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Feast Your Eyes On This

Are some experiences off-limits to games? I look at new research-game, Korsakovia, and how it conveys panic and frustration as player experiences.
Originally posted on goodstuffmaynard.com
 
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Korsakovia is a game about eating your eyeballs out.

It's a game about stretching the player to his limits. It's a game where, near the end of it when my keyboard periodically failed to respond to my input for brief, random durations, I assumed it was just the game trying to mess with my head. I couldn't tell which it was--keyboard malfunction or a brilliantly frustrating game mechanic. It turns out the keyboard was malfunctioning, and still is. Apologies if any letters are missig.

Perhaps I should back up a bit. thechineseroom is a research group at Portsmouth University whose focus is to experiment within the first person gaming realm. Their last project, Dear Esther, received some well-deserved attention for its unique approach to storytelling and its minimal interactivity. This time around, their goal is to see what happens when certain key information is removed from the player, putting the player in the dark both literally and figuratively. I should note that Korsakovia is a mod, which means it requires Half-Life 2: Episode 2 to play it.

You play as Christopher, one of the rare unlucky souls to have to endure Korsakoff's Syndrome. Not only can he not remember his past, he can't create new memories either. Sprinkle in a dose of confabulation (invented memories) and you get one mixed up fellow. You also get a great premise for a game. The actual gameplay consists of navigating through various distortions of a psychiatric hospital, frantically running away from little black balls of smoke known as the Collectors. The Collectors represent thechineseroom's attempt at removing all traces of meaning and motive from outside agents. Meaning and motive both implicitly assume a continuity of events--e.g. - first you form your motive, say, to eat a cheeseburger, and then you proceed to act upon that motive, by going to McDonald's and chowing down on said cheeseburger. However, without the ability to create memories, continuity flies out the window, along with meaning and motive.

And that's what makes the Collectors so unnerving. They lack motive--they simply exist. Most enemies in games can be rationalized away. Take the Locust grunts in Gears of War as an example. Their motive is clearly to eliminate the human race because they believe the Locusts to be superior in some sort of fashion. One could imagine them having little Locust babies back home they're fighting for. But the Collectors cannot really be explained. Combine this with the fact that the player never has a weapon to defend himself, and the audiovisual feedback such as the high pitched screams and screen flashes it makes for an overall feeling of PANIC.

Panic is a player experience that the game excels at. As a player, this is something I'm readily willing to accept. After all, there's an entire genre built around fear and panic--survival horror. I've experienced games like Resident Evil 4, F.E.A.R., and Penumbra that all, at certain points, create a sense of panic in me. I can accept this because it is clear that this experience was the game designers' intent, just as death-defying thrills are the intent of a roller coaster designer.

But what happens when the designers wish to communicate another experience--frustration? Frustration is markedly different from panic in that it flies in the face of what is generally considered to be good game design. The problem with frustration as an intended game experience is that players have no idea the difference between intended frustration and frustration as a result of poor game design.

Korsakovia finds itself in exactly this predicament. As Christopher, it must be unimaginably frustrating to not only be unable to create or retain memories, but to also have an entire reality to oneself that nobody else will believe. The game demonstrates this in several ways. The player is all alone in the hospital. He's left to question which reality he is in--real, imagined, or a hybrid. Voices come into Christopher's head, but often times they are rendered largely unintelligible due to static and white noise. thechineseroom did not include subtitles for Korsakovia--this may be a technical limitation or, more likely, is a conscious decision on their part. While the Collectors are initially and overall panic-inducing, they are frequent enough, their screams loud enough, to also become frustrating--especially when trying to delicately crate-stack.

Which brings us to the number one frustration tool in Korsakovia's handbag of pain--level design. Oh, the level design. The level design was responsible for making me (temporarily) quit playing Korsakovia on at least two occasions. It's as if somebody wrote up a big list of THOU SHALT NOTs and then promptly turned that into their design doc. Ridiculously long, snaking dead-ends are the norm. Doors are everywhere, but are not marked as being locked or unlocked so you have to try every one. Inconsistencies abound in interactive objects. Signposting is particularly poor in places, with a couple spots leading me to quit the game to try and find tips for progression on the internet. Not to mention everybody's favorite: first-person platforming in the form of crate stacking and floating platform jumping. Oh, and did I mention that you get to experience all of this fine craftsmanship while under attack from the Collectors. Had it not been for the wonders of quick save and making light use of god mode (okay, a lot), I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have made it through.

So where does that leave us? Overall, I feel like the creators of Korsakovia, to some extent, succeeded in communicating the frustrations of having Korsakoff's syndrome, whether that was their intention or not. But it was at the cost of me forcing myself to trudge through a largely painful experience. Perusing through a few forums, it sounds like the majority of players have not been quite so forgiving as I have been. I have to wonder if it is because it feels like Korsakovia has both kinds of frustration--intentional and unintentional--that is what muddies the waters. But, then again, who am I to determine whether something is intentional or not in a game like Korsakovia where the lines are so blurred? Perhaps if the creators would come out and say "these frustrations over here--they're intentional; those other ones are mistakes that we will fix" then it would clear everything up and make for a more enjoyable experience? Or, perhaps, having both actually leads to a more effective message in that there is sort of a meta-level of frustration because, as a player, you can't effectively discern between manufactured and accidental frustrations?

This all leads to a larger question--are certain experiences essentially not conducive to being communicated in games. Does the shape and form of the medium limit designers to only representing a subset of all experiences? I'd like to think not, and that, instead, somewhere some designer is going to nail "frustration." On the other hand, if there are, in fact, "hard" limits, we should be doing everything in our power to trace out the contours of the medium so that we know just how high we can go.

Like it or not, Korsakovia is a game that forces us to feast on our eyes in order to catch a brief glimpse of something greater.

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