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In this thought-provoking opinion piece, EALA's Borut Pfeifer examines games from Blacksite: Area 51 through David Jaffe's canceled Heartland and indie oddity You Have To Burn The Rope to ask... can a game ever truly be 'subversive'?

Borut Pfeifer, Blogger

May 2, 2008

8 Min Read

[In this thought-provoking opinion piece, EALA's Borut Pfeifer examines games from Blacksite: Area 51 through David Jaffe's canceled Heartland and indie oddity You Have To Burn The Rope to ask... can a game ever truly be 'subversive'?] The question of how a game can be subversive has bothered me for a long time. You can try to look for subversive elements in games much like the elements in subversive genres like science fiction, but it's not exactly easy. If being subversive means making the reader (as in a person “reads” a “text” in any medium, to save me the pain of typing reader/viewer/listener/player) question their own assumptions, games seem to start with a handicap. In order to play a game, you must play by rules set down by someone else. If you are always inherently working within a given rule system, is it ever possible to subvert it? On Message That problem centers around the mechanics of a game, but not on the topic. Would a satirical game then be subversive? Not a lot of examples here to pull from. Harpooned (the “cetacean research simulator”) is perhaps the first proper satirical game in my mind. It uses its exaggerated elements (whale gibs, shooter mechanics, etc.) for both humor and to make a socially valuable point, without taken them so far that they conflict with the game’s message. As satire Harpooned effectively makes a point against an existing institution, but it’s not exactly that my assumptions are brought into question, just that I’m made more aware of a problem. So there’s a distinction to be made between a game that is subversive with respect to its message, and one that is subversive in its “telling” (still no verb to describe the presentation of a game to another, because let’s face it, design is such a shit-watered down verb). You Have to Burn the Rope is subversive in the context of other games, and what it points out about them, but much less subversive about the presentation of those points. If a game uses procedural rhetoric to make a subversive point, like say Food Import Folly from Persuasive Games, the player is meant to question the validity of a system by exploring it. That game is trying to make a subversive point about the issues with the FDA’s food import inspection regulations. Without the ability to change or alter the system simulated by the game, how subversive can the message be? At best you can only point out that there is a problem with such a system, you can’t argue for a solution without being able to see the solution’s effects simulated. Is it less subversive to point out a problem without being able to suggest or allow the exploration of solutions? On Blacksite Harvey Smith, creative director of Blacksite: Area 51, often claimed the game was subversive for dealing with political elements the way it did. From my own playthrough (on easy), it’s a harder for me to categorize it that way. There are some elements that could be seen as subversive, but with few exceptions they are all on the strict surface of the game. For instance, while on the first mission in an oil refinery in Iraq, one of the squad members asks, “Who the hell gives refinery workers assault weapons?”, to which another squad member responds, “Umm… We do.” A strong statement you don’t usually see in a game. But the next chunk of dialog involves the squad members quoting Star Wars. The end effect of sequences like this one is that the dialogue is very true to life. I can imagine real soldiers talking like that. Does it make me reflect on or change my opinion of those political choices? No, although that may be not only because the game pretty much comes out and says what it thinks, but that I’ve already asked myself those questions. The chapter titles are typically ironic uses of Bush administration terms (”Mission Accomplished”) or references to their fuck ups (”Somebody call FEMA”). Pretty unapologetic in their criticism, but then when you look at the plot itself the themes are muddled. The main villain was another soldier who had been experimented on and left for dead by the government, only as part of his revenge he pretty much wants to kill everyone - making it difficult to look at him as a reedemable or empathizable character. And so it’s not “hey the government did something wrong”, but “hey that guy wants to kill everybody”. On Heartland The Escapist recently interviewed David Jaffe on his canceled game Heartland, which attempted to deal with similar issues. In part he discusses production problems like deciding to make a left-leaning political game in Utah of all places (wha-huh?), but he also goes into some scenarios for the game: "Jaffe describes a real-time sequence where the player and squad enter a suburban house after the Chinese invasion has turned the neighborhood into a war zone. It’s the home of a Chinese-American