an additional force compelling players to endure the puppy's harsh challenges. And endure players must. Assuming they're actually paying attention to the game, which I believe the humor goes a long way towards capturing, players are forced to sit, watch, and wait. The slightest budge of the mouse, the simplest tap of a key, and the puppy is disintegrated. Often, this is a mistake. Therefore, not only must players not shoot the puppy, they must specifically strive to not shoot it.

Caution and patience are the name of the game. Which is interesting when you think about it. Perhaps non-interactivity is a mislabel. Though players do not interact physically using controls (except when they do shoot the puppy), they are required to interact mentally and emotionally.

Aside from simply waiting, Don't Shoot the Puppy! tries several tricks on players to get them to lose. Each time the puppy is shot, players are returned to the first level. One of my favorite levels is 5, where the normally smiley-face marked signpost now reads "Eternal Suffering," pointing to the left in the direction the puppy is walking. This psychological trick is extremely simple, not to mention hilarious, but it also has great potential for actual emotional impact. What's more important: that you win the game, or that you save the puppy from endless turmoil?

Levels 3 and 12 trick players in another way: logically. In level 3, when players click play, an Ad pops-up, covering the game. Naturally, players move their mouse to the big X button to close the Ad, only to found they've been duped. Or at least I did. It was a good laugh, too. Level 12 is even more devious. After players press play, the level delays starting for a good while. Worst of all, the play button remains, leaving players to believe that they'd either missed the button or that something glitched. They thought wrong.

Restarting the game from the beginning can be trying. Don't Shoot the Puppy! is an opportunity for either patience or aggression. In this way, the game emulates life, offering the practice of a real and necessary life skill, waiting, and a real emotion, patience. It is up to players to decide how they're going to react to the game. Like a consequence-less microcosm for life events, players can either become angry or they can remain calm. The game shows how easy it can be to twitch-react according to frustration, like snapping your fingers, revealing to players just how quickly they can become angry. For those of you who own dogs, this may sound familiar.

Oppositely, players may wait. They may wait and watch and be patient with the puppy. It's not the puppy's fault it has narcolepsy. The game does go to lengths to aggravate players, attempting to trick them several times aside from simply waiting for the puppy to leave the screen. But all this does is push the point further: how patient can you be?

This is where enacting experience comes in. The gameplay mechanics, one being shooting the puppy, the other being not, match the emotions derived from the experience. To beat the game, players must wait, act upon nothing. But to lose, players must only tap the mouse. There is an implicit message that Don't Shoot the Puppy! is sending: it is better to be patient, to practice waiting, than it is to act violently.

People debate whether or not video games are art. Honestly, it's a ridiculous question. I define art as anything that evokes emotion or provokes thought from the audience. Whether or not the creation of video games is an art form is equally debated. I believe that an art form is any medium in which artists, through inspiration, subconscious feeling, and a series of decisions, create works which can offer the evoking of emotion or provoking of thought from an audience.

I will, however, note that art is definitely not always intended to affect others. Many people create things for themselves or at least lack any intent to evoke emotion/provoke thought. Art is also highly subjective. What may not affect one person may, to another, present a paradigm shift in life values. Who's to say? Artists can control the effect of their works only so much. Because of the inherent subjectivity of art, an artists intention with his or her work is difficult to define, excepting specific statement from the him or her. Art will be perceived as it will.

I think I've finally discovered the reason for all of the questioning behind the "are video games art" debate. There is an important distinction between what a medium does achieve and what it can achieve.  Just because video games as they are commonly offered often do not evoke emotion does not mean the medium cannot evoke emotion.

The established ultimatum that games need to be fun has blinded us to the other emotions that games can evoke and the other qualities they can possess. So we look at games and ask, "on a scale of 1 to 10, how fun is this here video game?" And this question almost always comes first, before we ever ask "how is this game affecting me emotionally?" or "what is this game teaching me?"

It's a matter of status-quo. Publishers are trying to please the media  and to stay in business, the media is trying to please the gamers, and the gamers are trying to please...themselves? What is for sure is that professional developers have a budget and have to please everyone, and if everyone thinks that fun and graphics are what makes a game "good" and what makes a game sell, then really, what choice do they have? With every layer of the video game strata preoccupied with pleasing the norms, not many have the luxury nor time to worry about the other potential emotional qualities of games, that is, save for the independent developers.

Terry Cavanagh of Distractionware brings us a beautiful game called Don't Look Back, a game that I feel is an ideal exemplifier of gameplay as a means of evoking emotion and, for that matter, provoking thought. Before you read on, I highly recommended you play through the game, which can be played online or downloaded.

Like the brilliant You Have to Burn the Rope before it, or more similarly, Don't Shoot the Puppy!, Don't Look Back gives instruction in its title. If Metal Gear Solid is considered to be the cinema of video games, Don't Look Back must be its poetry. Titles in poetry are often pivotal to the understanding of a poem, even at the most basic level explaining the subject of the poem or cuing in readers on the setting or location. Neversoft's Gun is one example of an effective video game title that comes to mind . The title says it all, giving players a hint of not only the game's subject-matter but also what the gameplay might involve. Gun as a title may additionally imply the player-character's situation in the game world and the necessity of resorting to lethal action.

The title Don't Look Back has multiple meanings, explaining not only the game's rules but also, metaphorically, its messages. In an interview with GameCritics, Cavanagh explains that partial inspiration for Don't Look Back came from  the greek mythological story of Orpheus, who traveled to the underworld to rescue and revive his deceased wife, Eurydice, but broke the rule of doing so and caused her to disappear forever by turning to look back at her before he was allowed. Similarly, once players retreive their wife in Don't Look Back, turning back will cause her to disappear. When players return to the grave, they find themselves already standing there, and both the player-character (who we'll call Orpheus for simplicity) and his wife disappear together.

To enact experience is to meld the content of something with the experiencing of it. The concept of "not looking back" functions in two ways: one, as a rule of the game, and two, metaphorically, a message about moving on. To me, the game symbolizes moving forward. Orpheus's descent into the abyss is a journey of mourning. As Cavanagh explains, Orpheus never physically leaves the grave, but has taken a fantastical journey, mentally and emotionally. His return trip to the grave, his wife following along, is a passage of reconcilement, of moving onward. The difficult descent, however, was first necessary to mourn his loss. When the player and the wife return to the grave, Orpheus's journey-self and his wife disappear, leaving the new Orpheus standing, having grieved and moved onward from his wife's passing. In this way, the game is a mourning process for Orpheus, allowing Orpheus to free his wife and to free himself.

The game's title, rules, and meaning all function as a single whole, each point reinforcing the others. Only in a video game does a person or audience have the opportunity to look back, and not only look back, but have that action support a message and theme of moving onward. The game's message is strong and impactful via the very simple gameplay rule mirroring it.

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