family. The squad rounds up the family, having them kneel in the living room. The player chases after the teenage son, beating him and dragging him down the stairs, and throwing him into the living room. The commanding officer orders the player to douse the family and the house with gasoline, and set it on fire. “It was meant to be, ‘Oh, my God, this is the worst thing in the world,’” says Jaffe." The direct choice almost forces the player to question themselves, along the game’s theme. The reason I say almost here is because the presentation of such a choice will have difficulty declaring that it is a choice to the player (unless it’s explicitly defined via interface like the Little Sisters in Bioshock). If they think they have to do exactly what the game character is telling them to in order to continue playing the game, they won’t act differently. But with repeated choices, the chances go up that it will become apparent to everyone. On Portal Portal (which Joe McNeilly of GamesRadar says is the “most subversive game ever“) manages to both explore subversive themes and utilize subversive scenarios in the game itself. It goes against the standard masculine oriented FPS in that it removes all guns as weapons. The portal gun that replaces them takes on feminine characteristics because it, as McNeilly says, “creates connections rather than destroying life.” Bonnie Ruberg equates the portals with vaginas, even. The single most subversive moment for me in the game was being lead to the furnace towards the end - stuck on the moving platform leading to your supposedly inevitable death. It’s a well crafted moment, because while the flames are incredibly stressing as they move closer, in reality you have probably have several minutes to realize you can use the one single mechanic, which has been taught extensively across the whole game, to escape. GLaDOS tells you that you are effectively powerless against her, while you must realize you are empowered to change your circumstances, all while under duress (which is a tricky thing to accomplish design wise). However, is that subversive moment is directly tied to the game’s subversive themes of masculinity/femininity? I have problems making that connection, but I can’t completely discount that it might be there (you are using the portal gun to give yourself life in that case, but that’s a bit tenuous). Now, the focus of the themes of Portal are naturally more narrow than a game like Blacksite (taking on gender issues in games vs. the war in Iraq), but that is somewhat separate from analyzing the methods they use to explore those themes. Is the ”insincere choice” (telling the player they have no choice while they actually do) the best means we have to present a subversive message? If we are locked into a rule system by the nature of the game’s code we can never change the system, what would be the ultimate extent in this regard? Making a game that allows the players to create their own rules, would almost seem to devolve very quickly into art-piece. The resulting experience might have something profound to say about the abstract notions of games as a subversive medium, but would it lack enough direction/focus to be captivating in the slightest, and therefore possibly unable to be profound or meaningful to an individual? This is in software anyway, an ARG or board/card game might have more potential to explore this area today, with only human (and adaptive) participants. On Definition Maybe this is all just dancing around the definition of subversive. If to subvert is to overthrow or undermine the principles of something, I guess it depends what you’re targeting to undermine. Were you directly attempting to undermine an institution’s policy selections, maybe a game Blacksite would be subversive. If you wanted to change an individual’s perspective on the matter by subtly causing them to question themselves, then it wouldn’t. Can you accomplish something like the former without doing the latter? Whatever you want to call them, each of the two concepts, conveying a message that goes against the consensus and the delivery of that message to the reader, has a spectrum as to how deep you want to push them. Even if you want to make a point undermining a larger institution, making the reader question their own assumptions on a personal level communicates the point most powerfully. Combining both concepts (using interactive elements such as insincere choice and potentially dynamic systems) is further towards the end of an overall spectrum of how subversively you can explore an issue in a game.

About the Author(s)

Borut Pfeifer


Borut is a designer-programmer-writer-entrepreneur. After that he stopped adding hyphens. He cofounded and worked at White Knuckle Games until 2003, and since then has worked on Scarface at Radical Entertainment. He currently teaches in the game design program at the Vancouver Film School, and has a variety of articles published in industry publications such as the Game Programming Gems series and Secrets of the Games Business. He can be reached at [email protected].

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